Part I: Fall
"Mon cher, if you need a loan, tu sais bien that big brother is more than willing to lend you money," Francis leaned an elbow on the bar, casually watching the swishing wine slam against the fogged glass of a beer mug. "I know. No need to thank me. I am trés generous. I know. I wouldn't even charge interest."
Arthur flinched at the feel of warm breathe against his ear. He looked over his shoulder—immediately circling the little black book with his arm to pull it closer to his chest. "Damn frog," he grumbled, "why don't you mind your own? – Can't you see I'm busy?"
Francis nodded, setting the mug on the bar. A tiny grin danced over his lips, the corners twisting higher with glee, "Oh, quite busy, yes. Bien sûr. While you use work time to resolve one of your many existentialist crisis, I'll be over there. Tu sais, working… Mind me not. Take your time not bartending or waitressing."
Arthur's cheeks tinted pink. Ridiculous allegations. Of course he was working. He looked down at the numbers in front of him, pursing his lips nervously before he scribbled the simple sum again.
He was working miracles with his mediocre salary.
Alfred F. Jones was a simple man.
He lived in a one-room art studio, which he filled with a twin-sized bed, a modest television, and a plastic rack where he hung his assortment of jeans, hoodies and jackets. In a way, the tiny studio filled Alfred as well—with a strip of a kitchen with one functioning stovetop (out of two) where he could make burger, and an uncovered tub and shower in another corner of the room, along with a closet, which acted as a water closet.
Yes, Alfred was a simple man, of simple taste, of simple occupation.
He was the concierge for a high-class building owned by a pretentious far-removed relative that seldom admitted their resemblance. He earned a pittance, the result of free lodging, though he had little complaints thanks to income supplement from his role as the building dog-walker.
Actually, Alfred F. Jones was more than a simple man. He was a poor man.
But he didn't know it.
"Arthur," a thick German voice interrupted his thoughts, and he looked up from his position behind the bar to find Ludwig's steel blue eyes flickering towards a drenched young man standing by the door. The tall blonde stared pensively at the menu pressed against the window.
Arthur grabbed a menu.
"Hello sir," he coughed into his hand, eyes glued to his shined shoes. "May I interest you in a booth seat? Perhaps one with a window-view?"
Blue eyes stared back at him from behind wire glasses. The blonde smiled at him sheepishly, cheeks tinted pink from the cold, "Uh, not sure that's such a good idea, actually. Mind if I steal a seat by the bar? – Just waiting for the rain to clear…"
Arthur blinked. It wasn't particularly protocol, but he'd never been one to follow protocol anyway. He looked at the torrent outside before his lips curved in understanding.
"Uh, certainly," he turned on his heel, "Right—right this way, then."
Besides, the restaurant wasn't even busy.
The rain only seemed to be getting worse.
Arthur cleared a now empty table, pocketing the few bills of tip that had been left behind – tucked tightly between the ketchup bottle and a napkin. Almost hidden, really. He wondered if the patrons had meant to leave it after all. Or if, perhaps, they'd disliked him enough that they'd chosen to let their toddler play hide-and-go-seek with the tip…
As he wiped the table, he felt a tap on his shoulder.
"Oh, Ludwig," he breathed out, relaxing for a moment before his boss pointed towards the young man tapping his foot against the floor of the bar. He'd been sipping at water for the past hour.
No words were exchanged between Arthur and Ludwig, but Arthur understood, especially when he caught a peek of the cook, Feliciano, staring at Arthur from the circular window of the kitchen door. The sweet Italian was holding a plate of pasta, pointing questioningly at the blonde by the bar.
"He's probably just a broke college student just waiting for the storm to pass," Arthur made his excuses. He shrugged, sure Feliciano might eventually intervene with his boyfriend for the sake of the poor young man.
"Then he should buy something if he will be taking bar space."
"It's not like he's taking a spot away from anyone," Arthur huffed, returning to his duty, "in case you haven't noticed, the place is pretty empty. Feli doesn't mind anyway."
Ludwig turned towards the kitchen. Arthur snorted his laughter when Feliciano immediately dipped down, curl bouncing as he hid from view.
The German grunted, "Protocol says—"
"Well, what do you want me to do? He's probably broke, Ludwig."
"Then you treat him."
Arthur blanched, whirling to look at his boss. "I beg your pardon…?"
"Treat him or throw him out."
Arthur looked over the German's shoulder towards the young man, finally dry and smiling happily as he flicked his thumb over his bendy straw. Biting his bottom lip, Arthur sighed.
The bills in his pocket burned.
"Arthur, I said—"
"Yes, yes, I heard you. Stop your yelling. I'll deal with it."
"Oi," he leaned against the tabletop of the bar, sliding with perfect suavity and just the right pinch of annoyance next to the young blonde, who geared his large blue eyes at him, "not that you've been much of an annoyance, but I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to either order or leave."
The level of bluntness seemed to catch the young man off guard.
"Oh," he mouthed, still gaping a bit before pushing away from the bar – one hand pressed tightly against the wood — "uh, yeah, I guess I should be on my way now. I lost track of time, I think. Sorry, uh… oh, you have a nametag, cool. Arthur." He chuckled, scratching at the nape of his neck. "Thanks for the water," he shrugged on his bomber jacket, slipping on a thick hood.
Arthur's mouth dried when he saw the crisp dollar bills stacked neatly underneath some coins.
Well, wasn't someone a generous stranger.
"You didn't have to do that," the young American, whom Arthur soon came to know as Alfred, stuffed his hands into his pocket as he crowded underneath the Englishman's umbrella. "It was your tip."
"To be honest," Arthur licked his dry lips, kicking at a puddle to avoid complaining over the biting winds, "I used my employee discount. Fifty percent off food. The fries came down to a dollar and ten."
So I still took some money home.
His ears burned with embarrassment. He wondered if Alfred was judging him – the lad was probably from some well-to-do family, probably a college student, maybe an eccentric? – Yes, perhaps the kind that liked to just relax by empty bars, drinking water, thinking about life and leaving behind generous tips as a memento…
Alfred whistled, obviously impressed. "Fifty percent off food? Man. That's pretty sweet. You must be living it up!"
Arthur shrugged, looking away nervously towards a dim lamppost. He chuckled, thinking perhaps his companion was making light for his sake, "well, Italian food certainly beats starving."
"Oh, it was an Italian restaurant, was it?"
Arthur blinked. He stopped cold. "You didn't even read the establishment sign? – Pasta. What else could it have been?"
Alfred shrugged. "I guess I never really intended on buying anything so I didn't check. I just wanted out of the rain. To be honest, allI had was what I gave you…"
There wasn't a strand of shame trickling in blinding red behind the words. The connotation was clear, crisp, and yet, there wasn't a trickle of apology in the lad's statement. Instead, there was a smile upon his lips, unabashed and unrestrained.
Arthur felt the reality of the moment slowly seep into him again, sobering him along with the cold. He didn't know quite what to say, almost too afraid the judgment would seep into his voice. So he remained silent.
They'd taken the long way—around the park, between the thickest trees where the air was thick with humidity and they could feel the stains of rain stick to their face.
Alfred hummed a silly tune, sometimes stealing peeks at Arthur, whose eyebrows furrowed close together in confusion as he tried to figure out the right way to the main street.
"Bloody hell, how can you not remember the fastest way to get to your own house? I know we cut through a bad part of town, but still. You must somehow remember the way."
Alfred smiled, "I don't know. I guess I just have a bad memory?"
Perhaps a selective memory…
" 'Sides, we're having fun, aren't we?" he stretched his arms, happy that the rain had stopped. "Keep telling me about England!"
"Damn git," Arthur muttered, huffing as they walked in another circle yet again.
Sometimes Arthur would sneak peeks at Alfred's profile along the way.
He'd let his eyes linger carefully over the strong jawline and the high cheekbones and the plump lips, painting a fantasy in his mind that was perhaps more dangerous than he'd ever admit.
He'd find himself trying to tear his gaze away, pretending that the flush inking from his neck to his cheeks was thanks to the cold, maybe even attributed to the anger of being lost with a complete stranger in a posh part of town, far and remote from his lower-income neighborhood. But no matter how he tried, he always turned just in time to catch the American's smile.
And his stomach would dip, and he'd let himself try to match the shade of Alfred's eyes to a far-off star.
"So, uh, yeah, thanks for walking me home," Alfred stared behind him at the tall gray building, "even if it took a couple hours and stuff."
"Yes, well, might not have been so long if you'd known the way."
"Yeah, but it was fun anyway. Thanks again, Arthur."
"I-It's not like I did it because I liked your company or anything," Arthur huffed, staring at his shoes, too ashamed to look at Alfred now that he'd confirmed his fears. The lad was probably just eccentric, forgotten his wallet home, perhaps, or something or other because the building with its precious lighting and well-kept grounds belied the secret of its wealth. "I just didn't want you bothering people in the park as you wandered aimlessly for hours. Hopefully you've learned a valuable lesson and will write directions to your house from now on."
"Not likely. But I probably remember how to get to your restaurant, you know, in case I get lost again," he grinned, turning to disappear into the building.
"Oi! That's not…" Arthur rolled his eyes, standing in front of the closed door for a few seconds, "my restaurant. I'd have named it Fish and Chips, not Pasta. Stupid git, not recognizing I have standards."
Arthur Kirkland was a cynical man.
He lived alone in a small apartment with a balcony, which he replenished with hardy ivy and plants, a boxed radio, and a large collection of mahogany shelves where he stored his large assortment of old college math, economics and philosophy texts. In a way, the small apartment worked to replenish Arthur as well—with a fireplace to keep him warm during weeks of rain and a fire department a block away for days when he ventured to cook, along with a fire-escape outside the kitchen, too.
Yes, Arthur Kirkland was a cynical man, the kind to always await the worst, and perhaps be prepared for it, too.
He worked long shifts for little pay at an expensive restaurant in a bourgeois part of town, where customers rarely admitted to their economic reality and tended to leave behind poor tips in response to high prices. He scraped by with hard planning, perhaps a pinch of paranoia, and the help of a black book—his budgeting agenda, which he was sure always ate numbers for lunch. But he made it work, happy to keep working to keep both his collection of romance novels and unicorns well-stocked and dry under his bed...
... because Arthur Kirkland, for all his cynicism, was a romantic at heart. Quite a romantic really—a gentleman with Victorian sensibilities, in fact.
He just refused to admit it.