Anyone will tell you that irony is essential to good literature, and Arthur would later find it morosely delightful that, in his search for the right plot to the novel that was meant to change everything, he let the classic romance slip through his fingers. It was, of course, inevitable. The circumstances weren't correct; it could end no other way than bittersweet, and that was by no means fault of his ignorance. Nonetheless, he wished he might have recognized the potential before it was lost.
In the first place, however, it was Zelda's fault. She couldn't have known, of course – she was much too drunk. At about a quarter to eleven, Arthur spotted her stumbling across the dance floor through the vaguely yellow haze of smoke and light, a cocktail balanced in one hand, the other locked at the wrist of a young man whom Arthur didn't recognize. His heart gave a pang of sympathy for Scott; no matter how many times he had to watch her traipsing about with handsome men splayed out on her fingertips like toys and sobbing mascara tears into her martini at odd intervals, he never remained unaffected.
Zelda braced a hand on the edge of the table, eyes sparkling, laughter burbling, drunken. The young man hovered at her shoulder. He smiled shyly and wore his sleeves rolled to the elbow. Arthur reached out to steady Zelda; she slurred that the boy was Alfred Jones, a reporter from America out to get the scoop on culture as defined by the New York Times.
"Is he?" Arthur took no pains to hide his distaste. "Arthur Kirkland. Pleasure to meet you."
"He wants to know about The Lost Generation, of all things." Zelda hiccupped and belched a raucous laugh. "You goddamn writers."
She stumbled away (in search of Scott, quietly hoped Arthur), and Alfred pulled out a chair, resting his elbows on the tabletop. Could he ask a few questions? No. Arthur bent his head over his notepad and clutched at his drink as though he were making progress. Alfred ordered a glass of bourbon from a passing waiter and asked what he was writing.
"I said no to questions."
Alfred just smiled.
"I don't recognize your name. But you are a writer, aren't you? That's what Zelda said, at least." He had very bright eyes, a porcelain sort of blue, wide and set with thick lashes, childlike. "Have you written anything important?"
"Written? Yes, of course," lied Arthur. "Published? No."
"I see." Alfred took a notepad and pencil from his breast pocket and scribbled something. "And what brought you to Paris?"
Arthur gathered his notebook and drink and left to find another table.
But Alfred was back the next evening, notepad in hand, bright eyes cutting through the haze of the club. Arthur tried to be inconspicuous, but Zelda seemed intent on calling attention to the back corner where he sat hunched over his notes like always, and soon enough Alfred was there, pencil perched jauntily on his ear, beaming. He hung a crumpled suit jacket on the back of a chair and sat down in his braces and shirtsleeves, resting his elbows on the tabletop. This time, his chin was dusted with stubble, fine and golden like brown sugar, and he looked a little less boyish.
He opened his mouth, but Arthur held up his hand.
"No. I'm going to ask you a couple of questions." He knocked back the rest of his drink. "Are you really a reporter?"
"Of course I am!" To his credit, Alfred looked vaguely injured. "Why else would I be here?"
"Fine. Where are you from?"
"Alabama, but I moved to New York when I was a kid. Lost the accent."
"Very well. What made you want to become a reporter?"
Alfred shrugged. "Too young to enlist. What does it matter to you?"
"It doesn't." Arthur had meant to finish with a sharp remark and leave in a huff, but mention of the war had sucked the fight right out of him, and he just wanted another drink. "Get me another Manhattan, would you?"
"That's my hometown," said Alfred with a grin.
"How terrible," snapped Arthur. "Get along, now."
Too young to enlist. Arthur thought of the reek of mud and the scream of shells and the bite of shrapnel and felt that phantom pain in his shoulder again, cold and clammy and sticky like the air and the earth broken into pieces and the rain that fell for two weeks straight. He remembered Francis lolling exhausted and bloody against his shoulder, his fingers at the hem of his shorts, how nobody even looked up; what did it matter, anymore? A small glimmer of happiness in the hell of war, and his best mate nowadays. Whatever happened after a few cocktails was nobody's business.
Alfred reappeared with two drinks and Arthur jumped.
"I was going to tell you to sod off," he admitted conversationally, tipping back his glass with a sigh.
"Really?" Alfred stirred his drink. "Why didn't you?"
Arthur shrugged. "Same reason I do anything. Goddamn war."
"Oh." Alfred's throat contracted with a swallow. "Were you – "
"A soldier, yes." Arthur met his eyes for the first time. "Listen to me, boy. You were so lucky."
Alfred nodded, and they finished their drinks in silence. From then on, he came to the club every night. But he didn't ask any more questions. And that much was fine indeed.
Arthur, despite himself, grew to like Alfred. He was different. He was not disillusioned or lost; he still believed in things, still hoped for things, still thought about things other than novels and intellectualism and literary devices. He could talk about nothing at all for hours and soon enough Arthur could lose himself in that nothing, the unsullied glow of his eyes, the bright curve of his mouth, the luster of his words. He didn't realize for a long time that he had fallen in love.
Zelda and Scott headed back to the United States for a while, and Arthur tumbled into a pathological loneliness which he both lamented and enjoyed. Francis, of course, was always there, dragging women through their flat but ready to oblige should Arthur call, though he never did, not anymore. Ernest dropped by once or twice, but Arthur wasn't fond of him. He was too short of words.
The days passed. Arthur wrote. Nothing good. He drank too much and slept until late in the afternoon. He talked to Alfred and fell steadily in love – unwittingly, of course. He snatched at ghosts of compelling characters that only evaporated between his fingers. He wallowed in self-pity and spent long evenings walking along the Seine staring moodily into the water. Then, one day, Alfred joined him.
It was dusk and the sky was a gradient, a gel through which the shadows shifted lazily, rendered dust-like in texture. Alfred surprised him. He was carrying a grocery bag and beaming, and he looked so adult that Arthur almost didn't believe it. He was over twenty, of course, but sometimes he seemed nothing more than a child. They shook hands on the banks of the Seine beneath the flickering glow of a lamppost.
"Didn't expect to run into you here!" Alfred pressed his palm one last time and let go. Arthur missed the warmth. "Where are you headed?"
"Nowhere," murmured Arthur, not meaning to sound melodramatic. "Planning dinner, are you? Haven't you got a girl to cook something? Or is she back home?"
"Oh, no." Alfred shook his head. "No, I – well, I haven't."
Arthur felt something prickle in his stomach. "Oh."
"Would you like to join me?"
"Dinner." Alfred gestured to the grocery bags. "Would you? There's more than enough. It'll be fun, I promise. Come on."
Arthur looked at him suspiciously. "Why make such an offer?"
"Christ, Arthur." Alfred gave a disbelieving little laugh. "We're friends, aren't we?"
Arthur paused. Swallowed. "I suppose we are, yes."
Alfred rolled his lower lip between his teeth. "So?"
"Please, Arthur. Humor me, if nothing else."
Arthur sighed. "Alright. For humor. Let's go."
Alfred's apartment was small, just a foyer, a central room with a futon and a dining table, and a kitchen, so it was hard to move around without brushing elbows every once in a while, almost bumping noses, knees. The evening sun flowed in through a window above the sink, gilding the walls of the kitchen and the frames of Alfred's glasses, heightening the crystallized color of his eyes. But Arthur tried not to pay attention to that.
The conversation was light and easy, peppered with intervals of comfortable silence as Arthur wandered the flat, drinking cheap wine and running his index finger along the books kept piled by the bed while Alfred chopped methodically away at the counter. It was a respectable selection, and a few volumes were in French, scattered with notes and little translations. Arthur was reaching for a battered copy of A Tale of Two Cities when Alfred asked that he come stir the sauce while the water heated.
Arthur worked lazy circles in the pan while Alfred chopped sausage and bell peppers. At some point, a fat pot on the backburner started to burble, and Arthur looked on warily as Alfred, cursing under his breath, dumped a load of pasta into the boiling water and turned down the heat. Evening collapsed slowly into night, darkness shifting through the sunset, silent and curiously granular, bits of blue and black falling through one by one. Alfred strained the pasta, mixed in the sauce, lit a few candles, and declared dinner as served.
Arthur smoothed a paper napkin over his lap. "Are the candles really necessary?"
"I like to create a little atmosphere." Alfred poured more wine, winking, teeth glinting in the flickering light. "So sue me."
"I just might." But Arthur only twirled some pasta onto his fork and tried not to look too surprised when he realized it was truly delicious. He looked up to see that Alfred was watching him intently, half a grin twisting his mouth to the side. His eyes narrowed, but he didn't say anything; he wouldn't humor such childishness, whatever it may be.
"You look like you're thinking," said Alfred conversationally after an interval of quiet fractured by the clink of forks against plate and the hush of chewing. He broke a piece of bread off the loaf he had brought to the table and slathered it with butter. Despite himself, Arthur felt his eyes drawn to the arc of his wrist as he maneuvered the knife. "What's on your mind?"
Arthur's frown deepened. "This is actually palatable. Congratulations."
To his surprise, Alfred let out a bright peal of laughter.
"Thanks, Arthur," he chuckled, taking off his glasses to wipe the frames with his napkin. "That truly means a lot. But it doesn't have to be like pulling teeth, you know. Being nice to me. You can if you want to. I won't judge you."
"I don't want to be nice to you."
"Alright, alright." But Alfred was still grinning. "Writers, my God."
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Why don't I believe you?"
Alfred met his eyes with the full force of his smile, brilliant and stained with some suggestion of something Arthur didn't really want to think about. He swallowed and knotted a hand into his napkin under the table, still glaring. Alfred rolled his eyes, but that expression, so frightening in its softness, didn't really leave.
"There's something special about writers, and there's something special about you. That's all. Now shut up and eat, Arthur."
"I'm not really a reporter, you know."
They had headed into the central room after dinner. Arthur was on his third glass of wine and by then comfortably warm, no longer so apprehensive in regards to the look in Alfred's eyes, and much more affable in general. The effects of alcohol were wondrous. They were sitting on the edge of the futon, halfway gazing out the window onto the city, halfway engaged in conversation. Alfred was nodding, eyes distant, twisting the stem of his wine glass between his thumb and index finger
"Yeah. I just used that as a way to start talking to you. I've been chasing after you ever since I first caught a glimpse, you know. I guess I'm a hopeless romantic that way."
Arthur leaned forwards on his elbows, pressing a palm to his forehead, trying to put his spinning thoughts back in order, stop them ricocheting from the walls of his mind.
"No. I only had two glasses." Alfred shrugged and met his eyes. "I just prefer to be honest. Moreover, I'd very much like to kiss you. I figured there was only one way to try."
Arthur frowned. "What if I'm not interested? What if I think you're disgusting?"
Alfred gave another shrug. Arthur turned his face away so he couldn't see his smile.
"Oh." Alfred blinked. "Alright, then."
He sort of scooted across the futon so that their thighs almost touched, bending forwards a bit, hesitating. A long gasp of silence. Arthur met his eyes coolly. The wine had melted away his nervousness, his reluctance. Alfred leaned forwards at long last and kissed him very carefully, just on the bow of his upper lip. After a moment, he pulled back, a little flushed and smiling uncertainly. Arthur licked his lips unconsciously.
"Is that all you've got?"
At that, Alfred surged forwards, one hand digging into Arthur's collar, the other darting down to grab his waist, pull him close. Arthur tangled his arms around Alfred's neck, fingers curling sharply into his hair. He tasted wine and coffee, smelt cologne at the base of his neck. He was eager and strong, but startlingly gentle. Arthur's head spun. A series of kisses, lips jaws necks, at the soft spot just behind the ear, the whisper of teeth on the jugular vein.
Arthur shoved one hand up under Alfred's shirt and tested the contours of his stomach, the artful curves of his hipbones, the powerful bend of his spine. Alfred groaned softly and pushed Arthur back against the sheets, mouth at his collarbone, exposed where the first two buttons of his shirt had exploded undone. He lost track of the time and would have been willing to go on indefinitely, but at some point Alfred leaned back, gasping, and ran a hand through his hair, straightened his glasses.
Arthur sat up. "What's the matter?"
"We shouldn't," mumbled Alfred, looking away.
"Why not? I'm not a girl, you know. The first date is fine."
"No, it's not that." Alfred wouldn't meet his eyes. "I'm leaving in a few days. Back to university. I was just studying here for the summer. You know the deal."
Arthur felt something settled uncomfortably in his stomach. "Oh."
"Yeah. I'm really sorry."
Silence for a moment.
"Well, in that case…why not make the best of the time you have left?"
Arthur leaned over and curled one hand into the curve of Alfred's neck.
"Come on. It'll be fun. We don't have to be in love or anything."
Alfred rolled his lower lip between his teeth. "Are you sure?"
"Damn sure, Alfred."
Alfred exhaled unsteadily and leaned forwards, fixing his mouth onto Arthur's with purpose. Arthur sighed and leaned back until he was spread out on the mattress. Alfred was warm and stable in his arms. It was good. He closed his eyes and felt impossibly grateful for summer.
It was, in the end, a one-night stand. But nonetheless it was a one-night stand built on a long history, and it was also love, in a certain sense. Arthur didn't regret a thing; he mourned, yes, but he did not regret, because had he been aware that he was indeed in love, nothing would have been any different. Alfred would have left all the same, and he likewise would have continued living in moderate distress and generating useless bits and pieces of prose that he couldn't pull together into anything worthwhile. Nothing would have changed.
Except, perhaps, had it not been for that, Arthur might not have picked up his pen that rainy afternoon and pressed the nub to the page and let the words flow like they hadn't in as long as he could remember. He wrote two chapters that day, and by the end of the week the plot was there. It was a love story, short and sad and sweet, carnal and infused with all the butter-gold melancholy of a Parisian rue in the late afternoon. It was something real. At last, he had it.
And that much was different indeed.
AN - This piece was done for the 2012 USXUK Short Story Anthology And WOW is that thing amazing. I cannot believe the talent and creativity we have in this here fandom. If you do nothing else, go and check it out over at usxuk on livejournal. because. just. wow. I might also note that there's an art companion piece to this here story in there by my lovely friend flamingoflamel. it's gorgeous. go read all the wonderful works and stare at all the wonderful art!
Thanks so much for reading!