Arthur had hoped that the next day would be better. It isn't. It starts normally enough; he makes himself a quick breakfast, still longing to hear from Curt and knowing that it's too early. He knows that shows run late, people go for drinks afterward, Curt is the opposite of an early riser. iNothing wrong./i He supposes he'll be able to distract himself at work, at least for some of the time.
But he has hardly even come into the office before he catches sight of Lou's face, and knows right away that something iis/i wrong. The older man looks away very suddenly when he sees Arthur, without even the vague smile or greeting he would normally offer. Immediately Arthur wonders what's happening.
He doesn't have to wonder for long. Lou retreats into his office then, but passes by Arthur's door again within an hour or so.
"Uh – Arthur?" he begins, and Arthur can tell from his tone that this is not going to be good.
"What is it?" he asks, keeping his voice low.
"Can you step into my office for a minute?"
Arthur nods. He doesn't bother to say that it seems inefficient to walk from one office to another when they could just as easily talk here. He supposes it's one of those things about giving, and getting, bad news. At least Lou is decent enough to be awkward about it.
Arthur follows the older man to his office i(just a few doors down, pointless, really)/i, and expects the rambling speech about falling ad revenues, and seniority, and how he's sorry but they just can't keep Arthur on at this time. Arthur stares out the window behind Lou's head, only half-listening. His brain is racing with a dozen or so thoughts and feelings that are running through it, helter skelter, like the images in a dream.
Well. Maybe more of a nightmare. At any rate, he can't help picturing Tommy Stone's face, and that Shannon's, and wondering if this isn't somehow their doing. Maybe he's just paranoid. Then again, maybe he has been tempting fate too much – raising hell, thinking he could just dump this job for a better one, all of that. Be careful what you wish for, or something.
And then it occurs to Arthur that he has been staring out at the grey April sky for too long. He drags his gaze back down to Lou's face, aware that he must look like a complete idiot. iNot that it matters now. /i
He hears himself say, "I was actually planning to give my notice anyway. Soon."
It might sound like complete bullshit, but Arthur's past caring. If he's going to lose this job anyway, then he might as well get out of here as soon as he can.
Lou, at least, looks relieved.
"Well, I'm glad to hear it – and very sorry things aren't working out here," he says. "But I'm sure you'll find great opportunities elsewhere."
iGreat/i, Arthur thinks.
Thankfully, their talk doesn't take much longer. Arthur is still stunned when he walks back to his own office, barely looking where he's going.
It's only once he's sitting at his desk that he realizes he's angry, too. His fingers and jaw are clenched; he actually puts his hand to his face to try to soothe his tense muscles, before glancing down at the article he had been working on in disgust. He shoves it away. iTo hell with it./i
Instead, Arthur begins clearing out some of his old papers, things he won't need beyond the short term. He tosses a folder into the tin garbage pail, causing it to tip over. iCheap piece of shit/i, he thinks. Then he kicks the trash can back up against the desk, muttering. He hopes no one is around to see him looking ithis/i pathetic: nearly shaking with repressed anger, and cursing at office supplies. But this is just like him. He iwould/i lie down and accept whatever bullshit the world might throw at him, or react in the most useless possible way.
Arthur leans back in his chair and sighs. He wonders if this week could possibly get any worse.
* * *
He's a little calmer the next day. At least, he tells himself that he can freelance for a while before getting something better, and tries not to imagine the prospect of living in New York without a real income for any length of time.
But it's still far from a good day. When he stops for groceries on his way home that night, he knows that he is looking at everything he picks up with more critical eyes, more concerned about cost than he's had to be in a while. iNot thinking about it./i
Then when he gets home, and climbs the stairs to his apartment supporting the paper grocery bag against his chest, that strange feeling that something is wrong or different settles on him for the second time this week. He feels the hairs at the back of his neck prickle. The place sounds normal enough, though he can't see the corridor from the stairwell. He continues up the stairs more quickly, but more quietly, too, more alert. For a second he hopes he might see Curt. He needs for something igood/i to happen. But he dismisses the thought almost as soon as it comes. That would be impossible; he knows Curt's schedule much too well to even hope that.
He kicks open the door to his floor only to see a tall man waiting outside his apartment. The man turns sharply when Arthur enters the corridor. Their eyes meet. Arthur does not recognize him at all, yet something about his sly, pale face makes him wary. iWho the fuck are you?/i he thinks.
"Can I help you?" Arthur asks. Dimly, he wonders what unknown reserve of patience he is drawing on.
The stranger smiles, an unpleasant, false smile. Whoever the hell he is, Arthur wishes he would go away. But he could hazard a guess that the guy wants to talk to him, and he thinks he knows why.
"Arthur Stuart?" he asks. The smile grows broader and even more unpleasant as he says it. "Or should I say Arthur Tate?"
And Arthur definitely knows what this is about, now. A neighbour's lost acquaintance, or a burglar or kook who wandered in off the street, would not ask for him by his pen name.
"Who the hell are you?" Arthur asks. No more patience or politeness, now.
"You can call me Eric," the tall man says, "but that doesn't really matter. See, what matters is that you've been writing some seriously damaging things about my employer."
iBingo/i, Arthur thinks. He had expected to hear from someone in Tommy Stone's entourage – Shannon, maybe; she seemed pretty defensive of her charge – though he doesn't know if this guy is here to buy him off or rough him up a bit. Arthur tries to size him up. They're about evenly matched in height and build, but Arthur has never been in a fight in his life, unless getting kicked around as a kid counts. He tenses, his heart beating unsteadily.
"Yeah?" he asks, with all the bravado he can muster. He draws himself up to his full height, almost without realizing it, and wishes he could put his bloody groceries down without having to turn away. "And what are you, his lawyer?"
"Nothing so formal," Eric says, "as you know. But I can offer you a settlement, so to speak, now. Mr. Stone would rather avoid the longer, more conventional approach."
"You know I'm not the only person writing about him," Arthur says.
"No, but you're – influential. And it would be much appreciated if you would stop."
Arthur shakes his head. "I want to write things that are true. I – "
"Not this. Retract this."
Arthur can't believe he's hearing this. He shakes his head.
Eric takes a step forward. Arthur watches him, warily.
"Listen, you should know music journalists don't make the big bucks. I can offer you more than that right now, if you're smart enough to take it. And the beauty of it is, this wouldn't have to hurt your career at all. Mr. Stone would be happy to do a real interview with you, sort of clear up misunderstandings and all that. It would look completely legit. You wouldn't have to stop working or anything, unless you wanted the time off to enjoy a decent bit of cash."
Then he names a sum that is maybe fifteen or twenty years' worth of Arthur's salary, if he'd kept his damn job. Arthur just gapes at him. He can hear the dim roar of traffic outside; for a moment, blaring car horns and the wailing siren of an ambulance from the street below are the only sounds in the hallway.
This might just be one of the most uncomfortable silences of Arthur's life, and he's endured some really fucking dreadful ones.
"If that's not enough, we could do more," Eric says, after a while. Arthur thinks, iAmateur/i – as if he has had any experience of this sort of thing himself, or wanted to.
Eric offers a hundred thousand more, if that's istill/i not enough, the kind of money Arthur might have earned in twenty years or so – and for a split second Arthur, who has never really known success of any kind, who has no family to turn to in bad times and who'll see no inheritance, is sorely tempted to take it.
But the moment passes.
"Piss off," he says.
Maybe he's being too much of an idealist. Maybe this is all going to come back to bite him, hard, but Arthur's worked too hard and come too far to sell out so blatantly. He would prefer to keep his hands as clean as possible – cleaner than this, at any rate.
Now it's Eric's turn to gape. iDidn't expect that/i, Arthur thinks, with some satisfaction.
"You sure you don't want to step inside? We could discuss this further – "
"No we can't," Arthur says, as decisively as he can. As if he would let a creep like this into his apartment. "You can tell Tommy Stone what I've told you, or not – I really don't care. I just want you to go."
He doesn't see it as any great triumph when Stone's lackey finally leaves, but he does breathe a sigh of relief. Then he unlocks his door, sets down his groceries and collapses into a chair, wishing he had some harder drink on hand than the orange juice he has just bought. He could ireally/i use it.
* * *
He hears from Curt that evening. Arthur hesitates before telling him anything that has happened lately, and, as a result, is surprisingly quiet, considering how much he has wanted this call. It doesn't really matter, though. Just hearing Curt's voice is the first decent thing to happen to Arthur in days.
"I hope you didn't think I forgot you or anything," Curt says, by way of apology. Arthur knows enough about touring to understand. He is happy to let Curt vent about his own issues: his son of a bitch manager won't stop nagging him about money, apparently, and his lead guitarist nearly had to bow out in Omaha after his guitar was damaged in transit.
Arthur doesn't even try to get into the strange story of his own week until there's a lull in the conversation. Even then, he decides to hold back on his run in with Stone, for now.
"I, um, had a shit week myself," he begins, hoping he won't sound too dull or too plebeian for Curt to care about. He supposes not; Curt listens to him politely enough.
"Shit," Curt says, when he finishes, "that sucks. I'm sorry."
"Yeah. I'm apparently going to be freelancing for a while. Unhappily."
"You'll get something else, though," Curt adds. Arthur wonders if he has ever had to worry about anything so ordinary before.
"Thanks," Arthur says.
"It's fine," Curt adds. Arthur hears him hesitating, but says nothing himself. He hopes that Curt is, or was, about to reiterate that he is wanted and should, at least, look on the bright side and join Curt at his next gig i(Chicago, in two days)/i. But the words don't come. Arthur's not sure why.
"I'll try to call tomorrow," Curt says. "I'm just traveling, no performance."
iI know/i, Arthur thinks. He doesn't say that, either.
"Take care of yourself."
The phone is barely back in its cradle before Arthur wants to kick himself for letting Curt go. He really doesn't know what else he could have said, however, and sighs. iJust too damn needy/i, he thinks, ipathetic. Really pathetic./i
That mood lasts well into the next day. He trudges home in the rain from the iHerald/i for one of the last times, and dumps the junk he has taken back from his office on the floor before remembering that he has not picked up his mail in a couple days. At first he wonders whether he should even bother. But he is itching to walk around, though he's not quite stupid enough to go outside again in this weather. He wanders back down to the dingy lobby after all.
What he finds surprises him. He has to spend some time easing the cardboard overnight post package out of the too-small mailbox, and smiles for the first time in ages when he sees that the return address is the same hotel Curt has been staying at for the last couple days.
Arthur looks up. The lobby's empty enough for him to read in peace, but this is something special. He decides to delay gratification and go back to his own apartment.
He's glad he did. His reaction is almost too sentimental to be seen; he hears himself laugh softly, and leans against the wall as he reads. Curt may not seem like the love letter type, but that is exactly how Arthur would describe this – maybe even better, or more. Written on a small, square sheet of paper with the logo and address of Curt's hotel in Toledo i(Sunday's show, first stop of the tour)/i is a note reiterating just how much he would like to have Arthur with him, if Arthur could still change his mind. Beneath that is a second note, in an even sloppier hand on paper from last night's hotel, with more of the awkward reassurances Curt had tried to offer over the phone, and a comment to the effect that he hopes he won't seem like a complete bastard in saying that at least Arthur can come with him now. He had finished by scrawling the closing lines of an old song he knew Arthur would recognize immediately. i"I miss you - you're beautiful."/i
Arthur rereads both letters once, then twice, then sets the papers down on his desk. He doesn't care that he's grinning like an idiot - doesn't even care about his job or anything else now. He thinks that he may just have to book the first train or flight he can get out to Chicago. After all, it's not every day that he sees this sort of proof that all his insecurities, all his suspicion and negativity, might just be all in his head. Maybe the other shoe isn't about to drop; maybe the fault lines he keeps seeing coming between him and Curt aren't half as serious as he has feared.
He thinks, iDays in summer are apt to linger./i Then he sits down by the phone./lj-cut
Arthur clutches his groceries closer to his chest, frowning, and hoping the snow that has started to fall won't destroy the paper bag before he can get home. It's become his job to pick up food for himself and Curt; Curt's still glad just to be sober enough to eat and take care of himself, but has not yet mastered this level of normalcy. Arthur doesn't mind.
He is, however, relieved to reach their apartment. When he enters the lobby of the building, he is shivering slightly, and his hair and collar are damp with melting snow. They say it'll be another cold winter for New York, unusual as it is to have two of those in a row. Arthur's glad to be out of it for now. He's also grateful to get away from the stores blaring pathetic Christmas music, as Curt would say.
As he climbs the stairs he wonders if Curt will still be in bed where Arthur left him. That could be nice; he might just join him.
But when Arthur gets into the apartment, he finds that Curt is up – even dressed. Curt must notice his surprise, because he grins and holds out a fresh pack of cigarettes.
"Had to buy more," he says. "So I could have gotten the stuff after all."
"Doesn't matter," Arthur says. He leans in close enough to give Curt a quick kiss before starting to put away groceries.
"You should turn on the TV," Curt says, still hovering over Arthur. "There's something you'll want to see."
"What is it?"
No answer but a knowing smile. Evidently, Curt wants to surprise him. iFair enough/i, Arthur thinks, though he wonders what this surprise could be. Curt's last album came out about six months before, and most of the coverage has died away by now – not iquite/i as much attention as Curt might have liked, considering the work he put into it, though it's been selling all right and the critical reception was strong. Still, there had been some rough sailing around that time just the same.
That's another one of Arthur's jobs: keeping Curt sane, soothed and looking on the bright side at moments like that.
"You put it on then, and I'll listen from here," Arthur says.
Curt nods and turns to go. In a moment Arthur hears the sharp click of the television being turned on. Then he freezes.
"In other entertainment news, pop singer Tommy Stone has admitted that the rumours about him are true, and that he is actually bisexual seventies rocker Brian Slade, apparently working under a changed name…"
Arthur dumps the half-emptied bag on the table and bolts into the living room.
"Mr. Stone admitted in an interview with iTime Magazine/i…"
"Wow," Arthur says. Then he thinks iI'm not good enough, of course; where I write's not good enough. Even when he does the right thing he has to be a spiteful bastard about it./i
He shakes his head, wondering at his own vehemence.
"Oh well," he mutters.
Curt raises an eyebrow. "'Oh, well'? That's it?"
"Sorry," Arthur says, turning to him. "I was just thinking aloud." Then it occurs to him. "Doesn't this bother you at all?"
A year ago, Arthur would never have dared to ask about Curt's past so bluntly. Even six months ago he would have hesitated. But they've spent a lot of time together since then, and Arthur is past hesitating now.
Curt shakes his head.
"No," he says. "I'm over all that. I'm doing okay, and I've got someone new in my life."
He snakes his arm around Arthur's waist, trying to pull him closer. Arthur obliges.
"Oh, yeah?" he teases.
"Yeah," Curt says. "Young guy, really hot. Writes for a small arts and music magazine. Bit of a shit disturber in his way, too."
Arthur laughs. The TV prattles on about Mr. Stone – er – Slade, as the bemused host says. Curt and Arthur lock eyes, too fixed on one another to really pay attention.