The thinking for a moment. Food or paper?

The year was 1779, near Rouen, France, a few miles north of Paris. It was cold, enough to chill to the bone, eerie silent aside from the occasional barking of a stray dog or the shuffling footsteps of a man returning home late from his work at the factory.Cold, that’s what Arthur felt when he stepped into the quickly darkening November evening. It’s also how he felt deep in his soul, desolate, alone, disgusting. He pressed the franc into his coat pocket, quite a large amount just to suck him off, but hey, the guy had the money to spend, why not spend it? Arthur wasn’t going to complain, this man was keeping him well stocked with colors and paper for the next few weeks. Arthur stepped off the wooden pallet, his already wet boots becoming even more wet and cold as he splashed into an unseen puddle of freezing rain. “Couilles!” Arthur muttered, a disgruntled groan leaving his lips because these boots were relatively new, well, as new as he was ever going to get. Arthur huffed when rain started to pour, his unkempt mop of curly brown hair becoming slightly damp before he finally found a porch to duck under until the rain stopped or a place to sleep if it didn’t. Arthur’s stomach grumbled, it had been a few days since his last full meal and he was grumpy from his lack of blood sugar. “Well,” Arthur thought, “shit.” He pursed his lips, thinking for a moment. Food or paper? He weighed his options, he could starve a few more days and probably not be recoverable and he could paint for a few weeks or he could eat now and paint on what scraps he had left. Neither seemed like viable options to him. Arthur leaned against the cool, damp brownstone building behind him, biting his lip in contemplation. “Excuse me!” a tremulous voice calls, a little old woman hobbling out of the rain and underneath the awning where Arthur stood. “Have you any spare change?” She asked, a hopeful gleam in her eye. Arthur rolled his lips, sighing deeply and fishing the franc out of his pocket.Kenneth sat in his stagecoach, the rain pitter-pattering down on the window he stared out of as they rumbled along the outskirting cobblestone streets of Rouen. He pulled his watch out of his pocket, sixteen past twelve. The full moon shone down, casting an unearthly glow over the French countryside causing Kenneth to become uneasy, his stomach churned and he didn’t know why. The stagecoach lurched suddenly, Kenneth almost falling off the seat but catching himself before his head slammed against the wall in front of him. “Oi!’ Kenneth yelled, “What’s going on out there?” He waited a moment, but heard nothing. Taking a deep breath, he hesitantly unlatched the door, his foot finding its way to the gravel-covered cobblestone road. He swallowed thickly, fearing the worst as he made his way around the carriage. “‘Ello, Mr. Verlaine.” stated the man knelt beside the wheel of the coach. Kenneth flinched, “Jesus, Geoffrey.” He breathed shakily, “You could have killed me.” Kenneth let out a relieved sigh, “I’m glad it’s just you though.” Geoffrey let out a gasp full of mock hurt and looked at Kenneth, his eyebrows knit together as he pressed a hand to his chest. “Just me?” he asked, his voice high and taut. Kenneth let out a light chuckle, mostly because Geoffrey was a large black man with a strong cockney accent and big, bushy sideburns. It was difficult to imagine such a man act like an aristocrat’s wife who’d just been told her dress was tacky, but it was a silly thought nonetheless. “I was fearing it was someone who would commit actual malice against me, and how many times do I have to tell you to call me Kenneth?” Kenneth snarked, although it was true. Kenneth had known Geoffrey his whole life, he and his brother had been friends for as long he could remember before his brother died of yellow fever when Kenneth was ten. “At least one time more, Mr. Verlaine.” Geoffrey replied with a curt nod, turning his attention back to the wheel that seemed to be stuck in the mud at the side of the road. “Is there anything I can do to help get this show back on the road?” Kenneth asked, placing his hands on his hips. “Seems that this wheel is stuck, and without a jack, we’ll be here for an indefinite amount of time.” Geoffrey explained, taking his lip in his teeth and chewing it in thought. “What if we used a trunk?” Kenneth suggested, Geoffrey nodding slowly, considering it. “That could work, what’s it made of?” Geoffrey inquired, Kenneth’s brow furrowing as he tried to recall. “Chestnut oak I believe.” Kenneth replied; with a slight nod, Geoffrey stood and grabbed the trunk out of the boot with ease. It must have weighed fifty pounds at least! It contained the large majority of Kenneth’s belongings in his relocation from Nice back to Rouen. Around half an hour (and a prodigious amount of effort) later, Kenneth and Geoffrey had finally gotten the carriage lifted high enough to lodge Kenneth’s trunk underneath it. Kenneth let out an exhausted puff of breath, looking at Geoffrey and raising his arms to the heavens in praise. “We did it!” He exclaimed, feeling accomplished before he let his arms fall to his sides at the thought they might just have to do it again. “Well, that part at least.”  He muttered disappointedly, absentmindedly kicking a pebble into the troughs at the side of the street. Geoffrey clapped a hand against Kenneth’s shoulder, “Worry not, Sir.” He hummed. He trudged through the wet, muddy gravel toward Mayberk the horse, easing him ever-so-smoothly forward, rolling the trunk forward onto its side, which brought the wheel back onto the road. Kenneth breathed out a sigh of relief, his coat now soaked with rain and stained at the edges with mud, but he didn’t care, they were home free for now. Geoffrey hurriedly put the trunk on the moving carriage, jumping into the seat to steer as Kenneth stepped onto the stagecoach, gripping the side as Mayberk trotted along toward Rouen. Geoffrey placed the now splintering and cracked trunk on top of Kenneth’s and Eleanor’s, his wife’s, bed. “Thank you, Geoffrey.” Kenneth stated in appreciation, a grateful smile adorning his face. “Would you like to stay for tea?” He asked, Geoffrey smiling and shaking his head, “No sir, I have things to tend to, but thank you for the offer.” Geoffrey thanked him. Kenneth nodded and shook the man’s hand graciously, pulling his wallet out of his pocket, handing the man four francs. Geoffrey shook his head, “No, sir,” He stammered, “this- this is too much. I can’t-” Kenneth put up his hand to stop him, “I insist.” Kenneth softly replied, sending Geoffrey off. He cleaned up, drying his hair with a cloth, hanging his coat up on the rack and placing the rack on top of a towel. A while later, Kenneth decided to head outside to have a smoke. He filled his pipe and grabbed his matches, stepping outside as he puffed on his pipe to get the tobacco lit. Kenneth got about halfway through smoking when he noticed a young man asleep on his porch. He blinked quickly, taking a moment to process the situation, and pulled the pipe away from his mouth. “Are you alright, lad?” Kenneth pressed a hand to the boy’s shoulder, gripping it gently to wake him, “Excuse me.” The boy flinched awake, taking in a sharp breath before he sleepily looked up at the man who woke him. He sat up, rubbing his eye with the heel of his palm, “Sorry, yes?” Arthur asked, his voice groggy from sleep. “Are you alright?” Kenneth asked again, his voice wrought with concern. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Sorry, is this your porch?” Arthur asked, one eye closed as he stared up at the man. Kenneth chuckled softly and nodded, “Yes, it is, now I insist you get off my porch and come inside my house instead before you freeze to death.” Kenneth put the kettle on, insisting Arthur have a hot bath before he even thought about sitting in front of the fireplace. Formal introductions were overlooked, names were exchanged as Kenneth drew Arthur’s bath. Kenneth sat on the sofa, reading the works of Voltaire until the kettle started to screech. Arthur took that as cue to come out, and was back downstairs dressed in a robe since Kenneth had taken his clothes to be washed. Kenneth, unaware of Arthur’s presence, brought out two cups of Earl Grey with lemon and a spot of milk, thinking he’d be waiting a while before he saw Arthur again. “Thank you.” Arthur murmured, Kenneth gasping, startled. “Christ.” Kenneth grumbled, “What is everyone’s shit with scaring me today?’ He chuckled softly, shaking his head; “You’re welcome, though.” He added. Arthur just nodded, which was rather strange being that Arthur was usually cheery and outgoing. He sat down on the sofa opposite Kenneth, picked up the cup of tea and took a whiff, it had been a while since he’d even eaten, let alone drank high quality tea, which he had never done. He took a slow sip, savoring the flavor since he’d likely never have anything this nice ever again. “Oi.” Kenneth smiled gently, leaning over and smacking Arthur’s arm playfully, “Lighten up, you’re in good company.” He joked, winking at Arthur. Arthur sank his teeth into his lower lip, his face flushing bright pink. “Sorry…” Arthur murmured, swallowing thickly as he set down his mug. “I’m just tired, what is it-” he glanced at the large grandfather clock on the opposite wall, “One?”. “Oh, shit, is it really?” Kenneth asked, looking at the clock and chuckling, “Are you hungry? I can get you some dinner and then we can go to bed, yeah?” Arthur shook his head, chuckling softly himself at just how scatterbrained Kenneth was, but he liked it. He found it endearing- wait, what? Endearing? This wasn’t some sort of schoolboy crush, no. This man had just plucked him off the street, he probably did this all the time, and after Kenneth was done with him, they’d likely never cross paths again. Kenneth just leaned back in his chair, sipping his tea as if Arthur wasn’t having an inner meltdown, but how was he supposed to know that? “Cat got your tongue, love?” Kenneth asked, looking at Arthur, folding one leg over the other across his knee. “Oh, yeah, sorry. I’m very hungry, I don’t mean to be a burden though.” Arthur shook his head quickly, he’d never been treated this well. Hell, he’d never been in a place so luxurious, and this was only a town home. Not like he was one to talk though, he had lived in an orphanage from the time he was three after his dad left his dying mum for the colonies. “Alright, don’t go anywhere.” Kenneth stood in the kitchen for a moment, wondering what in the blue hell he was doing in there because, for the love of god, he couldn’t cook. “Miriam!” He called, waiting for about five minutes before deciding she was asleep. Kenneth sighed, there had to be something around here to eat. He dug around in the cupboards for a while, finding a jar of jam, some day-old bread, and a few apples. He shrugged, it’d have to do for now. He went back out into the living room, setting down a plate with slices of bread and apple set neatly around a small bowl of raspberry jam in the center. “Have at it.” Kenneth hummed, plopping himself down in his chair, clasping his cold hands around his cup of hot tea. Arthur picked up a slice of apple, nibbling on it gingerly before he dipped it into the jam. He didn’t want to seem like a pig in front of the man who’d so graciously welcomed him into his home. Kenneth leaned forward, taking a slice of bread and spreading some jam over it with his finger because he really didn’t care what the homeless kid thought of him, taking a large bite. Arthur took that as a sign, starting to scarf down apple slices, eating about half of them before he moved on to the bread. Kenneth just watched, unfazed, he wondered how long it had been since the young man had had a proper meal.By the time the two had finished, leaving barely crumbs, a very clean bowl, and orange glowing embers in the fireplace, it was around two in the morning. Kenneth piped up in the middle of their comfortable silence, “Would you like to stay the night?” Kenneth asked, looking at Arthur curiously. He’d be lying if he said Arthur’s stoic mysteriousness hadn’t piqued his interest. Arthur mulled over the question, thinking over the offer before he gave a slight nod. “That sounds wonderful.” He said with a smile, “Thank you, Kenneth.” Kenneth nodded, “My pleasure.” He murmured, his voice groggy as he stood. He gave a soft yawn, waving Arthur over. “This way…” His yawn tainted his words, made them drawl over, but Arthur complied, following Kenneth upstairs to the spare bedroom. “This is your room, water closet is down the hallway, second door on your left. I’m just across the hallway, feel free to wake me.” Kenneth mumbled, trudging tiredly to his bedroom. “Bonne nuit.” He grumbled, closing the door before Arthur could respond. Arthur had taken his words to heart, as he was sure Kenneth meant them. He seemed like a very genuine man and Arthur liked him, not romantically or sexually, but in a way he hadn’t experienced in a long time: friendliness. “Bonne nuit.” Arthur murmured to the empty hallway, making his way into the bedroom where he flopped into bed, asleep as soon as his head hit the downy pillow.Kenneth lie in bed awake for a long while that night, staring up at the ceiling as his fingers interlaced on his stomach. He had a hard time sleeping alone, even Eleanor was better than being alone. She had been gone for weeks. She was taking care of her sister who had contracted some unknown disease. It would likely be the end of her, which was sad. Gene was one of the few Moreau siblings that Kenneth actually appreciated the company of. He didn’t want to fall asleep on such a sad note, so he just Arthur woke the next morning better rested than he could ever recall being in his whole life. His eyes fluttered open and he gave a groan, pouting a bit before he remembered where he was. He glanced around, his eyes flicking to the sun filtering through the curtains over the window. It was soon covered by clouds before it came back out, then was swallowed up again. Arthur watched like this for a while, curled up in the warm bed as he watched the sun and clouds in a battle for light and dark. He jerked into the sitting position when his door opened- old habits die hard, he guessed. “Mornin’, doll.” Miriam chirped happily as she flounced over to the window and pulled open the curtains. Arthur squinted a bit with the light change, but quickly adjusted and watched as Miriam draped his now clean clothes over the foot of the bed. “Thank you.” He murmured with a soft smile. Miriam smiled brightly and nodded, “Of course, Mister…” she trailed off with no surname, “Lemaire, but please, just Arthur.” He murmured, his cheeks flushing pink at her complaisance. He definitely wasn’t used to someone waiting on his every beck and call, it all seemed so acted out. She nodded then and gave a soft chuckle. “Breakfast will be in the dining room at nine.” She said in passing before she left the room to give Arthur some privacy. 

x

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