A Love Story In Five Acts. The title says it all. Oh, wait--there are also geckos.
|Summary: Arvind isn’t doing anything evil or even mildly naughty when he meets the Antichrist: a puny, blond boy named Jimmy, with crimson eyes and the ability to make strange things happen. Their friendship starts, at the age of eleven, with a punch in the nose. Over the course of fifteen years, as they grow up and Jimmy comes into his powers, their relationship changes in many ways.
Arvind isn't doing anything evil or even mildly naughty when he meets the Antichrist. He is, in fact, walking his mother's Lhasa Apso.
"C'mon," he urges, hoping she'll do her business quickly for once, so he can get back to his homework. How such a small dog can take so long to go is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It's not like she even eats that much. The one time he tried to feed her some lettuce she threw up all over the carpet and his mother raised holy he—
Arvind and Molly turn at the same time.
Arms akimbo, and glaring as if looks could kill, a pale, puny boy approaches them menacingly. He looks to be about eight years old, three years younger than Arvind. His hair is bright yellow, sticking out at all angles like dandelion fluff, and he's wearing a blood red shirt and maroon jeans that not only clash with it, but are a little too long, besides. Arvind doesn't recognize him.
“Um. Hi," he says. When the boy glares even harder, he adds: "You must be one of the people that moved into Mrs. Hammond's old hou—"
"I," the boy announces loudly, pretty snottily for a kid in clashing colors, "am the Prince of Darkness. And you may address me as Your Majesty."
Arvind blinks and takes a moment to hate Molly. "Uh. Okay. Your Majesty. Your family moved into Mrs. Hammond's house, right?"
For a moment, the boy's pinched, intense face turns bright, murderous red. It, too, clashes with his shirt. Then he sighs and kicks at the ground angrily. "Yes, I'm in the old bat's house, and you know how I got that house?"
"A sub-prime mortgage?" Arvind ventures with a sigh. Molly's watching them both with no signs of relieving herself.
"No! I saw the house, and I wanted it, and I made her die, and Evan and Judy bought the house for me," declares the angry pipsqueak, all squinting eyes and nasty smirk.
"I see. Are Evan and Judy your parents?" Arvind glances up and down the block. Of course there are no signs of those parents or any other adults to pawn the obnoxious snot off on. Wonderful.
"That's not the question you were supposed to ask!" The pipsqueak explodes, and Molly starts growling at him and backing away. Alarmingly, when the boy's gaze—seemingly lit from within—settles on her, she starts barking louder than Arvind knew she was capable of—
—just before all her hair falls out at once, leaving a very bare, very surprised Lhasa Apso. Not to mention a gaping Arvind.
Dismayed—he understands that what has just happened is impossible. Dog hair may possibly, but improbably, all fall out at once. But not because a person made it happen with nothing other than their will. That's just not possible. Except that it obviously is—he scoops his mother's newly bald dog up and cradles her against his chest, even though she does her best to get away. She feels smooth and creepy, and won't stop shivering and barking. He wonders what he'll tell his mother when he gets home. "Why—how'd you do that?"
Anger wars with chagrin on the boy's face, then merges to become angry chagrin. It's not a look that sits well on an already sour puss. "Because I'm the Prince of fucking Darkness, that's why and how!"
That's not even a real answer. "So because you . . . have some kind of freaky telekinesis, that gives you the right to make an innocent dog go bald?"
"Yes!" The boy exclaims, as if a slow student has finally mastered a complex math problem, and Arvind, who's not excitable, feels unusually riled, right down to the pit of his stomach.
"You're nuts. Good-bye." Arvind hurries away. He leaves the big pile of dog hair where it fell, certain his own is about to join it, but not caring. It'll grow back.
"Heeeeey! I didn't give you permission to leeeeave!" The boy calls, and Arvind ignores him. He doesn't have to struggle to hold Molly anymore, as she obviously agrees getting away from the awful boy is a smart move.
Poor thing, she looks like a shaved rat. His mom's going to freak.
With a rapid patter of little feet—the only thing about the awful boy that isn't small is his voice and his attitude—the pipsqueak darts in front of them. Molly growls warningly, and he laughs. "Hey, why's your dog so stupid and gay, anyway?
"She's not stupid or gay, she's a Lhasa Apso."
The awful boy snorts. "Okay, why're you so stupid and gay?"
"She's my mom's dog!"
"Huh. Judy doesn't want any more pets. She's afraid I'll make their hearts explode, or something." The awful boy looks thoughtful for a moment. "Her fear is valid."
Arvind merely steps around the awful boy, and hopes that if he ignores said boy long enough, he'll get bored and go away. Even if he doesn't, Arvind's only got three more properties to pass till he's home-free.
The boy darts in front of him again, walking backwards and grinning. "I wanna eat dinner at your house."
Again, the boy looks chagrined.
"Did you just tell me 'no'?"
Arvind squares his shoulders and stops walking. "Yes, I did. Now get outta my way before I . . . before I punch you in the nose."
“Yeah, right.” The awful boy tilts his head curiously. It's when the light of the overcast sunset hits them that Arvind realizes the boy's eyes are a muted sort of color, like fading crimson carousel paint. "You're not afraid of me. Not like the other kids."
Arvind sighs again. Though he has little interest in being bald, or having his heart explode, he's not afraid of this kid. And he sees no point in pretending to be. "No, I'm not, but I think you're crazy and mean, and I want you to stop following me."
"Judy and Evan are afraid of me. They think I'm gonna kill 'em," the awful boy huffs. "I mean, someday I might, but—heeeeey, your stupid, gay dog is whizzing all over your shirt!"
Which Arvind notices, just as the awful boy does, and he drops Molly, who promptly runs back toward the house, whining and yapping all the way—and leaving a trail of pee. "Ew! Gross!"
"Is the baby gonna cry, now?" the boy crows happily, giggling till his face is bright pink. Arvind, however, is too mortified to do more than stand there, covered in dog pee, and be laughed at. Neither is something he intends to get used to.
And though he tries many times for the rest of his life, he can never recover the split seconds between watching this awful, horrible boy laugh, and watching him gape up from the ground, blinking in surprise and pain. Red, red blood leaks out of both tiny nostrils. . . .
"Owwwww—you punched me in the nose!" The boy whines incredulously, angry, hurt tears standing out in his crimson eyes. He doesn't look any less mean or unpleasant, but he looks kind of pathetic, too. Arvind immediately feels contrite.
"Yes, I did," he says, plucking at his wet shirt. He offers the awful boy his other hand. "I'm . . . sorry, I guess."
The awful boy—holding his leaky, bloody nose shut, accepts Arvind’s hand reluctantly, crimson eyes flashing. While Arvind is pulling him up, the boy punches him in the eye, and they fall to the ground, the awful boy cackling spitefully while Arvind howls bloody murder.
They form a tentative truce, and decide to clean up at the awful boy's—Jimmy Fullmer's—house. Arvind agrees since his mother will ask many uncomfortable questions if two boys, one of whom is her only son, show up on her doorstep covered in blood, bruises, and urine. (Plus, Arvind really doesn't want the little jerk in his house.)
Mrs. Fullmer, however, doesn't blink when Jimmy marches in, wiping nose-blood on his arm and dragging Arvind behind him like a wide-eyed lamb. There are boxes stacked neatly along the wide hallway, and just inside what must be the living room. The whole house still has a vaguely unaired smell from when Mrs. Hammond lived in it. But there's no dust anywhere and the hard-wood floors shine. The furniture that's been unpacked and arranged is heavy, but tasteful. Not at all what Arvind expected.
"Darling, you're home!” Mrs. Fullmer says in a voice that's torn between welcome and disappointment. Her smile is bright and sharp, her features a little too pale and fine. She's wearing an old t-shirt and shorts, and isn't much taller than Arvind. “Have you been fight—"
“No. This is my new friend. His name's. . . ."
"Arvind. Arvind Roy," Arvind supplies (he'd supplied it once before, when Jimmy introduced himself) when two sets of eyes, one crimson, the other brown, swing toward him. But for the eye-color, they bear a striking resemblance to each other.
"Yeah, Arvind. He's got dog whiz all over him and needs a clean shirt. He can have one of mine." It's a decree, not a request, and Jimmy's mom quickly nods, dandelion-fluffy hair bobbing.
“Oh—well!” Mrs. Fullmer beams at the boys, then at a box marked WINTER COATS and slits the tape holding it shut with one crimson fingernail. "That's a splendid and generous idea, sweetie. And how wonderful that you've made a friend so soon!"
Jimmy glares at her resentfully. “See? Not everybody hates me like—”
"Judy? Have you seen my toolbox?" A voice calls from what's probably the kitchen. Indeed, a grim, stocky man emerges from a swinging doorway, wearing a plaid shirt and old khakis. “I wanna get the dishwasher installed before he gets back from terrorizing the neigh—oh. Hello, Jimmy."
Jimmy bares his teeth like a little blond weasel, and clamps down on Arvind's wrist. His nails are longish, and sharp.
"Evan," he grits out. "This is my new friend, Arvind."
But Mr. Fullmer's grey gaze is already on Arvind, heavy and measuring . . . then dismissive.
"You look like a smart kid. So get out while you still can."
Mrs. Fullmer attempts a bright party-laugh, but it wavers, and ends with her rushing down the hall, muffling sobs. Jimmy sighs irritably and there's a flicker of something in Mr. Fullmer's eyes.
"Arvind is my friend, and he's not going anywhere but up to my room." Another stony-voiced decree, then he's dragging Arvind toward the carpeted staircase. "We're gonna play, and we don't wanna be disturbed. Maybe you should go make sure Judy doesn't try to do herself in again or something."
Mr. Fullmer grunts, and follows her down the hall.
“Um. It was nice to have met you, Mr. Fullmer—you have a lovely home, Mrs. Fullmer! " Arvind calls in the direction she'd fled. Then he's being dragged even deeper into the Prince of fucking Darkness's lair.
"Your parents are, um," Arvind begins tactfully, after scrubbing his torso raw in Jimmy's bathroom. He'd left his soiled shirt in Jimmy's hamper at Jimmy's insistence. Now, he stands in the bathroom doorway, plucking at a borrowed red shirt. It's too short and waaaaay too tight.
He can still hear Mrs. Fullmer's sobs and the curt rumble of Mr. Fullmer's voice. "They're very nice," he finishes lamely, wondering if he should've taken Mr. Fullmer's advice and gone home once Jimmy was distracted by his family.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. They're fine, I guess." Jimmy prowls around his room agitatedly. There isn't a box in sight. Everything is unpacked and in its place: about thirteen plastic 3D dragon replicas hanging from the ceiling, a child's desk with a backpack leaning against the side. A bookshelf with more board games on it than books. The board games look like they've never even been played. Some are still in the original plastic.
In their own corner, is a small convoy of remote control cars, trucks and tanks. They, too, look largely unused. The whole room is impeccably neat, like a monument to play-dates that never were, which strikes Arvind as incredibly lonely and sad.
As he watches, Jimmy stalks around the room for a little while, not lingering at any object for longer than it takes to pick it up, frown at it, and put it down again. "My parents are afraid of me."
"So I see," Arvind says absently, his attention snared by a gecko in a terrarium. It's colorful and asleep—well taken care of, to his eyes. "They do seem a little high-strung." Arvind knows this term from his mother. It's her description for Arvind's older sister Seetl. Arvind himself tends to prefer immature drama-queen.
"They're afraid because they think I might make their brains or their bones melt, or something. If they make me angry enough. Because I'm the Antichrist, and one day I'm gonna cover the world in—oh, that's Thor." Arvind can feel Jimmy's glowering, intense presence right behind him. A skinny white arm snakes past him to tap at the glass with surprising gentleness. The gecko doesn't even stir. "He mostly eats crickets and sleeps. And he never makes any noise, unlike the stupid cat."
"You have a cat?"
"Not anymore," Jimmy says darkly. When Arvind looks over at him, his smile is wide, white, and disturbing. Suddenly, escape seems like a very good idea, indeed.
Crud, Arvind thinks. Otherwise, his mind's a perfect blank for once. He can't come up with any excuse to leave that won't hurt Jimmy's feelings—which is something he's become reluctant to do for several reasons.
And running out of the house screaming would just be rude.
So they watch Thor sleep, between sneaking glances at each other. Then Jimmy declares they should play Stratego.
“What's Stratego?” Arvind asks, and in that moment, their fate is sealed.
“You look like you're about to die!”
Arvind gulps in air like it's wine. His muscles burn and his stomach feels as if it's full of battery acid and fire ants. “I—feel—like I'm about—to die.”
“Well. The upshot is, if you do, I may be able to reanimate you.”
Flat on his back and sodden with sweat, Arvind stares directly into the sun, and the Jimmy-shaped hole in it. “'S'at so?”
“You probably wouldn't have a craving for human flesh, but you'd start to rot after a while. It'd be pretty fucking gruesome.” Brief scuffing sounds as Jimmy sits next to him on the high school track: the scene of Arvind's every worst nightmare since freshman year started only six weeks ago.
“Okay, moment-of-truth time, young Skywalker: what's with all this running you've been doing lately? Since when do you run?”
Face burning—along with everything else—Arvind sighs. At first Jimmy'd been pissed off when his favorite and only Risk partner had begun running every afternoon. Then, in patient, truly un-Jimmy-like fashion, he'd started hanging around the track after school. He'd watch Arvind run till he collapsed, then peel him off the asphalt and walk him home without comment or question.
It's been unnerving, and Arvind's mostly relieved Jimmy's starting to act like his normal, impatient self again.
“In case you haven't noticed, Darth 'Corrigible . . . I'm kinda fat.”
“Huh,” Jimmy says, as if he's being told something he's never observed, but is willing to take on faith, for the moment. And: “Okay. So?”
“So?” Arvind snorts then regrets it when his churning stomach lodges complaint with the management. “Nobody's gonna wanna date me looking like this! I'm like the Pillsbury dough-boy, only not delightful and cute!”
“Well, you're not delightful and cute now. Now you look like something your mom's stupid, gay dog threw up.”
“But when you haven't been running your ass off, you're plenty delightful and cute. Plus, you giggle when I do this—” Jimmy pokes Arvind in the gut just a little too hard.
“Augh! Don't do that, I think I'm gonna—” Arvind rolls weakly to his feet, and staggers to the nearest clump of grass, where he spews up his lunch of half an apple and unbuttered rye toast. It doesn't take long, and when he's done, he goes sprawling flat on his back again.
Jimmy ambles over—a small, milk-pale, scarecrow boy with haywire yellow hair—and looks at the pathetic puddle of puke, then at the pathetic puddle of best friend.
“I like the way you look. You're easy on the eyes.”
“You don't say.” Arvind closes his own eyes; hopes that a few minutes of inattention will give the world a chance to stop spinning.
“I do say. I think you're . . . squeezable.”
“Squeezable?” Arvind would laugh if he weren't afraid of dry heaving. “Jimmy, that's not a compliment!”
“That's the best kind of compliment!” Jimmy sputters. “There isn't a loser on this shitty, stupid planet I'd touch even to gouge his eyes out with my thumbs, except you.”
Arvind's abused stomach gurgles. “And the compliments just keep getting more complimentary. Oh, my inflated ego!”
Arvind opens his eyes at such a serious and unusual tone, to find Jimmy almost close enough to kiss—
Which is a weird thought to have thought, because kissing Jimmy? Ew. That'd be like kissing his brother! No, more like kissing a cousin. Twice removed, but still one who's moody and borderline psychotic, to boot.
But there's something undeniably . . . interesting about him. That wild yellow hair really does makes him look like a deranged flower most days. If one ignores the ferocious glare that's actually Jimmy's default facial expression, that is.
His features are glass-sharp, but regular—not particularly memorable, but for his eyes, which are always lowering and dark. Turbulent, except when they look at Arvind. Then they're brighter and almost happy.
“Look, maybe you'll never be skinny. Shit, I know I'll never be tall. But we're something a lot better than skinny or tall—or even rich.” Jimmy pauses dramatically, making sure he has Arvind's full attention. He does, as always. “We're the two coolest people in the entire fucking universe. Especially me.”
And then he sits back, nodding as if that's the end of that. Arvind can't help the smile that wants to wrap itself around his face. He wants, more than anything, to throw his arms around his best and only friend, and just . . . be one of the coolest people in the universe. For a little while, anyway.
“What?” Jimmy asks, and Arvind realizes he's been staring. “There something hangin' out of my nose?”
“No!” Arvind laughs, catching Jimmy's wrist before he jams an exploratory finger up his right nostril. “I was just . . . looking at you.”
“Oh.” Jimmy shrugs and flops down next to him on sun-warmed asphalt. Above them, the sunny day is suddenly windy, eerily going dark. Angry grey clouds, heavy with rain and lighting seem to be massing in from all directions. That, aside from being damned inconvenient, is also completely impossible. Crimson lightning crawls on the underside of the clouds and the sudden thunder is loud for all that it’s still distant. Arvind frowns and sits up on his elbows as Jimmy’s leg brushes his own. “Uh . . . what’re you doing, Jimmy?”
”Me? Nothing. Looks overcast, though, like it might storm soon. Instead of running, maybe you should just come back to my house and play Risk. Maybe even sleep over. Judy'll make us those mini-pizza things you like.”
Arvind opens his mouth to say that he can't. That he needs to get in at least another three miles of running before his delicious dinner of saltines (salt scraped off) and diet root beer. That the last thing a chubbo like him needs is more sitting around on his fat ass, and mini-freakin-pizza things. . . .
“C’mon, Squeezable . . . please. . . ?
In direct contrast to Jimmy’s pleading, wheedling, innocent tone, the sky above is looking grimmer and grimmer. And Arvind could swear the ground beneath them is starting to tremble.
“Jimmy, I—fine. Just—stop doing that thing you do before you really do destroy the world.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Squeezable.”
Arvind snorts and lays back down on the asphalt, glancing at Jimmy who’s still smiling up at the creepy weather like it’s a perfect spring day. “Of course, you don’t. But all my armies better be right where I left 'em.”
There's conspicuous silence from his left, and Arvind punches Jimmy in the arm weakly. “We're so starting a new game, Darth 'Corrigible.”
Jimmy laughs, and the clouds above break up—scud off in fits and starts, back from whence they came. "Fine by me, Darth Squeezable."
By the time he tugs and cajoles Arvind to his aching feet, the sun is shining out and the skies are clear once more.
“D'ya ever notice that if you switch around the last three letters of Santa, they spell Satan?”
This is said right next to Arvind's ear, but he's used to Jimmy suddenly invading his personal space, and whispering weird things in his low, gargled-with-gravel voice. “Uh, no. . . .”
“It's true, Santa's just Satan in drag, drag, drag, baby. . . .” Jimmy warbles in an eerily spot-on Michigan J. Frog voice. Arvind rolls his eyes.
“Thank you, 'Corrigible. That was both pointless and informative.”
“Unlike all this extra-credit work, which is just plain pointless, Squeezable.”
“Says a man with no designs on a full-ride to MIT.”
Jimmy rolls his eyes, and drifts away toward Arvind's bed. He flops down hard enough that it creaks. For all that he's wiry and short, his bones are like concrete. He's hell to move and near impossible to lift.
"You know, I'm not sure you can be the second coolest guy in the universe anymore.”
“Oh? Why's that?”
"No one who enjoys calculus can be the second coolest person in the universe. Period. The twenty-second, maybe. . . ."
“Says who?” Even though he doesn't have to check his work twice, he always does, anyway. Said work should all come together like a tightly woven basket, so that if one element is changed or removed, the whole thing falls apart.
"Says I, Darth 'Corrigible, Prince of fucking Darkness. Overlord of the fucking universe."
Arvind rolls his eyes and saves his work. The proofs can wait. Till after Jimmy's gone to sleep if he's spending the night. It only takes a moment to get signed in to Grand Strategy and pull up their last saved game. It's even his move. "You and your I rule the universe-noise—you can rule all the universe that I haven't already won from you. Your move, Your Majesty."
Pouty, sulky silence reigns for a brief time. Other than menacing, creepy silence, that's the only silence Jimmy does, really. Then: “What if I'm bored with Grand Strategy?"
"You? Bored wif takin' over the world, Brain? Naaaaarf." Arvind plots his next move, and Jimmy's likely next move. He hesitates only a moment, then gives his orders, satisfied that down the line he'll nab China and maybe part of Korea with this gambit. "Yeah, pull the other one; it plays Love Me Tender."
"I've got other interests than world domination, you know! I'm more than just the boot this pitiful stinkhole will eventually groan under," Jimmy says, pouty-voiced now, as well. As well he should be, since whatever his next move is, a large chunk of his territory is going to be annexed by the noble and mighty forces of Arvindia, and—
"Oh, don't get your panties in a bunch, Squeeze. I meant the world's a stinkhole, not your house," he says dismissively. "I should be so lucky as to live at your house. Your family's cool: a class act all the way."
"Damn right." That his mother and Jimmy not only get along, but get along famously is still surprising and weird. In fact, Jimmy goes out of his way to present his best face to Arvind's mother and sister; he seems to genuinely like them.
It takes all kinds, Arvind supposes, and checks in on his other games. He seems to be pulling ahead in all of them except for the one against MdRsssian248 and Edwardzgrrl_1. . . .
"Hey, this past week, Judy's started wearing all these weird crosses. She even got one tattooed on her neck," Jimmy says incredulously. "Bit too late for all that, I think."
“Does she think you're Nosferatu, now?” Mrs. Fullmer is nice, but not too tightly wrapped. Even though Jimmy mostly stopped terrorizing her years ago, she still seems nervous and strangely guilt-ridden. Mr. Fullmer is still quiet and resentful.
“Maybe she does. I'm already the Antichrist, it's not like vampirism'd be such a stretch.” Jimmy laughs a little. Not the seething laugh, or the disquieting chuckles that frighten their teachers and peers, but a real laugh. A kid-laugh. Arvind's sure he's the only one who's ever heard it. "Like anybody'd drink her bland old blood.”
"Mm . . . and whose blood would you find tasty and refreshing, Mr. Alucard?"
Arvind snorts. After knowing Jimmy for a while, one gets used to off-the-wall compliments. The trick is to take them in stride. "Aw, you say the sweetest things, 'Corrigible."
"Quick with a compliment, that's me." Cue one of the disquieting chuckles—and drifting closer—culminating with cool hands kneading Arvind's shoulders. "Speaking of compliments . . . you and me. We've been friends now for, what? Six years?"
"Sounds about right."
"Right. Would, ah . . . that is . . . would you tell me, if you were fucking a college guy?”
Arvind's fingers stutter to a halt in his typing. As it is, he still nearly deploys the bulk of his army to the resource/manpower sinkhole that is Eurasia. Edwardzgrrl_1 would just love that.
“Um. Okay, A) what? B) that depends. C) . . . what?!!”
Jimmy's hands tighten on his shoulders then loosen. “Shawn Hartell's been saying that people saw you at some college party a few weeks ago, macking on a grad student.”
Arvind looks up to find Jimmy staring down at him intently. “Since when are you and Shawn-fucking-gossip-Hartell chit-chat buddies?”
Jimmy's eyes sidle away. “He didn't say it to me, but I overheard some freshman in the locker-room say Shawn's been telling people that you were at a college party, kissing a grad student. I wanna know if that's true.”
“Would you be angry if it was?”
“Me? Angry? P'shaw!" Jimmy actually says p'shaw. He's really the worst liar, Arvind thinks fondly. "Who you give your precious flower to is none of my business. Unless he breaks your heart, in which case I'll fill his intestines with starving, carnivorous maggots . . . but doing some random college guy seems like the sort of thing long-time amigos mention to each other. Hi, there, buddy. We've been best friends since fifth grade, and now I'm fucking a guy who's, like, ten years older than me. See? Simple and courteous.”
Arvind finds himself biting back a grimace. “Seetl and Pete were in one of their off-again phases, so she dragged me with her to some house party across town. I was supposed to be her pseudo-date, but she disappeared with a bunch of her friends, and I started talking with this guy. He was a sophomore, not a grad student. We both got a little tipsy and we made out, but . . . that was it. End of story.”
Jimmy scowls. “Yeah, right. Horny, drunk guys stop just when things are getting good? Pull the other one: it plays Jailhouse Rock.”
"See, this is why the answer to your initial question was a 'that depends', and not an unqualified 'yes'." Arvind impatiently taps the shift key. A lot. He half thinks Jimmy is just trying to distract him to throw off his game. It wouldn't be the first time. "If I didn't want to tell you something, I just wouldn't. I wouldn't lie to you about it. I also wouldn't have sex with someone I'd just met."
“Oh,” Jimmy deflates a little, and his hands slide off Arvind's shoulders to the chair. Arvind suddenly remembers that day on the track, back in freshman year. Killing himself over baby fat, looking up at Jimmy and feeling like anything was possible because Jimmy not only saw him, but thought what he saw was cool.
He hasn't thought about that since the day it happened. He wonders why he's thinking about it now.
“So. I'm guessing . . . drunken loser you just met . . . it was probably an awful kiss.” Jimmy sounds way too casual, which almost never means anything good. Arvind sighs.
"It was okay. But I have no similar experience with which to compare it,” he says softly, looking at the map of the world on his display. At least one third of it is royal blue, the official color of Arvindorinam and all its territories.
Those cool hands settle on his shoulders again, tentative and shaking just a little bit. “I'm the Prince of fucking Darkness, so I probably—and this is just a theory—do things way better than some random alcoholic at a college kegger would. Even if it's just, you know, kissing and stuff. Plus, you've known me for way longer, and you know I don't have, like, halitosis, or mouth-herpes, or face-syphilis."
Arvind tilts his head back again. Jimmy's not looking at him, but at a framed photo of them at CrocWorld. In it, thirteen year old Jimmy is grinning, and greatly resembles a Croc, himself. Next to him, fourteen year old Arvind looks sweaty and miserable. But Jimmy's arm is around him, so he's smiling . . . limply, but smiling. Just happy to be wherever Jimmy is.
"Your theory is testable, you know," he notes just as casually, heart racing five million miles per hour. Jimmy looks down at him. In the light from the notebook screen, his eyes are Halloween-orange.
"So, uh, maybe we should." Jimmy swallows hard and grins. "Test it."
Arvind shrugs as though he doesn't have butterflies in his stomach and a throat full of heart. "Actually, we could've been testing it since the beginning of freshman year. You're completely clueless, by the way."
A flare of crimson dispels all notions of Halloween, and Jimmy's eyes flick to Arvind's lips, obviously zeroing in. "Maybe. But I make up for it by bein' sexy as hell." And before Arvind can refute it—not that he would—Jimmy's darting in to kiss him. Nervously, and too frenetic at first, then relaxing into it as Arvind not only doesn't pull away, but surrenders to the kiss completely and lets Jimmy learn him by taste.
It's almost a cliché, really. Arvind hears angelic choirs singing—or maybe demons with really good singing-voices. Fireworks go off behind his eyelids and his body can't decide whether it's too cold or too hot. This is the kiss to which he will compare every other kiss he'll ever receive. It is the memory of this kiss that will comfort him on his death bed, and subconsciously shed a gentle light on every moment between them from now, till then.
Arvind's universe is the indescribable, somehow familiar feel of Jimmy's lips and the light, wondering brush of his fingers up Arvind's throat and across his jaw.
Jimmy doesn't seem inclined to stop, though he has to be getting light-headed, too. But when compared to Upside-Down Kisses of Infinite Goodness—which are way better than any kisses had at one of Seetl's college parties—oxygen is pretty over-rated, anyway.
Arvind straightens, balancing his tray of dirty cups and saucers. He nearly drops them.
”You finally made another friend!" he says unthinkingly, and Jimmy scowls, a marked contrast to the dazzling smile on the pretty blonde at his side.
"I make future victims, not friends," he grits out. "Case in point. This is . . . she's. . . ."
"The soon-to-be vessel of his darkness-bringing spawn—hi-hi!" the blonde enthuses just a wee bit too loudly. Arvind isn't the only one who gives her a sidelong glance. But Jimmy clamps down on her arm till she squeaks, then laughs, flapping a hand at him, with a boys-will-be-boys wink for Arvind (who, between cramming for his end of semester projects, has been pulling double shifts at the Cave.
Thus, he wonders if he's so exhausted, he's begun to hallucinate. Then decides he hasn’t because his imagination's just not this vivid).
“Haha! She's such a kidder, this one!” Jimmy rasps heartily, glaring at the patrons and staff that are still staring at the three of them. They all find other things to occupy their attention and he lowers his voice. "Arvind, this fruitcake is Amy. Fruitcake, this is my special, mattress-time buddy of five years—hint-hint—Arvind."
"It's truly an honor to meet you, Sacred Obstacle! You're even cuter and more delightful than in my visions!” She exclaims, holding out her hand. Arvind takes it hesitantly and nearly has his arm wagged off. Amy, meanwhile, is glancing around like a child hoping for candy. “Do you guys still make pumpkin-spice lattes, even though Hallow's Eve has passed?"
Arvind answers without taking his eyes off a red-faced and uncomfortable-looking Jimmy. "Actually, they can whip one up for you at the counter. Tell the cashier the, uh, cute and delightful Obstacle sent you, and they'll comp it."
"Really? Wow! Thank you, you're so awesome!" She bounces away, peppy and collegiate in a button down shirt, demure plaid skirt and low heels. Her stockings are neon green and go with absolutely nothing she's wearing.
"So. This is a new development," Arvind says mildly.
"She's been following me around all day, telling me she's been having visions about me. That we're destined to come together, and usher in ten thousand years of divine darkness, blah-blah. . . ." Jimmy actually looks nervous. He never looks nervous. "Clearly, she's a kook, a crank—two egg rolls short of a combination plate."
"C'mon, baby, don't go all passive on me." Jimmy glances at Amy—who's giggling hysterically at something Jenna, the cashier, said—and shudders. Jenna looks more than a little frightened by the giggling. "I don't want her, and I definitely don't want to spawn with her. You know I hate both kids and my blood relations."
Arvind puts the tray of dirty cups down on a table and sits on the arm of an overstuffed chair. Jimmy kneels in front of him, looking unusually worried and lost. Some of the look smooths away when he holds out his hand and Arvind takes it without hesitation.
"How long is she gonna be around?"
Jimmy's looks at Amy again and his eyes narrow. He smiles that tight, cold smile, like the one he wore for days in high school then Shawn Hartell mysteriously developed shingles just before junior prom. "Let's just say she can measure out the moments left to her life with an hour glass if she doesn't get lost in a hurry, babe."
"No, 'Corrigible. No," Arvind says, turning Jimmy's face back to his. The crimson of his eyes is the color of congealed blood. "Is there any way to get rid of her without maiming or killing her?"
"Probably not." Jimmy shrugs. When Arvind only stares at him expectantly, he sighs. "Look, I don't know, okay? If it was just a matter of withstanding her psychotic wiles—that I can do easily. But she's probably gonna keep hanging around. For her, this is a holy mission, only without the 'holy' part."
"Well, fuck," Arvind says glumly, and Jimmy leans up to kiss him and brush his hair off his forehead.
"You're the one who doesn't want me to make her a pair of cement galoshes and roll her off the fucking pier. Or just use my psychic twinkle to give her an embolism—which, okay, is not on the table anymore. You can stop giving me the stink-eye, Jiminy Cricket," he grouses.
"It's just that she seems so . . . batshit . . . but nice. And you know. Not evil." Arvind sneaks a quick peek at Amy. She's sipping her latte and admiring the kitschy-pretentious art near the travel mugs. "It'd be like killing a basket full of kittens."
"Baby, you know I hate cats." Jimmy stands them both up and wraps his arms around Arvind, who represses a fond smile. The PoD? Is a big fan of PDA. It's still surprising, and all kinds of sweet.
"A basket full of geckos, then."
Jimmy frowns, remembering the late and lamented Thor. Then he sighs, and leans in to bury his face in the hollow between Arvind's neck and shoulder. He murmurs something that sounds like you smell so fucking good, Squeezable, and sighs again, warm and humid. His haywire yellow hair tickles Arvind's face.
"Okay," he says, finally, "we'll do it your way. But if by this time next week I haven't shoved her down a flight of stairs, you probably will have."
"I'm sure that's not true," Arvind murmurs stoically, letting the Prince of fucking Darkness hug him close. Just then, Amy picks up one of the leftover Christmas mugs in the 50% OFF! display. Somehow, most of the other mugs in the display tumble to the floor and shatter, and she drops the mug she'd been holding with a startled squeak. It, too, shatters.
"Let the Apocalypse begin," Jimmy says with weary resignation.
The knocking starts at 2:37 a.m., and Arvind tries to ignore it. He went to sleep at one, and has to be up at five to open the Java Cave.
Technically, he should be working on his thesis project, but seeing triple of his notes had convinced him that rest might be a better use of his time, just this once. . . .
It’s 2:45 and the knocking is continuing even louder. He'd try and sleep through it, but that his elderly neighbors aren't such dedicated sleepers.
"I'm coming!" he calls, reaching blindly for his bathrobe. He shuffles unerringly to the door of his pitch-black, Spartan one room apartment, looks out the peephole, and doesn't see anyone. Sighs. "Whoever you are, this better be good!"
Suddenly, a beady dark eye is staring right into his own. "Squeeze? Squeeze, it's me!"
He'd recognize that rich, whiskey-and-razorblades voice in his sleep, but if this is a dream, it's a pretty awful one. "I told you I don't want anything to do with you, Jimmy. Go away, or I'll call the cops."
Silence. Not even angry silence, that's likely to be followed by something like: Call 'em if you want 'em to be sent home to their wives in body bags.
"Arvind, please." More desperate silence. Jimmy never says please. "You're my best friend, the only friend I got—"
"Good-bye, Jimmy." Arvind means to go back into his livingroom-bedroom and call the cops, like he promised, when a baby's irritated wail stops him. That, and Jimmy's muffled swears sung in a nervous, tired, sing-song tone. Like a lullably, ala The Jerry Springer Show.
Kicking himself good and hard, he opens the door.
He supposes there should be some satisfaction in seeing his Ex, looking tired, unshaven, and bedraggled, holding a car-seat with the bawling, red-faced, Doom-of-The-World, Jr. in the crook of one arm, and a full-to-bursting baby bag in the other. But it’s thesis season, and he’s too tired to feel it.
Just simple, traitorous joy at seeing Jimmy again.
"Get in here, before you violate a noise ordinance."
"So. Amy's dead."
"I see. You know, changing a baby's diaper, even if that baby is the incarnation of evil, isn't too terribly hard, though you seem to have botched the job.” The way the baby relaxes and quiets when Arvind undoes the mangled diaper speaks volumes—though admittedly she's been nothing but docile since he laid hands on her.
Jimmy goes on hesitantly, as if uncertain how to say the next part. "She died just after the Terrible Bambina came into the world."
"Is that so?" And once her little face isn't as red from fussing, she isn't quite so Doom-of-the-World-looking. She looks like Jimmy, except for her eyes, a vivid, electric violet.
"Yeah." Jimmy's hand settles on his arm, but Arvind doesn't look up. "I didn't have anything to do with it, Arvind."
"Please, look at me."
Arvind takes a deep breath and looks. Jimmy's face is solemn, scared, and hopeful: words that can almost never be used to describe him accurately.
"She . . . she was so damn happy after the Bambina was born—and calmer than I ever saw her. You remember how hyper she was. But . . . the night before she was supposed to check out of the hospital, she decided to check out permanently, I guess." Jimmy makes a strange, futile gesture then lowers his hands. “She did herself with a scalpel. I don't know how she got her hands on it, but the nurses found her in the morning, all bled out, grinning at the ceiling. They said—”
“Stop, please.” Arvind tries to tries to keep his voice neutral, can't, and so focuses on getting the baby clean and diapered. She watches him steadily with her mother's eyes. "I don't need to hear anymore, okay? I . . . I believe you.” The dirty diaper goes in its own special plastic bag, to be taken out when he leaves for work. Or when Jimmy goes back to whence he came. “And you, my pretty lady, are all done, yes, you are!"
The baby makes weird-happy-cute gurgling sounds and waves her hands at him. After a moment's hesitation, Arvind picks her up and cradles her against his chest. She immediately starts drooling on them both.
“Eh, look at you. You're a natural, Squeeze. I've never seen her this quiet except when she's sleeping." Jimmy quirks a wry smile, and runs his hand over the baby's fine blonde hair. It's pale, wispy and straight, not the spiky, dandelion-fluff Jimmy's always had.
"She's a chip off the ol' brimstone, then."
Jimmy snorts quiet laughter that fades quickly. Walks over to the futon and sits with a groan. "Yeah. I had no idea how fucking hard parenting is. She can't even talk yet, and she wins more arguments than she loses. I'm in over my head, here."
Are you surprised? Arvind wants to ask, but he won't. Tamping down a wave of melancholy, he bounces the baby a little. She makes another happy sound and the drool multiplies exponentially. “What about your parents. Are they . . . helping at all?”
“Judy—Ma babysits a lot, and helps out with money, when she can. Evan . . . he hasn't spoken to me since last May.”
Last May? Arvind's brow furrows. “Since—”
“—you broke up with me, yeah. I showed up with Amy, and told him you and I were splits. That she was pregnant . . . Jesus, I never saw the old man get so angry. He hauled off and popped me right in the mouth, then walked out. Hasn't been back since. I think he hoped that the . . . you know. Would die with me.”
"Hmm." Arvind glances down at the baby, who's watching him raptly. Her eyes are round and curious. Intelligent. Very alert. But she laughs just like any baby when Arvind makes a silly face.
“You're so good with her,” Jimmy says wonderingly. “Usually, the only person she likes is Ma, and even that took time, but you . . . she just kinda fell in love at first sight, with you. At least she's got good taste.”
“Better than yours, at any rate.”
Jimmy recoils a bit, and has the grace to look . . . not exactly guilty, but deflated and lost. “You know I'm sorry. I sure said it enough times. I dunno what I was thinking.”
“Were you thinking at all?” Arvind asks, not for the first time. He's never gotten a straight answer. “Look, there's nothing wrong with being bi-curious—and I told you I was cool with you exploring as long as you were honest and careful about it. But not only weren't you honest or careful, you had unprotected sex with a woman who called herself the Apocalypse's vessel! Was there even thought behind the decision, or was it just want-take-have, the fuck with everybody else on the planet?”
He brushes his finger down the baby's tiny fist, and she grabs it snake-fast, making a triumphant ga! noise.
“Maybe I wasn't thinking. But you wanna know how I feel since I was with her? Relieved. Empty," Jimmy says, and it's plain that he doesn't mean this in a negative way. "I don't have to fight forces that've been pushing and pulling me since I was nine anymore. The past sixteen months have been like how it feels after a fever breaks. All the heat, the burning in my blood--gone, like it never was. I don't hear voices telling me to do awful shit anymore, to hurt people for no reason. It's like, I remember how it feels to be him, but not how to be him.
“I'm just . . . a regular person, now. And all I remember thinking before I slept with her was . . . there'll be peace at the end of this. That was all I wanted. Peace.”
Frowning, Arvind looks down at the baby. She grabs his nose and yanks it before reaching for his hair. There's been silver in it since he was seventeen—something he's always blamed on Jimmy. "Can you still . . . do you still have the twinkle?"
Jimmy sighs, but it's not an unhappy sigh. Strange. "I'm pretty sure I don't. I mean, I used to make stuff happen by wanting it hard enough, but I haven't made jack or shit happen since . . . you know. Although the only thing I still want that badly isn't something I can get just by wanting."
Arvind shakes his head and hands the baby to her father and goes into the kitchenette to wash his hands. Haley immediately starts to fuss, but settles when Jimmy bounces her a little, the way Arvind had. Mollified, she busies herself with trying to put her fingers in his mouth and he mock-bites them till she laughs. Arvind has to remind himself that they're both just complications he doesn't need—not with his Masters in sight, with his life on the right track. “I know what you want, Jimmy, but I don't think I can give it to you.”
"We could be a family: you, me, and Haley makes three. Fairy-tale happy ending."
Haley . . . a pretty name for a pretty baby, Arvind thinks, drying his hands and steeling himself against the things his heart wants. He drifts reluctantly back into the living room. "Hardly. This isn't a fairy-tale, and none of us are happy."
“I think we could be.”
Arvind has to look away from two sets of eyes, one crimson, the other violet. “Yeah? Well, that's an interesting theory.”
“Maybe we should test it,” Jimmy says softly. Then: “Look, I stayed away for as long as I did because you asked me to, but I can't stay away anymore. I need you, I want you, I love you. I want us to be a family.”
“I know how it works, if I say yes,” Arvind leans against his formerly cluttered desk, arms wrapped around himself. “Your mom—before we moved up here, she told me how your family is. One child to every generation. That child inherits the . . . she called it the Will. It lays dormant till just before puberty, and gets stronger as the child ages, until they pass it on to the next generation, or. . . .”
“Or do what we keep getting put here to do,” Jimmy says lowly, and the baby looks up at him, wide-eyed. He kisses her forehead, his eyes squinched shut. “Sometimes, Judy . . . Ma tells me stories about how she was before Evan knocked her up. I was a weak-sister, compared to the nearly literal Hell she used to raise once she grew into the Will.” Jimmy sighs again and opens his eyes. By the light of the dying bulb, they look dark brown. “I don't know if she was the way she was because Dedek Gaspar raised her so strict, or if I was the way I was because she wasn't strict at all. But for every generation, there's been someone—a lover, a friend, a teacher, someone who helped us keep ourselves in check. Mostly. Judy had Aunt Sandy, Evan's sister. Dedek had Sister Margita, this nun that practically raised him back in Hungary—“
“I don't want to end up like your father!” Arvind blurts out. “I don't want to wind up hating my life and everyone in it. And it would be criminal to saddle a child—or any loved one with that sort of bitterness and regret. You know that better than anyone.”
“Squeeze—” Jimmy's smile slips. He knows better than Arvind how unfair raising a child in that sort of atmosphere would be. “Arvind, you don't really think—you couldn't be like Evan if you tried. He was born sour, and life didn't make him any sweeter. Even before I grew into the Will, he was a miserable bastard. He was never happy. . . .” Jimmy trails off with an uncomfortable shrug. “I was just the horrible icing on a fucked-up cake.”
Arvind crosses his arms and bites his lip. Evan Fullmer was, at his best, withdrawn; at his worst he was cold and passively hostile to both his wife and son. He'd had no idea what Judith Novak was when he married her, no idea what their child could potentially be. It was obvious he'd never recovered from the shock.
But Arvind has a pretty good idea what being Jimmy's partner and his daughter's other-dad would entail. It wouldn't be easy. Even before she grew into her Will. And after. . . .
“How would we raise a child with that kind of power? How do we love her?”
“Are you kidding me?” Jimmy asks, laughing and bouncing Haley again till she makes a disagreeable noise. “You loved me—were never afraid of me, never let me bully you, or anyone else, for the most part. You never let my Prince of Darkness shtick fly, always treated me like any other brat. You called me on all the mean, stupid shit I used to do because I thought it was funny or just because I could—you were my conscience, Squeeze. Everything I know about being a decent person I learned from you.”
Arvind rolls his eyes, but can't completely repress his smile this time. “Yeah, and look how well that turned out.” Haley starts fussing again, reaching her arms out toward Arvind. He drifts over to the futon and sits, neither obviously close nor obviously far from Jimmy. He takes Haley and lets her tug on his hair. She really puts her arm into it, and laughs like she just invented funny. She's Jimmy's daughter, alright.
“You know, since I was fourteen, I knew that if I spent my life with anyone, it'd be with you. I wanted that even more than I wanted MIT. Then I got you both. Lost one of you, and almost lost the other. . . .” Another minute or two of tugging, and Haley heaves a bored sigh. She lets go of Arvind's hair, lays her head on his shoulder, and promptly goes to sleep, leaving him to stare at her while Jimmy stares at him. ”Now, here you are again, tempting me with everything I ever wanted. And more.”
“Just call me The Artist Formerly Known As The Prince of High Places,” Jimmy quips, reaching out to run his fingers through Arvind's sleep-and-baby mussed hair. Cups his cheek like it's old times. Arvind closes his eyes, the better to concentrate on the touch. But it isn't the kiss that surprises him—that he expects. What surprises him is the hungry intensity of it, as if Jimmy expects him to turn away. It reminds him poignantly of their first kiss.
“Squeeze, I miss you so much.”
“I've missed you, too.” He's missed the way Jimmy gasps into and out of each kiss, the way he tangles his fingers in Arvind's hair and uses it like reins to tilt his head every which way—which would be where the baby gets it from, of course. The baby that they'll shortly be smothering.
“Wait, stop,” Arvind barely manages to say. Jimmy kisses like he's going for the gold in make-out free-style. He doesn't seem to notice Arvind's (sort of) not on the same page anymore. “Wait, 'Corrigible.”
“Been waiting over a year.” It's a distracted whine accompanied by more kisses, not to mention Jimmy's hand wandering to interesting places, indeed.
“Good, then you can wait a little longer. I need to lay down some ground rules before we go sealing any deals. And rule one?” Arvind gently, but firmly removes Jimmy's hand. Jimmy's still making his—ridiculous—kiss-face and Arvind snorts. “Rule one, is no sex while either of us is holding our daughter.”
That makes Jimmy sit back like he's been shot, looking chagrined. Thankfully, Haley seems to have weathered the kiss without waking. Hell, she's making tiny baby snores. “Right. Right, that's actually a good rule.”
“Glad you agree. Rule two: we don't go into this blind, we go loaded for bear. We buy relationship books, parenting books, take classes, pump your mom and your grandfather for everything they know about the Will, so we can be ready when she comes into hers.” Arvind frowns, looking around him. “We're going to have to find a bigger place, too. And daycare. After I get my Masters we're going to have to decide where we want to settle down to raise her. We should do research on places with decent job markets and decent school districts. And relatively low crime rates. Also—what?”
Jimmy's uncertain smile has stretched into an amused, full-on toothy grin.
“What?” Arvind asks defensively. Jimmy always used to tease him about planning too far ahead, but results don't lie. A solid strategy might someday turn out to be the lone bulwark between life-as-they-know-it and the Apocalypse. So, damned right Arvind's going to think, rethink, and overthink this till he's got as many solid strategies as he thinks they're going to need. And a few more, just for shits and giggles.
“Nothing, just . . . you're unbelievably fucking hot when you take charge.” Jimmy leans over and kisses him briefly, tenderly. Then he carefully takes Haley and stands up. He carries her to her car-seat, and buckles her in before placing the car-seat on the kitchenette counter, tucking a small, plushie gecko between her arm and the cushion.
She looks like an unconscious, drooling, snoring cherub, and if Arvind doesn't already love her, that gooey, achy feeling somewhere near his heart heralds his impending doom.
"She's had a long day. She'll be out for hours," Jimmy says, but drapes a pink and yellow blankie over the car-seat, just in case.
The enormity of what Arvind's signing up for overwhelms him for moment, makes him want to grab his wallet and his passport and run far, far away. Then Jimmy's arms are around him, his tired, familiar face close enough for kisses. Kisses that he has missed—would miss for the rest of his life if they were gone. He wonders, now, how he went so long without them.
“I ever tell you how much I love you, Squeezable?”
Arvind laughs a little, and some of the worry recedes. It fades to the back of his mind where it'll do more good for the time being. Half of good planning is giving the unconscious mind a little time to work over the problem before worrying it to death with the conscious mind. “I could always stand to hear it some more.”
“I. Love. You,” Jimmy says—punctuates it with kisses and holds Arvind's gaze with his own. He's never been shy about anything, and that includes declarations of a romantic nature. “I love that you always plan ahead and tackle even the unexpected shit head-on, and without fear. But since we've got at least another nine years before she comes into the Will . . . for tonight, can we just have crazy make-up sex like we haven't touched each other in sixteen months? Please?”
Jimmy's already remapping the territory of mouth and throat, with lips and teeth and tongue; his hands are already revisiting Arvind's hair as well as places southward. They navigate bathrobe and boxers like no time has passed.
Arvind's response . . . is an enthusiastic affirmative.
Pale yellow sunlight peers in through closed venetian blinds, but doesn't wake two of the three occupants of the apartment. They sleep on: the blond one sprawled naked and snoring, twitching every once in a while, as if he's chasing dream-geckos. One arm and leg are flung possessively over the darker one, who’s cocooned in sheets and a discarded bathrobe. He's called into work sick for the first time in his three years working at the Java Cave, and is sleeping in for the first time in at least twice as long.
The third occupant . . . is already awake, wet-cheeked and whimpering. Suspended halfway between her reaching hands and the floor, a plushie toy rotates before slowly succumbing to gravity.
She cries out once, brief and imperative. The plushie stops just before it touches the pink and yellow blankie on the floor . . . then begins another laborious fight against the force of gravity.
Finally, after long minutes, it drifts into Haley's tiny hands and she hugs it close with a watery, mollified sniffle.
Content, she falls back to sleep before her tears are dry.