When Francis Bertrands mother got married again, this time to a certain Henry Kilby, the previously only child found himself at the tail end of five brothers: the obnoxious, dirty and loud Kilby boys, all of whom possessed various shades of red hair and blue/green eyes, so the blond couldn't even stand next to any of them without clashing. He immediately disliked every last one of them.
Henry rubbed him up the wrong way – he was kind to his mother, dressed nicely, had a good job, but… he annoyed Francis. Everything he did felt like nails on a blackboard. Each of his sons was annoying in his own way: Angus, the eldest, was a bully; Patrick, the second son, was a lanky streak of piss with a smirk like a Halloween pumpkin; Owen was the third son, simple and brutish, who exuded less intelligence than a rugby ball; and finally there was Arthur, the youngest of the Kilby boys and the only one younger than Francis, a scruffy urchin who seemed drawn like a magnet to anything that would get him into trouble.
However, Francis bit his tongue – he wanted his mother to be happy. She had been married so many times, he didn't want to be the reason her marriage to this idiot didn't work. Yeah, he was a mamas boy: she was a beautiful woman who deserved happiness – the fact that he was near identical to her was neither here nor there. So he didn't grumble when they moved out of their elegant, roomy flat into the Kilbys stuffy, claustrophobic house, or complain when he had to share a room with the ten-year old Arthur, or moan that he had to share a bathroom with four disgusting, dirty boys, despite the fact it had become his new version of hell.
His friends heard all about it, but the fact that they were all bastards meant that they relished his misery. Francis continued to complain after school one day as Gilbert and Lizzie argued over Team Fortress, Antonio napping on Gilbert's bed.
"Quit your bitching already!" Gilbert demanded, kicking him as best he could without taking his eyes off the screen “There's no way it's as bad as you're saying.”
"It most definitely is!" Francis spat "Having brothers is awful! I thought I'd be okay sharing a room, but that boy's scruffy and dirty and can't speak to me without swearing!"
"He's ten right?" Lizzie asked.
"Yeah." Francis confirmed "So?"
"So, they're pretty much a product of their environment at that age." She pointed out as she owned Gilbert for the third time that afternoon "If you want him to be nicer, try being a better brother to him first."
"A product of their environment?" Francis repeated thoughtfully.
"Yeah," Lizzie elaborated "If Arthur swears a lot it's because he's heard his brothers do it."
"Yes that's true." Francis confirmed immediately "You have a pretty good relationship with your brother, don't you?"
"Siblings from single-parent families are closer." She confessed, taking a moment during the loading screen to tie back her long brown hair "Although Herc and I might be close because we used to get into trouble together back in primary school."
"The Kilbys are adept at getting into trouble." Francis knew, Angus and Patrick being bought home by the police at 3 o'clock that very morning "But Arthur is six years younger than Owen, so they never even went to the same school."
"If what you're constantly bitching about is true, those boys are pretty sucky brothers." Lizzie said, smirking slightly when he pulled a face "Try being nicer to Arthur, like I said. He might come around."
"Couldn't hurt." A sleepy Antonio agreed from the bed "Being nice doesn't cost anything. Unlike our famous white chocolate churros, five ninety-nine for twelve." He started to rant softly as he drifted back to sleep "Today’s special is seafood paella, please enjoy your meal."
"His parents really need to give him some time off the restaurant." Lizzie muttered as Gilbert started to laugh.
Ten-year-old Arthur washed his feet in the creek – his shoes were full of holes, so his feet were always sore and dirty. No one really cared before, but since his dad had gotten married, he had gotten another brother to bully him, only this one obsessed with being clean, so now he couldn't do anything right. He liked the idea of having a mother, and tried to talk to her a few times, but every time he did he was soundly told off by his father or at least one of his brothers.
Even his last bastion of solitude, his very own bedroom, which had previously been the only place in the whole world he could escape to, had been taken over by that girly boy, who had thrown out most of his things, moved everything else so he couldn't find it, and turned the whole place into what was practically a girls room. He couldn't loiter anywhere else in the house without getting picked on by his brothers. Even when it got dark and he got hungry, he didn't want to go home. Being cold and hungry was better.
A shadow caught Arthur's attention, causing him to look up. Another fucking teenager. What did he want? Was he going to beat him up too? And who wears a scarf in this weather?
"What do you want?" Arthur spat at him.
The boy continued to stare at him a moment, big violet eyes trained on his feet.
"Your feet look sore." He said softy.
His voice was high – maybe he wasn't a teenager. Maybe he was just very tall.
"My shoes are full of holes." He pointed out.
The boy just stared at him a moment more, and it was kind of irritating. Finally, without a word, he sat down on the riverbank next to Arthur.
"Mine are too." He admitted "My big sister sews my socks together so my feet don't hurt."
"That's nice." Arthur mumbled.
The boy smiled at him.
"Maybe if you ask your mother nicely, she'll sew them for you." He suggested.
"My mother died." Arthur admitted "And I doubt Jeanne's ever touched a sock."
The boy stopped smiling, looking sad, but never took his eyes off Arthur.
"My mother died too." He confessed.
Arthur didn't answer. Maybe if he stopped talking, this kid would go away, so he went back to massaging his feet in the cool water of the creek. The two sat in silence for a while as the sunset turned the sky a rich orange, the other boy staring at the changing colours. The air was starting to cool – it would be pretty cold within an hour. Arthur didn't really like being cold. After what seemed like forever, the boy spoke again.
"My name is Ivan." He introduced.
"I'm Arthur." Was his response.
"I like that name." Ivan said right away.
Maybe he wasn't so bad: he wasn't trying to beat him up or calling him names. It was getting pretty late though.
"Sun is setting." Arthur pointed out "When's your curfew?"
Ivan looked sad, still staring at the sky. He made no attempt to move.
"I don't want to go home." He said finally.
Huh… Arthur had never met anyone who shared his sentiments before. Did he have people who picked on him as well? Despite this, he thought the boy should go home – there were scary people about at this time of night, and Ivan didn't look like he could handle himself in a fight. Truth be told, Arthur wasn't in any position to be telling the boy what to do.
"Me neither." He admitted, finally pulling his socks back on.
Ivan finally looked at him, a look of surprise on his face. He looked awkward a moment, looking away and back to him, opening and closing his mouth a little.
"Y… your black eye…" he mumbled.
"My brothers are arseholes." Arthur spat.
"You brothers hit you?" Ivan clarified "Why?"
"Because they could."
Ivan didn't ask any more questions, but nodded understandingly, wringing his hands in his lap. After he had tied his shoes, Arthur stood, catching Ivans attention.
"The police walk along the riverbank to catch teenagers drinking." He informed Ivan "If you stay here they'll drag you home. Wanna come with me? I'm perfectly fine on my own, but you seem like the jumpy type."
Ivan nodded, standing: he almost choked himself when he trapped his scarf under his hand as he got up. Arthur couldn't help but laugh a little, causing Ivan to go very red and look at the ground, lower lip quivering slightly. Feeling a little sorry, Arthur reached up and helped him loosen the tight fabric.
"No harm done." Arthur pointed out, patting him on the shoulder (or as close to the shoulder as little Arthur could reach) "Come on, let's go."
The university town of Sandford wasn't an overly big place – you could relate everyone in town by less than four degrees (including many of the students), so Arthur was pretty surprised this was his first time seeing Ivan, especially with him being so tall. His family had just moved here, he explained, when his father got a new job. The two of them avoided the main road, instead loitering in the back streets. Arthur wasn't much of a talker – what was the point when no one ever listened to you? – and Ivan seemed perfectly happy with silence himself. It was pretty late before they ran into trouble.
"Arthur!" an irate voice screeched in the night.
"Fuck!" Arthur hissed, ducking behind Ivan.
Francis had appeared at the end of the road, school bag still slung over his shoulder.
"It's nearly 10.30!" Francis yelled at him "What are you doing out?!"
"Whatever I want!" was his reply.
Francis scowled at him. Ivan looked between the two.
"Who is?" he asked, pointing at Francis.
"One of my brothers." Arthur spat "The prissy one."
"The one who hit you?"
"No – this one tries to drown me in the bath."
"I'm taking you home, young man!" Francis announced, starting to huff towards them.
"Don't act so high and mighty, you dick!" Arthur yelled back at him "You're only 14 yourself, pillock!"
Francis started sprinting towards them, causing Arthur to bolt in the other direction. Ivan was surprised a moment, rooted in place, before snapping back to life and running after him. Running didn't seem to be Ivans strong point, and Francis soon caught up to him, ignoring him completely and heading right for Arthur. Those extra four years and 9 inches gave Francis the advantage he needed to catch his brother, pulling him to the ground as he tried to scale a chain link fence. The two scrapped, Arthur punching Francis on the chin and kicking him as hard as he could, but the larger boy kept him pinned with his superior weight.
Ivan finally caught up, causing Francis to yelp when he grabbed the back of his shirt and hauled him off Arthur like he was as light as air.
The three stopped – a young woman who looked much like Ivan stood on the other side of the road, little girl in her arms. She looked at Ivan disapprovingly, and under the pressure of her gaze, he dropped Francis. She walked over to them, grabbing Francis' shirt herself and hauling him to his feet.
"What do you think you're doing?" she accused.
"Oh, this isn't what it looks like!" he insisted immediately, waving his hands in protest "This kid is my brother! He ran off, so I'm taking him home! That's all!"
The young woman didn't look entirely convinced, looking between Arthur and Francis as if comparing their faces, but since neither boy protested otherwise, she let go of his shirt.
"You should be nicer your brother." She instructed "He's smaller than you. Children look up to their elders."
"Yes. Of course. I'm sorry."
The woman sighed, clearly exhausted.
"It's time to go home, Ivan." She said "Say goodbye to your friend – you'll see him tomorrow at school."
Ivans shoulders slumped, but he nodded anyway.
"See you tomorrow, Arthur." He mumbled, taking the little girl from the young woman.
Arthur was pretty small for his age, and skinny to boot, but he was a real scrapper, so Francis had to fight to get him home. If he picked Arthur up, he was certain to kick him, so he had to drag him along forcefully, which was completely exhausting. He groaned as he remembered he still needed to wash his hair when he got home – at least he had done his homework at Gilbert’s. The second he opened the door to the Kilby household, his mother appeared.
"Where have you been, Francis?" she berated "It's past your curfew! It's not like you to be disobedient: you promised to come straight home! Mummy was worried about you!"
"I'm sorry." He said immediately, still struggling with Arthur "I saw this one wondering around and went to bring him home with me, but he ran away."
His mother pulled a face, but it was hard to read. With a sad smile, she brushed the silky blond hair from her sons face.
"You're a good boy." She said "Please try not to be late again, okay?"
She looked at Arthur like she wanted to say something, but held her tongue. He knew what she wanted to say – if Francis had come home at 11.15 when he was ten years old, his backside would still be stinging – but she and Henry had an agreement: she didn't criticize his boys, and he didn't criticize Francis. While Francis didn't want Henry bitching at him all the time, he could tell how much his mother wanted to be a good parent to the formerly motherless Arthur. Getting pissed off, he dragged Arthur to the entrance of the living room, where Henry sat reading the paper.
"Don't you even care?" he practically yelled at him.
"What time your curfew is is between you and your mother." was his ineffectual reply.
"I wasn't talking about me! I was talking about Arthur!"
"He's in his room, isn't he?" Henry supposed, completely blasé.
Arthur stopped struggling. Francis looked at him, surprised, and his heart immediately broke – the lad was fighting tears, his big green eyes angry and red. He hadn't even noticed. His ten-year old hadn't come home and he hadn't even noticed. Not when he came home, not when they had dinner, not when his bath and bedtime came and went…Francis wanted to punch that bastard. Without another word, he picked the boy up, carrying him to their room. His friends were right – he was definitely going to be a better brother.
"I'm not crying!" Arthur sobbed, even as he clutched Francis' shirt.
Everything was silent. Nothing made a sound, save for the man choking as he slept on the couch, empty vodka bottles littering the floor. Quiet as a mouse, Katherine got out the first aid kit, placing it on the kitchen table and sitting in front of her brother. He wasn't bleeding so badly today, but would definitely bruise all over by morning. With a heavy heart, she cleaned him up as best she could, hoping her baby sister would stay asleep.
"I told you to run away when he gets like that." She reminded him, barely above a whisper.
"I'm not good at running." He whispered back, flinching as she touched a bruise "And I didn't want him to hit Natalie."
"He won't hit her." Katherine knew "She looks like our mother."
Ivan didn't say anything else. They both held their breath as the body in the next room stirred, relaxing only when they heard him start to snore again. Starting to shake from cold and fear, Ivan put his arms around his sister, holding her tightly. She put down the bloody cotton, holding him the way their mother used to hold her, stroking his mousey hair gently.
Arthur stared at the mess that was Ivans face. Ivan didn't look him in the eye, standing in front of him awkwardly. Arthur wanted to ask what had happened – had his sister done that? She seemed pretty mad yesterday. But at the same time, he also didn't – he knew that when his brothers beat him up, he didn't want to talk about it. Also, Ivan might get upset, and if he cried on the first day he was definitely going to get beaten up again.
"Come on, I'll show you around." He offered, gesturing for Ivan to follow him "The school's not very big, so I doubt you'll get lost."
Ivan nodded, following him without a word.
The only thing Arthur hated more than Games was playtime – not because he was a great brain or anything, but because the teachers wouldn't let him stay inside or do what he wanted. They were obsessed with him going outside and playing with the other boys – he got quite enough of 'playing with other boys' at home, thank you very much! Playing with the girls was out of the question, of course, as they cried easily and he didn't understand their games.
Ivan seemed determined to stick by his side, so the teacher told Arthur off extra for not introducing him to people. The problem with that was that the other boys knew Arthur had a temper, and liked to poke him until he snapped and punched someone so he'd get in trouble. That's why he avoided them: he didn't want to get into trouble. However, he wasn't the attraction today.
"Why are you wearing a scarf?" that idiot Yan-Tao taunted, giving it a sharp pull to illustrate his point "It's May, you know, not December!"
"Please don't pull it." Ivan asked quietly.
"Why, did your mummy make it for you?" he continued to tease, yanking it a few times.
"Yes." He answered.
Yan-Tao laughed derisively.
"It's too long." He pointed out "You're dragging it on the ground."
Alarmed, Ivan looked all about his feet. Yan-Tao was quick, tripping him up and sending the towering Ivan careening to the ground, landing painfully on his rump.
"Oopsy daisy." He snickered as everyone around him laughed "It's ruined now. Guess you'll have to ask your mother to make you a new one, fatty."
Tears welled in Ivans eyes, his scarf torn and stained in his hands. Arthur didn't notice the look on his face alter, gritting his teeth as he clenched the ruined wool in his hands, eyes growing cold and furious. He was too busy punching Yan-Tao in the face.
Arthur got detention for fighting. He was punished a lot, so it was nothing new to him. The school wasn't big enough to have a room dedicated to detention, so it was held in the library. Arthur flicked through a book absently, head on one arm, alone but for the librarian. He hadn't been in a rush to go home anyway, but it still annoyed him. Bloody Yan-Tao didn't get in trouble, and he started it! It was probably because he had football practice tonight.
Arthur startled slightly as someone pulled up the chair beside him. Ivan smiled at him as he sat down, taking out his maths book. Somehow he looked naked without his scarf, constantly reaching up as if to adjust it, only to find it wasn't there. After watching him do this a couple of times, Arthur spoke.
"Did you throw it away?" he asked, loud enough for only Ivan to hear.
Ivan shook his head, concentrating on his homework.
"We might be able to fix it." Arthur went on.
That got Ivans attention – he looked at Arthur, curious and confused. Arthur sat straight, holding out the book he had – a knitting instruction manual, no more than kids stuff, but it did have a section about darning woollen blankets if they broke, which was basically the same principal. Ivan read it excitedly, abandoning his maths.
Francis was waiting for him when he finally got out of school. Well fuck, what did he want now? The teenager smiled at him.
"I thought we could go shopping." He offered.
"I hate shopping." Arthur pointed out.
"It's my treat."
"That doesn't improve it."
"What, I can't spoil my little brother?"
Arthur was immediately suspicious, staying out of arms reach: his brothers were only nice to him when they wanted something. What did Francis want? Knowing how brothers work, he probably wanted him to clean their room or be his slave or something.
"What are you after?" Arthur asked bluntly.
"What do you mean?" Francis replied innocently.
"Last time Angus was nice to me, I got stuck up a chimney." He explained "The last time Patrick 'treated' me, I ended up in hospital with food poisoning. So I'll ask you again: what are you after?"
"You're awfully cynical for being so young." Francis snorted.
"You're asking me to do something I hate with a person I don't like for reasons that are unclear."
Francis stopped smiling a moment, but soon forced it back on.
"I'm just trying to be nice." He swore "You need new shoes, right? I'll buy them for you."
"Since when can you afford that?"
"My grandfather left me some money when he died. I can buy you anything you want!"
"Can you buy me better brothers?"
Francis' smile dropped again. Arthur didn't wait for his answer, marching off down the road. The older boy was soon on his heels.
"So, do you want to come shopping?" he asked.
"Oh, come on, I know you can't afford new shoes with the little pocket money you get."
"I don't get any at all."
Francis stumbled, but soon caught up, annoying Arthur immensely – he swore he was going to be taller than Francis one day, just so he could walk beside him and piss him off with how tall he was.
"Even more reason to let me treat you." he insisted.
"I have plans with Ivan." Arthur pointed out
"Who? Not that tall kid from yesterday?"
"Yeah, so?" Arthur sped up – he was starting to get out of breath from marching, but Francis kept up just fine.
"I don't want you hanging around outside until midnight again, it's not good for you!" Francis ordered "Besides, there are all sorts of weirdos hanging around at that time of night, what if someone tried to kidnap you?"
"Like anyone would notice." He muttered bitterly.
Francis stopped him, grabbing him by the shoulders and spinning him around. He knelt down, looking him in the eye earnestly.
"I would notice." He swore.
Arthur slapped away his hands.
"Like Hell you would!" he knew "You only knew I wasn't home yesterday because you saw me! Would you have bothered to check if you had just gone home? You wouldn't even have turned on the light, just assumed I was sleeping like everyone else!"
"Why would you think that?" Francis asked.
"Because you've done it before." Arthur informed him "Three times since you and your mother moved in, I've not come home all night and no one noticed."
Francis' eyes grew wide with shock, his face paling. He looked at Arthur like he was something pitiful, which pissed him off to no end. He went to leave, but Francis grabbed him again, pulling him into a tight hug.
"Oi!" he shrieked "What are you doing? Get off!"
"I'm sorry, Arthur." Francis said "I'm sorry I didn't notice. I promise, I'll take better care of you from now on."
"And why the hell would you do that?!" Arthur spat at him, wriggling to get free.
"Because I'm your brother now, that's why!"
"Like Hell! Angus, Patrick and Owen have been my brothers for 10 years and they've never given a single fuck about me!"
Francis couldn't argue with that, only holding Arthur tighter.
"I'll take care of you." He promised again "Enough for 4 brothers."
He released him a little, but kept his hands firmly, staring into his eyes.
"You're the youngest." He pointed out "As your big brother, it's my duty to take care of you. I promise, as long as you're the little one in the house, I'll take care of you."
"You're talking crap." Arthur knew.
Francis wanted something. Why couldn't he just come out and say it like a normal person? Arthur wasn't going to be fooled – 'big brother' only meant one thing to him, and it wasn't anything good.
Ivan waited at the riverbank for hours. When Arthur turned up, his nose was bleeding and starting to swell. Ivan wanted to ask what happened, but Arthur had been kind enough not to ask about his own bruises. It was too dark for them to try and fix his scarf, so they talked nonsense for a while. They loitered around the riverbank until Arthur’s brother showed up, apparently looking for him, immediately screeching at him about his nose.
"It wasn't like that last time I saw you!"
Arthur ran away, his brother running after him and dragging him back.
"Fucking hate you!" he swore, struggling furiously.
"Say goodnight to Ivan!" Francis ordered as he fought with him.
Ivan couldn't help but laugh to himself. He was glad he was Arthur’s friend.