Arthur generally found himself out of the loop when it came to gossip. If something made a particularly big splash he was sure to catch a snippet from a talkative classmate, or perhaps get the full story-plus-opinionated-commentary from Alfred. Francis Bonnefoy practically caused a tidal wave. The French student had been the talk of the town since the beginning of term. You see, the odd thing about Francis was: No one could tell if Francis was a boy or a girl.
To Arthur, it didn't matter overly much. They could be either, or neither. Perhaps both. Perhaps something else entirely. It wasnt really of any consequence.
Francis stood out for more reasons than their apparent ambiguity. They had a flowing sort of grace, gentle in their movements but with an air of self-confidence that drew people too them, whether those people understood them or not. It was a quality that Arthur almost envied. Francis was oh so confident, brushing off people's questions with a tap on the side of their nose or a heavily accented laugh.
Their clothes gave nothing away, not that Arthur felt that what one wore pertained to one's gender. That said, Francis's wardrobe seemed dedicated to being the perfect balance of the traditionally masculine and feminine. One day they wore a sharp blazer the colour of a London bus, accented with a white dress shirt and blue tie, matched impeccably with a flowing polka-dot skirt of the a similar bright red, cut off just below the knee. Another day heralded a pastel pink cardigan, baggy white trousers and a hint of stubble across their jaw, long blond locks pulled back with a baby blue ribbon. They were always a beacon of style and class. Arthur allowed himself to envy that particular trait a little.
Francis's penchant for a five o'clock shadow seemed to ruffle a few feathers. All sorts of invasive and unpleasant rumours about their body and what they "really" were cropped up and seemed to multiply daily. Arthur might have pitied Francis, but it all seemed to be water off a duck's back. Francis seemed to care very little about the thoughts of theirs peers, happily ignoring every unkind word sent their way. Arthur wondered privately what that must be like.
That said, Francis had very quickly made two very close friends upon their arrival. For that, Arthur was glad. He would have liked to be the one to give Francis a warm welcome, become close to them if he could, but he doubted he could have summoned the nerve to speak to the stunning French student.
Antonio and Gilbert would not be Arthur's first choice if he'd been asked to name those he thought most open minded in the school, but perhaps he'd been too quick to judge. They welcomed Francis with open arms and lewd jokes which drew loud, wild laughter from the French teen. Arthur had never considered that particular accent attractive, but he may have melted a little the first time he heard Francis laugh for real.
Francis barely spoke to Arthur, really. A few requests to borrow stationary and mumbled post-collision apologies in the hallway didn't quite constitute a conversation. They just didn't run in the same social circles. Francis was higher up than him, amoungst the popular students; rich kids, sportspersons and back-stabbers. Arthur was a nerd, if he was honest with himself. He spent his lunch hours with Alfred, Matthew and occasionally Kiku, whiling away the time chatting about everything from books, video games and movies to shared childhood memories. And, of course, school gossip.
"I think it's pretty awesome, yanno?" Alfred was rambling. His voice always seemed to be just a tad bit too loud. Arthur squirmed nervously, hoping Francis wasn't around to hear them gossiping about them, but unwilling to survey the area to confirm or deny it.
"He- uh, they- are really awesome! They're all, like, mysterious and stuff. Nobody knows ~"
"Quiet down." Arthur grumbled. "There's nothing to know about Francis." he continued, more quietly. Alfred looked a little confused, but seemed to draw his own conclusions. Arthur didn't expect him to fully understand. The younger boy had come a long way since he was five years old (Arthur himself had been six) and asking why Arthur didn't wear skirts like the other little girls did. It had taken a lot of explaining - and the insight which always follows ageing, even for a five year old - and a few years of mutual pigtail-pulling for Alfred to understand that Arthur, but it was worth the effort. He'd always been kind, even when he didn't understand. These days Alfred was incredibly considerate. He bugged Arthur to the point of insanity about binding safely, and he was always, always there to talk his friend down when it was needed. The boy still put his foot in his mouth on occasion, but that was all just part of his ever-curious personality, and Arthur forgave his lifelong friend easily.
Francis was different from Arthur. They shared a little in common; the French student had likely been similarly mislabelled at birth, but there was even less acceptance in the world for people like Francis than there was for people like Arthur. Even so, Arthur resolved never to pity them. They deserved solidarity over sympathy. An ally over a bleeding heart. He himself had never desired charity, only a bit of bloody respect. For a lot of people, it seemed to be too much to ask.
One thing Arthur found himself oddly curious about was which changing rooms Francis used. Their school had never bloody well bothered with gender neutral bathrooms. He didn't share P.E with the French teen, so he had no way of knowing. He learned from Alfred - who blathered about Francis rather a lot, often praising them for their bravery and defiance, all part and parcel with being who they were - that Francis avoided any uncomfortable interactions by using the disabled bathroom instead. Arthur reflected that it would be nice to do the same, mostly because he was only safe in the boy's changing room because he had Alfred - who despite his lack of popularity, he was one of the American Football team's best - to defend him.
For all he complained about Alfred's Francis-centric babbling, Arthur was starting to feel like Francis was taking up the vast majority of his thoughts, too. He wasn't nearly as vocal about it but he often found himself wondering about them, particularly when he shouldn’t be. Usually in ways that probably should have worried him more than they did. Wondering about soft – chapped? – lips and gentle hands through hair. Wondering about everything, from what they looked like in the morning – perfect as always or messy and tousled? – to how they liked their coffee – or tea? – to how they kissed. Of course Arthur was a teenager, so he thought about quite a few other things he probably shouldn’t have, but that was neither here nor there.
Ever the English gentleman, Arthur was very flustered by this, though admittedly he did little to suppress it. His brief interactions with Francis in the following weeks were filled with blushing and stammering on his part, and some frighteningly knowing looks from Francis.
Was he really that transparent? God, he hoped not.
Things were not quite the same after that, at least where Francis was concerned. Arthur remained unable to hold a conversation with the other student without making an arse of himself, but Francis seemed different. They'd often fix Arthur with a positively lecherous look, making the Englishman melt into a blushing mess in the middle of a conversation, and they went out of their way to spend time with him, often joining himself, Alfred and Matthew during lunch.
Arthur was unsure if this was a blessing or a curse.
After a week or two Antonio and Gilbert invited themselves along to Arthur's table during lunch as well. They were loud and uncouth and laughed raucously at each other's vulgarity, but they seemed friendly enough, particularly with Alfred, who joined right in on the exchanging of risqué jokes. They acted a little odd around Arthur, however. He wondered fleetingly if it was because they'd known him before he transitioned socially, but quickly dismissed it. They weren't unkind to him, on the contrary Antonio would often cast him an imploring look, or sometimes one of pity when he thought Arthur wasn't looking. The habit was irritating - Arthur hated to be pitied - but it came from a place of caring. Similarly odd was Gilbert's tendency to slap him on the back and offer rather stunted encouragement and vague advice at unexpected times, following it up with an awkward grin and another slightly painful slap between the shoulder blades. Well intentioned though these actions where, Arthur couldn't help but get the impression that a proverbial storm was headed his way. He wondered what they could possibly be trying to warn him about.
Arthur was quickly coming to realise that flirting really wasn't his forte. Francis never quite said anything (vulgar) , but they tiptoed very carefully around it, all smiles and ridiculous (adorable) theatrical winks. It was incredibly distracting. The French student was a disarming mixture of suave enough to make any man swoon and dorky enough to enamour anyone with their silliness. Arthur had no hope of keeping up, instead being engulfed by a warm fluffy feeling in his chest when Francis called him cute or handsome. He was rapidly approaching the point which Alfred had (irritatingly) dubbed "take me, I'm yours".
His infatuation with Francis was indeed only getting worse. And the student seemed only too happy to continue torturing him. It aggravated Arthur a little, and gradually his retorts became sharper, though he'd soften them with a smile or a cheesy line where he could. It always seemed to throw Francis off their game, which in turn made Arthur smile. He admired Francis's confidence, but they looked good when they blushed.
It was obvious to Francis that Arthur Kirkland had no romantic interest in them.
The Englishman was respectful and adhered both easily and strictly to Francis's pronouns, but it was clear he wanted little more than to solve the so-called mystery that was Francis Bonnefoy.
They hated people like Arthur Kirkland.
People like Arthur Kirkland made you feel special. Told you that you were one of a kind. They acted coyly and then swept you off of your feet when you least expected it. They laid with you in the dark, holding you close and striping you bare and making you vulnerable. They made you bare your soul to them in the cool dusky air of the night, only to murmur sweetly in your ear, voice dripping honeyed venom, "Oh, so you are a boy."
And it was frustrating, because Kirkland was charming. Polite but with enough spirit in him to draw a startled laugh out of Francis on occasion; well dressed and yet not in his oversized jumpers and off-white dress shirts. He did make Francis feel special, like they were one of a kind. He was engaging to speak with; even more fun to tease. He was witty and kind, somehow callous in his politeness, and knew instinctively just how to dodge all of Francis’s defences. They could almost trick themselves into thinking he cared.
But people like Arthur Kirkland broke people like Francis Bonnefoy.
Gilbert and Antonio had been true life savers. Francis always presented themselves coolly and confidently, but the prospect of being a lone wolf amongst a new pack was always daunting. They'd instantly formed a bond with the two boisterous boys. It had begun with a few bad pick-up lines and grown into causing trouble together and staying up to ridiculous hours texting each other about everything from siblings to crushes to movie nights. In a matter of weeks Francis had poured their heart out to those two idiots. Antonio and Gilbert knew their hopes and dreams, and they had been trusted with equally precious (and a few rather scandalous) secrets in return.
When Francis voiced their concerns on Monsieur Kirkland they received a rather unexpected answer.
"Artie wouldn't do that." Gilbert said, brows creased in a conflicted frown. He was avoiding eye contact, Francis noted suspiciously.
"It's clear he has no real interest in me." Francis said back, doing their best not to betray the sluggish confusion washing over them. They couldn't figure out what the Brit had done to warrant Gilbert's protectiveness. Gil was fiercely loyal, despite his admittedly immature tendencies. Why to Kirkland, of all people?
"Don't say that~" Antonio soothed, much more laid back than Gilbert, who suddenly seemed a little sullen. "I'm sure he likes you. It's not like you to be so self-conscious, amigo."
"I'm not being self-conscious." Francis snapped, annoyed.
Antonio was watching them steadily now, concern worming its way into those warm brown eyes. Francis was very quickly coming to dislike where their conversation was heading.
Antonio blinked, a frown lingering on his face - and didn't that make Francis feel like a prize asshole - but he knew when to push and when to leave well enough alone.
They'd just have to take this issue back to its source: Arthur Kirkland himself.
"Ah bonjour, mon ami."
"Francis." The French student had finally cornered the Brit by his locker. It was surprisingly difficult to catch Kirkland alone considering he only had three friends. Alfred - the loud, naïve American who Francis could admit fit quite well within their own group - was always stuck to his side like some sort of bodyguard. And when it wasn't him it was Matthew. Quiet, polite and unassuming though he was, beneath his baggy sweaters the boy was built like a brick house and likely had the brawn to demolish one too.
Francis found Arthur later, lingering by his locker just after the bell. The other students began to filter out at the sound, drifting to their respective classes while Arthur fiddled about with his locker, probably re-organising his books like the best-deal he was.
Francis fixed the boy with a smile, dazzling, hollow. Unfortunately it didn't fool Arthur for a minute.
"Are you alright, Francis? You seem..."
"I've 'eard there is something you want to know about me." Francis said, almost growled. The sound of their own voice jarred them uncomfortably. Arthur was starting at them, looking almost scared. Good.
"Know?" Kirkland asked warily. Oh, Francis was on to him now and he must have known it too. "I've no idea what--" he began defensively, but cut himself off, straightening his mousey coloured cardigan and standing up tall.
"You want to know whether I am a boy or a girl, don't you?" Their voice was cold, little more than a vitriolic hiss. They were nose to nose with him, and Francis savoured the shock that passed over the boy's face. Kirkland froze in his boots, like a deer caught in headlights.
"I.... what? Francis..."
"Ask." Francis hissed, pushing Arthur back against the lockers. "Ask me."
For a few moments Arthur looked absolutely horrified. And then, abruptly, he was furious.
"No!" Arthur barked, shoving Francis back by stage shoulder. "Christ, is that really what you thought this was about?! Seriously?!"
Francis stared at him.
"God that's so--- I fucking don't- what did I do Francis?! What the fuck did I do to deserve this? I did bloody everything a decent fucking person would do- I did what friends do Francis -- best friends, i've known you a bloody week and you're already--! And here you are throwing it in my bloody face!"
Francis couldn't figure out what to say, couldn't speak around the lump in their throat. There was a horrible gut wrenching feeling of you were wrong, you ruined it, ruined him warring with their rampant disbelief that, no, he couldn't possibly be saying what Francis thought he was saying.
"Is it that fucking mind blowing to you that I care about you?!" And it suddenly becomes obvious to Arthur that yes, yes it was. "Oh, Francis, you bloody idiot." He mumbled, reaching out to them slowly, giving them time to refuse before he put his arms around them. Francis held on for dear life, feeling stupid and happy and oh so happy to be in someone's arms, how long had it been? Arthur held them tight for a few minutes, rocking slowly from side to side, until he pulled back to meet Francis's eyes, looking gently amused.
"Did you- did you think I was cis this whole time?" Arthur asked. Francis snorted, embarrassed. "I'm not sure wether to be pleased that I’m passkng or highly offended." He said, but he was laughing warmly.
"It's your short temper that really sells it. Very cisgender man."
"I'm not short tempered!" Arthur grumbled, or tried to, eyebrows drawn into a ridiculous scowl. He couldn't quite keep the laughter from his voice.
"You'll get frown lines." Francis mumbled, poking him in the forehead. Before they could think too hard about it, they pressed a kiss to Arthur's forehead, right between those ridiculous eyebrows.
"Can't have that." Arthur mumbles, looking suitably stunned. For all his needling Arthur was doing wonders for Francis's ego.
"You alright dude?" Alfred asked, laying a hand on Arthur's shoulder. He'd been shooting Arthur concerned looks across the classroom since he walked in. Arthur hadn't thought it was so obvious he'd just gotten off of an emotional rollercoaster, but evidently he was wrong. As soon as the bell went Alfred was on him, poking his nose where it didn't belong as per usual.
"Yes, yes, Alfred." Arthur grumbled, flapping a hand in his friend's face. Alfred didn’t look convinced, but he dropped the subject and followed Arthur to the cafeteria in uncharacteristic silence.
Matthew greeted them at the table, his amiable smile disappearing in favour of a frown as they drew closer. Arthur wished he'd had the foresight to clean himself up after his episode with Francis. He didn't regret it, but he also didn't want every tom, dick and harry trying to get a piece of him.
"You alright, Arthur?" Matthew murmured softly as the boy sat down beside him. He was always so softly spoken, gentle and kind despite his strength. The Canadian rested a hand on his back, face open. Irritating thought it was, Arthur found himself a little touched at the show of support from both Matt and Alfred.
"Never better." Arthur said warmly.
Matt looked at him a little oddly, seemed satisfied, smiling at him before refocusing on his lunch. Arthur felt pretty satisfied too. He was loosely aware he looked dopey and was probably smiling like a lunatic but he couldn't bring himself to care.
Francis waltzed in a while later. They were serene as always; gliding in alongside Antonio and Gilbert, laughing melodiously. Arthur stared, because honestly he'd never been able to help himself when it came to Francis. There was no point in hiding it now.
Francis smirked languidly when their eyes met. Arthur felt a little embarrassed, but he pushed it aside in favour of leering, which made Francis laugh again. The French student slipped past their friends, smiling blindingly as they hauled their long skirt up and all but ran up to the table. Arthur could feel his heart against his ribs, giddy lightness filling his head.
Francis threw themselves down next to Arthur. He'd never seen them quite so excited over anything other than those horrid old French movies and the free bread the cafeteria gave out at the end of lunch break so they didn't have to throw it out, and he was quietly thrilled to be the cause of it.