Merton brought the flame to the tapered red candle set in the ornate metal candelabra by his bookcase. The nascent flame flickered uncertainly as the door to the lair opened, but did not go out. The match's flame was almost painfully close to Merton's fingertips before he brought it to his lips. He released a sharp breath of air and tossed aside the blackened match before turning to face Tommy. "So much for supernatural speed. What took you so--" Merton began. He faltered when he caught sight of his friend. Merton bit the inside of his lip. Hard.
Not wanting to frighten Tommy with anything overly exotic, Merton had simply told the other boy to dress in black. Tommy, being the generally good-natured person that he was, had gone along with Merton's well-honed and effective mix of pleas and dictatorial commands. However, Merton had not taken Tommy's shinning wholesomeness into consideration. Tommy stood before him now in a black t-shirt, black jeans and his ever-present letterman jacket--looking like the Boy Next Door on a vaguely rebellious day. That, or like a G-rated version of the evil doppelganger incident. (Merton took a second look at Tommy's jeans and upped the rating to a PG--he hadn't known Tommy owned pants that tight).
"Sorry," Tommy said, shrugging off his jacket. "It took me longer to find these jeans than I expected."
Merton waved off Tommy's explanation. Merton's eyes slitted critically. He crooked in fingers in Tommy's direction. Tommy rolled his eyes but took several steps forward. He turned on his heels in a slow circle. Merton cocked his head. Pursed his lips. The candles set throughout the room highlighted the softer streaks of blond in Tommy's brown hair. His skin glowed healthily. Merton despaired. "No," he said, "no, that won't do at all."
Tommy looked baffled. "What's wrong with what I'm wearing?" he demanded. "You said black, and here I am--in black." Tommy spread his arms and lifted his shoulders. He peered down the length of his body.
Merton's lips stretched into a pained smile. "Nothing's wrong," Merton said with false cheer, "nothing at all--if you were, say, planning to take Sally Sweetheart to the ice-cream parlour. However, we are meeting a pair of Gothic hotties tonight and--by the Gods, white sneakers?" Merton winced.
"I'm not giving up my shoes just to help you score with a chick, Merton," Tommy said. "I like them; they're comfortable."
"Comfortable," Merton echoed incredulously, "is no excuse for a total disregard for style." He dragged his hand over his face and warily peeked at Tommy from between his fingers long moments later. Tommy had shifted his weight from left foot to right and his arms were crossed before his chest--he was still the very image of perfect (if rather irritated) wholesomeness. Merton sucked at the inside of his cheeks. "We're going to have to Goth you up, Tommy. Sit down."
"I don't want to play dress-up, Merton."
Merton's eyes rounded. "I'll pretend that you didn't just say that, Tommy. This is no game--my romantic future is at stake, here! The girls at school may be easily impressed by a charming smile and letterman jacket, but the beauties we're meeting tonight have more exacting standards."
It was Tommy's turn to study Merton through slitted eyes. "There aren't any pliers involved, are there?" Tommy asked suspiciously. "Because if there are, I'm out of here."
"I promised you that the pliers were a one-time occurrence, Tommy," Merton soothed. He smiled ingratiatingly: I'm nice, I'm lovable, and don't you want to make me happy, hmmm?
Merton slid behind Tommy, flattened his hands against Tommy's back and pushed. Tommy didn't budge. Merton fell forward, cheek connecting with warm cotton and the solid wall of Tommy's back. Merton grumbled and straightened himself, scowling up at the back of Tommy's head. He set a pout in place and summoned forth a whine: "c'mon, Tommy--this is important."
Tommy looked at Merton over his shoulder. Merton jutted his lower lip out a bit further and let his chin tremble. Tommy's eyes softened. "I don't know why I let you talk me into these things," Tommy sighed.
Merton had enough restraint not to gloat too obviously. "Yes, yes," Merton said, rubbing happy circles between Tommy's shoulder-blades, "you're a saint among men, Tommy." He gave him an encouraging nudge.
Tommy took the hint. He let Merton march him towards the desk. Tommy dropped down into a chair and cupped his chin in his palm. Tommy tracked Merton's progress as the other boy excitedly hurried around the lair, the candles casting bobbing shadows against the walls. "I don't know anything about this Goth stuff of yours," Tommy said, waving his free hand about vaguely to take in the entirety of Merton's room.
Merton hummed absentmindedly. "I think my mom might still have some black hair dye--"
"Merton! No," Tommy said.
The wide eyes and lip tremble didn't sway Tommy this time. Merton briefly toyed with the idea of a whine before deciding it was best not to push his luck. He detoured to his dresser.
"Don't you worry that pretty little head of yours," Merton said, grinning widely at Tommy's snort. "Seriously, I'll take care of anything. You won't have to say a word--you can be the silently brooding member of our dashing duo." He emitted a triumphant aha! and turned to face Tommy, a bottle of black nail-polish in hand: "a must have for the Gothically-inclined."
Tommy took one look at the nail-polish and quickly tucked his hands into his pockets. "No way, Merton. I am not wearing nail-polish--Gothic hotties or not." Tommy was firm. Tommy was adamant. Tommy would no doubt be sporting a dashing coat of black magik by the time they left the lair.
"Complain, complain, complain." Merton rolled his eyes. "Don't be such a baby, Tommy," Merton said. "You're so high up on the charts that a little polish won't make any difference when it comes to your ratings on the manly-man-o'-meter."
Tommy blinked: a little surprised and a lot amused. "My what?"
Merton sighed patiently. "You know, Tommy: Jim-the-jock can lose a bet and dress in drag for a week without being hassled while Toby-the-nerd's socks are tinged pink in the washer and he gets beaten into next week. Kevin-from-woodshop speaks in monosyllables and the girls love his Neanderthal routine while Trevor-from-chess club has a university-level vocabulary and is shunned by the bleating sheep that make up most of Pleasantville High's population. Or--"
Tommy shook his head. "That's not how things work," he said stubbornly, but held out his hands to Merton when the other boy gestured for him to do so.
"Tommy, Tommy," Merton said, "how innocent to the ways of the world you are." He laid Tommy's proffered hand on a scrap of loose-leaf paper and twisted open the bottle of nail-polish. He brushed aside the dried flakes of polish that came loose with the cap. Merton eased Tommy's fingers apart and studied his nails as he continued: "I bet that before the night is over, some girl will come up to you and admit that she's never found nail-polish so hot."
"I don't see you wearing this stuff," Tommy accused.
Merton snorted. "Please, Tommy. I've hit negative numbers on the manly-man-o'-meter--what do you think would happen if I showed up anywhere in public wearing nail-polish?" Merton wiped the excess polish from the brush. A deft flick of his wrist left a shinning, wet streak of black nail-polish across Tommy's pinkie. "I'm a Goth, not masochistic."
Tommy rumbled victoriously. "There you go--I'm not innocent, you're just--" Tommy hesitated, obviously struggling to find the right word to describe Merton.
Merton smirked as the seconds ticked by. "Right? As always?"
"Pessimistic," Tommy said.
"Hardly," Merton countered. "I'm a--realist," he said. Chewing at the inside of his lip, Merton carefully eased the skin away from Tommy's nail. He wielded the brush almost delicately. "I've been studying Pleasantville's--and there's a misnomer if I've ever heard one--social hierarchy from the bottom rung since before you even knew that I existed, Tommy." Tommy looked guilty and oddly injured at that statement. "I know what I'm talking about," Merton concluded, ignoring Tommy's expression.
"That's not a very nice way to look at the world," Tommy said.
Merton's lips twisted into a smile. There were some things he and Tommy didn't talk about--some things that it was better that they didn't talk about. This was one of them. It took a conscious effort on Merton's part to lighten his voice. "Tommy, I'm a teenager," Merton said, "we aren't supposed to be happy with the world--or anything in it."
Tommy frowned at his wet nails. "That's not what I meant, Merton," he protested. "Not everyone is all wrapped up in--ratings and popularity."
"Sure they are," Merton said. He shrugged easily, as if he didn't really care one way or another. Merton took Tommy's hand in his own and brought it closer to one of the candles. His eyes narrowed critically. "Not a bad job, if I do say so myself," Merton said with patently false modesty, "and I do. Left hand, Tommy. And don't smudge the right one--chipped nail-polish is so shoddy looking."
Tommy twisted his hand around in Merton's loose grip. He wriggled his fingers. "This looks ridiculous," Tommy said.
Merton nodded, humming his assent. "You're too tan to carry off the Goth look well," Merton said. He flashed a grin at Tommy seconds later. "We'll have to do something about that later--I'm thinking a little bit of white powder, some black lipstick. . ."
Tommy stared at Merton in horror.
"I have a studded dog-collar somewhere around here, too," Merton continued cheerily. The very thought of Tommy in a haphazard collection of Goth garb was enough to make Merton snicker. He coughed when Tommy turned a narrow-eyed stare upon him. Merton rallied and continued: "You wouldn't believe the grief Becky gave me about that one," Merton added with a brief scowl, "but I'm sure you'll look--"
"Merton!" Tommy protested.
Merton blinked innocently. "What?" he said. "You looked adorable in the flea collar--just imagine what you could do with a little bit of leather."
Tommy started to fold his arms before his chest. He stopped when Merton waved urgently at his freshly painted nails. His arms dropped back to his sides. "Role-play is your gig, not mine," Tommy said firmly. "And I've seen some of your outfits, Merton."
"You make it all sound so--sordid," Merton said, hand fisted above his heart as if Tommy had just delivered a blow beyond bearing. "I'll admit: I may have gone a titch overboard with the chaps that one time, but still--you wound me, Tommy. I thought you knew me better than that--" Merton's voice rose to a pained quaver.
Tommy rolled his eyes and lightly batted at the side of Merton's head. "Enough, already."
"You sure?" Merton asked, "because I've got more."
"No," Tommy said quickly, "no, I'm sure--I'm awed by your mastery of the vocal range, Merton, really." He grinned at Merton's haughty sniff, amused enough that he didn't put up any sort of fight when Merton reached for his left hand.
"No one appreciates real talent these days," Merton said mournfully. He set a restraining hand on Tommy's wrist before sweeping the brush over Tommy's nail. Merton heaved a long-suffering sigh. "I get absolutely no respect around here. None."
Tommy stared at Merton's lowered head. He squirmed slightly. "Hey. Merton--I do think you're cool, you know. Even if things don't work out tonight. Even if you did wear nail-polish." Tommy paused, cleared his throat. "So you can just forget about the manish-o'meter."
Merton's lips parted before snapping back shut on his automatic correction. He peered at Tommy from beneath his lashes. "Thanks, Tommy," Merton said, both startled and pleased. He smiled a moment later as he dipped the brush back into the nail-polish bottle. "But don't think that your declaration of friendly devotion is going to get you out of wearing that lipstick."
"Well, I definitely draw the line at mascara, then," Tommy said.
"I would never," Merton vowed with wide-eyed sincerity. "Although that reminds me--there should be some eye-liner somewhere around here. . . "
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