Eames smells delicious, and looks even better. Mal forgets, surrounded as she is by Americans, how beautifully men dress on the continent. She exclaims over this and embraces him, a kiss on each cheek before drawing back again to take him in, the gorgeousness of him. “Every time I see you you’re more of a man,” Mal tells him, drawing her fingers down Eames’ stubbled jaw.
“It’s not too late,” Eames tells her earnestly, “we can still run away together, darling.” He catches the fingers of her left hand and presses an ostentatious kiss to her diamond solitaire ring. “Come, now, leave all this behind, come with me to Madrid.”
Dom clears his throat, though neither of them has forgotten that he’s been standing behind Mal this whole time.
“Please, Dom,” Eames says, holding eye contact with Mal, “you’re being terribly rude, getting in the way of my proposal.”
“You had your chance,” Dom says, with a reluctant smile, and Eames drops Mal’s hand and takes Dom’s to shake it in greeting, forgoing the cheek kiss because Eames knows Dom hates it. “We’re glad you could come, Eames.”
Eames’ face rearranges itself into a rare sincerity as he murmurs a dismissal, it’s nothing, of course, terribly pleased to be here.
“Give him a minute,” Dom says quietly to Mal as they pass in the kitchen, she pulling down wineglasses and he uncorking a bottle of shiraz, “Mal, just give him a minute to settle in before you tell him.”
“There’s no such thing as the right time,” Mal responds, flicking a bit of lint from Dom’s shoulder.
“Just a minute,” Dom repeats, giving her his most earnest blue gaze.
Mal blinks her lashes, coquettish, and heads back to the living room where they’ve left Eames to be ably entertained by Philippa.
“Cheers,” Eames says, taking the offered wineglass. “None for the sprog? I thought French babies were weaned on this stuff.”
“She’ll get hers later,” Mal says, arching an eyebrow, sitting down. For all she likes to tease Dom, it’s not an easy thing to say – but there’s no avoiding it. “Eames, you need to know – Arthur isn’t attending the wedding alone.”
Eames is very, very good at hiding his feelings, at putting on masks and maintaining them. His expression doesn’t waver in the slightest other than a politely interested eyebrow raise. When he lifts his glass to his lips, his sip is measured and neat, not bracing and long.
“I’m very sorry to have to tell this to you,” Mal says, her heart breaking at the sight of Eames being so careful, so guarded. “Eames, truly.”
Eames scratches the bridge of his nose, casual. “Mal, it’s been two years. I hardly expected”—
“Oh, my darling,” Mal says, setting down her glass and hastily taking up the seat next to Eames on the sofa. “Oh, my darling boy.”
Dom clears his throat awkwardly and says something about changing Philippa’s diaper, leaves the pair of them alone even as Eames looks exasperated and Mal rests her hand on the nape of Eames’ neck.
“I thought you needed to know,” Mal says, “before Arthur arrives to rehearse.”
“It’s not,” Eames says, shaking his head, smiling, “Mal, you’re very sweet to be so worried about me but honestly – I expected as much. I’m absolutely fine.”
Mal sighs worriedly and takes Eames’ hand in hers, turning it so the outside of his wrist faces up, the edge of his french cuffs just peeking out from under his blazer, enough to reveal the black enamel tip of one piano-shaped cufflink. “Eames,” she says, very softly. “I’m so sorry.”
Eames licks his lips, knowing when he’s well and truly been caught out. “Can I borrow something of Cobb’s?” he asks, and this time his smile is jagged and raw. “Just – fuck. Anything but these fucking things.”
“Of course,” Mal says gently, pressing a kiss to Eames’ brow, “of course, it won’t take but a minute.”
Arthur shows up precisely at the arranged time, bearing with him a cardboard box brimming with the place cards he’d said he’d manage: row upon row of crisply lettered cream paper tents, each one augmented by the addition of a tiny photo print of Mal and Cobb, dozens of different poses from their engagement photo shoot last month. “So beautiful, thank you,” Mal tells him, lifting up one after another, admiring Arthur’s neat handiwork.
Arthur has his hands in his trouser pockets, something he rarely does because it breaks the tailored lines of his clothing, but he’s clearly nervous today. “Is he here?” he asks, not bothering to pretend otherwise. “He’s here, right?”
“Eames is upstairs, he’ll be down shortly,” Mal says. “Take this.” She passes him a glass of wine, the last of the bottle they’d opened for Eames; Arthur doesn’t hesitate, just tosses the whole thing back in a few swallows. “I broke the news,” she tells him.
“How’d it go?” Arthur asks, setting down the empty glass, swiping a thumb over his lips to dry them.
“He is fine, it is nothing unexpected for him,” Mal lies easily.
“We’re both professionals,” Arthur nods, steadied by wine and Mal’s words, “it will be no problem.” But as he finishes they both hear Eames’ step on the staircase and Arthur’s shoulders click back and down, drawing his posture straight like a bowstring.
“I thought I sensed Armani in the house,” says Eames, ambling into the room, Cobb’s square silver cufflinks glinting on his wrists. He’s dropped the blazer and unbuttoned his collar, styling himself as casual, dressing for the part. “Arthur, you’re like a page out of a magazine,” he says admiringly, and comes in to clasp Arthur by the elbow, press a friendly cool kiss to his cheek.
“Eames,” Arthur says politely in reply, going all buttoned up and stoic, what Arthur probably thinks of as a professional demeanour. “Good to see you, how are you?”
Eames smirks at Arthur, obviously amused by his tone. “Splendid, splendid, old boy,” Eames huffs in his best posh voice.
“Eames,” Arthur says again, voice still low and even but a slight impatience beginning to show at the corners of his mouth.
“Arthur,” Eames returns, and for half an instant Mal sees that Eames is in danger of breaking character, the cajoling tone carrying something a little too tender and wistful. Eames catches himself, smiles broadly, and claps Arthur on the shoulder – Arthur, who hadn’t noticed anything, so wrapped up in his own anxiety. “Mal, if we might make use of your piano?” Eames asks, leaving his hand on Arthur’s shoulder, calm and friendly.
“Of course,” Mal accedes. “Arthur, I’ll check these against our guest list,” she says with a gesture at the place cards. It’s an easy way of letting Arthur know she’s not going far; they all know that Arthur doesn’t make silly mistakes.
“Cheers,” Arthur says, a little confusedly, thrown by Eames’ touch and using Eames’ vocabulary as though it’s catching. The pair head down the hallway and into the studio, and Mal settles down at the kitchen table, paging through the loose pages of notes that make up her wedding plans.
Their house is small, beautiful, but old and with thin walls. Sound carries everywhere over the polished hardwood and through aged plaster, which is convenient for hearing Philippa cry after a nap but rather difficult to manage the rest of the time. Mal is glad of it today, anyway; she can’t make out the specifics of the conversation between Eames and Arthur but the timbre of it is clear. Arthur’s voice stays deep-pitched and even, controlled and repressed, and Eames’ moves around with his usual singer’s agility, bursting now and then into quick rushes of words punctuated by amused laughter.
Mal’s home studio is a modest version of the more elaborate teaching studio she maintains at the conservatory, with only Dom’s six-foot Yamaha and an aged off-brand upright. Mostly it’s Dom’s domain, anyway, for his late-night composition jags, but the Yamaha is a pleasant enough instrument for casual practices like these. Arthur would have been warming up on the drive over, too conscious of his stress level and the tension that would result. He plays a few chords now, like bright-yellow dabs of colour in the previously quiet house. Eames is doing some lip trills and vocalizations.
Mal is fairly certain that this moment marks the first time they have made music together in two years.
Now, after a brief silence, Arthur launches into the sweetly grand opening of the aria, and Eames begins to sing. Mal had thought perhaps it would take a minute for them to find their old partnership, but it’s instantaneous, effortless. Arthur is, of course, a very fine collaborative partner, and the hallmark of his skill is that he can make any singer better by the way he plays for them; Eames needs no such assistance, one of the finest voices of his generation, and yet – Mal sits back and sighs, folding her arms over her chest, saddened. There is something magnificent about the two of them in combination, turning this lovely but overperformed little English aria into art with such ease, such fluidity.
They rehearse on, as she listens, chattering quickly and efficiently between bouts of music, likely working out niceties of tempo and dynamics and phrasing with their usual ease, safely couched in musical language.
Mal busies herself by laying out the place cards into experimental seating arrangements. It’s a small wedding, only forty guests, which is perfect and intimate and everything Mal wanted, but it does make for some strange tablemates. Eames is a problem, of course, having come unaccompanied and not knowing most of Mal and Dom’s family members. She shuffles the cards around, looking for a familiar face to seat next to Eames, but the only other former students in attendance are younger, after Eames’ time, and he’d only try to sleep with them anyway. Safest then to do what she’d thought of at first, to seat Eames at the table with his other contemporaries. It will be good for them, Mal thinks, bracing herself; it will be what’s needed.
She makes the small circle of place cards, six to the table. Charles Eames, then two of Cobb’s cousins, then Arthur Goldberg, then Daniel Litwin, then Eames’ former voice teacher.
As Mal finishes, she’s roused from her thoughts by the realization that the music has stopped, and so has the talking. Dom comes in from the living room, obviously having noticed the same thing, balancing Philippa on one hip and fixing Mal with a significant wide-eyed look. “Go in there,” he hisses.
Mal purses her lips and holds out her arms for the baby.
“Mal,” Dom says urgently, “someone has to go in there.”
But then the studio door snicks open and Eames emerges, followed by Arthur. Mal casually but swiftly disarranges her seating arrangement by sweeping it out of Philippa’s reach. “It sounds very beautiful,” she tells Arthur and Eames, jouncing Philippa on her knee, taking quick inventory of Arthur’s appearance. He seems every bit as put-together as he had thirty minutes ago, but his lips are perhaps a little pinker than usual. Mal can’t be certain.
“We’ll need to take another run at it at the gallery tomorrow evening,” Arthur says, moving around the table, away from Eames. He picks up one of the place cards and flicks his thumb on the edge of the paper.
“Can I get coffee for anyone?” Dom says, at loose ends, nervous. “Tea?”
“Tea would be brilliant,” says Eames.
“Coffee, please,” Arthur chimes in as he sits down next to Mal, still studying the little photo. “Thanks.”
Dom goes around the other side of the counter to boil water and take down the french press. Eames walks around the kitchen table, to the side where Arthur and Mal are seated, looks out the window onto the small back garden. Arthur sets the card down, sits back in his chair, incrementally nearer to Eames standing behind him.
“Where were you coming from this time?” Arthur asks, tossing a quick glance over his shoulder so Eames knows he’s being addressed.
“Not far,” Eames says, “Chicago.”
“Right,” says Arthur, “you were doing the summer opera workshop at Illinois State, I read about that.”
“Yeah,” Eames says, “yeah, that was...” He trails off.
“I still think it’s funny, the idea of you giving master classes,” Arthur says, a smile playing over his lips. “What on earth do you say to them?”
Eames smiles back, turning from the window. “Rubbish, I expect. But they listen, starry-eyed, all the same.”
“Of course they do,” Arthur smirks, meeting Eames’ eyes, abruptly incandescent with good humour.
Eames’ gaze breaks, dips to Arthur’s mouth, and snaps back up.
Mal kisses Philippa’s soft sweet-smelling head, hiding her smile. Her seating plan may be what’s needed, but perhaps not in the way she’d guessed.
“Piano throughout, right,” Arthur mutters derisively to Eames’ battered Handel arias book. “In octaves all the way through for the left hand, I’m sure it’s going to be very quiet.”
“Bugger quiet,” Eames tells him, “I’ve got a massive voice, let’s not waste it on piano.”
Arthur presses the score open a little more, though it doesn’t need it. He knows what Eames is doing, of course, with the poorly hidden innuendo and the hovering over Arthur’s shoulder because he’d neglected (of course) to make a copy for Arthur. Eames may be six years older now but his flirting methods haven’t matured one day, it’s Arthur’s freshman year all over again. “How fast?” Arthur asks.
“Slow,” Eames says automatically. “Well, not too slow.”
Arthur plays a few chords, warming up his fingers, reacquainting himself with the instrument, and behind him Eames goes through a ten second vocalization, voice limber and fluid as ever. “All right,” says Arthur, and plays the opening, left foot ready to jam the una corda pedal down out of long habit born of years working with young student singers.
But it’s Eames, of course, Arthur realizes, withdrawing his left foot as soon as he comes in. It’s not a massive voice, not really, not objectively, but it’s rife with color and energy that can cut through anything the small Yamaha could produce. Arthur catches a minute adjustment to the tempo from Eames’ initial consonant and the pulse of the vowel that chases after it, Eames unconsciously leading as he’s always done. The baroque aria is stately, structured and a little rigid, very unlike most of the music they’ve done together, but that makes it easier in a way. Handel isn’t like Schubert, he doesn’t invite them into the same sensual push-pull, tension-slack romanticism. Like Eames coloring in an illustration that Arthur’s drafted, Arthur creates the framework and Eames populates it with his voice.
“We could try it a little slower,” Eames suggests, but not like he really wants to.
“I think it was all right,” Arthur returns, then points to one part of Eames’ line. “Here, did you want a rit to finish off the melisma?”
“No,” Eames says, “too much, don’t you reckon?”
“It is for Mal,” Arthur says, smiling in spite of himself. “She would hit the brakes there.”
“She would,” Eames agrees, and smiles back. “Right, but only because it’s her wedding day. Bloody Handel would be appalled at the Frenchiness of it all.”
They take it in pieces then, Arthur well aware that this simple little aria hardly requires this level of work between two musicians of their caliber, with their history of working together. Phrase by phrase, Arthur pencils markings for himself into Eames’ score, stupid minute markings that aren’t as helpful as the visual cues Eames himself will be giving through the shift of his ribs, the set of his head. They’re lingering here, Arthur realizes, here in the small quiet space of the studio with the excuse of music to carry them through the long minutes. Time to get this over with.
“Once more,” Arthur says, and hands the score off to Eames. “Here, I’ve got it, you go stand over there.”
Eames takes the score, obviously a little surprised by the directive but not objecting to it. “You’re getting ever faster with this memorization thing,” he says, moving into the curve of the piano, eyes fixed on the music.
“Well,” Arthur dissembles, “I’ve played this aria a dozen times, I just wanted a reminder of the edition and key.”
“Come now,” Eames replies teasingly, looking over at Arthur, now standing in full view from where Arthur’s stationed, “don’t go reminding me of all the other singers you’ve played for, I’ll be mad with envy.”
It’s supposed to be a joke but it falls flat. Arthur doesn’t bother to attempt a smile, just sets his fingers on the keys and plays the introduction. He doesn’t actually have the part memorized, but the harmonic progression and general shape of his right-hand line is clear enough in his mind that Arthur can fake the piano part passably well. Eames turns slightly away from Arthur and sings into his score, professional and detached.
When Eames leans into a phrase with his voice, Arthur responds with his body unthinkingly, physically leaning his torso towards the keys, but it’s fine, it’s normal, it’s what musicians do – play together, play off each other. To underline the point, Arthur is sure to throw in a long and ostentatious supertonic trill on his second last note, so baroque and yet French that Eames snorts appreciatively while Arthur feigns an utterly deadpan sobriety.
“Bravo,” Eames congratulates him when Arthur finally cadences, and breaks from the piano, gives way to laughter. “It’s, ah,” Eames says, chuckling, scratching his jaw, “it’s good to”—and he gestures between them.
“Yeah,” Arthur agrees warmly. “Yeah, it is.”
“You sound really marvelous,” Eames adds, coming around the piano again to give Arthur his score. “Working with the pianists I do sometimes, I tend to forget what it’s like singing with someone of your”—he stops himself. “Fuck.”
They’re both holding onto the book, Arthur having already moved to take the score from Eames, and now they’re stuck like this, feeling the way that the air of work and meticulous rehearsal has abruptly collapsed around them. “No, I,” Arthur tries, and clears his throat. “Me too. I think I spend half my life playing Puccini reductions.”
“That’s an appalling waste of you,” Eames says, very quietly, smiling a little and yet completely serious.
“Pays the rent,” Arthur returns, and pulls the score from Eames’ hands, sets it on the music stand in front of him. The gesture was meant to end this moment, whatever it is, but instead Arthur’s seized by a terrible overwhelming impulse to make amends for his abruptness. He turns back to look at Eames, to see if he’s hurt or angry, but Eames is just watching Arthur patiently. Damn Mal, anyway, for asking them to do this; can’t she see that they’re a disaster together even after all this time?
Eames doesn’t speak, only reaches out and squeezes Arthur’s shoulder. It could be only friendly, Arthur knows, and yet – the pull of Eames’ fingers against the fabric of Arthur’s shirt, the pressure and strength of his hand – it’s not just a friendly thing. Arthur knows it like he’d never known it that first innocent year sitting in practice rooms with Eames. And for a guilty long moment, Arthur allows it to happen anyway, lets the heat and suggestion of Eames’ touch seep into his body, send his pulse into a little accelerando while they lock eyes and conjure between them the memories of all the times and places that so casual a contact had led into something far more serious.
Up to you, Eames’ expression tells Arthur. Here I am.
Later, Arthur can’t quite decide how he’d broken Eames’ spell; he only knows that one moment he was seriously wondering what might happen if he turned his head another inch and kissed Eames’ thumb, and the next he was standing up and Eames was halfway across the room, headed for the door.
Arthur makes his excuses very hastily when Mal invites him to stay to dinner, rising from the kitchen table and leaving his coffee cup half-full. “We have reservations,” he says, “but we’ll see you at the rehearsal dinner tomorrow,” and he bends to kiss Mal’s cheek, Philippa’s downy head. Dom and Eames each get an apologetic smile and then Arthur’s gone, leaving Eames looking defeated.
“All right,” Eames sighs heavily, the minute the door closes behind Arthur, “tell me about this arsehole he’s dating.”
“And I’m making dinner,” Dom says pointedly, leaving them for the less dramatic ambiance of diced peppers, herbs, and chicken breasts.
Mal watches Dom go, amused, and then turns her attention back to Eames. “Oh,” she says, “Daniel is very nice and kind and good, I’m sorry to say.”
“He sounds a right git, do go on,” Eames grumbles, pouring out another cup of tea.
“He’s a commercial photographer,” Mal continues. She pushes Eames’ place card over to him with her index finger. “His work. He doesn’t normally do this sort of thing but he’s made an exception for us. He’ll be shooting the wedding and the rehearsal too.”
Eames picks up the card and scowls at it. “How did they meet?”
Philippa begins to fuss, probably sensing the sudden tension in Mal’s body. She shifts the baby over to her left arm and unbuttons her blouse, glad of the distraction, the different point of focus as she gets Philippa settled at her breast. She looks up and smiles to see Eames watching with unabashed interest; Arthur always looks fixedly across the room as his nose turns pink. Even Dom had, at first. Philippa latches on, sturdy beautiful fingers –Dom’s fingers – flexing with animal delight. “Are you sure you want to talk about this?” Mal asks.
“Well,” Eames says, “I have to admit I’m distracted now, your breasts are even lovelier than I’d imagined.”
“I can still hear you,” Dom points out, hardly having to raise his voice to make himself heard.
“Sorry,” Eames says back, directing his attention towards the kitchen island, “I meant to say, your wife-to-be has very lovely breasts. Congratulations.”
Mal frees one hand long enough to flick Eames’ ear. “Enough,” she tells him, frowning playfully, “he is already upset that I refuse to smother the baby in blankets to feed her in front of company.”
“You don’t have to smother her,” Dom says, abandoning the pretense of non-participation, “I never once said that.”
“Americans,” Eames sighs, rolling his eyes for Dom’s benefit, and he and Mal exchange sharp little smiles while Dom huffs and goes back to his chopping. “No, I do want to know,” he says, changing gears abruptly, sipping at his tea. “I wish I didn’t, but I do.”
“Daniel did Arthur’s headshots,” Mal says, easing into Eames into it. “Last year.”
“And?” Eames checks, hearing the hesitation in her voice.
“Well,” Mal says, “Arthur went to Daniel at the recommendation of his sister-in-law, I believe. Rachel, is that the name?”
“Yes,” Eames says tautly, “yes, Rachel.”
“Daniel is her cousin,” Mal adds, knowing full well that this is the worst piece of information yet. Mal has only ever briefly met Arthur’s parents, has never met his brother’s family, but she is keenly aware of how tight-knit the Goldbergs are, and more importantly, how dearly Eames had valued his acceptance among them when he and Arthur were together.
Eames sets his teacup down with a rattle of porcelain on the glass tabletop. “How long?” he says.
“A year, now,” Mal says. “They started dating not long after they met.”
Eames nods. “And – and he’s happy?”
Mal looks down at Philippa, her round little bottom cradled in the palm of Mal’s diamond-ringed left hand. A year ago this had seemed an impossibility, that this almost painfully vivid infatuation could exist, that this small warm body against Mal’s would be the very incarnation of love. “He has convinced himself that he’s happy,” she says, patting Philippa’s diaper-padded bottom. “I think we all make do with the love we have, until we discover something greater.” She peeks into the kitchen. Dom has his head stuck in the fridge, out of earshot for the moment. “Or,” she adds, quietly, “or until we’re reminded of something greater.”
Eames hums a sigh in response, still unconvinced, brooding into his tea.
“Losing love should be our greatest fear,” Mal continues, looking at Philippa again, getting the anxious-sad heart-clench she always gets when her thoughts stray in this direction. “It’s a fate far worse than death.”
Mal honestly thinks Dom is asleep when she slips back into bed at three in the morning, having just gotten Philippa settled again after her feeding. She’s scarcely awake herself, blessed with a mother’s ability to stagger out of bed, nurse the baby, and stumble back to bed with minimal consciousness involved.
“You have to be careful,” Dom says, startling Mal out of her almost instantaneous drop into sleep.
“About what?” Mal asks, rolling over to look at Dom, the silhouette of him just visible by the light of his alarm clock.
“Mal,” he says, and reaches for her. “You know what.”
Mal wriggles in close, enjoying Dom’s sleep-generated heat and the familiar strong bulk of him. “They’re grown men,” she tells him, resting her head on his shoulder.
“Doesn’t mean they don’t both still hang off your every word,” he replies, always reasonable.
Mal strokes her hand over Dom’s chest, to comfort herself as much as him. “They still love each other,” she says, “it’s wrong that they should be apart with such love.”
“They don’t have a choice when it comes to being apart,” Dom says. “That’s why they’re not involved anymore.”
“Not involved,” Mal quotes, skeptically. “Dom. They’ll always be involved with each other so long as they’re in love. The sooner they realize it, the better.”
“It’s not for you to arrange,” Dom murmurs, kissing her hair, her cheek. “Mal?”
“If it were us,” Mal says, struggling to make him see, “if it were us, it wouldn’t matter where we were, where we were going, so long as we were together. I think it’s the same for them. I think they just haven’t realized it yet.”
His hand clenches around her shoulder fondly, and Mal could swear she hears him smiling into the dark. “It would never be us, sweetheart.”
Arthur, crisp and organized and frowning, is holding one of the wedding programs that have just arrived fresh from the printer. “What the hell is this supposed to mean?” he asks.
Mal leans over to look for herself, taking the moment to rest her chin on the lovely slope of Arthur’s shoulder. “Well,” she says, “Dom told me I couldn’t list you as the maid of honour, so…”
“Point man,” Dom says, catching this exchange as he walks by with arms full of garland. “You know, the guy who goes in and do the groundwork, makes our lives easier when it comes to the actual heist.”
“You’re getting married,” Arthur says dryly, “not stealing the Mona Lisa.”
“Could have fooled me,” Dom answers, using his chin to point at Arthur’s yellow legal pad, which does in fact seem to have the gallery schematics and blueprints sketched onto it with Arthur’s sure pencil strokes. “That could be straight out of Ocean’s Eleven.”
“It’s for the chair rental guys,” Arthur answers, and then looks over at the men setting up the chairs for the ceremony area, then back at his schematic. “Oh, for christ’s sake,” he grumbles, and heads over to berate them into doing things his way.
“Point man,” Dom says knowingly, and carries on with the garland.
Mal smiles at the pair of them and then cranes her head around the gallery, trying to spot Eames. He’s the only one among them not frantically helping with the decorations and set-up for tonight’s rehearsal, tasked as he has been with the care and keeping of Philippa. Much as Eames likes dandling babies on his knee, though, Mal has her doubts that he’s truly up to tasks like diaper changes and spit-up emergencies.
“He’s walking her up and down the hallway outside,” Arthur says, coming back, a folding chair under each arm. “She was crying.”
Mal takes the chairs from Arthur on impulse. “Would you go and check on them, mon cher? If she won’t settle she might be hungry, just tell him to bring her to me.”
Arthur narrows his eyes at Mal, suspicious, but acquiesces. Mal watches him go for a moment, the purposeful way he’s striding, head bowed as though to some necessary though unpleasant task; when he looks back over his shoulder to check, she hastens into action, hauling the chairs across the room to the dining area currently under construction. She makes two more such trips, losing the battle to hide her pleased smile as Arthur fails to reappear.
The click of a camera shutter draws Mal abruptly out of her reverie, and when she looks over in the direction of the sound it’s to find that their wedding photographer has made good on his promise to snap a few photos of the rehearsal set-up. “Pouf, Daniel, give me some warning, I look sweaty and awful,” she scolds him, hastily tucking her hair back and pulling a pout.
“You look perfect as always,” he tells her smilingly, tall and handsome and sparkling with good humour. For the first time Mal can’t suppress a twinge of regret; she genuinely likes Daniel, his myriad interests and his artistic eye and the way he looks at Arthur. “Have you seen the maid of honour recently?”
“Dom is insisting on calling him our point man,” Mal corrects Daniel, wishing she wasn’t so fond of him. “And yes, he’s somewhere around here I think, shall I dig him up for you?”
“No, no,” Daniel hastens to answer, “you’ve got enough to do, I’m sure he’ll turn up soon.” He lifts up his camera and pans the room, not taking any photos but just scouting the space through his lens. “Oh,” he says with sudden interest, and clicks the shutter. “Who’s the dish with Philippa?”
Mal looks over in the direction of Daniel’s gaze, sees that Eames has appeared with the baby fast asleep across his chest. There’s no reading Eames’ face at this distance, ten meters away, but he notices Daniel almost as quickly as Daniel spotted him. “That’s Eames,” Mal tells Daniel simply. “Excuse me, I think Dom’s trying to wave me down.”
Dom is indeed waving her down; the piano rental truck has arrived and they want to make sure the baby Steinway is placed precisely according to specifications. When Mal next has a chance to look, Arthur’s standing next to Daniel pulling faces while Daniel clicks away to capture each one. Eames is looking on from across the room, swaying a little even though Philippa is clearly dead to the world.
“She’s fine,” Dom says, mistaking Mal’s distraction for concern about the baby. “Can you get Arthur over here? I have no idea where he wants this arch thing to go.”
“Of course,” Mal says, and waves to get Arthur’s attention away from Daniel.
And then there’s no more time or energy to worry about anything but finishing the set-up because the justice of the peace is arriving for the rehearsal in twenty minutes and after that they’re due at the formal rehearsal dinner at a restaurant ten blocks away. Mal clasps Dom by the hands and smiles at him while they go through the motions of pretending to get married, silly arcane ritual that it is – but, Mal catches herself thinking, romantic and beautiful in its way too. Here is Dom, the other half of her soul, the person with whom she’s performed the most miraculous act of her life in bringing a human into the world, and Mal loves him desperately.
She used to think it was a choice, to be married or not, but that was before Dom, before Mal had come to know that when you truly loved, choice didn’t enter into the matter at all. They are married, ceremony or no; this can’t be altered, not by anything in the world, not while they both live and breathe.
It’s a dirty trick of Mal’s, sending him out here in search of Eames like Arthur has any business being alone with him after what happened yesterday – not that anything happened yesterday, not really. Arthur has to remind himself of the fact yet again. Nothing happened. Nothing would happen.
Eames is rocking Philippa while she hiccups and whines quietly, all his attention focused on a series of canvases hung on the wall of the corridor. Arthur is reminded of Eames’ secretive score study, the way he’d make markings and memorize translations and work out rhythms only in the cloistered haven of their apartment, far away from those who would be disappointed to learn that the great natural talent of the conservatory actually did apply himself to his art on occasion. It’s the same look on Eames’ face, a slight frown as he tries to analyze the paintings, pick them apart with his covertly brilliant brain.
“Mal says bring her in if she won’t settle,” Arthur says, and nothing more, but his breath gets caught on the inhalation and the words come out raspy, smudgy.
Eames looks over, startled to realize he’s not alone. “She’s settling,” he says, “she’s nearly nodded off a few times.”
Arthur licks his lips, mouth gone dry. “Okay, then. That’s all,” he says, but instead of going back down the hallway he finds himself pulled into Eames’ orbit. “Listen, I should have told you about Daniel a long time ago. It was shitty of me to have Mal drop this on your head for me.”
Eames’ mouth quirks, but he makes no reply, keeping his eyes on the artwork in front of him.
“It’s, it’s serious with us,” Arthur goes on, not sure why he’s talking in the first place. “I mean, we live together. We really live together, officially, not just”—and Arthur bites down on the rest of the sentence, on everything he wants to tell Eames, on this unwelcome urge to try and explain or maybe just excuse himself. Daniel’s a talented and skilled photographer, Arthur wants to say, he can talk lenses and cameras and f-stops for hours, but there’s so much more to him. He likes Ethiopian food, reads the Globe from front to back every day, likes running and yoga and swimming. Arthur wants to tell Eames about how Arthur had spent their first two dates vaguely ashamed of his own single-mindedness when contrasted with Daniel’s virtual smorgasbord of interests and hobbies.
Strangely, Arthur wants to tell Eames about how Daniel had found Arthur just as interesting and refreshing as Arthur found Daniel. “How many hours a day?” he’d asked, blinking in amazement, and “You played with the Boston Phil last week?” and “I wish I had that passion, it’s incredible.”
(Arthur even wants to tell Eames about what happened much later that night. “You have passion,” Arthur had told Daniel, breathless, grinning, naked, “trust me, you’ve got lots of passion.”)
Instead Arthur chews on his lip and folds his arms across his chest and stares at Eames, wondering how it is that some part of Arthur can miss Eames so fiercely in light of everything that’s happened between them.
“I’m sorry,” Eames says, looking over at Arthur, politely blinking. “Am I meant to tell you that I’m happy if you’re happy?”
“Are you?” Arthur asks, heart suddenly in his throat.
Eames fixes his gaze on Philippa. The silence stretches out while Philippa makes a few last unhappy protests against the sleep overtaking her. “I don’t know, Arthur,” he finally says. “Maybe, if you were – if you were really happy.”
Arthur blinks, taken aback; of course he’s happy. Of course he is. Everything was going perfectly until – well. Until Eames. And, Arthur is certain, everything will be well again just as soon as Eames is safely gone. But for some reason the words won’t come, the assurance Arthur wants to give is nowhere to be found.
It’s difficult, in Eames’ presence, to feel happy about anything at all.
“So,” Eames says, “cheers on the successful cohabitation, sounds like he’s your dream come true, long may he succeed in making you not entirely unhappy.” He shoulders past Arthur and heads back into the main hall, Philippa finally asleep with her head resting secure in the crook of Eames’ arm.
It’s not until Eames is gone that Arthur thinks of a response, and then a few more for good measure, things like you’re just angry because you can’t have everything you want and you wouldn’t know happiness if it bit you in the ass and it’s a lot easier being the guy who’s always moving on tomorrow, try being the one who has to stay and make a life.
Daniel’s arrived in Arthur’s absence, already half-kneeling on the cement floor and snapping shots of Mal doing traffic control on the rental piano being wheeled into position. “Hey,” Daniel says, looking up at Arthur, sparing one hand for a moment to reach over and give Arthur’s knee a friendly squeeze. “I hear that they’ve made you point man, congratulations.”
“Right,” Arthur says, “big promotion.” He’s keenly aware of Eames, some twenty feet away, but he is careful not to look, not to make eye contact.
“Mal pointed him out already,” Daniel says, glancing over, observing Arthur’s rigid stance. “I had no idea you had such amazing taste, I thought you’d just lucked out with me.” He clicks a few more frames of Mal, then shifts his focus and uses his telephoto lens to capture some shots of Eames swaying with the slumbering baby. “Jesus, seriously,” Daniel says, and snaps four or five photos.
“Daniel,” Arthur scolds, cracking up in spite of himself. “Don’t be a stalker.”
Eames looks over, scanning the room, and Daniel quickly shifts his focus, making it look like he’s zooming in on the lattice arch near the front. Arthur turns his laugh into a cough and pivots around, hoping Eames’ curiosity hasn’t been too piqued by this little display. Daniel, always drawn to Arthur pulling awkward faces, follows him with the camera and clicks a few more frames until Arthur breaks back into a smile and pushes the camera out of the way.
“Come here for a second,” he says, and tugs on Daniel’s shoulder, urging him to his feet.
“Hi,” Daniel says in reply, going from his intense work-mode into something softer and more interesting. “Hi, sorry, how are you?”
“Long day,” Arthur says. “Better now you’re here.” And okay, yeah. Maybe Daniel is marking his territory a little when he lets the camera hang from its strap and leans in to kiss Arthur’s mouth quickly, twice, and maybe Arthur is letting him, maybe both of them are wondering if Eames is looking at them and putting on a show just in case he is. Arthur doesn’t care, it’s kind of nice even if the pleasure is probably selfish and horrible and doesn’t bear examining.
Mal is ready, waiting in the pre-dawn light, when Dom stirs and stretches and begins to wake on the morning of their wedding day. She shifts up onto her knees and lays her palm over his eyes like a blindfold.
“Mal,” Dom says muzzily, “what’re you”—
“It’s bad luck,” Mal says, “you’re not supposed to see me today.”
“That’s a bit difficult when we’re waking up in the same bed,” Dom points out. For a composer, Dom can sometimes display a shocking lack of imagination.
“Then keep your eyes closed,” Mal tells him, smiling, moving to straddle his legs. “Promise?”
“This is stupid,” Dom says, but his mouth is curving.
“Promise,” Mal repeats, not asking this time.
“I promise to keep my eyes closed,” Dom says, “but it would be a lot easier if you got up and went into the bathroom or something so I could at least – oh.” Dom’s squeezed-shut eyelids relax all at once, flutter ecstatically, and then his head sinks back into the pillow to expose his long stubbled throat.
Mal breathes out through her nose, then in again, and goes down. Dom's fingers clench in the sheets and then release with the motion, his throat clicking with unspoken need and caught breath. On any other day, Mal might tease him a little, pull off and try to catch him off-balance with darting kisses and fleeting touches; on any other day, Mal might enjoy seeing if Dom would plead with her, if he’d disobey and open his eyes so he could catch her by the wrists and smile up at her until she gave in to those imploring blue irises. Today, though, Mal doesn’t want to tease. She moves her mouth on his cock exactly as he likes it, knowing his body and its reactions almost as well as her own by now.
“Can, can I open them now?” Dom asks, afterwards, stroking her hair and her cheek clumsily but affectionately, limbs stupid with release.
“No,” Mal says. “Hold still.” She moves up the bed and resettles herself with her legs spread over Dom’s shoulders and chest.
“It’s not fair that you get to look at me,” Dom says, too blissed out to make it a proper complaint.
“Shh,” Mal says, “we only have a few minutes before Philippa wakes,” and Dom doesn’t waste time, just palms Mal’s hips and urges her forward and up. His day-old stubble is scratchy, a little ticklish, but Dom holds Mal steady against her instinctive squirm, moves one hand between her legs to hold her open, and reminds Mal yet again that Dom’s gifts of imagination aren’t lacking in the least when he’s given the right inspiration.
They lie trembling together some minutes later, Dom still sweetly and obediently keeping his eyes closed, head resting on Mal’s breast. “What is it?” she says, because she can feel it in him, the rising need to speak, to disclose.
“Nothing,” Dom says, and then turns his head, kisses the milk-firm flesh over Mal’s still-pounding heart. “Only, I keep thinking of the Song of Songs.”
“Awake, north wind; and come, you south! Blow on my garden, that its spices may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and taste his precious fruits,” Mal quotes, smiling, stroking Dom’s hair. He’d set the text for her when they’d first fallen in love, set it lush among soft sustained string chords, the words spilling over with beauty.
“No,” Dom whispers, “no, it’s”—
Mal touches his eyelids, giving permission, and Dom blinks them open, looks up at her. “It’s what?” she prompts gently.
“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,” he murmurs, and comes up to kiss her mouth. “You have ravished my heart with one of your eyes, with one chain of your neck.” He moves to her neck to underline the sentiment, whispering on between kisses. “How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine!”
“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine,” Mal gives him in answer, and pulls Dom up to kiss her mouth again. “What do you think, shall we get married today?”
“Well, now it’ll be bad luck,” Dom tells her, mouth twisting, “now I’ve seen you.”
“Lucky for you, I don’t believe in bad luck,” Mal smiles back.
Everything is perfect, warm and flower-scented and steeped in good wishes. Arthur has made the gallery beautiful to look at, and then he and Eames make it beautiful with music too, and while Mal loves them dearly for their exertions on her behalf, she can’t help thinking that nothing could make the moment anything but beautiful: Dom’s nervous fingers twined in hers as they promise to grow old together.
The reception dinner follows close on the heels of the ceremony, the guests moving from one space to the other while Mal and Dom and Philippa go off for a brief formal photo shoot with Daniel. By the time they return, everyone is well into their second or third cocktail and the atmosphere has palpably shifted from loving reverence to carefree celebration.
“Eames,” Mal says, finding him hanging off the bar like the worst kind of cliché, “first I must thank you for singing so wonderfully.” She tilts her cheek to accept the kiss Eames offers her, taking the opportunity to clamp onto his forearm. “And secondly, I must insist that you not seduce any of these pretty young students of mine. They are all far too enamored of you as it is.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Eames says, as though he hasn’t got one drink in each hand, isn’t looking over Mal’s shoulder at one of her more impressionable sophomore tenors.
“Eames,” Mal warns him, injecting a little seriousness into her tone.
He looks at her thoughtfully, as though wondering whether a pout might not help his case. “He’s very interested in hearing my thoughts on the value of the Met auditions as a career-starter. I could share my hard-won wisdom with him.”
Mal sighs, but she’s still in too good a mood to get overly cross with Eames about anything. “Discretion, if nothing else,” she compromises. “Across the hall outside, there’s a room where I got dressed earlier.”
“I wouldn’t be so déclassé as to shag him in the toilets next to the urinals if that’s what you’re implying,” Eames says haughtily. “I’d at least use the coat check.” He pauses, thinking. “Or a stall.”
“I only meant, be a little discreet for Arthur’s sake,” Mal clarifies, and turns to take her glass of white wine.
“For Arthur’s sake?” Eames repeats incredulously. “What, and him spending half of yesterday snogging shamelessly with that tart of a photographer in front of everyone in the room?”
Mal scans the room, finds Arthur sitting moody and alone at his assigned table, toying with his place card and ignoring the drink at his elbow. “That was for him as much as anyone, I hope you know,” Mal tells Eames.
Eames follows the direction of her gaze, spying Arthur and snorting at the sight. “He’s not the tender fragile flower he once was, Mal, he’s not one of your baby protégés. Trust me, he’s made it perfectly clear that he wants me to admire his happy bloody perfect life here, and it’s no fault of mine if it upsets him to see that my life has its upsides too, it has its perks.”
“Damian Weir being one such perk,” Mal extrapolates easily. She smoothes Eames’ tie and strokes his face, not unkindly. “Make love with him on the table if you think it will prove something. I leave you boys to your battles, I’m done intriguing with the pair of you.”
“Would it were true,” Eames replies archly, but softens the words with a little smile. “The room across the corridor. Noted.” He kisses her cheek again and makes for Damian’s table, careful not to spill anything over the rims of the brimming glasses he carries.
Mal is almost immediately distracted by conversation with other wedding guests, and it’s not long before her small quarrel with Eames entirely slips her mind. They eat dinner, there are speeches and toasts. Miles tells embarrassing childhood stories and Dom pretends to be horrified at discovering the truth of Mal’s sordid past as a fan of the New Kids on the Block. Some of Mal’s other students take turns at the piano, singing and playing. It’s not until Damian Weir comes up to dedicate An die Musik to them that Mal realizes Eames isn’t at Damian’s table anymore.
Eames isn’t, in fact, at his assigned table either.
She’s about to purse her mouth in private amusement – fickle flighty Eames – when Dom leans in and whispers, “Where’d Arthur get to, he’d be mortified to hear this kid butcher the piano part. I want to watch his face go all – you know. The way Arthur’s face goes.”
Mal smiles sweetly at Damian and his untalented pianist, trying to appear supportive and appreciative of their offering, then quickly leans into Dom to reply. “Probably he’s off to scold the caterers for lagging with serving the dessert,” she tells him, which does sound like something Arthur would do.
Dom accepts the reasoning easily enough, sitting back in his chair and applauding generously at the close of the song. Mal feels frozen in place, unsure if she’s more nervous or pleased at this turn of events. Hastily she cranes her head and locates Daniel, up on a chair taking photos of the performers.
“Let’s have the first dance,” Mal says impulsively, taking Dom by the elbow. “Let’s dance to something on the piano, Erica Wing can play something for us.”
“The dance isn’t supposed to start for twenty minutes,” Dom protests, going anyway. “Mal?”
“Let’s dance, I want to dance with my husband,” Mal says again, leading Dom into the cleared space where earlier they’d made their vows. All she can think of is the need to keep Daniel occupied and the attention away from the other guests for another five or ten minutes. She can only hope that Eames is still conscious of her earlier advice on the wisdom of due discretion.
Arthur’s standing outside, shoulders hunched a little against the autumnal chill, before he realizes that – of course – he doesn’t even have any cigarettes. He was never really more than a social smoker, anyway, but Daniel hated the smell so Arthur quit cold turkey not long after they started seeing each other. He hasn’t missed the habit once between then and now, standing in the cool air outside Mal and Dom’s wedding reception and needing the distraction of the ritual, the jittery focus of nicotine.
Damian Weir is a nice enough kid, Arthur supposes, not overly bright but a hard worker and a good natural actor. And for all he’s only about twenty years old, Arthur’s well aware that Damian is far from inexperienced.
The gallery’s back door swings open and shut, and Eames draws even with Arthur, already digging in his suit jacket pocket. He doesn’t say anything, just extends the pack of smokes in invitation. Arthur takes one, raising it in a gesture of thanks, and then he has to lean in and cup his hand to guard Eames’ lighter from the light breeze as Eames touches the flame to the tip of Arthur’s cigarette.
“Cheers,” Eames says, lighting his own cigarette, and for a moment they smoke in mutual silence, still facing out into the small parking lot, soft music from the reception still faintly audible. Eames finally glances over at Arthur and smirks. “Still hold your cigarette in that fabulously camp fashion, I see?”
“Whatever,” Arthur says, letting his wrist drape back just a little more, “you hold yours like a fucking joint,” and Eames does too, pinches the base of the smoke between thumb and middle finger and takes hits in long careful inhalations, turns the cigarette around to cup it in the hollow of his palm between drags.
Eames breaks first, hiding his laugh behind his fist, and then giving it up as a bad job when Arthur joins in. For a few moments, Arthur feels it: the way they click together, all too easily, the way it’s not work at all to be with Eames, to smile at him and tease each other and be quiet together. Arthur holds out his cigarette and squints at the glowing end, a little dizzy with the unaccustomed nicotine rush. Too easy to fall into old habits.
“Look, if there’s – something else,” Arthur says, with just a little emphasis on the last two words, “you know, something else you’d rather be doing, don’t let me get in the way.”
Eames taps the ash from his cigarette, exhaling smoke. He shakes his head, lifting his hand up again. “Nah,” he says simply.
Arthur can admit that he’s been thinking about it constantly since the moment he saw Eames in Mal’s kitchen, how it would be to close the space between them, to kiss Eames’ mouth and drop instantly into that glorious unthinking state of need and joy and contentment. All the reasons it would be a stupid idea aren’t fading, though; if anything, they’re multiplying, crowding into Arthur’s head until he’s almost feeling suffocated by logic. He holds the cigarette to his mouth, craving some relief.
“I thought,” Eames says, and suddenly he’s nearly stammering, he sounds so uncharacteristically uncertain, “I thought it might be a moment that we could, we could bloody talk about – about everything. You know, get it out in the open and clear the air and all that.”
Talking won’t get them anywhere, though it’s unexpectedly sweet of Eames to offer. There’s no fix to the things that will always be between them, unresolved and unsolvable. Arthur loves Daniel, he truly does; but it’s Eames. There’s no point in drawing a comparison. It’s not apples and oranges. It’s apples and Goethe, apples and Rachmaninoff.
“Nah,” Arthur says, dropping his cigarette, crushing it under his toe. This is it, this is the tipping point. Go inside and keep pretending, or give up the game here and now. Arthur stares at his shoe, pulse kicking into high gear. The decision’s already made. It was made for him when Eames said I thought I sensed Armani in the house. He lifts his head, takes Eames’ cigarette from him, and stubs it out too before crowding into Eames’ space. “Nah,” Arthur says again, and kisses Eames’ smoky-tasting beautiful mouth.
Eames doesn’t resist or even startle. From the instant Arthur’s mouth touches his, Arthur can sense that Eames is going all in, lighting into Arthur with a hungry sound, relieved and desperate all at once. The frisson of shock – this is real, it’s Eames, what the fuck is Arthur doing -- only lasts a second or so. Eames holds Arthur steady with one hand on his jaw, the other at his waist while Arthur can’t settle on where to hold onto Eames in return, gliding hands greedily over every plane of him, the solidity and strength coiled in his arms, his shoulders, his chest.
“We can’t,” Eames says, between kisses, “Arthur, we can’t,” but he doesn’t mean that they should stop, because he continues with, “we’re right out in the open here, anyone could stumble out the door and”—
Because there’s the amazing mindlessness of self-immolation, and then there’s the foresight of knowing that they’re going to have to walk away from the ashes in a minute or two. Of the two of them Eames always was the more practical one. Arthur pulls back just a little, long enough to say, “Yeah, of course, no, we should move.” Mostly he’s thinking about getting Eames out of his shirt and tie.
Eames gently pries Arthur’s fingers away from the knot of his tie and says, “I know where to go, come on.”
The music from the reception is louder the moment that they cross back into the gallery. Someone is butchering Schubert on the piano; Arthur doesn’t give a shit. Eames leads them into a small room just off the main corridor, a dozen steps inside the building. It’s strewn here and there with Mal’s belongings, marking it as the place she’d gotten dressed earlier, but Arthur doesn’t pause to take anything more in because Eames has got the door closed and Arthur’s pressing him up against it, the room dark and quiet.
If Arthur was capable of formulating any kind of plan at all, it would have involved more kissing and groping and far less of this, this moment that catches him breathless and off-guard. For all Arthur has Eames pinned, Eames is holding Arthur in place with the look on his face, his eyes wide and grateful and fond and sad all at once.
“This is really fucking stupid,” Arthur tells Eames, wanting to be clear, managing to talk around the sudden lump in his throat, “this is just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
“Not me,” Eames says, deadly serious, “believe me, I’ve done far stupider things.”
Arthur can’t decide, later, which of them broke the stillness first. It seems like it happened in a rush of motion, lips colliding almost brutally, hands scrabbling at flies and belts and ties and buttons, harsh and demanding like you could only be with a total stranger or a long-time lover, and Eames is both and neither, he’s rough with grasping digging fingertips in Arthur’s back, he’s sure and deft when his hand closes around Arthur’s cock, knowing just what –
“I want to fuck you,” Eames says, raggedly, “I want to fuck you up against this wall.”
“Okay,” Arthur says gamely even as they stroke together, gasping into each other’s open mouths, fast and dirty and perfect.
“I want to get you naked and facedown on a bed, I want to lie over you and make you sweat with want, fuck, I want to put my tongue in your arse and”—
“Yeah,” Arthur agrees, shaking, on the edge, “fuck, yeah, let’s”—
“I want you on your knees, I want to come in your mouth, I’ll pull your hair and hold you there”—
Arthur arches and comes, hard, going dizzy with the effort to hold in his pleasure, to contain it in this small space between them. Eames’ fingers card through his hair, clench into it, and then Eames comes too, biting at Arthur’s lips, too careful, not wanting to leave marks.
“I want your clothes in my suitcase,” Eames says, voice gone raspy, “I want you frowning at the room service menu, I want you next to me on the plane.”
Arthur kisses Eames’ lips, gentle now, still holding Eames’ cock, stroking it minutely, pulse thudding dully in his ears.
“Arthur,” Eames says.
Arthur kisses Eames’ neck, pretending that Eames isn’t going soft against his palm, pretending that he can’t hear Chopin through the walls between them and the reception.
It’s not over yet. It can’t be over yet. It’s too soon.
“Arthur,” Eames says again. “I mean it. What I said.” He releases a little gasp of almost-pain, and his hand comes down and gently pulls Arthur’s fingers away. “Arthur. You know there’s no one else.”
Arthur closes his eyes, rests his face in the crook of Eames’ neck, breathes. There’s no one else, no one like this. Eames’ hand toys with the hair on the nape of Arthur’s neck, patient for a moment longer.
“I’m making better money all the time,” Eames murmurs, “We can’t always be together but you can come along with me for a lot of gigs. You could be my repetiteur.”
Arthur lifts his head at this, post-coital languor abruptly evaporating. “I could be your repetiteur,” he says, flatly.
Eames smiles, shaking his head. “I’m taking the piss, I didn’t mean”—
“No,” Arthur says, shaking his head too. “You kind of did.” He takes a step back, pulls at his shirt and his pants, beginning to get himself back together. The logic is returning with a vengeance.
“Arthur, don’t be like that,” Eames cajoles, “darling.”
Arthur finds a box of tissues on a table, begins to scrub at his hands and his belly. It’s all sordid and messy as fuck, this close dark room, jerking each other off with Mal’s honeymoon bag in the corner, Philippa’s carseat. “I’ll leave first,” Arthur says. “Wait a few minutes before you go back in.”
“Let’s bloody talk about it,” Eames protests even as Arthur buttons his shirt and tightens his tie, does a half-assed job of fixing his mussed hair. “There’s a middle ground, surely. Arthur.”
“There’s really not,” Arthur answers evenly, furious and disgusted with the pair of them, thinking of Daniel earnestly taking photographs of the reception twenty feet away. “I’m taken, Eames.”
Eames huffs. “Yes, indeed, you seemed very concerned with that only moments ago. Are you going to tell him about our little tryst, then? In the interest of fostering an open mature relationship?”
Arthur finds his suit jacket, pulls it on. He’s doing his best to ignore Eames, Eames’ question and Eames’ rumpled half-naked presence. “Five minutes,” Arthur says, “then you follow.”
Eames steps aside, clearing the way to the door with a polite after you gesture, anger written in every line of his charming body. “You should definitely tell him about how you like being shoved around,” he says, amiably, “I can tell you haven’t had a decent fuck in weeks, the way you reacted to that.”
“Five minutes,” Arthur repeats, and leaves the room.
It’s a wonderful celebration. Mal sits at the head table with Philippa’s sleep-heavy body tucked against her, watching as their guests dance and laugh and make speeches and toasts. Cobb is browbeaten into sitting down at the piano, where he spends two minutes preemptively apologizing for his performance and one minute playing the beginnings of a tender art song, like a thumbnail sketch of love. Mal hands off Philippa and displaces Dom at the keys, and Eames materializes out of nowhere looking rather rumpled, and together they perform Du Ring am meinem Finger with Eames singing earnestly to Dom the whole time while everyone looking on laughs.
“That was – terrible,” Dom says when they’re finished, mouth twisting against a smile, and then he leans in and presses a fond thank-you kiss on each their mouths. Eames pretends to grow faint. They are all a little drunk.
“Now you,” Mal says, grabbing Eames’ hand and squeezing it, “now you and Arthur.”
Even drunk, Eames’ smiling face doesn’t so much as flicker. “That stick-in-the-mud?” he says. “He went home ages ago.”
“Did he?” Mal says, well past the point of anything but showing her disappointment. “Oh, Eames. What did you do?”
Eames casts her a warning look, reminding her of the people all around them, and shrugs a shoulder. “He resents that I interrupted his dream life with the photographer,” he murmurs. “Some people don’t want be shaken awake, I guess.”
Mal tries not to let it cling to her, but it does anyhow, the sadness and finality of Eames’ voice in that stolen moment. Dom mistakes it for the melancholy of intoxication, at first, and then changes his mind and reminds her that Philippa will be fine with her parents, it’s only overnight anyway.
“It’s a terrible thing, to be alone,” Mal responds to this, knowing he will misunderstand, but unable to admit that they’re finally here together on their beautiful wedding night, in their beautiful honeymoon suite, and Mal can only mourn for Eames and Arthur - for Eames especially.
“She’s not alone,” Dom hushes her, smiling. “She’s with them.” He comes in close, toys with the satin buttons at the back of her dress as he wraps his arms around her. “We’ll see her first thing tomorrow.”
And abruptly, somehow, it is about Philippa. The touch of Dom’s hands at the skin of her back sends her into a sudden fever of longing; she needs her baby with her. But Philippa won’t always be with her, it’s nonsense to pretend otherwise, Mal knows this. Mal is, like everyone, horribly singular in the universe no matter how many promises are made and rings exchanged.
“Sweetheart,” Dom says, swiping away one of her tears with the flat of his thumb. “Oh, sweetheart, we can go and get her. I’ll go right now.”
“No,” Mal says, shaking her head, catching Dom’s hand and holding it to her cheek, dear and wonderful. “I’m – Dom. Let’s make another baby. Let’s start tonight.”
Dom huffs a surprised laugh. “Mal, come on.”
“No,” Mal says, because she means it, she really does. She longs to be pregnant again, to hold that flickering heartbeat secret in her belly, to have a private conversation of kicks and pushes within her body. “Please.”
Dom’s mouth curves slowly as he accepts her word. “Sure?” he says. “Remember that it only took the one time with Philippa. No take-backs. No wine on the honeymoon either.”
Mal laces her fingers with Dom’s, left hand to left hand so their new wedding bands click together. “How much better is your love than wine,” she quotes back at him, and Dom’s eyes flash blue and swift, and he’s nodding, he’s kissing her fingers, and Mal is swimming in sadness and love and fear and wholeness all at once. It’s awful and it’s beautiful.
It’s the soft clicking of the mouse and keyboard that draws Arthur up out of a slightly hung-over sleep. Daniel’s loft -- their loft, now – is open plan, beautiful for a photography studio space but less practical for soundproofing. Arthur twists on the mattress, testing his body, stretching it out. Last night seems like ages ago.
He gets up in stages, first rolling over, then to the edge of the mattress, and finally hauling himself into a sitting position.
He’d left right after the tryst with Eames, Arthur remembers. He’d found Daniel taking artsy shots of the wedding cake and told him he wasn’t feeling well, he’d take a cab, they’d see each other at home. Daniel, even trusting Daniel, had gone a little narrow-eyed at this, but hadn’t raised a fuss. Arthur doesn’t know when Daniel had gotten home; Arthur himself had been fast asleep from the moment he’d hit the bed.
Arthur drags on a robe and rounds the divider screen to the main part of the loft, where Daniel is sitting at his work computer and sorting through last night’s shots on his huge glossy widescreen monitor. “Is there coffee?” Arthur asks, knotting his robe, padding over to the kitchen.
“Yeah,” Daniel says distractedly, in full work mode.
Arthur pours himself a mug and comes back over to look over Daniel’s shoulder as he flips through beautiful shot after beautiful shot of the ceremony, the reception.
“Something you wanted to tell me?” Daniel asks, not turning around, his tone cool.
Arthur doesn’t check his hand as he lifts the mug to his lips, but his pulse is abruptly thudding wildly. “Mm?” Arthur manages around a hot swallow of coffee.
“I could smell it on you,” Daniel says. “Last night.”
Arthur feels the blood drain from his face and immediately starts running through the possible responses – confession, denial, half-truth – but then Daniel speaks again, finally looking over his shoulder at Arthur.
“Smoking?” Daniel says. “Really? No wonder you made yourself sick, you stink of cigarettes.”
Arthur lifts his forearm to his face, pretending to sniff at it, but really hiding his expression of utter relief. “Sorry,” he says. “I’ll shower.”
“And wash the sheets, they’re awful,” Daniel adds sternly, but breaks into a little smile right after. “I wondered where you’d gotten off to for a while there.”
Arthur pulls his mouth into a smirk. “The demon nicotine.”
“Brush your teeth, too,” Daniel says, and turns back to his work. “I’ll be finished here by the time you’re out, we can grab brunch if you want.”
It’s not until Arthur is alone and safe in the shower that he lets himself think through what almost happened just now. Stupid, stupid risk, stupid move. He loves Daniel, he does. Arthur scrubs his hands through his hair, lathering the shampoo a little roughly, and pictures Eames zipping his suitcase closed, Eames on his flight to Madrid, Eames alone in his hotel room frowning at the room service menu.
Arthur scrubs at his hair, and waits for it all to fade from his mind like the memory of a bad dream.