Arthur rushes into the building, soaked to the bone and dripping dirty rain water on the runner in the hall, letters clenched tightly in his fist. He curses early spring in Paris and takes the steps three at a time to his flat on the fourth floor. It’s a shoebox, really, and the light is dismal, but it’s cheap and the location provides Arthur with a wealth of subjects to study.
The ink on the envelope has smeared, obscuring his name, but the seal of the Société des artistes français is undamaged until Arthur slides his finger under the corner and breaks it open. His eyes fly over the words curling across the page, his elation smothered by the disdainful rejection Arthur’s sure the French are taught from birth. They claim his submission is fatigué . Ca manque d’inspiration, Monsieur Miles . Arthur crumples the paper and tosses it into the cold hearth. Another season wasted.
The second letter is on thicker paper, from a solicitor in London. Arthur stumbles back until his knees hit the small bed, and he sits down hard. The letters blur together, but certain words will forever be seared into his memory. Words such as Dominic , and Mallorie , Tragic Accident , and Untimely Deaths . Words like bequeath unto you . He’s stunned. He feels numb to the wetness of his clothes and the chill he knows permeates the room. The very bedrock of his existence has turned to rubble, and he’s suddenly unaware of why he’s here. All his wild hopes and dreams seem small in the face of this travesty.
Arthur packs his meagre possessions quickly and forces the window open in the hall. He didn’t miss the notice of eviction on his door, and he owes two weeks back rent already. What else has he to do but follow the instructions of Misters Fischer and Morrow? There’s nothing keeping him here. He’s been rejected by the artistic elite and laughed out of every salon in Paris. He owes France nothing, but if he leaves now, he might make it to London in time for the funeral.
Arthur studied Architecture under Dominic Cobb, impressing Dom and gaining him as his mentor. What meant more to Arthur, though, was earning his friendship. They became so close, Dom was able to lure Arthur to London with him when he was offered a teaching position at Bartlett. Arthur met Mal shortly after arriving, when he came upon her shouting down a constable for muddying her dress in his pursuit of a pickpocket.
“A child, Mr. Cohen,” she told him later, an innocent look on her face and a mischievous gleam in her eye. “One who is no doubt more in need of that tuppence than the man from whom he liberated it.”
Arthur fell in love with her on the spot, but had no regrets over introducing her to Dom. The two hit it off immediately, clearly enamoured with each other, and any affection Arthur felt for Mal transformed instantly into one of kinship. Dom and Mal were engaged and married within the year, and Arthur stood in as witness at the ceremony.
It was Mal who renamed Arthur when he decided to try his luck in France. She graced him with her maiden name, delicately explaining that his own would do him no favours in the world of art. He cherished his new name, held it closely to his heart, especially after receiving word of his father’s death back home in Philadelphia. Taking Mal’s name was a rebirthing. A chance for Arthur to shuck off the oppression of his upbringing and leave behind the horrors of his childhood.
It was that event which pushed Arthur to pursue his dreams of being a great artist. Painting had long been a passion, his technique nearly flawless, but his creations were often criticized as lifeless and dull, not to mention abhorred by his draconian father. So he took the money from his family’s small estate, and went to Paris to learn alongside the best. Five years later, he’s still struggling. Five years later, and both Dom and Mal are dead.
On the train, Arthur rereads Mal’s letters. He smiles through his tears at how happy she sounded. Her first four years with Dom had been filled with confessions of passion, love, and dreams come true. She had written of the house they purchased, of filling it with light and laughter. It’s the house of my dreams, she had written. The house where every wish they’d ever made would be granted.
And it seemed to be just that when she wrote to tell him of the baby, due on Arthur’s birthday. She described the furniture she bought for the nursery, having it delivered as a surprise for Dom. She wrote about the hopes she had for her child, how she secretly worried it would be a girl, while at the same time praying it was because that’s what Dom wanted.
Six months into her pregnancy, Mal lost the baby. That letter is bleak and dry, shot through with a brittle tone Arthur had never heard Mal use, but can somehow still feel in his heart. Arthur hadn’t been there to comfort her, but could practically feel the coldness she had turned toward Dom in her grief. She had written of his absence and her jealousy. Gone for days with no explanation, and no apology. When Arthur had finally written to Dom with his worry, he discovered that Dom had made a breakthrough and taken refuge in his work. Dom had been broken at the loss of the child; but instead of seeking comfort in each other, they had let their loss tear them apart.
Arthur curses himself for not going to them, then. He had been their best friend, and he had known them almost better than he knew himself. But there had been a last minute opening in a master class, and Mal’s letters had taken a turn for the better. She wasn’t herself yet, but she had written of a great plan. Something to bring her and Dom back together, forever. Arthur wipes at his eyes, hoping they at least made amends before they died.
He goes directly to the Solicitor’s when he arrives. Maurice Fischer is a serious man who doesn’t waste sentiment on words. He tells Arthur he’s been left the house and the estate, both much larger than he’d ever have suspected. Apparently Dom’s recent dealings with the British government paid better than teaching had.
Fischer’s son, Robert, accompanies him to the church, expressing his condolences and speaking of Dom and Mal in a friendly and complimentary manner. Robert has a sharp wit and an appreciative eye that Arthur catches watching him during the carriage ride. If it were any other time, Arthur would return his interest, but not here. Not now. Not with Dom and Mal freshly lowered into the ground, a matched pair, even in death. Arthur stands, frozen in grief until long after the others have left. Robert takes him gently by the arm and leads him back to the carriage. They’ll go to the house now, Robert explains, let Arthur get settled in.
The house is large, grey, and Arthur hates it on sight. It looms over the narrow walkway that runs along the street as though it’s waiting for an unsuspecting visitor to wander too close to its penumbra. It’s hateful, Arthur thinks, knowing now that this is where his friends met their end. Quint, the Cobb’s butler, greets them solemnly when Robert rings the bell. He introduces Arthur and Quint eyes him shrewdly, seemingly unimpressed with his new employer. Robert knows the house, having dined with the Cobbs on several occasions, and joins the tour of the rooms. Arthur declines Quint’s offer to show them the master suite, asking instead for his things to be placed on another floor entirely. He’s not ready for the responsibility of this, and maybe if he plays the role of a guest, he can put it off a little longer.
Once Robert is gone and Quint has left him to get settled, Arthur hides in his room, unpacking slowly and moving the few small knick-knacks he has from place to place. The house itself is even darker than it looks from the street. The whole back portion is floor to ceiling windows, that somehow don’t let in any light. They’re overshadowed by the eaves of the house and Arthur doubts they’re pleasant even in full light.
The walls of the house that aren’t covered in muted, drab paper are made up of thousands of interlocking squares of dark wood. Arthur can see the beauty in the design, but the effect is rather dizzying when studied for more than a minute or two. These sections of wall have a labyrinthine effect, starling in its illusion of movement. He can’t quite marry the house Mal boasted of with the one he now owns. He wonders if she had plans to redecorate, but Quint assures him the lady of the house had only recently completed her personal designs on the house.
Dom’s drafting table in the makeshift office is like a punch to the gut. Arthur remembers well the night they had smuggled the beast out of Dom’s rooms in faculty housing and moved it across campus to Arthur’s dorm at three in the morning, drunk on gin and their own grandiosity. It was shortly after Dom received the offer from Bartlett. When he’d given his notice, he’d been told he had a week to vacate his rooms. The table had become an extension of himself, he told Arthur, bandying about the room with the bottle. He could no more exist without it than he could his right hand. He’d be lost, useless and broken, unable to work. He’d lose his position and be destitute unless Arthur helped him abscond with it. The bloody thing weighed two hundred pounds, and Arthur knows it cost a small fortune to ship it to London, but it was important to Dom, and so it had become important to him. It now sits abandoned in the corner, mocking him from beneath its layers of dust. Taunting him with the possibility that had he remained in London, Dom and Mal might still live.
Once he builds up the nerve to wander the house, Arthur discovers the drafting table is one of the only things he recognizes from the life Dom and Mal led while he was still with them. After a week of investigating the bizarre silence of the house, Arthur starts to wonder if he’d recognize them at all if he’d come to visit all those times he’d been asked. In Mal’s desk, there are invitations to luncheons and parties, sent by people Arthur’s never heard of, thank you notes addressed to names she never mentioned.
It makes Arthur feel lonely in a way he never has before. Like they’d left him behind. He wonders if any of these people know who he is. Did they talk about him at all, their artist friend in Paris? Did Mal talk him up at parties like she used to, boasting of his unique perspectives and embellishing his accomplishment?
“One day, mon cher, they won’t be lies.” Mal would pat his cheek and smooth away his frown.
A week after his arrival, Arthur is set up in the second parlor, the furniture pushed against the walls and draped for protection from his paints. The light is ghastly, but it’s the best in the house with the fog lurking outside at all hours of the day. Arthur’s putting the finishing touches on a still life of a crystal vase he found in the foyer. Quint had fussed when he moved it, but Arthur simply shut the door in his face and draped a cloth over it artfully. The painting is flat and bleak, none of the angles coming together where they should, and Arthur feels out of his depth in a way that should be laughable, but isn’t. For the third time he considers renting a studio, but the energy it would take to leave the house seems too much to spend. He’s about to call for another lamp when a throat is cleared from the behind him and Arthur startles, nearly upsetting the easel.
“Forgive me for the interruption, sir. Lord Saito has arrived,” Quint announces, never meeting Arthur’s gaze. He ushers forth a man dressed in an impeccable grey morning suit, and disappears.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything, Mr. Miles.” Saito smiles warmly.
“Um, no, no of course not. Forgive me, I wasn’t aware we had an appointment.” Arthur wipes his hand hastily on a rag before extending it to the man.
Saito shakes it, chuckling at a streak of green across the back of Arthur’s palm. “We did not, I was simply passing by and bullied my way in. I was a friend of Dominic’s.”
Arthur freezes. It’s not that he’s forgotten where he is, or why, but for a minute he allowed himself to not think on it.
“Work has been quite dull without Dom’s fanciful ideas, and the world is a little darker without Mallorie’s smile to light the way.” Saito bows his head politely.
“Sorry, did you say work?” Arthur frowns.
“Yes, Dom and I were colleagues.”
“Saito. You’re not Orochi Saito, are you?” Arthur takes a step back, suddenly aware of his disheveled appearance.
Saito chuckles and pulls the sheet from a chaise, settling himself before answering. “The one and only.”
“You built Brightly. My god, you’re one of the most prominent architects of this century.” Arthur’s gaping, he knows he is, but he can’t seem to help it. Orochi Saito, the architect behind Brightly Manor, a giant beast of steel and glass that is said to be a vision of the future, is picking lint off his trousers in Arthur’s parlor. Arthur may be out of the game, but he’s not been living under a rock.
“I should hire you to annouce me at parties, Mr. Miles. May I call you Arthur? Dom always did, and Mr. Miles seems so formal.”
“Of course, I’m terribly sorry. I just. You’re not someone I ever expected to meet, my Lord.” Arthur rings for tea, willing himself to calm down.
“Please, call me Saito. Everyone does. Now, let’s have a look at your work. Mallorie was constantly singing your praises, you know, she was very proud.”
Arthur flushes, torn between embarrassment and sadness while Saito studies the painting.
Saito’s silent for several minutes, simply taking in the canvas while Arthur busies himself with cleaning his brushes to keep from fidgeting. Quint delivers tea and still, Saito sits, assessing. Finally, the man stirs, picking up the cup Arthur set at his elbow, and taking a sip.
“You need a life,” Saito declares.
“A life?” Arthur frowns. “I have a life.”
“No, you have an existence. You need a life, young man. Something thrilling and dangerous. Something worth capturing.” Saito sets his cup on the floor and stands in one fluid motion.
“I’m having a small get together on Thursday night. You will be my special guest.”
“Oh, I don’t know—” Arthur protests.
“I will leave the name of my tailor with your man. I daresay you can afford a new suit or two, Arthur. Nothing makes a man feel alive like a new suit. Well.” Saito winks at him. “Almost nothing. Good day.”
Arthur’s left starting at the door long after Saito has left. He turns back to the painting, trying to see what Saito must have seen to take pity on him. All he can see is his own misery, reflected back at him in greens and greys. Thunder sounds in the distance and he feels suddenly, terribly alone.
He tosses around in bed that night, his dreams as puzzling as the complex pattern on the wall as he searches the house for something he can no longer identify. The article is there, constantly out of reach and on the tip of his tongue, and Arthur’s certain if he could just give voice to his prize, it would reveal itself. He wakes before it’s light, dragging and hazy, and wanders the house in his robe until the day staff arrives. The morning post brings official invitations from Saito, and Arthur barely hesitates before sending for the tailor. If a life is what he needs to claw his way out of his misery, a life is what he will find.
His evening at Saito’s is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. The dinner itself is a subdued affair, ladies and gentleman enjoying stimulating conversation and excellent food, and Arthur finds himself seated between Robert Fischer and Fischer’s aunt Virginia, who asks one question after another about Arthur’s work. Many people voiced their condolences for the loss of the Cobbs upon meeting him, before artfully changing the subject. Everyone seems to at least know of Arthur, and it bolsters his confidence, that Dom and Mal had thought enough of him to boast his accomplishments.
Once dinner is over, the men bid farewell to their wives and daughters, moving to the back parlor for a quiet evening of ‘cards and politics’. Arthur tries to excuse himself, but Robert holds his arm, promising that the activities of Saito’s ‘Bonne Bouche’ will prove to be anything but dull.
The parlor is large, but ordinary, with several couches and chairs placed in a rough square around a raised platform in the middle of the room. There is a butler tending the bar in the corner, and the windows are all covered in heavy drapes. The air is heavy and smells of a sweet spice Arthur is unfamiliar with. After just a few breaths, he’s feeling light headed, and Robert pushes him onto a couch, pressing a crystal tumbler into his hand.
“You’ll get used to it,” Robert smiles, sitting next to him. “Trust me.”
“What’s all this for?” He asks, taking a sip and coughing at the straight gin in his glass.
Robert laughs, and he’s close enough that Arthur can feel the heat of his body and smell his cologne. “Careful. This is how Saito welcomes all his new friends. Well, almost all of them.”
“I barely know him,” Arthur protests. “I hardly warrant all this.”
Robert huffs a laugh and takes a drink. “Saito likes to collect shiny new things.”
Arthur frowns. “Are you talking about me?”
Robert’s uncle, Lord Browning, perches on the arm of the couch, interrupting them and drawing Arthur’s attention.
“Such a shame,” Browning sniffs. “The Cobbs going like they did. Dominic was decent, and one hell of an idea man.”
“A tragic accident,” Robert agrees tightly, and it strikes Arthur as a warning.
“What do you mean, ‘like they did’?” Arthur asks, craning his neck to look at Browning.
“Not a surprise, I suppose. What else do you expect from the French?” Browning laughs and empties his glass.
“What the hell does that mean?” Arthur asks loudly, shoving off the couch.
Robert’s hand wraps around his wrist, pulling him back down. “Don’t make a scene, Arthur. Uncle, your glass is empty, go fill it.”
Browning turns his empty glass upside down and Arthur realizes the man is quite drunk.
“Look at that.” Browning lurches to his feet. “Worked out in your favour, in the end, eh?”
Arthur goes cold, Browning’s laughter echoing in his head. Robert releases his wrist, moving his hand to rub the back of Arthur’s neck instead. It’s a rather familiar move and Arthur pulls away, glancing around the room.
“Don’t worry, they won’t care.” Robert smiles at Arthur’s worried look.
“About what?” Arthur ventures.
“You know, the first time we met, I had hoped. One can rarely be sure of these things.” Robert slides his hand onto Arthur’s knee. “But I had hoped.”
Arthur stares as the long, slim fingers petting his leg. No one else in the room seems to notice, the others settling into their places with drinks in their hands. Arthur catches Saito’s eye and blushes furiously. Saito simply raises his glass in their direction and smiles.
“My uncle is very drunk and he’s not the most discreet man when sober. You’ll have to forgive his crassness,” Robert says, leaning closer.
“Will I?” Arthur croaks and Robert’s hand slides up his thigh.
“I’m sure we can find something to take your mind off of it.”
A gong sounds, drawing their attention to the front of the room where a line of young men and women enter through a hidden doorway. Dressed in bright, flowing drapes of fabric, the cloth has been strategically hung to reveal certain areas of their bodies. Arthur’s no stranger to the nude form, but the sight of these performers is shocking, even to him. Both men and women are decorated with rouge and liner, lips a violent slash of red across their mouths. One of the women has small silver hoops through her nipples, and one of the men reaches out to pinch at one while she giggles and swats him playfully. Her pubic hair has been dyed a white blonde, in total contrast to the dark hair on her head. Another has fiery orange hair flashing through a large slit in the front of her costume. The men’s groins have all been shaved close, their cocks jutting shamelessly from beneath their short tunics. Many have brass rings fitted to the base of their members.
The last man through is barely more than a boy, but his cock is nearly the size of Arthur’s forearm. He gasps and Robert chuckles darkly in his ear.
“Fancy taking him for a spin?”
“What?” Arthur gapes at Robert in shock.
“Please make use of any of my delights, Arthur,” Saito says from beside him. “But there is a list. He’s very popular, so if you want him, you’ll have to hurry.”
“No, no, I don’t,” he falters, distracted when the young man walks past them to stand on the platform, posing with the others in an alluring tableau.
“You’ve overwhelmed him, Saito. I warned you,” Robert says, patting Arthur’s leg. “I’ll bring us something you’ll enjoy.”
Robert goes to a small table, playfully shoving a few other men out of the way to access the small ledger.
“I do hope you are not offended, dear boy,” Saito smiles, leaning into Arthur’s space.
Saito chuckles. “Dom wasn’t one for my parties, but he hinted that you might be. I planned this one for you, you know. As a welcome.”
“Oh, thank you. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, I just. I’m a little out of my element,” Arthur admits with a flush.
“Are you really? How charming,” Saito laughs, his hand warm on Arthur’s shoulder as he bends to speak directly in his ear. “Had I known, I would have arranged something a little more...private.”
Arthur wants to tug at his collar, feeling quite breathless and confined, but Robert returns and Saito steps away.
“I figured he might be a little much for your first party, so I chose something a little softer. I hope you’ll be pleased.” Robert grins and settles next to him, closer than before.
Arthur opens his mouth to protest when a young man approaches them, moving to kneel at Robert’s feet.
“This is Timothy. Timothy, this is Mr. Miles.” Robert runs a hand through Timothy’s dark hair.
“Hello, Mr. Miles,” Timothy purrs, batting his large green eyes at Arthur.
The boy doesn’t look a day over fourteen and it makes Arthur squirm. He should be at home, tucked into bed, not in a rich man’s parlor, on his knees for whomever orders him for the night.
“You really don’t have to,” Arthur starts as Timothy lays his head in his lap.
“Arthur, you’ll hurt the boy’s feelings if you refuse. And mine. He is my gift to you, after all.”
“Look around, Arthur,” Robert whispers, running his hand up Arthur’s arm.
Arthur does, and is met with a scene he never imagined he’d see. Browning and three other men are watching closely as two women writhe in front of them. The women are kissing and one of them is working her hand between the legs of the other. In front of another couch, a man is laying with a woman impaled on his cock, a second man stretching her with his fingers, no doubt in preparation for him to enter her from behind.
The sounds and the smells are intoxicating and Robert’s hand is trailing lower.
“What if I want to watch?” He blurts before Robert gets any further.
Robert smiles and kisses him chastely. “Then we shall give you a performance worthy of your attention, won’t we, Timothy?”
The boy nods and moves between Robert’s spread legs, fishing Robert out of his pants and taking him down in one long pull, the red of his lips smearing around the base. Robert laughs with delight, guiding Timothy with a hand fisted in his curls as the boy sucks his cock slowly.
Arthur’s soft in his pants and vaguely nauseous from the display. He tries to focus on the grace in Timothy’s movements, the way he swallows around Robert’s length before bobbing his head in quick little flutters. His lashes are dark and lovely against his skin, his cheeks hollowing attractively with every pull. Arthur’s barely had time to study the line of his neck before Robert swears and pulls out, shooting his seed across the boy’s face.
Arthur frowns in distaste and hands Timothy his handkerchief, watching as he wipes away the mess and stands to go. Robert slaps his bottom and sighs, leaning back into the cushions.
Robert’s panting hard and he laughs at whatever he sees on Arthur’s face. “Are you terribly shocked?”
Arthur shakes his head and musters a smile. Around them, the other groups seem to be just getting started.
“I certainly hope you’re not done for the night,” Robert grins and nips at his ear. “Let me get you another drink and we’ll start again. A woman this time, or does your interest lie solely in ingles?”
Arthur looks at the debauchery around them. “I believe I may need a breath of fresh air.”
“Like that, is it?” Robert laughs. “Need a hand?”
“No, I’ve got things quite under control, thank you.” Arthur stands and makes his way to the door.
Saito is in the hall, speaking quietly to a member of his staff. He turns and smiles when he sees Arthur.
“Leaving so soon?”
“I think I have had all I can handle for one evening, my Lord. Forgive me.”
Saito waves away his concerns and sends for Arthur coat and hat.
“I take it you did not find what you were seeking?” Saito asks while they wait for Arthur’s carriage.
“I’m afraid not. Lovely as they were, none struck me as a muse.”
“I do hope that you will join us again. Faces are always changing, you know.” Saito opens the door of the carriage for him, tucking a stray lock of hair behind Arthur’s ear.
“It was certainly a study in anatomy,” Arthur allows, trying not to think of the reason why new faces are so often needed.
Saito laughs. “That is a very polite way of saying it, yes. Perhaps you need to comb the streets, Mr. Miles. London has wonders and beauty the world has never seen. You never know what you’ll find on a night like tonight.”
“Perhaps you are right, my Lord. Thank you.”
The ride home is quiet and chilled after the heated raucousness of Saito’s parlour. Arthur waits until he’s alone in his room, the candles put out, before taking himself in hand and spending himself to the memory of the elegant jounce of the whore child’s throat as he swallowed around Robert’s cock. He falls asleep feeling empty and no further from his misery than he was before.
That night marks the first night Arthur dreams of Mal.
He never actually sees her, but he follows her shadow, familiar with the shape of it. She leads him through the house, the scent of her perfume taunting him as he stumbles to catch up. The house is different, darker somehow, and completely silent. His awkward steps on the rug produce no sound, his movements through the hall disturb no dust. It is as if it is he that is the ghost here, and not Mal.
She disappears through the closed doors of her and Dom’s bedroom, and even in a dream, Arthur cannot bear to enter. There is sound, then, a great clamouring, as if a typhoon has been unleashed on the other side. He hears Mal’s wailing, her brokenhearted screams slicing through him like shards of glass and throwing him backward down the hall.
Arthur wakes with a jolt. Quint turns from where he is throwing back the drapes.
“Forgive me, sir. You have an engagement this morning.”
He doesn’t sound sorry, and Arthur scowls, rubbing his aching head. “I do?”
“Yes, Sir. You are joining Lord Saito at the conservatory for a tour of the private collections. I will ready your bath.” Quint gives him a smug smile before he leaves.
Arthur flops back on the bed, groaning. His dream is dissipating, and the memories of Saito’s party are blurry at best despite not having had very much to drink; the sticky residue of the smoke in the parlor is on his skin and coats the roof of his mouth. Later, once he’s bathed and choked down enough coffee to function, he rings for Quint.
“Sir?” Quint stands just inside the door of Arthur’s room.
“I wanted to ask you about something I overheard last night,” Arthur says as he struggles with his cravat.
“Of course, sir.”
“Someone, a Lord Browning, made reference to Mr. and Mrs. Cobb. He talked about how tragic their accident was.”
“Was that a question, sir?” Quint asks, finally taking over Arthur’s clumsy attempts at putting himself together.
“What happened exactly? No one has actually told me, they only allude to a tragedy.”
“It was an accident, what more is there to know?” Quint sniffs and moves away. “If that’s all, sir, your carriage is ready.”
“But what kind of accident? What happened?” Arthur demands, snatching his hat off the table.
“Sir, I have found that one does best when one does not ask questions to which they do not wish to know the answers.” Quint smiles tightly and slips from the room.
Arthur follows him into the hall, but the man is nowhere to be seen. He slaps the hat on his head and stomps through the house. He contemplates Quint’s lack of answers and Browning’s words on the ride to the conservatory. It might be crass and overstepping to ask Saito, he decides. The man was Dom’s friend, and he may not be comfortable passing along the information. Arthur snorts, wondering that there actually might be something Saito would shy away from.
Robert is his best bet, and although Arthur is reluctant to call on the man after the events of the previous evening, he knows he’ll do it to get his answers. He makes a mental note to send a letter to Robert next week, asking him for lunch.
His afternoon with Saito is entertaining, and he is introduced to more of Dom and Mal’s former friends, all of whom are quite interesting in viewing his paintings.
“I’m afraid I rather left Paris in a hurry when I received the news, and most of my work is in storage there,” he lies easily, knowing the landlord will have burnt every last canvas he left behind.
“Surely you’re working on something now?” Mrs. Canning asks, laying her hand on his arm and smiling prettily.
“A little; mostly I’ve been adjusting to being back. London is very different than when I left,” Arthur demures.
“I have seen his latest,” Saito announces. “And I must say that Mr. Miles is indeed on the cusp of greatness.”
Arthur is shocked at Saito’s words after the critique he’d offered at the time.
“Oh, Mr. Miles, you simply must have an exhibit,” Mrs. Canning’s daughter Alice says.
“And he will, ladies, but the man needs time to create! One does not simply decide to produce perfection. An artist needs something to drive him. Something to seep into his very soul and haunt his days and nights until he is able to capture it in form.”
The hair on the back of Arthur’s neck stands on end and he cannot repress a shiver at Saito’s choice of words. His dream comes back to him then, Mal’s cries once again shaking him to the core.
“I do not think he’s found that, yet, have you Mr. Miles?” Saito asks, cutting through Arthur’s dark memories.
“No, I have not,” he admits with a weak smile. He’s sweating through his suit and has to resist pulling at his collar.
“Alice here would make a charming muse, Mr. Miles,” Mrs. Canning says brightly. “Perhaps she could sit for you!”
“I’m sure that would be lovely. Excuse me for a moment.” Arthur nods to them and tries not to seem too eager to flee.
Saito finds him on the back lawn, collar open and gasping with his head between his knees. He taps out a cigarette and offers one to Arthur, ignoring his dishabille. He smokes until Arthur’s breath has returned, then he takes his arm and leads him to his carriage, shuffling him inside.
“My Lord, I do apologize,” Arthur says, mopping his brow with his handkerchief.
Saito waves him off and lights another cigarette, the dry smell of tobacco filling the cab. “Think nothing of it, my dear. Artistes are allowed an eccentricity or two. The ladies were perfectly charmed, I assure you.”
“I was very rude,” Arthur protests.
“I simply told them you were overwhelmed with young Alice’s beauty and thought best to excuse yourself before you were driven to something untoward.”
“You did not.” Arthur gapes.
Saito laughs, smoke billowing out his nostrils. “No, I did not. But it was worth the look on your face to pretend. I told them nothing. I am Lord Saito, I answer to no one.”
“No one?” Arthur asks, having met Saito’s wife just last night.
“Hmm, almost no one,” Saito amends. “That place was dreadful, was it not? We need a drink.”
Arthur tries to protest, but is silenced with a look from Saito and he finds himself grinning shyly instead as Saito informs the driver of their new destination.
Saito, it seems, knows half of London—the useful half, anyway—and he’s more than willing to drag Arthur along to his social commitments and make introductions. Soon, Arthur is wielding more invitations than he can possibly accept, and his closet is full of the finest tailoring London has to offer. Robert has been called out of town on business so Arthur is subject to Saito’s whims for the time being, the root of which baffles him.
When he questions Saito about his sudden stewardship of Arthur’s well being one afternoon, Saito smiles and pats him on the knee.
“My dear boy, life can be so very dull, can it not?” Saito lights a cigarette, exhaling into the mist encroaching on the back patio of his house.
“I suppose, but surely a man of your standing has better prospects than the life of an uninspired artist.”
“You sell yourself short, Arthur, are you aware of that?” Saito sits back in his chair, squinting through smoke. “You are a bright young man, and I desire to lead you to greatness. Having already achieved it myself, I assure you, it’s quite splendid.”
“And boring?” Arthur guesses.
Saito grins. “Yes, and boring.”
“Robert said you like to collect shiny new things.” Arthur fiddles with his napkin, glancing at Saito quickly.
“I do,” he nods. “Do you object to being such a thing?”
Arthur thinks about it for a moment before answering. “No, I do not. I’ve been...lonely since I left London. Perhaps more than I knew. Being around you reminds me there is something other than misery in the world.”
“Excellent!” Saito claps his hands together and stands. “Now, let’s go live a little, shall we? Lord Ashby has acquired a new horse and I bet him a small fortune he couldn’t jump across the gully on his land.”
The next week, Saito complains he has actual work to complete, and Arthur doesn’t see him for days, instead spending the time inside painting one dismal canvas after another. Saito appears at the end of the week, startling him as is his wont, and announces that Arthur needs a cleansing.
“A what?” Arthur collapses into a chair, picking paint from under his nails. He’s been wrestling with an idea last time you slept?”
“I sleep every night,” Arthur insists.
“You may lay your head on your pillow, but you do not sleep,” Saito tells him, and he’s right. Almost as soon as Arthur is asleep, his dreams return to haunt him, and he spends the rest of the night in an anxious state, too riled up to lie back down.
Saito takes him to his club, sitting with him in the steam and heat of the bath house until Arthur is too wilted to walk without assistance. A steward shows them to a private room, Arthur collapsing on the chaise while Saito strides around the room naked, smoking and lecturing him on the importance of vices.
“You need a release, Arthur! Something to clear out your system.”
Arthur giggles, still drunk on heat. “I have no issue with my releases, Lord Saito, I assure you.”
Saito grows serious, stubbing out his cigarette. “The problem is you’re doing it yourself. It’s so much better when someone else does it for you, isn’t it?”
Arthur rests his head on the back of the chaise, feeling lighter than he has in weeks.
“And what of Robert Fischer? He seemed quite taken with you.”
Arthur opens his eyes to find Saito watching him closely. Arthur tries not to squirm in response.
“I doubt Mr. Fischer’s motivations are in line with mine,” he says delicately.
“Why, Arthur, you’re a romantic!” Saito laughs with delight.
“I am not!” He protests.
“You are, my friend. That’s fine, we can work with that. Come, let’s have dinner. A good steam always leaves me famished. We will discuss your options.”
Arthur sighs, but dresses and follows Saito to dinner, listening to the merits of a faithful mistress, of which Saito has two, plus a male lover he keeps in a flat in Soho. Arthur nods along, unable to commit to the idea the way Saito clearly thinks he should. Despite his inclinations, Arthur longs for a love like Dom and Mal had shared. He wants a companion. A lover and a friend who supports him. Given his preference for men, he doubts he’ll find an arrangement that suits both him and his increasingly public life.
Returning to the house in the evening feels like a punishment, and Arthur doesn’t give his dreams a chance to grab hold, instead arming himself with a lamp and exploring the house. The day staff has gone home, and Quint has retired for the evening, so Arthur creeps around alone, climbing to the third floor and opening doors he’s never tried before.
The spectre of Mal so often leads him to the master suite, and Arthur feels chilled as he stands before it now. His palm is sweaty on the knob, and he steals himself before turning it and pushing the door open on silent hinges. The room is dark, the drapes pulled tight over the large windows. Arthur raises his lamp and crosses the threshold, his slippered feet leaving a trail on the dusty floor.
The furniture is all draped with sheets, and the floor is bare. The absence of a single rug is odd to him. Mal had notoriously cold feet, and indeed, the rest of the house is almost completely covered in rich tapestries.
A dark spot on the floor catches his eye, and he bends with his lamp to inspect it further. The woodgrain beside the bed has been stained, and Arthur’s no expert, but it looks like blood. Arthur thinks of the baby. The unknown creature who tore his friends apart. He traces his fingers over the stain, wondering if this is all that’s left of that little life. What could that child have been had it lived?
Footsteps in the hall startle him out of his thoughts. He turns sharply, feeling caught out. It’s foolish. This is his house now, he may go where he wishes, but it feels wrong to be discovered kneeling beside the marriage bed of his dead friends. He steps into the hall, raising his lamp to find it empty. Floorboards creak and a chill goes through him. He should be able to see anyone on this level, the hall opening to overlook the stairs and down into the main parlor. There are only two rooms on this floor, the bedroom and what used to be a lady’s room, which Mal used as her dressing room. Arthur strides to the second door and shoves it open.
The clothes have been cleared out, and there is nothing but a mousetrap and a few droppings in the small space. His eyes roam over the empty walls, stripped of any warmth Mal had imbued in them. He notices an uneven section of the wall near the back and steps closer to inspect it. The door clicks shut behind him, and Arthur wills himself to stay calm. The door doesn’t lock, and he can leave any time he chooses. His bolstering falls flat and his heartbeat speeds up at just how small the room is now that the door is shut. Focusing on the task at hand, he runs his hand over the wall, jumping back when a panel of wood springs forward. He chokes on a puff of dust and nearly drops the lamp as he hacks violently into his fist.
Once the dust has cleared, he notices a small set of stairs leading down to a landing with a short, weathered door. The space in between the rooms is freezing, and he grunts with the effort of shouldering the door open far enough to squeeze through. His lamp casts eerie shadows over the contents of the small attic, light dancing over a white bassinet and matching rocking chair. A sob chokes his throat and he falls to his knees on the grimy floor.
The mutilated remains of the nursery are stacked haphazardly into piles, as broken and scarred as Mal’s heart had been when she’d lost her baby. He fingers the filigree at the end of the crib and wonders which one of them took their anger out on the furniture. Mal had a temper, but something tells him it was Dom. Dom, who could never stand to look upon something that had slipped him by. Hell, he’d dragged Arthur all the way to London when he was passed over for the position of Dean.
He can almost feels Mal’s hysteria at finding her carefully chosen items, gifts meant for her unborn child, reduced to broken glass and splinters of wood. Did she hide them here, away from Dom’s anger? Did she drag them in herself, piece by broken piece, to keep them safe? Sitting here, petting over a dirty blanket he pulled from beneath the dresser, Arthur can feel her hopelessness.
A wail rises up around him, shaking the walls and stealing the breath from his chest. It’s deafening and Arthur claps his hands over his ears, shutting his eyes against the force of it. When it settles, his lamp goes out and he scrambles to his feet, tripping over something heavy and sharp that he’s certain wasn’t in front of the door when he came in. He grabs at it, tucking it under his arm and slamming the door closed behind him. He doesn’t stop until he’s safe in his own rooms, gulping down water and trying to calm his breaths. He coughs despite the water, the dust he’d inhaled coming back up to strangle him.
He lowers himself to the bed, dirt smudging the coverlet. The object is still under his arm, and he sees not that it’s a music box. He’s afraid to open it, the memory of Mal’s wail still fresh in his mind, s he puts it beside him on the bed and curls up around it, abruptly exhausted. The day’s events have caught up to him and shut down all the unknowns floating around his head. Sleep takes him, and for once, Arthur doesn’t dream.
The next morning, Arthur sleeps late, waking to the sound of rain on the windows and stretching until his joints ache. The music box is still beside him, though the events of the previous night seem dim and embarrassingly fanciful. Clearly his lack of sleep has taken more of a toll than he realized.
He trails his fingers along the top of the box, catching on the knicks and scratches in the wood. It looks old, but functional, the hinges creaking as he opens it. A small bluebird pops up, frayed wings spread in frozen flight over the glass panel showcasing the metal workings of the music maker. The winding key is missing, so Arthur shakes the box, gaining a few ringing notes but not enough to give him a clue as to what the song might be. He finds Malorie Miles 1853 engraved in the bottom and thinks it must have been gifted to her at birth. A hollow ache takes up residence in his chest when he thinks about the box being passed on to a baby who no longer exists.
Arthur dedicates himself to painting for the rest of the day, letting the sadness of last night’s discovery flow through him and onto the canvas. The results are somewhat mixed, but he feels he’s getting closer to what he’s working toward. He refuses dinner and doesn’t give in until his arms are stiff, the brush nearly falling from his gnarled and aching fingers. His mind is a mix of fear and supposition, something that creeps up on him each night once the sun goes down. He grabs his coat and hat, and calls for the carriage, telling Quint he needs some air to clear his mind.
He instructs the driver to take him around the city. He needs to see London in all her corners, explore her spectacle in order to find his footing. The night is thick with fog, blurring the world outside the carriage, and Arthur quickly loses himself to his thoughts. There’s still a puzzling aspect of his work that’s missing—some cryptic element his mind cannot translate to his hand. He rouses only when the carriage jostles, the driver yelling out a warning to someone in the street. He has no idea where they are, and he realizes he’s at the mercy of an employee he’s barely said ten words to over the past two months.
There’s a bawdy house on the corner, the shouts and laughter of patrons and prostitutes spilling from the open maw of the door and out into the night. Arthur catches a glimpse of writhing bodies in an alley. Somewhere in the distance a woman screams. He’s cold and half-aghast, but there’s a buzzing under his skin again, and he hadn’t realized how much he’s missed the rawness of a city in the flesh. In Paris he lived on the outskirts of this level of society, enjoying his muddled view of what humanity is capable of when it thinks no one is looking. Murder, and rape, and children begging in the streets. This is the carnal realness that’s been missing from his work. He’s become soft, kept clean and carefully out of touch with all that exists to inspire him.
It’s a revelation, and he presses his face to the window, taking it all in, eager to gorge himself on the visceral and sordid lives of those who make their fortunes from the night. This is the life Saito spoke of, the existence Arthur must embrace and commune with in order to find his passion. His eyes are searching the grimy street when he sees it: the flare of a match in the dark, calling him closer to its dangerous gambol.
The small flame illuminates a full mouth and strong nose before the cigarette catches and match is shaken out. Arthur calls for the driver to stop, captivated by the slice of perfection he’s seen in the shadows. A young man is leaning in a doorway, his jacket open over a threadbare shirt despite the cold of the evening. His body is visible in the circle of light from the nearest lamp, and Arthur takes a long moment to appreciate the strength and shape of his lean frame.
He’s underfed, that much is clear, but there’s a sturdiness to him that makes Arthur want to test just where the boy’s limits lie. Arthur’s fingers twitch for a stick of charcoal, a fountain pen, anything to record the vision he’s stumbled upon.
His view is blocked by a cab pulling up to the curb. He hears the mumble of speech, but is too far away to catch the words. When the cab resumes its journey, the young man is gone. Arthur sits back, his heart beating wildly in his chest. The boy is surely a whore, and Arthur’s missed his chance to pluck him for his own purposes. He instructs the driver to wait, but the boy doesn’t return before a policeman strolls up the road, spurring Arthur’s driver to insist they depart. Arthur takes note of the cross streets, and they return to the house.
Arthur paints furiously through the night, his body quickly warming in the oppressive heat of the parlor, and ignoring the ebbing pain of his hands. He collects every lamp he can find, their flickering light lending the room the appearance of an inferno, shadows licking across the ceiling as Arthur darts and sways about from one canvas to another. Once or twice he catches an almost unnatural movement in the shadows, but dismisses it as his own foolish imagination. His work comes alive in a way it never has before. It’s as though the canvas is speaking to him, commanding Arthur to recreate the solid the lines of the young man’s skull, the graceful arch of his brow. It’s not perfect, pulled from his memory and skewed by his perceptions, but it’s as close as he’s ever come.
He has drinks with Saito two days later, and Arthur cannot keep himself from boasting about his breakthrough. Upon seeing the paintings, Saito insists on meeting the muse who has inspired them.
“I don’t know him,” Arthur admits.
“This is not the work of a man who is unaware of his muse, Arthur. There is thought here, knowledge.”
“I simply saw him briefly in passing.” Arthur rubs the back of his neck, worrying the skin there.
“A man that inspires this sort of devotion in passing is a truly remarkable one, my boy. Do you really know nothing of him?” Saito glances back at the painting, trailing his fingers over the canvas as though stroking a lover’s face.
“He is a whore,” Arthur admits. “I was out late, attempting to clear my head, when I found him. Before I could move, he’d been carried off in a cab.”
Saito grabs his shoulder, laughing. “This is wonderful news!”
“How, when I may never find him again?”
“Because whores are regional, my dear boy! And most fortunate of all, for sale. He won’t be offended when you ask him what it will cost to keep him here, and he won’t cling when you let him go.”
Arthur gives him an incredulous look. “Surely I cannot simply buy him.”
“You can and you will. Arthur, there is finally passion in your work, a depth that has been sorely lacking. I can feel how you ache for him. This man may be the answer to unlocking your true talent. You’re not just going to let that rot out there in the street.”
Arthur chews his lip, uncertain. On one hand, Saito’s right; the work he’s produced since spying the young man is unparalleled. On the other hand, it makes him uneasy to think of keeping him like a pet.
“Plus, you get the added bonus of indulging in his services.” Saito laughs at Arthur’s scowl. “Don’t give me that, the one in the corner practically screams of fetching mettle. You’re much more transparent than you think.”
Arthur flushes. “So I simply ask him to return here with me for an indeterminate amount of time? What if he has a family?”
“Then they shall be glad for the patronage. Be sure to negotiate. Nothing makes a whore greedier than knowing they’re desired.”
“I cannot keep a prostitute locked up in my house, what if someone finds out?” Arthur hisses.
Saito looks down his nose at Arthur, shaking his head. “You’ve been to my parlor, my boy, alongside several influential men of means. What benefits everyone will be kept quiet. No one need know the man is here unless you tell them. Come, I’ll help you search him out.”
“No,” Arthur protests, shaking off Saito’s arm. “I mean, thank you, my Lord, for the council and for the offer, but if I’m to do this, I think it must be on my own.”
“Smart boy. Show him who’s in charge from the get-go. Very well, I wish you luck and recommend you capture your prize as soon as possible.” Saito collects his hat and gloves from the table in the hall and steps into the drizzle.
“I will send word once I’ve found him,” Arthur promises, shivering in the doorway until Saito’s carriage pulls away.
He waits a few more hours before calling for the carriage. It had been nearly morning when he’d seen the young man, but Arthur can’t help but want him fresh and eager. He gets a sharp nod when he informs the driver of their destination, and settles back for the journey.
He’s properly dressed this time, hoping to encourage the young man to trust his offer of payment. Arthur needs to look the part of a wealthy man who has the means to keep a companion. The young man isn’t in the doorway when they arrive, and the driver wanders the neighbourhood, circling back to the cross street every quarter hour.
Finally, Arthur catches sight of the man striding up the street, bending his head against the rain to light his cigarette. His jacket is half-soaked by the time he reaches his doorway, and Arthur’s hands shake at the thought of the gooseflesh that must blanket the man’s skin.
Arthur doesn’t want to miss another opportunity, so he wastes no time in opening the carriage door and rapping his walking stick on the frame. The sharp crack startles the young man, and he looks around, grinning when he spots Arthur’s transport. He saunters across the street, his every movement artful, from the sway of his hips to the hand carding through his shaggy hair. He stubs out his cigarette and leans into the opening.
“Evenin’, sir.” His accent is heavy, his voice deeper than Arthur imagined.
Arthur’s certain the young man can’t make out his visage in the shadow of the carriage, but he doesn’t smile, just in case. “What’s your name?”
He licks his lips and glances around. “Whatever you wish it to be.”
“I have a proposition for you,” Arthur says curtly.
“I certainly hope so, or I’m afraid I’ll have to seek my company elsewhere.”
Arthur sighs impatiently. “How much to keep you until morning?”
The man straightens. “You can purchase my services, but I don’t do that .”
“Surely there’s nothing you won’t do for a few coins,” Arthur says, worry bubbling up inside him.
“I make the rules, sir ,” the man sneers. “And I don’t do whole nights.”
Arthur realizes this heavy accent has slipped away, smoothing into something more familiar to Arthur’s ears. Not quite upper class, but not the street urchin the young man pretends to me. He decides to lay his cards on the table and leans forward, making the young man back up further.
“I don’t want your services, I want to paint you,” he confesses.
“Paint me?” the young man quirks an eyebrow. “That’s a new one.”
“I’m serious. I will pay you for the night, possibly for more than one depending on how things progress, and I will pay you well. You just have to sit there.”
The man frowns, eyes searching the dark of the carriage. “Nothing else?”
“I don’t think so. I may ask you to disrobe, if that’s agreeable.”
The man laughs, and the roughness of it sends a tingle through Arthur. “Yeah, that’s agreeable. How much?”
Arthur bites his lip. Saito told him to negotiate, but now that his muse is this close, he doesn’t think there’s anything he wouldn’t do to get him in the carriage. Arthur wants him with an intensity that startles him.
“Fifty pounds for a week’s worth of your days. Half now, half at the end of the week.”
The man stills. “Seventy, and I’ll stay the nights.”
“Sixty, for days and nights, and in addition, I will provide you food, shelter, and a new suit,” Arthur says firmly, and he can see the precise moment the young man makes up his mind.
“You want me to come now, or?”
“Yes.” Arthur says, moving out of the way so he can climb inside and counting out thirty pounds.
The young man whistles into the darkness, receiving a high pitched response, before clambering up to sit across from him.
“Sir?” The driver calls down.
Arthur had quite forgotten they weren’t alone and he feels his face flush. “Home, please.”
“If you’re sure, sir.”
The boy grins in the gloom, his crooked teeth flashing white.
“Go!” Arthur snarls, embarrassed by how uncouth he feels.
They ride in silence at first, his new companion clearly taking stock of Arthur. Arthur catalogues him in quite the same way, noting the small scar over his right eye, and the spot under his chin he missed with his razor.
“You’re older than you look,” Arthur announces.
The man smirks. “Not too old, I hope.”
“You age means very little to me, it’s your look that appeals.”
“Does it, now?” He leans forward, placing a hand on Arthur’s knee.
Arthur frowns. “I told you that’s not necessary.”
“Yes, you did. But you did not say it would be unwelcome.” He goes to his knees in the small space between Arthur’s legs.
He looks so tempting there, smiling and eager, but the memory of Timothy tugs at Arthur’s mind, and he looks away. He’s above all that. This is about his art, not about sex.
“What’s your name?” Arthur asks again, instead of squeezing the young man’s shoulder and pulling him closer.
“Eames. What should I call you, sir?” He’s still on his knees, petting lightly at Arthur’s thigh.
Arthur takes a shaky breath. If he can deny himself this, when it’s laid out and on offer in front of him, then surely he can dedicate himself to his work once he has him at the house.
“I’m Arthur. You may call me that.”
“You don’t want me to call you Sir ?” Eames’ hand slides further up his leg, and Arthur grabs his fingers, stopping his progression.
“Call me whatever you want, my purpose for you remains the same.”
Eames laughs and pulls himself back onto the seat. “Aren’t you full of surprises, Arthur .”
They spend the rest of the ride in silence, Arthur staring out the window and Eames staring at Arthur like he can’t quite figure him out. Quint is waiting for them when they return, shock and offence clear on his face when Eames stumbles out of the carriage.
Arthur calls for tea and sandwiches and drags Eames to his work room, ignoring the butler’s protests. He poses Eames on a chair and doesn’t even stop to take off his jacket before he’s turning up the lamps. Quint interrupts them with the tray, seemingly relieved to find them decent, and Arthur tells Eames to help himself.
By the time Arthur pauses, the sun is coming up, the sandwiches are gone, and Eames is asleep, curled up on the sheet covered couch. His boots have left caked dirt on the fabric, but he looks so peaceful, Arthur simply switches to a new canvas and continues painting. Eames is still asleep by the time Arthur’s vision is blurring and he is forced to put down his brushes and find his bed. He instructs Quint to find their guest a bedroom and ready a bath when he wakes, before collapsing in his own bed.
He rises hours later when the maid informs him Lord Saito is in the parlor. Arthur’s mind goes to Eames and he pulls a robe over his clothes, rushing to intercept Saito. He’s too late, of course, and Saito has barged his way past Quint to study Arthur’s canvases.
“My Lord, good morning,” Arthur croaks, his mouth tasting of ash.
“It is the afternoon, but I appreciate the sentiment. These are new.” He doesn’t spare Arthur a glance, instead reaching out to one of the paintings.
“Don’t!” Arthur rushes forward to grip his wrist. “It’s still wet.”
Saito’s eyes move to Arthur’s hand on him.
Arthur steps back, embarrassed. “Forgive me, my Lord.”
“Think nothing of it, my boy. These are sublime, I can understand your reasoning.”
“Thank you, sir.” Arthur’s breathing heavily, and he’s filled with unfamiliar trepidation as Saito moves about the room.
“You’ve found your muse, I presume.”
“Yes.” Arthur flushes.
“Arthur, this is excellent! I must meet him.”
“No! I mean, not yet.” Arthur steps in Saito’s path.
“Whyever not?” Saito’s eyes go to the wrinkled fabric on the couch. “Surely you know I will not judge you.”
“No, of course not. You understand how fickle inspiration can be, allow me time to explore it first, see what becomes of it,” Arthur pleads.
“Plunder its depths?” Saito laughs darkly. “Very well, I can see why you’re so reluctant. These truly are remarkable, Arthur. Keep going, it will only get sweeter.”
“Thank you, sir.” Arthur bows his head.
“Now, how about lunch at the club? Surely you can leave him for a few hours.”
“My hands are still cramped from last night, so I think a break is definitely in order. Let me meet you once I’ve cleaned up?” Arthur smiles, praying Eames is still asleep and doesn’t wander down the stairs before Saito has departed.
“Splendid! I’ll see you in an hour.” Saito takes one last look at the paintings and shakes his head. “Truly remarkable.”
Arthur hurries through his bath and selects a suit before going in search of Eames. The man is still asleep, buried under the bedclothes in the room down the hall from Arthur’s. He slides his hand into the snoring pile to shake Eames, jerking it back when his fingers slide over warm, naked flesh. He spots Eames’ clothes in a ball on the floor and the desire to feign ignorance and simply throw back the covers is almost too strong to ignore. Arthur shakes himself, poking at the shifting mound and calling his name.
“Hnng?” Eames groans from the depths of the bed.
“Eames. I’m going out,” Arthur says primly, pulling on his gloves. If he touches Eames’ downy skin again he doesn’t know if he’ll have the strength to stop. It’s curious, the heat this man stirs in him. Arthur’s never been one to entertain carnal thoughts, at least not above the occasional desire for someone else’s touch, but something about Eames brings forth an appetite he doesn’t quite know how to handle.
“Eames,” he repeats. “I have to leave.”
“You lookin’ for permission?” Eames grumbles, his voice thick with sleep.
Arthur ignores the urge to smack him and buttons his coat. “Ring for Quint when you manage to drag yourself out of bed. He’ll make sure you’re washed and fed. Do not leave the house.”
“You have a smart mouth,” Arthur informs him.
There’s a shuffle and Eames’ head is uncovered, a smirk on his lips. “Care to do something about it?”
Arthur looks at him, temptation building in his gut. He clears his throat. “I’ll be back after dinner. I expect you to be waiting for me, ready to work.”
“Clothed or unclothed?” Eames asks, his gaze running over Arthur’s body.
“Surprise me,” Arthur throws out and leaves. Before he climbs into the carriage he instructs Quint to burn Eames’ things while he’s washing up. He takes a moment to enjoy the look of horror on the butler’s face before telling him to have the tailor in, tomorrow.
Saito roars with laughter when Arthur tells him, and several of the club’s other patrons turn to frown at them.
“I’ll admit I was worried for you at first. Whores are not easy to keep under thumb. But it seems you have the making of a master in you, Arthur. The boy won’t know what hit him.”
Arthur wipes his mouth, hiding his smile in the napkin.
“Of course, there is something to having one that won’t go down easy. There’s a feeling like no other that comes with taming a beast.”
“He’s not a beast, he’s simply a man. A man being paid for a service. I’ve been explicit in my expectations and I expect him to rise to meet them.” Arthur pauses at Saito’s saucy wink. He shakes his head at his chosen phrasing. “You know what I mean.”
Saito puts his elbows on the table and leans closer. “Do you really not intend to sample him?”
“It’s not what I’ve hired him for,” Arthur states.
“True, but it is rather his specialty. Seems a shame to waste it.”
“I’m not wasting it, I’m simply not using it. He’s not a peach tart that will go bad if left on the shelf.”
“But that’s exactly what he is!” Saito hisses. “Part of his appeal to you is what he is, correct?”
Arthur opens his mouth to protest, but Saito doesn’t give him the chance.
“One such as he only has a short time at their peak of usefulness to men like us, Arthur. We must claim that power for ourselves, let it fuel our talent and imagination, before it runs out. This young man will turn older before your very eyes. You will look up from your brush one day to find he’s lost his shine, and your muse will wither before your very eyes. Take him! Use what he has to give before it’s gone!”
Arthur’s thrown by the passion in Saito’s speech. The man is usually perfectly composed, cheeky and forward, but never has he shown this much actual emotion. There’s a part of Arthur that agrees with what Saito is saying, but that part is small, and easily overridden by Arthur’s worry that if he gives in and partakes of Eames’ body, he will not be able to stop. He’ll lose himself in the man, become drunk with pleasure, never to create anything worthwhile again. After just one night in his presence, Arthur knows Eames is the type of indulgence that will ruin him if given the chance.
“With all due respect, my lord, my work is more important to me than my desires. You said yourself this man brings out my talent, allows me to create as I never have before. That is too much to jeopardize for the use of his body. I do not judge others for their choices, but this is mine.”
Saito sits back and watches Arthur for a moment. “Do you know what inspired Brightly, Arthur?”
“Catherine Worthington,” he says simply.
The name sparks something in Arthur’s memory, but he can’t dig it out.
“The daughter of Benjamin Worthington,” Saito supplies.
“The steel magnate?”
“The very same. Catherine is his youngest daughter. Only seventeen when first I laid eyes on her at her coming out. Her beauty was delicate, a little plain by society’s standards, but her wit, oh, Arthur, her wit was sublime! Robert accuses me of collecting shiny things, and I cannot deny it, for I was captivated from the moment she first opened her mouth.”
Arthur picks up his glass, wary of where this confession will lead. “You took her as your lover?”
“I took her as more than that, my boy. Catherine was an innocent, kept sheltered as the youngest child, and I made it my mission to leave no stone unturned when it came to educating her. It was a great challenge, as I was dependent on her father for my work, but after our first, brief meeting, I rushed home and drew up the initial designs for Brightly.”
Arthur pauses in setting down his wine. “You conceived of Brightly for the sole purpose of deflowering a young woman?”
Saito laughs. “No, no, Brightly was simply a happy side effect of my obsession for the girl. The building is a direct reflection of what I saw in her. The steel of her resolve and the fragility of her heart, combined as my two greatest masterpieces.”
“I, I’m honestly not sure how to respond to that,” Arthur admits.
Saito empties his glass and waves Arthur off. “No worry, it was simply meant to show you the benefits to be gained from such a relationship. Think of this young man as a vessel of your ability, meant to serve as a whetstone to the sharpness of your genius. Grinding against it, shaping it into an instrument you can wield with courage and lethal precision.”
“And the girl? What became of her?”
Saito looks away, the first sign of contrition he’s shown since beginning his tale. “Married off to some associate of her father’s in America. Once Worthington learned of her time with me, there wasn’t much to be done.”
They conclude their meal soon after, Arthur bidding him farewell and rushing through the rain to his carriage. The ride home is uneasy, his thoughts unable to move past Saito’s tale. If Arthur is Saito’s new bauble, how would the man react to Eames—Eames, who is a beam of radiant sun next to Arthur’s opaque and rigid countenance? The man knows of, and most likely enjoys, the world Saito wraps himself in when he’s not working. Eames, who would welcome a man like Saito as master and commander, to be cared for and shown purpose. Saito is in a much better position to keep Eames comfortable for the long term.
He must simply keep them apart, he decides. It will be no easy task, for Saito has no qualms about forcing himself into every aspect of Arthur’s life, but Eames is his, and he will not allow the man to be taken.
He resolves to discuss the matter of seclusion with Eames, and allows himself to ease his worry for the moment. The house is a grey mass in the misty drizzle, and Arthur feels its gaze like a weight on his shoulders as the carriage pulls up to the door. He hurries inside, the dripping eaves still managing to soak the back of his new coat. He curses and shucks it off, handing it over to Quint for drying.
A letter from Robert has arrived in his absence, and Arthur finds himself warmed by the news of his return at the end of the week. The time apart has allowed Arthur to examine their exchange at Saito’s party, and he’s decided Robert’s actions were simply that of a man happy to have found a kindred soul in a new acquaintance. They were the youngest guests at the Bonne Bouche, and Robert no doubt felt relieved by their shared inclinations. He’d been eager to engage Arthur in what he perceived would entertain him, and it was hardly Robert’s fault that Arthur’s devotion to his art superseded his desires.
Arthur scribbles a note, accepting Robert’s dinner invitation, and leaves it for posting before going in search of Eames. He finds the man in the second parlor, sprawled across an uncovered chaise, reading the morning paper. His skin has been scrubbed clean, a lovely pink hue dusting his neck and wrists where they peak out of Arthur’s robe. The hair on his calves is curling and still wet in places. Arthur’s struck with the intense desire to lick the secret droplets of water that no doubt hide between the flesh of Eames’ toes.
He clears his throat to announce his presence before his imagination gets away from him. “You’re wearing my robe.”
Eames looks up from the paper and smirks. “You know what I like about you, Arthur? Your habit of stating the obvious. It’s charming, the way you think you’re the only intelligent man in the room.”
“It means I’m rarely wrong,” Arthur says without meaning to.
Eames cocks his head to the side. “Is that it? You hate to be wrong?”
“We should get to work.” Arthur busies himself with his brushes, rearranging them.
“It’s going to be a long week if you insist on keeping this purely professional,” Eames grumbles, folding the paper and setting it aside.
“I told you-”
“I don’t mean that. But we can at least talk to each other, can we not? It’s dreadfully boring here all day with no one to converse with. The least you can do is take that stick out of your arse and talk to me.”
Arthur blinks. “But what of my posture?”
“Your what?” Eames shakes his head when he realizes Arthur’s fighting a smile.”You should really think on having it removed, you know. Bending a little can open a lot of doors, just look at where it’s gotten me.” Eames spreads his arms wide.
“In a silk robe in a stranger’s parlor?”
“No, Arthur. It’s made me the muse of a man who is surely to be the next great impressionist painter of the century.”
“You know art?” Arthur asks, startled.
“I know enough to know what I like. Enough to look at your work and know it’s good. A fact, for which I am claiming sole credit, by the way,” Eames tells him.
“Of course you are.” Arthur rolls his eyes. “You really think it’s good?”
“You know it is. I’ll admit, your earlier work is underwhelming, but the new ones, since I’ve been here, Arthur, they’re transformative.”
Arthur flushes and looks away. “I don’t know about that, but they are my best so far.”
“Yes, exactly, so far .”
Arthur gives him a small smile, Eames’ words warming him. “There’s something I forgot to mention.”
The ease on Eames’ face fades and his body tightens. “What’s that, then?”
“I’m paying you for days and nights, so I expect you to stay here for the duration of our contract. You don’t leave the house without my permission. Is that clear?”
Eames’ face goes perfectly blank. “Am I your prisoner?”
Arthur looks at him, startled. “Of course not. I just need you here when inspiration strikes, and there’s no telling when that may be.”
“Okay,” Eames nods. “I suppose this would be a good time to inform you that I had someone follow us here. If I don’t return, they know who you are and where you live.”
“I’m impressed. How did they know to follow?”
“Ah, I see. Well, I applaud you on the adaptability of your enterprise,” Arthur smirks.
Eames shakes his head and mutters under his breath, but there’s a small smile on his lips.
Arthur pulls a fresh sheet of paper. “Let’s begin?”
They turn the lamps up to fight off the gloom and move the chaise closer to Arthur’s easel, Eames sitting with his back to him, the robe pooled around his hips, the barest hint of his cleft peaking out from the folds of silk. Eames bats his eyelashes coquettishly over his shoulder and Arthur shakes his head, smiling to himself.
They work away the rest of the afternoon, Arthur sketching Eames’ form again and again, learning the shape of him until it’s imprinted on his eyelids when he rubs his face against the strain of the vanishing light. Eames’ stomach growls and Arthur insists they stop. Now that the bones of the image in his mind are clear on the canvas, Arthur has finally silenced the restlessness inside himself, the howling urge to push further and harder.
They share a quiet dinner, Eames still in Arthur’s robe, and Arthur laughing at Eames’ cutting remarks on the stories he read in the society section of the paper. Arthur recognizes some of the names and is able to voice his own opinions on a few, earning him a look of fondness.
They’re returning to the parlor when Quint appears and requests a minute of Arthur’s time.
“Sir, I understand that it is your intention that your guest stay through the week.” Quint’s mouth purses in a moue of distaste.
“It is,” Arthur confirms.
“Sir, I realize that you are unfamiliar with the standards of a man of your newly acquired status, but discretion is a value you should hold dear.”
“What are you saying?” Arthur’s hands curl into fists at his sides, a flash of annoyance going through him.
“A gentleman does not bring his indiscretions home with him,” Quint states bluntly, clearly disgusted.
Anger makes him grit his teeth and he takes a breath before speaking. “Mr. Eames is my guest. He is here, in my house, because I have invited him. You will treat him with respect or you will find yourself in search of employment, do I make myself clear?”
Quint looks as though he’s been slapped. He mumbles a, ‘Yes, sir’, and disappears down the hall.
Eames’ grin when Arthur enters the parlor makes it clear that he heard every word of the exchange. Arthur tries not to show his elation at having earned such a smile.
“Shall we continue?”
The following morning the tailor arrives with a selection of garments for Eames to choose from, as well as fabrics for Eames’ new suit.
“I’ve never had a suit,” Eames admits, rubbing a strip of large wool check between two fingers.
“Shocking,” Arthur states, crossing his legs. “Not that one.”
“I like this one,” Eames protests.
“It will be old by next season. You need something less bold. Something that will last.”
“I like bold. Besides, it’s not like I’m going to wearing it anywhere I’ll be judged for being out of season.” Eames lets the check drop to frown at a navy herringbone.
“Where will you wear it?” Arthur asks.
“Everywhere,” Eames grins. “Absolutely everywhere.”
“Surely not to...work.” Arthur’s eyes flick to the tailor and back to Eames.
“Don’t know, might get me some higher-quality clients.” Eames winks at him.
Arthur’s good mood falters a little at the thought of Eames leaving at the end of week. The house feels less oppressive with him there, Arthur’s life a little more normal. It’s only been a few days, but already Arthur wonders how he survived in this horrible house alone for so long.
“You should get the wool check if that’s what you want.”
“Really?” Eames looks up, the delight in his face making him look younger than his years.
“Yes, I insist.” Arthur nods to the tailor, who prods Eames onto the little box for measurements.
Arthur watches with interest as the man runs his tape along Eames’ body, picturing the smooth expanse of Eames’ chest under his new shirt as the tailor takes his measurements. Arthur thinks of the soft curls adorning Eames’ underarms, and how he longs to rub his cheek there, feeling the thick hair tickle his nose.
Eames’ throat bobs when the tape circles it and Arthur doesn’t miss the flash of heat in his’ eyes before Eames looks away, a shadow passing by the window and dimming what little light the lamps afford. Arthur leans forward, the tailor going to one knee as Eames spreads his legs. Arthur can see himself there, running his palms up Eames’ inseam, stroking the delicate skin at the juncture of his thigh. Arthur hasn’t had the pleasure of seeing Eames’ completely naked, but he longs to. He has half a mind to excuse the tailor and strip Eames out of his new trousers himself, unwrapping him like a gift. Arthur thinks long and hard about the weight of Eames’ cock on his tongue as his own trousers grow tighter.
The tailor snaps his book shut and Arthur startles. He’s lost himself again, and from the look on Eames’ face, it has not gone unnoticed. Eames licks his lips, and Arthur surges to his feet, excusing himself and hurrying to his rooms, where he beats his fists against his thighs. He gasps for air, his face aflame with desire and shame. He will not do this. He will not let his lust for Eames clutter his mind when it is his art that deserves his full attention.
He slams his head against the door, the sharp pain grounding him. His breath evens out and his cock settles, allowing him space to think. Eames is a curse as much as he is a blessing, and Arthur must resist giving in. No matter how badly he wants, he is too terrified of losing his muse to break down and take Eames.
Arthur leaves the house before Eames has finished with the tailor, needing a respite from his own weakness. Once the house is behind him, he feels able to breathe without constraint once again. He takes a walk through Hyde Park, keeping to himself and refocusing his mind on the tasks ahead of him. He must return to the house, and Eames, eventually, but before he does, he must be certain he can turn away from temptation.
It’s already Thursday, and Eames has only agreed to stay through the weekend. It’s not nearly enough time for Arthur to finish his work. The sketches he’s done without Eames present are lacking in their usual depth and vibrancy, and it’s clear he needs Eames there in front of him while he works. There’s nothing to do but extend their agreement, no matter the cost.
Back on the high street, Arthur wanders from store to store in search of a gift for Eames as an apology, and to entreat him to stay. In a smith’s shop he finds a small dagger, built for close range and discretion. The hilt’s gold damascus design extends to the blade, making the weapon both lethal and lovely . He makes his purchase and has it packaged as a gift. On his way back to his carriage, he spies a simple but lovely chest in a shop window. It will suit his needs well, storing his paints, pigments, and brushes from the dust that accumulates quickly in the house. He restocked his supplies soon after he arrived, and has been bearing Quint’s disapproval of their presence ever since. Apparently leaving lye out on the sideboard is frowned upon in polite society.
He returns home calmer, feeling better equipped to deal with the situation. He hears splashing while changing into clothes better suited to work, and he raps his knuckles on Eames’ door, opening it when the man calls out.
Eames is soaking in the bath, the water cloudy with steam rolling off the surface. Eames’ puckering skin is flush and sweat beads on his brow.
“Again?” Arthur raises an eyebrow. “You’re not even doing anything to warrant a daily bath.”
“I know, isn’t it lovely?” Eames smiles, but it’s guarded.
“I suppose if anyone has earned the right to a little rest, you have. You’ve probably worked more in the last year than I have in my entire life.” Arthur leans against the wall, keeping his eyes firmly on Eames’ face.
Eames looks unsure. “I’m sure that’s not true. I’ve seen you at work, it doesn’t strike me as effortless.”
“No, but it’s not very trying, is it? There isn’t much manual labour involved. Even when I was an architect, it was a lot of leaning over a desk, pencil to paper. The only difference now is I enjoy it.”
“I only work a few hours a day,” Eames tries to argue.
“But when you’re not on the streets, you’re not exactly lounging by the fire, are you?”
“No,” Eames admits.
“The five years I spent in Paris were hard, I can’t say they weren’t, but I had my inheritance to ease my way. It wasn’t until the last year or so that I had to worry about having enough to feed myself.”
“There’s no shame in not being poor, Arthur.” Eames frowns.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m not very good at this.” He huffs and crosses his arms across his chest.
“At communicating?” Eames smirks.
“I just meant that I have hopefully given you a respite from your...duties, and I apologize if I’ve confused you with my actions. I hired you as a model for my work, and that is all I require from you. My own desires will not continue to cloud my judgement.”
“So you do desire me.” Eames grins, leaning on the lip of the tub.
Arthur knows his face is warming, but he can’t help it.
“You know, you’re a lot younger than most of the men who approach me,” Eames says softly.
“Is it only men, then?”
“No, but the women don’t tend to come directly. They’ll send a servant and I’ll either service them in the carriage, or in hired rooms. I’ve never been taken to a private house before unless it’s for a party.”
“A party?” Arthur asks sharply.
“Would it scandalize you to hear of such a thing?” Eames gives him a saucy smirk.
“Such things are not foreign to me,” Arthur says slowly.
“Really? Why Arthur, will you never cease to surprise me? I’ve only done two myself. Not really my bag. I like to make my own rules, not follow the whims of the rich, yourself excluded.”
Arthur nods wryly in thanks.
“The things that go on in those places, it can be frightening. There’s usually opium involved, drink at the very least, and I prefer to have my wits about me.”
“Oh,” Arthur startles, remembering his gift. “I’ve brought you something. Give me a moment.”
He hurries back to his room, ignoring Eames’ protest when he leaves the door open. He clutches the slim box in his hand, his eye catching on his sketch book sitting beside the music box on his dresser. He grabs them both, stopping to grab a stick of charcoal as well, and returns to Eames.
“You’ve let all the heat out,” Eames complains.
“Yes, yes, you’ll live. Here.” Arthur thrusts the package into Eames’ wet hands and sets the music box on the mantle.
“What is it?”
“Open it and find out,” Arthur tells him, moving the chair closer to the fire to have a better view of the tub.
Eames hesitates, then rips into the paper and slides the wooden lid off the box. The blade of the knife shines in the lamplight, and Eames sucks in a breath.
“I thought it could be useful. Easy to hide on your person, but sharp enough to take a man down. Also pretty enough to fetch a fair price if you need the money,” Arthur explains, watching Eames’ face.
Eames presses his lips together, then clears his throat. “Arthur, I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll stay longer than a week.”
Eames’ head snaps up.
“My work won’t be done by the time our arrangement concludes, and I find my craft suffers if you are not in front of me.”
“Is this payment?” Eames asks quietly.
Arthur moves closer, squatting beside the tub. “No, this is a gift. Something from me to you. As your friend. I will, of course compensate you for your continued sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice?” Eames snorts softly, fingers trailing down the blade.
“I know I’m not the most pleasant man to spend time with.”
“You’re not soo bad,” Eames smiles.
“No?” Arthur laughs.
Eames shrugs. “I’ve encountered worse.”
Arthur nods, moving to settle in the chair. “Do you mind if I sketch you in there?”
“I’m yours to command.” Eames sits back, spreading his arms over the sides of the tub, the knife box still clutched in his right hand.
A few minutes pass in silence before Eames speaks. “Are you sure?”
“Of what?” Arthur asks, frowning at his page.
“That our arrangement should remain professional. If you desire me, why not enjoy me while I’m here?”
Arthur looks up expecting to see mischief in Eames’ eyes, but the man looks genuinely curious.
“Do you desire me?”
“Does that matter?” Eames inquires.
“Of course it does. I didn’t hire you because you’re a whore, Eames. If we were to fall into bed together, it would not be for a fee.”
“Ahh, I see,” Eames nods, looking pleased.
Arthur goes back to his drawing, glancing up occasionally to check the length of Eames’ neck.
“I’m an excellent bed warmer, I’ll have you know,” Eames says, cheek in his voice.
Arthur smiles at his paper. “I have no doubt.”
“And I’m very good at what I do. Very good,” Eames says with mock seriousness. “Flexible.”
“Modest, as well,” Arthur says, squawking out a laugh when Eames splashes water in his direction.
“You’re ruining my bath,” Eames tells him in a haughty voice.
“Hold still, you tart, I’m working,” Arthur scolds.
Eames lies back, the water rising to cover his shoulders as he closes his eyes and smiles.
Arthur dreams he’s chasing Eames through the house, laughing as Eames takes the stairs two at a time, taunting him over his shoulder. The house is bright and full of promise, Eames’ seductive smile a reminder of the sweet reward Arthur will earn by catching him.
On the second landing, a shadow crosses between them and he chokes on Mal’s perfume, laughter dying in his throat. The hallway sinks into shadow, like a cloud has passed in front of the sun. But there are no windows here, and Arthur can’t quite remember what game they’ve been playing.
Eames calls for him, happy and bright as Arthur’s world grows darker. Eames’ voice is distant and fading, and as hard as Arthur climbs the stairs to the third floor, he doesn’t gain any ground. He leaps, stretching for the top step and catching it with the tips of his fingers. Two of his nails bend back far enough to break off below the quick, a hot burn against the wood of the floor.
Arthur pulls himself onto the top step and he can see Eames at the far end of the landing, in front of the closed doors of the master bedroom. The shadow is between them, distorting his view of Eames and warping the man’s body into something broken and blurred. The shadow has no face, but Arthur knows it’s watching him crawl his way closer.
Arthur calls out, warning Eames away from the door, and the shadow’s attention shifts. Snapping around to zero in on Eames, who remains blissfully unaware. The shadow moves, floating closer to Eames as he laughs and calls once more for Arthur to hurry, to collect his prize.
Arthur is weighted to the floor, his body growing heavier with every inch the shadow stalks closer to Eames. He can barely raise his head when he hears the grisly scream. There’s a thud, and suddenly Arthur can move. He rushes to Eames, who now lays twisted and glass-eyed on the floor. The bedroom door is open, and Eames’ hand lays just inside, the palm of his hand blackened with soot. A haunting melody drifts out of the room and Arthur sinks to his knees, crying out in anger when his hands go right through Eames’ body. It’s fading into the floor, open eyes staring accusingly at Arthur. The hand is the last to disappear, leaving an ashy print on the shining wood.
The music stops and Arthur wakes, sitting up in the dark and panting into the chilly air. The dreams are almost normal now, his waking from them expected. His hands shake as he draws on his new robe, the previous one given over to Eames. It takes him three tries to light the lamp, and he turns it as bright as it will go before stealing into the hall and down to Eames’ door.
He doesn’t bother to knock. He knows by now the effort involved in waking Eames, and knocking alone won’t budge him. Arthur lights the lamp on Eames’ side table before pulling the covers half off and shaking him roughly by the shoulder. Eames groans and rolls away, shuffling down the mattress to burrow in the bedclothes. Arthur reaches for him, but he’s too far away. He sets down his lamp, placing a knee on the bed and leaning over Eames, tugging his hair to pull him back. Eames follows Arthur’s hand with a soft sigh, leaning into the touch.
Arthur pauses, letting his eyes roam over Eames’ upturned face, down the slope of his nose and over the plumpness of his lips. The strong cut of his jaw leads to the his bared throat, smooth and white against the dark sheets. Arthur’s gaze slides over his chest as it expands and deflates with each breath. His waist is twisted, hips still angled toward the covers, but Arthur is treated to the full curve of his backside. He wants to roll Eames on his front, running his hands over Eames’ cheeks and spreading him wide. Arthur longs to wake him, licking into his core as Eames whines into his pillow, limbs bracing against the bed as his hands clench the sheets, writhing from Arthur’s assault.
Eames’ breath hitches and Arthur’s gaze snaps to his face. Eames is awake, challenge and anticipation clear in his eyes as he holds carefully still. Arthur takes a deep breath and releases him, backing off the bed and picking up his lamp.
“I need to paint. Now”
Eames nods, disappointment flashing across his face as he slides out of bed. His cock is half hard and wet at the tip and Arthur watches until it disappears under a pair of trousers. He blinks and looks away, mumbling that he’ll meet Eames in the second parlor.
Eames arrives with none of the familiar surliness that normally accompanies middle of the night wakings. He’s quiet, resigned, asking Arthur where he’d like him, then moving into position on the simple wooden chair. They’ve developed a rhythm lately, while Arthur works. Eames will keep up the flow of conversation, entertaining himself and keeping Arthur from falling too deeply into his own head. It’s a perfect balance of focus and distraction, allowing him to paint freely whatever comes naturally.
When the flow of conversation lags, Eames will ask questions. Everything from Arthur’s childhood, to his favourite street in Paris. And Arthur answers. He’s always been a private man, not one to exchange with others the troubles of his home life, but with Eames the words come easy. He speaks of his father’s strict rules, his expectations. He explains the system of points the man created so Arthur always knew exactly where he stood. Arthur describes in great detail how the leather strap burned against his bare skin as it fell, his own belt salty and warm between his teeth. He’d stood, falling silent until Eames pulled him into his arms, smoothing his hands down Arthur’s back until he’d stopped shaking.
Arthur hadn’t realized how much he’s come to rely on that chatter, the companionable noise in the room, until it’s silenced. Eames sits, all of his casual elegance gone and replaced with a strange formality that rests stiffly on his shoulders. Arthur endures it, knowing he’s the cause. He let his desire seep through his resolve once again, and it’s Eames that keeps paying the price. It’s flattering to know the man wants Arthur in return, that this relationship they’re building isn’t based solely on a fantasy Arthur’s built in his head. It’s hasn’t been long, but Eames has worn a hole in Arthur’s armour and created a space for himself amongst the thorns.
Eames shifts in his seat, clearly uncomfortable after three hours holding his tight posture. Arthur would stop, take a break and let Eames get up and stretch, but the moment he moves to put down his brush, Eames glares. He’s not asking for a break, nor does he expect one. Arthur stares him down, but Eames doesn’t flinch so Arthur continues, losing himself in his brushstrokes as Eames’ visage transforms on the canvas.
Another hour has Eames’s breath catching when he shifts on the hard wooden chair. Arthur glances around the easel, raising an eyebrow. Eames raises his chin and clenches his jaw so Arthur sighs and gets back to it. Light is struggling to break through the fog outside the window, and Arthur’s nodding off when he blinks for too long, so he sets down his things and stretches, his back cracking loudly.
Eames is still sitting, back ramrod straight, fingers wrapped around the seat of the chair. His neck and shoulders must be aching with the strain, but he doesn’t move, doesn’t relax until Arthur stands behind him and lays his hands on Eames’ bare shoulders. His fingers press into the muscles, kneading out the tension. Eames moans quietly, letting his head fall forward. Arthur works his way up and down Eames’ neck, using his knuckles to massage the ligaments at the base of his skull. Once he’s done, he squeezes his hands on Eames upper arms drops a soft kiss to the crown of his head. He’s almost to his own door when he finally hears Eames dragging himself up the stairs. Arthur lays down in bed, flush with authority and sense of dominance he’s never felt before.
Eames has yet to emerge from his room when Arthur finishes dressing for dinner with Robert. He knocks on Eames’ door, but gets no response. The door is locked when he tries it, and frustration wells in him. He considers pounding on the door until Eames opens up, but this thing between them feels tenuous now, and Arthur can’t afford to push Eames any further away if he hopes to keep him here.
Robert greets him warmly in his private parlor, embracing Arthur and rubbing his back for a moment longer than Arthur’s comfortable with. Robert lives with his father, occupying his own wing of the house, but is still required to hide his more aberrant appetites from the staff, who apparently keep his father well informed.
Arthur shrugs out of Roberts clasp with a smile, asking after the details of Robert’s trip. Robert is more than happy to discuss his extended stay in Scotland, revealing more than he probably should about the estate dispute he’d handled. Arthur matches him drink for drink throughout dinner, hoping his inebriation will keep away the now nightly dreams, and smooth out his vexation over the situation with Eames. He hasn’t abandoned his plan to question Robert about the deaths of Dom and Mal, but he knows he’ll need more than his usual aperitif to work up his courage.
By the time they’re into the pudding, Robert’s burned through his story and Arthur sees his chance.
“Robert, I wondered if I might ask a favour of you,” Arthur says delicately, setting down his spoon.
“Of course,” Robert smiles, his foot coming to rest beside Arthur’s under the table.
“At Saito’s party your uncle mentioned the death of the Cobbs. He hinted there was more to the story that I’ve been lead to believe.”
Robert plays with the salt shaker, his gaze having fallen away when Arthur brought up Dom and Mal. “Arthur, some things are better off not being known. Trust me when I tell you nothing is to be gained by this.”
“They were my best friends. I’m living in their house. I can’t rest knowing there’s more to their story.”
Robert sighs and gets up to close the doors to the small dining room. “There are ears everywhere and if my father finds out I’ve told you, he’ll skin me alive.”
Arthur refills their wine and moves his chair closer to Robert’s. Robert shakes his head, but sits back down and gives Arthur a wry smile.
“There is indeed more to the story. The official police report states there was an intruder. That the Cobbs woke in the night and disturbed a burglar, who then murdered them to save himself.”
“But?” Arthur prompts when Robert doesn’t go on.
Robert runs a hand through his hair, disturbing the careful part. “My father paid the police to change the paperwork. Nothing good would come from knowledge of what really happened, and he knew the will left everything to you. Really, Arthur, he had your best interests at heart. Had you arrived here amid a scandal surrounding the Cobbs, your prospects would have suffered.”
“What happened to them?” Arthur asks, fists clench in his lap. He’s losing patience with Robert’s delay on his way to the truth.
“Murder-suicide. The butler found them in the morning.” Robert says, face ashen.
Arthur feels as though he’s been struck. His mind tries, and fails to construe a reason for Robert to lie about this, but there is none. Robert and his father would face penalties, and the possible loss of their business if anyone found out what they’ve done.
He thinks of the violence visited on the nursery furniture in the hidden room and wonders if, perhaps, the loss of their child struck deeper than anyone realized. Even grief stricken and enraged, Arthur can’t imagine Dom raising his hand to his wife.
“It’s not possible. Dom’s would never-” Arthur stops at Robert’s pained look.
“Not Dom. Mal.”
“What are you talking about?” Arthur demands.
“Mal murdered Dom, shot him through the heart in their bedroom, then slit her own throat.” Robert’s voice cracks and he reaches for his wineglass, draining it.
“How do you know for sure?” Arthur asks, thinking back to the absence of rugs in their room and the stain on the floor.
“It was in her journal. She planned it all. The poor woman had gone mad.”
“No, she wrote me, things were getting better. She had a plan…” Arthur trails off, realization dawning as the words are spoken. “My god.”
“At first we thought Dom had faked the entry. It would have made sense if he was planning to kill his wife, especially if his original plan was to survive his own wound. But there was something in the way her throat was slit. The way it was done, Dom would have had to have been in front of her. He’d have been covered in blood. Christ, was there a lot of blood.” Robert grimaces and refills his glass.
“You saw them?” Arthur startles.
“Of course. We were the first call. I sent for the police when I got there. Anyway, the only blood on Dom was his own. Mal did it.”
Arthur is silent. He doesn’t know what to do with the information he now has. A small part of his mind whispers that it’s not a surprise. That somehow, deep down, he knew the truth. He lives in that house, has felt the malevolence that seems to seep out of every inch of plaster and wood. Some nights, when he wakes from another nightmare, sweating through the sheets with a scream in his throat, he thinks he can feel it. Watching him. Waiting.
He thinks of Eames, alone and unhappy, left to himself while the house turns him against Arthur.
“I should go.” He jumps to his feet, bracing himself on the table when the room starts to spin.
“No, please,” Robert protests. “Don’t let this ruin our evening.”
Arthur shakes his head carefully. “I’m afraid I’m no longer in the mood for company. I must leave.”
“At least let me give you your gift.” Robert says, rising to pull one of the sashes on the wall.
“Gift?” Arthur frowns.
“Yes,” Robert smiles at him. “I knew the moment I saw it that I had to give it you. Poor buggers had no idea what they had. I got it for a pittance.”
The butler arrives with a small, flat package, leaning it on the seat of a chair when Robert pulls it out. Robert carefully unties the twine holding the covering together, and steps back with a flourish.
Arthur’s hand grips the table so hard three of this knuckles crack. It’s a painting. A Monet. It’s not one Arthur’s familiar with, but the man’s work is unmistakable.
“I don’t understand.” Arthur says, regretting the alcohol he’s consumed.
“It’s somewhat of an apology.” Robert tells him, eyes flicking to the butler and back. “For my… forwardness at Lord Saito’s party. I wish for us to be good friends, Arthur. In any capacity. I’m told the artist is quite popular. Claude Monet. He’s in Paris, do you know of him?”
Arthur chokes out a laugh. Of course he knows the artist. He, like every other successful painter coming out of Paris is a painful reminder of how far Arthur still has to go before he arrives. He’d even met the man once, in passing.
The painting is beautiful. Robert’s trying to woo him with the proof that Arthur will never be a truly great artist. He doesn’t know what to say. Robert’s never struck him as a particularly clueless person, but how he thought Arthur would appreciate the work of another painter is beyond him.
“Robert, I couldn’t possibly. You should keep it for yourself.” Arthur tries to smile, but it feels jaded and wrong.
“I bought it for you.” Robert’s face falls.
Arthur presses his lips together, knowing he has no choice but to accept the gift if he intends to keep Robert as a friend. Refusing his advances and his apology would leave very little goodwill between them. Despite Robert’s frivolity, Arthur does enjoy his company.
“Thank you, Robert. I’m honoured that you would think of me.” Arthur bows his head.
“Excellent!” Robert grins and takes Arthur by the shoulders.
“I really must take my leave now. I have much to consider.” Arthur tells him.
“Yes, of course. I am sorry if I’ve troubled you. I did try to warn you.”
Arthur nods, insides clenching. “You did. My misery is of my own making, fear not.”
Robert sees him off and Arthur spends the ride home glaring at the wrapped painting on the opposite seat. He knows he should throw his anguish into his work, but the last thing he wants is another failure mapped out on canvas. He needs Eames. Needs to sit and have their easy companionship soothe his wounds while he puts lead to paper and recreates the sharp curves of Eames’ body.
He ignores Quint’s protest when he tosses his hat on the table in the hall, pulling off his gloves as he bounds up the stairs. He’s taken to keeping supplies in Eames’ room so there’s no need to delay their reunion. He barges into Eames’ room just as Eames pulls himself out the water in the bath.
Eames freezes, still bent at the waist, hands on either side of the tub. His face is a mask of shock, while Arthur stands, wide eyed and staring. His gaze follows the path of water running in rivulets over Eames’ chest and down his stomach. Eames straightens, eyes watching Arthur closely as he steps carefully over the lip of the bath. He stands there, dripping water onto floor as Arthur catalogues the parts of him he’s never seen before.
Eames has a scar along his thigh, thin and white, and barely visible through the wet hair of his leg. There’s a small tattoo on his left hip, a series of dots arranged in a spiral and Arthur wants to put his mouth there. Cover it completely and suck his own mark over it so Eames knows where he truly belongs.
His eyes go to Eames’ cock when it twitches. It’s thickening under his gaze, and Arthur licks his lips. He wonders if Eames will taste like the rose hips he adds to his bath, or if his own flavour will strike through, sharp and tart on Arthur’s tongue. Arthur’s well acquainted with the smell of him, but he wants to know how Eames’ flesh will feel between his teeth.
Eames shifts under his gaze and Arthur snaps into action, digging his fingers into Eames’ chest as he pushes him back against the wall. His fingers slip over wet skin and dampness soaks through his clothes as he presses his body along the front of Eames, panting against his cheek.
Eames’ erection is pressing against his hip and Arthur wants to feel it slide over his palm. He’s hungry for the noises Eames will make while Arthur pumps his cock, squeezing tight as he strokes him off. Arthur wants to devour him. Press Eames to his knees and thrust into him until he’s spilling out the sides of his mouth.
Arthur runs his thumb over Eames’ bottom lip, exposing his crooked teeth and making Eames shudder under him. The smell of him surrounds Arthur, drowning his senses and erasing the reasons this is a terrible idea. Eames is still, so still. As though he’s afraid to move and break the spell that’s come over Arthur. It is a spell, he thinks. He’s certainly not in charge of his own body as his teeth sink into the junction of Eames’ neck and shoulder. He bites down hard and Eames gasps, hands flying to Arthur’s hips and grinding them together.
The movement snaps Arthur out of his trance, shoving away from Eames and running a shaking hand over his face. He can taste Eames’ skin on his tongue and he has the urge to spit.
“Arthur?” Eames is still, his voice quiet.
What was he thinking? Why did he even come in here? Arthur can’t remember, and really, it hardly matters. He came too close to losing his resolve to carry on like this. He needs space. Time away from Eames. He’s too warm and his clothes are wet. He needs air. He pulls at his collar, tearing at the cloth as he backs out of the room. Why can’t he catch his fucking breath?
Eames follows him out, repeating his name. Arthur stumbled into the wall when Eames reaches for him. He turns then, running the rest of the way to his room and slamming the door behind him. He collapses on the floor, tearing at his clothes. He hears a seam pop on his jacket and loses three buttons from his shirt, but he gets them off. His hand rubs his cock through his trousers as he struggles out of them. He doesn’t want to, but the memory of Eames is too fresh to banish completely.
Chilled water on warm skin. Crooked teeth pressing into a lush, bottom lip. Tight blond curls framing his perfect cock, and that damned tattoo, taunting him. Someone put that there. Someone close enough to touch Eames. To mark him. Arthur growls as his orgasm punches out of him. His pants are barely open, spunk seeping into the fine wool and staining the fabric.
He’s spent, mentally and physically. He drags himself onto the bed, kicking off the rest of his clothes and burrowing under the covers. He feels cleansed. Eames tempted him again, but Arthur prevailed. He turned his back and walked away. He saved himself from temptation. Deep down, he knows he’s lying to himself and it’s only a matter of time before he fails.
Arthur spends the night falling in and out of sleep, always returning to a dream he can’t remember when he wakes. He’s barely left his room and tied his robe when he hears Saito’s voice in the foyer. His head snaps to Eames’ closed door. He hurries to it, pushing it open and surprising Eames at his breakfast.
“Arthur?” Eames sounds tentative but hopeful.
“Stay here.” Arthur commands, closing and locking the door.
The knob rattles and Eames bangs on the door as Arthur descends the stairs.
“Ah, Arthur! I see you’re enjoying the life of a dilettante. I hope your fatigue is due to a burst of artistic inspiration.” Saito winks at him.
“Ah, sadly no. I was late at Robert’s last night. Let me change and we can have tea.” Arthur ignores Quints sour look and rubs at the back of his neck.
“Nonsense, I’m not here to see you anyway.” Saito says.
“I’m here to finally meet your mystery muse. You’ve kept him to yourself for long enough. Where is he?” Saito looks past Arthur into the parlor.
“What?” He says, dumbly.
“The young man you’ve employed. He’s still here, isn’t he?”
“Excellent. Fetch him.”
“No.” Arthur snaps.
Saito blinks at him. “I’m sorry?”
“He can’t, I mean. He’s indisposed.” Arthur lies, praying Saito didn’t hear Eames banging on his door.
Saito’s eyes flick over Arthur’s mussed hair and general disarray. He glances to Quint’s poorly hidden distaste, and back to Arthur with a sly grin.
“Very well, forgive me for intruding. I’ll be sure to call ahead next time.” He sighs dramatically and takes his hat and gloves back from Quint. “I do have a gift for you, however.”
Arthur tenses, thinking of Robert’s gift, abandoned in the carriage.
“I’ve arranged for you to have a showing. In a month’s time at the Royal College.”
Arthur’s shocked, unable to speak.
“Be sure your work is complete by then.” Saito fixes him with a serious look. “It would not do to embarrass me, my boy.”
Arthur’s mouth snaps shut. “Of, of course not, my Lord. Thank you.”
Saito smiles, good humour returning. “Excellent. And be sure your muse is in attendance. The people will only wait so long, Arthur.”
Saito leaves, his warning ringing in Arthur’s ears. He won’t be able to hide Eames for much longer.
He dresses and unlocks Eames’ door. He’s expecting to defend himself from a rage, but Eames is sitting in front of the window, looking out. He doesn’t turn, or speak when Arthur says his name. His breathing is quick when Arthur steps up to him.
“It was to protect you.”
Eames doesn’t move, just stares at rain on the windowpane.
“I didn’t know if you would stay here on your own.” Arthur tries, but Eames continues to ignore him.
“I’m going to have something to eat, then I expect you in the small parlor. I have a show in a month and we have a lot of work to do. Twenty minutes.” Arthur says, voice hard. Eames is acting like a child, and he won’t play into it.
Exactly twenty minutes later, Eames is sitting on the chair Arthur’s set out for him. His face is as rigid as his posture and Arthur grows more and more frustrated with every failed attempt to capture him. This isn’t the Eames that inspires Arthur. He’s not full of life and sensuality. This Eames is bland. Lifeless.
Arthur wants to flee. Walk in the park until his mind is calm again, his nerves soothed by the fresh air and open space. Eames has no right to do this to him. Arthur’s given him more than he’s ever had, and he’s acting like a brat. And still, Arthur can’t bear to send him away. If he hadn’t been home when Saito arrived, he has no doubt that Eames would have come downstairs. Saito would have taken one look at Eames and lured the young man away. He would have stolen Eames from him, no second thought to how Arthur’s work would suffer. How his talent would waste away, robbed of its muse.
So Arthur had ensured Eames wouldn’t disappear. He’d do it a hundred times over if it meant things could continue on as they have been. He need Eames here, waiting for him. To be used for Arthur’s art. Eager and open, inspiring the best work of Arthur’s life.
He’s gone wrong somewhere, he knows that, because he still has Eames’ body at his disposal, but the man’s spirit is a million miles away.
“Stop this!” Arthur throws his brush down.
Eames focuses on him and Arthur feels cold under his gaze.
“You’re being unreasonable.” Arthur tells him.
Eames’ eyes narrow. “You locked me in my room.”
“I had no choice.” Arthur insists.
“Yes, you did. You could have not locked me in.”
“You don’t understand. I need you here.”
Eames spreads his arms wide. “Here I am, Arthur.”
“No, not like this. This you is wrong.”
“I’m so sorry I’m no longer up to your standards. Maybe I should go.” Eames voice is calm, but there’s hurt in his eyes.
“No!” Arthur rushed forward to block the door.
Eames tilts his head to the side. “Do you truly think you could stop me if I wanted to leave?”
“I cannot let you leave, Eames. I’m lost without you.” Arthur gasps, tired of holding in the truth of the matter.
“You’ll find another whore.” Eames says, crossing his arms.
Arthur goes to him, falling to his knees beside the chair. “I don’t want anyone else. There’s only you.”
Eames looks startled at Arthur’s behaviour. “What does that mean?”
Arthur swallows thickly, curling his fingers around the legs of the chair. “You’re the only one who’s ever inspired me. My work before you was weak. You’ve seen the difference, it doesn’t compare. I’ve never felt anything like I feel when I’m with you. It’s like my hands have a mind of their own. I have no idea why it’s different with you, but it is. If you leave, I’ll be lost.”
“Arthur, that’s ridiculous. It’s not me that’s changed to quality of your work, it’s you.” Eames turns in his seat, his knee brushing Arthur’s arm.
“You don’t understand. I don’t even understand it, but you can’t leave me. I need you.” Arthur pleads.
Eames stares down at him, clearly debating his options. “I should leave,” he says. “For that little stunt this morning. I’m not your pet, Arthur. I’m a fucking person.”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry.” There’s hope in his heart, but he knows better than to rush Eames’ decision.
“And you won’t do it again?”
Arthur hesitates. He would. In a heartbeat, if he thought he was in jeopardy of losing Eames.
“Arthur,” Eames warns.
“I would. A hundred times over. I can’t lose you.” He confesses.
“I don’t understand you,” Eames groans, pushing up from the chair and walking away. Arthur panics at the movement, crawling on his knees to keep Eames within reach. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t leave. Please.” Arthur whispers.
Eames shakes his head, confusion in his eyes. “What do you want from me?”
Arthur considers the question. He wants all of Eames. He wants him as a muse, and a friend. A lover and a partner. Eames is the only thing he’s ever wanted as much is his art.
“Everything,” he says, honestly.
Eames chuckles sadly. “That’s not true and you know it.”
Arthur crawls forward, grasping Eames’ pant leg in his fist. “It is. I want you so completely, it terrifies me. But I can’t allow myself to give in to you.”
Eames crouches beside him, taking Arthur’s hands in his. “Why not? Arthur, you must realize by now that you’re more than a transaction to me. I’m not still here because you’re paying me.”
“I can’t, I just can’t. I’m sorry.” Arthur croaks, squeezing Eames’ wrists.
“That’s fine, but why? Can you at least tell me that? Maybe that will ease my frustrations the next time you barge in on me in the bath looking like you’re set to ravage me.”
Arthur shivers, fingers digging into Eames’ skin. “What if it I can’t do it anymore? If I give into my desire for you, and I can’t work like this anymore? It’s bad enough that you being angry with me robs me of my skill. If I give myself to you completely, it will consume me.”
“Arthur,” Eames frowns.
“I’ve wanted this opportunity more than anything else in my life. I cannot bear to risk losing it. Not even for you. Not yet.”
Eames eyes search his face and he must see something the reassures him in Arthur’s desperation because he pulls back and shakes off Arthur’s hands.
“Okay. Then we wait.”
“What?” Arthur asks, bereft at the loss of contact.
“We wait. We’re grown men, surely we can remain respectable until after your showing.”
“And then we give this a chance. I’ll stay, Arthur, but only if you agree to see what waits for us on the other side of this.”
Arthur nods. “Yes, yes. I’ll do anything to keep you here.”
Eames raises his hand to silence him. “I mean it. You promise me right now that we will be together once this series of paintings is done. If you break your promise, you’ll never see me again.”
Arthur whines softly, but he has no choice. “I swear it. Once the showing is over, we can be together.”
“Good,” Eames nods. “Now, let’s stop wasting time and get some work done, yeah?”
Relief floods through him and Arthur climbs to his feet. “Yes.”
They work until the sun goes down, signaled only by Quint announcing dinner. The evening post arrives while Arthur is in the lavatory and he returns to find Eames reading over a small, white card.
“What’s that?” He asks, finishing off his wine.
“A dinner invitation,” Eames hands it to him. “I assume it’s for me. It’s addressed to ‘The Muse’.”
Arthur’s stomach drops. Saito’s crest is pressed into the card and he curses himself. He knew Saito wouldn’t give up so easily.
“There’s one for you, as well. Who’s Lord Saito?”
Arthur tears open the envelope addressed to him. “The man who was here earlier.”
“The one you hid me from?” Eames raises his an eyebrow. “He seems intent on making my acquaintance.”
Arthur freezes, eyes sliding over to Eames.
“Worry not, darling. I have no intention of accepting.”
“You don’t?” Arthur frowns.
“Of course not. I’m not like you, I don’t have a reputation to uphold, or commitments I cannot miss. I’m allowed to say not when a Lord summons me to dinner. You, however, will have to endure his displeasure at my absence.”
“You’ll really consent to stay here?”
Eames turns to him, his gaze soft. He brushes the backs of his fingers over Arthur cheek. “I can hardly hold you to your promise if I don’t keep mine, Arthur. You’re confidence in your work is worth more to me than upsetting some posh Lord. It will distress you to have me there, where you think I can be stolen away, so I simply won’t go.”
Arthur closed his eyes and leans into Eames touch. “Thank you.”
Eames’ contact lingers until Arthur forces himself to pull away.
He wakes the next morning in a sour mood. His dreams are getting worse and it’s becoming more and more difficult to wake himself from them. All night he was assaulted by visions of Eames being swept away by other men. Saito, Robert, Browning, even Claude Monet made an appearance. Arthur’s miserable and he bypasses Eames’ room, not wishing to infect the man with his paranoia.
Robert calls in the late morning and Arthur’s grateful that he had Quint bring in the Monet to be hung in the library. He shows Robert in, and endures the man’s pleasantries while a migraine slowly pulses through his temples.
“Is this your work?” Robert asks, flipping open a sketchbook that Arthur could have sworn he returned to his room. “You still haven’t given me a peak.”
Robert stops at a drawing of Eames’ laying across the couch, naked body sprawled across the cushions. He’d drawn it from memory, just to see if he could. He hasn’t asked to Eames to pose completely nude yet. He doesn’t know that he could keep himself in check long enough to accomplish anything.
“Surely you’re not offended by the male body.” Arthur chides, not caring if he comes across rude.
“Ah, no, of course not. This man. He’s the one staying here?” Robert glances up at him, a small smile on his face.
Arthur stills. “Yes.”
Robert shakes his head and chuckles, turning the page.
“What?” Arthur snaps.
“Oh, nothing. It’s very good, you’re quite talented.”
“Robert, you wouldn’t know talent if it struck you in the face. What it is about him? Do you know him?”
Robert purses his lips and turns back to the sketch, his index finger rubbing over the tattoo on Eames’ hip and smudging the lines. “I recognize the mark. I do believe I’ve had your man once or twice. Although, I do believe he was more of a boy then.”
Arthur’s vision goes red and it’s a wonder that he doesn’t attack Robert outright. “Is that so?”
“I’m almost sure of it. Unless there’s more than one rent boy out there with that tattoo in that spot. London’s a big city, after all.” Robert looks chagrined, seemingly having realized he’s upset Arthur. “I could be wrong, it was so long ago.”
“What a funny coincidence.” Arthur says tightly.
“Isn’t it? I really should be going. I’m due at the office and Father gets so terse if I miss meetings. I’ll see myself out.”
Arthur lets him leave, staring at the drawing until he feels his gaze should burn a hole through it. He picks up the book and retreats to the small parlor. He gathers every image of Eames not on canvas and starts ripping out pages, balling them up and tossing them into the roaring fire. Every paper that lights feels like a victory and a loss.
He starts on the paintings next, using the poker from the fireplace to beat the canvases until they’re nothing more than splintered wood and shredded canvas. Eames rushes into the room, yelling for him to stop. Arthur rounds on him, poker raised, and for a brief moment, he can see himself doing it. Bringing the iron down on Eames’ head. Caving in his perfect skull until his blood and brains have seeped into the carpet.
Eames must see it in his face because he lunges forward to wrestle the poker from Arthur’s grasp. Eames shoves him to the ground, throwing the poker out of reach.
“What the bloody hell are you doing?”
Arthur’s panting on the floor, back and shoulders aching from the brutality of his attack.
“Arthur, what’s happened?” Eames raises his hands is submission, stepping closer hesitantly.
“Robert Fischer.” he spits.
Eames frowns. “The man who gave you the Monet? What’s he done?”
“You, apparently.” He sneers.
Eames straightens and drops his hands, his face going blank. “You now what I do, Arthur.”
“It’s one thing to know. It’s another to have to picture it!”
“You have no right to have a strop over this. I cannot change who I’ve been with and you cannot expect it of me. The only reason you found me was in your own search for a windward passage, so don’t act as the wronged party. How many were there before me? How many young men have laid at your alter, hmm?”
“None!” Arthur shouts.
“You expect me to believe that? Did you feed them the same line about abstaining for your art? Or did you fuck them here on the floor?”
Arthur jumps to his feet and crowds into Eames’ space. “I wasn’t looking for someone to warm my bed when I found you.”
Eames laughs at him. “You think I didn’t notice your carriage the time before? I was waiting for you to gather your courage when that cab pulled up. Do you want to know what he paid me to do to him?”
The next thing Arthur knows, Eames is bent over, holding has face. Blood is dripping on the carpet and Arthur’s anger dissipates in an instant.
“Eames?” He reaches for him.
“Stay the hell away from me!” Eames roars, wiping his nose on his sleeve and wincing.
“Eames, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Arthur lurches forward and Eames backs up, colliding with the wall.
“You hit me, you bastard.”
“I don’t. I’m sorry. Eames, I don’t know what came over me. Please, let me see it.” He reaches for Eames again, hands flitting anywhere he can access as Eames curls away from him.
“You can’t employ a whore and expect a maiden, Arthur. I’ve been with hundreds of men, very few of which provided me with a name to reference. I’m sorry this information bothers you, but there’s nothing I can do to change things.” Eames looks tired, his shoulders sagging.
“I know, I’m sorry. Please, let me clean you up. I know I have no right to judge you, he was just so flippant. Like you meant nothing.” Arthur presses his hands to Eames’ shirt, tracking the heart beating in his chest.
“What would you do if you knew he treated me poorly? If he’d struck me as you’ve just done?” Eames asks.
Arthur’s hands shake as he smooths out Eames’ collar. “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. What would you do? I don’t remember him, but I obviously made an impression. He wouldn’t have been the first drabber to knock me around a little. What if he told you he did it? If you were sure?” Eames grabs Arthur’s hands, stilling them.
Arthur stares at him, eyes trailing over his bloody nose and the purple bruise blooming on his cheek. If he knew someone has touched Eames like this, struck him in anger, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.
“I’d kill him.” Arthur whispers.
Eames nods and presses his forehead to Arthur’s. ”Good. No one else will ever touch me again, Arthur. I swear it.”
“Only you.” Eames assures him, pressing kisses to Arthur’s fingers.
“It frightens me. The depth with which I desire you.” Arthur confesses.
“I know, darling. I know,” Eames cups Arthur’s cheek in his palm. “You best get dressed for Lord Saito.”
“I cannot go now,” Arthur argues, pulling back. “Not with you hurt.”
“But it is you who hurt me, Arthur. No one else is going to appear to put me in harms way. I provoked you and you lashed out. I knew it would happen, and I did it anyway.” Eames rubs his hands over Arthur’s shoulders.
“But I need to clean you up.”
“No, I can do that myself. You need to go to Saito’s. He’s expecting you, and I think getting out of the house will do you some good.” Eames turns him and pushed him towards the door.
“I don’t want to leave you.”
“Arthur,” Eames sighs, wincing when his nostrils flare. “Darling, I think some space is needed right now.”
Arthur pauses, considering. “Perhaps you’re right. But you’ll be here when I return?”
Eames smiles, resting a hand over his heart. “I swear it.”
Arthur’s enduring Lord’s Browning’s opinions on the usefulness of the monarchy when Saito pulls him aside.
“Thank you. That man is insufferable.” Arthur says, rubbing his brow.
“That man is richer than half of London, you’d do well to humour him.” Saito says with a chuckle.
“Is he? That’s a shame.” Arthur takes a sip of wine. He’s exhausted from arguing with Eames, and all he wants to do is return home to ensure the man is still there.
“The shame is that you’re young man was unable to attend this evening.” Saito says, looking down his nose at Arthur.
“He’s ill. He sent you a card expressing his regret, I believe.” Arthur says smoothly. He refuses to be baited anymore before the day is through.
“He did, it was surprisingly eloquent.”
Arthur takes another drink, rankled.
“Did Robert tell you about his woman?” Saito asks and Arthur nearly spits out his wine.
“His woman ?”
Saito laughs. “You’ve dribbled, dear boy. The woman he met while he was away. Claims she’s a clairvoyant. He’s invited her to London so that we might have a séance.”
“Why on earth would we want to do that?” Arthur frowns.
“To convene with the spirits, Arthur. It’s all the rage.”
“Count me out, I’m much too busy preparing for the showing,” Arthur says, omitting the fact that he’s destroyed everything he’s created and has to start from scratch. “Thank you, by the way.”
“You deserve it.” Saito tells him, his hand brushing over Arthur’s back.
“Where is Robert?” Arthur asks, knowing he should apologize for his rude behaviour.
“He came solely to meet your young man, I believe. Sadly he excused himself soon after he arrived. It seems sending regrets is catching.”
Arthur goes cold. “Why did he leave?”
“Claimed he had a headache or some such thing.” Saito raised his hand to someone across the room.
“Did he leave before or after I arrived?”
“Hmm?” Saito said, focus drifting to a young woman who had just entered.
“My Lord, did Robert excuse himself before of after I arrived?” Arthur says sharply.
“After, I told you. When he saw you hadn’t brought the whore, he left. What’s gotten into you?”
“I must go.” Arthur walks away, setting his wine glass on the sideboard before barking at the valet for his carriage.
Robert’s gone to the house. He’s gone to see Eames, Arthur’s sure of it. Why else would he leave when he realized Eames wasn’t in attendance? Did Eames know he was coming? Was that why he was so insistent that Arthur go tonight? Anger flares through him and he shouts for his driver to hurry.
If Robert’s touched Eames, Arthur will kill him. He knows he will. And if Eames has welcomed the touch, well. Arthur’s not sure what he’s capable of. He opened himself up to Eames. Invited him into his heart, his soul, and this is how he repays him? Fucking one of Arthur’s only friends, the first time he gets the chance?
Arthur’s out of the carriage before it’s come to a full stop, startling Quint when he comes barging through the front door.
“Where are they?” He roars, stalking through the parlor.
“Who, sir?” Quint keeps his distance, wary of Arthur’s anger.
“Eames. Where the fuck is he?”
“I believe Mr. Eames is in his room.” Quint gestures up the stairs and Arthur takes them three at a time.
He throws open Eames’ door, eyes searching every corner and finding it empty. He searches every room on the second floor, then the third, pausing outside the master suite. A vision of Eames and Robert, naked and writhing, assaults his mind and he pushed the doors open. It too, is empty. He stalks back to the main floor, swearing to himself that if Eames and Robert are together amidst the ruins of his art, he’ll slit their throats.
He pauses when he passes the library, noticing the doors leading to the garden are ajar. Cold air is wafting into the room, bringing the fog with it. Arthur storms outside, startling Eames, who is crossing the lifeless remnants of Mal’s garden toward the house.
“Arthur?” Eames frowns.
“Where have you been?” He demands.
“I was just getting some air.”
“I told you not to leave the house.”
Eames’ slumps. “I didn’t even think. I didn’t leave the property, I swear it.”
Something moves in the bushes behind Eames and his face pales.
“Who’s out there?” Arthur yells, walking toward the back of the yard.
“Arthur, it’s probably an animal.” Eames calls after him. “Come back, it’s cold.”
Arthur kicks at the bushes, demanding the intruder show himself. Eames hands curve over his shoulders, pulling him back.
“Don’t touch me! Who were you with?” Arthur shoves him away.
“Darling, please, let’s not do this again. I’m sorry I left the house. It can be so stifling in there. I just needed a breath of fresh air.” Eames tries to soothe him.
Arthur does know, he does. The house sometimes feels as though it’s suffocating him from the inside out, but he can’t see past his anger right now. “Was Robert Fischer here?”
“What? No, why would he be?” Eames crinkles his nose.
“Because when he found out you weren’t at Saito’s, he begged off. He knew you’d be here without me.” Arthur’s panting, his hands clenched at his sides.
Eames’ look changes from confusion to fondness. “Oh, darling. Were you worried for me?”
Arthur’s caught off guard. Was that was it was? He can’t quite remember anymore. That must be it. He was worried Robert had come to accost Eames. To hurt him.
“I was so scared he would take you away.” Arthur whispers, anger rushing out of him.
“Arthur, I’m fine. I’m right here, see? Perfectly fine.”
“He’s an affluent man. He has a lot to lose.” Arthur says, numb.
“Do you think he’s worried I will spill his secret? Arthur, I don’t even remember him. Besides, I can hardly condemn him without sacrificing myself, can I? Fischer has nothing to fear from me.” Eames takes his hand, pulling him back to the house.
Arthur pulls back, not wanting to return just yet. He feels like the house is watching them. Waiting.
“I’m sorry. I overreacted.” He rubs his fingers against Eames’ palm.
“It’s all right, darling. Your worry was hardly unfounded. Rich men have done worse things for less. I would hardly be a bump in the road to him.”
“I won’t let anyone harm you.” Arthur insists.
“I know,” Eames runs his nose along Arthur’s hairline and shivers. “Let’s go inside. You need rest.”
Eames leads them to Arthur’s room, turning his back as Arthur disrobes and crawls under the covers. It’s not modesty, Arthur just doesn’t trust himself to stay calm with Eames’ eyes on him as he strips. Eames tucks the covers around him and drops a kiss to Arthur’s brow. He’s asleep before Eames has closed the door.
Arthur’s in the library, stoking the fire when he hears Mal’s voice. He turns to greet her, smile sliding off his face when he realizes he can see right through her. Her hair is down, the front of her gown iridescent with spilled blood. As she drifts closer, he can see the thin gaping of her slit throat. Her voice is quiet, though she seems to be shouting at something beyond him.
He turns to the glass doors and finds Dom there, a matching bloom of blood on his white dress shirt. As Arthur rises, he catches a glimpse of the wall behind Dom, clear through the hole in his chest. His friends don’t notice them, even when he steps in front of them, trying to draw their attention from their quarrel with each other. Their skin is pale, almost grey, and Arthur chokes out a sob at the loss of their vitality. Mal, who was always such a bright light in his life, is dimmed. A muted reflection of herself, as though seen through dirty water. Dom’s pallor is waxen and flat. A one dimensional representation of the man Arthur revered.
Their voices grow louder and more warped as they argue through him. Somewhere, a baby is crying over the soft tinkling of a music box. Arthur sees Eames in the hall, his bright eyes and warm smile a soothing balm on Arthur’s addled mind. As he steps over the threshold of the room, Eames’ colour fades, his skin slowly turning to ash and scattering on the breeze from the open door. Arthur cries out in horror, finally drawing the attention of Dom and Mal.
Mal opens her mouth and a tremendous wail shakes the house. Book fall from the shelves and a lamp shatters on the floor. Eames is nearly gone, and when Arthur reaches for him, he sees his own skin, cinerial and molted, flaking to the floor. Arthur turns to the mirror above the mantle, his own mournful sob joining Mals when he sees his sunken face in the reflection. He claws at his face, horrified of the rot he knows lurks below the surface, come to rest where other can’t see it.
Arthur strikes out at the mirror, fracturing the glass and slicing his rancid flesh. Hands shoot out of the blackness behind the mirror, capturing his arms and forcing them against his chest as the struggles to grasp a shard of mirror to end his miserable existence.
“Arthur!” Eames cries, closer than where Arthur watched him disappear in the hallway.
Arthur gets one of his arms free, striking out against the weight pressing him back.
“Fucking hell, stop it!”
Arthur moans at Eames’ voice, his chest aching with the loss of the man he’s come to love. He stops fighting, giving in to his grief. He heaves great sobs, tears stinging his ruined face. He has no idea how he can cry tears when he no longer has eyes.
“Hush, darling, I’m here.”
“Eames,” he gasps, a fresh wave of tears falling.
“Arthur, wake up, love. You need to wake up.”
The slap is swift and shocking, his eyes snapping open at the assault. Eames leans over him, pressing Arthur’s arms to his chest. His hair is wild and there’s a look of terror in his eyes.
“Arthur, can you hear me?” Eames says slowly.
Arthur nods, still shaken by what he realizes must have been a dream. It felt so real. His own scream is ringing in his ears and his skin feels itchy and dry from the molting.
“I’m going to let go now.” Eames waits for him to nod again before releasing Arthur’s arms and moving back on the bed. There’s a lamp on the side table, throwing menacing shadows onto the walls.
Eames’ hands are bloody and Arthur reaches for him, worried he’s hurt Eames somehow.
“It’s yours.” Eames explains, turning Arthur’s arms over so he can see the jagged tearing of his skin. There’s blood under his nails and he’s embarrassed to realize he’s done this to himself.
“I was dreaming.” He says, throat dry.
“I gathered. You were screaming. I got here as fast as I could, but you’d already scratched up your arms. Arthur, what was it? What did you see?”
Arthur shakes his head, drawing in a ragged breath. He can’t describe his nightmare. He can’t close his eyes for more than a moment without seeing himself in the mirror.
“It’s okay, it’s over now,” Eames pulls him close, rocking Arthur from side to side. “You’re awake and nothing can hurt you.”
Arthur isn’t so sure about that, but he allows Eames to hold him. Once he’s calm, Eames wipes Arthur’s tears away with the sleeve of his nightshirt and eases him back against the pillows.
“Stay,” Arthur grasps Eames’ hand. “Please.”
Eames pauses. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Just stay here with me. I swear I won’t touch you.” Arthur pleads. He doesn’t want to be alone. He knows the dream will come back.
Eames turns down the lamp and climbs in beside Arthur, careful to keep a foot of space between them. Arthur reaches for his hand, letting their fingers tangle and rest between them. He feels better, grounded, just with having Eames there. He falls asleep again almost immediately and when he wakes next, Eames is curled behind him, his arm slung over Arthur’s hip and resting against his stomach. No light streams from the crack in the curtains so Arthur settles against the warmth at his back and closes his eyes. Before he drifts off, he hears the metallic strains of a melody.
The work Arthur produces over the next three weeks is tremendous. When he steps back to study his latest painting, he can honestly admit he didn’t truly believe he was capable of such genius. Not all the canvases are portraits of Eames, but they all scream of his influence. An ocean wave that perfectly reflects the lush contour of his lower lip, a complicated knot that grew out of Arthur’s sketch of Eames’ tattoo, and the crowning glory that is Eames’ visage. A seated portrait that captures his whimsical humour and the serious passion that hides behind it. There are twenty-six in total, and Arthur’s actually looking forward to showcasing them the following week.
Since he woke Arthur from his dream, Eames has spent every night in his bed. It’s been an exercise in willpower having him there, so warm, and accessible, but Arthur’s reticence has proved worthwhile. The more he wants and denies himself Eames’ body, the more he’s able to funnel that frustration into his art.
The effort has not gone unnoticed. What little Saito and Mr. Laurie, the curator of the Royal College, have seen of his work, had earned him rave reviews. Saito has pushed to see more, but Arthur’s given all his staff strict instructions that no one is to enter the house unless he has given explicit consent. Even Quint, when faced with dismissal, had improved his disposition towards Arthur’s wishes.
Saito has backed off on his insistence on meeting Eames, much to Arthur’s relief. He told Arthur he can hardly argue with the results of Arthur keeping his muse to himself. For the past few weeks, Arthur’s felt like he can finally breathe again. Eames is safe and secure, always at his side and not in danger of being lured away, and Arthur is able to focus on his work.
Eames seems content to be at the center of Arthur’s world, always happy to pose or tease as Arthur needs. He lit up the night Arthur ordered him to strip and lounge in front of the roaring fire, propped up on his elbows and watching Arthur closely while he sketched his naked form. Arthur hasn’t decided if that piece will be included in the showing, but he still gets a shiver when he thinks about Eames’ eyes on him while he put lead to paper. He knows he could have thrown his work to the side and taken Eames, then and there, but denying them both holds a power he never imagined. He knows Eames touched himself later, while laying in Arthur’s bed, thinking him asleep, and Arthur hadn’t even questioned his decision not to reach out and lend a hand. Channeling his own arousal into painting Eames was proving satisfying beyond compare.
Arthur hasn’t had another nightmare, but he often wakes from dreams he doesn’t remember, drenched in sweat with pulse racing and an unknown song in his head. Only now, Eames is there to calm him, curling around Arthur and stroking his skin until sleep reclaims him.
He stands in front of the full-length mirror, fussing with his necktie. Large, soft hands snake around his waist, pulling him back, and Eames grins from over his shoulder.
“It’s been so long since I’ve gotten fully dressed, I find I’ve quite forgotten how.” Arthur frowns at the fabric.
“You should stay home, then. Shuck out of this lot and come watch me in the bath.” Eames hands move over his chest, enticing him.
Arthur grabs his wrists, gently removing them from his person and turning to face Eames.
“It’s just lunch. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“You’ll miss me.” Eames tells him.
“Terribly,” Arthur agrees. “But I’ll survive. As will you.”
“Are you sure? I may wilt without you here to shower me with your attentions.” Eames pouts.
Arthur rubs his thumb over Eames mouth, wanting nothing more than to make use of it. He shakes himself and steps away, tsking. “You’re a nuisance.”
“I’ve been called worse.” Eames smirks.
“I’ll bet. You’ll stay in the house?” Arthur asks seriously.
Eames nods. “I won’t even open the drapes. I’ll stay your little secret until you say different.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say ‘little’.” Arthur smiles at Eames’ laugh.
“Go now, before I tie you to the bed and have my way with you.”
“Goodness, was that a threat?”
Eames smiles and brushes his fingers over Arthur’s mouth. “A promise.”
“I have to run.” Arthur reluctantly steps toward the door.
“Bring me back something shiny.” Eames winks and crawls back into the bed.
Arthur knows Eames will sleep half the day away, and that if he doesn’t leave now, there’s a very real chance Arthur will join him.
Lunch is at Saito’s home and Robert and Saito have already started when Arthur arrives.
“Forgive me, I was held up.” Arthur sits and opens his napkin.
“I’m sure you were,” Saito says wryly, cutting a smirk at Robert. “I do hope you at least let the poor man out of his restraints before you left.”
Arthur rolls his eyes, having endured Saito’s teasing for a while now. Robert smiles at him, apparently unperturbed by the suggestion that Arthur’s keeping a prostitute tied up in his house.
“How are the paintings coming?” Robert asks between sips of wine.
“Excellent. We’re nearly there.” Arthur smiles proudly.
“And will the mysterious Eames be attending the showing?”
Arthur pauses before spearing a cucumber on his fork. “That has yet to be decided.”
In truth, it’s a bit of a sore spot between he and Eames. Arthur doesn’t see the need for Eames to be paraded around at the showing when he is clearly represented in the paintings. Eames wants desperately to go. To see how people will respond to Arthur’s work, to the clear adoration for Eames that is illustrated on the canvases. Arthur’s promised that he and Eames will give into their desires and see where it take them, but he can’t help worrying they won’t make it that far if Eames is at the showing. His work is superb and he has no doubt that Eames will be lusted after once others see what Arthur does in the man. Keeping Eames will always be Arthur’s main goal. Without him, he has nothing.
“Well, he’ll be at the séance, won’t he?” Robert asks.
Arthur frowns. “The what?”
“Oh, did I forget to mention we’ll need to hold it at your house?” Saito says pleasantly.
“You most certainly did. I can’t have it there, what of the paintings?”
“We’ve planned it for the night before the showing,” Robert says helpfully. “The paintings will all have been moved, won’t they?”
Arthur clenches his teeth and glares at Saito. He should have known the man wouldn’t give up easily.
“Why must I host? She’s your clairvoyant, Robert.”
Robert scoffs and drains his glass. “And if my father found out I’d hired her, he’d have me committed. He doesn’t entertain what he considers folly, you know that.”
“Right, then how about your house?” Arthur turns to Saito. “It would hardly be the most shocking gathering to occur within its walls.”
“Alas, I am afraid my hosting duties shall be suspended for the time being.” Saito lays a hand over his heart.
“Why?” Arthur demands.
“I’m to be a father. And my lovely wife has asked that our home be a calm and sedate haven for her during this difficult time. Really, she asks so little of me, it’s the least I can do.”
“That’s wonderful news, my Lord! Congratulations.” Robert smiles, genuinely pleased for the man.
Arthur frowns. How a man like Saito procreating is seen as a good thing is beyond him. He mumbles his felicitations and refills his wine glass.
“So it must be you, dear Arthur.” Saito says.
“We could simply not do it.” He suggests.
“But she’s come all this way.” Robert argues. “And I’m dying to see what all the fuss is about. Perhaps some spirit will tell her something I can use against my father.”
Arthur grips his fork so hard his hand starts to cramp. “Do you not think, considering the history of my home, that this may be a bit insensitive?”
Robert freezes, his glass halfway to his mouth.
Saito waves him off. “On the contrary, Arthur. It’s all the more reason to hold it there. Do you not wish to speak with your friends one last time? To know that they’re at rest?”
Arthur stares at Robert, willing him to intervene.
“Perhaps Arthur’s right-” he starts.
“Nonsense.You’re being children. We’re set to meet at Arthur’s in five days and that’s the end of it.” Saito slaps his hand on the table, making Robert jump.
Arthur knows it’s futile to argue further. He could bar the door and refuse them entry, but he has no doubt it would result in the cancellation of his showing the following night. Saito’s planned this well.
“Eames is uncomfortable with such things and will not be attending our happy little party.” Arthur says curtly. He still has control over that, at least.
Saito smirks across the table, but changes the subject to recent gossip. Arthur excuses himself once they’ve finished eating, citing the work he still has waiting for him at home. When he returns to the house, he finds Eames once again in the bath, fingers pruned and water tepid.
“How can you stand to stay in so long?” Arthur asks, hanging his jacket over a chair.
“I’m part selkie, didn’t you know?” Eames says, eyes closed.
“Hmm, you don’t seem hairy enough for that.”
“I’ve lost my coat and cannot return to the sea where I belong. All I can do is submerge myself in your tub and dream of a life spent laying on a rock, basking in the sun.”
“It’s your tub, I just visit it occasionally.” Arthur says absently, sorting through the mail. He notices Eames’ silence after a minute and frowns down at him. “What?”
Eames face is carefully blank. “Do you mean that?”
Arthur shifts uncomfortably. “Do you feel I should make use of it more often?”
“No, not that,” Eames waves his hand, flinging water onto Arthur’s trousers. “The part about it being mine.”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose so.” Arthur says, confused.
“But it’s in your house.”
“Yes, but so is the chaise in the parlor and you’ve claimed that with your bare arse, so it’s also yours.”
Eames’ gaze drops to the water in front of him. “So it’s mine in the sense that I use it frequently.”
“What? No, it’s yours because you enjoy it. If it makes you happy, I want you to have it.” Arthur explains, sitting on the chair beside the tub.
“You make me happy. Does that make you mine as well?” Eames glances up at him, a small smile on his face.
Arthur’s breath catches in this throat and he feels his face warm. “Do I truly?”
“Yes, Arthur,” Eames wet hand wraps around his. “In my life, I’ve often felt used, but you’ve made me feel useful. That means more to me than I thought possible.”
“I want you to be happy.” Arthur confesses.
“Your wish is my command, darling.” Eames grins at him.
Arthur sighs, hating that he’s about to ruin Eames’ good mood. “You may regret saying that.”
“Probably,” Eames laughs. “What’s happened?”
“Saito is insisting we hold that bloody séance here the night before my showing.” Arthur frowns at how Eames’ face lights up. “I need you to stay up here.”
“Why? Oh, Arthur, please?” Eames pleads.
When Arthur first mentioned the woman Robert had found, Eames had asked Arthur a hundred questions he didn’t know the answers to about how the woman communed with the dead, and the nature of the gathering Robert was planning. It seems he has a keen interest in the unknown.
“Eames, I don’t want you down there. Saito is looking for any excuse to meet you and this is just another of his little ploys.”
“And I suppose it still doesn’t matter that I’ve promised you nothing could take me away from you?” Eames lets go of Arthur’s hand and leans back, splashing water over the side of the tub.
“You don’t know what he’s like. Saito collects people. He’s had his mind set on you since I found you, and he’ll stop at nothing to draw you to him.” Arthur says, feeling like he’s explained this a thousand times before.
“You don’t trust me, let us not mince words.”
“I don’t trust him .”
“And you think I’ll be helpless in the face of his attention. That’s very insulting, Arthur. It wounds me to have you think that my love for you would simply dissipate the moment another man showed me interest.”
Arthur gapes at him, unable to believe what he’s just heard.
“Your love for me?” He chokes out.
Eames stills, eyes moving slowly back to Arthur.
“Do you mean that?” Arthur asks, reaching for Eames. “Do you truly?”
Eames swallows thickly as Arthur’s hands cup his face. “Yes.”
Arthur kisses him then, unable to hold back any longer. Eames’ lips are soft and dry, parting with a sigh when Arthur’s tongue demands entry. He tastes subtly of anise and red wine, and Arthur can’t help but seek out the warmth of his mouth again, and again. Eames’ arms wrap around his shoulders, water soaking through his shirt, and Arthur nearly ends up in the tub with him. He pulls back in a panic, steadying himself on the lip of the tub and laughing.
“I love you,” Eames promises, placing kisses over Arthur’s face as though now that he’s been granted permission, he cannot stop himself. “I love you, darling.”
“I love you, as well. But this changes nothing.” Arthur pulls back.
“What do you mean?” Eames frown, unsure.
“I still need for us to wait. Until after the showing. It’s less than a week away. I have faith in us.”
“But you still want me with you, yes? At night? I can stay with you?” Eames clings to him, threatening to pull Arthur in again.
“Of course, I cannot bear to have you apart from me. But I have to complete my work.”
“Right, yes,” Eames pushes him away, standing and stepping out of the tub. “Let’s do that.”
“Eames, wait.” Arthur laughs, watching him pull on his clothing, still dripping water.
“No, no, you need to work.” Eames says, abandoning his wet trousers and pulling on Arthur’s robe.
“Eames, come here.” Arthur commands, pleased when Eames obeys immediately.
“Arthur, I love you.” Eames presses his forehead to Arthur’s shoulder.
“I know, and I am so grateful.”
“And you’ll let me come to the séance?” Eames raises his head, hopeful.
“Because I love you, and you love me. And you know no one could ever come between us. You trust in our love. You trust in me.”
Arthur looks at the man in front of him. At the elegant slope of his nose, and the perfect storm of his eyes, and he can feel Eames’ adoration like it’s a shawl he can wrap around his shoulders. Something soft and warm, but strong enough to keep him safe.
“Fine, you can come, but,” he holds up his finger when Eames grins. “You are not to be alone with anyone who is not me, is that understood?”
“Yes, darling.” Eames nods, pressing a kiss to Arthur’s lips.
The temptation is there to continue the kiss, the tightness of Arthur’s trousers insists on it, in fact, but he pushes Eames back, determined to keep to his plan. “Let’s get to work.”
Eames leads the way out of the room, but Arthur’s eye catches sight of the music box on the mantle.
“What’s this doing here?”
“Oh, I found it in your room, I hope you don’t mind. I’ve been tinkering with it, trying to find a replacement for the key. I thought you’d be pleased if I could make it play.” Eames picks up the box, turning it over and showing Arthur where the key is missing.
“It’s Mal’s.” he says absently, distracted by Eames’ thick fingers on the wood.
Arthur frowns, he really has a lot of work to do. “Leave it, we should get started.”
Eames replaces the box on the mantle and follows him downstairs. It isn’t until later that night, when Arthur wakes from yet another dream he can’t recall, that he finds it odd that he’s told Eames nothing of the people who were once so important to him. The ones whose deaths in this very house brought him to Eames. It troubles him, in the moments before sleep reclaims him, but by the time he wakes again, his worry is forgotten.
The day before the showing, once the paintings have been collected and arranged to Arthur’s satisfaction at the gallery, he has Quint move a small table and chairs into the library, where they’ll be able to close themselves away from the rest of the house for the séance. Arthur hasn’t been in the library since before his terrible dream, and he hesitates a moment before entering. Eames is there, pushing the furniture to the edges of the room and closing the drapes over the glass doors.
“This seems like a lot of fuss.” Arthur complains, hands in his pockets.
“The woman sent very strict instructions. Everything has to be perfect.” Eames sets an empty glass bowl in the center of the table, stepping back to frown at its placement.
“What’s that for?”
“It will be filled with water. Apparently, communicating with the otherworld produces negative energy, which needs to be expended lest it kill the medium.”
Arthur scoffs. “You made that up.”
“I did not. It’s all very scientific, Arthur.” Eames hands him a pamphlet entitled A Key to Spiritualism and the Occult .
“Where did you get this?” he asks, flipping through the pamphlet.
“She sent it with the instructions.”
“Oh, apparently some mediums can excrete ectoplasm during a trace. Whatever that is had better not stain the carpets.” Arthur said drily.
“Arthur, if you’re so against this, why are we doing it?” Eames asked, hands on his hips.
“Because I have no choice. Are we almost ready?”
“Yes, but I have something for you before the others arrive.” Eames takes him by the hand and leads him upstairs to Arthur’s bedroom.
“Eames, we still have one day to go.” He teases, wrapping his hand around Eames’ hip and pressing in close.
“It’s not that,” Eames chides, pushing back into Arthur. “But I’m willing to break the rules if you are.”
“No, we’ve come this far. Besides, we have guests set to arrive within the hour.”
Eames opens the door and turns to face Arthur. “I’m going to need much more than an hour, when the time comes.”
“Agreed.” Arthur says, breathless at the heat in Eames’ eyes.
“But first,” Eames says, going to the bed and picking up the music box.
Arthur laughs with delight when Eames opens the lid and music starts playing, the small blue bird spinning slowly above the moving gears.
“I found the key. It was in that ugly desk in the office.”
“Dom’s desk?” Arthur frowns.
“What song is that?” he cocks his head, listening to the lilting chime of the pins as the cylinder spins.
“I’m not sure, but it’s familiar, isn’t it?”
“Hmm.” Arthur agrees.
Eames closes the lid, cutting off the music. “Maybe one of our guests will recognize it.”
Arthur nods, untucking his shirt. “If not, it will at least be a conversation starter.”
“Exactly.” Eames smiles, putting the box back on the bed to fetch Arthur a new shirt.
“Now, I’ve warned you that Saito can be rather vulgar. Robert’s not much better when they’re together.”
Eames raises an eyebrow in Arthur’s direction. “Darling, I highly doubt they will manage to shock me .”
“Nonetheless, I don’t want you to feel like they’re judging you. I know the things they get up to, and they have no right. At least what you do is a profession.” Arthur grumbles, pulling on the shirt.
“What I used to do.” Eames corrects him, doing up Arthur’s buttons.
Arthur smiles, stilling Eames’ hands. “Right. Used to.”
Eames kisses him chastely, then continues dressing him. Arthur lets him, only protesting when Eames’ hands start to wander when he tucks in Arthur’s shirt.
“One more day.” He promises.
Eames brings the music box down with them, placing it on the mantle in the library and filling the bowl on the table with water. He lowers the lamps and double checks that there are matches for the requested candles. Arthur shakes his head, but smiles, enjoying the sight of Eames readying the house as though it is his own.
Robert arrives early, as usual, and greets Eames like an old friend, which pleases and rankles Arthur in equal measure. Eames really doesn’t seem to remember Robert, and Arthur relaxes a little. Robert compliments Eames’ repair of the music box, but is puzzled by the melody.
“I feel like I’ve heard it, but I don’t have the mind for such things.”
“No matter,” Eames smiles. “It will come to me eventually.”
“We could always find a new song. Replace the cylinder.” Arthur offers.
“No, no. This is the song meant for this box. We can’t just change it.” Eames argues as the song winds down.
Arthur shrugs and pours them all drinks.
“So Arthur tells me you found this woman in Scotland.” Eames turns back to Robert, his hand brushing lightly over Arthur’s back.
“Yes, in Dundee, actually. She’d been hired by my client’s family to settle a dispute over his will.” Robert nods in thanks when Arthur hands him a glass.
“And did she?” Arthur asks.
“No, that’s my job,” Robert laughs. “But I sat in on the reading she did for them and I was terribly impressed.”
“What was it like?” Eames asks, moving to sit across from him.
Before Robert can respond, Quint announces Saito and the mood of the room shifts. Saito’s movements have the air of a predator as he greets Arthur and Robert, then turns his attention on Eames.
“Well, well, well, Arthur has finally seen fit to present you to us, has he?” Saito’s eyes travel over Eames’ frame appreciatively.
“That’s my fault, I’m afraid,” Eames chuckles easily. “Arthur’s work is so important, I feared not having me focused on him completely would compromise his genius.”
“It is so easy to draw your focus away, then?” Saito raises an eyebrow.
Eames looks to Arthur, wrapping his arm around Arthur’s waist. “It is not. I simply do not wish to give my attention to anyone but him.”
Arthur’s heart soars, his ego not far behind. Robert clears his throat and drains his glass, getting up to refill it while Saito watches Eames like a hawk.
“How is the Lady Saito feeling?” Arthur asks with a sharp smile.
“Oh, yes, Arthur tells me she’s expecting. How wonderful, congratulations.” Eames says.
“She’s quite well, thank you.” Saito nods and accepts a glass from Robert.
“You’ve done quite a number in here, Arthur.” Robert remarks, glancing around the room.
“That was all Eames. He followed this woman’s instructions to a tee.” Arthur rubs his hand over Eames’ back before nudging Eames toward the couch.
“Her instructions were explicit, I simply did as instructed.” Eames smiles, sitting down.
“What a fortuitous skill for someone in your line of work.” Saito says.
Eames’ hand settles on Arthur’s knee and squeezes. “Arthur benefits greatly from it.”
Arthur sits back, smug and impressed with how well Eames is handling Saito. Robert’s eyebrows are near his hairline and his drink is half gone already.
Saito glances at Eames’ hand, and grins, his teeth flashing dangerously. “I’m sure he does.”
“Is being tardy part of this woman’s schtick?” Arthur asks, turning away from Saito.
“She no doubt feels it adds to her mystique.” Robert says, seeming grateful for the chance in subject.
“Is there anyone in particular you’re hoping to speak with?” Eames asks.
“My mother, perhaps.” Robert says. “She died when I was quite young.”
“Mine did as well.” Eames tells him with a sad smile.
Arthur looks at him, startled by the admission. Eames has told him quite a bit about himself, but Arthur now realizes none of his stories go beyond the past few years. He knows nothing of Eames’ childhood, or what his life was like before he turned to the streets.
“I have an old business partner I’d like to have a word with,” Saito says abruptly. “Died suddenly after a large sum of money disappeared from our account. I’d love to know what became of it. No one could find a trace of it.”
“Are you certain such a person wouldn’t reveal any of the secrets you keep, my Lord?” Robert says, slyly.
Saito laughs, winking. “Undoubtedly. But nothing that could be proven in a court of law.”
Arthur shakes his head and takes a drink, raising his head when Quint appears in the doorway.
“Madame Lanmo has arrived.” Quint says ushering the woman in and disappearing.
Eames gets up to greet the woman and Arthur stares at her tall stature and neat dress. Her skin is dark and flawless, marking her a much younger than her curling grey hair suggests.
“You found her in Dundee?” Arthur raises his eyebrow at Robert, who flushes.
“By way of Haiti.” He says quietly and goes to greet their guest.
Arthur sits back, allowing Eames and Robert to show the woman around the room, checking that everything is to her specifications.
“He is indeed as alluring as you’ve said.” Saito says, leaning over the arm of his chair to speak quietly.
“You’ve seen the paintings, did you truly doubt me?”
“No, no, but there’s a difference between seeing picture of a flower and being in the same room as one blooms. Being close enough to smell its perfume, stroke its petals.”
Arthur glances at him sharply. “There will be no stroking of Eames’ petals.”
Saito laughs, patting Arthur’s arm. “Of course not, dear boy. He seems quite devoted to you. I’m proud of what you’ve done with him. It’s a good investment.”
Arthur bristles against the idea that he’s somehow tricked Eames into caring for him. He pulls his arm away and smiles tightly.
“I think we’re ready to get started.” Eames announces, and excited smile on his face.
They take their seats, Arthur positioning Eames between himself and Madame Lanmo, with Robert on his left. The candles have been lit and the lamps extinguished, giving the room an eerie lifelike quality.
“We will hold hands. Do not let go.” Madame Lanmo says, her words accented with a thick and twisting French accent. “This house has many strong currents. There is energy here. It won’t take long to draw something from the other side.”
Eames grips his hand and smiles. Arthur smiles weakly back, turning to look at Robert. He’s still certain this is a bad idea, but Robert seems to have forgotten all that could go wrong in his excitement. His hand is warm and dry in Arthur’s, though it trembles a little.
Madame Lanmo transfers Eames and Saito’s hands to her wrists and opens her hands, palms towards each other with a foot of space between them. She closes her eyes and starts humming in a low voice. Saito narrows his gaze, frowning. She continues for about a minute before the hair on Arthur’s arms stir, sending a shiver through him. The table jolts, disturbing the surface of the water in the bowl.
A stream of light appears between the woman’s hands, shocking them all. Eames grunts in surprise and his fingers tighten around Arthur’s.
“There is darkness in this house,” Madame Lanmo slurs, raising her head. His posture is stiff and her eyes are glazed over. “So much pain.”
Arthur squeezes Roberts hand until the man makes a pained noise. He knew, knew this was a terrible idea. The water in the bowl starts to bubble as the music box comes to life, the blue bird spinning around and around. It draws the other’s attention, but Arthur keeps his eyes on Madame Lanmo, a small smile having crept onto her face. He gasps when her eyes snap to him, the smell of Mal’s perfume assaulting his nose.
“No,” he pleads.
“Arthur,” she says, and her accent is so close to Mal’s, it hurts to hear it. “Mon cherie, you finally have everything you want.”
He can feel the others looking at him, but he can’t turn away from her familiar smile.
“It won’t last. You know that.” She warns.
“Stop it.” he commands.
“People like us, we’re not meant for happiness, Arthur.”
“Mallorie?” Robert asks and the woman’s attention snaps to him.
“Robert, stop snivelling,” she spits. “Your father will be dead within the year and then you’ll truly have something to whine about.”
“What are you talking about?” Robert whispers.
“Watch out for Uncle Peter, dear. He knows all your secrets.”
Robert gapes at her, but she’s turned her attention back to Arthur.
“You cannot stop what is to come.” Madame Lanmo turns to Eames, smiling sadly. “You’ll make a beautiful addition to our little family, bisou.”
“Stop this! Stop it right now!” Arthur cries, breaking his hold on Robert’s hand to pry Eames’ fingers from around the woman’s wrist.
Madame Lanmo slumps in her seat, dazed. A noise rattles the light fixture above them and they all turn their eyes upward. The sound that’s haunted Arthur’s dreams, the one he heard in the hidden room upstairs, is rising all around them. Mal’s voice, warped into a pitiful, mournful wail, surrounds them. The water in the bowl is boiling now, splashing onto the table and soaking the cloth beneath it. The music box speeds up, the notes ringing out so close together, they become almost indistinguishable. A shrieking accompaniment to the cry ringing in their ears.
Saito pulls his arm back and slaps Madame Lanmo across the face, hard enough that she tumbles to the ground. The wailing and the music cut off abruptly, silenced by the slamming of doors somewhere on one of the upper floors. Arthur’s not a betting man, but if he were, he’d put his money on it being the ones to Mal and Dom’s bedroom.
“What the hell was that?” Robert croaks, a hand to his head.
“The woman’s a witch.” Saito spits, grabbing her by the arm and dragging her to her feet.
“My Lord, please, leave her be,” Robert pleads. “There is no possible way she could have conjured all of that on her own.”
“You’re saying you think that was Mallorie Cobb’s doing? That the ghost of that gentle woman has turned vengeful and came here to strike out against us?” Saito shakes the poor woman’s arm while he speaks, drawing a moan from her.
“Saito, let her go.” Arthur snaps, turning his attention to Eames. “Are you alright?”
He rests his hand on the back of Eames’ neck, startled to find it’s cold. Eames is the only one still seated, and he’s rubbing his thumbnail back and forth across his lips, gaze focused on the wet tablecloth. He nods his head absently.
“Madame, I think it best if you go now.” Robert says, taking care to support her as he prys Saito’s hands away.
She’s visibly shaken, but Arthur can see the determination in her eyes when they meet his.
“Get out of this house. Burn it to the ground if you have to, but do not stay here another minute.” She warns before allowing Robert to see her out of the room.
“We should call the police. That woman is a menace.” Saito pulls out a cigarette, his hands shaking when he tries to light it.
Arthur lights the lamps and blows out the candles, refilling everyone’s glasses. Robert returns, hesitating before stepping into the room.
“We should adjourn to the parlor,” Arthur suggest. “This room has quite lost its appeal.”
The others murmur assent and vacate the library. Arthur pauses to remove the key from the back of the music box and close the lid. If he never hears it play again, he shall count himself lucky. Eames is still sitting at the table, a red mark forming where he continues to stroke over his mouth.
“Come on, you’ll feel better once you’re out of here.” He holds out his hand to Eames, frowning when Eames simply stares at it. “Eames.”
Eames’ head snaps up, his eyes clouded. “Darling?”
“Come along to the parlor.”
Eames takes his hand, smiling distractedly as he stands. Saito and Robert have acquired new drinks, though their nerves don’t appear any more settled.
“Well, that was quite a bigger show than you paid for, Robert.” Saito says, leaning back on the sofa.
“Quite,” Robert rubs his fingers against his temple. “Does anyone else have a headache?”
“No, but I can have Quint bring you something.” Arthur says.
“No, no, it’s alright. If it’s all the same to you, I believe I’ll go. I have much more excitement than I planned.” Robert’s smile slides into a grimace as he presses a hand to the side of his head.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Arthur asks, pushing Eames into a chair.
“Yes, I’m sure all I need is rest. I’ll see you tomorrow evening at the gallery. I’m really looking forward to it, Arthur.” Robert nods slightly to Saito and takes his leave.
“Well, she wasn’t wrong about Browning, at least.” Saito says.
“What do you mean?” Arthur sits on the arm of Eames’ chair, letting his arm fall over Eames’ shoulders.
“He’s been keeping a list and proof of all Robert’s indiscretions. At Fischer senior’s behest, I’ve no doubt.”
“Why would he do that? Robert’s family.”
“Ah, yes, and although blood may be thicker than water, it is not more valuable than gold. Robert will get everything when his father dies, and Browning will be left with nothing but his title. He’s gambled away the rest.” Saito shrugged.
“But surely he implicates himself by naming Robert in anything.” Arthur argues.
“What’s adultery when pederasty is on the table? Half the men Robert’s been with have been paid off by Browning. He’s no doubt made them sign witness statements, implicating Robert.”
Arthur stares at him, shocked. “You knew this and yet you’ve done nothing to warn him?”
“Robert’s a grown man, he knows the consequences of his actions.”
“Do you have no fear for your own life?” Arthur demands. “Half of the affairs Robert’s had have been at your home. With whores paid from your own coffers.”
“I employ performers through a reputable agency, Arthur. I can hardly speak for what grown men engage in of their own free will.” Saito smiles sharply. A warning for Arthur to back off his attack, lest he force Saito’s hand.
Arthur quiets, knowing all it takes is the rumour of sodomy to bring a man to ruin. Eames is staring into the shadows in the corner of the room and he startles when Arthur squeezes his neck. Before he can ask if Eames is ill, Quint appears.
“Master Miles, I must speak with you,” he glances between Eames and Saito. “Discretely.”
Arthur frowns but gets to his feet. He glances at Saito, who waves him on.
Quint leads him into the hallway. “Sir, I’m afraid three of the staff have quit.”
“It seems your little… gathering has upset them. The kitchen boy and a maid refused to cross the threshold when they learned what was going on tonight, and a second maid, Sarah, was upstairs just now, seeing to the fires, when she says a gust of wind ripped through the upper floors and slammed the doors shut.”
“All of them, sir. She was in Master Eames’ room and couldn’t get the door open. I heard her shouting and when I arrived, it had been locked from the outside.”
Arthur runs a hand over his face. “You can assure whomever is left that in the future, there will be nothing of that sort happening under this roof. Put a note in the paper in the morning and hire replacements.”
“There’s one more thing, sir.”
“Of course there is.” Arthur sighs. He’s exhausted and wants nothing more than to rid his house of Saito and crawl into bed with Eames. He stills. Saito and Eames. He’s left them alone in the parlor. He turns to look back down the hall. Had he shut the door when he left? He can’t remember.
“A window’s been broken on the third floor. There’s no sign of what caused the damage, but with the rain, it will need to be repaired as soon as possible.”
“Then fix it,” Arthur spits. He takes a step toward the parlor before he turns back. “What room has the broken window?”
“The master suite, sir.”
Arthur goes cold. He hears Saito’s voice, deep and amused from behind the closed parlor door. Arthur runs down the hall, crashing into the room. Saito’s head snaps up from where he’s standing in front of Eames, the other man’s hand undoing his laces.
“What the hell is going on?” He roars.
“Arthur, calm down.” Saito runs his hand through Eames hair, rolling his head back so Eames is looking up at him. “It was purely his doing, I assure you.”
Arthur cannot believe the tableau in front of him. Eames is now stroking Saito through his trousers, eyes fixed on the man above him. Small tremors go through him, buzzing under his skin and feeding his rage.
“Take your hands off him.” He says, teeth clenched.
Saito lets go and backs up, chuckling when Eames’ hands follow him. “What did you expect, dear boy? He’s a whore. It’s better that you know he’ll jump ship to the next richer cock if given the chance.”
“Get out.” Arthur commands, breathing heavily.
“Excuse me?” The humour has vanished from Saito’s voice, leaving it hard. “You’d do well to remember who I am, Arthur. And all I’ve done for you. You wouldn’t even have this tramp if I hadn’t sent you out in search of him.”
“I said get out. I don’t care who the fuck you are, you do not touch him.”
Saito breathes a laugh, incredulous. “My god, you love him. Oh, Arthur, how could you?”
Arthur glares at him, conscious of Quint hovering in the doorway.
“I told you to take what he had to give, not to grow attached. Did he tell you he loved you, too? Christ, Arthur, I knew you were naive, but this is distressing. He’s a whore, he’s incapable of love. You’re nothing but another shilling to him, and he’d no doubt sell you out for a new pair of shoes! You stupid, stupid boy!”
Arthur rushes forward, grabbing Saito by the lapels and spinning him around. He shoves the man out of the room and down the hall, Quint pleading with him to stop and Saito trying and failing to bat his hands away. Arthur’s anger is rising, higher and stronger with each step. He yells at Quint to open the doors and throws Saito into the rain.
“Stay the fuck away from me.” Arthur slams the door closed and runs into Quint.
“Sir, that was a very foolish thing to do! Have you gone mad?” The butler demands, looking terrified.
“Get out. All of you, get out of my house.” Arthur says, seething.
“You’re fired. Get the hell out. Now!” He screams, reopening the front door and shoving Quint outside.
He bars the door and strides back down the hall, fear and anger and betrayal rolling around in his gut. Eames is still sitting in the chair, staring at his hands, which are raised in front of him. Arthur walks right up to him and backhands him across the face, sending him sprawling across the floor.
“Arthur?” Eames stammers, a hand to his cheek.
“What the fuck are you playing at?” Arthur shouts.
“I don’t, what did I do?” There are tears in Eames’ eyes, but all Arthur can see is guilt.
“I brought you into my home, into my bed. I made you immortal in my work and this is how you repay me?” Arthur pounds his fist against his chest, spittle flying from his mouth. “I was barely out of the room a minute and you’re pawing at him like a cat in heat. God, he was right. You’ve been lying to me this whole time.”
Eames scrambles to his knees, shuffling to Arthur and grabbing at his shirtfront. “No, no darling, I swear. I have no idea what’s happened, but that wasn’t me. It was like, like I had no control over my own actions. Arthur, you must believe me.”
“Is that what you tell yourself? When you let all those men fuck you? That it wasn’t you? Is that how you live with yourself?” Arthur wrestles Eames’ hands away and shoves him to the floor.
“I suppose I should be grateful that you didn’t wait until after we’d lain together. God knows it would hard to forgive myself for that.”
“I love you, darling, please, please believe me.” Eames pleads, tears falling over his flushed face.
Arthur starts clapping. “Bravo! Truly a moving performance. Who knew a whore could be so convincing.”
Eames bows his head and chokes out a sob. His shoulders shake and for a moment the room dims as a shadow moves between them. Arthur looks around the room, but he can find no reason for the change in the light. Eames makes a rasping noise, and Arthur’s startled to discover he’s laughing.
Eames throws his head back and howls, a sickening grin on his face. He pushed himself to his knees, his eyes steady on Arthur.
“What are you going to do now, Arthur?” He asks, his accent muddled and wrong. “Are you going to cast me out? I don’t think so.”
“You bastard.” Arthur takes a step forward and Eames launches to his feet, turning and running through the house.
Arthur follows his dark laughter to the second parlor, where Eames is collecting the sketches that still line the room.
“All of this is nothing, if you don’t have me,” he taunts. “You’re a hack. A sad, talentless failure who grasps at greatness but never quite succeeds because he has the artistic inclinations of a gnat.”
Arthur opens his mouth to respond and Eames balls up a drawing, tossing the paper into the fire.
“What are you doing?” Arthur demands, shocked.
“These are mine. They never belonged to you. I’m the only reason you haven’t been laughed out of every gallery in London, just like you were in Paris. They knew, they could see it. The hole that’s inside of you, bleeding away all of the light and good that once filled you. Why do you think your friends drifted away from you?” Eames cocks his head to the side, tossing another paper into the flames. “It’s because they knew. They could feel the darkness growing in you, Arthur.”
“No, you have no idea what you’re talking about. You didn’t even know them.” Arthur takes a step forward and Eames rushes to the grate, holding the remaining sheets close to the fire.
“They were happy to be rid of you. No longer required to shower you with false praise when you turned out lifeless paintings, one after another. Did you notice there’s none of your work in this house? What about the one you gave them at their wedding? Where is it, Arthur?”
Arthur’s hands are shaking. Eames is right. None of the paintings Arthur gave to Dom and Mal are hung in the house. They didn’t want them. They didn’t want him. It’s no wonder he felt like a stranger in this house. They’d moved on without him long ago and it was easier to let him wander off to Paris than to sit him down and break his heart.
“What will you do when I go?” Eames hisses, feeding another page to the flames.
“You’re not going anywhere.” Arthur swears.
“Are you going to stop me? I don’t think so. I’m leaving, and I’m taking every ounce of brilliance you think you possess. You’re nothing without me. You’ll never create another work worthy of what I gave you.”
Arthur vision goes white. It’s true. It’s all true. If Eames leaves, Arthur’s ruined. He’s never worked like he has with Eames by his side, and he never will again. What is a life worth if it’s wasted trying to recapture past glory? No, Eames has to stay. No matter what, Arthur cannot let Eames leave.
“I bought and paid for you, and I’ll not let you leave.” Arthur says, throwing himself at Eames.
The papers scatter, most falling into the grate and turning to ash within seconds. Eames is laughing again, his hot breath ghosting over Arthur face as he’s shoved to the floor, Arthur straddling his chest.
“I will not let you leave, I will not!” Arthur screams, shaking Eames so hard his head bounces off the floor.
Eames’ laugh is silent, but Arthur can still hear it roaring in his head. He cannot let Eames leave.
“You will stay.” Arthur cries. “You have to stay with me.”
Eames’ face has gone purple and his grey-green eyes are bloodshot and bulging. He’s fighting against Arthur’s hold, but his protests are growing weaker.
“Yes, yes, you’ll see. We’ll make it alright, but you can’t ever leave.” Arthur’s crying, and he can’t recall when it started, but his throat is thick, his sinuses full.
“We’ll be together.”
Eames’ head falls back, his body going limp. Arthur chokes out a sob of relief. He’s stopped the horrible, mocking laugh. He pets at Eames’ hair here it’s been mussed. His eyes are open, but Eames is staring vacantly at the ceiling. Arthur frowns.
“Eames?” He shakes him a little, but Eames doesn’t stir.
It’s then that Arthur notices the marks on Eames’ throat. He gasps and throws himself back, scrambling away from the body.
“No, no, no. Eames, no.” He presses aching fingers to his mouth, trying to silence his wretched cries.
He jolts forward. It’s only been a short while. Perhaps he can bring Eames back. He kneels beside the body, his hands flitting over Eames’ chest.
“I didn’t mean it. I swear I didn’t. I love you. Eames, please, please come back. I didn’t mean it.”
Arthur begs. He cries and he pleads, but Eames remains gone. Glass eyed and still on the floor of the parlor. He lets out a sob, curling over the body, his tears soaking through Eames’ shirt.
He’s nothing now, his mind whispers. He’s ruined himself. He’s taken the only thing good in his life, the only thing he’s ever truly loved, and choked the life out of it. It sounds like a chorus in his head. All the failures he’s endured, the disappointment. All that could have been, shattered in pieces around him.
Arthur raises his head, sure of what he needs to do. He presses a kiss to Eames’ blue lips and stumbles to his feet. The hallway feels like it’s twice as long as usually and the stairs are like quicksand, dragging him down and slowing his process. He claws his way to the second floor, traversing the corridor on his hands and knees.
He pushes through Eames’ door and grabs the dagger out of its box on the table. He’d given it to Eames as a gift. Something to protect himself against those who would do him harm. Arthur laughs joylessly at the truth of the matter. That it was he who Eames needed protection against.
He falls twice on his way back to the second parlor, the walls of the house undulating around him and throwing off his balance. He locks the door behind him, glancing around at what had been a haven to them both. The room they spent the most time together. Learning each other. Falling in love.
“I’m coming,” he whispers, collapsing beside Eames’ body.
Arthur holds the dagger tightly in one hands, ripping away his necktie and opening his shirt with the other.
“I’m so sorry, my love.” He gasps, then slices the dagger across this throat, deep and steady.
He chokes immediately, the blade falling to the ground. His blood is pouring onto the carpet and soaking his front. He’s shaking, suddenly colder than he’s ever been. His vision blurs, and he feels the floor shudder beneath him. Arthur slumps on top of Eames, using the last of his strength to lace their fingers together and press a kiss to Eames’ chest. Before he loses consciousness, Arthur hears a noise. He smiles and closes his eyes, the haunting melody of the music box following him into the dark.
Arthur’s in the small parlor, putting the finishing touches on a still life of the garden. The light this morning is excellent, and he’s determined to catch the dew on the roses. He hears a splash from above, then a throaty laugh that can only mean one thing. He hurries to finish, tossing his brush aside without cleaning it once he’s done, and leaves the canvas to dry.
Mal and Dom are dancing to the tune from the music box on the mantle in the parlor, paying him no mind as he rushes through the room and climbs the stairs to the second floor. Eames is just getting out of the tub when Arthur bursts through the door with a wide grin.
“Oi! You could knock!” Eames protests, standing and dripping water onto the towel on the floor.
“Then I’d miss you like this.” Arthur advances, eyes roaming over Eames’ naked form.
“It’s not like you never see me starkers,” Eames says. “I was naked all night long.”
“Not like this,” Arthur insists, running his hands close enough over Eames’ body to feel his heat, but not close enough to touch him.
Eames’ voice, when he speaks, has gone tight and strained. “Oh yeah, what’s the difference, then?”
“This is my favourite. This is fresh, and clean. A blank canvas with which to create a masterpiece. This is innocence and sin, it’s heat, and lust, and adoration. This is untouchable and unattainable. This is perfection. This is mine.” Arthur declares, finally putting his hands on Eames and feeling the slickness of his wet skin. Arthur wants to lick, to taste, to relish this man.
“So do it,” Eames challenges.
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll swallow you whole?” Arthur asks, a strange melancholy seeping into his mind.
Eames wraps his hand around Arthur’s neck, tilting his head up and forcing him to meet Eames’ gaze, banishing Arthur’s dark thoughts. “You already have, my love. I have given you everything. There is nothing else for you to desire.”
“I will always desire you.” Arthur protests, sliding his hands up Eames’ broad chest.
“And you shall always have me.” Eames leans closer and licks over Arthur’s mouth.
All at once, every moment of hunger, of jealousy, and despair Arthur has ever felt toward Eames courses through him, shaking him to his core and reminding him why he longed so for this man.
“Come to bed.” Arthur says.
“I’ve only just risen.” Eames laughs, and the sound settles the rattling in Arthur’s head.
“Then allow me invigorate your morning.”
Eames laughs again, allowing Arthur to lead him, wet and glistening back to their bedroom. The bedclothes are still in disarray and Arthur shoves them to the foot of the frame, pushing Eames to sit and moving to stand between his spread legs.
“The sheets will be wet.” Eames says, working on the buttons of Arthur’s shirt.
“The sheets will be ruined once I’m done with you.” He promises, shrugging the linen to the floor.
Eames cocks an eyebrow, his hands going to Arthur’s belt. “Is that so?”
“Hmm, and we along with them.” Arthur cards his hands through Eames’ hair as deft fingers pluck at his laces.
“We’re already ruined, darling.” Eames coughs dryly, and Arthur can see bruises lining his neck, the skin a mosaic of purple and black.
“What have I done?” Arthur asks, the taste of blood on his tongue.
“Shh, shh,” Eames soothes, grabbing Arthur’s hands and kissing the pads of his fingers, one by one. “Hush, Arthur, it’s alright. You did the best you could.”
“But I…” There’s a coppery slickness between his teeth and it makes him gag.
“You did what was necessary,” Eames tells him sternly. “Out there we could never truly be together. Here, like this, we have an eternity to ourselves.”
“An eternity,” Arthur mumbles and the bruises on Eames vanish, the blood washes from his mouth.
“Yes, darling. Forever.”
“I’m never letting you go.”
Eames gives him a sly smile and leans back, displaying himself. “You never have to.”
Arthur lunges forward and latches onto Eames’ neck, sucking and biting a new ring of marks, branding him. His trousers are around his knees, and his shoes are still on, but Arthur can’t get enough, and soon he’s dragging Eames up the bed and pressing him into the mattress. He kicks off his shoes and Eames scrabbles to help him with his trousers, using his feet to push them off.
Soon, they’re skin to skin, nothing between them but the thinnest flow of air. Eames’ mouth is plush and wet, and Arthur can’t get enough of it, dipping in again and again to steal the sweetest of kisses. He plants his left hand above Eames’ shoulder, curling the other into the small of Eames’ back to urge him closer. One of Eames’ leg is hitched over Arthur’s hip and both his hands are kneading his arse, rocking them together slowly.
It isn’t long before Eames is pleading for more, trying to get a hand between their bodies. Arthur swats his hand away and pins it to the mattress by the wrist. He kisses a slow trail down Eames’ chest, nipping and licking at the writhing body beneath him. Eames arches closer when Arthur latches onto a nipple, sucking at it gently, then firmer when Eames shudders at the swipe of Arthur’s tongue.
Eames’ hand tangles in his hair, encouraging Arthur to move lower, and he laughs against the smooth expanse of Eames’ belly, running the tip of his nose around the navel and making Eames snort with laughter. He bites down on the tattoo at Eames’ hip, obscuring the pattern of dots with angry welts until the skin is flush and raised. The gasp when Arthur draws Eames into his mouth is one he knows he’ll never forget. Eames is thick and salty on his tongue and Arthur relishes the groans that echo through the room as he takes him deeper and deeper, massaging Eames’ length with the flat of his tongue.
The fingers in his hair tighten and Eames thrust upwards, seeking out more from Arthur’s warm mouth. Arthur lets Eames set the pace as his own fingers trail lower, over and behind Eames’ testicles. His hair is wiry there, and Arthur brushes his fingers firmly over Eames’ dry hole, making him curse and jerk, a pulse of precome bursting across his tongue. Arthur pulls off and follows the path his fingers have marked, turning Eames over when his tongue can’t quite reach its destination.
Arthur spreads Eames’ cheeks, licking a wet stripe over his puckered flesh. He tastes clean, and warm, and solidly of Eames, like this is where all the different flavours of his skin coalesce. The salt of his neck and the musk of his cock, the sweetness of his lips, and the sharpness of his stubble, all blended and purified to create a flavour unique to the core of the man. Arthur licks over the soft furl again, slower this time, and draws a shuddered breath from Eames. The fingers in his hair guide him back to it, holding him in place as Arthur’s tongue presses firmly, over and over until Eames’s breath is coming out in sobs and Arthur can dart the tip of him tongue inside. He sucks gently at the edges as Eames keens and drops lower, no longer able to support himself on one hand.
“Arthur,” he rasps, still pushing back, desperate for more.
Arthur gives him one more wet lick and pulls away, kissing up the knobs of Eames’ spine and dragging his teeth over the swell of his shoulder. Eames spreads his knees under him until Arthur’s cock is nestled in the cleft of his arse, warm and secure as Arthur bites at his neck.
“You’re mine.” Arthur whispers, flush with lust and pride.
Eames cranes his neck for a kiss, feeding his answer to Arthur’s tongue. Arthur breaks the kiss, pulling Eames’ lower lip between his teeth and shifting his hips lower. He lines up and pushes in slowly, digging into the flesh of Eames’ mouth. Eames gasps, reaching back to pull Arthur closer, keeping him moving long after Arthur would have paused to let him settle into it.
“Don’t stop,” Eames pants. “Don’t ever stop.”
Arthur pulls out, rolling his hips and thrusting back into the tight clutch of Eames’ body. It’s dizzying and Arthur can’t help but curl a hand over Eames’ shoulder for better purchase, the other spread over his back, pressing Eames to the mattress. He fucks Eames in long, smooth strokes, losing himself to the heat at the core of the man and the way it seems of draw out every ounce of Arthur’s passion. He goes on for what feels like forever, pistoning into Eames while whispering praise and encouragement into the dense heat of the room, until Eames starts to struggle under Arthur’s hands.
He pulls out, allowing Eames to roll over and clutch at him until Arthur’s sinking back in with a groan, picking up where he left off as Eames’ hands roam his body.
“Yes, darling, that’s it.” Eames bites at his clavicle, one hand circling his own cock and stroking.
Arthur pulls Eames’ leg higher on his hip, rocking into him harder as he chases his release. Eames moans, hand flying over his cock.
“Eames,” Arthur chokes out as his ending nears, desperate to take Eames along with him.
Eames fingers curl around the nap of his neck, pulling Arthur down for a kiss and gasping as his orgasm hits. Arthur feels Eames’ seed spill between them and cries out as Eames grips him almost to the point of pain, milking out Arthur’s release. Arthur kisses him frantically, needing a connection at every possible point as Eames spasms around him, taking Arthur so beautifully as he fills him.
“Mine.” Eames growls, biting at Arthur’s lips.
Arthur collapses, giving in to Eames’ nearly hysterical claiming of his mouth. They lay together, overwarm and spent, their lust barely sated as their bodies renew their desire for each other. Arthur could stay like this forever, wrapped in Eames, cock spent but restless inside him, their hunger never abated, their thirst never quenched.
“Mine,” Eames pleads, staring at Arthur with his impossible, stormy eyes.
“Always,” Arthur swears, rocking gently, making Eames shiver. “Forever. Yours.”
Eames arches into the rhythm, nails scoring down Arthur’s back as he’s taken apart, again and again, over and over, until the end of time, and somewhere in the house, beyond the closed door of their room, the music box plays its nameless tune.