Serious words were spoken, steely gazes were met and held, gauntlets were thrown - or perhaps it was more like lace mittens being tossed - and combat was engaged, war was declared (or the other way round) when Cosmo brought up the possibility of moving out of Don's house.
It was best to meet one's fate unflinching. Like a condemned but innocent noble on his way to the guillotine, Cosmo gathered his courage, his dignity, and the dregs of his last cocktail around him, took his feet off the third-best coffee table and presented himself sans waistcoat at the door. (Although a French noble would no doubt have made sure to keep his waistcoat for the fateful encounter.)
Don tripped through it humming to himself and beaming smiles around him a hundred and eighty degrees, which is quite difficult when you only have a mouth on one side of your head, as Cosmo knew to his chagrin.
Cosmo tossed back the last of the alcohol and, leaving the tumbler on the side-table, made a quick swoop and leap to catch Don's hat and rain slicker before they hit the floor. His coordination was none the worse for wear, even if his collar was.
Don was tap-dancing down the hall and had already shed his waistcoat and tie as well by the time Cosmo, trying gamely to maintain his iron resolve, caught up to him in the downstairs bathroom, where Don was gargling "Singin' in the Rain" with the door open. He finished out the bridge, spat toothpaste in the sink and beamed at Cosmo.
"Cos, it's a beautiful day."
Cosmo smiled back at him because he couldn't help it, when Don looked like that, and leaned in the doorway. "For a thundering downpour, I've had worse."
Don chuckled and reached out with one cool, rain-damp hand, snagging the back of Cosmo's neck and leaning and twisting a little precariously until he could tip their foreheads together with a sigh. His fingertips stirred the hair on the nape of Cosmo's neck, his breath smelling of toothpaste ghosting over Cosmo's upper lip as he whispered, "Thank you."
It was the taste. Cosmo couldn't speak with Don's breath on his face like that, familiar and sharp with mint. He shook his head a little, rubbed the tips of their noses together and pulled away gently, reaching out for his own toothbrush.
When he actually spoke the serious words, Cosmo didn't meet Don's eyes: he looked at the toothbrush exclusively, well, it and the toothpaste, as he said, "You'll be setting up house soon. I was thinking I should start looking for my own place."
The mitten was flung!
He could hear Don's stocking feet slipping on the tiles behind him, the click of his watch being set on the counter, the whisper of him leaning back on the wall opposite. When Cosmo looked up their eyes - their steely gazes - met and locked in the mirror. Don's arms were crossed casually over his chest. "I don't see why," he said airily, lifting one black eyebrow.
"Don't pin this on Kathy!" Don interrupted, with a quick laugh - a quick laugh cutting Cosmo to the quick, and they were engaged. "Kathy loves you."
Cosmo stuck the toothbrush in his mouth, a delaying tactic, and communicated via nose-wrinkle and a jerk of his chin that he respectfully requested a time-out. He saw Don's eye twinkle, and glanced away quickly before the other could have a chance to get in on the action.
All he could think of to say for a moment was, Not as much as I love her, which, while theoretically (hypothetically) true, was hardly a telling blow and would seem from Don's point of view to argue against Cosmo's case.
"It's traditional with married couples to throw out any excess bums, couch potatoes, or hangers-on before settling into the honeymoon nest," he suggested around a mouthful of foam.
Don was surprised by the attack, but he just moved forward with a damning, liquid roll of his hips and said with a thoughtful air, "I've always been one to buck tradition."
Dignity! Cosmo reminded himself. "I can't argue with that," he riposted.
"Good," said Don, leaning into his shoulder and plucking the toothbrush out of his hand. "Because I didn't want to have to bring up our lifelong friendship as a bargaining chip."
Cosmo turned the tap and bent to rinse his mouth in the running water. "I'm glad that you're above that," he said, in between sips.
Don nudged him in the shoulder and bent in close for his own mouthful. "Yes, so it's a good thing I know you'd never leave me and I've got enough room in this house for the entire Barnum & Bailey circus to move in."
"Mmm," said Cosmo, "with the possible exception of the livestock." It was important to retire with a dignified retreat when you were defeated, anyway. He was no longer certain how guillotines came into it, but all things considered it was probably a step up if he was no longer being executed.
"If you want an elephant, Cos, I'd get one for you," said Don, smirking that lazy lopsided grin, his eyes half-lidded, and the heck of it was that Cosmo actually believed him, and it made the inside of his chest hot with wanting.
Not wanting an elephant, of course. Wanting Don.
It was hard work wanting someone who clung to you like a limpet much of the time and whom, in fact, you had a job of work getting rid of just to get the time alone to comb your hair or write a couple of songs; but Cosmo had a lifetime of practice, and wanting Don and wanting to kick him in the pants simultaneously came as naturally to Cosmo by then as breathing.
"I'm head of the Monumental Pictures music department," Cosmo informed Don conversationally, when he'd gotten his breath back.
Don wrapped an arm around his shoulders and steered him out of the bathroom again. "I know, Cos, I know."
"When are you and Kathy getting married, anyway?"
"Don't worry, you're invited. We're still working on whether you can be my best man and Kathy's at the same time."
"Don, not the same time. Even I'm not that good," said Cosmo apologetically.
"Well, maybe we can work in a few breaks for costume changes, and you can wear a wig. We'll have to wait for The Dueling Cavalier to premiere first, of course. Once it's all done and the picture's out we can go public, easy, and then, well, as soon as can be if I had my way."
Cosmo's stomach tightened and sank and tried to lift at the same time. He tried to think of it as gaining Kathy and not losing Don. He tried to remember how many cocktails he'd had to drink. Probably it was too many. Definitely it was too early to be getting depressed about his best friend's wedding.
"Just one thing, Don," he said, turning around again at the foot of the stairs.
"Yeah?" Don was on the other side of the overturned couch, bending over. "I've found your waistcoat - where'd you leave your tie?"
"I don't know, but yours is on the potted fern in the hall," said Cosmo.
Don bent over further, presenting an excellent view of his firm gluteus maximus outlined in damp tailored wool. "Never mind - found it." There was an eloquent sniff and he stood up with Cosmo's tie dangling between his forefinger and thumb. "What were you, using it as a drink stirrer? Don't answer that."
"I don't mind a wig, but remember - pink's not my color," said Cosmo solemnly.
Don draped the tie around Cosmo's neck and shoved an armful of waistcoats into his arms. "I'll keep that in mind. Wake me at nine?"
"We want to see RF bright and early," Cosmo protested.
"Good point. Nine-thirty." Don turned him to face up the stairs and pushed gently. "Goodnight."
"'Night, Sleeping Beauty," said Cosmo, and tripped up the stairs (literally) singing "Don't wake me up, let me dream..."
- § § § -
Cosmo's car was working the day they started re-recording Lina's (Kathy's) spoken dialog, so he picked her up at her apartment on the way to the studio.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather leave it here and take mine?" she said dubiously, casting a knowing eye over the hood.
"I would if I could be sure it would ever start again. I wouldn't want you to get in trouble for this hunk of metal cluttering up the street," Cosmo explained.
"That's very gallant of you," said Kathy, and showed him her dimples. "Where's Don this morning, do you know? He said he'd see me at the studio."
"Still in bed, if the snores are anything to go by," said Cosmo crisply, and bowed and offered her his hand.
She took it in a surprisingly strong grip, but she set her foot on the wheel well and vaulted into the front seat with a rustle of her skirt and trench coat, the grace of a dancer (well, that one was a given) and very much the manner of a girl used to hopping into cars with doors that didn't open reliably ever since that time in Nevada.
"Does Don really snore?" Kathy asked, confidingly, as Cosmo pulled onto Sunset.
"Only on days ending in 'y'. And when he sleeps on the couch, of course. On bare wood floor, he sleeps like a baby." His tone was light, but he saw her considering look in the corner of his eye and knew that she heard the truth inside the joke.
Don had only ever slept on bare wood because he gave Cosmo (always thinner, smaller, two colds a year like clockwork) the blanket and balled up his coat for a pillow. He probably should have hated himself a little for it, but Don had been taking care of him when they were young enough to both hide in the footlocker at old Mrs. Wyndham's place when Don's stepdad came looking drunk.
"Cosmo, you are a genius," she said warmly when the car was safely parked in the lot and the keys in his pocket, and waited for him to come around and help her out, and alighted daintily on the purple suede toes of her shoes without a glance at the running board - and pulled him down with her small hands on both his arms to give him another kiss halfway between last night's playful pucker and a tender buss on the cheek, a faintly lingering, femininely perfumed caress trailing up to the corner of his mouth and leaving him more genuinely dazed than if he'd fallen off the couch and landed on his head.
Kathy smirked up at him through her eyelashes and linked both her hands around his elbow. Cosmo couldn't think of anyone he'd ever wanted to kiss more, for a moment. It took him all the way to the studio door to remember that title usually belonged to Don.
The recording rooms weren't exactly permanent yet and the equipment was being stashed in whatever place RF could find that Cosmo and the technician ("the record man", RF was calling him) approved. Today it was a room several hallways from the nearest stage, permanently embattled as the props and wardrobe departments fought over it and won and lost, like Germany and France. The racks of gorilla suits and grass skirts, piles of handbags and tables laden with old phonographs, plastic fruit, rolled newspapers, and umbrella stands full of tin swords bore mute testament to the fact without providing enough evidence to determine who was winning at the moment. Half the reason Cosmo was in favor of this room was that it was so out of the way. He'd had more takes spoiled with noise leakage from the sets than he cared to think of now.
So he wasn't really expecting to encounter anyone at this hour of the morning, let alone Zelda in a lush mink wrap, nose in the air and mouth turned sourly down, trailing a junior director and a handful of assistants like bewildered ducklings. Zelda and Cosmo had used to be friends of a sort, at least as much so as a queen bee like Zelda deigned to be with people whom she considered beneath her class; this starkly unlike the patently false friendliness, tinged with desire and fear, with which she always treated Don. There'd been flirtatious looks in plenty for him, and reserve until she got his measure, and then she'd dismissed him from her notice, except for perfunctory attempts at ingratiation.
Cosmo having nothing she desired and being no threat to her, Zelda had smiled at him and spoken to him, sometimes, about growing up in Brooklyn, in a way he knew she'd never speak to the people from her own world. She'd laugh at his jokes, too, even when she didn't have to (there were a lot of people who never laughed at Cosmo's jokes). That had all cooled off in the last month or so, though.
Even before the shooting wrapped on Two Weeks in the Catskills she'd been icy and cutting to Kathy (and avoiding Cosmo accidentally or diplomatically) to the point where even Sid raised an eyebrow or two, and even Kathy's good nature couldn't push it all aside. Her hand tightened on his arm invisibly and Cosmo moved between them to block the line of sight as much as possible.
Zelda swept by without a flicker of recognition, just like they hadn't even been there.
"Thank goodness," Kathy murmured, squeezing Cosmo's elbow again more gently, thanks and apology, "my hero."
"Isn't Don your hero?" said Cosmo, opening the door to the prop/wardrobe/recording room.
"My other hero," she said.
- § § § -
The day The Dancing Cavalier finally premiered in LA, everyone seemed to have questions for Cosmo:
1. Don asked him three times which tux to wear, and he only stopped because Cosmo threatened to give the ones he rejected to deserving orphans in need of formal evening wear.
2. RF asked him if it was possible to fix anything, now, if there might hypothetically be anything wrong. (It wasn't.)
3. Don asked him whether it was appropriate to dance the Charleston on stage instead of giving a speech. (Cosmo told him nothing could be more elegant, but that Lina would unfortunately get in the way.)
4. Lina asked him the way to the Ladies' room, but Cosmo was pretty sure it was because she mistook him for an usher.
5. Roscoe asked him to shoot him if anything went wrong. (Cosmo said he didn't know how to shoot, but would be willing to learn.)
6. Don asked him, "Do you love me, Cos?" and Cosmo changed the subject by completely and genuinely forgetting how to tie a bow tie so that Don had to do it for him.
7. Don asked him if he preferred Europe or Jamaica for the honeymoon. ("Shouldn't you ask Kathy that?" said Cosmo. "Oh," said Don, "we've narrowed it down pretty far, but between those two it's up to you." "It's your honeymoon," said Cosmo. "Well, you should have a say," said Don reasonably; "you're coming, aren't you?")
8. Kathy asked him if her dress was too pink. (She looked good enough to eat, and Cosmo told her so before he realized he should make an effort to censor his compliments for public consumption; but Kathy just laughed and grabbed his hand and squeezed it when he blushed.)
9. Kathy asked him if he'd write music for her next picture too, even though it wasn't a musical (yes), if he'd never leave them (he wouldn't), and whether he'd made up his mind between Europe and Jamaica yet (but fortunately the lights went down then, and he didn't have to answer).
After the lights came up and the applause thundered down, they ducked out of their seats and scurried backstage to wait with RF and Ted while Don and Lina took their bows; and then he was coming off the stage, propelling Lina firmly by the waist like a particularly inept dancing partner. His eyes were fixed only on Cosmo and Kathy, and his whole face was glowing with happiness. He let go of Lina, more escaping from her than the other way round, and darted past her and RF to Cosmo and Kathy so fast he'd have fallen if they didn't catch him. Of course they did and always would, and wrapped their arms around him and each other.
And when Don's hand was gripping Cosmo's bicep and Kathy was tucked in the crook of his arm, the urge was strong to draw them the rest of the way in, to wrap both of them up so tight in his arms they'd never get away. Don was looking at Cosmo, then Kathy, and Kathy was turning her beaming gaze from Don to Cosmo, and Cosmo thought they had to be feeling it too; it felt too real to be all in his head.
Cosmo opened his mouth to ask the tenth question (technically the eleventh) of the day, but when he took a breath the rest of the world poured back in. RF was standing just a few feet away. "Congratulations," he said instead, and let go of Don.
It was on the tip of his tongue, though, even if he didn't know what it was that he wanted to say, while Lina made her little speech and Kathy sang and they pulled the curtain back, and Kathy ran down the aisle.
"Stop her, ladies and gentlemen, that girl running down the aisle, stop her! That's the girl whose voice you heard and loved tonight - she's the real star of tonight's picture! Kathy Selden!" said Don, and Kathy turned around slowly so they could see the tears glistening on her face across half the theater.
Don opened his arms and smiled at her and she took a hiccuping little gasp. Cosmo felt the moment in his gut, in his chest, down to his toes, when her gaze shifted from Don to him, questioning - her big, wet eyes in her flushed face and the glistening wave of her hair that Cosmo knew smelled like lavender from when she'd laid it on his shoulder during the picture. He beckoned to her with his hand: Come here!, and then jumped off the edge of the stage and snatched the conductor's baton.
They needed the proper music.
They left the theater a half hour later and called a cab, and when Don helped Kathy on with her coat she looped her arm around his waist and reached out for Cosmo with her other hand. His heart thudded hard once, twice, but he ducked down and kissed her fingers with a flourish.
"Cosmo," she sniffed, exasperated, and gave a sharp tug that dragged him in close so she could put her other arm around his waist. "Do you suppose we really have to go to the after-party?"
They did, but they left early, and retired to Don's house, cups of coffee and the softest of Don's three sofas, where Kathy stretched her legs out over Don's lap and put her head on Cosmo's shoulder and fell asleep. Cosmo fell asleep, too.
He half-wakened, stiff-necked, to the soft murmur of Kathy's voice and someone pushing and pulling him until he stretched out more comfortably and a warm body slid under his arm; he woke up again a little while later to Don saying pitifully, "Cosmo, Kathy, please, I said I'd cut off an arm for you, not a leg!"
"You never said that," said Cosmo immediately, blinking to make the room come back into focus when his first attempt to sit up failed.
He realized after a moment that that was because Kathy was draped on top of him in a cloud of crinkled pink gown, her face leaving a wet spot on his neck that was no doubt something immaculately ladylike and not caused by drool. "Kathy," he added, "wake up," rather than embark on the difficult task of deducing which muscles he'd have to move to obtain the leverage to move her.
"It's not morning already," Kathy mumbled into his collar, but she was already moving - her head, then her arm which was interestingly draped over his middle, then the rest of her, which was, oh yes, even more interestingly draped over the rest of him, and made Cosmo briefly regretful that he'd been half-asleep for the initial groundbreaking cuddle.
The tangle was made more complex by one of Don's legs being used as a pillow - the candidate for amputation, no doubt. Cosmo pushed himself up after a few false starts and Don, wincing theatrically, swung stiffly out of the couch and hobbled around in circles for a while, moaning and making faces.
"Don't cut off your leg," Kathy advised, grinning sleepily at him and letting her head drop back onto Cosmo's shoulder. "We might want it later."
"Judging by this sample, I think he could make a pretty good living as the world's first crippled sideshow tap-dancer," Cosmo offered seriously.
"Hey..." Kathy mused. "Yeah. You know... put a little more swing in it, Don."
And he did.
A few minutes later, when Cosmo had offered to squire the lady home and Don had politely declined, he said, "All right, fellas, kiss goodnight now, and Kathy, the cab's here."
Cosmo got up from the couch and stretched, excited and confused and still not entirely sure what was going on, what they'd been doing all night, or how he came to be enmeshed in the sticky and torturous and rather shockingly sultry toils of the biggest flirts this side of the Boop-Boop-a-Doop girl. "I'll see you tomorrow, Kathy," he said, "if we both get up before sunset." He was sidling unobtrusively away from the door as he said it.
"I'll hold him for you," said Don, suiting action to words. He ruffled Cosmo's hair while he was at it, but Cosmo barely had time to think about it before Kathy's face was filling his vision.
"All right?" she asked gently.
"Who wouldn't be all right?" said Cosmo with his head still sideways in Don's grip. "It's not like anybody's here against their will or anything."
She put her hands on either side of his face and bent down and sealed her mouth over his - gentle and moist, her lips parted and angled so that Cosmo tasted the silky hint of gin-and-tonic on her tongue in spite of himself, with a surprised and involuntary moan of pleasure from the back of his throat. The tight loop of Don's arm slid down his neck, resting over his shoulder and chest, and Cosmo tried again to ask what was happening (and got kissed more for his trouble) while Don whispered in his ear, something he couldn't begin to understand because it was in English and he had lost the ability to use words.
Then they were gone, and he watched them walk out the door, each throwing their own separate look to him over their shoulder, affectionate and mischievous, inviting him to share in the joke. He'd put his own body without a second thought - well, to be fair there would be second thoughts, because it wasn't like Cosmo to stop thinking, but he wouldn't wait for the second thought to finish thinking itself before the movement - between either or both of them and any danger from a screaming harpy to the bushy-eyebrowed wrath of RF to the catty remarks of a screen queen like Zelda. (Not, for example, between Don and explosives, cliffs, or crowds of adoring fans: that would just be foolish, and Cosmo preferred to be foolish only in fun or funny ways.)
But even though he wouldn't know what to do, even though Don didn't need his protection, and even though he suspected that Kathy needed less protection than Cosmo and Don put together (subtracted?), he couldn't let them stand up alone; his back stiffened, and he ran towards a fight instead of away from it. It had happened twice in the last year, for the first time since the sandbox incident, when his attempt to come to Don's aid had earned him a faceful of sand and a bruised middle while Don, bloody-nosed (a frequent occurrence) and unbowed, had shared a lump of licorice and scolded him for getting in the way, hovering protectively with his familiar pretense of carelessness. Cosmo's feelings might have been hurt, if not for the licorice: a precious commodity. And besides, even at five Cosmo had been able to see the justice of Don's claim. He had been in the way.
It didn't hurt that he hadn't actually ended up in a fight for it (yet).
"Though I don't like turnips, I can't stand turnips, and I hate turnips, it's true, if you say 'turnips' then I'd eat catnips," he informed the empty lounge, mournfully. "Oh, I'd do anything for you." He skipped the verse about dancing (who didn't like dancing?) and took a deep breath to belt "Sweetheart, can't you see what you mean to me?" in his best operatic tenor, and danced a few waltz steps.
It'd be hard to waltz with three people. Better to take turns. Cosmo made a mental note.
"Though I don't like Niagara - I can't stand that place - and I hate Niagara, it's true, but if you say 'Niagara', then we'll go to... Pittsburgh!" He jumped up an octave experimentally: "Oh, I'd do anything for you." No, better not.
The bananas verse in falsetto and the Swiss cheese verse took him up the stairs, and he stuffed his hands in his pockets and sang, slowing the tempo to match his stroll into the big balcony-bedecked bedroom looking over the tangled clumps of a slightly overgrown orchard above the kitchen, "Oh, I don't like weddings; I can't stand weddings, and I hate weddings, it's true, but if you say, 'A wedding!' then we'll get married, 'cause I'd do anything for you."
- § § § -
Asked about it in retrospect, Don said that they had the wedding in the courthouse so they wouldn't have to invite Lina, Cosmo said it was so they didn't have to wait for the honeymoon now that they'd finally decided where to go, and Kathy said it was so they could share Cosmo. (The courthouse didn't have an aisle; when it was their turn, Don and Kathy each took one of Cosmo's arms, until he stepped aside and pushed them gently together for the vows.) RF was the second witness. The tabloid photographers were just running after them when they climbed back into Kathy's car and headed straight for the airport.
About that night, in Rio, Cosmo said it had to be the margaritas, because he wasn't usually a gentleman of such easy virtue.
"A simple boy of the people, and he wouldn't even give us a tumble?" inquired Don politely, arching an eyebrow.
"Not a boy, Don, a minstrel," said Cosmo. "I think I'm a minstrel."
"Oh, yeah?" said Don. "Well, I think you're a pain in the ass."
"And the point is that he did give us a tumble," said Kathy, arching her back and stretching long sun-kissed bare limbs out of the nest of cotton sheets. The bareness of her skin - it was amazing, how the relatively small area covered by today's modest bathing costumes could turn into endless creamy curves - was still entrancing and new, and had the power, only two days past the night in question, to completely capture both Cosmo's and Don's attention. Neither of them was prepared to argue with her over the point.
Cosmo set his hand on the swell of her ribcage and she breathed deeply, the soft flesh of her breast brushing his fingers, and smiled lazily, turning her head on the pillow. Don reached over Cosmo's shoulder to brush the hair off her face and touch her bottom lip and Cosmo felt the warm touch of lips on the back of his neck and let a little more of that cautious stiffness fade out of his spine.
At some point near the end of filming for The Dancing Cavalier he'd hardly been able to bend his back, juggling choreography and songwriting, supervising recordings, keeping Don honest (a time-consuming task that, fortunately, usually could take place over a shot of whiskey or coffee) and being friends with Kathy, who had too many secrets to keep and too much success, too fast, for popularity around the lot. With each thing that went right from then on he'd relaxed a little bit more.
Kathy rolled up on her side and into his, one silky thigh sliding between his knees and her head fitting under his chin. "You're beautiful," Don murmured behind Cosmo, and threw an arm familiarly over his side with all the assurance of years of practice (hopefully talking to Kathy, as a statement like that otherwise was deeply deserving of mockery, and Cosmo was definitely temporarily unfit for the task; though Don kissed the side of Cosmo's neck next, and the lobe of his ear, as if determined to call that assumption into question). Cosmo knew Don's arms nearly as well as his own; it was already hard to believe he'd never felt Don's nude body down the length of his back before, hard thighs, firm chest, and the hot aroused flesh against the dip in his spine.
"Apparently the stories about Rio are true," said Kathy.
"Even if they weren't before you two arrived," Cosmo retorted, a little short of breath as she pressed that leg between his thighs higher. Then he said "Ah" and "Oh" and also "Hot dog!", in a brief moment of clarity that allowed him to regain his sense of humor and had Don laughing, "I think I should be insulted."
Kathy pushed Cosmo down and climbed over him (he offered no resistance whatsoever) to kiss Don, assuring him that it wasn't at all the size of a hotdog, "More like Polish sausage."
"I think I'm gonna be sick," said Cosmo.
"Actually," said Don, "I think I'm in the mood for breakfast."
They breakfasted on the hotel veranda even though the sea was turning gradually gray and frothy, and black thunderclouds were racing from the horizon to the shore. The cool, damp breeze skipping across the rooftops and blowing up the skirts of the tables was welcome after the warm, humid stillness of the late morning, and they stayed even when the first fat raindrops fell on their table, although Kathy peeked up nervously and then set a straw hat on her hair. Don put down his coffee and sang "Pennies from Heaven", to a smattering of applause from people at nearby tables. Cosmo would have shoved aside the pianist, except that the piano was indoors, and he wasn't finished with his scrambled eggs.
"Nice day for it," said Cosmo - nonsensically, he realized a moment late, since the song was about rain.
Don chose to ignore the obvious retort and instead wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. "A nice day for what?"
That was the question, wasn't it. "A nice day for gambling," Cosmo suggested.
"The beach is empty, everyone runs to the casinos," Kathy offered.
"Already addicted to gambling," said Don, mock-sadly, with a shake of his head, "I can't take you two anywhere."
"I don't cheat at cards," said Cosmo smugly.
"That was one time! And we needed the money!"
"One time? Please! You could play poker before I could walk!"
"Anyway," said Don, "you do too cheat at cards."
"I've never gambled for money in my life," Cosmo told Kathy piously.
"Because he's bad at it," said Don. "And how else would I know my opponent's cards if not for him?"
Kathy looked at Cosmo and raised an eyebrow.
"We needed the money," he admitted. "Coyoteville, New Mexico."
"Coyoteville," sighed Don. "The first place I ever went two days in a row without food."
Kathy made a face. "Maybe we'll stay out of the casinos."
"Unless it's to dance on the tables," Cosmo suggested.
Don grinned in sudden enthusiasm. "I always did like dancing on the tables."
Kathy snorted delicately. "Slow down there, big boy. There's not going to be any dancing on tables or any other behavior that gets us thrown out of the casino."
Cosmo didn't point out that his and Don's experience of casinos, while vast, included very little experience of not being thrown out at the end of the night. She was young, and if she cherished a still slightly-gilded image of their younger days, which included drunken revels, hurled vegetables, sleeping on the bare floorboards and cheating at cards but not, as yet, being thrown out of casinos, well - who was he to disillusion her of her last shred of illusionment?
"Could you really play poker before Cos could walk?" she asked Don.
"I was a slow walker," Cosmo explained.
"But seriously, Kath, my pa was - well, a bit of a cardsharp."
There was a little gleam in her eyes, the avarice of the patient hoarder of information. "You don't talk about your father much."
Don's sensuous mouth tightened, but he only avoided her gaze for an instant, to his credit. He sought Cosmo's eye first for reassurance before he spoke, however. "What's there to tell? He wasn't around much after the age of eight."
"It was his stepdad who beat him," Cosmo said coolly. Don's gaze flicked back to him and he shifted in his chair and lounged back elaborately - elaborately uncomfortable, that is.
Kathy cringed a little on the inside, Cosmo could see it, but she leaned toward them instead of away. "I'm sorry."
Don shook his head impatiently. "No; I should've told you before. And he wasn't all bad." The corner of his mouth turned up; he was remembering the big airplane-shaped kite his stepdad had made - the best present he'd ever gotten. "He'd fought in the Spanish-American War; he had problems."
Cosmo sniffed. He'd secretly had a plan in place - a wildly stupid plan, but still, a plan - for killing the bastard, if they had to. Running away had been by far the better option. He'd never have carried through with it, but he still thought fondly about going back and spitting in the bastard's face sometimes. The fact that he was a decent guy most of the time really only made it worse.
"He got angry," Cosmo explained. "And he was a kook."
Don laughed, a little choked. "He was a kook." He shook himself out of it, sat up again and reached for the last few pieces of bacon on the platter. "But there was always space for me at Cos's place."
"Behind the bar, mostly," Cosmo added.
Kathy looked a little baffled; she was trying to figure out what to say, Cosmo knew. He caught her eye and gave her a look, and she nodded and dropped her napkin on her plate. "Well, if we're not going to the casinos, how about we pick up some souvenirs and catch a play before we hit the nightclubs?" The clubs were always open in Rio, of course, but the musical nightlife heated up after sundown, and it was jazz they'd been hunting every night here.
She came around the table and perched on the arm of Cosmo's chair. Cosmo settled his arm around her waist, just to make sure she didn't fall of course, and she swung her foot and put her hand on the nape of his neck, ran her fingers through the hair above his collar, and made shivers tingle down his spine.
"You really want to go shopping in this weather?" Don tried as he finished up. "We could stay in." He didn't have to wiggle his eyebrows for Cosmo and Kathy to read him like a book.
Cosmo chuckled. "Don does have a point, Kathy! The sky's awfully gray and I haven't seen any pennies yet."
"Well, you see," said Kathy, "When there are gray skies, I don't mind the gray skies - you make them blue, Sonny Boy. Friends may forsake me - let them all forsake me! You pull me through, Sonny Boy."
Cosmo obediently hummed her accompaniment, but Don leaped to his feet and broke in, picking up the tempo and dancing a few steps, "You're sent from Heaven and I know your worth. You've made a Heaven for me here on Earth--" and Cosmo and Kathy picked up the rhythm by the end of the line, and they danced the rest of it together.
- § § § -
There was nothing strange about the arrangement except in Cosmo not spending some of the money he'd been making on a smaller mansion of his own. The Dancing Cavalier was a smash, and after that Don wanted to write a musical around "Singin' in the Rain" because it was the song he danced home to the night everything changed, he said. That was a smash too, and Cosmo, who had done a lot more of the work on it, besides taking all the credit for Don's work however hard he tried not to, started being recognized by people at parties, although still not at red carpet premieres; and having your name recognized by people who counted was a sure ticket to a fat paycheck in Hollywood.
But Cosmo didn't have to make a name for himself as an eccentric; Cosmo was always making jokes that nobody laughed at, although he was well capable of making ones that people did laugh at, too; he didn't now because once his livelihood no longer depended on making other people laugh, he discovered the luxury of laughing only for himself (and sometimes Don and Kathy). And nobody stays a hot topic in Hollywood for long. RF didn't forget, and he didn't take away Cosmo's paycheck, but other people forgot. Besides, if he'd bought his own house it would never have been in such a good location.
Hollywood mansions the size of Don's were rarely empty anyway. The movie stars' residences were overflowing with friends, visitors, husbands and lovers, little brothers and country cousins and personal secretaries. Cosmo took over a music room in a wing, shipped in three pianos and a harpsichord, and started to amass a collection of harmonicas, mouth harps, ukuleles and banjos, fiddles and guitars, pan pipes and bicycle horns, dog whistles and tambourines, maracas and drums. He wrote music interactively, singing and playing it and then writing it down later, for the most part, but he still did most of it at the piano; he mainly liked having all the instruments to play with, and he needed something to do with his money.
Kathy was born in 1909 and her father was killed in the War when she was six. She'd had a sheltered upbringing by a beautiful and intimidating mother, the kind of lady you wouldn't want to meet with a spot on your shirt for the schoolmarmish expression she'd give you. "I used to take piano lessons too, when I was a little girl," she told Cosmo, coming into the room when he was playing "I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight" (Don teased him about his obsession with the Charleston, but Cosmo knew a good dance when he saw it, and so did the baby in the song).
"Oh, yeah? I've never seen you play the piano."
She sat down beside him and settled her fingers on the keys. "I hated it," she whispered. "I was terrible, too. My mother was happy enough to let me change to the harp." Her hesitant chord and immediate wrong note, when she reached for the major 4th, bore that out.
The harp Cosmo had heard, but more often the guitar. A petite rose-toned instrument from his collection was her usual choice, but he'd bought more than one of them with Kathy in mind.
"I want you to teach me to play the banjo," she added.
"Well, you can play the guitar already!" he said. "It's not that different; what d'you need me for?"
"It's always better to have help from an expert."
"Flattery will get you everywhere," he said automatically. Of course, she didn't have to resort to flattery to get what she wanted from him. "Are you angling for a demonstration? It's mostly just practice. I can show you a few techniques, but a bright young thing like you, I'm sure you'll figure it all out twice as fast by yourself."
Kathy leaned closer and whispered in his ear, "Cosmo."
"Maybe I just want to spend some time with you."
"Hey, that's fine too," he said, or at least, thought he did; he wasn't sure if he finished before she slid over and propped her knee on the piano bench, and swung over into his lap, hands on his shoulders with the ivories at her back. "Well, hello," he said then, "you know, you could've just asked..."
Then she kissed him, soft and fast, that was Kathy: gentle and yielding, but so eager from the beginning, not shy at all. Her tongue was in his mouth, her hands were in his hair and on his face and her soft bosom was crushed against his chest when he pulled her closer. She sank down onto his thighs, wrapping her legs around his waist, layers of pink tweed skirt bunching up around her hips, and he slid his hands inside her sweater onto warm skin.
"I didn't say that I didn't really want to learn the banjo," she said. "I thought it would be fun." And she went back to kissing him.
They had a lot of fun, Cosmo reflected.
- § § § -
When Don and Cosmo both stood up at the same time to clear the plates away, they stopped where they were, on opposite sides of the table. Don said, "Were you doing the dishes?"
"I thought you weren't," said Cosmo.
"I was," said Don, "I thought you weren't."
"By all means," said Cosmo, "be my guest."
"No, I couldn't enjoy myself," protested Don, "not if I knew I was spoiling your happiness."
Kathy picked up Don's wineglass, which had several inches of an excellent California vintage in the bottom of it, and took it into the living room with her without a word. Don took the plates from Cosmo and stacked them with his, and tried to hand the whole stack to Cosmo. It didn't take. They washed them together.
"Cos, thank goodness we have you," said Kathy absently, lounging on the couch with a magazine, when they finally emerged, still damp around the cuffs. "Who'd do the dishes if we didn't have you?"
"I guess getting a place of my own is still out of the question then," Cosmo sighed.
"You're darn tootin' it is!" Don exclaimed, and the subject was laid to rest for good.
When Kathy walked into the kitchen on a Saturday morning sleepy-eyed and wrapped in Cosmo's dressing gown, she took the bowl and whisk from him and added flour and milk and soda and sugar to his eggs to produce pancakes, and Cosmo, who felt a little at loose ends deprived of a soothing ritual he'd grown rather used to, couldn't resent it because he couldn't make pancakes like that.
"I've never tasted anything this delicious," said Cosmo.
"I hear they taste better when someone else cooks," said Kathy.
Don said, "I've been known to cook." Cosmo and Kathy both stilled, and then shuddered. "But," he continued smoothly, "that's all in the past now - thanks to the two of you."
Kathy chirped nasally in a decent imitation of Lina's voice, "Thanks, Zelda, you're a real pal."
"Thanks, Zelda, you're a real pal," sneered Cosmo, dropping his pitch in imitation of Don.
"Oh, any time, Don!" said Kathy, enjoying herself a great deal.
"Seriously, fellas," said Don, pushing his chair back with a dramatic sweep so it clattered to the floor on its back like an overturned beetle. "Kathy: you're the cream in my coffee," and he turned to Cosmo, "and you're the salt in my stew. You will always be my necessity; I'd be lost without you." He stretched the phrases out so the song sounded like a ballad, holding a hand out to each of them.
"Cos, you're the starch in my collar," he gave a little bow to Cosmo, then turned and gave another to Kathy - "and you're the lace in my shoe. You will always be my necessity - I'd be lost without you!" They tap-danced a few steps, and then Cosmo slung an arm around Kathy's waist and spun her out in a swing step straight into Don's hands.
Kathy piped up, "Most men tell love tales, and each phrase dovetails. You've heard each known way; this way is our own way."
"Although we're probably not the first to ever think of it," Cosmo pointed out. Don pulled him in without breaking out of the swing step, bent him over his arm and kissed him into silence, firmly if a little awkwardly. For Cosmo, used to playing the fiddle on Don's shoulders and leapfrogging over him, it wasn't strange at all to bend in half and trust all his weight to Don's steady hands.
- § § § -
It was only the next day that Cosmo and Kathy were on set between takes, sitting at his piano with a spare banjo and practicing. Cosmo's hands were poised on the keys when he heard Zelda's voice behind him in one of those little lulls when all the noise in between you and someone else ceases and you hear as if they're next to you and not across the room: "You don't want to disturb those two while they have a few minutes out from under her husband's nose - you know they were best friends? I wonder if Don has any idea what's going on while he's away!"
Cosmo's fingers crashed down again in a discord reminiscent of the launch party for Paris Goodbye, when Ted had drunk enough champagne to perform "Shine On, Harvest Moon" a capella.
He couldn't hear Zelda anymore when the bustle of the set rushed back in like the returning tide, but without seeing he could see her pinched face, her pointed nose, her scornful sniff, the pile of pretty furs lavished on her by her elderly European husband. Kathy didn't say anything, but strummed gently at the banjo. Her face was open and sweet when he met her eyes.
"I oughtta," he muttered.
Her mouth quirked with suppressed laughter, and she only said in an undervoice, "My hero," before raising her voice to request "Sweet Georgia Brown".
"Have you heard today," Cosmo demanded as soon as he slammed through the front door that evening, "what the gossip mill is milling?"
"It's always grinding away, isn't it?" came Kathy's voice from the direction of the bar. He went that way in pursuit of a cocktail.
Don was there, in his stocking feet and shirtsleeves, performing what looked like jiu jitsu in the middle of the floor. "Apparently you're sleeping with my wife."
"Geez, can't anyone keep a secret in Hollywood?" Cosmo fumed. "Who told you that? Gimme the hard stuff, straight up."
"She did," said Don over his shoulder. Kathy poured out a tumbler of scotch from the bottle standing on the bar. "Although as for the other, I think it's still a secret that you're sleeping with her husband."
That took the wind out of Cosmo's sails a little. "Oh." He tossed back a big mouthful. "Well, if nothing else I applaud your honesty, Kathy."
"I find that honesty's always best in relationships," said Don, now upside down.
"What on Earth are you doing?" Cosmo demanded.
"Calisthenics, or something. Stretching."
"He's been asked to do a circus picture," Kathy explained. "Ringling Brothers and everything."
"Of course, not every actor could be considered," said Don. "Not every actor is in good physical trim for it. The flexibility alone..."
"I'm glad to see someone's finally had the sense to put you on the flying trapeze, make use of all that hot air," Cosmo interrupted.
Don untwisted himself and came over to the bar for his own neglected drink. "So what's the problem, Cos?"
"Doesn't it bother you two? Don, you're supposed to be a cuckold! And Kathy, you're supposed to be the loose woman in this story!"
"I've never played a loose woman before," said Kathy, taking a demure sip of her - no, that was Cosmo's drink.
Don frowned and clasped Cosmo's forearm gently to get his attention. "Well, yeah, it bothers me that the tabbies are telling these kind of stories, but what are you going to do?"
Kathy just shook her head. "I think you're just looking at it wrong, is all, Cosmo. What do they know? Nothing! What business is it of theirs? None! And honestly, I think you're just so steamed because Zelda was your friend. After all, who's going to believe her?"
Don interrupted, "Although I've heard that there are people who believe what they read in the fan magazines..."
She shook her head impatiently. "You're Donald Lockwood! You're the biggest leading man in Hollywood! Who's going to cheat on you?"
With a neat bounce and twist she'd jumped up onto the bar and her legs were swinging over the other edge, ankles primly crossed.
"Listen, boys. If it's naughty to rouge your lips, shake your shoulders, shake your hips, then let a lady confess: I wanna be bad! If it's naughty to vamp the men? Sleep each morning till after ten? Let a lady confess: I wanna be bad!"
Cosmo looked at Don. Don looked at Cosmo. They both shrugged. "The lady has a point," said Don.
And, you know something? She did.
"When you're learning what kisses are for, if it's naughty to ask for more then the answer is -"
"Yes!" Cosmo declared, "I wanna be bad."