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Steinway Fic: Du bist die Ruh

  • Jun. 12th, 2012 at 8:48 PM
toomuchplor: (Default)
Fandom: Inception
Rating: Explicit
Pairing: Arthur/Eames
Length: 21,400 words

Summary: Takes place in the Steinway!Verse, after Whither Thou Goest.

"There are no shortcuts to any place worth going" ~ Beverly Sills

Doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is a good working definition of insanity.

Warnings/Content Notes: (skip) References to and plot points around mental illness, mental breakdown, post partum depression, and threatened harm to children (though no serious injury to children.) Read at your own discretion!


Read the story on AO3 or below the cut here on Dreamwidth.

Du bist die Ruh

The conservatory smells exactly the same: a strange mix of musty old building and sheet music and orange peels. There are a few hot pink signs in the foyer proclaiming that this afternoon’s masterclass is to be held in the music history lecture hall, downstairs. Eames squints at his own name on the paper next to the stairwell. Weird to see it like that, even after all these years of opera playbills and glossy sleek posters and CD liners.

Down the stairs, resisting the impulse to peer at the recital posters everywhere, the urge to see what the kids are up to these days, Eames descends, running one hand lightly on the railing as he goes. He’s a ball of nerves, which is weird as fuck. Eames sang at the Met last year and didn’t feel this way about it. Nothing close to it. He reaches the foot of the stairs and draws a few breaths to steady himself, glad of these last fleeting seconds of privacy.

It’s precisely because it’s his home turf, of course, that he’s come over all anxious like this. Eames knows it, but the knowledge doesn’t do much to steady him. In a sudden wave, the nervousness twists into frustration and grouchiness. He hates goddamn masterclasses, he hates fucking Boston in winter, he’s only here as a favour to Mal. Eames blows a few quick lip trills, more to steady his breathing than anything, and pushes through the doors and into the corridor.

A handful of students are milling around outside the lecture hall, chatting, killing time until the masterclass gets underway. They fall silent as they spot him, and Eames grins encouragingly and greets them with, “Hello, hi, good afternoon, a’right?” as he slips past them and into the room. He’s eager to see Mal; Mal will ground him from the moment she kisses him hello.

The room is set up for the masterclass already, of course, the Yamaha grand wheeled front and center, and a music stand placed where Eames can use it as needed. Seated at the front of the hall are a row of the singers and pianists selected to participate today, some laughing and chatting, others pale and twitchy. The girls are mostly overdressed, ball gowns on a Sunday afternoon as though Eames cared who was wearing chiffon to sing Mahler. Behind them there are a couple dozen others and some of the conservatory’s voice faculty smiling at him in welcome. Eames scans the room, searching for Mal – late, probably, typically, he thinks – and that’s when he sees him.

Arthur.

Arthur’s moving towards him, a stack of books under his arm, a serious earnest look on his face. His hair is slicked back in a severe way. It makes him look his age, almost. He’s wearing a waistcoat, of all things. As he gets closer, Eames loses the ability to take him in except in devastating little pieces: the narrow strong bones of his wrist, the angle of his jaw, the feathered taper of his eyebrow. Arthur.

“Where the hell is Mal?” Eames asks, hearing his tone cutting a little too loudly into the room.

Arthur’s face, which had – Eames realises, too late – been moving into a sort of friendly approximation, goes rigid and displeased. “She couldn’t come, last minute,” he says stiffly, “so I agreed to fill in. Is that going to be a problem?”

“Of course not,” Eames says, heartily, forcing a smile, clapping Arthur on the shoulder. “No, of course – is she ill?”

“We should get going,” Arthur says, not shifting moods along with Eames. He holds out a stack of scores for Eames. “Originals, from the singers. I’ll introduce you and then it’s all yours.”

“Right,” says Eames, shuffling the scores, pretending to scan the titles while his brain continues to scream Arthur at a resounding fortissimo. “No, this is brilliant, thanks.”

Arthur twists his mouth in a way probably meant to be a smile, then pivots to face the gathered audience. “Okay, if we could get settled,” he says, switching from a quietish conversational tone into a carrying authoritative voice Eames has never heard from Arthur. “I’ll just take a moment to introduce today’s guest artist.”

Eames edges away and slumps into the bow of the piano, fidgeting with his hair, his clothes, trying to remind himself that he’s nervous about the masterclass, not about – about anything else. Mal is sick, probably, and clearly it’s not Arthur’s first wish to be here in her stead. Eames needs to be professional and focused and stop being a nasty bastard to cover his shock. He especially needs to stop wondering when Arthur started wearing waistcoats and slicking his hair back and whether that citrusy smell was his aftershave or maybe a skin care product.

—“so of course it’s a great honour and pleasure to have him back here at his alma mater,” Arthur is concluding, “and I’m sure it will be a very informative and inspiring session.”

The students applaud and Eames straightens from his slouch and smiles around the room. It’s easier to think the moment Arthur is out of his line of sight. “I’m very pleased to be here,” Eames says, “and I hope some of what I have to say will come in a little useful for one or two of you.” They laugh, eager to like him. “So – who’s first?”

***

“Go on,” Eames says, afterwards. They’re lingering just outside the conservatory doors as they light cigarettes, huddled under the awning. “Tell me how shit I am at masterclasses.” It’s finally just the two of them; it’d taken ages to shake off the last of the chiffon-sleeved sopranos; she’d hovered and smiled and asked a lot of somewhat overly familiar questions about Eames’ career and plans and life. Eames still isn’t quite sure if she’d been trying to shag him or just impress him.

Arthur half-smiles and flicks a thumb over his lower lip, gazing across the school’s rain-slick courtyard. “You’re not shit at them,” he says, lying baldfaced.

“I’m totally shit at them,” Eames says, huffing a laugh. “What did I say to that mezzo? Something about her bowels?”

“I think it was, ‘pretend you haven’t pooed all week’,” Arthur says, amused, lifting his cigarette to his lips. “You were right, her support was all over the map.”

“I could probably still have avoided constipation imagery,” Eames replies, smiling in spite of himself. “Thank god for you.”

Arthur lifts a slender shoulder, dismissive.

“No, I’m serious,” Eames insists. “You leaped to the rescue with your advice for the pianists and all that technical wording about pharynxes or whatever.” He shoots a sidelong glance at Arthur, considering. “I’d never seen you like that, like a proper teacher.”

“S’my job,” Arthur says, blowing out a plume of smoke.

“You’re bloody brilliant at it,” Eames tells him earnestly.

Arthur doesn’t blush, or dissemble, or even smile. He just inclines his head in silent acknowledgment, calm and sure and steady as he’d been the whole last two hours while the singers and pianists hung on his every word, while he explained and explained and drew wonderful analogies and helped them make sense out of Eames’ somewhat garbled observations. “It’s easier for me,” Arthur says now, casually. “I had to figure it all out, put it together, when it comes to singing. For you, it just happens. I don’t think you can explain it any more than a piano can explain how its strings vibrate.”

Eames lifts his eyebrows. “I’m not sure if that’s a wonderful compliment or a terrible insult.”

“Maybe it’s both,” Arthur says, and drops his cigarette butt, grinds it out. “Are you smoking or not?” he asks, looking pointedly at the fag Eames had lit and barely lifted to his lips since.

“Not,” Eames says, and drops his too. “Trying to quit.”

“You really should,” Arthur tells him, unfurling his umbrella. “What did Opera News call you? ‘The great lyric baritone of our century’?”

“No,” says Eames, “that was the Chicago Tribune, I think, in the article about my turn in Don Giovanni.” He grins and flips his collar up, ready to brave the rain. Arthur is keeping up with his career. Arthur reads his reviews.

“Need a lift to the hotel?” Arthur asks, unexpectedly, voice neutral, expression blank.

“Sure,” Eames says, amazed by his own steady voice, his unfaltering smile. “Cheers, thanks.”

“No problem,” Arthur says, and lifts the umbrella up so Eames can get under its shelter too. “It’s on my way home.”

Arthur’s got a little dark blue Nissan parked in Mal’s faculty spot in the adjoining lot. It’s cozy, close quarters jammed together in the front seat with Arthur’s right arm working the gearshift and the pair of them in their heavy winter wool coats. Eames moves his arm out of the way while Arthur backs them up and rips a little too quickly out of the lot. Arthur’s a good driver, but he’s something of a speed demon.

“I, ah, I like the hair, by the way,” Eames says, speaking over the quiet background noise of the windshield wipers and something pianistic on the car stereo. “It’s”—

—“I don’t want to sound like an asshole,” says Arthur, already sounding like an asshole, “but in light of – of what happened at the wedding a couple of years back, I think it’s best to be clear about this. We — let’s just be. Civilised about it.”

“I wasn’t making a pass,” Eames says, jamming his feet further into the footwell. The car’s too fucking small.

“You’re always making a pass,” Arthur sighs, but not unkindly. “I’m sorry. I just. You probably heard that Daniel and I split up last year?”

“I hadn’t heard,” Eames admits, staring out his window at the lampposts zipping by, the wet gloom of Boston in December.

“We did,” Arthur says. “It wasn’t because of – he never knew about what, uh.”

“You don’t need to explain it to me,” Eames tells him, also not unkindly. “I’m sorry if it sounded like I was making a pass. I – I won’t. I didn’t mean to.”

“No, I know you didn’t,” Arthur says. “It’s been, what, four years and change?” He half-laughs and looks over at Eames, pulling to a stop at a red light, flicking his turn indicator. “This should be getting easier by now.”

“Agreed,” says Eames dryly, and they both crack a smile helplessly. “Did I honestly tell that kid to think of the high F as”—

—“as if he was having an orgasm,” Arthur finishes, shaking his head and fighting a wider grin. “Jesus, Eames. It’s always about fucking.”

“It worked, though,” Eames says in his own defense. “Opened that F right up, didn’t it?”

“You’re such an asshole,” Arthur snickers, and turns up the volume on the stereo. They listen for a while. Eames isn’t good at piano repertoire but he thinks this might be Bartok. It sounds sort of mad and Hungarian.

“You’re playing this in D.C. next month,” Eames says finally, hazarding a guess. “I saw you on the Dumbarton series poster when I was there in the fall.”

Arthur throws him a surprised look. “Yeah,” he says, pleased sounding, “yeah, I’m playing a solo concert of Bartok and Ravel. You, uh, you saw that?”

“It’s,” Eames says, and clears his throat instead of continuing, because he can’t think of anything to say that won’t come out as condescending or pandering. “Wish I could make it,” he says instead.

“You’re in Dusseldorf,” Arthur says, “for the Lieder intensive workshop again.”

“Yeah,” Eames says, pleased that Arthur knows. “Yeah, too bad.”

They pull up at the hotel a moment later. Eames is half out of the car when Arthur asks, hastily, “Are you busy tomorrow night?”

“No,” Eames says, one foot literally out the door, “no, I, uh.”

“We’re having dinner, me and Dom and Mal,” Arthur continues in a rush. “You should – would you like to join us?”

“Right,” Eames says, “Dom and Mal. Yes, I’d like that very much.”

“I’ll pick you up here at six,” Arthur says.

“Thanks for the lift,” Eames replies, clambering out, traitorous heart in his throat. Arthur says goodbye; Eames closes the car door and hurries into the hotel, not stopping to watch Arthur speed off into traffic.

***

Eames won’t do this thing with Arthur again; he won’t.

He showers, flips on the telly, lies on the bed and opens his laptop to answer emails from his agent. It’s just like any other city, any other engagement.

Arthur had touched the piano four or five times during the masterclass, quiet and respectful and sure as he ducked in close to murmur to whichever pianist was seated at the keys. It was the same instrument with the same sound no matter who played it, except it wasn’t, with Arthur. The simplest heart-stopping little cadence - one-four, and a sip of air - bloomed into the very air of the stuffy close classroom and Eames’ breath had caught, betraying him.

He won’t do this again. He can’t. He’d never survive it.

***

Eames is a consummate expert at killing time on the road, having spent half his life stranded at hotels in various cities whiling away the hours before a performance, rehearsal, or masterclass. It should be even easier in Boston, where Eames is more or less at home. He did, after all, spend six years as a student in the city.

But everything is a little different, has shifted just enough to be jarringly unfamiliar. What’s more, Eames himself doesn’t fit into the city as he once did, no longer a conservatory singer, no longer just another public transit-riding fast food-eating beer-drinking kid in a city jam-packed with college kids like him. Eames walks around downtown, hunching shoulders inside his cashmere wool coat to guard against the unaccustomed December wind and chill. The kid who sets his latte on the coffee bar calls him ‘sir’ and responds uneasily to Eames’ casual wink.

Eames gives up after lunch and calls the Cobbs, thinking that he and Mal at least have to set up a rehearsal for tomorrow in preparation for his noon hour recital at the conservatory on Wednesday. The phone rings three times before going to voicemail (Allo, you’ve reached Dom, Mal, and Philippa, says Mal’s lightly accented voice, please leave us a message after the tone…) but Eames hangs up before the beep, reasoning that they’ll plan something tonight if all else fails. Eames is looking forward to the dinner, even with Arthur there; the Cobbs’ home is always warm and filled with good food and wine and Mal’s lovely laughter.

Even with Arthur there.

Eames makes a turn on impulse and cuts across the Common, the brown grass skimmed over with a dusting of snow and frost. The triple-arched building looks the same as ever, at least, and smells the same too when Eames passes through the heavy blue French doors. He has no idea what’s brought him to the site of so much past boredom and impatience; his smile is almost involuntary, brought on by the cacophony of several brilliant pianos jangling together in different keys and tempos. “Can I help you?” asks a salesman, advancing on Eames with an eager eye towards his expensive coat, his promisingly neat grooming.

“Thanks, just looking,” says Eames automatically, and for the first time isn’t rewarded with a barely suppressed eye roll. No, not a student anymore. The salesman backs off and Eames walks around the showroom, looking but not touching, glossy piano lids jutting up at low half-stick angles like a flock of corpulent birds frozen in the act of taking flight. Eames tugs off one glove and pauses by an unoccupied piano. They all look the same to him, barring the various soundboard lengths and finishes, but this was where Arthur would always pause, where Eames would sigh and go lean on the nearest wall as Arthur stroked the lid, the sinuous line of the soundboard, and then finally settled in front of the perfectly even keys.

Eames is no pianist, but he tugs off a glove and sets his hand to the keyboard anyway, plays an uncertainly balanced triad rooted on middle C. The piano sings like Eames knows what he’s doing.

“Do you play?” the salesman asks, drifting nearer again.

“No, not a bit,” Eames replies honestly.

“Mind if I—“ says the salesman, gesturing towards the instrument. Eames has seen this before, of course; all the piano salesmen can whip off something flashy to impress rich people who like the idea of owning a Steinway. Eames keeps thinking of Arthur’s dark head bowed over these keys, though, the way he’d start off a little embarrassedly, not wanting to draw attention, then gradually lose himself in the belly of the massively resonant Model D, eight and half feet of power ringing like a tremendous gong under each one of Arthur’s sure gestures. Chopin, usually, or Mendelssohn; one of those composers who seem demure until they really get rolling and by then the other people in the showroom would have stopped with their renditions of Für Elise or Chopsticks or Billy Joel and would be listening, jaws dropped, staring at the beautiful boy communing with the biggest piano in the place.

“No, it’s fine,” Eames says hastily, not wanting to disturb this suddenly vivid memory. He pulls his glove back on. “What does one of these run you nowadays anyhow?”

The salesman must get this question a lot, Eames imagines; it seems the sort of daft thing that idiots off the street would ask. “Well,” he demurs, “it’s not really a fixed”—

“Bloody arm and a leg,” Eames says, cutting him off with a smirk. “No, I know. Never mind.”

“We do offer financing options,” says the saleman, “and some of our studio models are in a slightly lower price bracket and still make magnificent additions to a home.”

“Yeah, cheers,” says Eames, and lays a hand on the Model D by way of farewell. “I like the Bösendorfer Imperial better anyway, myself.” He grins at the salesman and makes for the door.

Boston definitely isn’t the same city it used to be, Eames tells himself once he’s out in the biting cold again, nor is Eames the same person he was when he lived here.

***

So Arthur and Daniel have split up. That’s — as well. Strange, though, to think that all this time Eames has imagined Arthur living in the same ordinary boring domesticity, Arthur’s actually been unattached. Free.

***

“Arthur,” says Eames, frozen with shock, “you seem to have a passenger already.”

Arthur has the turn indicator on, waiting for an open interval in the traffic so he can pull back out of the hotel’s drop-off loop. He doesn’t bother to check for the direction of Eames’ startled stare. “Charles Eames, James Cobb. James, meet Eames.”

Eames can’t see much of the baby in the narrow backseat, just the very top of his head in the backwards facing carseat and a flash of fat rosy arm waving around. “Why the fuck have you got Mal’s baby?” Eames asks, still gobsmacked.

“I was watching him today,” says Arthur, and offers no further explanation. Instead he lead-foots the Nissan into a tiny opening in the stream of cars and executes some terrifying lane changes. James seems unbothered, though Eames is forced to redirect his gaze to the road ahead as he grips the door’s frame in alarm.

“You willingly touch him?” Eames asks, once Arthur is at the head of the pack and waiting at the next red light. “Arthur, how you’ve grown up.”

Arthur shrugs one shoulder, distant and distracted. Eames lets himself take Arthur in for the first time: he’s wearing what passes for evening casual for Arthur, a fitted pinstriped button-down under his overcoat, no tie, no jacket, and some charcoal wool trousers. His hair isn’t quite as severely styled as yesterday, but it’s still not the look Eames thinks of when he evokes Arthur’s image in his mind.

“I couldn’t decide, flowers or wine,” Eames says, juggling his host gifts now that both hands are free again, “so I went with both.”

Arthur nods and his mouth flickers into the approximation of a polite smile. It’s clear that he’s rethinking his decision to invite Eames, to offer him a ride.

“Called Mal a few times today,” Eames continues heartily, pretending to miss Arthur’s obvious irritation, “but there was no answer. And they need to update their voicemail message, there’s no mention of James at all, by the way.”

The Nissan merges into freeway traffic with a vengeance, Arthur making for the carpool lane like a racecar driver in the final lap.

“Cold weather we’re having,” Eames sighs, and slumps back into his seat, giving up on the pretense of conversation.

James coos. Arthur grips the wheel and drums his thumbs on the underside of its curve. Time passes, and they drive in continued tense silence.

“Is this what you meant by civilised, then?” Eames asks finally, unable to keep his mouth shut a moment longer. “I mean, you’re the one who bloody invited me to dinner anyway, you might try acting as though I’m not forcing my company on you.”

Arthur blinks, and in that small gesture Eames realises (too late) that Arthur’s distraction and grim expression really had nothing to do with Eames at all, because Arthur has that vaguely owly surprised look he always gets when he looks up from the piano and seems startled to discover that the rest of the world still exists. “No,” Arthur says, “I – no, that’s not what.”

“Right,” Eames cuts in when Arthur seems unable to continue. “What’s going on? What has you in this state?”

Arthur makes for the exit to Mal and Dom’s neighbourhood, shoulder checking with almost comical care given the way he’s been zipping around other cars the past twenty minutes. “How long since you spoke to Mal?” Arthur asks, once they’re safely onto residential roads again.

“Well, she emailed just last week about my visit to the conservatory,” Eames answers, confused.

“Right,” Arthur says, a little tautly, “but on the phone. When’s the last time?”

Eames ponders the question, arrives at the answer just as Arthur pulls up in front of the Cobb residence. “I suppose it was September, to offer my congratulations on the sprog,” he says. “I’m not sure. What does it matter?”

Arthur is already out of the car, has his seat popped forward and is squeezing his shoulders into the back seat, performing some negotiation with James’ seat that has the whole thing lifting free with the baby still strapped inside. “Grab the diaper bag, will you?” asks Arthur, as though Eames hadn’t spoken, and swings the seat out, matter-of-fact and competent and calm as though he’s done this a lot.

Eames finds the blue canvas shoulder bag that Arthur must mean for him to take, and hurries up the walk after Arthur, slipping a little on the imperfectly shoveled icy pavement while bloody Arthur steps ahead neatly and gracefully as he does everything, baby seat swinging from one fist and bumping gently against his long slender leg.

Arthur rings the doorbell but opens the door without waiting for an answer, calling out a greeting with sudden and surprising cheer. The house smells delicious, like baking lasagna and garlic, and Eames crowds in behind Arthur to get a better whiff. The Cobbs’ house looks the same as ever, cozy and warm and a little cluttered around the edges, scattered toys and clothing wadded up along the walls and on flat surfaces. Mal didn’t tidy for them, not really, Eames thinks fondly, which means she doesn’t consider them company so much as members of the family.

“Hello, hello,” Mal says, appearing out of the studio looking her usual combination of stunning and a little frazzled, wearing an impeccable pencil skirt and blouse, spindly but elegant heels, and her hair just a little bit awry. “Oh, my darling boy,” she says, and Eames thinks for a moment she means James, but then she’s embracing Eames instead, stroking his hair and smiling up at him. “It’s been far too long. Arthur tells me you were marvellous in the masterclass yesterday, I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to come.”

“Yes, it went alright,” Eames says, grinning and grinning at Mal, who smells even better than lasagna, like flowers and old scores and expensive soap. “Arthur didn’t say why”—

—“Will you have wine?” she asks, taking Eames by the hand and pulling him towards the kitchen. “I think we have a merlot open but anything you want, my darling.”

Eames follows with alacrity, leaving Arthur still working on extracting James from the car seat. “Whatever you’re drinking,” Eames says, and here’s Dom, tearing up lettuce leaves to make a salad, and there’s Philippa, lying flat out on the floor, belly down, busily colouring an entire page of her colouring book solid blue.

“Eames, hi,” says Dom, smiling at him. “Did you say you’d have wine? The bottle’s over there, help yourself.”

Eames helps himself, finding a wineglass inside one of the cupboards, stepping carefully around Philippa (who has yet to greet him with anything but a wary shy glance.) When Eames turns round again, full glass in hand, it’s to catch Arthur having some sort of quiet intense conversation with Mal, Arthur with James held out to her a little helplessly. “He’s hungry,” Eames can make out Arthur saying, very low and urgent.

“Dom will feed him,” she answers, not matching Arthur’s tone at all, sounding cheerful and unbothered, her own wineglass in hand. “Dom, will you feed the baby?”

“Yeah, just a minute, sweetheart,” Dom says, still elbow-deep in salad.

“Let me,” Eames says, moving in, taking over Dom’s work, and Dom shoots him a glance that’s half grateful, half – half something Eames can’t quite decipher. It seems almost like wariness. Still, Dom moves off, takes the baby from Arthur, and everything seems to relax again while Eames takes over making the salad.

Eames and Mal chat amiably, about Eames’ latest engagements and their planned program for Wednesday and the lecture recital series Mal had run last summer. Dom and Arthur recede into the background as they carry on their own more pragmatic conversation about setting the table and checking on the lasagna and where was the dressing anyway, passing the baby back and forth between them as needed.

Eames is so caught up talking to Mal that it doesn’t strike him until they’re all sitting down to dinner, that it’s odd that Mal doesn’t seem to be cooking. Usually she and Dom take on meals as a team, but it’s an unstated fact that she’s always in charge; and yet she doesn’t seem to have any ownership at all of the meal Dom is laying out. But of course she’s been ill, Eames tells himself, remembering her absence yesterday, but a glance at Mal doesn’t uncover any signs of a recent sickness except perhaps a little darkness under her eyes – and that’s to be expected of any mother of such a young infant, after all.

Arthur has put James into a little bouncy recliner, and the baby seems content to stay there while the rest of them — Philippa included, sitting high in a booster seat — get down to eating. The food is amazing as always, Mal’s recipe if not made by her hand, and the company is even better. Mal continues to press Eames with questions and laugh and fuss over whether everyone has enough wine, if they shouldn’t have put out the candlesticks. Philippa holds court as all two-year-olds do, drawing everyone’s focus by arguing with Dom over eating anything at all, and then arguing about the necessity of staying at the table with the adults. Eames helps out by engaging Philippa’s attention, quizzing her about farm animal noises and everyone’s names and the other mad idiotic things one discusses with children her age.

“It’s good having everyone here,” Mal says warmly. “Arthur, isn’t it good having your Eames here?”

“He’s not my Eames, Mal,” Arthur says in that deep sober voice Arthur uses when he’s trying to convey something important. But he smiles anyway, just a little soft quiet smile, as he stands to help Dom clear the dishes and make way for dessert.

“It’s like old times,” says Mal, untroubled by Arthur’s tone, reaching over to squeeze Eames’ hand. “It’s like it used to be.” And suddenly Mal’s eyes go watery and she blinks confusedly, pulling her hand away again so she can dash away her tears. “Oh, I’m being silly,” she half-whispers, not making eye contact with Eames. “This is silly, everything is perfect.”

“Darling,” Eames begins, worried, “are you”—

But Mal ignores him, rising and taking the dessert plates from Arthur, setting them round the table busily and smiling in a fixed way. Arthur catches Eames’ eye and presses his lips together, a silent warning against any further questions. “Tiramisu,” announces Dom, coming back into the room and breaking the moment.

Usually they linger over dessert at the Cobbs’, having a second or third or fourth glass of wine, talking and laughing while Dom and Mal take turns doing domestic duties like dishes or getting Philippa (because last time Eames was here, it was only one baby) ready for bed. It’s always Eames’ favourite part of the night, sitting around the table amidst the empty dishes, watching Mal nurse the little one and listening to the fond homely conversations that passed between her and Dom so quietly, about where they’d left the dummy and who had the pink blanket last and were Phil’s bunny sleepers still in the wash.

But tonight is different, tonight is weird and off-kilter. Mal seems the same as ever, charming and lovely and full of funny stories about the conservatory, but there’s an almost palpable disconnect between her and Dom, and an even greater chasm between her and Arthur. Dom and Arthur are instead the ones negotiating bathtime duties and where Arthur put James’ bib and how long has it been since Philippa’s nap. Eames tries to bridge the gap uneasily now and then, volunteering to hold the sprog while Arthur searches for Philippa’s blanket and Dom takes her up to bed; but Mal doesn’t acknowledge any of these gestures, even going so far as to avoid looking down at Eames’ lap while Eames holds James. There’s no recurrence of the strange tears that had sprung up earlier, at least, but Eames is forced to reflect that a Mal so utterly disengaged from her husband, from her family, is not a Mal he truly recognises, no matter how much she smiles or pats his hand or says weird things about auras and energies.

“Will you sing for me?” she asks abruptly at one point, Dom upstairs with Philippa and Arthur outside smoking.

“Won’t we wake the baby?” Eames asks, because James is back in the recliner and has just nodded off.

“Oh, he doesn’t sleep much anyway,” Mal says dismissively, and grabs Eames’ hand to drag him to the studio. “What do you think? Something lovely, something warm. Would you sing some Poulenc perhaps?”

“Well,” says Eames, “maybe something from the recital program instead, if we’re doing this.” He comes around the piano, watches as Mal grabs a stack of music already out on the piano’s music stand and begins to page through it.

“No, no,” says Mal, “too heavy, we can’t do lieder after dinner. Poulenc, or Argento.”

“Poulenc,” Eames chooses, because he’s crap at Spanish anyway, and Poulenc will keep Mal’s fingers too busy to fuss over how badly he sightreads in French, how ghastly his diction is. “Banalités?”

“Yes,” she says, flipping through the cycle quickly, familiar with the music as Mal is with everything to do with French art song. She pages forward a little, then right back to the first song, a hectic explosion of notes on the page and a leaping wild melody, a silly verse about a tramp and a carter crossing paths. It’s ages since Eames heard the song, much less sang it, submerged as he’s been in the world of opera and lieder, but he does his level best with the wending chromatic lines and the playful melody, butchering above half the French words while Mal (not so very busy after all) clucks under her breath and mutters at him, her clever hands plucking out the capering piano part with ease. “Too much Rossini,” she tuts when they’ve finished, already paging forward again. “Too much Wolf. Where’s your playfulness, my darling boy?”

“It’s drowning under my eternal Sehnsucht,” Eames replies flippantly. “Here, let’s do the next, it gives me time to think before the next word.”

“Pah,” Mal huffs, but sets her hands to the keys again anyway and starts drifting into the chords like dreamy waves of cigarette smoke in a Paris hotel.

It’s better; Eames does better, and Mal settles into it this time, losing herself visibly in the sound of Eames’ voice commingled with her piano’s notes. Singing in French is like a prolonged kiss, Eames thinks happily, and he’s missed it, that sense of pressing his lips out into each soft rounded vowel, the open sonority of the French harmonies around him, the lush sensuality that is so unlike the urgency of singing in German, the tripping exuberance of Italian, both of which have been his bread and butter these past two or three years.

“Mmm,” says Mal, setting down the last chord. “Oh, we must add this to Wednesday’s program.”

“I can’t possibly,” Eames laughs, though he’s tempted. “I would have to sing the whole thing over your shoulder, I’ve got no chance of memorizing it so quickly.”

“You memorized easily this quickly when you were at school,” Mal reproaches him, unmoved.

“Yes, but now I’m old and my mind is failing,” Eames answers. “It’s stuffed full of all the baritone roles in classical opera, and about three hundred desperately sad lieder.”

Mal laughs and leans into Eames’ side, digging her elbow into his thigh with a jovial poke. “How I’ve missed you,” she says. “They’re all useless, these new singers.”

“Careful, you’re sounding older than me,” Eames tells her soberly, but loops his hand around her shoulder anyway. “Shall we do one more? How about the last?”

“No,” she says, surprising him, “no, we’ll wake the baby.” She puts her hand over his, pinning it so he can’t turn to the last song, the one called Sanglots — “Sobs”, in English. The gesture is strange, childlike. “We should stop.”

Eames pulls his hand away gently and looks down at Mal, at the messy part in her hair and the too-thin knobs at her wrists, at the slightly awry state of her. A lump rises in his throat: the sudden knowledge that Mal is not well.

Now is the moment to say something, to inquire, to ask how he can – but Eames is paralysed, knocked numb by the awfulness of his epiphany, by the way everything refocuses around him. He sees the house, Mal’s almost manic joy, the whole evening, in a new light.

The clutter isn’t friendly anymore, it’s worrying; Mal isn’t one to have people over with such obvious chaos at every turn. And it’s not just Mal who looks tired, it’s Dom, too, and Arthur, the three of them fighting hard against it but not quite able to disguise their shared exhaustion. Mal adores cooking, but she didn’t touch the stove or pick up a knife; she loves her children, but she’s not caring for or talking to or even looking at them. Eames swallows hard, because it hits him that it’s not just domestically that Mal is disengaged; she hadn’t come to the masterclass. She doesn’t have her usual sharp focus about their upcoming recital program. Mal’s studio is littered with music that Eames knows she’s not currently learning, old music that belongs at the conservatory, music that is not for her to play alone here in her home, that should be for her to use in coachings and chamber music classes and lessons.

It’s awful, the wave of realization, and it’s only just starting to recede when Eames looks up and sees Arthur standing in the doorway of the studio, jostling a sniffly James and looking daggers at the pair of them. “If you’re ready,” he says coolly, “I can take you back to the hotel now.”

Eames leans in close, presses a kiss to the soft hair just above Mal’s ear, but he keeps his eyes locked with Arthur’s. He wants Arthur to know that the secret is out, that Eames has worked out the puzzle. “Yeah, cheers,” he says, “it’s getting late.”

“Mal, will you take him?” Arthur asks, stepping into the room, holding James out in offer.

“Not now,” she says, “I need to practice.”

“You can’t practice,” Arthur says, “Philippa’s in bed.”

“Not now, I said,” Mal returns, her voice snapping upwards into hysteria with alarming abruptness. “Take him – go, I can’t bear to look at him a moment longer, take him.”

Arthur pulls James back to him, protectively cradling James’ downy head to his chest. “Mal,” he says, a warning tone in his voice.

“I said go,” Mal shouts, and James startles and begins to squawk, and it’s awful and jangling and it utterly rends the last of the dreamy French spell Poulenc’s music had woven in the room.

“Let’s go, it’s fine,” Eames says, needing to get out. “Arthur, come on.”

Arthur is stuck in some silent détente with Mal, though, when Eames looks at him, Arthur staring at Mal with anger and frustration all over his face. “Dom is,” he begins hotly.

“Dom is none of your business,” Mal shoots back.

“Well, James is definitely your business,” Arthur returns, voice getting louder to match Mal’s. “He’s your goddamn business, Mal.”

“That’s enough,” Eames intercedes sharply, putting himself physically in front of Mal, shielding her from Arthur. “Arthur, that’s fucking well enough.”

Arthur inhales fast and loud through his nose but releases the air again in a rush, conceding unexpectedly. “Come on,” he says, “let’s go. I just have to – to give him to Dom.” And he steps off briskly, disappearing into the dusky gloom of the house beyond the studio doors.

Eames wants to say something to Mal, anything at all, but she seems to have gone off somewhere, slouching a little – Mal, slouching, god – and blank-faced, void of the emotion she’d just displayed. “Tomorrow,” Eames says tentatively, “we should rehearse.”

Mal doesn’t react, not at all.

“Goodnight,” Eames says. “Thanks for dinner.”

Mal blinks slowly and manages a weird jerky nod.

Arthur is already outside by the time Eames pulls on his coat and exits, leaning against his car, the orange tip of his cigarette a lonely point of light on the blue-dusky street. “Well,” he says, and holds his cigarette out, wrist draping in a way that Eames will never admit is lovely, “so now you know.”

Eames takes the cigarette, holds it to his mouth, but doesn’t smoke it. “What the fuck are you and Dom playing at?” he asks, voice cutting a little too loud in the cool air.

Arthur doesn’t flinch at Eames’ tone, though, just takes the cigarette back and shrugs his shoulders inside his coat. “It wasn’t like this at first,” he says, sounding sad but reasonable. “At first, it was just that James was colicky and no one was sleeping. She and Dom were both at their wits’ end with him. But eventually James got better, and Mal – didn’t.” He taps the ash off the cigarette. “She wasn’t sleeping, she stopped eating, she practiced constantly. Dom tried to talk to her – I mean, it’s clear she needs medication, something. But she wouldn’t listen, and he couldn’t do it on his own, so I — I started helping, much as I can.”

“And?” Eames presses impatiently, because if what he just witnessed is Arthur’s idea of helping, it’s far from impressive.

“And she, she pulled it together a little,” Arthur says. “For a while it was better. She started making an effort, she held James and played with Philippa, I covered for her at the conservatory, Dom did the everyday stuff like cleaning and cooking, and we both thought she was getting better, little by little.” He pauses and runs a palm over his forehead, his eyes, drops it again. “We wanted to think that. But really it’s even worse than before now.”

“It’s just – what’s it called,” Eames says.

“Post partum depression,” Arthur provides. “Yeah, we think so. We thought so. But you know Mal, it’s always been – she’s never been that close to what we’d call normal anyway. I think,” and he bites his lower lip, drops his chin. “I think it’s more than just depression. Something in her is – it’s not quite right.”

“Come on,” Eames huffs, “a little Prozac, a little sleep, she’ll be her old self.”

“No,” Arthur says. “Eames, it’s worse than that.” He looks up, levels a gaze at Eames. “She’s convinced herself that James isn’t her baby.”

Eames half-laughs before he cottons on to the fact that Arthur is serious. “What?”

“She said it to Dom, a few days ago,” Arthur says wearily. “Hasn’t touched the baby or looked at him since. Dom is beside himself, he doesn’t know what to do. He hardly trusts her alone with James, the way she is right now. But he’s got exams to proctor at the conservatory, papers to mark, meetings to attend. He and I have been watching the kids as best as we can between the two of us, just trying to keep things going until after the holidays. Mal’s parents are in Paris. They’re coming as soon as they can.”

“And then?” Eames asks, mouth dry, horrified.

“And then we see about having her declared mentally incompetent,” Arthur says, sounding very much older than he is. “Dom’s convinced it’s the only way she’ll get help now. Every time he even brings up going to the doctor, she — well, you saw how she is.”

Eames shakes his head furiously, because it’s too horrible, thinking about wresting Mal’s control away from her like Dom had leapt to pull the handle of the water pitcher from Philippa’s little fingers. She’s — she’s Mal. It’s wrong to even imagine such a thing. “No, we’re not bloody there yet,” he insists. “Arthur, I’ll talk to her. I’ll have her see sense, right?”

“I was hoping you’d try,” Arthur answers, earnestly. “It’s kind of our last-ditch attempt, bringing you here, letting you see. Dom didn’t want to, I talked him into it. But I think you can — you and she have always had a connection.”

“No time like the present,” Eames says, straightening up, making as though to head back into the house.

“No,” Arthur says, stopping him. “No, tomorrow. Tomorrow, you can come here to practice for the recital, you can talk to her then.”

“But — she’s not playing the fucking recital,” Eames says, only realising it now. “You are, aren’t you?”

“She hasn’t admitted it yet,” says Arthur, “but yeah.” He shifts up against the car, standing taller. “I’ve been answering her emails. I’m surprised she even remembered you were in town. It’s days since she left the house.”

Eames reaches out and takes the stub-end of Arthur’s cigarette, suddenly needing a drag to steady himself. “Why didn’t you tell me before?” he asks as he exhales.

Arthur’s mouth shifts into a slanted line. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess I wasn’t sure if…” But he trails off, meeting Eames’ gaze apologetically. “I should have told you,” he says baldly. “No matter what’s going on between us, you should have known.”

“Bloody right,” agrees Eames, but not angrily, because he can see how fucked up Arthur is over all of this, how fucked up and sad and pissed off, how badly he wants Eames to make it right somehow.

Eames only hopes he can.

***

“Come in for a drink, we can talk this over,” Eames offers easily as they approach the hotel. Arthur casts a wary look his way, askance, and Eames suppresses a sigh before clarifying, “In the hotel bar, darling, nothing untoward.”

Arthur’s jaw flickers with some hidden struggle and then he’s turning into the drop-off loop instead of the parking garage. “We’d better not,” he says, end of discussion.

Eames gets his fingers hooked through the door handle, ignoring the squashed flat feeling in his middle, but that’s as far as he gets because he’s caught a glimmer of his cufflinks, the square ones he borrowed from Dom two years ago. Abruptly he’s remembering Mal as she was then, Mal capturing Eames’ hand and turning it just so, baring the outside of his wrist and those stupid bloody piano cufflinks. The knowing tone of her voice, and the gentle way she’d held his hand — where has that Mal gone? There are few enough people on earth who know Eames, who truly honestly know him, and one of them has been sifted away when he wasn’t looking, a gasp of her real self, a shadow, a mockery.

And now here’s Arthur, perhaps the only other person who could claim to know Eames — Arthur’s turning him out at the kerb like Eames is someone’s bothersome child.

“Eames,” says Arthur, impatient now.

Eames settles back into his seat, moving a little stiffly. “Arthur,” he returns, dropping his voice down, fixing his gaze steadily ahead. “Don’t — don’t make me go up there and sit alone with this.” It hurts, dragging out this plea, like the words are being physically scraped past his sternum and wedged out of his throat. “Please.”

Eames can see Arthur in his periphery, the indecisive flex of knuckles on the gearshift, the drop of his shoulders as he accedes. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” Arthur says, and now he’s shooting a quick bare look at Eames before staring forward through the windshield again. “It’s me I don’t trust,” he says. “I can’t think when I’m around you.”

“Fuck, I know the feeling,” Eames says heavily. “Four years, you said? God, it could be half a minute, except how you’ve gone and grown up in the meantime.”

Arthur’s composure breaks into reluctant dimples. “I’ve always been the grown-up, between the two of us,” he says. “You’re just noticing that now?”

Eames smiles and shakes his head, palming his mouth to hide exactly how wide his grin spreads. God, Arthur. One-four; Eames’ heart stops beating for a second, and it feels incredible and terrible all at once.

“Okay,” Arthur says, “but not the hotel bar. I know a place a few blocks away. Safer.”

***

Arthur orders beer, surprisingly pedestrian. Eames orders the same without thinking. He hates beer, particularly American beer; it’s good, though, it’ll keep him from getting drunk.

They talk around Mal for a minute, going back to yesterday’s conversation about their professional engagements. Then Arthur says something about having to go to Pittsburgh in the summer since he’s giving Hanukkah a miss this year, and Eames intones Baruch atahAdonai, Eloheinu while Arthur rolls his eyes and huffs out a dry laugh. “Three nephews, now,” he says. “Can you believe it?”

“Three, bloody hell,” Eames says. “I’ve only got the two.” He fiddles with the beer mat. “They’re really horrid.”

“They must be, if you think so,” Arthur allows. “You’ve always liked kids.”

“I like most kids,” Eames agrees. “I like babies best, I suppose.”

“James is,” Arthur says, smiling at his own pint, embarrassed, “god, he’s really fucking great. I — I guess he and I have kind of bonded.”

Silence drops over them; Arthur’s gone and invoked Mal. Eames resettles his weight on his chair, trying and failing to ease the twisting of his guts, the anxious clawing at his insides as he remembers how blank she’d looked at the end of the night, the sight of her delicate hand pinning the score open as though she could trap the Sanglots on the next page and never let them free.

“I should come home more often,” Eames says quietly, and dares to look directly at Arthur for the first time since sitting down.

“Is this home?” Arthur half-asks, not reproachful in the least, just curious.

Eames can’t give any kind of an answer. Lots of places are ‘home’ to him — London, Windsor, Boston, San Francisco — but it’s been years since the word meant more than someplace where he knows a handful of people, where to find the best tea, how to navigate from gate to luggage carousel without referring to the signs at the terminal.

“I never imagined settling here,” Arthur says, “but I really like teaching. And, I mean, I still get to play, I still get to travel.”

“Mm, I’m envious,” Eames says. It’s easier, looking at Arthur, gets easier with every glance. “I’m like a very highly paid itinerant worker, myself.”

Arthur smirks and chuckles, dropping his gaze back to his pint glass. “To destiny,” he says, and lifts his beer, taps the rim against Eames’ glass. “May we all wind up where we’re meant to be.”

Amein,” sings Eames, quite seriously, and drinks deep.

***

Eames knew about Arthur’s three nephews, of course, just as he’d known about the Dumbarton concert.

After Jacob in June 2000, there had been Eli, born when Eames was living in Rome in 2002 or 2003. Eames remembers Arthur mentioning it during one of their few phone calls. He’d offered Arthur his congratulations and made some excuse about having to run to rehearsal because it was bad enough, hearing Arthur talking, Arthur’s voice in his ear. Eames couldn’t stand the idea that Arthur’s life was going on without him.

Eames had, quite simply, been an utter idiot for quite a long while.

Mal had been the one to tell Eames about Ari, the youngest, the third boy. He’d arrived around the same time as Philippa was born. Eames still doesn’t know why Mal had told Eames about Arthur’s brother’s children and left out the part about Arthur and Daniel being together, Arthur and Daniel splitting up.

Mal’s always had a mad certainty that Eames and Arthur would wind up together, though. Eames has mostly found it comforting, oddly, even when he himself gave up on the notion entirely after the disaster of the Cobb wedding. He and Arthur have wound up where they were meant to be, and they are both happy enough so long as they can keep on living as though the other doesn’t exist.

So that’s why Eames doesn’t come home more often.

***

Eames takes a cab to the Cobbs’ house in the morning. Arthur had offered a lift, of course, but they’d decided it would be better if Mal didn’t feel like Arthur was delivering Eames to her doorstep, if Arthur wasn’t hovering in the kitchen with Dom like they both expected results. Instead, Arthur goes to work at the conservatory as usual, Dom takes the kids out to get groceries, and Eames rings the doorbell at the house knowing it will be just him and Mal for the next little while. Ostensibly they’re rehearsing for tomorrow’s recital.

“I’ve got tea brewed and ready for you, just a touch of honey to soothe your voice,” says Mal when Eames steps in. She seems better, today, hair clubbed back into a ponytail and all her clothes neater. The house is tidier than last night, more like it usually is. Eames entertains a brief hope that the worst is over before he remembers Arthur saying that he and Dom kept hoping the same thing to no avail. “Come, then, let’s begin.”

She’s herself again, for the moment. Eames goes along with the pretext of working together and soon enough he almost forgets that it’s not his reason for being here, he’s so wrapped up in the rehearsal process. Mal is one of the best he’s ever worked with, and moreover she’s the one who’d lit the fire of lieder for him all those years ago. She’d been the one to ask, had Eames ever listened to Fischer-Dieskau? Had Eames read The Ring of Words? Does Eames know anything by Brahms, by Schumann, by Schubert, by Wolf? Eames owes her so much, nearly everything he has; he owes her his attention and his focus right now.

And she’s so gloriously on task, it’s like travelling back in time to those early coachings in his freshman year. It’s ages since anyone working with him had a real criticism to offer but Mal sees everything, hears everything, and she doesn’t let Eames get away with anything: no shortcuts, no laziness, no moments of inattention. He should get huffy about it, maybe — he’s considered one of the best singers of his generation, he’s not accustomed to having someone snap at him about swallowing his velar plosives — but it’s wonderful.

It’s wonderful.

“Do you want to run anything again?” asks Mal when they’ve gone through the program. “The Bach?”

“No, no,” Eames says, pleased, satisfied. “It’s all brilliant.”

“It is brilliant,” Mal says, closing the scores in front of her with brisk familiar motions. Eames half-expects to be shooed out the door to make way for the next student. “You’re extraordinary, my dear boy.”

Eames grins, nineteen again and ebullient with Mal’s hard-won praise. “Nothing without you,” he returns grandly, and comes round the piano to shuffle Mal over, share the bench with her. Sat like this, Eames can’t help but remember his real mission; Mal pressed to his side is fragile as a bird, far thinner than he’s known her, and he can see the concealer she’s smudged over the dark circles under her eyes, the way it’s caked into the fine lines in her lovely skin. “You’ve got Dom in a strop,” he says, quietly, leaning into her as much as he dares.

“Dom worries too much,” Mal says, and tilts a smile in Eames’ direction. “You know he does.”

“Arthur’s fretting along with him,” Eames adds casually. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in quite such a state.”

“It’s been a long autumn,” Mal says, as though she’s agreeing. “This is just what’s needed, a nice concert to work on, a marvellous singer, this glorious repertoire. You’ll stay for Christmas?”

“I hadn’t planned on it,” Eames admits. “I will if you need me to.”

“Need you to?” Mal repeats, with a playfully indignant little laugh. “Listen to Monsieur l’Artiste! We get along just fine without you, you know.”

“Do you?” Eames asks idly, and lifts a hand, drops it onto the keys. F sharp diminished seventh. Eames’ hand looks like a crustacean on the keyboard, pinched and clawing to accommodate the awkward contours of the chord, white keys framed by black.

“Mm, thumb on the F sharp,” Mal corrects idly, and moves his fingers around.

“Thought you were never to put thumbs on black keys,” Eames puzzles.

“Sometimes you do,” Mal says, and echoes Eames’ seventh chord down the octave, cadences gently into G minor. Diminished sevenths are weird ambidextrous creatures, crawling over the keys without inversions or root positions, and the thing about them is they can resolve eight different ways, easy as breathing. Mal could have slipped into E, B flat, G, or D flat, major or minor, but she’d picked G minor. The chord hovers in the air before dissolving into a purple tracery.

“Let us help you, my lovely sweet Mal,” Eames says softly. He shifts his hand over and covers hers on the keys. “Please.”

Mal’s head tips towards Eames’ shoulder and rests there, heavy and warm and sad. “I’m afraid if I start crying I might never stop,” she says. “Laissons tout aux morts, et cachons nos sanglots.Let us leave everything to the dead and hide our sobbing. She draws a deep breath and lets it go. “I know it’s not right, how I feel, how I’m thinking.”

“It’ll be well, again,” Eames says, though his throat hurts from hearing Mal laid so bare. “I promise you that.”

“Will it?” she says listlessly. “I can’t share your optimism.”

“Do you remember,” Eames says, “after the wedding? Do you remember what you said to me?”

Mal’s fingers curl up into her palm under Eames’ hand, a hard thin fist resting on the keys, and then, abruptly, she nods.

“You said,” Eames continues anyway, “you said we were like wooden cups, all of us, and that when sorrow comes it only carves us out deeper so that we can hold more joy someday.”

“Yes,” Mal says, “but what happens when you break through the bottom of the cup? What then?”

“Then I come round and patch you up,” Eames tells her, and puts his other arm round her, and hugs her tight. “That’s what I do.”

***

Eames sticks around long enough to welcome Cobb and the kids back home. Mal has again lost the thread connecting her back to normalcy and is bundled up on the couch looking dull, flat.

“Thank you,” Dom breathes quietly when he sees Eames to the door, and for an awkward moment it’s like Dom wants to shake his hand; but then, with a sudden lunge, Dom hugs Eames instead, quick and fierce and completely weird. Eames doesn’t really know Cobb all that well, he’s more Arthur’s and Mal’s than anyone belonging to Eames, but — all right, fine, a hug.

Eames backs off and smiles half-heartedly. Cobb’s relief is in itself a bit worrying, like he’s been drowning for so long that this single gasp of air is like a world of oxygen for him.

Arthur’s reaction is more moderate, and less flattering. “Are you sure she’ll go?” he asks, shuffling through the keys on his keyring, looking for the one that will unlock Mal’s studio at the conservatory. “I mean, did she seem like she would really go?”

“Yeah,” Eames says, scratching his nose, uncertain now. “I mean, I talked to her. It’s — out in the open.”

“We’ve all talked to her,” Arthur says, and jams the key home, turns the knob. “All we’ve done is talk.”

“And I’m sure it’s had an impact. She agreed to go to the doctor, Arthur. They have an appointment. Dom’s arranging for a neighbour to come round and watch the kids.” Eames follows Arthur into Mal’s studio. He hasn’t set foot in the place since — christ, since he and Arthur walked in on Cobb and Mal. It’s the same room in many ways, all Mal’s clobber every way Eames looks, but with a blink he becomes aware of Arthur’s fingerprints on everything, all the right angles and square corners and books shelved alphabetically, neat schedules pinned to the bulletin board, the dust cover on the less-often-used Steinway. “How official is it, you covering for Mal?” Eames asks, because this doesn’t have the air of the provisional, somehow.

“She’s on maternity leave, officially,” Arthur says. “But the dean knows something’s up. She shows up to classes now and then, and coachings, like nothing’s wrong. It’s — strange.”

“I made it clear, about tomorrow,” Eames says, coming round the familiar sway of the Bösendorfer, resting fingers on its silken lid. He hesitates, then reaches for the lip and hefts it up to full stick. “She knows you’ll be playing.”

“Good,” Arthur says, steadying the lid while Eames slots the tip of the prop into the cup on its underside. Their hands brush. Eames wonders how often they’ve done this little dance, wonders how it ever seemed commonplace. He steps back and gives way to Arthur, who finishes the job and goes round the piano to sit at the bench. Arthur, fully half a foot taller than Mal, doesn’t have to adjust the seat. “So, I’ve seen the program, and I’ve played just about everything on it. The, ah, the one Brahms lied, I hadn’t heard that one — it’s, it’s very charming.”

“Should I leave the door open?” Eames blurts. “The studio door?”

“No,” Arthur says, with a humourless smile, and meets Eames’ panicked look steadily. “Eames. We’re adults. Come on.”

“All the filthiest things are for adults, Arthur,” Eames cracks back, but of course Arthur’s right, of course they can manage this, Eames is being ridiculous. Only, Arthur is so lovely, white dress shirt with charcoal pinstripes, chocolate trousers, hair sleek as a seal’s head, ears like small wings poised on either side of his handsome lean face.

“So we’ll just go through it in order?” asks Arthur, like he isn’t aware of Eames staring at him even though he could hardly miss it.

“Yeah, cheers,” Eames says, licking his lips, forcing himself to look over at Mal’s poster of Beethoven, reading Arthur’s neat hand on the old chalkboard: A professional artist’s task is to reconcile the competitive world of music with music’s fundamental purpose: to share art. ‘Share’ is underlined twice. And in the corner, another note, more hastily scrawled as though Arthur had been in a hurry to capture the thought: Technique is a means of expressing music, not an end in itself. Helplessly Eames looks back to where Arthur is shuffling through scores to find the first piece, busy and intent and ignoring Eames for all he’s worth. “You did grow up, a little,” Eames insists.

Arthur’s mask of composure breaks into a delightful demure smile, even though he still doesn’t look back at Eames. “Sorry to disappoint you, Peter Pan.”

Eames settles his hand back on the lid of the piano, fidgety now, at loose ends. “I hope you’ve given this thing a good scrubbing with Lysol,” he says. “I’d hate to catch whatever disease Cobb has that makes him — you know. Like Cobb.”

Arthur snorts now, and settles his music open on the stand, sketches the opening phrase, tuts at Eames. “He’s a good enough person,” he says. “And yes, it’s been thoroughly sanitised.” He finally, finally looks over at Eames, and grins simply. “I did it myself.”

“Well, let’s crack on,” Eames says hastily, because in another moment he will be forced to open the door out of self-defense. He’s helpless before Arthur’s dimples and brown eyes. That will never change, he supposes. “Bloody horrible Bach, I suppose. Must set a good example for the children.”

“You just want to show off,” Arthur says, and launches into the opening phrase fully now, fingers flying easily through the sea of sixteenth notes.

“Oh yes, I’m the bloody show-off,” Eames has just time enough to say before he’s forced to start in with Großer Herr, der starker König and all his energy is devoted to powering all the churning runs of notes.

It’s different, of course, working with Arthur. Eames isn’t a fit judge of pianistic brilliance but it seems to him that Arthur’s at least drawn level with Mal’s own skill level — surpassed her, maybe, when it comes to sheer bloody-minded displays of technical fireworks, Arthur’s very humbly stated ‘means to an end’ rather spectacular in the execution. Mal’s a very small person who uses the massive Bösendorfer to make herself nine feet taller, to call down thunder; Arthur’s a tallish strong young man who coaxes the piano to obey his every whim, curling his fingers over the keys, asking the beast to whisper for him, and it does, it whispers and roars and burbles and everything in between. Eames sinks his hip to rest against the sway of the Bösendorfer’s middle even though Mal hates it when singers do that. Arthur doesn’t object, thankfully, and Eames basks for a while in the buzz of the instrument’s body carrying through his own, Arthur’s music zinging down to Eames’ knees and up to the back of his skull.

“This is fun,” Arthur says, when they pause for Eames to drink some water. An hour has passed, Eames notes with surprise when he catches sight of the clock. It doesn’t feel like it. “We should do this again,” Arthur goes on. “We should do a concert, a real concert.”

“Name the day,” Eames says, capping his water and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

Arthur just grins at him. “We could never afford you. We get memos about paperclip wastage.”

“Sounds like you could use a benefit concert with services donated,” Eames says. “Perhaps some shining alumnus could come in and collaborate with one of your outstanding faculty?”

“Name the day,” Arthur repeats back to Eames. “Holy shit, I’d be the dean’s favourite for years to come. Maybe I could parlay this into a real professorship instead of being a shitty sessional instructor.”

“I’ll make it a condition of my rider,” Eames says lightly, giddily.

Arthur’s face goes still.

“Oh fuck me, I didn’t—“ Eames tries to say, stung. “Arthur. You know that’s not what I meant.”

“Don’t — don’t do me any favours,” Arthur says, and clears his throat. “Are you hydrated? Should we move on to the opera set?”

“Yeah,” says Eames, straightening up, stepping a little away from the piano, setting the bottle down. “No, wait,” he amends. “Arthur. I want to — I really sincerely want to apologise for that remark. I know you don’t need my help.”

Some of the bowstring tension ebbs from Arthur’s shoulders. “I know,” he says. “I mean, you really do have that kind of pull. I just — I’m doing my own thing, here.”

“I know,” Eames says. “I’m a terrible fucking nasty bastard — isn’t that the way of it?”

“So you’ve always said,” Arthur agrees, but his mouth is curling at the edges now. “A lack of self-awareness has never been among your failings, Eames.”

“A lack of sensitivity, then,” Eames says. “Forgive me.” He hears himself say the words, hopes they sound as sincere to Arthur’s ears as they do to his own.

Arthur blinks, sets his hands on the keys, and gives Eames a small heartfelt nod.

They make the small room ring, the pair of them, just like the old days; maybe even better.

***

“Is my tie straight?” Eames asks, backstage, just before they go on the next day.

“Nothing about you is straight,” Arthur says, checking the state of his hair in the mirror, thoroughly unaware of the irony. “Also, you’re not wearing a tie.”

“So you were looking,” Eames surmises cheerfully.

“Yes, I was gazing inappropriately at the bare collar of your shirt,” Arthur says, and turns his head to look at Eames. “Anything I need to remember before we go on?”

Eames pauses as though to think. “Try not to muck it all up,” he suggests.

“You’re such an asshole,” Arthur says, turning back to the mirror, but his reflection betrays the amused turn of his mouth. His hair is short, neatly trimmed at the nape of his neck. Eames remembers all the times he’s pressed his lips to that very spot, in the moments before sleep, or slipping up behind Arthur seated at the piano, or trembling and affectionate just after coming, draped over Arthur’s back.

He’ll never kiss Arthur again, Eames thinks; the very thought still feels exactly like a knife scooping at his insides, hollowing his cup a little deeper. But it’s better this way. They’re exactly as they must be: colleagues, friends, musicians.

“Are you okay?” asks Arthur, who has turned back round at some point since Eames started brooding, and is now frowning at him with visible worry.

“Yeah, cheers,” says Eames, “let’s go make undergraduates feel hopelessly untalented.”

***

Eames’ life is made up of performances much bigger than this piddling noon hour concert for a student audience. He stands in front of massive orchestras with two hundred voice choirs, right-hand man to great conductors on the podium beside him, singing to halls with two thousand people hanging on his every note.

Rarely, very rarely, does Eames consciously savour every moment of a performance like he does this single hour on stage with Arthur. It goes by far too quickly. There’s no time for lengthy introductions of pieces; they trip on from one to the next with haste. It’s only before Eames’ encore (and there is barely time for that much) that he hesitates and throws a look at Arthur before stepping forward a little and addressing the audience.

Niceties first: Eames thanks the conservatory, the dean, Mal for inviting him, Arthur for filling in for her at the last minute (and here he drops the fact that they are, of course, a duo from days long past and it’s a pleasure to revisit their musical partnership, and so on); and then Eames clasps his hands together, waits for a deeper and more attentive silence. “This last lied,” he says, “is very simple at first glance, very short, but — it’s dear to me. I don’t often sing it, because I live in terror of it losing its magic, but we would like to finish out this program with it today. It’s a little gem of a lied.” He hesitates. He could go straight into it, now. Or — “You see, the best songs,” Eames says, “the very best songs — they change you with every repetition.” He licks his lips and struggles to explain. “They wash over you and leave you a changed person with the closing note, even if the change is infinitesimal, even if it's as simple as the turn of a coin,” and he holds his hand and twists thumb to finger in demonstration, “or the roll of a die, or a wave rolling up the sand and then back to the sea.”

Eames pauses, listens to the new quality of silence in the hall. He can scarcely see past the footlights but the air tells him everything: the audience is breathless, waiting. Eames looks over his shoulder and shuffles backwards into the bend of the piano, lays his hand on the lid and nods at Arthur.

Arthur nods back, tilts his head towards Eames, and begins to play: gentle, gentle, sweet, sweet.

Eames is halfway through the first stanza before he remembers to turn his head back towards the audience.

***

They’re backstage again, but there’s no Mal to greet them like she had after their last concert together. Mal is at home with the kids, Arthur said earlier; Dom had come alone, but bubbling with cheerfulness over Mal having started anti-depressant meds, Mal having volunteered to stay home with the children after so many weeks of almost entirely ignoring them.

“There’s a small faculty reception for you,” Arthur says, busily hanging up his jacket, dressing down to an appropriate level for a midday social event. “You can go on out, I’ll be right there.”

“No, I’ll wait,” Eames says. “Our shared moment of triumph, all that.” He leans against the back of the green room couch and folds his arms over his chest, feeling a little odd, a little off-centre. In days past, Arthur would have been struck dumb by a performance moment such as the one they’d just shared; now he’s matter-of-fact, used to his own magnificence and apparently immune to pride over the occasional eruption of monumental artistry. It’s not that Eames expected Arthur pin him against the wall and shag him there like he had after their first concert — just, he’d thought maybe a heartfelt handshake, a moment of lovely proud eye contact, a few fond words. But no, Arthur’s all business, dusting invisible lint from his jacket and settling it neatly on its wooden hanger.

“Really, go ahead,” Arthur says, glancing back at Eames. “I’m right behind you. You’re the guest artist, you should go.”

Eames shakes his head, smiles uneasily. “No, I — Arthur, it’s both of us. You know it’s both of us.”

And Arthur freezes with his hand still spread over the jacket, and for a brief horrific moment Eames thinks he’s done it again, he’s said something wrong and stupid and arrogant and terrible, even if he can’t for the life of him work out what it was.

“You,” Arthur says, voice low and almost breaking, tense, “you’ve got to stop being so fucking incredible, Eames.”

Eames hasn’t got time to process any of that, though, because suddenly Arthur pivots and closes the distance between them, seizes Eames in a ferocious hug, exhaling hard, pressing his cheek to Eames’ shoulder. Eames melts, he melts into it, because thank god, Arthur’s still Arthur, he still feels as Arthur always felt, grateful and good and so in awe of the lightning they can summon between them in performance. Eames shoves his face into the space between Arthur’s neck and his shoulder and breathes Arthur in, and his heart races and slows, rubato pulse as his brain catches up with his heart and pulls it back into sense, longing chased with the bitter knowledge that it can’t be satisfied. It can’t — but for now, here’s Arthur in Eames’ arms, smelling of citrus, solid and warm and clinging to Eames desperately.

Arthur breaks the embrace at last, which is good because Eames doesn’t think he would ever have summoned the strength himself, and he takes a step back. He drops his arms, but holds Eames’ gaze, silent. The slowest sweetest smile curls over his mouth, and Eames can’t help but smile back, because — holy shit. They are incredible together, even after all this time. They still have this, and it’s worth all the pain just to know it.

***

They’re standing there like that, grins edging on and off their faces, when Dom bursts into the green room holding his phone to his ear, frowning, an almost palpable aura of closely contained worry coming off him in waves. “Dammit,” he says through clenched teeth, and pulls the phone away, stabs the keypad to end the call.

“What is it?” Arthur asks. Eames can see his shoulders clicking up and back, at attention, ready for anything. Eames’ own heart thumps uncomfortably. The moment has passed; another darker moment is crowding its way into the space around them.

“She’s not answering,” Dom says. “Shit, I — I’m sure it’s just, they’ve got the TV turned up or they’re at the playground or something, it’s probably”—

“Let’s go,” Arthur says, no fucking around, grabbing his suit jacket and patting its pockets for his keys, wallet.

“No, you stay, your reception,” Dom says, doing the same, tucking his phone away, trying to look calm and failing miserably.

“Bollocks to the reception,” Eames says, “I’m going with Arthur, you take your car. We’ll meet you at the house.”

They leave the building at a dignified if hasty clip, ducking out the back stage entrance to avoid the waiting faculty. They don’t really start running until they hit the outdoors and are within sight of Arthur’s little blue car. Dom peels off, phone to his ear again, jogs for the Cobbs’ own white SUV. Eames and Arthur don’t waste breath talking even though Eames’ mind is going a mile a minute and he’s sure Arthur’s is too, judging from the frown line between his brows, the downward cut of his mouth.

“Shouldn’t’ve left her alone,” is Arthur’s only statement before he throws the car into reverse and peels out of the lot just ahead of Dom. Eames, normally borderline terrified by Arthur’s driving style, leans forward unconsciously as though he can help Arthur go faster, weaving round slower cars (which comprise all the cars right now), running stale yellows, tearing through city blocks and ripping round corners. Startled honks and beeps trail their mad progress through the city. Dom is quickly left behind them, no match for Arthur’s driving at its most frantic. Eames drums his palm on his thigh and prays that the cops won’t pull them over.

By some miracle of Wednesday afternoon traffic, they don’t. By the time they reach Dom and Mal’s quiet elderly neighbourhood, Arthur’s skidding a little on the snow-dusted streets. They fly past a playground; Arthur taps the brakes, at first Eames thinks in concession to the possibility of children at play, but then Arthur cranes his head to look, and Eames realises that Arthur’s checking for the children, for Mal. The playground is deserted though, snowy and chill blue and desolate. Eames’ heart does an alarming swoop of disappointment, motion perpendicular to the swing of the car as Arthur corners onto the Cobbs’ street, barely troubling to slow down at all.

He slides and skids to a stop at a slight angle to the kerb, halfway out the door with one hand still yanking back the parking brake. Eames follows as quickly as he can, amazed by Arthur’s grace in his slick-soled patent leather shoes, skating up the front walk more than running, throwing the door open while Eames is still picking his way over thinly iced pavement.

Music.

Music bursts out of the mouth of the open door, deafening and throbbing and buzzing, the sound of a very expensive hi-fi pushed to its utmost limits, subwoofer straining, so ragingly loud that Eames’ chest more than his ears experience the noise at first. Arthur’s already in the studio, the source of the sound, leaning over Mal, who is playing along with the recording, a weird eerie pain-ecstasy on her face. Arthur’s long fingers grip round her narrow shoulders as he bows over to shout in her ear. Eames gets closer and makes out the words, half by the shape of Arthur’s mouth: where are the children? where are the children, Mal?

Mal closes her eyes, lifts her face, radiant and terrible, and Arthur gives her a little shake of rage and impatience. Eames hastens to come between them, pries Arthur’s fingers away. “Go!” he shouts into Arthur’s face, “go find them!” Arthur looks like he’d quite like to keep shaking Mal instead, but he blinks once and lets go. It makes more sense to leave Eames here with Mal, for Arthur to search the small house now, quickly, rather than waiting for Mal to rouse from this trance.

Arthur sprints out of the room and Eames assumes his place, wrapping arms around Mal’s slender frame, trying to ease her back from the keyboard, from the playing that he can barely hear over the mad vibration of the speakers. She is strong, stronger than Eames would have guessed. She resists him with quick outward jabs of her elbows, her shoulders, pushing him away again and again. Eames leans over and speaks into her ear as Arthur had done. “Darling, you must stop, you mustn’t,” he says, and abruptly his gut twists, his stomach lurches, because the track has ended, has looped back to the beginning, and now the sweet tone of the oboe renders the noise into sense, into sickening familiarity.

Eames slumps, all the tension gone from his arms, stunned, unwilling to believe what he’s hearing. Mal plays on, and Fischer-Dieskau starts to sing: Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehen. It’s the first song of Mahler’s cycle, Kindertotenlieder.

Songs on the Death of Children.

He rises, shakily, finds the stereo but can’t find the stop button, the pause button, the power button. Everything is faintly blurry, smeary. He twists the volume knob instead, noting a little distantly that his hand is in full tremble. Fisher-Dieskau fades out and Mal’s glorious playing takes over the room. She seems not to have noticed Eames’ action, playing on with the same creepy joy on her face. Eames looks up, through the studio door, in time to see Arthur coming down the stairs with arms laden. “Eames,” he calls, paler than Eames remembers seeing him. Eames hurries over, takes the white-towelled bundle Arthur pushes at him, realizes it’s James, James screaming and kicking, thank fuck, thank fuck, oh, christ — and it’s Philippa in Arthur’s other arm, raising as much of a howl as her brother, wet and naked inside the towel, dripping cool water over Arthur’s Dior shirt, his silk tie, her lips purplish and quivering with cold or fear or both.

“I think they’re okay, I think,” Eames says, scrubbing the towel over James, jogging him, too relieved to see beyond the curve of infant belly, to hear more than the indignant lusty screams.

Arthur has both arms around Philippa now, not comforting, just desperate. “She left them alone,” he says, and Eames looks up, sees now that Arthur is not afraid or relieved or shocked: he is flat-out enraged. “She left her babies alone in the bathtub,” Arthur says again, looking at Eames, “the water was almost cold, she — Philippa was crying, trying to keep James from slipping under, she couldn’t get out without letting him go.”

It’s then that Dom bursts inside, sees Arthur and Eames at the foot of the stairs, hears his children wailing, gathers them to him and kneels right there in the entrance, holding them and kissing their heads fiercely, one to the other and back again. For a moment Eames doesn’t know what to do, immobilized by the shock of what’s happened, and then Mal’s raspy lovely voice wends out of the studio, singing about how a little lamp went out in her tent.

Eames gets his arms round Arthur just in time, holding him back, barely. He has no idea what Arthur meant to do, but he was headed for the studio. Arthur wrenches against Eames’ grip, just as Mal had moments earlier, stronger, more determined, but Eames has the advantage of position, of weight, and he manages to hold firm even as Arthur surges forward with a raw cry of fury. It’s natural for Eames to press his forehead into the hollow of Arthur’s neck, damp yet from the clutch of small chilled limbs, to hush Arthur like he’s one of the crying children, to brush lips against skin, comforting, until Arthur subsides all at once, falls back into Eames’ embrace.

Distantly, Eames hears Mal start the lied over again, the wending angular line that belongs to the oboe, the mournful sostenuto chords underpinning it.

It will, Eames thinks vaguely, probably take the both of them — Arthur and Eames — to pull her away from the keyboard, when the police arrive.

***

The kids are okay, they’re okay, they’re okay.

The ER docs bundle them in more blankets and the nurses give Philippa toys to make her laugh and James sleeps slung in the crook of Arthur’s elbow, heavy and sweet and deep.

Dom comes round from the curtained area where Mal is waiting for a bed in the psych ward. His nose is red and his fingers are nervous as they fiddle with Philippa’s hair. “It’s not a problem, they can hold her for five days now that the police — it’s not a problem, for now. But she”—

—“We can take the kids home,” Arthur says, and digs in his pocket, extracts the keys to his Nissan. “I’ll take your SUV, it’s got car seats in it. Stay as long as you need to.”

Cobb casts a look down at Philippa as he fumbles for his own keys to make the swap. “Miles and Marie are coming tomorrow,” he says, “but until then, yeah, I — do you think they’ll be okay?”

It could be such a casual question, seeking Arthur’s input on a logistical course of action, but Dom’s voice changed utterly with the words. Eames folds his arms across his chest to contain the throb of worry that rises.

“James will never know,” Arthur says, “and Philippa is pretty young, she might not remember either.”

Dom drops his face down into Philippa’s hair, kisses her head again like he had in those first moments in the house. “If you hadn’t gotten there when you did,” he says, and stops.

“Stay the night,” Arthur says, steady and normal-sounding. “It’s getting late, we’ll stop at McDonald’s and get dinner, put the kids to bed, they’ll be absolutely fine.”

***

“I wonder why,” Eames says, quietly, after Arthur gently pulls Philippa’s bedroom door closed. They’re finally alone and away from little ears.

“Who cares why,” Arthur bites back. “Who the fuck cares.”

***

Eames isn't sleeping. He’s just stretched out on the bed in the master bedroom, flat on his back, blinking muzzily at the stipple on the ceiling, listening to James fuss and Arthur pace. But in the space of one blink, the room darkens and quiets and Eames lurches up into a half-seated position, startled and disoriented by the change.

"Shh," said Arthur, now over in the doorway when a moment ago he had been beside the bed. "He just dropped off again.”

"I wasn't asleep," says Eames, though all evidence points to the contrary. There is a cooling smear of drool in the corner of his mouth, even.

"It's okay," Arthur says, and — a brief twist of a smile, almost fond, though he's not looking at Eames. James is an inert lump of swaddled blankets pressed up against Arthur’s shoulder, visible only by the exuberant tuft of blonde hair poking out at the top. Arthur's features are vague and smudged in the faint light from the shaded window but the very lines of his body tell his fatigue.

"Can you set him down?" Eames asks, dropping his voice down to match Arthur's half-whisper.

"I'm afraid to," Arthur admits wryly.

"Come on, then," Eames says, and wriggles over to make room for Arthur and James on the rumpled bed.

"No," says Arthur, "no, what if we roll over on him or"—

"Come on," Eames says, patting the bed.

Arthur clambers on knees first, arms held rigid and careful against his body to minimize jostling the baby, and then eases James down into the bow of Eames' body, the little warm space bounded by Eames' chest and knees and one out thrown arm.

James makes a few snuffling noises, but they don't sound unhappy, and after his cupid mouth purses and sucks at the air a few times he settles back into a deeper sleep. Eames slowly vents a breath he hadn't meant to hold, and Arthur mirrors Eames' position to complete James' human cradle walls. Their knees collide gently. Eames half-expects Arthur to apologize and pull back a little, but instead Arthur extends a calf and deliberately hooks it over Eames'.

It's a sleepy motion, a comfortable stretch, and yet if Eames had an iota of energy in his body he expects that his heart would have skipped a beat. Arthur's legs have gotten a little hairier, he thinks. A little harder with ropy runner's muscle.

"How'd you do it?" Eames asks, though Arthur's eyes were just glittering slits regarding him fuzzily from the pillow opposite. "Get him to sleep, I mean."

"I rocked him," Arthur says, slurring his words.

"How big was the rock?" Eames asks, and it's a sign of Arthur's exhaustion that he pretends to laugh.

"Remember," Arthur says, "no crushing the baby."

"Right," says Eames, and he's not sleeping, he's not, except suddenly, he is.

***

Eames wakes himself up a bare hour later when he tries to roll onto his stomach and is jolted awake by the realization that he's about to crush the baby after all and Arthur would never ever forgive him.

The baby doesn't seem to have minded, or even noticed, thankfully, smushed happily enough with his face in Eames' armpit and one fist balled up against Arthur's half-open mouth. Eames' heart is pounding with alarm, though, and he knows he won't sleep again like this.

The clock says it's four in the morning, still some potential for more rest if only Eames can move James without rousing him. He slips a flat palm under James' hot trusting little neck, another under his diapered bottom, and lifts him with breathless care, blankets and all, to deposit him down in the bedside basinnette. Eames fears the worst for a moment when James' downy head touches down on the cool bottom of the cradle but James sleeps on, thank god, thank god, and Eames plunges back onto the bed with gratitude.

"What," says Arthur.

"In his bed," Eames says, and tugs at the covers, chivvies Arthur up enough to pull the blankets up over the pair of them because it's bloody cold in the house at four in the morning in December in Boston.

"Good," says Arthur, and burrows into the bed, eyes still shut. When Eames joins him under the covers, carefully at the far edge of the mattress, Arthur pats sloppily at the warm space next to him in clear invitation.

Arthur is obviously not awake.

Eames goes anyway.

Arthur settles into Eames' shoulder, slinging his leg over Eames' calves and his arm around Eames' waist like it was natural, like it was something they'd ever done when in fact they'd never been like this, not even back when —

Eames sags into Arthur's warmth, too pleased and sleepy to think it through. Arthur smells faintly of oranges, still, fresh and astringent and lovely. His hair is slippery and soft against Eames' skin. His body is lean and narrow and strong and it fits itself against Eames almost stubbornly, forcing a join even where their hipbones want to collide, where Arthur's sharp jaw almost can't settle into the dip of flesh just under Eames' clavicle. But Arthur's fingers, his long elegant fingers, they curve around Eames' ribs like missing puzzle pieces, like Eames' body has grown up around their absence in anticipation of this moment, heated skin skating heavily over soft cotton, hiking it up just a little so that Arthur's pinkie drifts almost accidentally against Eames' side, the bare scoop of Eames' waist.

"What are we doing," Eames says unwillingly, because it needs to be said.

"It's nothing," Arthur says.

And really, Eames thinks, if Arthur had asked, Eames would have given the same answer. It’s nothing when compared with the hugeness of the day that’s just passed, nothing at all next to singing about precious beloved peace only to have chaos and madness erupt in the ugliest way possible. Arthur’s leg is slung over Eames’ calves, his arm round Eames’ waist, and it’s nothing, nothing.

It's nothing at all, so Eames purses his lips and angles his head down to press them into Arthur's soft orange-smelling hair.

Arthur presses into Eames in reply, nothing urgent or pointed, just a slow pleased roll of his long body before he sags into slumber. Eames joins him, easy and swift.

***

Eames hears Philippa before he sees her, the pat of small bare feet on hardwood and the creak of the bedroom door, and then a messy blonde head peeking up from over Arthur's still shoulder. Philippa is rubbing her eyes, her colourful dummy hanging between her baby teeth like a cigar butt. She's dragging her furry blue blanket and doesn't seem particularly eager to talk, instead snuggling down against Arthur's back and making small animal noises of comfort.

Arthur stirs at this disturbance and twists his head round to peer at their intruder. "Morning," he croaks at her, though Philippa only mewls a little more in reply.

"I'll make coffee," Eames offers, suddenly feeling awkward in the morning light, the pair of them tangled up in Dom and Mal's bloody conjugal bed with the Cobb offspring bracketing them, playing a part in this weird parody of their normal family life.

"Stay for a second," Arthur says, lowering his head again, sinking into Eames' shoulder, warming the skin that had felt bereft and cool in Arthur's brief absence.

Eames can't relax again, doesn't know for the life of him how Arthur can. The numbness of midnight has bled away while he slept, and now the blueish wintry light leaking into the room traces detail with an almost too-sharp precision. Eames can make out the dashes of fine lines at the outside corner of Arthur's closed eye, the multitudinous cottony pills gathered along the cuff of Arthur's t-shirt, the deepened V of his widow's peak.

It's been too long since Eames saw Arthur like this; it hurts to realise it.

"Bugger," says Eames, breathing out the word more than speaking it, and Arthur's mouth curves in wry acknowledgement before his eyes open to meet Eames' gaze.

"Dangerous, this," says Eames, and kisses Arthur's eyebrow anyway. Did he really think, only yesterday, that he would never do that again? It seems silly as thinking he would never breathe again.

"Not really so dangerous,” Arthur says, voice morning-low and soft. “I mean — nothing changes here, really.”

"Doesn't mean it has to stay the same," Eames says nonsensically. He uses two fingers to tilt Arthur's chin up, bring his mouth closer to Eames’ own — but Arthur is the one to move.

Arthur kisses Eames first.

Eames doesn't know how many times he's kissed Arthur over the years: scores, hundreds of kisses. Thousands, probably. They've kissed with every mood under the sun between them, it's like a song sung and played over and over until its every phrase rounds off with familiarity, its every note as plain as seeing, as breathing. But the best songs, Eames thinks, kissing Arthur slowly, slowly — the very best songs — change you with every repetition. Turn of a coin, roll of a die, wave lapping up onto the shore.

This kiss is changing Eames, too.

"Things don't have to stay the same." Arthur's the one to say it, this time, pulling back, brows drawing together with — what? Confusion? Annoyance? Thoughtfulness? “Of course they don't, they"—

Then James squalls and Philippa pulls at Arthur's sleeve, and the moment breaks. Eames tumbles to clumsy sleep-deprived feet and bumps into every piece of furniture as he makes for the toilet and thereafter the kitchen. He listens dimly as Arthur reasons with Philippa and shushes James.

Eames pours coffee beans into the grinder and tries to think over the rumbling in his ears, the weird cautious joy rising in his chest like a fragile wobbly soap bubble.

***

Dom slips in through the front door while Eames is trying to convince Philippa to at least sample the third yogurt container she’s insisted she wants. Arthur is wearily shaking a formula bottle while slumped against the kitchen counter.

“You have yogurt on your face,” says Dom to Eames, shrugging out of his coat and coming over to kiss Philippa. “She only likes the peach kind.”

Eames pops open a fourth container and hands it to the kid. He knows full well that he and Arthur both look like shit, tired and mussed and just about at the breaking point. Dom, however, looks like he’s been through the wars, haggard and aged a dozen years overnight.

“It’s done,” he says, sagging into a chair, rubbing his brow. “She’s been admitted. Miles and Marie will be here later this morning.”

“How is she?” Eames asks, stacking up the discarded yogurts. Arthur stays silent, busy trying to coax James into taking the bottle.

“She’s,” Dom says, and his voice gives out to a rasp. “Jesus.”

“Mommy?” asks Philippa with impeccable timing, digging into the peach yogurt at last.

“She’s sick,” Dom says, visibly pulling it back together, “she’s sick, but the doctors are going to help her get better, okay, sweetheart?”

“We’ll stay as long as you need,” Eames offers rashly. He doesn’t bother separating himself from Arthur in the offer, because Arthur hadn’t, yesterday. “We can help with them, it’s no bother.”

“No,” says Dom calmly, standing up again, gathering up a handful of dirty dishes and heading to the sink. “No, being with them – it’s exactly what I need right now.” He deposits the dishes and then takes James and the bottle from Arthur, smiling through his exhaustion. “You guys go, you need sleep.”

“So do you,” Eames protests, “look at the state of you.”

“Mal’s parents will pitch in,” Dom responds evenly, stroking James’ working cheek. “I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know how,” Arthur says, voice sharp and abrupt in the morning quiet, “how you’ll ever be able to,” and he clamps down on the rest of it. “Dom, she could have,” and he stops again, jaw flickering, looking sick and fearful. “I don’t blame you if you never forgive her,” he finishes at last, and jabs the flat of his thumb into the corner of his eye.

“It’s not like that,” Dom says, shaking his head, keeping his gaze fixed on James. “It wasn’t her, the person who you saw yesterday. Mal would never,” and it’s his turn to stop mid-sentence, except Dom does so with a slow sigh. “She’s my wife,” he says, looking up at Arthur, blue steady calm gaze, an expression between resignation and earnestness. “She’ll come back to us eventually. She belongs here, with us.”

Eames watches Arthur struggle to understand and then give up on it with a half-shake of his head. “We’ll go,” Arthur says softly, and runs his hand over James’ hair in a gesture of farewell.

“Thanks for staying,” Dom says, matching Arthur’s quiet tone, dividing a grateful look between him and Eames.

“Yeah, anytime,” Eames says, “day or night, just”—

“We’ll be around,” Arthur says — we, we’ll, us. “Give us a call later, check in.”

“Yeah, of course,” Dom responds vaguely, fatigue settling over him again like a veil.

Eames has almost forgotten about the outside world after the long dark night. The chill air and falling snow are somewhere between jarring and refreshing as Eames and Arthur trace Cobb’s fresh footprints down the front walk and over to Arthur’s car, parked a little crooked like a visible manifestation of Dom’s utter fatigue. It’s a relief to be shot of the house, of the heavy atmosphere of worry and trauma and crisis. Even with Arthur frowning like a gloomy remnant of the scene inside, as he sweeps the scant layer of snow that’s already fallen onto the windshield since Dom got home.

“I expect he’s right,” Eames says, using the tasseled end of his scarf to beat the snow from his passenger-side window. “Bit of medication, therapy, bit of time, she’ll be alright. Every true artist has a nervous breakdown eventually.”

Arthur grunts a non-committal noise in reply and presses the key fob to make the car unlock with a mechanical thunk.

“I’m saving mine for when my career hits a slump,” Eames continues cheerily as he pulls his door open. “I think maybe I’ll do like Britney Spears and shave my head, or maybe leak a sex tape. The trouble is coming up with something shocking enough to rock the opera world. What do you think about spanking?”

Eames looks over the top of the car to where Arthur is standing. He’s waiting for Arthur to snap at Eames, to yell at him about having some goddamn sense of the seriousness of the situation. Eames hopes for it, honestly, is angling for it — anything at all to shake Arthur out of this black mood.

Arthur, however, has gone still. He’s frozen with his hand resting on the hood of the car, and he doesn’t look the least bit angry, or sad. He’s smiling, faintly and stupidly, and staring over at Eames like he’s just properly noticed him for the first time since Eames lurched out of bed.

“No spanking?” Eames says, smiling back, thrown but pleased.

“Will you come to my place?” Arthur says instead of answering.

Eames scratches his face to cover up his stupid helpless grin; his fingers come away wet with strawberry yogurt. “Yeah,” he says, licking them clean thriftily, “got nothing else going on today, anyway.”

***

Arthur's house isn't unpacked, though he tells Eames that he moved mid-summer. In the Boston high heat of July, he’d gotten started with the usual new home things, pulling out old carpet and replacing light fixtures and painting rooms.

“But then there was James,” Arthur says fondly, taking Eames round to the back door because apparently the lock is broken at the front. “Which was a happy distraction, at first. Oh, watch your step.”

Eames steps over the sealed cans of paint in the back entrance while Arthur clicks on lights and sighs at the clutter around them.

“It’s not like I could have Dom over here helping refinish floors with a newborn at home,” Arthur says reasonably, “so I guess I just unpacked the bare essentials and assumed we’d get around to the rest a little later.” They step into the kitchen, which does seem to be in a reasonable state of functionality in spite of the boxes shoved off around the margins of the room.

“Bit of a fixer-upper,” Eames says as neutrally as he can, eyeing the peeling lino and the dingy cupboards. The neighbourhood is just starting the gentrification process, far from being a fashionable area of Boston at this point. “Has some promise, though,” Eames adds brightly, catching sight of the dreamy heavy-paned stained glass over the wide kitchen window overlooking the back garden.

“It needs some work,” Arthur agrees, “and it’s pretty small – just the one bedroom. But the price was right. And, you know. It’s mine.”

He takes Eames around on a quick tour. There’s not a lot to see, just the kitchen, a dining room that’s become a den, a pocket-sized office, and a generously-sized front room that seems to be housing most of Arthur’s boxed possessions. This last room has a stunning bay window, but most of the light is choked out by an overgrown tree in the front yard. “It’s got to go,” Arthur says. “It keeps growing roots into the plumbing too.”

“This is for the piano,” Eames guesses, turning around, taking in the dimensions of the room, the French doors that sequester the space away from the rest of the house.

“The entirely hypothetical piano,” Arthur agrees wryly. “Well, I’m looking into having my Yamaha moved out from Pittsburgh, but – it’s not a cheap thing, bringing a baby grand so far.” He shrugs. “I’m okay using Mal’s Imperial at the conservatory for now.”

“Of course,” Eames says, and they both stay quiet through the wave of tense sadness that rises at the drop of Mal’s name.

Arthur jams his hands in this trouser pockets and clears his throat. “Did you want to – oh, fuck. Well, this sounds like – I just wanted to know if you wanted to see, uh, the rest of the house.”

Eames smiles sharply, amused by Arthur’s sudden discomfort. “You mean would I like to inspect your bedroom? Why Arthur, how forward you are.”

“Shut up,” Arthur mutters, but he’s fighting an answering smile even as he gestures for Eames to precede him out of the room, down the hallway, off to the other side of the kitchen and down another short passage with a door leading to a bathroom and then –

“Ow, fuck,” Eames hisses, hopping back and glaring down at the power drill lying on the floor, shrouded in the dimness of the hallway.

“Oh, sorry,” Arthur says. “Guess it’s become second nature for me, stepping over that. It’s been there for weeks.”

Eames shifts his glare up and brings it to bear on Arthur.

“I’ll pick it up now?” Arthur says sheepishly, and stoops down to unplug it before leaning around Eames and setting it down on the bathroom counter.

Eames is a little glad of his throbbing toe in spite of himself, because it distracts them both from the import of what follows, Arthur showing Eames into his bedroom, which is warm and neat and smells of Arthur. It’s the first room that appears totally finished, unpacked, perfect, and it seems much more in Arthur’s usual character than the chaotic clutter of the rest of the place. The bed is made perfectly, a study in creature comforts with a fresh-looking fluffy duvet and pillows piled high at the head. There’s Thayer’s Life of Beethoven on the nightstand, there’s the slightly-open door of what appears to be an impressively-sized closet complete with shoe trees and a line of wooden hangers bearing a long row of suit jackets and tailored trousers.

“Make yourself at home,” says Arthur, a little stiltedly. He’s not feeling it yet; neither is Eames.

“I’ll, uh,” Eames says, “I’d have a shower if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” says Arthur hastily, almost apologetically, like he’d somehow been rushing Eames into this place, like Eames hadn’t followed him willingly. “No, of course, there are fresh towels on the rack, use my shampoo, whatever.”

“Okay,” Eames says, hurrying to sound comfortable with all of this, to put Arthur at ease even as Eames feels like an intruder in Arthur’s world.

Arthur needs a new water heater, Eames notes some minutes later, leaping in and out of the shower’s spray as it jumps between scalding and freezing. By the time he emerges from the shower, dripping and shivering and nursing a few scalded patches of skin, Eames can make out the sound of Arthur banging around in the kitchen, probably making lunch. Eames dries off, considers coming out into the main house wearing just a towel or maybe nothing at all – but then Eames remembers the drill and the carpet staples he’d seen poking up from the old hardwood, and thinks better of the idea. He dresses again, and heads to the kitchen to find Arthur.

Arthur has his shirtsleeves rolled up and he’s cutting sandwiches into triangles. He looks tired, he needs a shave, and there’s a faint whitish patch on the back shoulder of his shirt that he probably doesn’t know about, a souvenir from burping James this morning. Arthur’s hands are steady, though, sure with the bread knife and moving with purpose. Eames watches Arthur’s forearms, strong as ever, but older now than Eames expects – the arms of a grown man, hairy and sinewy and traced with the contours of veins.

Arthur plates a sandwich and holds it out to Eames. “You still like turkey?” he asks.

“Yeah, cheers,” Eames says, and takes it. He keeps thinking mad things, things like how badly he wants to go down on his knees on the curling lino, press his face into Arthur’s hips; and at the same moment he wants to kiss Arthur’s ear, the nape of his neck, cradle Arthur to him like Arthur’s big hands cradle James to his chest; and in the next instant Eames wants to collide with Arthur, knock him to the ground and hold him there, pin him down until he’s flushed and struggling and furious, and maybe then he’d fuck him, Eames hardly knows.

Instead, Eames eats his sandwich, hovering over the counter to contain crumbs as there’s no proper table, and Arthur eats alongside him, small polite bites and not a whiff of conversation to offer. Eames has barely finished when Arthur says, “You look exhausted. You can – if you want, you could go lie down.”

Eames thinks about saying something suggestive about Arthur coming along with him, but he’s bone-tired, and the thought of Arthur’s downy bed is a stronger lure even than sex at this point. “Yeah,” Eames says, stifling a yawn, “think I will.”

The window shade is drawn in Arthur’s room and the bed is as soft and welcoming and delightful as it looks. Eames wastes no time, stripping down to shorts and his t-shirt, burrowing between citrus-scented covers. He drops off almost immediately.

Arthur is there when Eames blinks awake again an hour later, Arthur sacked out as hard and deep as Eames had been, so far under that he doesn't budge when Eames gets up and pulls on his trousers, because it feels like crossing a line, staying there and watching Arthur sleep.

Out in the house proper, though, there’s a striking dearth of things to do. Arthur doesn’t have a telly, doesn’t get the newspaper, and even if Eames knew where Arthur’s computer was it would be a decided invasion of privacy to use it without first asking permission. The obvious answer, Eames supposes as he surveys the half-finished house, is to make himself useful. He should pick up a paintbrush or a screwdriver and set about putting Arthur’s house to rights.

But Eames is not handy in the least. When their loo backed up in the apartment from their student days, Arthur had been the one to go out for a plunger and (rolling his eyes) demonstrating its use. Arthur had rewired light fixtures and fixed the broken towel bar, and patched all the holes Eames had made trying to hang a bulletin board unsupervised.

"It's not rocket science," Arthur had said, capping the spackle tube and stepping back to appraise his own work. "It's just basic home repair, for god's sake."

"We had a man who changed the light bulbs for us," Eames had answered by way of apology.

And the intervening years, living in temporary accommodations, living in hotels and dormitories and summer student homes, haven't taught Eames any better.

Arthur himself is not exactly a handyman, Eames knows this, but he owns tools. There's a hammer, and a screwdriver, and the drill that almost crippled Eames earlier, and there are paint chips taped to the walls everywhere with names like Raffia Cream and Rosewater, and (Eames is pleased to see, in the dining room cum den) Diva.

Eames wanders into the someday-studio and sees that this room is destined to become Tobacco Leaf beige

The boxes are labelled, not with the usual moving-day scrawl ("LIVING ROOM" and "CLOTHES" and "MISC FRAGILE") but with Arthurian precision, a contents list typed and taped to the top of each, headed with boldface all-caps descriptions of the box's eventual destiny: "Photo Frames for Mantle" and "Composer Biographies for Shelf Unit by West Window".

One box is conspicuously missing its white 12-point font list. Eames peeps inside, expecting to see perhaps something Arthur has already needed to draw upon, something like a stack of blankets or maybe bottles of spices for the kitchen.

It's — assorted junk.

"Messy," Eames clucks fondly, and is about to drop the flap of the box back down again when a bunched up bit of fabric catches his eye. Eames tugs at it, the contents of the box resettling with a too-loud clatter, but it doesn't matter, because — it's Eames' shirt.

It's Eames' shirt, one he hasn't seen in years — well, obviously not, if it's been with Arthur this whole time. It's a shirt Arthur always hated, pink wrinkle-resistant polyester with a too-large collar and a button missing midway down (Eames' sewing skills ranking even lower than his home repair skills). Its never-quite-forgotten vintage store mustiness breathes out of its synthetic folds like perfume from the mouth of an unstoppered bottle.

"Brilliant," says Eames, and pulls it on.

It's tight on his arms and across his chest, but it still buttons, just. Eames looks back into the box to see what other secrets Arthur's hiding in this treasure trove.

It really is junk, the weird flotsam that collects in the corners of any long-term residence: bits of string, dusty thumbtacks, charger cords to electronics long since thrown out as rubbish. Stubby eraser ends, inkless pens, random plastic boxes that contain only a paperclip and a penny and a sole blank index card. It's been years since Eames had this kind of clobber in his life; the closest he comes is the collection of tail ends of hotel shampoo bottles that keep winding up in his shaving kit.

That's probably why it takes him a while to realize that everything here, every bit and bob jumbled together, is a little piece of junk he'd left behind in Boston some five years earlier, when he’d departed for Rome.

It's the incense holder that trips his memory first. It's probably because it's so unlike anything Arthur would own, dusty and with a piece of wood chipped out of its side, an errant blob of yellow wax splattered over it. It's the very incense holder they used to use when they smoked up at home: the pair of them with their idiot stoned heads poking out the window to exhale, giggling and shivering and Arthur bitching about Eames' damn patchouli fetish, fingers bumping together when the joint changed hands, and making out sort of aimlessly afterwards, clumsy fingertips tracing Arthur's dazed dimples while Eames' stoned brain wondered where dimples went when you couldn't see them.

After that the kaleidoscope jumble of the box reassembles itself abruptly and Eames' mind conjures its missing label: Crap Eames Forgot About.

There's a cheap vinyl photo album full of badly focussed and overexposed photos, mostly of the opera students, but a few of Eames and of Arthur. There's a pile of burned CDs of Eames' listening examples for his opera rep class. There's a plastic ring from a cereal box, one of the ones with a little labyrinth puzzle built into it, a tiny ball bearing rattling around over a curling cardboard liner featuring Cap'n Crunch.

Eames could probably pick up the whole box (his amazing pink shirt excepted) and bung it in the trash and never miss a single thing here. It's junk, it really is; it's just stuff. Eames has his mementos of Arthur, and he's certain Arthur has his of Eames, and nothing here holds any meaning, not really.

But Arthur — Arthur kept it.

Eames can imagine exactly how it went in Arthur's mind: at first, it was just a box of stuff that didn't belong to Arthur, so it wasn't his to throw away. He'd toss it eventually, he only had to hold onto it long enough for courtesy's sake, on the very long odds that Eames suddenly popped by to reclaim his photos or his plastic ring. By the next move, Arthur would have forgotten the box entirely, would have rediscovered it as he packed, probably to move into that photographer git's flat. Arthur would have frowned at the box, its contents, wrinkled his nose at the pink shirt. That would have been the moment to carry it out to the bin in the alley.

Arthur hadn't, though.

He'd carried it down the stairs, out to a van or a truck or that git's homely hatchback. He'd stashed it away somewhere, probably in a dusty storage space judging by the state of the cardboard flaps at the top of the box.

By the time things ended with the photographer, Arthur would have come to see the box as a necessary evil, something he'd resigned himself to carrying around all his life. He probably didn't even open it, that time, probably was preoccupied with sorting out his CDs from the other guy's, quarrelling over who had the better claim on the end table they'd found at some fucking hipster flea market.

And so it had gone on, and probably would, if Eames didn't stand up right now and carry the bloody box of crap out into the back alley and the bins where it belonged.

Eames closes the dusty flaps of the box slowly and backs away, not wanting to take any action. We, us, Arthur had said, and doesn’t mean it has to stay the same, he’d said, and the curl of his ankle hooked round Eames’ own, and the press of his lips against Eames’ mouth in the blue morning light.

"I guess I just figured I'd give it to you next time I saw you," Arthur says from the doorway, startling Eames. "Funny, when you're around, I never seem to remember that kind of thing," he continues as Eames turns round to see him, smiling a little, sleep-rumpled.

Eames smiles back, sheepishly. "I wasn't snooping," he says, even though it's a blatant lie.

Arthur comes the rest of the way into the room and reaches out the pluck at the collar of the pink shirt, making an unhappy face.

"Should have binned it when you had the chance," Eames says, unable to keep the smugness from his tone.

"It doesn't even fit you," Arthur protests, but his heart's not in it. He keeps smiling in spite of himself.

"You calling me fat?” Eames says, but mostly he's staring at Arthur's mouth, Arthur’s lovely spare expressive mouth.

"Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying," Arthur says, hand slipping down, splaying flat against Eames' chest.

Eames doesn't think he can stand it, having Arthur this close now and not kissing him; but he knows he couldn't stand it, if Arthur turned him away now.

He's frozen.

“Eames,” says Arthur, very quietly, "I've been thinking"—

Arthur's thoughts — which seemed promising if only from the persistent curve of his mouth — are interrupted by a sound that isn't quite a doorbell chime. Instead of a standard cheery descending third, the first tone is choked and clapped down on, so it's less "ding-dong" and more "hnnk-dong".

"Needs fixing," says Arthur.

"What fucking doesn't in this place?" Eames says, without rancour.

Arthur smirks and heads out of the room, presumably to shout through the mail slot that the door is broken and to come round back.

Eames takes off the pink shirt, too warm over his t-shirt anyway, and listens to Arthur talking indistinctly to the person at the back door. By the time Eames is out in the hallway, they're just about finished up. He's in time to hear a cheerful Merry Christmas! from the person outside and Arthur's dry, Happy Hanukkah in response, and then Eames is tripping over fucking abandoned power tools again and gaping, because Arthur is pulling open an enormous box and extracting the biggest Christmas hamper Eames has ever seen.

Arthur is pink around the ears and neck. “Forgot it was coming," he mutters, and settles the immense basket on the counter.

"Forgot?" Eames says.

"Well," Arthur begins, but doesn't finish. Instead he hands the card over to Eames and sets about unwrapping the cellophane.

"Happy Christmas, Arthur," Eames reads. It tells him nothing really — the impersonal block printing of some Fortnum and Mason employee, no word of who the sender was — but really, it's all Eames needs to know. "How long has my gran been sending you great heaping Christmas hampers?" Eames asks, stung.

"Well," says Arthur, nose pink too by now, "what was it, 2002, the first one? Or 2001."

"She never stopped?" Eames asks, alarmed. "I mean, you've moved. She — are you keeping touch with my gran?"

Arthur sniffs.

"She doesn't even like you," Eames protests.

Arthur holds up a jar of brandy butter in reply, taking his turn to be insufferably smug.

"When did she start liking you? Has she gone dotty?"

Arthur pops open the box of dark chocolates and eats one before handing it over to Eames.

Eames wants to continue to be offended and to interrogate Arthur, but it's ages since he ate anything from Fortnum and Mason, and the flesh is weak even when the spirit is resisting.

"I was in London last summer, actually," Arthur says. "We had tea."

"She does realize you and I," Eames says, alarmed, halting halfway through a chocolate.

"Eames," Arthur says, in exactly the tone he hasn't used in years, the one that says, you might be an idiot but I'm not.

“Well, she never said anything to me about it, not a word,” Eames huffs back, then catches sight of a promising-looking tin with a blue label. “Oh, fuck, is that Earl Grey?” He sets the chocolates down and digs into the hamper, extracts the tin and pops the lid. The loose tea breathes forth bergamot, a perfect complement to Arthur’s own scent.

Arthur’s hand closes round Eames’ wrist, gently, and guides his hand over to set the tea down. “I was saying, before,” he says, seriously, but no sooner has Eames properly fixed his attention on Arthur again than Arthur goes quiet and anxious-looking, like he can’t decide how to proceed.

“I’m listening,” Eames prompts him, gently.

“I know, I”— Arthur begins, looking away. “Shit.” He slumps back against the counter, and Eames flashes back helplessly to that awful endless moment in their tiny room in Baden, Arthur leaning against the desk and making his mind up to cut Eames loose once and for all.

Except Arthur now is so different to what he was, he’s not some kid in a t-shirt with his heart being torn between love and music, between letting himself be subsumed in Eames’ life or staking a claim on a life of his own. This Arthur is in no danger of losing himself to Eames; he’s himself, strong and separate and tall, even as his expression flickers into painful vulnerability.

“The easy part, first,” Eames suggests. “The most obvious part.”

Arthur’s mouth turns up at the corner and he raises his gaze to study Eames’ face. “Okay, then,” he says, “the easiest part — the most obvious part — is that I’m in love with you.”

Easy and obvious, and knocking the breath right out of Eames’ lungs just to hear it said after all this time. He exhales sharply, almost a laugh, and then for a long instant he’s without air until his lungs finally fill again, slow and glorious and terrifying.

Arthur raises an eyebrow. “You’re supposed to say it back,” he says, and then his ears go pink. “Unless you don’t —“

—“Fuck, of course I do,” Eames bursts out. “Arthur, yes, yes, I’m completely mad for you, I love you more than anyone in the world, always have done. Surely you know that?”

Arthur nods, accepting this, even as the pink of his ears blooms a little onto his cheekbones. “Right, okay, so — the hard part is,” and he closes his mouth, looks away over Eames’ shoulder.

“Where does that bloody leave us?” Eames provides, and looses a short sigh. “Listen, darling, I’ve —“

“No, let me,” Arthur says, cutting in. “Eames, I need to be the one to say it.” He looks grim, resolute, nothing at all like he’d looked moments earlier standing beside that stupid box full of Eames’ crap.

Eames' throat goes tight with fear. It suddenly seems silly, trivial, the data he's been hoarding like omens from some ancient god: the fit of Arthur's body against his, the box of rubbish in the studio, the hamper bursting with the spirit of Christmas reconciliation. It's connecting points to make a pattern, except Eames is only now realizing that maybe there's nothing there after all, or maybe Arthur’s connected the points differently and come up with an entirely different picture —

"I want to try again," Arthur says, instead.

The tension in Eames' throat turns sweet all at once, and he scarcely hears what Arthur’s saying after that. Except it’s probably important, and Eames should pay attention.

Arthur slips his hands off the counter behind him and straightens up, bracing himself. ”I mean, that makes me crazy by definition, fuck, but — I want to try again. If you can — can make this your home, if you can make this the place where you go to ground sometimes, if I can come to you now and then too — maybe we can make sense of it instead of fighting it. I — I hate spending my life pretending that I don’t miss you every second. At least this way I could admit it, live with it, and have the promise of you at the end of it all.”

Eames waits for a breathless second, but Arthur seems to have come to a resting place, and now there’s no reason not to cross the little distance between them and put his arms round Arthur, hands gripping the counter behind him, pinning him in place, in this amazing moment.

"Are you sure?" Eames asks, or some still-functioning region of his brain does. His hands are bracketing Arthur's hips but resting on the countertop. He can feel the warmth of Arthur's body but he isn't touching it, not yet.

"How long can you stay?" Arthur asks, very soberly, even as his pupils are blowing wide and greedy and dark.

"My next engagement is late January," says Eames. "I've got nowhere to be before then."

"That's a start," says Arthur, and kisses Eames.

***

Kissing Arthur — oh, the luxury of it, the sheer indulgence of it, lip to lip, thumb resting in the hollow of Arthur’s cheek, the air smelling of tea, the light dim and sparkling with the falling snow out the window.

***

“God, look at you, you’re more ink than skin.”

“It’s hardly that bad, darling,” Eames says, smiling, looking down to watch Arthur’s long fingers trace over his chest and stomach.

“Did I say it was bad?” asks Arthur, bowing to kiss.

***

Lying on their sides, Eames’ hips tucked up against Arthur’s arse; they’ve been at it for a long while, now, long enough for Arthur’s skin to taste salt-sweet in patches where Eames presses his open mouth, blissful. All the time in the world, really, and nothing is urgent except the need to keep moving in Arthur, keep kissing his lovely skin, keep drawing it out while Arthur sighs and rolls his hips back into Eames’ thrusts.

***

Arthur’s giggling, later, his face somewhere down by Eames’ ankles though Eames is damned if he can remember how they got turned round that way. “You didn’t.”

“I bloody well did,” Eames says indignantly. “Sat down and watched him do it, too. Arrogant git.”

“You made the conductor cover your score in black paper for you?” Arthur repeats, still laughing. “Eames!”

“Well, he’s the one who had a fucking fit over the idea of the audience seeing a bare vocal score cover,” Eames huffs. He rolls his head to the side and grins at Arthur’s knees, flings an arm over them and squeezes them for good measure. “He was crap with sellotape, too, made a right mess of it.”

“You’re unbelievable,” Arthur tells him, sitting up. “Literally. You’re full of shit, that never happened.”

“Hand of god,” Eames swears, beaming up at Arthur. “I’ve got witnesses.”

Arthur squints sceptically even as he dimples again, and then he sort of tumbles down to lie on top of Eames, squirming to get comfortable. “Mm,” he exhales. “I should get up.”

“Never,” Eames tells him. “I keep telling you, you smell delightful, I won’t hear of you showering.”

“Not for that,” Arthur says, and nods in the direction of the bedside alarm clock. “It’s getting late and Dom still hasn’t called.”

“Miles and Marie are there,” Eames reminds him, but it’s too late to salvage the lighthearted mood they’d been enjoying. Arthur’s pulled up the dressing they’d both packed over the wound of Mal’s breakdown and now they’re forced to survey the damage yet again. “Okay, fine, you should ring them.”

“I should,” Arthur agrees dully. He shifts a little until he can notch his chin into a dip in Eames’ chest, sighs quietly. “Dom is a good person, isn’t he?”

“I think he’s a very good person,” Eames says, combing his fingers through Arthur’s hair. “But mostly, I think he’s a man in love.”

Arthur lifts his head again and blinks at Eames. “So is that foolishness, or stubbornness?”

Eames pauses in his stroking and studies Arthur’s expression: curious and a little angry. “I think it’s neither,” Eames decides. “It’s just — love.”

Arthur huffs a quiet humourless laugh, but he doesn’t reply otherwise, just dropping his chin back down to rest.

“And if love can weather such a storm as this,” Eames says, smoothing down the short hairs just behind Arthur’s ears, “what can’t it do?”

***

Eventually, they need to leave the house.

Arthur drives to the Cobbs’ to lend a hand for a few hours. Eames takes a cab downtown to check out of his hotel, gathering his few belongings so he can bring them home. Arthur’s given him a key; it should feel like it’s all going too fast, except how nothing’s really changed at all.

Eames feels the house key, its unaccustomed weight against his thigh, in his trouser pocket. In a while he’ll flag down another taxi and go back to the little half-finished house filled with two dozen boxes of Arthur’s belongings and one box of Eames’; but for now, Eames walks through the melting snow, rolling his suitcase behind him. He crosses the Common and then the street running next to it. He washes up in front of the plate glass window, reading the sign that declares this particular store as closed for the holidays.

Eames curls his hand round the handle of his suitcase and looks past his reflection to where the Model D sits among lesser instruments, imposing and lovely and strong, waiting patiently for the right hands to come and bring it to life.

They will, Eames supposes, need a piano.

***********

A/N: As with "I Will Forget the Light", this fic lived in an unfinished state -- some 20,000 words of it or more -- for over a year before I buckled down and pushed through the angst. I went back and forth a *lot* on the subject of Mal's breakdown, because whereas we tend, as a fandom, to skate around anything so dark as what Mal does in canon, this iteration of her actions is at least on par with suicide, if not worse. In the end, I realized I'd structured the relationship between Arthur and Eames in parallel with Mal and Cobb in such a way that this planned plot turn was necessary for their reunion and catharsis. So, yes, it's uncharacteristically dark for me, and yet -- these things happen. And they do really happen with disproportionate frequency among professional artists. It's that fine line between creativity and literal insanity.

All this by way of saying: I'm sorry? And yet, not. I don't even know. *hands*

Thanks, as ever, to Lately for editing-handholding-cheerleading-abstentionfromeyerolling-listeningtomewhining-believinginme-beingawesome. And to Xen for cheering wildly throughout this process as I've brought her in on the long (long) (looooooong) drawn-out business.

The title is from the eponymous song, and it is usually translated to mean "You are the peace".

Links:

Banalités, sung by a desperately un-Eamesian baritone, but with Poulenc at the piano, so -- win?

Großer Herr, der starker König, from the Christmas Oratorio (as this is set in December.) In reality it's kind of unlikely that a lyric baritone becoming known for his interpretation of lieder and lighter operatic roles would also be a rockstar with baroque music, but Eames' abilities are sort of superhuman in this 'verse, and I love him that way.

Du bist die Ruh, sung by Fischer-Dieskau with devastating and sort of incredible passion, quite early in his career.

Nun will die Sonn so hell aufgeh'n, by Fischer-Dieskau, who is the voice of Eames usually, but amazingly he's playing himself in this particular part of the story.

Comments

joyfulseeker: (Boom)
[personal profile] joyfulseeker wrote:
Jun. 13th, 2012 05:48 am (UTC)
Yes! Yes! I literally made arms-of-victory just now when I got to the end. OF COURSE THE PIANO. Ugh they are so fantabulous and so are you for creating them and I just love them so muuuuuuuuuuuch. Is that creepy? I just want them to live in domestic harmony for ever and ever in the back of my brain. THIS WAS SO GREAT. YES.
[identity profile] margeauxmay.livejournal.com wrote:
Jun. 13th, 2012 04:58 pm (UTC)
This, when read immediately after the previous entry, is a wild and amazing ride for my poor heart...but it is SO GOOD and I am grateful that you decided to finish both pieces and share them. I love this entire world you've built, and that it's never *easy* for them, but ultimately it's worth it. I am not a writer, but I can only imagine the effort that goes into keeping the characters true to themselves and not falling back on easier options for a happy(er) ending or plot point.

But I must admit I have to now go look at frolicking otters as a breather, because it's been an intense morning (in all the good ways)!

Thank you.
psocoptera: ink drawing of celtic knot (Default)
[personal profile] psocoptera wrote:
Jun. 14th, 2012 02:39 am (UTC)
Wow. It's so satisfying to finally have "the whole story". (Not to say I wouldn't read more, but I feel like the big gaps have been bridged. Although I had to go re-read "For A Man Like Me" to reassure myself that Mal and Dom will be okay again. Um. I try to never ever suggest to authors that they should write something but *if* you ever happened to feel inspired to write a brief happy domestic scene with Mal and Philippa that would be... even more reassuring?) This universe is amazing, what an incredible accomplishment.
raincitygirl: (Default)
[personal profile] raincitygirl wrote:
Jun. 14th, 2012 06:07 am (UTC)
Oh, that's perfect. I shouldn't say that, because Mal has a nervous breakdown halfway through and nearly kills the kids, but it's perfect all the same. And Mal is Mal. She's got to have some crazy in her, and this was a good way of working that crazy into this AU.
(Anonymous) wrote:
Jun. 19th, 2012 03:26 am (UTC)
This verse. My heart.

PLOR. HOW.

GA

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