The table was set, there were candles, there were roses and the food was delicious. The whole atmosphere of soft gold lighting and the heavy scent of soup-bowl sized blossoms were straight out of a romance novel. In fact, it was, by all counts but one, a perfect date.
And that count was sitting in between Francis and Matthew with a bottle of beer, chatting animatedly about the gallery and the paintings that they were going to sell.
"Really, Francis, I think it's your best bet, what with this many nudes in the collection. It would be a good idea to look for a private collector rather than trying to fob them all off on a gallery or on various buyers. It takes most of the slog out of the exhibition, too. You just have to tailor it to the tastes of the richest collectors. And It would probably help if you were there Martin," Alice added, turning her forceful personality on the Canadian.
"So anyway, I think that maybe we should go for one of the big European buyers. I know the American's are all about art these days, but I honestly can't see anyone on this continent buying thirty naked paintings of the same bloke – lush as you are, darling – but I can see Braginsky going in for it, though you might need to touch some of these up for him, make them brighter, and the what'stheirfacesagain… The Vargas'. They're very big on nude-"
"Absolutely not," Francis said abruptly, setting down his cutlery and fussing with his napkin, while Matthew stared at his empty plate, the knife and fork neatly coupled and set at an angle across the crockery.
"Pardon me?" the Englishwoman said, her smile never faltering, and the Canadian suspected that it might not be as sincere as was her intention.
"I have no intention of selling any of these paintings, Alice. Particularly not the nudes," the Frenchman's tone brooked no argument. His face was set in a stony expression that Matthew found to be at odds with his personality, and his first instinct was to try and make that face go away. However, in the tense air between the two old friends, it didn't seem to be his place to do so, or even to be there. Feeling trapped and impotent, he glanced from man to woman, hoping for some kind of resolution and finding none.
"Francis," she seemed to be speaking through grit teeth, "You are a painter. That is what you do. You paint pictures, and I sell them."
"Firstly, Alice," the conversation had the same air about it like a summer's day that was souring for a thunderstorm. The atmosphere was heavy, too hot and oppressive, buzzing with a crackle of static that would become lightning, raining down in sheets and forks over the combatants, "I am on sabbatical, I have no obligations to anyone at present. Secondly, it is Matthieu's body, it is his decision whether or not the paintings are sold," just as Matthew was about to open his mouth and wave his palms and say, 'leave me the hell out of this,' Francis continued onto his next point, "And thirdly, as his lover, I take strenuous objection to my Matthieu's body being paraded all over Europe as a rich man's curiosity."
As much as the world deserved to be shown the splendour of the Canadian's naked body, Francis found himself increasingly unwilling to share in this sudden windfall. He wanted to be avaricious and lustful. He wanted to keep this beautiful young man to himself for as long as he was allowed. He wanted to be childish and bold, to yell to the world that Matthieu, precious Matthieu, was his and his alone.
Looking across at his darling muse, Francis was pleased to note the faintest smile at the corner of those plush lips. Matthew fiddled with his lip balm, and the Frenchman's own smile grew.
"Francis, pet," Alice's sugar-sweet tone could have stopped a heard of stampeding wildebeest, "I don't think you understand. We've had this gallery space booked for a year already. You have an opening speaker coming in. You have guests invited. We have ordered the Goddamn wine. You need to put a picture or two up there because otherwise no one is ever going to take you seriously again."
Pursing his lips and feeling the slick, strawberry warmth of the balm between them, Matthew took a steadying breath, "It's okay, Francis, really," though it wasn't, "I don't mind if you sell the paintings." He most certainly did. As much as he wanted to help Francis out, he wasn't too keen on having himself exhibited arse-naked and three metres tall for the general populace of London town to stare at his bits and pieces.
The Frenchman gave Matthew a stern, slightly disappointed look, before turning his attentions back to Alice. Cringing in his seat, the Canadian thought to himself that perhaps this relationship was not such a good idea. All the reasons that had beset him this morning, all the good things that being with Francis would bring suddenly seemed like a child's idle fantasy. He felt now as though he were no more than six years old, playing at being a grown up, being shushed when the real adults were too interested in their own affairs to bother with him.
"Your boy is speaking sense, Francis, listen to him. He doesn't mind," Alice's smile was insistent. The kind of smile that made you want to do exactly what she said, and Matthew wondered whether she had had any kind of training to make her seem so terribly, forcefully motherly of if that was just her God given personality.
"Matthieu is not my boy," the painter said with much more severity in his tone than in the look that he had given the Canadian, "We are partners in a relationship, Alice, and I would thank you to remember that. Mon cher," this time he turned from the Englishwoman to the Canadian, and his expression softened to one of fondness, "I do hope you understand. Now that I am permitted a lover's jealousy, I find myself inconsolable at the very idea of another viewing you as I have." Alice was given a sharp look, to which she raised her brows in sceptical response.
Somehow, just as it had a few moments ago – only this time in reverse – everything swung into place. He wasn't a child; it's just that Francis had other reasons for not wanting to sell, reasons that made Matthew light up like a Christmas tree; glowing with a flush of happiness and embarrassment. Now he was a grownup, not playing pretend in front of Alice or Francis, but standing as their equal.
Getting up, he leant over the Frenchman and kissed his cheek, his finger sliding briefly through pale blond hair to linger on the back of Francis' neck, "I should go. You two have a lot to talk about."
A hand, fingers calloused where it had held a paintbrush and skin coarsened by years of exposure to turpentine and other artistically inclined chemicals, found Matthew's, warm and inviting. Francis looked up, his eyes pleading with him not to leave, "Won't you stay, Matthieu? I made mousse."
After a silence,
"You're bribing me with desert?" the younger man couldn't help but laugh, "You won't want to paint me any more if I get fat," he cautioned playfully, pulling his chair closer to Francis so that they could hold hands. But all the same, he resumed his seat.
"Cher, it is not your body I paint. It is you," Francis' smile was full of sincere honesty and golden, sunshiny adoration. It was beautiful and intimate and it made any doubts the cheesiness of the line may have brought up vanish. Matthew was sorely tempted to lean in and kiss the Frenchman full on the lips, but at the same time, there was a prickling on the back of his neck, and he turned to see Alice watching them with narrowed eyes. She was squinting at them in the manner that most people squint at pictures of optical illusions, as though she were trying to see the giraffe that was actually in their stead.
"Right," she drew the word out into three syllables, "Okay, I'll just leave you two to your mousse then. It's getting late and I'm rather jet lagged. I'll be back tomorrow to discuss this further, Francis. It was nice to meet you, Michael-"
"Actually, it's Matth-"
"Franc, be a love and show me out?" Alice's tone of voice made it quite evident that her words were in no way intended as a request, but rather as a demand. It did rather help this impression that she grabbed the reluctant Frenchman by the collar and dragged him with her as she left.
Curiosity was generally one of Matthew's lesser weaknesses. He was quite a patient person, and he could generally bide his time until someone told him what was going on, but the looks Alice had been giving him, the way she constantly dismissed his presence, didn't even bother to remember his name. As though he wouldn't be around for very long.
"- has on you?" Alice hissed from the hallway.
"Nothing, chérie! I am with Matthieu of my own free will," Francis' voice was equally soft, but at the same time, equally fervent.
"Just…" the Canadian leant against the wall, his eyes closing, "Don't get too attached. I know you're good at that. Not getting attached. He's young, you're rich and famous… This isn't a long term thing for either of you. So don't get too attached. I don't want to have to pick up the pieces of you if you do."
"Alice," the Frenchman's voice was as cold as the north wind, "He didn't even know who I was until you told him to Google me. Everything I have given him has been of my own violation and he has tried to give it all back. I have met men twice his age with not half his maturity. He is beautiful, Alice, and he wants me too. Can you not just be happy for this happiness of mine?"
"It's easy to pretend-"
"You have no proofs!" the volume of this conversation was rising, and is it went up so did the quality of Francis' English go down, "You have no proofs, Alice. He is not a miner!"
"No, Franc," the Englishwoman answered patiently, "I have no evidence that he is a gold-digger, but he's just shy of being a minor. Please tell me this 'relationship' of yours is legal?"
"I'm nineteen," Matthew wasn't sure when he'd stepped into the doorway, but he was there now and both of them were staring at him; Francis with a hint of fear and Alice with an expression of mild disgruntlement, "If you wanted to know what my intentions with Francis are, you could have just asked."
"And what are your intentions with Francis?" Alice fired off, not missing a beat.
"Well," the Canadian was caught slightly off guard by her prompt response. Once more, he felt like a child who had been put on the spot in front of the grownups; it was kindergarten stage fright all over again. But he was with Francis, who was looking much like Matthew felt. Francis wasn't really a proper grown up. He was just Francis. Who loved to paint, and who was careless with his responsibilities. And, Matthew reasoned, he had always been quite responsible, even as a child, so maybe they were well matched. And they both liked strawberry, and they had their coffee the same way. So who was Alice to say that they shouldn't be together? "I'm pretty sure I'm in love with him."
The words felt infantile the second he said them.
"Matthieu-" Francis began, his face glowing with hope, before Alice cut across him, her mouth set in a thin line.
"And do you have any idea what being in love means?"
"No," this time Matthew was ready for the question, "That's why I said I'm pretty sure. But I really don't think I know anyone else more qualified to teach me."
The blonde's laugh was cutting in its mockery, "Well, I wish the two of you well. You'll need all the luck you can get." For all that she seemed to be wildly disapproving of whatever relationship the two shared, she also seemed to genuinely wish them the best.
With a melancholy little smile, the kind that comes of a love turned bitter, she slipped out of the door.
The silence that opened up between them in the wake of the lock clicking shut was a vast, abyss. A gulf from which no sound could escape. It swallowed Francis and Matthew down, paralysing them both with a strange mixture of fear and elation.
"Matthieu," Francis' words seemed distant in the fuzz between the Canadian's ears, "Is that true?"
"You think you could love me?"
"I think I do love you," Matthew's words were a breathless, laughing, joyous rush.
"I'm difficult," the Frenchman protested, seeming, as he had before, to test his lover's resolve. And Matthew was nothing if not resolute.
"I honestly haven't noticed," the Canuck replied flippantly.
"The say I'm manic depressive," he tried again.
"You say that like I'll think less of you for it."
"Mon coeur," There was a light in Francis' eyes and it danced as the corners crinkled up into a smile of such perfect happiness that it made Matthew's chest ache to see it, "I think I am in love with you also."
In the moments that followed, words were too heavy-handed a medium of self-expression, and neither had the requisite vocabulary to express themselves fully. Kisses would have been vulgar, too soon approached and too base for the emotions that they both wanted to convey. So without kissing, or speaking, they stepped forward and Francis held onto the front of Matthew's shirt, his hands curling into the fabric as he laid his head on the Canadian's shoulder and breathed deep in his contentment. Matthew's arms settled around Francis' waist, comfortable as though they belonged there, and he bowed his head so that pale blond hair ticked his nose and lips.