“Evryn, what do you think of this one?”
The gentleman, Evryn, came up behind her, eyeing the painting critically. “I think the shading isn’t done right,” he pronounced. “They missed a whole slew of darker colours.”
Alice shook her head at him, amusement darting across her porcelain-doll features and shading her deep blue eyes, before lacing their fingers together and pulling him through an arched doorway to another room, their shoes clicking in syncopation across the polished white floor. Evryn followed reluctantly, a frown etched into his face.
That frown had been there for days, the lines carved deeper with every passing hour, and Alice would have teased him had she not felt the same tension building up at the back of her neck. Evryn felt her tense slightly and glanced down at her, but she ignored him and continued with her circuit around the perimeter of the room.
“Have you heard from Addison lately?” she asked, and his shoulders relaxed slightly at her characteristic direct address. The lines in his face creased deeper, though, as if a thundercloud had roiled up at the forefront of his mind. Her question hung in the air like a dollop of honey sliding from its bottle onto his spoon, initially thick and sumptuous in its pace, but thinning out with every passing second until the flow had stopped entirely. Only then did Evryn clear his throat, as if his slight cold had been the only reason for his delay.
“No. He was supposed to get back to me after our last meeting, but—“
“What about this one?”
He cut off abruptly and bent closer to the painting Alice was pointing at, this one all abstract shapes and rainbow hues, bright against the otherwise understated pieces in the room. Alice flipped her blonde hair back behind her ear patiently, watching the contortions of his face and trying to guess what went on under his mop of dark hair. The omnipresent thundercloud darkened his eyes one moment only to let sun through the next, patterns of dark chocolate and honey in his iris. His thoughts, she imagined, must reflect the piece he was gazing at so intently. His usual cool façade had been replaced by the randomness and confusion of circles, triangles, rectangles, dark moments here and lighter ones breaking through there. The line of his shoulders tensed and relaxed, tensed and relaxed, and she didn’t wonder that he had been so tetchy lately. With his overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility for anything and everything, she knew he felt their worry even more keenly than she.
“It’s too busy,” he finally stated, and turned away. “He never called, and last I heard Elaine wasn’t doing very well—“
“I like it,” Alice cut in decisively, refusing to let the matter drop. She caught up with him in a few quick steps and repeated herself emphatically, “I like it. Now what’s wrong with Elaine?”
Evryn glanced down at the quirky, impertinent girl strolling beside him with the grace of a ballerina making her entrance from the wings. He noted the rigid line of her shoulders, the tightness in her back, the grip on his hand that tensed and relaxed, tensed and relaxed, and his expression softened minutely. He sighed and raised his other hand to his face, as if wiping off a mask. “Of course you do. Too much stress, I would think. Addison can’t be in two places at once, the twins aren’t helping with the baby at all, and with this new pregnancy…”
His words stuck in the air as they started to walk again, when Alice paused, starting back to the curator’s desk. “Wait a moment. There was a Vermeer here, visiting from the Met. Excuse me?” She approached the gentleman at the desk, a bespectacled man in a light sweater, tapping away at the computer. “Excuse me?”
His smile was all flattery, but his words fell flat, generated automatically. “How can I help you?”
“I wanted to inquire about the Vermeer. Is it still here?”
“I’m sorry, but you’re too late. The article we put out stated it would only be here from the sixth of the month to the thirteenth. Today is the fourteenth.”
Alice raised one well-shaped eyebrow at him, but thanked him before walking away, her shoes clicking crisply on the tiled floor. A rather ugly scowl threatened the edge of her typically pretty features. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s being patronised,” she seethed, and Evryn took her hand again before offering his thoughts.
“Just imagine if you were to actually start talking to him, though,” he said lightly. “You could probably lecture circles around him on half the pieces here, and it would be such a shame for the gallery to lose one of their prized workers because he was overwhelmed with information he should know anyway.”
Alice paid him for his hidden compliment with a quick smile, and they ambled into the last room of the gallery, having come a full circle from where they started.
“Perhaps we should go over for a day or two and help out,” she said, squinting at a piece with her head turned sideways.
The grimace shaped his face before he could stop it, images flooding his mind of children running down the hallways, the baby crying, Elaine scolding…
He managed a short jerk of his head, only to realise Alice was watching with an expression of pure entertainment. His eyes were uncharacteristically panicked, his nose scrunched up, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip. It was all she could do to not laugh out loud, but she cut him off before he could produce a more suitable reply.
“Or perhaps I’ll go by myself. You and the twins would probably only add to the usual chaos.”
He visibly collected himself, smoothing a hand over the front of his jacket and another one across his hair. He let the slight on his ability to control himself amongst children pass, considering there was more truth in it than he’d ever willingly admit.
“That would probably be better. Thursday?”
Alice paused, counting days on her fingers. “No, I’ve got a class that night, and Saturday we’ve got a wedding. I’ll go Friday,” she concluded, only to realise she’d lost his attention. The painting they’d stopped in front of was all striped, shaded darker tones and figures blurred through rain, and Evryn was trapped in it, his gaze sliding along the ribbons of colour, tracing the faintly outlined silhouettes. Alice felt his breathing slow, the beat of his heart steadying like in that moment before sleep.
“Are you quite finished?” she asked, with enough snark in her voice that he knew she was concerned.
“Mhm,” he replied absentmindedly. “I just remembered…Friday sounds good. Shall we?” he questioned, gesturing at the door a few feet away.
“Of course,” Alice replied, and glanced up at the heavy grey sky apprehensively. “Hot chocolate, do you think?”
“If you want,” he almost-smiled, knowing her weakness for all things sweet. He let her guide him out, glaring vehemently at the cars passing by, each and every one splattered with mud and tramping through the rainwater creeping into the streets.
“Should have thought to bring an umbrella,” he muttered irritably, but resolved not to complain anymore when he noticed the smile Alice was fighting to keep off her face. He never understood why she was so entertained by his more irascible moods, but dismissed it as one of those mysteries that wouldn’t make sense regardless of how hard he pursued answers. He and Addison could hash out the most perfect compromises and force the most stubborn parties to cooperate. They were only men, though, and had often addressed their mutual bewilderment at the antics of their chosen partners over a drink.
He didn’t believe in soul mates, but strolling down these sodden streets with a creature light as Alice made him wonder. Who could doubt they were meant for each other, when they’d fought through every last obstacle to be together?
Addison and Elaine, on the other hand…. There had never been any doubt about them. They were the definition of love at first sight.
Evryn’s brow creased deeper as he puzzled it out. How is it we were so different back then, yet here we all are?
Alice watched Evryn’s thoughts flit across his face, and her expression changed from laughter to worry. He’d been far too busy lately, struggling with whatever political muck he and Addison were sorting out, not sleeping or eating… She knew he was more than capable of taking care of himself, but he wasn’t invincible, and between worrying about him and worrying about Elaine, she wasn’t sleeping much, either.
Alice and Elaine were close despite their six year difference, and Alice never felt more helpless than when she watched the circles under Elaine’s eyes darken day by day, as she grew thinner and paler and more determined to be the perfect mother. The twins were impossible, the baby cried incessantly, and Alice locked her fears about Elaine’s health tightly away, determined to hold it together for today, for Evryn’s sake. It had been ages since they’d gone out, and Alice had woken up that morning with puppy dog eyes perfect for dragging him away from his overflowing desk.
Her thumb traced absentminded circles on the back of his hand, and he started paying more attention to the shops passing by, until they arrived at the small coffee shop she loved.
It was an absurd little joint tucked into a commercial block, but the inside was light and warm, filled to burst with chairs begging to be curled up in and round tables perfect for propping a book on and music that bounced in the background. Its effect on Alice was immediate; a smile curled the corners of her heart-shaped mouth and she took the lead, weaving her way familiarly through the chaos of furniture to the counter. Evryn trailed behind, content to follow where she led.
“A dark hot chocolate with a shot of cinnamon, please,” she requested, and he watched her face fall when the woman shook her head.
“No cinnamon, sorry,” she said. “We’re waiting for a new order. You’re only a moment too late; we just used the last of it.”
“Oh.” Alice visibly deflated, and Evryn cut in front of her to place his own order in addition to a cup of chamomile tea, her favourite.
A moment later they sank into two chairs by the ceiling to floor windows in the corner, watching passersby and listening to the relentless rain smacking against the pavement. Alice sipped halfheartedly at her tea, and Evryn inhaled his coffee appreciatively.
“When’s the last time you remember Elaine looking good?” she asked abruptly, and Evryn quirked an eyebrow, inviting her to elaborate.
“You know what I mean. When’s the last time she looked healthy?”
Evryn set his cup on the table and focused his eyes on a knot in the wood before replying. “Before her last pregnancy, I would think,” he supplied casually, but his tone didn’t stop Alice from chewing at the inside of her cheek with concern.
He waited for her analysis, her open fears, and was surprised when she changed the topic entirely. “Do you know this piano piece?” she asked, as if it mattered more than anything else in the world.
“No,” he replied slowly, without looking up from the knot that still held his fascination. “Do you?”
“No.” She wrapped her hands back around her cup of tea. “I just wondered. It’s pretty.”
As a matter of fact, she was positive she knew it. Every step in it felt natural, as if she had once been intimately familiar with it. Regarding a name, though, she had no idea; she chased one line of thought after another, but none gave her the answers she was searching for, and all in a moment the warmth, the closeness, the familiarity of the shop was crushing her. There wasn’t enough air, the chairs were too close together, and she found it impossible to tune out the constant murmur of noise in the background.
Evryn watched Alice’s face pale and her eyes flutter shut, and panic clenched at his gut without his knowing why. He kept trying to force his worry back into the same old cage, but it wouldn’t fit. It kept bursting out and streaking through his mind, or creeping through the bars and gnawing at him.
The silence that fell between them was everything a silence shouldn’t be, vast and echoing and no better than simply saying what needed to be said. They resolutely refused to look at each other, neither wanting the other to see the fears that swallowed up their eyes.
The rain kept tapping outside the wide windows, melting the world until everything blurred together. Alice drained the last of her tea and stood up, Evryn echoing her a moment later, and they sifted back through the crowd to the door.
Alice took his hand the moment they were outside. The nerves that raced up her arm at his touch insisted that as long as he was there, everything was fine, and today, the option to give in to that notion and clutch his hand tighter was far too tempting. He felt her fingers tighten around his and returned the pressure, letting her drag him around as she liked, despite the rain that had soaked them through.
They’d only walked a block when Alice pulled him through glass doors under an awning with illegible gold letters. Evryn found himself, with little surprise, in a music shop, complete with shelves of sheets and a baby grand piano tucked against the wall.
Alice relinquished his hand as they walked in, and, free to direct his own footsteps, Evryn drifted toward the music selection, considering each piece with an eye for playing but not looking for anything in particular, considering this and that, comparing composers, until his train of thought was derailed by the strains of music that suddenly filled the room.
Alice was hunched over the baby grand, her fingers flying across the keys in movements he didn’t recognise, completely absorbed by the pattern of black on white. It was a beautiful instrument, sleek and perfectly tuned, each note as delicate as if crafted of glass. Evryn went to stand behind her, his thoughts lost in the way she moved, bending with the music, the way her eyes slid shut and flew open a few bars later, and how her hands moved with perfect precision, as natural as if she was tracing a longtime lover’s face.
He could play himself, of course, having received a classical education, but he much preferred listening to her. She didn’t just play, she danced, with soul and passion that he could never hope to imitate, and though she could happily chatter about pieces and composers and harmonies for hours, he was content to let the notes wash over him, and the details, in this case, didn’t matter. Music was the guilty pleasure of his otherwise organised mind; he needed no names or dates, he simply needed the sound.
“It’s a beautiful instrument,” Alice breathed into the silence, and Evryn realised she’d already let the last few measures fade away. Her eyes were sparkling, her slender frame both more relaxed than he’d seen it all morning and more vibrant, energy rolling off her in waves.
“Evryn,” she said in a different tone, and the intentional innocence in her voice sent an eyebrow toward his hairline.
“Yes?” he asked, inviting her to go on with her query while assuring her that her theatrics weren’t terribly convincing.
She focused back on the keys in front of her, one finger tracing along the smooth black wood. “We’ve talked about getting a piano before, haven’t we?” There was no way he could miss the longing in her voice. As beautiful as their home was, she desperately wanted a set of keys of her own, and she’d fallen in love with the instrument in front of her.
“Yes,” he said again, slowly, and she knew he was already six steps ahead of her, analysing the probable price, where they would put it, how many weeks’ salary the purchase would set them back, and exactly what luxuries they would have to trade off. He wasn’t particularly frugal, but he still carried their budget around in his head. She didn’t speak again, waiting for his conclusion.
“Perhaps you’d like to make an inquiry?” he finally offered, and even though he’d just realised that this would mean no new books until Christmas and no dinners out for much longer, he knew he’d decided correctly when he saw her eyes light up.
Her smile was his thanks, and she spun away toward the counter. “Excuse me?” she asked, her voice bubbling with anticipation. “I wondered if you have an offer on the piano in the front?”
The clerk had receding grey hair and icy eyes, and the thin line of his mouth drew into a bored, irritated frown. “Yes, we do. You’re too late, the deal closed yesterday.” With that he turned back to his magazine and left Alice standing there blankly, the excitement fading from her eyes. Evryn stepped up quietly and took her hand, waiting patiently for her to intimate her readiness to leave. In a moment she stepped away, gave the clerk a sneer worthy of any aristocrat, and pulled him through the door. Her rigid posture spoke control and confidence, but he couldn’t miss the disappointment in her blue eyes and the hand that clung to his so tenaciously.
“So we’ll visit Elaine on Friday. Shall we bring dinner?” he offered, attempting to lure her back into conversation. He would do anything to recapture the spirit she’d displayed earlier.
She took her time in responding. “I want to go tonight.”
“It’s just been a long day of being too late.”