No one cares that Arthur is gay; they seem almost bored by the fact. Arthur, who'd spent most of his high school life around jocks determined to tell him over and over how gay he was and how offensive they found it, spends his first week at the conservatory quietly and fiercely overjoyed by this circumstance. More than half the other male students are gay; more than half the male profs seem to be, too. Even the straight guys don't care about acting gay, about liking music and about being expressive and passionate about it. It's the closest Arthur's ever felt to fitting in.
He doesn't fit in, of course, not exactly; not with his leather satchel and square glasses and refusal to wear jeans or sneakers. Arthur doesn't fit in with the students who clearly chose music because they weren't any good at anything else. He doesn't fit in with the pianists (nearly all of Chinese descent) who don't really talk to anyone but each other. He doesn't fit in with the orchestral musicians or the singers. Still, no one seems to think it at all odd that Arthur sets up permanent camp outside his favorite practice room on the fourth floor, the one with the slightly beleaguered but gorgeously mellow Bösendorfer grand. No one bats an eye when Arthur, testing, wears a bow tie to class. No one has much of anything to say when Arthur starts pulling the top grades in every freshman course: theory, history, aural skills, everything.
Arthur plays at the first departmental recital for undergraduate pianists. It's a rare honor for a freshman in his first semester, and Arthur's piano teacher impresses upon him the recital's importance. "It's only two pieces," says Miles in his cheerful terrifying way, "but it's the first twelve minutes anyone will have heard from you. Playing for your peers sets you up in more ways than you can imagine for the rest of your career. These students will someday be your colleagues, and some of them will be very successful."
Arthur, with Miles' help, selects his two pieces, a bare twelve minutes of music to introduce himself to his someday-very-successful peers. He will play a fairly straightforward but lovely Mendelssohn Lied Ohne Worte and, perhaps a little showily, a movement from the Shostakovich Sonata No. 2. Not many freshmen would tackle the piece, Miles says, but Arthur can handle it. He can do it.
When Arthur goes on stage he's wearing a grey suit, white shirt, grey tie. He shoots his cuffs as he settles on the bench, lays his fingers on the keys of the concert grand he has never played until this moment, and breathes. Performance anxiety courses through him, but it's an expected wave of adrenalin, one Arthur has long since taught himself to ride out until it loses some of its power. This takes about fifteen seconds but feels longer.
The applause afterwards is polite and moderate. Arthur rises, bows, and leaves the stage, feeling his ears start to burn. "Very well done," says Miles, meeting Arthur in the wings, squeezing Arthur's shoulder kindly.
"They didn't like it," says Arthur, humiliated.
"Of course they liked it, my dear boy," says Miles. "What you mean to say is that you failed to amaze them. They may not look it, but they are an immensely discerning audience."
"I was too fast in the Mendelssohn," Arthur says, "and the Shostakovich, my left hand got buried under the right at the beginning, the piano was stickier in the lower registers than I expected."
"I have no doubt," Miles interjects, raising a hand, "that you could dissect that fine performance down to every sixteenth and thirty-second note. I will never doubt your capacity for self-criticism, Arthur. That is not among your failings."
"What did I do?" Arthur asks. "What didn't I do?"
"You didn't get their attention," says Miles. "That's all."
Arthur clenches his fingers into fists, the tips still tingling faintly from their work.
"You are eighteen years old," Miles says, "there is still plenty of time to learn how to be magnificent."
Arthur goes into the audience and watches and listens to the more senior students for the next hour. Every performance guts him. They are technical geniuses. They are expressive and play almost without a single failure of memory. Arthur is nothing, nothing at all. He can't learn magnificence, not this kind of magnificence. It's too late for him.
No one approaches him afterwards. On his way out of the recital hall, Arthur bumps into one of the other performers, a junior who'd played Bach, nothing but a pair of Bach prelude and fugues, but played with sparkling clarity and mastery. "You," he says, "you were really incredible."
"Oh, thanks," says the girl, casually. "You did Shostakovich, right? It was pretty good."
"Thank you," says Arthur.
It's taken two months, but Arthur has gone from reveling in his blissful anonymity to being wrecked by the prospect of a life where no one thinks he's anything extraordinary at all.
"Oy," says the guy when Arthur brushes past him in the hallway, just outside the door of his theory class.
"Sorry," says Arthur by way of apology.
"No, I mean, oy, stop!" says the guy. "I was waiting to talk with you." He's got a thin British accent, like someone who's been in America for years but hasn't quite given up on being from somewhere else.
"Me," says Arthur, casting a look over his shoulder. "Me?"
"Yeah, you," says the guy, smiling readily. He's a bit shorter than Arthur, broad through the shoulders, wearing a dark grey t-shirt and worn jeans. His arms are built and a tattoo peeks out from under his shirt collar. Singer, most likely. That or a brass player. "I heard you were a really good pianist."
"You -- me?" says Arthur again, unable to help glancing around. "I'm only a freshman."
"Yeah, I know. Best nab you when you're new, I reckon," the guy says, and sticks out his hand for shaking. Arthur takes it, unnerved by this apparition of overt masculinity in the halls of the music building. "I'm Eames."
"I'm Arthur," Arthur says.
"Right," says Eames, "so, do you fancy playing with me?"
"Playing," Arthur repeats, suspiciously, "with you?"
"For my recital, my senior recital?" Eames clarifies. "You are new, aren't you," he adds, admiring and condescending all at once. "I'm a singer." The way Eames says it, it seems to mean I'm the only singer.
"I, uh, haven't done much chamber music," says Arthur. He's learned already that the term 'accompanying' is completely unwelcome within these hallowed halls. It implies that the pianist is unequal to the other musician on stage.
"Ah, it's dead easy," says Eames with a flick of his hand. "It's sight-reading to you, I swear it." He scratches the side of his nose, which should be utterly unappealing but isn't at all. "Look, we can't pay you but I can see about getting you a chamber music credit for the work. I'm doing Winterreise, it's really meaty stuff."
Arthur has never heard of Winterreise but he pretends he has, giving a knowing nod.
"We get coachings," adds Eames, "with Mallorie Laurent."
Again, Arthur has no idea what this means, but can tell it's meant to be a tremendous lure. "Well," Arthur says, "what's the time commitment? I practice three to four hours a day."
"It's nothing, just part of my lesson every week and then we rehearse together once or twice before the performance. Come on, say yes then. Make me your singer, love." Eames is openly flirting now. Arthur's embarrassed to admit it, but he's overcome by the whole thing. He's been wishing for someone to take notice of him.
"All right," Arthur says, nodding, shifting his notebooks from one hand to the other, "but I'm late for aural skills, I've got to be"--
--"Right, of course, must brush up those particular skills, completely understand their importance," says Eames, all earnestness and good humor. "I'll pop by your practice room tonight around eight o'clock then?"
Arthur agrees to this, already backing down the hall and towards his next class. It's not until later that he wonders if Eames even knows where Arthur's practice room is.
Arthur looks up Mallorie Laurent in the student handbook. It's a large faculty but he knows she'll be under chamber music or vocal faculty, and finally he locates her under the latter. She's an assistant professor, holds an MM and several diplomas in song interpretation from places Arthur doesn't recognize. Her photo is a headshot, but there's no telling from it what Mallorie actually looks like as profs notoriously choose photos that can be over a decade old. Still, her bio talks about an expertise in coaching singers and pianists both, and she apparently has been both a professional pianist and singer. Arthur supposes he can get something out of the sessions. Probably.
"Mallorie Laurent?" says Miles when Arthur mentions it at his lesson later on. "Oh, excellent. And you say you'll be playing for Mr. Eames? That will be a very good thing for you, I think. He is among our brightest prospects in the conservatory at the moment."
Arthur tries not to make a doubtful face, but it must slip through anyway, because Miles laughs at him.
"No, I do assure you. Mal doesn't work with any but the best students." Miles quirks his mouth. "And if you find her anything less than what I've promised, you can tell me about it. Don't let the fact that she's my only child deter you from it."
"She's your what?" says Arthur.
Arthur stakes out his practice room at 2:30 p.m. sharp, settling down in the corridor outside with his iPod and his sheet music, listening to recordings of his pieces and adding markings to his music to rehearse later. At 3:56 p.m. the singer inside finally leaves the room, and Arthur darts in hastily, closing the door behind him.
The practice rooms at the conservatory are small and carpeted, barely big enough for the pianos that dominate them. Someone with too much trust in humanity had made the decision long ago to make the doors without windows; Arthur likes the privacy, of course, but it does make for a lot of frustration when one barges into a room thinking it's unoccupied only to find a singer doing yoga beside a very fine and utterly silent Yamaha.
Arthur settles in, takes his time. Miles is big on proper warm-ups and Arthur goes through them all: finger stretches, arm flexing, fist clenching, then slow drills of scales, arpeggios, chords, cadences that take up the better part of an hour as Arthur builds up speed and agility. Finally he cracks open his scores and starts in on some more familiar repertoire, running through it once before choosing some devilish sections for drilling. After that hour has passed Arthur moves on to learning his newest pieces, taking them in small sections and experimenting with fingering, with ornamentation, with articulation. This is the most challenging hour; it's all too easy to fall into bad habits in an early stage of learning, and Arthur is meticulous about avoiding bad habits. He never drills anything until he's sure he's chosen the path he'll stay on in terms of the piece.
For the final hour, it's time for working on the music that is already memorized, doing the work on polishing and shaping and building the pieces into something really tremendous, something -- what had Miles said? -- something magnificent. Arthur's mostly recovered from the disappointment of last week's departmental recital, but it's left him with a steely determination to outshine everyone, absolutely everyone, the next time he has a chance to do it.
The knock on the door is startling. Arthur jumps, then glances at the digital clock he's put on the piano next to the music stand. It's eight o'clock exactly. Eames found him.
Eames comes into the room smelling of aftershave and fresh rain, like someone who's been out of the building living his life and talking to other people and laughing. He beams at Arthur and hands him a messy manila folder of photocopies. "It's in a bit of disarray, sorry," he says. "You probably want it in a binder for the performance."
"I'll memorize it, of course," says Arthur, taking the folder, opening it.
"No, no," says Eames, "no, you don't have to, absolutely everyone uses music when they play for singers."
"I won't," says Arthur, matter-of-fact. "I don't use music."
"Right," says Eames, puffing out his cheeks comically and widening his eyes. "You're a nutter, got it." He grins. "I'm joking. It's ace, your dedication is admirable, et cetera."
"Thank you," says Arthur. The top page in the folder says Winterreise. The copy doesn't say who wrote it, but Arthur had looked it up in the library before coming to stake out his room; it's by Schubert. Arthur likes Schubert, mostly. The whole text is in German. Arthur doesn't understand a word of it, except maybe winter. "Uh, do you need to warm up?" Arthur asks, shifting in case Eames wants to sit at the bench.
"Ah, sure," says Eames easily, but doesn't move towards the piano. Instead he scrunches up his face and says, with incredible volume and nasality, "Neee. Neeee. Neeeeeeee." It's not a note or a scale, it's just a series of loud sounds. Arthur blinks. "Nyah!" Eames says, ever louder. "Nyah! Nyah nyah nyah." Arthur blinks again. "Hmm," says Eames, very low, softer. "Mmm." He purses his lips and bubbles sound through them like a little kid making car noises, up and down and up and down. "Right," Eames says, nodding, "that should do it, let's start in."
"That's"-- Arthur starts, appalled, but then stops himself. He's not a singer. Maybe singers don't need to warm up. But if that's the case, why on earth do so many of them spend hours caterwauling in the practice rooms on arpeggios and scales and drills? Arthur closes his mouth and places the music on the piano, fanning it out and scanning it quickly.
"Are you any good at sight-reading?" Eames asks, and Arthur remembers Miles saying how Eames was such a bright light or whatever. Whatever Arthur thinks of Eames so far, now’s not the time to feign modesty.
"Yes," Arthur says, simply.
"Good, I'm absolute shite at it," Eames tells Arthur cheerily. "You can help me learn my notes."
Arthur wouldn't have laughed anyway, but a quick glance tells him that Eames isn't really joking. "It's only one line," Arthur says, trying to point out the simplicity of the task. "One note at a time."
"Yes, it'll be dead easy for you to help me, won't it?" says Eames, still cheerful about it. "Let's start."
Arthur breathes through his nose and sticks out his right index finger to give Eames his starting pitch. Eames leans over Arthur's shoulder - of course he didn't bring his own scores - and sort of 'na na na's along, squinting and tentative and sounding less like a bright light for the conservatory and more like someone who's been handed a karaoke microphone and told to sing a song they've never heard of, in a language they've never heard spoken.
"Right," says Eames, straightening. "Let's try it with the piano."
"Do you need me to double your part?" Arthur asks, doubtful.
"No, I've got it now," says Eames, and Arthur gamely plays the introduction. He gives Eames a nod for his entry, and Eames--
Eames sings the whole damned thing perfectly, still without words, but on a soaring open 'ah' vowel that contains every color and timbre the piano doesn't. Arthur is startled enough that he nearly loses his place, but plays on somehow, dizzied by the sheer volume Eames is emitting after that half-assed warm-up and probably quarter-assed score reading attempt.
"That's good for that," says Eames.
"You don't want to drill any of it?" asks Arthur.
"No, I think it's fine now," Eames responds, already flipping to the next song in the cycle. "Here now, this one I've heard before."
They go on like this, five or ten minutes on each song, and incredibly Eames continues to pick everything up on the very first read-through. Arthur would almost suspect him of playing some practical joke on Arthur except he seems so completely uninterested in what Arthur thinks of the whole process. The piano parts are easy enough to sight read, though of course Arthur will rehearse them all more thoroughly in his own way later on.
"That does it for me," says Eames after they finish with the fifth lied. "See you at the coaching tomorrow?"
"The coaching?" Arthur repeats, incredulous. "Tomorrow?"
"Right, I didn't say. Our coaching with Mal is tomorrow at noon. Can you be there?"
"I don't have a class if that's what you mean, but I can't possibly learn all this for tomorrow," Arthur says, still stunned.
"Ah, you're too hard on yourself, darling, you'll be fine. Didn't you just read it all brilliantly now?" Eames says, and opens the door. "Thanks again, see you tomorrow!"
"But you don't even know the words!" Arthur calls after him, half-rising.
"It's just German, innit?" Eames shouts back happily. "I'll get it by then."
Arthur sinks down onto the bench again and moodily kicks the door so it swings closed. He'll be here until security boots him out, he guesses.
Mallorie Laurent's studio is dominated by a gorgeous shining ten-foot Bösendorfer. Arthur goes a little weak at the knees when he spies it, and weaker yet when he realizes there's a six-foot Steinway sitting modestly at right angles to the Bösendorfer. There is upwards of one hundred thousand dollars' worth of piano in front of Arthur.
Mallorie herself -- or Mal, as Eames called her -- is only slightly less impressive and appears every bit as expensive, floating over to Arthur and Eames in a cloud of perfume and Hermès scarves. "Eames, my darling boy," she says fondly, and strokes at his hair. "Who have you brought for me to torment this week?"
Arthur doesn't miss an instant of this: not the hair-stroking, not the fond smile, and certainly not the slight emphasis on the words 'this week'.
"Arthur," says Eames. "Arthur, er"--
"Goldberg," Arthur supplies. "Like the variations, I'm afraid." He likes to head that comment off at the pass just in case, but Mallorie barely spares a glance for him, still focussed entirely on her darling boy. "Uh, your father -- Miles -- he's my piano teacher."
"Is he? How nice for you!" Mal says with a small eyeroll in Eames' direction, like Arthur couldn't see her expression right in front of him. She has a French accent, which fits perfectly with her whole killingly chic demeanor. "So? What are you performing for me today?"
"I thought we'd do 'Lindenbaum'," Eames says. Arthur hesitates, unsure of which piano he's supposed to use.
"The big one, Mr. Goldberg-like-the-variations," says Mal, "unless it frightens you too much."
Arthur doesn't respond, only makes his way to the Bösendorfer and settles on the chair provided. It's too high for him, presumably set at the right height for Mal herself. He hesitates, then adjusts it by pressing the levers under the seat. Mal says nothing. Eames moves to stand in the bend of the piano, still not holding any music.
"Well?" says Mal, settling down, raising an impatient brow.
Arthur sets his hands on the keys reverently, waits for the inevitable swish of fear, waits for it to subside--
"I'm waiting," says Mal, now peeved.
Arthur plays, jerkily at first, wincing as he accents the wrong note by accident.
"Pianissimo, s'il vous plaît, Monsieur le Pianiste," Mal calls over Arthur's playing, and Arthur's ears grow hot because he knew that, he was only getting used to the new instrument: so much louder than any of the pianos Arthur usually plays. He shuffles his left foot to the una corda pedal and depresses it, though he really hates the damned thing and rarely resorts to it as a means to lower the volume of the piano. The lid is open full-stick, it's like firing a shotgun into a tin can, playing this monstrous piano in such a small studio.
Arthur holds out some hope that Eames will be a mess when he enters, and even meanly neglects to cue him with a small nod, but Eames launches into the song full-throttle, German and all, his immense voice cutting over Arthur's piano dynamic with ease. Arthur forgets all his nerves as he listens to Eames, the power and the crisp diction and the nuances he's already giving to each phrase. Here's the bright light Miles was talking about, Arthur thinks, filled with a different sort of thrill than he gets from listening to a fine pianist.
"Oh, marvelous, mon chéri," says Mal, rising and coming over to stroke Eames' (unshaven) face again. "This is the perfect age for you to sing the Winterreise, I am very excited to see how you manage it this year."
Arthur’s relieved as Mal takes Eames by the elbow and begins to do all sorts of arcane vocal exercises to do with dropping the jaw and bringing the tongue forward and loosening the shoulders. Obviously her disinterest in Arthur runs both ways, making him feel insignificant but also removing him from her notice as soon as she's focused on Eames. Arthur pages back and forth through the music, a little bored but feeling safe from further scrutiny.
"As for you," says Mal abruptly, just as Arthur stifles the beginning of a yawn, "do you have the translation?"
"No," says Arthur. "Uh, no, I didn't. Get that." He cuts a glance at Eames, who's pulling an apologetic grimace over Mal's shoulder.
"You must never play an art song when you don't know the text," says Mal, and her tone is light and sweet but something in it chills Arthur to the bone. "This is not like playing a sonata, Mr. Goldberg. This is not a concerto. There are words on that page. What do they mean?"
"Well," Arthur says, when it becomes clear that Mal is waiting for an answer, "well, Baum means tree. So it's a, a linden tree." He can't pick out any other words he knows. Arthur's grandparents spoke Yiddish, but he barely remembers anything of it, and he's fairly certain there's not a lot of congruent vocabulary when it comes to the poetry of Müller anyway.
"You will have the translation written into your score next time," Mal says. "In the meantime let's see if we can't get you to notice that there's another person making music with you."
Arthur is frozen between anger and embarrassment but he lets Mal unseat him from the piano so she can demonstrate what she wants. She plays the introduction and it's like a different piece. She's easily as good as Miles. But it's what happens once Eames begins to sing that really catches Arthur's attention; she continues to play with exquisite attention to detail but at the same time seems to lean into Eames' presence, to be utterly focused on Eames' every nuance of tone and volume, every little catch breath.
"Singers breathe, Mr. Goldberg," says Mal, half-whispering as she rushes minutely to catch up with Eames. "We need to learn to breathe with them, for them."
Arthur, who has been breathing phrases for years now, understands that she means something else entirely. She means this weird chimeric melding that she and Eames have abruptly undergone, this tender call and answer that is almost too intimate to observe for all that Eames isn't even looking at Mal as he sings. Arthur blinks twice, hard, and is mortified to notice his eyes have begun to water.
"Ah," says Mal, at the hasty swipe of Arthur's hand, not missing anything, "my dear Eames, I think this one begins to understand."
"Oh yes?" Eames says, brightly. "Good, I'd thought he was mostly ornamental to be honest."
"Try," says Mal, and waves Arthur back onto the chair.
Arthur can't, he can't begin to, but he plays the opening and this time he watches Eames.
"No," says Mal. "Ears only. Ears tell you everything."
Arthur looks away, fixes his gaze on the music, and listens desperately for Eames' inhalation. There it is, as clear as though Eames were leaning over Arthur's shoulder.
Arthur has never played like this before; as a solo pianist, his whole focus was always for his own sound, the way the instrument responded to his touch. Now Eames' voice is the thing Arthur must hear and respond to, Arthur's years of training in working the keys making the sound second-nature, a mere response to what Eames is feeding him, where Eames leads.
"Yes," says Mal, as they finish. "Arthur, what is the song about?" she asks again, quietly, soberly.
"It's about leaving something behind," says Arthur, feeling it still, hearing it linger in Eames' voice. "It's about leaving something terrible and beautiful behind."
Mal's hand lands on Arthur's shoulder, soft and fleeting. "He begins to understand, Eames."
Arthur stands up, shaky and pleased and unable to understand it's been only thirty minutes since they entered the studio.
"I will see you both next week," says Mal. "Arthur, you'll have the translations in the score."
"Yes, I will," says Arthur, gazing at Mal and wondering if maybe he's a little bit straight after all.
"Come on, mate," Eames says, and Arthur blinks out of his trance and leaves the studio, and the two of them are in the noisy corridor and it smells of Mr. Noodle. "Some piano she has," says Eames, waggling his eyebrows. "You did well, though."
"Mostly ornamental?" Arthur says pointedly.
"Ah, just taking the piss," says Eames, and flashes a winning smile at Arthur. "D'you reckon you could rehearse again tomorrow or the day after?"
"Tonight," says Arthur without really considering it. "Can we meet tonight?"
"Eight o'clock," Eames agrees easily. "See you later, Arthur."
Arthur wishes for the first time that he'd made an effort to befriend anyone in his classes, because now there's no one he can quiz about Eames. Arthur doesn't even know his first name -- or is his first name Eames and last name the mystery? Has Eames been going through pianists like underwear or something? Is Arthur just the latest in a long line of failures who had crumpled under Mal's coaching? The lack of translations had certainly been intentional on Eames' part, Arthur is sure; did Arthur pass the test or not?
Arthur gets the Bösendorfer room to himself an hour later than the day before, but the wait gives him lots of time to copy the Schubert translations into his copy of Eames' music. Next he cracks open the book on Schubert lieder that he picked up at the library and flips to the part about Winterreise, determined to know something more about Müller and the poems set in the song cycle.
When the room is finally free, Arthur goes through his usual routine, albeit with less focus than he customarily has. When it comes time to pick his way through new music Arthur opens the ratty manila folder instead of his Henle edition of Beethoven sonatas, spends a good half hour choosing fingerings and trying to replicate the ringing sonority that Mal had summoned.
"You're ready for me, I take it," says Eames, opening the door and startling Arthur into realizing he's spent over half his practice time on Eames' Schubert.
"Sure," says Arthur, and waits while Eames does his weird thirty second warm-up. Today he smells faintly of cigarette smoke and beer; he's come straight from one of the campus bars, Arthur guesses. His voice doesn't seem to have suffered at all, though, sounding as supple and rich as it had earlier in the day.
They go through the first five songs again and take a running leap at the next five. Again, Eames picks everything up after the barest read-through, so aptly that Arthur still can't quite accept that Eames isn't faking his inability to sightread.
"I like this, do you like it too?" asks Eames at one point, pleased and encroaching on Arthur's space and leaning forward so Arthur sees that his bicep bears a cuff tattoo just under the hem of his t-shirt sleeve. He looks like a thug, like one of the dumb assholes who tortured Arthur in high school, but here he is praising Schubert and gamely pressing his whole side up against Arthur's with no hesitations whatsoever.
"I like it," Arthur says truthfully. "It's actually," and he clears his throat, "it's surprising, I don't normally. I mean, I like playing alone. I like that about piano."
"Do you," says Eames, flatly, smiling. He's always smiling, curvy closed-mouth smiles that draw attention to his full lips, his lean face. "Such a shock." And for one instant he's looking at Arthur's mouth and Arthur's heart races wildly, sure that Eames is going to kiss him. "Well, kind of you to let me in," Eames murmurs quietly, all beautiful blue eyes and warm smoky voice and tattoos and tight t-shirt, and then he moves away and scratches his nose and starts nattering on about getting home and some paper he's supposed to write for his diction class.
Arthur's alone again, the way he usually likes it, in the space of a minute. He should stay and work on his own repertoire, he knows. Instead, he closes the keyboard lid and leans on it, forehead on his folded arms, breathing shakily and thinking, nope, still gay, still really really gay.
The thing is, Arthur's falling down the rabbit hole and no one seems to think it's a problem. Miles has yet to question the way Arthur's slipping behind on his jury pieces. His second semester history prof doesn't bat an eyelash when Arthur suddenly asks to change his major paper topic from Bach to Mozart just because Mal says Mozart wrote the first proper lied. Arthur's faculty advisor is pleased when Arthur asks about the chamber music courses for sophomores, if he can sit in on Mal's masterclasses now in preparation for participation next year. Eames' breezy once-or-twice-before-a-performance schedule becomes twice a week, three times a week, more if Arthur can fit it in.
And Mal...and Mal. Arthur adores Mal. He adores her very scent, the scornful way she dismisses his efforts, the sparing way she hands out small compliments like precious gems. Arthur's never been one for teachers who talk about energies and meditation and alternative medicine; she does all those things, and yet she does it with such a calm reasonable air that Arthur nods along, believing her against his better judgment. Mal relies on an intuition so strong that she's very nearly psychic, reading Arthur's posture in a glance. One day she has Arthur lower his shoulders a quarter of an inch and his playing unfurls like a huge folding fan, broad and vivid and endless.
Mal asks Arthur, will he consider taking voice lessons so he can better understand Eames' art, and Arthur suddenly finds himself in possession of a yellow-covered Schirmer edition of baroque Italian arias singing Caro Mio Ben uncertainly in the tenor range, horrified to have to look at people while performing and wondering how anyone ever sings for an audience, and why.
But when he's done, Mal strokes Arthur's hair and says, "You are very brave, mon chéri," and Arthur would probably sing to a packed house in the Sanders Theatre if Mal wanted him to, wobbly Italian and all. "Now you can see what it is you give to your Eames, what support you provide."
If Eames is in need of support Arthur can't see it. Eames would do his senior recital naked standing on his head, probably with great pleasure because he could show off his body and his voice at once. He seems to enjoy having Arthur behind the piano mostly as a person to chat with, and someone to help him get his notes down. He never again shows Arthur that dizzying interest from their second evening, but it hardly matters.
Arthur is stupidly, hopelessly, head over heels for him anyway.
While Eames has foregone the second semester opera production to better focus on his recital, he's still in the thick of things with the other voice and opera students. The girls fawn over him and so do the boys. The singers as a group are noisy, theatrical, ridiculous, melodramatic. They lack the dedication and discipline of instrumentalists, and seem to think of music as little more than an opportunity for shameless exhibition.
Arthur doesn't like them very much, except for Eames -- but then, he likes Eames enough to suffer through more than one lunch with the whole crowd of them, all the senior singers, at Eames' casual invitation.
Today, through the mess of shouted conversation and inside jokes and raucous laughter, Arthur picks up that there's a story, something about last semester's production of Gianni Schicchi and Eames hooking up with both sopranos cast as Lauretta, A and B casts, and it all coming out right before a matinee and ending in a terrible scene that had Lauretta B sniffling her way through "O Mio Babbino Caro" as she sang to Eames as Gianni Schicchi.
"I would have kicked you in the 'nads," says one of the other sopranos smartly, flicking a piece of lettuce at Eames. "Forget crying, you blatant man-whore."
Eames grins into his soda can and doesn't respond, admitting it all as true without a single word.
"Excuse me," says Arthur, and stands up, "I have to -- I just remembered," but no one is listening to him anyway, and the student lounge is too crowded. Arthur gathers his water bottle and empty salad container and heads for the closest bathroom, shutting himself into a stall, stupid and hurt, and stupid for being hurt.
"I think you're ready for 'Erlkönig'," says Mal one day in March.
Arthur glances over at Eames, curious to see his reaction.
"No, not Eames," says Mal. "He's been ready for a while. I mean, you, Arthur."
"Me?" says Arthur, and Mal opens the score, sets it in front of him. "Oh," says Arthur, seeing immediately. "Schnell?" he says, setting his right hand on the open octave, worriedly.
"Bounce on it," says Mal, "hand and wrist relaxed like rubber, like a spring, yes?"
Arthur consciously wills his hand to relax. He plays a measure of the repeated Fs, fast galloping frantic triplets. Already he's feeling the tension build. He stops and shakes out his wrist, annoyed with himself. It shouldn't be that different from octave scales, from one-handed parallel thirds, both of which are part of his daily technical drills, but it's somehow worse than either, hammering away at the same notes over and over like a hyperactive toddler set loose on a keyboard.
"Maybe if you tossed off first," says Eames, leaning over Arthur's shoulder and providing a helpful wrist motion by way of clarification.
"Yes," says Mal, nodding, "that could help, truly. Eames is right, it is the same motion but in a different direction. Think of masturbation, Arthur," deadly serious and as calm and normal as she sounds when she talks about dynamics or pedaling. "That would relax everything, I think."
Arthur flushes and stares at the page, tries another measure with more conscious energy directed at his wrist -- loose, soft, springy. It is a little like -- like what Eames said, the whole piece. It certainly has the same urgency, the same hasty oscillations. Arthur does another measure, settling into it, and then adds the left hand melody in the second measure. "Mmm, good," says Mal, approving. "Arthur, keep playing. Tell me the story."
After all his reading, Arthur knows the poem, of course. "The narrator," he says, "talking about who he sees, he sees a father and a son riding frantically, terrified."
"Minor key," says Mal, "hovering around the middle of Eames' range. Go on."
"The father speaks," Arthur says. The triplets, the fast repetition which looks so brutal on the page, have taken on their own life. He's not struggling with them now. "He asks his son why he's hiding his face."
"Low range, still mostly minor," says Mal.
"The son answers that he sees the elf king staring at him."
"High, anxious, minor again."
"The father tells his son it's only the mist." Arthur makes the shift into major. "The elf king tries to coax the child to come with him."
"Major key, wide leaps in the voice. Enticing, yet mad, completely mad," Mal whispers, and Arthur shivers, because something in Mal's voice is altogether too convincing.
They finish the piece as Arthur talks through it; the elf king tries again and again to lure the child to him, the father denies the elf king's existence, and the child grows more frightened. Finally, the child's fear is feverish, all the way to an impossibly high F in Eames' baritone voice. The line drops down immediately as the father reaches the safety of the farm, and the narrator says, as the piano suddenly stops its relentless hammering, "and in his arms, the child was dead."
"It's a wonderful ghost story," says Mal, shivering. "It's terrifying, it's every parent's nightmare. It's something hideous and corrupted encroaching on something pure and defenseless."
"Like me and Arthur," says Eames, breaking the moment, leering.
"Pouf," says Mal, dismissive and French to the core, rolling her eyes at Eames and waving at him. "Get out, you miserable boy."
Arthur moves to close the score, to follow Eames, but Mal stops him, waits until Eames is gone. "Is there something else?" Arthur asks.
"You will want to over-rehearse this piece," says Mal. "You must not do it. You understand? You are too young to manage it well if left to your own devices. I hear you in the Bösendorfer room, practicing until all hours every night. Don't do this with 'Erlkönig'."
"I won't," says Arthur, shaking out his hand nervously again.
"Eames' suggestion was a good one. Ah, don't blush, my dear Arthur, I am very much older and wiser than you, I know what boys and men do. You masturbate, you play 'Erlkönig', and after ten minutes you are done with it for that day, yes?"
Arthur doesn't think this sounds reasonable, but he nods, still blushing down the back of his neck.
"Trust me, it will be enough. Some pieces we must perform hoping God is on our side tonight. This is one of those pieces, Arthur."
Soon after, there are posters everywhere for Eames' senior recital. They're horrible posters. Eames has foregone the traditional boring black printing on colored paper and gone to a print shop, had them make up a poster of him wearing a dark shirt and pants, tattoo sneaking out from under one short sleeve, hair in his eyes, smirk on his lips. He looks about ready to proposition anyone looking at him. Charles Eames - Senior Voice Recital the poster screams. Winterreise, by Franz Schubert. It gives the date and time and place, tells the reader the admission is free, and at the bottom in tiny printing there's the obligatory notice that this recital is presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the BM degree program of the conservatory.
"Forget something?" Arthur asks, watching Eames tape another poster to Arthur's locker door. He’s seen the recital posters for other singers; everyone else always includes the name of their pianist somewhere.
"What?" Eames says, and steps back. "Fuck, don't tell me there's a typo now."
"Never mind," says Arthur. He pulls the poster down once Eames has moved on, but he can't quite bring himself to throw it out. It will probably come in handy for rehearsing "Erlkönig", after all.
Arthur dutifully only rehearses "Erlkönig" once a day, as he promised Mal. He locks the practice room door and stands with his back up against it for good measure, unzips his pants, and closes his eyes before taking himself in hand.
He keeps hoping that he's going to get tired of jerking off thinking about Eames. Arthur's never had a fantasy last this long before, but his stupid brain keeps coming up with fresh material. This week it's been all about how Eames touches the center of his upper lip with the tip of his tongue when he's thinking about something. That tongue, that pointy pink tongue, those lush agile lips, their curve.
Arthur sometimes gets ready to rehearse "Erlkönig" two times in one night, even if he's only allowed to actually rehearse once. It doesn't hurt to be extra warmed up, he thinks.
"I can't stay tonight," says Mal, two days before Eames' recital. The three of them have been meeting more frequently this week, gearing up for the big event. "I'm terribly sorry, I have a meeting with the chamber music society, it simply can't wait."
"It's fine, we'll nab our usual room and rehearse on our own," says Eames, shrugging. If he has nerves Arthur has yet to see them show themselves.
"No, of course you'll use my studio," says Mal, unlocking the door and shooing them inside. "I'll lock it again, just be sure to turn off the lights and close up when you're through."
"We can -- we can use your studio?" Arthur says, dizzy with excitement, but Mal is already on her way, belting her trench coat and fluffing out her perfect bob.
"What first, Arthur?" says Eames. "Do you want me to leave so you can get straight into making sweet love to Mal's piano?"
"Shut up," says Arthur, but he can't help running his fingers over the lid, the keys. He's never before been at liberty to freely touch the Bösendorfer as he wants. Even now, they’re here to rehearse, so he stops himself from following all its curves with his fingers.
They run Winterreise, top to bottom, stopping occasionally to work an entrance, a phrase, a tempo change, a breath mark, but mostly it's become second nature to Arthur, the way Eames sings, the way they work together. Eames is electric now that he knows the music so well. Arthur is fairly sure no one will so much as glance his way for the entire program. It's just as well he's not on the poster.
"It's time," says Eames, "the dreaded encore."
"I'm fine," says Arthur, though he's always worried about this moment.
"Can I"-- says Eames, and stops. "This is naff."
"What the hell is naff?" Arthur asks, squinting in confusion.
"It's bollocks," says Eames unhelpfully. "I mean, I was going to ask, would you mind if I sang it this way, facing you? Just this once. I was hoping for Mal's feedback on it tonight but maybe you can just watch as you play and tell me if it's any good?"
"Yeah, of course," says Arthur, shrugging.
"Still can't believe you memorized the program," says Eames, watching Arthur get settled in for "Erlkönig". "Not too late to use music if you need it, mate."
"I don't need it, clearly," says Arthur.
"You have that, what's it, ionic memory," Eames says, not asking.
"Eidetic, photographic," says Arthur, "yeah." He bites his lip, looks up at Eames. "So do you."
Eames blinks, taken aback, but Arthur holds steady, calling Eames' sight-reading bluff at last. "Actually," Eames admits with a rueful small smile, "I don't. I do have perfect pitch, though."
"You asshole," says Arthur, but he can't stop his mouth from curving. "You made me play you every fucking note of this program!"
"It's called perfect pitch, innit?" Eames points out, earnest. "Not perfect rhythm."
"Asshole," Arthur says again, still fighting his smile.
"Ah, bugger off," says Eames, and straightens up, ready to sing. "Right. Let's sing this bastard."
Maybe it's because Eames is facing Arthur, or maybe it's because of their weird confessional moment beforehand, or maybe it's just because they're two days out from the recital, the culmination of so many hours of effort -- Arthur doesn't know, honestly, what causes the sea change, but from the moment he begins to play the repeating F octave, the atmosphere is charged, it's thrilling.
And then Eames starts to sing, he feels it too. His voice is almost breathy with panic, with fear, with the racing urgency of Arthur's triplet eighths. Eames leans in, turns menacing, his face transforms into something eerie and elastic and grinning. Arthur's learned over the course of the last several months that Eames has a preternatural talent for mimicry, for voices and accents and languages, but this is something else; Eames is becoming each character in turn, and he's doing all of it with the barest of body language. He hasn't so much as moved his feet an inch since the song began.
Arthur, freed from the need for a score, or even from the need to picture it hanging in from of him, is able for the first time to focus utterly on Eames. Arthur feels like he's the one singing in a weird way, feels Eames making choices on tone and timbre and diction exactly as Arthur would if he had a voice like Eames'. It occurs to Arthur, distantly, near the end of the piece, that they've been locking gazes continuously for some time now, and it's weird because it's not the least bit weird, it's necessary and it's compelling and Arthur -- Arthur aches with the music, he's swelling with it. It hurts and it's too good all at once.
"In seinen Armen das Kind," Eames says, now finally the horror-stricken narrator, low and shocky, "war tot."
Arthur settles into the last two chords, his forearm still vibrating, humming, with the power of several minutes' worth of repetitive fast playing. On Mal's enormous piano it's more than a cadence, it's a grand gesture. Even after Arthur lifts his hands from the keys, the small room rings with the final F minor sonority. Arthur breathes out, slowly, trying to rediscover normalcy.
"Oh fuck," says Eames, trembling, eyes closed, ecstatic, and Arthur sees abruptly: Eames' casual bullshitting attitude towards music is all to cover up this deeper truth, this way that music can shatter him the way it can shatter Arthur. Eames felt it too, just now, whatever flashed between them like lightning, amplifying with each passing phrase until that final chord.
"It's okay, it's okay," says Arthur, and lurches out of the chair, gets Eames by the ratty t-shirt collar so he can feel it, Eames' shaky blissful breath on Arthur's face.
Eames' eyes blink open with surprise. Arthur, who has loved music his whole life, has never felt this way about it before, like he needs to climb inside somebody else's skin, someone who understands the enormity of music, the eternity of it. Arthur's pretty much just holding still, gasping into Eames' open mouth, but for all he can read the same desperation on Eames' face, Eames has yet to move, to lift his hands up and touch Arthur.
"I don't want to fucking kiss you," says Eames, voice gone low and pitchless, his eyes darting between Arthur's eyes and his mouth, down and up. "You don't know how much I am trying to resist kissing you right now, fuck."
"Don't," Arthur urges him, getting his other hand around the back of Eames' head, sticking his fingers through Eames' thick soft hair. "Come on," Arthur says again, hard but unable to move until Eames does.
"I can't," says Eames, shaking, hands still at his sides. "Trust me, I can't. It -- it fucks everything up, it always fucks everything up -- and, and dammit. Arthur."
"I'm not Lauretta B," Arthur says, "I don't sniffle on stage, I'm not"--
"It's not that," Eames cuts him off. "I know, you're not like that." Finally his arm comes up, fingers gently prying Arthur's hand loose from his collar, firm but regretful. "Listen, I -- I know I don't show it, I don't ever say it -- but you, you're the best pianist I've ever had. Mostly I'm good enough, I don't care who's playing for me, it doesn't matter to me, but you -- Arthur."
Arthur inches a little closer, certain that Eames would still give in if only Arthur can get him to kiss him.
"No," says Eames, and turns his head just an inch, out of Arthur's reach at this close range. "It's more than you being good. You -- make me better. You make me work harder and learn faster and do more. I, I can't lose you, I'm back for my masters next year and I need you to be here."
"You"-- Arthur wants to say it, say to him that Eames has done more than that for Arthur, he's made Arthur magnificent but it's horrible and embarrassing and too gay even for Arthur. "You won't lose me," he promises instead.
"Ah," says Eames, shaking his head, frowning. "I will, I will. You don't know me, I'm a terrible fucking nasty bastard."
"I know you are," says Arthur, in all sincerity. "Eames, you left me off your posters. Who does that?"
Eames smiles in spite of himself. "Thought that would send you round the twist but you never said anything, really, just went on being brilliant and lovely."
Arthur settles back onto his heels, feeling the urgency leach out of the air, out of him, in a slow but steady trickle. "Trying to make me angry?" he says, and it sounds less annoyed and more fond than Arthur meant it to.
"Haven't you ever heard of deferred sexual frustration?" Eames asks, all innocence.
"I have a feeling I'm about to become all too familiar," Arthur returns dryly, and takes a step back.
"Ah, but think how stunning we'll be on Thursday night when we do this in front of three hundred people," Eames says, and his pointy tongue comes up deliberately and touches his upper lip.
Arthur hears himself release a humiliatingly audible little sigh.
"Mm," says Eames, "we'd better get the fuck out of this room before we end up defacing your precious Bösendorfer."
Arthur's pulse slams wildly in his throat at the image, but he manages to sound normal as he agrees and carefully closes the keyboard lid on the piano, eases the soundboard lid down, Eames helping him drape the instrument with its quilted cover. Their hands brush accidentally once and then, Arthur is sure, on purpose two or three times after that.
"We'd better take tomorrow off," says Eames, his voice casual again, "from rehearsing together. We can meet for warm-up on Thursday afternoon."
Arthur agrees, mainly because he doesn’t particularly want to shut himself up in a room with Eames for longer than strictly necessary. Not if he’s going to make it till after the performance.
"You're not wearing that on stage," Arthur says when Eames comes into Arthur's practice room at five o'clock on Thursday.
Eames looks down at himself. He's wearing his usual ratty t-shirt, old jeans, and untied sneakers. The only difference is that he's got an open white dress shirt and a tired grey blazer over the awful t-shirt. "It's dressy enough, yeah?"
"Eames," says Arthur. "I'm wearing a three-piece suit."
Eames grins. "You'll look a right git next to me then, won't you?"
Arthur stares at him. "At least button the shirt," he bargains, "and tie your laces."
Eames says, "Yeah, I was going to anyway," lying outright, and flashing his usual curving smile Arthur's way. "You're wearing contacts," Eames observes, and the smile flickers uncertainly. "I like it."
For a moment it's a close thing; Arthur can see that Eames is a breath away from caving in, and Arthur himself is seized by vivid images of slipping his fingers up under the hem of Eames' t-shirt, stroking all that soft skin over firm muscles. "Do you think," Arthur says, about to renegotiate, and then there's a knock at the door and Mal pokes her head in.
"Why are you in this dingy little room? Come down to my studio, hurry," she says scoldingly, even though she hasn't mentioned a word of meeting with them before this moment. She disappears as quickly as she appeared, clicking off down the hall in her heels, presumably towards her studio.
"I haven't warmed up," Eames protests, somewhat surprisingly.
"Do it in the stairwell on the way down," says Arthur, "it takes you thirty seconds."
"Not before a performance," Eames returns, looking affronted. "I do a proper warm-up before a performance."
"Do you really?" Arthur says, honestly surprised.
"Well," says Eames, defensively, "at least five minutes' worth."
"Hurry up, then," says Arthur, "I'll go stall with Mal."
After that it's a bit of a mad rush, for all they have nearly two hours left. Mal and Eames' voice teacher are waiting in the studio impatiently, and Arthur kills some time for Eames by earnestly asking Mal to take Arthur through some visualization techniques for the performance. Eames enters as Mal very seriously places some sort of round polished stone engraved with a Chinese character on Arthur's upturned forehead. Arthur shoots Eames a deadly sidelong glance but Eames, of course, merely looks as amused as ever.
They run beginnings and endings of several of the lieder, though not the encore of course. Eames' teacher, a bushy-bearded older operatic baritone of some renown, has Eames stretching and making arcane noises and jumping up and down over and over. "The voice spins from the space between the eyes," says Eames' teacher, and Eames gamely taps the spot on his own face and produces appalling nasal noises.
"You know," Mal says quietly, leaning in close to Arthur, "your Eames, he has only been singing since the last five years." Her English is worse than Arthur's heard it, and he wonders if this is how nerves manifest for perfectly polished Mal. "Did you know he walked into a choir practice at his school and opened his mouth and made this marvelous sound with not a day of training?"
Arthur, who began studying piano at age three, who has spent half his waking hours at the keyboard, who has attended masterclasses and festivals and competitions since his early adolescence, who has read dozens of books on technique and biographies of famous pianists in his few spare hours, watches Eames jump and shout and focus his glorious natural voice for best effect.
"Of course," Arthur sighs, "of course he did."
When they step out on stage, it's to face a packed house. Arthur normally fights a natural panic when confronted with such a large crowd but it's palpably different with Eames at his side, Eames' calm eager face, his confident stride. They take a tandem bow, Arthur in front of the Steinway bench, Eames a little farther downstage, and then they settle into their places.
"I know I'm not meant to talk much at these things," says Eames, his speaking voice carrying nearly as well as his singing voice, "but I thought I'd take a moment to say a few words if you'll oblige me."
Arthur resettles his weight on the bench. This was not in their plans.
"You'll find the translations and program notes and acknowledgments before you in the programs," says Eames, "but there was a grave printing error and I'm afraid a rather large omission. I would like to correct the situation now by properly introducing and acknowledging my fine partner in this recital, Mr. Arthur Goldberg."
Arthur is obliged to stand up again and bow in response to the polite applause that follows.
"Arthur is finishing his freshman year, which will make what he is about to do on this stage all the more extraordinary," Eames says, flashing a winning smile at Arthur.
Arthur's pulse slams from its usual fast pre-performance tempo into something closer to presto, terrifying and wild. He feels everyone in the audience scrutinizing him suddenly, feels the huge weight of their expectations come crashing down around him. "You are a terrible fucking nasty bastard," Arthur says to Eames quietly through clenched teeth, and settles down at the piano again.
"I told you I was," Eames says out of the corner of his mouth. "Now's your chance to be brilliant, don't fuck it up, darling."
Arthur is forced to wait it out for a long thirty seconds. Eames, who needs all of five seconds to center himself, stands silent with bowed head. The audience shifts and coughs, nervous for them both.
"All right," Arthur says, finally finally feeling the adrenalin ebb, and Eames doesn't look back at him, just lifts his head slowly and casts a regal glance around the hall, his bearing tall and broad and commanding. Arthur shifts his own shoulders back and down as Mal had taught him, matching Eames' posture; his body opens up and the audience disappears in a blink.
Winterreise is a long journey through a bleak landscape, forty-five exquisite minutes in which Eames and Arthur jointly embody the character of a young man wandering, seeking truth and beauty and elusive peace in a cold wintry world. Arthur, ever the pessimist, is usually analyzing his own performance as he goes, but something about Eames' steady sure presence four feet from him -- never looking at Arthur, never acknowledging him, but somehow tethered to him nonetheless -- makes Arthur play more into each passing moment than he has ever managed to do on stage. Eames is compelling, he's fucking beautiful with song, and Arthur is a part of that captivating gorgeousness.
The last four measures of the cycle belong to Arthur alone, swelling up from forte and subsiding into a melancholy piano, then a breathless pianissimo, simple and cantabile and sounding the final open fifth drone of the old hurdy-gurdy player who signifies the traveller's weary road still ahead.
Arthur lifts his hands, and the audience blinks back into existence, first with a breathless hush, and then with glad, grateful applause. Arthur lets them applaud for Eames for ten seconds before Eames gestures to him and Arthur rises to bow, hearing a flattering uptick in volume as he does so. Arthur catches Eames' eye for the first time since they began the cycle, and Eames is radiant, he's pleased and proud and glowing.
The applause goes on long enough that they have to take three more bows together, shooting small smiles back and forth. Eames made the right call, Arthur can admit it, it's better to have this between them, whatever bright sweet connection it is, without the weight of sex bearing down on them, on their collaboration. It's purer this way, it's professional and clean and fit for public consumption.
Finally Arthur sits down at Eames' gestured invitation, and the audience falls silent in anticipation of the unprinted encore. "You think I'd tire of Schubert after all that," says Eames, and the audience laughs in appreciation, "but I'm afraid he has a hopeless devoté in me."
"In both of us," Arthur tells the audience impulsively, smiling at Eames, and they laugh again.
"In which case," Eames continues graciously, "I'm very pleased to sing one last selection for you, one I've wanted to perform since the moment I first heard it as a freshman at this conservatory. The pianists among you will be familiar with this lied. I believe it's fondly referred to as 'tendinitis in two minutes or less'." Again, the audience chuckles at Eames' easy charm. "My colleague here has made short work of it, however, and we are very happy to finish tonight by performing 'Der Erlkönig'." The audience has anticipated this announcement, judging from the pleased murmurs that result.
Arthur waits for silence, not out of any anxiety, but because the piece merits it. He sets his right hand down, silent, on the twinned Fs, and awaits Eames' signal.
Eames steps forward once, twice, out of the safe traditional bow of the piano where singers usually plant themselves, nearly to the very edge of the stage. Arthur knows what Eames is doing; this is Fischer-Dieskau's trick. That Eames is presuming to emulate the best baritone of the twentieth century is perhaps unsurprising coming from Eames, but audacious nonetheless. Eames wants to be this much closer to the audience. He wants set this song apart. He wants them to appreciate his brilliance in interpreting the lied.
But for all Eames has stepped even further away from the piano, Arthur remains strangely confident. He gives his hands a twist of a smile, an expression he can't show to Eames, and begins to play.
Arthur loses count of the bows, afterwards, but he and Eames hold their ground and finally exit the stage for the last time, smiling politely but distantly at the occasional call for a second encore.
They keep their shit together -- young professional sleek musicians -- right until they reach the safety of the green room, at which point Eames pivots on his heel and slams Arthur up against the wall, wild-eyed and beaming.
"God," he says, "god, I fucking love singing with you."
"That was," says Arthur, as much at a loss as Eames, and he's never been happier to have someone Eames' general size and shape shoving him up against things and growling at him. "Fuck," Arthur says, and lunges forward to kiss Eames, throwing professionalism and purity and sweetness to the wind.
Eames doesn't put up even a modicum of resistance. He makes a sharp groaning noise, completely unlike anything he does in any kind of warm-up, and dives in closer until he's pressing Arthur into the wall with his whole body, strong and broad and insistent. "Can I suck you off, can I do it?" Eames asks, breaking away long enough to work his face into the crook of Arthur's neck and shoulder, and he's shifting his hips into Arthur's, hard through his awful jeans.
"Here?" Arthur says, or croaks.
"Yeah, bloody here, bloody now," Eames says, and grinds up harder. "Ah, fuck it, I'm -- ah."
"Hang on, get your pants open at least," Arthur says, finally struggling for some semblance of leverage. "You have to go out to the reception in a minute, you can't do it with come all over your jeans."
Eames rears back and gasps, obviously somewhere between seeing Arthur's logic and needing to slow himself down. "They all think we're fucking anyway," he says, unbuttoning his fly.
"What if Mal comes back to find us?" Arthur asks, the thought freezing him.
"Doors lock," says Eames, too busy with his zipper to do anything about it, so Arthur peels himself off the wall and goes to press the little button that secures them in here at least temporarily. "You're, uh, you're probably new to all this?" Eames says, hand already down his boxers, tugging.
"No," says Arthur automatically. "No, there was a guy. We did, did things." He doesn't know if he's supposed to go down on his knees, though, he doesn't know how this works with them.
"Are you just going to stand there while I wank off then?" Eames grins. "Not that the idea is without appeal."
"No," says Arthur, and lurches in closer, awkward and hungry. "Do you want to sit or should I"--
"Christ, you mean," says Eames, who obviously didn't have a blow job in mind after all. "Ah, no, never last for it, just give us your hand, your brilliant bloody hand." He seizes Arthur by the wrist and yanks him in closer, pulling his hand down to close over Eames', yes, hot leaking cock. "Right, right," says Eames, gone somewhere else entirely, flushed and closing his eyes and shuddering. "That's it, ah, you're perfect, Arthur, god," and Arthur's just beginning to think about doing something more than these awkward brief strokes, maybe using his thumb on the head or getting his other hand in there to stroke Eames' balls, when Eames groans and comes, his hand coming up to catch the spilling wetness.
Arthur isn't sure if he's more disappointed at how quickly it happened -- maybe a dozen strokes -- or turned on by Eames, by how Eames seems to find Arthur all too arousing. They awkwardly extract their hands, careful of the come and Eames's clothing, and Arthur fetches some tissues from the box on the counter by the mirror, hands some to Eames.
"You're next," says Eames, pulling Arthur close again once he's put back together, his kisses now turned soft and short and plentiful. "Tell me what you want, lovely Arthur."
"Can you," Arthur says, and thumbs Eames' mouth, his full lower lip. "Do you do that?"
"Do I do that," Eames smirks, lazy and warm and heavy-eyed, already sinking to his knees. "We have thirty seconds before someone comes looking for us, so I'm sorry if this seems a little hasty," Eames says, working Arthur's pants open, tugging them down enough to free Arthur's impatient erection.
"I'm fine with hasty," Arthur assures him, already most of the way there from the viewing angle alone: Eames' dark lashes, his supple mouth, so close to Arthur's cock.
Eames pulls the head into his open soft mouth without prelude, sucks hard. Arthur's knees buckle, he's forced to brace himself on Eames' shoulders as the pointy tip of Eames' tongue dips into Arthur's slit, tasting.
"Shit," Arthur slurs, dizzy with wanting.
Eames draws back, takes a slow deep singer's breath, and goes down, his hands coming up to grasp Arthur's ass, squeezing and urging Arthur in. Hasty is right, Eames is a master of this, making it seem as effortless as his singing, sucking down and bobbing in perfect time to Arthur's minute thrusts.
"I'm going to," Arthur warns Eames, watching and shaking and already there, but Eames only backs off after Arthur starts to come, swallowing around him and maintaining devastating and smug eye contact.
Arthur gets himself together before he's even stopped floating, and not a second too soon because Mal and Eames' teacher and Miles are all abruptly knocking at the door and calling to them both to get out here and join the reception, everyone is desperate to see the pair of them.
They probably look like they just fucked, Arthur decides, catching a glimpse of himself in the lighted make-up mirror, his flushed face and swollen lips, but it's too late to bother feeling embarrassed or exposed as they're shooed out towards the noisy reception to be greeted with a last casual round of applause.
They're separated nearly immediately, Eames ringed round with fellow singers and the sort of expensive elderly couples who patronize the conservatory's opera and voice program. Arthur half-expects to sneak off to the buffet and make himself look occupied with fruit and canapes but he only makes one step in that direction before he's met by half the school's piano faculty and ten other people he's never met in his life. They all want to tell him that he was brilliant. Arthur blinks and forces a smile and murmurs, "Thank you so much, you're so kind," over and over and over while Eames, twenty feet away, makes the old ladies pet him and the old men laugh with him.
"You will do this program again," says Mal, steering Arthur around by the elbow. "I have a lecture recital series this summer, you will perform with your Eames."
"Yes, all right," Arthur says, "but I do have to keep up my solo work."
"Mm," Mal says politely, not giving any energy to the sound. She guides him over to the bar where there's a small table with pre-poured glasses of white and red wine, takes a white for herself, hands Arthur a red.
"I'm nineteen," Arthur says in protest.
"Are you only nineteen?" Mal replies, surprised but missing the point entirely, still clearly expecting him to drink. "My god, what we will do with you. I am very pleased Eames found you so early."
"I'm hoping to do the concerto competition next year," Arthur says, "I may have less time for"--
--"I am a little sorry that you boys decided to become lovers after all," says Mal, "I did like what the, ah, the air did between you two when you performed but were abstaining from touch."
Arthur buries his face in his glass, takes a healthy gulp.
"But then, sometimes it is even better when you know each other's bodies so well," she says. "You must be sure to keep practicing together, don't be rehearsing le cri d'amour seulement in those little miserable practice rooms."
Arthur takes another swallow, and is glad when another audience member interrupts his horrifying tête-à-tête with Mal.
Next time Arthur has a chance to look for Eames, he's in the middle of a group of friends. Many of the faculty and nearly all the community patrons have departed, leaving the voice students partaking of the free food and wine. They are getting steadily noisier, which suggests to Arthur that now is the time to make his exit too.
He can't leave without saying something to Eames, though, so Arthur wends his way closer and stands a little stiffly at the edge of the small circle surrounding Eames, Eames who is now cradling not one but two massive bouquets from admirers, who is smiling and laughing and posing for photos with someone's camera.
Once the shot has been taken, Arthur wriggles in closer but still has to poke Eames in the arm to get his attention. "I'm off," Arthur says, "so..."
"Are you? Right, thanks again," Eames says, still laughing at someone else's joke. "Cheers."
"Yeah," says Arthur, feeling stupid and in the way. "Goodnight. Good, good job."
But Eames is back in conversation with the others already and doesn't appear to hear this last from Arthur.
The next day at school everyone is talking about the recital, and Arthur suddenly finds himself the recipient of dozens of greetings and smiles and words of congratulation. Everyone knows his name and they all seem to think he's abruptly distinguished himself as more than another brainy practice-obsessed piano performance major. He's not just Arthur anymore; he's become Eames' collaborative partner.
"It was very impressive," Arthur's music history prof tells him, as Arthur tries to leave the lecture hall. "You have a real talent for song interpretation."
"Thank you," says Arthur politely.
"I'm doing Frauenlieben und -leben next year for my junior recital," a sophomore soprano tells him. "It's Schumann, it's really beautiful."
Arthur hums politely, trying to get his books out of his locker as quickly as possible.
"So if you want to play," she says, "that would be awesome."
"Oh," Arthur says, "well, Eames is staying on for his masters, I think I'm kind of booked up already."
"Is he?" she says, and goes sort of starry-eyed. "Oh, I didn't know that. Wow. Good for you, that's amazing for you."
"Yeah," says Arthur, deadpan, "Eames is a total dream all right."
Miles, amazingly, is the worst of all when it comes to their weekly studio masterclass that afternoon. He opens the session by standing at the front of the room and speaking, something he has never done all year long. "I hope many of you were able to attend last night's recital," Miles says, smiling around his studio. "It was a true testament to what may be accomplished by a pair of musicians who work tirelessly at their art, treat it as a discipline and not a diversion. I know many of us think of chamber music as a necessary evil on the path to soloistic greatness but I beg you to reconsider in light of the fine and magnificent work presented by our Mr. Arthur Goldberg last night. It's a noble calling, and one which may be enormously artistically fulfilling."
Everyone is shooting glances at Arthur; mostly they look pitying or puzzled. No one seems the least bit impressed. Arthur can’t blame them; if their places were reversed he’d feel the exact same way, listening to Miles go on and on about the wonderful opportunity for mediocrity in a career made up of supporting other, better musicians.
"Now," Miles says, clapping his hands briskly, "we are to hear from Mr. Ryan Cheng today, I think. Mr. Cheng, what will you be playing for us?"
At the close of the masterclass, the other students in Miles' studio hurry past Arthur without a word of farewell. "It really was marvelous, Arthur," Miles says, probably reading the dejected set of Arthur's shoulders.
"So I'm told," Arthur says, a little more sharply than he's ever spoken to Miles before. He stands up, gathers his books and scores.
"Now, Arthur, wait a moment," says Miles, alarmed.
"I've got to go," Arthur says, "my practice room opens up around this time on Fridays."
He knows it's immature, to rush out of the room when Miles clearly wants him to stop to be placated, but Arthur doesn't care, he doesn't care, he wants to be out of the room and he wants the silence and peace of solitude with his piano, the mindless consuming work of practicing. He reaches the hallway without Miles pursuing him, but Arthur keeps his head down, hurrying towards his goal. He doesn’t quite make it.
Arthur's step checks, stops, and he looks up with his heart in his throat. Eames, propping up the wall opposite Arthur, messy-haired and smiling and obviously waiting for Arthur's appearance.
"In a hurry, mate?" Eames says. "Trying to avoid the paparazzi?"
Arthur clenches his teeth. He wants to smile for Eames, to throw back a casual retort, to let Eames walk him down the hall to the practice rooms. He also wants terribly for Eames to stop existing for a little while, to give Arthur room to breathe and just be.
"I don't blame you, it's been bloody ridiculous today," Eames says, straightening up and crossing the hallway. "Fancy grabbing a bite before you lock yourself up with that piano?"
Eames' scent, aftershave and faint smoke, is overpowering, dizzying. It makes Arthur's insides hurt. "I really need to get to work," Arthur says. "But thanks."
Eames takes a step closer. "What is it? Are you angry about the reception? Sorry I didn't say a proper goodbye, you have to know that voice students are nothing but gossips and I didn't want them all going on about us. I mean, it's all a bit new, innit?"
"It's not that," Arthur tells him, though of course he's not quite through being angry about the reception either. "Eames, you do realize I'm a piano performance freshman? That I have my own jury in less than a month?"
"God, you do need a proper meal, you're a total git when you're hungry. Come on, then," Eames says, and makes a move to seize Arthur by the elbow, presumably to tow him down the hallway and towards the noisy outside world.
Arthur sidesteps the grab from Eames and moves away, abruptly furious. "I'm not your -- your property, you can't just stick me in your bag and haul me around with you when you feel like it," Arthur says coldly, quietly. "I'm not yours to feed, and I'm not here to entertain you whenever you're bored. We did the recital, we're done until summer, would you please let me go back to working on my actual repertoire so I don't completely destroy my career while I sit around plunking notes for you and holding your hand through the actual work?"
Eames blinks, tries to smile, but it's weak. Arthur is meanly satisfied; he's finally managed to undercut Eames' default charming expression. "Here I thought I was the one who was supposed to be an utter bastard after we finally fucked."
"No," says Arthur, shaking his head, avoiding Eames' gaze, "no, you were doing just fine with that from the moment we met."
There's a beat of silence, and then another, and finally Arthur is forced to dare a look over at Eames, who is pale and completely stony-faced. "Right," says Eames. "Well, I'll go on the way I began then, eh?" And Eames pivots and strides off down the hall without waiting for Arthur's reply.
Arthur finds his practice room open and vacant for the first and only time all year. He goes inside, shuts the door, and stares at the piano for a minute or two. His stomach is a stone. His hands stay cold and unresponsive no matter how often he clenches and flexes them.
Finally Arthur sits down, presses his hot cheek to the cool surface of the weathered wood over the keyboard. This is not the peace he wanted.
The conservatory is big enough that it's easy to avoid crossing paths with someone whose schedule and instrument differs from your own. Arthur is mostly successful at avoiding Eames entirely, catching only one or two breath-stealing heart-pounding glimpses of him in passing over the next few weeks. It helps that Arthur is spending most of his time practicing, having overcome his sick inertia within a few days of the disastrous recital.
There is too much music to learn; Arthur has never been so rushed to perfect such challenging repertoire. Miles grows worried about the tension Arthur has started to carry between his shoulder blades. Try as he might, Arthur can't recapture what Mal had taught him, the way she'd moved him so slightly and unfolded his entire posture. Miles has Arthur sleeping on the floor on a thin foam mattress, has him cutting out coffee and white flour, has him solemnly promising to restrict himself to three hours a day even as Arthur continues to spend every moment he can locked up with his piano.
It's the Beethoven, it's giving Arthur trouble. It feels, actually, as though Beethoven himself is giving Arthur trouble. The dynamics in the sonata Arthur's learning are wildly wrong, and Arthur is pitching a battle with the long-dead composer, trying over and over to make the written dynamics make any kind of sense to him when he can't agree with a single one.
"It's not a soft section," Arthur tells Beethoven, speaking into the soft cream paper of his worn Henle edition. "It's not, it should be at least mezzo-forte."
Beethoven's pp marking -- pianissimo, very soft -- glares back at Arthur.
"Look, I know you're a genius and everything," Arthur tries, "but I'm telling you, you fucked this one up, Ludwig."
pp, says the score.
"Fuck you," Arthur says, and sweeps the book to the floor, crashes through the offending section as loudly as he can, playing badly and with obnoxious volume, over and over. On the fifth or sixth repetition, the low A flat suddenly emits a cracking noise and falls silent. Arthur lifts his hands, startled. This is a sound he's never heard from a piano in his whole life.
Arthur stands and peers under the piano's lid. He's actually snapped the piano string of the offending note -- one of the two, anyway. The broken wire isn't curled up like in a cartoon, it's just listing sadly across its tautly pulled brothers, loose and useless and pitiful.
"Fine," Arthur says to the piano's insides. "Fine, you win, you dead asshole." He walks around the piano and sits down, plays the section pianissimo, ignoring the buzzing of the loose string, the feeble quality of the damaged A flat. He just lets Beethoven have his way, lets the section sit quietly and calmly where Beethoven wanted it to.
It builds up inside Arthur like a bubble on the verge of bursting, how he wants and needs to play louder, but Arthur stubbornly plays on, quiet, quiet. Abruptly the section changes under his fingers, from the fire and solemn rage Arthur had read in its notes to something weighty with a wise sadness, with a world-weary trudge in its step from chord to chord. It leads logically into the next section, the wistful mezzo-piano in the major dominant key, a step up into a brighter imaginary world, and then, on the repeat, the pianissimo is like a protracted sigh, like all the sadness in the world is inevitable, even tolerable somehow.
Arthur finishes the movement and temples his hands. He knows this emotion, the one he just played.
It's the same as the final lied of Winterreise.
"Good," says Miles, next lesson, "whatever it is, you've moved past it. Now, on to the Ravel."
Once end of term hits, it's a blur of activity. There's too much to do. Theory is easy, all stuff Arthur learned a few years ago, and aural skills present no serious challenge to any piano major. There's his major paper for history to write ("Mozart and Art Song: Early Lieder and the Romantic"), and there's endless listening for the 'drop-the-needle' portion of the final, where the prof plays small and unrecognizably brief snippets of their required listening and they have to identify the source, the composer, the style, the form, the instrumentation, the text. Arthur has another major paper due for his freshman English class ("'We neither of us perform to strangers': Music as a Symbol in 'Pride and Prejudice'") and a mock program due for his piano repertoire class, complete with program notes.
And, of course, there's practicing for his jury -- the final exam, essentially, for all Arthur's hard work on his solo repertoire this year. The jury is performed before an audience made up of the conservatory's august piano faculty, each of whom is a concert pianist in his or her own right.
Juries are at the very end of the exam period, which can be both a relief (more time to practice) and a curse (having to fit studying in around hours and hours of piano time). Arthur is glad when his last formal exam is over and he can give himself entirely to the jury repertoire. Things have gone much more smoothly since the night Arthur snapped a piano string but he can always do better, always be better, and Miles continues to urge him on towards more expressiveness, more emotion.
"I know you think of it as an inconvenience," Miles says at the end of Arthur's last lesson before the jury, "falling in love and all of it. It gets in the way of your practicing, it's terrible that way. But never forget your role as an artist is to interpret, Arthur. How can you play love and despair if you never leave the practice room to experience them? How can you show it in your music if you don't allow yourself to live it?"
Arthur is stiff with shock. This is the first time Miles has given the slightest sign that he knows what happened between Arthur and Eames. Normally they are perfectly professional in this space, working together to improve Arthur's playing, nothing more, nothing less.
"I know, I'm embarrassing you," Miles says, chuckling, patting Arthur's tense shoulder. "Enough said, I only wanted to impart my hard-won wisdom."
"I'm not in love," Arthur says, biting out the words. "I see your point, I just don't think it applies to me at the moment."
"Of course not, I beg your pardon," Miles demurs, probably making fun of Arthur, but Arthur takes this as a dismissal and begins to gather his things.
No one tells you, afterward, how your jury went. The faculty sit in judgment at a lamp-lit table halfway up the dark recital hall and ask you to announce each piece as you go. When you're done, they call out, "Thank you," and you make the long silent trek up the darkened stairs and out of the hall. That's all there is to it.
Arthur waits outside Miles' studio at the end of the day, wanting to get a sense of Miles' impression (even though, as Arthur's teacher, he didn't participate in the marking process), but Mal finds him first.
"Oh, Arthur, you did very well, I was so proud to see the way you've applied your work in chamber music to your solo repertoire," she says, quite obviously taking the credit for the whole thing.
Arthur's in no mood to quibble, though, anxious as he is to know what the jury thought. "Really?" he asks. "Did they -- did you like it?"
"It was very fine work," Mal assures him. "I think you came out near the top of your class."
"I did?" Arthur says, floored, ecstatic. "Really?"
Mal laughs, wrinkling her nose at Arthur, teasing. "Of course you did! You must know you're one of the best undergraduate pianists in the conservatory."
"I am?" Arthur says, mistrusting but starting to smile anyway. "You mean, as an accomp-" he checks himself, just in time. "You mean, when I was working with Eames."
"That," agrees Mal, "and your solo work, too. You have come very far from that stiff skinny little boy in the departmental recital last fall. All the piano faculty went mad for you after you left, they delayed the whole afternoon with chattering about your prospects." She flutters her fingers, waving away this incredible fact. "I think it was the visualizations that did it. Over the summer we will do more work on opening up your third chakra, it was a little blocked today during your performance of the Ravel."
"All right," says Arthur, eager to do anything at all to make Mal continue saying these stunning things about his jury. "God, thank you. Thank you so much." He exhales. "I can sleep tonight, first time in weeks."
"Oh," says Mal, and her expression is suddenly so worried that for a moment Arthur thinks it was all a mistake or a very badly timed joke. "Oh, but I forgot, I'm so stupid."
"What?" Arthur bites out, barely refraining from grabbing her by the shoulders in terror.
"You and your Eames," she says, "your spat. You won't be playing for him this summer, will you?"
"I won't?" Arthur says, blinking. He -- he hadn't thought. Well, he hadn't let himself think, had he? But --
"I think it will be Maria Kim, I think that's what Eames said," Mal continues absently. "No matter, we will pair you up with someone else for next year, a soprano maybe. You would play the Copland Dickinson settings so beautifully, we'll see if we can't find someone fantastic for you."
Like Eames is replaceable in her mind, Arthur thinks, unable to understand it. Like Mal can just hand Arthur over to someone else and have everything come out the same, have the same connection, the same power. "No," says Arthur, "I'd like, I think I'd like to stay with Eames, actually."
Mal purses her lips, her face somehow both stern and playful. "If he will have you," she warns.
Arthur swallows hard, having gone from unfettered pleasure to this weird hollow grief in the space of less than a minute. "I had to work on my rep for jury," Arthur tells Mal.
Mal levels a look at Arthur, a look that says, clearly, Bullshit.
"Look, he just picked me up because he was into me at first," Arthur tells her. "You have to know what he's like, he thinks everyone in the world is just there to serve him, he gets off on it."
Mal blinks, beautiful and aloof and unruffled. "He is a singer, you mean."
Arthur opens his mouth, finds he has no answer, and closes it again, his argument crumbling rapidly.
"You forget I've known Eames for four years," Mal tells Arthur. "Of course I've seen what he does with pianists, how he chooses them from the crowd like a little boy picking which chocolate to eat first. Eames has always been exceptional; he could sing with anyone at all and be better than any other singer at this school. But with you, it was different almost from the start. You pushed him, non? You asked more of him, and he did everything he could to please you. He practiced harder and longer this year than he did his first three years combined. And the whole time he watched you with eyes like p'tits coeurs, wherever you went in the room, however you moved. I have taught him these four years but this is the first time I have ever managed to show him what it is to sing with someone, to create something with another." She stops, breathes in through her nose, and sighs, exasperated.
"So, so I'm supposed to do whatever he needs me to do," Arthur manages, floundering, upset and not sure who to target: Mal, Eames, himself. "I'm supposed to just give up on myself and worry about him and"--
"I know it is difficult for you, I am a pianist too," Mal interrupts. "We are both of us very good at what we do. We are good enough that people will always want to hear us play, to pay for the pleasure. But to have the chance to be more, to connect with another human being in this way -- it is what I hoped you would both learn this year, and you threw it away because you were worried about liking it more than you liked anything else in the world, including yourself."
It's as though Arthur's suddenly realized that he's made up of nothing more substantial than a stack of wooden building blocks, and Mal has come along and swept him into scattered pieces with a casual flick of her wrist. He's gutted.
"This is my fault," Mal says, obviously seeing Arthur's abrupt despair, "you are too young, only you are so prodigiously talented I'd hoped you could handle the demands of this sort of artistic work. Forget what I've said, cher Arthur, we will have a summer of rest and start fresh next year, start with something smaller than Schubert."
Arthur is still disassembled, parts of him spinning and sliding everywhere, but somehow this hurts him yet more. He nods, swallowing, and walks away in silence.
When the marks come out for freshman piano juries they're anonymized by student ID numbers, but Arthur doesn't need to know anyone else's number to see that his mark is the best of all of them.
It's very easy to secure a practice room now that almost everyone has gone home for the summer. Arthur himself could have gone back to his parents' house, to the suburban neighborhood just a little too far away from Pittsburgh to be fashionable, to his own piano and his former teacher and to a long summer of working off student debt by mowing lawns and teaching piano to second graders.
But he'd thought he'd be working with Eames, doing the lecture recital series, and Arthur had made other arrangements to stay in town back in April. So he's stuck in his small silent dorm room, haunting the empty conservatory building, and scouring the bulletin boards to look for some summer employment that's not completely awful. Finally Miles forwards Arthur an email about a hotel seeking a lounge pianist for their bar. Everyone should learn how to play Piano Man for drunken bastards, writes Miles as a foreword.
So Arthur calls the hotel and gets the gig, simple as that. He actually played for his high school's stage band, so he's not completely unfamiliar with reading chord charts and fake books, but his knowledge of the repertoire -- of the standards, Arthur corrects himself, using the proper pop lingo -- is dismal. Happily, his photographic memory will be a big help, especially as it's generally not a standard practice for a lounge pianist to use sheet music. He has three days before his first shift, and six hundred songs to go through at least once each.
With his pick of practice rooms, Arthur uses the opportunity to methodically try out some of the more popular and sought-after pianos: the three Steinways, the four Kawais, no fewer than eight Yamahas, and the scattered lesser pianos that nonetheless have their individual charms, like the tired old Heintzmann whose hammers are so old that the six foot soundboard rings loud as a gong, or the quiet upright Blenheim with the upper register that can out-sing any one of the lumbering Kawai grands.
After all is said and done, though, Arthur gravitates back to his old favorite, the Bösendorfer on the fourth floor. The Bösendorfer is versatile, that's all. It has nothing to do with his memories of the room.
He enters, noticing as he flicks the light switch that someone has recently decorated the wall there with a ballpoint pen rendering of a penis. Arthur rolls his eyes and is about to sit down when he notices that someone's music is on the stand. This is standard conservatory shorthand for "occupied", and Arthur sighs shortly, frustrated. It's not like he has a lack of other options, but he'd sort of had his heart set on his old room today. Tonight's his first shift at the bar and he wants to run through the eighties again.
Arthur goes to turn off the light and exit the room, leaving it for its absent occupant, but the score catches his eye. It's the first volume of the International edition of Schubert lieder, low voice version. It's Eames' score.
He doesn't really plan to do it, and in fact doesn't need to do it, the music still written indelibly on Arthur's brain, but somehow Arthur finds himself reaching out, flipping the volume open to the first break of its spine, to Winterreise. Arthur never saw Eames hold or open this score, not once in their months working together, but this must be the copy that Eames used to learn his words on his own, the one he studied in private when he practiced all those secret hours that Mal had mentioned. Arthur's fingers stroke the page. The vocal line is peppered with mysterious singers' markings, little checkmarks and underlined consonants and vowels written out in IPA nestled between square brackets. As Arthur flips through the music he finds that Eames was very thorough, marking down nearly everything Mal had said to either of them. There are even quite a few marks in the piano line, Arthur's part.
Arthur flattens his palm over the last page, the paper cool and just the right size for his outstretched fingers. If he waits here for one or two minutes, Eames will appear. The idea is bewitching; Arthur hasn't had so much as a passing glimpse of Eames since his jury, since Mal's devastating dressing-down. Would Eames still -- how had Mal put it? -- would he still watch Arthur with hearts in his eyes? Had he ever really done that? Arthur can't quite convince himself that it isn't all Mal's overblown French romantic take on the situation.
Arthur waits one minute, then two, in spite of himself. He sits at the piano and plays through a few of the lieder, thinking maybe that Eames will hear him and come to investigate.
Finally there's a rustling at the door. Arthur looks up, mouth curving hopefully, and discovers that it's not Eames peering in at him.
"I have this room," says the girl, not a little nastily. "Didn't you see my score there?"
"It's not your score," says Arthur, startled and deflated.
She rolls her eyes. "Whatever. My singer's score. I'm still using the room, that's the point."
This has to be Maria Kim. Arthur hates her instantly, and is glad she's making it easy for him by acting like a total bitch. "Sorry," he says, closing the score, not sounding sorry at all. "My mistake."
"Ugh," says Maria. "Freshmen."
"You know what," Arthur begins hotly, and stops himself. "Never mind. Jesus."
"No, go for it," says Maria, scowling at him, small and aggressive and horrible. "Tell me what's on your mind, sweetie."
Arthur stands, being sure to draw himself up to his full height, towering over her. "Did he fuck you yet?" he asks, smiling meanly. "I mean, I know he can't suck your cock but he might still like it if you watched him jerk off."
"Oh," says Maria, with feigned sweetness, "you're the asshole who bailed on him. I get it."
Arthur is about to snap back that he didn't bail on Eames, Eames had bailed on Arthur, but it hits him all at once that this is actually new information. Eames, he thought Arthur had been the one who -- "Oh, fuck," Arthur says, losing all interest in baiting Maria.
"I'm a lesbian, by the way," Maria says. "If Eames laid a finger on me I'd punch him in the penis. Trust me, he knows it too."
"Fuck," says Arthur again. Whether it was a simple misunderstanding, or something Mal had chosen to do, Eames needs to know – Arthur hadn’t ditched Eames, he hadn’t turned away and decided against continuing their partnership, not the way Eames thought. "Look, I'm -- I'm sorry. Can you maybe do me a favor?"
Maria tilts her head and squints up at Arthur. "Gee, I feel so moved to help you out right now."
Arthur tries again, "It's just, can you give him a message?"
She sighs. "Fine."
Mostly what he plays is background music at the hotel bar, no one really listening or interacting with Arthur, and that's just fine with him. He plays through a lot of ballads, sneaking in one or two of the more popular classical pieces now and then just to see if anyone's paying attention. All in all, it's a nice way to work, spending the evening playing a lot of music that is singable and sort of dumb, throwing in a bunch of cheesy arpeggiations and seeing if he can change keys convincingly three times in one session of "Hey Jude".
The way they've situated the piano in the room, Arthur doesn't have a clear sightline of the patrons of the bar. That's not a problem except for the way that people seem to pop out of nowhere to drop a tip in his basket and make a request. The first few times Arthur almost jumps out of his skin, but after a while his nervousness subsides and he stops startling with every fresh face appearing from under the wing of the piano lid. He even quits looking up after a while, only bothering to make eye contact once he catches the flash of folded green out of the corner of his eye.
"Well, this is very rude of you," says Eames. Arthur blinks over, stupid and shocked and holding an awkward diminished seventh chord without meaning to. Eames. Eames is here, he got the message, he came to see Arthur. Eames is not quite a foot away from Arthur and he doesn’t look angry or upset, just mildly amused and teasing. "Here I've come all this way across the room to chat up the pianist and you won't even look up to see me flirting at you."
Arthur hastily remembers where he is, what's he's playing, and resolves to the next chord. He's only halfway through the chorus but he cadences mechanically and segues into more mindless noodling so he can properly focus on the miracle of Eames -- Eames, right here next to Arthur after being nowhere near him for weeks. "You came," Arthur says. "I -- I wasn't sure if you would."
Eames is pawing through Arthur's tip basket. Arthur's not sure if he's looking for something larger to steal or if he's just adding it up. "Yeah, well, Maria was going off about some idiot boy fondling her score and talking about how much he misses me sucking his cock." He brightens suddenly. "Was it you who drew that cock on the wall by the light switch? Very romantic of you, my lovely Arthur." He pulls out a ten dollar bill, snaps it taut. "This will do for the first round, I think you definitely owe me a pint at this juncture."
Arthur doesn't really know what key he's in but he keeps going, hoping he's making some kind of musical sense. "I can't drink, I'm working," he manages, still busily studying Eames, his broad shoulders under the blazer he's wearing, his newly cropped short hair.
"You're a bloody lounge pianist, Arthur," Eames says. "The drunker you are, the better you play." And just like that, he's gone again, disappeared behind the piano lid and presumably off to the bar to fetch some beers for them.
Eames left something on the side of the music stand, though, awkwardly wedged under the tip basket. Arthur plays a long arpeggio with his left hand so he can free up the right and snag the book. It's a thin volume, Vaughan Williams, The House of Life, for low voice and piano. Arthur sets it on his stand and presses it open, letting his right hand go back to the keyboard while his brain gets to work on reading the text (because Mal trained him well) and then the notes.
"You might as well play it," says Eames, reappearing with two brimming pint glasses. "Most of these idiots won't know Vaughan Williams from a hole in the ground, and he's very good at writing pretty things."
Arthur watches while Eames moves the tip basket aside, making room for their beers, then begins to page through the music. "Here, play this one," he says, "not too fast, mind you."
It takes some managing to get from Arthur's G major improvisation over to D flat major, but he gets there after a few awkward modulations, and lights into the piece. It's very straightforward, and pretty as Eames promised, and gets even prettier when Eames starts singing the melody with Arthur, his hand still pinning the score open, his body leaning close. It's nothing, nothing at all, compared to Eames' usual power, his carrying tone, but it's almost unbearably beautiful anyway, having Eames singing so quietly and sweetly into Arthur's ear, a secret accompaniment to the music from the piano.
"Well," Eames says, as Arthur plays the ending, "what do you reckon? Maria won't shift now, she's arranged her life around Mal's lecture recital series, but there's no harm in getting a head start on my masters repertoire if you're up for it."
Arthur cadences softly and pauses, letting silence take over the room. "It's time for my break anyway," he says, and stands up so he can nod to the bartender, signaling him to switch on the stereo system. "Do you have a table?"
Arthur hides the tip basket and closes up the piano to keep it safe from drunks who took lessons once thirty years ago, then he and Eames grab their beers and head for a small round table not far away. Arthur can't stop stealing glances at Eames, who seems to have grown impossibly more attractive since they last spoke. "I was," Arthur says, and clears his throat, "I was kind of..."
"A nasty bastard?" Eames supplies. "Well, so was I. I suppose that's why we go well together."
Arthur takes a few swallows of his beer, not really liking the flavor but needing the distraction. He grimaces at the glass, then looks up at Eames again. "Did Mal read you the riot act too?"
"Fuck, yes," Eames breathes heavily. "On and on about how if I really cared about my art I'd have either had the stones to leave you well enough alone or at least make an effort to look you in the eye after I had you wank me off. God, she has an uncanny ability to make you feel like a pile of shit, doesn't she?"
Arthur allows himself a small smile at this, and Eames positively beams in response. "So, yes," Arthur tells him. "To the Vaughan Williams."
"Brilliant," says Eames, "though to be honest I could hardly care less just now." He reaches one hand across the table, fiddles with a coaster near Arthur's elbow. "When do you finish work here anyway?"
"One o'clock," Arthur says. He doesn't have to check his watch to know that they've got almost two hours left before he's free. It feels like an eternity. "You don't have to stay, just -- give me a call tomorrow or something, we can"--
"Are you fucking having me on?" Eames says, low and dangerous and sly. "I'm not going anywhere, I've just gotten you back."
Arthur's heart thumps and he laughs, a little giddy with it. "Okay, okay," he says, and tosses back the rest of his drink. "Let's test your theory about how drinking helps me play. But -- no more beer. Something a little less yeasty next time."
So Eames brings Arthur a gin and tonic, which tastes like bug spray but goes down fast enough; Arthur's on his second by the time his break is over, and Eames keeps them coming all through Arthur's second set, pulling a chair over and generally preventing anyone from getting near enough to request anything or drop a tip in the basket. Arthur doesn't care in the least. He's happy and spinny and playing the piano is fun, lots of fun, especially when he's trying to play things like the Backstreet Boys and Metallica.
"I have another break," Arthur tells Eames after an hour has gone by, and Eames nods and pats his hand and says, "Do you need to throw up, love?" and Arthur laughs because no, he's not drunk, he's just having fun.
They re-appropriate their table and Arthur laughs a lot because Eames is funny and very pretty and keeps looming in closer to say, in a concerned voice, "Are you sure you're all right, darling?"
Arthur is fine, he's fine, but Eames will only bring him water during the next set, and Arthur gradually notices that his hands have gone numb and he's kind of missing a few notes here and there, and maybe he is pretty drunk after all.
"One o'clock, thank fuck," says Eames, and helps Arthur to his feet. "Come on, you're coming back to mine, I've got you properly lashed."
"I think you're right," says Arthur, waving cheerily at the bartender on his way out. "I think I'm lashed. What does lashed mean? Is it drunk?"
"It's beyond drunk, Arthur," says Eames, guiding Arthur through the lobby. "Lucky for you everyone else in there is in the same state, I think your job is safe enough."
"Oh good," says Arthur vaguely. "Hey, you don't know where my dorm is."
"You can show it to me another time, I told you, you're coming back to mine," says Eames, and suddenly there's a cab -- Eames got a cab! He's so fast and smart! -- and Arthur is in it and Eames is putting his nice strong arm around Arthur's neck and propping him up. "If you feel like getting sick tell me right away, I don't have enough money on me to pay off the cabbie for you vomming everywhere," he murmurs in Arthur's ear, and while the words aren't very nice, the feeling of Eames' breath blowing at his ear is really good, and Arthur twists and smiles and maybe drowses a little, happier than he's been in weeks.
Then they're someplace else and it's dark until Eames finds the light, they're in an apartment, Eames' apartment, and it smells like damp but Eames' bed is soft and Arthur thinks that it would be really nice if Eames would join him on it.
"Ah, fuck," says Eames when Arthur finally gets a hold of him, drags him down onto the bed. "All right, but nothing's happening when you're in this state."
Arthur disagrees with him but before he can do anything to prove it the room goes a little spinny and Arthur closes his eyes and then he's drifting again, he's listening to Eames get undressed, move around turning off the lights, and before Eames gets back to bed Arthur is asleep.
Arthur wakes up with a dry mouth and someone's hairy leg pressed against his. He lifts up his head, looks around, sees a glass of water on the night stand and grabs it, gulping it down.
"Mmm," says Eames, stirring behind him. "Are you hung over?"
"I don't think so," Arthur says, smacking his lips, testing. "What's that like?"
"Oh," Eames tells him muzzily, "like your head is going to tumble to the ground and you're going to vomit out everything you've ever had in your life."
"No," says Arthur, "I guess I'm not hung over then." He settles back down onto the mattress, rolling closer to Eames' warmth, realizing suddenly that he's in his undershirt and boxers, that either he got undressed and forgot it, or Eames did it for him. "Mm," he says, and Eames' arm comes up and settles over him.
"S'too early," says Eames. "Sleep longer, fuck later."
"M'kay," Arthur agrees, already mostly asleep again.
"Hey," says Eames, poking at Arthur, "hey, are you still not hung over?"
Arthur blinks his eyes open and smiles at Eames over him. "I'm fine," he says, stretching, bumping his knees into Eames' and rolling over to face him.
"Good, I wanted to make sure you weren't going to go all queasy when I went to do this," says Eames, and sticks his hand into Arthur's boxers.
They finally get out of bed an hour or two later and take turns showering. Eames' place is small and cluttered but not really dirty. Arthur is pleased to find milk before its expiry date in the fridge and even a loaf of bread for toast.
Eames has a computer desk in the corner and Arthur uses it to check his email while he eats his toast and drinks his milk. There's a little ring on the desk where the glass was; Arthur grabs a cloth sitting next to the monitor to wipe it up.
"Er," says Eames, popping his head into the room, a towel wrapped around his hips, "you might not want to touch that cloth."
Arthur looks at it: it's an ordinary wash cloth. "Why not?" he asks.
"Next to the computer, mate. Never a good idea to touch a wash cloth next to the computer, is it?"
Arthur doesn't get it for a long moment and then abruptly does, dropping the cloth and wiping his hand on his pants, grimacing.
"Sorry," says Eames, laughing at Arthur. "You don't have internet at the dorm?"
"I don't have a computer," Arthur says, "I just use the ones in the lab at the conservatory."
"That's no good for wanking," Eames says sympathetically. "Well, you're free to use mine if you like, now."
Arthur stares at him for a minute.
Eames cracks a grin and steals the last piece of Arthur's toast. "I have so much to teach you, young lovely Arthur."
"I've seen porn before," Arthur says defensively.
"Of course you have," Eames tells him. "Come on, let's go watch TV in my bedroom, I'll make some tea."
"I --" Arthur starts, then Eames kisses him on the ear and his resolve vanishes. "Okay."
At first Arthur has trouble paying attention to anything Eames is saying, Eames now fully clothed and lounging around with a mug of tea in one hand and his remote in the other, fast forwarding tapes to get to the "good parts" as he calls them and providing commentary on this actor and that position.
"Are you hard?" Eames asks, and of course Arthur is, jesus, they've been watching men fuck for almost an hour now. "Hmm," says Eames, and switches off the TV with a flick of his hand. "Let's talk you down, I want to save it for later."
"Why?" asks Arthur, flushing and awkwardly trying to wriggle closer to Eames.
"Too much of a good thing," says Eames, and kisses Arthur's mouth chastely. "Trust me."
Arthur can't see how sex twice in one day for two guys their ages can possibly be a bad thing, but he subsides into Eames' pillow and tries to think unsexy thoughts.
"So, have you ever done anal?" Eames asks, unhelpfully.
"Oh my god," Arthur says, flushing all over again, from embarrassment this time.
"No?" Eames says. "Arthur, we do need to talk through this shit, I'm not just being a twat. I want to know where the lines are."
Arthur breathes out through his nose, slowly. "No," he admits. "I haven't done that."
"Well, there's no hurry," Eames says, "I like what we've been doing just fine."
"No, I would try it," Arthur says, hastily.
"Well, I'm saving my arse virginity anyway," says Eames, completely and utterly serious.
"Shut up," says Arthur, and thumps Eames in the arm.
"No, I'm actually telling the bloody truth," Eames yelps, rubbing the spot where Arthur popped him. "Christ, you've got hard little fists." He looks over, serious again. "I really haven't done that, I've only done the same as you, hands and mouths."
"Really?" Arthur asks, doubtful still. "But you're such a"--
"Man whore," Eames supplies, unbothered. "I've done lots of birds, I know, I guess I take it more seriously somehow when it comes to blokes."
"Do you?" Arthur asks.
"Very seriously," Eames says again, nodding, keeping eye contact.
"Me too," says Arthur, even though he's never so much as kissed a girl in his life. "Way more seriously, me too."
Eames crosses the short space between them, holding Arthur's face steady with his hand and kissing him, gentle shallow kisses, and Arthur doesn't know if he wants to melt back into the pillow and let Eames kiss him forever or pull Eames on top of him and grind up into him like Eames had done to him that morning. "Right, stopping soon," Eames says against Arthur's mouth, and then actually does stop, the asshole.
Arthur stares at Eames, willing him to come back, come closer, but Eames settles down on his side of the bed and says, "Tell me about your family."
Arthur rolls his eyes, but Eames seems determined, so Arthur says something about his family, his still-together happy parents and his over-protective older brother and growing up near Pittsburgh, and somehow that turns into Arthur telling about the time he'd accidentally set the carpet on fire and Eames talking about plugging his parents' toilet with wankcloths and Arthur talking about the golden lab that had died the summer before he'd started at the conservatory and Eames telling about the teacher in England who'd first heard him, who'd made him take voice lessons and sent his audition tapes to music schools all over the world.
"It was the Brahms Requiem that did me in," says Eames, flat on his back, hands folded behind his head, staring over at Arthur. "Do you know it?"
"No," Arthur admits. "I like Brahms though."
"It's brilliant," Eames says, and suddenly he's up, standing on the mattress, gesturing with his hands, bouncing on his toes. "There's this moment in the fifth movement, right? Near the end, the soprano soloist, she's singing a note, just hanging in the air, a perfect clear high D, and the clarinet enters on the same note, and for a few seconds it's like her D goes on forever, the clarinet matches her exactly, it's maddeningly gorgeous."
Arthur is grinning up at Eames, utterly smitten with him in this moment. "You became a singer because of a soprano solo?"
"Ah, no, I wanted to shag the soprano, didn't I?" Eames grins back. "I did too, she was a fit bird and all."
"You sound more English when you talk about home," Arthur says as Eames gets back down on the mattress, first knees and then flat out on his stomach.
"Hmm," says Eames, "curse of being a singer, you're like a sponge when it comes to accents, can't help it."
"I've never heard of a person having perfect pitch who didn't take music as a kid," Arthur says, "by the way."
Eames lifts a shoulder.
Arthur arches an eyebrow.
"Right, well, speaking of accents," Eames says, voice suddenly popping into a posh tone Arthur's never heard from him before this moment. "You may as well know, my family, we do all right. Have a manor house, tweed, everything but bloody corgis. I even went to public school -- boarding school, to you."
"Loaded, huh?" Arthur asks, getting the general idea.
"Mm," Eames concedes. "So, yes, piano and violin from the time I was a wee one. I quit around age seven when they stopped being able to physically force me into the room with the teachers." As he speaks, his voice is losing some of the unfamiliar accent, slipping into Eames' more accustomed warm vowels and fast clipped consonants.
"Violin," Arthur says, and laughs.
"Shut up," Eames orders him.
"No, just -- you and the violin," Arthur snorts.
Eames tackles Arthur, which may or may not have been Arthur's object in the first place, and it all changes very quickly from playful wrestling to Eames pinning Arthur and kissing his mouth with none of his earlier caution.
"Now?" Arthur asks, not wanting to get his hopes up.
"Unless you've made some other plans," Eames answers, and rises up on his knees to pull off his t-shirt.
Arthur didn't get a good look this morning in bed and wasn't close enough to touch after Eames' shower, but now there's all the time in the world, now they've finally lost some of their blind urgency. Eames' chest is leanly muscled, almost bare save for a few patches of hair here and there. Arthur skims his fingers up and down Eames' skin, liking the juxtaposition of his browned hands on Eames' paler flesh. Eames is watching it too, getting a little breathless. Finally Arthur lets his hands find Eames' jeans button, pops it open.
Now Arthur needs to be closer, so he gets up on his knees to face Eames, kissing his tattooed collarbone and working his fly open, the backs of Arthur's fingers making fleeting contact with Eames' hardening cock. "You too," Eames says, and makes Arthur take off his shirt, and they kiss skin to skin for a minute because it feels so shivery and good, Arthur's chest against Eames', flat bellies pressing into each other with their quickening breathing. "What do you want to," Arthur asks, losing his train of thought when Eames' fingers slip down Arthur's back, into the back of his pants.
"I just want you naked," says Eames, shivering and pushing Arthur's hips into his. "I just want to look at you, christ."
"I can do that," Arthur says, and moves away so he can shuck off his boxers and pants and socks. Eames does the same, and it's all Arthur can do to stay out of his way while more of Eames is revealed.
Arthur doesn't have a body like Eames; he's thin, not quite skinny, but very leanly muscled, maybe still even growing. Arthur's not exactly shy about himself, but he feels somewhat self-conscious when Eames is finally naked too and they can both have a good look at each other for comparison, Eames' more built masculine body right next to Arthur's own slender one.
"You're so hot," Arthur says, not sure if he's more impressed or defeated by the fact.
"Mm, am I?" says Eames, glancing down. "Oh, look, I am! Want a picture?"
"You're such an asshole," Arthur returns wryly. "You're supposed to lie and say I'm hot too."
"Oh." Eames scrambles a few inches closer. "Well, now it'll sound like I'm only saying it because you told me to."
"That's okay," Arthur admits, neck getting warm as Eames continues to study him closely.
"You're hot," says Eames, closer yet. "Fuck, you're really," and he pushes Arthur back down on the bed, clambers on top of him. "Can I kiss you all over? Is that completely weird?"
"Not," Arthur shudders, "not weird, no." He can feel their cocks conspiring together between their bellies, almost pressed together but not quite. "This is good, too," he tells Eames, trying to make it sound like an idle suggestion.
"It is good," Eames agrees, and thrusts down once or twice. It's comforting to see that Arthur's having an effect on him, to see the blush spreading down Eames' chest and into his ears, his cheeks, to hear his breath juddering in and out, shaky with his pounding heart. "Can you see if you take off your glasses?"
"Oh," Arthur says, "actually, they're, um. Decorative?" He's forgotten he even had them on, pulls them off now and tosses them somewhere off the bed, too turned on to care that Eames is laughing at him.
"I like you better without," Eames tells him, and kisses his cheekbones, his eyelids. "I can't decide what to do with you, I just want it to last longer this time."
"If you," Arthur says, "if you let me come soon, I can definitely get hard again. I'll suck you, I'll suck you for a long time, I'd like to suck you for a long time."
Eames' eyes slam closed and he thrusts twice again, emitting a moan. "Fuck, don't -- warn me before you say shit like that, Arthur, fuck."
"Is that a yes?" asks Arthur, smiling and pleased.
"That's a 'you almost made me blow my load on you'," Eames says. "Here, let's both get it out of the way, I have an idea." He gets his hand between them, holding himself up a little with the other, shifts until he can hold their cocks together. "You too," he says, and Arthur hurries to get his hand wrapped around Eames', around both of them, and they start to stroke together.
Arthur comes first this time, barely, Eames following soon after. Eames rolls to the side but their wet sticky hands stay intertwined as they catch their breath and grin at each other.
"I usually have a bit more stamina," Eames says. "God, what you do to me."
"Me too," Arthur says. "I mean, I never come that fast. I swear."
Eames gets some tissues and cleans them up. "I need a couple of minutes," Eames says, "I'm not nineteen anymore."
"I am," Arthur points out, and guides Eames' hand down to his hardening cock.
It lasts much longer this time, Eames stroking Arthur and kissing him, kissing Arthur's chest and nipples and the jutting wings of his hipbones, the insides of his thighs, his balls. By the time he takes Arthur's cock in his mouth, Arthur is almost in a trance with how good it is, how beautiful Eames is with his lips pursed around the crown of Arthur's cock.
After a while, Arthur gently urges Eames up and they trade places. Arthur hasn't done this for Eames yet, and he's maybe not as practiced as Eames but he knows something of his preferences from the little porn tutorial earlier. Eames likes the visual, he likes to see Arthur's mouth, his tongue. Arthur takes his time, because he hasn't had this before, Eames' cock at his disposal, hard and warm and slippery with pre-come and Arthur's spit, and Arthur spends as long as he can stand just mouthing and licking and kissing Eames before finally he can't bear waiting and sucks Eames in.
"Oh," Eames says, shaky and low. "Yeah."
Arthur remembers this rhythm anyway, gets his fist around the base of Eames' cock and goes down until his lips touch his fingers, sucks gently, then harder. Above him, Eames is getting noisier, broken words and gasps. Arthur pulls up and goes down again, sets a slow sure pace. He knows all about patience, he's spent most of his life being patient about a million things, about practicing and repertoire and competitions, and about adulthood and being accepted and fitting in, and not least about this, about finally being in this place, here with Eames, sucking cock and reveling in it and being so fucking happy to be himself, to be Arthur.
"Can you go faster?" Eames asks brokenly after some minutes. "God, Arthur, you're -- this is amazing. But I -- ah. Fuck, I want to come."
Arthur lifts off but keeps stroking slowly with his fist. "You can't come like this?" he asks, knowing full well that Eames means he wants to come soon.
"I can try," Eames says gamely, shivering, surprising the hell out of Arthur. "Aren't you getting tired?"
"I told you I could suck you for a long time," Arthur says, knowing his smile is flashing wicked and bright and immensely pleased with how wrecked Eames looks. "Should I keep going?"
"Okay," Eames agrees, voice breaking. "Fuck."
Arthur goes down again, stretching out a little on the sheets, getting as comfortable as he can with his insistent erection pinned under his belly, ignoring it. He picks up the pace very slightly, and Eames' hand drifts down to comb through Arthur's hair, not demanding, just petting, and Arthur feels an immense surge of contentment, thinking dazedly that he has to remember this, he need to remember this emotion, this moment.
It takes a while, but finally Eames' soft moans get louder, and Arthur sucks harder, uses his tongue more, and abruptly Eames' fingers clench, tug at Arthur's short hair, but Arthur's staying down, he's got -- god. Eames pulsing into his mouth, Eames going to pieces under him.
"Your mouth," says Eames, a minute later, when Arthur has finished coaxing the last aftershocks from Eames' cock and Eames has stopped gasping so hard. Eames runs his thumb across Arthur's lower lip. "Fuck, Arthur. That was brilliant." His mouth curves up on one side. "You want me to do the same for you?"
"Fuck, no," says Arthur, "just suck it, I'm like two seconds away." And Eames laughs and kisses Arthur's mouth, but he doesn't waste any time, gets back down between Arthur's thighs and takes him in, hard and fast like after the recital, like this morning. Arthur holds out as long as he can, loving the sight of Eames going at him so swiftly and desperately, but it's a lost cause. Arthur arches up and comes, and he's starting to see about Eames and his 'too much of a good thing' because it's starting to hurt a little, coming so fast and so often, but it's good, it's still amazing.
"I'm supposed to say something sexy and romantic right now," Eames says as he clambers up the mattress, "but I could really do with a long nap. How about you?"
"Hell yeah," Arthur says, already half-asleep, only vaguely aware of Eames tucking himself around Arthur like a blanket.
They barely wake up in time for Arthur to get to work. As it is, Arthur can't go back to his dorm for clothes, and he's forced to take Eames up on his offer of a fresh shirt.
"Don't you own an iron?" Arthur asks, holding up one of Eames' beleaguered dress shirts.
"What? It's just fine!" Eames says. "Here, put it on."
The collar's a little big but the sleeve length is okay, and Arthur can hide the worst of it under his blazer from last night.
"God, I'm starving, I'm going out for a burger after I walk you to the bus," says Eames.
"Good thing I'm not hungry at all or that would have been a really thoughtless thing to say," Arthur returns, tying his borrowed tie and glaring at his reflection, his mussed hair and the sleep wrinkles down the side of his face. His stomach is a gnawing pit of starvation. All he's eaten in the past twenty four hours is one and a half slices of toast and a glass of milk.
"Now, now," says Eames, "you must watch that girlish figure of yours, I won't have you getting fat."
"Ugh," says Arthur, "I can't believe I'm sleeping with you." He is trying to look disgusted but it's a difficult thing to maintain when he keeps smiling stupidly.
Eames is busy fixing his hair (which looks fine already). "Hmm?" he says absently. "Actually, chicken fingers, bugger the hamburger. Chicken fingers and sweet and sour dipping sauce. Hurry up, I'm dying of hunger here."
Arthur manages to force the smile down this time. His growling stomach helps.
But then Eames kisses Arthur at the bus stop, in front of the driver and everyone, and Arthur thinks that Eames is probably a lot nicer than he wants most people to know.
"Come over again," he says to Arthur.
"When?" Arthur says.
"Anytime you can. No, actually, tonight," Eames answers. "Just come over."
"I have to change clothes eventually," Arthur points out.
"I have lots of clothes," Eames tells him, and kisses him again.
"I'll stop at the dorm first," Arthur bargains, "then I'll bring some stuff with me."
The bus driver is becoming visibly annoyed, so Arthur hastily hops up the steps of the bus and throws a last wave in Eames' direction.
Arthur pretty much only goes back to his dorm room for fresh clothes and toiletries for the next week, the next two weeks, the next month. For the whole summer, actually.
It's not all sex, of course, though there's lots and lots of that -- hours spent after they get past the first week or so, where they're mostly too desperate to slow down and relax into things. Arthur has never thought it could be so much like this, like hanging out only naked, like casual chatter and teasing except with skin pressed to skin. They laugh a lot; even Arthur laughs, sometimes so hard that his stomach hurts, that his eyes water. And then, just when things seem to have stabilized, to have become normal and everyday, it's like that first morning again, all hunger and grabbing hands and striving bodies, only it's better because they know each other so well now, there's no room for misunderstandings or frustration or things left unsaid.
But sometimes it's other stuff: they're arguing over what they're eating for dinner or standing in line at the movie theatre or Eames is teaching Arthur how to smoke up. Arthur, who hasn’t had a real friend since adolescence and high school divided him from his childhood buddies, has almost forgotten what it’s like simply to like someone, to want to be around them, to talk about stupid things and serious things and nothing at all. When Arthur awkwardly confesses some of this, Eames doesn’t smile and tease. He only tilts his head to one side before saying, “You always seemed so lonely, this year.” And Arthur has to swallow twice before he can admit it: “I was.” He bows his head, rubs his chin. “Not anymore, though.”
They can’t be together every minute, naturally. Eames has his practice sessions with Maria at the conservatory and (Arthur is pleased to discover) has a part-time position as a Starbucks barista to keep him in spending money besides. Arthur is working all hours at the hotel, mostly fending off drunken advances and testing to see how much classical music he can sneak into a session before the bar manager starts glaring over at him. And Arthur has to keep up his own practicing, too, because playing "Embraceable You" four times a night doesn't do shit-all for his technique.
“I should kick something in for rent,” Arthur says, the first of July.
“Bugger off, it’s not like you live with me,” says Eames with a dismissive wave.
Arthur thinks this is probably meant to be funny; after all, his toothbrush lives in the cup on the bathroom counter and he’s claimed a whole side of Eames’ double bed. Anyway, he makes a point of paying for groceries the next time they get them, and Eames doesn’t say anything, so Arthur figures they’re square.
But it happens again when Arthur does Eames’ laundry for him on an idle Saturday while Eames is working,
(“You’re not my little Hausfrau, Arthur, much as I relish the thought.”)
and again another week later when Eames realizes that Arthur’s had his spare key on his keychain for nearly six weeks,
(“Well, what the bloody hell am I meant to do if I lock myself out, then?” he demanded, and Arthur thought it best not to point out that a spare key wouldn’t have been any use locked inside the apartment in a disused fruit bowl anyway)
and again, in late July, when Arthur spends two nights in his dorm room, testing to see if Eames is asking for him to piss off –
(Eames leaves a two-minute rant on Arthur’s voicemail about Arthur putting the bloody take-away menus in some godforsaken drawer and when the fuck was he coming back anyway, not that Eames expected him back, because it wasn’t as though Arthur lived there, he was free to come and go, maybe Eames should look into installing a catflap to accommodate Arthur’s wanderings, and so on.)
When Arthur comes back to the apartment the next day, there’s a shiny new spare key lying in the otherwise empty fruit bowl, and Eames’ laundry is waiting in a basket by the door with a roll of quarters on top.
“I’m home,” Arthur calls.
“You don’t bloody live here,” Eames shouts from somewhere in the living room.
Later, waiting for Eames’ whites to dry, Arthur listens to the weird message over and over until he hears what Eames was actually trying to say. It's Eames’ way, Arthur realizes with amazement, of denying the blatantly obvious fact that Arthur's been living with him all summer. After Arthur figures this out, it becomes strangely comforting, because Eames drawing (mostly theoretical) boundaries is like a normal person's statement of commitment. 'This far, and no further' from Eames, in fact, becomes almost a romantic refrain between them.
"You should have a piano at home," says Eames, watching Arthur dig through the laundry all over Eames' floor. "Then you'd never have to get dressed. I'd like that."
"They frown on having grand pianos in dorm rooms," Arthur says, sniffing at a shirt.
"Yeah, but in a proper flat?" Eames pursues.
"Maybe someday," Arthur agrees. "I have a decent piano at my parents' place, I might have it shipped out here when I'm into my graduate studies or something." He pulls on the shirt, something he normally wouldn't be caught dead in, but all his regular clothes are strewn around and in dire need of laundering and ironing. He needs to make another pit-stop at the dorm tonight.
"Mm," Eames says, extending a foot out from under the covers, probably trying to look enticing.
"Would you do the fucking dishes while I'm gone?" Arthur asks.
"I want to be absolutely clear on this point, my lovely Arthur," Eames replies, "I did not mean to imply, just now, that I want you and your piano permanently in my flat with me."
"Seriously, they're going to go moldy again, it's disgusting," Arthur says, unbothered by yet another of Eames’ declarations of non-commitment.
"And I'm not buying you a piano either, even if my family are a lot of rich bastards," Eames continues. "And I resent that you're wearing my t-shirt when you're off to do filthy unspeakable things locked up in a practice room with that piano you love more than me."
Arthur looks down at himself. "This isn't your shirt, it's mine." He plucks at it. "Isn't it?"
"I don't know, come here so I can check for my name on the tag," says Eames with blatant ulterior motives.
"No," says Arthur, "I know which clothes are mine." He looks down again. "I'm pretty sure, anyway."
"It looks big on you, I bet I could fit whole parts of my body in there with you," Eames says speculatively. He wiggles his bare foot.
"I have to practice," says Arthur, biting his lower lip. "I just showered."
"Right, I'll go on without you, then," Eames says, "just give us the remote for the telly before you leave."
Arthur rolls his eyes, but whips off the t-shirt anyway and gamely crawls onto the bed, kicking the covers off Eames as he goes.
It's not like he has a set time he has to be at the conservatory, after all.
But before long it's the end of August, the new semester is starting in a matter of weeks, and Arthur begins to make more time for practicing for fear of Miles' expectations of what he should have accomplished in the past three months. Somehow Arthur doesn't think that 'learning to give excellent blow-jobs' will impress him.
Eames' lecture recital has come and gone. Thankfully it was on a night that Arthur was working at the bar, because Arthur's finally come to admit that he's embarrassingly jealous of anyone else who plays for Eames. He's pretty sure he could have sat through the whole thing without rushing the stage and tackling Maria, but he's happy not to have had his willpower tested.
Now they're back to rehearsing together, Eames is idly learning a few songs for his upcoming first year of grad school, and Arthur is more steadily working his way through Eames' other past repertoire in preparation for all the performances that are lined up for Eames this year.
("Singing for my supper," Eames had explained it, "literally. Now I'm on all these graduate scholarships I'm their indentured show pony, the head of the voice and opera department will be having me sing for every benefit and luncheon she can."
"Poor Eames," Arthur had said, stroking his hair. He can’t quite do Mal’s accent, but he can get her words right. "All those people telling you you're so talented, how will you survive?")
Arthur closes himself into the Bösendorfer room, wearing clean pressed grey wool trousers and a neatly starched white button-down shirt. He stayed in his dorm room last night for the first time in weeks; they were practicing for what the semester would demand of them, the days on end when Arthur would be too busy with practicing and schoolwork to make the bus trip back and forth from Eames' apartment. At the least, Arthur decides, his standard of dress is bound to improve even if the change makes Eames start threatening Arthur with the possibility of a catflap again.
Someone's painted over the ink drawing of the penis, freshening up the room for the new academic year, but the piano is the same. Arthur sets his scores down next to the music stand and starts his routine, rustier with it than he should be. Stretches, finger strength exercises, and then some slow scales, chords, arpeggios, cadences. To finish his warm-up, Arthur plays through the Vaughan Williams song Eames had brought to him that first night at the hotel bar. It's a simple enough piano part, a good artistic stretch to warm up his creative mind while not overloading his technical skills too early in the session.
The door clicks open halfway through. Arthur looks up, surprised, half-expecting (half-hoping) to see Eames, but it's Mal. "I thought I heard you," she says. "'Silent Noon', such a lovely piece, you play it very well."
"Thank you," Arthur says, a little stiffly. The last time he saw Mal, she was coolly explaining to him that he was selfish and too young for true artistry. The fact that he had very nearly proved her right doesn't help to lessen his sense of tension. Arthur doesn't know what Eames has told her, or how much she might have guessed, of what's happened since then. Still, he has a strong sense of responsibility; it's Arthur's place as the student to say something, to make some apology, some explanation. "It's just for a warm-up," he blurts, sounding not at all apologetic.
"Second year will be a very busy one for you," Mal says, stepping inside. "There is so much repertoire for you to learn on top of a heavy course load."
"Yes," says Arthur, "Miles wants me to do the concerto competition." The competition was normally the domain of juniors, but often ambitious sophomores competed to get a foot in the door, to have the chance to be featured as a soloist in the following year's concert program for the conservatory.
"Of course," Mal says, to Arthur's mild surprise. "You are certainly qualified, you will make a fine showing." She crosses her arms, uncrosses them. "I didn't mean, in May, to be so pushy with you."
"No," says Arthur, hastily, "no, you were right. I mean, I still fully intend to pursue a career as a solo artist, but I've learned so much from you, from playing with -- it's been very valuable, and not just for chamber music."
Mal smiles, a little hesitantly. "As a teacher," she says, voice halting as though Mal -- Mal -- is being cautious with her word choice, "one does spend years working with very strong, very clever students who will never be true artists. It can be -- disheartening. But with you, with you I saw so much potential. I am afraid I got...carried away."
Arthur nods awkwardly, accepting this, though it seems wrong to have Mal making amends when she has always been above such things. "I look forward to this year," Arthur says, hearing the formality of his voice, strange and unaccustomed after his summer with Eames.
"As do I," says Mal with equal, if somewhat mocking, formality. "Now, I'll leave you to your practicing." She begins to turn, exiting the room, when she makes a small exclamation of surprise, of greeting. Eames appears in the doorway, smiling first at her and then at Arthur.
"I know we said four o'clock," he says to Arthur, "but can we move it up a little? I've just bumped into some of the other singers and they wanted to know could we come for dinner at the student union pub in a bit?"
Eames has very clearly not breathed a word to Mal, judging from the way her fine eyebrows arch and her gaze darts between Arthur and Eames, evaluative and keen.
"You know I don't really enjoy hanging out with the singers," Arthur says, trying not to sound too much like a stick-in-the-mud, for Mal's benefit.
"Yeah, but," Eames says, earnestly, "beer! And wings! For dinner!"
Arthur makes a face. "Fine. But I'm coming back after to practice my own stuff."
"I would expect nothing less of you, you fine dedicated young man," says Eames, and pushes the door open more so he can get by Mal. "Cheers, Mal, we'll see you at coaching next week, I expect?"
Mal smiles, a genuine warm expression. "Of course. Next week." She backs out, pulling the door shut with a genteel click.
Arthur looks up at Eames, aware that he can't stop his mouth from twitching. "Did you seriously avoid saying anything about us all summer just so you could surprise her and embarrass me at the same time?"
"Well, it's not as though it's a secret," Eames equivocates, "I just wanted to see would she ask which of us goes on top and start telling us how that relates to this Strauss song."
"Gross," Arthur says, but he shifts over anyway as Eames shoves his way onto the piano bench.
"You think she won't?" Eames presses, digging his elbow into Arthur's side. "She's always on about the intimacy of the singer-pianist bond, she'll go barmy when she can start talking about fellatio in the middle of coaching, she loves saying shit that makes you go all pink down your nose."
"I do not," says Arthur, "and she's not going to talk about fellatio, jesus."
"Bet you ten dollars," says Eames. "Bet you ten dollars she doesn't make it through the year without discussing which of us pitches and which catches."
"Ten dollars?" Arthur scoffs. "I thought your family was loaded."
"Fine," Eames returns, leaning in, nipping at Arthur's earlobe, "I bet you a fucking grand piano, how's that?"
"I can't give you a piano," says Arthur, rolling his eyes but leaning into Eames' searching mouth, just a little.
"Best hope Mal is as well-behaved as you think, then," breathes Eames.
Arthur backs away, licks his lips, looks over at Eames, all sprawling grace and full lips and beautiful eyes. "You're on," he says, and moves to seal the deal with a kiss.