Arthur recognizes the faint flutter of excitement that’s running through his Music 415 class when he comes through the door of the lecture hall. The singers are whispering, that’s what gives it away; singers rarely whisper, usually preferring louder forms of communication. But today the singers are whispering, giggling, and casting conspicuous glances in his direction. The pianists, on the other hand, look as diligent and calm as ever. It’s not exactly difficult to suss out what’s going on, in other words.
Still, best not to engage, Arthur decides. He sets a stack of scores on the music stand, props open the lid of the grand piano, and flips through his assignment book to remind himself of who’s performing today, and what repertoire they’re doing. The minute hand clicks to the hour, and Arthur clears his throat and raises his head, looks around to find the two singer-pianist duos slated for this class; he intends to choose whichever pair looks more terrified.
But it’s not to be. Now that he looks, there are not one or two but fully half a dozen hands waving in the air, singers with eager eyebrows and twisty smiles. Arthur can’t ignore them, much as he wants to.
“Yes, Julia?” he says, choosing the mezzo-soprano out of consideration for everyone’s hearing. Sopranos are altogether too shrill when they’re keyed up.
“Is Eames coming?” she asks breathlessly in her wonderfully mellow voice.
“No,” Arthur says, and all the singers collapse into their chairs with uncharacteristically terrible posture. “Any other questions?”
That should be an end to it, but instead a petite front row pianist’s hand comes up.
“Ariadne?” Arthur asks, surprised, hoping against hope that this is a curricular question. He likes Ariadne; he doesn’t want to think badly of her.
“Is it true that he was here at the conservatory earlier?” she asks, twiddling her pencil in one hand, tapping the eraser on her open score. She’s up to play Mahler today, Arthur remembers, and makes a mental note to torture her about her lacklustre use of the damper pedal.
“If he was,” Arthur says calmly, “I didn’t run into him. I was in a meeting all morning.” He knows, of course, that Eames came by the building in search of him; Eames had sent three text messages to that effect, with progressively more dramatic sad-faced emoticons. He’d gotten back unexpectedly early from his performance in Berlin and planned to surprise Arthur, but timing has never been their strong point as a couple.
“But he was totally here looking for you,” she pursues. “Right?”
Arthur clears his throat, and a nervous silence comes over the room. “Let’s return to the subject at hand, shall we?” he says rather determinedly, and that’s the end of it for the rest of the class. No one dares bring Eames up again, thank god, because Arthur is having a hard enough time keeping his mind away from thoughts of home, of Eames waiting for him. He doesn’t need reminders from his flock of obsessive undergraduates.
To Ariadne’s credit, she doesn’t tense up or look miserable when Arthur takes her apart in front of everyone, just gathers a flush high in her cheeks and works furiously at doing everything he tells her. She is, he thinks, probably one of the better students he’s had in a long while.
“Oh, hey,” says Dom, coming into the lecture hall for his senior composition seminar as Arthur’s class files out. “Eames was looking for you. He’s back from — where was he this time, Dresden? Doing Elijah?”
“Berlin,” Arthur says, gathering his papers, ignoring the way several of the singers are suddenly lingering nearby with attentive expressions. “Yeah, no, I missed him. I had that faculty evaluation committee meeting.”
“Right, he was saying you weren’t answering texts, I figured it was something,” Dom says distractedly, struggling to get the room’s AV system going. “God, this piece of crap.”
“Here,” Arthur says, and leans in, wiggles the tetchy DVI cable. “That should do it.” The screen lights up and the projector whirrs to life.
“In another life you would be a kick-ass technology genius,” Dom says with admiration. “So, you didn’t see him, then?”
“No,” Arthur says, frowning a little. “Why —“
— “Wait, how come the network drives aren’t coming up?” Dom asks, and Arthur sighs, puts down his music, elbows in to assist. He forgets about Eames, at least for the next several minutes.
“Did you see him?” Mal asks, grabbing Arthur by the wrist and yanking him close to the churning photocopier. They’re in the back room of the departmental office, and Arthur really just wants to grab the stack of paper he can see curled up in his mailbox. He’s waiting on a referral form he’s supposed to complete for one of his piano students, something that needs doing before the weekend, and then Arthur can leave already, get home, see Eames like everyone is so eager to have him do.
“No,” Arthur says, “but I’m on my way out, I just need”—
—“He came to my studio looking for you,” she says, eyes wide and dramatic. “He couldn’t reach you.”
“Yeah, I know,” Arthur says, annoyed now. “Jesus, what did he do, ask every single person in the school?”
“So you didn’t see him,” Mal says. She and Dom are starting to merge into a single creepy person, Arthur thinks, asking him the exact same —
—“Wait, why is everyone so obsessed with if I’ve seen him?” Arthur asks, feeling a sudden clutch of suspicion in his chest. “Please tell me he didn’t get my name tattooed on his forehead or something.”
“No, no,” Mal says, turning busily back to the copier, airy and sweet. “Nothing like that.”
“Mal,” Arthur says, drawing the name out, narrowing his gaze.
“You should go home,” she says. “Go home and fuck him on that piano of yours, let him bend you over the keys and”—
—“Yeah, that’s not going to work on me anymore,” Arthur says, rolling his eyes. “We’re way past you being able to make me blush, Mal. I’m thirty, in case you forgot.”
Mal blinks and affects a troubled little frown, and then turns and looks at him with her arms folded across her chest. “Your Eames has been neglecting one small part of his daily routine,” she says, “and the result is a bit…hmm. Alarming.”
Arthur’s hands curl into fists as he fights the urge to try and shake the truth out of Mal.
She sighs and picks up her phone from the work table nearby, clicks the screen on, and doesn’t navigate any further. When she holds the phone out for Arthur to see, he’s looking at her new lock screen wallpaper.
“Holy fucking shit,” Arthur says, grabbing the phone from her, stunned. “Oh god.” He brings it in a little closer and squints. It’s still terrible. “This is worse than when he had that weird little ponytail,” Arthur says grimly. “He looks like a yeti. No, he looks like a gross pedophilic high school history teacher.”
“You don’t like it?” Mal says, with very thinly veiled schadenfreude, leaning in to have another look. “I think it’s very distinguished.”
“It’s terrible,” Arthur says, flinching away as he gets in a little too close. “Jesus fuck, I think I saw this exact face in a lumberjack porno once.”
“Mm,” Mal says, unmoved but feigning sympathy. “Well, it comes off, no?”
“Oh, it comes off,” Arthur repeats grimly. “It definitely comes off.”
Arthur has Mal forward the photo to him and makes it the wallpaper on his own phone, just so he can click it on periodically while he fills out the student referral form.
The beard is horrifying. It’s the worst thing Arthur has ever seen on Eames, and that’s including the weird ponytail, including the ill-advised pleated linen pants, the we-shall-never-speak-of-this summer of the faux-hawk.
Eames’ mouth, pink and lush in the middle of all that — that fur. It’s pornographic; worse, it’s — it’s hetero porn. That’s a mouth made for going down on girls, Arthur decides, and scowls at the screen so frequently that the referral form takes twice as long as it should.
Eames texts him again just as Arthur is finishing up. The contrast between the lock screen and the much more familiar photo that Arthur has linked to Eames’ number is striking, and Arthur blinks at Eames’ unshaven face for a second before getting around to noticing the text attached to it: r u coming home? :( :( :(((
Arthur texts back an affirmative and signs the form, stuffs it into an envelope and tacks it to the bulletin board on his studio door as he’d promised he would.
He’s going to make Eames shave before they have sex, Arthur decides firmly as he walks to his car. He can probably stand kissing Eames first, though. If Eames insists on it.
Eames’ suitcase is parked squarely in the middle of the front entrance, but Arthur can’t help smiling because the sight of Eames’ suitcase in the hallway has a sort of Pavlovian effect on his sense of well-being. The beard doesn’t seem like such a problem now that Arthur sees Eames’ suitcase. Arthur is abruptly prepared to be gracious about the hideous thing.
“Hey,” Arthur calls out, dropping his keys in the dish on the little cupboard, hanging up his coat, setting his attache case down so it’s leaning against Eames’ luggage. “Eames? You here?”
“Yep,” comes the answer from down the corridor. “In the loo, just a minute.”
Arthur follows Eames’ voice without really intending to. The hallway just outside the bathroom is a bit humid; Eames must be fresh from the shower. Arthur knocks on the door twice and turns the knob slowly. “Are you decent?” he asks, bracing himself — not for nudity, but for hairiness.
“Not in the least, do come in,” Eames says, pulling the door open from the other side. He’s naked as expected, damp from the shower, and leaning across the bathroom counter to pull his razor down the last strip of white shaving foam on his cheek. He turns his head and grins at Arthur. “Shall I kiss you, or do you want to wait until I’ve rinsed off?”
“You shaved,” Arthur says, stunned.
“Hmm,” Eames agrees, not waiting for Arthur’s answer, just grabbing him by the back of the neck and leaning in to kiss him, smooth warm skin smelling of shaving soap. “God, you look lovely. I’m sorry I missed you this morning.”
“Why did you shave?” Arthur asks, chasing helplessly after Eames’ mouth and then remembering to pull back, gathering the few shreds of dignity left to him when he’s so dizzy with the reality of Eames kissing him, Eames really being home again.
“Surely Mal told you about my great big manly hairy face,” Eames says, brows coming together. “She insisted upon photos.”
“No, she did,” Arthur says confusedly. “You look awful with a beard.”
“I look wise and learned and lovely with a beard,” Eames contradicts him, rinsing his razor in the sink and splashing water up over his bare cheeks and chin. “I look positively biblical.”
“No,” Arthur says, “you look like a sad homeless meth addict,” and he only realizes after the fact that he’s reached out to trail the backs of his fingers along Eames’ jawline. “I hate the beard,” he says, hearing his own voice faint and uncertain.
“Yes, I knew you would,” Eames says, his movements slowing. He turns his head and stares at Arthur. “Which is why I shaved straightaway.” He moves his chin a little and kisses Arthur’s fingertips gently. “Unless,” he says, “unless I shouldn’t have?”
Arthur wants to scowl and deny everything, but he can’t stop thinking about how it would have felt, that brushy soft beard against Arthur’s cheek, his mouth, his neck. Eames’ scruffy warm face tickling against Arthur’s chest, his belly, the insides of his thighs. The shock of Eames’ tongue, clever and warm and wet, darting out from that maddeningly ticklish beard, Eames’ soft lips smoothing kisses over stubble-burned tender skin.
“Well,” Eames says, and narrows his gaze the tiniest bit, “well, I’m home for another three weeks now. That’s enough time, just, I think.”
“Yeah?” Arthur says, the relief bare and vivid in his voice. “You — you would do that?”
“It’s awfully cold in Boston, still,” Eames says. “A man’s got to have some protection from the — the elem”— and the rest is lost in kissing, the last smooth-faced kiss Arthur’s going to get out of Eames for days and days to come.
“Why are you so,” Arthur asks despairingly, fisting Eames’ cowlick to hold him steady while Arthur kisses him, “how are you so”—
—“If this is all leading up to a great confession about how you were desperately wrong about the faux-hawk, I’m all ears,” Eames says, grinning, and Eames is wrong, and annoying, and deeply horribly attractive, and Arthur doesn’t know if he’ll ever find a way that he doesn’t want Eames.