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Thanksgiving, 2000

It’s strange to be driving again after so many months spent walking and riding the bus. Arthur is a little too aware of the other cars, the route he’s choosing, the rain-slippery roads. He tightens his grip on the steering wheel and casts a quick sidelong glance at his mother in the passenger seat. She looks ten times as nervous as him, which is why he’s the one driving himself home from the airport. Arthur’s mom hates rush hour.

Of course, the traffic is the least of Arthur’s anxieties at the moment.

Arthur shoots another rapid glance at his mom. “There’s something,” he says, and gets stuck.

“Sorry, what?” his mom asks, gripping at the dashboard unnecessarily as Arthur rolls to a gentle stop in the slow-moving turnpike traffic.

“Something I want to tell you,” Arthur continues, drumming his fingers on the gearshift knob. “I figure, I should get it over with.”

“Are you going to exit at I-79?” she asks, “I think that would be wise.”

“Because,” Arthur says, feeling the words come more easily all at once, “you know what they say, better out than in.” Except, of course, that’s Eames’ expression and it usually follows one or more beer-induced eructations; it could be the first time that the thought has made Arthur smile fondly instead of scowling.

His mother doesn’t respond, still craning her head to look ahead, try and divine the source of the traffic jam.

“I’m seeing someone,” Arthur says, the thought of Eames still warm in the center of his chest.

“I-79 is – you’re seeing someone? And this is the first we’re hearing of it?” Arthur’s mom says, executing one of her classic double-back guilt trips with hardly a pause.

“Well,” Arthur says, and drums his fingers again, fighting the sudden panic that wants to overtake him. “Well, it’s more than that.”

“What, is it serious already?” she asks. “Is this why you’re never in your dorm room when I call? Here I thought you were up at the conservatory practicing.”

“I usually am,” Arthur sighs, “but listen, Mom, it’s”—and another trick borrowed from Eames, deep steadying singer’s breath and then nothing to do but expend it – “his name is Eames.”

The thing is, Arthur’s mom – both his parents, really – they’re liberal open-minded people, they have always been pretty clear that they don’t think there’s anything wrong with being gay, that it’s more important to them that you treat people well and act responsibly. And yet, despite all that, it’s still completely terrifying for Arthur to be here in this moment, coming out to his mom in rush hour the day before Thanksgiving.

“Eames, that’s an interesting name,” says Arthur’s mom, a little too brightly.

Arthur rolls forward a few feet before having to stop again. “So?” he asks, his voice tight and breaking just a little.

“Well, it’s a lot to take in, sweetheart,” she answers vaguely. “I mean, I suppose we sort of guessed, but it’s something else, it’s still new, to hear it said.”

Arthur stares blankly at the blue Mazda ahead of them.

Arthur’s mom squeezes his knee suddenly. “We love you no matter what.”

Back at college, Arthur had rehearsed this moment with Eames on the rare occasion when Eames was being serious enough to do anything other than practice his semi-offensive impressions of the stereotypical Jewish mother figure. The mock conversations had always ended here, with Arthur’s mother telling Arthur she loved him anyway (occasionally tagged with Eames flapping one hand and shouting Oy, my handsome little schnook, you’ve got me all verklempt here before he tackled Arthur and kissed his cheeks with great vigor.)

Arthur was big on rehearsal, but they had officially entered into the territory of improvisation. “I know, Mom.”

“Your father might not—“ she began, then stopped. “Let’s tell him after dinner, all right?”

“Dad is okay with gay people,” Arthur half-asked, even though he knew it was true.

“It’s one thing to have gay friends and colleagues,” said Arthur’s mother, and let Arthur fill in the rest himself. “He’ll get there, sweetheart. Just, know that it might take him a little longer.”

Arthur follows the blue Mazda forward another six feet and is forced to stop again.

“Are you being careful?” his mom says.

“Jesus, Mom,” Arthur says, blushing.

“I’m entitled to ask,” she maintains in the exact same tone she used whenever she quizzed Arthur’s older brother Aaron about his high school relationships.

“Am I entitled not to tell you?” Arthur returns, a lot more politely than Aaron ever had.

“Just say you’re safe, I don’t need details,” she presses.

“We’re safe,” Arthur says, his neck warming now. The blue Mazda’s left turn signal flickers to life; their lane must be blocked up ahead. Arthur turns on his own signal and shoulder-checks to see if anyone seems inclined to let him into the next lane over.

“Because I’m not being prejudiced, Arthur, there’s a higher rate of STIs among young gay men. Just because someone’s clear for HIV doesn’t mean it’s okay to diddle around without protection. You can get throat infections from – you know.”

“Mom!” Arthur says, because she’s chosen the moment of his actual lane change to make a truly psychologically damaging gesture with her hand and mouth. He’s suddenly getting why Aaron would go straight to belligerence every time their mother tried to do this with him. It can suck when your mom’s a public health nurse.

“I’m just saying, boys your age aren’t always as faithful as you might like, and there’s no harm in being extra cautious.” She resettles herself in her seat. “I’ll give you a couple of pamphlets when we get home.”

“Mom,” Arthur says again, despairing. He wishes he could go back in time just two minutes, to the innocent age when he’d honestly believed his mom didn’t know what a blow job was, much less how to pantomime the act.

“And some condoms, I have boxes and boxes of condoms.” She pats his knee. “They’re lubricated, very popular with your community.”

“Oh my god,” Arthur says, and then like the divine answer to his prayer, they are suddenly around the stalled semi truck that’s blocking traffic and Arthur is able to hit the gas and merge back into his lane and focus entirely on the road. “I’ll take I-79,” Arthur says, zipping around the blue Mazda, glad to see it in his rearview mirror at last. “You’re right, that’s faster at this time of day.”

Arthur hasn’t been back home since spring break, and that was before anything had happened with Eames. At the time, Aaron had just dropped out of community college (again) and got a job tending bar (again) and the whole time Arthur was back had involved a lot of shouting between his parents and his older brother and Arthur had mostly shut himself in with his beloved Yamaha baby grand and worked on his Ravel for jury.

Things are much quieter this time. When Arthur and his mother come in via the back door, Arthur’s dad is tossing the salad and Aaron is setting the table, and everyone stops for a minute to come and offer embraces and (in Aaron’s case) noogies, and exclamations on Arthur’s long hair (“No barbers out there?” says Arthur’s dad), and the heaviness of his suitcase (“Books, such a huge nerd, little Arthur.”).

Over dinner, Arthur’s father grills him on school, on his piano teacher and his course load and his grades while Arthur eats as much as he can pack in, starved for his dad’s amazing cooking and the simplicity of someone sitting you down and feeding you. Even Aaron, usually too preoccupied with his own life to pay any attention to his younger brother, seems interested in Arthur’s schooling,.

“Your favorite,” Arthur’s dad says, bringing a steaming casserole full of apple crisp to the table.

“For your favorite child,” says Aaron, but he’s grinning at Arthur and punching him playfully in the arm so Arthur knows it’s okay to smile back, to lean across the table eagerly with his bowl to snag the coveted first serving, messy and with lots of crumbly topping mixed into it.

“How’s Rachel?” Arthur asks, feeling warm and cozy, talking around a mouthful of almost-too-hot apple crisp.

The abrupt frisson of discomfort is unsettling to say the least.

“Rachel is great,” Aaron answers, cheerily enough but with an edge to his tone. “Much better off without me, actually, from what she tells me.”

“Seriously?” Arthur asks, more than a little heartbroken. Rachel and Aaron – the perfect couple, the one thing Aaron seemed to have gotten right in a long history of doing stupid things – they’re really over?

“Speaking of relationships,” Arthur’s mother breaks in, “I think Arthur has some news in that area.”

Things must be truly bad between Aaron and Rachel if a segue into Arthur’s coming-out speech seems like a good option. Arthur opens and closes his mouth, feeling his brother and father’s eyes coming to bear on him. “Uh,” Arthur says, and looks over at his mother. She’s giving him an encouraging smile. “So.”

Aaron’s expression is one of skepticism; Arthur’s dad is more neutrally expectant.

“So,” Arthur says again, letting out a held breath. “So, the first thing is that I’m gay.”

“Oh, my god, Joey Swanson so owes me twenty bucks,” Aaron crows.

“You – you’re,” says Arthur’s dad. “Well, son, that’s –“

“You bet on me being gay?” Arthur asks Aaron. “With Joey Swanson?”

“He said you were just all artsy and shit, and I told him that I like drawing and everything but there’s a big difference between being into art and liking—“

“Aaron!” Arthur says, aggrieved and feeling about ten years old again and completely under the power of his too-cool teenage brother.

“Liking guys, I was going to say, jesus, Artie, get your mind out of the gutter, you little pervert.” Aaron takes advantage of their parents’ distraction to reach over and grab a second helping of dessert.

“I’m not a pervert,” Arthur answers, scowling. “Mom?”

“Aaron, that’s enough,” says Arthur’s mom. “Arthur, go on.”

Right, the second part. Arthur braves a look at his father, who is stirring his serving of apple crisp looking thoughtful and distracted.

“The second part,” Arthur says, heaving a sigh, “is that I’m seeing someone.”

Arthur’s dad drops his spoon, but not on purpose; he apologizes for the sound even as the spoon clatters in his bowl.

Silence reigns.

“I’ll go ahead and ask what everyone’s thinking,” Aaron volunteers. “Is he a nice Jewish boy?”

“Aaron,” Arthur’s mother warns, but then she seems to rethink her reaction. “Is he?”

“Mom,” Arthur says. “His name is Eames, not Silverman.”

“That’s his last name?” Arthur’s mom says, eyebrows shooting up.

“Wait, you call your boyfriend by his last name?” Aaron presses, grinning. “What is he, a gangster?”

“His first name is Charles,” Arthur tells them, still half-waiting for any kind of response from his father. “He just goes by his last name, I don’t know why.”

“Charles Eames,” Aaron says, affecting a Boston accent, “of the Massachusetts Eameses.”

“Sort of,” Arthur concedes, “but he’s from England, actually.”

“Charles Eames,” Aaron tries again, stuffy like Winston Churchill.

“Would you cut it out?” Arthur says. “God, Aaron, enough.”

“Enough, Aaron,” Arthur’s mother agrees. “Why don’t you clear the table and give your father and Arthur a minute to talk?” She rises too, gathering up bowls and spoons and shooting a look at Arthur’s father that Arthur can’t interpret.

And then they’re alone, Arthur and his dad, without even apple crumble as a buffer.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur says, even though he’d solemnly sworn to Eames that he wouldn’t apologize, he wouldn’t do it, even if he felt it. But Arthur’s dad looks so – Arthur doesn’t even know. He hasn’t seen this before. His father looks tired.

But slowly he shakes his head and looks over at Arthur. “No, don’t be sorry.”

“I know it’s not,” Arthur begins, and swallows hard. “I’m not what you.”

Arthur’s dad reaches across, pats Arthur’s hand. “Hey. It’s just – takes some adjusting to, that’s all.”

Arthur sits with that, feeling like a terrible disappointment. How Aaron has invoked this reaction from their parents multiple times, Arthur will never understand. It’s a terrible, crushing feeling.

“Your mother already gave you the talk about being safe, I’m guessing?” Arthur’s dad says, lifting his hand, settling back into his chair with a weary sigh.

“Yeah,” Arthur says, pulling back too out of some instinct, crossing his arms over his chest and tucking his hands into his armpits.

“That’s good, that’s good,” Arthur’s dad says vaguely. “Listen, I love you.”

“I know,” Arthur says. “Me too.”

Arthur’s mom bustles back into the room, probably having eavesdropped from the kitchen the whole time. “Well, this Charles Eames is coming home with you at winter break.” Her hand settles on Arthur’s hunched shoulder, warm and capable and brooking no argument.

“He might not be able to,” Arthur tries.

She squeezes, nips down to kiss Arthur’s cheek, but buried in all that motherly affection Arthur can sense her familiar will of iron. “Just for the first few days,” she says. “Longer if he wants.”

“He’s probably going back to England,” Arthur says.

“He can fly out of Pittsburgh if he does,” says Arthur’s mother. “Problem solved.”

Arthur scrubs his hands over his face and wonders how on earth he’s going to explain this to Eames.

After dinner, Arthur digs his scores out of his carry-on bag and heads for the small studio that’s been his exclusive domain ever since Aaron quit piano at the age of eleven. The Yamaha baby grand now occupying the room is a more recent addition, having displaced a much smaller and more modest off-brand upright after Arthur had carried first place in four different categories at the state level, aged fourteen. Back then, the advent of the Yamaha had seemed miraculous, overwhelming – the sleek black body of the instrument an impossible luxury right here in Arthur’s house.

Arthur stands in the doorway of the studio and stares for a moment; the Yamaha looks so small, suddenly, petite and delicate compared to Mal’s Bösendorfer, her Steinway.

He puts the lid on full-stick, something which his mother has forbidden for everyday practicing. He figures she’ll let it slide tonight.

Arthur is learning Mozart for the concerto competition – Miles’ choice, not his. Arthur had made a pained face at the very suggestion, in fact, but Miles had insisted. “Looking at your hands, the faculty will all expect Rachmaninoff, Liszt, the late romantics with the octaves and the bombastic four-note chords,” he’d told Arthur, taking one of Arthur’s admittedly generously-sized hands between his own and spreading out Arthur’s long fingers. “I want you to show them how these same hands can be delicate and sparkling, light as bubbles in champagne.”

“Mozart,” Arthur sighs now, opening his score to the second movement. At least his mother will like it, he thinks. At least it’s not Scarlatti or Clementi or another one of those frothy Italian classical composers. Mozart was a genius, even if he wrote for a smaller breathier instrument than even the Yamaha here.

Arthur flexes his fingers, lays them over the keys, and begins his warm-up. As his hands and arms limber up and fall into familiar patterns, Arthur loses track of where he is, of everything that’s happened today, subsumed in the blissful ritual of it all.

Aaron lives in the single attic room over the detached garage but he has remarkably little shame about the fact, constantly wandering into the main house in search of food or entertainment. When Arthur goes, next morning, to check his email, he finds Aaron parked in front of his parents’ computer.

“How long are you going to be?” Arthur sighs.

“I don’t know,” Aaron says. He seems to be simply watching a page full of animated hamsters bob up and down. The speakers are piping out a horrifyingly repetitive melody sung in a chipmunk voice.

“Is this something important?” Arthur asks pointedly.

“Mom and Dad got high-speed,” Aaron says. “Look, ma, no phones.”

“They got high-speed so you could go to” Arthur checks. “‘Hamster’ with a ‘p’ in it?”

“Well, apparently it’s for Dad’s work,” Aaron says, “but he never uses it.” He looks over his shoulder at Arthur. “I’m checking my email in a second, fuck off.”

“You have email?” Arthur asks, doubtfully.

“Hotmail,” Aaron says, lifting one hand, making a horned rocker gesture. “Seriously, fuck off.”

“I have to check my email, too,” Arthur says. “For school?”

“Yeah, well,” Aaron says, “get in line. And fuck off.”

“Aaron,” Arthur says, hating that Aaron can somehow still make him whine.

“Fuck off!” Aaron sings.

Arthur gives Aaron’s desk chair a kick, but he leaves the office anyway.

There’s nothing to do in McMurray PA, that much is unchanged. Arthur hasn’t got many people he’d call friends from high school, and the best of them have gone to schools so far away that they aren’t home for a short holiday like Thanksgiving. He makes some calls anyway, just to check. No one is around.

“Do you need any help?” Arthur asks his dad, wandering into the kitchen. It’s barely noon but already the counters are covered with vegetables and bread cubes and all of Dad’s fresh-from-the-greenhouse herbs. “Can I chop something?”

“With those fingers?” Arthur’s dad says. “I don’t think so.” He hands Arthur a bowl of potatoes and a peeler. “Here, less chance of a career-ending injury.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Arthur says, smiling, and gets to work.

It feels good, getting into the accustomed patterns of conversation and activity with his dad, doing something helpful and productive again, rolling his eyes and smiling reluctantly at his father’s bad puns. Arthur’s dad works in publishing – though, as Arthur tells his friends, not the interesting kind with novels and poetry and short stories. Mostly the publishing house deals with technical manuals, that sort of thing. Arthur’s always thought of it as a deeply boring job but as his dad strays onto the subject, Arthur moves from simply enjoying the easy back-and-forth of the conversation into actual interest in his dad’s work, his colleagues, his plans.

At some point Aaron wanders into the kitchen and starts sticking his fingers into bowls, tasting everything.

“That’s disgusting, cut it out,” Arthur tells him.

“It’s all going in the oven, it’ll be sterilized enough for you by the time you have to eat it,” Aaron says. “Don’t be so goddamn finicky, Artie.”

Arthur pulls the bowl of diced yams out of Aaron’s reach. “Are you going to help or are you just here to be an annoying ass?”

“’An annoying ass’?” Aaron quotes back at him, going with the Churchill accent again. “Did you learn that from Charles Eames? Or should I call him Prince Charles? Your majesty?”

Arthur ignores Aaron, not without difficulty. Their dad has gone humorless and quiet again at the mention of Eames.

“I think you’re going to be a really pretty princess, though,” Aaron adds, elbows on the counter.

“That’s enough, Aaron,” says their dad suddenly, sharply. “Leave Arthur alone.”

Aaron straightens up and ambles out of the kitchen with the air of an offended cat.

“You don’t let him bully you,” says Arthur’s dad, with nearly the same intensity. “You stand up for yourself.”

“Dad, it’s Aaron, he likes being a jerk to me,” Arthur protests, losing the warm glow he’d felt at his father’s unexpected intervention.

“Lots of people are jerks,” says Arthur’s dad. “You don’t just sit there and take it.”

Arthur sets down the rolling pin, abandoning the piecrust he’d been rolling out. “I’m not, I don’t,” he says, hurt.

“You stand up for yourself,” Arthur’s dad says again, gruffly. “You hear me?”

“I do,” Arthur attempts, angry at himself for feeling so hurt, on the verge of instinctive childish tears at getting this tone from his usually benevolent father. “Dad.”

“He says stuff like that, you have to –“

“What, punch him out?” Arthur asks, tautly. “So much for caring about my hands.”

“Did I say you had to fight?” Arthur’s dad returns, chopping up pecans, not turning to look at Arthur. “Is that what I said? No, I said you just don’t sit there and let people”—

“I think you’ve got it from here,” Arthur says, and leaves, because if he stays one more second he’s pretty sure his dad will be well and truly disgusted with his teary-eyed weak son.

The computer is free this time. Arthur launches the web browser and points it to email, blinking hard and focusing all his energy on hoping that Eames has written him, that he’s sent something to anchor Arthur and remind him of his life back at college where no one makes him feel like utter shit with such ease.

He breathes a sigh of relief when the school email shows a few unopened messages. He clicks on the most recent.

Eat turkey for me.

x Eames

Arthur hits reply hastily, because the timestamp on the email is only a few minutes ago.

Are you there? Go on ICQ.

He clicks on the chat program and drums his fingers on the desk, waiting for the thing to log him in. It’s pretty fast – thank god for high speed – but then there’s another long wait while Arthur watches Eames’ offline icon, hoping it will blink green.

Eames messages him a second later.

4shagscall: hey hows the turkey

piano_kid: Still in the oven.

4shagscall: i meant you love

piano_kid: Can I come home yet? I hate it here.

4shagscall: really? thought it was all stuffing your face and holding hands round the table and shit like that.
4shagscall: popular american tv has lied to me????

piano_kid: I’m serious. I miss you.

4shagscall: … darling.

piano_kid: Would you stop?

4shagscall: whats going on then

Arthur hesitates.

4shagscall: arthur. i thought you said your family were a lot of pinko queer-lovin liberals
4shagscall: am i meant to get really worried now

Arthur types again, quickly.

piano_kid: No, that part actually went ok, sort of.

4shagscall: youre not holed up in a pantry with a bottle of jack

piano_kid: What????

4shagscall: sorry thats how it went over chez Eames
4shagscall: i did get a good drunk on though

piano_kid: My big brother is such a dick.
piano_kid: And my dad is all, ‘Be a man!’

4shagscall: bugger them all then
4shagscall: what are u wearing

Arthur rolls his eyes at the screen.

4shagscall: youre in the middle of the living room or something arent u

piano_kid: Would that stop you?

4shagscall: of course not. trying to get a proper visual on this end is all

Arthur finds himself smiling helplessly, picturing Eames at the computer in his – sort of, de facto, their -- apartment, probably still in his pajamas even though it’s one in the afternoon, hair going seven directions and most likely with his left hand down the front of his sweats.

piano_kid: You always make me feel better.

4shagscall: no no youre meant to say something like i always make you feel so good

piano_kid: I’m serious.

4shagscall: when are you not
4shagscall: he said with the greatest of tenderness

piano_kid: Wish I was there.

4shagscall: so does my cock
4shagscall: sorry that was just too easy
4shagscall: and yet true
4shagscall: arthur
4shagscall: ?

piano_kid: Sorry, I couldn’t type, I had both my hands down my pants.

4shagscall: ah fuck tell me more

Arthur laughs and shakes his head, but gamely begins to type.

Arthur’s mom, who has been working a day shift since the early morning, gets home in time to shout at Arthur and Aaron and make them set the table. The earlier tension between Arthur and his brother seems to have eased a little, and they cooperate amiably enough in accomplishing the old familiar chore.

“That a tattoo?” Arthur asks quietly, catching sight of something dark peeking out from the cuff of Aaron’s shirt. Aaron is a doodler; he drew on himself so much in high school that it’s been years since their parents even bothered to complain about the habit.

Aaron tugs up his shirtsleeve to reveal a dark curving pattern that covers the underside of his forearm. “If they ask, it’s just a Sharpie drawing,” Aaron replies, matching Arthur’s hushed tone. “I know, you think it’s gross or whatever.”

“No,” Arthur says, shaking his head. “It’s really cool, actually, I like the pattern.”

“I designed it,” Aaron says, squeezing a quick grin in Arthur’s direction while he tugs the sleeve back. “You really like it? I thought you thought tattoos were dumb.”

“Well,” Arthur admits, smirking a little, “Eames has a few.”

“Bad boy?” Aaron asks, pulling an impressed face. “Arthur!”

Arthur’s smile broadens. “Sort of. He’s just – he’s him.”

“That’s cool, I get that.” Aaron’s eyes go from teasing to something more sober in a blink, and for a second Arthur sees real sadness there -- but then their mom comes in with the mashed potatoes and the conversation is over.

“We should say the blessing,” says their mother once everyone is seated and the candles are lit.

“Mom,” Aaron groans.

“Really?” Arthur chimes in.

“Hold hands,” she orders briefly. “Peter, you give the blessing.”

Arthur’s dad looks puzzled, probably trying to remember what prayer they use as the Hebrew blessing for Thanksgiving.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, She-he-chi-anu V’kimanu V’higi-anu L’zman Ha-zeh,” he rattles off at last.

“Amen,” Arthur and Aaron mutter, glad to break the handclasp between them, casting each other long-suffering Mom-and-her-Hebrew-school-obsession looks.

Then again, Arthur thinks, as they begin to pass around the food, Eames would be thrilled with the handholding and praying. It might be interesting, actually, having him here for a visit -- sort of like watching a duck try and swim through jell-o.

“Oh my god,” says Aaron, staggering over to the sofa and collapsing into it.

“Seriously,” Arthur agrees, blissed out and yet dangerously near to throwing up. He claims the armchair, the fly of his pants pressing uncomfortably into his belly as he sits.

“This is why I can’t leave home,” Aaron tells. “Dad’s cooking. It’s like the ultimate Jewish parent trick.”

“I can’t even tell you how much I missed it,” Arthur groans. He checks his watch; it’s already nearly eight o’clock. Arthur’s mom is busy chatting with her sister in Long Island; their dad has retreated to his office to read. Arthur really should go and put in some time on the piano, he hasn’t touched it since yesterday.

“Don’t, man. Just – hang out for a bit.” Aaron twists his head to get a better angle to look at Arthur. “I know, you miss your piano. But – stay for a bit?”

Arthur is more than surprised; he doesn’t think he can recall a single other time when Aaron has requested his presence. The shock, more than anything, settles Arthur back into the armchair. “Okay?” he says.

Aaron folds his hands behind his head. “Do you want to do Playstation or something?”

Arthur makes a face.

“Right, cramps up your fingers,” Aaron says. “TV?” Without waiting for Arthur’s answer, Aaron digs out the remote and clicks the power button. The TV flickers to life, tuned to CNN. Aaron surfs until he hits MTV and then knocks the volume up a little: Eminem. “You still hate this stuff or has your tattooed friend changed your mind?”

“Eames doesn’t watch MTV,” Arthur replies honestly. “We don’t have cable, anyway.”

“Huh,” says Aaron. “Shacked up?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Arthur says, “don’t tell Mom.”

“Duh,” Aaron answers easily. “He goes to your school too?”

“Yeah,” Arthur says, watching Eminem proclaim himself the real Slim Shady. “He’s a grad student though.”

“Older tattooed man,” Aaron says, and whistles low. “Definitely not telling Mom about that.”

Arthur hides his smile with the back of one hand. It does sound sort of cool, the way Aaron has put it.

“But he’s a good guy,” Aaron says, not quite asking.

Arthur remembers Eames’ little instant message from earlier -- am i meant to get really worried now -- and nods. “Good guy, definitely.” Arthur jiggles his knee. On the TV, the video changes to Third Eye Blind. Arthur thinks he’s heard the song on the radio in the SU pub that Eames always drags him to. “So,” Arthur tries, “so – you and Rachel.”

“Yeah,” Aaron returns with a sigh.

“What did you do?” Arthur asks.

“What makes you think it was me?” Aaron shoots back, but without energy.

Arthur pulls a face but doesn’t answer.

“She’s pissed at me because I asked her to marry me,” Aaron tells Arthur. “Don’t tell Mom.”

“Duh,” Arthur replies automatically, even though most of his brain is still trying to take in what Aaron just said. “You – seriously? You asked her to marry you?”

“I’m twenty-four, dude,” Aaron says, staring blankly at the TV. “It’s not that unreasonable.”

“Yeah, but,” Arthur says, and barely stops himself from saying it: you live over the garage and have a shitty job.

“I know,” says Aaron. “Fuck.”

“I don’t get why that made her break up with you,” Arthur replies, genuinely confused now.

“You and me both,” Aaron sighs, and clicks the volume up a little more.

Brotherly bonding time is over, Arthur gathers from this. He stays through three more music videos and then heaves himself up and heads for the studio. Aaron doesn’t say anything, just keeps frowning at the screen.

4shagscall: still hating your family?

piano_kid: Better today.
piano_kid: What’s up there?

4shagscall: arthur.
4shagscall: don’t make it too easy for me to be filthy at you

piano_kid: Actually, my parents are out. Black Friday shopping.
piano_kid: My brother is over at his place.
piano_kid: And the door locks on this room.
piano_kid: So…
piano_kid: ?
piano_kid: Are you still there?
piano_kid: Eames, if you’re in the conservatory computer lab please say so, this is not fucking funny.

4shagscall: youre right, its hard to type with both hands on your cock
4shagscall: and of course my cock is too huge to type with, it would be like typing with a cricket bat

piano_kid: Eames.
piano_kid: You never asked what I’m wearing.

4shagscall: fuuuuuck

piano_kid: I may have taken one or two articles of your clothing with me to Pittsburgh.

4shagscall: oh shit did you

piano_kid: You didn’t notice your lucky blue underwear was missing?

4shagscall: arthur you are bloody marvellous, do go on

piano_kid: Well, there’s not much else to tell you. Blue underwear and a smile?

4shagscall: hang on, let me catch you up, taking off my jeans and shirt

piano_kid: This is actually – wow. Are you really doing this?
piano_kid: You’re not kidding, right?
piano_kid: Because I’m not kidding, I’m really sitting here in your underwear.
piano_kid: Eames?

4shagscall: im back, im bloody serious, tell me more about you in my underwear

piano_kid: This is embarrassing.

4shagscall: arthurrrrrrr

piano_kid: Okay, well. Your underwear. It’s – a little wet. In a certain spot.

4shagscall: fuck yes

piano_kid: Am I supposed to – I guess I am.
piano_kid: i;m typing with 1 hand now

4shagscall: me too. god.

piano_kid: i miss your hands, mine isnt the same

4shagscall: my hands miss your cock too
4shagscall: my mouth does
4shagscall: i want to know what you look like now, christ, how your chest goes pink and you breathe hard and the sounds you make

piano_kid: fuck fuck youre amazing at this

4shagscall: tell me when you come, i want to know
4shagscall: mash the fucking keyboard and hit enter, honestly, i just want to know when
4shagscall: come for me arthur
4shagscall: and when youre done you take off the underwear and dont wash them i want to know how you missed me

piano_kid: dgfssssssssss

4shagscall: fuck yeah me too me too

piano_kid: Wow. That was…wow.
piano_kid: Were you kidding about the underwear? They’re pretty – yeah.

4shagscall: not fucking kidding, no
4shagscall: dont be so surprised, ive said plenty worse when youre sucking my cock

piano_kid: I guess it feels different seeing it on the screen.

4shagscall: you got come on your parents computer screen??? well done you!!!!

piano_kid: Eames.

4shagscall: arthurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

piano_kid: Now I’m naked in my dad’s office and I’m holding some seriously gross underwear.
piano_kid: But – thanks.
piano_kid: That wasn’t supposed to be sarcastic. In case you wondered.

4shagscall: i was just sitting here thanking the gods of consumerism for the gift of black friday
4shagscall: that was nearly as good as a proper go round with you

piano_kid: How is it that you can spell ‘consumerism’ but not use a single apostrophe?

4shagscall: the british public school system is total shit, i went to eton with the fucking prince of wales and hes practically illiterate

piano_kid: Did you really?

4shagscall: settle down, wills is totally not into cock
4shagscall: i asked

piano_kid: BULLSHIT.

4shagscall: you know me, would i seriously miss the chance to shag a future king of england mate

piano_kid: You’re so gross, he’s younger than me! Isn’t he, like, seventeen?

4shagscall: it is too easy to wind you up darling

piano_kid: I have to go.
piano_kid: I hear Aaron in the kitchen, I need to get dressed and sneak your gross underwear up into my suitcase.

4shagscall: sunday then

piano_kid: Sunday, yeah.
piano_kid: Gotta go.

4shagscall: bring me turkey xxx

piano_kid: By the way, my mom wants you to come for winter break. Bye!
piano_kid has logged off

Arthur has only played maybe four hours total since arriving on Wednesday evening, so he tries to make up some of the deficit by playing flat out all of Saturday morning. His mother comes and hovers in the doorway, smiling and fond and not a little distracting now that Arthur’s used to a closed practice room.

“What?” Arthur asks, drilling a hard bit in the opening movement of the Mozart.

“Nothing,” says Arthur’s mother. “Just, I missed hearing you in here.”

Arthur grimaces.

“It sounds so beautiful, sweetheart. You make me very proud.”

“Thanks,” Arthur mutters, embarrassed.

“Your father too,” she adds, not meaning the piano playing anymore.

“I know,” Arthur returns, fixing his eyes on the score.

“Just give him time,” adds his mom.

“Mom,” Arthur says, exasperated. “I know.”

“Mmm, my little sweet baby,” she says, getting into it now, coming closer and grabbing him in a hug from behind, kissing his hair.

“Mom!” Arthur grouses, but he’s fighting back laughter and so is she. They wind up in sort of a half Nelson, Arthur only putting up token resistance and his mother kissing the tip of his ear. “Promise me you won’t do this in front of Eames,” Arthur says, submitting at last.

“Of course not,” she says, but there is a little too much wicked pleasure in her voice for Arthur’s taste.

“You’re so embarrassing,” Arthur groans.

“I love your little dimples,” she returns, and lets him go with one last kiss. “Aaron never lets me do that anymore.”

“What’s his secret?” Arthur pretends to ask, which earns him a whack on the head before his mother leaves the room.

Arthur gets back to practicing, but not without an unwilling smile still adorning his face.

There’s a narrow escape that evening when Arthur’s mom volunteers to do his laundry and Arthur barely remembers in time – Eames’ underwear, very clearly not mother-ready – and hastily says something about how he doesn’t mind, he’ll do it.

This leads to Arthur standing in the basement at the ironing board, eight o’clock on Saturday night, carefully pressing all his freshly laundered shirts and pants to get them ready for packing.

“Party time for Arthur,” says Aaron, thumping down the stairs. “Did you take my shit out of the dryer?”

“Yeah,” Arthur says, and points over at a folded stack of clothes.

“Oh good, I have no clean jeans and I have to be at work in like twenty minutes.” Aaron digs through the neat pile, tossing t-shirts in ten directions, and pulls out a pair of jeans. He wastes no time, unbuttoning the pair he’s wearing and shucking them off into a knotted mess of denim. “So, I’m working late tonight, I’ll probably still be asleep when you take off tomorrow.”

Arthur sprays a little starch on his shirt collar, presses it down again. “I figured.”

Aaron wriggles into the fresh pair of jeans but doesn’t bother doing them up, electing instead to peel out of his t-shirt and kick through the mess of clean clothes for another. “So, you’re back next month, right?”

“Yeah,” Arthur agrees. He turns the shirt over and folds the collar, checking the points. It looks nice, though it’ll probably need a quick pressing when he unpacks again.

“That’s good, that’s good,” Aaron says, distracted. He picks up a white t-shirt, yanks it over his head, then snags a black button-down shirt to go over it. “Did you iron this?”

“Just a little,” Arthur admits.

“Thanks, man,” Aaron says, buttoning the cuffs, looking down at himself. “Wow, I haven’t worn an ironed shirt since Mom quit doing my laundry five years ago.”

“No problem,” Arthur says, and smiles at Aaron. “You, um. You seem like you’re in a better mood.”

Aaron runs one finger under his shirt collar, straightening it out. “Yeah, well. Rachel, she called me back, she wants to talk.”

“That’s awesome,” Arthur says, meaning it.

Aaron sweeps his hair back from his face, scrubs it in that bizarre messy way that Arthur can never quite pull off himself, and smiles with half his mouth. “It’s not fixed, yet,” he says. “I mean, it’s really fucking far from fixed.”

“You’ll fix it,” Arthur says, confident, because Aaron is a master of apologies and second (and third, and fourth) chances.

“I hope so, I fucking hope,” Aaron says, fiddling with the fly of his jeans, and suddenly, shockingly, Arthur realizes that Aaron is only a little older than Eames, which is bizarre because Aaron has always been so much older than Arthur, older and cooler and more confident – but here he is with this look of vulnerability and fear, and Arthur suddenly can see it, that Aaron isn’t that far ahead after all. “Shit,” Aaron says, voice a little shaky.

“You’ll fix it, Aaron,” Arthur says again, with all the confidence he can muster.

Aaron looks over at him and offers him a bitter twist of a smile. “Be glad you’re gay, that’s all I can say. You will never have to deal with this shit.”

“I don’t know about that,” Arthur says ruefully, thinking of his and Eames’ epic argument last spring, and all the smaller squabbles they’ve weathered since then about dumb shit like Arthur correcting Eames’ grammar and Eames pouting whenever Arthur has to do actual schoolwork instead of coming over to Eames’ place.

“Trust me,” says Aaron, “it’s different shit with girls.” He tugs on his cuffs and shrugs, barefooted and slouchy and just a little bit taller than Arthur. “See you next month, little brother.”

“Yeah, see you,” Arthur says, moving on to the next shirt.

Aaron kicks him in the back of the knee, playfully and yet somehow hard enough to hurt, before heading back up the stairs.

Arthur’s dad drives him back to the airport the next morning. They talk about school and the concerto competition and Sunday morning traffic and whether Arthur would eventually need a car out at college and how long it would take to drive to and from Pittsburgh for holidays.

It’s a lot like their conversations always used to be, actually, Arthur realizes.

“Thanks for the lift and everything,” Arthur says as his dad helps him get his (overstuffed) suitcase out of the trunk.

“Call when you get there,” says Arthur’s dad. “Your mother gets worried.”

“I will,” Arthur promises. Usually, they would hug right now.

Arthur’s dad sticks out his hand instead. This actually comes as a weird relief, this gruff manly gesture between them. Arthur gives his dad’s hand a firm grip, a strong shake, and they pat each other’s shoulders, and then Arthur is waving goodbye and lugging his suitcase into the terminal building.

It’s actually not that difficult, taking a Tupperware container of frozen turkey through security.

“You didn’t really,” Eames says, so pleased that his usually wide and easy smile is confined a small careful curve. They’re still in the middle of the train station; Arthur’s only just found him among the crowds of people, and the first thing he did was hand Eames the still-cool plastic box.

“Of course I did,” Arthur says, feeling his own smile threatening to overwhelm him. He doesn’t know if they’re the kind of couple who reunites with lavish kisses and embraces in public; they’re new at this, standing a couple of feet apart even as they smile and smile at each other.

Eames reaches for Arthur’s suitcase and their fingers tangle in the handle for a few wonderful seconds. When Arthur meets Eames’ eyes again, Eames looks apologetic and fond. “It’s not that I don’t want to kiss you,” he says, “only I’m afraid of getting done for public indecency if I start.”

“Hold still, then,” Arthur orders him, and puts his hand on the side of Eames’ face, his gorgeous lean jaw firm and familiar under Arthur’s palm. The kiss is quick, but Arthur manages to linger over it anyway, a glancing press of lip to lip matched with a small hungry exhalation through his nose. “I see what you mean,” Arthur admits, backing off. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”


Hanukkah, 2000

“Oy vey, my tukhus is so sore from schlepping this stuff around all day long,” Eames says, dragging himself along theatrically, his Pullman suitcase rolling behind him.

“That’s the last one,” Arthur replies, “no more Yiddish.” He’s a few steps ahead of Eames, shoulders squared and moving briskly.

“I’m getting in the Hanukkah spirit,” Eames retorts, feigning hurt, letting his accent drop back into its normal English tones.

“I mean it,” Arthur scowls, “Eames, it’s not funny, trust me.”

“Oh, darling,” Eames says, charmed as always by Arthur’s surliness. “I’d never embarrass you in front of your family, dearest love.”

“That too, cut that out,” Arthur adds, glancing back over his shoulder, picking up the pace. “None of that over-the-top poofy English bullshit either, just be normal.”

“Poofy English bullshit?” Eames repeats, shocked, coming to an abrupt halt. “Poofy English bullshit?” he says again, hitting every word with audible italics.

“Eames,” Arthur says, pivoting and looking back, his expression suddenly pleading. He seems to recognize this last as a misstep, at least. “Come on, you know what I mean.”

“Oh, I know exactly what you mean, you want me to butch it up for your intolerant family who apparently can’t even take a joke from your poofy gentile boyfriend.” Eames lets go of his suitcase and folds his arms across his chest, narrowing his eyes at Arthur and frowning. Arthur would probably say he’s pouting, but Eames is not about to be put off by Arthur’s exasperation and nerves.

“Yeah, that’s exactly it,” Arthur says, deadpan, unmoved. “Come on, hurry up, my dad hates waiting.” He turns, about to resume his harried rush for the terminal exit, but pauses almost right away, sighing, shoulders dropping with defeat. Arthur faces Eames again and takes a step towards him, worried and contrite. “Hey,” Arthur says, “I didn’t mean it, I’m just – this is really nerve-wracking, that’s all.”

Eames blinks at him, puzzled. What must it be like, for Arthur, to actually give a shit what his family thinks of him? Eames can’t remember a single time he ever cared about impressing his parents, about pleasing them.

“They’ll like you,” Arthur says, sounding as though he’s pretty sure they won’t. “Just – go easy on them at first, they’re still getting used to this whole thing where I like boys.”

“Of course I’ll go easy on them,” Eames says, shaking his head, telling himself he really will. “Arthur.”

Arthur reaches up, strokes a hand through Eames’ hair, tries to smile but can’t quite manage it.

When Arthur turns around to grab his suitcase, though, Eames realizes that someone else has already got a hold of its handle. The man is middle-aged, tall and thin and with short dark graying hair. “Dad,” Arthur says, going pale. “Uh, hi. I thought we were meeting you outside.”

“Well,” says Arthur’s dad, looking like he wishes he had, “well, I thought it would be nicer to come in and meet your – do a proper introduction.” He sticks out a hand, leaning around Arthur to make eye contact with Eames. “Peter Goldberg, so glad to finally meet you.”

“Charles Eames,” says Eames, shaking Arthur’s dad’s hand, blinking a little at how very like Arthur this man is. It’s like looking thirty years into the future. “I’m very pleased to meet you too, thanks ever so much for inviting me.”

Arthur is visibly relieved that Eames has neither spoken any Yiddish nor called Arthur ‘darling’. Eames feels his stomach warm at this, and guesses he can imagine wanting to please someone, maybe, if not a parent.

“Here, let me,” says Arthur’s dad, reaching for Eames’ suitcase, but Eames politely insists that he doesn’t mind. Arthur is the one left to walk between Eames and Mr. Goldberg with only his messenger bag, already tensing miserably as if anticipating having to play a jury of music he’s never seen before, for a panel of the world’s most brilliant pianists, dead or living.

“Good you boys are bundled up, it’s been cold here the last few days,” Mr. Goldberg says, a little awkwardly.

“We had a proper blizzard last weekend up at the college,” Eames responds, zipping his coat and bumping elbows with Arthur just to see him frown. “I have to admit, the novelty’s worn off for me now, I quite miss grey rainy winters over white freezing ones.”

“What part of England are you from?” asks Mr. Goldberg. “I don’t think Arthur said.”

Eames shoots a sidelong smile at Arthur. “I don’t think Arthur knows,” he points out, and Arthur’s ears go pink like Eames has just suggested Arthur is only interested in Eames’ body. “But my family are from Windsor, that’s in the southern part of the country, a bit west of London.”

“Windsor like the castle?” asks Mr. Goldberg, eyebrows shooting up. “The castle where the queen lives?”

“Ah,” says Eames as they bump and rattle over the road between the terminal and the car park, “well, yes, it’s not far from there.” He looks over at Arthur, who is still pale and peaked. “It’s not as though they nip round for tea or anything, though.”

Mr. Goldberg smiles a little thinly, looking remarkably like Arthur trying to enjoy one of Eames’ jokes and failing. He presses the call button for the lift. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a quiet night, Arthur’s mother is working an evening shift.”

“Where’s Aaron?” Arthur pipes up suddenly, surprising Eames as well as Mr. Goldberg, judging by his expression.

“Oh, he’s –“ Arthur’s dad doesn’t finish the sentence, just sighs and shakes his head.

There’s a brief pause. The lift arrives, they step in, and the doors close. Mr. Goldberg presses one of the buttons. Arthur raises the back of his hand to his mouth and clears his throat, still working off the last of his end-of-term cough.

“So, I thought we’d just have some leftovers and save the big meal for tomorrow when everyone’s home,” says Mr. Goldberg suddenly. “I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course,” says Arthur.

“It sounds lovely, cheers,” Eames adds quickly, smiling. “You really needn’t go to any trouble, Mr. Goldberg.”

Once on their level of the car park, Arthur hangs back a little and surreptitiously grabs Eames by the coat sleeve, letting Mr. Goldberg get a little ahead of them. “Stop doing that,” he hisses to Eames, eyes wide.

“Doing what?” Eames returns, blinking. He is reasonably certain that he hasn’t said anything rude or improper. Not yet at any rate.

“Talking like that, you sound like –“ Arthur scrunches up his mouth in a way that Eames would normally find fascinating. “Like Eliza Doolittle in the back half of My Fair Lady.”

“Bugger off, I do not!” Eames exclaims, maybe a little too loudly in the echoing car park, but Mr. Goldberg only glances back at them for a second before continuing on his way. Eames mentally reruns everything he’s just said, and realizes that Arthur might be right; Eames has unthinkingly put on his best Eton accent as part of his default best behaviour. “Right, sorry, but would you prefer I said ‘fuck’ and ‘arse’ and ‘sodding’ then?”

“No,” Arthur says, mouth twisting a different way, almost amused. “Just, cut out the creepy English Stepford boyfriend act.”

“Absolutely, I will do,” Eames agrees, smiling at Arthur because Arthur is usually at his most adorable like this, when he’s pretending Eames can’t get round him even though Eames already has.

Arthur’s family’s house is like something out of an American film, two stories with painted white wooden siding and green trim, and a driveway leading back to a detached matching garage.

“My brother lives upstairs,” Arthur tells Eames as they unbuckle and get out of the car, going around to collect their luggage from the boot. Arthur nods towards a set of wooden stairs running up the side of the garage on the outside of the building. “You’ll meet him tomorrow, probably.”

The inside of the house is more of the same, bright and yet cozy. Arthur takes Eames on a short tour of the main floor while Mr. Goldberg bangs around in the kitchen. The only really interesting room is the small piano studio just off the living room, with shelves packed to overflowing with the trappings of Arthur’s childhood as a musical prodigy. There are scores and trophies and medals and hilarious framed news clippings featuring faded photos of Arthur with long girlish hair.

“Shut up,” Arthur says preemptively.

Eames clutches his hand to his heart and pulls an expression of overwhelmed tenderness, like he’s pining for Arthur’s lost youth.

“Seriously, shut up,” Arthur says again, but with less vigour.

Eames corners Arthur by the biggest trophies and pins him up against the wall to kiss the downturned corners of his mouth.

“Don’t,” Arthur says, “my dad.”

“Right,” Eames says, and backs off.

They eat a rather silent dinner while Mr. Goldberg hovers over them, then they retire to the small TV den and sit on opposite ends of the couch while Arthur clicks aimlessly through the channels. “So, I think my dad doesn’t hate you so far,” offers Arthur as he pauses on I Love Lucy.

“Well, that was the goal of this whole expedition, wasn’t it,” Eames returns. “I think those were your exact words: ‘please, please, my dear, beloved, and magnificently handsome Eames, please come home with me for Jewish Christmas so that my father can meet you and not hate you utterly.’”

“I think,” Arthur says, his nose turning a little pink, keeping his gaze fixed on the screen, “I think that the conversation involved less talking and more of a different kind of persuasion.”

“No, I’m certain you called me magnificently handsome at one point,” Eames persists, leaning into Arthur, closing the space between them. “I couldn’t possibly have agreed to this deeply unpleasant experience if you hadn’t.”

“Eames, seriously,” Arthur says, “you can’t, my dad is probably hovering in the hallway just waiting to burst into the room.” But Arthur’s nineteen after all, and sometimes Eames uses the fact to his advantage; there’s nothing so easy as persuading a teenager to commit lewd acts in inappropriate places.

“Just a quick snog,” Eames bargains, and tips his head down to nuzzle his nose into the space under Arthur’s ear. Arthur’s shoulders come up for a moment, probably anticipating a sneak attack of some description, but relax again when Eames makes it clear that his only intention is to breathe Arthur in and press his lips to the soft skin under the hinge of his jaw.

“Sweetheart?” calls a woman’s voice suddenly, all too close, and Eames bolts upright, wishing with all his heart that Arthur’s parents would quit wandering in at the exact moment when it looks like Eames is having it off with their sweet young son.

Sure enough, when he turns his head towards the doorway, there’s a small neat-looking woman in pink medical scrubs leaning into the den. “Arthur?” she says in the same tone of inquiry, and Arthur slides off the sofa and all but leaps to his feet.

“Mom, hi,” Arthur bleats, eyes wide and innocent.

“Sweetheart,” she says, extending her arms and stepping into the room, enveloping Arthur in a tight embrace and kissing his cheek repeatedly. “Oh, sweetie, it’s so good to see you, I missed you.”

Eames slips off the couch and sidles away, feeling a little out of place in this particular moment.

“Mom,” Arthur is protesting now, “Mom, enough,” but he’s smiling and not struggling that hard to get away. “Mom, I need to introduce you, this is Eames.”

Eames, who has just fetched up against the mantle, shifts with surprise and knocks down a couple of tasteful knick-knacks with his elbow.

Mrs. Goldberg releases Arthur at this and smiles tautly over at Eames, very obviously sizing him up from head to toe. “Arthur didn’t mention how much older you were,” she says.

Eames draws breath in but can’t really come up with a response, so he stands there with his mouth open for a moment before snapping it shut again and trying a winning smile.

“He’s not that much older,” Arthur says, “he’s only twenty-three.”

“And you’re still in college?” she presses.

“Ah, yes,” Eames manages. “I’m doing my masters in voice now.”

“Grad school,” says Mrs. Goldberg, neutrally.

“He’s really good,” Arthur chimes in. “I mean, he’s the best one when it comes to singers.”

“I didn’t know you thought so,” Eames responds, charmed.

“Eames,” Arthur says meaningfully, tipping his head back at his mother.

“Right. Well,” Eames says, and steps forward, sticking out a hand. “It’s lovely to meet you at last, Mrs. Goldberg.”

“Esther, please,” she says, voice still cool, but she takes Eames’ offered hand and gives it a polite squeeze. “Peter fed you boys?”

“Yeah,” Arthur says, nodding, obviously trying to get between Eames and his mother, to break the tension. “No, we ate. We’re just hanging out.”

“I saw what you were doing,” she says, still watching Eames as she speaks. “Arthur, Charles is staying in Aaron’s old room. That’s what your father and I agreed on, and as far as I’m concerned, I don’t want the subject to come up again.”

“Right,” Arthur says, awkwardly, jamming his hands in his pockets, nodding faster still. “No, I mean, I understand.”

“I know you think it’s hypocritical, what with the number of times Rachel’s come in for breakfast, but I’m telling you, it’s different when it’s under your roof,” she adds, finally, blessedly, looking over at Arthur, her expression softening almost immediately. “All right?”

“Right,” Arthur says, and inexplicably smiles and leans in to kiss his mother’s cheek. “Thanks, Mom.”

“Like I said, last word on the subject,” she returns. “Well, Charles, come on. We have to light the menorah before I’m off to bed.”

“Mom, Eames doesn’t have to—“ Arthur protests.

“He’s here for Hanukkah, he’s part of the family,” she cuts him off. “Let’s go, living room, now.”

Eames hadn’t really reckoned on this, standing in a stiff semi-circle with Arthur and his parents, facing a menorah and listening to a lot of Hebrew words being sung. Arthur’s Jewishness has always been mostly theoretical for Eames – Arthur doesn’t attend temple or say prayers in Hebrew or even use any of the many Yiddish words Eames has learned since coming to New England – so it’s a strange feeling to hear Arthur singing away in a foreign language, casual if self-conscious.

Arthur’s father lights two candles on the menorah, which is on a little table squarely in the middle of the living room’s picture window. They all stare at it for a moment, then Arthur’s mother – Esther – reaches over and squeezes Arthur’s shoulder. “It’s good to have you home,” she says again, and kisses his hair. “Right, I’m off to bed. Peter, don’t forget to put the candle out before you come up.”

The elder Goldbergs leave the room straightaway, leaving Arthur standing in front of the menorah looking embarrassed while Eames blinks at him, fascinated.

“Shut up,” Arthur says again. “She’s probably going to make you come to temple on Saturday too. Fair warning.”

“I thought you got presents,” Eames says. “Isn’t that the deal, eight days of presents?”

Arthur shrugs. “My parents just give us presents on Christmas. Caving to the Santa pressure and everything. Lots of Jewish families do.”

“So Santa’s welcome, just not Jesus,” Eames says, clarifying. “I like it, I always hated bloody Lessons and Carols and going to Abbey and all that shite.”

“Yeah?” Arthur says. “I thought – I thought you might miss having Christmas stuff.”

“No, this is brilliant,” Eames enthuses. “I like all the Hebrew. Will you teach me the words or is it bad if I sing along?”

“It’s not bad, it’s just a couple of blessings,” Arthur says. “You really want to learn them?”

“Of course,” Eames says. “Come on, I already got the notes, I just need the words.”

“You’re so embarrassing,” Arthur says, but he’s smiling now. “Come on, I’ll show you where you’re supposed to sleep.”

Eames finally figures out what Arthur and his mother were on about when Arthur shows him into Aaron’s old room. It’s connected, via a tiny en suite bathroom, to Arthur’s own room.

“So,” Eames says, peering down the length of the bathroom straight at the huge poster of Glenn Gould that hangs on the wall above Arthur’s double bed, “so I’m meant to pretend I’m sleeping on this cot in the room with the treadmill when I’m actually sneaking into your room and deflowering you.”

“You’ve never deflowered me,” Arthur points out, but he adds, “but yeah, I guess so.”

“I like your mum,” Eames says, and grins.

The next morning finds Eames eating toast in the kitchen, showered and dressed and bored with waiting for Arthur to max out on his still-adolescent capacity for oversleeping. As he pours himself a second cup of coffee, the back door swings open and Arthur slopes into the kitchen wearing a grubby plaid shirt and ripped jeans.

Eames blinks, and the apparition resolves into something more comprehensible: longer hair, a slightly longer face, five o’clock shadow, maybe a scant inch more height. And when he speaks, the Arthur-lookalike has a noticeably brighter tone of voice. “Oh,” he says, stopping at the sight of Eames, “right. Artie’s boyfriend.”

“Eames,” Eames says, half-standing, thrown.

“Aaron,” says Arthur’s brother – because obviously that is who this is. He smiles at Eames, a far more relaxed smile than Eames can get out of Arthur anywhere but in bed. “I just popped in to grab some coffee, don’t mind me.”

Eames waves his hand towards the thermal carafe on the table. “I’m afraid I’ve already made some inroads into this pot but I’m happy to brew another if needed.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Aaron says, carelessly thunking a mug onto the table and pouring the last of the coffee into it. He sits down opposite Eames and smiles again. “So, you’re the dude that’s boning my little brother.”

“That’s me,” Eames says, smiling back. If Aaron wants to throw Eames off his game he’s going to have to put in a little more effort. “You’re the one that lives over the garage and tends bar for a living?”

“The gare-idge?” repeats Aaron, smirking, picking up Eames’ pronunciation with a mocking tone. “Yeah, that’s me, I live over the gare-idge.” He reaches for the sugar bowl, uses the spoon in it to stir some sugar into his coffee. “Well, you do seem like Arthur’s type, I guess.”

“Cheers,” Eames says, deciding to take this as a compliment.

They drink their coffee in silence, Eames feeling unexpectedly at ease with Aaron, who at least lays his cards out on the table from the beginning.

“Shit, how long have you been up?” Arthur asks when he comes down the stairs in his pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt, yawning and sleep-wrinkled. “Oh, hey Aaron.”

“Two hours,” Eames says. “This is what happens to you when you go flat-out at the end of term, you git.”

“Did you just say ‘shit’?” Aaron asks of Arthur, wide-eyed and delighted. “Arthur! In your mother’s house.”

“He does get a bit prim under this roof,” Eames agrees.

“That’s because he’s the perfect child,” Aaron says knowingly.

“I don’t like this,” Arthur says, looking between the two of them, sitting down next to Eames. “I need coffee.”

“We drank it all,” Aaron tells him, unrepentant. “You snooze, you lose.”

“Unh,” says Arthur, resting his chin on his hand and looking all too dazed and sleepy for someone who just spent over twelve hours dead to the world.

“I’ll get it,” Eames says, taking pity on him, standing up and taking the empty carafe back over to the coffee maker. As he goes, he feels Aaron’s gaze on him.

“Thank you,” Arthur says when Eames returns with a mug of steaming fresh coffee.

“You’re welcome,” Eames responds, sitting down again, patting Arthur on the back as he goes.

Aaron’s expression doesn’t flicker out of boredom and abstraction, but Eames can sense the change in him, the slight lessening of his antipathy, when he makes some excuse about heading back to his place.

“We’ll see you tonight at dinner?” Arthur asks, a little formally.

“Yeah, sure,” says Aaron, and leaves his mug in the middle of the table when he goes.

Eames waits until the door closes before leaning into Arthur and saying, “Wow, why didn’t you tell me your brother was like an older, hotter version of you?”

“Oh my god, Eames,” Arthur says, long-suffering.

“No, really, I’m thinking of trading up,” Eames says, pretending to mull it over.

“He’s not into boys,” Arthur tries. “I mean, he’s really not.”

“I’ve changed minds before,” Eames says. “I mean, look at me. What’s not to fancy?”

Arthur sighs into his coffee cup.

Arthur wasn’t kidding when he warned Eames that his hometown was boring. Eames spends the first couple of days in McMurray struggling for a way to while away the holiday, particularly while Arthur shuts himself up with his piano for his daily practice time. It’s bloody cold out, but it hasn’t snowed enough for any proper winter activities, and Eames only ventures out once for a walk before turning back with numb fingers and frozen ears. He’s glad enough not to be in England, shut up with his miserable bloody English family, but occasionally Eames has unwelcome pangs of longing for some of the trappings of his home Christmas: the hampers from Fortnum and Mason, the easy access to alcohol via the family wine cellar, and the – well. That’s really all Eames can list among his regrets over not going home for the hols. Still, he begins to think that Arthur had the right idea with sleeping so much, and on Friday afternoon he takes a two-hour nap while Arthur’s downstairs playing Mozart.

“Seriously, Eames, I’m going to kill you,” Arthur says that night when Eames isn’t tired enough to sleep.

“Can’t we please have some sex?” Eames asks, getting up on one elbow for a last-ditch plea. Arthur’s already turned him down three times. “It would put me right out.”

“My dad is right down the hall,” Arthur hisses, and rolls over to lie facedown in his pillow.

Eames lies on his side facing away from Arthur and studies what little he can see of Arthur’s room from this vantage point in the near-dark. It’s all predictably neat and spare, the Glenn Gould poster Arthur’s single concession to adolescence. Everything else could be straight out of a home fashion magazine. Eames reaches over and tugs at the drawer of Arthur’s nightstand. There’s a box of tissues and a bottle of expensive hand lotion, which would have a very different purpose in the bedroom of any other nineteen-year-old male; but Arthur has the same items on Eames’ nightstand at home and he uses them for blowing his nose and moisturizing his hands, respectively.

There’s also a stack of outdated Details magazines. Eames takes out the top one and pages through, tilting it to maximize the light from the streetlight outside. He yawns through most of it but slows down for the fashion spreads with loads of narrow-hipped slinky guys with bare chests. Again, Eames has no doubt that Arthur reads the magazines rather than using them to other purposes, but that doesn’t mean Eames can’t enjoy their baser qualities.

“Eames,” Arthur says into his pillow.

“Mmm?” Eames asks.

“Are you jerking off in my bed?”

“Matter of fact,” Eames admits freely, turning the page of the magazine with his unoccupied hand.

“Eames,” Arthur says again, clearly torn between annoyance and sleepiness. “Don’t jerk off in my bed.”

“Well, you’re not a very good host,” Eames says, putting the magazine down and pulling his hand out from under the covers. “Here I am, wide awake and –“

“Eames,” Arthur says again, still facedown in his pillow and motionless.

“Look, if I’m tossing off anyway hadn’t you better get involved?” Eames says, dropping the magazine, rolling onto Arthur and grinding into the side of Arthur’s tight lovely bottom.

“I’m tired,” Arthur protests.

Eames gets a hand up under Arthur’s t-shirt and strokes up his back.

“Look, just because you decided to sleep all afternoon,” Arthur begins sensibly, but stutters to a halt when Eames crawls further down the bed and begins kissing the bared skin at Arthur’s waist. “Eames,” he says, one last time.

“Shh, Arthur, you’re going to have to be very quiet,” Eames says, tugging at the waistband of Arthur’s pyjama bottoms. “How quiet can you be for me?”

Arthur shivers and lets Eames roll him over, the bed’s springs making soft creaking noises but no other sound breaking the silence.

Eames eases the pyjamas down over Arthur’s cock, pauses to kiss Arthur’s belly, his hips, the tops of his thighs, before moving over and taking the head of Arthur’s cock into his mouth.

Arthur, it turns out, can be very quiet.

Things don’t really get interesting, though, until dinner the next night, after Eames has fidgeted his way through the Saturday morning prayer service at the synagogue.

(This was easily as bad as any one of the hundreds of prayer services Eames had been forced to attend as a schoolboy – the only perk being the novelty of the kippah Arthur had loaned him for the morning. Eames looks brilliant in little hats, it turns out.)

But for dinner they’re having a proper feast, complete with lots of fried foods and interesting Jewish dishes and a blessing said beforehand, too. Mr. Goldberg has Eames helping in the kitchen all afternoon while Arthur pounds away on the piano, and at four o’clock Aaron comes in the back door with a tall beautiful girl who is supposedly his girlfriend Rachel.

“I’m so fascinated by everything English,” she says to Eames, leaning against the counter while Eames does his best not to burn his fingers on the hot doughnuts fresh from Mr. Goldberg’s deep fryer. “I’ve never been to London. Did you ever live there?”

“Yes, of course,” Eames says, arranging the doughnuts onto a tray. He may be playing up the accent a little. “My family live not too far from London and I went to school in Westminster my last two years.”

“Westminster, like Westminster Abbey?” Rachel repeats, amazed. “With Big Ben?”

“Yeah, bloody annoying it is too when you literally hear it all day every day your whole life,” Eames tells her in a confidential manner. Rachel beams at him, clearly charmed.

“Aaron says you’re a singer,” she continues. “Did you sing in a boys’ choir too?”

“Did I sing in a boys’ choir?” Eames repeats, leaning across the counter to get a little closer to Rachel. “Of course I did, darling, wasn’t it me on the BBC on Christmas Eve warbling away to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’?”

“It definitely wasn’t,” Arthur says, ruining everything by walking into the kitchen just then. “Letting Eames talk about England is like an ongoing game of two truths and a lie, just a warning.” He shoots a glare at Eames and then smiles at Rachel.

“Arthur, it’s been forever, you look so grown-up,” Rachel says, scrubbing her hand over Arthur’s shoulder in greeting. “Mr. Goldberg, this all smells and looks amazing.”

“Thank you, Rachel,” Mr. Goldberg says, with more warmth than he’s shown Eames in three days. “It’s good to have you here.”

“Well,” Rachel says, a little awkwardly. She glances over at Aaron, who’s been put to work setting the table. “You know. It’s the holidays.”

“Not properly back with him, then?” Eames asks, because he can.

She shoots him a rueful look, but doesn’t seem annoyed with the question. “No, definitely not.”

“Why’s that?” Eames asks, and waits until Mr. Goldberg is occupied on the other side of the kitchen before lowering his voice and leaning in again. “Seems a bit of a tosser, living with his parents, dead-end job. Is that it?”

“That’s definitely part of it,” Rachel agrees, sneaking a doughnut.

“Eames, leave her alone,” Arthur says, poking Eames in the arm.

“Oi, I’m trying to get the low-down from another outsider who’s infiltrated the Goldberg family, bugger off,” Eames tells him.

“You’re trying to hit on my brother’s – well. On Rachel. Right in front of me,” Arthur says darkly.

Eames levels a look at Rachel. “Is Aaron mad and jealous like this too?”

“Definitely,” says Rachel, sighing.

“Whatever,” Arthur says, and goes to help his brother.

“So, any hot tips on how to get Mr. Goldberg to quit treating me like the local paedophile?” Eames continues.

Rachel snorts. “Sorry, can’t help you there. I picked the brother that’s always pissing off his parents, you went with the perfect one who’s too good for a goy.”

“Arthur’s really very far from perfect,” Eames says. “He has an awful sense of humour and he can be an amazing prude. He’s lucky I’m around to corrupt him and make him laugh occasionally.”

Mr. Goldberg clears his throat, having come back to Eames’ side of the kitchen sometime in the last several seconds. Eames straightens up and gets back to work while Rachel laughs behind her fist, damn her.

Eames isn’t clear on the back-story with Aaron and Rachel, and it seems no one else really is either. All Eames can gather is that they’ve been together, off and on, for several years, and that Rachel is now a law student in Pittsburgh while Aaron continues to be a waster living like a teenager in his parents’ back garden. Eames quite likes Rachel but suspects she’d be better off without Aaron.

“Who’s having wine?” Mr. Goldberg asks just before they sit down. “Charles?”

“Cheers,” Eames says, pleasantly surprised to be counted among the adults.

“Aaron? Rachel?”

“Just a little bit,” Rachel says, and Eames shoots a playful wink at her, eliciting a slightly surprised look for some unknown reason.

“Arthur? Just a little, for Hanukkah?” Mr. Goldberg asks, taking some of the shine off Eames’ sense of inclusion, but Arthur looks so chuffed that Eames can’t help but smile and toast him. “Aaron, why don’t you offer the blessing?”

They sit and hold hands and Aaron says a Hebrew prayer. When the blessing is ended, Eames notices the way Aaron tries to hold onto Rachel’s hand a bit longer and how Rachel pulls away, smiling blankly across the table at the salt shaker.

The conversation quickly warms and then splinters into a couple of discussions, Arthur and Aaron talking about high school gossip while Eames and Rachel politely discuss their respective post-graduate programs with the elder Goldbergs. At some point Aaron starts telling stories about Arthur’s exploits as a kid, and Arthur retaliates with a few of his own, and soon they’re all laughing while Esther tells about all the trouble Aaron had gotten into as a preschooler.

“So much work, I can’t even begin to tell you,” she finishes as they all drop into the occasional chuckle. “Boys, they’re a handful, even Arthur was.”

“Did you ever want another kid around?” Aaron asks. “Did you always plan to stop at two?”

“You know I had more than enough trouble keeping up with the pair of you,” Esther says, waving her napkin, standing up to clear the table.

Arthur drains the last of his wine and rises to help his parents with the dishes. As soon as he’s cleared the room, Eames snakes a hand across the table and picks up Rachel’s wine glass, pouring most of it into his own.

“What are you”—she says, taken aback.

Eames winks at her again, this time more deliberately. “Knocked up, are you?” he says, quietly. “You lifted the glass to your mouth a few times but didn’t drink.”

“Well – I –“ Rachel begins, and casts a look at Aaron, who’s blinking at Eames in shock. “Don’t say anything, we were going to wait until after Christmas to –“

“Why do you think I just nicked your wine?” Eames asks, and hastily drinks it down as the parents come back into the room. “Esther, please, allow me,” Eames says, getting up and helping with the remaining dishes. “I have this strong sense of ownership, I watched very dutifully today while Mr. Goldberg did all the work.”

Esther laughs and allows Eames to carry out the dessert trays. Rachel seems to have shaken off the worst of her shock but Aaron is suddenly distant, fidgety. Mr. Goldberg opens another bottle of wine and pours drinks around the table, raises his glass and gives a toast. “To family,” he says, and clinks glasses with Rachel and Eames in turn, making Eames glow with pleasure as Arthur smiles shyly at him.

“To family,” they echo, and drink.

“There’s something,” Aaron says, and heaves a deep breath out.

“Aaron,” Rachel says, voice tense, smile vanishing.

“No, speaking of family, we – there’s something we want to tell you,” Aaron says in a rush.

“You’re engaged?” Esther asks, delighted.

“Not – not exactly,” Aaron stammers. “I mean, I tried for – dammit. Rachel, don’t –“

But Rachel is already swiping at her eyes and standing up, murmuring apologies and then hurrying from the room, Aaron following after her.

“What was that all about?” Arthur says, puzzled.

“More of the Aaron and Rachel drama,” Mr. Goldberg sighs. “I don’t even try to keep track anymore, it’s like a goddamn soap opera.”

Eames drums his fingers on the table and wonders if it would be rude to eat dessert while Rachel is crying in the kitchen.

“Should someone go?” Arthur asks. “I mean, should”—

“No,” Eames says, and reaches over to squeeze Arthur’s fingers under the table. “No, it’s between them, darling.”

There’s the sound of the back door opening and closing, and then Aaron comes into the dining room, arms spread wide. “I have to go after her,” he says, “I’m sorry, Mom, Dad. This wasn’t what”—and he backs out again.

Eames grabs a doughnut and eats it while the rest of the family sits in awkward silence.

“He needs to let that girl go,” Mr. Goldberg says at last. “She’s just so much more mature than he is right now.”

“I wish she’d dump him once and for all, let him move on,” Esther chimes in, shaking her head and clucking.

“I really like Rachel,” Arthur says, and squeezes Eames’ hand back.

Eames grabs another doughnut, feeling that he’s more likely to stay discreetly valorous if his mouth is otherwise occupied.

“She is not,” Arthur says, scandalised.

“Cross my heart,” Eames whispers, scootching closer under the covers. “Rachel’s properly up the duff.”

“Shit,” Arthur breathes, settling into his pillow, stunned. “Wow, my mom is going to flip out. My dad is going to flip out.”

“Yeah, well,” Eames says, “you’re right about Aaron always stealing the spotlight with his dramatic scenes, I’ll give you that.”

“That’s why he asked her to marry him last month,” Arthur says, still putting it together. “God, poor Rachel.”

“On the other hand,” Eames says, “I’m going to look like the ideal girlfriend by comparison, you can’t get me pregnant and ruin both our lives.”

“It’s not going to ruin their lives, jesus,” Arthur grouches, then he brightens. “It’s true, though, Dad’s definitely going to stop worrying about me and you once all this comes out.”

“Just wait until I start singing the Hanukkah blessing tomorrow night, then I’ll be the apple of your father’s eye,” Eames says, and places a hand flat on his chest, readying himself. “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'o—” and he’s forced to stop when Arthur claps a hand over his mouth and proceeds to smother him with his pillow.

“Come on,” Arthur says the next day, after he and Eames have finished their mid-morning breakfast. “Shoes on, we’re going up there.”

Eames gamely follows Arthur across the back garden and up the stairs to Aaron’s flat. They knock and Aaron answers looking hung-over as hell. “What?” Aaron asks, squinting at the pair of them.

“We’re here for a strategy meeting,” Arthur says, and pushes his way inside. Eames shrugs at Aaron and follows.

The small space is cluttered and dark and a little chilly, but Aaron sweeps some books and DVD cases off the couch and they sit down. “Sherlock Holmes here told you about the situation,” Aaron says, not asking. “Jesus, what a clusterfuck.” He collapses into a sagging armchair and sighs.

“Here, you need a proper fry-up,” Eames says, pained by the sight of an untreated hangover. “Have you got eggs and sausage?”

“Fridge,” Aaron says, pale and miserable. “I think they’re still good.”

Eames gets up and finds a clean frying pan, gets to work. He isn’t much of a chef but he at least knows that a greasy breakfast works as well as the hair of the dog, and it’s not too much work to scramble eggs and fry up a few sausages while Arthur keeps Aaron company and tries to cheer him up.

“She won’t marry me,” Aaron is saying when Eames brings over the plate. “Shit, Artie, it’s so fucked up. She’s going to have it alone, she says I’m going to be more trouble than help at this point.”

“Can’t properly argue with her when you look at the state of this place,” Eames points out. “Eat.”

“You know, you’re kind of an asshole,” Aaron grunts, tossing an annoyed look at Eames, but he picks up the fork and listlessly pokes at a sausage.

“Come on, now, it’s a sodding miserable den up here,” Eames continues. “Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of depressing shite flats, but this one rates at the top of the list. What are you, going to bung a bassinette in the corner and call it home?”

“I’d get an apartment,” Aaron says. “I just need to get a decent job first.”

“Nah, never happen while you’re living like this,” Eames replies, shaking his head. “You’ve got to get your house in order, literally, and then you’ll be motivated to find some good work.” Eames bends down and picks up some papers from the floor, shuffling through them.

“What the fuck do you know about it?” Aaron returns, but he’s eating steadily now, and his colour is coming back.

“I’ve mates who went through this,” Eames insists, “and I’m telling you, she won’t have you until you show that you’re at least able to take care of yourself.”

“Eames, back off,” Arthur warns him, piping in for the first time.

“No, he’s right,” Aaron sighs. “Fuck. I’m a fucking mess.”

“He’s definitely a fucking mess,” Eames agrees, addressing Arthur. “Let’s start him off anyway, we can do the washing up and pick up laundry while he tidies these papers away.” Eames looks down at the papers again. “These are bloody good, though, are they yours?”

“I design tattoos sometimes,” Aaron says, waving his hand in dismissal.

“Really?” Eames says, “are you inked? Can I see?”

Aaron rolls up his sleeve and sticks out his forearm, then twists around and tugs at his t-shirt to show another tattoo on his right shoulder.

“Those are very cool,” Eames says admiringly. “Why the fuck aren’t you an artist?”

“I don’t think Rachel would think it’s much better being a tattoo artist instead of a bartender,” Aaron returns with a grimace.

“No, I mean, a proper artist, like an illustrator or a graphic designer or something. Can’t you go to school for that?”

Aaron shrugs. “I suck at school.”

“Not when you like it,” Arthur chimes in, already stacking dishes in the sink. “You just drop out when you try to take shit you hate, like history and calculus.”

“I –“ Aaron says, and leans forward to take the papers from Eames. “That’s lame, I can’t,” he begins again, but he trails off looking at the drawings.

Eames begins to pile up clothing into one corner, revealing more of the carpet as he goes, while Arthur washes and dries and puts away dishes. The next time Eames looks over at Aaron, his dark head is bowed over a sketchbook and he’s drawing something, lost in his own world and working furiously.

It’s not exactly a fun holiday project, digging Arthur’s brother out from under the depressing detritus of a bachelor flat, but it keeps them busy anyway. At some point Aaron seems to take notice of Eames and Arthur working around him, and hauls out some cleaning supplies before getting to work on the really disgusting jobs like cleaning the toilet and the fridge.

“Hey,” Arthur says quietly as Eames passes him with a rubbish bag full of old take-away containers, “hey.” And he doesn’t say ‘thank you’ or anything, just rubs his fingers through the hair at the nape of Eames’ neck and kisses his mouth once, gently.

“Yeah, of course,” Eames says, spun. It occurs to him abruptly: he’s wildly, stupidly, hopelessly mad about Arthur.

By the end of the day on Christmas Eve, Aaron’s flat fairly sparkles. Everything is put away and tidied and the furniture has been masterfully rearranged by Arthur to give the space some structure. “Wow,” Aaron says, “I forgot what colour the floor was.”

“One more thing,” says Arthur, and disappears down the stairs.

Aaron sits down on the pristinely vacuumed couch and surveys the wall opposite, with a tacked up row of some of his best sketches. “I hope I can keep it like this.”

“At least until you get your own flat,” Eames adds, half-smiling.

“I’ll never talk shit about Arthur’s stupid obsession with cleaning again,” Aaron says.

Arthur chooses that moment to reappear, banging up the stairs and through the door with something in a nylon carrying case, something long and narrow, and heavy by the look of it. “This was down in the basement, Mom had it for when Aunt Rose and her kid used to come and stay with us.”

“Fuck, that’s – you think I should –“ Aaron says, hesitantly, but Arthur just rolls his eyes and waves Eames over to help him. It takes some wrangling, but soon enough they manage to unfold an infant play yard and set it up in a vacant corner. “Shit, that makes it a little too real,” Aaron says, but he reaches in and strokes a hand over the bottom of the thing, testing.

“Mazel tov,” Eames says, clapping him on the shoulder, and Arthur bursts into unwilling laughter.

“Happy Christmas.”

Arthur blinks awake slowly, inhaling through his nose in a long breath. “Is it time to get up already?” he asks.

Eames shakes his head.

Arthur’s mouth curves ever so slightly, and he’s lovely in the bluish predawn light, hair messy over the pillow, warm and sleepy-jointed against white sheets, dark eyes seeming to be all pupil, all focussed up at Eames. “You just felt like waking me up for no reason?” Arthur asks, low morning voice rumbling softly in his chest so Eames can feel it resonating against his own. “Or is this a tacky thing where my Christmas present is a blow job?”

Eames lays his head down on the pillow next to Arthur’s. “Well, now you’ve gone and spoiled the surprise,” he scolds. “Does that mean you don’t want my gift?”

“I didn’t say that,” Arthur objects, drowsily batting at Eames’ face. “Did I say that?”

Eames catches Arthur’s fingers and kisses them. “Be right back,” he says, and rolls off the bed.

“Hey, where are you going?” Arthur protests, but is still too sleepy to sit up and see.

Eames comes back and kneels on the bed over Arthur, pokes him in the ribs with a large green envelope.

Arthur frowns but takes it. “A Christmas card?” He neatly works the flap open and extracts the card inside. It’s enormous and hugely tacky, and it showers Arthur’s chest with loose glitter as he pulls it free of the envelope and opens it. The folded papers inside fall out with a quiet thwap, but Arthur ignores them while he politely reads the awful verse inside, where Eames has carefully gone through and prefixed each incidence of ‘Christmas’ with ‘Jewish’. “Wow,” Arthur says flatly, reaching for the papers. “Are these hug coupons or something—“ and his eyes pop open satisfyingly. “Eames!”

“Yeah?” Eames says, settling down on the bed, enjoying himself now.

“Eames!” Arthur says again. “Are you fucking serious?”

“No, I went to great pains and became a master forger so I could give you the cruellest Christmas non-gift in the history of—“ and he doesn’t get any further because Arthur is sitting up and leaning on Eames’ chest and staring down at him with an eager expression like an Irish setter keen on retrieving a favorite toy.

“Eames, did you really buy us first class tickets to London for spring break?” Arthur asks, looking ready to fly apart at the seams. “Did you really get us tickets to a David Lively recital at St. Martin-in-the-Fields?”

“Yes,” Eames says, forgoing further sarcasm in favour of watching Arthur’s expression deepen from disbelief into joy.

Arthur half-crumples the tickets in his hands as he seizes Eames by the shirt and holds him still, kissing his mouth with bruising enthusiasm. “You’re completely nuts, are you serious?” he keeps saying between kisses.

“I thought it would be nice,” Eames says mildly, even as he’s thrilling inside to see Arthur express this kind of ridiculous enthusiasm. “I warn you, I have to make a trip home to visit my family, that’s the only way I could get the first-class flights.”

“Are you kidding, after everything I put you through this week?” Arthur exclaims, and drops his whole weight down onto Eames, staring earnestly into his eyes. “Eames. This is incredible, you’re incredible.”

“Well, obviously,” Eames says, or tries to say, but it’s hard to catch enough breath to speak with Arthur pressing into him and looking at him with such utter pleasure.

“David Lively,” Arthur says, and then, rapturous, “in London.”

“Shh,” Eames half-laughs, becoming alarmed at Arthur’s rising speaking voice.

“Fuck it, I don’t care if my dad hears, you’re amazing,” Arthur says, and with no further prelude goes crawling down Eames’ body. “Happy Hanukkah,” he says, tugging roughly at Eames’ pyjamas, casting up a breath-stealing look through dark lashes, “it’s no trip to England but it’s all I’ve got for you at the moment.”

Eames slides his fingers into Arthur’s hair and grins up at Glenn Gould, thinking it’s the best Christmas morning he can remember.

The shit hits the fan the next day, quite spectacularly. It starts when Esther goes up to Aaron’s place to have a peek at the transformation they’d wrought, only to discover the damned play yard set up in the corner. Aaron is at work, naturally, so the subsequent shouting is mostly directed at Arthur, and by association, Eames. They both shrug and Arthur says things like, “I don’t want to speak for Aaron, take it up with him,” and “I couldn’t exactly tell you, it’s not my secret anyway.”

Next Arthur’s mother is ringing up Rachel’s mother and Eames begins to understand that he wasn’t too far off on his many parodies of overwrought Jewish mothers because he can hear Rachel’s mum shouting through the phone as Esther communicates what little she’s gleaned from the play yard and Arthur’s scant hints.

“Fuck, Aaron is going to kill me,” Arthur moans while his mother is distracted. “This is a disaster.”

“It’s hardly your fault,” Eames mutters out of the corner of his mouth. “Come on, can’t we get away? Don’t you lot have mad shopping traditions on Boxing Day anyway?”

“Trust me, leaving isn’t an option, it’ll just redirect her anger at us,” Arthur says pathetically.

“Well, at least we’d be well shot of it if we’re at a mall hiding in the crowds,” Eames suggests. “Seriously, she’s turned her back, let’s make a break for it.”

Arthur gives no warning, just abruptly bolts, Eames clambering to catch him up as they grab coats and keys and pelt towards the garage and Esther’s car.

Arthur has a crisis of conscience not long after they reach the safety of the car, though. They wind up heading to the bar where Aaron works, which means that Eames has to go in and fetch Aaron out because no one is ever going to believe that Arthur is twenty-one – probably not even after he actually is.

“What are you doing here?” Aaron frowns. “If you’re here to pick up dudes you know I’m going to have to kick your ass.”

“Your mother may have told Rachel’s mother about your little situation,” Eames drops casually. “Arthur insisted on telling you that you’re going to be walking into a trap when you head home.” He glances round the bar. “Are you trying to say this is my kind of establishment, by the way?”

But Aaron’s eyes go a little crazy before Eames gets that far, and he’s halfway across the place talking to the other bartender already. When he comes back, he’s pulling on a coat. “What happened? Does Rachel know?” he asks. “Did Arthur blab?”

“Of course not,” Eames says, still scanning the bar’s patrons with a critical eye. Clearly it’s not a gay bar but Eames is pretty sure that one fellow in the corner is interested anyway.

“Come on, come on,” Aaron says, inclining his head towards the door.

“That bloke’s one of mine, though,” Eames says, pointing as he goes. ”Am I right?”

“I will find time to kick your ass if necessary, Charles,” Aaron says, and Eames shrugs and comes along.

Aaron burns out of the parking lot heading for Rachel’s student flat in Pittsburgh, barely slowing down enough to let Arthur tell him the story of what had happened (with a very touching coda about how it wasn’t Arthur’s fault in the least, so stop looking at him like that).

“I am so glad we’re out of here tomorrow,” Arthur sighs, slumping in the driver’s seat, scrubbing at his forehead. “Seriously, this is about to get ugly. You haven’t seen screaming and carrying on until you’ve seen my family screaming and carrying on.”

“I believe you,” Eames says, “though mostly with my family it’s dignified silence and put-upon sighing whenever I come home.”

“Sounds nice. Peaceful.” Arthur looks over, squinting at Eames from under the shadow of his hand. “Do you think we were switched at birth?”

The dust still hasn’t settled when Arthur and Eames head for the airport the next day. Aaron isn’t speaking to his parents, Rachel isn’t speaking to Aaron, and Arthur is visibly relieved to be getting away from it all.

“Ah, it’ll come together,” Eames chides Arthur as they pack, the house steeped in a new chilling quiet. “Sometimes it’s just what’s needed, everyone so angry that they have it all out at once.”

Arthur is too depressed to fold his shirts properly, just shoving them into his suitcase in a balled up mess.

“Chin up, Eeyore,” Eames encourages him. “Twelve hours and we’ll be clear of the whole bloody mess of it.”

“No, I think you were right before, their lives are totally ruined,” Arthur mopes. “And don’t call me Eeyore.”

Arthur continues to sigh and slouch and generally be annoying as hell even after they get back. It isn’t until they’re getting ready to go out for New Year’s that the dark cloud lifts; Aaron rings Arthur.

“Yeah?” says Arthur into the phone, a blessed smile coming over his face. He’s fresh from the shower, towel tucked around his hips, sorting through his clothes to pick out a shirt to wear. “I’m – I mean, that sounds like – no, I know. But it’s still good, right?”

When he hangs up, Arthur is all dimples and high spirits. “He got Rachel over to see his place. She’s still mad about how it all came out but she gets it wasn’t Aaron’s fault. He said she agreed to stay in with him tonight, she wants to watch some movies and just hang out.” He stuffs one hand into his shirtsleeve, shaking his head and beaming. “He says thanks, by the way. For everything you did with the place.”

“Cheers,” Eames says nonsensically in return, too charmed by the abrupt return of Arthur’s optimism to do much else. “Take that off again, I want to snog you and you’re going to be cross if I rumple it up.”

Arthur takes off the shirt and lays it over the dresser, carefully, before turning back towards Eames and sliding his arms around Eames’ waist. “Do you want to just stay in and watch movies?” Arthur asks, sly and suggestive.

“You saucy little,” Eames begins, but cuts himself off by pulling Arthur close for a slightly premature New Year’s snog.

3. Spring Break, 2001

They’re in Heaven, and Eames is on his knees in front of Arthur.

“Shouldn’t Heaven have cleaner floors?” Arthur had asked when they crashed drunkenly into the bathroom a minute ago, and Eames had slapped open a stall door and said, “It’s not that kind of heaven, darling.”

Arthur hates, hates, hates dance music and techno and hip-hop, his art and calling ground down to the lowest possible level, thumping repetitive bass and drums, soulless uprooted musical licks set to repeat to the point of meaningless noise. He said as much to Eames when Eames started talking about going out to a club tonight, but Eames had just smiled and said, “Trust me, it’s not what you think.”

It was exactly what Arthur thought, squeezing through a mass of bodies, barely able to think let alone hear or see or breathe in the smoky deafening club, alternately blinded by the lights and squinting in the deep shadows, but he had Eames’ fingertips in his grasp and he managed to stay with him until they washed up against the bar and Eames unbuttoned his shirt enough to get the bartender’s attention.

“Drink,” Eames said, pressing a plastic cup into Arthur’s hand, or mouthed something that looked like the word ‘drink’. This repeated another three times, four shots in all, Eames casually peeling off unfamiliar pound notes and passing them across the bar for another round, the last finally seeing them back out into the crowd. Arthur was somewhat acclimated by then to the noise level, the dim light, the smoke, and he let Eames drag him into a relatively clear spot where they could hold their brimming cups steady while Eames ground into him.

“I fucking hate this,” Arthur shouted at some point, like spitting into the wind because he couldn’t even hear his own voice, wouldn’t know he was even speaking if not for the sensation of his chest buzzing. But then the alcohol hit his veins all at once and Eames’ smile went lopsided and sexy and Arthur was suddenly aware that they were in a crowd of people all like them: gay guys, their age, drinking and flirting and kissing and feeling each other up, and Arthur realized he was mostly just leaning against Eames with wide eyes, taking it all in because it was like blinking and finding himself in a world where different didn’t even fucking matter.

“Drink,” Eames shouted right into Arthur’s ear, “it’s better if you drink, here.” And Eames was shining with sweat, he was charming a pair of cigarettes off a passing guy, he was licking his lips and lighting up and offering Arthur the lit cigarette like it was something Arthur had ever done. The nicotine rush was so strong that Arthur went a little weak at the knees, and Eames was watching Arthur’s mouth, hungry and pleased and horny all at once.

Arthur looks down, now, Eames kneeling on the grimy floor tiles and working Arthur’s jeans open. “How did we get in here?” Arthur asks, dizzy and entertained.

“We walked,” Eames says reasonably, and tugs at Arthur’s boxers.

“I was wrong about the music,” Arthur says vaguely, carding his fingers through Eames’ hair and slouching back against cool metal. “It’s not music, though, it’s – it’s just something to fuck to.”

“All music is something to fuck to,” Eames responds, and licks around the head of Arthur’s cock, lewd and messy. “Don’t you know that?”

“Bach is not music to fuck to,” Arthur argues, smiling at the ridiculousness of Eames.

“Isn’t he?” Eames asks. “Think of the cello suites.”

Arthur can’t think of it at all for a moment, not with the still-noisy thud of the club music and the rushing of water and the too-close sounds of other guys fucking in the stalls around them. “Start me off,” Arthur says, head wobbling a little from side to side, dizzy and heavy and sloshing with drink.

Eames pulls off and ba-da-da-da’s the first few measures of the prelude to the first suite, and Arthur remembers, nods, pushes Eames back down onto his cock as the music spools out in his head. “Oh my god,” Arthur says, chest heaving with it, because Eames is right, oh, fuck, Eames is right, Bach is fucking Arthur with bow strokes that are exactly like the heavy suck of Eames’ beautiful mouth on his cock. “Oh my god, that’s –“ and Arthur’s mouth goes slack with joy, with amazement, with gratitude as he comes.

“You’re so hot,” Eames says, suddenly standing again and holding Arthur up with the press of his wide shoulders, “fuck, fuck,” and Eames is warm and handsome and dear and Arthur doesn’t care about the floors, just trades places, and they’re in heaven together, the two of them fucking with Bach in their heads as the bass pounds obscenely around them.

Arthur wakes late the next morning not quite sure how he washed up here in bed, in the small second bedroom of what Eames pretentiously calls his family’s pied a terre in Belgravia, London. There’s a glass of water on the nightstand, telling Arthur that – as expected – Eames is both less hung over than Arthur and already awake somewhere in the flat.

It takes a good minute or two before Arthur can convince himself to roll towards the glass of water, and another minute after that before his head stops whirling and his stomach lurching, and Arthur can fumble for the glass and aim it at his dry disgusting-tasting mouth. The water settles his nausea a little, enough for Arthur to look down and take inventory: he’s still wearing the too-tight shirt from the club last night, and boxers, but his jeans must be across the room somewhere. He needs a shower but the very idea seems insurmountably ambitious in this moment. He waits for the bed to stop swaying under him, then slowly eases up, holding his head so it doesn’t tumble away from him.

At last Arthur gets to his feet, and it’s not too bad really once he begins moving, leaning one hand on the wall for support as he shuffles out of the bedroom, down the corridor towards the kitchen. Coffee is all he can think of at the moment, but it seems to Arthur that there’s a good chance that Eames will be near the coffee, and that would be a pleasant bonus.

He registers the voices talking a little too late.

“I take it this is your travel companion, Charles?” asks somebody, somebody who is female and most definitely not Eames.

Arthur blinks up from his fixed squint on the floor beneath his feet. Eames is sitting at the little kitchen table, fully dressed and holding a cup and saucer, neat and alert and freshly showered. He looks amazing.

Beside him is a tallish old woman with white curls, slim, impeccably dressed and pouring out more tea while fixing Arthur with a censorious prim expression.

“Ah, yes, Gran,” Eames says, twisting his mouth at Arthur in greeting and possibly some sort of apology. “This is Arthur Goldberg from America. Arthur, this is my grandmother, Mrs. Georgiana Eames.”

Arthur would really, really like to kill Eames with a glance right now, but he instead has to stagger forward and extend a hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, how do you do?” Arthur croaks. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize”—and he barely keeps from saying that Mrs. Eames is a visitor, because of course it’s her flat and Arthur’s the guest, wandering around probably reeking of smoke and alcohol, and – if he doesn’t get some coffee soon – barf.

“We had a bit of a late night,” Eames says, sipping at his tea.

“How do you do,” Mrs. Eames says stiffly. “I’m so pleased you feel at home here.”

“I,” Arthur says, and it’s no good, no good at all, “I just – if you’ll excuse me.” He tries not to make it obvious that he’s bolting for the bathroom but Eames’ laughter seems to suggest his lack of success in this endeavor.

Arthur leans his forehead against the chilly porcelain afterwards and hopes that Eames’ posh grandmother couldn’t hear him heaving up the contents of a nearly empty stomach. The door clicks open and shut behind him, and then Eames is pressing a cool wet cloth to the back of Arthur’s neck.

“Fuck you,” Arthur says. “Did you know she was coming?”

“Well, I knew she’d come at some point,” Eames says, unbothered, “but I didn’t know it would be today.” He chuckles quietly. “Quite the first impression you’ve made.”

“I hate you so much,” Arthur says, lacking the energy to say it with fitting venom. The cloth feels very nice.

“It’s all right, she doesn’t seem it but Gran’s not so easily put off. Trust me, she’s seen me hanging my head over this toilet more than once in the same state as you.” Eames strokes Arthur’s hair. “Shower, I’ll fetch you some clothes, and have coffee waiting for you when you’re done.”

“Coffee,” Arthur says longingly, sighing.

“Up, come on,” Eames says, hauling Arthur by the armpits and tugging at his t-shirt. “You’ll be a new man, I swear it.”

“No more surprises?” Arthur asks. “I hate surprises like this.”

“No more surprises,” Eames agrees. “I’d kiss you to seal the deal but you smell like Satan’s arse, into the shower with you before I reconsider and trade you in for a fresher cleaner model.”

Eames is right about the shower and clothes; by the time Arthur reemerges into the kitchen he’s walking upright and able to smile awkwardly at Mrs. Eames. “I’m so sorry,” he begins, and trails off, not sure how to explain to this pursed-mouthed posh Englishwoman that he’s just working off the tail end of a spectacular drunk courtesy of her shiny-faced grandson here.

“We were well and truly shit-faced last night, Gran, truth be told,” Eames says baldly, smiling. “It’s a wonder we found our way back at all.”

“Charles,” Mrs. Eames reproaches, less shocked and more impatient than Arthur would have expected given her general demeanor.

“It’s very, uh, kind of you, to let us stay here,” Arthur tries. “I mean, it’s a beautiful flat.”

Mrs. Eames studies Arthur as though unable to decipher anything he just said.

“I’ve played your piano, it’s really quite a nice, uh,” Arthur manages, and loses faith in himself when Mrs. Eames’ expression doesn’t so much as flicker with acknowledgment.

“Goldberg, that’s a Jewish name?” she says, frowning.

“Yes, Gran,” Eames agrees, pouring Arthur a cup of coffee. “Goldberg like the variations. Perfect name for a musician.”

Arthur takes a long grateful sip of the hot coffee.

“I suppose it’s very fashionable these days, being a homosexual,” says Mrs. Eames calmly, matter-of-fact. Arthur hides his choking with a little cough. “I’ve often said, Arthur, that it’s as well that Charles seems to like men over women, handsome as he is. It would be a very hard thing to find a woman to match him in looks. For men that sort of thing matters less.”

Arthur squints. He is fairly sure this wasn’t a compliment in his favor.

“Now, Gran, you’ve got it wrong,” Eames says, his tone admonitory, like he means to set the record straight. “I’m not homosexual, I’m bisexual. Arthur here only fancies other men, though.”

“Oh, I can’t be bothered to keep track of that nonsense,” Mrs. Eames says, waving a genteel hand in dismissal. “Charles, have you rung up your father and mother yet?”

Eames wrinkles his nose in reply.

“Whatever your feelings – and I certainly appreciate them – our agreement was that you would come back to see them once a year and I do believe you are overdue on this visit. You will call them today and arrange to have dinner at the manor soon.”

Arthur looks over at Eames, knowing from long experience that Eames rarely reacts well to being ordered to do anything at all. But Eames just nods and sighs and pats his gran’s hand.

“I should like to hear you sing for me this evening, too,” she adds, and suddenly she’s looking at Arthur again. “You’ll play for him, Arthur?”

“Oh,” Arthur says, surprised at being directly addressed. “Of course, I would love to”—

“Nothing in German, Charles. Britten or Vaughan Williams, something English.”

“We have just the thing,” Eames agrees cheerfully. “Come on, then, Arthur, let’s leave Gran to enjoy her flat in peace and quiet.” He stands up and Arthur hurries to do likewise, still more than a little sluggish. “The usual for dinner?” Eames asks.

“Half seven,” returns Mrs. Eames. “Come now, let me kiss you.”

Eames leans down and presses a fond kiss to his gran’s cheek, smiles as she strokes his hair and kisses the side of his face.

“So handsome,” she says with relish, and releases him. “Arthur, Charles is the very image of my late husband.”

“Never fails to give me the creeps hearing you say that, Gran,” Eames says, “I keep thinking you’re going to go dotty one day and assault my person, convinced I’m Grandfather Eames.”

To Arthur’s surprise, Mrs. Eames’ stern expression melts into sudden sweet humor. “You’re quite safe there, Charles, your grandfather would never countenance such behavior from his wife.”

“Poor grandpa,” Eames says, and flings his arm around Arthur. “Cheers, Gran, see you tonight.”

“Goodbye,” Arthur says, “and thank you again for”—but Mrs. Eames is back to ignoring him and Eames is hauling him towards the door.

It’s raining and grey outdoors, which is actually fitting given Arthur’s state of being at the moment. Eames huddles with him under a black umbrella as they cut across the corner of Hyde Park. It’s already their third day in England but the first had been lost to jet lag and the second devoted mostly to celebrating spring break and privacy in the confines of the guest bedroom. Arthur supposes he should be grateful Mrs. Eames had arrived today and not yesterday or she might have encountered something more shocking than Arthur in his t-shirt and boxers.

“Where are we even going?” Arthur asks, looking around, trying and failing to take in the fact that this is real, they are actually in England, in London, that this is Eames’ country and city and important historic things have happened all around for centuries and centuries. It’s a bit much to process on a hangover.

“I’m giving you the full tour,” says Eames. “London through the eyes of a young English schoolboy.”

“Is this going to be a lot of you showing me all the places you got drunk and had sex in alleys?” Arthur asks suspiciously.

Eames points at a tree just off the path. “Just there is the exact spot where I first touched Penelope Rutherford’s left breast.”

“You did not,” Arthur says.

“Ah, you got me, it was the right one,” Eames says, and hauls Arthur a little faster. “Come on, stay with the tour.”

Arthur’s never been to Britain, or anywhere outside North America for that matter, so his mental landscape of where Eames grew up has always been comprised of clichéd London landmarks like Westminster and the London Bridge and Trafalgar Square. They pass countless red phone boxes and double-decker buses on their route, abruptly leaving them behind when they get to St James Park, which is quiet and damp. Arthur’s view of Buckingham Palace is hazy not just from the hangover, but the rain mists between him and the building, standing in the middle of a footbridge to see it, all unreal. It makes Scotland Yard seem anticlimactic by comparison, and yet all the way along Eames is casual and matter-of-fact, not seeming to notice Arthur’s staring and gaping. Then, suddenly, there’s Big Ben, and Eames has Arthur’s hand and is tugging him down a side street.

“So does your grandmother hate me now?” Arthur asks, finally not so overwhelmed now that they’re in a relatively ordinary street.

“No, no,” Eames responds dismissively. “She generally tolerates anyone I like.” He winks at Arthur. “Gran is fond of me.”

“She’s the one responsible for your immense ego, in other words,” Arthur says, getting it.

“Yeah, Gran, and the public schools I attended,” Eames says, “of which this is one,” and he waves a hand across the way and Arthur goes straight back to gaping and staring.

“Eames, this is Westminster Abbey,” Arthur says, once the shock passes.

“I told you I went here,” Eames returns, all innocence.

“You also told me that you went to school with Prince William and propositioned him,” Arthur protests, but the sign over the entrance does say ‘Westminster School’.

“He was at Eton,” Eames admits, “but not at the same time as me.”

“So,” Arthur says, looking around, the magnificence and the ancient buildings and the likely expense of sending your kid to high school here, “so, your family’s not just well-off, they’re like – nobility.”

“Nothing of the sort,” Eames says, snorting. “Not a title to be found.” He pauses, frowning. “Well, there was a great-great-uncle on my mother’s side, but he was terribly weird, no one talks about him.”

“Eames,” Arthur says, “you know what I mean. My family has a nice big house and two cars and can afford to send me off to college; your family,” and he finishes the sentence by gesturing across the way at Eames’ former school.

“Right there,” says Eames, “that’s where I got my hand down Portia Walters’ knickers.”

“Can we end the tour of your sexual awakening now?” Arthur pleads, smiling anyway.

“It was more up her knickers than down, actually, I went from under her skirt,” Eames muses. “Seemed to be the path of least resistance anyway.” He gets Arthur by the hand, pulls him across the street and then backs him up against the wall next to the school entrance. “I like having you here instead,” Eames adds, low-voiced and grinning and crowding Arthur into the façade.

They kiss under the umbrella, against the dusty centuries-old stone, until someone middle-aged in a tie and blazer pokes his head around the corner and clears his throat loudly, and Arthur and Eames break apart and shrug and saunter off down the street.

When they get back to the flat after meeting Eames’ grandmother for dinner at a posh restaurant called Pétrus, Eames says, “I’ve got to ring my parents, Arthur, will you play something for Gran while I’m doing that?”

Arthur doesn’t have time to object before Eames has disappeared down the corridor. Mrs. Eames sits stiffly on one of the sofas and folds her hands in her lap, waiting.

“Do you,” Arthur says, “do you have any requests?” He knows he’s not at the hotel bar, but the phrasing comes out the same anyway; for an insane moment he’s afraid Mrs. Eames will somehow divine his history as a lounge pianist and think even less of him than she already does.

“Perhaps something by Chopin,” Mrs. Eames says instead. “Nothing too sad, but nothing too bright and lively either.”

Arthur sits at the piano and flexes his fingers a little, thinking, then settles on a prelude he played years ago for a festival. It takes a moment to summon the score in his mind, but once he’s got the first few measures clear in his memory, Arthur begins, trusting his muscles to remember the rest.

It’s simple, really, just beautiful music with a singing melody. Arthur relaxes into it, confident for the first time in Mrs. Eames’ presence; whether she likes him or not, Arthur is at home here seated at the keyboard, and the instrument is by now familiar enough to answer to his touch as he wants it to. He doesn’t have Eames’ weird gift of perfect pitch – notes and keys don’t hold color for him like that, but Arthur has always loved the feel of D flat major, the way his hands cup over the black keys, like there’s nothing but sweet consonance in the world.

“Why he never wrote a decent song we’ll never know,” Eames says, as the last chord is still fading. “God knows the man could pen a melody.”

Arthur smiles over at Eames, then dares a look at his grandmother. She looks – well, pleased is the wrong word – but at least satisfied with Arthur’s performance. “Will you sing now, Charles?” she asks.

“What do you reckon, darling?” Eames asks, addressing Arthur. “Something from the Songs of Travel?”

Arthur just smirks – he knows what Eames wants to perform – and launches into the rapid arpeggiations that lead into Eames’ melody. They’ve had little time to rehearse and perform together this year, actually, with Eames cast as a lead in the first semester opera and Arthur kept busy with the concerto competition work and his course load.

It’s sweet and familiar to slip back into this partnership, the old feeling of give and take between them, Eames’ broad shoulders shifting with almost imperceptible cues of breath and dynamic. Eames is always at his best with an audience (preferably adoring, but he can turn hearts as needed) and you’d never guess from the sound of him that he spent all afternoon in a smoky pub sampling draft ales with Arthur.

“Oh, marvelous, marvelous,” says Mrs. Eames afterwards, almost overwrought, unironically clasping her hands to her bosom and beaming at Eames. “Stunning. Oh, Charles.” It goes on like this for several minutes while Arthur tries his hardest not to crack up: Mrs. Eames overflowing with praise and Eames very easily accepting every word.

“What I want to know,” Arthur asks later, reclining on their bed while Eames moves around the room getting ready for bed, “is how you’re still a mere graduate student in voice when you could be singing at La Scala this very night.”

Eames shrugs out of his shirt and pulls a baffled face. “I ask myself the very same thing every single day, Arthur. It’s a travesty. They’re all jealous of me there, my immense talent.”

Arthur snorts.

Eames grins and undoes his jeans, kicks out of them. “Gran was the one, though,” he continues, a little more soberly, “she heard me singing at Westminster, the solo in ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’ and –“ Eames blinks, squints down at the floor. “She’s a tough bird, Gran, she stayed in London through the Blitz. My whole life, I never saw her so much as flinch. Stiff upper lip, you know. But after that performance – she just held my hands and—“ Eames lifts his hands in demonstration. “Arthur, the look she gave me…she’s always been fond of me, very fond. But it was—it was different.”

“She’s the one who pays your tuition,” Arthur surmises, fascinated to see Eames like this, at a loss for words. “I kind of gathered, I know your parents can’t be too crazy about this music thing.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Eames agrees, huffing out air in relief at Arthur’s comprehension. “Only son, you know.”

“I’ll go easy on the music talk when we go to see them,” Arthur promises faithfully, smiling and warm.

Eames looks over, halfway through pulling the sock off his foot. “What?” he says, blankly.

“I mean, I’ll just, I’ll skim over the conservatory stuff,” Arthur assures him.

“Oh, bloody hell, Arthur,” Eames says, “I thought – you don’t have to come, of course you can stay here, Gran’s leaving tomorrow and you can have the flat to yourself.”

“You don’t want me to meet your family?” Arthur asks, stung, wide-eyed.

“No, fuck, that’s not it at all, trust me,” Eames says.

“I thought you were out to them, jesus,” Arthur returns, shock melting abruptly into anger. “You said you were out, Eames! You made me come out because you were already out.”

“I’m out, fuck, trust me, I’m bloody out,” Eames proclaims earnestly. “It’s nothing to do with you, it’s my idiotic bargain with Gran, I have to see them. They barely want to see me, believe me. Arthur, my family’s not like yours, we’re not all lovely and tight-knit and going to temple and that shit, it’s horrible and cold and dreadful.”

“First of all,” Arthur snaps, sitting up, “first of all, my family is far from perfect and you fucking know it, and secondly, if it’s that awful why the hell shouldn’t I be coming along for, you know, moral support?”

Eames rips off his other sock and collapses onto the bed, groaning and scrubbing at his face. “Arthur,” he groans piteously.

“Eames, this isn’t”—Arthur stops himself with a sigh. “I’m coming with you, end of discussion.”

“No, you fucking well aren’t,” Eames says, voice muffled by his hands. “I’m trying to do a nice thing here, will you bloody let me?”

Arthur draws his knees up to this chest, wraps his arms around them. It doesn’t feel like a nice thing, it feels like Eames is embarrassed by him, or maybe finds him too much trouble to explain. “When are you going, tomorrow?” Arthur asks finally, quietly.

“Tomorrow afternoon,” Eames says, “for dinner, and then overnight, but I’m taking the earliest train I can the next day. It’ll be less than eighteen hours in the end. And you can go round and look at all the things in London that you want to see, and when I get back I’ll even come along for some of it.”

“You’ll go into Westminster Abbey with me?” Arthur pursues, because this is something they squabbled about all day today, Eames resisting any and all attempts on Arthur’s part to participate in any kind of tourist activity. “You’ll come to the Albert Hall and the Tate and Trafalgar Square and the London Eye?”

“Fuck, not the,” Eames groans, and then catches Arthur’s glare. “Yes, please, let’s go on the world’s slowest Ferris wheel, I’m all aflutter at the very thought.”

“You won’t be grouchy, either,” Arthur continues, dropping the interrogatory tone and moving into something a little closer to the imperative. “You’re going to smile and take pictures of us in front of a phone booth.”

Eames squishes his mouth up and rolls his weight into Arthur’s, forcing Arthur to relax a little. “I draw the line at the crown jewels display, I warn you,” he says, and sneaks one hand up the leg of Arthur’s boxers. “It’s like a cattle chute out of a PETA movie minus the mercy of the slaughtering, I won’t do it.”

“No fun,” Arthur says, shameless now, pulling a very Eamesian pout.

“Fuck, don’t, don’t do that, I’m helpless before that,” Eames murmurs, smiling and slipping his hand farther up, brushing his lips against Arthur’s inner knee.

“We’re not doing it with your grandmother in the next room,” Arthur says, not really sounding very convinced even to his own ears.

“Well, she’s not coming in here if that’s what you’re after, you nasty pervert,” Eames says, and Arthur is forced to kiss him if only to shut him up.

Arthur hangs around the flat all evening after Eames leaves, just in case the phone rings and Arthur can provide some modicum of moral support. He watches British television and snacks on weird British snack foods from the larder and jumps once when the phone in the flat downstairs sounds, faintly echoing up through the floor. Finally he goes to bed with the portable phone on the table next to him, but he sleeps soundly through the night, no interruptions.

“So?” Arthur asks the next day when he meets up with Eames at Waterloo station, Eames slouching with his hands in his pockets and tired eyes. “You survived?”

Eames pulls out a pair of sunglasses and slips them on, flashing a smile at Arthur. “Apparently. Which carbuncle of a tourist trap are you dragging me towards first?”

So that’s it, Arthur supposes, that’s all the discussion Eames is going to permit on the subject. But an hour and four hundred feet above London later, Eames edges in close to where Arthur’s gazing across the city, slipping his fingers under Arthur’s, warm and unwinding and familiar. “Ah, we’re in luck with the sky today,” he says quietly, and points. “See that? That’s Windsor Castle.”

Arthur squints and stares and utterly fails to see what Eames is pointing out, but he smiles anyway and says, “Cool,” twining his fingers around Eames’.

The David Lively concert is immaculate and devastating and glorious. After it’s over Arthur sits in his seat with his eyes closed, trying desperately to commit every note to memory, heart in his throat, distant from the rustle and chatter of the departing audience around him and Eames. If Eames is ever patient with Arthur about anything, it’s these moments when music has broken him open; Eames just sits quietly next to Arthur and fiddles silently with his program, trying not to sigh too loud.

“All right, then?” Eames says when Arthur finally lifts his head and opens his eyes.

“Yeah, all right,” Arthur answers roughly, clearing his throat after.

They head out into the dark wet night, bumping elbows under Eames’ umbrella.

“I’ll never be that –“ Arthur chokes out, Eames guiding them up the stairs of a nearby pub. “Eames, it – don’t you ever feel – robbed. Like, there’s so much beauty and artistry and talent in the world and your portion of it, it’s never as much as you need it to be. It, it hurts, it’s – not enough. It could never be enough.”

Eames wobbles his head from side to side as if trying to nod and shake his head simultaneously. “No,” he begins, then corrects himself, “well, yes. No, I don’t often feel that way, but yes, I – I know what you’re after.”

Arthur sits down at a small sticky wooden table, still caught up between elation and desperate inadequacy. “If I could just practice more,” he begins, “maybe I could still”—

“Arthur,” Eames says, cutting him off, fixing him with a mildly amused gaze. “Can’t you ever bloody be happy just to experience music? Must you always be worried about where you fit into it?”

Arthur blinks with surprise. “God, do I sound like an asshole? Is that what”—

“No,” Eames says, chuckling, patting Arthur’s shoulder, “no, fuck, that’s not what – only, something can be marvelous and beautiful without needing to get into the middle of it, right?”

Arthur regards Eames for a moment, Eames’ easy manner and handsome charm and the way he’s utterly focused on Arthur in this moment. “No,” Arthur says, unapologetic, “no, I think it can’t be. The longing, it’s part of the beauty for me.”

Eames shakes his head, smiling but not unkind. “That’s utterly fucked if you ask me,” he confesses. “It’s a good thing you’re adorable or I’d never be able to stomach all this Sehnsucht rubbish.”

Arthur smiles in spite of himself, embarrassed by how pleased he is to hear Eames call him adorable. “So in your philosophy of music,” he pursues, toying with a cardboard beer coaster, “where everything is about fucking…”

“Ah,” Eames says, warming to the subject, “all that shite about eternal longing is like an immense case of blue balls. Either pop your load or stop wanking about it.”

Arthur clucks his tongue, entertained. “So is this going to be the main focus of your graduate thesis?”

Eames nods soberly. “Indeed it is, Arthur. Allow me to buy us a round so I can explain it all to your poor undergraduate brain in detail.”

“Well, this is why it was taking so long to load,” Arthur sighs, watching as his webmail page finally flickers and resets, “Aaron sent me this huge stupid file.”

“What is it?” Eames asks distractedly from the next computer over. It’s their second time visiting what seems to be London’s slowest internet café; Arthur faithfully promised his parents he’d write after their arrival and again before they left, and today is already their last day in England.

“Probably a virus,” Arthur says, then scrolls down to have a look. “Oh, no, it’s actually a photo.”

Eames rolls his chair closer, interested. “Naked photo?”

“Eames,” Arthur sighs, “first of all, why would my brother be sending me a naked photo, and secondly”—he stops mid-sentence, because the file just loaded. “Oh,” Arthur says.

“Wow, he’s really brilliant at upstaging you, isn’t he?” Eames says admiringly. “You come out of the closet and he breaks up with his girlfriend. You bring me home for Jewish Christmas and he tells everyone he’s gotten the girl preggers. You go overseas for spring break, he marries her.”

Arthur is still stuck on the image before him, Aaron (grinning, nervous) and Rachel (grinning, visibly pregnant) arm in arm under a chuppah, clasping hands to display twin wedding bands.

“What’s he got to say?” Eames asks, and commandeers the mouse to scroll back up.

Arthur – sorry we couldn’t invite you but it all happened kind of fast. Hope you’re having a good time in England. You’ve got to come back and visit when the baby comes. It’s a boy. – Aaron

Eames scrolls back down not a second after Arthur’s read the message. “I guess this means I’ve lost my chance for that upgrade,” he sighs. “Look at him, he’s utterly gorgeous.”

“I can’t believe he’s married,” Arthur says, too stunned to react to Eames’ comment.

“Well, better off that way I suppose,” Eames says philosophically. “Just don’t get any ideas, I’m not the marrying kind.”

“As if I would marry you,” Arthur huffs, shaking off some of his surprise.

“As if I would have you if you asked,” Eames volleys back, smirking. “Well, maybe I would, now I’ve lost my chance at true domestic bliss with your brother.”

Arthur ignores this last and leans forward, studying the digital photo, taking in all the details he can from the small dark image. It’s not that he wanted to be there – Arthur can only imagine the drama that must have surrounded and followed what must have been an elopement – but it feels weird, being a continent away while his family grows and changes out of his reach.

Eames’ fingers skitter up the back of Arthur’s neck, squeezing briefly. “Look, I’ve gotten a message from Mal here,” he says, “she wants to know would we do a recital in June for a Boston art song festival.”

“Sure,” Arthur says, nodding, staring at the screen still, “sure.” He numbly hits ‘reply’.

Aaron and Rachel – Congrats. Wish I could have been there. We will definitely come and visit as soon as we can. England is great. Eames says hi. – Arthur.


You are cordially invited to celebrate the Bris of Jacob Asher Goldberg-Litwin, born May 30, 2001 to proud parents Aaron Goldberg and Rachel Goldberg-Litwin

“You’re meant to be resting on your laurels,” Eames says, kissing the small of Arthur’s back as Arthur tries for the fourth time to get up and get dressed. “Mr. Sophomore Winner of the Concerto Competition.”

“Yeah, well,” Arthur says, subsiding yet again into the comfortable tangle of covers beneath his stomach, melting under the brush of Eames’ lips, “well, it’s your coaching we’re going to be unprepared for, you know.” He’s trying to sound reasonable and calm but it’s getting ever more difficult with Eames’ mouth working down his spine, raising shivers and goose bumps as it goes.

Eames shifts back, gets up on his knees, and cups his warm palms over Arthur’s ass. “Christ, look at you,” he says breathlessly.

Arthur’s hips answer Eames without Arthur’s say-so, edging down and into the mattress for a helpless showy thrust. They’re not talking about it – they don’t talk about this stuff, really – but Arthur can’t shake the feeling that Eames’ former position statement on Arthur’s ass has been gradually losing ground. Ever since London, Eames has been making some advances that can’t really be mistaken for general curiosity. There have been – well. Fingers. Arthur’s been more than a little surprised, himself, at how he’s become kind of shameless about wordlessly encouraging Eames. He does a little wordless encouragement now, pretending to stretch as he lets his thighs fall open a little wider.

“Arthur,” Eames says, voice gone rough, and suddenly he’s a solid weight covering Arthur’s back, pressing down into him, all hands and mouth. “Fuck, where’s the”—

Arthur’s heart skips with anticipation – is this it? – but when Eames finishes slapping around the mattress and kneels up again with the click of a cap, it’s not what Arthur expected at all. “On my side?” asks Arthur, going anyway.

“I just want to,” Eames says, fumbling and turned on, “is it weird if I,” and his fingers slip between Arthur’s legs, wet and slippery and hasty as they spread lube over Arthur’s inner thighs.

“What,” Arthur asks, going to lift his upper leg because he’s pretty sure Eames is way off target if he’s planning to—

“No, no,” Eames says, gently pressing Arthur’s legs together again, “just,” and he curls up behind Arthur and presses his chest to Arthur’s back, and then his cock presses into the slippery space Eames had prepared. “Shit,” Eames gasps, and wraps his arm across Arthur’s chest, “oh, fuck, that’s”—

Arthur gets it now, he understands, and he pushes his ass back into Eames’ hips to meet Eames’ first tentative thrust. It’s weird, it’s not directly stimulating to Arthur, having Eames’ cock slide between his thighs, but it’s so like – like what they haven’t done, the things that Arthur’s only recently started to imagine, with Eames pressed up against him and panting and losing his control over how Arthur feels.

If this was what it would be like, Arthur decides hotly, he’s definitely willing and able, Eames so desperate and close everywhere, Eames holding onto Arthur’s whole body and working himself against Arthur, dirty and animalistic and greedy and hot. Arthur reaches back, wraps his arm around Eames’ neck, twists until they can kiss awkwardly, and Eames is gone, he’s lost. It turns Arthur on with such dizzying sudden need that he has to let go of Eames again, reach down and grab his cock, working as fast as he can in rhythm with Eames’ frantic thrusts.

“I want to fuck you,” Eames confesses, “shit, I need to,” and he holds Arthur tight tight tight and comes hard, Arthur hurrying to follow after.

“Do you mean it?” Arthur asks, heart thumping and breath loud, some seconds later. He shifts experimentally, and grimaces at the wetness between his thighs. “You really want to do that?”

“No,” Eames says, going lax and dreamy. “No, I love what we do, it’s brilliant.”

“Because I want to,” Arthur says, feeling brave and also a little hungry for it.

“You do?” Eames asks, surprise seeping through his sleepy tone. “Listen, Arthur, I know what they make it seem like in porn, like you’re not really having proper sex until – but that’s complete crap, I assure you, there are loads of guys who never – and it’s not like it’s something you have to love or want to do, it’s not like”—

“Eames,” Arthur says, interrupting, “I know, you’ve said all this before. Just, I thought it seemed like you wanted to. With how you just said you did.”

“I say all sorts of mad shit when I’m about to come,” Eames huffs.

“Eames,” Arthur says again. “I want to. I really do. I want to at least try it.”

“It might be awful,” Eames warns him, tone neutral, kissing Arthur’s neck.

“Then we’ll only try it once,” Arthur sighs, rolling his eyes. “Don’t you think it’s worth experimenting? What if we really like it and we’re missing out?”

“Fuck,” says Eames, nuzzling into Arthur’s earlobe. “All right, bloody hell.”

“Yeah?” Arthur says, grinning, holding still even though he wants to look back and meet Eames’ eyes.

“Yeah, yeah,” Eames mutters, “I’ll fuck your gorgeous perfect little arse, you talked me into it.”

“Right, I’m sure, I’m really twisting your arm,” Arthur snorts, still smiling helplessly. “Shit, we have to go, though.”

“No, we don’t,” Eames argues mulishly, “I’ve just gotten into this, I’m conducting a very important experiment on this bit of skin right behind your ear, I want to know does it always make you smile like that.”

Arthur obediently lies still for another moment, then sighs and rolls away, ignoring Eames’ pathetic noises. “Look at the time, fuck, we’re going to have to take a cab at this rate.”

“No, we’re not,” Eames groans, flopping onto his stomach. He catches sight of the alarm clock a second later, the fact evident from the sudden tension in his shoulders. “Oh, fuck, we’re going to be late, bugger.”

“What did I just say?” Arthur snips back, but he’s still a little too pleased with himself to be as short with Eames as he normally would.

Eames thumps around swearing for another five minutes while Arthur cleans up and gets dressed and calls them a cab. They haven’t practiced together in over a week, and it’s been two days since Arthur himself touched a piano at the finals of the concerto competition. All signs point to a disaster waiting for them in Mal’s studio. It’s been some time since Arthur got dressed down by Mal for lack of preparation but he’s fully aware that she won’t hesitate to call him on it, concerto competition winner or no. He just, somehow, can’t bring himself to get too anxious about it. For this Arthur blames Eames and his lazy post-coital kisses.

He’s too right about Mal though. They’re not in the room for one minute before Mal says, “What are we working on today?” and Arthur and Eames cast stricken looks at each other from either side of the Bösendorfer. “You have nothing prepared?” Mal pursues, having caught their silent panicked exchange.

“We, uh,” Eames begins, and blinks at Arthur, clearly drawing a blank. “Of course, we just hadn’t quite settled on what we would…”

“We just have so much that could use your input,” Arthur improvises, shuffling very energetically through his music, looking for something that they haven’t already worked with Mal but that is in a decent state of preparedness. Shit, shit, fuck. “Uh, Eames, what about your G&S aria?”

“Ah,” Eames says, nodding energetically, “yes, that would be”—

“Spare me the theatrics,” Mal says, bored. “If you are about to waste my time you will at least have the courtesy to admit it.”

“We are most definitely,” Eames says, nodding, “definitely about to waste your time, then.”

Arthur gathers his music together, embarrassed like he hasn’t been since the first time he sat at this instrument. “We should go,” he says, more to Eames than to Mal.

“No,” says Mal, overriding Arthur and Eames with a wave of her hand. “No, but please do put away your music. We will work on other things today.”

Arthur can feel himself growing pale, but he obediently lays the music to one side and flexes his fingers a few times. They’ve both been so busy this year, coachings with Mal have been sporadic and rushed; but now they’re through with the year’s schoolwork, their asses rightfully belong to Mal and her recital at the end of the month.

“It’s very interesting,” Mal says, gliding over to stand between Arthur and Eames, arms folded, brows knitted, “to see how you interact, how it has changed since you have become lovers.”

Shit. Arthur fixes his gaze on the keys, but it’s no use. He can feel how Eames has gone from ruefulness to sudden alert interest, all in the space of Mal’s sentence.

Arthur wriggles on the bench, wondering if he could maybe fake a seizure or projectile vomiting to escape the room.

“There’s always a power imbalance,” Mal continues, “even when we aspire to equality. It’s inevitable. One is older, the other younger. One is by nature more secretive. One is more confident in performance. One guides, the other follows.”

Eames folds his arms too, aping Mal’s posture, the thoughtful tilt of her chin. It’s almost eerie how well he does it. “One pitches and the other catches?” he suggests, deadpan.

Mal isn’t the least bit shocked, of course; at best, she’s pained by Eames’ crude language. “Yes,” she agrees shortly, “that is certainly part of it.”

Arthur barely stops himself from mashing his face into the piano keyboard in sheer horror.

“I would like to do some role playing exercises to try and encourage more equality when it comes to your stage performances,” Mal goes on easily. “Arthur, I fear you too often take sole responsibility for the musical side of things. Eames, you must come to see yourself as having less of a submissive role in this relationship.”

It takes a moment for the import of this last part to hit Arthur, but when it does he can’t help looking over at Eames, fighting the beginnings of a smile. Eames himself remains amused, though his expression has gone from glee at Arthur’s discomfort to a more subtle private amusement at the whole situation.

Still, it’s obvious Eames can’t resist saying it, the moment Mal’s attention is pulled away by a knock at the door. He and Arthur are sitting cross-legged on the floor, knees pressed to knees, palms to palms, doing some ridiculous mirroring exercise. “I prefer a full grand,” Eames murmurs, leaning in, “but I’ll accept something smaller if that’s not in your budget.”

“Oh, shut up,” Arthur says, “or I’m going to tell Mal all about how you’re such a huge nancy bottom and how it’s impacting our ability to perform in the musical sense.”

“Whatever you say, Arthur,” Eames responds with ridiculous meekness. “I bow to your superior –“ and he changes gears rapidly as Mal comes back over, having dismissed whoever had been at the door. “Mal, this is really aligning our energies, you’re absolutely right, brilliant!”

The day before they’re due to catch the train to Pittsburgh for Arthur’s nephew’s bris, Arthur disappears for an hour and comes home with all his sweet floppy hair shorn down to a crew cut. Eames takes one look and announces that he hates it – because he does, Arthur looks like an escapee from prison, or maybe an alien off Star Trek – but later on that evening Eames experiences a dizzying change of heart when he looks over at Arthur and sees how the short hair somehow brings out the lean handsome lines of Arthur’s face, makes him look more adult and masculine and yet somehow still Arthur.

“I thought you were going to boycott sex with me until it grew back,” Arthur says, not protesting, as Eames pushes down on Arthur’s soft brushy head, guiding him towards Eames’ fly.

“I’m not having sex with you,” Eames says crossly, “I’m having sex with this dashing stranger who just happens to have appeared on my couch a minute ago.”

“You’re so weird,” Arthur complains, but opens Eames’ trousers anyway, and he looks lewd and unfamiliar and it’s all weirdly and amazingly sexy.

Arthur’s mum, picking them up from the station, has a similar initial reaction. “Oh,” she says, caressing Arthur’s head, sadly. “Oh, well, it’ll grow back.”

“I tried to stop him,” Eames lies, pulling a sorrowful face.

“Right,” says Arthur flatly. “So can we get in the car now?”

The house is mad, far busier and noisier even than it had been at its peak over the winter break. Mr. Goldberg is rushing around the kitchen with trays of food on every surface. Assorted Goldbergian and Litwinian relatives are lending a hand, and sprinkled through all the food and shouting there is an alarming amount of baby detritus: nappy wipes and dummies and burp flannels and bibs.

“I thought there was just one baby,” Eames whispers to Arthur. “This looks like at least triplets.”

“Fuck if I know,” Arthur hisses back, and drags Eames towards the stairs before they can get seconded into chopping something. Because Eames is still suffering from the weird after-effects of Arthur’s astonishing haircut, this somehow morphs into them having sex up against the door to Aaron’s old room while Arthur manages to look shocked and censorious even when he’s the one going down on his knees.

Eventually they have to emerge, though, and they slip down the front staircase to join the melee when it seems likely that the bris preparations for tomorrow have given way to the arrival of take-away Chinese for tonight’s dinner.

Everyone exclaims over Arthur while Eames shakes hands with a dozen relatives, promptly forgetting each name as it’s told to him. He counts himself lucky to recall which middle-aged person belongs to which family. They’ve just gained the safety of a couple of dining chairs parked around the perimeter of the living room, each holding a loaded plate of Chinese food, when something close by makes a noise like a startled goat and Arthur’s eyes go wide as saucers.

“Oh, shit, that’s the sprog,” Eames says, because somehow they’ve landed seats within spitting distance of a little plastic baby pod complete with little baby.

“Holy fuck,” Arthur says around a mouthful of chow mein, “is it supposed to just be sitting there unattended like that?”

“Maybe it was sleeping,” Eames postulates. The baby makes the goat noise again. No one seems to notice. “Where’s its mother?” Eames balances his plate on another chair and gets up to investigate. The baby is very small, almost swallowed up by the straps of the harness seatbelt holding it in place. It is waving its fists and keeps poking itself in the eyes with them. “Well, if you stop doing that,” Eames tells the baby, “maybe you won’t cry so much.”

“Don’t touch it!” Arthur hisses, when Eames reaches in to still the little flailing hands.

“It’s not poisonous, you git,” Eames returns. “Jesus, this thing is like a straitjacket.” He finds a couple of buckles and pops them open, but it’s still a tight squeeze to wrangle the little arms out of the straps and free the baby, whose goat noises have gotten progressively louder and more alarming. For lack of a better plan, Eames scoops the baby up and gathers it into his arms, swaying back and forth and sort of jostling it gently. The goat noises subside a little.

“Fuck, be careful!” Arthur cries uselessly as Eames settles back down into his chair, and then he very unsubtly angles himself away from Eames and the sprog. “I don’t think you should have touched it,” he says again, nervously.

“He’s fine,” Eames tuts, jostling and swaying because the baby has mostly quieted down and is regarding Eames with squinty alien eyes. “God, he’s funny looking though. At least he’s got more hair than his poor bald-headed uncle.”

“You’d better put him back,” Arthur urges. “Eames. Put him back.”

“Can you say ‘prig’?” Eames asks the baby. “Can you say ‘fussy Uncle Prig’?”

“Oh my god, was he crying, did he wake up?” asks someone, and Eames looks up to see a very harried-looking Rachel hovering over them.

“He was bleating like a goat,” Eames informs her, in case this is significant information. “But he’s quieted now. He likes his Uncle Eames.”

“Shit, I’m so rude. I should have started with ‘hi’,” Rachel flails, bending down and embracing Eames and Arthur in turn. “And then saying ‘thank you’ for taking care of my baby while I was off putting out fires – there’s a thing with the cake and the decorator, I don’t even want to get into it.”

“Do you want him back?” Eames asks, shuffling the baby a little.

“Not if he’s happy there,” Rachel responds emphatically. “Seriously, I haven’t slept for seven days. I’m starting to think the bris is on the eighth day because by then you don’t feel so bad about causing him pain, the sleep deprivation makes you go psychotic.”

“Poor sprog,” Eames says, looking down at the scrunchy weird face cradled in the crook of his elbow. “Sounds like I’d best hold onto him in that case.”

“Call me if he starts crying and won’t settle down,” Rachel says, “and if I see Aaron I’ll tell him to come and say hello too.”

“Congrats, by the way,” Eames tells her. “On the baby and the wedding and all.”

“Thanks,” she responds, and stifles a yawn. “Oh, man, I have to keep moving, I’ll fall asleep standing up if I stay still too long, I’m like a shark.”

Rachel hurries off again and Eames contemplates the baby. It is still very funny looking. It has sticky-out ears like Arthur, and short dark hair, and puffy eyes. It is almost impossibly tiny. Eames leans down and takes an experimental whiff, but the scent is clean and sweet and milky, nothing offensive in the least.

“Eames,” says Arthur, closely observing all this.

“Shut up, I’m communing with your nephew,” Eames replies.

“Eames,” Arthur repeats with greater urgency. “You can’t have one.”

“I don’t bloody want one,” Eames says, and the baby farts noisily as if to agree with this sentiment. “Bugger, I hope that was just wind,” he says with alarm, patting around the sprog’s bum to check for anything alarming leaking out, but all is well. “Do you want to hold him?”

“No,” says Arthur in a tone brooking no argument, and applies himself to cleaning his plate as thoroughly as possible.

Eames holds the baby for a while longer, but the initial interest fades quickly. Most of the baby’s charm now resides in its incredible ability to make Arthur squirm. “Here, take him, I want to eat,” Eames tries, mostly to see will Arthur actually get up and leave.

“No,” Arthur says, and moves over one chair.

Aaron appears before Eames can try to make Arthur shift down further. Eames watches as the brothers exchange a manly handshake-embrace hybrid, then hastily offers the baby up to its father before he misses his chance.

“It’s so weird, only one week ago I was fucking terrified to hold him,” Aaron says, accepting the baby with practiced ease. “Did you get a chance, Artie?”

“Yeah,” Arthur lies shamelessly, “no, I picked him up when he was fussing.”

“Cool, thanks,” Aaron says, jostling the baby the same way Eames had. Eames hopes Arthur notices this. “Hey, I like the haircut, by the way.”

“Thanks,” Arthur says, clearing his throat, warming up a little. “Hey, Mom told me you’re doing really well in that computer animation diploma thing.”

“Yeah, well,” Aaron says modestly. “You know.” He lifts one shoulder and grins down at the sprog.

“Arthur wants one,” Eames contributes, “but no matter how hard we try we can’t seem to get him up the duff.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve heard that can be difficult without a vagina,” Aaron says sympathetically. “And a uterus.”

“Ah, that’s probably it,” Eames says knowingly, tapping the side of his nose and casting a significant look in Arthur’s direction. “Arthur, darling, do you hear that?” He picks up his plate and pokes through the noodles for some meat.

“You guys aren’t funny,” Arthur tells them both.

“Well, it would be hard to tell if he was knocked up,” Aaron adds thoughtfully, “what with the mood swings.”

“And the tenderness in his breasts,” Eames nods.

“Oh my god,” Arthur says, and leaves.

Aaron kicks Eames in the foot, grinning. “Hey, welcome to the family.”

Eames can’t seem to stop himself from grinning back. “Cheers.”

Arthur makes them shut off the water for sixty shivery seconds in the middle of their shared shower the next morning.

“Must we continue this charade?” Eames groans, stubbornly staying put in the shower while Arthur moves around naked and wet, opening and closing first his bedroom door and then the door to Eames’ supposed room.

“Yes,” Arthur says, unwilling to engage on the subject, but coming back into the shower anyway. “Okay, now.”

Eames gratefully turns on the water again and gets back to what he’d been doing before, namely pushing Arthur up against the tiles and slipping his fingers around Arthur’s bum.

“Not here,” Arthur says, even as he shivers and pushes back into the pressure offered.

“No, I know,” Eames says, smiling into Arthur’s back. “I like thinking about it. Don’t you like thinking about it?”

“You’re such a pervert,” Arthur says, which is a bit rich coming from someone actively fucking himself on Eames’ fingers.

“Mm,” Eames says, and bites down on Arthur’s shoulder just to listen to him squeak. “Shh, we must keep up the charade,” he whispers, and is delighted to hear Arthur start to laugh, not even a little bit quiet.

The actual bris is a bit like Eames’ experience at the synagogue, only with added knifeplay and a (rightfully) shrieking newborn. Rachel cries helplessly and cuddles the sprog to her as soon as she’s allowed to, murmuring promises and apologies over and over while everyone else beams and congratulates her and Aaron. Eames does his best not to squirm out of sympathy for the poor kid, and feels secretly glad that no one ever put him through this business. Still, there is a scandalous amount of food, and afterwards Arthur and Eames help a half-dozen Jewish aunties with stacks and stacks of dishes and leftovers.

“You’re Arthur’s friend from school,” Eames is told on one occasion.

“No, Auntie Lil,” says Arthur calmly, “Eames is my boyfriend.”

“Guilty,” Eames admits, “but I had nothing to do with that haircut.”

Auntie Lil doesn’t seem to know what to do with either of them, so she hands them each a roll of cling film and sets them to work on covering up bowls of food. Arthur’s dad squeezes by them a second later, on his way to some other errand, but Eames notices how his hand comes up and pats Arthur twice on his way past, and the way Arthur’s nose goes pink with pleasure afterwards.

“I have something for you,” Arthur says, much later, when the house is darkened and Aaron and Rachel have taken the sprog home and the Goldbergs have gone up to bed. Arthur leads Eames into the studio and perches at the piano bench, smiling suspiciously.

“Don’t tell me you want me to take your arse virginity bent over your Yamaha,” Eames says, only half-kidding.

“Jesus, of course not,” Arthur says, squinting at him. “Look inside the lid.”

Eames has a funny flippy feeling in his stomach, not sure where this is leading, but he pokes his head under the piano lid anyway and spots a small velvet jewellery box sitting on the strings. “Are you proposing to me?” Eames asks, feeling his smile shift nervously. “Because I told you I wouldn’t have you, you saucy”—and he pops the box open and stops talking.

Arthur jumps in after a few seconds’ of silence. “I know it’s not technically the letter of the bet but”—

“They’re,” Eames says quietly, and pokes a finger into the cushioned box’s lining to pop one of the cufflinks free. They’re flat, shaped like tiny black grand pianos, complete with miniature keyboards. “Arthur.”

“Two pianos?” Arthur tries, uncertainly smiling. “Two really small pianos? Does that count?”

Eames can’t explain it, the way this little token has stuck his heart up in his throat, set his pulse racing. “It counts,” he manages, and runs his thumb over the smooth flat face of the cufflink, the tiny bumps of its keys. Reluctantly, he pushes the cufflink back into its seating, pops the box closed. “Arthur,” Eames tries again, not sure what he wants to say.

“It’s dumb, I just thought it would be kind of funny,” Arthur hastens to say, unassuming and dear and serious, “because of the bet.”

“Arthur,” Eames says again, dropping his voice down to a whisper, moving to sit next to him at the piano, tilting his head to kiss Arthur’s lips.

“You like them?” Arthur asks, eyes cast down as he fights his smile.

“I haven’t said it,” Eames tells Arthur, fighting through the sudden tightness in his chest, “I have something to tell you, and I haven’t said it, and I should have said it a long time ago.”

“Eames,” Arthur says, trying to brush it off.

“No,” Eames says, “I – better out than in.” Their lips are brushing and Arthur’s hands cover Eames’, which are in turn cupped around the cufflink box.

“If you burp right now,” Arthur says, quietly, smilingly.

“I love you,” Eames says in a rush of sound. He exhales hard, releasing the rest of his pent-up breath, feeling the words hanging between them still. “Fuck. That was terrifying.”

Arthur reaches up and takes Eames’ face between his hands, darts in to kiss him hard and fast. “Me too,” Arthur says. “Me too.”