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Miles is the first to clasp Arthur’s hand as he exits the green room. “Magnificent,” Miles says, sharp blue eyes catching Arthur’s, proud and ecstatic and sincere.

“Yeah?” Arthur says, breathless still with the cadenza, sweaty and cooling uncomfortably under his tux jacket, the thunderous applause ringing in his head. “Yeah?” He’s grinning like an idiot, he knows, but — magnificent. Miles said he was magnificent.

“Yes,” Miles says, and claps Arthur on the shoulder, three times. “You must be pleased, Arthur, surely? Don’t tell me you’re already obsessing about every quaver and crochet.”

“No,” Arthur says, honestly, “no, I just – I could use a drink, truth be told.”

Miles laughs and guides Arthur out into the main lobby, stepping away at the last second to give the moment to Arthur fully as he reaches the reception and everyone pauses to applaud again. There’s the conductor, there’s Mal, there’s Dr. Cobb, there’s the concertmaster and Arthur’s musicology prof and the head of the conservatory, Arthur’s parents, and they are all beaming at him, moving forward to clasp hands and embrace him and tell him congratulations over and over. There are flowers from fellow students, from his mom, from Mal. Arthur’s floating, he’s not sure this is real: months and months of insanely hard work finally bursting open onto the stage tonight, wild and powerful and complex as only Rachmaninoff can be.

“Darling,” says Eames, suddenly appearing at Arthur’s side, a glass of wine in each hand. Their fingers brush as Arthur takes one of the glasses, and it makes it all real somehow, that glancing contact with Eames’ hand. “You were just”—Eames begins, and gives up on words, instead grinning at Arthur and shaking his head in wonder. “The cadenza,” he tries, and then huffs a laugh, “no, the middle movement,” and tries again, “the opening theme. Fuck. You’re brilliant.”

“Yeah?” Arthur says, breathless all over again, because Eames – he doesn’t give out praise to anyone, generally. “You liked it?”

Eames draws in a little closer, taking Arthur by the elbow to hold him steady and casting a quick glance around to check that no one is too nearby before he whispers, “If I could, I’d have you out of that jacket and tie this very minute. It’s desperately sexy watching you be marvellous like that in front of everyone.”

Arthur snorts; trust Eames to bring it back to sex at a time like this. Of course they can’t leave, not yet. Still, Eames stays glued to Arthur’s side, standing just a little behind him, as the reception continues, disappearing only to return with fresh drinks or little plates of hors d’oeuvres, or to spirit away another of Arthur’s congratulatory bouquets to some unknown location.

“Sweetheart, we’re so proud,” says Arthur’s mom when things are finally winding down, both his parents coming in for a last kiss and embrace. “We’re heading back to the hotel to call everyone and tell them how it went.” She scrubs her hand over Arthur’s close-shorn hair, his cheek. “Oh, Arthur.”

Arthur’s dad gives him a hug, a brief but fierce squeeze of arms around Arthur’s shoulders, a fond kiss on his ear. Arthur feels like he should be embarrassed to have his parents fawning over him in public like this, but it’s hard to be anything but happy in this moment. It becomes even harder when Arthur’s dad surprises everyone and gives Eames a hug too, patting his back and saying quietly, “Thanks for looking out for him. We know what he’s like leading up to these things.”

“Nightmare,” Eames pretends to agree, pulling a horrified face, and he and Arthur’s parents laugh amiably together while Arthur smiles and rolls his eyes at them.

The reception breaks up not long after, but a group of students insist on taking Arthur out for celebratory drinks at the local student pub. Eames is game, of course, and between him and the other music students, they manage to get Arthur completely hooped on beer within an hour. (It doesn’t help matters that Arthur had been too nervous to eat for most of the day.)

Drunken music students mean unfortunate karaoke incidents, and somehow even Arthur gets pulled on stage to sing an extremely off-key and sloppy rendition of Savage Garden’s “The Animal Song” while Eames laughs so hard he’s wiping away tears of mirth.

“That’s my signal to get him home,” Eames tells everyone while Arthur winds his way back around the table to land on Eames’ lap, “before it turns to N Sync and becomes truly tragic.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous, and then returning unexpectedly to the sublime: back at Eames’ apartment, Arthur lies back on the soft familiar-smelling bed and strokes his fingers through Eames’ hair and watches dreamily as Eames licks and sucks at him, Arthur’s brain playing the Rach 3 on a weird loop interspersed with top forty tracks. “Was it really good?” Arthur asks again, worried maybe it’s all been a particularly lucid dream. “I was good?”

Eames lets up long enough to look at Arthur, mouth tilted up on one side. “You were stunning,” he says, voice low and hoarse, quiet in the midnight dark, “you’re always stunning.”

Arthur thumbs Eames’ wet lower lip, smiling at him, riding out an unexpected surge of affection for him. “You wanted to fuck me?” he asks, checking.

“I wanted to do this,” Eames replies, unembarrassed as ever. “I wanted to kneel in front of you and take you in my mouth and make you feel as incredible as your music sounded. It’s all I could think about by the end.”

Arthur’s breath is loud, now, keyed up by Eames’ confession, shaking and hungry. “Do it,” he urges Eames, “I want your mouth.”

Eames blinks, deep-lidded gorgeous eyes glinting up at Arthur, but he doesn’t tease – he only goes back to Arthur’s cock, serious and intent and almost reverent. Arthur wants it to last for a long time, wants this night to go on forever with Eames holding him in his mouth, sucking him, grounding him and reassuring him that it’s real, that Arthur’s triumph was real, that he’s safe now on the other side of that terrifying and exhilarating milestone, safe and pinned to earth by Eames’ gentle mouth and sure hands.

Eames is patient without Arthur needing to ask for it, backing off every time Arthur strokes his forehead gently in warning. Arthur loses track of everything after a while, only noticing that it’s been a long time when Eames finally comes up on his knees and swipes the lube off the bedside table, making Arthur aware of the digital clock – three in the morning – and the fact that he’s almost sobered up by now.

“How do you want it?” Eames asks, getting settled between Arthur’s legs again, Arthur’s wet heavy-hard cock curving up to kiss at his stomach. “My fingers and mouth?”

“No,” Arthur says, “no, you,” and pulls his legs up a little by way of clarification. “Come on, hurry, god.”

“Oh, now we’re hurrying,” Eames smirks, but he doesn’t waste time, just slides two fingers into Arthur.

Eames has gotten much better at this since their somewhat disastrous first time last summer. There’s no hesitation anymore, Eames goes unerringly for the exact place that makes Arthur’s breath hitch as he pushes into Arthur, as they rock together and breathe shakily and try to smile encouragement in between helpless gasps. “You were incredible,” Eames says, saving Arthur the embarrassment of asking again, “you were beautiful and perfect and passionate.”

Arthur arches up to kiss Eames’ mouth, hooking his arms around Eames’ neck to hold him steady because he knows the signs, and Eames is right on the brink. “I was thinking of you,” he confesses in return, “I was thinking about you when I walked on stage, no one else, just – you.”

“Fuck,” Eames says, and thrusts hard and fast, coming. Arthur gentles him down, more patient now too than he had been last summer, more trusting that Eames has got him. Eames does, too; after he stops panting quite so hard he crawls back down the mattress and finishes Arthur with his fingers and mouth, no teasing, just pressing in and going down hard a few times to get Arthur off as hard and fast as possible.

“I love you,” Eames says, tumbling down to rest beside Arthur, sweaty and beautiful and half-asleep already. (Saying this is another thing Eames has gotten better at, but it never fails to put a lump in Arthur’s throat – something like wonder and gratitude mixed together.)

“I love you, too,” Arthur says a little too quietly, wishing he could sound as carefree as Eames about the whole thing, knowing Eames understands anyway.

“Mm,” says Eames in reply, and Arthur slips into sleep between one breath and the next.

When Arthur wakes up, it’s past noon and the bedroom is a little too warm with the sun pouring in the uncurtained window. Eames is gone, but that’s to be expected on days when Arthur sleeps so late. When Arthur is done stretching and kicking at the sweaty covers, he can make out the soft sound of the television and the rattle of Eames’ mug of tea, somewhere out beyond the bedroom door.

Arthur sniffs at himself, testing, then wrinkling his nose in disgust when he smells mingled beer, sweat, and sex all over his skin. It’s definitely time for a shower. But first –

He doesn’t have to go far, it turns out. Arthur rolls over to get out of bed and sees that Eames has anticipated Arthur’s first move today. The Boston Globe is lying at the edge of the bed, open to the arts and entertainment section and folded to display the review Arthur knew would be there this morning. Young pianist tackles Rachmaninoff reads the headline, which is more fact than opinion – but Arthur rubs his eyes and eagerly reads on, because there’s no way that Eames would have left this lying here if it wasn’t a good review.

It’s a very good review. Arthur grins down at the newsprint, rereading every word about him in the short article. The adjectives are fantastic: technically sparkling and impassioned and masterful and the little darling phrase far beyond his twenty-one years. Arthur reads, and reads, and reads again, pleased almost beyond the telling of it. There are a few words of criticism but they’re all directed at small flubs in the orchestral part, or choices on the part of the conductor. Everything about Arthur is roundly glowing.

“Bravo,” Eames says, coming into the bedroom sometime around the fourth rereading. “Are you pleased?”

“How could I not be?” Arthur says, sincerely. “God.”

“It’s true, every word of it,” Eames tells him, and palms Arthur’s ass affectionately, gives it a squeeze. “Do you want to have another go round while you’re full of self-congratulation? I could tell you over and over how brilliant you are, or maybe just read the review out loud while I fuck you?”

“Shut up,” Arthur says, fighting his smile. “God, sorry, am I being totally annoying yet?”

“No,” Eames says, very soberly, and kisses Arthur’s nose. “I was serious about the sex, though.”

“Sure,” Arthur says, and carefully sets the paper aside before bouncing back into the middle of the mattress and smiling an invitation up at Eames. He’d sworn off sex five days ago to help with his focus and visualizations leading into the concerto, but he fully intends to make this up to Eames as soon as humanly possible.

Eames hastily strips and joins Arthur; they wind up keeping it simple, jerking each other off while kissing and twining legs. “Masterful, impassioned, and sparkling technique,” Eames advises Arthur immediately afterwards, and Arthur’s too content and post-coital to do anything but laugh helplessly in reply.

It’s not until after Arthur’s finally showered (with Eames joining him) and had coffee and eaten a bowl of cereal that he goes back to fetch the paper, hoping for a surreptitious reread while Eames is busy watching soccer in the living room. The paper flops open as Arthur picks it up a little carelessly, and the front page of the arts section flutters away from him. Arthur retrieves it, distracted, already skimming the review again – but the color photo above the fold on the front page catches his eye.

For an instant, it’s a stupid distracted thought — that guy looks like Eames — and then all at once the realization utterly derails Arthur’s train of thought.

It is Eames.

It’s a full-color photo of Eames sitting on the edge of the stage in the conservatory’s concert hall, casual and sexy and smiling with an elbow propped on one knee. The caption says, Charles Eames is quickly emerging as one of the great voices of the new generation of singers. The headline above reads, New talent rising in Boston, and for a minute Arthur thinks it’s one of the opera department’s PR stunts where they get the Globe to interview their brightest and best in a review of the ‘up and coming’ singers at the conservatory; but a quick read of the first paragraph proves that this isn’t a general feature. It’s an in-depth profile, a front-page-arts-section-in-the-Globe profile, and it’s all about Eames.

Arthur sits heavily on the bed and reads, stunned. The columnist has quotes from faculty and noted alumni, all hailing Eames as the next great thing in classical music. There are quotes from Eames himself, too, the sort of thing that appears modest and yet compelling in print, the bullshit that Eames spouts about singing and interpretation and bringing great music to a new audience. He comes off like a young dynamic prodigy. The columnist concludes that Charles Eames, lyric baritone, is one to watch in the next five years. His career is about to go international.

Arthur doesn’t remember going back down the hall and into the living room but suddenly he’s standing in front of Eames, blocking the TV, and holding up the paper. “Eames,” he says, “what the fuck?”

“Oh,” Eames says, pulling a guilty face. “Yeah. That.”

“That?” Arthur repeats incredulously. “That?

“Darling,” Eames implores, thumbing the remote to turn off the TV, rising hastily, “I didn’t say anything because it’s just a stupid PR thing, the opera head set it up.”

“It’s not a stupid PR thing,” Arthur argues, knowing it’s ridiculous to be this furious but unable to rein himself in. “Eames, this isn’t a PR thing, it’s all about you, it barely mentions the school.”

“Okay, right,” Eames concedes, palms out, warding Arthur off or maybe just trying to get him to lower his voice, “but you had a brilliant review in there. You were brilliant. This fucking article can’t take that away.”

“You think that’s what this is about?” Arthur asks, flicking his hands against the newsprint, against Eames’ handsome casual smile. “You upstaging me?”

“I tried to talk them into next weekend but they already had a feature with some ballet company production lined up, it was this Sunday or nothing,” Eames says defensively.

“God, your ego knows no bounds,” Arthur half-laughs, disbelieving. “You were, what, trying to spare my delicate feelings?”

“I wouldn’t say delicate,” Eames hedges, “but you can’t deny you get huffy when people pay me more attention than you.”

“Huffy?” Arthur says, outraged. “Huffy, Eames? This has fucking nothing to do with you upstaging me, this is about you having this huge feature in the Globe, doing interviews and photo shoots, and not fucking telling me about it.”

“Not telling you about it,” Eames repeats, his tone taking an abrupt turn from the defensive into something genuinely annoyed. “What, was I supposed to leave a note on the bloody Bösendorfer?” he continues, scowling. “Arthur, I’ve seen nothing of you for weeks! It’s been nothing but sleeping and eating alone, forget talking to you about some fucking interview. We haven’t even practiced together since the winter holidays, do you realize that?”

Arthur spits out the word — “Bullshit!” — before he really takes in what Eames is saying, and then he’s committed. “Bullshit,” he repeats, with a little less conviction, casting his mind back for something to refute Eames’ claim. “What about that coaching with Mal, that was, what, last month?”

Eames folds his arms and his frown deepens. “And the last time you said a word that wasn’t about the concerto?”

Arthur hesitates. He hasn’t been that bad, has he? He’s focussed, that’s all, and after all, it was Rachmaninoff. It was the biggest moment of his career thus far. It was hardly the time to have pleasant chats over breakfast about the local news or Eames’ run-ins with the horrible soprano doctoral student. “If I hadn’t been so focussed,” Arthur begins a little hopelessly, unsure how to explain this to Eames of all people — Eames whose talent is feature-worthy, Eames who practices a mere hour or two a day and is still apparently on the verge of international stardom — “if I hadn’t worked so hard…” But Arthur can’t finish the thought.

“I know,” Eames says, his expression softening a little, arms dropping back down to his sides. “Listen, I counted myself bloody lucky to catch your attention now and then, I know it’s been everything to you, getting ready for this concerto. I’ve been patient, right? I’ve made sure you eat every day, I’ve set your alarm and reminded you of your fucking assignments for classes, I’ve put off learning my own music because you couldn’t spare a half hour for rehearsal even though my fucking masters recital is weeks off.” He’s worked himself up again a little, recounting all of this, and his voice is taut as he concludes: “When, exactly, was I meant to take you aside and tell you about this stupid sodding write-up?”

Arthur sighs, abruptly exhausted. “Look,” he says, “I’m sorry I’ve been an asshole or whatever, I didn’t mean to be a dick, I know you’ve been awesome about me disappearing into the concerto for weeks. I just – I don’t like being blindsided, that’s all.”

Eames drops his hand and tries a small smile. “I should have told you. And I was being a knob thinking you would be jealous, of course you wouldn’t be. You’re brilliant.”

“And now,” Arthur says, smiling back, stepping closer, “now my brilliance is all yours to the end of the semester, I’ve got nothing but time for you now.”

“Be still my heart,” Eames says drily, but he can’t keep from nipping in for a kiss. “You’re a right bastard when you’re working, you know that?”

“I know,” Arthur says, kissing Eames’ temple, his cheekbone, “I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you?”

“You can start in by doing the laundry,” Eames says, pinching Arthur’s ass, “I haven’t worn underwear all week, I’m completely out.”

“Nice, Eames,” Arthur says, grinning by now. “Romantic.” They shuffle a little, getting a better angle for kissing, and Arthur kicks the paper by accident, tearing it. “Shit, sorry,” he says, “I’ll buy you a new copy.”

“Fuck it,” Eames says. “First of many stories chronicling my marvellous ascent to immortality.”

Arthur laughs and pulls Eames in close, slipping a hand down the back of his jeans to see if he was lying about the underwear.

Arthur spends exactly one day back at school basking in the glow of his accomplishment before the school – its professors in particular – seem to decide that that’s quite enough of that, thank you very much, and drop kick him back to reality with a terrifying glut of concerts, assignments, and exams. Arthur’s always kept up the highest GPA in his class but suddenly it’s a struggle to get everything done, all the things he’s let slide in the horrific climb up to the Rach 3. Arthur spends hours in the library playing catch-up. There are even a few days where he doesn’t touch a piano except to rehearse with Eames.

Worst of all, Arthur had ambitiously signed up for an introductory composition course and it’s only now occurring to him that this was a completely stupid thing to do given that he’s never had the slightest bit of imagination. The first half of the semester had been fine – all theory and case studies and eight-measure assignments that Arthur had ripped off from some careless improvisation at the piano. Now they’ve got to write a composition in sonata form — however you choose to interpret that form, the assignment hedges – and it’s due next week.

“So,” Arthur says during office hours, trying to sound calm about the whole thing and not like he’d broken a half dozen pencil leads on manuscript paper trying to come up with a single theme that wasn’t borrowed from some other source, “so, I guess I’m just having a little trouble getting started.”

Dr. Cobb’s office is messy and cluttered even though he’s only been at the school for a few months now. There’s a djembe in front of the desk (Arthur keeps kicking it accidentally when he fidgets) and long bright satin ribbons trailing down from the window ledge where they flutter in the spring breeze and the book open on Dr. Cobb’s desk is an ASL dictionary showing how to sign ‘lipstick’, ‘lip-synch’, ‘liquid’, and ‘liquor’. The whole space is like free association minus the association part.

“What’s your theme?” Dr. Cobb asks, not bothering to exclaim over the fact that Arthur is way behind schedule.

“I don’t have one,” Arthur says. “I mean, I understand the, the concept, the form, I just – I can’t come up with anything that’s not just derivative and – awful, actually.”

“Start with derivative and awful, then,” Dr. Cobb suggests, shrugging.

Arthur squints at Dr. Cobb, unsure if this is meant to be a joke or not. Dr. Cobb, after all, is one of the more creative minds of the contemporary composition world. Last year he wrote an opera about cake, complete with a KitchenAid mixer obbligato. “You want me to plagiarize?” Arthur asks delicately.

Cobb smiles broadly. “In music it’s not plagiarism, it’s quotation. Show me what you’ve got. Use the piano if you want.”

Arthur doesn’t have anything at all, but he’s more than willing to make something up on the spot, so he gets up and gingerly steps over a disassembled xylophone and two interleaved phone books to get to the piano. He’s no sooner settled, though, and choosing a key, when the office door bursts open and then is knocked on as an afterthought. Arthur doesn’t even need to look to know it’s Mal, with an entrance like that.

“There you are,” she says, leaning in the doorway, as though Arthur’s been playing a particularly esoteric game of hide and seek for hours. “Come on, then, I need you.”

“Mal,” says Arthur, “busy right now.”

“No, no, you’re always busy,” she chides him, and kicks the xylophone pieces scornfully out of her way with the toe of her pump. “You can play around with – sorry, what is your name?”

“Ah, Dom,” says Dr. Cobb, startled and wide-eyed and half-standing out of his chair with a hand extended.

“Later, later,” Mal says, and tugs on Arthur’s shirtsleeve. Once Arthur is standing, she turns a charming smile on Dr. Cobb and says, “I’m terribly sorry, but I do need him for something this very minute.”

“Of course,” says Dr. Cobb, still looking gobsmacked, “yes, of course, anytime.”

Arthur rolls his eyes and pulls a face at Mal, but Dr. Cobb seems more than willing to let her bad behavior slide so Arthur goes along with her to whatever art song emergency has arisen one floor down in her studio.

“You know, I do have other courses,” Arthur reminds her as they rush down a flight of stairs, and then, inexplicably, another, and another. They’re headed to the main floor. “I have other profs and other assignments,” he continues, marveling privately at how well Mal can move in her heels and pencil skirt, perfume and scarves trailing in her wake.

“Yes, of course,” she says consolingly, pausing at the foot of the stairwell so Arthur can catch up and hold the door for her. “I’m sure Dr. Dom”—

“Dr. Cobb, Dom’s his first”—

—“I’m sure you and he have exciting books to look at together but Ewan can only stay an extra twenty minutes after the opera rehearsal today and we wanted to get you started on the choreography for Eames’ encore.”

“Choreography?” Arthur says, holding the door to the main recital hall now, watching as Mal’s form melts into the darkness within. “Mal, did you just say choreography?

Arthur is depressed at how quickly he gets used to using the word ‘choreography’ himself. He blames Eames, the way his face goes bright with pride when Arthur picks up the steps on his first try, the way he says, “Fucking hell, you’re good.”

“Well,” Arthur says, feeling his pleased blush blooming up his neck, and stops himself a bare instant before admitting to musical theatre sessions at piano camp when he was fifteen. No point adding fuel to the fire, he reasons, and instead says, “Should we run it again?”

When Arthur finally goes by the dorm to pick up his mail he gets a supremely dirty look from the RA, who gives him a towering stack of envelopes.

“Shit,” says Arthur, going through it all over lunch later. “Shit, I missed the deadline for housing for next year.” There are three separate notices about it, on increasingly brilliant shades of paper. The last one is crimson and says, “Final Notice” and is dated from last week.

“So?” says Eames, nabbing Arthur’s bag of baby carrots and helping himself. “Should really give up the dorm room anyway.”

Arthur looks up, surprised. He de facto lives with Eames, of course; even his dad has started grumbling about paying for housing on campus when Arthur is never there. But Eames likes to maintain the illusion of separate residences for them, always has. “Yeah?” says Arthur, not daring to believe that Eames is suggesting what he thinks Eames is suggesting.

“Yeah,” says Eames, distracted and casual, “yeah, might as well.”

“And find my own place?” Arthur prompts, carefully.

“Or stay at mine,” Eames adds, tossing the bag of carrots back down on Arthur’s side of the table, picking at his teeth, sort of disgusting and off-putting and completely bored by the whole discussion. “Whatever.”

“Yeah?” Arthur says again, not bothering to fight his smile anymore.

“Oi,” Eames bellows, already moving on, half-rising from his chair to wave down another passing singer, “oi, Reid, mate, do you have my Mahler score? I need it for a masterclass next week.”

Arthur leans forward and grabs Eames’ wrist, tugging him back down, pulling Eames’ attention back to him with the gesture. “Okay,” Arthur tells him, “okay, yeah.”

“Okay,” Eames says, a little stupidly, eyes flicking down to Arthur’s smile, his mouth, visibly changing over from his usual vaguely attention-deficit-disorder social mode to something much more keenly focused that twists Arthur’s insides. “Hey, did you want to – um. Go over that choreography again?”

“Yeah,” says Arthur, amused by how Eames’ pupils have gone wide and dark in the space of seconds. “Okay, just give me a minute to finish my”—and he doesn’t get the sentence out before it’s Eames who has Arthur by the wrist and is towing him towards the nearest vacant practice room.

Probably it’s because he’s essentially an uncreative person, Arthur reflects when he’s next in Dr. Cobb’s office – that’s the reason he’s still struggling with his stupid final composition project.

Dr. Cobb is just finishing up something on his computer, and Arthur’s left trying to figure out what the two open books on Cobb’s desk (The Joy of Sex, he notes, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) have to do with each other or anything else in the room. Cobb’s office is the manifestation of his mind, the weird clutter reflecting that innate talent for genesis that’s made Cobb one of the greatest young composers in the world.

Arthur, on the other hand, is an interpreter, he stands at the intersection of life and art and does his level best to direct emotional traffic from one to the other, but Arthur doesn’t create, he doesn’t generate, he merely –

“Sorry, that’s all,” says Dr. Cobb, pushing his chair away from his computer. “Would you believe I’m scoring a short film?”

“About sex or space?” Arthur blurts, not really thinking, and Cobb frowns before catching the reference.

“Neither,” he says, smiling a little, pushing the books aside. “Neither, it’s actually about the life cycle of a species of medusa. But we’re here to discuss your work, not mine.”

“I –“ Arthur begins, and stops. “A medusa?”

“It’s a, like a jellyfish-anemone thing?” Dr. Cobb says, frowning and gesturing with wiggly fingers. “It’s really bizarre, actually. Starts out life like an animal and winds up sort of like a plant.”

“How do you write that?” Arthur asks, fascinated in spite of himself.

“Marimbas,” says Cobb, as though this is obvious. “Marimbas and a cello, I think.”

Arthur tries to nod in an assured manner. “So, my – uh. It’s really bad, everything I come up with is terrible.” He leans down, digs through his bag, and extracts the two or three dog-eared pages of manuscript he’s managed to work out so far, handing them across the desk to Cobb.

Cobb peruses the pages, brows furrowed, but not giving any hint of his reaction beyond thoughtfulness. “Huh,” he says.

Some small part of Arthur had been vaguely hoping that Cobb would be impressed with his effort, that Cobb would tell him Arthur was actually brilliant and he should have every confidence in his compositional ability. This small part dies a quick silent death at Cobb’s neutral-sounding huh. Arthur is awful at this, as he suspected. He’s not a creative person, not in the least.

Cobb sets down the manuscript paper, leans back in his chair, and squints at Arthur. “Have you heard the phrase ‘write what you know’?”

“Yes,” Arthur says, “but isn’t that for, you know, writing?”

“I think it’s for anything creative,” says Cobb. “Start with something familiar and see where it takes you.” He taps his fingertips against Arthur’s score. “Why aren’t you writing for piano?”

“I thought,” says Arthur edgily, “I thought that writing for string quartet would give me a different palette to work with.”

“But you’re composing at the piano,” Cobb says, not bothering to phrase it as a question.

Arthur sighs shortly but doesn’t deny it.

“So write for the piano, write what you know,” Cobb says, not ungently.

Arthur retrieves his score from the desk and stuffs it back into his bag, not worried that he’s crumpling the paper as he goes. He’s not used to being bad at things; he knows he’s being a poor sport about it. “I suck,” he says, regretting his moody tone even as he speaks.

“You don’t suck,” Cobb reassures him.

You don’t write what you know,” Arthur says abruptly. He doesn’t mean it to sound like a challenge, though it probably does to Cobb; it’s only that he can’t shake the feeling that Cobb is trying to make this easy for Arthur, to give him a graceful way to choose the simpler path. Arthur feels like Cobb is very kindly condescending to him, and Arthur hates – hates – being condescended to. Arthur would rather be told the truth unflinchingly than be fed an obvious comforting lie.

“So you’ve noticed how much time I spend doing things I say not to do,” Cobb says, grinning. “Okay, Arthur, fair enough. A string quartet it is. But stay away from the keyboard to write it.”

“I need to hear the harmonies,” Arthur protests.

Cobb smirks. “Tell that to someone who didn’t hear you play that concerto. You know harmonies, Arthur. You hardly need a piano to tell you how a chord progression goes.”

“It’s,” Arthur says, weakly, “it’s just easier to”—

“Composition is a discipline, just like playing piano,” Cobb says. “What do you think Miles would say, or Mal, if you told them that you were making a technical or artistic choice because it was easier?”

Arthur glares at Cobb for a minute, then accedes. “Fine,” he says. “No piano. It’s probably still going to suck.”

“We’ll see,” Cobb says. “You’ll at least get an A for effort.”

“You don’t grade on effort,” Arthur sighs, standing up to go.

“No,” agrees Cobb heartlessly, “I don’t.” He’s already zoned back into his computer screen, the electronic score scrolling as he studies it. Arthur is almost out the door before Cobb pulls his attention away and says, “She didn’t find you this time.”

“Who?” Arthur asks stupidly. “Oh, Mal. No, she’s – I think she’s in coachings. We’re safe today.”

“Good, good,” says Cobb, and puts on a pair of headphones, clicks something, neglecting to say goodbye to Arthur as Arthur leaves.

“So I guess I’m moving in,” Arthur says to Aaron next time he remembers to call. “To Eames’ apartment, I mean.”

“Makes sense,” says Aaron, a little distracted by the squealing in the background. “I mean, you might as well take over his lease, it’s a good location, right?”

“No, I’m not taking over his lease,” Arthur corrects.

“Yeah, no, I meant in the fall, when Eames is off to wherever,” Aaron says. “He’s done his degree this spring, right? He’ll be heading off to — Jacob, no. Daddy said no. No playing with the — oh fuck. Arthur, I gotta go. Catch up later, okay?”

“Sure, sure,” Arthur says distantly, and it’s not until the phone starts bleating at him that he realizes he never hung it up.

After Arthur hangs up the phone (quick numb automatic press of the button) it takes him another moment to realize that dusk has fallen, that the apartment has grown dim. Turning on the overhead light brings the living room into focus, and Arthur turns his head to take everything in: Eames' furniture, most of it, his sagging armchair, his hard futon couch, his coffee table. But it's Arthur's stack of books on that coffee table, the blanket Arthur's mom knitted draped over the futon, it's Arthur himself tucked awkwardly into the dip at the back of the armchair, barefoot in pajama pants and an old t-shirt. Arthur may still have mail coming to him at the dorm but this is their place, it's theirs.


Arthur doesn't give himself time to think about it, just launches out of the bucket of the chair and goes into the kitchen, tugs open the drawer where Eames stuffs his mail after he opens it. The drawer is a nightmare, a stack of torn envelopes and half-unfolded bills, but it's Eames' mail and Arthur hasn't ever had cause to complain so long as it's contained to this little space. And it's not like Eames has ever forbidden Arthur from looking here, either; there are hardly secrets to be kept about credit card bills and scholarship notices and tax forms from Starbucks.

Arthur wiggles loose the top stratum of papers, shuffles through hastily: Visa, cell phone, something from the international student office, nothing, nothing — and a thick rich-looking piece of cream stationery, the letterhead showing it to be from the San Francisco Opera. Dear Mr. Eames, it begins, We are pleased to offer you a place in the Merola Opera Program this summer, and it goes on to talk about fellowships and financial aid and housing. The date is from months earlier, though, long before Arthur's concerto madness had begun to build. Surely if Eames — if he —

Arthur grabs at the next stack of papers and moves even faster this time, finding another such letter from the Washington National Opera (the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program), and another from Florida. There are a few more, more troubling yet: Montreal, London, Rome. Arthur gathers them all up, lays them out on the kitchen table, and stares at them, stunned.

Of course Arthur had known Eames was auditioning throughout the past fall; he'd played for the audition recording CD himself, he'd seen Eames off to the airport for no fewer than four trips to audition in person. Arthur knows these places, knows them by reputation, knows which programs Eames would most like to join. But - but there had always been the unspoken plan, in Arthur's mind, that Eames would stay in Boston, maybe after doing a summer program abroad, maybe going on to complete his doctorate at the conservatory. Eames is well enough known that he would probably pick up more than a few professional gigs in New England his first year out of school, and Arthur's still got fully a year after this one before he's done his own studies — longer, if Arthur decides on graduate work. Arthur is pinned to Boston, at least for another year, and he'd always assumed Eames was too, via Arthur.

But here is the proof that Arthur had assumed wrong: Eames has been accepted to six of the top young artist apprenticeships in the world. They are practically throwing themselves at Eames' feet, because Eames — Eames is a rising star, he's a comet, he's shooting up in the sky faster than Arthur had begun to guess. Eames isn't merely aiming for an international career as a working artist, he's destined for it, he's destined to be one of those names dropped by young undergraduate singers.

Eames, Arthur has known all along, is destined for greatness, and greatness doesn’t stop at the city limits of Boston, nor even at the state line. Eames’ talent needs room to grow, and with the conclusion of his graduate studies of course Eames needs to move on to bigger things. Doctoral work is for singers with no better prospects, Arthur’s been around long enough to know this, and Eames has better prospects any way he turns. It’s sheer stubbornness, and self-centredness, that’s kept Arthur from admitting this much to himself. Eames has simply got to leave. And Arthur — Arthur is going to have to let him go.

By the time Eames comes home, late, from some opera benefit or another, Arthur has cleared everything away except those six letters. Those he's left squarely in the middle of the kitchen table. They're a conversation starter, if nothing else.

"I'm fagged, that was bloody awful," Eames groans, throwing his keys on the counter, his messenger bag on the floor, his jacket over the back of the chair next to Arthur.

"You must be counting down the days until you're done with all that," Arthur says, very lightly, tilting his head back so Eames can drop his habitual kiss on Arthur's brow.

"I'll never be done with it, feels like," Eames says, wiggling his bowtie loose and collapsing down across from Arthur, a gorgeously disheveled heap of exhausted limbs. He quirks his mouth at Arthur, blinks slowly once or twice, and then gathers his energy to stretch and shift. "What's this, then," he begins to ask, hand brushing over Arthur's neat sheaf of papers. "Oh."

Arthur sits back, folds his arms over his chest. "Yeah," he says, "oh."

"Did you — did you bloody go through," Eames begins, indignant, but gives it up almost immediately as a bad job. "Look, it wasn't a fucking secret, right? You played for the CD, you met me at the—"

"—that was months ago," Arthur edges in, his voice going hard even though he doesn't feel angry. "Eames, that was months and months ago."

Eames stands up, goes for his jacket, digs out his packet of cigarettes even though they aren't allowed to smoke inside. "And you'd have thanked me, hmm? If I'd come to you in the middle of your concerto work and said, oh, by the way, how would you like to discuss how fucking far away I will be moving come summer?"

"Concerto's been over for a few days," Arthur points out tautly, but he takes the cigarette Eames hands him.

"Forgive me for," Eames stammers, and Arthur honestly doesn't know if Eames is angry or defensive or upset; he doubts Eames knows. Eames' hands shake a little around the lighter but get the flame lit eventually. "You know, it's not like I haven't been killing myself over this."

"I must have missed all your silent suffering," Arthur answers meanly.

"Fuck off," Eames snaps back, and then they are both quiet for a minute as they smoke, Eames pacing, Arthur very still.

"I didn't want to think about it, so I didn't," Eames says finally, "and neither did you, because it hardly takes any of your immense brain power to put together the fact that I wouldn't be staying in bloody Boston come the end of my degree." He strides over to the window, wrenches it open, and flicks the cigarette butt out into the darkness, an orange spiral of light falling away. "It makes me mental, thinking about it. I can't —"

All at once Arthur's own uneasy anger and defensiveness coalesces into a bright glowing ball of hurt, wedged at the bottom of his ribcage and pulling his breath short and harsh. "Not D.C. then, I gather," he manages, his voice damningly unsteady.

"Me at the National Opera?" Eames says, smiling very faintly. "I don't —"

"—It's the closest," Arthur points out needlessly. "You could come up all the time, I could go down there."

"It's not the best," Eames says, shaking his head, "believe me, I've thought it through."

"You're the best wherever you are," Arthur argues, "what does it matter if you"—

—"I'd never ask it of you," Eames breaks in warningly. "Arthur, don't."

It's then that Arthur actually loses his shit, if only momentarily, jamming his cigarette butt into an empty mug and hurrying to press the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, hard and pitiless. Eames is right, he's fucking right, he's always right, he's older and wiser and more talented too, and Arthur would never pause to grab at the pianist's equivalent of any single one of these chances. It's unfair to expect Eames to compromise for Arthur's sake. "This," Arthur says, and hauls a great breath in between clenched teeth, "this really really sucks."

There's a startling bang, and Arthur raises his head to find that Eames has slammed a cupboard door right off its rickety hinges. "This flat is a pile of rubbish," Eames snarls, and kicks the door for good measure, putting a good-sized dent in the wood with the toe of his patent leather dress shoe. "I can't stand the thought of leaving you here in this shit heap, I can't."

"I've got to stay," Arthur says, because clearly it's his turn to be reasonable. "And you've got to go."

Eames is dashing the outside of his palm over his eyes and he won't look at Arthur, but he nods once or twice, brusquely. "I'll fix it," he says, and toes the smashed cupboard door, tough and masculine and distant. "I'll pay for it."

"I don't give a fuck about that," Arthur says, rising. "Eames, come over here."

Eames shakes his head and continues to fidget with the door using the side of his foot, all nervous energy and restraint.

"Eames," Arthur says, less patiently, coming up behind him slowly, wary of the angry energy still waving off Eames' body. Slowly Arthur insinuates his hands around Eames from behind, gliding palms over Eames' crisp tux shirt, feeling the heat of his muscled body through the cotton. "It's not summer yet," Arthur says, once he's pressed along Eames' back, Eames still taut as a spring against him. "It's not summer for a while yet."

Eames turns around abruptly and crushes Arthur to him, and every bit of anger between them seems to evaporate in that moment. They're clinging together as though the world is trying to pull them apart at that very moment, and Arthur squeezes his eyes shut and wills time to stop now, here, forever.

Afterwards, Arthur can’t sleep. Finally at five in the morning he gets out of bed, leaving Eames sacked out and alone, catches an early bus to the conservatory. He uses his undergraduate TA card to swipe himself into the locked building, holes up with the Bösendorfer, and scratches angry notes onto fresh manuscript, a fantasia for strings with a ringing maddening pedal tone that won’t let the melody go, a thread of madness or worse — of reality, harsh hideous reality intruding in where it doesn’t belong, into Arthur’s musical landscape of hollow chords and drifting sonorities.

Arthur plays it through, bleary-eyed, a few hours later, and realizes he’s written it in sonata form, and it’s not a string quartet at all: it’s a work for a solo piano.

Within days it’s a fait-accompli: Eames is going to Rome in the summer, he’s going for a summer program that could be (well, will be, because it’s Eames) parlayed into a one-year apprenticeship with a fantastic Italian opera company. Everyone in the whole conservatory knows about it; it’s a coup, the first of its kind in the history of the school, and everyone is clapping Eames on the back and grinning at him and Eames walks around with an expression flickering between pride and defeat.

Everyone clearly wants to know what this means for Eames and Arthur, but just as obviously no one wants to ask. It’s just as well: they haven’t seemed to settle between them what it means anyway. One moment Arthur is flipping through brochures for graduate schools and competitions and fellowships in Europe, and the next he’s talking to Mal about staying on in Boston to do the after-degree diploma in art song performance. One moment Eames is talking about keeping his options open for fellowships in the next few years and the next he’s finding a long-term flat in Rome via one of his public school cronies. They’re tossing themselves into the hands of fate and it’s anyone’s guess if they’ll wash up together at the end of the next year.

“I could live in Montreal,” Arthur says one day when they’re practicing, “they’d kill themselves to have me at McGill for my masters, you know.”

“We’d be the terror of Canada,” Eames agrees with a sharp smile, and it’s settled between them, for the next ten minutes anyway. It gets them through the next song, and the one after that, at least.

It’s not as though there is any future in which they would be together constantly, Arthur reasons sometimes, late at night. If they are both to be international artists in their own right, they’ll be travelling a lot, especially for the first ten years. Maybe when they’re older, when they’re ready for it, the two of them will buy a house in the south of France or something, have horses, maybe bees. They’ll be comfortable by then and better able to pick and choose their professional engagements. Arthur imagines that life for them, a sort of sunshiny vague far-off era where Eames wears jodhpurs and Arthur learns to cook something more than just Mr. Noodle. They’ll have an herb garden. They’ll fuck in the middle of the day, maybe on top of Arthur’s concert grand piano. They’ll both be brilliant and famous and no one will call Eames the talented one.

Until then, thinks Arthur, rolling over into Eames’ heat, slinging an arm over his chest, it’s just a matter of working hard, surviving, climbing the ladder. Taking moments together when they can.

Arthur performs his piano sonata for the last composition class of the year. Dr. Cobb is the first to comment, even though he never comments first, crossing his legs and frowning and looking as though he’s still working through everything he just heard. “That was…truly disturbing,” Cobb says with great precision.

Arthur shifts back on the piano bench and grins, because coming from Dr. Cobb that’s a full-on rave review.

“You have a future in this, if you want it,” Dr. Cobb says quietly to Arthur as the class files out for the last time.

Arthur pulls a face of doubt.

“No, I mean it,” Dr. Cobb says, “you have a voice, you have something to say. I hope you’ll take the 400-level class next year.”

Arthur says something like, yeah, maybe, I’ll look at it, but all he can think of for a sick minute is how he can’t stand another variable being added to his life right now, how next year and your future are branching off over and over into a tree of possibilities so complex that Arthur can’t begin to trace his own path, to decide which one is most likely to take him back to Eames, to land him in that quiet French countryside cottage with bees and herbs and certainty about tomorrow.

It’s not until Eames starts to pack that the squabbling begins. Up until then, it’s honestly been great, some of the best days they’ve had in their whole time together: lots of urgent spontaneous sex, lots of shared meals, lots of laughter and lingering over cigarettes and talking over Eames’ recital program.

But with the first cardboard box, it’s like a switch is flipped, and suddenly they can’t stop arguing about anything, about stupid things that never bothered either of them before. Arthur takes too long in the shower, Eames is always late for practice, Arthur starts a certain piece too fast every time, Eames keeps stealing Arthur’s socks when he runs out of clean pairs. Arthur corrects Eames’ Britishisms into American English, Eames teases and prods at Arthur’s every utterance until Arthur is going crazy with it. Everything spirals out into everything else; Eames is dismissive of Arthur, Arthur is cold and disengaged. They have too much sex, or not enough, or not the right kind of sex; Arthur is bossy in bed, but only because Eames is never bossy enough. Eames flirts too much with everyone; Arthur is too jealous.

They’re slamming around the apartment one night in the aftermath of another spat, Eames packing his books pointedly, Arthur moodily writing his final paper for his theory class. “Don’t forget to have the phone bill switched over to my name,” Arthur says, even though he shouldn’t.

“I’m not a child,” Eames says, “I don’t need minding.”

“Fine,” says Arthur, and should stop there. He doesn’t. “Just, I won’t be able to change it over after you’re gone, you have to call them and do it.”

“Yes, I know,” Eames says neatly, dropping a stack of books into a box with a thump. “Your condescension is, as always, much appreciated, Arthur.”

“It would only be condescending if you didn’t have a history of forgetting this shit,” Arthur returns, definitely knowing he should shut up now, knowing this is just starting a fresh new quarrel that they don’t need.

Eames, though, just picks up another book and wiggles in into the last empty bit of the box, heaving a quiet sigh. “I know we’re trying to make it easier, the separation,” he says, “but I really don’t think it’s working.”

Arthur has to swallow hard to rid himself of the sudden clench in his throat, that weird sad knot that pops up whenever he confronts the fact that in only a few weeks, Eames is going to be gone. “No,” Arthur concedes, “it’s not working.” He turns away from the computer and looks over at Eames, annoying infuriating Eames, who is so sorrowful and handsome in the half-light of evening.

“We need a plan,” Eames says, and closes up the box, thoughtfully. “We need to talk about this.”

Arthur’s mind rebels instantly; talking leads to closure, and closure leads to finality, to — “Can we just call a truce,” Arthur suggests, “until after your recital?”

Eames studies him, calm and steady. Arthur isn’t sure what Eames sees, but whatever it is, it convinces him. “Yeah,” he says, and reaches for the roll of tape. “Okay.”

Arthur gets up, goes over, hands Eames the scissors to cut the tape, and then pulls Eames over to kiss his mouth, his cheeks, his eyelids. For the first time in weeks, they take their time, they linger, and it’s hours later that Arthur rolls off Eames, gasping and laughing, and thinks that a truce was a brilliant idea, best he’s had in ages.

The whole school shows up for Eames’ graduating recital, or so it feels. The recital hall is packed to the rafters, all the faculty and students elbowing in for room, everyone knowing this night marks the end of something truly great, of Charles Eames’ blessed residence in their midst. It’s probably the last time any of them will have the pleasure of hearing him without paying for the privilege, and it might be the last time they have the chance to see Arthur and Eames sharing the stage.

It’s nothing like the terrifying pre-recital build-up of two years ago, of course. They’ve performed together dozens of times since then, often enough that Arthur has entirely lost any performance anxiety over the whole thing, often enough that Eames has cut his pre-recital warm-up back down to three minutes from his undergraduate five. Most of the backstage chat is to do with the niceties of the night: what pieces will Eames introduce, when will they pause to regroup, is Eames’ tie straight and does Arthur have any breath mints.

Mal is still a ball of nervous excitement even if they aren’t, and she’s the one going back and forth between them with briskly clicking heels, reminding Arthur to watch his tempo in the Strauss and Eames not to mumble in his introductions. “How do I look?” she even asks nonsensically, plumping up her curly hair, flicking a finger over mascaraed lashes.

“You look perfect,” says Dr. Cobb, appearing in the doorway and promptly turning pink and awkward. “I mean, if — if you cared what I thought.”

Mal never rejects a compliment, though it’s fairly clear she has no idea who Cobb is. She arches a brow and smiles coquettishly and then says, “Did you have a message for—“

Cobb bumps his shoulder on the doorframe as he comes further into the green room, uncharacteristically awkward like he’s suddenly twice his usual size. “Uh, no, I just thought,” he says, and refocuses on Arthur. “I just wanted to say good luck,” he says.

“Thanks,” Arthur says, even though he had no idea Cobb even realized he was playing for Eames. “Thanks for, for coming to tell me,” Arthur continues, because Cobb is planted on the spot, hands in his pockets, like he’s waiting for something else.

“No, it’s no problem,” Cobb says, shrugging. “Oh, and — right. I was supposed to tell you it’s eight o’clock.”

“Showtime,” Eames says, briskly rubbing palms together, getting that performance crackle of energy he always gets, the buzz of having the undivided attention of hundreds of people for an hour at a time. “Come on, darling, let’s dazzle them.”

Arthur grins at Eames helplessly and forgets Mal and Cobb long enough to take Eames’ hand and squeeze it, duck in for a casual good luck kiss, and then they’re out the door and heading for the stage, still clasping palms, for the last time, the last time maybe ever, and Arthur’s chest hurts and his eyes sting and the ring of applause distracts him from the tug of Eames’ fingers out of his grasp as Eames leads the way into the footlights, the hallowed performance space.

Time takes on a different quality in performance, it shifts into long slow waves of thought even as the mind works faster than ever. It’s ages between words, between key strikes, between breaths. Arthur feels music like a stream of energy, of emotion, of time and mechanics and soul. The energy of the audience is palpable when they are truly with him, like he’s himself and the piano and Eames and every soul in the audience all at once.

Eames, on the other hand — Eames can weave a spell like no other, but primarily he is concerned with the performative moment, in drawing the audience into what he’s doing on stage, making them his staunch allies so that he can do no wrong in their eyes. After he and Arthur have bowed, after Arthur is seated, after Eames has smiled and nodded in acknowledgement of the slightly raucous applause of his peers, Eames glances back over at Arthur and pulls a shocked frown. “He’s forgotten his music!” Eames exclaims with mock horror, and the audience laughs, eager to join in the joke. Eames relaxes back into a smile and waves a hand, dismissing the silliness, and Arthur starts in with the Mozart, music rippling and laughing along with the crowd.

To Arthur’s less educated ear, Eames has always sounded marvellous, effortless, perfect, but Arthur knows that the Eames singing now is a far more polished singer than the Eames of two years past. His voice has found new resonances, it’s lighter in its softer dynamic range, it’s crisper in its diction. Eames is more musical, more graceful, more comical, more vibrant. He’s at ease with the music where he used to do battle with it, it fits into him like he’s born to it. Eames listens to Arthur more than he ever used to do, occasionally resting the tips of his fingers on the piano lid as though to feel the vibration connecting him to Arthur’s touch. The first half of the program is all arias, Eames having done a lot of opera in preparation for his auditions, but they play together just as intimately nonetheless as Eames goes through his arias and recitatives.

Then it’s time for the brief intermission, and they retire back to the green room where Eames can sip at his water and Arthur can mentally prepare for the art song deluge to come. “Do we need to go over the steps?” Eames asks, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“No, unless you do,” Arthur says, paging through the Faure mentally.

“Cheeky,” says Eames fondly. Arthur looks up in response to Eames’ tone, finds Eames gazing at him with a rare unguarded look in his eyes. “No one else will ever,” he says, but stops when his voice grows foggy, slugs back more water and shakes his head; too much emotion is bad for the larynx: fact.

“Me too,” Arthur says, when Eames is calmer. “No, me too.”

The art song is where they truly live, the two of them, and the audience’s post-intermission restlessness drops quickly into a breathless hush of anticipation. Eames stands with head bowed, and when Arthur begins to play before he lifts his head up in the traditional signal of readiness, there is a little flurry of paper rustling. It’s there in the program, though: Arthur is to play a solo Brahms intermezzo by way of introduction to the lieder set. Eames had insisted.

They go straight from the Brahms into Eames’ lieder, and by some weird unspoken phenomenon, the audience seems to know not to applaud as they flow from lied to lied afterwards, like a song cycle without a form, all their beloved composers: Brahms, Schumann, Wolf, and of course Schubert. The theme is iron, steel — how love is like metal, how it will melt and bend and break and yet endure ages.

Arthur bites his cheek to keep from getting too openly emotional as they reach the end, the very end, and switch over into French, the one French song on the program. Fauré is maybe sentimental, obvious, overdone, but the way Eames sings it — and, Arthur thinks immodestly, the way Arthur plays it — in the context of the program as a whole, it’s gutting, stunning, overwhelming. It’s a song of farewell, of going off to seek new horizons, of those left behind weeping in the wake of the great boats trailing foam. Arthur himself doesn’t weep — he’s almost too far gone for that — but in the silence that follows, he hears a few sniffing sounds from the audience before the applause bursts forth in a thundering wave, louder than even Eames’ loudest note.

They bow, and bow again. Eames gestures to Arthur so he can be acknowledged separately, and then Eames gestures to his teacher in the audience, to Mal. He blows some kisses, which is ridiculous and over the top, but the audience keeps clapping, even as Arthur leads the way to the wings and Eames follows, bellows of encore trailing after them.

They face each other in the sudden gloom of the backstage, grinning and sweaty and exhilarated, and Eames says, “Ready?” and Arthur says, “As I’ll ever be,” and Eames ties a red spotted kerchief around his head looking like a lunatic, picks up a fencing foil, and loses his suit jacket and tie, unbuttoning his shirt partway.

“Arr,” he says, beaming, and kisses the tip of Arthur’s nose before shoving him out to precede Eames onto the stage. When Eames comes out in full pirate rig the audience goes mad, mostly his fellow singers catcalling as Eames struts back and forth a few times brandishing his sword.

Arthur doesn’t waste time rolling his eyes, just gets right into the piano introduction, which gives Eames a scant few measures to stop posing for the audience and start singing in a lusty smarmy voice about being a pirate king. The aria is full of ridiculous rubato and ritardandos, but Eames mostly leaves Arthur out of it as he circles round the piano and roars and waves his sword and laughs an evil ribald laugh.

During Arthur’s musical interlude Eames leaps into the audience and chases some of the other singers around, and a few fight back, laughing, while the audience applauds and cheers. He vaults back onto the stage to call an end to Arthur’s endless vamping (which no one is listening to anyway) and sings the next verse while unbuttoning his shirt further to the hoots and whistles of the students. During the next interlude, he catches a second foil tossed from backstage by Mal (who had to hurry into place) and does a few ridiculous tricks and gags tossing the swords and then doing a mock Highland fling on them.

There is a third verse, yet more ridiculous, and then it’s Arthur’s turn as Eames rounds on him and passes him one of the swords. Arthur fences for a few measures while keeping on playing, tossing the foil from hand to hand as needed, and the crowd goes completely insane. Mal scoots and takes over the piano exactly in time for Arthur to bound up from the bench and engage in a full stage fight with Eames, foils clashing, Eames grinning maniacally at him, Arthur giddy with the fun of it all.

It ends, as it must, with Eames the pirate king besting his upstart pianist, and Arthur resumes the bench humbly to close out the aria while the audience screams and whistles and pounds their feet in appreciation for Eames’ penultimate protracted grand note. Arthur is messy as hell when he crashes out the final chord but there’s no chance anyone heard him anyway over the din. He and Eames bow, hold hands and hug, bow again, and generally it’s like the Rachmaninoff all over again, except better, because Eames is there, and worse, because it’s for the last time, and Arthur crushes Eames into another fierce hug before he can stop himself, the two of them embracing and laughing and swaying unsteadily with joy and fear while the conservatory says goodbye.

They’ve outgrown their need to have hasty awkward celebratory sex after a recital, or so Arthur assumes. Mal is in the green room by the time they get there, so there’s no point in thinking too much about it anyway. She is teary — Arthur has never seen Mal teary — and she hugs Eames for a long time, narrow lovely arms looped and crossed around Eames’ neck, hanging off him almost, as she cries quietly and whispers a number of quiet things in his ear while Eames nods and smiles and presses the tear tracks away with the flat of his thumb. Next it’s Eames’ teacher, backslapping hugs and handshakes and pats on the shoulder, a sort of avuncular proprietary pride that Eames doesn’t quite know how to manage, from the polite but confused expression on his face.

Arthur hangs back, proud of Eames too, and pleased to see him getting all due praise; if his heart aches a little at the blatant atmosphere of farewell, it’s not the time to acknowledge it. Besides, there’s plenty of praise for Arthur too, lots to go around, and it is wildly different from that first senior recital where Eames was toasted and Arthur was sidelined. Everyone wants to chat with Arthur, everyone is thrilled for him too, they loved his sword-fight, his take on the Brahms, his lyrical lines in the Fauré. Eames and Arthur stick close together this time, elbow to elbow, drinks in opposite hands to make it easier. It’s like a wedding reception, this weird sense of being greeted as a unit, as the focus of celebration.

“When do you leave?” Eames is asked over and over, and Arthur answers for him half the time. Just a week, that’s all that’s left before the plane and the separation.

“But surely you will miss each other terribly,” says Mal, because she always says what no one else will, and Arthur gives Eames a quick pained smile before lifting a shoulder in silent dismissal of the implied question.

Miles intervenes, probably the only person on earth who can when it comes to Mal. “Love will find a way,” he says, and steers Mal over to a group of the piano faculty, tossing a wink at Arthur as he goes.

There’s a bit of awkward silence as Eames and Arthur find themselves without company for the first time since leaving the stage, Mal and Miles’ words hanging over them. Eames quirks his mouth, tosses back the last of his wine, and clears his throat. “Do you want to go home?” he asks.

“Don’t you want to go out with everyone?” asks Arthur, mistrusting. Eames’ singer friends are getting increasingly noisy and raucous by the minute, clearly ready to escape the reception for the haven of a campus bar.

“No,” Eames says, sober and serious in spite of the wine he’s just had. “Do you?”

Arthur looks at Eames, checks to be sure Eames is in earnest. “Let’s go home,” he agrees, quickly, before his throat can clamp down on him again.

Eames rolls over, asking with his body if not his words, and Arthur almost protests, because he’d been craving the mindlessness of being fucked by Eames, the transcendent state he reaches when Eames really hits his stride and Arthur can just shudder and arch and be taken over by it. He almost protests, then catches himself as he realizes that this is probably what Eames is after himself, and Eames hardly ever asks for anything he needs, not really.

Arthur nabs the bottle of lube, presses his naked front up against Eames’ back, and strokes down, over, in, while Eames closes his eyes and goes pink-cheeked and makes small worried-sweet noises. “Here, just move your leg,” Arthur asks, “do you want it like this?”

Eames nods and half-smiles and kisses sloppily, almost like he’s drunk except Arthur knows he’s not, like he’s sleepy even though Eames is never more wide awake than in the hours after a big performance.

“You with me?” Arthur asks, a little freaked out now, his fingers working and Eames going hot and shivery all at once.

“Yes, christ,” Eames grates back, “always with you, fuck.” It’s not a complaint, by the tone.

So Arthur rolls on a condom, slicks up, and inches into Eames, who has never quite picked up Arthur’s own knack for relaxing into this sort of intrusion. Eames fights it without seeming to know he’s fighting, brow creasing, breath hitching, only giving ground once Arthur’s taken it. Eames insists that Arthur doesn’t hurt him, but Arthur’s never been sure that Eames even knows how it could feel, if he just let it happen a little more. In any case, Arthur’s cock sinks into him, Eames looks troubled and shocked and hungry all at once, and Arthur’s filled with the usual wave of tenderness, of love, because Eames — Eames.

For a while it’s enough to rock in and out of Eames like this, watching as Eames unwinds into the fucking, as his brow clears and his mouth gradually goes slack, his cock hardens. “On your stomach,” says Arthur once Eames is shoving his hips back into Arthur’s, trying to get more of him, “come on.”

It’s easier to slide into Eames the second time, Eames pushing into it, fisting the sheets and gasping out encouragements, his usual litany of dirty talk scaled down to flattering half-words and yes and not much else. Eames’ dark tattoos don’t do much to mask the blush spreading down his neck and shoulders and biceps, the pink skin just gathering its first sheen, telling Arthur that Eames is overwhelmed in the best possible way. Arthur has to bite back on the urge to shove Eames down, this weird pushy impulse that always seizes him right about now, something bizarre and animalistic and unexpected. Instead Arthur grabs hold of Eames’ hips, executes a circle of his own hips that makes Eames shout, and pulls back only to sink back in, slow and hard and insistent. “Okay,” says Eames, sounding stupid, and Arthur bares his teeth and does it again.

Arthur knows what he likes, but it’s not always quite the same as what Eames likes. Arthur likes it fast and a little hard, working one angle and one spot until he’s incoherent with it. Eames is less obviously pleased, likes slow and deep alternating with hard and fast, goes a little crazy when Arthur fucks him steady and long and pitiless, but seems just as crazy when Arthur backs it off, teases, little shivery glides that barely shift Arthur’s cock at all. Arthur has to set goals to keep his mind on task: first he needs to make Eames forget about words; next he wants to see the thin sheen of sweat springing up on Eames’ back coalesce into a little rivulet licking down the divot of Eames’ spine; after that it’s the fine tremor of Eames’ shoulders, those great muscled shoulders getting fatigued with the task of holding Eames up, of resisting Arthur’s onslaught. It’s only then that Arthur notices his own strain, the cramp of his fingers on Eames’ hips, the ache of his thigh muscles. Arthur slows, stops, holds position while Eames hangs his head and pants and shudders; unclenches his hands and presses his flat palms and strong fingers up the landscape of Eames’ back, Eames’ big ribcage working like a bellows even though Eames can hold a note forever and ever, did tonight.

Arthur leans forward, rests his cheek against all that skin, the dearly loved inked whorls and the shifting lines underneath that show how Eames is wonderfully knitted together, a puzzle, a miracle. Arthur catches his breath, feels Eames shivering and shifting, and says, “Do you want me to finish you this way?”

Eames licks his lips and shakes his head. “Your, your hands,” he says hoarsely. “My mouth, your hands.”

Arthur doesn’t need to ask why; it’s been two years since that night in the green room but some things never lose their appeal.

So Arthur pulls back, loses the condom, and lands shoulder first on the mattress next to Eames, grasping blindly for his cock, working it with strokes that are far more expert and assured than that first time so long ago. From the feel of him — hot and achingly hard — Eames doesn’t have far to go, and sure enough it’s only a few twists of Arthur’s fist before he goes still and comes, a spill of wet onto his belly, Arthur’s fingers, the sheet under them. He thanks Arthur with lazy affectionate kisses, stilling Arthur’s hand, stroking his forearm, before forcing Arthur over onto his back and going to work.

Eames has improved here too, Arthur supposes vaguely, jerking instinctively at the first touch of Eames’ lips over the crown of Arthur’s cock, though that first night Arthur had hardly been in a position to judge anything other than the fact that a mouth on a dick was an amazing thing, and Eames’ mouth on Arthur’s, all the better. “Hold me down,” Arthur asks Eames, because he likes it when Eames confines him like that, big meaty hands pinning Arthur to the bed, helpless.

“Shut up, bossy,” Eames says, pulling off long enough to say it, grinning, but holds Arthur down anyway, one hand at Arthur’s hip, the other carelessly splayed flat on Arthur’s chest.

That’s really enough, right there, the sexy-casual show of strength, Eames’ broad tanned fingers spanning most of Arthur’s pale-white sweat-slick chest. Arthur tries to shove up into Eames’ throat, can’t, and comes messily halfway into Eames’ mouth, spilling and dripping and watching transfixed as Eames does his level best to keep up, to pull Arthur down his throat, to hold him there and swallow.

“Oh my god,” Arthur says, some minutes later, swiping at his wet hair, scrubbing his come-sticky hand on the sheets. “That was so much better than doing karaoke with the singers.”

“Agreed,” says Eames, crawling up to flop down next to Arthur, to kiss Arthur’s armpit too apparently, en route.

Arthur wriggles over to rest his head on Eames’ chest, something he rarely allows himself because it makes him feel slight and delicate compared to Eames’ bulk, but right now that seems appealing. “I love you,” he says, chasing the elusive mood.

“I’m a selfish twat,” Eames answers, stroking Arthur’s hair.

“Ha,” says Arthur, “if that’s your way of asking did I enjoy that too, the answer is definitely yes.”

“No,” says Eames, not laughing, “I mean. I was going to ask you to wait for me.”

Arthur has to pull away, because he needs to see Eames’ face, see if he’s serious. Eames, Arthur can see, getting up on one elbow, is deadly serious. “Are you kidding?” he says. “You don’t have to ask, of course I’ll—“

Eames shakes his head ruefully. “For how long?” he says. “A year? Two? We don’t know how long before I’ll be back, if I’ll even be back. And I won’t have you making your choice of graduate schools based on wherever I get my next apprenticeship, I won’t have it.”

It’s one of those moments where Arthur is suddenly aware of the handful of years that separate the pair of them in age, the way Eames says that, like he’s Aaron, like he knows best. “Fuck you,” Arthur says, belligerent. “As if I would.”

“So,” Eames says, unbothered, waving a hand, “so there you have it. What the fuck would you even be waiting for? For circumstance to wash us up in the same city at the same time, at some indeterminate point in the future? That’s a hell of a thing to ask of anyone.”

“We’ll see each other,” Arthur contends hotly, “we’ll make sure we see each other.”

Eames rolls his head over to meet Arthur’s gaze, amused and weary. “Sure that will do you? Fucking once a year? Having, what, wankfests over the phone every month or two? Never getting to eat a meal together, or watch TV, or just sit in the same room for more than a few hours at a time?”

Arthur looks at Eames, hurt and angry and yet sure Eames is right anyway. “I can’t love anyone else,” Arthur says. “What’s the point in trying?”

Eames reaches for Arthur, tugs his head down again, kisses the part of his hair. “Me too,” he says, “I don’t want to love anyone else. I just — Arthur, we’re both of us really young to be trying this shit on, you have to know that. This is serious adult shit that adults can’t even do well most of the time.”

“I’ll wait,” Arthur says. “Will you?” Because that’s really the important thing, isn’t it? This is the question they have to answer.

Eames levers Arthur back up and rolls onto his side so they are level, eye to eye. “Arthur,” he says, very softly, “my darling brilliant Arthur — I think my heart will always be waiting for you.”

Arthur swallows hard, because this isn’t quite an answer.

Eames wets his lips, breathes out through his nose. “Look, there’s something we could try.”

“Anything,” says Arthur immediately, joyfully, because he knows Eames and that is the sound of Eames caving to Arthur’s wishes. “Anything you want.”