After Eames leaves, Arthur stops sleeping.
It sounds so strange, even to him, when he puts it like that – you can’t stop sleeping, you can’t just give it up like an old habit. Sleep is something you need to do every day, it’s something that happens whether you plan for it or not. For Arthur, sleep has always been there, just a dark quiet room and five minutes away. Sleep was pleasurable, actually, it was the one time when Arthur’s brain mostly stopped worrying about studying and practicing and performing, and shut off.
It was pleasurable, it was always easy to find.
Arthur lies awake in the bed that used to be theirs, staring at the ceiling.
It’s not that he’s not tired. Arthur is almost aching with it, a bone-deep exhaustion and sleep-hunger that he hasn’t felt since the summer between ninth and tenth grades, when he grew six inches in three months. His joints hurt, his head is muzzy, his vision is blurred and heavy. He longs for sleep, but it just won’t descend.
Arthur rolls his head to the side to see the alarm clock, green LED digits glowing in the dark. It’s two forty-eight in the morning. That makes three hours of staring and not sleeping, one more hour than last night. Arthur’s getting by on scraps of sleep, stolen brief pockets of two or three hours where physical need finally trumps anything his brain can throw at him. If he’s lucky he’ll scrounge another three hours tonight before he has to get up again for school.
Five minute break, Arthur tells himself, and rolls up to his feet, staggering a little with fatigue. Five minutes and then he’ll go back to trying to sleep, but if he lies still for another second he’s going to scream with frustration.
The apartment is darkened, curtains tugged tight shut against any stray light that might keep Arthur wakeful. Arthur pads down the hallway to the kitchen and collapses into the desk chair, firing up his computer out of sheer stupid desperation.
It’s the electronic folder of last resort, a desktop icon labeled ‘for arthur – top secret wank photos.’ Arthur’s dragged the fucking thing to the recycle bin and restored it again ten times over because much as he hates it, it’s the only thing that helps anymore.
They’re bad photos, taken on Arthur’s shitty digital camera, but the bonus of digital is that you can take photos of lots of things you’d never dare to develop on film. Mostly they’re of Eames, naked and striking stupid poses, trying to look like a boudoir photo shoot but failing utterly even without the ubiquitous red-eye and flash over-exposure. Arthur scrolls down the file window, skimming past the first several dozen photos, until he hits a second folder titled simply ‘us’.
Arthur double-clicks and tugs his boxers down while he waits for the computer to pull the files open. Here are the photos Eames was almost too embarrassed to take, the really good ones, the ones where Eames isn’t posing or licking fruit or toying with a cheap feather boa. Here are the photos that Arthur took later on, lazing in the summer morning light streaming over the bed, the two of them with heads resting on each other, kissing half out of the frame because the camera lens was aimed awry, Eames’ blurred compositions when he attempted and mostly failed to take photos of Arthur going down on him.
Arthur likes the images, no doubt about that, but what he’s really doing when he looks at them is rerunning that morning, Eames laughing and saying stop moving your head, I can’t focus on a moving target and wait, there’s a setting for kids and pets, let’s give it a go and Arthur pulling off and firing an amazed look at Eames while Eames explained weakly between fits of laughter that it was just a faster ISO, not anything to do with bestiality or pedophilia.
Most of these later pictures were meant for Eames, had in fact gone off with him on his new laptop when he left last summer, but Arthur kept copies out of some instinct for preservation and he’s glad he did. It’s not that Arthur particularly enjoys looking at himself, of course, it’s the knowledge that this is Eames’ eye on the world, this is Eames’ lens, with Arthur’s body filling the frame, askew and weirdly distorted. Arthur had gone far more camera-shy than Eames and he looks embarrassed and irritated in most of the photos, excepting the few where Eames had made him laugh and smile.
There’s no sound on the three video files at the bottom of the list; Arthur’s camera isn’t that advanced. The first is short, a mistake Eames had made while trying to change settings, just a judder of motion while Arthur frowns at the camera and waves his hand to gesture at a different button. The second video is the one where Eames caught on to the camera’s recording function, and it’s a jerky two-minute segment of Eames fucking Arthur from behind, Eames’ point of view, Arthur blissfully unaware of Eames holding the camera up and panning it around Arthur’s naked back, his neck, down again to Arthur’s ass and Eames’ hips shoving up into him.
Arthur rewinds the file twice more and comes halfway through the third viewing, gasping and annoyed and determined that this is it, this is the last time, he’s doing a real delete on the files this time; but as his thumping pulse slows again, Arthur wipes himself down with the cloth that still lives next to the monitor and clicks open the last file. Eames clearly still hadn’t realized that the camera had no microphone, because as the video starts there are a good thirty seconds of Eames talking as he points the lens at his face. Arthur dimly remembers the gist of it, though, Eames jabbering on like the narrator in a Discovery channel nature documentary about seeing the wild Arthur in his natural habitat, the rare chance to have a glimpse into the inner life of this elusive and magnificent creature, to see what the brilliantly talented piano prodigy gets up to in his spare time.
Finally Eames had enough of himself talking and the camera swings over to where Arthur is sprawled out belly-down on the mattress, limbs akimbo and face smushed into the pillow. By this time Arthur had drifted off to the sound of Eames’ voice, and he didn’t stir when Eames-as-camera came in closer and closer, finally ending with a shot of Eames holding the camera at arms-length and recording himself leering at the lens while miming grabby hands at Arthur’s ass and doing pelvic thrusts in its general direction.
But Arthur doesn’t usually pay attention to whatever Eames is doing at this point in the video, instead focusing on the image of himself, blissfully and utterly unconscious and unaware, sleeping in the middle of the day like it’s nothing at all.
Arthur closes the folder and drags it to the recycle bin, then gets to his feet and heads back into the bedroom feeling like he might actually get to sleep now.
Miles is worried.
“Your senior recital is barely six weeks off, Arthur,” he says, shaking his head, like Arthur doesn’t know.
“I’m practicing as much as I can,” Arthur says, “I know, shit.” He rests his forehead in his hands, pressing into his temples with his thumbs. “Shit.”
“Have you considered medication?” Miles asks. “I’m sure a doctor would prescribe some mild sedatives if necessary.”
Arthur shakes his head no, he already tried it and the campus clinic said that they didn’t prescribe sleeping pills, only promoted good sleep hygiene and sent Arthur away with pamphlets on how to create a regular sleeping routine.
“We must get you back on track,” Miles says, shaking his head, anxious for both of them. “Arthur, this recital should be a triumph, not merely passably good.”
“I know, fuck,” Arthur says, and straightens up, shuffles through his scores. “Can we, let’s just work the Scriabin.”
Arthur has tried it all, already: everything from over-the-counter sleep aids, to white noise machines, to an hour-long run before bed, to warm milk and counting sheep. He even tries drinking most of a bottle of wine in the course of an hour, and he barely makes it to the bed before passing out with blissful suddenness; it all seems to have worked amazingly until Arthur wakes at four in the morning hung-over and bleary-eyed and utterly unable to get back to sleep. He spends a lot of time reading, more time looking at the photos on the computer, the most time sitting with the portable phone in his lap thinking of calling Eames, even though Eames is never in when Arthur calls.
This is the thing about a senior recital: it can make or break you.
Arthur knows this, has known it since long before he entered the conservatory. From a senior recital he could go on to the beginning of a professional career, a real performing career. Arthur’s not being boastful, it’s a fact — everyone has told him, as far back as he can remember, that he has the chops to do this exceedingly rare thing. He’s worked for it constantly, he has the talent, the musicality, the discipline. Arthur isn’t one to believe in his own destiny, but he has great faith in hard work and good raw ability, and he’s put in the time. This is his moment, now. It’s fast approaching, like a launch pad, like a catapult propelling him off in the direction he’s been headed since he was a kid, it’s —
Arthur can’t sleep, and if he can’t sleep, he can’t focus, and if he can’t focus, he can’t practice; no practicing means a poor showing at his recital. But that’s only part of it.
The other part is that a solo performance career means no more chamber music, no more playing for singers. It means being alone in a practice room forever, barring the rare opportunity to play a concerto with an orchestra. It means putting away the golden Schubert lieder volume that falls open at so many treasured, well-worn and beloved songs. It means the end of coachings with Mal, the end of playing for her lecture recitals, the end of having her turn the key to a song for him, opening it up and showing him its beauty. No more poetry nestling close to the notes of his right hand. No more fragile yet exquisite blending of voice and piano, feeling the singer as an extension of the music under his fingers. Solo pianists don’t play for singers, not unless they’re hard up for work, and they certainly don’t get more excited at the prospect of playing Wolf than Bach.
It feels like ripping a part of himself away, Arthur admits into the dark secrecy of his sleepless bedroom. It feels like losing Eames to Italy all over again.
Another week goes by like this, and then Cobb asks Arthur to stay after class.
“I know,” Arthur says, once the room is cleared, “that was shit, I wrote total shit, I’m well aware.”
“Arthur,” Cobb says, maintaining a carefully concerned expression. “That’s not what – well, yes, it was shit, you’re right – but I wanted to check in with you. Your participation in class critique has been practically non-existent, the last few weeks.”
Arthur shuffles his papers together. He really likes Dr. Cobb, he doesn’t want to screw this up with some half-assed explanation of everything in his life falling to shit because of problems with his not-boyfriend. “I’ll do better,” Arthur says, closing his notebook, stuffing everything into his bag. “I’m sorry.”
“This isn’t me cracking the whip, Arthur, I’m actually worried about you,” Cobb persists, hands in his pockets, coming closer. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Arthur says, fighting back an unbidden and horrifying wave of self-pity, the choking rising tears, unable to bear the idea of Cobb is feeling sorry for him. “I’m fine, I just — I haven’t been sleeping well.” He slings his bag over his shoulders and scrubs his palms over his face, forcing the shaky weepy feeling down. “Haven’t been sleeping much at all,” he amends, a little more steadily.
Cobb perches on one of the desks, folds his arms across his broad chest, frowns. “Work it out,” he says unexpectedly, voice gone cold.
“What?” says Arthur, shocked.
“You’re how old, twenty-one, twenty-two?” Cobb asks rhetorically. “You’re about to graduate and become a working musician. You can’t expect the professional world to bend to your personal life. I’m telling you, you need to work this out.”
“I know,” Arthur returns, a little sharply, “I’m not asking for any favors.”
“I can bend on your project deadline,” Cobb concludes, rising again, “but I need to see some improvement, and soon.”
“Right, right,” replies Arthur, nodding along, stuck between anger and acceptance, “look, I have a coaching, I really have to”—and he bolts before Cobb can say something about Arthur saying ‘hi’ to Mal for him because Arthur likes Cobb a lot but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to be an enabler in Cobb’s sort of pathetic ongoing and utterly unreciprocated crush on Mal.
It’s a tight budget Arthur’s on, living in a one-bedroom and managing the rent alone with the stipend his parents gave him in lieu of covering his dorm fees. His teaching assistantship with Mal (managing her coaching schedule, matching up singers and pianists, sometimes answering her email) covers the luxuries like internet access and the occasional latte. Arthur’s not starving exactly, but it’s not the life he’d been used to when he shared expenses with Eames.
Eames, on the other hand, is getting paid now, paid actual money to sing; besides this, he came into his inheritance on his twenty-fifth birthday and has a lot of cash to spare. What Eames doesn’t have, apparently, is any time at all to pop into an internet cafe, or have internet hooked up in his tiny Roman flat, or to call Arthur more than once every one or two months. Eames is always busy, working hard, singing and practicing incessantly. His opera is going up soon, he’s doing performances every day almost, matinees and evening shows, and they keep the apprentices busy with other production work when they’re not singing.
Arthur cuts Eames a lot of slack; he gives Eames the benefit of the doubt. It’s not that Eames doesn’t want to talk, it’s just that this is what they signed up for, the pair of them.
Except Arthur can’t help but feel that a phone call from Eames, a voicemail, an email, anything at all to prove that Eames thinks of him sometimes — it would be enough to let him sleep at last, for one night anyway. Arthur sits on the couch and watches staticky late night movies on TV, the portable phone wedged into the hollow created by his crossed legs.
It’s definitely a sign of desperation when Arthur lingers in the studio after his singer (Rhiannon, sophomore soprano, boring rep but good voice) has left, when Arthur looks at Mal and says, “What do you do for insomnia?”
After all, there isn’t a physical or mental ailment in the universe that Mal can’t claim a ridiculous mystical cure for, and Arthur is just plain desperate. He’s fully prepared to spend an hour doing yoga and holding crystals and letting Mal burn incense while she performs past life regression on him so long as Arthur can hypnotize his stupid brain into letting him fall asleep again.
“Insomnia?” asks Mal, blinking. “Is this why you are playing so badly today?”
“I guess so,” Arthur says, sort of missing the days when Mal used to pretend to sugar coat the truth once in a while. “I can’t sleep, they won’t give me pills and I tried wine but it didn’t work.”
Mal takes Arthur by the shoulder and steers him to the armchair where she normally sits during coachings. Arthur settles in gratefully, happy to be comfortable if still awake. He braces himself for aromatherapy, magnets on his wrists, anything at all that will make him feel like this problem isn’t just his to manage, at least for a few minutes.
But Mal doesn’t do anything other than pull over her desk chair and sit down opposite him, slender legs crossed, lovely face holding a frown of concern. “What is it, then?” she asks, matter-of-fact.
“I told you,” says Arthur, “I’m not sleep”—
“Non,” Mal corrects him, firmly but kindly. “What is it, really?”
Arthur shifts his weight uneasily, feeling the same crushing wave of self-pity he’d experienced in Dr. Cobb’s classroom, swallowing hard against the urge to just break down in the soft-lit sanctuary of Mal’s studio. “It’s Eames,” he says, faintly, embarrassed and helpless, “I miss him, I can’t”—
—“Nonsense,” Mal cuts him off again, voice flinty and cool. “Arthur. What is it? Really?” she repeats insistently.
“I do miss him,” Arthur insists, “I can’t”—
—“You are not one half of a whole,” Mal corrects in the same tone she uses to adjust his pedalling, his dynamics. “You are Arthur. You cannot put your problems on another person just because he is your lover.”
Arthur blows out a breath of frustration. Of all people, he’d thought Mal, Mal, who talks constantly of love and sorrow and passion and longing — she should understand, what it is he’s feeling. “He hasn’t called in weeks,” Arthur says, hearing his own voice as sort of pitiful now.
“Enough,” Mal says, and pushes her chair back over to her desk, comes back with a triplicate copy form, an application for graduate studies at the conservatory.
“I already applied,” Arthur says, confused. “Miles agreed to”—
—“For my diploma program,” she says. “For your continuing studies in chamber music and song interpretation.”
Arthur crumples the form a little, startled. “What?”
Mal’s mouth curves, something like a smile but utterly without amusement. “You are playing for how many singers?”
“Three,” Arthur says, impatiently. Mal knows this.
“And my chamber music course requires you play for how many?” she pursues.
“One,” Arthur says, shaking his head, annoyed now.
“And you were offered an undergraduate assistantship teaching lessons to freshman secondary piano students this semester, were you not?” Mal asks. “And yet you chose to take my offer instead, coaching freshmen singers and pianists, twice as much work for the same pay.”
Arthur looks at the form. Mal has already ticked half the boxes for him and signed the recommendation at the bottom. It’s dated several weeks back. “I was going to do my masters here,” Arthur says, “and some competitions. I was going to”—
—“It’s not what you can do,” Mal says, voice suddenly gentle. “It’s what you want to do, mon cheri. What is it that you want?”
Arthur smooths out the form again, blinks at it a few times. When he looks back up at the box she’d ticked - Diploma in Chamber Music and Song Interpretation - his heart gives a funny giddy leap. It’s — it’s a relief, just letting himself consider it. It’s like taking a deep breath after months of panting shallow and fast. He shivers and fights back a weird twisty smile, a half-formed laugh. “Miles would kill you,” Arthur says, “and me. Mostly me.”
“He will get over it,” Mal says. “He did when I chose this path.” Her hand closes over Arthur’s, and it’s only then he realizes it’s been trembling a little, making the form flutter. “Arthur, you are not a solitary creature. You are right, it does come back to your Eames, but not in the way you think. He’s the one who led you here, and you can’t unknow, now, what it is like to truly make music with another. You cannot forget that joy.”
Arthur exhales slowly, sits back in the chair, feels the weight on his shoulders ease just a little. “You can get me funding?” he asks, because he is barely scraping by as it is.
“Of course,” Mal says, “I have it all arranged with the dean.”
Arthur taps his finger at the top of the form. “I’m not,” he hesitates, “I’m not saying I’ll do it. Just that I’ll apply.”
“Of course,” Mal says in an insufferably smug tone.
“And don’t say anything about this to Miles yet,” Arthur warns her, “I need to break the news, if I decide to do this.”
“Never fear,” Mal says, smiling, “I would give a great deal to avoid having that conversation with my dear father.”
Arthur squints at her narrowly, annoyed with her obvious glow of victory. “Have you got a pen handy?”
It’s not until he’s filled the thing out, with increasingly sure block printing, added his signature to Mal’s at the bottom, that Arthur realizes Mal hasn’t addressed the real reason he asked for her help. He hands her the form and says, “I still have a recital coming up, and I still haven’t slept in ages.”
“Yes, yes, you are missing your Eames,” she says, not without sympathy, but not exactly warmly either. “Is it not helping, taking other lovers?”
Arthur blinks at her. This is not what he expected to hear. “I’m not taking – I’m not doing that.”
“Why not?” asks Mal, puzzled, and something in the way she says it suggests that –
“Shit, what did he tell you?” Arthur asks, rubbing his eyes, too tired to cope. Eames and his big fucking mouth, of course he couldn’t have gone on with their lives without wandering into Mal’s office like a lunatic and yammering on about the very private decisions they’d made leading up to Eames’ departure.
“Pouf, you can’t go on like this,” Mal scolds, riding right over Arthur’s epiphany. “You are young and beautiful and your body isn’t meant to be left untouched for so long, that is why you and Eames agreed you could see other people while you’re apart.”
“That was for him,” Arthur says, aggrieved, “it’s Eames who insisted that”—
“Ridiculous,” Mal says, cutting him off. “It is for both of you. Come now, it will solve all your troubles, your body is simply crying out for release. Eames is not here, you can’t help that, but it’s a simple enough thing to find someone else to make love with you.”
“Mal,” Arthur grinds out, horror-stricken. “This is none of your business, jesus christ.”
“So puritanical,” Mal chides him, smiling. “Well, think on it. That is my best advice.”
The relief Arthur so briefly felt upon filling out the application for Mal’s program doesn’t last beyond her studio door. He’s no sooner left her presence than he’s seized by the conviction that he’s made a terrible mistake, that Mal isn’t to be trusted for advice of any kind, that he’s risking his future out of some lazy impulse to focus on easier repertoire, a shallower pool to swim in. He’s an idiot, he doesn’t deserve the kind of time and energy Miles has invested in him, Arthur is a disaster in the making and he can’t fucking believe he’s got five weeks to his recital and the Haydn is still a goddamn shambles.
“I can’t fucking sleep, I miss you,” Arthur says, finally calling again even though it’s been Eames’ turn for weeks now. “I wish you were here. Fuck. You’ll be back for my recital, right? Please say you’ll be back for my recital, Eames.”
The voicemail service beeps to signal the end of the message recording. Arthur hangs up and tries not to think about Eames out with someone else, Eames kissing some Italian girl’s inner thighs, Eames pressing his hard stomach up against some other baritone’s back as he fucks into him.
Because Arthur isn’t going to sleep anyway, and apparently his music is going to shit, he decides to fuck it all and stay up all weekend practicing. Arthur hasn’t pulled a marathon practice jag like this since high school, it’s nothing Eames would have let him try and probably even Miles – for whom the word ‘over-rehearse’ is an impossibility – wouldn’t be too sure about it. Arthur doesn’t care, he’s got the security access codes that come with his position as an undergraduate teaching assistant, and he plans to spend the night Friday and Saturday. Fuck sleep hygiene and fuck a routine. Arthur is going to play until he falls asleep at the keys, and even if it’s shitty undisciplined playing it’s maybe going to add up to a few hours’ worth of the kind of practicing he used to do.
“Aren’t you going home, ever?” asks the guy in the next practice room, popping his head in the door, clearly on his way out. It’s nearly midnight.
“Nah,” Arthur says, and crashes through the Scriabin passage once more. He’s probably going to snap the D string again, an occurrence that’s become almost routine as his playing has become more and more assertive.
“You sure?” says the guy. Arthur looks up, squints. He thinks he knows the guy, he’s a bassoon player, masters student maybe. Arthur doesn’t generally keep track of the orchestral musicians. His name is something like Blair or Blaine.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Arthur says, and the door clicks shut. It’s a few measures later that Arthur’s slow sleepy brain recognizes the Blair-Blaine-bassoon guy didn’t leave the room, he actually came into it. “What the hell –“ Arthur half-asks, and the guy licks his lips, fast, nervous.
“I’ve never –“ he says, “I’m not, like, a casual whatever, but – I just think you’re really fucking hot, okay, and I would totally like to blow you.”
Arthur blinks stupidly. This must be a sleep-deprived hallucination, because shit like this doesn’t happen outside Eames’ pornos.
“Sorry,” says the guy, reading Arthur’s expression, ”did that sound like something out of a bad porn? It felt like maybe it did.”
“A little,” Arthur agrees dimly, and suddenly he focuses in on the guy: tall, slim build, dark hair, cleft chin. Cute, if not hot, maybe a little nerdy like Arthur.
“Well,” says the guy, “I should probably leave you alone to think about how completely sad and desperate that was, just now. I mean, you probably have a boyfriend, look at you, jesus christ.”
“I do,” Arthur affirms, watching the bassoon guy grapple behind him for the doorknob. “I mean, I sort of do. We’re kind of — open.”
The guy freezes and looks up, his blush fading a little in surprise. “You — really?”
“Yeah,” says Arthur, because maybe the guy is still just a hallucination — but even a hallucinated blow job sounds like a good offer at this point in Arthur’s sleep-starved existence. “So, yeah. Okay,” Arthur says gamely, and pushes the bench back, unbuttons his pants, spreads his knees wide.
The bassoon guy doesn’t waste any time, just gets in close and kisses Arthur’s mouth twice, slides a hand up Arthur’s shirt, sinks down to the floor and licks him. Arthur’s head drops back – not a hallucination, then, he’s sure of that. It’s years since anyone but Eames did this, and bassoon guy is – different. He has different moves, and he moves hungrily, quickly, like Eames did before he started taking more pleasure in teasing Arthur, drawing it out.
Arthur rests his hands, trembling, on the guy’s shoulders, blissed out and way too close to coming already. “Hey, wait, wait,” Arthur says, and the guy pulls off, gasping. “Let’s get on the floor, I can do you too.”
If it was good with his cock in someone’s mouth, it’s exponentially better this way, lying on his side under the belly of the Bösendorfer, holding this guy’s hip steady while Arthur works his cock with his lips, his tongue, all the tricks Eames liked and a few Arthur hadn’t gotten around to trying. Arthur comes first, fast, but the Blaine-Blair guy doesn’t last much longer, and by the time he’s crawling up to kiss Arthur’s wet mouth Arthur’s mostly drifting and holy fuck – Mal was right, this is fucking perfect. He’s – he’s already mostly –
Sleeping on a practice room floor can’t be chiropractically sound, let alone hygienic given all the shit that Arthur knows people do on those floors (him included) but it hardly matters when Arthur wakes at five in the morning – more than five hours of sleep! — feeling utterly rested and wonderful. His pants are still open and the mysterious and miraculous bassoon blow job fairy has vanished, but Arthur honestly couldn’t give a shit. He crawls out from under the piano, stretches until his back cracks, and then staggers out in search of the student lounge and a handy couch. He thinks he could probably sleep some more, actually.
When Arthur wakes again, it’s to the sound of singing and piano scales, and he opens his eyes to find that he’s added more than four more hours to his tally, it’s mid-morning on Saturday and he’s lying in the student lounge with his fly open.
“Good night, huh?” asks someone sitting on the couch opposite.
“Oh my god,” Arthur says, sitting up and zipping hastily. “Yeah, actually, um. Good.”
The blow job fairy finds him again later that evening, cracking open the practice room door to a much warmer reception this time.
“It’s Blake,” the bassoon guy tells him, catching Arthur trying to peer at the plastic tag on his bassoon case from Arthur’s vantage point under the piano. “It’s okay, I didn’t know your name for the longest time, I just thought of you as, like, ‘well-dressed hot pianist’.”
“Wow,” says Arthur, stripping off Blake’s shirt, “all this time I had a stalker and I totally didn’t know it.”
“Shut up,” says Blake, flushing and smiling, “shut up, you probably have one million stalkers.”
Arthur isn’t really used to this, being told over and over that he’s hot, and it maybe goes to his head a little. When Blake says that he brought supplies, Arthur barely hesitates. He and Eames have rules about this very scenario, not that Arthur had ever expected to have to apply them — which maybe accounts for the fuzziness of said rules, their capacity to be bent without breaking.
(“No one else fucks your arse,” Eames had said breathlessly, over Arthur, sweating and kissing Arthur’s knee, his calf, “no one but me, no one.”)
Arthur takes the lube Blake hands him and arches an eyebrow, looking at it. “So,” Arthur says, “so, I could do you. If you’re into that.”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Blake, “yeah, that’d be,” and Arthur folds Blake in half and leans down over him to fuck him like that, drawing it out and gasping and liking Blake’s eyes on him, the way he shivers and breathes out shakily and whispers Arthur’s name.
Afterwards, Arthur is pleasantly sleepy but not as much on the brink of passing out as last night. He eases back, flops down onto the probably-disgusting carpet, and sighs with satisfaction.
“So,” says Blake, “super awkward pillow talk?”
“Yeah?” Arthur says, going cold suddenly.
“You and your — you’re open, you said,” Blake says. “You’re still with him, though?”
“Yeah, we’re together,” Arthur says, hearing it sound so simple and factual, like it’s that clear and easy still. “But – I can’t – I mean, only for casual stuff with other guys. Stuff like this.”
“Yeah, sure,” Blake replies quickly. “Hey, I’m heading home, see you around?”
“For sure,” Arthur says, “hot bassoon guy.” He gets up on one elbow and kisses Blake, gently but a little distantly, because he sort of thinks maybe Blake got the wrong idea somewhere along the way.
“Yeah,” says Blake, and scrambles up, gathering his clothes. “So, see you.”
Arthur dresses slowly and heads for the student lounge again, dropping onto the best couch and thinking that he really needs to go home and shower in just a few more minutes.
There are no messages waiting for Arthur at home: not on the answering machine, and not in his email. Of course there wouldn’t be; it’s not like Eames could know that this is the moment, now, that Arthur has finally decided to take Eames up on his offer of their emotionally monogamous but sexually open long-distance relationship. Eames has probably been taking advantage of the agreement this whole time. He’s probably fucking his way across Italy, sucking cock and —
Arthur flops back onto the couch and sighs, derailing the thought process before it gets any further. There goes Arthur’s moral high ground, the high ground he’s been pretending not to hold at all. Arthur’s fucked another guy, and it was — it was good, actually.
He rolls onto his side and naps easily, shamelessly.
It’s not that Arthur doesn’t have friends at the conservatory. He’s got lots of friends, really, but they’re mostly piano friends. When Arthur hangs out with them they talk repertoire, practicing, juries, recordings, biographies, concertos, teachers, competitions. Arthur has always enjoyed this kind of talk, has never really missed the days of sitting moodily, bored, while Eames and his singers shouted at each other in the student lounge, the gossip and the bitchiness and the drama.
But now, suddenly, there’s Blake, Blake and a half-dozen of his friends, all gay, mostly not even studying music themselves. They’re just - guys, guys like Blake and Arthur, but with lives outside the conservatory walls. At first they’re overwhelming, tight-knit and inside-jokey and dropping terms that Arthur doesn’t know, making him feel like the world’s most innocent gay. But by the next night they hang out, Arthur’s starting to catch on, starting to dart in and express his own opinions on whatever they’re discussing — anything from foreign films to coffee shops to hot celebrities — and they act like Arthur’s interesting, like he belongs. Suddenly they’re Arthur’s friends too, they’re calling him to hang out and asking him about himself and it’s something Arthur’s never had other than with Eames, closeness and laughter and talking about things beyond his career.
And it’s different, going out clubbing with them, too. Same bad music, same choking atmosphere and dizzy excessive drinking and crowded sweaty dance floors, but now it’s not an excuse to grind up against Eames and have semi-public sex in the bathroom. Now it’s a game, it’s a tease, it’s fun Arthur never expected to have, because it turns out that Blake was onto something with Arthur’s supposed army of admirers. Arthur’s always thought of himself as ordinary looking, maybe a little too skinny, too pale, but just average otherwise. But suddenly, like Arthur’s begun emitting some secret signal, he notices guys everywhere, tons of guys who are shooting him little smiles and checking out his butt and trying to start conversations shouted over the thump-thump of the bass.
“You should go for it,” Blake yells into Arthur’s ear, presumably referring to the guy Arthur’s been dancing with the last five minutes.
“I should?” Arthur says, grinning in spite of himself, and then, when the guy tugs Arthur out of the club by his fingertips, Arthur goes for it. It’s over fast, just a quick suck in the alley that should seem sordid but just feels good, fun, relieving. Arthur realizes, leaning up against the wall, zipping his fly and smiling his appreciation at the other guy, that all his manufactured former teen angst about sex and emotional connection and vulnerability is just that: manufactured. Fucking is just fucking, and while there’s a huge and glaring difference between what he’s getting up to now, and what he and Eames have when they’re in bed together – well, it’s not to say that Arthur has to get all hung up on something so simple and honest as liking blow jobs.
It’s fastest, he finds, to skip over the whole thing with Eames and just lead off with I’m not looking for anything serious. Mal was right, it turns out Arthur’s body just wants to fuck and once it gets what it wants it’s suddenly happy to comply with sleeping on demand again.
“Good,” Mal says, at Arthur’s next coaching with her, “you have some color in your cheeks again. Let’s take it from the second stanza.”
“This is better,” Dr. Cobb says, looking over Arthur’s latest assignment. “You know, if you want to write more for voice and piano, it would be wonderful to solicit Mallorie’s opinion on the text setting. I could ask her if she’d be willing to do a critique if you like.”
Only Miles seems less than happy with Arthur’s sudden leap back into normalcy. “It’s not that I’m not pleased with your progress, Arthur, but forgive for observing that it seems an eleventh hour pardon for you. The Scriabin is tolerable but the Haydn remains something of a shambles. Your eidetic memory can only take you so far, you haven’t begun to scratch the surface with some of this music.”
“I can do it, Miles, it’s fine,” Arthur assures him, waving a hand. “Trust me, I’ve done more with less time.”
“It’s not like you, Arthur, you’re not a procrastinator by nature,” Miles continues to fret. “You will do well, of course, but this is not what I would have hoped for you. You can’t cram for a piano recital.”
“Of course not,” Arthur says, “but I swear, it’s nothing but work from here on out.”
He gets twin letters of acceptance the next day, one from the masters program in piano performance and the other from Mal’s diploma program. They both come with healthy offers of scholarships and teaching assistantships, and both are conditional on his successful completion of his senior year of his bachelor’s degree, of course.
Arthur sticks both letters to the fridge with magnets, sits in front of them and stares for a long time.
“What are you, working through the conservatory now?” Blake asks when he catches Arthur sneaking out of the graduate lounge, still tucking in his shirt.
Arthur lifts one corner of his mouth, not quite smiling. “I was helping Chris Savage with this paper on Brahms.”
“Right,” Blake says. “Jesus, Arthur, at least be a little subtle.”
“Well,” Arthur says, “I didn’t pull a smooth move like asking him if I could blow him, but—“
“Oh, shut up,” Blake says, tapping Arthur in the upper arm with his fist. “I just want credit, I totally hit that first.”
Arthur lets his hair grow out just a little past where he’d usually get a haircut, and fucks around with it in front of the mirror to hit a good balance between messy and groomed, and when he goes out with his friends to a few of the Boston gay bars, Arthur makes out with a lot of different guys: built guys and femme guys and pretty guys and pushy guys and guys that like Arthur pushing them around a little.
His phone rings at four in the morning one night about two weeks before Arthur’s recital. They’re out looking for an all-night coffee place, somewhere to eat preemptive greasy hangover food and sober up a little.
“Who the fuck is calling at this hour?” asks one of the guys as Arthur digs for his phone in his too-tight jeans.
“I think I know,” Blake says, making a kissy face at Arthur, and for a second Arthur doesn’t know what the hell Blake is talking about, and then, breaking into a sudden horrible cold sweat, Arthur does.
“Fuck,” says Arthur, wresting the phone free, hanging back to get some privacy. “Hello?”
“Darling, why are you awake? Have I fucked up the time difference again?” Eames’ voice: rich and warm and with a slightly unfamiliar accent, and Arthur is sucker punched, he’s gutted, ripped between guilt and longing, anger and joy.
“Why are you calling if you thought I’d be asleep?” Arthur returns in a casual voice that doesn’t sound like his own, waving his friends to keep going without him for a while. “Did you get my messages?”
“Yeah, cheers, of course, I’m in bloody workshop and rehearsal every waking moment. Thought I’d leave a message at least. I miss you like mad. What are you wearing?”
Arthur looks down at himself, the tight jeans and tighter tee. “Pajama bottoms,” he says, and hopes that there’s no sudden siren or car horn to make him a liar. “I’m just watching TV,” Arthur adds hastily, just in case, “hang on, I’ll turn it down.” He doesn’t even know why he’s lying; it’s instinct that makes him do it.
“Still can’t sleep,” Eames tuts, like nothing’s changed with Arthur, like he wouldn’t expect Arthur to have changed, “that’s shite. And of course I’m coming to your recital, would I miss such a thing?”
“I don’t know,” says Arthur, because he left that fucking message four weeks and probably eight guys ago. “I don’t know, Eames, would you?”
“Wow,” says Eames, unbothered, “you’re a right git when you’re tired, no wonder you sleep half your life.”
“Yeah, speaking of which,” Arthur says, “I should go, I need to try and catch a few hours before tomorrow.”
“What?” Eames yelps. “No, just – I’ve got my cock out and everything, just stay on the phone while I—“
“I’m –“ Arthur bites down, hard, because okay, this isn’t Eames’ fault, exactly. These were his terms, too, and he can’t be a fucking asshole about it just because he’s missed Eames, because he’s gone down this path without Eames. “Okay, I just,” Arthur says awkwardly. “Before you called.” It’s sort of true; twenty minutes ago Arthur had some guy’s hand down his pants while he came.
“I’ve got crap timing then,” Eames laughs, and his breath is audible, shaky; he’s close already. “Fuck, Arthur, I can’t wait to see you, it’ll be soon now, I miss you, I miss”—and there’s the sound of Eames’ dry exhalation, he’s coming. “God,” Eames sighs, “I dream about your hands, I do.”
Arthur is standing on a dark Boston street and he’s nearly lost sight of his friends, fully two blocks ahead at this point, and for all he’s furious with Eames and himself and with the pair them being idiots together, Arthur misses Eames so much in this moment that his body aches for him, exactly the way it was aching for rest before, before everything happened with Blake and the practice room.
On Monday morning Arthur camps out by Miles’ studio door until Miles shows up for the day.
“I need more lessons, can you give me a few more hours the next few weeks?” Arthur asks, all in a rush, because his recital is, fuck, it’s only a tiny bit more than two weeks now and the Haydn is like a wind-up song, it’s reanimated dead flesh, it’s nothing.
“Of course,” Miles says, deadly serious. “There is very little time to waste.”
Mal is less than pleased when Arthur finds a substitute to play for one of his two junior singers. “It’s not like it’s collaborative music, Mal,” Arthur points out, “it’s fucking Verdi and Rossini and, like, a token inclusion of An die Musik. Rhiannon will be fine with Jen Spencer playing instead.”
“This is not what I’d expect from one of my incoming diploma students,” she says, haughty and offended and chilly.
“I haven’t made up my mind that I am one of your incoming students,” Arthur snaps back with a matching tone, tired of Mal, tired of everything.
Instead of the song cycle he’d planned to submit to Cobb, Arthur whips off something frothy and impressive looking for piano, no substance at all but lots of flourishes. Because the peer critique counts for half his mark on this final project, Arthur knows he can wow his classmates into giving him an A for technique alone. Cobb sits at the back of the classroom chewing his pencil eraser and looking worried, but he lets it pass without comment. On the graded manuscript, all Cobb writes is Could be better, Arthur. B minus.
Blake and his friends call a few times, sounding amused and then eventually annoyed by Arthur’s flat refusals to do anything with any of them in his panic about his looming recital. “Is it really about — you know who?” Blake asks, bringing Arthur coffee in his practice room, wincing. “Are you guys —“
—“It’s got nothing to do with Eames,” says Arthur, adamantly, and Blake nods and says goodbye, and Arthur drinks the coffee in four scalding swallows while wondering if he’s even telling the truth, he hardly knows.
The insomnia is back with a vengeance but Arthur presses this to his advantage, staying all hours in the practice room, running his program top to bottom over and over. He’s never worked like this leading into a performance, not even in eighth grade for the statewide festival when he’d switched Bach preludes three weeks before the competition. Arthur develops a low-grade chronic ache in his right shoulder blade, regularly has to limp around the practice room to work out the cramps in his right hamstring from working the damper pedal too much. He’s never pushed himself this hard, not ever.
“You’re on track, now,” Miles says one week out from the concert, “I want you to sleep and see if we can’t lose some of this tension through your elbow, Arthur. Are you sure you haven’t had any pain in your wrists or fingers?”
“No, no pain,” Arthur says, truthfully. Sometimes his right thumb tingles, true, like pins and needles with no discernible cause. He doesn’t tell Miles about it, though; he can’t afford to be benched this close to the recital. Miles is something of an alarmist about muscle strain. Everyone in his studio knows it.
Mal, damn her, doesn’t miss a thing. She spends all of Yasmine’s last coaching before her vocal recital adjusting and readjusting Arthur’s posture. No sooner has she settled in and attempted to focus her attention on Yasmine’s interpretation of Dido’s lament than she’s back out of her chair and tugging on Arthur’s elbow saying, “Non, non,” like he’s an incorrigible puppy and not her star pupil. “You will do yourself damage,” she scolds him, “why do you continue to play like this, with the weight of the world hanging off your right shoulder?”
“It’s fine,” Arthur says, “it’s only four more days anyway.”
“I am beginning to be glad you dropped Rhiannon,” Mal says, thoughtful, her brow clouded with worry. “When does your Eames come back?”
“Three days,” Arthur says, and works his right hand open and shut, open and shut.
Two days later, sometime in the small hours of the morning, Arthur is somewhere in the miserable grey borderland between sleep and wakefulness when he becomes aware of someone else in the room. Firm deft fingers are pressing into Arthur’s lower back, gliding up over the cotton of Arthur’s t-shirt, and then the mattress shifts and Eames lies down beside him.
“You’re not here until tomorrow afternoon,” Arthur says, blinking and stupid and stunned.
“Oh, well, I’d best go, wouldn’t want to disrupt your schedule,” Eames says quietly, face to face with Arthur, real and warm and somehow more beautiful than ever. He smells amazing. His body’s lines match up perfectly with Arthur’s. He’s better than anyone else in the world could ever hope to be.
“You’re here,” Arthur says, because it’s all that’s occurring to him at the moment.
“And you’re here, too,” Eames says, half-whispering in the moonlight, serious like Eames hardly ever is. “Right where I left you, how very convenient.”
Arthur wants to say more, he wants to kiss Eames’ dear mouth and stroke his hands over Eames’ skin, he wants to talk and hear Eames’ accent, the way it’s tinged with soft consonants and a funny upward-tending cadence, but Eames’ very presence is the best sleep aid Arthur could concoct, and he’s already drifting away with Eames’ warm hand resting fast against Arthur’s back.
Arthur awakes with a start when Eames’ stretching sleepy hairy calf glances into contact with his own; his mind had forgotten Eames was there, it seems, or dismissed the whole thing as a dream. Arthur steadies his breath, squints over at Eames in the bluish light of early dawn, and twists his head around to confirm that it’s barely six o’clock. Eames, usually a light sleeper, doesn’t budge in the face of all Arthur’s contortions, though. Jet-lagged, no doubt, and exhausted from a transatlantic flight on top of that.
Here, though, now. In Arthur’s — in their bed.
Eames sleeps on his back, one arm thrown up over his head, lips parted just a little, breath steady and slow. He’s perhaps a little thinner than when he left, some of his musculature having been sacrificed in the name of opera. Arthur isn’t used to seeing the cords of his neck like that, anymore, the tracery of his ribs under the flesh of his sides. His hair is shorter than Arthur’s seen it, shaved close on the sides and punkish on top. He smells just the slightest bit — what’s Eames’ word for it? — manky, yes, from a long flight, but under that there’s a tone of unfamiliar toiletries, probably European things they don’t have here.
There are Eames’ tattoos though, exactly as they were before, dark and a little raised against Eames’ pale skin, twining over his collarbone, his biceps. There’s a patchy darkness on Eames’ far arm that Arthur can’t quite make out in the dim light, so he gets up on one elbow and looks to see that Eames has expanded into wholly new territory: a face, that of a woman, lovely and oval and serene. No one Arthur recognizes.
“The Madonna of Bruges,” Eames says in a sleep-rough voice, coming awake with Arthur still hovering over him. “It was Gran’s favorite thing, in Belgium.”
“It’s a painting,” Arthur says, getting it, swallowing away the lump in his throat.
“It’s a statue,” Eames corrects. “In Bruges. Hence the — come here, you gorgeous pouting —” and he grabs Arthur by the hair and tugs him down to kiss. Arthur sinks down from his elbow, his t-shirt to Eames’ sleep-hot skin, kissing Eames’ mouth and riding a fierce wave of joy. Eames is solid under him, live and real and achingly familiar in spite of all the little changes Arthur noted. He moves like Eames, breathes like him, kisses like him.
It’s not enough, after a moment, and Arthur rears up to pull his t-shirt off, settles back down into lovely skin-to-skin contact and kisses his way over Eames’ collarbone, his chest, his nipples, his stomach. Arthur’s eyes are closed with bliss, Eames’ fingers carded through his hair, and it takes longer than it should to recognize that his mouth is brushing over another patch of ink and needle scarred skin, just above Eames’ right hip. This close, it’s hard to make it out. “Shatter,” Arthur says, working through the calligraphic font, “shatter us?”
“To sing love, love must first shatter us,” Eames says, outlining the whole text with his fingertips, then tilting Arthur’s chin up to meet his gaze. “Sappho.”
“Did — are you shattered?” Arthur asks, not sure if this is — what could —
“How can you ask such a thing,” Eames reproaches smilingly, “you with those brown eyes and that hair and those hands. You shatter me just by looking at me.”
A year ago, Arthur wouldn’t have known what to make of this, of any of this, but now, looking up at Eames, breathing jaggedly, Arthur feels himself to be more than a little shattered too, like he can feel bits of his insides grating sharply against other bits, painful and exquisite and too much to bear. “I missed you,” Arthur says, even though it’s not close to what he means to say.
Eames licks his lips, exhales a little, nods — understands, anyway.
Much as Arthur wants to linger in bed all day, much as Eames tries to cajole him into it, Arthur still has a lesson with Miles at ten o’clock and his recital tomorrow night. They make the most of the few hours they have — somewhat frantic desperate sex, showering, and then more sex without quite as much desperation, Eames stroking into Arthur very slowly because it’s been a year since — and Arthur’s ears are ringing with it, his whole body is lit up, he’s — Eames is gentle at first, then less so, and it’s good, so good, mindless and gorgeous and jarring and better than anything ever could be, if only —
“I need your hand,” Arthur says, or tries to say, “Eames, please.”
“No, I want to see you do it,” Eames insists, speeding up, “I want to kiss you when you come.”
Arthur unclenches his hand from the sheets and reaches for his cock, the pins and needles that never quite go away sending weird nervy shocks up into his elbow that zing into almost-pain as Arthur begins to bring himself off. He hasn’t used this hand except to play piano the whole last two weeks, and it’s disconcerting to realize his tension while playing hasn’t bled off, even hours after he last laid hands on a keyboard. Arthur jerks himself, hisses through his teeth, switches hands and is clumsy with his left. “Please,” Arthur says again, “Eames,” and Eames laughs and shifts back and takes over, beautiful wet firm grip on Arthur, far better than Arthur could manage himself in his state.
Arthur comes, Eames following soon after, and they lie together gasping each other’s air for long minutes while Eames laughs with surprised pleasure and Arthur tries not to think about the pain in his elbow, how it’s not going away.
“I missed your arse,” Eames tells Arthur, as unromantic as he usually is about such things. “You’re really fucking tight, you know that?”
A year ago, Eames wouldn’t have had any such compliment to offer, having never tried this with anyone else. A year ago, Arthur wouldn’t have known what Eames meant, having never fucked anyone but Eames either. “Well,” says Arthur modestly, twisting his mouth against the oddness of the realization, “I work out.”
“How exactly does one work out one’s—” Eames wonders aloud, and Arthur looks over at the clock and swears and scrambles for the edge of the bed.
“Gotta go, be back later,” Arthur says, stuffing his legs into his pants, pulling a shirt off a hanger at random. “Don’t — my parents aren’t arriving until tomorrow, we still have tonight, so.”
“Right, more shagging, sounds good,” Eames says brightly, lying belly-down, tangled in sheets and hugging a pillow, mussed and sweaty and flushed all over — beautiful.
“Right,” Arthur says, and leaves before he’s utterly overwhelmed by the impulse to crawl back next to Eames and never move again.
Two ibuprofen and a lot of teeth-gritting get Arthur through his ninety-minute final lesson with Miles. His right hand works, it does, but it’s a constant stream of effort to play through the ache, to work off the tension that keeps building. Miles is worried but puts on a somewhat optimistic front for Arthur’s sake, saying something cheerful about a bad dress rehearsal meaning a good concert. Arthur himself is more anxious, but it’s only one more day, that’s all, one more day and then he’ll have a proper rest from playing and be ready to start in on whatever he decides to do in the fall.
Arthur told Eames he’d be practicing the whole afternoon but the truth is that Arthur runs to the tiny supermarket on the corner and buys a bag of frozen peas, holes up in the Bösendorfer room and ices his bad hand and elbow alternately. He’s not stupid, he knows — there was a piano student, a freshman last year, who had to quit halfway through, and another guy, a violinist, left partway through his senior year. Tendinitis, always, always started off as a minor thing, always wound up with the musician in question having to —
Arthur ices his hand, pops some more ibuprofen, does another complete run-through of his program, repeats the whole thing. One more day, that’s all, then a summer of rest. He’ll be fine.
When Arthur gets home, Eames is up. He’s dressed and eating the last of the same box of Apple Jacks he’d left in the pantry a year ago, using coffee cream for milk. There are little spatters of tea on the surface of the table, grains of sugar, a used spoon. Arthur hangs in the doorway while he takes it all in, his larger gladness at Eames’ presence warring with his petty helpless hatred of disorder.
“How was the lesson?” Eames asks. “Did you amaze Miles?”
If there’s anyone Arthur can tell about his hand without eliciting an enormous overreaction, it’s Eames, Arthur thinks. But secrecy is not an easy habit to break. He squeezes a half-smile at Eames and says, instead, “He isn’t happy with the Haydn.”
“Who could be happy with Haydn?” Eames asks rhetorically. “Especially when you could be playing real music for grown-up pianos.”
Arthur snorts in agreement, slinging his bag onto the floor. “Do you want to go out for dinner?” he asks. “Last chance alone before my family descends.”
“I’ve just had dinner,” Eames points out, laying down his spoon in the empty bowl. “How about dessert?” He leers.
“Apple Jacks is not dinner,” Arthur says, going over to the pantry, ignoring the way Eames has pulled his chair out from the table in invitation, has spread his thighs wide apart. “Mr. Noodle is dinner,” Arthur continues, holding up the styrofoam cup, shaking it.
Eames is patient while Arthur eats, or patient by Eames’ standards. They chat about stuff they haven’t gotten to in the months since they’ve had a real conversation: Eames’ apprenticeship, Arthur’s academic year, eccentric and annoying classmates. Arthur tells Eames about Cobb’s increasingly sad devotion to the oblivious Mal, to Eames’ delight. It’s good, and friendly, and familiar, even when Arthur’s eyes keep tripping up on the little ways Eames has changed, when Eames’ new sort of continental accent makes him harder to understand sometimes.
“So, what, you’re fluent in Italian now?” asks Arthur as he clears the table, comes back with a cloth to wipe up Eames’ mess.
“Not in the least,” Eames answers with a sigh. “I can speak four sentences beautifully and I understand well enough when someone shouts about my tempo or dynamics.”
“So much for you being my tour guide when I come to visit,” Arthur says, dropping the cloth back in the sink.
“Ah, well, I’m done there anyway,” Eames says, “it’s off to Austria with me now.”
“You’re going to Austria?” Arthur had supposed Eames would be staying another year in Rome, but of course it hadn’t ever been certain. “What’s in Austria?”
“Just a summer lieder institute,” he says, waving a hand. “Five weeks, lots of Mahler and Wolf and Schubert. Talking about feelings and ich-lauts and linden trees. I needed something to cleanse the palate after all that bloody opera.” He perks up suddenly, makes eye contact with Arthur. “You should come!”
Arthur blinks. He hasn’t yet told Eames he’s considering Mal’s diploma program for the fall. As far as Eames knows, Arthur’s plan has remained to stay in Boston for his masters, to keep studying with — “Did Mal say something to you?” he asks, a little too sharply.
“About the song institute?” Eames asks, frowning at Arthur’s tone. “I haven’t spoken to her about it since I got her reference, no. Why, were you already planning to”—
—“No,” says Arthur hastily, exhaling. “No, I just. You know I’m staying to study with Miles.”
“It’s July and August,” says Eames. “Perfect timing.”
“It’s lieder,” Arthur says, pointedly.
Eames looks at Arthur, eyes narrowing just a little even as the rest of his face stays pleasant and neutral. “Right, then,” he says, dismissing the whole matter lightly, but somehow leaving Arthur with the sense that the discussion isn’t quite closed either.
Arthur feels contrite for his tone almost immediately, closes the distance between him and Eames, trails his fingers over the soft brushy hair at the sides of Eames’ head. “Sorry,” he says, “I think I’m just all stressed about tomorrow, I’m taking it out on you.”
“What’s there to be stressed about, love?” Eames asks, capturing Arthur’s fingers, kissing the tips. “You’ll be brilliant as ever.”
Arthur’s chest goes tight with anxiety, and again he feels the urge to divulge everything to Eames; again, he stuffs the feeling down. “Let’s watch TV or something,” Arthur suggests.
“Mm, I vote for ‘or something’,” Eames says, looking up at Arthur through his lashes, handsome, flirtatious, playful. It’s not fair that Eames should still have this power over him, this ability to make Arthur feel breathless and useless, inert with wanting and clumsy with nerves.
“Yeah,” Arthur says, stupidly. “Okay.”
Arthur makes Eames wait, though, while he gets out his clothes for the recital, still in the drycleaning bags, and gives them a quick steam, a brush with the lint roller, makes sure they are pristine as they can be. Eames amuses himself by poking through Arthur’s wardrobe, which has expanded to fill out the closet he doesn’t share anymore.
“What is this fresh horror?” Eames asks, pulling out a clip hanger with several pairs of suspenders on it.
“Some pants don’t look good with belts,” Arthur says reasonably.
Eames answers with a wiggly mouth and pops the hanger back. “Didn’t think skinny blokes wore braces,” he says, almost to himself.
“I’m not skinny,” Arthur replies irritably. “I’m perfectly normal.”
But Eames is already onto the next discovery, this time a pair of stupid jeans Blake coaxed Arthur into buying, sort of a dark shiny denim. They hang low on Arthur’s hips, and are dragged lower yet when Arthur wears the heavy buckled belt that goes with them. Eames doesn’t comment this time, just holds the jeans out and looks at Arthur, pulling an impressed face.
“Shut up,” Arthur says, moving on to the sleeves of his suit jacket with the lint roller.
Eames smooths a palm over the denim appraisingly, seems to feel something marring the line of the jeans, and digs in the pocket to pull out a matchbook. Arthur’s ears flame hot as he watches Eames turn the matches over, reading the name of the club they’re from. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone and developed a taste for twinks,” Eames says, pained more by the matchbook than the suspenders if the tone of his voice is any indication. He looks over at Arthur; Arthur resists the urge to bow his head and hide his blush. It’s not a secret, it’s not a lie; this is what they agreed upon. “Unless you’re the twink,” Eames guesses, and looks back at the jeans. “Jesus. I want to see you in this get-up. Do you have a sparkly mesh vest, too”— and he’s back in the closet, damn him, on a mission this time. It’s not a mesh shirt and it’s not that sparkly either, it’s just a black knit tee with a slight sheen to it, it’s not — Eames whistles and holds the shirt out in front of him to better admire it.
“Oh, like you’re one to have opinions on clothes,” Arthur bites out, embarrassed.
Eames raises the shirt up and gives it a whiff, and of course it’s dryclean only and hasn’t been cleaned since Arthur last wore it, of course Eames will be able to sniff out the telltale mingled odors of smoke, alcohol, sweat, of men’s antiperspirant and cologne and hair product. “Arthur,” Eames says, dragging the name out, scolding and teasing like Arthur’s a misbehaving kid, like—
Arthur switches to the other sleeve of his jacket, brisk and businesslike and not sure how to act. Eames is making fun of him; Eames always makes fun of him. But it’s not funny, it’s not — Arthur doesn’t think he expected jealousy of Eames, it’s not Eames’ style to be possessive — but he didn’t expect this, this goddamned light-handed ridicule like Arthur’s some adorable teenager who has a poster of Eames up on his wall. It was Eames’ idea anyway, and would it kill him to act a little threatened by the fact that Arthur’s been living life without him, that Arthur’s been going out in tight jeans with his hips showing above the belt, that Arthur’s been smoking and drinking and dancing without him, that Arthur’s been — coming into his own, being his own person, fucking people because he feels like it?
“You’re angry,” Eames surmises, putting the shirt back, reading Arthur as easily as ever. “I’m just taking the piss, I didn’t mean to — it’s a very nice shirt.”
“It’s a fucking hideous shirt,” Arthur says, ripping the linty paper off the roller. “But it does the trick.”
He’s so absorbed in the minutiae of his task, getting the sticky roller paper off now that it’s ripped lengthwise, that it takes a moment for him to register Eames’ silence. Arthur looks up, sees Eames standing with his hand pawing over his short-cropped hair, gaze darting around the room.
“I never brought anyone here,” Arthur says, hazarding a guess as to Eames’ thoughts. “We agreed. It was one of the, of the rules.”
Eames freezes, stills. His hand comes down slowly and wriggles into his jeans pocket. “I know,” he says, and meets Arthur’s gaze, all traces of humor gone. “But it’s not the same, this place,” he says. “It’s so — you’re always so neat.”
Arthur looks around with fresh eyes, sees the room as Eames must see it, all the clutter stashed away, everything squared and tidy and bathed in evening sunlight. “Does it bother you?” Arthur asks narrowly, doubting.
“No, course not,” Eames says, rolling onto the balls of his feet and back. “S’just. Different.” He looks at Arthur again. “It’s not what I pictured, when I thought of you here.”
It rolls up from Arthur’s gut, a sudden wave of emotion so strong that it takes a minute to identify it as homesickness, a keen overwhelming nostalgia for the way things used to be when the two of them shared this apartment, before Italy, before Blake, before Arthur stopped sleeping and before Eames stopped calling. Arthur swallows hard around it; he doesn’t know how he can miss Eames so vividly when Eames is right here in front of him. It makes no sense.
Arthur drops the lint roller, abandons his suit where it’s hanging on the back of the door, and strips off his shirt after unbuttoning only a few buttons, moves right on to his pants, his shoes and socks, dropping clothing messily like he hasn’t in over a year. Eames seems too startled to react for a minute, and when he does move it’s not to strip off his ratty-ass old t-shirt, to drop his ragged sagging jeans. He crosses the room to Arthur instead, gathers Arthur in just as Arthur kicks off his underwear, fully naked now. Standing, it’s more like being embraced by a stranger, or a memory, Eames’ narrower frame boxing Arthur in, taking ownership of him like Eames rarely did before, hands dragging heavily over Arthur’s skin, ungentle, anxious. It’s entirely different from the early morning’s desperation, which had been one hundred percent a race to the finish line; now Eames is careless with Arthur because he doesn’t seem to know any other way to touch him.
Their breath comes short. Eames is pressing himself into Arthur, and Arthur’s pressing back, gripping onto Eames, searching for some kind of physical anchor against the rising sense of being lost. The solid hard back of Eames’ head, the wing of his shoulder, the column of his neck: they’re all moving too much, shifting as Eames bends to kiss Arthur’s ear, his collarbone, his chest. Arthur’s bad hand is zinging, tingling, every time he uses it to hold onto Eames, but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t.
Eames tries to go to his knees but Arthur stops him by jamming his hands under Eames’ arms, urging him back up, because he doesn’t want this almost rough clash of their bodies to end just yet. If Eames goes down so soon, there’s nothing to distinguish this from other times with other people, and Arthur needs it to be different, needs to — kiss, kiss Eames, feel the funny unevenness of Eames’ front teeth with his tongue, the fullness of his lips, the rasp of his stubble. Arthur finally gets hold of Eames like that, has Eames’ head, solid and heavy, trapped between his two hands, holds him still and presses him against Arthur’s mouth while Eames gasps for air and gets a hand between them, finds Arthur’s nipple and pinches hard. “Ow, you fucker,” Arthur says, laughing, not letting go, and Eames laughs too, twists his hand, and abruptly the kiss deepens, becomes the sort of kiss that’s only sexy if you’re in it, messy and way past suggestive, straight into mouth fucking.
The good thing about Eames’ awful baggy-ass jeans is how easy it is to slip a hand down them. Arthur manages it without having to break the kiss to see where he’s going, just slips his tingling aching hand down between Eames’ waistband and the working bellows of his stomach, finds Eames hard and wet already, no underwear because though Eames isn’t a slut, he’s still too lazy to do laundry. Here’s a part of Eames Arthur thinks he’s imprinted on, something that hasn’t changed at all in a year apart, thank fuck; not Arthur’s first cock but the only one he knows this well other than his own, knows its shape and heft and how to twist the foreskin so it leaps against the inside of his wrist, how to make it wetter yet. Eames forgets to kiss first, and then he forgets to pull on Arthur’s nipple, and then he’s just bowing his forehead to Arthur’s, mouth hanging open, gasping and cursing. Take that, you Italian fuckers, Arthur thinks giddily, and drags Eames’ cock lightly against the inside of his jeans’ zipper, just enough to make Eames call Arthur a few bad words.
“What do you want?” Arthur asks, now that he has Eames’ attention back.
“To take off my jeans,” Eames answers in a half-growl, half-laugh.
Arthur squeezes, runs his fist up and down again, waits.
“For you to fuck me,” Eames amends, slurring a little now.
“You can’t wait for that,” Arthur scoffs, because he knows Eames’ cock, he knows Eames. He gives it a few more strokes.
“Didn’t say I wouldn’t come first,” Eames says, and does, eyelids fluttering. Arthur uses his free hand to tug Eames’ shirt up and out of the way, not out of any concern for the fucking ugly old thing, but because he wants to see Eames’ pale skin shining with the wetness, the way his Sappho tattoo is obscured with vulgar stripes of come.
“Did you miss me?” Arthur says, stroking Eames more lightly now, admiring the red of his bitten lips.
“I missed that,” Eames compromises with a satisfied smile.
Arthur walks Eames backwards towards the unmade bed, still holding his cock hostage with his bad hand. “Did you miss me?” he asks again, letting go just in time for the back of Eames’ knees to smack into the corner of the mattress. Eames loses his balance — never a strength for him, post-coitus — and tumbles flat onto his back, come-smeared and flushed pink in the cheeks.
Eames looks up at Arthur with hooded eyes, grateful and loopy and still catching his breath. “Every second,” he says, “every fucking second.”
Arthur pulls off Eames’ jeans, his socks, comes back up for his shirt, all the while Eames lying there complacent like a lazy cat. Arthur himself is mind-numbingly hard, still, but it’s weird how he’s able to put it at the back of his mind now, knowing Eames isn’t going anywhere, knowing they have hours ahead of them. He kneels over Eames, licks his pale stomach, his hip, the soft tip of his cock. It’s nothing he hasn’t done to Eames before, but Arthur thinks he has a new appreciation for it, maybe, knowing as he does now that it’s not every man who would lie back and allow this kind of intimacy, these liberties.
“Legs up,” Arthur says finally, raising his head and seeing Eames looking down at him with appreciation. “Come on, up, up.”
“Bossy,” says Eames, almost melting into the mattress by now, but he rouses himself to obey anyway, pulling his knees up, shifting his hips when Arthur moves to slide a pillow under them.
There’s some satisfaction, anyway, in knowing that Arthur’s still the only one who’s done this to Eames, for Eames. Eames has never quite managed the knack of being fucked gracefully, though it’s clear he likes it well enough once it’s underway. He’s no better after their year apart, of course. For someone so flirtatious in everyday life, Eames gets remarkably closed-lipped and flustered the instant Arthur very gently strokes a finger over his ass. His mouth loses its habitual mocking slant and his jaw works side to side as he breathes very steadily and noisily through his nose, working through whatever weird psychological shit he needs to work through before he can let himself enjoy this.
Arthur presses a finger in, turns his head to kiss the juddering small muscles in Eames’ inner thigh, hushing him. “Does it hurt?” Arthur asks, because Eames’ breathing has taken a marked uptick in tempo and volume.
“No,” Eames says, like he always does.
Arthur slips his finger in and out, spreading the lube a little better; he’s doing this left-handed, because he doesn’t trust the gentleness of his right hand now. “Better?”
Eames nods, even though it contradicts his earlier assertion.
Arthur waits a long time before switching to two fingers, and waits until Eames’ cock starts to take some interest again before beginning to scissor and curl and stretch. By now Eames has closed his eyes, and his chin tilts up with a little arch of his shoulders when Arthur finally stops being very careful. “Oh, fuck, yeah,” Eames grits out before Arthur can ask, sweat popping out on his chest and forehead. Arthur gives up watching for a bit, satisfied that Eames is enjoying himself at last, and bows his head to suck Eames back into an erection.
“You’ve the patience of an angel,” Eames says, when Arthur finally rolls on a condom and lines himself up. Eames’ hand glances over Arthur’s temple his jaw. “I’m sorry to be such a frigid ponce.”
“I like it,” Arthur tells Eames honestly, turning his head to kiss Eames’ palm. “It’s like the part of the movie where the girl takes off her glasses and lets down her hair, and”— he can’t continue because Eames is sticking his fingers in Arthur’s mouth, probably to shut him up, to stop up his laughter, and Arthur surges his hips forward in retaliation, making Eames drop his hand and let out something of an unholy shout.
It’s lucky that they fucked twice already that morning; Arthur wouldn’t stand a chance of lasting more than a few minutes otherwise, not with Eames shuddering and arching under him, messily trying to meet Arthur’s rhythm and forgetting to maintain it over and over. Eames goes pink down his chest when he’s having sex, especially when he bottoms. Arthur presses his fingertips into the flushed skin for the brief pleasure of seeing his handprint flash white and disappear. The motion sends a little alarm bell of pain up into Arthur’s elbow, which is good, actually, distracting, helps Arthur focus on the important thing, which is of course making Eames’ eyes roll back in his head, making Eames cry out.
No one has done this for Eames, Arthur thinks fiercely, no one else has made him feel this way, no one — Arthur picks up the pace, goes hard and fast for a couple dozen strokes, mostly for the pleasure of seeing Eames’ face draw up in overwhelmed joy.
At some point Eames’ tongue unsticks, which Arthur’s only managed to experience once before when fucking him, and from then on it’s a nonstop filthy monologue as Eames details in a drunk-sounding ramble everything he’d like Arthur to do to him, everything Arthur is doing to him right now. It’s mostly nonsense, and kind of shockingly dirty when it’s not, but it makes Arthur crazy anyway, unfiltered Eames. It takes pulling Eames’ legs up onto his shoulders and fucking in steady and hard to finally convert talking into less structured sounds, and then Eames is stripping his cock hard and fast, coming almost as soon as he’s begun. Arthur pulls out hastily, shrugs Eames’ legs back down, loses the condom, and clambers close enough to jerk himself the two or three times it takes so he can spill over Eames’ already messy belly, his cock.
It’s all Arthur can do, once the aftershocks subside, to crawl another foot up the bed and collapse half onto Eames, his inner thigh draped firmly across the worst of the come spatters, slippery and cooling. He rests on Eames’ shoulder, gasping, too hot, and tries to figure out if it’s his heart or Eames’ that’s thumping so loudly in his ear.
“You into that now,” Eames asks, hand coming up to push his thumb over Arthur’s lips. “Marking people?”
“Just you,” Arthur says around Eames’ thumb. “I like how it looks.”
“Me too,” Eames says, smiling almost shyly, squirmy and sweet as he only ever is after Arthur’s fucked him. “I always think about that, coming on your back, when I have a wank.” He twists his head over on the pillow, looks at Arthur. “What about you?”
If Eames is sort of uncharacteristically shy after being fucked, Arthur knows he’s probably the opposite — a little uninhibited. Normally he’d frown and chastize Eames for oversharing, but now Arthur only offers a half-smile and says, “That time we broke the towel bar.”
“Mm,” Eames says, appreciatively. “Only time you’ve ever come untouched like that.”
“That’d come in handy about now,” Arthur says, unthinking, his hand giving a twinge.
For a moment Arthur thinks he’s gotten away with it; but then Eames’ expressive brows furrow and he looks at Arthur askance. Eames, Arthur thinks, panicked, is much smarter than he lets on most of the time. Arthur can almost see him putting it together, and sure enough, Eames rolls up onto his elbows the next second and picks up Arthur’s right hand from where it’s resting on Eames’ chest, as though he could see what’s wrong with it from a glance. “Are you injured, darling?” Eames asks, eyes wide; from his tone it’s clear that Arthur was wrong in thinking that Eames wouldn’t overreact.
“No,” Arthur says, pulling his hand away, flexing it in a show of — what? Something as stupid as Eames looking at it for outward signs of tendinitis, he supposes.
“You bloody are,” Eames says, reading Arthur’s face much more readily than the lines of his hand. “Fuck, you’ll have to postpone your recital.”
“It’s not that bad,” Arthur says, because fuck, Eames is completely overreacting. “It’s just a little tension I haven’t had time to work off. I’m sure this helped, just now.”
“Right,” says Eames, “because of course you can fuck your way out of tendinitis.” He’s pulling away from Arthur now, naked and anxious and all-too-real. “What does Miles say?”
Arthur flops onto his back, holds his hand up and makes it into a fist, ignoring the flash of pain that results. He’s considering the odds of lying successfully to Eames, who has a very sharp bullshit detector, but it’s a moot point because Eames doesn’t even wait for Arthur to say anything before he’s onto the next question.
“He doesn’t know? Does Mal know?”
Arthur sighs and drops the hand again, closing his eyes.
“Arthur, this is mad, you can’t”—
“It’s fine, Eames,” Arthur says, tired, fighting the part of him that wants to panic right along with Eames. “It’s working, okay? It’s good enough, I’m not postponing over such a stupid”—
Eames has Arthur by the wrist again, not gently this time, and not content with just looking. Arthur opens his eyes in time to see Eames drive the flat of his thumb hard into the hollow of Arthur’s palm.
“See?” Arthur says, smug. “Doesn’t hurt.”
But Eames isn’t giving up. He turns Arthur’s hand over and does the same thing to the back of his hand, to the fleshy part between Arthur’s thumb and index finger.
Arthur hisses a breath in between his teeth before he can stop himself, because Eames seems to have divined the exact worst spot to prod, and it’s fire shooting up in a line, through his wrist and bursting open at his elbow. “Oh my god,” he says, the truth torpedoing through his head like Eames’ touch had kept going until it finally reached his brain. He’s injured.
“You’re fucked, darling,” says Eames, shaking his head, sympathetic but matter-of-fact. “You’ve got to postpone.”
“I can’t be injured,” Arthur says in the shower while Eames takes him by the shoulders and turns him around. Some part of him is distantly aware that this might be embarrassing, later, the way that Eames is washing him like he’s a child, but Arthur’s not really able to focus on the idea right now. He’s too busy being certain that none of this is really happening. “Eames, I can’t be.”
Eames remains silent, grim, swishing the washcloth over Arthur’s shoulders, scrubbing it down his chest.
“My recital is tomorrow,” Arthur says. “It’s tomorrow. I can’t be injured.”
Eames wrings out the cloth and hangs it over the soap dish, running his eyes over Arthur’s wet naked body like he could see if he’d missed a spot. At last his gaze rises back up and meets Arthur’s. “Darling,” he says, very softly, and then he gathers Arthur in, which is ridiculous because Arthur doesn’t need a hug, he needs a solution. He needs to figure out how this is going to work, the mechanics of it, how is Arthur going to go on with his life tomorrow morning if he wakes up and he’s still injured, if he goes to the recital hall and he’s still injured.
How is Arthur going to go on if he confesses everything, if Miles forbids him to play, if Arthur sees a specialist who tells him that his hand is ruined? How is Arthur going to go on living day after day without laying fingers to keys? The very idea has his stomach lurching, his heart racing, his whole body trembling hard as Eames wraps him up tight, tighter, as the spray from the shower head needles into Arthur’s back, as the water rushes and hisses and Arthur grinds his face against the hard line of Eames’ collarbone and wonders if he’s crying, actually, or if it’s just the water from the shower. He doesn’t even know. It doesn’t even matter, in the end, because someone tomorrow is going to tell him that he’s got to close the lid on his recital, cover up the keys, put away the fucking awful Haydn, sock away seventeen years of dedication and discipline and passion right when it should finally all be paying off.
“Shh, darling,” Eames says, seeming to know Arthur’s crying even though Arthur’s still not sure. “It will all come out right in the end. Shh.”
Arthur digs his fingers hard into Eames’ biceps, and his right hand screams agony up into his elbow, and Arthur’s gripping too hard, he’s probably hurting Eames with his too-strong pianist’s fingers, but the pain feels good abruptly, feels cleansing, and he draws breath and releases his rage and frustration in a long knife-edge keening sound. Eames doesn’t flinch away, doesn’t pull back, just grips him tight and lets Arthur scream.
The worst part is the confession — not because of how appalled Miles is, not because of the immediate work of proving that Arthur’s not making some terrible joke, and not even because Arthur finds himself crying again, hot desperate angry tears in front of Miles when Arthur has never once cried in front of a teacher, never once crumpled up like this in front of someone he respects so immensely. The confession is the worst because it demarcates the line between possibility and fate. From the moment Arthur chokes it out — My hand, I think — it’s — I can’t do my recital — there’s no further chance of recovering this day, saving this moment. It’s like Arthur’s been standing on the wrong side of a crevasse in a glacier, always having the opportunity to somehow leap back onto the solid ground opposite, but now the crevasse has become a canyon, a yawning space that grows ever wider, like Arthur’s little piece of ice is splintering away from the whole and tumbling down into freezing seawater.
Arthur’s adrift, now.
There are things that must be done, and thank fucking god for Eames and Miles and Arthur’s dad, because they do it all, going around the conservatory and taking down Arthur’s posters, putting up bright plain-lettered notices advising people that the recital has been postponed until further notice. Miles talks to the piano faculty head, to the conservatory chair, to the administrators who need to know that Arthur won’t be graduating this spring after all. Arthur’s dad calls the Globe, who had said they might send someone to cover the recital, and informs them that the recital has been cancelled due to a medical emergency and refuses to elaborate. Eames shuffles Arthur’s suit back into his closet, squares away Arthur’s music, pulls down the two graduate program letters on the fridge because they’re conditional on Arthur’s completion of his degree, and that is in turn conditional upon his senior recital.
Arthur himself sits in a doctor’s waiting room next to his mother, an ice pack and a tea towel wrapped over his hand, numb and chilled and drifting.
“It’s the best clinic, Miles says,” his mother informs him for the third time. “It’s amazing he got you in today.”
Arthur checks his watch. By now, he should have been completing his final run-through for tonight. By now, he should be heading back to his apartment to eat something light, maybe fall back into bed with Eames again.
“It’ll be okay, honey,” says his mother.
“It hurts,” Arthur says, simply.
They eat take-out Chinese at Arthur’s apartment, Arthur and his parents and Eames. The chopsticks are too hard to manage left-handed; Arthur uses a fork. It’s amazing, actually, how vividly his hand hurts now that he’s admitted to it hurting at all. Arthur’s mom fills everyone in on what the doctor had said — early tendinitis, badly inflamed but no evident scarring, cortisone shots for immediate relief, physical therapy following six weeks of rest — and Arthur eats slowly. It’s eight o’clock. Right now he should be playing Haydn.
Eames reaches across and steals a shrimp from Arthur’s plate. Eames doesn’t even like shrimp.
“The most important thing is that he continue his studies with a teacher who can pinpoint the bad habits that took him here,” Arthur’s mom continues, still using her nurse-voice. “Arthur, I’m not sure if Miles”—
—“It’s not Miles’ fault,” Arthur says flatly. “It’s me. I know what my bad habits are.”
“Regardless, it sounds like he should have been more vigilant,” Arthur’s dad says, frowning. “It’s your career we’re talking about, here.”
“My career,” Arthur repeats with a snort, and then Eames’ foot is kicking Arthur’s ankle very gently under the table and Arthur bites down on all the shit he wants to say but shouldn’t, everything about how if Arthur’s career is so important why has Arthur spent the better part of a year flushing it down the toilet with stupid random slutty hook-ups, with too-short and too-anxious practice sessions or no practice at all, with hours of jerking off to shitty-quality videos of Eames fucking his mouth, with serious thoughts of becoming a chamber musician because it’s easier, of following Eames to Austria because maybe then he’d sleep again. “Yeah, my career,” Arthur says again, more quietly. He puts down his fork, not hungry in the least and tired of wrestling with his clumsy left hand anyway.
Arthur’s mom goes on about the recommended physical therapy clinic, about how Arthur’s to alternate hot and cold compresses until the swelling subsides, about pain-killers and elevation of the affected limb. Arthur’s dad speculates on whether Arthur might not be better off coming back to Pittsburgh and taking some lessons with his former teacher, who was a great technician. Eames eats silently and with a blank expression; Arthur doesn’t know if Eames is bored, upset, angry, horny, or some combination of those four.
“Excuse me,” Arthur says finally, and stands up, goes over to the front entrance in full sight of everyone, digs a squashed packet of Benson & Hedges out of Eames’ jacket, a lighter, and heads out the door.
Arthur goes to a park that’s not far from the apartment. It is, he imagines, the kind of place he’d have frequented if he lived a different life here as a student. If Arthur hadn’t spent most of his waking hours at the conservatory, he thinks, maybe he would have memories of this sun-bathed square of grass — eating lunch with Eames, maybe, playing frisbee or something, laughing. Arthur claims a bench and smokes his way through half of Eames’ cigarettes imagining himself in this strange alternate universe. His stomach goes queasy from the smoke eventually, and Arthur pulls his knees up to his chest, holds them there with his arms. Nine o’clock. Rachmaninov, now, after the intermission’s end. Arthur closes his eyes and hears the opening chords.
When he gets back to the apartment his parents have gone and Eames is doing the dishes, sinking his hands into the hot soapy water and then grabbing a bottle of wine by the neck and taking a few swallows without bothering to wipe the suds away from the green glass. “Here,” says Eames, and offers the bottle up.
Arthur takes three gulps, lips fitted around the threaded screwtop mouth of the bottle, the cheap wine sour and burning his throat as it rushes past. “They didn’t know that I smoke,” he says, gasping for breath, setting the bottle down. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, that was a fascinating conversation,” Eames says, swiping at his nose with his wet wrist. Eames always has an itchy nose when he washes dishes. Arthur knows this because Eames would holler for him to come scratch it for him. “Thanks for that.”
Arthur reaches up left-handed and brushes away the bubbles that are clinging to the tip of Eames’ nose now, scratches it for good measure, gives it a fond pinch. “If I stayed any longer I probably would have said the word ‘blowjob’ in front of my dad,” he tells Eames. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to live through that moment.”
“Just as a point of curiosity,” Eames asks, rinsing off Arthur’s fork and plunking it into the drying rack next to six chopsticks, “was that going to be in the context of a request or just general conversation?”
“In the context of me missing getting them from you,” Arthur says, leaning into Eames’ side now. “And missing giving them to you.”
“I’m still a bit at sea,” Eames admits with a reluctant small smile, “but I like the direction you’re headed.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Arthur confesses, suddenly as exhausted as though all the missed hours of sleep have come back to bear on him, all at once. “I couldn’t sleep without you.”
Eames presses his lips together, fails to look overwhelmed at the romance of it all. “That’s a bit crap,” he says, and it’s not clear if he means that Arthur’s insomnia is crap or Arthur’s assertion of it is crap.
“No, really, I couldn’t,” Arthur insists, just in case it’s the latter. There’s a weird abruptness to Eames’ motions, suddenly, like he’s in a hurry to be finished with the dishes. “I mean, that’s how it started, anyway,” Arthur adds.
“Hmm,” says Eames, and pulls the plug out of the sink with a sharp tug, switches the faucet to cold water to swish the bubbles down the drain. He keeps his gaze fixed down. “Am I meant to apologize?”
“No,” Arthur answers, startled, “no, of course — Eames, I know it’s not your fault, jesus.”
“Do you?” Eames says, turning his head, meeting Arthur’s gaze for the first time in hours. “Feels a bit like I’m being punished, though.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Arthur asks, betrayed, baffled. “Jesus fucking christ, how am I punishing you? I’m the one with the fucking broken —”
“Yes, yes, you’re the one,” Eames says, “you’re the one that’s hurt, we’ve all been made very aware of how hurt you are, all the ways you’ve been injured by my absence this past year.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Arthur snaps, pushing himself upright, reaching for the bottle. “I don’t mean that it’s your fault I fucked up my hand, just that — it was a snowball effect.”
“That started with me leaving you,” Eames adds coolly.
“Yeah, okay,” Arthur says, “that’s where it started, but —“
—“Well, I suppose you at least had a little fun along the way,” Eames bites back, voice going from calm and detached to heated and angry in an instant. “From what I hear, you weren’t exactly pining away in the practice rooms, were you?” His mouth goes hard and mean. “Too busy fucking your way through half the conservatory for that.” He catches Arthur’s immediate attempt at a rebuttal, and overrides it easily. “Right, not half the conservatory. Half the gay conservatory. All the double reed students anyway, from what I gather. I — I don’t know what you,” and he reaches out and knocks the drying rack into the sink. It lands with a spatter of cutlery against the stainless steel basin, then a jangle of ceramic as the plates collide into each other. “I’m not a jealous man,” he says, as though reminding himself, “but jesus fucking christ, Arthur.”
“Like you didn’t,” Arthur says hotly, “like you weren’t putting it to everyone you could. You were so busy fucking around you stopped calling me! I didn’t even know if you thought of me at all, or if it was just some stupid tactic to pull away little by little, see if I’d notice that you were sneaking out of my life.”
Eames shakes his head, looking away. “It was agony talking to you,” he says bitterly, “it hurt for hours afterwards, days. Forgive me for not wanting to make that a regular part of my life.”
“Yes, much better to pretend that nothing’s wrong,” Arthur spits back, “and in the meantime I’m sitting awake waiting for the phone to ring, leaving pathetic messages for you, imagining you sleeping your way around Rome.”
“Fuck you,” Eames says with uncharacteristic rudeness, and wheels away from the sink, heads back over to the table to pick up the empty take-out cartons. “Just, fuck you. It killed me, being away from you, how dare you question that, how dare you try and tell me I suffered less than you?”
“I’m the one who’s fucked, now!” Arthur yells, and flings his injured hand out by way of demonstration. “I’m fucked and you’re going away again. How is this about you suffering?”
“Ah, so we’re back to it being my fault,” Eames says, and dumps everything in the garbage bin, shoves it down hard with his hand. “I wondered when that would come round again.” He looks up at Arthur. “Sometimes I forget how childish you can be.”
“Childish?” Arthur explodes. “Are you serious? You self-righteous asshole! If I’m childish then you’re infantile!”
“Infantile?” Eames repeats, eyebrows shooting up, mouth going infuriatingly amused.
“Infantile,” Arthur repeats, insistent. “You and your stupid inability to keep it in your pants for a year, I would have been fine with”—
—“Ah, yes, of course, I’m sure you only fucked every oboist you could because you were so very upset,” Eames interjects, smiling faintly. “Going out and dropping to your knees in the toilets of all the gay clubs in Boston, owning your inner twink, I’m certain that was an expression of your angst.”
“Who told you that?” Arthur asks sharply. “Where are you even getting this shit from?”
Eames’ smile goes slanted. “It’s hardly a secret,” he says. “What, you think you’re the only one who knows the gay clique at school? They were all gagging to tell me about your newfound slutty side, you know, congratulating me on my long-distance boyfriend with the talented tongue.” Eames doesn’t sound angry, for all the sharpness of his words. He sounds — amused. Always so fucking amused by Arthur.
“You didn’t mind my having picked up some new tricks when I fucked you yesterday,” Arthur points out. “Speaking of gagging for it.” He doesn’t know what makes him say it; it’s not anything he would ever even tease Eames about, the way Eames is about bottoming. Arthur would probably kill anyone else for saying the same thing, but the words come out of his mouth in a rush and they feel vicious, sharp, good. His hand is throbbing, his head aches and his stomach is lurching from too much nicotine and MSG and bad wine, but it all fades into the background when Arthur sees the way his verbal shot hits home, the way Eames goes from smirking and mocking to gutted and wrecked.
“So I gather we’re done, here,” Eames says, scrubbing a shaky hand over his head, “I’ll get my shit and clear off.”
Arthur feels his heart breaking; it doesn’t feel like he’d thought, like a crack or a snap, it’s more unpleasant and organic — like something bruising, shredding, pulling apart in ragged chunks — like meat. “No,” Arthur says, unwillingly, and closes the space that’s opened up between them during their argument. “No, Eames, fuck, I’m sorry, no.”
Eames exhales a short disbelieving huff of air and meets Arthur’s gaze, all his pain in his blue-grey eyes, and all Arthur can think of is Eames leaning up against the lockers three and a half years ago, saying oi, oi you, Eames singing Schubert, Eames cupping that velvet box with piano cufflinks, Eames stroking a soft hand over Arthur’s shorn hair and telling Arthur he hated it. This is not the end. It can’t be. Arthur has already lost his music, today — maybe forever. He can’t lose Eames, too, not like this. Not now.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur says again, not daring to touch. “I’m sorry, please.”
Eames’ brows flicker, and for all Eames is a master of hiding his feelings, he’s not trying in the least now. Arthur can see Eames wanting to forgive him, being too hurt to manage it. “I reckon we’ve both been,” he says, painfully, “Arthur, this whole year has been,” and he can’t continue.
“I hated it,” Arthur says for him. “Eames, I hated it. I can’t be away from you.”
“Don’t be, then,” Eames murmurs, and his hand finally comes up and cups the nape of Arthur’s neck, stroking his skin. “Don’t be away from me again.”
“Okay,” Arthur agrees, so easily, much more easily than he’d thought he ever could. It’s ten o’clock. He should be taking a bow right now, basking in the applause. Instead, he’s got Eames touching his neck with warm gentle fingers. It’s not as difficult a trade as it should be. “Okay, I won’t.”
“Reset button, hmm?” Eames murmurs, and moves in, kisses the corner of Arthur’s mouth. “Let’s pretend we never took that wrong turning last spring.” He moves back again, and his other hand comes up, strokes over Arthur’s cheekbone, thumb over his closed mouth. “You’re my heart,” he says brokenly, “you’re the heart of me, I can’t”—
Arthur can’t bear hearing Eames sounding this way, so he darts in and stops up his mouth. “You don’t have to,” he promises quickly, and kisses him again.
“We do, eventually, have to answer the phone,” Eames points out when it rings for the fourth time that morning, next day.
“No talking,” Arthur says, clambering over Eames with loose fucked-out limbs, laughing, “only orgasms.”
“Your mum is going to break the door down,” Eames says. “She’s going to come in here and throw ice packs at us. It will be deeply unsexy.”
“Ice packs could be sexy,” Arthur says, and bites down on Eames’ left nipple, rears up a little and blows cool air over it to watch it peak taut. “I want you to do me from behind next time,” he says as he lowers his head again. “I like how hard you can go that way.”
“Mm, if you insist,” Eames says, laughing, tugging Arthur up by his hair. “I’m not used to you with all this mop anymore. You look like a hippie,” he says with a little amused frown, “can I cut it off?”
“You can do whatever you want,” Arthur says, grinning, “I’m all yours.”
When Eames is sleeping in the warm spring afternoon sunlight streaming from the bedroom window, Arthur gets up and finds some cardboard boxes he’d stashed away after Eames moved out, starts quietly packing his DVDs and CDs into them. It’s slow work with one hand — the right one is wrapped, now, and hurting pretty badly again today — but it’s hypnotic and satisfying, pulling cases from the shelves, snugging them down into the boxes in alphabetical order, taping the boxes shut awkwardly, scrawling across the top so he can remember what’s what, later. Arthur doesn’t know where the boxes are going — into storage, back to Pittsburgh to his parents’ garage attic, on a plane to Austria, maybe — but he does know that they’re leaving this place, and that’s enough for now.
The phone rings again, and this time Arthur dives for it, not wanting its shrilling to wake Eames.
“There you are,” says his mother, exasperated. “Where have you been all day?”
“Out,” Arthur lies. “Sorry.”
“How’s the hand?” she asks.
“Sore,” Arthur says. “I’m icing it, don’t worry.”
“Take some ibuprofen,” she tells him. “You didn’t go and practice, did you? You know what the doctor said.”
“No, I didn’t go and practice,” Arthur says, grouchily. “Jesus, I’m not actually stupid.”
There’s a silence on the other end that reminds Arthur he doesn’t usually talk to his mother this way.
“Sorry,” he says, half-heartedly. “I’m — sorry.”
“Have you spoken to Miles yet? Let him know what the doctor said?” she asks, moving on graciously.
“Not yet,” Arthur says, not wanting to discuss this. “I will. Later.” He lifts his hand, waggles his fingers. They feel stiff with disuse already. The pad of his thumb is fat and inflamed. “So I think I’m going to Austria,” he says on impulse. “With Eames.”
“Now?” she asks, her shock audible.
“No, in a few weeks,” Arthur says. “There’s a lieder institute summer program.”
“You can’t play,” his mother points out.
“I can still listen,” Arthur says. “I can audit it, Mal can pull some strings.”
“You think you’re going to sit there and not play?” she says doubtfully. “Arthur.”
“You make it sound like I have obsessive compulsive disorder,” Arthur grouses back at her. “I am capable of exercising a little restraint, you know.”
She makes a scoffing noise. “Tell that to someone who didn’t have to lure you away from Mozart to make you watch television like a normal kid.”
“Okay, I have to go,” Arthur says, taping the last box shut. “Eames and I are going out for lunch. Do you want to meet up for dinner tonight?”
She hesitates again, and this time it’s not on account of Arthur’s abrupt words. “Honey, are you sure you’re really taking this in the way you need to? I know it’s a shock.”
“I’m taking it in as best I can,” Arthur tells her honestly, grimly. “I just — I don’t need to spend all my time sitting in a dark room crying.”
“No, of course not,” she says hastily, “only, should you be making big decisions? It’s okay to give yourself some space.”
Arthur doesn’t want space and he doesn’t want to think about decisions he’s making. He wants Eames. “Gotta go,” he says, like he hadn’t heard her last comment. “Call about dinner, okay?” And he hangs up hastily, slumps back against the couch, wonders how interested Eames would be if he went into the bedroom and woke him up by sucking on his cock.
Miles wants to talk about next fall, how he’s pushed the piano faculty into agreeing to a special jury session just for Arthur once he’s healed (if, Arthur appends silently, if), how he’s convinced the dean to let Arthur start his masters coursework even though he won’t have graduated, technically speaking, how Miles wants to look at some new ways of working on Arthur’s rehearsal technique, his posture, his tension. It’s painfully obvious that Miles is killing himself with guilt over the whole thing. Arthur works hard to find the words to say that it’s not Miles’ fault, that Arthur was hiding it – from him, from Mal, from himself – but he can’t quite manage to say anything at all.
“I think I’m going to Austria,” says Arthur, finally. “Just to audit. To spend time with Eames.”
“That sounds lovely,” says Miles. “Do let me know if you need a reference.”
Arthur escapes Miles’ studio at this, and finds Eames leaning against the lockers outside, looking like he’d never left the conservatory, big and slouchy and with a dirty smile on his lips. “Come on, then,” Eames says, “Mal’s next.”
“Ugh,” says Arthur, not wanting to go through it all again, the diagnosis and the optimism about Arthur’s recovery, the enforced rest and the plans for next year viewed through the lens of the chamber music diploma this time. “Do we have to?”
“Come on, I’ll go in with you this time,” Eames urges him, smirking, taking Arthur gently by his good wrist. “If she starts going on about it I’ll distract her with something.”
So they make their way down one floor, Eames keeping hold of Arthur’s wrist, the pair of them moving through the familiar halls just like old times. It’s still the exam period, so the conservatory is mostly deserted, most students either at home studying or in the practice rooms. They reach Mal’s studio without bumping into anyone, thankfully, and then Eames’ brisk knock on the door goes unanswered.
“She’s not in,” Eames deduces. “I suppose you’ll have to come back another time.”
“No,” says Arthur, pulling his keys from his pocket, holding them up. “Teaching assistant, remember? I’ll leave her a note. She’ll kill me if she hears about everything from Miles and not me.” He fits the key in the lock and pulls the door open, and then everything fractures abruptly into a series of shocking impressions: the light is on in the studio, someone is here after all.
Mal is sitting on the closed lid of the Bösendorfer — except she’s not alone, Cobb is there — Cobb is there, oh jesus christ almighty, Cobb’s exactly there, between Mal’s knees, and Arthur slams back into Eames’ chest as he tries to fling himself bodily out of the room.
“Oh god,” says Mal, sitting up, shoving Cobb away, looking flushed. “I didn’t hear you knocking.”
“Clearly not,” says Eames, choking with laughter.
“We’re leaving,” says Arthur, heart racing, horrified. “Sorry, god, sorry.”
“I was just,” says Dr. Cobb, waving his hands around, very red in the face, “just, uh.”
“Going down on Mal,” Eames supplies helpfully. “Thanks for the clarification, but even we gays know what that was, actually.”
“I kind of want to die right now,” Arthur says sincerely.
“Me too,” says Dr. Cobb.
“Oh, you are both so uptight,” Mal scolds them, and hops down from the piano, fixing her skirt. “Arthur, cheri, give us a moment and then I want to hear about what the doctor said.”
Eames grabs Arthur by the collar and pulls him out into the corridor, because Arthur’s struggling between apologizing more and trying to tell Mal that he doesn’t want to talk to her again, ever, please. Arthur hears rather than sees the studio door click closed and then he’s busy ignoring Eames as Eames collapses into a fit of giggles. “I thought you said she still hated him!” Eames says.
“She does!” Arthur insists. “She did!”
“Must be hateful cunnilingus, then,” Eames says, still laughing. “Christ, did you see the look on Cobb’s face?”
“I’m trying to forget it,” Arthur says, pressing fingers to his temples as though he can find a delete button somewhere on the surface of his skull. “I’m repressing. Shut up.”
“Do you think that was their first time?” Eames asks eagerly, not too concerned with Arthur’s horror. “Did we just ruin their first time?”
“Repressing, repressing,” Arthur groans, “god, repressing.”
“Right,” Dr. Cobb says confusedly, pushing his way out of Mal’s studio, “uh, sorry, I — uh,” and he all but sprints down the corridor while Eames clutches his sides and giggles helplessly.
“Come in!” Mal’s voice calls, light and unbothered as ever. “I just put my underwear back on.”
“Don’t fuss on my account,” Eames says, pushing off the wall and swiping at his eyes, moving back towards the studio. “It’s lovely to see you again, too, Mal.”
Arthur follows Eames into the studio with cheeks still hot and mortified, unfair when Mal looks so normal and utterly put together, and Eames is just endlessly amused. Eames and Mal trade cheek-kisses, and Mal does that thing where she strokes Eames’ hair and calls him her darling boy. Eames just grins at her and continues to laugh under his breath.
“Out with it,” he says, “how long have you been shagging that ponce?”
Mal purses her lips and frowns at him. “Eames,” she scolds. “That isn’t nice.”
“Oh,” Eames says, eyebrows jumping up, “oh. So it’s serious?”
Mal’s mouth twists into a little fond smile and her eyes go positively sparkly, but she doesn’t answer Eames’ question. Instead she turns her attention to Arthur and fixes her gaze on his handbrace with a faint little frown. “Six weeks’ rest, is it?” she half-asks, like she already knows. Arthur can’t be the first pianist to be injured in her experience, he supposes.
“Yeah, they,” Arthur says, waggling his fingers a little, “they said,” and goddammit, here comes the rush of emotion again, made all the worse by the Imperial sitting right there, the piano Arthur’s been half in love with since he first came through that door as a freshman. He might never —
“Oh, shh,” Mal says, not sympathetically as Arthur had feared but in a dismissive tone. “Six weeks is plenty of rest. Did they feed you all that nonsense about weeding out bad habits, too?”
“Well,” Arthur says, blinking to clear his vision, startled out of the swoop of self-pity, “I guess, yeah, but”—
—“Your bad habits are a manifestation of all this uncertainty,” Mal says, waving a graceful hand around, seeming to take in Eames, the Imperial, the conservatory, all in a single small gesture. “Your technique is impeccable, always has been. Once you’re back on your path, your little stumbling block will melt away.”
She sounds so — so certain. Arthur doesn’t know if he wants to agree blindly with her confidence, or to warn her off it, try to brace her for the worst case scenario.
“At least six weeks,” Arthur amends, splitting the difference.
Mal studies him with her dark brilliantly alive gaze, intent. “You will be fine,” she says, matter-of-fact.
“Miles is,” Arthur begins, at sea. “He wants to”—
“No,” Mal says, shaking her head neatly, “no, of course I adore my father, and admire his work, but your place is here. You need to be here.”
“I’m going with Eames,” Arthur says, moving over half a step, bumping shoulders with Eames. “I’m going to — be with Eames.”
“In Austria?” Mal asks, surprised but not obviously upset by the declaration. “Only to audit, of course.”
“Yes,” says Eames at the same moment Arthur says, “No.”
“You cannot play yet,” Mal says, alarmed. “You do need some rest, Arthur.”
“No, I mean — yes, I’m auditing,” Arthur says, and twines his good hand with Eames’. “But after that I’m — I’m staying with Eames.”
“Until the fall?” Mal asks, narrowing her eyes, and worse yet, Arthur sees Eames turning his head to study him too. They haven’t spelled it out yet, what it meant, the night that wasn’t Arthur’s recital. It’s mostly been fucking and laughing, honestly.
“No,” Arthur says edgily. “Just, from now on.”
Eames’ fingers tighten, squeeze Arthur’s hand almost painfully hard for an instant, and Arthur’s heart kicks up another couple of notches. He doesn’t have to look to know what Eames’ face is saying, the excitement and pleasure written there.
Mal stares at Arthur, and Arthur waits, bracing himself for an argument. But instead she looks over at Eames and treats him to the same long stare. “You,” she says, addressing Eames, “you also like this plan?”
“Course,” Eames says, and raises their twined fists, kisses Arthur’s knuckles. “Yeah, of course,” he says again, speaking a little quickly.
Mal licks her lips, folds her arms, and just as quickly breaks her posture, dropping hands to her sides with an almost inaudible sigh. “I will hold your place,” she tells Arthur, “long as I can.”
“No need,” Arthur says recklessly. “So — have a nice summer. We’ll — I’m sure we’ll see you again, soon.”
Mal embraces them both, her slender body running tense with worry, but to her credit she doesn’t say anything more. Arthur can’t help remembering how she’d clutched at Eames at this time last year, in the green room after Eames’ final recital, the little inaudible words she’d murmured to him, the way she’d gone teary. Arthur’d thought, maybe, when it was his turn —
But no matter. Arthur will see Mal again, and it hardly matters what she thinks of his choices when Arthur can feel in his bones that he’s doing the right thing.
He’s doing the right thing.
They have a month before Austria in any case, so after they pack up Arthur’s things and see them safe into storage, they fly to London and spend a few weeks in Eames’ grandmother’s Kensington flat. Arthur dutifully does his physio exercises, mostly because he’s tired of not being able to use his hand, he misses the strength he’s accustomed to having in his fingers, his thumb. But most of the time they’re out in the city, seeing things, doing things.
Arthur has no money to speak of; the auditor’s fee for the lieder institute had tapped his meagre savings entirely, and he’d already had to borrow from his parents for the cost of the flight to Europe. Eames waves it away, though — I’ve money to spare, let’s leave it at that — and Arthur tries not to feel guilty as Eames picks up the check at meal after meal, pub after pub, cab ride after cab ride. It’s Eames’ London, though, and money really does start to feel almost like a triviality, just colorful bits of paper that help them get around more efficiently.
“Let’s get you one,” Eames says when Arthur lingers a little too long over a shop window filled with designer shirts, meandering up Regent’s Street one hot June afternoon. “You need something nice to wear for the concerts in Baden anyway.”
“I have nice shirts,” Arthur says, hesitating.
“No, go on, I want to see you in that one with the narrow chocolate stripe and the button-down collar,” Eames says, “just try it on,” and he sort of crowds Arthur through the shop door, then buys him not one but four shirts.
“You can’t,” Arthur says even as the assistant swipes Eames’ credit card. “Eames.”
“Trust me,” Eames says, “you can’t go to Windsor dressed like a poor music student, it’d never do.”
“Windsor?” Arthur repeats stupidly, and his face cracks immediately into a stupid unwilling grin. “Windsor, Eames?”
“When we get back you’ll realize that it was a bargain, paying you off with only four,” Eames says, making Arthur carry the shopping bag.
“I want four more shirts,” Arthur says on the train ride back from Eames’ parents, a few days later. It’s been half an hour, which is the only reason Arthur even tries a joke on Eames, Eames who had become nearly unrecognizably stiff and cold in the house in Windsor surrounded by his parents and his sisters.
Eames’ mouth goes crooked, like someone doing a bad impression of Eames’ normal easy grin, but his shoulder shrugs and he leans into Arthur just a little, pulls his close-bitten nails from his mouth, and says, “Oh, might as well make it eight, give you a full dozen.”
“Yeah, okay,” Arthur says, leaning back into the familiar warm pressure of Eames’ body. “I don’t think they hated me,” he ventures, a moment later.
“But you hated them,” Eames supplies back, a little too eagerly.
“Yeah,” Arthur agrees, even though, no — he didn’t. The Eames family turned out to be sort of annoyingly upper crust, and coiffed, and proper, but Arthur had found them more ordinary than he’d expected, even in their manor house hidden down a gated lane, even with crystal tumblers of expensive liquor and little interest in acknowledging Arthur’s existence. But they weren’t terrible people, Arthur thinks, scrabbling for Eames’ hand with his own, twining fingers together. They just — didn’t belong to Eames; he didn’t belong to them.
Eames, Arthur has finally realized, really is a cuckoo in the nest. In that Windsor house, he fits in even less than Arthur, Arthur the homosexual Jewish American pianist with the ruined hand. At least Arthur likes an expensive shirt and a glass of red wine.
“I didn’t like them,” Arthur revises thoughtfully, squeezing Eames’ fingers, doing physio around Eames’ strong solid knuckles. “They don’t — they don’t deserve you.”
“It’s you they don’t deserve,” Eames returns, and looks away from the train window to lock eyes with Arthur, suddenly himself again. “But then I’m not sure anyone can deserve such a person,” and Arthur kisses him to shut him up even as a flare of pain lances up his forearm, Eames’ grip abruptly too rough around his own.
Mal pulled string after string to get Arthur into the lieder institute as an auditor, since Arthur had missed the deadline by a fair number of weeks. As it is, it’s hopeless trying to book accommodation for Arthur in Baden. Eames pulls out his most charming broken German and convinces the owner of the guest house where he’s staying to allow Arthur to stay with him, for an extra handful of euros per night.
“It’s only a small bett,” says the man, holding his hands apart in demonstration, befuddled.
“We don’t care,” Arthur says, and he doesn’t, he doesn’t. He and Eames spent a week once battling for space in Arthur’s narrow dorm room when Eames’ Boston apartment was flooded by a burst pipe from the apartment upstairs. Arthur remembers it as a fraught series of days arguing over everything, Eames everywhere and touching all Arthur’s things, bitching about the noisiness of the dorms and the indignity of shower shoes, both of them depressed at the prospect of eating yet another dining hall meal, getting by on cereal and take-out. But at nights, it had been — clambering close for warmth in the drafty old dorm room, competing for room on Arthur’s single flat pillow, laughing and talking like they were kids having a sleepover, and then finally breaking Arthur’s reputation for being the only celibate person on his floor by having noisy sex with Arthur barely managing to balance over Eames on the creaking twin mattress, hand holding him steady against the cement-block wall.
There’s no fighting this time, though, which makes it even better. There’s not enough room for their things; they each unpack halfway and stack their suitcases against the wall where they can’t afford the space, get in the habit of kneeing over them to cross from the bed to the doorway. They find a hotplate (forbidden) in the back of the wardrobe, Eames buys a kettle, and they set up a kitchen on top of the tiny desk in the corner. They have stacks of scores underfoot and never two pencils at once. Eames leaves empty water bottles everywhere, and Arthur hangs ties off everything. It’s maddeningly cozy in the heat of Austrian summer. They sleep naked, taking turns draping limbs off the side of the bed and pointing the small electric fan at their middles. “Our bohemian love-nest,” Eames calls it once, jokingly, and it sticks, becomes what they say instead of ‘our room’ or ‘home’.
They are, Arthur thinks — sweaty and gasping in the middle of the night, rolling away from Eames as far as he can (two inches, at most) — they are ridiculously in love. They must be, to be living on top of each other without the breath of an argument between them.
“Hey, tomorrow’s the big day,” Eames says when he drops back onto the bed having leaned out the half-foot needed to reach their wastebasket and lose the condom.
“It is?” Arthur asks, inching over so his bare back contacts the blissfully cool plaster of the wall bordering his side of the bed. “I thought your noon hour performance was Thursday next week.”
“No, your big day,” Eames corrects. He rolls over to face Arthur and pulls his thumb over the divot of Arthur’s sternum. “Is this come or sweat?” he asks, and licks his thumb to check because he’s Eames. “Sweat,” he judges, and then comes in closer to nuzzle Arthur’s chest directly. “You smell amazing.”
“I smell like armpit,” Arthur says, grinning, not resisting. “What big day?”
“Six weeks tomorrow, innit,” Eames says, pulling back, circling thumb and index finger around Arthur’s right wrist. “We should find a practice room and take you for a test run.”
“Is it six weeks?” Arthur asks, a bit stunned. He — he hasn’t been keeping track, though he’d lost the brace the instant he’d hit three weeks, hasn’t looked back since. It’s only the end of their second week at the institute; Arthur’s been too busy being enthralled by all there is to learn about Schubert and Wolf and Schumann to pause and wonder about playing anything himself. Everyone’s amazingly talented; everyone is desperate to improve. It’s been a weird relief to be sitting at the back of the room knowing he can’t engage with the music, that he’s only here to enjoy it and watch. But now —
“Does it still hurt?” Eames asks, kissing the base of Arthur’s thumb. “If it still hurts we should see about getting you to a doctor, I can ask Rainer if he knows anyone good.”
“No, it,” Arthur says, and waggles his fingers: stiff, maybe, a little weaker than he’s used to, but serviceable. “It doesn’t hurt at all. Do you think — shouldn’t I wait for Miles or Mal to give me the all-clear?”
“Oh, right,” says Eames, busy playing with Arthur’s hand now, kissing his knuckles and nibbling a bit at his fingertips. “But when will you see them, do you suppose?”
Arthur blinks. “No, you’re — you’re right. I guess I —“ and oh, it’s strange to realize it: Arthur is, for the first time in his whole life, without a teacher or mentor. Arthur’s — Arthur is on his own, artistically. “I’ll give it a try,” he says. “Maybe, maybe alone though. If you don’t mind.”
“Course I don’t mind,” Eames says, and presses one last kiss in the exact centre of Arthur’s palm, closes his fingers over it to keep it there. “Christ, it’s hot in here.”
“It’s only a small bett,” Arthur says in his best impression of their landlord, and they laugh together until Eames settles down into their single pillow and breathes out in the slow way that means he’s about to fall asleep. Arthur listens to Eames drift into the steady soft cadence of slumber and tries to stop thinking about tomorrow, about being alone with a piano and being allowed to lay fingers to it. What will he play? Will his hand —
Arthur lies awake for a long time, not sleeping. It’s a very small bed.
Auditors get last dibs on practice rooms, naturally, so it’s hard to come by an empty one during the height of activity on any given day. Arthur doesn’t bother trying, just goes to his seminars and masterclasses and takes notes, listens avidly. He eats dinner from a small cafe, packaged sandwich and three dollar can of Coke, and then goes back into the Musikschule and ambles through the halls, not holding out much hope.
But there’s a door ajar, the light off in the room, and just visible inside are the dim outlines of a modest little upright piano. Arthur hesitates before flicking the light on. There’s no score on the piano or the music stand, no sign that anyone is holding the room.
Arthur closes the door behind him and pulls out the piano bench, habit kicking in enough that he starts doing his usual finger stretches and hand exercises that had fallen by the wayside in his year of terrible practice technique. He’ll start with scales, as usual, keep it slow and moderated and easy on his hands, maybe even one hand at a time like he used to when he was eight or nine years old. After the scales, he’ll move to chords and arpeggios, and then something light, something easy and lovely. There’s no one listening, waiting to be impressed. There’s no pressure to be magnificent here in this little out-of-the-way room and with no one knowing the slightest thing about Arthur, about his training and prospects and how he’d once thought —
Arthur sets his hand silent on the keyboard, fingers curving gently over the keys that feel slick and cool to unaccustomed fingertips. He’s never gone six weeks without this before; it’s startling, the way it’s at once deeply familiar and uncomfortably new. So — first, scales, then chords, then arpeggios. Mozart. A Bach invention. Even something soft and worn-in, a lied without a singer, something where Arthur could forget himself for a moment.
Arthur pulls his fingers down the sleek keys like he’s gathering a fine invisible drape of fabric into the hollow of his hand. Everything works; nothing hurts. He curls his fingers more, until they slip off the ends of the keys and nestle tight and safe in a loose fist. The piano is silent.
He turns the light off as he leaves, and he should leave the door open too, so everyone can see the room is free — but Arthur closes it tight behind him. It’s ridiculous to feel like the piano is still waiting for him; there’s no one to see, anyway.
“How did it go?” Eames remembers to ask, halfway through tugging Arthur’s shirt off his shoulders.
“Fine,” Arthur says, “better than I thought.”
Eames is dazzling everyone. There are artists in residence, truly immense names in the art song world; Eames is dazzling them too. It’s no surprise, really. Eames is a rising star. He’s the next big thing. Everyone murmurs about comparisons to Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Allen and Bryn Terfel. They trade stories about Eames’ time in Rome, how he’d made a certain principal singer so uneasy and jealous that there’d been a huge shouting match with the artistic director. He was accepted to Merola, to the Atelier-Lyrique de Montreal, to the National Opera, they say. Someone from Deutsche-Grammophon is coming to hear him in his master-class. Someone from New York knows a big agent who’s been asking questions, too.
“But aren’t you Mallorie Laurent’s student, too?” asks one of the artists in residence, a soprano of no uncertain renown. It catches Arthur off-guard; he’s just been lingering at the side of the room, waiting for Eames to be done talking to her, done being told yet again that he’s amazing.
“Ah, I was,” Arthur says, moving his Schubert score so it’s under his good hand. “I just —“ Not graduated. Arthur hesitates. “I finished up at the conservatory in the spring,” he hedges.
“She was telling me about you,” says the woman, and Arthur forgets sometimes that Mal is a force unto herself, not just a teacher; Mal talks to people, and people — even world-renowned sopranos — listen. “She said you’re really wonderful.”
“Oh,” Arthur says, and clenches his right hand, unclenches it.
“He is,” Eames agrees, grinning at Arthur.
“Why aren’t you playing?” she demands in that sharp-entitled way that really famous musicians have. “You should be playing.”
“I was injured,” Arthur says.
“He’s better now,” Eames throws in, which for all he knows is true.
“I have a private session with one of the mezzos this afternoon,” she says. “Her pianist had to leave because of a family emergency. I was going to have one of the artistic staff fill in, but you should play for her.”
“No,” Arthur demurs hastily, “I’m only auditing, I didn’t pay for”—
—“You’ve played Gretchen before,” she says, not a question.
“Yeah, well,” Arthur says, “but I”—
—“Two hours, here,” she says, like Mal but without the pretence of a smile. “If you do well, maybe we can arrange something for you.”
“I’m not doing it,” Arthur tells Eames two minutes later, safely outside and sharing a furtive cigarette in the shade of an actual-swear-to-god linden tree.
“What, are you mad?” Eames says, exhaling smoke, handing the cigarette over. “That woman — if she says play, you say yes. Do you have any idea what her connections are?”
“I don’t care what they are,” Arthur says dismissively, tapping the ash from the tip of the smoke. “Fuck her. I play for you, that’s it.”
“Except I’ve got a pianist on the course,” Eames says, like Arthur’s being stupid. “Arthur. Play bloody Gretchen, it won’t kill you.”
It might, Arthur doesn’t say. Gretchen am Spinnrade is a bit of a pianistic tour de force only a notch or two down from Erlkönig. Arthur has yet to play a C major scale, hasn’t produced so much as a root position triad since that terrible day before his recital that wasn’t. “I’m not fucking playing,” he says, and drops the butt, grinds it out. “Come on, let’s go find a room.”
“To practice?” Eames asks, eagerly.
Arthur reaches out and thumbs the button of Eames’ jeans.
“Or that,” Eames says, licking his lips. “Yeah, let’s.”
Arthur’s not sure, then, why he shows up to the coaching. To prove something, maybe. It’s not like he’ll play well, so out of practice. If he crashes and burns spectacularly enough, Arthur thinks, paging through the score, maybe no one will bother him again here in Baden. They’ll take him for a passionate amateur, maybe, and leave him the fuck alone.
“Thanks for helping,” says Heather, the Canadian mezzo he’s playing for. “You’re Eames’ pianist, aren’t you?” They’re waiting outside the studio. She’s nervous. Arthur’s bored.
“I was,” Arthur says, staring at the score. His left hand is tapping out the pulse: long, short, long, short, long. A rocking chair. A cradle. A heartbeat. “Haven’t played for him in over a year.”
“You play off-book, I heard,” she says.
“Yeah, sometimes,” Arthur answers absently. Always. “Not in coachings, though.”
“Right,” she says. “Thanks, again.”
“No problem,” Arthur says, and wonders if he should say something to warn her about how badly this is going to go.
The piano inside the studio is a far cry from the little upright Arthur hadn’t been able to face — it’s a whopping eight-foot grand. The make is Grotrian-Steinweg, which is some distant relation of the American Steinways. Arthur’s never played one before. It’s gleaming faintly in the glow from the curtained window. Arthur crosses over to it and props the lid up full-stick from the half-stick where it had been resting. The piano coach pulls an impressed face, and in spite of himself Arthur can’t lose the smirk that pops onto his face. He’d learned a lot from Mal, including how to moderate his volume without sacrificing the full timbre of the instrument by clamping down the lid on its soundboard. It’s a bit saucy; it might be Arthur’s last moment of pride in this space, though, so he lets himself have it.
“Make yourself comfortable,” says the piano coach, even as Arthur settles in, sets his score on the stand and adjusts the chair in front of the instrument. “You haven’t worked with Heather before?”
“No,” Arthur says, dragging fingertips over the keys, rote-checking for the stiffness of the mechanism, pushing the damper pedal up and down a few times. “Sorry if we’re a bit rough,” he says, and hears himself sounding like he doesn’t expect that will be true. “What’s your tempo?” he asks Heather, flattening the score out with one palm.
She’s still getting settled in the bow of the piano and it takes her a moment to gather her focus; she looks even more nervous than she had outside in the corridor, which is a bit silly. Arthur’s heard her sing several times. She’s very good. “Uh,” she says, and hums the first phrase in the wrong key, changing tempo a little even as she goes through two measures.
Arthur’s worked with enough freshmen and sophomores by now that it’s mostly just instinct, the small smile he gives her in encouragement, but he sees how she immediately relaxes a little, like she’s leaning back into him, letting him take some of the weight of performance off herself. Arthur flexes his fingers and rolls his wrists, suddenly knowing that he can’t actually fuck this up. “So,” he says, and taps back the second of her two tempi because it’s closer to what’s normal for this lied.
“Yeah, about that,” she says, and turns to the artist-in-residence, the piano coach. “Should we?”
“Please,” says the singer with an impatient little smile.
Arthur lifts his hands and sets them down on the keys, but before he can play he thinks of Mal shouting at him about his shoulder position, lifts his right arm, shrugs, and sets it back down the way she always makes him do it. His body, which had just begun to gather tension, clicks abruptly into a relaxed preparedness. It feels like being on stage for Rach 3, or like playing for Eames.
The notes flow; Arthur knows this piece backwards and forwards, as it’s a staple of undergraduate repertoire for female singers. The piano is a bit touchy in the lower registers, but that’s the domain of his strong left hand. Arthur adjusts. The repetitive circling of notes in the right hand takes less concentration, and when Heather enters, Arthur forgets to think about it at all, chasing after the clarion blue of her voice, building the story in peaks. Gretchen at her spinning wheel, thoughts running in circles ever more frantic as her foot pumps the pedal, until her panic breaks loose and the wheel cracks to a cataclysmic stop at the climax of the piece — but then, helpless, lost, she circles back into her private hell. She’s been betrayed, abandoned. She can’t go on alone, but she goes on anyway, like a wretched automaton.
Arthur can relate, actually.
“Ah, sorry,” he says, when he lifts his hands from the final melancholy chord. He dashes the back of his bad hand — his right hand — across his eyes. He’s not quite sure when he’d stopped turning pages, but the staves are blurry and useless anyway. “Schubert,” Arthur says by way of apology. “Been a while since I,” he says, and doesn’t bother finishing, because when he looks over, Heather is staring at him with a stupid dazed smile, and so is the piano coach. So is the artist in fucking residence.
“We must find you a place in the course,” she says, like no one could dare argue with her.
Arthur, for one, doesn’t even consider arguing. His heart is pounding like he almost went over a cliff, like he pulled himself back at the last second. He can’t believe he almost — that he nearly gave up —
“Now,” she says, “let’s see if we can’t make something of that crescendo in the second stanza, it was a bit messy from the pair of you.”
Arthur nods and pages back in the book, snapping into his usual – what used to be usual – focus. But somewhere at the back of his mind, he can hear Mal’s words, quiet and as irritatingly astute as always: you can’t unknow, now, what it is like to truly make music with another. You cannot forget that joy.
It’s some position out of a porno, and Arthur had had his doubts about it when Eames suggested it, but now it’s a favorite of theirs. After all, what’s the point of being young and strong and flexible if not to spend a good part of your life riding your boyfriend in improbable but fantastic configurations? Arthur curls his toes, seeking more purchase against the old lino floor, and drops his weight back against Eames’ shoulders momentarily, still moving but hoping to catch his breath a little. His hips are starting to feel hot, liquid; his thighs are slick with sweat where they’re pressed close to the tops of Eames’ own thighs.
“Oh, like that, fuck,” Eames mumbles drunkenly into the hollow between Arthur’s shoulder blades, his hands roaming like he’s having trouble deciding what part of Arthur to grope next. “God, I love Saturdays, I want to fuck you all weekend long.”
“Think you can?” Arthur asks, trying to smile but unable to manage it, distracted by the slick sweet glide of Eames inside him at this new angle. “Could you stay hard and fuck me until Sunday night?”
“Well, if I can’t,” says Eames, and urges Arthur forward again, rocks his hips up two, three, four times until Arthur catches the faster tempo and takes over a little, all but bouncing on Eames’ lap, on Eames’ cock, “I have a mouth, and fingers too, and there are chair legs and all manner of candles and”—
It’s probably supposed to be funny, but Eames is working too hard to laugh, and Arthur is too; and besides, he maybe likes it, what Eames is saying, the way Eames makes it sound like Arthur would take anything Eames could give him, like Arthur’s nothing but a hungry void that needs filling, slutty and urgent and oh shit, oh shit, he’s suddenly desperate to come. “Put your fingers in,” Arthur says, feeling like his spine is arching and stretching, tightening like horsehair on a violin bow, “fuck me with your fingers too, do it, fuck.”
It takes Eames ages, it seems, to locate the lube and uncap it, Arthur riding him hard all the while, and then Eames makes Arthur go still, which is torture, while he wriggles his hand between them and tries to find an angle of approach that will — “no, no,” Arthur says, “not deep enough, fuck, come on,” — and then finally Eames has it, fingers hard and wide and pressing in alongside Eames’ cock, impossible delicious stretch and Arthur chokes on it, fights against the noise that wants to rip out of his throat because he wants to focus, feel it, ride it out.
Eames’ fingers crook ever so slightly, and then Eames says, “There you go, darling, just like that,” and it’s only then that Arthur registers that his orgasm has started to crest at last, that Eames could somehow feel it happening with his fingertips while Arthur was still tangled up trying to sort out all the signals that were overwhelming him. Arthur slumps down against Eames’ other forearm like a brace over his chest, and comes helpless and hard and long.
“Oh, cooperate for another minute, will you?” Eames is asking a minute later, half-amused and half-annoyed. Arthur swipes a hand over his face and wonders where he’d gone to between coming and finding himself now lying flat on his back on the bed while Eames does his level best to get back inside him with Arthur’s legs gone rubbery and heavy and unmanageable.
“Sorry,” Arthur grins, and hooks one knee over Eames’ shoulder, and Eames sinks home with a happy sigh, fucks into Arthur for maybe fifteen seconds, and comes buried balls deep with a stupid lovely blissful expression on his face. Arthur thumbs Eames’ drooping lower lip and laughs, even though he’s sure he’d looked far stupider coming untouched, cock bouncing, rigid with hyperstimulation, surprised as hell.
“Not quite thirty-six hours,” Eames says, pulling out and gasping for air, giving his cock a few last strokes as he strips the condom away, drawing out the shivery aftershocks. “But it was, what, noon when we started? It’s half one now. That’s not bad, is it?”
“Felt longer,” Arthur says, craning back to see the bedside clock for himself. “And shorter. Felt like — I could fuck you forever, and not for a minute longer at the same time.”
“Mm,” agrees Eames, “are you sore?”
“So fucking sore,” Arthur laughs, and kicks his feet feebly, swipes a hand through the mess of his chest and belly. “Fuck, I can’t wait until you can do me bare again. I miss your come inside me.”
“God, you’re filthy,” Eames says appreciatively, and tips forward until he’s half lying on Arthur, squished between the wall and the bed. “By the time we hit London again, it’ll have been — long enough. We’ll get another test done, and then I’ll shag you bare for hours on end.”
“London,” Arthur echoes, and then stirs a little. “Is that — London?”
“Had I not said?” Eames says with mock surprise. “I seem to have gotten myself an agent.”
“You did?” Arthur says, and struggles up onto one elbow to better see Eames’ expression: smug, pleased, a little excited. “This is that New York guy?”
“No, one of my own countrymen,” Eames corrects. “He’s apparently hot shit. He wants me in London for the next while, new headshots, publicity, audition recordings, that sort of thing.” He licks his teeth. “The New York bloke wanted me to get braces on, can you imagine? Like it wouldn’t fuck up my diction and my jaw, having all that hardware in my mouth. Fucking American obsession with having this glaring white even grille, I don’t even know what he thought I’d”—
—“So you already signed,” Arthur interrupts. “You decided.”
Eames’ gaze flicks over to meet Arthur’s, and his brows draw together just a little. “You like London,” he says.
“It’s a new country,” Arthur says. “I don’t know anyone.”
“Austria is a new country, you don’t even speak German, and you’re managing,” Eames says, amused. “Listen, this was going to be a surprise, but as you’re getting all stroppy about it now, I might as well tell you: I found you a gig.”
“You — found me a gig?” Arthur says, hesitantly. “In London?”
“Of course in London,” Eames says. “My old school, remember the one? They wanted a new piano master, I put in a word. I mean, you’re so young, they’ll only start you off with the little kids but I’m sure you’ll be working with the fifth and sixth years in no time, and they’ll be needing someone to help with rehearsals for the big choral works, the opera. It’s perfect.”
“I don’t have a work visa,” Arthur says, because he can’t think of anything else to say.
Eames waves a hand. “Gran can help sort that out, she’s got loads of friends in the government.”
“So, what, ten year olds?” Arthur says, sitting up. “Ten year olds, and incidental music for the school play?”
“It’s Westminster, Arthur,” Eames chides, “and you’ve taught ten year olds before in Pittsburgh. Having your degree doesn’t put you above ever teaching children, surely you realize?”
Arthur swings his legs over the edge of the bed and reaches for his boxers, glad for once that the room is so tiny that nothing is more than an arms length from him. “I don’t even have my fucking degree,” Arthur snaps. “Remember?”
“Pfft, technicality,” Eames says. “Look, it’s a long shot but I’ve been thinking about trying to get you in on my first recording deal. Stephen says it’s probably only one or two years away, he’s already chatting up that bloke from DG, and they wanted to put me with someone more established, but I’ll — I’ll see what can be done, right?” He’s sitting up now, stroking his hands over Arthur’s hunched shoulders, and Arthur is sick of this tiny crappy room, and heartily sick of feeling like he’s the prickly difficult one, like all he does is pick fights with Eames. It’s not fair, Arthur’s only just gotten back a glimmer of hope in his playing, and now it feels like Eames is casually setting that aside.
“Fine,” says Arthur, shrugging away Eames’ touch. “Great, you have it all worked out then.” He stands and tugs his boxers up. “I’m starving, do you want to come to the Naschmarkt with me? Didn’t you say you wanted to see if we could sneak into the matinee at the opera?”
“Right, Brian told me about how to slip in the stage door at intermission and work your way round to the front of the house,” Eames says, gathering his own clothes, quite obviously deciding to go along with Arthur in pretending they weren’t about to row.
“And I want to see if I can get some practicing in today,” Arthur says, pushing it, not sure why.
Eames hesitates for the barest instant, halfway through working his jeans up his calves, but then he releases the smallest sigh and says, “Of course, yes, we’ll go to the Musikschule later.”
“I mean,” Arthur says, dabbing at his belly and chest with a balled up tissue before pulling one of Eames’ shirts over his head, “it’s not like we were literally going to spend all weekend fucking.”
“Would that we could,” Eames says a little grimly, through a forced smirk, and then softens it by tugging Arthur over with a finger hooked into his shirt collar, kissing his lips, the place just in front of his ear. “We can talk about it,” he says. “The plans.”
“No,” says Arthur, “let’s not. I’m starving, let’s just fucking — let’s eat.”
Naturally Arthur’s on the course, now. The artist in residence demanded as much, and the administrators of the program scrambled to make arrangements. The next thing Arthur knows he has a proper tag and lanyard around his neck, meal passes, practice room times, and an assigned singer, coachings, masterclasses, repertoire to learn. It’s bizarre and it’s glorious and Arthur takes all of three days to transition from Eames’-boyfriend to Mallorie-Laurent’s-student to Arthur-fucking-Goldberg.
It’s not quite like being Eames — nothing, Arthur imagines, is like being Eames — but it’s sort of stunning to have the students here, these magnificent world-class young singers and pianists, courting him and waving at him and eager to have his feedback on every little thing. Heather is swanning around like she’s won the lottery, and Arthur grins and shakes his head and tries to look humble about the whole insane situation.
He writes an email:
Mal, it’s like being a rock star or something. Fucking amazing. My hand is fine, I think - twinges now and then, that’s all. You were right, six weeks did the trick.
And gets back only:
Cheri - I’m still holding your place.
Arthur wants to write to her about being the incoming piano master at Westminster School, about maybe getting in on Eames’ record deal, because actually it all sounds pretty convincing when he writes it out like that, but somehow he never gets as far as hitting the ‘send’ button. He pictures Mal’s Imperial instead, a vacant chair in front of it.
“I don’t want to live in Kensington,” Arthur says over dinner that night.
“Fuck, me neither,” Eames says around a mouthful of schnitzel. “I’ve got a mate looking to sublet a flat in Islington, it’s a doddle from there to Westminster and the Royal Conservatory.”
“I can’t afford Islington,” Arthur says: statement of fact. He’s looked, online. “I was thinking south London, Lambeth or Peckham.”
“Christ, you’d leave in a body bag,” Eames says. “No, Gran would have a heart attack at the very idea. South of the Thames, forsooth!” He reaches across the table and snags Arthur’s glass of water; his own German had landed him with sparkling mineral water, which Eames hates. “I’ve got the money, darling. Don’t fret.”
“You grew up south of the Thames,” Arthur has to point out.
“Windsor is not Peckham,” Eames says with great precision, sounding eerily like his mother.
“Just saying,” Arthur says, and grins, shoves down the weird uneasiness in his belly. He’s made his choice. Screw Mal and her ‘holding a place’. What is that, a threat? He’s Arthur-fucking-Goldberg. Mal can just — just let Dr. Cobb take her savagely on the lid of the Imperial. Arthur couldn’t care less.
He couldn’t care less.
Then there are these moments, these transcendent moments, where the music breaks through the surface of life, the routine of it, and Arthur is shattered and reassembled a little differently. Arthur hates people who talk bullshit about art but it’s not like that, here. Here it’s real. Everyone knows it and lives it, and when something is right and it works they all get a contact high. Arthur falls in love every three or four hours, with composers he’d never known, with songs he’s never heard, with pianists with a gift for making the instrument catch its breath, with singers whose voices are like silk, like ivory, like dark puddled chocolate.
It’s the first time Arthur’s known this feeling outside his partnership with Eames. He had no idea it could be found elsewhere, that he could click together with other singers in the same way like paired magnets, that it depended more on their relative levels of talent and artistry and dedication than on some ineffable sexual chemistry fuelled by Schubert and flirting.
“I heard you’re having some kind of torrid secret affair with Emily Dickinson,” Eames half-whispers at night, spooned around Arthur on top of the covers. “I thought you despised Copland.”
“I had him all wrong,” says Arthur. “Besides, it’s fun to do stuff that’s not strictly lieder for a change.”
“Say what you will,” Eames says, “it’s bloody depressing poetry. ‘Because I would not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me’ and all that.”
Arthur curls his fingers round Eames’ hand, clasping them both over his belly. “‘Has nobody a pang that on a face so beautiful we might not look again?’” he asks, dropping his voice into the still room.
Eames chuckles, his voice vibrating against Arthur’s back, low and lovely and warm. “Very Arthurian,” he judges. “I see your point. I leave you to your Sehnsucht, my darling. I prefer a little more optimism, myself.”
Arthur closes his eyes and wonders again what it’s like to be Eames. Probably, he supposes, Eames never feels this sweet-sick worry at the pit of his stomach. Probably Eames never lies awake wondering what he’s missing by being here instead of somewhere else. Everything is simple for Eames; it’s all so easy, being him, like a perfect cadence. Five-one. Ta-da. The end.
For Arthur, it’s five-six. His breath catches in his throat and he’s suspended, winded, worried, and alone with Eames sleeping peacefully just behind him.
Mal - when do you absolutely need to know?
Cher Arthur - I have been telling the dean for weeks that you will be back for the start of semester, and I will keep lying until the first day of classes if necessary.
“Do I have some on my face?” asks Eames, surprisingly self-conscious for a grown man publicly eating pink bubblegum ice cream (complete with cherry and whipped cream).
Arthur leans back a little on the bench and takes it in: the stunning heat, the fountain, the people bustling around, the pigeons and the cobblestones and in the center of it all, Eames tan and gorgeous in his sunglasses and shorts and t-shirt, three days out from his last shave and with his hair spiked into a playful brushy series of cresting waves. His furry knee keeps bumping into Arthur’s. “No, it’s fine,” says Arthur, and ducks in to lick a swipe of ice cream off Eames’ cone. “Eat faster, it’s melting onto your hand.”
“You’re lucky I love you,” Eames says. “Keep your pointy delightful little tongue off my ice cream, you brat.”
“I am,” Arthur says. “Lucky, I mean.”
When they pack they find all the pencils rolled towards the back of the desk where they’d remained hidden by their mountains of scores. “Must not be quite level,” says Eames.
“I’m telling you, neither is the bed, that’s why I was always rolling towards you,” Arthur says, and balls up another t-shirt before stuffing it into his straining duffel. He can’t wait for London, and Gran’s washing machine. He’ll have to send for different clothes from home, he supposes. He’s sick of everything he brought here.
“No, that was just a ploy to wreak havoc on my virtue,” Eames says absently. He holds up the fistful of pencils. “Want to keep them?”
“Fuck it, they have pencils in England,” Arthur says. “They can be a gift for the next person who moves in.” He zips his bag with some difficulty and casts a look around the room to see if they’ve missed anything. The room looks much bigger with their belongings contained again. Arthur can almost remember why they’d thought it was a reasonable amount of space for the pair of them.
“Goodbye, bohemian love-nest,” Eames says with a fond sigh, and that’s it, Arthur absolutely has to tumble him to the bare mattress and stuff his hands under Eames’ clothes. They’ve already solemnly sworn that their bed in the Islington flat is to be massive and wide as the room itself, but Arthur has to admit some part of him is going to miss this narrow lumpy mattress and all the times he’s done this on it, stripped Eames and laid him back and spread his thighs apart, bowed his head between to take Eames in his mouth.
After a minute Eames urges Arthur to shift around until he’s facing the other way, and from there it’s only a few hasty minutes before they’re both coming and trying to be neat with swallowing, mindful of the stripped bed and the landlord’s inspection. Arthur slumps to the side, content for the moment, and so it is that he’s lying on eye level with Eames’ knees when Eames says it.
“DG have offered me a contract for an album,” he says. “Art songs. Wolf, mostly.”
Arthur pushes up on his elbow and stares up the solid landscape of Eames’ naked body: his softening cock, his inky belly and chest, nipples, stubbled chin, red lips. “Holy shit,” says Arthur, because he’s not sure if he’s supposed to be proud or amazed or curious or excited.
“I did tell them about you,” says Eames, lifting his own head and staring back at Arthur. “I mean, they heard you, here. And I gave them recordings.”
Arthur’s heart sinks, very slowly, like a flat rock on the surface of a muddy bog.
“Given that I’m remarkably young,” Eames says, “that’s — that’s their phrasing, ‘remarkably young’ — they want to pair me with someone more established.”
“Of course they do,” Arthur says. “That makes sense.”
“Maybe the next album,” Eames says, “or the one after. We’ve loads of time.”
“Yeah,” says Arthur simply. He chews his lower lip, holds his breath, and finally says it: “I wish you’d stop telling me bad shit right after we fuck.”
“It seems like the opportune moment,” Eames says, pushing himself up onto his elbows. “It’s about the only time you’re smiling these days, outside classes.”
“I smile all the fucking time,” Arthur says, abruptly incandescent with anger. “I go around every goddamn day with a huge shit-eating grin, Eames. Fuck you.”
Eames sighs impatiently but doesn’t answer, and that — Arthur shoves up, wrenches himself off the bed, and punts his duffel as far as he can, which is only maybe three feet given the dimensions of the room. “And now, the Sturm und Drang,” Eames pronounces, flopping back onto the bed, waving his hand at Arthur. “Don’t be immature, Arthur, you don’t even have a sodding degree, did you honestly think DG were going to hand you a contract?”
“Of course I fucking didn’t!” Arthur shouts, picking up his duffel so he can kick it again, harder. One of the side seams gives a little, splits. “I’m not deluded, Eames, I know I’m — some dumbass kid who didn’t even finish his bachelors, I know. I just”—
—“Just what?” Eames says, still prone on the bed. “It’s never enough for you, you’re forever looking at what I’ve got. The grass is always greener, isn’t it?”
“My grass is really fucking green!” Arthur returns hotly. “But you know what? It’s all in fucking Boston, Eames. I left my green green grass behind, for you. Don’t tell me it’s some jealous bullshit, that’s got nothing to do with it. I might not be Charles Eames, rising star baritone, but you can be damn sure that I’m Arthur-fucking-Goldberg and I’m fucking good with or without you by my side.”
“Of course you’re good, you’re brilliant!” Eames cries out, finally sitting up, swinging his legs down to rest his feet on the floor. “I’ve never denied that!”
“But you’re better, right?” Arthur says, arching an eyebrow. He’s never said it, flat out. He’s never dared.
Eames pulls a serious expression, like he’s questioning whether Arthur really wants to know the answer.
“Right?” Arthur repeats, certain.
Eames breaks his gaze and sighs. It’s answer enough.
“So I’ll always be in your shadow,” Arthur says hotly. “I mean, always. For the rest of our lives.”
“That might not be much longer, I’m feeling quite a strong urge to strangle you,” Eames mutters, looking away.
“And you’ll always call the shots,” Arthur says, “because your career is more important. You decide where we live, and when, and what flat. You choose what projects you do, you find me a job and tell me it’s better than I think it is, you humor me just enough to make me feel like I have my own life as an artist. Is that it, Eames?”
“You make it sound like you’re a suburban midcentury housewife, jesus,” Eames says. He spreads his hands wide. “Fine, let’s move to Peckham with all the hoodies, let’s move in over a kebab shop and you can get a job on your own, and I’ll tell DG to get stuffed because my boyfriend doesn’t like me making all the decisions about my own fucking career.”
“I can’t talk to you right now, not when you’re like this,” Arthur says, and casts about for his clothes. “You’re acting like a child.”
“I am!” exclaims Eames, laughing.
“Yes, Eames, you are!” Arthur bursts out, furious. He holds up his right hand, the one that’s strong now, the one that Arthur will never again take for granted. “You liked me better when I was broken! Well, fuck you!”
Eames huffs out another humorless laugh and turns his face away, scratches his fingers through his hair. “Our taxi to the airport will be here in five minutes,” he says, instead of responding to Arthur.
Arthur zips his jeans and fixes the collar of his shirt. His heart is pounding. He might throw up.
“Are you going to get in when it comes?” Eames asks, inevitably.
Arthur takes a step to the left and slumps against the desk, and it’s like he can feel it pitching down towards the wall, like Arthur is going to roll over its surface and get wedged into the crack between it and the plaster, dusty and misplaced and forgotten. He can’t go back to living like he did last year; the very thought chokes him with horror. But neither can he imagine setting up house in Islington while Eames flies off to Berlin to record an album, or over a curry shop in Peckham while Eames gives Arthur his scant sense of pride and independence. Arthur can’t, he can’t do it.
“Are you coming or not?” Eames asks, very softly, very angrily. “It’s a simple question.”
All the branches, Arthur sees, have been pared away. It’s suddenly very clear what he must do, because there’s only one way forward. He takes a breath, and lifts his head to meet Eames’ beloved gaze.
“No,” Arthur says. “I’m not coming.”
Heart, we will forget him,
You and I, tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.
When you have done pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim.
Haste! ‘lest while you’re lagging
I may remember him!