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Il est bon, l'enfant

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Arthur loves Ravel. He does. He loves everything about him and if he could marry that low-register bit in the first movement of his piano concerto in G he would. Ravel had massive hands; Arthur’s got long fingers himself, though he’s no Ravel. Still, he loves the feel of those weighty expansive tenths and elevenths under his own long fingers, the sobriety of them, the intent. And Ravel claimed to be married to his craft, which is a sentiment Arthur has always admired if not, finally, emulated. Ravel’s music is intricate and technical and precise, and yet his Daphnis et Chloé has frequently moved Arthur to tears from its sheer unfettered beauty.

“But?” asks Yusuf, standing up and ducking out from under the open lid of Arthur’s beloved Steinway, spooling up the felt mute he’s just extracted from the strings.

“But I don’t know what Colette was smoking when she wrote the libretto,” Arthur says, shaking his head, “or how she after-school-specialed Ravel into joining her, but it’s just fucking — bizarre. Isn’t it?”

“Ah, well,” says Yusuf, “it’s not very commonly performed, is it? One-acts are hardly the bread and butter of most opera houses, and French impressionist one-acts about a talking clock”—

“And a cat,” Arthur says, “there’s a fucking cat role. It’s all — meowing. Just. I don’t get it.” He pulls the music stand forward so he can peer into the belly of his piano. “May I?”

Yusuf pulls his glasses off and waves Arthur towards the keyboard. “Tell me if it’s better.”

Arthur tries out the problem key — the E5 an octave and change above middle C — by drumming on it with alternating second and third fingers, slowly at first and then building to a machine-gun rattle. “Hmm,” Arthur says, considering the key action under his touch. “It’s definitely better, but it still wants to lag, do you hear the”— and he fires off another series of repeated notes until one catches and doesn’t sound. “Yeah, that,” he says, frowning, craning his head to see the felt hammer on the strings, the leap of its little head as it obeys Arthur’s touch.

“Hmm, I think I see,” Yusuf says, “yes, it’s still,” and he gestures for Arthur to step away before he’s got his face up in the soundboard again, prodding at the problem hammer. “You know, most pianists wouldn’t notice it, it’s a very subtle swelling in the felt around the guidepin.”

“Don’t be lazy,” Arthur reproaches him. “You knew what you were in for when I put you on retainer for my baby.”

“I thought your baby was the meowing one,” Yusuf half-asks, replacing his glasses and reaching for one of his tuning hammers.

“And, see, the sad part is that I don’t even know if you mean the cat or my husband,” says Arthur, sitting down on his piano chair, folding his forearms over the music rack and propping his chin on them.

“Well, I did mean Jeoffry,” says Yusuf, “but mostly because you don’t seem the type to use pet names on your spouse.”

“Hm,” says Arthur with a small sigh, straightening up again. “No, I guess I’m not the type.” He leans over and picks up Eames’ vocal score for L’enfant et les sortilèges, lying on the floor just under the body of the Steinway, knocked there carelessly by Arthur when he was opening the piano for Yusuf half an hour earlier. The spine is worn, the pages well-loved; post-it flags jut out from it at odd angles. Eames rarely spends much time with his music, but this particular score has been with him for years. Arthur remembers Eames paging through it longingly as an undergraduate, even.

“Where is it going up?” Yusuf asks, making the Steinway cough and clunk a little as he makes his adjustments. “The opera, I mean.”

“Baltimore,” says Arthur, paging past Ding, ding, ding, ding, trying and failing to decipher Eames’ pencil scrawls in the margins. “He’s really, really excited.”

Yusuf’s laugh is nearly a cackle, though he tries to bury it against the piano’s strings.

“Oh yeah, laugh it up,” Arthur says, slapping the score closed again when he catches sight of the cat duet. “If you’re not careful I’ll make you stick around until he gets home and starts practicing again.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Yusuf says, looking up again, grinning. “I like Ravel.” Before Arthur can do much more than open his mouth to defend himself, he appends, “All of Ravel.”

“Oh, come on,” says Arthur, betrayed. “You do not.”

Yusuf’s only answer is to pluck at the E string and whistle the opening theme through his teeth.

“Whatever,” says Arthur. “You’re not leaving until that key action is perfect, I don’t care what you whistle at me.”

“I’ve always liked Yusuf,” says Eames warmly.

Arthur retaliates by reaching across the table to scoop up one of Eames’ butternut squash spaghetti bundles and transfer it neatly to his own plate.

Eames makes a satisfactory noise of dismay, but of course he’s never shied away from escalating a situation; the next second he’s sawing off half of Arthur’s tourtière with the side of his fork.

“Stop it,” says Arthur, “the maitre d’ is giving us a look.”

“You started it,” Eames says, unbothered, as he transfers his portion of Arthur’s entree onto his own plate. “Besides, this is how all married couples carry on.” His tone is casual and light, but the grin he flashes over at Arthur is pure devilish glee. It’s new yet; neither of them is quite past the novelty factor of being a husband. Arthur’s eye is caught again and again by the new glint of metal on their ring fingers, their hard-won badges of honour for having survived a Jewish American gay wedding as masterminded by Arthur’s mother.

“No, you started it back when you contracted with this fly-by-night piece of shit opera company in Maryland,” Arthur says. “And by the way, I still think someone must have tipped them off that they could get Charles Eames for pennies on the dollar if they offered the right bait.”

“They’re not fly-by-night,” Eames says, chewing thoughtfully. “Your tourtière is better than my spaghetti, hmm.”

“Why do you always get spaghetti? You never like it as much as whatever I get,’ Arthur reminds him. “And the company is so fly-by-night. I was looking them up today and their official domain redirects to a site selling penis enlargement devices.”

“Well,” says Eames, “that’s only because their charming volunteer-run administration unfortunately let it expire, but they’re working on it, and ticket sales are going through the venue’s box office anyway.” He breaks off a bit of the tourtière’s crust and spears it on his fork, pops it in his mouth. “What is this, beef? Venison? I can’t remember what the server said.”

“Rabbit,” Arthur says.

“It is not,” Eames says, pausing.

Arthur smirks and arches a brow. “Deliciously quirky talking rabbit.”

“Rubbish,” says Eames. “And it’s a talking squirrel, anyway, in the opera. Not a rabbit.”

“Fine,” says Arthur, “but you’re still eating Thumper.”

Eames turns a bit of the ground meat out onto the tines of his fork and frowns at it. “Rabbit?” He shrugs one shoulder and takes another bite. “I had no idea Thumper was so tasty.”

Which is, naturally, the moment their server reappears. The poor guy has to stifle his laughter and pretend he overheard nothing as he tops up their wineglasses and checks that they’re happy with their meal thus far.

“I shouldn’t have too much,” says Arthur, swirling the wine in his glass just for the faintly childish pleasure of watching the way the legs cling and then trickle down. Eames is the wine enthusiast of the pair of them, though Arthur knows all the moves. “I have three hours of Carmina rehearsal in the morning.”

“You should absolutely have more,” Eames says, reaching across and nudging Arthur’s glass up towards his lips. “How else will you get through that nonsense?”

“I’m going to hate you when I’m hung over and listening to two hundred singers scream O Fortuna,” Arthur says, but drinks up anyway. He likes getting drunk with Eames, and they so rarely have the time. “You too,” he says with a nod. “Bibit omnes.”

“Bibunt,” Eames corrects him absently, “plural, darling.”

“Don’t be a smartass,” says Arthur, grinning anyway. “Fucking Eton prig. Drink, goddammit.”

“I do like it when you boss me around,” Eames concedes, and drinks.

Eames likes it when Arthur bosses him around; it’s especially true when they’re both a bit drunk.

“Stop squirming,” Arthur says, and delivers an open-palmed slap to the underside of Eames’ thigh. This does nothing to stop Eames from squirming, but it does make his thighs open a little more, make his cheeks flush brighter and his breath come shorter.

Je suis libre, libre, méchant et libre!” Eames proclaims, shameless as always.

“Okay,” says Arthur, “either you’re quoting that stupid libretto to piss me off or you’re actually just telling me you’re nasty and free, which — not really news, thanks — but either way,” and he finishes off with another slap to Eames’ pink skin, harder this time. Eames gasps and laughs and arches his hips, and Arthur needs to use his whole weight to pin Eames in place when he bends down and kisses it better, settles with Eames’ knees hooked over Arthur’s shoulders and Eames’ fingers twisting in Arthur’s hair.

And the way this thing works is that Arthur is rough with Eames because he knows that Eames — solid Eames, who outweighs Arthur by twenty pounds at least — he can take it. Eames lifts his hips up and braces himself on his muscular arms and grabs the headboard; and Arthur takes a hold of him and fucks the living hell out of him, slap-slap-slap-slam, hard and steady and merciless. Arthur’s got stamina on his side, runner’s lungs and pianist’s arms and his own god-given stubbornness. He fucks Eames within an inch of his life, really, Eames shaking with it and almost forgetting to breathe — “breathe, Eames, breathe, fuck” — and fucking Arthur back as well as he can from his angle.

That’s how it works, when they’re drunk and Arthur’s slapping Eames around a bit, when the mood strikes and they’re feeling reckless and unafraid and sure of each other. Usually Eames goes off like a fucking rocket near the end and Arthur follows, and they spend about three minutes giggling uncontrollably before Eames starts griping about his sore everything and Arthur makes some comment about getting out of the kitchen if he can’t stand the heat, and then they drag themselves apart and stumble to the shower because they’re rubbery-legged and exhausted but far too sweaty and shaky to imagine sleeping just yet.

“Breathe, breathe,” Arthur says, slowing up suddenly, reaching down and stroking a hand over Eames’ pink-hot cheek, his soft stubble. “Hey, breathe for me.”

Eames turns into the touch, eyes closed, lips pressing over Arthur’s palm, seeking. He exhales on a shudder and opens his eyes a bit, gasps in again sharply though Arthur’s holding perfectly still. “I’m fine,” he says, “don’t stop.”

“Mm,” says Arthur, disagreeing, shuffling towards Eames a bit and shifting one of his legs down so Arthur can lean in closer without pulling out entirely. “You know I can go easy, sometimes.”

“I like how you go hard,” Eames objects, turning his face back up for kisses anyway.

“Yeah,” Arthur says, and rolls his hips a few times. Shallow, this way, and slow and slick. Uneven because Arthur’s still rebalancing his weight on Eames’ hips, his own knees. “Did I hurt you?”

“Not nearly enough,” Eames says, smiling and kissing and letting go of the headboard so he can drag fingertips through Arthur’s hair. “At this rate I won’t even have bruises in the morning.”

Arthur nuzzles up against Eames’ neck and holds him steady, finding a new sweet pull-push between the clinging insides of Eames’ thighs, his slick asshole, his quick-panting belly. “Yusuf says I’m not the type to use pet names,” Arthur confesses into that safe quiet corner of Eames’ shoulder, behind his red-tipped ear.

“He’s not wrong,” Eames says, and shifts one hand down, squeezes Arthur’s ass cheek as Arthur rolls into him. “Oh, darling, there, that’s — oh. You’re lovely.”

“I use pet names,” Arthur says, lifting his head again and working into Eames in the lovely there spot. “Just — not often.”

“Use one now,” Eames says, “call me your bon enfant, ton ‘tit enfant sage, your good little boy.”

“If you keep quoting that fucking stupid opera at me, I’ll lose my boner,” Arthur says.

“You’ve such a poetic soul, my sweet Arthur,” Eames says, delighted.

Arthur pushes up on his hands and stares down at Eames, Eames’ grinning sweet face, his lovely bitten lips and the dewy bridge of his nose and the secret blond tips of his long lashes. His ashy-green eyes and the little creases at their corners, like Eames is always on the verge of laughing at a new joke. Arthur remembers, faintly, what it was like to fear Eames’ laughter, to worry about being Eames’ newest joke. It seems impossible now. “I could call you lots of names,” Arthur says, dipping down to dart a kiss against the curling margin of Eames’ mouth.

“Right,” says Eames, “and though your lips say ‘asshole’ your heart means ‘light of my world, love of my life’, it’s terribly romantic — oh, oh, Arthur, call me whatever you like if you’ll just keep — doing that, oh. There.”

Arthur reaches between them and gets Eames’ cock in hand, strokes him off easy and gentle while Eames goes wordless, straining, and then comes hot and slippery over Arthur’s fingers. “Hey, hey,” Arthur says, easing his weight down to trap Eames’ softening cock, his slick come, between them. “That’s it, I got you, babe.”

“I got you, babe,” Eames sings against Arthur’s mouth, and they both start laughing fitfully, drunkenly post- and pre-coital respectively, and a little silly with it. “That’s the best you can do? Sonny and Cher?”

“I’m fucking trying,” Arthur says, “and fuck you. Asshole.”

“Mm, that’s more like it,” Eames says. “My affectionate and eloquent husband, he of the silver tongue.”

“Sweetheart,” Arthur says, driving into Eames a little more now, chasing his own orgasm.

“No,” Eames says, “no, not sweetheart.”


“Only if your next words are ‘can you take a look at the sink disposal’,” Eames says, and gets a good grip on Arthur’s ass again, encouraging him.

“As if I’d let you touch the sink disposal,” Arthur says, “oh, god, yeah, yeah. Eames. Fuck.”

“I like ‘god’,” Eames says, “though I don’t think it’s a pet name, technically.”

Arthur half-laughs and then comes, kissing Eames sloppily and pressing to get as deep inside him as he can from this position. “Darling?”

“No, I called dibs on that ages ago,” Eames says, and kisses the tip of Arthur’s nose. “My darling boy.”

“Gorgeous,” Arthur says, trying it out.

“Accurate but oddly insincere sounding,” Eames says. “Listen, lovely Arthur, I don’t mind if you only ever call me terrible things so long as you bend me in two and make me see stars every so often. And let me bite those perfect ears. And put my fingers in your tight round little arse.”

“To have and to hold,” Arthur paraphrases. “And you tell me I’m the poetic one.” He eases back onto his hands and pulls out, taking a minute to appreciate the fucked-out sprawl of Eames under him because it’s not a sight he’s granted very frequently. “Muffin,” he says. “Pumpkin. Monkey.”

“Now you’re just saying words I use on the cat,” Eames says.

“Mr. Snugglebutt,” Arthur says. “Sir Purrs-a-lot.”

“The house recognizes the Right Honorable Lord Neville Furrypants-Smythe from Mousie-on-Tyne,” Eames says, fondly.

“Go to sleep, Mr. Eames,” Arthur says.

“In a minute, Mrs. Eames,” and Eames hauls Arthur back down to kiss him, warm and fond and thorough.

The next afternoon Eames catches a flight to Maryland, and that’s the last they’ll see of each other for a few weeks while Eames is wrapped up in rehearsals with the crappy fly-by-night opera company and Arthur’s busy with midterms, papers, coachings, lessons.

Eames has done some weird roles in his career, including a premiere of a new work by Cobb that required him to be half-naked in a body stocking on stage for most of the opera (which Eames didn’t mind in the least), and to have most of his tattoos painstakingly covered up with make-up every night (which Eames minded a lot, as it turned out.) For other roles Eames has been, variously: bald, bearded (terrible), ponytailed (worse yet), built like a fucking brick shithouse (amazing for sex, terrible for snoring), and heroin-chic-thin (amazing for snoring, disconcerting for sex). For one experimental production of Macbeth, Eames spent weeks in silver make-up like the Tin Man. Arthur’s still finding silvery streaks on Eames’ clothes months later.

This Ravel production, however, marks the first time Eames has appeared as either an animal or a timepiece on stage. He texts Arthur a half-dozen photos of himself with white ears, whiskers, with a broken pendulum and clock hands painted onto his face.

You look like an idiot off a children’s PBS show, Arthur says. He pauses, then appends with a second text: Sunshine.

You should see the teacups, answers Eames. Do I make you happy when skies are grey?

Of course you do, Arthur writes. Because you’re my boo.

No, that’s much worse, Eames says. Good lord, no.

Arthur can’t fly to every one of Eames’ premieres, even taking into account the huge numbers of frequent flier points Eames accrues. It’s not practical; it would be silly and time-consuming, chasing Eames from state to state, country to country, just for the fleeting pleasure of seeing Eames be brilliant and self-possessed and fawned over by every audience.

But for all that, Arthur knows perfectly well he can’t miss this particular premiere of Eames’ — not L’enfant, and not so close to home, and not when it’s the first time they’ve been apart since the wedding.

“Forgive yourself the indulgence of want,” Mal says, when Arthur confesses to having bought a flight to Baltimore for opening night. “You’re a newlywed.”

Arthur turns his wedding band on his finger, liking the way the metal slips warm against his skin. “I always want to be with him,” he says. “I got over that a long time ago. It’s not different just because of this thing.”

Mal tips her head to the side as she sits back in her chair, surveying Arthur in that uncomfortably astute way of hers.

“Yusuf wants me to get a new dehumidifier,” Arthur says. “My E5 was sticking and he said it’s because we had such a hot autumn. How long did it take before your Imperial stopped having all these new piano tics?”

“Two years, I think,” Mal says. “Did he take the key out and compress the felt or is he still just wiggling the guidepin?”

“I don’t want him taking the key out unless he has to,” Arthur says, “I just fucking got used to the weighting around that part of the register, it’ll screw it up again.”

“Hm,” says Mal, meaning that Arthur’s being petulant even though she let him change the subject without protest.

“I guess I could get a new dehumidifier,” Arthur says. “I checked the keyslip with a butter knife like three times, it’s not”— and he clears his throat, tries again. “Sometimes it seems like the more I give in to wanting him, the worse it gets. It’s this slippery slope.” He fidgets with his ring again, then pulls his hands apart and straightens up in his chair. “Did you want more coffee? I’m going to get a refill.”

Mal nods, silent, and nudges her empty mug towards him.

Liebchen, writes Arthur after three glasses of wine, the night before the premiere.

Oh, says Eames, getting warmer, I think.

Send me a photo of ur dick, Arthur responds.

Red hot, Eames says, and sends a photo.

Arthur’s got a good seat, which is only to be expected given Eames’ current rank in the opera world: he’s kind of a big deal, as he likes to say semi-mockingly whenever it comes up. Arthur’s seated on the orchestra level, not too close to the action but definitely in an acoustic sweet spot.

The stage is already set for the first half, which is L’heure espagnole, Ravel’s other one-act opera — less-beloved but also less bizarre than L’enfant et les sortilèges, which comprises the second half of the evening. L’heure’s got a baritone role, too; sometimes on a double-bill like this an opera company might ask one baritone to take it on in addition to the two small baritone roles in L’enfant, but this time they’ve secured someone local — and less expensive, no doubt. A discounted version of Eames’ current going rate is still a fairly high number, after all.

Arthur pages through his program and finds Eames’ bio, reads it idly though it’s the same one from Eames’ website.

“It’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland,” says someone sitting behind Arthur, obviously explaining to his date. “But with more Oedipal overtones, I guess.”

Arthur hides a grin behind his hand and slumps down slightly in his seat, trying to make himself unobtrusive as possible. He loves it when he has the chance to hear strangers talking about a program. There’s a strong and satisfying correlation, he’s found, between the arrogance of the speaker and the ignorance of their opinions.

“Have you seen Toy Story?” continues the guy behind Arthur. “It’s sort of — the kid’s bedroom comes to life and everything refuses to play with him because he’s been a dick to them.”

Which, actually — is pretty apt.

Arthur flips to the synopsis in the program and refreshes his memory. The plot — if it can be called that — is just as stupid and pointless as Arthur remembers. He will never ever understand Eames’ fascination with this story. Basically: Child throws tantrum and breaks his own shit; his anthropomorphized furniture and animals retaliate with Mean Girls-like shunning tactics; Child and his weirdly passive-aggressive Things have a battle. A squirrel takes a hit, Child kindly patches it up, and as a result the contents of the kid’s bedroom decree the Child redeemed. The boy goes home and —

“Mostly I’m just here because we’ll get to see this baritone, Charles Eames,” says the synopsis-guy-on-a-date. “Even if he spends most of his time on stage inside a papier-mâché clock.”

Amen to that, thinks Arthur, and then the lights are going down. The overture for the first opera begins.

They steal thirty seconds at intermission, Arthur trying to find a spot to stand that’s both out of the way of all the theatre techs and cast, and free of the ubiquitous fine layer of dust that seems to plague all backstage areas. Eames doesn’t seem concerned about either dust or being a nuisance, typically, just standing in the bluish half-light coming from the wings of the stage, grinning at Arthur. He’s alien in his stage make-up, dark lines around his eyes and cakey grease-paint everywhere else, hectic pink cheeks that are probably at least half due to the roasting temperature back here. He’s got a clock face drawn over the margins of his features and his hair is scraped back and trapped under a little peachy-stocking skull cap.

“I can’t kiss you or your face will be stuck at half nine, too,” Eames says, taking up Arthur’s hands instead. “Or rather, half three. Mirror image, I suppose.”

“So the cat mask just covers all of that?” Arthur asks, shuffling forward to avoid someone wearing a headset and barking swear words.

“Yeah, it — you’ll see,” Eames says, and grips Arthur’s fingers, wiggles his wedding band. “You need to tell me how the balance is in the ensemble bits, I’m afraid I’m singing out too much but Thomas keeps saying, no, more.”

“Sure,” Arthur says, “but I bet it’s fine. Everyone wants to hear you.”

“But I’m not meant to dominate the — yes, okay, yes,” and Eames drops Arthur’s hands and waves at the stage manager who’s busily trying to shepherd Eames to his place for the top of the show. “Yes, Gerry, I know — just”—

“I’ll find you after,” says Arthur. “Mon mimi.”

“Ha, well played,” Eames says, “but not really your style, even when I’m actually playing a cat.”

“Tesoro mio?” Arthur says.

“Just like Gomez Addams,” Eames says. “Off you go. Try not to groan aloud with torment, darling. There’ll be someone from the Sun arts section out there, we don’t want you tipping the scales unfairly.”

“Fucking L’enfant,” says Arthur, feelingly, and hurries off to reclaim his seat.

Arthur hunches down a little lower yet in his seat and tries not to scowl through the prelude. The mezzo playing the Child is well-cast, anyway — small-boned and elastic-limbed, believably a young boy rather than a grown woman. It’s far better than Boston’s Cherubino from their Nozze two seasons back, someone who’d been unfortunately stiff and imperious and completely unsuited to a pants role.

Eames starts off as the cat so the Child can pull his tail (god, Eames has a tail, this is idiotic) and then returns to the stage with an enormous clock body covering all of him barring his face, keeping still until it’s time to come to life and launch into his first aria.

Eames-the-Clock’s pendulum is broken and he’s frantic about it, having lost the means to fulfill his function. And of course Eames is good, Eames never shies away from throwing himself into a part, sacrificing part of his voice’s beauty and lyricism for the cause of communicating an emotion. Eames is also a natural comic, has the audience giggling around Arthur with the very first awkward waggle of his blocky body, taking the ridiculous limitations of the costume-meets-set-piece and using them to make himself laughable and then pitiable, staid and unsprung timekeeper with no sense of rhythm, dogmatic in spite of everything, bleating and blaring his little broken phrases like an unhinged fanfare.

And that’s it, that’s a good half of Eames’ role finished already.

Arthur settles back, having unthinkingly leaned towards the stage as he watched Eames. He’s resigned to sitting through the next few numbers until they hit Eames’ cat duet. It’s weird, Ravel’s orchestration. Certainly Ravel knew what he was doing, knew his way around the timbres of an orchestra — his famous Bolero was written by way of demonstration for his own orchestration students — but Arthur’s never been able to wrap his head around this work, the weird instrumentation and the almost bony sparseness of the arrangements. Arthur likes bassoon and oboe and clarinet too, but jesus — Ravel is obsessed with them in the opera.

But then there’s the Fire — and whoever phoned it in for Eames’ costume obviously spent a bit more time and energy here. The coloratura is lit up, literally, flashing and flickering as she sings her devilishly intricate melismas with amazing accuracy and yet such an easy casual virtuosity, threatening the Child with burns for his naughty behavior. Arthur’s so caught up in it that he misses the moment that Eames leaves the clock — next time he looks over, Eames’ face is gone and replaced with a cardboard version, the choir is singing, and a cat Eames is lounging with amazing insouciance against the oversized fauteuil, stroking his injured tail.

It’s all so — so stunningly pure. Arthur doesn’t know exactly where he gets carried along with the story — when the princess sings, and it’s like a bit of a half-remembered dream? — or when the Child answers with such honest yearning and sadness that Arthur can’t help but remember what it was to be a lonely boy? — or maybe it’s later, maybe not until Eames stretches and arches and utters that first horrifically nasal “miau”?

And it’s not like Arthur doesn’t know how repulsive Eames can sound as he snarls out yowls and hisses — he heard little else around the house in the few weeks before Eames left for Baltimore, just Eames carrying on horribly and Jeoffry darting out of the studio with flattened ears as though passing judgement on Eames’ accent and diction. Eames hissed and whined and purred until Arthur was ready to strangle him. Arthur’s well prepared for the sounds Eames is making now as he sings the duet onstage — what catches him off-guard is how fucking erotic Eames makes it. He curves and glides and loops his stockinged body around the mezzo-soprano playing the female cat, and for all the awful noises they’re making, Arthur finds himself actually blushing with confused interest because — Eames. God. On stage, Eames? In front of all these people? It’s not just sexy, it’s almost pornographic, somehow — even blurred through the fuzzy sweet lens of Ravel’s music and the childish storyline, it’s — it’s that gut-deep thrill of knowledge you have even as a child, that sense you get when you’ve seen something that’s too mature for you to understand. Arthur squirms and scowls and finally grins helplessly because — only Eames could do this, really. Fucking Eames.

Whether the cat duet was the turning point or if it came earlier, there’s no doubt that Arthur’s gone, he’s sold, from that moment onwards. He’s so enthralled that he doesn’t even care that Eames’ part is over now barring some ensemble numbers. Arthur’s borne away on the current of the story, the emotion of it — god, the sudden nostalgia of it as Arthur remembers the ecstatic self-involvement of childhood, the way you can ricochet between emotional extremes on the turn of a coin. It’s little wonder, really, that the opera speaks to Eames, Eames who had such an abbreviated and yet indulgent childhood, Eames who’s never quite left childhood behind anyway, who still turns into the regard and love of his grandmother like the petted spoiled little misunderstood boy he’s never stopped being to her.

The choir comes in after the Child bandages the Squirrel’s wound, swelling with the declaration of the Child’s essential goodness, and then the oboes return with the opening theme, and Arthur’s throat starts to clench. His stomach twists with sympathetic longing and homesickness, and he can’t stop looking over at where Eames is standing to one side of the set, his part finished. He’s still perfectly in character, of course, still feline and coy and distant, but Arthur feels like he can suddenly see through Eames’ black mask, can see past the pancake makeup and the clock hands and down to where some part of Eames is, like Arthur, desperate for the little Child to arrive safely home, to plunge gladly into the sanctuary of his mother’s oversized skirt.

And then, abruptly: Maman. The mezzo soprano has the last word, literally, and the music ends just like that, on a grateful soft childish cry of greeting. It’s impossible to know it from this distance, but Arthur looks at Eames and is absolutely certain Eames is looking back at him, steady and kind and knowing, and Arthur —

Arthur’s done.

He’s only dimly aware of coming to his feet with the rest of the audience, of the glad applause and the cries of bravo, the curtain call, the lovely and deserved upticks in applause for the Child, the Fire, and the visiting star baritone who’s now doffed his cat mask. Arthur claps until his hands go numb, and then collapses into his seat and lets the audience filter out around him while he tries to come to terms with a new world where he actually fucking gets this opera, where he suddenly adores it and all it stands for.

“Excuse me, I’m so sorry,” says someone, breaking in on Arthur’s confused reverie, “did you — I think this is yours?” and it’s the guy who was sitting behind Arthur, the Toy Story guy, and he’s got Arthur’s phone, which must have fallen out of his pocket when Arthur stood up to applaud. The screen’s lit up with a text notification — Eames, no doubt, directing Arthur to meet him at the opening night reception upstairs.

“Oh, yeah, thanks,” Arthur says, standing and taking the phone back. “Sorry, I must have”—

“You’re Arthur Goldberg, aren’t you?” asks the guy, whose date turns out to be a second guy. “I saw you in DC last summer at the Smithsonian, you did a program with Charles Eames? All Brahms, it was amazing.”

“Yeah,” says Arthur, flustered. “You were there? Wow, uh, thanks.”

“Well, big fan,” says the guy, shaking hands, grinning. “Give my regards to your husband. He was unbelievable tonight, too.”

“I will,” Arthur says, blushing stupidly with pleasure, hardly knowing if it’s from the unexpected compliment of being recognized or the giddy silly pleasure of hearing Eames referred to so casually as belonging to Arthur, god, how embarrassing. How fucking amazing, too. “Thanks. He’ll be glad to hear you enjoyed it.”

The text is indeed from Eames, but it’s summoning Arthur backstage rather than hurrying him to the reception. Arthur makes his way to the backstage entrance and slips in with a little wave at one of the theatre front-of-house staff, who’ve clearly been told to be on the lookout for him. It’s an old theatre and a cramped series of dressing rooms. Eames is sharing with the other male singers but they’re mostly dressed and cleared out already, obviously all under orders to hurry and make nice with the opera company’s top patrons. There’s just one guy — a tenor, Arthur thinks, who played the Teapot — and then there’s Eames, sitting in front of a make-up vanity sponging the last of the stage foundation off his face. His stocking cap is gone and he’s pulled his hair a little loose. He looks nearly normal from the neck up; from the neck down he’s still all cat, unfortunately. He catches the motion of Arthur’s reflection and beams at him in the mirror before turning around to greet him. “Darling,” he says, “you survived!”

“Holy fucking shit,” says Arthur helplessly, not sure how else to proceed. “Eames. That was — holy shit.”

Eames’ expression abruptly shifts from simple pleasure at seeing Arthur to unfettered excitement. “Really?”

“Fuck, yes,” Arthur says, as enthusiastically as he can. “Can you get me comps for tomorrow, too? There’s a matinee, isn’t there? And another evening show?”

“Course I can, of course,” Eames says, rising and moving in to embrace Arthur. The tenor clears his throat and waves awkwardly before hurrying out of the dressing room, not a moment too soon, because Eames is wearing the fucking cat leotard still and things are about to get a little graphic even with the modesty afforded by Eames’ dance belt. “No, no, there’s a loo,” Eames says, pulling away breathlessly, pushing Arthur’s wandering hands away, “come on, we have to be quick.”

It’s been a while since they fucked in a toilet stall, and Arthur’s never actually tried to undress anyone wearing dancewear before, but he’s got capable hands even if Eames has got the giggles. It’s the work of less than a minute to get Eames pinned up against a wobbly aluminum door, his leotard shoved down around his thighs and his hands clenched in Arthur’s hair. Eames tastes salty, smells worse, the way he’s been roasting under stage lights for nearly an hour and trapped inside lycra and plaster and god knows what else. Arthur doesn’t care, not for a second, he just palms Eames’ hips and swallows him down and feels like he’s the one with the broken pendulum now because he’s trapped in this weird headspace where he knows they have somewhere important to be, that they should have been there minutes ago, and yet he feels like he has all the time in the world so long as he can keep Eames’ cock in his mouth, Eames’ body under his hands.

“Jesus, you’re filthy,” Eames says appreciatively, apparently unbothered by any thoughts of time — no surprise there, Eames was born sans pendulum. “Yeah, that’s it, oh, Arthur — take it in.”

Arthur takes it in, dizzy and pleased and gorging himself on Eames, and after Eames comes down his throat Arthur staggers to his feet and Eames jerks him off fast and neat, lets Arthur come all up Eames’ flat naked belly, wet and rude and explicit.

“Was it the cats? You’ve come over all jealous?” Eames asks, balling up toilet paper and cleaning himself up.

“No, it wasn’t the cats,” Arthur says, struggling for words and not finding any. “I mean, that was disgusting, don’t get me wrong. I was half expecting that mezzo to pop out a litter of kittens by the time you were through.”

“Marianne’s a lovely girl,” Eames says, “it’s been delightful, pawing her over for the sake of my art.”

“But it wasn’t that,” Arthur says, ignoring this bait. “It was — I just, I think — I need to see it again.” He fastens his belt and flushes the toilet. “Stay put, I’ll bring your clothes, just tell me where they are.”

“If you think it would be the first time I’ve walked round this place with my cock out, you’ve a very poor idea of how one gets into a dance belt,” Eames says, following Arthur out of the stall stark naked, his leotard and tights and underthings balled up in his arms. “Besides, there’s no one around.”

“I don’t get theatre people,” Arthur says, electing to ignore Eames’ nudism in favor of washing his hands at the sink, fixing his hair in the mirror. “They’re called boundaries.”

“You just sucked me off in the toilet,” Eames says pointedly and loudly, back in the main dressing room now.

“Yeah, well,” Arthur says, “we’re married, so.” He looks okay, he thinks — a bit red around the mouth but otherwise normal.

Eames comes back over to the row of sinks, now wearing dress pants and an undershirt, pulling on a button-down striped shirt as he goes. “So we are,” he says, and holds up his left hand, showing Arthur that he’s donned his wedding band. “Shall we?”

“Oh,” says Arthur, remembering. “Some guy in the audience said you were great. He was at the Brahms recital at the Smithsonian over the summer.”

“Some guy?” repeats Eames, smirking, because he gets compliments all the damn time, he gets recognized in the streets. “That’s nice, hmm?” He buttons his shirt and holds out his hand, drops his set of horrible tacky piano cufflinks into Arthur’s cupped palm. “Would you?”

Arthur grabs Eames by the wrist and folds his cuff back, pops one link through the starched holes. “You know, you could forego these stupid things now,” he says. “You have much nicer jewelry from me, official-type stuff.”

“I like them,” Eames says, as ever. “They remind me of my darling boy.”

Arthur turns Eames’ hand over so it’s palm down, tugs at the fastened cuff, and reaches for his other hand. His throat’s gone all tight again with Eames’ words, Arthur’s reliving those last breathless sweet moments of the opera, trapped by a welling sense of tenderness and protectiveness and affection for Eames. Eames, the lost little boy longing for his mother, and Eames the smirking nudist, and Eames who’s peering at Arthur with gentle concern now.

Arthur finishes fastening the second cufflink with efficient motions and drops Eames’ wrist, but just as quickly finds himself reaching out and stroking a hand over Eames’ face, his jaw, the soft place just behind his ear. “I’m glad I came to see it,” he says. He ducks in for a kiss, stays close as he murmurs, “You were so good, baby.”

Eames leans into Arthur’s palm and smiles, gentle and fond. “Yes,” he says, “that’s — yes. You can keep that one.”

Arthur grins back, relieved. “Liebchen,” he says, “mimi. Sweetheart. Amore.” He curls his fingers, thumbs the tender short hairs at the nape of Eames’ neck. “Mon ‘tit enfant sage.

“Just take the E5 out,” Arthur says, when he has Yusuf over again the next week. “You’re going to have to compress the felt, it keeps sticking.”

“You know it’ll change the key action a little,” Yusuf warns, surprised. “Probably the keys around it, too.”

“It’s fine,” says Arthur. “I’ll get used to it all over again if I have to.”