Because everything starts in media res: Arthur reaches for a bag of the store brand peas and Eames says "Fancy meeting you here, darling," like it really is fancy, like they haven't been chancing across each other all along. Their eyes meet in the reflection of the frosted-over freezer glass, another layer of distance to be splayed haphazardly across the oceans and mountains and countries they keep building between them, and Eames is smiling at him. He looks hangdog, scared, like he knows his own mind and regrets it. Arthur is sorry and not sorry and lost.
"Goddamnit, Eames," he says.
They fuck in Eames' apartment near the Thames, which Arthur remembers as being brighter and warmer than it actually is, feeling more like someone's home. Eames is as filthy as he's always been but somehow softer too, running his hands down Arthur's sides and whispering expletives into his skin like promises. Eames always calls Arthur by his name when they're like this, by his name and nothing else, because for everything about him that's false he's a person, too. Arthur has let himself forget that. Arthur has wanted to forget that.
"I can't," Arthur says, later, when Eames offers him the cold side of the pillow.
"I can't," he repeats, because he can't, not again, and Eames nods like the world is ending and lets him go.
"It wouldn't have to be anything serious," Eames whispers against his neck. He's got his hand in Arthur's pants, cool palm curled around Arthur's cock, like a balm in the East India heat. Arthur feels like he has been sweating for years.
"There's no it to talk about," Arthur murmurs, and if his voice is tender, if he sounds like someone who means I love you, asshole and nothing less, he can trust Eames not to call him on it.
Only he can't trust Eames (he can never trust Eames), and so just when his vision is beginning to go white-hot around the edges Eames says "There was once," and Arthur comes just from that, just from hearing Eames finally, finally admit to it, all the wanting and the stupid pining and the let's-not-go-there-darling.
"This is your fault," Arthur reminds him, and tries to ignore the pain in his eyes, the voice in his own heart saying your fault now when he goes.
What had happened, see, is that Arthur had let himself take it too seriously, and it had gotten out of hand. They'd always fucked, all the time, everywhere, in a thousand places, but suddenly they were both in London for six months and it just was, in a way it hadn't been before. Arthur got to know his way around Eames' apartment. Arthur got to know his way around Eames' life.
And then it was over, Eames' bags packed for another job, platitudes spilling from between his lips like loose change and Arthur had made an idiot of himself.
"I could come with you," he'd said. It wasn't much, but it was more than Arthur was supposed to give, more that Arthur had ever given, and it's not like panic is a hard expression to read even if you've got no imagination at all.
"I'll never grow up," Eames had warned, sounding almost sad about it, and then Arthur had made an even bigger idiot out of himself and punched him in the face.
"Oh," was all he'd said, touching a hand to his split lip, but Arthur had stormed past him and into the rain and tried to forget, and forget, and forget.
"It's a cup of coffee," Eames says. "It's not going to bite."
"Isn't it?" But Arthur takes the damned thing and god, god, why does Eames have to remember stupid shit like this, like how many fucking sugars and the way Arthur likes his toast, why does he have to make it so hard.
"I could fix this," Eames says suddenly, softly, "if you'd give me the chance."
Arthur curls his hands around the cup and looks around; cold warehouse walls and dirty lawnchairs and machines that eke the reality out of you, piece by aching piece. And what he wants to say is fuck you, but he knows that's just an impulse, all these years training himself to be someone that, perhaps, he's not.
"I give you chances all the time," he says, and Eames smiles.
Because everything that's wrong with humanity is also wrong with Arthur: Saito's bleeding out and the whole job is hanging by a thread and all Arthur can think about is what's going to happen to him if Eames dies down there, if Eames gets trapped and never comes up. Because then it'll just be Arthur and Arthur's guilt, tangled together in too many countries, whispering "what if" to each other like it's all they can say. What if you hadn't said anything the night he left and what if you'd let him try again and what if you hadn't pulled and pulled and pulled away--
--and then Eames, on his back, meets his eyes.
"Security's going to run you down hard," he murmurs, and Jesus Christ, it's like looking in a fucking mirror. Eames' eyes are narrowed and scared and suddenly Arthur's hands are shaking, just a little, slight tremors that he'll just have to ignore.
"And I will lead them on a merry chase," he responds, and if he's giddy on something other than adrenaline, maybe he really can trust Eames not to call him on it.
Eames gives him that look, the one Arthur had met in London and gotten to know everywhere else, the one that says "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Except that when he opens his mouth to speak his tone is wrong, more exhausted than maybe he intends it, cut by fear and worry and the tight smile painted across his too-full lips.
"Just be back before the kick," he says, but he means "I love you, asshole."
Later, Arthur's not all that surprised when the gravity falls out from under him.
"It is what it is," Eames had said the first time, shrugging his coat off. "It doesn't have to be anything else."
And that was enough for Arthur the first time, the eighth time, the twenty-third time, fucking Eames in dark dreamscape alleys and darker real-life hidey-holes, chasing each other across the globe like dogs on the hunt. It was what it was and nothing else, only sometimes Eames looked at him like he really meant to look at him and then Arthur was at a loss.
He'd sucked at the whorls of Eames' fingertips in a roach-infested hostel in Venice, tasting nicotine and sweat and terrible curry while Eames laughed at him, looked at him with soft eyes. And he'd said all kinds of things, because he could when nothing had to be anything, when Eames was licking a map on his spine in long, low strokes, like a blanket draped over Arthur's thinner shoulders.
And what Arthur has let himself remember is the wrong things, the panic in his eyes because he'd never done this, the way he'd been apologizing from the start. And what Arthur has let himself forget is the right things, Eames pressing his fingertips too hard into Arthur's collarbone, the way he had imagined the prints lingering there, rough and yellowed and tasting of terrible curry, long after he was gone.
Arthur storms up to the apartment and it's pissing down rain and except for everything (different country different year different Arthur different Eames) it could be the night they left each other. Because that's how Arthur has to think of it, now--Eames left but Arthur let him leave, let himself fall into hiding as quickly as he'd fallen into something else entirely.
"I could come with you," he'd said, but he hadn't really meant it. People willing to follow are willing to wait, too, are willing to open their mouths and say something, are willing to work past the panic in someone's eyes.
Eames opens the door like he already knows who it is and they're kissing fiercely, feral and stupid and raw, before Arthur can say any of the things he's meant to for far too long. And this is a language too--he and Eames have been sending codes in it for years--but sometimes you have to swallow your pride and take a fucking step.
"I love you," Eames says, because he always steals Arthur's moments.
"Fuck you," Arthur snaps, "I was going to say that," but he fists Eames' t-shirt between his longer fingers anyway, doesn't bother learning to let go.