Arthur has always been a whiz at math, and for the longest time his equation was: him + getting out of town = a good thing. It was, he knew, the requisite dream of every bored boy growing up in Blake's Peak, Pennsylvania, population 9,101 according to the latest town census. That number bothers Arthur both in a mathematical sense and a metaphorical one. That the number wasn't rounded to a neat 9,100 makes no sense to him, and that his mother used to tell him that it was because he was the extra one tacked on, that he was so special no one could bear to leave him out... well, his mother's been dead for nineteen years, and the number is still messy and infuriating.
Arthur left Blake's Peak three months after he graduated from high school. The car that he drove was crammed to exploding with boxes of his clothes and books. His grandfather, who raised him after his parents died, lifted a hand in vague farewell and said something Arthur didn't quite catch, mostly because Arthur wasn't listening. Arthur made sure his car was full of gas, and when he ran out somewhere in Massachusetts, he filled it up again, eyes fixed on the skyline like it was going to bring him his prize.
If TV Guide is to be believed, high school was supposed to have been the most exciting and, by implication, the most melodramatic time of his life. He was supposed to have knocked someone up, become a football star, be branded a slut, joined a glee club, not necessarily in that order. For Arthur, this didn't exactly happen. High school was as unremarkable as middle school, which was worse than elementary school because at least in elementary school they'd gotten to use crayons and have recess. Arthur doesn't have any particularly negative memories of high school. He wasn't popular but he wasn't bullied, he didn't have a lot of friends but he had a few that mattered, and he worked hard to get the good grades that'd push him out of town and into a world where people did more on Saturday night than go to the park and smoke pot.
In New York City, armed with his accounting degree, he'd made a new life for himself. Maybe it wasn't the life he had dreamed about when he was sixteen and doodling numbers into his notebook, but if Arthur held it up as a measuring stick against Blake's Peak, population 9,101, he knew which one came out on top every time. Apartment, check. Decent coffee, check. Dates with people whose soiled Batman underwear he didn't see in preschool, check.
But try to explain that to the economy. Try to explain that to his grandfather's failing heart.
Which is how, at age thirty-one, with a car crammed to exploding with boxes of his clothes and books, and with the gas tank running on half-empty, Arthur goes back to Blake's Peak.
His grandfather's house, the house he grew up in, is full of skeletons. Literally so. His grandfather had collected animal skeletons, of birds mostly, and they hang from the ceiling and the walls as Arthur tries to make coffee and a shove some toast down his throat at six a.m. It's a hop skip dance that Arthur has perfected to avoid getting a nose full of dead beak. His grandfather was a man who hated change, so all the truly worrisome skeletons, the ones that are likely to be bumped into when Arthur is fumbling about in the morning, are located in places that Arthur's body remembers. It's just sensory memory at this point to angle left instead of right, to duck at the doorway to the kitchen, to never go into the study.
It's true, Arthur could throw the skeletons out. His grandfather's dead and it's Arthur's house now. But Arthur doesn't change a thing, because it may be his on paper and in law, but it's not really and it has never been. Arthur plans to sell the house and move back to New York the moment someone in the city answers one of his resumes and says, yes, we'd like to hire you. Can you come in Monday?
Arthur waits for that call. He waits for it on Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday; and Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at that.
In the meantime, there's his grandfather's grocery store to manage, which is how Arthur pays the bills and lives up to the family name. Stein and Son, says the big red sign that was repainted last March after years of neglect. Arthur is there when it opens, and he's there when Yusuf trudges in and starts going through the list of shipments expected to come in that day. Yusuf has been Arthur's friend since they were eight years old, and while Arthur will never understand Yusuf's lack of desire to leave Blake's Peak, he appreciates him nonetheless, especially because Yusuf actually knows how to run the store. All Arthur knows about Stein and Son is from watching his grandfather, which is to say, as little as possible.
"Your job is just to stand there and look pretty, especially at the busy hours," Yusuf says cheerfully as he goes through the list with his pencil.
Arthur scoffs, but Yusuf does have a point. Arthur has become the superstar of the cash register and the magnetic swipe. Elderly ladies and harried soccer moms love Arthur, and they'll linger in the express line even though they have more than sixteen items.
Arthur doesn't need to do it. As the owner, it's his luxury to just sit in his office and make paper airplanes all day. However, Arthur hates feeling useless while Yusuf manages the store. At least working the cash register gives his hands something to do. He watches the prices go by on the screen methodically, and he punches in his codes perfectly, and it's not exactly what he went to college for and what he studied all those long hours of high school for, but it's work. It's more than what New York can offer him right now, what with the downsizing of his old employer.
There are days, though, when he hates it, when he can't bear the thought of rolling out of bed and driving that familiar distance that brings him right back to where he started, in his grandfather's store, coming from his grandfather' house. His grandfather whose eyes went cold when Arthur told him he maybe liked boys as well as girls. His grandfather who refused to speak to him except to ask when he was leaving.
Blake's Peak is full of ghosts, and Arthur is deathly afraid of becoming one of them.
There's one good thing Arthur will acknowledge about coming back to his hometown. Everybody knows that you don't need to drive in New York City, but Arthur loves driving. He loves taking to the back roads as the sun goes down and everything washes out to smooth, milky shadows. Then it's just him and the trees, him and his low headlights, him and the music on the radio. Driving helps Arthur think, and it gives his hands the sort of instinctual routine that he appreciates best. Lately though, he's been taking to the road in other ways as well.
If you'd asked anybody in high school, even Yusuf, whether Arthur would become a biker, the answer would have been no. Arthur was too straightforward to have any wild fantasies, his teachers would have said. Arthur's too boring, you mean, his classmates would have added. But returning to Blake's Peak has proved them wrong, because Arthur has a new 2011 Kawasaki Ninja 250R and the license to ride it.
It's a sleek piece of Japanese machinery, and the guy at the dealer at the dealer -- tattooed, friendly, endlessly informative -- had suggested it as a great beginner's bike. While Arthur flinches at the prospect of being called an amateur at anything, he doesn't exactly relish the prospect of wiping out in front of the entire town because he doesn't have enough experience. So the Ninja is good for him, small and compact without looking wimpy, and responsive to the touch.
He takes it out every evening when the weather is nice, and he rides for miles on the roads leading out of Blake's Peak. He stops at a roadside diner about twenty miles west where he orders a soup and salad, and then when the sky is dark, he rides back.
This is his routine. This is what grounds him. The feel of the motorcycle thrumming between his thighs, the easy grip of the handlebars, the cool air prickling the back of Arthur's neck where his helmet exposes his scalp.
And then there is Eames.
An apple, two oranges, and a jumbo box of condoms.
"Morning," Eames says gruffly, his voice thick with the filmy weight of 6 a.m existence.
"Hey," Arthur replies, punching in the product code for the apples. It's kind of a sign of how far he's come that the sight of Eames no longer fills his stomach with teenage awkwardness, though maybe he has to reconsider the last bit when Eames opens his eyes wider, as if finally waking up, and deigns to smirk at him from the corner of his mouth. Arthur doesn't smile back, but he does nod, and he takes the twenty dollar bill from Eames without letting their fingers touch.
Professionalism in all things, he thinks, and the bill is warm, as if it's been crumpled in Eames' pocket for a long time.
"Are you the only one on the cash register today?" Eames asks, looking around at the four empty lanes beside Arthur's.
Arthur throws Eames' things into a bag and hands it to him. "Yusuf's in the back and Takahashi is shelving," he says. "I don't know where the hell Nash went off to, but I'm sure he'll turn up in an hour or so, drunk out of his mind."
Eames snorts. "If he were my employee, I'd have fired him long time ago."
"My grandfather liked him," Arthur shrugs.
"Not to speak ill of the dead, but your grandfather had shit taste." Eames' eyes settle on Arthur, thoughtful. It's this particular quality of Eames that unnerved Arthur so in high school when Eames came during sophomore year as an exchange student from England that never quite went away. The first time Arthur met Eames, nearly walking into him in the changerooms when they had the same gym period, he'd remembered that stare first, like Eames was trying to size him up. The intensity of the look has only increased over the years, settled into something adult and meaningful.
Arthur raises his eyebrows. "Here's your receipt," he says, sliding it over.
"Right. Thanks," Eames says, stuffing it back into his pockets where Arthur imagines there is an entire colony of bills, phone numbers, and bits of candy. "See you around, Arthur. You've got to let me check out that new bike of yours sometime. A Kawasaki, right?"
"Yeah," Arthur says. Eames owns a small garage over on South Street, in the part of town Arthur almost never wanders into. It makes sense that he would. Eames was always the best at shop class when they were young. He'd heft the spare parts and do the wiring without any instruction from the teacher. There would be a joy on his face while he worked, a real sort of joy, uncontaminated by the slipperiness of his constant smirks. Arthur may not have been a people person, much less at sixteen than he is at thirty-one, but even then he recognized the joy.
Or, he acknowledges, given a couple hours' worth of staring at Eames every day, it'd be hard not to.
Eames lifts two fingers in farewell as he saunters away with his bag, and Arthur tries not to think about why he needed a jumbo box of condoms. Jumbo, really, like there are that many decent people in Blake's Peak to fuck. Or just one that's worth it.
Arthur takes a day off work to travel back to New York. He has a job interview for an accountant position at a mid-sized tech company, and the room where they interview him is painted blue and yellow, long stripes of it that he finds slightly nauseating even as he forces himself to smile and chuckle and to laugh appreciatively at the appropriate pauses. Arthur's good at turning on the charm. It's a gift that he inherited from his mother, or so everybody says, and when he smooths it over his voice, no one can tell that he's really a mess of anger inside, uncomfortably deranged.
Arthur returns to Blake's Peak at two in the morning, getting off the bus with his tie crumpled and his legs cramped. He rides his bike back to his grandfather's house, walks past the skeletons, and tumbles into bed.
He needs to clean his sheets, he thinks as he sniffs them. There's a whole list of things he needs to do. He needs to pay the utilities, he needs to call up his aunt Griselda to see if she'll take some of the family heirlooms off his hands, he needs to finish sending out the next batch of resumes, he needs to make plans to sell the house.
Instead he falls asleep with his legs tucked up against his chest and his hair caught between his cheek and pillow, so that when he wakes up there's a telltale crinkle in his skin, and his hair is a total fucking mess, sticking up everywhere. Arthur spends half an hour with a bottle of gel in the bathroom, and when he goes to run his fingers through his hair for the fifteenth time, making sure he looks decent, he notices the cockroaches.
"Oh fuck me," Arthur groans.
It's an old house, and bits of it are rotting everywhere. There's mice in the basement and an ant colony in the storage closet, and now there are cockroaches in the bathroom and god knows where else. Arthur's grandfather collected dictionaries as well as skeletons -- in fact, Arthur's grandfather collected pretty much everything and that's why the house is so full of junk -- so Arthur takes a hardcover copy of the OED and slams it down on the first cockroach he sees. The second and third skitter away, startled by the noise. Arthur thinks about how furious his grandfather would be at the blatant abuse of language and learning, at the affront to all things literary, and Arthur feels only a dry, fleeting sense of satisfaction.
He calls the exterminator on his way to work.
He doesn't have time to eat breakfast.
"Arthur, seriously, when was the last time you had fun?" Ariadne says when he shows up at the party to celebrate her and Yusuf's second anniversary. "You're getting these lines on your forehead, and also you're scaring the children." She reaches out to touch his forehead and he groans.
"I know, Ari, I know."
"We could go putt putt golfing. You like that."
"I do like putt putt golfing," Arthur admits. "But we'd have to go into the city. Which, actually, might be the best thing we could ever do."
"Is Blake's Peak really that horrible?" Ariadne asks, and Arthur doesn't know how to tell her in a way that she'll understand. Ariadne, who dated Arthur briefly during junior year, who went with him as friends to prom, who laughed and stuck leaves in his hair when he said he was going to live life as big as he could. The same Ariadne who looked at Yusuf one day after their final exams and realized that she'd been in love all along. Ariadne works in the mayor's office now where everybody knows she's going to succeed Saito when he retires, and she and Yusuf are happy, so happy.
Yusuf emerges from the kitchen, triumphant. "I found the alcohol!" he declares, and Ariadne rolls her eyes because they're in for it now. Yusuf and alcohol are an unholy combination, and everybody at the party will be drunk for weeks.
As Arthur takes his first swig of Yusuf's rum concoction, the doorbell rings. "That must be Eames," Ariadne says, and Arthur chokes down the alcohol inelegantly.
"You invited Eames?"
"Don't sound so shocked. He doesn't bite." She pauses. "Well, okay, so I did hear about that one time with him and Tommy Greyson, but it was just a rumour, and Tommy walked around the next day totally blissed out."
"Tommy?" Arthur echoes, remembering the best-looking guy in their graduating class. "Wait, wait, back up. I didn't even know you were friends with Eames."
"You miss a lot when you're swanning around in the big city," Ariadne replies, swatting him on the head as she goes to the door. When she returns, Eames follows her with a big bottle of Jack Daniel's, and his smile broadens when he sees Arthur sprawled out on the couch with one of Ariadne and Yusuf's cats scratching up his leg.
"Lucky cat," Eames says.
Arthur blinks up at him. "Sorry, did you want to molest my leg as well?" he says, while inside he thinks Eames doesn't bite? Fuck, I bet he does.
Eames sits down beside Arthur, passing the Jack Daniel's to an appreciative Yusuf. He drums his fingers on his jean-clad thighs, and Arthur sees a patch of motor oil on the stretch of Eames' leg. Or, he hopes that's motor oil. He jerks his eyes up when Eames laughs softly. "Something of interest, Arthur?" he muses, and yeah, Arthur can see why Tommy Greyson would let Eames bite him anywhere he'd like.
Arthur finishes the rest of Yusuf's drink. He drops the empty cup onto the coffee table. "So how are you?" he asks. "Haven't seen you at the store lately." He narrows his eyes at Eames. "Unless you've decided to go to the big chains, in which case, fuck you."
"Mmm," Eames says, leaning back. He spread his knees and Arthur can see how muscular his thighs are. "Been busy at the garage. Surviving on takeout mostly."
Minutes pass. Arthur looks at the ceiling, at the floor, at Yusuf and Ariadne slow-dancing and giggling over each other's words, as cute as cute can be.
"We do deliveries," Arthur finally says.
"Do you." Eames replies without a beat, as if he's been holding those two words in his mouth all along, and then he's laughing again. "I'd like that."
"I don't even know where you live," Arthur says. He can feel the drink kicking in but he's not as drunk he as needs to be in order to talk to Eames. Eames the Mercurial, the Stranger from Abroad, the Mystery of Rosa Parks High. He rubs his hands over his eyes, and then he goes still as Eames takes a pen that's lying on the coffee table and grabs Arthur's hand. Eames uncaps the pen between his teeth. He touches the pen to Arthur's palm, smiling to himself before writing in bold, smooth strokes.
"That's my address," he says when he finishes. His fingers slide up Arthur's wrist, up to his exposed bit of arm where Arthur has his sleeves rolled up. He glides the pen over the skin there. "And that's my phone number."
"Okay." Arthur's voice comes out muted, croaky. He clears his throat and tries to sound like an adult again. "I'll get in touch with you."
"It's not that hard," Eames says agreeably. "It is a very small town."
The trees bend under the insistence of the wind, and the cold spring rain slants in the direction of Arthur's face, splattering his helmet and his line of vision as he rides westward. It's the kind of weather that keeps most people inside, even the drivers, but Arthur loves the rain and he loves the kick of the water underneath his bike's wheels. His grip is less than perfect because of the water that's coating his gloves, but he doesn't feel any fear. It's just peace, long and expressive, and he takes the turn around the corner with the three stacked rocks more recklessly than he should have.
He reaches the gas station by the time the sky gets dark, and he's striding inside and taking off his helmet, shaking his wet, messy hair, when he sees Eames paying for a coffee.
Arthur walks past him. He goes to the fridges and picks out a bottle of root beer. He takes it to the counter where Eames is chatting with the clerk, sipping his coffee and laughing so that his Adam's apple bobs. "Hey Arthur," he says when Arthur opens his wallet pay for the root beer. "You never called me."
"That's strange," Arthur says. "I put you on the list of deliveries. Yusuf should have given you a call."
"Yes, and that's why I wrote my number all over Yusuf's arm."
Arthur knows he's being deliberately obtuse. He knows that Eames is flirting with him, that this is the sort of casual interest that might lead to sweaty sex above Eames' garage or a quick grope in the staff area. However, if there is one trait that Arthur has inherited from his grandfather, it's that he is cautious. He doesn't make the same mistakes twice. Eames burned him once, and Arthur can forgive it -- forgive it the way anyone forgives stupid high school mistakes, looked back upon with a blurry photographic ache -- but he doesn't forget the pressure of Eames' hand on his forearm, pulling him in for a desperate kiss. Except, as it turned out, the desperation was all on Arthur's part.
There's no use being bitter. So what if Eames wasn't lit from the inside by that one kiss? So what if Eames didn't spend the rest of their senior year panting after Arthur and carrying his books in the hall? High school crushes are always incredibly stupid, and besides, it wouldn't have worked anyway. Arthur always meant to leave for college, and Eames always meant to stay behind and open his shop, servicing the mechanical needs of Blake's Peak, population 9,101.
Arthur doesn't fucking care.
Save for those moments when he does.
"Are you heading back to town?" Eames asks, and when Arthur finally beats about to a reluctant yes, he goes on. "Do you want to ride together then? I'd love to see how your girl runs."
"You know I find it incredibly obnoxious when people refer to their vehicles as women," Arthur says.
"You find breathing obnoxious," Eames points out, and he follows Arthur out into the rain to where he's parked his bike. "It's blue," he says with surprise, and Arthur feels the need to defend the honour of his colour choice, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with blue or any choice that isn't the stereotypical black or red. But Eames doesn't sound mocking. It's as if he's actually delighted. "Ah, bloody hell, I should have guessed. You always did like to give everyone the big fat finger."
"It's illuminating, truly, what you think of me," Arthur says. He watches a drop of rain slide down Eames' nose and onto his lips. He looks away and starts up his bike. "Get on yours and let's go."
Riding beside someone on a motorcycle is nothing like riding with someone in a car. For one, conversation is nearly impossible when they're zooming along at a hundred miles an hour. So Arthur and Eames don't talk as they navigate the network of highways and smaller roads back towards Blake's Peak, but that doesn't mean that Arthur forgets Eames is there. It's impossible not to when there is a flash of Eames' sleek black Ducati every time Arthur glances to his right, or when Arthur can hear the roar of Eames' engine, breaking the silence of a rapidly cooling April night.
Eames' leather jacket is tight over his shoulders, Arthur can't help but observe, and the moment he realizes where his thoughts are heading is the moment he decides to slow down a bit. He doesn't need to be home any time soon, and he's already soaked so there's no need to escape the rain. Eames doesn't need to be told of the change; he slows down to match Arthur's pace. They ride back into the borders of town together, and Eames actually rides with Arthur right up to his grandfather's house, even though Eames lives on the other side of town and this is nowhere near his route home. "Night," Eames says when Arthur dismounts. His voice is low and cheery, like this has been some sort of date.
"Stop sticking everything into your pockets," Arthur says in reply. "Get a fucking wallet."
"Arthur," Eames says.
Arthur turns around at the door. He softens into a smile. It's difficult not to, with the rain and the stretch of leather over Eames' shoulders and the expression on Eames' face, patient. This could be a movie, filmed in sepia and silence, where everything moves slowly and everyone has a reason. Arthur can't help but be moved. "Good night, Eames," he replies. "Have a safe ride back." He lifts two fingers in farewell and hears Eames' laugh.
There's one message on his answering machine. It's from Ariadne, wondering if she left her favourite scarf at his place the other day. Arthur calls her back to say that he hasn't seen it, sorry, and then he erases her message. There's nothing to replace it.
After some deliberation, he picks up his phone and makes a long distance call. "Hi, this is Arthur Stein. I applied and was interviewed for the position in the accounting department at your company two weeks ago. I was wondering if I could get any sort of update on the consideration process," he says.
"Oh, sir, we've already made our hire," said the woman on the other end, brisk and friendly. "But we appreciate your application."
"I see," Arthur says slowly.
That night, he warms up the leftover gnocchi from the deli at Stein and Son. He really should learn how to be a better cook, he thinks, as his current repertoire consists mostly of pasta, salads, and hastily thrown together sandwiches. But in New York City there was always plenty of cheap food to be found elsewhere, and the one of the perks of owning a grocery store with a deli is that he gets to take home whatever no one buys. Arthur takes the gnocchi to the TV and spends the rest of the evening watching game shows and feeling righteously vindictive when people miss the easy questions on Jeopardy!
When he looks up, Eames is peering at him from his window.
"Holy Jesus fuck," Arthur says, reeling backwards. He walks over and opens the door. "You fucking creep," he adds, and Eames, to his credit, does look sheepish as he steps inside.
"Your doorbell is broken," he says. "And I was trying to knock but apparently you were so outraged by Alex Trebek that you didn't hear."
"I wasn't expecting any visitors," Arthur says. No one visits him aside from Ariadne and occasionally Yusuf. Or the exterminator along with his grandfather's creditors, but he has the latter mostly sorted out these days. Eames lingers in the doorway and Arthur stares at him until he realizes that oh, Eames really does have some sort of gentlemanly pretension after all. "You can come inside," Arthur tells him, heading back to the living room where Jeopardy! has been replaced by Wheel of Fortune and Vanna White's bare shoulders. He settles back onto the couch underneath his blanket and cradles his gnocchi on his lap.
"This is..." Eames blinks. "This is quaint."
"I didn't know you were expecting otherwise," Arthur says, "from a grocery store cashier."
"Ariadne did warn me that you have a stick up your arse about that," Eames says. He sits on the couch across from Arthur and for some reason Arthur glances down at his socks, which are, absurdly, pink. "They were on sale," Eames says airily when he notices Arthur's attention. "The blokes at the bar like them. At least, that's what they tell me before they put my dick in their mouth."
"Thank you for that," Arthur deadpans.
"No problem, love," Eames says. "I figure what with the history between us, there's no need for awkwardness, hmm?"
There aren't many instances when Arthur wishes he had been in town, but he does wish he'd been around for the year Eames declared that he was, without a doubt, a flaming homosexual, and proceeded to snog every interested male on the eastern seaboard. It'd caused quite the uproar, apparently, and Arthur wishes he could have seen the look on his grandfather's face when he realized that the Eames boy he always told Arthur he should be more like -- outgoing, popular, on the football team -- was actually quite an unapologetic lover of cock.
"What's so funny?" Eames wonders.
"God, nothing," Arthur says, but he shakes anyway. "Why are you even here? Because of our... history?"
"Actually I'm here to ask if you want to run away with me," Eames says.
"I have a pair of friends. Dom and Mal. They're getting married in California in three weeks."
"Give them my congratulations," Arthur interrupts.
"Don't be snide," Eames chastises. "They live in New York but they want to do something big and grand before their wedding, and since they're both bikers like us--" and here Arthur feels an involuntary spasm of pleasure at being considered a part of this group, being included in that nebulous pronoun 'us' -- "they're planning on a road trip. I thought I'd tag along." Eames tilts his head and looks at Arthur. "I thought you might like to tag along too."
"First of all, why would you want to tag along with a married couple's last swing at adventure?" Arthur says. "That just screams third wheel. Also, pathetic."
"I know, and that's why I'm asking you to come," Eames says. "As for why I want to go on the trip... I have my reasons." He smiles brilliantly. "If you're very nice to me, I might even tell you."
"You got someone pregnant, didn't you," Arthur says, "and now you're trying to run away."
"I'm gay, Arthur."
"I wouldn't put it past you anyway," Arthur says.
Eames ignores the accusation of being an evil impregnator of gay men. "Hey, if you don't want to come, you can say so. I just thought you could use a break. Ariadne and I have been chatting, and she says you're turning into a basket case the longer you stay in Blake's Peak. I thought I'd be doing you a favour."
Arthur makes a fleeting gesture. "We don't even know each other that well, so why would I be excited at the idea of vacationing with you and a bunch of your leather and chain friends?"
"Mal and Dom aren't leather and chain," Eames protests. "Not that you even know what that means anyway, Arthur, what with your buttoned polo shirts and your scented satsuma lotion, Christ. And sure, we might not talk a lot these days, but I don't know if you've hit your head on that huge rock they call New York and forgot, because we used to. We used to be friends," he adds, and Arthur goes quiet.
He doesn't have much in Blake's Peak, but it's more than he has anywhere else.
It makes Arthur feel bleak, at times, knowing that what he had in New York is by now a smudge of a fingerprint on his old apartment wall, fading more day by day. It was once his entire life, that city, that spot on the map, and he misses it with a grief that catches him with its sharp edges. That was home for him, and Blake's Peak is not. The thing about home is that it's not what people say. Home isn't something you carry with you from place to place. It's something that you leave behind and never recover.
If the plan was to go east, he would say yes. Yes, always yes. It wouldn't require a second thought. Arthur would hit the gas and drive without pause. But Eames is heading west like a pioneer looking for a promised homestead, and there is nothing for Arthur out west. Even in Blake's Peak he has a house, has friends, has a reliable source of cash. He has roads that he has memorized, radio stations that he has fixed his player permanently to. Out west there is only --
That Eames had considered him a friend comes as a surprise to Arthur, because he didn't see them as anything approaching friends during high school. They were friendly with each other, sure, and they sat beside each other during both English and history class where the cramped size of the classroom meant their legs would occasionally brush when they were trying to get out of their seats at the same time. They would talk sometimes, about their weekend, about the latest movie they'd seen, typical guy chat, and Eames would help Arthur during shop class if ever he saw that Arthur didn't know what he was doing -- Arthur's fascination with cars and bikes came later in life. But they were never friends, because Eames had always been like a number that Arthur couldn't quite touch, a part of the graph that Arthur crept towards like an asymptote but never reached. Not even that night when they were at one of Tommy Greyson's parties, and Eames had kissed Arthur in the pool when no one was looking.
It'd been Arthur's first kiss, and they'd rubbed together with only the flimsy material of their swimming trunks keeping their skin apart. Or, no, Eames hadn't been wearing swimming trunks at all. Eames had jumped into the pool in his jeans, and the rough material had scratched Arthur all over, so that the next day Arthur woke up with red marks all over his thighs and a goofy smile on his face that faded when Eames treated him the same way he always did in class, which is to say, as if nothing had fucking happened.
Now thirteen years too late Eames is saying, come west with me, and Arthur wants to punch him for being completely, utterly absurd.
But the trees bend under the weight of the rain, and his grandfather's house contains nothing but wounded quiet when Arthur treads through the halls.
Stein and Son can do without him. Yusuf has got it covered. His grandfather's affairs can be put on hold. Arthur's already wrangled the complicated parts out with the lawyers. He has money saved up in the bank, and as owner of a business more comes in every day just because he has a share in the enterprise and, oh god. Arthur thinks about it, then tries not to think about it, and he finally works himself up into a state of restless panic as he paces past the skeletons and the ruined dictionaries and the Styrofoam containers thrown all over the kitchen.
Thirteen years too late it is Arthur's turn to take a chance and make the dive. He bangs on Eames' door at four in the morning, chest tight with the fear that he didn't do this quickly enough. It's still raining, and Arthur's coat cost five hundred dollars and is no way waterproof, but Eames answers the door in his boxers. "What the hell?" he says. "Arthur, do you not own a clock?"
"If the offer is still open," Arthur says, "I'd like to take you up on it." His hair is soaked, pressed flat to his temples, and he has everything that matters to him in a backpack that clashes garishly with his coat, which hurts him a bit inside, but Eames just looks at the backpack, at the coat, at him, and smiles.
"Come back in three hours," he says.
"What? I'm here, I'm ready, I'm all packed." Arthur looks at Eames and his infuriating smile. "Come on, you are going to invite me in and let me nap on your couch at the very least."
"Only if you make breakfast before we go," Eames says.
"Only if you want to suffer a gastrointestinal tragedy," Arthur replies.
"It's like you never left," Eames says admiringly as he opens the door to let Arthur in.
The road at twilight.
Arthur's hands are cold inside of his gloves and his fingers clutch the handlebars stiffly, but Eames is beside him in his leather jacket and his thick, scruffy boots. The rain is letting up and everything smells not like earth but like wet, damp leaves, turned over with the chemical residue of the nearby glue factory. The sun is coming out in sharp, blushing slivers. Arthur breathes in as he and Eames zoom quietly along Route 78 that takes them further from Blake's Peak with every passing minute. There aren't too many drivers or riders out at this hour, especially not in the middle of nowhere. It creates an eerie sensation where the road stretches and elongates, pushing insistently against the flat line of the goldening horizon. Arthur feels like nothing else quite exists but the pressure of his breath in his chest, and the sight of Eames ahead of him.
They ride for an hour or so in silence, but then Eames pulls to the side of the road suddenly. Arthur pulls over beside him, putting his foot on the ground for balance as he keeps his engine running. Eames removes his helmet to peer at Arthur and ask, "You holding up okay?"
Arthur may not be an experienced biker but he's not some kind of princess with a pea.
"You were the one to say it, not me," Eames says brightly.
"What does that even mean?" Arthur grumbles. He has a worn watch on his left wrist. It once belonged to his father and was one of the few items recovered from the wreckage. He looks at it now and sees that it's approaching eight o'clock. Almost time for his regular pick-me-up-and-make-me-alive coffee. He had forgotten to take this into consideration: on the road, you don't get to control coffee breaks. Coffee breaks control you. "Let's keep on moving," he adds. "Aren't we supposed to meet your friends in the next town over?"
"They'll show up absolutely late," Eames says. "Don't worry. Dom and Mal couldn’t make it to a meetup on time even if you were handing out bullion bars."
Arthur gives him a wondering look.
"You'll like them, I think. Mal especially. She'll eat you up, just you wait," Eames says. He clearly isn't suffering from any caffeine withdrawal. Maybe, Arthur thinks sourly, because he got to sleep the last few hours on a comfortable bed while Arthur huddled on the ugly old couch with the springs poking into his back. He swears he saw that couch at Mrs. Patterson's garage sale when he was sixteen.
Eames slides his helmet back on. "Well, as long as you aren't tiring yourself out and your arse isn't too sore, we'll continue."
"Please keep your thoughts way from my ass," Arthur replies, but he doesn't really mean it, and he's smirking a bit of his own as he gets back on his bike. Eames kicks off first – he knows the way. Arthur follows him back onto the road.
Around ten o'clock, they stop at a McDonald's for breakfast. Eames orders a coffee and two Egg McMuffins. Arthur orders a coffee and, after staring at the menu plaintively, a salad. Eames rolls his eyes when he sees Arthur's food come out on the tray, but Arthur shrugs. Just because they're on the road with limited options doesn't mean he has to start eating junk all the time. They find a booth in the back, next to two parents trying to coax their children to open their sleepy eyes and eat. Arthur spares them a brief glance while Eames tucks into his food unabashedly. Arthur sips his coffee and stretches out the cramps in his legs.
"Be right back," Eames says after he's finished eating. "Bathroom break."
Arthur waves his hand airily. "I imagine we're going to be quite familiar with each other's bathroom break routines by the end of this."
"Why, Arthur, that's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me," Eames quips, and his elbow sees fit to brush against Arthur as he slides out of the booth.
When Eames is gone, Arthur lets himself have a moment of anxiety. What the fuck is he doing here again. Is this really a good idea? He checks his cell phone and sends a quick message to Yusuf, and when it's sent he thinks where the message is traveling and about how he's not that far from Blake's Peak. He could turn around and go back now – any further and it might be difficult. But then Eames is coming back from the washroom with his hair in disarray and his shirt buttoned wrong, and Arthur sighs to himself. He's made his decision already. No point in being wishy-washy about it now, and besides, what would he do with all the travel-sized toiletries he stuffed his backpack with? And the GPS he bought from the home improvement store just in case things go wrong? Might as well put them to good use.
"Ready to go?" Eames asks. Arthur's going to get tired of Eames' constant precious concern by the end of this. He can tell that much already. But he stands and throws his napkins onto the table.
"Let's go," he says.
Dom and Mal are waiting for them in a town called Brighton, about an hour west of their breakfast stop. They're parked in front of a convenience store with an erratically flickering neon sign, and between them they have a huge red Yamaha with an equally huge passenger sidecar. Mal grins when she sees Eames and Arthur pull in. Arthur peers at her curiously and blinks again when he realizes that she's noticeably pregnant.
"One last adventure, I said," Eames murmurs into Arthur's ear when they brake. "Before the wedding and the baby comes along and they're forced to settle down. Not that I don't suspect they'll just put their baby where their bags are and ride for hell anyway, but don't tell them I said that."
"Hi," Dom says. He walks over and shakes Arthur's hand. "I'm Dom Cobb."
"I am Mal," says Mal in a light French accent. She leans over to kiss Arthur on each cheek. He doesn't see it coming and there's an awkward exchange of limbs and shuffling, though more awkward on his part than Mal's, who takes it in graciously. There were a few women who greeted with stylish cheek kisses when he worked in New York, but suffice to say, no one does it in Blake's Peak where the occasion to meet new people and want to impress them is distressingly rare. A grunt is good enough for most of the people Arthur knows.
Mal, though. Mal smells like oil and salt and sweat, and Arthur can see the love in Dom's eyes as he looks at her.
"It's good to meet you," Arthur says truthfully, and Mal's face breaks into a sly smile.
"It's good of you to come along. Eames would be quite unbearable otherwise," she says, and Eames starts to protest, but she cuts him off lightly. "Don't deny it, my dear. You would be trawling the bars at night for company and then coming back and weeping into my shoulder about how there are no good boys left in this country. Quite, quite terrible."
"Does that mean Arthur is a good boy?" Dom asks frankly, and Arthur can feel the heat at the back of his neck.
"Oi, that's enough," Eames says. "We've got three weeks till the wedding. Let me keep some of my mystery, you two."
"Eames, there are times when I wish you all the mystery in the world," Mal replies. "Especially when it pertains to your dirty socks thrown all around my hotel room. But come, it's getting cold again. I want the road to warm me up."
Arthur looks at Eames, Dom, and Mal, and thinks that there's a story there, possibly a good one. He wants to ask how they met, but Mal is already antsy and Dom is checking their supplies for the last time, sliding a hand over Mal's stomach protectively when she leans over to ask if he's remembered to pack her bon bons. They're an open, easy couple, and Arthur can see why Eames would get along with them. Maybe it's a requisite of being a biker, that you're supposed to be terminally friendly and relaxed. If so, Arthur's got a long way to go.
He snorts to himself as he slides his helmet back onto his head. He finds Eames smiling at him. "What?" he asks. "Do I have food on my face?" He swipes a hand over his mouth to check. Damn that salad. He'd thought it was a safe choice.
"No, it's your hair. You've got helmet hair," Eames says.
"So do you," Arthur points out.
"Yes, but you're Arthur," Eames replies. "I don't think I've ever seen you with less than perfectly gelled accountant hair." Except that one time in the pool, he doesn't say, and Arthur flicks Eames an impatient look as he climbs onto his bike.
"I'm not an accountant anymore," he says.
They stop for the night at town so small that Arthur doesn't even catch the name on the sign in the darkness. There's one motel in the town, and Dom and Mal pay for a room while Eames looks at Arthur and says, "Want to share? It's cheaper that way."
"Sure," Arthur says, though he hasn't shared a room with anyone since college. Even his romantic encounters in New York never stayed the night, which is rather telling now that he thinks about it – he hasn't had a real boyfriend or girlfriend, ever. Arthur, this is your mid-life crisis, he thinks as he takes the key card from the desk clerk and finds the room on the second floor. Dom and Mal are giggling about something between the two of them, and Mal gives Eames and Arthur a beatific smile before Dom gropes her and they disappear into their room, presumably to have passionate, in-love sex. Arthur is not jealous, not at all.
Arthur calls first dibs on the shower. Eames lets him have it without argument. He flops bonelessly on his bed without even taking off his boots. He starts flipping through the TV channels as Arthur arranges his towels and travel-sized toiletries with a sense of satisfaction. "Out of curiosity, how many changes of clothes did you bring?" Eames asks. "And how many of them cost more than Mal's engagement ring?"
"I'll have you know that I brought a t-shirt too. Two of them," Arthur says.
"You were always the best dressed boy at school," Eames says. "No one was surprised that you turned out queer, by the way."
"One has nothing to do with the other," Arthur says, "and that's funny because you are much queerer than I am, and no one suspected at all."
"Amusing, isn't it?" Eames agrees, and Arthur gathers his shower prep into his arms and heads into the bathroom. He closes the door behind him with a nudge of his foot. He can hear the TV blaring as he strips out of his clothes, punctuated by Eames' occasional laugh as he flips through sitcom reruns. Arthur lets that laugh roll off his skin as he turns on the shower, waits for the water to warm up, and steps inside.
It feels blissful. Arthur can put up with a lot of dirtiness. It wasn't like he was living on Park Avenue in New York, and his grandfather's house does have a cockroach problem, not to mention an ant problem and a rat problem, but he doesn't like the feeling of dirt on him. He washes the dust of the road out of his skin and hair, lathering himself generously, and then he just stands there for a while, soaking in the heat and the steam until his fingers start wrinkling and there's silence from the other room.
Eames is injecting himself with a needle when Arthur steps out.
"What is that?" Arthur asks very evenly.
"Oh, didn't I tell you? I'm a junkie. The whole goal of this road trip is so I can shoot up in as many states as I can, and then sell you for tricks when I run out of money." Eames delivers the line with a military-precise straight face. He pushes the rest of the needle's liquid inside. Then he removes it from his arm and aims the empty plastic into the garbage can. He doesn't miss.
"Eames," Arthur says.
"Relax," Eames replies. "It's insulin."
Arthur lets his breath settle around him. "You're – diabetic?" he asks.
"Type one, recently diagnosed."
Arthur doesn't know what to say to that, so he doesn't say anything. It's Eames' business, not his own. Just because they're travel companions doesn't mean Arthur gets to pry, and there's a hard glint in Eames' face that makes him less than eager to do so anyway.
"We met Eames at an orgy," Mal says.
Arthur takes pride in the fact that he doesn't even bat an eyelash. Two days on the road and he's already slipping into the lifestyle of sin and damnation that his grandfather used to rage about. Hell yes.
Eames interrupts. "Correction, it was only sort of an orgy."
"How can an orgy be only a sort of orgy?" Arthur asks him. The four of them are sitting at a roadside dinner in Maryland, one of those ubiquitous linchpins of patriotic Americana, and they're playing Taylor Swift over the radio while the waitresses serve them pancakes bigger than their lungs.
"It is if Dom clams up at the last minute and won't let me fuck him," Eames says matter-of-factly. Arthur glances at Dom, who just looks exasperated, and then at Mal, who seems to be on the verge of bubbling over with laughter. There's a small mountain of demolished pancakes in front of her -- the victory spoils of a pregnant woman. Okay, Arthur thinks, and relaxes into it. "He was already in love with Mal then, but just wouldn't admit it," Eames says.
"Oh, no doubt," Mal says.
"This is a gross misinterpretation of my character," Dom says.
"He was insanely jealous of me at first," Eames says easily. "Because I got the charm and the moves, and all poor Dom was left with was the strut and the electric iron. But it worked out in the end, I daresay."
"When was this?" Arthur asks. "Because if you tell me there are sort of orgies going on at Blake's Peak, I might have to cry foul."
"I was on a business trip," Eames says. "Picking up some specialty parts for the garage. Business and pleasure as it turned out." He smiles filthily, and there's a moment when Arthur looks at Mal's pregnant stomach with suspicion, but this too is one of those subjects he doesn't ask about, not yet. It's a long road and he's barely got one foot out the door. There are pieces of the puzzle that are starting to fall together though, about this and other things, and he now understands why their stops for meal time are clockwork regular, why even wild, wild bikers keep to a schedule.
"What do you do for a living?" Arthur asks Mal and Dom.
"Dream, mostly," Mal says.
"Try to keep Eames from getting every STD under the sun," Dom says.
"I mean--" Arthur catches the sentence between his teeth. He swallows it down. "I mean, that sounds great," he finishes. Mal smiles at him and then steals his last pancake while Eames gives him a look that says, See, you're learning.
--- he runs
----- he hits the ground running.
If they're going to talk about dreams, this is the one he thinks of first. He wasn't one of the jocks in high school, not like Eames who wore the school letter on his jacket and was a wide receiver on the football team. It's strange, now that Arthur thinks about it, because Eames is English and American football isn't exactly popular where Eames is from. But that's Eames for you, always adaptable, always willing to try something new, and Arthur used to see him on the field during practice as Arthur walked from school to his part-time job at the copy centre. Arthur never had any particular desire to play sports, and he wasn't much for organized team activities, but he did like to run.
His feet on the pavement, the sweat stinging his skin, the burn of his muscles. He stopped jogging in college after he discovered the gym and he never jogged in public in New York because he didn't like the crowds, but he never stopped having the dreams.
He wakes up from one of them, his heart beating a scar against his ribcage. The sheets stick to his skin. He can hear the sound of water hitting the motel window pane. It's raining again.
He looks over at Eames.
Eames, as expected, is not a discreet sleeper. He's loud. He snores. He tosses and turns. He scratches himself. Yet Arthur stares at him anyway, at the splay of his palm over his bare belly, at the low dip of the blankets around his nips, at his tattoos. Jesus Christ, his tattoos. Eames has them all over his chest, swirls and designs that Arthur only gets the opportunity to study like this, in the middle of the night, because Eames covers them up during the day. Covers them up with his leather jacket, which is not so bad, but Arthur prefers him like this.
The slight parting of Eames' lips does something familiar to Arthur, and Christ, it's really like he's in high school again because he used to watch Eames put that mouth on everything -- wrap it around his pen during math class, lick it during lunch in the cafeteria, press it into a mischievous grin at his lockers. Arthur used to have embarrassing reactions to that mouth then, and he does again now.
"Fuck," he says quietly, breathes it into the dark. Eames is a heavy sleeper in addition to being an obnoxious one, so Arthur slides a hand underneath his blankets and prays for the best.
Wrapping a hand around his cock feels delicious, but keeping his eyes on Eames as he sleeps makes it even better. Arthur knows that he's doing something illicit, and it's like his body comes alive with the knowledge. His cock jerks and his balls get larger. He tries to be ashamed about it but he can't bring himself to care when he can see a glimpse of Eames' tongue and Eames murmurs something in a low rasp that Arthur knows would feel amazing against his skin if Eames were to whisper filthy secrets as they fucked.
Arthur works himself with one hand, slowly, methodically. He doesn't take his eyes off Eames the entire time. He thinks about their one kiss all those years ago, and what that truly disgustingly gorgeous mouth had felt like on his. Then he thinks about what that mouth would feel like on other parts of his body, what that mouth would feel like sucking Arthur off, and Arthur's rhythm falters.
He turns his body so that it presses against the bed and he uses the friction of it to bring himself off, snapping his hips sharply against the sheets, once, twice, before his body swells with tension and he comes. He tries to keep it quiet but he lets out a little gasp despite his best efforts, a strangled staccato of his breath. Eames makes an answering noise, and Arthur comes harder because of it, shaking and trembling, spilling all over.
He looks at Eames.
Thank god, Arthur thinks, and this is the part where embarrassment hits him because he's lying in a wet spot now and his hands are covered with his own jizz. He's too old for this shit, and for the stumble to the bathroom where he washes his hands and wipes his thighs with tissues.
He crawls back into bed and scoots over to the left, avoiding the wet spot. He anticipates spending the rest of the night staring at the ceiling and simmering in sexual frustration, but actually he falls asleep pretty easily. When he wakes up, Eames is giving himself another insulin shot. He glances up at Arthur when Arthur stirs. His lashes are thick with sleep. Lazy. Languid. Eames never gives away more of himself than he has to, which is why Arthur always feels like he's stealing bits and pieces from him, furtive.
"Sleep well?" he asks.
"Perfectly," Arthur replies, and it's a good thing he's such a talented liar because he doesn't know how he'll make it through this trip otherwise.
They're in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the air is hanging with mist when Mal puts her hand on his shoulder and says, "Arthur, I have a mission for you, should you choose to accept it."
"Sure," Arthur says. "As long as it doesn't involve me running over anyone."
"That is for later, when Dom forgets where he put the map again," Mal informs him. Then she grins with her perfect white teeth, though there is a chip in the front that Arthur notices after a while. "No, this is just you and me. We are going on a snack raid."
Arthur doesn't know much about pregnant women but he does know about this. "Without those two?" he asks, jerking his head towards Eames and Dom, who are bent over their bikes in examination. Charlottesville is a good place to restock on supplies, and also Dom's bike has been making an awkward noise in the engine. Eames is prodding it, trying to see what's wrong, but mostly he's just laughing at Dom's frustration. Arthur turns back to Mal. "Wait, what am I talking about. Of course if we want to get anything done, we should do it without those two."
"Precisely," she says. "Dom is a dear but he's always on about how I need to eat healthy in my delicate condition." She makes a face. "And poor Eames has to watch his blood sugar all the time. I don't want to taunt him with the massive amounts of chocolate I'm going to buy."
"Massive?" Arthur asks, smiling.
"They'll be able to see it from the moon," Mal says solemnly. She takes his hand and starts dragging him away.
"Hey, where are you going?" Dom calls.
"Don't worry your attractive yet oddly shaped head about it!" Mal says, and she pulls Arthur towards her and Dom's bike with the sidecar. "Here are the keys," she says, throwing them at Arthur as she climbs into the sidecar. Arthur feels a stab of apprehension at driving somebody's else bike with a pregnant woman under his care, but then he revs his engine and reminds himself that this is Charlottesville, Virginia. Not the Autobahn. He takes the streets carefully though, which makes Mal laughs into his ear and say, "Arthur, you really are a doll. No wonder Eames is so crazy about you."
"Eames is crazy about anyone with an operational penis," Arthur says as they find a parking space in front of Food Lion. Mal makes another face at him like she feels sorry for his brain, either that or she smells something funny on him -- which could be true, because Arthur did dare to use one of the motel's soaps this morning and regrets it already. But she lets the topic go, especially when they enter the store and she heads immediately for the candy aisle.
It is a lot of candy.
Arthur, however, is intelligent enough to know when to keep his mouth shut, and he offers to pay for some of the candy as a gesture of new friendship, but Mal waves him off. "I made a killing on the stock market," she says matter-of-factly, and they're barely in the parking lot before she's ripping into a package of Lindors. "Here you go," she says, handing Arthur a blue-wrapped piece from the assortment. "This one's stracciatella."
Arthur eats it. There's cocoa pieces in the white chocolate shell.
Mal sits down on the curb.
"Uh," says Arthur.
"Join me," she says, patting the spot beside her. Arthur eyes it warily -- there's a suspicious patch of dirt -- but he ends up sitting a clean two feet from Mal, watching as she finishes the package of Lindors and starts opening her licorice. She gives him three pieces, and Arthur remembers how his father used to bring back licorice from the store whenever he thought Arthur deserved a treat. It's a faded memory; he recalls the details of the licorice more than he recalls the details of his father's face. But the sense memory is still there, the memory of a long ago happiness, and as it settles into his stomach, he relaxes. He flicks a pebble away with his foot, and eats the candy alongside Mal.
The mist begins to clear, and he can see Mal's face in the emerging sunlight; how amused she is, how at peace. Arthur respects her already, and it's a grudging act, extending his respect when he's so used to holding away.
"What do you want to see on this trip?" he asks her, fiddling with the last wrapper before Mal starts sweeping them aside. "I don't even know the route we're taking to California, not really. Eames won't let me near a map."
"Eames doesn't even have a map," Mal says. "He leads by his head. Which admittedly means he gets lost most of the time and ends up in burlesque clubs with most of his clothes gone and lime wedges stuck in strange orifices." Her smile shows a lot of teeth. "But that's sort of the way Dom and I like it too."
"So there's no fixed route," Arthur says.
"Why? Do you need one?"
"Well, no, but there's got to be some spots you want to visit. Things you want to see," Arthur replies. "You don't want to be in the middle of Kansas when you realized there was something you wanted in Kentucky."
Mal considers his suggestion. "I do want to see the World's Largest Pecan in Brunswick, Missouri," she says at last. "I have always had a weakness for huge, huge nuts." Arthur gives her his coolest, most disbelieving stare, the one Yusuf calls his accountant stare because it's backed with the accumulated experience of fixing people's dodgy accounts and saying, through the force of his eyes, I know how you spend your money and I am not impressed. He manages to hold it for ten seconds before Mal adds, thoughtfully, "So I wonder why I married Dom" and hands him the ball of wrappers to throw away.
"If you get to see the World's Largest Pecan, then I want to see the World's Largest Ball of String," Arthur says. "Also in Missouri."
"Deal," says Mal.
They shake on it.
Arthur may not know where they're going, but he knows on average how long it'll take them to get there. He watches the progression of signs on the road: 40 Miles to Roanoke, 10 Miles to Bluefield, 12 Miles to Abingdon. If there is no map -- which he doesn't quite believe, because come on, traveling without a map is just stupid -- Arthur can practice his own brand of cartography, looking down at his speedometer and calculating how long it'll take for them to arrive at whatever town the road will take them through next.
They cross over the border to Kentucky during the silent hours, twenty minutes after Mal wakes them up in their Motel Six, and says, hushed and feverish and somewhat enigmatic, "Boys, let's ride. Now." Arthur has quickly realized that Mal is the de facto leader of their fearsome foursome. This trip was her idea, borne out of her pre-marriage and pre-child restlessness. Dom confessed to Arthur yesterday, when they were getting breakfast, that he would've been perfectly happy lazing around their Boston apartment and then taking a plane to California. But it was Mal who got hungry; it's Mal who's afraid to be chained down.
Arthur's beginning to suspect, though he'll never say out loud, that it might not be the smooth marriage everyone pretends it'll be. Mal and Dom love each other, that much is clear, but spending time with them on the road when there is little privacy and everyone's secrets are hinted at, he notices the squabbles over little things, like whose turn it was to buy the toothpaste, and the silent tension over the larger issue, like how much time Dom spends at work and not at home. They try not to fight in front of Arthur and Eames, and Mal will always smile in her typically sophisticated Gallic way, but there are times when her smile is less a foreign mystery and more like a bludgeon.
Arthur keeps his mouth shut. It's awkward when Mal and Dom fight, but he doesn't talk about it with Eames. He doesn't gossip. His grandfather used to punish him whenever he complained about their classmates or neighbours. Arthur's learned his lessons.
They cross over to Kentucky at the same time the light does, and Arthur can feel it sharp and prickling against the back of his eyelids. They hadn't even bothered to grab coffee before they left -- Mal keeps promising they'll do it in Kentucky -- but Arthur's body is slowly getting used to these pre-dawn hours. It's different on a bike anyway. It's easy when you're driving to fall asleep behind the wheel, cushioned by the seats and the perfect insular temperature, but on a bike with the relentless hiss of the air all around you and the vibration of the engine beneath you, it's hard to feel anything but electrically alive.
At age thirty-one, Arthur is finally learning to be a morning person.
Manchester, Kentucky is the City of Hope, or so says the sign that greets them. When they stop for lunch, Arthur buys a postcard and scribbles a brief Hi, hope you're well on the back of it. He goes to the post office down the street and sends it to Yusuf and Ariadne. He considers sending a few more postcards to his New York friends, but then realizes that he doesn't remember their addresses and hasn't talked to them much since moving to Blake's Peak. His own fault, he's sure; Arthur has a reputation for churlishness when he's unhappy.
He pays for postage, and then he takes out his cell phone and calls Yusuf.
"How's the store?" Arthur asks immediately.
Yusuf hums. He's cooking on the other end; it's his day off work. "How's Eames?"
"He's fine. We're fine." Arthur ducks into the shadow of a store entrance because Eames is coming out of the post office looking around for him. "Tell me all about the continued saga of the wilting cabbage."
"I could write entire books about the problems we have with wilting cabbage. I think Nash is using the produce section for nefarious sexual purposes," Yusuf says. "But not for your ears, buddy. You're supposed to be on vacation."
"Though Mrs. Berger is very sad that her groceries won't be swiped by your sensuous hands anymore," Yusuf continues, and Arthur laughs. They talk a bit more before he hangs up.
Eames finally sees him and bounds over. "Who are you calling?" he asks while Arthur pockets his cell phone.
"Checking in on work," Arthur explains.
"Do you have all the numbers on that phone backed up?" Eames wonders. He has a mustard stain on his collar, which should not be as attractive as it is, but Arthur's always had an unholy weakness for mustard. The hot dog stands of New York City were his constant nemeses. He steels himself and leans back on his heels.
"Of course I do."
"Of course," Eames repeats. "You're Anal Arthur. Why did I even bother to ask?" Arthur has a moment of rueful nostalgia when he remembers that old nickname certain members of the football team bestowed upon him. He slows down. Then he jerks into motion when Eames grabs the cell phone from his pocket and delivers an underhanded serve into the oncoming traffic. Arthur moves to stop him, driven mostly by reflex, but it's too late. A blue Toyota Prius runs his phone flat.
"Sorry," says Eames, the bastard.
"I'm going to slit your throat while you sleep," Arthur promises.
"You shouldn't have brought your work with you," Eames says. "Honey sweetheart, you know how that upsets me."
Arthur resists the urge to push Eames into the oncoming traffic. "I'm armed and dangerous," he warns.
Eames laughs in his face.
"I am," Arthur repeats, but then Eames hooks his fingers into Arthur's belt and drags him towards the diner where Mal and Dom are waiting for them. Arthur shuts up. Eames' fingers are a warm, flirtatious pressure that he can feel even through his jeans, and also they're in public where people are staring, but Arthur can't bring himself to care. Let them stare. They're far from a place where anybody would even know who they are, and the anonymity is liberating.
Eames disappears into the men's room after they order, and Arthur knows that he's giving himself an insulin shot. He looks over at Mal and Dom, who surely know too, but the expressions on their faces are impassive. Mal is scribbling something into her napkin that looks suspiciously like Bellard's formula for finding the nth digit of pi in base 2. Dom is staring at the spotted ceiling.
Arthur sits back and waits for the food to arrive.
They do their laundry at Albany, population 2,200. It's such a small town that Arthur is surprised they even have a laundromat, but Dom finds one tucked in a lonely street, where the owner is just as surprised to see them as they are to see her. Mal and Dom leave their loads with Arthur and Eames, going off to run other errands. There's no one else in the laundromat once the owner ducks out for a sandwich. It's nice, really. Arthur starts digging his dirty clothes out of his backpack and piling them into the washing machine.
"Do you have a quarter?" he asks absently, and Eames reaches into his pockets -- those fucking pockets -- and pulls out an entire roll.
"You are one step away from being a bank robber and I think I like it," Arthur says, feeding the quarters into the machine. He normally doesn't like taking money from other people, but this time it's only fair that Eames covers the cost of Arthur's laundry since he is, whether he knows it or not, responsible for the dirtying of at least half of Arthur's underwear. Arthur hates himself a little bit for it, for falling into the same dead end rhythms that he did as a teenager. He was good enough about learning his grandfather's lessons; why can't he learn this one? But it's different when he's shamefully jerking himself off under the covers of their motel room than when he's standing with Eames in the bright, dusty laundromat and he can see the golden whisper of Eames' eyelashes.
Arthur clears his throat.
After Eames finishing turning on the washing machine, he jumps up and sits on top of it. Arthur does the same, and it's actually a familiar feeling to any biker, the rumbling. Or rather, the vibrations, and a dirty thought enters his mind that he didn't want to think about it all. But once it's there, he can't get it out. He looks at Eames from beneath narrowed eyes, thinking about how if this whole thing was different, how he would seduce him. If they were strangers in New York, if this was a New York laundromat and he happened to catch a glimpse of this tousled, golden-lashed mechanic hunk, how would Arthur begin to lure him into bed?
A smile, first of all. An inane conversation topic that Arthur happens to be brilliant at. A touch of the wrist, followed by a slide of the fingers. Mrs. Berger was right. Arthur has fantastic fingers. And, once the man showed signs of being interested, a direct proposition. Arthur has always been straightforward about his seductions, which isn't to say that he's rude about them. At least, he hopes he's not. But he doesn't see the point of dancing around when it's clear that both parties want to fuck, and while sometimes his direct approach has frightened off men who otherwise seemed turned on, it's also landed him some of the best sex of his life.
So that's how he would pull Eames in, if he wasn't Eames, and Arthur wasn't Arthur.
"Arthur, don't take this the wrong way, but I don't remember you scowling at me this much during high school," Eames says.
"That's because I was a coward during high school," Arthur says succinctly. "I always did it behind your back."
But he knows that Eames is right. Arthur as an adult is a hell of a lot bitterer than Arthur as wide-eyed teen. Everybody comments on it, and even if they didn't, he would know it anyway. It's a weight that's sunk into him like an egg folded into flour, spreading outwards, seeping into food and drink, everything. He could have turned out differently. He read a lot of science fiction pulps as a kid; he knows about multiverses. In another world he could have been very different. He could have been a smooth-tongued criminal, sharply dressed, with a smile that could slice deeper than a shuriken. Arthur thinks about the possibilities of otherness, and yes, he could have been different. If not for his grandfather, if not for the destruction of his career, if not for the burning sensation in his throat that day Eames refused to acknowledge him.
But there's almost no point in thinking such things, because sure, Arthur could have been different, but so could everything else.
The laundromat is getting warmer and warmer. Arthur spreads out his fingers against the rumbling washing machine, and thinks about how long it's been since those fingers have gripped anyone's hips. They used to leave the prettiest bruises, he thinks. "Hey, I know I'm not the best company," he finally admits, but Eames interrupts him.
"You're feeling sorry for yourself again," he says. "I'm somewhat less attracted to you when you get into these moods. Like, about 0.5% less attracted."
"99.5% is still pretty damn high." He grins at Eames, sharkish.
Eames doesn't disagree. They're both quiet for a moment, and then Eames adds, "What do you feel about a date? You and me."
"Huh?" Arthur asks intelligently.
Nashville is the biggest city they've reached yet. Up until now they've generally stuck to small towns and roadside attractions because, as Mal says, if she wanted generic, she would have hopped onto a tour bus. But they spend two days in Nashville because Eames needs more insulin and Mal needs to visit an obstetrician. "How far along is Mal?" Arthur asks as he trails Eames to the pharmacy.
"Eight months, I think," Eames replies, and Arthur nearly trips over the sidewalk.
"What the fuck?" he says. "Eight months and she's on the road?"
"I thought you knew. What with the..." Eames makes a gesture around his stomach. "It's kind of obvious that she's far along."
"I'm not an expert on pregnant women's bodies," Arthur says. He pauses. "Jesus. Do you think she'll be okay? I would have been a lot more careful letting her ride with me if I knew she was... that close."
"Mal's been on a bike since she could walk," Eames says. "Even just getting her to agree to a sidecar rather than her own bike -- which, if you ever see it, is bigger than all of ours -- was a struggle." He stops in front of the pharmacy. "I'll meet you out here in half an hour."
"What, I can't go in with you?" Arthur puts his hands in his pockets. "I need to buy shampoo."
Eames presses his mouth into a tight line. "I'd rather you not."
This is about the diabetes, Arthur thinks, because Eames can be outrageously open about a lot of things: his opinions, his tastes, his view of Arthur's familial lineage included. But this is not one of them. Arthur nods. "Fine. Half an hour. You better not to get lost," he says, as Eames had proven himself to possess a disastrous sense of direction. He tries not to watch the way Eames walks through those sliding doors.
They go on their date in the evening. That's what Eames calls it. It's not clear how serious he is and how much is just his idea of a sly joke. Arthur calls it dinner and a movie, and he's going to cling to that no matter what anyone says. Mal and Dom are all too happy to have a night out on the city without their sidekicks, and Arthur is pleased to have an excuse to wear the one good cable knit sweater and pair of charcoal slacks that he brought along in hopes of... well, not this. Not Thai food and an action flick with Eames, but maybe something close.
Arthur realizes that the night out is going to be a disaster the moment Eames shows up at his hotel door. They've gotten separate rooms this time, and Arthur seized the opportunity to have a leisurely jerk-off session about two hours earlier before he stepped into the shower. It wasn't that he was worried he'd throw himself at Eames in uncontrollable lust when the time arrived. Not like that at all. Except he needn't have worried because Eames shows up in the ugliest pink and purple floral shirt that Arthur has ever seen. His late grandmother had a shirt like that.
"Weren't you using that as a rag last night?" Arthur asks.
"What? I don't think so?" Eames says. He turns his mind back to yesteryear. "Or maybe I did."
Arthur suddenly feels stupid and overdressed in his sweater and slacks. He hates Eames, he thinks. He hates Eames so much for making him try.
"Let's go," he says briskly.
"0.5 has become 1%," Eames calls behind his back, and that's the beginning of the worst date of Arthur's life, and that includes the date he had once with the man who was an avid taxidermist and who kept on talking about the immortal beauty of Arthur's cheekbones, forcing Arthur to flee the moment dinner was over. Dinner with Eames is free of talk about stuffing bodies, thank god, but it's immensely uncomfortable because the washroom at the restaurant turns out to be flooded, so Eames has to go elsewhere to do his insulin injection. When Arthur says that it's fine to do it in front of him, Eames gets a look on his face that's dark and all too revealing.
For once, it's not just Arthur feeling unsettled. When Eames returns from outside, he's less than pleasant as well. Arthur tries to bring up a few conversation topics, but the formal setting of it is overpowering and he finally settles for poking at his khao phat koong and looking at his father's watch.
He doesn't even care about the movie anymore, but Eames hails a taxi for them and they go to see it anyway. It's the latest Michael Bay film, so there are a lot of explosions and chase scenes, which actually makes Arthur pretty happy. He buys caramel-covered popcorn and chooses a seat in the back, watching with interest as people shoot each other with very big machine guns. "Oh nice," he breathes after a particularly intense shootout, and he can feel Eames turn to look at him. Then Eames is leaning forward and his mouth is brushing the side of Arthur's cheek--
Arthur pulls back so abruptly that popcorn scatters across the aisle.
"All right. So that's it then," Eames says quietly.
Arthur stares at him. Eames offers a defeated smile and turns back to the film. Arthur's skin feels tight and hot, and his grip on his popcorn bag is way too tight.
What the hell had that been? Well, obviously it had been an aborted approximation of a kiss, but where the hell had it come from? Eames had been less than amorous all night; Arthur might have expected a kiss in the laundromat or even before then, but not tonight on this deteriorating shamble of a date when Eames was running hot and cold. Arthur opens his mouth, and then remembers that they're in the middle of a movie theatre and they're not alone. He closes it.
He tries to speak when the movie is over and Eames is walking out of the theatre, two paces ahead of him. He's doing his best to act casual but Arthur can tell that his shoulders are tense, and when Arthur finally catches up to him, he snarls, "What?"
And it's like being sixteen again and trying to figure out Eames' moods, because he might have been doing a good job of hiding it as an adult, but when they were kids, Eames was a moody motherfucker. Arthur remembers that clearly, how Eames could smile at him at the lockers one day and then act like he didn't exist the next day. The ragged edges of Eames' "what?" rips through Arthur's defenses and he can feel himself take a step back onto the pavement. He shouldn't be doing this, he thinks. These are the stupid insecurities of their childhood. He shouldn't still be letting Eames make him feel uncertain and miserable.
"I'm going back to the hotel," Arthur tells him.
"Suit yourself," says Eames. "I'm getting a bloody drink."
There are drinks in the hotel, though, conveniently arranged and packaged in Arthur's mini-fridge. He turns on the TV to a senseless channel and opens a bottle of expensive vodka. No matter that he can barely afford it. One can't put a price on the beautiful haze that vodka brings.
Fuck Eames and his wishy-washy ways, all warm and affectionate one moment and tense the next so that no one ever knows what he wants or when he's being genuine. Eames and his grandfather both: reinforcing the rule that everybody meaningful in Arthur's life has to resemble a steel-toothed trap that Arthur can never quite stop from stepping into and then getting stuck in. Fuck him. Fuck them.
It's Dom who wakes Arthur up on their second day in Nashville. "You look like dog shit," he says when Arthur answers the door, draping over the frame in an attempt to keep upright. "And Eames still hasn't come back, but he called me last night asking about jumbo condoms. What the hell happened between you two?"
Arthur squints at Dom. His head is funnily shaped, he thinks.
"Nothing," he says airily. "What do you want from me? Just let me grab my bag." He stumbles back into his room and nearly falls over an overturned lamp. "Oops." He laughs to himself.
"A giggly drunk," Dom observes. He sighs. "Mal wants me to buy a tux for the wedding, and I wanted to know if you'd come along. Tailors are people I refuse to face without backup, and you know, Eames is still MIA." He looks like he regrets mentioning it again, but Arthur just waves his hand magnanimously.
"Of course I'll go with you, Dom. Tailors are a specialty of mine."
Which is true. Tailors worldwide bend down and kowtow when they see Arthur coming, because in him they recognize a true Beau Brummel of taste and elegance. Or this what Arthur tells Dom on the way to the tailor, while Dom makes a face like he's just humouring the ramblings of a man who still has alcohol sloshing in his veins. "Arthur, this way," he directs when they arrive at the plaza and Arthur tries to step into the incoming traffic. "One leg in front of the other now," he adds. "Christ, this must be some doomed romance you've got going."
"No, it's more like High School Musical," Arthur says thoughtfully. "I'm like, Ryan, because I dress well and I can play the piano. And Eames is an awful person so he can be Sharpay. Except that'd be incest."
Dom hurries inside the shop and slams the door shut.
"Or maybe that's what you mean when you said doomed romance!" Arthur calls after him.
In the tailor's, Dom makes Arthur sit in the corner and watch quietly as Dom gets fitted for a wedding tuxedo. Arthur obeys and he feels himself sobering up as time goes on, or maybe it's the hypnotic work of the tailor that allows him to focus. The stretch of the measuring tape, the precise strokes of the chalk -- these are all familiar things to Arthur, whose mother had worked in the garment industry before she died. She used to sew all of Arthur's clothes, and Arthur feels a wash of nostalgic sadness for the memory of her. She used to wear huge glasses that eclipsed most of her face, and she always returned her library books on time. And she was a terrible cook, but she folded the most intricate origami figurines. Arthur still has one of them, a paper dinosaur that's nearly flattened, but he carries it as a good luck charm.
It's beautifully quiet in the tailor's shop, like a world folded into a world, like the bridge to Terabithia. Arthur sinks into a peaceful reverie that is finally broken by Dom's sudden interjection of, "Damn, I nearly forgot about cufflinks."
And that too is a memory, because Arthur used to have a pair of cufflinks that were family heirlooms: inlaid gold and pearl and rather ugly, to be honest, like most things manufactured during a certain era for the hungry upper-class are. But they were heavy with memory, because his grandfather used to wear them, and his grandfather before him. Arthur's grandfather had given him the cufflinks for prom, where Arthur had promptly lost them, cuing the biggest fight he'd ever had with his grandfather, the fight that effectively ended their relationship. Arthur moved out two months later for college and never talked to him again.
He's called his old high school over and over again to check, but no one has ever found the cufflinks. And no matter what, Arthur does regret their loss. He figures that someone probably stole them off his sleeves, though how and why are beyond him, and make him angry when he thinks about it. It wasn't the lost cufflinks that destroyed him and his grandfather, but it's easy to pretend that it was.
Clothes make the man, he thinks, and family unmakes him.
But then Dom turns around and smiles, all hope and barely concealed nervousness for his future, and Arthur is forced to revise some of that statement because Arthur, damn it, is the last of the romantics, and he wants Dom to be happy.
In Missouri Mal makes good on her promise and takes them to see the World's Largest Ball of String in the town of Weston. It's in a former barn that is now split between the America Bowman Restaurant and O'Malley's Irish Pub. All four of them are confused when they see that the ball of string isn't on permanent display. "But the website," Mal begins, and the bartender shrugs apologetically.
"We're building a special room for it, but it's not done yet," he says.
"Can we... can we look at it anyway?" Mal asks, and Arthur wonders about his life, that he is standing in a pub disappointed that he can't see the World's Largest Ball of String (Not Twine).
Mal is female, beautiful, charming, wears low-cut shirts, and more importantly, intimidatingly pregnant, so finally the bartender says "sure" and leads them to the back room, and there it is. The Ball. According to the website Arthur and Mal tapped into, it's 19 feet in circumference and it weighs 3,712 pounds, or slightly more than Eames after a night of fried potatoes and beer. The ball rests on a low striped platform, and it's very... well, Arthur just sort of stares. It's a very big ball.
Dom wrinkles his nose. "It smells."
"It can stop a bazooka shell," the bartender says proudly.
"Can we grab breakfast?" Eames wonders.
Arthur is sort of entranced. He steps forward. It's so perfectly round and tight, and he can barely imagine the kind of work it'd taken to wind a ball of this proportion, into this shape. The site had said it was made from old postal string, back when people still tied their packages, and he has trouble wrapping his mind around the dedication it would take for a man to collect this much postal string. That was obsession, all right, but Arthur can understand obsession.
"Arthur's in love," Eames says.
"Hey," Arthur says. "I appreciate its geometry."
Eames raises his eyebrows. Arthur gives the World's Largest Ball of String one last wistful look before they file out of the room and order eggs at the counter. No beer, as they're supposed to be riding for hours today; Mal is getting worried about making it to California on time and wants to cover most of Missouri quickly. They've already stopped by the World's Largest Pecan, and that fills their quota of large road trip objects. Dom still won't stop complaining about the Pecan stop. Dom, Mal explains later, is sore because they didn't stop in Tennessee to see Graceland, and also because he had a traumatic experience with pecans when he was ten years old and still peed his bed.
Arthur holds up his hand. "Too much information," he says.
"Just don't be surprised if Dom starts getting maudlin over his pecan tragedy," she warns him.
Dom doesn't, but Eames gets morose. Or actually, Eames has been morose all the way since Nashville. Arthur can't blame him because the air between them is cold enough that Antarctic scientists could set up research stations with it. They aren't outright rude to each other. In fact, being mad at each other has created a sort of stilted formality that's light years more polite than anything they've ever expressed towards each other. But Arthur knows that it's wrong, all wrong, and when Eames doesn't even smile at him anymore, he feels his gut clench.
This is part of moving on, he tells himself. Arthur broke his ankle when he was thirteen years old and fell from the apple tree, and it hurt like fuck, and it kept on hurting, until one day it didn't.
And Arthur is determined to move on. The road trip got him out of Blake's Peak and his own suffocated descent into the life he had tried to avoid. The road trip won't help him get out of Eames' orbit. That's something he's got to do for himself. To shed the skin of Arthur that was and move into the Arthur that he hopes to be. That's the guillotine truth of it, the one he can barely articulate to himself: he does hope to change, because the sun is wide and sultry over the ever-increasing horizon, the air smells like rain and earth, and bitterness is only cool if you take drugs and write poetry that gets compared to Kerouac.
Arthur has never read Kerouac, though he did once use an open copy of Ginsberg to swat a fly on the wall. The black smear had hidden the words, right above where it once said (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
That his grandfather had his first stroke later that day had nothing to do with it, probably.
Everything falls apart in Kansas.
Fuck, Arthur thinks, why Kansas. But why anywhere, really, and Mal and Dom's engine breaks down on Route 81 by a cornfield swaying in the wind. The wind whips Arthur's cheeks when he parks his bike on the side of the freeway and removes his helmet. Mal and Eames stop behind him, and Eames says, "Let me take a look."
Mal says, "We knew something was wrong with the engine in Topeka. I told you to get it checked then."
"It was just a small sound. I didn't think it was a big deal," Dom snaps as Eames goes back to his bike and gets his tools. "I have a lot on my mind, in case you haven't noticed."
"Oh, and you think you are the only one?" Mal is imperiously angry in a way that Arthur has never seen her before; this is clearly an argument that is hanging itself off the tail end of another argument. "I'm eight months pregnant, Dom! My back hurts! My ankles hurt! I have to ride in a sidecar so I can't even feel any joy out of it -- you want to talk to me about having problems?"
Mal's anger is like the accidental brush of a finger on a red hot stove: startling, unexpected, disastrously painful. Arthur wishes he could leave them to it, but they're standing on the side of a Kansas highway while cars and trucks rush past them. There's nowhere to go, and the endless burnished yellow of the corn hurts his eyes, so he averts his gaze to Eames instead. Eames is opening Mal and Dom's bike and poking around inside. Arthur walks up to him.
"Do you think it's a serious problem?" he asks, making himself heard over the sound of the sideline traffic.
"Do you want the technical answer or the simple one?" Eames asks.
Arthur doesn't actually know much about motorcycles, so he says, "The simple one."
"I can get the bike to hold itself together until Wichita." And here Arthur looks up at the sign. 20 Miles to Wichita. "But we'll need to wheel it into a shop once we can," Eames finishes.
"How long do you think we'll have to stay in Wichita?" Arthur asks. "Because that's going to ruin Mal's schedule with the wedding and the birth. We might get to California late."
"We might," Eames says. "If worst comes to worst, we'll just buy plane tickets instead."
Arthur doesn't say anything. It's an such an inclusive word 'we', but he's not sure if it includes him, because he hasn't even been invited to the wedding, technically, so what would be the point in paying for an expensive plane ticket? But if that does happen, if Eames and Mal and Dom leave for California on a plane without him, what would he do then? Go forward alone? The thought doesn't appeal to him, but nor does the thought of turning back and straddling the road returning to Pennsylvania. Arthur shudders, even though the wind is warm where it blows off the plains. Eames looks up at him, and for the first time in two days Arthur sees kindness.
"I have friends in Wichita. We'll get it fixed quick," he says.
"It's their bike, not mine," Arthur lies. "I'm not the one worried."
Eames snorts. There's a messy brush of oil on his thumb when he brings it up to his face; Eames always tends to forget not to touch his face, and the oil transfers to his cheeks where it rests, a benediction of his profession.
"You're smug now but I can take you on, you know," Arthur warns him for the tenth time. He can't stop looking at Eames' cheekbones, and he's sure that he's being obvious about it.
"Sure, sure," Eames drawls. He glances over at Mal and Dom and quiets. "They're really digging into each other over there, aren't they?"
"Yeah," Arthur says, watching Mal's face go blank and terrible.
"Nothing we can do though," Eames says, "except push on."
Mal and Dom are no longer speaking to each other when they arrive in Wichita, which conversely strengthens Arthur and Eames' relationship as they sneak glances at Mal and Dom, and then look inquiringly at each other. There are politics of traveling with a group, any group, and that night when they pick motel rooms, Arthur and Eames decide to take matters into their own hands. Eames rooms with Dom while Arthur offers to stay with Mal. She accepts his offer gratefully, collapsing on the bed the moment they unlock the door. "Just leave me here," she groans, and there are deep circles beneath her eyes. "I'm going to sleep until the world ends or Dom grows a brain, whichever comes first."
Arthur nods and orders food for her. When he's getting ready to head out -- Eames wants to visit a biker bar with one of his local friends, and though Arthur doesn't really want to spend more awkward nights with Eames, he didn't come out all this way to sit in a hotel room --, Mal grabs his wrist.
"Shit!" Arthur says, because she's viper fast and he'd thought she was asleep.
"Arthur," she says very seriously, "do you think people can ever change?"
"No," Arthur says. Then he remembers his resolution. "Yes. If they give something up first."
"Like what?" Mal blinks.
"I don't know. Pride. Dreams. Whatever glue they were using to hold themselves together before." He smiles at her crookedly. "I'm the last person you should ask, because nothing in my life ever changes. It just goes in cycles."
If Mal was perfect, she'd offer her sympathies, but Mal is human, and she says, fearful, "I'm going to be an awful mother."
Arthur sits back down on the bed.
"And Dom is nearly useless. We're going to run our child into the ground." She groans low in her throat, and he might have wondered if she was drunk if he didn't know that pregnant women weren't supposed to drunk. "What made us think we were going to be able to raise another... another human being? We can't even stay in one address long enough, and it's my fault, Arthur. I'm too restless."
"I..." Arthur's throat is dry. Unlike conversations about tax returns and advanced calculus, he doesn't know how to answer this question. "My parents are dead," he finally says. "But still I ended up all right."
Mal scoffs. "You're always complaining about how fucked up you are."
"We're both fucked up, me and you and probably Eames and Dom too," Arthur says. "But in my head, at least there's this whole trove of happy memories, and that's good, Mal. I think. That's good."
She peers at him, and then she smooths her hand over his forehead. "All right," she says tiredly. "Don't be too loud when you get back, hmm? I need my sleep. Not exactly beauty sleep when I feel so bloated, but sleep."
He waves his hands fluidly. "Do you want me to stay?"
"No," she says, and so he doesn't.
The bar is called 70 after the highway, and Eames shows up with his mechanic friend Fischer, who has electrically blue eyes, and for that reason Arthur is more abrupt to him than he really should be. Fischer smiles at him slightly, and asks about his hometown and his job, and it's not his fault that those happen to be the two subjects Arthur hates talking about the most, but Fischer is smart. He gets the message and retreats back to Eames' side, where they chat about engines and racing circuits and who knows what else. Arthur stares at his drink. Eames is talking loudly and animatedly, and when Fischer makes him throw his head back and laugh, Arthur goes and picks a fight.
Not with Eames. He's not that self-destructive. But he sets one up with a couple of guys by the pool table who've been eying him nastily since he walked in. "Hey fish," one of the guys smirks when Arthur walks up. "Want to play a game?"
They play a game. Arthur beats him at the game.
Arthur says something derogatory about the man's pool skills and maybe his face as well.
So, a fight.
It's a lie that Arthur hasn't changed in all those years he was in New York. He's changed in one fundamental way: he's learned how to fight. The first time he was mugged on his way home from work and he lost all his credit cards and his social security card as well -- because he'd been stupid enough then to carry his social security card with him then, so maybe he deserved it --, he went and signed up for tae kwan do lessons. Six years later, he's pretty damn good at it. Arthur has natural instincts for a fight, or so his master had told him in admiration once, and it's true that nothing relaxes him so much as that moment right before a fight, when he can see his opponent's moves rushing towards his own. It's the closest to invincibility he's ever going to know.
The guy throws a punch --
-- and Arthur flips him over onto the pool table with a crash.
Everybody stops and stares. Eames jerks his attention away from Fischer at last and there's surprise written on his face. Arthur laughs.
The guy lifts himself groaning off the pool table, and when he sees Arthur again, he knows that he can't lose. Not to this prissy looking guy with the cashmere, the gelled hair, and the pianist fingers. Not to a guy who looks like an unholy breed of Calvin Klein accountant. At least, that's what would be running through Arthur's mind if he were in the man's place, and the man doesn't disappoint.
He throws himself at Arthur again, and Arthur takes his head and slams it against the side of the pool table.
Eames is at his side then. "Okay, Hans Solo, I think that's enough," he murmurs into Arthur's ear, but by this time the guy's buddies are angry too, and one of them grab Eames and yanks him aside.
Eames shoves at him. "Don't touch me," he says.
Arthur punches the handsy guy in the face. "Don't touch him," he says.
And then it's a brawl for real, and Arthur is ridiculously, deliriously happy. He's in his element. He's punching and kicking and making mayhem the way his grandfather never let him, the way he was probably born to do when he became the 9,101th citizen of Blake's Peak. Arthur has a right hook that could take out an alligator, and Eames isn't so bad himself, and they take on the gang of five guys until the bar's owners -- who are bikers themselves and none too weak -- wade through the crowd, so then that's eight guys.
"Sorry Robert!" Eames yells over the crowd when the police come and he and Arthur are dragged away in cuffs.
Fischer waves languidly at the counter, and then the door to the cop cruiser is closing, and Arthur is laughing like he's just discovered his first orgasm. His hair is falling out of its gel and his entire right eye is darkening with bruises. He's in a better mood than he's been this entire trip.
"You are a psycho," Eames says admiringly. "You are deeply disturbed."
They're put in a holding cell by the no-nonsense cops, and when Arthur sees that they're sharing the cell with two big, rough-looking men, he leans over to Eames and says, "Don't worry. I'll protect your virtue."
Eames chokes. "Ariadne and Yusuf are going to kill me," he says, but he doesn't sound too upset about that, and Arthur smiles at him some more as blood runs down his nose and onto the cement floor.
Mal and Dom come for them in the morning. Eames had called them last night but once Mal learned that he had his insulin on him, she'd turned back over in bed and said she wasn't going to get out of it just because they were foolish enough to get arrested. When Mal and Dom do arrive though, they're holding hands, and they're both rolling their eyes so that they seem like a pair of matched googly dolls. As Dom goes to sign the paperwork that'll release their miscreant friends, Mal wanders over to the cell and says, "I hear sex relieves more tension than brute violence."
"I don't know," Arthur says slowly, "I sort of like brute violence."
"You better see a doctor before we leave," she tells him. "You too, Eames," she adds, because Eames has got some cuts on his face where a guy tried to smash a beer bottle. He nods, and then slides Mal his most charming smile, which Mal returns only slightly.
When they're leaving the police station, Arthur leans over to Eames in the parking lot and says, before the magic of the moment wears off and he becomes plain old Arthur again, "I really am pretty fucking ninja."
"I believe you now, you tosser," Eames replies. When Mal and Dom are looking in the other direction there's a moment where his voice dips into the territory of husky and Arthur senses that Eames means to swing his head around and kiss him, bruised lips and puffy cuts and all. However, the moment passes as fleetingly as an errant thought, and Arthur tells himself the diminishing joy in his stomach is only because he hasn't eaten for fourteen hours. He made his decision about not doing anything with Eames and living his life recursively back in Nashville. He's not going to renege on that now. Arthur runs his tongue over his mouth and tastes blood.
Mal and Dom's bike gets out of the shop fast, thanks to Fischer, and they make it to Garden City but rain keeps them in Kansas for the next few days. Dom expresses an interest in the Lee Richardson Zoo, and the admission is free, so they make plans to visit it before the rain gets heavier than a drizzle. They spend an afternoon looking at river otters and red pandas. There are African elephants too, which Arthur realizes he has never seen, as well as lunch out on a patio with some truly excellent sandwiches. Arthur can feel people staring at the bruises on his face, and it hurts somewhat to eat, but he doesn't mind. He finishes his lunch and looks up at the silvering sky.
"I don't want to ride in the pouring rain," Mal says. "I used to love it, but I don't want to this time."
"Then we won't," Dom says, and she smiles at him. The tension between the two isn't entirely gone, but it's lessened at the edges, much like it has between Arthur and Eames, and the next few days they spend in Garden City are among the best of the entire trip. It's not a large city by any means. The population is twenty-eight thousand and the city is mostly filled with people who work in agriculture or health care. Not really the most exciting place to be in, but it's restful and when the rain does fall, and fall heavily, the four of them retreat to their Econolodge. Mal brings her laptop, and she and Arthur go on the internet while Dom and Eames buy a thousand piece puzzle with a picture of aardvarks from the zoo, and they work on it across the carpet. It's the most domestic they've been yet.
Arthur has a dangerous thought then: that he could live like this. Never go back to Blake's Peak, never go back to New York. Just spend the rest of his days in a motel room with the rain smearing on the windowpane, and the sound of Mal's breathing beside his ear as she asks him how much longer he's going to take with the laptop; she wants to check her online wedding registry.
It occurs to him that they're only four states away from California and the end.
In his head Arthur makes a list of things he's gotten used to:
- Waking up early and not needing six cups of coffee
- Living by the whims of weather
- The constant gear shifting of his Ninja
- The helmet hair
- The soreness of his body
- The lack of expedient laundry
- Motel heating systems, or lack thereof
- Dom's habit of singing Beatles songs under his breath
- Mal's habit of reorganizing his bags for him
- Eames' pink and purple floral shirt
- Hamburgers (despite his best efforts)
There is also a list of equal length of things he will never get used to, and it's possible that the first three spots on that list have to do with Eames' smile, Eames' ass, and Eames' clever fingers when he fixes the small hitch in Arthur's bike that crops up in Garden City. No one ever said Arthur has to like these lists.
"Fuck, I hate this puzzle," Eames says. "I don't even know what an aardvark is." While Dom utters protestations about the beauty of aardvarks and the importance of intellectual puzzles -- he's a teacher, as it turns out, an architectural professor in a community college --, Eames flops on the bed beside Arthur.
"Hey," he says.
Arthur looks down at him. "You smell like tartar sauce."
"Good, because I happen to remember you like tartar sauce," Eames replies. It's true. Arthur does. But he doesn't remember how Eames knows, and Eames smirks up at him, triumphant in this piece of Arthur that he's managed to capture, like a flag in a game. Arthur looks away towards the rain, and then he looks back.
"Let's go for fish and chips for dinner," he says.
"Oh my floppy-haired sweetheart," Eames says, "you know the way to my heart."
Arthur makes a dismissive sound. "If I did--" Then he remembers that Mal and Dom are eavesdropping. "The way to your heart involves a lot of fatty molecules, I've noticed," Arthur says instead.
Eames slaps his thighs. "Not with these."
Arthur can't think of a good response to that, because, well, Eames' thighs.
-- are probably no more impressive than the thighs of anyone else who spends most of their adult life squeezing said thighs around a roaring motorcycle. Dom probably has some very nice thighs as well. But Arthur's skin breaks out in hives if he thinks about Dom in that way, and on the question of Eames, he's really not very objective at all.
Arthur and Eames don't exactly go on another date, but before they leave Garden City they do go to the movies with Mal and Dom. The second time at the movies is a much better affair at the first time. There are no awkward kisses leading to half understood fights, Eames gets his insulin without a hitch, they're all full from a good lunch at a local grill, and everyone is in a decent mood. Arthur even attempts to break the stranglehold Eames has on the popcorn they're all supposed to be sharing, an attempt that leaves him grinding half on top of Eames and with Dom clearing his throat pointedly. Okay, so there is a bit of that left over. But Eames laughs, Arthur's ears turn pink, and it's satisfying in a way Arthur didn't know he could expect.
The rain lets up by the time they leave the theatre. Dom turns to Mal and says, "Darling, do you want to go make out?" and when Mal laughs a delighted yes, he grabs her hand and they disappear back into the mall.
"How much do you bet they're going to do it in a photo booth?" Arthur says.
"I'm just glad to see they're getting along again," Eames says. "Dom was driving me mental with his passive aggressive man angst."
"Ha," Arthur chuckles, and they're walking along the wet path back to the bus stop, because Mal hadn't wanted to ride their bikes when the rain was still ongoing. When they're waiting for the bus, Arthur examines an advertisement for a travel agency while Eames looks at the side of his head. Arthur knows that Eames is waiting to say something; he's grown to recognize this particular brand of expectant silence. But Eames takes his time gathering his words together, and it's not until they're squeezed together on the bus that he speaks.
"Are you okay?" is what he asks, and he means well but that doesn't stop Arthur's decent mood from taking a swan dive.
Arthur stares at him blankly. "Sorry, is this supposed to refer to something specific?"
"I just mean you weren't in a good place when we started out," Eames replies, undaunted. "And I'm not referring to Blake's Peak. I mean, in your head. You weren't the Arthur that I remembered from school."
"Christ, I am really not having this conversation with you on public transit," Arthur says, and he waits until they've made the short trip from the mall back to their motel before he turns around to Eames and continues, "And what, it surprises you that people in their thirties aren't the same as when they were barely hitting puberty? Because if so, fuck, has Blake's Peak warped you. I told you you shouldn't have stayed there. It's like the land that time left behind."
"I like Blake's Peak," Eames says defensively.
"And that's why you're always traveling out of it," Arthur tosses back.
"I like Blake's Peak and I like to travel. They don't have to be paradoxes," Eames retorts. "And Arthur, seriously, what the hell is wrong with you? Okay, so you hate your hometown. I get it. I left England because I hated my hometown too. But I was happier for it. I found things that I liked, people that I liked. You, you're just even more miserable even after your posh New York experience."
"That was nine years of my life, you asshole. It wasn't just an experience," Arthur says. "And I didn't choose to leave New York. I had to because my grandfather died."
"You have like a gazillion cousins," Eames replies mercilessly. "It didn't have to be you."
"I only have two and yes it did," Arthur says between clenched teeth. He starts walking towards the motel, which is across the street. Eames follows him, and Arthur considers closing the door on him because Arthur has the only key card, so it's not like Eames could do anything about it. But these days Arthur is more weary than he is angry, and so he lets Eames inside. He turns his back on him, however, as he hangs up his coat, and it's not until he's gone to the washroom to splash water on his face and returned that he says, "Let's make this absolutely clear."
"I'm all ears," Eames says, sprawling backwards on the bed. He's still wearing his leather jacket, and he looks gorgeous and infuriating and all too familiar. Arthur's fingers twitch with the urge to kill something.
When it becomes apparent that Arthur doesn't actually know what to say, Eames, ever helpful, prompts him. "Your grandfather died," he says. "You didn't get along with him."
"He was a bitter, bigoted excuse for a human being," Arthur says. "He was everything I hoped I would never be. I used to plot all the ways I would run away from home, and I tried. Twice. But I never got far, and he would always know just when to show up at the bus station and drag me home." His mouth twists. "Everybody told him where I was, I bet. This was before you came to town. He was a lot more athletic and frightening then."
"I remember him as plenty frightening, even in the wheelchair," Eames says. His voice bleeds tender, and that makes it all the worse. Arthur doesn't want his pity. He isn't sure what he wants from Eames anymore, because it's always been wrapped up in a complicated package of teenage hormones and adult regret, but he knows that he doesn't want his pity.
"You know," Arthur says, "I'm beginning to think all this attention about my history is just to prevent me from asking about yours. Why did you stay in the U.S after your exchange trip was up? We all wondered and no one ever knew." He looks at Eames challengingly. "Danielle said you were from old money. She said you were disinherited."
"Danielle watched too many soap operas and once thought I was a long lost heir to the British throne," Eames says. "There was no grand tragedy. I got bored in England so I decided to try something new, and I found I liked it better. My hippie pinko parents didn't care as long as I wasn't bombing abortion clinics. So it worked out. QED." He starts taking off his jacket. He smiles at Arthur, though there are edges behind it. "It helped that I liked American football better than football back home. Also, there were some cute boys in town."
"Like Tommy Greyson," Arthur says coldly.
"I didn't get the impression I was any good," Arthur says, and he's hit the mark with this one, he can tell, because Eames' expression changes from amusement to discomfort.
"Arthur," he says and then swallows, and it's sort of an incredible power trip to see the normally unflappable Eames act nervous about anything. "Arthur. I tried to talk to you about that."
"Really," Arthur says.
Eames' eyes dart towards the door, towards the carpet, towards anything but Arthur. He's still on the bed and Arthur is standing above him, arms crossed, and after a while Arthur relents. He takes pity on him. "It was a long time ago," he says. "Forget it. We were stupid kids then, and stupid kids do stupid things."
"I was stupid. Stupid and scared, so I panicked. But you--" Eames' voice is uneven. He says, "But you were always the smartest student in school. Not counting Dora Sanchez," he adds, and Arthur can't even be annoyed about it because Dora Sanchez, child prodigy of Blake's Peak, was true fact the exception to everything. "You were always that brainy. Didn't you scoop up all those scholarships at graduation?"
"I don't remember," Arthur says.
"And then you were gone," Eames says. It's hard to read the tone in his voice now; nostalgic, maybe, and a bit contemplative. "You were in that junk car of yours and hitting the gas pedal east. Funny, now, that we're heading west. You ever think about it?"
"Which part of your hopelessly convoluted train of thought are you referring to?" Arthur asks.
"Not as convoluted as yours," Eames responds. "And the fact of the matter is, I did try to apologize. But you didn't want to listen because you've always been all high and holy, locked up in your Rapunzel tower of woe and self-importance. I tried, all right, I even got Yusuf to try for me, but you ignored us." Nostalgia and contemplation give way to a hint of frustration, and Arthur is fascinated in spite of himself. "Then you were gone," Eames says. "What was I supposed to do? Chase you all the way to college? Not bloody likely. You fucked it up, so I don't know what you're so upset about now."
"I'm not upset," Arthur says because when the walls of what-could-have-been are falling down on you, the last line of defense is always to act like you don't give a shit. But it's an awful lie; even he knows it, and Eames, it appears, is all out of tenderness, because he scoffs and goes to his bed. He turns on the TV and it's a loud brash sound into the otherwise inexhaustible quiet.
This is possibly the worst time for Mal and Dom to get lovey dovey and decide they want to travel alone for a while, but Arthur's luck has always been for the dogs and this is exactly what happens. "We'll meet you two in Salt Lake City in five days, all right?" Mal says brightly when she answers the door to their bed and breakfast room half naked with a hickey on her shoulder. Dom waves in the background. Arthur politely averts his eyes even as he grips the strap of his backpack. "Dom and I just want some us time before the wedding. Us and Phillipa."
No, Arthur wants to say, that is a bad idea because it means Eames and I will have no chaperones with us, and we may actually not survive the experience.
"Phillipa?" he asks instead, curious.
"That's what we've decided to name her," Mal says, poking her own stomach. "It means 'lover of horses.' Or in this case, we hope, 'lover of horsepower.'" She snickers.
The next day they say goodbye to Mal and Dom, and a coldness settles into Arthur's bones that has nothing to do with the still present mist of rain and fog. He looks over at Eames, who is wearing his helmet so that Arthur can't see anything of his face; Arthur's own reflection is mirrored off the moist surface, distorted and barely recognizable. "So where should we go next?" Arthur asks, watching his reflection move its lips.
"Colorado, I suppose," Eames says, putting on his leather gloves for grip, and Arthur doesn't have any objections to the plan so that's what they do. They follow the road out of Kansas and into Colorado where at first the land is flat like in Kansas, but with more trees that rise up from the plains, aggressively dark against a suggestion of stone. The air is dry after the rain disappears. Arthur and Eames ride past fields rich with corn, wheat, soybeans, and oats, and small towns with questionable motels and grain elevators that he can see from far away. There are cows who raise their heads as Arthur goes by, and for a while they are riding alongside the Arkansas River, and Arthur can feel the cool river wind at the crossroads where his neck meets his helmet.
And then they ride further west and there are mountains that roll upwards out of the land, entire chains of mountains, where the tallest are capped with snow and glints of merciless light. Arthur can no longer see a horizon; he can only see the alpine scar of the land, ancient, and a muscle in his throat closes at the sight because this too is something he's experiencing for the first time. He never traveled much as a kid. His grandfather didn't see any need to leave Blake's Peak where there was, he argued, everything they'd ever need. The only time Arthur has ever seen mountains is in books and on postcards from his aunt, and maybe the ones he's looking at now aren't that impressive in the grand scale of mountains -- Arthur once went through a phase when he was fourteen where he read five books straight about the Himalayas, Hilary, and Tenzing Norgay -- but they are beautiful in a way that's like breaking sweat after a fever, like opening your eyes after a long moonless night.
The air is different around the mountains, and he breathes it in greedily, almost overwhelmed.
Eames looks at him when they stop for lunch. Arthur wishes he wouldn't, because he's sure that he must appear hopelessly sentimental to a seasoned traveler like Eames. Eames says nothing, but his hand brushes the back of Arthur's neck almost as if by accident. The light curl of his fingers makes it obvious it is no accident. Arthur holds his muscles still and almost forgets how to order properly.
Arthur pays for Eames' lunch, and they take it outside where they sit on their bikes and eat under the sun. They're not far from a national park, and there are families of hikers and adventurers who are parked beside them. Eames gives them a cheerful wave as Arthur bites down into his roast beef sandwich. When he is done, he crumples the wrapper and throws it into the garbage can, tilting his head when he catches Eames staring at him once more with a rueful smile on his face.
"What is it?" Arthur asks, and he's more hesitant than he would like, because he knows more of Eames now than he did before, and that's an irreversible knowledge.
"How do you feel about camping?" Eames asks.
"No idea. Never done it before."
"Let me show you," says Eames. Arthur has another dizzying moment of 'oh shit, what am I getting myself into?' but he's already stepped into the ring and gone all the rounds. Giving up one more inch shouldn't matter. So he lets Eames take them along Route 34 where it becomes Trail Ridge Road as it enters the Rocky Mountain National Park. They arrive at the park on a Tuesday, or at least Arthur thinks it's a Tuesday though he's having trouble keeping track of the days. He doesn't have his phone and his watch is broken, and it's fine.
They get lost almost immediately. The park is huge, and bipolar where the Continental Divide splits it, so that it feels like they are wandering back and forth between two continents, looking for the designated camping grounds. Arthur curses himself for not buying one of those park maps at the entrance, and he curses Eames when it turns out that Eames has one already and only pulls it out reluctantly at the last minute. "Men don't--" he begins guiltily, and Arthur resists running him over because the sun is setting and there could be bears lurking in the grooves of stone and trees. Bears. If Arthur ends up getting eaten by a bear in the middle of Colorado, he is having Yusuf write a very strongly worded letter to Eames' English high school for ever letting him out of the country. Man can't even read a map.
"Maps are liars," Eames says irritably. "They're products of political systems and reflect the subjective nature of the cartographer. Have you ever seen an unbiased map of the Middle East?"
"I see you paid attention in philosophy class," Arthur says. "Just, first, where are the campsites?"
"I need to piss," Eames declares.
"You are full of piss," Arthur informs him. "I can't believe anyone ever finds you charming."
"Well, you once snogged me at a pool party, so that says something about your own taste," Eames says, and oh, are they joking about it now? Have they crossed the thorny boundaries and reached the cathartic point where they can laugh about their youthful sexual misdemeanors and broken hearts? Arthur doesn't know, but he's saved from having to reply when the sight of the first camping ground pulls up from the road.
It turns out that neither of them really know how to pitch a tent.
In a manner of speaking. Before they entered the park they stopped by a camping goods store and stocked up on the supplies: tent, burner, sleeping bags, lots of canned food. Eames had paid for most of it with his credit card and with a swagger of assurance that Arthur couldn't help but trust. As it turns out, this was a bad idea. Eames has only gone camping once before, and it was with Mal and Dom. He'd watched Dom pitch the tent -- goddamnit, Arthur needs to wash that image out of his brain -- and figured it couldn't be that hard.
Every word that comes out of Eames' mouth is a sideline innuendo, and when Arthur expresses his disbelief at Eames' lack of camping skills, Eames protests, "I'm English! You think we camp much in England?"
Between Arthur's college degree and Eames' worldly experience, neither of them can make the tent stand much taller than waist-length, and neither of them can do much about the sagging plastic folds.
But Arthur had the good sense to bring along beer, so it turns out not to matter at all.
The moon is huge when he lies down on his sleeping bag, which he'd spread in front of the tent and the low-burning fire. Arthur rolls the taste of the cheap beer over his tongue while the rest of his body feels loose and sleepy. The fire burns shadows over his eyelids when he closes them, and Eames is sitting on the other side, feeding wood and bits of paper to keep it alive.
Arthur isn't by nature a particularly expressive person, but he's in the middle of the woods and no one else will ever have to know. So he takes another swig of the beer, which is warm by now but it still does the trick. He says, "I don't think I'll ever find a job."
"You have a job," Eames reminds him. "At Stein and Son."
"Not the one I want," Arthur says. "And beating people up at bars doesn't count."
"Mmm," says Eames. "I can't say I'm any good at being your Mrs. Gold." Here they both snicker at the memory of their high school guidance counselor, who had a voice like an opera soprano and wore sweaters that could hide nukes. "But you don't have to be an accountant, Arthur. Why can't you beat people up for a living? Be a bodyguard. Go join the mafia. Take up flamingo wrestling."
"God, you make it sound so reasonable." Arthur swipes his face with his hand. The alcohol blurs his coordination so he ends up patting his nose instead of his forehead. "Why do you always make it sound so reasonable? And like it's my fault?"
"It generally is," Eames says.
Arthur turns his head towards him. The fire lights Eames up like a djinn, and Arthur feels the lazy desire that he always feels when he looks at Eames, which by now should no longer be remarkable yet somehow remains so. "Tell me what you want," he says, grasping. "We're always talking about me. Blah blah blah. I'm sick of it. Tell me what you want the most, Mr. Eames. Why you really came out here."
"I want..." Eames laughs, but there's no humour in it. The beer stretches his laugh into a syrupy sound that seems to go on forever. "I want to be healthy again."
"And I never am," Eames says. "I'm going to be stuck like this for the rest of my life."
Arthur's fingers have turned to stone. He drops his empty can of beer. It makes a sound that's much too loud, even against the crackling of the fire. He drags himself up to a sitting position and he looks at Eames, who is breathing heavily, each breath a familiar rasp. "Do you want a handjob?" Arthur asks him, and watches the fear dissolve from Eames' face.
Arthur crawls over and his hands aren't too steady, but he manages to undo Eames' fly. They both ran out of clean underwear somewhere outside of Las Animas, and so when Arthur slides his hand into Eames' open pants, nothing stops him from touching skin. Eames' breath comes out in a shudder. Arthur glances up at him, almost dreamily, and Eames stutters his hips upwards, groaning when Arthur wraps his hand around him. Arthur's hands have calluses now, the gifts of the road and of constant gear shifting, and he's glad for it. Because they make Eames shudder as they explore his thick length, starting from the base of his balls and moving upwards; Arthur runs his thumb alongside the big vein on Eames' cock, and Eames makes a sound that's pretty much indecipherable but may be a bastardized version of Arthur's name.
Arthur's head is spinning. It's warm, and there's moonlight all around them, dangerous.
Arthur buries his face in Eames' shoulder so that Eames can't see his expression. He says, "I want you to fuck me" so softly that he's the only person who knows. He works Eames with his right hand while his left clutches Eames for balance, and it's a good thing that Eames lasts an embarrassingly short amount of time because it means Arthur doesn't have to be embarrassed when he comes too, hard and fierce, jerking as Eames' arms go around him and hold him close, both of them coming at the same time. No one touches Arthur's cock, but it feels tender and sore when he's done, his pants sticky. Eames' come is wet on the back of his knuckles. He wipes it on his ruined pants.
Eames' breathing is heavy again, but for entirely different reasons this time, and Arthur grins at him in spite of it all. "Better than when we were eighteen, am I right?" he asks. Eames' returning smile is stripped bare of barbs, and it contains something akin to wonder.
"Like I said, you were always the smart one," Eames replies, which is a lie because Arthur knows from rumour that Eames could have gotten in any college he wanted. He just chose not to. And these are the relics of their childhood, the petty little victories he used to measure to earn his grandfather's respect. But his grandfather is dead now, and the small victories don't matter much under the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, thousands of miles from any place they might call home.
"I can't be that smart," Arthur says out loud. "I have no idea what I'm doing."
"Me neither," Eames says.
"Let's not." Eames grabs Arthur's hand and licks the beads of come off it. Arthur stops breathing. His skin feels rough where Eames' stubble brushes against it. "We've still got a week until the wedding. Let's not think at all."
"That's a terrible idea," Arthur murmurs, but he's already staring at Eames' mouth, wondering what it would feel like to kiss it after all these years.
"Shh, you're already over-thinking it," Eames says, and then he lowers his head and Arthur finds out.
Arthur may never really experience the true joy of camping because he spends most of the next three days lying in the tent having sex with Eames. Or kneeling, or standing, or any number of the various positions that he and Eames can cook up. If there's one benefit to waiting to do this when they're older, it's that they're both much more experienced and imaginative, and Arthur learns to relish the feeling of constantly coming his brains out.
Even if it weren't Eames and therefore the culmination of all his adolescent fantasies, it'd be good. The air is clear and easy, the sleeping bags and blankets they've spread on the bottom of the tent comfortable, and there's a sense of openness, of no more secrets that Arthur knows is just a delusion, but it's a delusion he'll cling to, out here in the wilderness with his knees spread and Eames sucking him. He could get used to outdoors sex, he thinks. He could get used to it fast.
That it is Eames is another layer entirely, and there are moments when Arthur rubs his fingers along the lines that are starting to appear around Eames' eyes, and he can't think of the right words to say. So he doesn't say anything beyond "fuck" and "yes" and "where's the lube?" Eames doesn't seem to mind. Eames' body is muscle and sinew, and his fingers are unbearably clever, and his smile when Arthur comes is way too smug for Arthur's liking, but that doesn't stop Arthur from being a trembling wreck of nerves at the sight of it, even after the orgasm, when he's lying on the ground trying to catch the remnants of his breath.
"This is a lot like Brokeback Mountain," Eames observes.
"Don't even think about stealing any of my shirts for your shrine. I need them all," Arthur says.
"If I had to steal one thing from you, I think I would aim higher than your shirt, just saying."
When they're not fucking, they're napping in the tent, side by side. Or talking about bear attacks, a subject Arthur is morbidly interested in. Or they're trying to feed themselves on cans of pork and beans, establishing regular mealtimes to maintain Eames' blood sugar. Arthur wanders around the campsite with a can opener, barely clothed, glad that the weather is warm enough for it. Eames calls him a nymph. It occurs to him to hope that no one else should pass them by, because it is sort of completely obvious what he and Eames are doing. There are scattered condom wrappers on the ground, and his hair is a mess; he hasn't combed it for days.
He cuts himself on the edge of a rusty can once, he thinks he sees the shadow of a bear twice, and he lets Eames bend him over and fuck him slowly three times, he returns the favour twice, and there's a fourth on the day that they're supposed to leave. Arthur's sweat runs down his forearms as he holds himself on his hands and knees, and when Eames slides into him, so sure and gentle, Arthur feels like he's going to fall apart into a hundred pieces, or just two: the way he was before, and the way he is now.
He doesn't let himself think about the way he'll be after, because he promised Eames he wouldn't think, and also so he doesn't have to hate himself for breaking his own promise: that he wouldn't fall into this pattern again, where he gets attached and Eames gets bored.
It's good enough like this, he thinks. It's more than good. It's all he should ask for.
"Why is it always California?" Eames wonders when they're sitting in a diner in Salt Lake City, eating apple pie and waiting for Mal and Dom to show up. "All this mythos about heading out on a new life. Why is it always California?"
"I imagine it's because 'Going to Connecticut' just doesn't sound as jazzy on the Top 40 charts," Arthur replies, using his fingers to scoop up the squishy apple parts.
"I don't know," Eames says. "I've had some of the best sex of my life in Connecticut." He reconsiders. "Second best, I mean."
"Thanks," Arthur says. "You're a doll."
"None of them could bend like you."
"Then they just weren't trying hard enough," Arthur says. He leans back in the booth and slouches his shoulders. "So what were you doing the last time you were in California?"
"What? I've never been there," Eames says.
"Honest to Harley-Davidson truth," Eames replies. Arthur stares at him in disbelief because Eames is an inveterate liar and he doesn't have much stock in God. But when he decides that maybe Eames isn't lying after all, a warm pleasure spreads through Arthur's chest. If Eames has never been to California either, then this isn't just Arthur's trip. It's Eames' too, which he should have realized earlier but didn't: Eames' trip to get away from his diagnosis, from the reordering of his new life.
"Have the rest of my pie," Arthur says, sliding the plate over.
"Okay," Eames says, who has a suspiciously noticeable slut-on for pie. He didn't order any for himself because a whole slice is not what the doctor recommended, but a quarter of a slice is like BDSM with your wife: kinky but probably not all that dangerous. He eats messily, and Arthur has to hand him a napkin, tamping down on the urge to lean over and just lick the residue of apple off Eames' cheek. They're not in the woods anymore. They're not in Colorado. This is Utah, and so Arthur keeps his hands to himself and resorts to smirking at Eames until Mal and Dom enter the restaurant.
"You two look like you've had a good time," Mal remarks. Arthur wonders if she knows, and if so, how. He's done his best to hide the signs. He's wearing a buttoned-up shirt with none of the hickeys showing, and his hands are perfectly level even as they lie beside Eames'. But maybe Mal is so happy that she thinks everybody else should be happy too. Her hands are in Dom's pockets, and Dom is looking sheepish and proud, like he's managed to knock her up all over again.
"You look even huger than you were before," Eames tells her.
"Yes, that's generally how pregnancy works," she says. "Now, come, who's going to order pie for me? I think I'll have one of each flavour."
Mal and Dom won't talk about what they did in their time alone, and neither do Arthur and Eames. The four of them sit around the booth together companionably, and although there are secrets among them now, these are the slick, sticky sort of secrets that compress the spaces between them, like a bite of a stolen orchard peach, or the underside of a rock lying beneath the surface of a turquoise lake. The window beside Arthur has been cranked open, and he tilts his throat back, listening to the conversation as the wind blows off the western desert, heavy with the first hints of summer.
These are the things that Arthur will always remember about Utah:
- The slow change of the seasons
- The girls in the long skirts and the bright eyes
- How far they could go without coming across civilization
- The red, red rock
- The almost painful blueness of the sky without clouds
- The spill Eames took on his bike when he got competitive with Dom
- The sick feeling Arthur felt when he watched Eames crumple
- That none of them knew first aid
- How far they could go without coming across civilization
They get Eames to a doctor eventually in Delta, Utah, population 3,209, and she sews six precise stitches into his thigh and confirms a minor concussion, which is less than Arthur had been expecting, because in his mind he can still see the red throb of Eames' blood on the hot highway tarmac. But Eames looks up at him with an amused expression, stands up easily on his leg, and says, "See, you shouldn't have worried so much, all of you." Mal makes a little sound that's like a sob, and Arthur accompanies her to stand outside the doctor's office, where she fumbles with a package of cigarettes until Arthur takes them out of her hands.
"I wasn't going to smoke them," she says, shaky.
"Let's just be careful," Arthur says.
"We're not, at all," she says helplessly, and they stand like that for a long time, with his arm around her shoulder until Eames and Dom come out to join them.
Dom says, very seriously, "Maybe we should stop here."
Mal's eyes are shaded. She looks at Dom, and then at Arthur and Eames, who stare back impassively. It's her decision. She's the one with the most to lose. Mal bites her bottom lip. "All right," she says. "Let's go buy a plane ticket."
The nearest major airport is back in Salt Lake City, so there's still a ride involved, but they take it carefully, oh so carefully. Twenty-four miles outside of Delta they pass the barbed fences of the Topaz camp, and Arthur feels the brief simmering presence of ghosts. Mal stares straight on ahead, nearly unseeing, and when they stop because she needs to pee, she says to Arthur, "I really did want to go all the way. I didn't want it to end like this."
"I know," he says, "but for what it's worth, I think you made the right decision. It's not just... it's not just you anymore."
"You should tell that to Eames," she says before she waddles into the bushes and squats.
Arthur glances over at Eames and is halted by the sight of Eames' neck, the sinuous stretch of it as he rubs an invisible mark right where Arthur bit him last night, tangled as they were on the cheap motel sheets.
Mal makes a strange noise in the bushes. Arthur yanks his attention back to her. "Any problems?" he asks, stepping forward slightly, mind flashing to the possibility of snakes and rodents and heat stroke. It was the right decision; there is so much that could go wrong out here.
Mal stands up. "Fellows," she says, "I think my water just broke."
Eames smacks him over the head.
Arthur pulls himself together with all the composure learned from being an accountant during federal tax reviews and he gets them all to Salt Lake City in one piece. He is a superhero.
Mal insists that they all accompany her into the birthing room by refusing to tell the doctors which man is the father. "They're all the father," she says stubbornly, and finally they just hand out the spare gowns and masks. Arthur snaps his on, marveling at the way the adrenaline of the ride is going down, leaving him feeling utterly calm. His each movement is economical; nothing goes to waste. Dom looks anything but calm, and even Eames seems jittery, walking back and forth to peer beyond the screen at the rest of the hospital. "Are you really sure I should be here?" he asks, and by now the contractions are coming faster and harder, so Mal snaps at him to shut the hell up and hold her hand.
None of them say the words they are thinking, which is two weeks early and complications. There's no point in courting the devil to come where he's not invited.
Giving birth is really not an elegant process when you peel away the metaphors. Dom sits at Mal's left, Eames at her right, and Arthur by her head, unable to look away as the doctors settle between Mal's legs and tell her to push. There's blood and tissue, and sweat runs down Mal's face, so Arthur grabs a handful of tissues and wipes it away for her. "I can get you an ice chip if you want," he offers, even though he has no idea where to get an ice chip. It just feels like something he should offer.
"No, stay," Mal says, gritting her teeth, and there's one long pulse between that moment and the ashen terror on Dom's face, before they hear Phillipa's wail fill the corners of the room, which suddenly seem so large, large enough to contain universes.
Arthur catches Eames' gaze, and Eames is grinning like a loon. Arthur can see the edges of his smile even above the paper mask.
Mal slumps back against the pillows and says "give her to me" in a voice so imperious that even Caesar would have bowed to her. The doctors cut the cord, wrap Phillipa up, and place her in Mal's arms. Arthur and Eames crowd around Mal and Dom to get a look, and well, babies are all sort of alike, but Arthur can't stop smiling. He realizes that he has his hand on Eames' back, his fingers traveling upwards, rubbing him in circles.
Dom starts crying. They are very good not to mention this, though they will tease him about it mercilessly later.
Eventually the doctors figure out that Arthur and Eames are not the fathers, and by then Mal and Dom look like they need some private time with Phillipa anyway, so Arthur and Eames go into the hall. Arthur takes off his mask and watches Eames do the same. "Today has been bloody ridiculous," Eames says. "I think we can all agree on that."
Arthur quirks his mouth. "The ride isn't over. We're not in California yet," he reminds Eames, and then it's one step, two steps, three steps and a half before he is grabbing Eames and kissing him, hard.
It's a ferocious kiss, with edges, hot and spiky and more than a little desperate. Arthur licks his way into Eames' mouth and tastes the sound of Eames' laughter. "Mmm, yeah," Eames says, rocking his hips against Arthur. Arthur wonders where the closest supply closet is so that he can pull Eames inside and ravish him properly, except that a nurse walks by right then with a rattling tray, and they reluctantly pull apart.
"Mal and Dom are obviously going to get on that flight," Eames says. "If they even can, with the baby. I don't know what the medical issues are with that. They might have to drive. Or be driven. Or postpone the wedding."
"But we don't have to follow them," Eames continues. "We could always set out on our own. Meet up with them again in Los Angeles."
"Set out, just us?" Arthur asks.
"If you want," Eames says. "If you haven't tired of my company yet."
"Yeah," Arthur says, leaning towards Eames and giving him one more kiss, quick and messy. "Yeah, let's do that."
This is what Arthur realizes about the desert, when they are in Nevada and riding past lines and lines of sand and rock that begin to bruise with the sunset: that it doesn't make you feel small. Quite the opposite. It makes you feel big, your body your only protection against the bleak beauty. Arthur feels all too well the soreness in his muscles, the cling of his shirt to his back, the rough skew of his hair underneath his helmet. They pass through the desert, and Arthur thinks about all the people who have tried to make a living on lands and terrain that would never love them back, and yet that didn't stop them from trying harder. Pioneers pulling horse-drawn wagons with their families through the aching dark, fumbling with hope.
The stars come out, because when Dom and Mal aren't with them they're willing to ride much longer and much further. The stars in the desert are pomegranate bright, and when they finally get a room for the night, Arthur crawls right into bed with Eames and listens to him breathe.
"I have to ask," Eames says, "even though every part of me is telling me not to ruin a good thing. But why the sudden change? Back in Nashville, you didn't even want to kiss me."
"You caught me off guard," Arthur says. "I don't like surprises." There's a mean pause, and Arthur says, "Okay, so I don't like it when other people surprise me. I'm allowed to do the surprising."
"And because you don't want to be eighteen again and fooling around with me, is that right?" Eames turns around and looks at Arthur, but it's dark and all they can see are smoky shadows. "I can't blame you. I was... a lot more chickenshit back then. I knew I was queer. I just didn't want the whole town to know and make things difficult. So I panicked."
"You were an asshole," Arthur says.
"So were you," Eames replies. He puts his hand on Arthur's hip. "Actually, you're still an asshole. Probably an even bigger one now. In more ways than one, if you know what I mean."
"You smooth talker," Arthur says, kissing him to that effect. Eames smiles against his mouth, and Arthur decides that Nevada may be his favourite state of them all.
He has to exert great effort dragging Eames away from the route into Las Vegas. Not that Arthur himself isn't tempted, because he is, and he's damn sure he'd make a killing at the tables. But if he remembers correctly, Eames sort of loses control when he gambles, and Arthur doesn't want to finish their journey right here because Eames gambled away their bikes or the clothes on their back. So he gives Eames a blowjob until Eames stops protesting about the lack of Las Vegas, and Arthur privately congratulates himself on yet another disaster averted.
They're in Carson City, far away from any casinos, when Eames doesn't even bother hiding the insulin injections anymore, and Arthur doesn't comment on it. They go about as usual until Arthur asks the question that's been nagging at him this entire time.
"Did you even bring a tux for the wedding?"
"It's in the bag," Eames says, waving aimlessly. Arthur goes to his bag and digs through it curiously, because he's pretty sure by now that Eames is his date for the wedding and if it's going to be a powder blue three piece, he wants to be prepared ahead of time. He finds the tux. It looks like the standard factory model for boring black tuxes, and it's a bit worn from use -- it's probably the tux Eames has used for the last ten years -- but it's not awful, so Arthur sets it aside. Then he finds the cufflinks.
They're pearl and gold and ugly.
Arthur runs his fingers over them, remembering, and then Eames is looking up from the TV and saying, "Don't have a fit over my clothes, sweetheart. If you're going to fall to pieces, I'd rather you do it on my cock." He doesn't see what Arthur has in his hand.
Arthur tucks the cufflinks back into the bag.
Arthur's most vivid experience of entering California is this: the washroom in the back of the visitor's centre, the locked door, and him hoisted on the sink while Eames toys at him with two leathered fingers. He hasn't bothered to remove his gloves, and his one hand is on Arthur's hip while the other is circling the pucker of Arthur's hole, the drag of the leather making Arthur buck and whine.
"Come on," Arthur says, "you've been teasing me all the way since Pennsylvania. Don't play these games anymore."
"What game?" Eames asks. "I was the one to apologize first."
Arthur hates him so, so much. The anger burns him up, but doesn't stop his ass from clenching on the barest hint of Eames' leathered thumb as he presses the first part of it inside. It's the smallest of penetrations, just more fucking teasing, but Arthur feels his blood burn and he jerks his hips forward, trying to push more of Eames' thumb inside him. Eames, the bastard, pulls out.
And Arthur says "fuck" like he's been punched, which darkens Eames' eyes, but not as dark as his gloves, the same gloves that held the handlebars of his motorcycle earlier that day, the same gloves that Arthur has seen wet with grease and machine oil. He groans at the memory of it.
Then Eames pushes his thumb back in, and Arthur's cheeks flush as he looks down and sees it, because of course Arthur wants to watch. He wants to watch every inch of his body being stretched open, being forced to accommodate Eames' fingers. He doesn't do this often -- and not for so long and it's just --
It's wet and then Eames adds more lube, and it's even wetter, and by the time Eames gets two fingers in, Arthur is panting and making these sounds that he's never made before.
"It's been a long ride," Eames murmurs, which it has -- from Pennsylvania to Kansas to California -- but Arthur bears down on Eames' fingers without any recollection of shame, and Eames grins with his teeth showing. "But I'm going to ride you longer."
"That's what I've been saying," Arthur says, as his ass opens for three of Eames' fingers, and Arthur can barely imagine how good it's going to be when Eames finally gets his cock inside. He doesn't even know if they have condoms, but he sort of thinks that it doesn't matter. He wants Eames to fuck him filthy, to fuck him skin to skin, to fuck him and fill him up inside with threads of come.
Arthur's thighs tremble with the effort of holding himself on the sink, but then Eames takes his hand from Arthur's hip and slides it to his back. Arthur can feel the weight of it there, and he can feel the weight of his balls, so heavy, and so huge when Eames strokes his leathered fingers inside of him, pressing meaningfully on his prostate until Arthur sobs.
Arthur loves being finger fucked. He wishes they had done this earlier. He could have bent over for Eames ten minutes after their reunion, and he could have let Eames finger fuck him then, right in his shop, with the smell of gasoline all around them, and Eames' capable hands taking Arthur where he needs to go.
But Arthur loves it any time, anywhere, even in a visitor's centre on the border between two states, where Eames works into him like a piece of rough machinery, and Arthur can hear the shrapnel of his own breath as Eames makes him shudder.
"Eames," he says, and he can't look anymore because it's too much. He's totally open now. There's no more resistance. He buries his face in Eames' shoulder and simply melts to let Eames take from him whatever he wants, which is his ass and his pleasure and his orgasm. When his orgasm rushes upon him, on the wake of three gloved fingers thrusting inside of him, Arthur yells, arches his back, and nearly falls off the sink, but Eames catches him. Eames holds him through the entire process, which feels like Arthur pushing out of his own skin, and then he does have a condom, thank fuck, and his cock is hard and gorgeous as it angles in, breaching Arthur in one smooth snap of Eames' hips.
Welcome to California.
They get a call from Mal and Dom, confirming that the wedding has been pushed back three weeks on account of Phillipa, so they stay for three weeks in Sacramento, the city closest to the border where they entered the state. Arthur checks his bank account, Eames checks his credit, and they splurge for a nice hotel with freshly laundered sheets and a glimmering palm-shaped pool where Arthur goes swimming every morning until Eames, who is a late riser when he has no reason to get up, comes down in flip flops and throws himself on a poolside lounger. Eames brings with him coffee, bananas, and mangoes, and after Arthur dries his hair with one of the proffered fluffy towels, they read the Sacramento Bee and the NYT, and then go back up to their room where they watch TV and fuck.
Arthur doesn't remember the last time he just sat around doing nothing. He's always felt like he had to keep busy, at first so his grandfather wouldn't call him out on it, and later so that he could be successful in school and at his job. Arthur's always doing one thing or another; job-hunting, practicing tae kwan do, fixing his sink, trying to get laid. Even on the road, there was always a sense of objective. It's strange now, to lie for hours beside Eames and talk about everything and nothing, about new bikes out on the market, about higher maths, about whether Yusuf's hair in high school really did look like a Chia Pet and whether or not Ariadne secretly wrote lovestruck sonnets about it.
He never used talk to Eames like this. He never really used to talk to Eames at all. Most of their romance was just hopeless staring and fantasies. He finds that he likes this better, being an adult with adult interests. Teenage Arthur would have rather died than try to capture Eames' interest with the Dow Jones. Adult Arthur can pontificate on it for hours, and Eames will rest his head on his belly and listen, sleepy but uncomplaining.
They almost get into another bar fight, once, because surprise surprise, there are assholes in California too. But this time it's Arthur who pulls Eames away, and they go to an arcade and shoot spaceship invaders instead.
At night Arthur stands on the balcony with his elbows on the railing and his sleeves rolled up. Arthur brought along exactly two short-sleeved shirts, and he lost one in a card game with a trucker in Missouri. The other he saves for when he needs to get dirty. Eames is always trying to drag him into souvenir shops to buy gaudy t-shirts with smiling lingos, and Arthur considers knocking him unconscious just to flee.
So Arthur stands on the balcony with his long sleeved shirt and the electric fan aimed at him through the open glass windows, and he looks down from the twentieth floor of the Hilton to see the neon parade of cars in the sweating darkness. Somewhere beyond there, he thinks, is the Pacific Ocean, and if he closes his eyes and breathes in deeply, he can smell the salt already.
His grandfather, who fought during the war, told him once that he nearly died at sea.
But he didn't. He died on the other side of the country, landlocked, in a crumbling house filled with drunk poets and broken clocks, with his daughter buried and his grandson estranged. For the first time, Arthur feels sorry for him.
Then Eames is returning to their room, the air becomes spicy with the scent of takeout, and Arthur steps back inside.
They're by the pool again when Arthur lowers his sunglasses and says, "The wedding was rescheduled to the 25th, right? We should buy them a gift before then. What do you think about baby-related presents?"
"I thought it was on the 20th," Eames replies, wading around with the noodle. "And I think baby presents are a terrible idea. This is supposed to celebrate their love, not their ability to reproduce."
"We should double-check the date," Arthur says, and when they do, his blood goes cold. "Eames, don't panic, but there is something very, very wrong," he says. "The text message here says it's tomorrow."
"What?" Eames grabs his phone from Arthur and stares. "Oh shit."
This is the last and most famous ride of Arthur and Eames, the one where they throw together their bags as fast as they can, pay for their stay at the hotel in a hurried rush, and ride their bikes out into the streets before they can even look at a map and see where they're going. This proves somewhat of a mistake, as they are forced to eventually stop and actually look at the map that Arthur stole from the hotel lobby. "Okay, so we follow this route until it reaches here," Eames says, jabbing the map as he tries to memorize as much of it as he can, and Arthur buys them two Cokes and a pack of rice crackers that they eat for their meal, huddled on the side of the road like guilty men.
"I can't believe we--" Arthur begins.
"It's all your fault," Eames accuses. "You distracted me with your arse."
"Your buttocks, to be specific. Have you ever thought of a tattoo there, mm? I could design something for you."
Arthur does have a vague memory of getting the text message in the middle of a fuck, when Eames had paused to check it and Arthur had snarled, glanced at it, and thrown it under the bed.
"I have nothing to say about my buttocks," Arthur insists. Eames slides him a sly smile, but there's no time to appreciate it because they're on the road again, with the humid air making their fingers stick against their handlebars. Palm trees and hot tar line their route past Stockton, past Modesto, and they make it to Fresno in good time, but they're still far from Los Angeles, so Arthur steps up the speed and listens to the roar of his engine going up a notch. Eames follows suit, and they're weaving through the freeway traffic, going faster than is safe, but if they die here at least the crash will probably be epic enough that they'll die together, and Arthur laughs wildly as they follow Route 99 down, down, down.
They get stopped for speeding outside Palmdale, and Arthur suffers through it silently, impatient all the while to get back on the road. He tucks the ticket into his back pocket, smiles at the officer, and the moment the officer gives him an exasperated "you're free to go", he's revving his engine again.
Getting into Los Angeles is a Minoan labyrinth of highways and exits, and Arthur and Eames get hopelessly lost traveling with no Ariadne string to guide them. They have to pull into a gas station and ask the clerk for directions, and by then they know they're late. Arthur is knotted with frustration and Eames is obviously unhappy, but they follow the clerk's directions to the T and they find the church: St. Mary's of the Roses. They can hear the organ music signalling the start of the procession, and Eames prepares to enter right away, but Arthur stops him. "We're filthy," he hisses. "We've got to change first."
"Are you kidding me?" Eames hisses back, but he lets Arthur yank him into the bathroom and throw his tux and his stolen cufflinks at him. They get dressed in a hurry, and Arthur's own suit is hopelessly wrinkled; he'd meant to iron it before the wedding, but well, clearly that wasn't an option anymore. He runs his fingers through his hair before he steps out of the stall, pressing it down as flat as he can, yearning for gel. Then Eames is stepping out beside him, desperately handsome, and Arthur palms his ass for good measure.
"All right, let's roll," he says, and the doors to the inner church are opening, and Mal is standing by Dom at the altar, Valkyrie beautiful. She glances at the sound of the doors opening; everybody does. Arthur and Eames wave apologetically and slink to the very last pew. Mal snorts under her breath and turns back to Dom, who is the only person who didn't look because he can't tear his eyes away from Mal. A maid of honour is holding Phillipa, and there's a long cascade of lace from the baby's wrap that falls to the floor in a pool.
The wedding goes the way most weddings go, which is to say, long, a bit boring, Arthur thinks about sex through most of it, babies wake up and cry at inopportune moments, and everyone sighs a little when the priest says "you may kiss the bride."
When the reception gets swinging and everybody eats their share of cake -- or, in Eames' case, sugar-free artisan bread --, Mal sidles up to them and says, "I can't believe you almost missed my wedding." She is holding a tall glass of wine. "This is the best part of giving birth," she confesses. "I can drink again, thank god."
"As long as you're happy," Eames says.
Her eyes go soft when she looks past his shoulder at Dom holding Phillipa, showing her off to his uncle. "I feel like I'm about to burst," she says. "I feel like it's almost too much, and I'm scared it'll go away."
"It might," replies Arthur, because here at the end of the journey he might as well be honest. "But I don't think it will, not for you."
"Nor for you, if you play your cards right," Mal murmurs. She clinks glasses with him. "Bon courage," she says as she twirls away, back towards the party.
Arthur watches her go. Though he promised Eames he wouldn't think too much about it, her comments make him restless. The reception should only last another hour or so; what after? "I don't want to go back to Blake's Peak," he says. "It might not be as awful as I've made it out to be, but I did have one thing right. It's like living in rewind."
"Myself included?" Eames asks.
Arthur examines the wine in his glass. He doesn't meet Eames' eyes. He can be brave about many things, like jumping on his motorcycle and riding across the entire country on a whim, but right now he is failing. "I still have a fair amount of savings in the bank," he says. "You said that you do too. Our employees don't need us back immediately, so..." He sloshes the wine around. "We're close to the border. What do you feel about drinking a lot of tequila, destroying the good name of Pennsylvania, and hitching it to Mexico?"
Eames sees right through him. "Hate to say it, but eventually you're going to have to make a decision. You can't keep living on the road forever. I don't think you'd want to live on the road forever. In case you haven't noticed, there aren't many chances for laundry. And you eat a lot of hamburgers." He puts his arm around Arthur's back, drawing him close. Arthur lets him, and Eames leans in, deep-voiced. "But I'd be there with you," he says. "In Mexico, if you want. In Blake's Peak, if you want that too."
Arthur smooths his palm over Eames' tux jacket. There's the glint of the cufflinks when Eames shifts to accommodate him. "Would you really?" Arthur wonders.
"You remember that time at Tommy Greyson's pool party when we made out?"
"It crosses my mind occasionally," Arthur says, straight-faced.
"I was so nervous about making a move on you. You were, like, the brilliant and put-together Arthur, and I couldn't believe that you were allowing me to grope you, to mess you up. You let me press you to the ground and kiss you sweetly. I was so turned on, you couldn't even imagine." Eames laughs at the memory. "It's silly, the things we carry with us from our childhoods. You never quite mean them to, but they stick against your ribs and you can't shake it off, even when you're grown up and should know better."
Arthur stops smoothing the jacket to really look at Eames. To look at the complicated mess of him, the borderlands juncture of the Eames that he remembers with the Eames that he's still yet getting to know.
"That time by the pool," Eames says wistfully, "I wanted it to be love."
Arthur hears his breath rise up; that's how light he feels right now. They're in California and he can tap out the rhythm of Eames' pulse beneath his rough biker's fingers.
"It was," he says.