This was the weirdest guidance counsellor's office he'd ever seen, Dom thought. He sat, awkward, in the chair, while across the desk a Japanese guy in a steel grey suit tapped away at the computer. He looked completely out of place, more like a CEO than anything else. The opened copies of the Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times only contributed to the feeling that this guy had gotten lost on the way to some other, much more high powered office.
"So," he said, at last. "Dominic Cobb, yes?"
"Yes Sir," Dom said "I transferred-"
"Yes yes," he said, "well, one school is much like another. Full of people with very little ambition and even fewer brains." He looked sharply at Dom, "But your record is impressive. Don't disappoint me, Mr Cobb. Ariadne will show you around. Good day."
"Is that it?" Dom asked, thrown. He'd expected a much longer lecture about... school spirit, or whatever.
"What more do you need?" the counsellor said. "Now, go! I have another miscreant to see and the TSE is about to open. Shoo!"
Feeling at a loss, Dom shouldered his backpack and stepped outside the office, where he almost collided with another boy.
"Sorry," the boy said, and put out a hand to steady him. "I was in rather a rush." His accent was English, Dom realised.
"No problem," he said.
"Mr Eames!" the guidance counsellor called "You again?"
"In the flesh, Mr Saito," the boy replied, pushing open the door. "You know how much I enjoy your particular brand of discipline."
Dom choked on a laugh as the door swung closed behind Eames.
"Don't encourage him," the girl sitting on the chair outside the office said. She stood. She was short, even in heels. Dom thought she was cute though, wearing a Misfits t shirt, and with lots of curly brown hair. "Are you Dom Cobb?"
"You must be Ariadne," Dom said, realising. "Mr...Saito? Said you'd show me round. Guess it's my lucky day?"
"Oh sure," she said "Yes, this is the best school ever! " and she shook imaginary pompoms.
"No, I meant, that I get you, and not some, I don't know, audio-visual geek to babysit me."
She looked at him sideways.
"You're cute," she said, finally. "You don't stand a chance, but you're cute, I'll give you that. Come on, I'll take you to your next class."
Dom had been at the new school a week when he first saw her. It was lunch time and he and Ariadne were sharing one of the small tables at the corner of the yard, Ariadne drinking a weird purple smoothie. She had a pencil twisted up in her hair. It might even have been on purpose- one thing he'd learned about Ariadne quickly that first day was that she had a reason for almost everything, even if some of it was understandable only to her- like why she was friends with the new kid.
He actually heard her first- a deep, throaty laugh followed by "No, Robert, no!" in the most beautiful voice he'd ever heard. Dom looked up from his cardboard-y sandwich to find the source of the laughter. She was sitting a couple of tables away, dressed all in black, sitting on the table, with her feet on the bench, and she was even more lovely than her voice. Wavy brown hair, slim, elegant hands, and when she threw her head back and laughed again, Dom suddenly understood what those sonnets in English class were all about.
"Who's that?" He asked, grabbing Ariadne.
"Jesus, Cobb!" Ariadne barked, as she spilled purple smoothie all over her design homework. She looked across to where the love of Dom's life was currently eating an apple.
"That is out of your league," Ariadne said
"Ari...." he pleaded, eyes wide.
"She's Mallorie Avon. Mal." Ariadne explained. "She's French, her family moved over here a couple years ago, and Dom, you don't stand a chance."
"why not?" Dom asked. He knew he wasn't bad looking. Even Ariadne said that.
"Because," Ariadne stole his chips, "For one thing, Robert "I own half the city" Fischer has a thing for her, and for another, she's not allowed to date anyone until graduation, unless her step-brother does too. Her dad's weird."
"You're shitting me," Dom said, after a pause. "That's-"
"Fucking weird." She crunched a Dorito noisily. "Yeah."
"Well, what are the chances of her brother dating?" Dom asked, already plotting on getting Ariadne to agree on a pity date with the mysterious brother.
There was a crash at Mal's table and Dom looked over to see the tall dark haired boy Mal had been talking to lying flat on his back, the remains of his lunch scattered around him. A new guy, with wavy dark hair, skinny jeans and a striped scarf was glaring down at him.
"Try and trip me again Fischer and I'll make sure you'll never have children," the guy said, bitingly. Then he sat down and started eating composedly while Mal glared at him, then went to help Fischer to his feet.
"Given that that's her brother, I'd say slim to none," Ariadne said, and stole his snack cake as well.
"Make anyone's life a misery today?" Arthur's dad asked as Arthur dumped his bag onto the hall table. Arthur paused, foot on the bottom step of the staircase.
"Only the normal assholes that didn't get the memo the first time" he said. He rolled his shoulder, still feeling the bruise from where one of Fischer's friends had slammed him in the locker. Apparently laying out the heir to the Fischer fortune made you a target for ass kissers who thought beating him up would get them into Fischer's favour.
His dad frowned.
"Son, are you being targeted because-"
"He'd not getting shit because he's gay," Mal interrupted. "He's getting it because he's an asshole."
"Mal! Language!" his dad said, but indulgently. Always indulgent with Mal, with the cuckoo child he'd only discovered two years ago.
"Robert Fischer and his buddies spend most of their time time making my life hell," Arthur said, angrily, climbing the stairs. "So excuse me if I don't want my sister dating him."
"HALF SISTER" she bellowed after him and Arthur heard the door to the back yard slam behind her.
"There will be no dating," his dad shouted to the now empty hall. "I'm serious about this."
"No one would date HIM anyway," Mal yelled back.
Arthur sat on the bed and pulled his sweater off, then called Yusuf.
"I'm coming over," he said when he answered.
"Home for five minutes and you're already escaping," Yusuf said. "I think this could be a new record.
"I'm so jealous you're still an only child," Arthur said. "I'll be over in a bit. Tell your Mom I'm staying for dinner"
"At this point, you might just as well move in," Yusuf said "bring your politics homework, we'll trade."
"I'm capable of doing my own calculus," Arthur said, but he was already pulling out the textbook with his free hand.
"Those are my terms," Yusuf chuckled. "I'll see you in ten."
Mal was pleading with their dad when Arthur poked his head round the door to the den.
"Please Papa," she said "Robert's asked me twice and if I keep saying no he'll ask someone else."
"You know the rules," Arthur's dad said "No dating until after graduation, or until Arthur does."
"It's a stupid rule" Mal actually stamped her foot and Arthur rolled his eyes.
"Arthur? Stupid rule?" His dad asked.
"I don't care," Arthur shrugged. He didn't, really. There wasn't anyone at school worth getting upset about, and he only had to wait a few more months til he could escape to college. Preferably to another country.
"God, for ONCE, can't you be on my side?" Mal asked.
"I'm going to Yusuf's," Arthur said, "I'm not going to be in for dinner."
He could still hear Mal arguing as he zipped up his jacket and got his helmet from the hall closet. He biked to Yusuf's with his mind mostly on college applications. Graduation couldn't come soon enough.
Over the next week and a half, Dom learned that Mal liked apples and grapes, but not pears. That she drove to school in a shiny new Mini, but that she didn't give her brother a ride, in fact, she never talked to him at all, if she could help it. That she had a huge group of friends that went everywhere with her, that everything she said in her soft French accent instantly became the most beautiful word ever, and that he, Dom, was head over heels.
"The staring is getting creepy," Ariadne remarked. Dom jolted out of his contemplation of Mal.
"But look at her," he said. "She's, just, totally perfect."
Ariadne pulled a face. "She's just a pretty girl, who gets attention because she's pretty and because she's European, so everyone thinks she's exotic. And she uses her Dad's stupid rule as bait, all the boys running at her every whim." Ariadne stabbed viciously at her pasta salad.
"Are you jealous?" Dom asked, uncomfortable. He liked Ariadne, but she was just a girl. A friend. Not Mal.
"Of Mal? No, I'm just annoyed at your constant moping. It's getting on my nerves."
"But Ariadne," Dom said, looking across again. "How am I supposed to keep coming to school every day and know she doesn't even know I exist?"
"You could go over and talk to her." Ariadne stood. "Or, I don't know, ask her for French lessons. You suck, so that would at least be convincing. But do something because you're annoying the hell out of me."
"French lessons." Dom repeated, turning the idea over in his head. "Would that work?"
"Don't know unless you try," Ariadne said. "I'm going, I've got choir. Talk to her, for the love of god."
She stomped away across the yard.
"French lessons. Why didn't I think of that before?"
"Hey Mal. Hi, um, Mallorie. Bonjour Mal. Hello Mal, I wondered if..." Dom mumbled over and over and wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans, dropping his French textbook in the process.
"For the love of God," Ariadne said. "I have to do everything."
Dom felt a small hand grip his elbow as she steered him over to Mal's table. She was surrounded by her usual group of pretty friends and adoring boys. Fischer, Dom noticed sourly, was sitting right next to her, showing her something in his notebook.
"-my muse, see? I call this one, Mallorie by Moonlight."
"Hey, Mal," Ariadne said. They all looked round. It reminded Dom of one of those nature documentaries with the hyenas.
"Yes?" Mal said.
"You still need an extra credit assignment, right?"
Mal nodded slowly.
"Meet Dom," Ariadne shoved him forward and Dom stumbled and knocked over a milkshake on the table. It splashed over Fischer's notebook in a thick, pink puddle.
"He needs tutoring. He's flunking French," Ariadne continued.
"Hey!" Dom protested.
"You kind of are," she said. "So, you get your extra credit. Dom doesn't fail French, its a win win."
"Why would I do that?" Mal asked. She looked adorably confused. Dom wanted to smooth out the wrinkle between her eyebrows.
Ariadne hitched her hip on the table, avoiding the milkshake.
"Your dad doesn't know that you have to make up that credit, does he? And I bet that new Mini is a reward for good grades, am I right?"
Dom was both impressed, and slightly scared. Mal smiled up at him, and all other thoughts vanished.
"Of course. I'll be happy to, Dan."
"Dom," Dom whispered, barely able to speak.
"Great," Ariadne said, after Dom spluttered and found he couldn't say anything, "he'll meet you tomorrow after school in the Library. Good talk." She pinched his elbow hard and Dom startled, then smiled at Mal until Ariadne led him away.
"Hey, Cobb," a voice called behind them, "She wipe your ass for you as well?
Ariadne flicked them off without turning round, and Dom stopped hyperventilating long enough to say
"Yeah, you'd be lost without me. I know," Ariadne said, "Give me a ride home, and we'll call it even."
The tutoring was kind of like torture, Dom thought. He couldn't concentrate on the textbook when she was right across the table from him, her fingers tracing down the tables of verbs as he tried to remember the different endings.
"Your girlfriend was right," she said, the second lesson. "You really do suck at this."
"I-I, she's not my girlfriend!" Dom said, shocked. "Seriously! She's just a friend. I like girls who are more," he struggled to find a word to that meant 'Mal.' "Mysterious," he finished, half-heartedly.
"Oh," Mal said, and she smiled again. "I just assumed, you spend all your time with her."
"No, I'm not dating her. I'm not dating anyone," he said, just to make it clear.
"Right," she said. "Well, I have to go. Robert said he'd wait for me."
"Same time on Thursday?" Dom said, burying the stab of disappointment at Fischer's name.
"I still have to make up the credit, so yes," Mal said.
As Dom watched her walk away, he saw Arthur cut her off on the way to the parking lot. They had some kind of argument, and Mal shoved past in and climbed into her car, leaving Arthur glaring after her.
Whatever, thought Dom, already counting down the minutes til Thursday.
"Well, what a wonderful development," Arthur said sourly. Mal braked next to Fischer's car, and wound down the window to speak to him, before driving off slowly so Fischer could follow her.
"Could be worse," Yusuf said, philosophically, "At least he's not Cobol?"
"Did you miss the part where he spent most of ninth grade slamming me into lockers?" Arthur said, irritated. "And he still tries, given half a chance."
"I always thought that was sexual tension," Yusuf said absently, pulling out his phone.
Arthur glared at him, but Yusuf was busy texting, so the effect was lost.
"I can't believe you told your Dad you'd rather have the money in your college fund than a car," Yusuf said, when they got to the bike racks. It was an old argument.
"This is more environmentally friendly. And you could just drive me around, seeing as it seems to bother you so much." Arthur said, unlocking the chain.
"I have better things to do with my time," Yusuf said.
"Well, I might be needing all that money anyway," Arthur said. He pulled an envelope out of his messenger bag. "Look what arrived this morning."
"Did your Dad see? Did you open it!" Yusuf asked, and he grabbed Arthur’s arm in a death grip, fingers diggning in.
"No, and no. I...I can't open it."
"Give it to me," Yusuf said, reaching for it. "I'll open it."
"No!" Arthur said, clutching the envelope closer. "I'll do it."
The letter had arrived that morning just before school. Manila envelope, airmail marks, crest of Imperial College, London. He'd just not been able to bring himself to open it. To find out, one way or the other, if all that work had been worthwhile.
"Go on," Yusuf said. "You've got to open it."
"What if I didn't get in?" Arthur said "I'll go mad, if I have to stay here for school."
"Come to CalSci with me, " Yusuf said "We'll pack you in the trunk. Just open the damn letter Arthur."
Arthur slit the envelope. The words danced before his eyes:
"Confirm your place........BA Linguistics........subject to Visa requirements......"
"I got in," Arthur said slowly, then he repeated it, loudly "I GOT IN!" and he hugged Yusuf quickly and tightly before leaning against the wall to read the letter again, to make absolutely sure.
"Congratulations," Yusuf said "I guess I won't be packing you into the trunk after all."
"No," Arthur said, "although the offer was appreciated."
He read the letter over again, tracing his fingers over the crest.
"Will your Dad pay for it?" Yusuf asked. He know, as Arthur did, that his dad just assumed Arthur would go to Tufts, as he had. He'd dropped enough hints about Boston to leave no one in any doubt that Arthur was expected to go there.
"Doesn't matter if he won't," Arthur said. "I've got a college fund, and if he won't sign for it, Mum will. And Mum's already said she'll pay me out of the royalties if he flat out refused me the money."
"See," Yusuf bumped his hip, "And you thought having a mom writing soft-core porn was embarrassing. No, it's useful!"
"Yusuf, please don't mention my mom and porn in the same sentence ever again," Arthur said, grimacing.
"Today," Mal said "We're going to start on the present conditional tense."
"We are?" Dom asked, puzzled. He had no idea what that was.
"Yes. Now, the conditional tense endings are here. Try them with a regular verb."
Dom looked at the list of endings.
"Umm," he said, after a while "Je mangerais?"
"I would eat," Mal translated. "That's it. Now the next one."
"Would you?" Dom asked, going for it. "I mean, would you eat- with me? I mean, like a date, with me?"
"Oh," Mal's face fell, "Oh, you're a nice guy, but I can't."
"Because of Robert," Dom said, feeling a weight settle in his stomach.
"No, because I can't. No dates until after graduation next year, or until Arthur does. I thought you knew."
She was very lovely, her face creased into a frown, and Dom felt the germ of an idea. "It's my papa's stupid rule."
"Oh," Dom said. "Is, is that all? Suppose we could find a way around it. Find someone to date Arthur, so that you could date too?"
She put her hand on his, and Dom felt electricity spark through him.
"You would do that? For me?" she asked, eyes wide.
"I'd do anything for you," Dom said honestly.
"Oh, that's wonderful," she cooed.
"So, I'll ask Ariadne to-"
"It won't work," Mal cut him off.
Dom bristled on behalf of his friend
"Why not? She's smart AND pretty. He should be LUCKY to-"
"Arthur likes boys," Mal said. "I forgot you're new here. Everyone knows."
"Oh," Dom considered it for a moment. "well, that makes it harder, but not impossible."
Her hand was still soft and warm on his, and at that moment, he felt like he could do anything.
"Let me just get this straight," Ariadne said, swinging her legs on the tall stool. They were supposed to be measuring the resistance of different metals, but the class had a substitute teacher, and so it was more a cheerful kind of chaos. "You've promised Mal that you'll find someone to date her brother, so that she will go out with you?"
"Well," Dom said, ducking his head, "the second part was kind of implied. Don't look at me like that Ariadne, you said to to something, so I did."
"Did you forget the part where she is clearly into Robert?" Ariadne asked.
"Are you going to help or what?" Dom said. "I mean, how hard can it be?" He nodded over to where Arthur and Yusuf were deep in conversation. "it's not like he's hideous or anything. There must be someone who'd at least take him to the movies."
"Watch it, asshole!" Arthur's voice rose about the noise and he stood up to glare at a frankly terrified looking girl who had knocked into their bench, and turned over the complex net of wires and clips Arthur and Yusuf had set up.
"Oh yeah, with that winning personality, the boys will be lining up," Ariadne said. She clipped the wire onto the sheet of copper and checked the meter.
"Someone will do it," Dom said, sounding more confident than he felt. He was so close to getting what he wanted, he wasn't going to let a little something like Arthur being slightly abrasive get in his way.
"Good luck with that," Ariadne said, as the girl returned, quaking, to her seat.
Dom spent the next few days covertly studying everyone he thought might possibly be gay, trying to work out the perfect date for Arthur. He got two propositions, a few puzzled expressions, and one, disgusted "I'd rather sleep with women."
"The guy is undatable," Dom said miserably, lying on the grass. "People are either terrified or not interested."
"Maybe you've been asking the wrong guys," Ariadne said "I mean, we are working with a small pool here, but he doesn't have to date him forever. Just for long enough."
"I asked everyone," Dom said, "You know I did."
"Not quite everyone," Ariadne said, sitting up slowly, and looking over the sports field, to where the guy that Dom had seen on his first day of school was smoking. "Did you ask Eames?"
"Who?" Dom asked.
"Eames. No one knows his first name. Hell, Eames could be his first name. Depending on who you listen to, he's either Sting's long lost son, an English Lord, or a London gang member in witness protection. He sold his kidney for a new tattoo and his semen for a set of speakers. Trust me, there is nothing that boy won't do, and that includes dating Arthur."
"This is your chance Dom," Ariadne said, taking him by the shoulders. "In fact, come on, we'll ask him now before you can chicken out. Nash's party is in three days, what better time for Arthur to need a date?"
"Are you sure I'm not about to get my nose broken for this?" Dom asked, just to make sure.
"Totally sure. 85% sure. Probably not broken Ariadne replied.
"This is stupid," Dom said, looking over to where Eames was slouched against the lowest bench of the bleachers, propped back on one elbow. He was blowing out a smoke ring, eyes closed.
"You want to go to Nash's party without Mal, be my guest," Ariadne shrugged, "Just don't come complaining to me!"
"OK," Dom said, and sucked in a breath. "OK, let's get this over with."
Eames opened his eyes as they approached.
"Don't think we've been introduced," he said eventually, as Dom tried to come up with an opening.
"Oh. Dom Cobb," Dom said. "I'm new."
"I'd noticed," Eames drawled.
"I- I have a proposition for you," Dom said at last.
Eames blew another smoke ring, his eyes going from Dom to Ariadne and back. "You're both cute, but I learned the hard way that threesomes just don't work for me."
"What!" Dom yelled, taking a step backward and colliding with Ariadne.
"No," Dom said, more convinced than ever this was a bad idea. "Not me! And not Ariadne!"
"Seems rather a dull proposition so far," Eames said.
"Him" Dom said, pointing out to the soccer field where Arthur was making a pinpoint sliding tackle. "Arthur. I'm in love with his sister, so you need to date him."
Eames frowned and stubbed the butt of the cigarette out in the grass.
"Start from the beginning," he said.
"It's like this," Ariadne took over. She sat down on the bleacher and Eames tilted his head to look at her. "Dom here is head over heels in love with Mal Avon. She's the woman of his dreams."
"But," Dom put in, before Ariadne could make him sound even more pathetic "She's not allowed to go out with anyone unless her brother is also dating."
"Which is where you come in," Ariadne continued. "I mean, Arthur's pretty cute, considering."
Eames studied the field with an appraising look.
"What's in it for me?" he asked, at last.
"You might get laid?" Dom blurted out, then felt his cheeks heat.
Eames snorted with laughter
"Do I look like I need help with that?"
"Um," Dom swallowed, unsure what to say. The honest answer was "no, not in a million years," but he didn't want to give the wrong impression.
"You could look at it as a challenge," Ariadne suggested "Like, extreme dating?"
"I'm still not convinced," Eames said, looking bored. Or possibly just English.
"Please," Dom said, giving up. "I, I don't have any arguments. You don't know me at all. But I am in love with Mal, and sometimes love makes you do stupid things, so this is me, being stupid. Please, please, date Mal's crazy stepbrother so I have a chance at asking her out, before Fischer does."
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the sound of Ariadne hitting her own forehead in frustration.
Finally Eames stubbed his cigarette out in the grass and turned his head to look at Dom.
"I like a challenge. And you are a romantic, I can respect that. Of course, it'll cost you."
"WHAT?!" Dom squawked before he could think better of it.
"You Americans and your arcane dating rituals," Eames said, like that explained anything. "Say I take your girl's tempestuous brother out. That's going to cost money- gentleman like myself will of course pay on the first date. Then, we go on to the cinema- that's tickets, popcorn, probably drinks. It adds up, you know?"
"You want me to pay you to take Arthur out?" Dom asked, just to get it straight.
"I don't care who pays me," Eames said, and stood up. "But those are my terms."
He sauntered off, shouting something Dom couldn't quite hear to the soccer team as he passed.
"Great," Dom said, slumping onto the bleachers, "what are we going to do now?"
"We?" Ariadne said. "What is this 'we'?"
"Don't desert me now!" Dom looked at her pleadingly "There has to be a way round this."
"I don't see what I get out of this," Ariadne said "I mean, I help you in this, you go out with Mal, and I'm down one friend." She sighed, dramatically "I can see it now. Me, alone, at lunch. Finally getting to eat all my food. No more pining Dom....Wait, why am I not helping again?"
"Fischer," she said, decisively. "Fischer is the answer."
"No, Fischer is the problem," Dom said.
"Just follow me," Ariadne said.
"Are you lost?" Fischer asked, as Ariadne plopped down onto the bench next to him in Bio. Dom hung back, still not sure what was going on. Mal was nowhere to be seen.
"Funny," Ariadne said. "I'm sure your social status can cope with being seen with me. Especially when you hear what I have to offer."
"Nothing I'm interested in," Fischer looked her up and down dismissively, and Dom clenched his fists- not that he wanted Fischer to be interested in Ariadne, any more that he wanted him to be into Mal, but no one should look at her like that.
"Mal Avon interesting enough for you?" Ariadne said. "You want her, you can't have her, unless someone also wants her brother, right? Well, that guy over there," She pointed to where Eames was lounging against the bench, flirting with a couple of girls, "will date Arthur. For a price. Which, I'm sure, you'd be willing to pay. Am I right?"
"How much?" Fischer asked. Dom held his breath- he couldn't believe it was working.
"That's between you and him," Ariadne said, "Hey, are those cinnamon goldfish?" She reached out and Fischer smacked her hand away.
"Unnecessary," she said, rubbing her hand. "Like I said, think of me as a fixer. You have a problem. I have a solution."
"I get what's in it for me. And what's in it for Eames. But what's in it for you?"
Ariadne shrugged, looked down at the table so that her hair fell in her face.
"When I see you in the hall, you say hello. Maybe stand by my locker once in a while. So boys- so people know that I'm cool."
Dom couldn't believe that Fischer would fall for the act, but he just nodded. "Ok, I can see that."
"Great," Ariadne said, tucked her hair back behind her ears.
"Bye now," Fischer said, and glared at her til she got up.
"I can't believe that worked," Dom said
"Shhh," Ariadne hissed "Don't undo all my hard work."
"I can't wait to tell Mal," Dom said as they opened their text books. "You're the best friend ever."
"I know," Ariadne said. "Don't forget it."
Arthur frowned at the deflated tyre and sighed as he dug out the puncture kit. Typical that it came on the same night Yusuf had field hockey practice, so he couldn't even bum a ride home.
"You've got a flat."
English accent. Amused, slightly sarcastic tone. Eames. Just what he needed.
He scowled up at him.
"I know," he said, and went back to fixing the flat, smoothing the patch over the puncture. It would hold long enough to get him home at any rate.
Eames leaned back against the wall and said nothing.
"Can I help you?" Arthur said at last.
"I'm fine," Eames shrugged. "You don't talk much, do you?"
"That depends," Arthur said. He fitted the pump into the valve and started re inflated the tyre. "My flat tyre isn't exactly a scintillating topic of conversation." He rubbed the dirt off his fingers onto his jeans.
Eames pulled out a pack of cigarettes and tapped them against his thigh.
"Hmmmm" he said.
Arthur clipped the pump back onto the frame of the bike. He could feel Eames' eyes on the back of his head.
"You're not afraid of me, are you?" Eames asked eventually.
Arthur swung one leg over the bike and kicked up the stand. He looked at Eames "Why on earth would I be afraid of you? You're not that badass, despite the accent." He was still waiting for the other shoe to drop- this was the most Eames had ever spoken to him and he wanted to know why.
"Ok, not afraid," Eames said, and licked his lips, plump and shiny "But I bet you've thought about me naked, huh?"
And there went the other shoe.
"I don't know who put you up to this," Arthur said "but the whole 'bait Arthur' thing is old and boring. Go pick on someone else." He pushed off and pedalled quickly away, Eames' protests faint in his ears. He whizzed out through the parking lot, past Fischer's parked car, but not Mal's. Wherever she was, it wasn't with Fischer. Which was a small comfort.
He had no idea what Eames was playing at- up til today he would have said the guy didn't even know his name. Everyone knew Eames though. The accent. The flirting with anything that moved, the attitude that he was just playing around until something more interesting came along. The mouth and hands and slouch. It was just like him, Arthur thought sourly, to try and get a rise out of him.
His internal debate had taken him all the way home, and he freewheeled up the drive and locked his bike away in the garage. The Imperial letter felt ridiculously heavy in his messenger bag. He still hadn't worked out how to tell his dad. He pulled out his phone and hit speed-dial.
"Hey mom," he said as she picked up.
"Sweetie!" she said, raising her voice over some kind of PA announcement. "I'm in Portland, ten minutes to boarding. How are you?"
He sat on the bottom of the stairs. The TV wasn't on, so his dad wasn't home yet.
"I'm fine, mom," he said quietly. "How's the tour?"
"Sword of Passion is huge," she said happily. Arthur cringed at the double entendre, which knowing his mom was totally intended. "Oprah loved it. Did you watch?"
"I have it on DVR," Arthur lied. He hadn't watched, but enough people at school had gleefully discussed his mother's latest piece of erotic fiction in such detail that he felt he knew every word.
"I thought you were going to call on Wednesday," his mum said over the blare of boarding calls. "Are you ok? Problems at school?"
"No more so than usual. Teachers are uninspired. Most of the kids are banal. Yusuf is fine. Some English guy tried to talk to me today."
"Ooh! I do love an accent. Maybe he likes you."
"Not everything is a romance novel, mom."
"How did I raise such a cynical son?” his mom sighed, “And it's erotic fiction, dear, not Harlequin."
Arthur winced. The door cracked open and Mal and a group of her friends stomped into the hall and through into the den.
"I got a school acceptance letter," Arthur said in a rush.
"Oh!” his mom exclaimed, “Which one? I'm so proud!"
"Imperial. In London," Arthur said.
"That was the one you really hoped for, isn't it?" his mom said shrewdly. "I'm so happy for you. But you know your dad will be unhappy."
"Well, that won't be any different to any other day," Arthur said, gloomily.
"That's not fair," his mom said, "he loves you, you know that."
"You're divorced, shouldn't you be calling him an asshole and agreeing with me?" Arthur asked.
"I'm trying to set a good example," his Mom replied. "Now, when you tell him, you can remind him about the divorce terms if he decides to be awkward, ok?"
"Ok," Arthur said.
"I have to go, baby, that's the final call. I love you!"
"Love you," Arthur said, and hung up.
Dom was trying to learn his adjectives so he didn't look like a total fool in front of Mal, again, when Eames rapped on the library table.
“Lentement, doucement,” Dom muttered over and over, before he looked up.
"You don't have free period now, do you?" he asked.
"Like that matters," Eames scoffed. "I can see why you needed my expertise with Arthur. He’s a challenge.."
"I'm broke," Dom said, "ask Fischer."
"Did I as for more money?" Eames sat backward on the chair and braced his arms on the back. "I saw Arthur yesterday and he didn't even give me the chance to ask him out."
Dom underlined a word he needed to look up.
"Well, what did you say?" he said. “Why didn’t you try harder! Damn it Eames you know how important this is!” He glared at Eames.
"I said Hello." Eames drawled.
"And-what, you expected him to fall at your feet or something?"
"Oh, of course you did," Dom said, realising. He didn't know whether to be impressed or annoyed.
"It doesn't usually take much more," Eames said "you're all so easy for the accent."
"Well, clearly Arthur wasn't." Dom put his pen down. "Have you tried actually having a conversation? You can’t just leave it there!”
"That was the next plan," Eames scratched the back of his neck. "I just don't know what to talk to him about. His bike didn't seem that interesting to him. I need you to do some more research for me. Ask that sister of his."
"I'll ask Mal," Dom said, glad of the excuse to spend more time with her, "Just keep trying? Please?"
"I like a challenge," Eames said "Don't worry, we'll get you into Mal's knickers one way or the other."
"That's- not-" Dom spluttered, "I just want her to go to the party with me!"
"All starts somewhere," Eames said with a smirk. He got up and slapped Dom on the shoulder, then sauntered out of the library.
"Come on," Mal hissed as she opened the door later that afternoon. "My Dad's only out for an hour. If he catches you here, I won't be going anywhere but school until I'm twenty-five."
She pretty much shoved him into the hallway.
"Arthur's room is the second one on the left up the stairs," she said, "let's see what we can find."
Dom felt a little bad about snooping through Arthur's stuff, but if it gave Eames an advantage, he'd live with it. Arthur's room was scattered with sweaters and scarves, boots and converse lined up neatly along the wall, there was a guitar leaning against the open wardrobe and some mud-covered soccer cleats on the floor in front of it.
"He plays?" Dom asked.
"Not much," Mal said. "I think he wants to learn, but he's not that good."
One wall held a huge photo collage of ticket stubs and band fliers and photos of the bands themselves, mostly skinny guys and girls in jeans with guitars. Every photo had at least one odd percussion instrument. Dom took a photo on his phone, even though he didn't recognise any of the bands. Maybe Eames would.
"There's nothing much in his desk," Mal said, sifting through the piles of stuff. "Just London tour guides and other stuff about England. He's such an anglophile, I think he was disappointed I was born on the other side of the Channel."
"Well, at least Eames has that going for him" Dom said, smiling at her. Mal was funny, he realised, as well as beautiful, and he felt so lucky to just be here with her, even if 'here' was breaking into her half-brother's bedroom.
He looked at the piles of books stacked up round the closed laptop, but the only one he recognised was Much Ado about Nothing, and he doubted Eames and Arthur would bond over their English assignment.
"He really likes Wes Anderson, huh?" he said, studying the film posters on the wall.
"Yes," Mal said absently. She opened the nightstand drawer and then squeaked and slammed it closed.
"What?" Dom asked "Are you ok?"
"Nothing," Mal said "Just proof that Arthur wants sex someday."
Dom yanked the drawer open and saw the little bottle rolling around and the strips of condoms.
"Well," he said and swallowed "at least we can tell Eames he believes in being prepared?"
Mal smiled at the weak joke, and Dom felt like he could float.
"Arthur likes this place," Mal handed him a flyer "they have new bands, and food. We should tell Eames."
Dom looked at the flyer and tucked it into his jeans pocket.
"Oh hey," he said, pleased his voice didn't wobble. "Speaking of music. And um, dancing. And food and-stuff."
"Yes?" Mal put some ticket stubs in an envelope.
"Nash's party has those. Things, I mean. If you like them, we could go? Together?"
"Wait to see if Eames asks Arthur," Mal said.
"Is that a yes?" Dom asked, nervous.
"It's not a no," Mal smiled.
"You got that tire fixed then?"
Arthur looked up from the Nook. It was shiny and perfect and cost money he should save to spend on student housing.
"Are you following me?" he asked Eames.
"No," Eames said, looking hurt that Arthur could even suggest such a thing. "I was buying strings across the street, saw your bike, and thought I'd come over and say hello." He shrugged, "Hello."
"Hi," Arthur said. He put the Nook down regretfully. "Strings?" he asked, confused.
"Not buying that?" Eames said ignoring the question.
"I can't," Arthur said.
He was about to push past Eames when he noticed the t shirt he was wearing.
"Is that- is that a Mumford and Sons shirt?" he asked, shocked.
"You're heard of them?" Eames smiled, and it lit up his face.
"Of course I have," Arthur said "I'm just surprised you have,"
"Arthur, I'm hurt you think so little of my musical taste. I saw them live back when I still lived at home. They're good, you should catch them if you get a chance."
"I did," Arthur said. "They were amazing, one of the best shows I've ever seen. What did they play when you saw them?" He couldn't believe Eames, Eames liked one of his favourite bands.
"A lot of the early cuts from Sigh no More," Eames said. “Some old stuff. It was good.”
Arthur gave one final longing look at the Nook and walked past it resolutely on the way to the door. Eames trotted along next to him.
“Seriously, are you following me?” Arthur asked again, halting at the doorway. It had started to rain and he remembered, belatedly, that his corduroy blazer was kind of the opposite of waterproof.
“I thought we were having a conversation,” Eames said. “We can’t really do that if you’re out there and I’m in here.”
“Ugh,” Arthur said, looking out at the rain.
“I didn’t think the prospect was that bad,” Eames said, English accent as dry as dust.
Arthur laughed, despite himself.
“No, it’s the weather,” he said. “I’m going to get soaked.”
“I was going to have lunch at the diner,” Eames leaned round and pointed to the diner just down the street, “They do great chips. Fries, “ he corrected himself. “If you had lunch with me, I bet the rain would stop, eventually.”
Arthur couldn’t think of a reason to say no.
“Ok,” he said, slowly. “but why?”
“To wait for the rain to stop, I thought we’d been over this?” Eames grinned at him to take the sting out of it, and Arthur found himself smiling hesitantly back.
“No, I mean, why me?” he said as they scuttled out into the rain. Eames held a magazine- the NME, Arthur noticed-over his head against the downpour.
“You have great taste in music,” Eames said as their feet splashed in time though the puddles, “and you tackle like Gattuso. Seems like you’d be worth getting to know.”
“And so, moral of the story, if you are ever on the Underground, whatever you do, don’t stand on the left,” Eames finished, and took a big slurp of his milkshake. “I swear, I thought she was going to beat me to death with her baby bag. Terrible example to set for the children.”
“I’ll be sure to not do that,” Arthur said, and chased the last of the ketchup round his plate with the last fry. The fries were, as promised, great. Arthur’s feet were wet inside his Converse, and Eames’s t shirt clung damply to his chest and shoulders, but despite that, Arthur found he was actually having fun. Eames was full of stories, some of which were probably even true. He’d even taken Arthur’s email address and promised to sent him the name of a friend of his who taught guitar, which at least explained the strings comment earlier.
“Hey,” Eames said as they pegged bills under the salt shaker and got up from the table. “See, it’s stopped raining. Never doubt me.”
“OK, Rain Man,” Arthur said. He wriggled his arms back into the damp sleeves of his blazer. “Well,” he said stooping to unlock his bike. “I guess I’ll see you at school on Monday or something.”
“I’m going to that party tomorrow at Nash’s,” Eames said, offhandedly. “I might see you there, yeah?”
“I don’t really go to parties.” Arthur said “They’re kind of boring.”
“Haven’t I kept you wonderfully entertained for the past hour?” Eames said, and made a scandalised face.
“I-” Arthur said, because the thing of it was, Eames had. “I guess I could try to make it. But I’m not promising anything.”
“Hope is all a romantic needs,” Eames said in a ridiculously plummy accent.
Even though it started raining again halfway home, Arthur couldn’t seem to stop smiling.
Dom lost sight of Mal almost as soon as they got through the front door of the party.
"I have to say hi to Cherry," she said, "get me a drink?" and before Dom could ask who the hell was called Cherry she had disappeared into the crowd.
He mooched around for a bit and found the drinks, but felt stupid carrying two cups around when Mal was no where to be seen. In the end, he just made himself comfortable in the corner and scanned the room for Mal, or anyone else he actually knew. For some unexplained reason, there was a karaoke machine in full blast, and the sound of his classmates murdering eighties pop did nothing to lessen his bad mood. The excitement that had been fizzing in his gut since Mal had said yes to the party was being replaced with disappointment, and he had half made his mind up to go home when Ariadne appeared at his elbow.
"Hey," she said "I thought you were here with Mal?"
"So did I," he said, sipping his drink. It tasted like paint stripper mixed with 7up, and he made a face, but coming to the party and not drinking would have marked him out as even more of a loser.
"So instead of, I don't know, finding her, you're sulking here?" Ariadne said. "Go and find her, you idiot."
"Help me?" Dom asked.
"No can do," she said, looking up to where Nisa had finished her rendition of Atomic. "It's my turn."
"Ari-" he called after her, but she had bounded up onto the sofa and grabbed the mic.
"I'm drunk but I'm sober," she began, and Dom shook his head. He didn't need her telling him everything was going to be fine, fine, fine, when he knew it wasn't.
He wandered into the kitchen again, in search of something less like chemicals to drink, and found Mal leaning back against the freezer as Fischer braced his hand on the work surface, boxing her in. She didn't seem to mind, and Dom gritted his teeth. She’d been so excited when he’d told her on the phone that Eames and Arthur were going to the party, so she could go too. Now, Dom thought unhappily, he saw why. He’d all but delivered straight to Fischer.
"Oh, hey Dom," Fischer said, turning his head, "Tell your friend thanks, I didn't think it would really work.”
"Yeah," Dom shrugged. "Mal, I was looking for you. I got you that drink." He gestured with the new cup.
"Oh," she said, and slipped out from under Fischer's arm. "That's sweet of you. I'm sorry, I got distracted."
"I'm going home in a bit," Dom said, unable to stand being the third wheel much longer. "If you want a ride."
"Well," Mal put her hand lightly on Fischer's arm,"Robert was just telling me he'd be happy to take me home, later. We might be going to a poetry slam, Robert wants me to hear his latest poem."
"Sure," Dom said, turning on his heel. "I bet he does."
Eames was sitting on the sofa, nodding his head along to Yusuf's surprisingly good rendition of Hate to say I told you so. Dom flopped next to him.
"This party sucks," he said, resting his head on the back of the sofa. "Mal's all over Fischer, and she barely recognises I exist."
Eames patted him on the thigh.
"Do you like her?" he asked.
"What! Of course I do! Do you think I'd do this" Dom waved his hand vaguely at Eames, "if I didn't like her?"
"Then complaining to me won't solve anything," Eames said. "Look, don't be afraid to go after what you want, OK? Never let anyone make you feel like that."
Dom looked at him
"That was kind of deep," he said.
"I have hidden depths," Eames agreed. "It's why Arthur is so fascinated with me. Or, so I tell myself."
"Where is Arthur?" Dom asked, suddenly remembering the reason Mal had even been allowed to go to the party.
"That's a very good question." Eames said, frowning and looking around as if he expected Arthur to suddenly appear. “Although did you know he can sing? Such a bundle of contradictions.”
Dom couldn’t even imagine Arthur singing, but before he could ask Eames to elaborate someone called,
They both looked over in the direction of the shout. Some guy Dom vaguely recognised from Math class was steering a very drunk-looking Arthur over to the sofa.
"I think this one's yours," he said.
"'M NOT anyone's," Arthur slurred, but he sagged dramatically and Eames caught him under the arms "I b'long ONLY to ME."
"I know," Eames said, "believe me. What happened to you?"
"I may be a little drunk," Arthur said, sounding forlorn. "I don't think my orange juice was really just orange juice, even though Fischer said it was."
Eames pressed his lips together and looked as pissed as Dom had ever seen him.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get you home."
"Why're you-" Arthur began, but he swayed again and looked suddenly green.
"What's the matter with him?"
Dom turned at Mal's voice. She sounded almost worried. His relief at seeing her was short-lived as Fischer came up behind her and put an arm round her shoulders.
"Ask your boyfriend," Eames spat. "Nice one Fischer, giving him spiked drinks. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"I don't need you to defend me," Arthur said, but he clutched onto Eames' arm like it was the only thing keeping him upright.
"Robert!" Mal said "Why did you-"
"Relax!" Fischer said "So he's a little drunk, so what? Might make him less uptight. Come on Mal, I thought you were cool. We have to be open to new experiences, and your brother isn't. I just helped him."
"You bastard," Arthur said thickly. "Stay away from my sister."
"Make me," Fischer said, and he tightened his arm on Mal's shoulders. Arthur opened his mouth as if to try, but turned even greener.
"I think I'm gonna be-" he said, and then threw up, all over Eames's shoes.
"Oh dear," Eames said, showing a restraint Dom hadn't thought him capable of, "Come on then Arthur, let's get you cleaned up."
Mal watched as Eames led Arthur out of the room, arm tight round his shoulders. Dom watched Mal.
"Hey Mal?" Fischer said, whispered rather, into her ear. "You're still coming to the poetry slam, right?"
Mal wrinkled her nose.
"I have a curfew," she said slowly and Dom convinced himself that she didn't sound too upset about that.
"But you said earlier you would! Are you really going to let your parents control your life?" Fischer scoffed. "C'mon Mal, you're different, I can tell. You're a free spirit." Mal shook his arm off her shoulders as he squeezed her again.
"I can't," she said sharply, "because thanks to the stunt you just pulled with my half brother, I'll be lucky if my father ever lets me out of the house again."
"Come on Mal," Fischer said with an incredulous smile, "don't let other people tell you what to do. I thought you were cool."
When Mal just stared at him, he said "Whatever," and turned away. A girl Dom recognised, but didn't know, hurried over.
"I don't have to be home til 3am," she said, twirling her hair.
"Your loss Mal," Fischer said, smiling at the girl, and taking her hand as they walked out of the room.
Mal sat on the sofa and sighed. She bit her lip and looked up at Dom with those beautiful eyes, and even though she'd spent the best part of the evening ignoring him Dom still felt his stomach flip.
"Dom. Could you take me home?" she asked softly.
"Sure," he said.
She was silent on the drive home, until he finally parked up in front of her house.
"Well. Goodnight," she said.
"Did you even care?" Dom said, unable to stop himself. "I've done nothing but try and get you to notice me, to like me, instead of that asshole Fischer. I put up with his asshole friends. I got someone to take your brother out. I even learned French from you!"
"Badly," she said.
"Is it all a joke?" Dom asked, sharper than he intended. "Fischer gets your brother drunk, he treats people like dirt, but you still don't-"
Whatever else he had been planning to say, some incoherent rant about spoiled rich boys, was cut off by the swift pressure of Mal's lips against his.
"Thank you, Dom," she said, and slid out of the car.
Dom sat with his fingers pressed over his mouth as he watched her walk up the path, and into the house.
The room swam in front of Arthur when he cautiously opened his eyes. His head was thudding to the rhythm of the obnoxious euro-pop Mal was playing downstairs in the kitchen. The bright morning sunlight was almost painful.
Hangover, his sluggish brain supplied This is why you don't drink, Arthur.
He lay with his forearm over his eyes and tried to piece together the night before. The party, the one Eames had persuaded him to go to with his stupid mouth and wicked sense of humour. But, he'd stuck to soda, orange juice, he was sure of it. He pulled the pillow over his head and tried to concentrate through the pounding headache and rising nausea. Someone, someone not Eames or Yusuf, handing him a drink.
Fischer. He should have known. Passing him a paper cup with a mocking smile. He had vague memories after that- singing, for some reason, and being draped over Eames's shoulder, and oh god, throwing up over Eames's shoes. Twice.
He groaned and threw the pillow to the foot of the bed, then squinted at the clock. The red LED numbers were indistinct, and it took him a few seconds to work out this was because there was a tall glass of water in front of the clock. He pushed himself up on his elbows and reached for the glass, and the bottle of ibuprofen that sat next to it. Under the bottle was a note, on one of his own post-its. He frowned at the unfamiliar handwriting.
Drink all of this as soon as you wake up, and take your painkillers.
You can serenade me any time, darling.
"Oh God," Arthur breathed. "I didn't?"
He swallowed two pills and drank the water, even so. Eames seemed to be the kind of guy that knew about hangovers. As soon as he was able to move without the room spinning, he pulled on a t shirt and some sweats and grabbed his phone from where someone (Eames?) had put it on his bookcase.
Yusuf answered in three rings.
"I did not expect to hear from you this early," he said.
"Really?" Arthur asked. He gripped the handrail tight as he slowly walked down the stairs. Mal's music was even more obnoxiously poppy the closer he got.
"How much do you remember?" Yusuf said. "I mean, I assume you did get home ok, and are not calling me from a ditch or something."
"I think-I think Eames took me home," Arthur said. "I mean, he left me a note. And a glass of water."
It took him a few seconds to realise that the wheezing sound on the other end of the phone was Yusuf laughing.
"Shut up," he said, "you're not helping."
"You sound like shit," Yusuf said. "I thought you didn't drink?"
"Fischer had other ideas," Arthur said, finally making it into the kitchen. Mal was making waffles, unfairly awake and clear-eyed. Instead of her normal barely-pleasant greeting, she just frowned at him, and jerked her head at stool by the breakfast bar.
"Damn," Yusuf said, "Not really surprising, you know Fischer."
"Unfortunately," Arthur said. Mal slid a mug of coffee across the breakfast bar, but didn't look at him. She picked up her plate of waffles and disappeared out of the kitchen
"You still want me to come over and work through that physics paper with you?" Yusuf asked.
"I don't think I can cope with physics, but you can try and fill the gaps in my memory," Arthur said.
"OK. See you in about 15 minutes," Yusuf said "you gonna be awake when I get there?"
"Hope so," Arthur said. He hung up and rested his head on his folded arms.
Monday was the first time in months that Arthur considered skipping school. He'd spent most of the weekend trying to avoid his Dad (easy) and Eames (harder). Eames had called and called, left messages, bombarded him with texts and emails, but Arthur ignored them all. He still had no clear memory of most of the end of the night, despite what Yusuf had been able to tell him, and he just could not deal with the inevitable humiliation.
He slunk into history class, not making eye contact, and slid into his seat as quietly as possible. He opened his notes at the section they were revising and tried very hard to concentrate on the economic consequences of industrialisation, ignoring the muttering around him. He was certain he could hear his own name, and he frowned at his notes as Ms Green reminded them that this was self-directed study, not gossip hour.
"Hey Arthur," Fischer said. "Love the unexpected depths. I knew all you needed to was to relax- you were almost human. Who knew you had it in you?"
Arthur ignored him and underlined a quote.
"Arthur. Arthur. Aren't you listening?" Fischer hitched his hip on the edge of the desk.
"I'm trying not to," Arthur said, not looking up. He spun his pen through his fingers.
"Come on," Fischer bent his head, trying to look Arthur in the eye. "You can't seriously be mad at me. I barely touched your sister. Even though she totally wanted me to."
Arthur sighed and stabbed Fischer in the leg with his ballpoint. Fischer yelped and fell off the desk.
"Stay away from me, and stay away from my sister," Arthur hissed, and he stood up.
"ARTHUR," Ms Green said, "detention for thirty minutes today. And-"
"Go to the counsellor's office," Arthur finished for her, "yes, I know."
He kept his head down as he left the room, but Eames managed to catch his eye. He looked almost fond, Arthur thought fleetingly.
"Arthur," Mr Saito said as Arthur sat down. "You were doing so well. You haven't made anyone cry in months. What happened?"
Arthur read the headlines of the Wall Street Journal upside down rather than look Mr Saito in the eye.
"I stabbed Robert Fischer in the leg with a ballpoint pen and he fell off the desk," he shrugged.
"Any particular reason?"
"He was annoying me," Arthur said. There was no way he was going into all the details. "And he was saying things about my sister.
Mr Saito sighed.
"Arthur, Arthur. When dealing with opponents like Fischer, direct action rarely works. You stab him in the leg, you end up here. Meanwhile, he is still free to continue his behaviour."
"So?" Arthur asked.
"So, what you must do is find a way to attack from the inside. To get inside his head, and use his own failings against him. Find out what he holds dear, and use that to your advantage."
Mr Saito held his gaze for a few seconds until Arthur started to feel uncomfortable.
"You're not the normal kind of guidance counsellor," Arthur said at last.
"Nor are you a normal highschooler," Mr Saito countered. He flipped over the newspaper to look at the Financial Times underneath. "Next time, don't go against Fischer in front of the teaching staff. Now run along, I have a company to buy.
Arthur sat for a few minutes, but Mr Saito just tapped away at his keyboard, so eventually he stood up and gathered his things.
"Oh and Arthur?" Mr Saito said as Arthur put his hand on the doorknob. "Do pass on my congratulations to your mother. Her best work yet."
Arthur sloped down the corridor trying to process the fact that their guidance counselor was possibly a secret millionaire, and had definitely read his mom's book. He was so distracted by the thought of his mom meeting Mr Saito that he didn't notice Eames slipping into the lunch line next to him.
"You've been avoiding me," he said and leant across Arthur to pick up an apple. Arthur caught a whiff of cologne, and suddenly got a flash of memory, him burying his face into Eames' shoulder as Eames carried him out of the party.
"I'm still trying to," Arthur said, ducking his head.
"Now why is that?" Eames asked. "And please no stabbing me with a pen. I'm fond of these jeans and would hate them to be ruined."
Arthur raised his eyebrow and looked at Eames' jeans. They were ripped and frayed, ragged at the knee and Arthur caught a glimpse of hairy thigh through one big tear.
"How could you tell?" he asked.
"Does hating my jeans mean you want me out of them?" Eames grinned, "because you know you only have to ask."
"Stop it," Arthur said, and handed over his money before picking up his tray. "Just make fun of me or whatever, get it out of your system and leave me the fuck alone to eat my lunch."
"What makes you think I'm going to make fun of you?" Eames asked. Arthur realised, with a sinking feeling, that Eames was following him out of the lunch hall and into the yard.
"Please. I can't remember everything about Saturday but I know I puked on your shoes, sang a song-"
"-beautifully-" Eames purred.
"And probably had to be carried up the stairs."
"You did. You're heavier than you look."
"So, you have plenty of material. Mock away."
"Arthur," Eames said seriously. "I wouldn't. Yes, the song was unexpected- I had no idea you were so fond of Duran Duran- but you were drunk and it wasn't your fault. Fischer is lucky I didn't punch him in his smug pretentious face."
"I don't need you to fight my battles." Arthur pointed out.
"Believe me, I know," Eames said, biting his apple with his crooked teeth. "But how 'bout next time I hold him, and you can punch him. Probably going to be more effective than a Biro." He smiled at Arthur then, bangs flopping into his eyes, like he was inviting him to share a joke. Like Arthur could forget the massive idiot he had made of himself in front of everyone.
"There won't be a next time," Arthur said. "I should never have let you talk me into it in the first place. I have to go find Yusuf." He sidestepped Eames and Eames let him.
"Hey, thanks," Arthur said, over his shoulder. "For taking me home. And- for not making fun of me." And he walked quickly away before Eames could persuade him to stay.
"So, did it work?"
Dom looked up at Eames.
"Did what work?" he asked. Mal had actually smiled at him in French today and he was having a hard time thinking about anything else.
"Did you win the lady fair?" Eames actually batted his eyelashes, but Dom was still a little too scared of him to tell him he looked ridiculous.
"Oh!" Dom smiled "Well, after Arthur threw up on you and you went to get him some water, she asked me to take her home."
"And then she kissed me," Dom breathed and he pressed his fingers to his lips.
"She did, did she?" Eames said.
"In the car," Dom added, feeling he needed to clarify. "And I think we have a date on Tuesday, so if you could carry on dating Arthur that would be really..." he trailed off as he caught sight of Mal walking toward them. He smoothed his hand over his hair, flattening out his bangs.
"That may be a problem," Eames said quietly "as at the moment Arthur doesn't appear to ever want to leave the house again."
"You'll find a way," Dom said. "Fischer's still paying you, after all." He was amazed at how confident he sounded. He waved at Mal, and she waved back, but kept on walking to her normal table. He squashed down the momentary disappointment. A kiss, a wave, and a maybe-date was more than he could ever have dreamed of two weeks ago, after all.
"It's not that," Eames shrugged. "I just feel bad, that's all."
"You like him."
Both Dom and Eames jumped in surprise.
"Ariadne, make some noise," Dom complained. "You're like some kind of Jedi or something."
"You'll never know, young padawan," Ariadne said, "But enough of my superpowers. Let's focus on the fact that Eames here, Eames, who once sold his kidney for a new tattoo-"
"Rumour-" Eames put in.
"Is feeling bad for the guy he is fake dating."
Ariadne looked positively gleeful.
"I didn't say that," Eames said, but Dom thought he sounded less than convinced.
"Look," Ariadne said "It's very simple. He embarrassed himself in front of you. You have to even the score before he believes you're serious. Make a grand gesture!" She made big sweeping movements with both arms and her voice was loud enough that several kids on nearby tables looked over.
"People are looking at us" Eames said, sounding annoyed.
"Yeah." Dom put in, because the last thing he needed was someone making a connection and revealing the whole plan to Arthur. "People are looking."
"Doesn't mean I'm not right," Ariadne said. "Grand gesture. It's the only way."
"I'll think about it," Eames said. "So Dom, where are you talking Mal on this date?"
Dom hadn't even given it much thought beyond 'Mal' and 'date' and 'I am the luckiest guy alive."
"Umm...." he said, thinking it over. "The movies? I want to see Saw XI, it's supposed to be the goriest one yet!"
Ariadne quietly thumped her head off of the table.
"There's no hope for you," she said.
Yusuf was grinning at something on his cellphone when Arthur caught up with him the next morning. He took his ear bud out and gestured with it at Arthur.
"You have to see this. It's almost romantic."
"Not really in the mood for hilarious cat videos today," Arthur said. He'd lain awake far too late, wrestling with the UK's Visa requirements, and trying not to think about Eames, and having limited success with both things. His father still didn't know about the offer, but he was going to have to tell him at some point. He wasn't really looking forward to the conversation.
"Seriously," Yusuf held out his phone and the spare ear bud, "It's all over the school. Just watch."
Arthur put the bud in his ear and then looked down at the phone.
It wasn't Maru. It was Eames.
Eames in a white tank top and tight jeans, tattoo black against his skin, in a room that must be his bedroom, lip syncing to something that sounded like nineties pop.
Whatever is wrong, just tell me the song and I'll sing it.
He pouted at the camera and flicked his hair out of his face, and kept on miming, and Arthur smiled, then laughed out loud. He couldn’t help it, the whole thing was so ridiculous.
In the twist of separation you excelled at being free. Can't you find a little room inside for me?
Eames made a pleading beckoning gesture at the camera and then put his hand to his heart and pouted and fluttered his eyelashes.
"What the hell?" he said. He tried to supress the part of him that wanted to go “awwwww” because this was Eames, and he was ridiculous and not at all adorable.
"Wait till the end," Yusuf said, and nudged him in the side.
So complete in our love, we will never be uncovered again.
The boyband music drew to its syrupy close, and Arthur was biting the inside of his cheek, trying to get the fond expression he could feel on his face under control, when Eames bent down to pick up a note pad and held it up to the camera.
Sorry Arthur. Give me another chance.. Then Eames blew a kiss to the camera, and the video faded to black.
"Oh God," He said, and sat down heavily on the wall as his heart gave an annoying flutter.. "How many people?"
"Just look around," Yusuf gestured, and half the yard seemed to be full of people crowded round phones and the occasional iPad, laughing.
"Great," he said, but he pressed play again on the video to see Eames making ridiculous faces for the camera and smiling his crooked smile and pursing his full lips. He knew that the rest of the school would be all over Eames, the boy in the video was so radically different from Eames's badass reputation, that he was impressed, and secretly pleased that Eames had apparently done it for him.
A louder murmur swept over the yard and Arthur stood on the wall to get a better look as Eames pushed his way through the crowds.
"Eames," Arthur said when Eames finally got to him. "why did you-"
"You were worried people were laughing at you about the karaoke," Eames said, like that explained anything at all. "See Arthur, your singing was much better than mine. And now this is all people will talk about."
"You did all this, " Arthur said, fully understanding, "to stop people talking about me?"
"Well that, and I did always want to be a YouTube sensation," Eames shrugged.
Arthur hopped down from the wall.
"I don't really feel like being at school today," he said, making the decision. "Yusuf, cover for me?"
Yusuf raised his eyebrows.
"You'll owe me one," he said, waving him off.
Arthur turned to Eames. "You coming?" he said, feeling reckless like he hadn't in months.
"I like this new side of you, Arthur," Eames said, and Arthur steered him out of the yard with a hand on his elbow, the leather of his jacket smooth under Arthur's palm.
Mal had grudgingly given him a ride to school as he was running too late to bike it, and Arthur realised that this might put a cramp on his plans. That was, until Eames tossed him a helmet.
"Come on then" he said. "But I get to pick where we go."
"A motorbike?" Arthur said, looking at it. "You do embrace the stereotype, don't you?"
"What can I say?" Eames said, slinging one leg on the saddle "I love the classics. Hold on tight, darling."
"Arthur," Arthur corrected, but he gripped Eames tight round the waist as the bike peeled out of the parking lot.
"Paintball?" Arthur said, reading the sign. "Really, Eames."
"Afraid you'll lose?" Eames said, hanging his helmet on the handlebars of the bike.
"In your dreams," Arthur said.
The guy greeted Eames with a grin and a high five, and handed over their guns, paint, and camo-patterned coveralls. Arthur zipped them up over his clothes, and was grateful he'd worn old converse today, ones he didn't mind getting covered with paint.
"Loser buys lunch," Eames suggested as they stood at the edge of the field. It was a maze of hay bales and the occasional tree, and the small crowd of players stood half-listening as the instructor gave a safety talk.
"Sounds good to me," Arthur said, snapping his goggles onto his face "I feel like tacos, so I hope you bought your wallet with you." Before Eames could reply, the whistle blew, and Arthur sprinted away into the maze.
The air was filled with the crack of paintball guns and the groans of people as they got hit. Arthur ducked behind a hay bale just in time, and the paintball hit the hay just above his head, leaving a green splotch. He popped back up over the hay bale and shot off three rounds at the woman who had fired at him- three perfect yellow circles appeared on her chest, and she threw her gun down with an annoyed expression before stalking off the field.
“Not bad, Arthur,” Eames’s floated out from behind a tree and Arthur popped up again, sighting, but Eames darted away and Arthur didn’t waste the paint.
“You can’t run away forever,” he called out instead “I’m really looking forward to lunch.”
“Me too,” Eames had climbed up to the top of the next hay bale “Maybe I’ll make you buy dessert too.”
Arthur did fire then, but he missed and Eames just shook his head, a little bit fondly, and jumped down behind the hay bale and out of sight.
Arthur had played regularly until the beginning of senior year, and he was pleased that at lot of it was still automatic- find cover, be aware of your surroundings, protect you team, pick off the leaders so that the other team panicked and put themselves into vulnerable positions.
He kept getting infuriatingly brief glances of Eames, but he was pretty fast, and good at hiding so Arthur couldn’t get a clean shot. Arthur ran quickly from the hay bale to the next tree, nodding at one of his teammates who was also crouching there.
"Any idea who's winning?" the man, older, in his forties, asked.
"I don't know," Arthur said. He wiped his forehead, "I just got another one, that's two for me. How many did they start with?
"Fifteen," the man said. "I got one, and I saw two more go off. We've got to be winning, right?"
"Wrong," A familiar English accent said. Arthur dived flat just in time as his teammate got hit in the shoulder. He rolled onto his back and fired up, blindly, then heard Eames's groan of frustration.
"Hah!" Arthur said, getting to his feet. "I guess lunch is on you after all."
Eames, one side of his chest covered in yellow, nodded. "I guess so,"
Arthur was too busy wondering (not worrying) at the massive bruise on Eames' cheekbone, that he didn't hear the person creeping up behind him till it was too late.
"Ow!" he said, as the bullet hit. "Who shoots someone in the back, in PAINTBALL?"
"This isn't paintball," the slightly desperate looking man (who, Arthur noted, had camo paint smeared over his face) "this is war!"
Eames let out a laugh and nudged Arthur
"I'm so glad you didn't take it that seriously."
"Don't tell me if you hadn't won you wouldn't be gloating too," Arthur said as they walked back up to the changing rooms.
"Maybe," Eames said, "but you'll notice I'm being gracious in defeat."
Arthur snorted and stripped off the camo suit, stuffing it into one of the bins. He wet a paper towel and rubbed at the splotches of paint on his face, stray droplets of green and yellow.
Without the goggles, the bruise on Eames's cheek was even bigger.
"That's quite a black eye," Arthur said, leaning up to look at it. "How did you get it?"
Eames smiled, "Ducked a bullet, hit my face on a tree branch."
"That's not very badass of you," Arthur said. He reached up to cup Eames's jaw, and brushed a thumb over the purpling bruise. "It looks sore."
"Kiss it better then," Eames said, sounding a little breathless.
"Such a line," Arthur said, but he pressed his lips softly to the bruise and then, more firmly, to Eames's ridiculous mouth.
"Much better," Eames breathed, then he tilted his head up for another kiss, lips soft and full against Arthur's. The kiss was like the way Eames slouched against walls or looked out from under his eyelashes, lazy and languid and completely devastating.
"Come on," Arthur said at last, remembering they were in a locker room of all places. "I want lunch."
"I did promise, didn't I?" Eames said, and zipped up his jacket.
They bought tacos from the place in the mall Arthur liked, despite it's plastic menus. After they'd finished eating and Eames had licked his fingers with more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary, Eames asked, "Did you really make Fischer cry last year?"
"Several times. But in my defence he's spent the semester smacking me into lockers and getting his friends to do the same. Eventually, I'd had enough. I 'accidentally' opened a drawer right into his junk. He was walking funny for a week." He smiled, despite himself. It had been worth the week's detention.
"Did it work?"
"Stopped him from actually touching me," Arthur said. Eames didn't need the whole story. "But as you've seen, I'm not exactly his favourite person. Or many people's favourite person."
"You're one of mine," Eames grinned, and knocked his shoulder into Arthur's.
"Oh," Arthur said, not sure what to make of that. To cover his awkwardness, he asked, "So, really only one kidney?"
Eames chuckled, deep and rich sounding.
"Both kidneys present and correct. But I do have a couple of tattoos."
He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeve to show the black lines inked across his biceps.
"Where's the other one?" Arthur asked. He rubbed at the tattoo. The skin was rougher there, the inked lines slightly raised.
"Nowhere I can show you in public," Eames winked.
Arthur took his hand away, feeling his cheeks heat. He hated the fact that he blushed.
"The accent?" He asked instead. "I mean, what's a British guy doing at an American high school. I know the witness protection scheme is a lie."
"Oh do you?" Eames raised an eyebrow. He bumped Arthur's shoulder again. "It's all very dull. My dad got transferred here last summer, and for some reason my parents didn't think I could be trusted to live by myself the final year of school, so they dragged me over here."
"You sound like you don't like it here," Arthur said.
"Well," Eames said and his hand found Arthur's right there, right in the middle of the mall. "It's starting to have some compensations."
He kissed Arthur's knuckles then, and Arthur couldn't find it in himself to complain.
Dom almost choked on his lunch when Mal sat down next to him. Ariadne patted him on the back.
"I have to go-be somewhere else," she said and had picked up her coat and disappeared before Dom had stopped coughing.
"Um, hi?" he said eventually.
"Drink some water," Mal said. Dom took a big gulp from his water bottle.
"You, you aren't cancelling are you?" Dom asked, worried. Ariadne had talked him out of Saw XI in favour of the new Coen Brothers comedy, which she said was a much better choice for a first date. She'd sounded quite wistful.
"No," Mal said, and she patted his arm. "No, I'm looking forward to it. I just have a question, about Eames."
"Eames?" Dom frowned. "What about him? Did Fischer not pay him?"
"What has this got to do with Robert?" Mal asked sharply.
"Um-" Dom chewed his lip, realising his mistake too late. "Ok well. You know how we persuaded Eames to date Arthur so you could go to the party? Well, it took um. Cash persuasion."
"You paid him?" Mal asked, and she didn't sound impressed, or pleased, or thankful.
"What do you care?" Dom asked. "It's not like Arthur knows."
"He is happy!" Mal said. "I wanted to asked how much you knew about Eames because Arthur came home with him last night and he was smiling. Smiling like I don't see very often. I was happy for him! And now you tell me it's all fake?!"
"You knew that!" Dom said, confused himself now. "I mean, you knew that Eames asked Arthur out because we asked him to. To help you out."
"I thought," Mal shrugged. "I thought maybe he liked Arthur anyway."
"And I thought you didn't," Dom said, wondering just when his brilliant idea had gotten away from him.
"He's my brother," Mal said, like that explained it.
"Well," Dom said, "Eames seemed pretty upset when Arthur was avoiding him a few days ago, so he probably likes him a bit? And I think your brother can look after himself."
"You're probably right," Mal agreed. "And I do appreciate what you did. Robert asked me to the Spring formal next week, so if Arthur's going, I can too. Do you think Eames will ask him?"
"Oh," Dom said, feeling the bottom drop out of his stomach. "I thought, I mean, I was going to ask you. Tomorrow."
"Well," Mal smiled at him, "We can all go together. That will be fun, won't it?"
"So. Much. Fun." Dom muttered under his breath.
"So hey," Eames said. It was a bit cold out on the porch swing, but Mal and Dad were having one of their rare, but extremely loud arguments, and when Eames had turned up with a hopeful smirk Arthur had seized the excuse to get out of the house.
"Hey what?" Arthur asked. He curled his hand round Eames's ankle, stroking at the bump with his thumb.
Eames opened his mouth, closed it, and then asked "What's the story with you and Mal?"
"It's not much of a story," Arthur said. He pushed against the wall and the swing rocked gently.
"You don't look much alike," Eames said. "Plus, there's the whole French thing."
"She's my half sister," Arthur explained. "There's six months between us. My dad- let's just say he got around. He didn't even know Mal existed until about four years ago. Or at least, he says he didn't."
"Huh," Eames said. "And so, what, she found out, came over here?"
"Something like that," Arthur agreed. "Her mum thought it was a good idea for her to 'experience other cultures'. Why all the questions?"
"Just showing an interest," Eames said. "For someone who moved countries to be with him, they don't seem to be getting on so well."
Arthur sat up and shifted Eames's feet out of his lap.
"They're arguing over the dating rule. It's stupid."
"And it doesn't count anyway, does it?" Eames said, and leaned forward, trapping him against the back of the swing. "Now that you're dating someone."
"Is that what we're doing?" Arthur smiled, and Eames kissed him in reply. He was not shy with the tongue.
"Hey, come to the party," Eames said at last.
"Party?" Arthur said. His hands were up under Eames's shirt, warming themselves against his hot skin. They were probably scandalising the neighbours, Arthur thought contentedly.
"The spring party. Prom. Whatever." Eames said. "You should come with me."
"That an order?" Arthur frowned.
"It's a question. An offer." Eames said. "It's something that two people who are dating might do. Come on, come with me."
He leaned forward to kiss Arthur again but Arthur dodged out of the way.
"Why is this so important to you? What's the angle?"
"No angle." Eames's voice was raised now, the unfamiliar accent harsh, "no angle, just the pleasure of your company. Something I </em> thought</em> you would enjoy. Hell, maybe I just want the whole typically American highschool experience with my American date."
"Is that what this is?" Arthur asked, hurt "some kind of what, social experiment?" He should have known it was something like that, he thought sourly.
"No!" Eames stood up and the swing rocked wildly. He rubbed his hand through his hair. "I just thought it might be something fun. I'm gonna go. I'll see you, OK?" and before Arthur could say anything he'd hurried over to his bike and roared away. Arthur watched him go, feeling upset, and vindicated, and confused.
The front door slammed open and Mal stormed out, making the swing rock crazily as she sat down.
"Are you going to the prom?" She said, after a while.
"Why on earth would you think I would?" he said, looking at her. First Eames, now Mal. It was like it was some kind of conspiracy.
"Because if you don't, I can't," she said "and because I though Eames might ask you. He seems to like you, which is crazy, but-" she shrugged. "I just thought."
"Do you want to go?" Arthur said, but of course she did.
"Robert asked me," she said. "Dom too. People like me."
"Don't go with Fischer," he said automatically.
"You can't tell me what to do Arthur," Mal glared.
"But I can stop you going." Arthur said, "Fischer spiked my drink at the last party I went to for you. Why should I make it easy for you to see the asshole?"
"Just, for once in your life act like a human being!!" Mal said passionately. "You might like being a hermit but I don't!"
"It's just til graduation," Arthur said "you're not missing anything, believe me."
"Please Arthur," Mal turned the pleading look that always worked on Dad on him "Please for once in your life act like a brother."
She stared for a few seconds, but when he didn't reply, she jumped off the swing and stomped back into the house with a huff.
Arthur was grinning over a text from Yusuf, head down over his phone, as he walked into his room.
Mal held out the offer letter, and the file of print outs of student housing and visa documents.
"None of your business!" Arthur grabbed it back. "Why the hell are you in my room anyway?"
"I was looking for a USB cable. Don't change the subject." she said. "Why do you have paperwork for London universities?"
"Who has paperwork for London universities?" Arthur's dad asked, shouting up the stairs.
Arthur sighed, but he had to tell him at some point. He walked a few steps down the stairs to look his dad in the eye.
"I am," he said. "You know I wanted to."
"I thought we decided you were going to a Boston school, like me," his dad said. He held out his hand for the forms and Arthur unwillingly handed them over.
"No," Arthur said, "You decided."
"Does this have something to do with that boy, with Eames? I knew letting you date was a bad idea."
Arthur glared, "No! It has nothing to do with Eames, because unlike YOU I don't think with my dick! I've got into Imperial, and I'm going! Mom's signed the form for the college fund. I don't actually need you to agree."
"Arthur! You will NOT talk like that to me, you hear? You're still my son, I still get some say in your life."
"Control Mal's life if you like," Arthur said, getting angrier and angrier. "You pretty much replaced me with her anyway. I thought you'd be glad to get me out of your hair." He snatched the papers out of his hand and shuffled them back into the envelopes, then ran out of the door.
Arthur was three blocks away before he realised where he was going. The wind was starting to bite, and he was cold without his hoodie. He'd pedalled furiously and before he realised it he was outside Eames's door.
Eames looked him up and down.
"You look like you want to punch somebody," he said. "Should I be worried?"
Arthur wrapped his arms round himself against the cold.
"I had a fight with my Dad," he said "I don't really want to be home right now. Can I come in?"
"I'll put the kettle on," Eames said. His arm was warm around Arthur's shoulders as he steered him into the house.
"Here you go," Eames said. He set a mug of tea in front of Arthur. "And put this on, you're cold." He shrugged out of his brown hoodie and Arthur pulled it on. It was warm, and smelled of Eames.
Arthur sipped his tea.
"I'm sorry," he said at last. "About what I said the other day. You haven't given me any reason to doubt you. I shouldn't have said it."
Eames gave him a long, unreadable look.
"I'm sorry other people have made you feel like everyone's going to let you down. It's ok though. It's not like I didn't know you had a temper."
Arthur snorted into his tea.
"I s'pose I should be glad you didn't have any kind of writing implement on you," Eames teased and Arthur smiled, despite himself.
"That's what I was looking for." Eames reached out and pressed his thumb to Arthur's cheek, to the place where Arthur knew his dimples showed. Arthur stuck his tongue out and, when Eames didn't move, turned his head and licked Eames's thumb. Eames pulled a face, but moved his hand, and kissed Arthur. He tasted of tea, and sugar.
"You want to tell me what the row was about?" he asked after a while.
"He found out I got accepted to Imperial College, in London. He always knew I wanted to go abroad for school, but he wasn't happy. He blamed you, actually." Arthur drained his tea and put the empty mug down on the carpet. He leaned back against the sofa cushions and Eames snugged up against his side.
"Me?" He said. "Oh Arthur, I'm flattered."
"Don't be," Arthur punched him lightly on the thigh "I sent my applications in even before I knew you existed."
"I find that hard to believe," Eames said "I'm pretty hard to miss."
"Your ego certainly is," Arthur said dryly, and he felt Eames's laugh reverberate through him.
"So does that mean you can't go? That he won't pay for it?" Eames put his arm round his shoulders and tugged, and after a second Arthur thought 'what the hell' and leaned against Eames, his shirt soft under Arthur's cheek.
"No," Arthur said. "I can go. Before they divorced, years ago, my parents agreed my college fund was mine, no matter what the school. I've been saving for years, summer jobs, my dad put the money he would have spent on a car for me into the fund-"
"So that's why you ride a bike, I thought it was some retro thing" Eames interrupted.
"And Mom's royalties from her European sales are enough for the first year. Luckily, money is not the issue, so much as Dad's stubbornness."
"Wait, royalties?" Eames looked confused.
"Oh god," Arthur turned his face into the crook of Eames's neck so he didn't have to look. "She's an author. She writes the Leather and Lace series. They're-"
"Your MUM writes the Adrienne D'Oliver books?" Eames sounded impressed.
"Oh god, how do you know that?" Arthur groaned.
"Are you kidding me?” Eames exclaimed. “There was a black market in Sword of Desire at my old school! By the time I got it pages 53-56 were stuck together. It was a godsend to horny 14 year olds. I had no idea you were the product of such a filthy mind."
"Please stop talking." Arthur said. "Or at least, stop sounding so impressed."
"What can I say?" Eames said, voice rough and amused. "Your mum played a crucial part in my sexual development. Clearly we were meant to be."
"Oh, shut up," Arthur said, laughing, and shoved him so hard he fell off the sofa, then pounced down on top of him.
They were half wrestling, half making out, when someone cleared their throat.
Arthur let Eames out of the leg lock he'd managed to get him in and looked up to see a man with Eames's eyes looking down at them.
"Dad!" Eames got up and tucked his shirt back in. "This is Arthur."
"I gathered," Mr Eames said dryly.
"Um, hi," Arthur said, conscious of how he must look, hair rumpled from Eames's hands and mouth bruised. He wanted the ground to open and swallow him up, but it didn't seem to be cooperating.
"I'm pleased to meet you," Mr Eames said. "Are you staying for dinner? Carole is just parking the car, I know she'd like to meet you too."
"Umm," Arthur said, not sure he was ready for the whole meet the parents deal, "thank you, but my dad is expecting me, I'd better head back home."
"I'll see you out," Eames stood too and ushered him to the front door.
"Um, sorry about that," Arthur said. "You'll be OK? With your dad I mean?"
"Oh, because you were trying to lick my tonsils? Nah, he's cool. They've seen worse."
"I'm sure they have," Arthur said dryly.
"Hey," Eames pecked him on the lips "You gonna be OK?"
"Yeah," Arthur said, "I'll call you later. Better go home and face the music."
It wasn't until he got home that he realised he was still wearing Eames's hoodie. He pulled the sleeves down over his fingers as he saw Mal sitting in the den, not sure what to say to her.
"Dad went out- emergency call," she said. "Where did you go?"
"Eames," Arthur said. He sat down and pulled the bag of popcorn she was eating towards himself, and took a handful.
"Oh," Mal said softly. She looked back down at the magazine she was reading and chewed a fingernail.
""Hey, "Arthur said. "What you did was wrong, you know?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry. I know."
"But," Arthur stopped and started again "I'm more mad at Dad, not you."
"Feels like you're mad at me," she said, "it always does."
"I think," Arthur said, turned over what he'd been thinking about on the ride home, "I think Dad doesn't really know, how to cope with two kids. And, because you're the new one, he treats you better."
"That's not my fault!" Mal protested. "I don't ask him to! And his stupid rule hurts me more than you anyway!!"
"Look," Arthur said, "what I'm trying to say is that if you want to go to this stupid party, you can go. Eames asked me, so-"
"Really!" Mal's face lit up and before Arthur could move she was hugging him.
"Really," Arthur said, spitting hair out of his face. "Just, do me a favour? Keep Fischer away from me.”
"What happened to make you hate Fischer so much?" Mal asked. She ate a few bits of popcorn. "I asked around, and people said you used to hang out with him. Before I moved here."
Arthur bit his lip, thinking for a few minutes and didn't say anything.
"This goes no further, right?" he said at last. "I'm only telling you just in case you decide to change your mind about Dom and start listening to Fischer."
"So, he won't tell you this. He'll deny it to anyone, but we used to date. Well, not so much date, as cut class, and make out. A lot."
Mal's hand shot out and grabbed his wrist.
"No!" she said, eyes wide and shocked.
"Yes." Arthur said, remembering. Being fifteen and lit up with the newness of it. The way Robert's skin flushed and the freckles stood out after they'd been kissing and rubbing up against each other, too clumsy with excitement to work out how to do it better.
"Why?" she said.
"Because he was hot." Arthur shrugged "You can see that for yourself, still. And mum had just left, and I was pretty messed up and angry."
"So, what happened? He break your heart?" Mal said softly.
"No!" Arthur said. "No he really didn't. He just, let me down. I thought he would at least acknowledge what we were doing. Instead, he kept on pretending we weren't doing anything. Said I was too uptight when I complained. That what we did didn't count, so when I saw him with his tongue down Tamara's throat one lunch time, I had no right to be upset. He said one thing, and did another. He let me down, and nothing's changed, that I can see."
"So instead of telling me this, you just went along with dad’s stupid rule and didn’t even try to change his mind?" Mal said, raising her voice. “You didn’t even care that I wanted to date even if you don’t.”
"No!" Arthur said. "No! Well, not really. You seriously can do better. I just, it was easier than explaining the whole Fischer thing."
"You should let me make that decision for myself," Mal said. "You should have told me."
"I didn't tell anyone," Arthur said, "Not even Yusuf. Dad didn't care, and I was too embarrassed I fell for Fischer's bullshit in the first place. And it’s not like I care about dating anyway."
"I have to make my own decisions," Mal insisted. "You don't like dad controlling your life, don't do the same to me. Don’t help dad do it."
"I'm going to the damn prom for you, aren't I?" Arthur said, annoyed.
"Yes," Mal said. "Oh! I have to tell Dom!" and she ran out of the den before Arthur could regret his decision.
Mal looked beautiful as she opened the front door, and Dom clutched the corsage nervously.
"Hi," he squeaked, then cleared his throat. "Um, hello. You look lovely."
"Thank you," she gave a twirl in her green dress.
"I got you this," he said, and he offered her the yellow lily and spray of fern he'd chosen after a forty minute phone call to Ariadne. He almost envied Eames not having to bother with this, though he'd seen Fischer handing over more money, so clearly Eames was planning something that involved cash.
"It's beautiful," she said, and she slipped the corsage onto her wrist. "Do you want to come in while I get my shoes?"
She turned round without waiting for an answer and Dom followed her down the hall. It felt different being here as Mal's date, rather than as someone she was tutoring. Dom sat down, conscious of his rented tux as Mal buckled up her gold sandals.
"Mal?" a voice called, and a man who had to be be Mal's father came into the room. "What are you wearing? Who is this and where are you going?"
"The prom, Papa, remember? This is Dom."
"Hi," Dom waved.
"I didn't see Arthur going. You know the rules, Mal."
Mal sighed and rolled her eyes. "Yes Papa, I know the rules."
"So, is Arthur going?"
"Going out Dad. Let Mal go too." Arthur's voice floated into the room, to be followed by the slam of the front door and, a few seconds after, the throaty roar of Eames's motorbike. Mal's dad looked out of the window to see Arthur and Eames disappear in a cloud of exhaust smoke.
"See," Mal said, and she stood up, tall in her heels. "Arthur is fine. You have to let me go," she said triumphantly.
"You!" Mr Avon said suddenly. "Dan."
"Dom, Sir," Dom corrected.
"Do you have a motorbike?"
"No," Dom said, confused. "I have a Honda."
"Are you planning on getting my daughter pregnant?"
"PAPA!" Mal yelled as Dom felt his cheeks heat with excruciating embarrassment. "We are going to dance, drink punch, have fun and then come home!"
"It doesn't hurt to check," Mr Avon said.
"Mr Avon," Dom managed. "Sir. I really like Mal, and i know how lucky I am to have this chance. I promise I will treat her with nothing but the respect every woman deserves." It sounded a bit over the top, but he thought Mr Avon was the type to appreciate him laying it on a bit thick.
"Hmmmm" Mr Avon said, but before he could say anything further Mal snapped.
"Good enough for you? Come on Dom."
She grabbed his hand and practically towed Dom out of the room.
"Your father is-" Dom began as he started the car.
"Insane?" Mal offered.
"I was going to go with strict," Dom replied diplomatically.
"Ugh," Mal said. "He thinks he ruined my mom's life by getting her pregnant and then not knowing about me for years. So he's trying to make sure some guy doesn't do that to me."
"Oh," said Dom, at a loss.
"Which is stupid," Mal continued. "Because duh, of course I'd use birth control."
"You're not," Dom choked on his sentence. "I mean, I've only kissed you twice!"
"I know," Mal said serenely. "I'm just pointing out I wouldn't make the same mistakes as my mum."
Dom looked at himself in the rear view mirror, and sure enough, he was bright red.
"Music?" he squeaked, and switched on the radio without waiting for a reply.
The prom was in fully swing, slightly questionable music blaring out as Mal took his arm and walked into the decorated gym. Dom felt about ten feet tall.
"Hey Dom!" Ariadne called out and waved. "See, yellow was totally the right choice!"
"What does she mean?" Mal asked as they made their way to the table Ariadne had saved.
"I...may have spent most of yesterday on the phone trying to decide on a corsage?" Dom rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.
"You go to so much trouble for me Dom," Mal cooed.
"Well," Dom said honestly. "You're worth it, after all."
Mal leaned in, the same height as him in her heels, and kissed him. Dom felt her tongue trace along his lips and opened his mouth on a gasp. He let his hand come up, hesitantly, to cup her jaw, and concentrated on the feel of Mal's tongue in his mouth, wet and slick.
"Enough, Mr Cobb. Ms Avon."
A teacher- gym, Dom thought, tapped him on the shoulder.
"This is not appropriate behaviour," the teacher said sternly.
Mal huffed and rolled her eyes.
"Do you want to dance? Assuming that's allowed." Dom offered, awkwardly.
"Can you dance?" She asked.
"Ummm. I can stand on one spot and sway." Dom said.
"Good enough." Mal smiled and took his hand.
"Oh, don't worry about me, all by myself." Ariadne said.
Dom have a guilty start. He'd forgotten she was there.
"Will you be ok?" he asked, torn. He wanted to dance with Mal, and kiss her again when the teachers weren't looking, but he wouldn't be here at all if it wasn't for Ariadne.
"Hey, I'll be fine," Ariadne said, "I'm going to put my name down for karaoke later."
"Karaoke?" Dom asked "What kind of prom has karaoke?"
"An awesome one," Ariadne said "although sadly, you won't get to hear my Meatloaf as I've got no one to sing with."
"I would do anything for love?" A guy with longish black curly hair asked, turning round with a smile.
"Paradise by the dashboard light" Ariadne replied. "Hi, I'm Ariadne."
"Yusuf," he shook her hand, and Dom realised where he'd seen him before. He was Arthur's friend.
"Want to sign up and show Dom how it's done?" Ariadne said. She hadn't let go of his hand.
Dom watched them walk away and frowned.
"Yusuf's Arthur's best friend," Mal said, touching his elbow. "He's a good person. Ariadne will be fine."
"I'm not worried about that," Dom said, "I just hate Meatloaf. Shall we?" He held out his hand and Mal took it, and tugged him out into the crowd of dancers.
"That's unexpected," Arthur said as he watched his sister and a blond guy he kind of recognised dancing together in the centre of the room.
"What?" Eames asked, and looked over when Arthur pointed.
"That must be Dom," Arthur said, remembering. "Mal begged me to come here tonight so that she could too, I guess she didn't take Fischer up on his offer after all."
Eames's hand, which had been lightly clasped with his own, playing with his fingers, suddenly gripped Arthur tight.
"You ok?" Arthur asked. Eames had been oddly twitchy all evening. Arthur guessed he felt as out of place as he did.
Not that he looked it, Arthur thought. Smart black pants, but a little too tight- like Eames had bought them and then put on more muscle, and a pale grey shirt instead of the traditional white. He'd started off with a bowtie, but that had lasted all of thirty minutes before Eames tugged it loose and draped it round his neck. The part of Arthur that liked neatness was losing to the part of him that appreciated just how hot Eames looked like that.
"I'm fine. Looks like Fischer's kind of disappointed," Eames said neutrally. "See? Seems to be making quite the scene."
They were too far away to hear what was said, but Fischer had stormed up to Mal and grabbed her shoulder, an angry look on his face. Arthur half-stood but Eames said,
Sure enough, Mal shrugged Fischer off and turned her back on him, saying something to Dom. Fischer grabbed her again, roughly, and Arthur had seen enough.
"That's it," he said and, ignoring Eames, began to push hurriedly through the crowd. The teachers, typically, where nowhere to be seen, more interested in stopping people making out than in stopping actual violence.
"Robert," Mal said, putting herself between him and Dom. "Please leave us alone. I will dance with you later, as I promised."
"I can't believe you're here with him," Fischer was giving her the hurt, 'how could you' look Arthur remembered. "I thought we had something Mal. I thought you were different, above all the games."
"Let me go," Mal said.
"Hand's off," Arthur said and he wrenched Fischer's hand off and away. Dom, who, Arthur could now see, had a bloody nose, put his arm round Mal comfortingly.
"Get off me!" Fischer snarled, all trace of pleading gone, just as Arthur remembered. "And you!" he continued, looking over Arthur's shoulder at Eames, Eames who had followed Arthur. "I didn't pay you all that money to date Arthur so that Mal would show up without me!"
Arthur felt the words thud into him like arrows. He couldn’t quite believe it. It had to be some kind of mistake, had to be.
"Is this true?" he asked Eames, but he, realised, it had to be. Guys like Eames didn't date guys like him unless there was something to gain, some angle. Anger and disappointment clawed at his stomach.
"I-" Eames began "well, at first, but-"
"Of course it was," Fischer cut him off, snarling, "As if he'd be interested in you otherwise."
Arthur clenched his fists, ready to punch Fischer in his pretty, aggravating face, but Mal got there first and smacked him hard across the cheek.
"For my brother," she spat. "For making Dom bleed," she punched him in the shoulder, "and one more, for me!" and she kneed Fischer in the balls. He made a gurgling sound and folded softly to the ground.
"Mallorie Avon!" A teacher's voice cut through the jeers " Violent behaviour will not be tolerated!"
"But he can grab me whenever he wants?" Mal said hotly " Come on, Dom." As always, she sounded more french the more upset she got. Without waiting for a reply, she grabbed Dom's hand and stalked out of the gym, head held high.
Arthur looked around for Eames, but he was nowhere to be found.
"Hey," Yusuf said, appearing at his elbow. "You ok?"
"No," Arthur said. "I'm pissed. I guess I'd better call a cab."
It was easier to concentrate on the logistics of getting home than on anything else.
"I can drop you off," Yusuf said. "If you like." He was sincere, Arthur knew, but there was also a very pretty girl with curly brown hair -Ari? Amy?- standing a few feet behind Yusuf, looking worried but trying not to, and Arthur wasn't that much of an asshole.
"No, it's fine. Honestly." Arthur said. "Go enjoy the rest of the evening."
"I'll call you tomorrow, if you're sure you're ok," Yusuf said. "Ok?"
"Yeah," Arthur said, and he patted him on the shoulder gratefully before going outside to wait for a cab. He leaned his head back against the wall of the gym, and tried, and tried, and tried, not to think of Eames.
It didn't really work.
The knocking at his bedroom door continued, unabated, as Arthur folded the pillow round his ears.
"Go AWAY MAL," he yelled through the door.
"It's your father," his dad answered.
"I'm fine," he called through the door. "Really."
"I don't believe you. Let me in Arthur. Mal is worried about you."
Arthur highly doubted that. He'd lain awake, fizzing with anger, for most of last night, to hear Mal sneaking in very quietly early in the morning. If she was thinking about anything but Dom, Arthur would be surprised.
"I won't ask again," his dad warned. "I'll call your mom if I have to."
Arthur swung off the bed, and opened the door.
"I'm OK Dad," he lied. "Just working on the paperwork for Imperial. There's something you need to sign."
"Hmm," his dad said, looking round the room at the complete lack of paperwork. "That would be why Mal is on the phone swearing in French at that boyfriend of yours?"
"Mal called Eames?" Arthur asked, surprised, and a bit touched.
"He's been calling here every half an hour. This time, she picked up the phone."
"Huh," Arthur said. He looked over at his silenced cellphone and sure enough, there was a list of missed calls and texts from Eames.
"He's not my boyfriend," Arthur corrected. He was horrified to hear his voice break a little, from anger, of course.
"Oh Arthur, " his dad said, awkwardly patting his shoulder. "What happened?"
"I forgot people are assholes is all," Arthur said "I won't make the same mistake again."
He sat down on the bed and dug his fingernails into his palms to doing something embarrassing, like crying. From frustration, of course. Nothing else.
"I'd ask if you want to talk about it," his dad said, sitting next to him. "But I can't think you do."
"Not really," Arthur said. "It's not just you. I don't want to talk about it to anyone."
"Well, Mal is currently talking enough for both of you."
Arthur laughed, but it sounded hollow, even to his ears.
His dad sighed, apparently giving up. "Speaking of Imperial, I have something for you." he pulled something out of his pocket, a print-out.
"Your air miles?" Arthur said, not getting it.
"You mother and I thought you might want to go over there to check it out before you move in," he said. "Your mom has a talk-show appearance in London next month, I thought you could go with her then."
Arthur looked down again at the total- enough for an economy return to Gatwick. His mum would travel first class, of course, but it was more than he'd expected, even so.
"Thanks," he said, leaning against his dad. "I-thanks, dad. I know you don't like the idea of me going at all."
"It's not that," his dad said, hugging him round the shoulders. "Its- you barely need me now, as it is. You haven't for years. I'm going to be no use to you at all with you seven hours flight away. At least Mal sometimes lets me pretend I'm still useful."
"Are you saying you don't want me to grow up?" Arthur asked.
"No," his dad huffed in frustration. "I'm saying you're already so grown up, so mature, that you don't need me any more. And anyone who can't see what a great man you already are, doesn't deserve to make you feel bad."
Arthur managed a smile.
"Understood," he said. "You're sometimes not bad at this parenting thing, you know?"
"I try," his dad said, standing up. "Come on, I'm taking you and Mal out to lunch. And that blond boy, as he seems to be permanently attached to her."
"I’m sure Dom's all right," Arthur said, thinking that if the shouting he could now vaguely hear was Mal tearing Eames a new one he owed it to her to stick up for her choice of boyfriend.
"Well, after hearing that phone call I think he's half terrified of her anyway," his dad said. "I'll see you downstairs."
Lunch didn't really do much to fill the gnawing hole in his stomach, and he went for a walk after, sick of staring at the walls of his room and not checking his email or skype. His cell still flashed with missed calls and texts, all of which he was resolutely ignoring.
Arthur, I'm sorry.
Please, let me explain.
I was really stupid. I know. I'm so sorry.
Words were easy, Arthur thought cynically, and pressed delete, delete, delete.
Yusuf, of all people, found him at the park two blocks away, sitting on the swings.
"I knew you'd be here," he said, "Even Mal did."
"I can't believe I'm so predictable," he said morosely, pushing at the ground idly, so the swing moved gently.
Yusuf sat next to him and started to swing.
"Gonna tell me what happened?" he asked "I only caught the end last night."
"I forgot people were assholes, is all," Arthur said "I especially forgot Fischer was."
"And Eames was only dating me because Fischer paid him. So he'd get a chance with Mal."
"Damn" Yusuf winced.
"Yeah," Arthur shrugged. "I'm ok. I mean, it's not like I liked him, that much, or anything." His voice sounded thin and unconvincing, but Yusuf, friend that he was, didn't call him on it.
"Want to go and shoot things?" Yusuf asked instead. "That always makes you feel better."
"Not paintball," Arthur said, annoyed that it would always remind him of Eames, now.
"X-Box? Pizza and X-box?" Yusuf jumped off the swing at its highest arc.
"Sure," Arthur said.
Yusuf punched him on the arm, lightly, and steered him over to the car. "I won't even ask if you've done that English assignment yet."
"You're all heart," Arthur managed a smile, but it felt forced and unfamiliar on his face.
"I'm going to assume you've all done the reading," Mr Nielsen said, holding up his copy of the play. "Much Ado about Nothing. One of Shakespeare's later comedies, and one of my favourites. Thoughts?"
"I think it's really romantic," Tamara said, leaning her chin on her hands. "Beatrice thought she was going to be alone forever, but Benedick saved her from that."
Arthur couldn't let that go.
"Oh come on," he said. "Romantic? More like stupid."
There were a few groans but Mr Neilson just said, "Strong feelings, as always, Arthur. And of course, you're going to share them with the class."
"Hero and everyone else play a trick on Beatrice- she was perfectly happy by herself," Arthur began, carefully not looking anywhere but at his notes, even though he could feel Eames looking at him. "Nothing she did says she was still interested in Benedick at all. They'd been together before and he let her down. She says," he flipped through the book, looking for the quote. "</em>You always end with a jade's trick: I know you of old.</em>. She knows he can't be trusted. And then she gives him a chance to let her down again. That isn't romantic, it's stupid."
He looked up then, and met Eames's eyes, grey and sad.
"She'll get hurt again," he said, more softly, "and this time, it will be her own fault. For believing that people are good."
"Well," Mr Nielsen said briskly. "Thank you for that uniquely cynical take on one of Shakespeare's best-loved comedies, Arthur."
He could hear Eames calling after him as class let out, a note of pleading in his voice, but he determinedly did not turn around.
Mal was waiting in line for her lunch and Ari was at choir, so Dom was happily daydreaming about Mal's neck and how she liked it kissed when a dejected Eames slumped into the chair in front of him.
"This is your fault," Eames said after a minute. A good percent of his cocky swagger had disappeared. He was slouching in the chair like he was sad, not like he thought he was too cool for proper posture.
"How?" Dom asked. Arthur had looked so sad at lunch at the weekend , and Eames didn't look much better. "I mean, you knew what you were getting into, right?"
"Oh no," Eames said, pointing at him. "Nothing can prepare you for Arthur. He's, yeah."
"Have you told him that?" Dom asked.
"He won't let me near him!" Eames said. "I think, as you had a happy ending out of all this, it's only fair that you help."
"It's not me you need to speak to," Dom said, piling his trash on his tray. "It's Mal."
"Yeah, I tried that," Eames winced. "I had no idea so many French swear words existed."
"i guess all you can do is keep trying," Dom said. "If he really is important to you, and you're not just playing around."
"Why is he here?" Mal's voice was frosty as she slide her tray onto the table and sat down. Dom leaned over and kissed her cheek. Her skin was soft and warm under his lips, and he had to remind himself this wasn't all a dream.
"Spare me the abuse," Eames held his hands up. "I'm trying here, Mal, but Arthur won't even speak to me to hear me apologise."
"He is trying," Dom said, feeling like he should at least try to help out.
"Maybe you should stop talking," Mal said to Eames pointedly. "Since everything you told him was a lie."
"It wasn't!" Eames protested "Not all of it. Not most of it."
"Don't tell me that," Mal said, "tell him."
"I would if I could find him!" Eames exclaimed.
"Try harder," Mal said, and glared at him until Eames got up and walked away.
Arthur pushed at the ground with the toe of his Converse until the swing started to move gently. After English, he'd cut the rest of class, trying to avoid Eames and Fischer. He hadn't felt like going home either, so he'd gone back to the park, which in the middle of the day was all but empty, and the perfect place to feel sorry for yourself. The sun was starting to sink, and there was a chill in the air, cold through his sweater and jacket, when someone sat on the swing next to him.
"Go away Eames. I don't want to talk to you. And I'll kill Mal for telling you I was here." He swung higher, out of Eames's reach.
"She didn't," Eames said. "Actually Yusuf did." He put his and out and grabbed the chain of the swing, and it came to a jerky stop. "Please," Eames said, "just give me five minutes, and listen."
"Why, so you can tell me it was all a big mistake? That you weren't paid to be nice to me? To make out with me, like some kind of hooker?" Arthur said sharply, feeling his heart clench, and wanting to hurt Eames as much as he could.
"It's- not like that," Eames said, and he did sound hurt. "Not really."
"Come on then," Arthur said, twisting round to look at Eames. "Tell me what it was really like. Because you made me feel like a huge joke. Like the only way anyone would want to date me was if there was money in it. You lied to me and you kept on lying."
"I was just doing it for a laugh at first," Eames said. "Not at you!" he added hurriedly when Arthur’s expression turned indignant. "Just, Dom and Ariadne were there, all terrified at talking to me and Dom looked like he'd waste away if your sister didn't at least say hello to him."
"Huh?" Arthur asked, confused. He'd assumed it was all some twisted idea of Fischer's.
"Yeah," Eames said. He still hadn't let go of the chain, and he rubbed his fingers slowly over the links. "He's kind of crazy about Mal, you know. But you had to date someone, so she could. And apparently I was the only guy in the school man enough for you." Eames let out a tentative smile.
Arthur couldn't help himself, and snorted with laughter.
"He said that?"
"I may be paraphrasing." Eames waved his free hand. "Anyway, you're kind of scary, you know? I didn't think they were serious, so I said it would cost them, that dating was expensive, and I thought that would be the end of it. I mean, who'd be dumb enough to pay me to date you?"
Arthur glared, "I'm sorry I'm such an unattractive proposition," he said, and stood up.
"No!" Eames said and stood up too, and caught Arthur by the wrist. Arthur tensed, ready to twist out of the grip.
"No," he said again. "Five minutes after first talking to you, I'd have done it for free."
He looked sincere, Arthur gave him that.
"Please, Arthur," Eames said and clasped Arthur's hands in both of his. It was chilly, and Eames's hands were warm. "I had no idea they'd actually do it. But suddenly there Fischer was with a huge roll of bills, and you know me Arthur."
"I thought I did," Arthur said darkly.
"You know me, Arthur. I can't back down from a challenge, 'specially not from a tosser like Fischer."
"Let me get this straight," Arthur said slowly. "Fischer thought he was paying you to date me, so he could take Mal out. But the idea was Dom's, and he was just using Fischer so that he could ask Mal out?"
He was kind of impressed, despite himself. He hadn't thought there was such a cunning mind behind that baby face.
"To be honest," Eames said, and he gave that little half smile, "I think it was partly Ari. She's pretty sneaky. If I wasn't so gone on someone else, I'd date her like a shot."
"Gone, are you?" Arthur asked, feeling a bit pleased. But only a bit.
"Totally gone," Eames agreed. "On you, in case you hadn't worked that out." He rubbed over Arthur's wrist gently.
"Say I believed you," Arthur said, at last.
"Ask Dom if you don't. Ask your sister," Eames interrupted.
"If I believed you," Arthur continued. "What happened to the money?"
"Funny you should ask that," Eames said and he let Arthur go at last. Arthur rubbed his hands together, still feeling Eames' callouses. Eames dug into the backpack that was propped against the frame of the swing. "This is for you."
Arthur thought it was a book at first, but then he felt the lightness and opened the leather case.
"The Nook you were looking at won't work in England, but this will," Eames explained, "and you can put maps and stuff on it too, so you can find your way around the tube. People are always getting lost."
"You-bought me a tablet?" Arthur asked, stunned. He swiped his thumb over the screen to wake it up, and tapped at the Library icon to see one of his textbooks for Imperial." "Textbooks too? Eames, I know how much these cost, I can't accept this."
"I had some extra money," Eames shrugged, "Some asshole paid me to take out the most amazing guy I know."
"Oh yeah?" Arthur said. He closed the cover and looked up to see Eames leaning over him.
"Yeah,“ Eames said, softly. “But like I said, it was a waste of money. I'd have done it for nothing. Turns out it was just the push I needed. I let you down. I know I did. And all I can tell you, at the end of it all, is that I promise I won't do it again."
Eames kissed him then, Arthur let him. It felt a lot like sorry.
"Just so we're clear," Arthur said, and curled one hand around the back of Eames's neck. "You let me down again and I will kick your ass."
"I think Mal would too," Eames said against his lips, and kissed him again.
"And you can't just go buying me books every time we have an argument," Arthur said, and he kissed the side of Eames's mouth. "We'll run out of bookshelves."
"There's always post-its," Eames said, "those highlighters you're so fond of. An Oyster card."
"An Oyster card?" Arthur laughed "What's that?"
"Subway card," Eames said. "You have to have some way of visiting me at UCL, don't you?"
"UCL?" Arthur asked, confused.
"Didn't I tell you I was going to Uni in London too?" Eames winked. "No getting rid of me that easily."
"You know, " Arthur said, and kissed him again, "I don't really mind."