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On The Nth Day

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On the first day of Christmas, Christmas Day, Eames is in New York, drinking cart coffee in Times Square. His phone buzzes.

“Arthur,” he says pleasantly, “so nice to hear from you.”

“I don’t know what you’re doing,” Arthur says on the other end of the phone, “but is this going to be a thing?”

“Happy Christmas to you too,” Eames says. “Is what going to be a thing?” He takes a sip of coffee to hide his smile, even though Arthur has no way of seeing it. Probably. This is Arthur, so maybe.

“Leaving dead birds in my apartment,” Arthur says. “Is this like what cats do when they drag home half-eaten mice and shit to acknowledge your superiority?”

“I think it’s more that they regard you as their half-witted kittens who refuse to hunt,” Eames says, “and that they’re trying to keep you from starving, but if you feel the need to eat my present, I must warn you that preservatives of that variety don’t quite agree with the digestion.”

“I don’t - I’m not a kitten,” Arthur says, “and I also don’t eat footballs with feathers, and I also don’t hunt, because this is the city, we have Trader Joe’s, and I have a fridge full of food, so your argument is so invalid - Eames?”

Eames turns his snort into a laughing fit. “Sorry, choked on my coffee. Do go on.”

There is a long, baleful pause.

Eames,” Arthur says, flat and dangerous. There’s the sound of footsteps, and then the squeak of a fridge door, and a millisecond of silence during which Arthur seems to inhale half the air in the room, and then - there really isn’t any way to describe the sound of three hundred pears falling out of a fridge, Eames decides, but it’s pretty fucking fantastic.

“Eames, you fucker,” Arthur snarls, and three full minutes later he hasn’t stopped for breath, so Eames hangs up on him.

His phone does its best impression of a nest of hornets for the next fifteen minutes until Eames takes out the battery. “Sorry, darling,” he says aloud, “I’m busy,” and he swirls the tarry grounds left at the bottom of the cup and decides not to risk drinking them.

Eames throws the cup away on the block-long walk to the central branch of the New York Public Library.

Three hours later, when the first alarms go off, Eames is long gone.

---

On the second day of Christmas (Boxing Day to Eames, always), Eames sleeps in. At ten o’clock his phone wakes him up.

“I swear I took out the battery,” he says as he picks up.

“You did,” Arthur says. “But I happen to have a list of your safehouses, so now you didn’t, and by the way, you sleep like a log.”

Eames ignores the last bit. “You flatter me,” he says, “well, not with the log bit, but that’s a great deal of trouble to go to in order to get in touch with me.”

“No it isn’t,” Arthur says flatly.

“You’re right,” Eames says, “I forgot, never mind that you have my email, just break into my house and cut out the middleman altogether, because it’s so much simpler. I can see why you and Saito got on so well.”

“Don’t be petty,” Arthur says. “I was calling to thank you, if it was even you, but-”

“Oh do go on in that case,” Eames says, mentally reversing direction. He pushes back the covers and sits up. “But before you do, would you mind telling me if you booby-trapped my apartment? Only I would rather like to get dressed.”

Arthur chokes, then recovers. “Well,” he says, “the floor is lava, but apart from that you should be fine.”

“Good,” Eames says, and pulls open his closet door tentatively. Nothing happens. His jackets hang there as innocently as they can.

“I may, however, have burned the most egregious tweed,” Arthur says.

“See if I rob touring collections for you again,” Eames says. “Ingrate. How’d you like the turtle doves?”

“They’re finches, Eames,” Arthur says, “I know you know that, it was probably on the label of the case before you smashed the glass if you’d bothered to read it. Do you have some bird thing, is that why it’s the partridge and then thi- oh my god, wait, wait, is this-”

“Shh,” says Eames, “breathe, one, two, one, two, good, breathe.”

“-this is some sort of demented reenactment of the Twelve Days of Christmas, isn’t it?” Arthur says.

“No,” Eames says, and listens to Arthur sigh, tinny and exasperated.

There’s silence for a moment while Eames waits for Arthur to say something. He suspects that Arthur is waiting for him to talk, and so after another second he breaks the silence.

“Must dash,” he says, forcing cheer into his voice, “things to do, French hens to see-”

“-Why do you do it?” Arthur says, cutting in.

Eames hangs up before Arthur is finished speaking. He never could stand a direct question.

---

Later that day Eames drops by a storage facility near Riverside Park with a rental van and does a little housekeeping.

---

On the third day of Christmas Eames comes home late, which is what happens when Arthur’s doorman gets suspicious and calls security and then the police. Eames takes a detour through Central Park and stops off at a tiny antiques store that he’s quite fond of; given the way the owner had glared at him and at the police detail doing a shitty job of being nonchalant outside, he thinks that he won’t be welcome back anytime soon, which is a pity.

There’s someone sitting on the single low step outside Eames’ door, and Eames reaches for the gun in the back of his waistband before his higher cognitive functions kick in and he recognizes Arthur.

“I knew I should have moved,” he says.

“You stole me a Calder,” Arthur says. “You stole me a Calder chicken. Last time I checked, that was in Chicago. How long were you even planning this?”

“When was the last time you checked?” Eames says. “Sometimes I just feel the need to put a vaguely chair-like statue of a chicken in storage for half a year, and French hens are harder to come by than you’d think.”

“Why?” Arthur says. “I mean, no, not why are they hard to come by, why are you giving me these things, why the Twelve Days?”

Eames seriously considers shooting himself in the foot to avoid this conversation. He shifts his weight from side to side, watches the swirl of Arthur’s breath, and Arthur’s eyes never waver; he never looks away.

“Why not?” he says finally, because it’s easier than saying I missed you or I wondered if it would make you smile.

Arthur exhales, a cloud hanging for a moment in the space between them, then struggles to his feet. Eames watches, unmoving, and Arthur says, “I brought dinner,” and picks up two shopping bags from the step. “The least you can do is invite me in, it’s fucking cold out here.”

---

On the fourth day of Christmas Eames wakes up on the couch, terribly hung over and with a very sore neck.

It takes him a good minute to remember where the ibuprofen is, and ten minutes after that for him to regain anything even vaguely resembling higher cognitive function.

Fifteen minutes and a large glass of water later, Eames heads into his bedroom to find clothes, and accidentally wakes Arthur up.

Over the course of about two microseconds, Arthur bolts upright and has his gun pointed at Eames, safety off, finger on the trigger. Eames is still trying to process when Arthur decided to stay over.

“Did you sleep with that?” he says as his mind catches up. “Do you have a teddy Glock - oh my god, did you name it Vera? Aren’t you worried about shooting yourself in your sleep?”

“No,” Arthur says. He puts the safety on and drops the gun on the bedside table. “Don’t let me stop you,” he adds, pushing back the covers and nodding at the closet.

Eames takes a moment to appreciate Arthur’s legs out of the corner of his eye, then remembers the box at the bottom of his closet.

“Hold on,” he says, “don’t forget your present,” and he hauls the box out and carries it over to the bed.

Arthur raises an eyebrow at Eames, but swings his legs back onto the bed and crosses them, pulling the box onto his lap. He slits the tape with a fingernail, and Eames watches the neat efficient movements of his hands with fascination.

The box is packed with fine white tissue, and Arthur pulls it out one crumpled florette at a time until he reaches something solid, and he hooks his fingers underneath it and pulls.

The music box is still as lovely as it was when Eames saw it in the window of the antiques shop; it managed to distract him from the three policemen stealthily ducking behind hot dog stands and lampposts yesterday, and it still draws his gaze away from Arthur.

Arthur’s face goes carefully still.

“Eames,” he says finally, “I-”

“No, look,” Eames says in a rush, “here,” and he worms a fingernail into the gold oval at the center of the lid and flips it up.

Inside the curved recess, a tiny enamelled bird whirs to life and begins to sing, a little tinny perhaps, but beautiful nonetheless.

Arthur and Eames watch it for a moment. “On the fourth day of Christmas,” Arthur says, “my true love gave to me - four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”

“Did he now,” Eames says, and Arthur retorts, “As I recall, it was more like four fucking million frozen pears, a stuffed partridge, two finches, an abstract chicken, and a music box.”

“I’ll just have to work harder,” Eames says.

“No,” Arthur blurts out, then slows down and says, “Christmas isn’t just you giving me shit, okay, I feel like - just give me a chance to catch up, okay?”

“And the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day,” Eames says, grinning. “Has the Christmas spirit got you in its inexorable grasp, Arthur darling?”

Which is when Arthur pelts him with the tissue paper, and Eames grabs sweatpants and a shirt and retreats under the barrage to change in the hallway.

---

On the fourth afternoon of Christmas, Eames looks up from the floor, where he’s trying to find Hogfather for his annual holiday reread, and watches a pile of boxes with legs stagger in.

“Do you need help with that?” he asks, because it seriously looks as if Arthur is about to pitch over.

“No,” Arthur snaps, and shuffles off into the bedroom.

The boxes disappear.

---

On the fifth day of Christmas, Eames wakes up on the sofa again. There are five boxes stacked around him.

He sits up gingerly and opens one.

“Bundt cake,” he says. “Five of them.”

“Yes,” says Arthur, poking his head in the door. “That shouldn’t be as hard to get rid of as the three fucking billion pears.”

“Five golden rings,” Eames says. “I did think a proposal was a bit far-fetched, but I wasn’t expecting you to go off on this much of a tangent.”

“At least I got the number right,” Arthur says, which is when it finally occurs to Eames to wonder when Arthur went home and retrieved fresh clothes.

He asks Arthur.

“Around one o’clock in the morning,” Arthur says, “because obviously the Twelve Days are serious shit, and there’s no way I’m going to one-up you if I can’t keep an eye on you. All the time.”

“That’s not strange and creepy at all,” Eames says.

“Also my doorman isn’t going to be a problem,” Arthur says, and then he looks away and to the right, which is a sure sign that he’s not saying everything. “And you’re not finding out what until the twelve days are up, so stop thinking that.”

Which is how Eames ends up climbing out his third-floor window and scrambling down the fire escape while Arthur is in the shower. (Part of Arthur’s survival kit for Living With Eames is apparently four suit hangers and a duffel bag full of clothing, and Eames had taken one look and backed away slowly. “You do that,” he’d said, and as soon as he’d heard the water start he’d snatched his keys and been out the window.)

Ten minutes later he and the doorman are sharing a companionable cup of coffee when Arthur slams the door open, cheeks flushed and hair mussed. “Eames,” he says, then flounders for a moment, because there is actually nothing at all he can say next without sounding suspicious. Why did you run away down the fire escape? Why are you interrogating my doorman?

“Arthur, darling,” Eames says, smiling, wide and happy and with just a hint of smugness, and the dismay is visible on Arthur’s face for just a moment before Eames wraps an arm around his waist and tugs him close.

“You never told me, sir!” the doorman says reprovingly. “There wouldn’t have been all this trouble if you had, you know.”

“Oh, you know Arthur,” Eames says. “He likes pretending to be an automaton, day in, day out, with no need for human emotional interaction.”

Arthur grits his teeth and makes it look like a smile.

The doorman smiles involuntarily, and Eames leans over to brush a kiss against the corner of his mouth. “Come on, dear,” he says. “Things to do, coffee to drink, no?”

He can see Arthur visibly struggle against the urge to break several of his ribs.

---

“Married,” Eames says. “You told him that we’re married.”

“Shut up,” Arthur says, staring into the depths of his coffee.

“You couldn’t just say Oh, he’s my disreputable cousin or even that I’m an old friend, no, now we’re married.  It's not like being your husband is a burden or anything, but seriously?  Wouldn't it be easier if I was your relative?"

“Shut up,” Arthur said, “oh my god, I regret it as least as much as you do, and I’m never buying you cake again.”

"No, no," Eames says, "don't do that, it's seriously good cake, and I'll be eating it for the next week, but you - " Is there something you want to say? Eames thinks.  Why did you need to clear me with your doorman?  Why are you - and if this, them, Arthur and Eames, were a balancing act, a tightrope, Eames is teetering on the edge, arms pinwheeling, and this is Arthur - Arthur who pushed him in the first place - holding out his hand, even though they might both go down that way.

“Why married?” Eames said, for the fifth time. Bryant Park is fucking cold this time of year, which is what he’s blaming for his inability to say anything else.

“I don’t know,” Arthur says miserably. “It made sense at the time, all right?”

“Oh, Arthur,” Eames says, a little more gently than he means to. “You sweep me off my feet.”

“I hope so,” Arthur says. “I did get you five golden rings.”

And there’s something in the way he says it, something in the moment, that makes Eames pause, makes him look just that little bit closer for Arthur’s tells, and the right corner of his mouth inches up the tiniest fraction, and Eames thinks, Ah, I have you.

“Arthur,” he says, slowly, “are you-”

“Oh my god, no,” Arthur says, far too quickly, and Eames supposes that the hurt shows on his face.

"It's all right," he says, "you know.  It's just - it wasn’t all a joke,” Eames says, and he feels the words slice away at his skin, lacerating him, leaving him raw and bleeding emotion. “The Twelve Days, I mean.”

“Eames,” Arthur starts, and Eames cuts him off. “I know what you think about me,” he says, “you think that I’m a forger and a liar and a thief, and that’s all true, but - I wouldn’t fuck you over, Arthur, all right, I’m - I’m a liar and a thief for you, Arthur, say something.”

“Eames, you idiot,” Arthur says, “you’re a forger, but sometimes your conclusions are shit, because - look, all right, on the fifth day of Christmas I gave - well, I don’t know if I believe in true love, but fuck that - on the fifth day of Christmas I gave the closest thing I’ll ever have to a true love five golden rings, and maybe they were edible, but it wasn’t a joke for me either, all right?”

“Arthur,” Eames says, astonished.

“No,” Arthur says, “just don’t say anything for five minutes, because I have no fucking idea where to get you six geese a-laying, so here’s a compromise - I am going to throw away my cup, and then you have five minutes to say yes or no, and if you say yes I am going to kiss you, and if you say no I am going to get my bag from your flat and spend Christmas crying into my eggnog, all right?”

“You heard me, right?” Arthur says, getting up.

“Yes,” Eames says.

“Good,” Arthur says, picking up his cup and looking around for a trash can.

“Arthur,” Eames calls.

Arthur looks back.

“I meant yes,” Eames says. “Yes.”

Arthur walks back, slow, and the cup gets crushed between them when he finally, finally kisses Eames. Behind him a pack of taxis charges down Avenue of the Americas; there’s a faint scream from the skating rink behind Eames, and he thinks, twelve days isn’t enough for what I’d give you, what I’d give for this, a lifetime isn’t enough, but I suppose we’ll have to make do.

They do.

---