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And Keep This Empire Alive

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It’s past two in the morning when Aaron finally seems to settle in. For a full five minutes, not so much as a peep comes from the baby monitor.

Eames isn’t about to get his hopes up and start anticipating anything as outlandish as full nights of this wizardry, but it’s as good a start as any. He has two pillows stuffed under his head, an arm slung over his face, and the mattress could probably grow tentacles and he wouldn’t care a whit as long as it let him steal a little rest. Everyone he’s ever worked with or against would have a well-deserved laugh at his expense if they could see him now, but the bed isn’t judging him and that’s really the only thing that matters.

But now Arthur is the one tossing and turning and refusing to sleep.

Normally, this is Eames’s terrain. Arthur is the one with the enviable ability to doze off at the drop of a hat, a weakness he’s turned into an art form. Eames has seen him sleep curled up in chairs, against car windows, and while sitting perfectly upright in front of his computer. On one especially interesting occasion, he’d nodded off on his feet and stood swaying in the middle of the kitchen while Eames watched in fascination before finally taking him by the shoulders and shepherding him into bed. Too many years of hypervigilance have made sleep something elusive to Eames at best, but it helps being able to lie down beside Arthur and touch him, breathe in the scent of him, feel the heat of his skin and the steadiness of his breath when he holds him.

Beside him, Arthur gives an unhappy grunt and starts to sit up.

It takes an absurd amount of effort to do it, but Eames drags himself onto his side and threads his other arm around Arthur’s midsection. “You ought to rest while you can,” he thinks he says, but the words cling together, sleep-sticky in his throat. His arm curls a little more firmly, drawing Arthur in close until the kiss curls at his nape are tickling Eames’s nose.

“I can’t,” Arthur says needlessly. His back shudders in a sigh against Eames’s chest. “I don’t get it. He’s usually hungry when he wakes up.”

Eames makes silly shushing sounds, tells him it’s all right, slides a hand under Arthur’s shirt until it lies against his ribs, just shy of grazing the gentle curve of a breast. “Eames,” Arthur sighs again, “don’t. I feel gross.”

The effects of pregnancy are still etched across his body in so many ways, but Eames would never use the word gross to describe them. Arthur, however, occasionally makes self-deprecating remarks about losing his figure, though the swells of his breasts are modest and smooth, his middle still soft but nearly as narrow as ever. The furrow of his scar, low on his belly, is a small ridged ribbon under Eames’s fingers when he rests them there.

“This is the easy part, remember?” Eames mumbles into his nape. “It’s all uphill once you’ve actually given birth.”

“I’m putting an embargo on motivational parenting books,” Arthur warns. “I really mean it this time.”

“Whatever makes you feel better, darling.” Eames lets his touch drift higher, nosing the warm arch of Arthur’s ear and skimming the underside of a breast with the pad of his thumb. Arthur makes a small sound, fitful and not particularly pleased. This was meant to be you, resonates the reminder in Eames’s head that never quite leaves, and gratefulness claims him like a kiss.

Eames isn’t used to his own resources failing him. After spending years of his life both consciously and subconsciously manipulating the actions of others, having someone offer their own body up for manipulation so freely is such an anomaly that it might as well be a dream. Arthur is ruthless and rational, but his unflinching allegiance to the strangest things always baffled Eames somewhat, and it still does even now that he happens to be one of those things. Eames has never been the sort of person one can trust easily, but Arthur has always been the most trustworthy criminal he knows.

He imagines, sometimes, what it would have been like if there had been no need for Arthur to volunteer. If it would have been any easier for him to handle this than it had been for Arthur. In dreams, Eames’s name has always gone hand in hand with the ability to slip from shape to shape without a hitch while Arthur, by his own admission, has never been able to forge so much as a successful excuse note from school. It makes Eames wonder if that makes a difference, having spent so much time occupying lives and forms not his own, or if giving life to something in the waking world is always like this, a rollercoaster of hope and fear and relentless determination.

“Do you want the pump?” Eames ventures when Arthur stifles a groan. “Take the edge off?”

“I’ve been pumping so much it’s gonna give me carpal tunnel,” Arthur grumbles. “He’ll just wake up again in ten minutes anyway.”

“Then I’ll take care of it.” He mouths lightly at the side of Arthur’s neck and feels him relax slightly, still fitting against him so nicely despite being cantankerous and exhausted. This comes easily now, too, a holdover from when Arthur’s swollen belly led to him gravely relinquishing his role as the bigger spoon. “I’ll take care of everything.”

Sleeping arrangements had been one of the most easily remedied issues they encountered over the past year, though they hadn’t known it at the time. Eames had ended up on the futon a fair amount—between his insomnia and Arthur getting up to use the bathroom every other hour, having separate sleeping spaces seemed only natural—and eventually they turned the storage room into a spare bedroom, with the caveat that it was only out of practicality and not a sign of becoming the sort of couple who slept in separate rooms every night. Or, as Arthur had put it, One of us has a womb and the other has PTSD. I think we’re a special case.

Until then, Eames had grown accustomed to Arthur being the one curling up behind him, helping soothe him into sleep, but the other way round has its own good points. His forehead rests comfortably against the base of Arthur’s neck and his knuckles track a lackadaisical path up the centre of his chest, trying for some soothing of his own.

Arthur squirms and Eames pauses.

“Does it hurt that much?”

“Just tender. It’ll pass.” He sounds so tired that Eames aches with sympathy for him despite being half-asleep himself.

It isn’t as strength-sapping as he anticipates, bracing a hand on the other side of Arthur’s head and leaning down to kiss him. Arthur’s lips are dry, soft against Eames’s own when he goes about easing his other hand further up underneath his rumpled tee and cautiously touching his left breast. There’s a patch of wetness at the tip of his nipple, slick against Eames’s finger. “Jesus,” he whispers, and Arthur’s nipple tightens even as a discontent little moan sneaks out of him. “I didn’t realise.”

“I don’t think this is the time,” Arthur mumbles into his cheek, wry.

But Eames just slides the hem of his shirt up and himself down until he can kiss there as well, in apology. Arthur groans again, this time in surprise. “Arms,” Eames says, getting to his knees, and Arthur lifts them obligingly to let him slip the shirt off entirely. “On your back.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Arthur says, but he rolls over all the same, pliant as a rag doll.

It takes Eames’s breath away even now, the softness still lingering at his middle, the swollen buds of his nipples. But even in the dark of their bedroom, Eames can tell the skin under his eyes is stained with shadows.

“There’s something I read about,” he says hesitantly. “This might not feel good at first, but it’s supposed to get better and I’ll stop whenever you say.”

Arthur gives him a quizzical look. His eyes squeeze shut when Eames places the flat of his hand to the underside of one breast and kneads slightly with his fingertips.

“If you don’t like it, I don’t blame you,” Eames continues, aware he’s speaking in the same voice he uses on Aaron when a mood swing seems imminent. “But suppose, if you do…” he begins and tongues the wetness from one nipple, still massaging the breast tissue.

Arthur, evidently too tired to protest, closes his eyes again and sinks back into his nest of pillows. “This is kind of,” he says after a minute, but then Eames sucks carefully and Arthur’s gasp swallows up the rest of his words.

He’s let Arthur into his mind and body in so many ways that Eames supposes this is hardly a blip on the radar. And it’s always gratifying to know he can still surprise Arthur sometimes.

“Eames.” Arthur’s voice is thin with uncertainty.

“Hush. You taste wonderful,” Eames promises. “Sweet.”

Arthur says his name again, softly, and shivers. His nipple slips free of Eames’s lips, a pale stream of milk running down his ribs, wetting Eames’s fingers before he nudges his face lower and chases it with his tongue. Arthur’s hands are curling around tufts of his hair, clenching and letting go, clenching and letting go as Eames laps at him, reveling in the catlike curve of Arthur’s spine when he smooths a hand against the small of his back and gently suckles at the other nipple. Nose pressing into the curve of his breast, tongue stroking the nipple as his lips seal around it, coaxing the milk from him. Through his boxers, Arthur’s cock is soft, and the sounds coming from him are pleased but thickly edged with exhaustion. Eames encountered some kinkier versions of this in his investigations, but this isn’t about distracting Arthur with sex, just something to help him to relax and maybe sneak in some sleep while he can.

It seems to be working. Arthur is sighing again now, less as if he’s frustrated and more as if he’s finally letting himself release some tension.

His chest has always been an erogenous zone. Eames learned about this after tipping a champagne flute over it years ago in El Paso, ruining the bedcovers and Arthur’s composure in one fell swoop. He still remembers licking it off, the way Arthur’s nipples had been so sharp and small against his pursed lips, the way his thighs had fallen open, the hum of his heartbeat in the supple arch of his throat. It had been such a captivating reaction that for a long time Eames had toyed with his nipples and nothing more, as if it was the most thrilling thing in the world—taking them between his teeth, rolling them between his fingers, musing out loud about coming on them just to lick Arthur clean all over again. Arthur had thrashed and sworn and ultimately wrestled himself free enough to turn over and demand to be fucked because his nipples were too overstimulated to handle anything more. When Eames took him from behind, they had rubbed against the blankets anyway, since Arthur’s arms hadn’t been steady enough to hold himself up. To this day, Eames still doesn’t understand how they didn’t rack up a sound violation that night.

Sex with Eames, Arthur complained afterward, was ruining him for sex with anyone else. He had seemed very sure of this even though he later admitted he had almost nothing at all to compare it to. Still freshly tanned and tattooed from a stint in Chile, buzz cut just beginning to grow out. Eames wouldn’t find out for years that Arthur’s hair curled when it was long enough, wouldn’t find out for a few months later just how much Arthur liked having it pulled when he came.

Pregnancy hormones just amp up the sensitivity to a ridiculous degree.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Arthur is chanting under his breath. “This, ah, wasn’t what I had in mind when you said you’d take care of things.”

Eames sucks him once more just to feel the way Arthur’s hands spasm around fistfuls of his hair. “Complaining?”

“I guess you’re not doing too bad for someone who abandoned me during the second trimester.”

A stab of shame crooks in Eames’s gut. “So you’re going to hang that over me forever, is that it?”

Leaving might not have been the wisest action to take, but Eames still doesn’t regret it, or at least not entirely. They’d been at each other’s throats constantly until he’d gone to Winnipeg for a brief job that turned out to be less brief than either of them had counted on. “You needed breathing room. Said so yourself. In fact, I believe your exact words were ‘Just go. I’m sick of your face.’”

“Well, I was,” Arthur says in that peculiar tone of his that sounds like the vocal equivalent of an eyeroll. “That’s because spending nine straight months with you would have been like spending them with the most obnoxious backseat driver who never shuts up even though you’re not actually driving anywhere.” His fingers slip free of Eames’s hair to rest against the side of his neck. “But I still hated that you were gone for that long.”

“I know.” Eames kisses a stray droplet from his skin. “Oh, sweetheart, I know. We’re still muddling along all right, though, aren’t we?”

He massages a little more firmly to ease the pressure when he takes Arthur’s nipple into his mouth once more. Arthur doesn’t so much as flinch this time. “Muddling is right. Where did you say you read about this?”

“Never you mind,” Eames tells him blithely, and cracks his neck before dipping his head to taste him again. He can feel the tremble of Arthur’s belly under his hand.

Arthur has always been angular, sharp hips and thin thighs, all quicksilver litheness and wiry muscle but very little fat. The weight suits him, gives him a new appeal on top of what’s already there. He’s filled out a bit, looks less lean and hungry, but Eames knows better than to tell Arthur he’s doing anything as preposterous as glowing. Once, Arthur had told him he was too busy to glow, and Eames hadn’t had the heart to argue that point. Arthur had been religious about filling his schedule with textbook-perfect behavior ever since he texted Eames a picture of his test results—maintaining an exercise regimen, eschewing junk food, toting Eames to classes and information sessions with other couples who had also been through the procedure, reading articles and blogs about everything from how this particular fertility technique was a modern miracle to how it was shameful for anyone to espouse a form of childbirth that rendered a female body unnecessary.

The medically mandated therapy sessions had been a strain on them both, since neither of them was used to pouring out their thoughts to strangers. Eames was fairly sure it went against his nature to even try and take that sort of thing seriously, and he had all the room in the world to say so since he’d been through—and booted from, Arthur reminded him—a psychology course or two in the past. But it was all part of what the process entailed, so they’d gone against their nature and gritted their teeth and gotten it over with. When asked why he’d wanted to do this, Arthur had simply said, because this is what we decided together and not touched at all on Eames being incapable of carrying the child to term. Eames hadn’t been able to say much of anything after that.

Then Aaron was born, six pounds and six ounces, a screaming splotchy ball of chubby limbs and downy brown hair. In spite of all the preparations and agonizing, neither of them could quite believe it at first. Did that really happen? Eames had asked Arthur. Did we seriously pull this off?

Arthur had told him, slowly and clearly, that he would strangle Eames with his IV line if he turned aside to check his totem.

“’s enough.”

It takes a moment for it to register that Arthur has a knuckle under his chin, nudging his head up. “Eames, it’s good. I’m good.”

Eames kisses him, chaste, the taste of him still exploding over his tongue.

Arthur bundles him close without saying a thing, breathing deep and satisfied as he strokes his long fingers down Eames’s neck and shoulders. For a few minutes, he holds him so silently that Eames begins to think he’s gone to sleep.

“Do you ever miss it?” Arthur asks suddenly, Eames’s head resting on his sternum. “Sleeping with girls, I mean.”

Eames utters a guttural sound of reproach into his clavicle.

“You’re a breast man, obviously,” Arthur says. “When you have the opportunity to be, I mean.” He falters, then repeats himself more quietly. “So…do you?”

“Yes,” Eames admits. There are dreams he has sometimes, now that he’s begun dreaming again, of forging women, of being with them. He kisses the corner of Arthur’s mouth, where it’s beginning to tuck downward. “That doesn’t mean I want to go back to them.” His chin scrapes Arthur’s jaw when he kisses him, and he remembers everything, thinks, I miss Přerov and Havana and being able to do a dozen impossible things before breakfast. But I wouldn’t give this up.

“Good,” Arthur replies at last. He sounds drowsy, young. “I’d miss you. You and your lips. And your eyelashes. Maybe some other stuff, too.”

“I’d never give you up.”

Arthur smiles, tousle-headed. “Are you Rickrolling me?”

“I have absolutely no idea what that is.”

In the dark, in the silence, Arthur’s fingers card through his hair again. “I’ll make sure you find out sometime, when you least expect it.”

Eames is about to ask what he means by that when, over the baby monitor, there’s the unmistakable sound of Aaron fussing.

Arthur promptly buries his face in his pillow and does some fussing of his own.

“For pity’s sake, stop trying to one-up him. I told you, I’ll take care of it. You sleep.” Eames is already swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “I need to get in some more practise at changing nappies anyway.”

There’s no response from Arthur but a snore.

Eames chooses to count that as a success rather than a snub.

After an indefinite amount of rocking and coddling and bottle-feeding, he tiptoes by the threshold of their bedroom and cracks open the door. Aaron is snuggled against his shoulder, smelling of baby powder and tear-free shampoo as if he weren’t squalling out his little lungs just minutes before.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Eames explains in an undertone, “but you really should consider establishing more regular eating habits. Your daddy isn’t a twenty-four hour buffet. Just look at him.”

Aaron tugs at his shirt with a tiny fist and emits what sounds to Eames like a rather condescending burp.

“So glad you agree,” Eames says. “I knew you’d come around.”

Arthur sleeps on.