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The craving comes back on the first night Arthur doesn't stay at his office past nine o'clock in two weeks.

It always comes back when he's feeling like this: Especially burnt out, hating his job, hating his life, sick and tired and desperate. It's been about a month since the last time, because it takes about three weeks for it to build up to this point, and then another week before he decides that the brief but immense gratification will be worth the amount of self-loathing he'll feel afterward.

He leaves the office at eight, and goes to a gay bar.

It's a different one than last time. He doesn't want to be recognized or remembered. It's almost a hundred blocks away from his apartment and when the cab pulls up, he regards it with distaste. It's a small, trashy dive of a place.

He hands a few bills to the cab driver and gets out anyway.

The interior is no more impressive than the exterior. The place is dimly-lit and there's a general air of seediness hanging around. Arthur draws a few gazes from the patrons as he approaches the bar, and feels a flicker of resentment. They're mostly older men, and not the type that interests him. Soft, affectatious queers in their forties and fifties who watch him yearningly because the days are long gone when they could have hooked up with something as young and attractive as Arthur.

He takes a seat at the bar and orders a drink. He always needs at least one before he starts feeling less bothered by the atmosphere of the place, like its griminess is clinging to him, and the depravity of his mission.

He's on his second beer when a stranger drops onto the stool at his side and drawls, “You look like you're on the wrong side of the tracks, kitten.”

Arthur frowns and glances down at himself. Waistcoat but no jacket, loosened tie, collared shirt with the top two buttons undone. It's as dressed-down as he gets on a weeknight.

“Shall I give you directions back to the Upper West Side?” the man inquires mildly, and that makes Arthur scowl. It's a coincidence that his apartment is located there. “Or, on the off chance that you are indeed in the right place, can I buy you a drink?”

“Look,” Arthur says stiffly, staring fixedly at his beer. “I didn't come here for conversation. I didn't come to get into a relationship. All I want is stupid, meaningless sex. Unless you can help me with that, please leave me alone.”

The man seems taken aback by Arthur's bluntness.

“Well,” he says, after a pause. “I think I can do something for you, then.”

Arthur turns his head and takes the man in for the first time. Big, solid-framed; muscular arms; stubbled face. They don't really come more masculine than this. Arthur's vitriolic sense of self-preservation wages war with his repressed, starving id briefly.

“Fine.” He shrugs, slaps a couple bills down on the bar, and gets up. “Let's go. And my name isn't kitten. It's Arthur.”

“Eames.” The stranger smiles broadly, gets to his feet and slings an arm around Arthur's waist, which makes him bristle. “I have a place not far from here.”

 

&
Eames' place is a hovel. It doesn't even have rooms, and not in a chic studio apartment way. Everything's crammed together: kitchenette, toilet, bed. Takeaway boxes are piled in one corner and the bed is unmade.

“'Scuse the mess.” Eames flips on the lamp next to the bed. “I imagine it's not what you're used to.”

Arthur rolls his eyes and starts stripping off his clothes. Eames takes his lead and starts shrugging out of his own clothing.

“You've got a nice body for a pencil pusher,” he says appreciatively, surprised, looking Arthur over.

“We don't need to talk,” Arthur says, sitting on the edge of the bed so he can pull off his pants and shoes together. “Let's just fuck.”

“Alright then,” says Eames.

Once he's naked, Arthur flops back onto the bed and watches Eames strip off, revealing inked flesh and more muscles. It sends a shiver of -- something through Arthur's stomach. Trepidation. Fear. Want. He isn't sure. Probably all three. He rolls onto all fours before Eames starts unbuckling his pants, because he doesn't want to look at Eames' cock in case it makes this too real for him. He just wants it inside him.

He half-watches while Eames pulls open the bedside table drawer and fishes for a condom, then listens to him tear it open and roll it on. He hears the snap of a cap of lube and swallows, shuffling his knees further apart, eyes squeezed shut in anticipation.

It burns like fury when Eames pushes the head of his cock into him, stretching him before he's ready.

“Fuck!” Arthur snarls, hands screwing into the covers, bucking a little instinctively in a vain attempt to throw Eames off. “Asshole! You didn't even--”

He has to break off with a strangled sound when Eames shoves himself in deeper.

“No talking,” he mocks softly next to Arthur's ear, sounding amused at the quivering mess he's immediately reduced Arthur to.

He starts thrusting. Arthur, in turn, keeps his mouth shut, braces on his hands and knees, and takes it. It's hard -- Eames is huge, bigger than any of Arthur's partners thus far, almost too much for him to handle, especially without any preparation or warning. Part of him wants to say stop, but most of him doesn't because this is so exactly what he needs right now. He needs to be used and bruised and just fucked. The pace Eames sets is fast and rough, and his hands wrapped around either side of Arthur's waist clench with every thrust, leaving deep scores from his nails on Arthur's stomach.

And he loves this, he does, just letting go and being debased and filthy like this, but Eames is brutal -- both in girth and the force with which he fucks into Arthur -- and when Arthur thinks he can speak, he opens his mouth, dizzy, and says, “Do you think you can -- maybe--”

He's not sure what he intends to say, maybe slow down or take it easy, but just then Eames' teeth are fastened in the junction between his neck and shoulder, and he bites down hard. Immediately Arthur is making this feeble whining sound, and that makes Eames bite harder, which hurts worse; but when he lets go, the sudden release of pressure feels good. Eames' stubble scrapes over his shoulder then and Arthur shudders, feeling him nuzzle into the bruise roughly.

For some reason it's right then that he has this stupid thought -- I'm being fucked by some stranger I just met and he could seriously hurt me -- and simultaneously realizes, he is completely, blindingly hard. At once, he braces his weight on one arm and wraps his other hand around himself. He can't believe how good it feels. Head-to-toe, his whole body is coming alive; but nowhere more than where he and Eames are joined.

“Harder,” he hears himself rasp.

Eames snorts a laugh behind him and, in response, shoves down on Arthur right between the shoulderblades. His quavering arm buckles and he lands on his shoulder before Eames rights him, so that he's flat on his chest with his ass in the air. Frustrated, he moves to plant his hand in the mattress and prop himself up again, but Eames captures his wrist in one hand and squeezes hard. When Arthur stills -- snarling at the humiliating attitude, but compliant -- Eames brings both hands to his ass cheeks and grips tight enough to leave bruises, pushing them further apart so he can cram himself deeper.

Arthur feels like he's being split in half. He's never had sex like this before -- where his partner just takes him, forcing him into a complete surrender. And all he can do is spread his knees even more and rock helplessly back into Eames' thrusts, like a cockhungry slut begging for more, and jerk himself off in quick, unsteady movements. He tilts his face into the pillow and feels sogginess against his cheek where he's been panting like a dog.

He knows he's close when he hears himself groaning out random fricatives, mindlessly. Eames must know it, too, because all of a sudden he shifts angle, and takes his hand away from Arthur's ass to slap his hand off his cock. He takes Arthur in hand himself, and his grip is strong and sure.

Arthur shivers -- he's never let any of them touch his cock before -- but it seems absurdly natural here and besides, he doesn't have it in him to voice a protest anyway. The build-up in his gut is a delicious, fizzing heat. He can feel it now, he's so close--

Eames' grip tightens painfully and he pumps Arthur quickly a few more times, and that's it, Arthur's spilling himself all over Eames' hand and the sheets, muffling his gasps into the pillow so that he half suffocates himself. His release is so great he almost blacks out.

Eames is still pounding into him, and all Arthur can do is writhe senselessly and groan until Eames screws into him one last time and goes still. Arthur can feel the jerk and throb of heat through the condom inside him.

At last, Eames pulls out and moves aside, and Arthur's abused hole is finally allowed to clench and then relax. He stretches out flat on his stomach and catches his breath, his heart slowing from its frantic, stuttered pace. Eames hits the mattress at his side, equally soaked in sweat. Arthur steals a covert glance at him as he peels the condom off and ties it. There's a streak of blood on it.

Eames flicks it carelessly at the trash can. “Hope I wasn't too rough on you.”

Arthur shakes his head. He feels like he's fucking floating, all his limbs are so light and his mind so blissfully blank. For once, he actually feels good. He stretches again, willing himself not to fall asleep, even though he's exhausted.

By the time his heart has slowed to its normal resting pace, his good feelings are already evaporating away. He just let himself get fucked by this thuggish brute he picked up in a gay bar, and incredible sex aside, he just feels bruised and ashamed and a little nauseous. He's not sure the thirty-or-so seconds of immeasurable bliss were worth it. In fact, even taking the sex into account, there's nothing about this exchange that wasn't repugnant.

Arthur always leaves these situations feeling dirty and ashamed of himself, but something about this time just feels particular vile. He hates this scummy apartment and the stained bed and he hates how easily he gave over and just let Eames own him. He hates the marks on his wrist and his sides and his ass, little reminders to pain him through the rest of this week.

He gathers his shaky limbs and rolls off the bed to get dressed. Without looking at Eames, he says, “Thanks.”

“For what?” Eames asks amusedly. Arthur doesn't know what to say. Thanks for the best orgasm of my entire life?

He loathes himself. As soon as his clothes are on and he looks halfway presentable, he grabs his wallet, fishes out two fifties and throws them on the bed, because he doesn't know what else to do. Eames starts to straighten up a little.

“Hey, wait a minute--”

Arthur leaves the apartment and as soon as the door is closed, he gallops down the stairs before Eames can get dressed and follow him. That was the last time, he promises himself. For real this time.

 

&
Arthur is a lot of things.

Arthur is an investment banker. He is professional and efficient. He's a halfway decent cook. He's totally independent and has been since the age of eighteen. Maybe he's tired all the time because he works about ninety hours a week which is twice what normal people do, but he's rich and he's competent at his job. He's almost thirty, and already a success.

And there are some things Arthur is not.

For instance: Arthur is not gay.

He's not.

When he wakes up in the morning the first thing he feels is profound, abiding shame. He always does. Always feels fucking disgusted at himself. There's an ache in his ass -- because he had some man's cock rammed in there.

Fuck.

He crawls out of bed, slogs into the bathroom and winces at the vicious scratches on his sides and stomach, set amongst dark bruises. He's bruised everywhere, fuck -- he looks in the mirror and frowns, touching a hand to the bite mark on his neck. He really hopes his collar will cover it.

He'd showered last night, of course, but he does again, as if he can steam away the feeling of residual sweat (not his own) and the phantom smell of male musk and come. He wishes he could stand in a sterilizing autoclave and scald it all off.

He looks down bleakly and realizes he's hard, really hard. There are bruises on his dick for God's sake. He thinks about how Eames' hand had gripped him and has to close his eyes and think of something else, or nothing at all, and ends up reciting the Star Spangled Banner in his head twice -- the whole thing, not just the first stanza -- before his erection goes away.

Never again, he reminds himself.

Arthur knows of one sure-fire way to distract himself from any and all thoughts of being fucked by a man last night: To work and work until he runs himself into the fucking ground.

He downs a few caffeine pills, orders himself a venti-sized espresso with double shots from the Starbucks down the street, and goes to work.

 

&
Arthur is lonely.

He's an investment banker. He spent six years of his life and thousands of dollars working his ass off in school to get a job he doesn't even really like. He can cook, but he lives off of take-out when he bothers to eat at all, because people who cook generally have people to cook for, and Arthur does not. He's independent and has been since eighteen because he has no family to speak of, not unless you count a brother who moved to Brisbane and never calls. He's never had a committed relationship in his life, never had a steady girlfriend, never even come close to thinking about marriage because he's much too busy for that. He's wealthy, but he's fucking exhausted all the time, all the time, and he feels this perpetual sense of desperation. He's almost thirty years old, and he feels like he's sixty.

Arthur is lonely as fuck.

Only he doesn't know this, because among other things, Arthur is a misanthrope with few people skills to speak of.

So he crawls through life like a dying dog, amazing and competent at his job but always missing something, and he repeats to himself over and over, If I can just get through this month.

If I can just get through November, then I'll feel better.

And he never does and he keeps saying it anyway, until he gets so desperate and tired and frustrated that he does something crazy and self-destructive and risky.

He had sex with a man for the first time six months ago and hasn't been able to stop yet. It's the only thing that makes him feel better. Even if it's just for a few minutes. At least it's something. Even if he hates himself for it. At least he feels something.

Right?

 

&
All throughout work that day he finds his hand drifting to the bruise under his collar, fingertips pressing into it just hard enough to make it hurt. Then he remembers Eames' crooked teeth sinking into his neck, and forcibly tells himself to stop. But he's distracted all day long -- namely, by thoughts of Eames.

He doesn't understand, because nobody in the past has stuck with Arthur like this before. Usually he fucks and forgets as soon as he possibly can, flushing the memory from mind. But Eames stays with him. He rankles at Arthur like a bug bite on his brain. His memory makes Arthur burn with embarrassment and shift uncomfortably in his seat. He's never let anybody take him like that before. Everything about their exchange was humiliating, degrading...

Never mind the fact that he hasn't come like that since he was a teenager. If ever.

His mind is buzzing all day long and he does something unprecedented: he ends up leaving work early for the second day in a row.

It's Friday. Arthur doesn't like Fridays like other people do. Weekends only serve to remind him that he's chained to his work and has nothing to do outside of that. But the rest of New York is coming alive, celebrating another work week done -- one more week down, so many hundreds to go before retirement -- so Arthur goes to a club. He picks up the easiest girl he can find and takes her back to his place. He's determined to scrub Eames' memory off his body and out of his mind.

It takes him forever to get hard enough. The girl's patient, thankfully, and she takes it slow with him until his dick finally gets with the program and is standing at full attention. But when they fuck, he takes even longer to get off. It gets to the point where he thinks he's going to have to fake an orgasm, and isn't that embarrassing -- this is getting ridiculous at any rate, sex has never been so dissatisfying--

And then he closes his eyes, and he can feel Eames' fingertips clenched in his sides, and Eames' rough hand around his cock, and Eames' cock filling him up--

His climax is sudden and weak, startling him.

 

&
It's like that all week. Eames plagues him constantly. Arthur doesn't have sex again, but he does jerk off, determinedly. He thinks of breasts, his mouth on them. The slick heat of a woman around him. He does this for about thirty minutes, struggling to maintain his erection without thinking of Eames, and finally admits defeat.

He works and works. He ends up spending a night at the office when he accidentally falls asleep at his desk. He's so fucking tired he could cry and for the first time he has to beg himself, Just get through this week--

But he knows he won't feel better even if he does.

That's why, the next Thursday, he hails a cab after work and gives the driver the address to the same seedy little gay bar at the southern end of Manhattan. Because he can't feel any worse than this, it's not possible.

Still, part of him is a little relieved when he walks in and sees that Eames isn't there. He determinedly ignores the part that isn't relieved, and orders a beer, because he may as well.

“Kitten,” a husky voice drawls behind him just as he takes his first sip. “You came back.”

Arthur swallows wrong and coughs. Eames slides adroitly onto the stool at his side, looking just the same as before.

“I was afraid I'd scared you off.”

When Arthur has his throat under control and his eyes have stopped watering, he takes a deep breath, abhorring himself for what's about to come out of his mouth.

“I'll give you another hundred dollars to do the same thing as last week.”

Immediately Eames sneers. “Keep your sodding money,” he says. “I'm not a bloody prostitute.”

He turns away, and Arthur lets go of his breath. There, he thinks. He's not going to sleep with you, thank God. Now you can leave. Now you can move on.

But Eames is just saying something to the bartender. He turns back to Arthur and gets to his feet, placing a hand at the small of Arthur's back.

“Come on, then. My place again, yeah?”

There's a conflicting emotion in Arthur's chest as he resignedly follows Eames to the door. He isn't sure if it's a heaviness in his heart, or if he actually feels lighter than he has in years.

 

&
Once they're in the apartment he expects it to go the same, and starts unbuttoning his shirt. But almost immediately Eames is there, taking Arthur by the wrists, pulling his hands away and starting to undo the shirt himself. His fingers are deft and nimble and he strips Arthur in record time, Arthur barely keeping up fast enough to tug off his socks and shoes; and as soon as he's naked, Eames shoves him onto the bed. The mattress creaks under Arthur's weight and the sound triggers a memory from last week, the obscene creak of the mattress under his knees with every one of Eames' thrusts. Instantly, he's hard.

He waits for Eames to start stripping off, too, but instead, Eames just unzips and tugs his jeans down far enough to expose his cock. Arthur rolls aside swiftly, before he can get a good look at it, getting on all fours. He hears Eames rummage in the bedside table drawer and practically begs, his whole body pulsing, “Just fuck me.”

Eames lays a hand on Arthur's back, just above the base of his spine, and the coolness of his palm makes Arthur realize for the first time how flushed he is from head to toe. “Oh, pet,” says Eames.

He makes Arthur wait while he rolls the condom on and grabs the lube, till Arthur's practically shaking; and then, kneeling behind him and placing a hand between his shoulderblades, Eames pushes him down onto his chest.

“No,” Arthur argues, trying to push himself back up, feeling a hot wave of resentment return, “I don't want--”

“I like you like this,” says Eames, holding him there with both hands now. “That gorgeous little arse of yours on display for me--”

Arthur snarls and squirms. “Fuck you--”

“Oh no, Arthur,” says Eames, and his voice drops into something low and almost bitter, “fuck you--” and he punctuates this by shoving his cock inside Arthur, not stopping till he's buried to the hilt, even though Arthur just about wails.

Fuck you,” he sobs breathlessly, and it seems to be all he's able to say for the next few minutes, face half-buried in the pillow. “Fuck you, God--”

He can't see, he can't breathe, he can't stop shoving himself back into each of Eames' thrusts, and it's just like the last time, that hurts-so-good sensation his body just can't reconcile with or make up its mind about; except the difference this time is that Eames is clothed, and Arthur is not. And Arthur hates him for this; hates Eames for making him hot like this, God -- it's so wrong, all of it, because this fucking thug he just met last week shouldn't seem attractive to him at all, and a man should not be the best sex of Arthur's entire life; but he can't control the way his body is lighting up for Eames any more than he could control the lukewarm way it had responded to that girl he'd picked up.

He's never been so hard, even before Eames reaches around and wraps a hand around his cock, which makes him lightheaded. Eames' other hand slots into the bruises he'd left on Arthur's side and he scrapes his nails along the lingering marks, and Arthur just groans noisily, the volume of his voice as beyond his control as everything else.

“Let go, Arthur, go on, you have no idea how perfect you are like this--”

All Arthur can do is spread his thighs till they hurt and choke, “Fuck you.”

Eames takes his hand away from Arthur's cock briefly to wrench Arthur's thighs even further apart, surely leaving more bruises, till Arthur whines in pain, and he reaches back to touch himself before Eames takes over again. Getting off has suddenly never seemed so important. The bed creaks and jolts violently under them, their skin slaps together and with the sounds Arthur is making coupled with Eames' hoarse groans, he's shocked none of Eames' neighbours are yelling at them to keep it down.

And that thought is extinguished almost immediately as Eames wraps his free arm around Arthur's hips, to help hold him up, and changes the angle of his thrusts, and Arthur sees stars. His whole body jolts, his limbs go weak, he's in fucking space, weightless, lightheaded, without oxygen; and Eames thrusts in again and again and again and Arthur's writhing, clawing the sheets, spilling out a blur of almost-unintelligible words.

“Stop stop fuck oh God too much Eames fuck fuck I can't please--”

Eames laughs at him, jerks him steadily and keeps fucking into him right there until it really is too much, and Arthur comes with a shout that might be part scream; he can't tell over the roaring in his ears.

His whole body quakes under the force of it. His cock throbs violently in Eames' hand, his muscles contract tight around Eames rhythmically, his vision blurs and goes white. And on, and on. It's like a tidal wave of sensation and for a second he's out-of-body, snipped clean away, connected to nothing, floating.

When he recovers his senses, blood fizzling in his ears, he's slumped in Eames' arms. Eames is soft inside him, kneeling with Arthur half in his lap, still clasping him around the waist, and breathing hard.

“Fuck, Arthur,” he says, disbelief and reverence colouring his tone.

Arthur squirms out of his lap until Eames slips out of him, and lies flat to catch his breath. Eames flops down at his side.

“Fuck,” he says again, still panting.

Arthur rolls onto his back, avoiding the wet spots, and stares up at the waterstains on the ceiling. His chest heaves. They catch their breath for a few minutes.

Arthur,” says Eames, rolling on his side to look at him. “Seriously, that was -- were you there, just now? And you don't have anything to say?”

“I'm not gay,” says Arthur.

Eames is silent at his side for a moment. Then he snorts.

“You've let me fuck you six ways from Sunday twice now, I'd say that makes you at least--”

“I'm not gay,” Arthur repeats sharply. “I'm not bisexual. I'm straight. I just happen to--”

“Happen to enjoy getting buggered up the arse? Right, that makes sense, then.”

“Fuck off,” says Arthur, struggling to push himself upright and off the bed. His stomach muscles are killing him; he has to lever himself up with his arms. As he starts to gather up his clothes he says, “I just don't want you to misunderstand me.”

“What's there to misunderstand?” Eames sneers. “That I didn't just give you the most mind-blowing fuck of your entire life?”

“No,” Arthur snaps, tugging on his pants. “I don't want you to think I'd ever be interested in having a relationship with you. Because frankly, I find the thought fucking repulsive.”

“Sorry?” Eames rolls onto his back as well, stretching his arms above his head. He hasn't bothered to pull his pants up, unabashed about his nakedness. “Can't hear you, mate, you're too deep in the closet.”

“I'm not going to make a habit of this,” says Arthur. He yanks his shirt on. “Just so you understand.”

“I understand you're a repressed, cockhungry coward if that's what you mean.” Eames folds his arms under his head, eyes hooded and dark. “My door's always open, Arthur.”

Arthur storms out, which is no easy task, considering the wobble in his legs.

 

&
In the first week of December, Arthur receives a Christmas card in the mail from his brother. His brother who is four years younger than Arthur and already tied down with a wife and toddler, who moved to Australia after dropping out of community college and now runs a tattoo parlour, and personifies Arthur's idea of a failure. He takes out the photo tucked inside the card and regards his brother and sister-in-law and nephew he's never met, kneeling on a beach beside a sand castle and all three grinning.

His brother is a failure and sometimes Arthur is so fucking jealous of him it makes him sick.

He doesn't have a word for the resentment that fills him when he looks at the photo, so he puts it away someplace he won't have to see it.

When this year is over, he's going to feel better. As soon as December ends and the new year begins. He swears it to himself. For real, this time.

At present, he doesn't feel much of anything. He seems to blink one day and Fifth Avenue is decorated to the nines for Christmas, and when did that happen? He doesn't even remember Thanksgiving. He probably spent it at work.

So: Christmas. Every year it happens the same; Arthur finds himself a bunch of travel brochures to far-away places, and he spreads them out on his desk, and he goes through each one, front to back. Cruises and resorts, tropical islands. He makes promises to himself. He's going to take a week off at Christmas. He's going to take his bonus and he's going to go somewhere. Someplace nice. Someplace relaxing. Cancun. Cuba. The Bahamas.

His bonus goes in the bank. His week off doesn't even make it off the ground. He goes back to the office. And the spreadsheets, and the numbers, and.

Oh well. Fantasizing about it is almost as good, anyway.

 

&
“What d'you do for a living, Arthur?”

Arthur crams his hands deeper into his coat pockets, ducks his chin into his scarf. Eames' place is three minutes away from the bar. Arthur keeps telling him they don't need to talk. Eames likes to ignore him.

“Hmm, let me guess,” says Eames, evidently interpreting Arthur's silence as a challenge. “You wear three-piece suits to work, though you've usually dropped the jacket by the time you go out drinking, so it's something corporate, but it's not something you enjoy. Maybe a lawyer -- but you're not creative, you're analytical, you're all about facts, aren't you, so I bet it's numbers. You're straitlaced enough to be in finance. But your cellphone never goes off when you're out, so I don't imagine you're in stocks.”

“My Christmas bonus is more than your apartment's worth,” says Arthur, acerbic as always. “That's your only hint.”

“I think you're an investment banker,” says Eames.

Arthur huffs into his scarf, using his breath to warm his face. “Lucky guess.”

“Don't you want to know what I do?”

“No.”

Eames hands him a business card. Arthur takes it in spite of himself. It takes him several seconds to realize he's looking at his own card. Investment Banker is printed crisply under his own name.

“How did you--”

Eames hands over Arthur's wallet. Arthur flushes angrily as he snatches it back.

“So you're a thief.”

“A pickpocket,” says Eames modestly. “And sometimes a street magician. And I occasionally devote myself to other pursuits. But we needn't go into that.”

In spite of himself, Arthur laughs, rubbing a hand over his face tiredly. Eames looks at him sidelong.

“Something funny?”

“No, it's just -- God, I worked eighteen hours yesterday -- I'm so tired I could fucking drop and you, you're a fucking bum, you don't even have a real job -- just, never mind,” he says, because he doesn't remember why it was funny, or if it ever was. He's just tired, and borderline delirious because of it.

“How many hours did you spend sleeping last night?” Eames asks curiously, like he can read Arthur's mind. Arthur shakes his head irritably.

“I said never mind,” he says, because they're at the building now.

They stop talking for awhile after that. It's just rough curses spat at each other in the dark, same as always, the same violent clashing together that they've been doing for six weeks, till Arthur's whole body sings with pain and he can't move a muscle--

His eyes snap open at a sudden sound. Eames, taking a piss in the toilet that's next to the squashed kitchenette. He glances over at Arthur when the latter stirs.

“Didn't mean to wake you, sorry.”

“What -- when did I --” Arthur squints in the dark, and suddenly the words sink in. He fucking fell asleep. In Eames' apartment, in Eames' bed-- “Fuck, fuck,” he chants, twisting around in the sheets. “Fuck, where's your -- Eames, what's the fucking time!”

Eames finishes what he's doing, plucks something off the floor and throws it at Arthur before wandering to the sink. Arthur fumbles with it. A cellphone. It flashes the time brightly when he flips it open. 4:17.

“Fuck!” Arthur shouts, frustrated. He nearly falls out of bed, miscalculating his ability to move his lower body, on his way to locate his clothing. “Fuck, fuck, shit, why did you let me fall asleep, asshole!”

“You seemed so tired,” Eames shrugs. “Thought you could use the rest.”

“You piece of shit!” Arthur scrambles around, dressing as quickly as he possibly can in the dark. He's so angry. Fuck Eames, fuck him and his constant desire to ruin Arthur's fucking life. “I have a meeting, I'm never getting back to sleep tonight, I, fuck, you useless fucking asshole, Eames--”

Eames crawls back into bed with a shuddering yawn and for one surreal second, Arthur wants to join him, crawl back under the covers where it's warm and go back to sleep and not have to think about the one hundred blocks between him and his own apartment, how cold it is outside or his meeting in the morning.

He tucks his scarf haphazardly into his coat and leaves the apartment in a hurry.

“See you next week,” Eames calls after him sleepily.

“Yeah right,” Arthur snarls before he slams the door. He says something to this effect every time.

So much for not making this a habit.

 

&
It's when Arthur breaks his own personal record of a hundred-and-thirteen-hour work week by working a hundred and twenty hours that he thinks something might be really wrong with him.

He's exhausted almost to the point of tears. Cobb calls him into his office for a talk and all Arthur can do is stare blearily at the pictures Cobb's got on his desk of his beautiful wife and two kids, and wonder why everyone else's life is allowed to be so much better than his.

“Got any plans for Christmas?” Cobb asks, just as Arthur's getting up.

“Oh ... no ... no,” Arthur answers vaguely. “Not really. No family, so ...” He shrugs feebly.

“You're welcome to join me and Mal for Christmas Eve dinner,” Cobb says, which is kind of him, because Arthur often manages to forget that he's known Cobb and Mal since college, but Cobb doesn't.

“Maybe I'll take you up on that,” he says. And he means it, fervently means it, even orders himself right there to do it, because of course he knows he won't in the end. Cobb just smiles lopsidedly, like he knows this already, too.

“Take care of yourself, Arthur,” he says. “Don't work too hard.”

That's how he ends all their conversations, don't work too hard, and it makes Arthur want to laugh bitterly to himself because his brain always seems to interpret this as a challenge.

“Sure,” he says, and leaves.

There are nineteen more days left in this year and in nineteen more days, Arthur swears to himself, he's going to feel better.

He hasn't yet considered how he's going to make this happen.

He hates his work, but he hates his apartment even more, so he always ends up at his office and since he's there, he may as well work anyway. He wants to sleep but even when he has the time, he just ends up lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out where exactly his life became such a mess, like if he can just go back in time to fix it, he can make himself happier. Ridiculously, the only thing to make him feel at all better these days is Eames. And Arthur hates that Eames makes him feel better, and hating this makes him feel worse, so it's a constant loop he can't break out of.

The thing is that it's just so good to be around someone who doesn't expect anything of him. Someone who can make him surrender control, artfully guide him to the very physical limits of his self and then reel him back in shaking and insensible. Every Friday morning Arthur tells himself, never again, and every Thursday evening he wonders how he ever used to go an entire month without doing this because he's so desperate to have Eames' cock inside him again.

He hates his job, hates his life, hates Eames, hates himself, hates everything.

And he has another problem he's becoming increasingly conscious of.

Arthur is straight, really and truly. He's attracted to women. He likes having sex with women. He likes their curves, the soft pliability of their bodies. When he jerks off, it's to fantasies of women.

On the weekends he picks girls up at bars, takes them home, and all of that just derails. He just can't stay hard while he's fucking them. Even if he can, it takes him an age to get hard in the first place and even longer to get off.

He says he's sorry, he's just tired. The worst part about this is that, before, sex was the only thing that could make him sleep through the night.

He's going crazy.

And somehow, he doesn't figure it out right away, until he does, and then he really is crazy.

 

&
Arthur is fucking wasted.

In fact he's so wasted that when some guy -- one of the bar's regular patrons, the type of gay that could be called a bear -- tries to pick him up, Arthur laughs in his face and then seriously considers it.

Then a muscular arm is slipping around his shoulders, and a husky voice at his ear is saying, “He's taken.”

Arthur shoves him off as the other man leaves. “Took you long enough to show up.”

“I'm right on time,” Eames says, still too close to Arthur's ear, so that Arthur can hear him over the background noise of music and conversation. “How long have you been here? Long enough to get yourself hammered and nearly date raped, I see?”

“I don't want to go home with you tonight,” Arthur says loudly.

“Settle your tab, pet,” says Eames, like he hasn't heard a word. “I'm going to the loo, I'll be back in a minute and we can leave.”

“I don't want--” Arthur starts to repeat, but Eames is already gone.

Arthur finishes his drink and follows him. He stumbles his way into the bathroom just as Eames is zipping up. He shuts the door and it's instantly much quieter; the bathroom is empty except for them.

“I don't want to go home with you,” Arthur says again. “I never want it.”

“And yet, here you are.” Eames runs his hands under the tap and grabs a few paper towels. “You mustn't be so stubborn, Arthur. So you're a little gay. Who's going to judge you?”

“You've ruined me for women!” Arthur shouts at him. He's drunk and he's angry and Eames -- Eames fucking laughs at him. Bitter. He turns and looks Arthur in the eye.

“Arthur, you were never for women.”

Arthur throws a punch at him. He's too smashed, though, his fist goes wide of its mark and Eames grabs his arm and Arthur is collapsing into him, like shattering glass, sharp and frail, crumbling into his chest. Eames grabs onto him, and Arthur is begging:

“Fuck me, just fuck me, it's the only time, fuck, it's the only time I feel anything real, please--”

“Come on,” Eames says, trying to stand him upright, “let's get you home--”

Fuck me,” Arthur pleads, “right here, please, I need this, I need this so bad, my life is shit and this is the only time it isn't, I need you,” and he's babbling, pathetic, and actually being honest for once. Eames gives him a little shake, as though to snap him out of it.

“Come on, we don't even have condoms--”

“I'm clean. I swear I'm clean,” Arthur says. “I get tested, I could show you--”

“Oh, fuck me,” Eames mutters, and Arthur thinks he's not getting it, but then Eames is pulling him, leading him into the nearest stall, slamming the door shut and locking it.

He's rough, as always, and already Arthur feels his pulse stirring. He yanks at his own pants, shoving them down around one ankle, and Eames helps, breaking off only to unzip himself and pull his own cock free; and then his hands are at Arthur's ass, and he presses Arthur up hard against the wall and lifts him, and Arthur immediately locks his thighs around Eames' waist. Eames is prying his cheeks apart, running one dry thumb down the crack of Arthur's ass and over his hole, and Arthur squirms with a choked sound, arching, and making Eames' stomach muscles quiver with the effort of holding him up.

“This will hurt,” he says, and Arthur's confused, because it's not like Eames has ever cared or thought to warn him before--

But then Eames is spitting into his own palm a few times, wrapping his fist around his cock and slicking it roughly, and then the head of his cock is bumping up against Arthur's hole and Eames pushes it in quickly.

It does hurt. Arthur squirms again, he can't help it, trying to arch away from the insistent press of Eames entering him, and Eames is murmuring something into his neck, shh, shh, it'll get better, and Arthur didn't even realize he was making a sound but he is; harsh, sobbing whines.

He keeps trying to move away, but Eames has him trapped firmly against the wall, and all Arthur can do is take it until Eames is bottomed out and they're both gasping raggedly. Eames isn't wasting any time, though -- he holds Arthur up under the thighs and starts thrusting, and Arthur can hear himself still making that sound, because this hurts and spit is no substitute for lube and what the fuck was he thinking -- and all at once Eames shifts and finds his prostate and Arthur clenches painfully around him and then relaxes, sagging against the wall. So Eames does the same again, both gasping in relief now, and Arthur brings both hands up to grip the top of the stall and grinds himself back down on Eames' cock. That makes it hurt again, and his eyes are squeezed shut so tight he can feel tears forming in the corners, but he keeps doing it, wringing little noises out of Eames' throat that make him flush all over.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” Eames is breathing under his jaw, scraping his teeth over Arthur's throat, and Arthur doesn't get it, doesn't understand. This is good, this is better than anything. His cock is trapped between them; he lets go of the wall to jerk himself off with one hand and it's just seconds before he hears that familiar roar of white noise in his ears and he comes, on his hand and his own stomach because his shirt's rucked up to his chest. He just goes limp, and Eames thrusts into him with a few last grunts and then screws in deep and holds there, and Arthur can actually feel him come, warm and wet spurts against the walls of his insides, making him feel marked and filthy and exhilarated.

Then, at last, Eames gives a shuddering gasp and slumps against Arthur, crushing him against the wall. They both take a few seconds to collect their breath before Eames carefully disentangles himself and sets Arthur down, his thighs shaking. He unlocks the door and stumbles out of the stall, leaving Arthur there.

Panting, Arthur struggles to try and pull his pants on. He only gets them to his knees before his quivering legs give out and he sinks to the floor. Eames reappears in the doorway, just looking at him, and Arthur glances down at himself -- mussed and dirty and wet, Eames' come sliding down the inside of his thigh. This is, quite possibly, the lowest point in a life full of low points.

Then Eames steps inside and kneels down in front of him. He reels a thick wad of toilet paper off the roll and starts wiping off Arthur's hand and stomach, in spite of Arthur's mumbled protests.

“I don't need ...”

“Hush,” says Eames. “I locked the door, give yourself a minute.” He cleans Arthur up, grabs another handful of toilet paper and says, “Turn around.”

Arthur obeys mutely, clumsily. His face burns when he feels Eames parting his cheeks, examining him and wiping gently at him with the tissue.

“I'm fine,” he says, turning and pushing Eames away, even though he isn't fine; he's still drunk and his body hurts and Eames has unexpectedly abandoned the script. He struggles upright and pulls his pants up, straightens out his shirt. “I'm fine.”

But he wobbles when he takes a step, and Eames is there.

“Come on,” he says firmly.

Arthur doesn't really remember the walk to Eames' place. It feels like he's fallen asleep standing up, Eames propping him up to guide him, but he has blurred, indistinct impressions of the cold on his face and the ache in his ass and the burn in all his muscles. Eames keeps murmuring things to him, like nearly there and mind the step and then somehow they're in Eames' apartment and Eames is laying him down on the bed on his front, and Arthur's never been so glad to see that stained mattress. He falls into a stupour as Eames disappears and runs the tap and comes back, is pulling off his shoes and unzipping his pants from behind; he doesn't think to struggle until Eames is pulling his pants and boxers down his thighs.

“No,” he says weakly into the pillow, because he's drunk but even he knows this is a bad idea. “I don't think ...”

“Would you shut up and just let me ...?” Eames murmurs back, frustrated, and Arthur feels the damp touch of a warm washcloth between his legs. He hugs the pillow to himself and buries his face in it, and somehow bears Eames' ministrations this way. Eames is silent while he cleans Arthur up.

When he seems satisfied, he sits back and says, “You didn't ask me if I'm clean.”

“Oh,” says Arthur, blearily.

“You're still not asking me.”

“Oh ... I mean ... are you?”

“Yes,” says Eames shortly. “But you didn't know that. I could have been HIV-positive. Do you make a habit of this?”

“No,” says Arthur. “I mean, that was the first time I've ever ... done that. Without a condom.”

“You're an idiot,” says Eames.

He tips Arthur's face to the side so he can see him, and Arthur stares up at him, too exhausted to make an argument of it. He thinks he could fall asleep here and be safe.

“You're a beautiful idiot,” Eames says softly, and leaning down, he presses a kiss to the corner of Arthur's mouth.

Eames' lips are slightly chapped and his stubble scrapes Arthur's chin gently. Brilliant fear crashes through Arthur like lightning. He is suddenly very conscious that Eames is a man and they've never done this before and he's not gay he's not gay he's not gay--

Wide awake all of a sudden, he jerks away. Eames looks startled. At himself?

“You -- fucking bastard,” Arthur spits out. Eames' features shut down at once.

“Sorry,” he says. “I don't know why I did that--”

“You fucking faggot,” Arthur manages, and the word comes out like a sob as he heaves himself out of bed, yanking his pants up. Eames laughs harshly.

“That's a bit rich, isn't it, coming from--”

“I'm not gay,” Arthur says. And then, the most insulting thing he can possibly think of: “I'm not like you.”

He leaves the apartment and Eames' expression stays with him, a closed-off, dark, bitter look, that is somehow more painful without any barbed rejoinders attached to it.

 

&
The high point of Arthur's entire month, possibly his year, is that on Christmas Eve, someone at his office orders Chinese take-out from his favourite restaurant for all the people who are working late. Arthur takes a whole forty-five minutes off from the presentation he's working on to eat with his fellow yuppie coworkers. All the people with families are already gone for the night.

He thinks, with a rueful pang, of the turkey dinner he's no doubt missing out on at Cobb's house. But he just doesn't have the energy. Doesn't even have the energy to go home. At the end of the day, when everyone else is gone and the remaining Chinese food is in the fridge, Arthur's on the phone with a client in Japan until three o'clock in the morning, and then he falls asleep at his desk for three hours afterward.

Merry fucking Christmas, he thinks resignedly, walking home at six AM.

It's been two weeks since he last saw Eames and he hasn't slept with anyone. There's no point trying with women, and the thought of men makes him a little queasy. Eames ... doesn't. But whenever Arthur thinks about him, he thinks about how horrible and awkward their last encounter was, and he's sure he's better off without Eames in his life.

At home, he makes coffee, lies on the couch with his laptop and channel-surfs. The Doctor Who Christmas special is on. He watches it, indulging himself. He watches the whole thing and by the end of the hour, disturbingly, he can't even remember what the episode was about.

Cobb calls him at some point and in the background Arthur can hear excited children and laughing adults.

“Arthur, hi, merry Christmas,” Cobb says, sounding a little out of breath. “Huh, I'm surprised you're not at the office.”

“Do you need me to be? I could go ...”

“No, no,” says Cobb loudly. “Listen, I was talking to Saito earlier this week and we noticed you hadn't taken any of your vacation days yet this year -- Phillipa, that's your brother's, put it down--”

“Is that a problem?” Arthur asks.

“No -- we just figured, you've been working so hard lately, and you either use your days or lose them, so why don't you take this week off?”

“What -- why, I don't--” Arthur's brain is reeling. He squeezes his eyes shut. “My presentation ...”

“Don't worry about it. Email what you've got to me, I'll handle the rest. Just take it easy this week, okay? You deserve a break. Consider it a Christmas holiday.”

Why are you doing this to me? he wants to cry. What did I do wrong?

He swallows around the knot in his throat and says, “Okay.” He adds, “Thanks,” as an afterthought.

“Sure. See you in the new year, Arthur.” And the line goes dead.

 

&
If Cobb hadn't given Arthur a Christmas break, things might have turned out very differently.

As it is, Arthur doesn't sleep for three days.

It doesn't sound like very much, but it is, especially considering he's been running on two or three hours of sleep every day before now. After three days without so much as a five-minute nap, all other needs pale in comparison. He wants sleep more than a starving man could want food. He feels like he's drunk all the time. He barely even leaves his bedroom -- what reason does he have to leave? -- and he doesn't eat, after awhile. His eyes are bloodshot and he feels perpetually on the verge of tears because he's just so fucking tired.

3:02, his clock flashes at him, and he thinks, just a half hour of sleep would suffice. Closes his eyes for what feels like an hour, opens them and the clock flashes 3:13. It's so frustrating he could scream.

And things could have turned out very differently, but Arthur doesn't sleep for three days, and by the end of the fourth, he just can't handle the thought of another long sleepless night, and there are only two things that could possibly help him. The first would be to walk to the nearest subway station and lie down on the tracks.

He opts to try the second thing first.

Eames blinks when he opens his door. He scratches his cheek uncertainly.

“Arthur,” he says. He adds, “You look like shit.”

“I know it's not a Thursday,” Arthur says, shivering, “and we're not at the bar and I know I'm fucking this up and we're still fucked-up from last time, but can we just -- forget about that for now, okay, because I really need you to fuck me -- it's just that I can't sleep and sex is the only thing that helps, it's the only thing, and they made me stop coming into work for the week and, I think I'm going to die if I don't sleep -- I just, please, can I--”

“Alright, alright,” Eames cuts him off, holding the door open wider. “Come on in, then.”

He looks rumpled, like he's been woken up from a nap, which makes Arthur resent him even more than he already does. But he can't be mad, because Eames is going to help him. He staggers inside gratefully.

“Just give me a minute,” Eames says, taking out his cellphone. “Have to make a call. Get comfy.”

Arthur toes his shoes off and collapses on the bed. He pillows his head on his arms and watches Eames pace to the far side of the apartment, which isn't far at all. He's wearing a faded old grey t-shirt and sweatpants, and it looks kind of good on him. He shuts his eyes and a few words from Eames' conversation drift over to him, “can't tonight” and what sounds like “come down with something”. It's a moment before Eames shuts the phone off, and then there's silence, and after a second Arthur feels a broad hand stroking down his back.

He stretches and makes a stifled sound into his arm. “Who was that?”

“My mum.” Eames straddles him, settling flush on Arthur's ass, and the heat of him is already making Arthur's dick twitch interestedly. He arches a little, pressing his ass just slightly against Eames' groin, and Eames makes a soft sound.

Arthur is forced to open his eyes when Eames rolls him over onto his back. He can't read Eames' expression.

“What?”

“You look like shit, Arthur,” Eames says again.

“I haven't slept in almost four days,” Arthur says, “and I couldn't really sleep before that -- I just need to get off, I just need one good night's sleep and then I'll be okay.”

Eames doesn't speak again. He starts stripping him, methodically, and Arthur obligingly raises his arms to get out of his shirt and lifts his hips off the bed so that Eames can pull down his pants and boxers. When he's entirely naked, Eames takes a second just to look at him. His loose sweats betray that he's already at least half-hard.

What,” Arthur says again.

In answer, Eames wraps a hand around Arthur's cock and squeezes, gives it a few gentle tugs before leaning down and wrapping his lips over it. His tongue laps at the underside and Arthur gives a choked gasp, throwing an arm over his face.

“Eames ... what are you ...”

Eames takes more of him, and more, till he's almost taken Arthur to the root. He's still working his tongue expertly, and it feels amazing--

And then Eames rasps his stubbled cheek along the side of Arthur's thigh, and his erection is lost.

Fuck,” Arthur grits out, keeping his arm over his face so that he won't have to see Eames'. “Sorry -- it's just that I'm so tired, and I--”

“Haven't done this with a man before?” Eames suggests. Arthur nods slowly, letting his arm fall away. Eames takes him by the hips, rolls him back onto his front before he has time to voice a protest and says, “Right then.”

“What are you going to--?”

Any argument dies in Arthur's throat as soon as Eames' thumbs dig into the back of his neck. All he can manage is a groan that sounds downright pornographic. Encouraged, Eames starts kneading his neck, working him gently with both hands.

“Christ, Arthur,” he grunts. “You've been carrying enough tension for three people.”

Arthur's voice is a whisper. “That feels ... so ...”

“Just relax. Keep your eyes closed. Hang on a sec.”

Eames' warmth and weight leave him. He returns after a minute, settling atop Arthur once more. Arthur dutifully keeps his eyes shut, so it's a surprise when Eames' hands are on his shoulders again and this time they're coated in oil. Arthur groans again, weakly. It's all he can manage for the next half hour as Eames massages him, working his way down from Arthur's neck and shoulder to his arms, tracing the palms of his hands lightly; down his lower back, digging his thumbs in either side of Arthur's spine; down to where Arthur's legs meet his torso, and further, to the backs of his knees (where they both discover that Arthur is quite ticklish) and then to his feet, which he spends several minutes on. Then he rolls Arthur over and straddles him again.

“Haven't fallen asleep on me, have you?”

Arthur laughs in self-deprecation and shakes his head. He's shivering again, because his circulation feels different -- all his extremities are chilled, and Eames's kneading seems to have redirected his bloodflow to his groin, because it occurs to him that he's fully hard. He's in no hurry to do anything about it, though. Eames gets back to work, making his way down to Arthur's groin, and Arthur makes a soft sound when Eames finally, finally wraps a hand around his cock.

“You're beautiful,” Eames murmurs softly, like he half doesn't intend for Arthur to hear. Arthur lets it go, though, because he feels good for the first time in weeks and he'll do anything for more of this.

At last, at long last, Eames leans down and takes Arthur in his mouth again. He teases and laves the head of Arthur's cock, and Arthur keeps his eyes shut and just digs his fingers into the bed. He just clings on, and in less than a minute he shudders and comes hard down Eames' throat. The relief he feels is instantaneous and immense, so overwhelming he finds when he manages to open his eyes that they're watering.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, his heavy eyelids already trying to fall shut again. “I should've ...”

Eames shakes his head and Arthur realizes he's already swallowed. A prickle of resentment fights its way up his throat -- this should feel wrong, all wrong, he's in bed with Eames who is gay -- but he's too blissed-out to really feel it.

He doesn't think to thank Eames, doesn't even think of reciprocating in some way -- he just falls into four whole hours of sweet, heavenly, uninterrupted sleep, and feels better than he has in months. And if Eames is watching him sleep and smoothing his hair back gently as he wakes, Arthur doesn't say anything about it. And he doesn't let himself think about what the morning will bring, when he's awake enough to be angry, because he already knows it won't be anything good.

 

&
By the end of January Arthur is working more than a hundred hours a week, which should seem excessive but doesn't, because at least when he's working his ass off he can tire his brain out enough to snatch a few hours of sleep each night; and this is how he ends up sitting at his desk on a Tuesday, running on a lethal cocktail of espresso shots and caffeine pills, and finds, quite suddenly, that he's crying uncontrollably.

He ignores this fact and struggles to go on working. In fact he keeps working until it's been two hours, he still hasn't been able to stop, and somebody has finally gone and fetched Cobb.

“Arthur, Arthur,” Cobb says, pulling up a chair and looking alarmed, “what's wrong?”

“Sorry.” Arthur wipes at his eyes impatiently. “I don't know. I don't know why. I just started a couple hours ago and can't stop. Nothing's wrong, I just -- can't stop.”

He expects some uncomfortable pep-talk, or something in that vein. What he does not expect is for Cobb to call an ambulance.

“But I'm fine,” he coughs out, trying to get a grip on himself. Cobb shakes his head, his mouth a thin line, steering Arthur by the arm to where the paramedics are waiting to receive him.

“Take the rest of the day off,” he says. “Take as much time as you need.”

Arthur's protests fall on deaf ears. He's carted off to the hospital, feeling foolish and tired, where he has to wait before a doctor appears and asks him about pre-existing mental disorders and symptoms and medication, and hands him off to a psychologist who asks more invasive questions until Arthur just wants to go back to work.

The psychologist tells him he's having a nervous breakdown and gives him some pills. Arthur throws the pills out and flees as soon as he's allowed to go.

He's finally managed to stop crying, which is one good thing. He calls Cobb up once he gets home and gives him the verdict, that it's just a minor nervous breakdown and the doctors let him go and when can he come back to work?

“No way,” says Cobb firmly. “Stay at home tomorrow. Take a mental health day. Take the rest of the week, actually.”

“Really,” Arthur says, a little desperately, “I'm fine.”

“You're not much use if you end up in the hospital from busting your ass. Take it easy, Arthur, and I'll call you later in the week to see how you're doing, okay?”

Arthur wants to hate him, but can't seem to find the energy. So he just resignedly agrees and hangs up. He spends the entire night watching the cooking channel in a soporific daze.

He's wrapped up in a blanket on the couch in the early morning, actually drifting off, when his ringing phone jars him awake. He answers automatically, thinking confusedly that it might be Cobb with a change of heart.

“What is it?”

There's a brief silence, a soft crackle, and then:

“Arthur?”

Arthur sits up, fully awake. “David?”

“Hi,” his brother says. “Did I wake you? You sound kind of ...”

“No, I was already... How are you?” Arthur asks, wracking his brains to try and remember the last time he heard his brother's voice. “How's, um, Emily? And Noah?”

There's a delay before each of David's replies, and Arthur imagines his words travelling around the globe to Australia, pinging off satellites on their way to him.

“Good,” says David. “They're good. Look, I'm calling 'cause ... I got a call this morning from Dom Cobb?”

“Oh,” says Arthur.

“He says you had a nervous breakdown at work yesterday.”

Arthur feels inexplicably embarrassed. “It wasn't any kind of ... big deal,” he says. “The doctors said it was minor ...”

“Cobb says you were crying uncontrollably for two hours.”

“He shouldn't have called you,” says Arthur. “Sorry.”

The delay this time is longer. The silence is filled with soft static sounds.

“You don't have to be Dad, you know,” David says finally.

“I'm not Dad.”

“No, but you're the same as him. You know money isn't everything, don't you?”

Needled, Arthur replies, “I know you're twenty-six, and think you know everything.”

“Well, all I know is, my life got a lot better when I realized I don't need money to be happy. Maybe you do -- I don't know, we're different people, Arthur. But you're gonna burn out if you keep going like this.”

“I appreciate the concern, Dave, but I'm really fine. I've just been having some trouble sleeping lately. Work is fine.”

He hears his brother sigh quietly. Evidently David senses there's no use arguing the point, because he changes the subject and asks, “How was your Christmas?”

“Quiet,” says Arthur. “I got your card. Cute picture.”

“Yeah. We were at the Gold Coast a few months ago, it was fun. You should come out here, you know,” David adds. “Noah should meet his uncle.”

“I know. I want to,” says Arthur. “I will.” He calculates wildly, trying to convince himself that he's being honest. “Maybe in the summer, if I can time it right, I'll take a couple weeks off and come see you.”

“Don't say it if you don't mean it,” says David.

“I do.”

“I know you, Arthur.” He lets Arthur soak that in for a moment, then goes on, “Anyway, you know you're always welcome. And you know you can call me anytime, right? Even if it's the middle of the night here. You're not all alone.”

“I know,” Arthur says, resentful now at being babied by his little brother. “I'm really fine, though.”

David sighs again. “I'll call you soon. Take it easy.”

“Sure.” Arthur squeezes his eyes shut, and then, just when he thinks David might have hung up, he says, “Hey -- Dave?”

“What?”

Arthur sucks in a tight breath, keeping his eyes closed. “What would you say if I told you I was gay?”

The pause seems very brief.

“I would say you're my big brother and I love you no matter what.”

Heart beating hard, Arthur says, “What do you think Dad would say?”

“You know what Dad would have said.”

“Yeah.” Arthur lets go of his breath and opens his eyes. His chest hurts. “I'm not gay, I just. Wondered, I guess.”

“Okay,” says David, “well. Like I said. You're not alone, okay?” He clears his throat, a discomfited sound. “I'll talk to you soon. Or you can call me, whatever.”

“Sure,” Arthur says again. “See you.”

He hangs up and wants to smash his phone repeatedly into its cradle. He manages to refrain, though, which is probably a good sign.

 

&
For the rest of the day Arthur tries to keep busy. He doesn't want to fall into the same rut he did after Christmas. He rearranges some of his furniture, then goes shopping for some more. Then he goes shopping for exercise equipment, because sometimes, in college, exercising used to make him feel better; and besides, he's always trying to lose weight anyway. He has a treadmill delivered to his apartment on the same day and that night, he runs on it for hours. Until his very bones hurt.

He realizes, it's a good kind of hurt.

He's found a new outlet.

He goes searching for more equipment the next day. Traipses up and down Manhattan looking for the highest-end quality stuff until his aching legs are about to give out. He goes home. Surfs the web on his laptop, restlessly, for a few hours. Watches some TV. Tries his treadmill again till he hurts even more. When he can no longer stand his apartment, he goes downstairs to his building's gym, which he rarely has the time to use, and tries some of their equipment, until his whole body is burning.

It's Thursday, but he doesn't bother going downtown to meet with Eames. He's found something better, not at the expense of his dignity. By the weekend, he owns his own home gym system, an upright exercise bike, and a set of weights in addition to his treadmill, and a rowing machine on its way.

Powered by some manic, feverish form of runner's high, it's not until Sunday that he realizes he's only gotten a grand total of three hours of sleep since his breakdown on Tuesday. And then he starts crying again and it's an hour before he can manage to stop.

He prays to God or whatever deity will listen that Eames is home when he goes downtown. Feels like crying again when Eames actually answers his door.

“Christ's sake,” he says, seeing Arthur there. “You expect me to drop everything for you, don't you?”

“Can you give me another massage?” Arthur asks weakly. Eames folds his arms over his chest and frowns.

“I'd rather just fuck you.”

“Give me a massage and then you can fuck me,” Arthur says pleadingly.

“You won't fall asleep?” Eames asks, doubtful.

That stops Arthur in his tracks. Cobb's already said he can try going back to work on Monday. If he falls asleep here, he doesn't know when he'll wake up. He makes an involuntary choked sound in his throat.

“Never mind,” he manages, turning away. Eames catches him by the arm before he can escape.

“Arthur, are you okay?”

Arthur shakes his head impatiently. “Look, I just wanted some sleep, but I'm working tomorrow and I can't stay here--”

He tries to pull out of Eames' grip, but Eames tugs him back a step.

“When's the last time you slept? And I mean a proper sleep?”

“I don't know,” Arthur mumbles, “Monday night I guess. I got three hours or so then.”

“You need to sleep.”

“I know.”

Arthur glares at him. Eames' eyebrows are furrowed.

“Hang on,” he says finally, and, releasing Arthur, he disappears back into his apartment.

Arthur is halfway down the hall, stumbling like a drunk, when Eames catches up to him.

“We're going to your place,” he says.

“I can't,” Arthur starts, “I don't think--”

“Don't be stupid,” Eames says, and that's the end of that argument. Arthur wearily points himself home and his autonomous body does the rest.

Eames gives a low whistle when they pull up in a cab to the front of Arthur's building. He fingers the wrought-iron gates wonderingly as Arthur punches in the code to open them. He doesn't say anything until they actually take the elevator up to Arthur's apartment and he opens the door; then Eames shakes his head and says, “Just how much money do you make?”

“My father left me some,” says Arthur. “That helps.”

He feels a tiny sense of smugness watching Eames explore the apartment, taking in the finished kitchen with its granite countertops and his sofa and the flat-screen TV that hangs on his wall and the view from the balcony. Then he feels a little paranoid, because Eames is essentially a bum and a thief and possessions are all Arthur really has.

“Come on,” he says shortly, going into the bedroom. Eames follows. “I don't know how you live the way you do,” he goes on, as he pulls off his clothes. “You don't even have a couch. Your shower is communal.”

“We can't all work on Wall Street,” says Eames, taking a seat on the bed. “Besides, I'm a man of simple pleasures.”

He makes a soft purring sound when Arthur joins him on the bed, now completely bare. He takes a few moments just to trail his fingertips up and down Arthur's spine.

“Close your eyes and relax,” he says at length, taking his hand away. There's a pause while Arthur hears him fiddling with something, and when Eames brings both hands back to his neck, he realizes Eames had grabbed the oil from his apartment. It's been warmed in his pocket and the feeling is exquisite. Arthur gives a sigh that comes out like a strained whimper.

“How did you get so good at this?”

“I'm licensed in Canada,” says Eames. “Just one of my many talents.” He makes a flexing, rolling motion with his hands. “Good God, you're tense. What the hell have you been doing to yourself?”

“Exercising,” says Arthur.

“Ah. I noticed the machinery.” His thumb digs into just the right spot, and Arthur melts into the sheets with another strained sound of pleasure. “Oh, well. I'll work you nice and loose for me.”

Arthur snorts softly at that. He feels sleepy already, even though he wants to stay awake if only so he can enjoy every second of this. Eames seems to sense it.

“So what did your father do?” he asks conversationally, when he moves down to Arthur's shoulders.

“Finance,” Arthur mumbles. “Like me. But he made more money.”

“And then left it all to you when he passed on?”

“Not all. He gave some to my brother. My brother used it to move to Australia and open up a tattoo shop.” Arthur snorts again. “He's ... different.”

“Is he good at it?” Eames asks.

“Good at what?”

“Tattoos,” says Eames. That makes Arthur consider.

“I don't know,” he admits. “I guess he gets business. And he's always been the ... you know, the creative one. So, I guess. He likes it, anyway.”

“And you?” Eames' hands kneading him send pure, molten pleasure flowing through Arthur's aching back. “Do you like finance?”

Arthur feels tired and sleepy and just wants to lay there, but he drudges up an answer anyway. “I don't know. Not really. But I'm good at it, so, I guess it doesn't matter.”

“It's what you're going to be doing for the rest of your life,” Eames says. “I'd say it matters.”

Arthur just makes an unintelligible sound into his pillow, because Eames is working all the knots out of his muscles and it feels heavenly. This time Eames lets him fall silent, and for awhile the only sound to be heard is the occasional soft grunt of exertion on Eames' part as he massages Arthur's tense back. And it's good, it's so good Arthur is already halfway to sleep when he realizes how low Eames' hands have travelled, just as an oiled finger eases inside him without preamble.

Arthur makes a low gasping sound of protest at once, starting to arch upright, but Eames' other hand is suddenly on his lower back, pressing him to the bed.

“Shh,” Eames is saying. “Stop. Keep your eyes closed. Just keep relaxing, you can do it. This is going to feel good.”

He's never fingered Arthur before. It feels somehow bizarre, way too intimate. But Arthur sinks back down, wary. He's not going to be the one to back off. After a second Eames strokes his finger in deeper, and Arthur keeps his eyes shut and focuses on breathing.

“Good boy,” says Eames, and he slides a second finger in alongside the first. He curls his fingers, stretching Arthur open with uncharacteristic care, stroking almost lovingly. By the time he adds a third digit, any of Arthur's protests have died in his throat, and he's biting his tongue to keep from making a sound.

It's difficult to stay quiet, the way Eames is moving inside him, especially when he finds Arthur's prostate. Instead of massaging it, he strokes just around it, skirting the fringes of Arthur's most sensitive nerve endings. It's sweet and maddening simultaneously and Arthur's flushed, already breaking into a sheen of sweat. Eames makes that same purring sound and drags his fingers around that spot, and Arthur sees coloured starbursts on the backs of his eyelids -- shifting his hand, Eames tilts his fingers from side to side, glancing off his prostate each time. At this point Arthur gives up on staying quiet, and gasps one low, broken word:

Eames--”

In response, Eames tilts his hand again and presses with just enough force, and before Arthur knows what's hit him, his thoughts are drowned in a roar of white noise. From very far away he can hear himself moaning, almost crying, and feel his muscles draw tight around Eames' fingers. When the rush of blood fades, he's shivering and sweating.

“What,” he pants. “What was--”

“Dry orgasm,” Eames says. He's panting, inexplicably, too; fever-flushed and bright-eyed when Arthur looks round at him. He's fumbling with his pants. “Arthur -- where do you keep your--”

“Don't need it -- just fuck me,” Arthur says quickly. Eames needs no second bidding. Winding an arm around Arthur's waist, he lifts his hips off the bed and enters him in one quick push. With just the oil as lubricant, the friction is unbearably good, just the right side of painful.

Eames wastes no time setting a rapid pace. It takes him only a few moments to relocate Arthur's prostate, and when he does, Arthur's every nerve ending jolts in protest.

“Eames,” Arthur wheezes, squirming under him. “You can't -- too much, I -- fucking sensitive, Eames--”

Eames ignores him, as he always does; just keeps fucking into his prostate with devastating precision. His teeth scrape sharply over the back of Arthur's neck, making him shiver. He's oversensitized and it hurts, and it's not a sweet pain like the friction of Eames pounding into him, like prodding hard at a bad bruise. It's a wild, high hurt that makes his body cry out, forces him to twist and writhe involuntarily to try and change the angle at which Eames is hitting him. It's barely tolerable, it's all Arthur can feel even when Eames wraps a hand around his swollen cock.

“Eames, please,” he begs.

Instead of stopping, Eames drives into him hard, one last time, twisting his wrist in the same motion, and Arthur can actually feel them come at the same instant. This orgasm is almost too intense for him to bear. It seems to go on and on and Arthur is helpless in its white-hot throes.

He's not at all sleepy when he recovers his senses -- he's so awake, and he might be crying, and he doesn't even know what he feels right now, he doesn't know.

“Arthur,” Eames murmurs in his ear, and then he's there, gathering Arthur in his arms and drawing him up to his chest. His shirt smells musty and masculine and Arthur gulps the scent of it, needing something to anchor him back to earth. Eames just holds him, strokes him and soothes him back down. “Arthur,” he says again, like it's a prayer.

Why,” Arthur manages to force out at last, gasping. “Why do you do this to me?”

“Because you like it,” Eames says. “You like letting go. This is the only time you can give up control, because you trust me, Arthur. You know I'd never push you if I didn't think you could take it.”

“I don't like you,” Arthur says, shudders still wracking his body.

“You would stop me if you didn't want this,” Eames says. “You could stop me.”

The shudders leave Arthur's body slowly, and he starts to feel limp and boneless and heavy in Eames' arms. Dead weight. Eames' heartbeat throbs steadily in his ear. He feels Eames' thumb, grazing the corner of his mouth.

“You could stop me,” Eames says, and he leans down and tilts Arthur's face up to his so he can kiss him. Sucks Arthur's lower lip between his teeth and licks his way into Arthur's mouth. It's casual and effortless.

It should scare the hell out of Arthur.

And somehow, it feels good, and correct.

Yes, his brain seems to think. Yes, this works.

Arthur kisses back. He lets Eames take the lead, even though he normally wouldn't, because he's too exhausted. And they kiss. And kiss. Until Arthur doesn't even know what he's doing anymore, except that it feels right, because he's already asleep.

 

&
He wakes up alone at six in the morning, which means he's slept for something like five hours. That's a surprise. The fact that he's alone isn't. He stretches and curls into his pillow.

His eyes fly back open less than two minutes later. He scrambles out of bed and starts yanking on clothing, raging inwardly at himself.

He let Eames into his apartment. Eames the fucking bum who has nothing and basically steals for a living. Eames who knows Arthur's most terrible secret and could have answered the phone if it rang, who has already vanished while Arthur was sleeping. What the fuck was he thinking? He let Eames into his fucking apartment!

“Eames, I swear to God,” he snarls under his breath, charging out of the bedroom to take stock of the place, “if you fucking stole a thing--”

He skids to a dazed halt in the door of the kitchen.

The kitchen where Eames is.

Where Eames is, in fact, making coffee.

Arthur wilts slightly under the eyebrow Eames raises at him.

“Just how desperate and impoverished do you think I am?” he inquires, and his tone is curious, though his eyes are narrowed.

“Sorry,” Arthur mutters. “You were gone, and I just thought ...”

“You thought I was out here stealing the silver.”

“Can you blame me?” Arthur says, immediately falling back on the defensive. Flustered and exasperated, he says, “I mean, what was I supposed to think when I saw you were gone--”

“Certainly not that I saw that your alarm is set for six-fifteen, and decided to make some coffee for when you woke up,” says Eames, scathing. “No, that would be absurd.”

“You're not my fucking boyfriend!” Arthur shouts, instantly destroying any chance of defusing this conversation. Eames looks surprised to be shouted at so early in the morning, and Arthur rages on, because he doesn't even feel rested, he feels tired and angry and sore and upset.

“I don't want to wake up next to you! I don't want you making fucking coffee for me! I only brought you here because I needed to get laid so I could sleep! That's the only reason I see you, Eames, get that through your fucking head! I don't want you, I don't want a relationship, I don't want coffee, I want your fucking dick and that's it!”

He emphasizes this by throwing one of the coffee mugs into the sink. It shatters and coffee sprays the granite countertops. Eames just stares at him evenly.

“You are the most closeted faggot I've ever met,” he says coldly.

The word is like a sucker punch. Arthur hates him.

“Get out of my apartment,” he says.

“Oh, come on, Arthur!” Eames scoffs. “We already know how this goes! You have your little tantrum and push me away, and crawl back looking like shit a few weeks later so I can drop everything to rush to your side and fuck all your problems away. Don't you understand how fucked-up and repressed you are? Tell me what's so terrible about being gay!”

Arthur starts shoving him toward the door, snarling out each word: “Normal -- people -- aren't -- gay!”

He fumbles with the doorknob, but Eames reaches back and slams the door shut as soon as Arthur starts to pull it open. Arthur's shaking with anger.

“Move,” he says.

“When's the last time you had sex with anyone who wasn't me?” Eames says.

“I could fuck anyone I want!”

“So why don't you?”

Arthur glares at him. Eames suddenly softens, only slightly, his expression a little less angry.

“I know you made it clear from the start that you don't want a relationship,” he says. “But you can't keep expecting me to put everything on hold every time you deign to throw me a bone. I know you're probably like every straight man who believes that every queer he meets is in love with him, but I'm not that desperate.”

“Why'd you kiss me, then?” Arthur demands.

“Why'd you kiss back?” Eames counters.

Arthur shrugs, feeling like a mutinous teenager.

“Fine,” Eames says bluntly. “You're so terrified of the truth, but I'll tell you anyway. I took you home at first because I thought you were another rich, closeted yuppie who needed taking down a peg. And I was right. But you're something else, too, Arthur -- don't you even see how fucked-up and lonely you are? And I like you, alright -- I love pushing you, I love being the only person who can make you come apart like that when you need it-- This is coming out all wrong, but I think you need me--”

“Like hell I need you,” Arthur spits out. “I'm not a faggot, Eames--”

“But you do,” Eames goes on, his voice steady. “And maybe I need you too, because I'd never put up with this bullshit, I'd never let somebody walk out on me like you do and take them back every time, but I can't fucking help myself, and I think we need to sort this out, Arthur, right now. I don't want to meet you once a week in a crummy bar like we're doing some kind of shady transaction, I don't want it to always be brutal and ugly between us, I should be able to come over to your fucking place without you thinking I'm going to make off with your valuables. I should be able to kiss the man I've been fucking for three months without it being thrown in my face later. I know you don't want a relationship, but I have to draw the line right here. I don't care how you want to define a relationship, but I don't want this anymore. Either you give me something, right now, and we figure out how to do this, or I walk out this door and never see you again, because I'm sick of this. Alright? I'm sick of your shit, Arthur. So give me an answer.”

He moves away from the door. Arthur keeps glaring at him, shaken and furious at Eames' words and all the implications that come with them. He reaches past Eames, and opens the door.

Eames' face betrays nothing. He gives Arthur a curt nod, alright then, and leaves.

Arthur shuts the door and locks it.

 

&
After Eames is gone, Arthur showers, dresses, goes to work, gets on with his life, and stops sleeping again that night.

Cobb won't let him work as many hours as he was before, so Arthur haunts New York at night like a ghost because he hates being in his apartment. When he is home, he works out; runs on his treadmill till he throws up. He goes to different gay bars and feels nauseous at the way the men look at him. He goes to a regular bar and talks to women and feels ... nothing.

He feels angry and confused and at his wits' end. His brother tries calling him; Arthur ignores his phone. Cobb tries inviting him over for dinner and Arthur makes excuses. He doesn't want to let them in, because how could they possibly understand? When even Arthur himself doesn't? The only person who might have ever understood him is -- Eames.

Just get through February, he tells himself numbly, staring at a spreadsheet, vision blurred, it's only twenty-eight days, it's not that long, just get through February and you'll feel much better.

And suddenly, for the first time, a new voice pipes up from the back of his mind: You're not going to feel better.

Arthur squeezes his eyes shut and digs the heels of his palms into his face.

“I know,” he mumbles, because after all, he always has. “I know.”

He goes to Eames' at night, because it's the only time he's reasonably sure Eames will be there. Eames doesn't answer. Arthur hurries to the bar, sick and desperate. This time, he finds Eames.

He freezes up. He just stands there for at least a minute, until the bartender notices him and gives Eames a nudge and a nod in Arthur's direction. Eames glances over and rolls his eyes, then turns back to the bar, downs the last of his drink, and gets up.

“Let me guess,” he starts sarcastically, as he walks over, but Arthur cuts him off hastily:

“Okay.”

Eames' eyes narrow. “Okay what?”

“Okay,” Arthur says. “Maybe I need you. I want to -- figure this out. I'm sorry I didn't say so, before, I'm just ... I'm not good at this, you know, but I think maybe you're right, and I don't want to be too late ...”

He trails off warily, half expecting Eames to laugh at him or something, but Eames doesn't. He just nods thoughtfully.

“Okay then,” he says. “You jerk me around one more time, Arthur, and I swear I'm through with you. But okay.” He nods toward the door. “Let's go.”

 

&
“I don't know how to do this,” Arthur confesses, when they're back at his place and Eames is brushing snowflakes off his own coat. “Do I give you a key, or something?”

“Not if you don't want to,” says Eames. “Or if you don't expect me to be over here a lot. Although,” he says, eyeing the place appreciatively, “it may be hard to stay away.”

“I haven't -- I haven't had a committed relationship before.” Arthur nearly chokes on the word committed. It's a slight comfort that Eames appears as uncomfortable as he is.

“Well,” he says, “we can define it however we want. I mean, we don't necessarily have to be ... committed.”

“I probably won't sleep with other people,” Arthur says, sinking onto the couch and avoiding eye contact. “Not because -- you know, just, I don't have time.”

“Then I probably won't, either,” says Eames. “If we want to keep having unprotected sex with each other, I mean. We should probably both get tested, too, just to be sure.”

“Okay.” Arthur rubs his arm self-consciously. He's uncomfortably out of his depth, and he doesn't like it. “And ... I guess we need to establish certain, uh, boundaries. I'm not really into ... cuddling. Or affection or ... things in that vein.”

“Sure,” says Eames.

“And we have to be discreet,” Arthur says, looking Eames in the eye for the first time. “I mean it. This -- whatever this is? This relationship? -- it doesn't leave this apartment. Or your place, or the bar. I'm not -- I mean, I don't want anyone I know to think I'm--”

“Gay,” says Eames. “Right. I know.”

Arthur hesitates, then gets up and goes into his kitchen. He returns with a spare key, which he hands to Eames reluctantly.

“Be extremely prudent with this,” he says. “I'm giving it to you because your apartment is disgusting and I don't know how you stand it, and it's far away from mine and I don't have time to be traveling back and forth, or waiting for you to get here. You can come over in the evenings. Don't answer the door. Don't answer the phone. And don't eat my things.”

“Right,” Eames says again. There's a faint smile hovering around the corners of his lips and eyes. “Got it.”

“I'll give you my email address, so we can actually coordinate with each other.”

“Don't you have a mobile number?” says Eames.

“My PDA alerts me when I get emails. I'm too busy to take calls all the time.”

“I know, it's just that I'd rather text you.”

Arthur frowns. “I suppose that would work too. BlackBerry does texting, right?”

Now Eames does laugh at him. “You really are terrible at this.”

Arthur manages to crack a faint smile, then sighs.

“Can we just fuck now?” he asks. “Please?”

“I thought you'd never ask,” Eames purrs.

 

&
There are so many snags in their relationship.

Stupid things. Things Arthur wouldn't even think about. They fight all the time. The first time is when Eames pins him down on his back and moves to enter him, and Arthur says, unthinkingly honest, “I don't want to look at you when we're fucking.”

The fallout is ugly and awkward and they're still licking their wounds when Eames wants to shower together and Arthur is even more uncomfortable with that.

He wakes Eames up when he sleeps over and tells him to leave before Arthur has to go to work, and Eames says you gave me a key, you can't possibly still not trust me here, and Arthur says I gave you a key, I didn't ask you to move in with me, and there are miscommunications and ruffled feathers and shouted words. They argue about what to watch on TV. They argue about what to have for dinner and who's paying. Eames bitches about Arthur's work, and rolls his eyes when Arthur bitches about it too. Arthur complains that Eames should get a real job, because he doesn't even know what Eames does with his time while he's at work. He suspects it's mostly gambling based on a few telling texts, but sometimes Eames falls off the radar entirely for six hours or so and doesn't respond to messages until mid-afternoon, and Arthur wonders if he's up to the other pursuits he'd once mentioned, and frets even more for his reputation if the two of them are found out.

They're terrible at compromise. Arthur says every time he gives Eames an inch, he takes a mile; Eames insists that Arthur won't even give him an inch to work with.

They fight when Arthur works late and comes home tired with a headache and wants a backrub when Eames just wants sex. They fight when he comes home and Eames isn't there because he's doing something with friends and Arthur wants sex. They fight when they have sex. There are days Arthur swears the only reason they both still put up with each other is because the sex is, at least, still incredible.

He's still stinging from another confrontation when Cobb says to him at work one day, “You seem to be doing a lot better these days.”

Arthur thinks about that. “Must be because I'm working less,” he says, but that's not the whole truth. It's true he's not working as late, but if he's being honest with himself, it's because he has someone to come home to. Something to do outside of his office. He's been sleeping better, too. They fight and fight, but he'd still rather be with Eames than at his office.

He says so, when Eames shows up at the apartment later.

“Arthur,” says Eames. “You prefer me to backbreaking labour. That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me.”

“It would be better if you were a woman, though,” Arthur says, again not thinking; and then they fight some more.

 

&
Arthur slams the door when he storms in one evening. He hears the TV switch off.

“What's wrong?” Eames calls warily.

Stomping into the kitchen, Arthur starts hunting for alcohol, banging the cabinet doors loudly. Eames appears in the doorway and offers him the bottle of beer in his hand. Arthur grabs it, and takes a long swig.

“Come on,” Eames says, leading him away by the arm.

They settle on the couch together. Eames perches up on the back of it, with Arthur leaning between his legs, and starts rubbing his shoulders, easing some of the tension out.

“I got turned down for a raise,” Arthur says after a minute, when he's relaxed a little, feels less like picking a fight.

“Oh,” says Eames. “But it's not as though you need it, right?”

“You don't understand. I should be making more than I am right now. My dad was making more than I am when he was my age, and that was, what, thirty years ago?” Angry, Arthur takes another swift gulp of beer. “There's no reason why I shouldn't be doing as well as him. All I do is work ...”

“I don't get it,” says Eames. “Your dad's dead, isn't he?”

“Yes.”

“Then who's putting all this pressure on you?”

“I am,” says Arthur. “I've had my life planned out for me since I was a kid.” He closes his eyes and tips his head back, letting it fall against the cushions, his ear brushing Eames' thigh. “I'm supposed to be making more money, and I'm not. And I'm supposed to be married before I'm thirty-five but I don't see that happening, either.”

“Hm.” Eames keeps working at his shoulders, thumbs digging in deep. “I don't get you, Arthur. Why put all this stress on yourself?”

“You don't understand,” Arthur says again.

“I understand you're miserable about the things you can't control. And knowing you, you'll go out and find yourself a woman to marry before you're thirty-five just so you can stick to your little plan and make yourself even more miserable. Why can't you just admit to yourself that maybe you aren't as straight as you thought?”

Arthur wants to be angry, but the tension is flowing out of him thanks to Eames' ministrations, so he just sighs.

“Eames, you can't be gay in my world. That's just the way it is. If you want to be successful, your best shot is to be a straight white male.”

Eames' hands falter on his shoulders.

“Says who?”

“Says the world,” says Arthur wearily. “How many gay congressmen do you know of?”

“We're not talking about congressmen, we're talking about you.”

“When I was fourteen, my father caught me kissing a boy named Joshua in the basement of the Jewish community centre,” says Arthur. He keeps his eyes closed. The memory makes him frown involuntarily. It still rankles at him, after all these years. “He said he would tell my mom, and she was already so sick, and I panicked. I told him Josh had cornered me and kissed me and I just froze up and hadn't known what to do, he was just some queer kid I didn't know. And my dad said--” he swallows thickly, because the words still burn “--'You can be whatever you want, you know. But faggots don't get into Harvard.'”

Eames is silent behind him, just listening.

“I stopped liking boys after that. I swear I did,” Arthur goes on. “I hung out with girls instead and sometimes I brought them home. But my dad never let up, never. He wanted me to be a success, and I wanted that, too, and he knew I couldn't be successful if I was gay, people are too judgemental. I hated that he thought I was ... like that. He used to have his rich, important work friends over for dinner, and he'd let me hang out with them while they smoked cigars and talked business and cracked faggot jokes -- or jokes about women -- same thing, they said -- and I'd laugh too, even if I didn't get it, or thought it was stupid or whatever. And I know my dad wasn't really like that -- he didn't really believe the things they were saying, he just wanted to show me, I guess. You can't be a businessman and be a fag. A hairdresser, maybe, an interior decorator, but not someone ... important.”

Eames starts to massage his shoulders again, slowly. “You know that's bollocks, don't you?”

“Not really,” Arthur sighs. “You haven't been to any of their social events, all the men walking around with their trophy wives hanging off their arms ... they expect you to be just like them, you know, you have to be ...”

“What happened to that boy?” Eames asks. “Joshua?”

“His parents sent him to military school,” says Arthur. “That was the last I heard of him.”

“I'm not a hairdresser,” says Eames. “Or an interior decorator.”

“You don't even have a job.”

“I have a degree in psychology,” says Eames. “And a teacher's diploma.”

Arthur opens his eyes and blinks. “You're a teacher?”

“I teach at high schools now and then. When they need a supply.”

“How come I didn't know that?” Arthur asks.

“Because school is from eight to three, and you work seven to ten on a good day. And you never asked.”

Arthur twists around. “That's where you disappear to sometimes? Why didn't you ever just say you're a teacher?”

“I'm not a teacher,” says Eames patiently. “There's no full-time positions available right now, that's not how I make a living. And it didn't seem relevant. I really enjoy teaching, Arthur, it's sort of personal. I can't explain it.”

“If you like it so much, why don't you try and get a full-time teaching job?” Arthur asks.

“I'm still forging connections here,” Eames says, now looking flustered. “I need a good network of teachers who'll let me sub for them. Why does it matter to you, anyway?”

Arthur is floored. All this time he's been thinking of Eames as some lazy, uneducated thug -- he's been looking down on him, thinking him stupid. But Eames has an education. All the “shady things”, the pickpocketing, the gambling, the shithole apartment, that's all by choice. Arthur's not sure what to make of it but his opinion of Eames changes, then.

“I think you'd be a good teacher,” Arthur replies, with honest conviction. “Really.”

Eames laughs, self-conscious. “Tell you what, then. I'll start looking for a full-time position, and you work on coming out to your colleagues.”

Instantly Arthur is subdued again. Eames looks momentarily crestfallen, but then he brightens.

“Come on,” he says, sliding off the couch and taking Arthur by the hand. “Let's see if I can't cheer you up.”

Arthur obediently follows him into the bedroom with a sigh of relief, feeling the day's stress slough off him with his clothing. When he gets on the bed, however, Eames stops him. Arthur hesitates, and Eames gently rolls him onto his back.

“I want you like this,” he says quietly.

“Eames,” Arthur says.

“Just once, let me see you when I'm fucking you.”

Arthur sighs again and turns his head to the side, but doesn't roll over again. Eames sheds the last of his clothing and joins him on the bed, slipping a pillow under Arthur's hips. Arthur stares very determinedly at the wall while Eames slicks his own cock up, hitches one of Arthur's legs up under the knee.

He screws his eyes shut when Eames pushes into him.

“God, you're beautiful,” Eames murmurs as he starts to move.

Arthur keeps his eyes shut tight. It doesn't feel very different, except for the change in angle. He tries to keep quiet, but can't stifle an involuntary sound when Eames mouths and nips at his neck.

“Look at me, Arthur. Please.”

He doesn't want to. But Eames' mouth is gone and Arthur wants it back on his skin. So he turns his head, and forces himself to look, afraid that this will suddenly become too real for him. He's not expecting the look in Eames' eyes, his pupils blown, the naked, unabashed affection there.

He starts to glance away again, but Eames catches his chin and brings his gaze back up to Eames' face. And all at once, in that moment, this does become real for Arthur, more real than it ever has been. He's being fucked by a man, by Eames, and it should be terrifying but somehow, it's the most erotic thing to have ever happened to him. He feels like he's just let Eames in for the first time, and maybe he has, and it feels -- good, right down to his soul, Arthur feels good. He feels connected to humanity in a way he hasn't for a long time.

It's like he's falling. He's never felt this way, ever. And Arthur isn't gay, but it hits him that he just might have to make a concession.

He is actually kind of okay with that.

 

&
It's the middle of April when he gets a text from Eames at work: big news. order something nice for supper. :)

Arthur approaches Cobb cautiously, uncertain how he'll be met. “Hey,” he says, hovering in the doorway of Cobb's office. “Is it okay if I take off early today?”

“Ah.” Cobb's smile is knowing. “Got a date with your girlfriend?”

“What--” Arthur splutters. “I don't -- what makes you think--”

“Come on, Arthur,” Cobb says, grinning now. “You're happier. You've been spending less time at the office. You've met someone, haven't you?”

“I ...” Arthur swallows, inexplicably sheepish. “Maybe,” he admits.

Cobb laughs. “Take off, then. Just make sure your presentation's done by Friday.”

“I'll stay later tomorrow,” Arthur promises. “Thanks,” he adds, and dashes off.

Since it seems to be a special occasion, Arthur decides to forego ordering take-out, and instead decides to cook. He has a salmon fillet with spinach and dill baking in the oven by the time Eames shows up, carrying a bottle of wine.

“You're cooking!” Eames observes. He peers over Arthur's shoulder at the boiling rice, and steals a swift kiss. “This is truly a momentous day.”

“What's the news?” Arthur asks.

“I would have waited till supper to tell you, but alright then,” says Eames, grinning like the cat who'd eaten the cream. “One of the teachers I regularly sub for is retiring, and I got her job. As of next term, I'm offically an English teacher.”

“Eames, that's ... congratulations,” Arthur says, starting to smile. “Maybe now you can afford to upgrade from your shitty apartment.”

Eames laughs and punches him lightly in the ribs, saying, “Cheek.”

“That is good news, though,” Arthur says, while Eames goes digging for a corkscrew for the wine bottle. He is, strangely, slightly jealous. “You'll be really good at that, Eames. I'm happy for you.”

“Thank you. And how about you, darling? Any exciting work stories?”

Arthur shakes his head. “I'll have to stay late tomorrow.”

Eames makes a discontented sound. “I was hoping to reserve a hotel room for tomorrow night. Make a real celebration of it.”

“Well, I can't make it. I have a deadline coming up fast. And besides, you know how--”

“I know, I know,” Eames grumbles. “This doesn't leave the apartment. Right.”

“We can celebrate tonight,” Arthur says, and suddenly Eames is there, behind him, draping an arm over Arthur's chest and resting his chin on Arthur's shoulder. Arthur goes still, struck by a sudden, intense flash of -- something. It's like déja vu, for a second, but that isn't it -- it's more like an overwhelming feeling of rightness. More than when he's kissing Eames, or having sex with him, this kind of casual touching feels familiar and right. It's one of those moments that makes Arthur want to run for his life away from this relationship.

He's silent. Eames sighs through his nose.

“I had something I wanted to ask you,” he says. “You can say no.”

“The fish is going to burn,” Arthur says, his nerve finally giving out on him. Eames withdraws and watches while Arthur takes the fish from the oven and checks it with a fork. It isn't flaking yet. He puts it reluctantly back in, and starts stirring the rice to give his hands something to do and his eyes somewhere to look at that isn't Eames.

“Okay,” he says finally, not looking up, when he thinks he's ready to hear it. “What was your question?”

“Stupid, really,” says Eames. “But my little sister's getting married over here in a few weeks. She wants me to give her away, our dad being gone. It'll just be a few close friends who can make it, some family members. And I'd like it if you went with me. I know my mum'll give me grief if I show up dateless, so ...”

He sounds casual, and Arthur can't determine the real intent behind his words. His brain works rapidly while his stomach starts to knot, preemptively.

“You want me to go as your date,” he says at last.

“Well,” says Eames, “that would be the general idea, yes. Like I said, you can say no.”

Arthur's mind is racing. “Won't your family expect a ... girlfriend?”

“I think they stopped expecting a girlfriend sometime around the fifth boyfriend,” Eames says, and then he does that thing where he reads Arthur's mind. “Arthur, I promise you, no one in my family will judge you or stone you or whatever you're imagining right now. They know I like men, it doesn't matter to them. There's no chance of them disliking you because you're a man and you're with me. Because you're a rude little arsehole, maybe. But not because you're a man.”

Arthur stops stirring and looks down at the stove, not sure of himself. Eames hovers behind him and Arthur reminds himself, this isn't a long-term thing. He's going to get his act together and someday he's going to feel well enough to abandon this self-destructive lifestyle, actually find himself a nice girl and settle down. Eames is a speedbump in the carefully-planned course of Arthur's life. A minor detour off the main road. Meeting his family is not on the agenda.

On the other hand, this is not a long-term thing, and meeting Eames' family surely can't have lasting consequences.

“Can I think about it?” he says finally.

“Of course.” Eames sounds relieved. “That's a much better reaction than I had imagined.”

“I can surprise you sometimes,” Arthur says, and without warning Eames turns him around, backs him up against the stove and presses their bodies flush.

“Yes,” he says, smiling lewdly, “you certainly can.”

The fish does burn, after all; but neither of them really care.

 

&
Before the actual wedding, they go out to dinner the night Eames' family arrives in New York. His mother is what Arthur expected, stately and English and scrutinizing.

“You must be Arthur,” she says, which is less what Arthur expected (he's been having dreams about this. Before now it's been “So you're the man having frequent unprotected anal sex with my son”).

“Um,” he says eloquently. “Yes.”

She shakes his hand and smiles. Eames' sister gives him a hug. It leaves Arthur flustered and feeling the need to clear up the fact that he is not gay despite all evidence to the contrary and also intends to leave Eames as soon as his life gets its shit together, but he wisely keeps his mouth shut.

He's as quiet as possible during dinner, though he can't deflect the many questions sent his way. Yes, he's an investment banker. Yes, investment bankers generally do make very good money. No, no family except for a loser brother in Brisbane. Well, one passed away of cancer when he was sixteen and the other had a heart attack when he was eighteen. Yes, he supposes it was difficult, but he's over it now.

When dinner is over, Eames' mother draws Eames aside for a moment, and then they part ways.

“Well, they like you,” says Eames.

“That's good,” says Arthur, who hadn't realized he was hoping for approval.

“Mum said it's about time I had someone more serious to ground me.”

They descend into the subway together. Eames shoves his hands into his pockets.

“I didn't realize your mum was gone, too,” he says. “I'm sorry.”

“I don't care,” says Arthur. “We weren't that close. She was sick for a long time anyway.”

“Still. Don't you ever feel lonely?”

And Arthur doesn't know. So he just tells Eames he'll go to the wedding, after all.

There's another week of preparation, a rehearsal dinner, and the wedding takes place on a Sunday. Arthur hovers awkwardly in the back during the ceremony, feeling like an intruder. It's mercifully short. They say a few prayers, the vows are recited, and the ceremony's over, and Eames reappears to give Arthur someone to latch onto.

“Come on,” he says. “The reception's at a restaurant down the street.”

Just a couple more hours, Arthur tells himself, and it'll be over.

They've booked the whole place. Servers walk around with plates of hor d'ouevres and everyone else mills around, talking and smiling. Arthur sticks close to Eames, who makes introductions as they make their way over to the food.

“Arthur, this is my Aunt Helen; Auntie, my boyfriend, Arthur ...”

“Lovely to meet you,” Eames' aunt beams at him, shaking his hand.

They're all like that. Arthur's never felt so lost, utterly perplexed at the way Eames' family is receiving him. It flies in the face of everything he's believed for his entire life. They act like he hasn't done anything wrong; which, rationally, Arthur tries to make himself believe, but every day he spends being with Eames, he expects some terrible punishment to strike him down, make him pay for ever believing he could have this relationship and still call himself straight. That expectation keeps him from ever allowing himself to be happy. This may be why he agreed to go in the first place, he thinks -- maybe he wanted all along to be attacked by Eames' family, since his own isn't there to do it for him; he needs to be yelled at and cursed out because he's a faggot and this is just how the world works.

Instead, this turn of events is so unexpected that he doesn't know how to handle it.

“I'm a little queasy,” he says in Eames' ear, truthfully. “I think I need to leave.”

Eames squeezes his hand. “Just a little longer,” he says, “please.”

In the end, it's good that Arthur does stay, because after so many months of waiting with bated breath, he finally gets the punishment he deserves.

“...beautiful as always,” Eames is saying, embracing a woman in a long blue evening gown. To Arthur, trailing behind, he says, “Our fathers worked together, Mal's a close family friend. Mal, this is my boyfriend ...”

“Arthur?” says Mal, astonished.

The bottom drops out of Arthur's stomach.

“Arthur,” Cobb says, standing just behind Mal, looking as surprised as she does. Eames glances back and forth between them, and Arthur feels him go a little rigid when he realizes what he's done.

“I didn't know you knew... Eames?” says Mal, looking at him uncertainly. “Why didn't you ever tell me?”

“I'm sorry,” Eames says, and Arthur knows it's addressed mostly to him, but he doesn't care. He hears the distant roar of blood in his ears like he's about to pass out and he hates Eames, hates him so much that the only person in the world Arthur despises more right then is himself.

“I -- this is a mistake,” Arthur stammers out, backing up. He sees Cobb exchange a quick, shocked glance with Mal, and swears he sees disgust there. “I have to -- go--”

“Wait. Please,” Eames says hurriedly, grabbing his hand.

Arthur shoves him off violently and jerks backward, straight into one of the servers, who drops her platter with a deafening clang. Now people are looking over at them, the conversations around them hushing.

“Sorry,” Arthur gasps, still backing away. “I have to go. I'm sorry.”

“Arthur, please,” Eames says quietly, starting after him, and Arthur lowers his voice:

“If you ever touch me again, I'll kill you.”

Eames stops. Turning, Arthur starts to shoulder blindly through the crowd, until he finds the exit and he rushes out, not slowing from his panicked pace until he finds a subway station and hurtles aboard the first train to anywhere.

 

&
It takes him three connections and more than twenty-four hours before he arrives in Brisbane, with a vague sense of surprise. He wasn't aware his flight had any purpose to it -- only that he'd needed to get as far away as possible from Eames and Cobb and New York.

Now he's in Brisbane and he doesn't really know what to do with himself.

He hails a taxi outside the terminal. Gives the driver the first and only address to come to mind. They're there in less than half an hour.

Arthur gets out. The house is unsurprisingly small. It's white and a little shabby-looking. There's a young woman kneeling in the front garden with a trowel, and a little boy crouched next to her. Arthur recognizes his sister-in-law and nephew.

She looks up as he approaches, shielding her eyes from the sun. It's late afternoon in Australia; the sun is beating on his back. He regrets wearing a coat.

“Hi,” he says, stopping. “Um. I'm looking for ...”

He glances back round at the taxi, uncertainly. This is stupid, really. What the hell is he even doing here?

“I'm ... never mind,” he says. He shakes his head, backs up a step and turns away. “Sorry. Never mind.”

“Wait,” she says, as he starts to walk back to the cab, hands in his pockets. “Arthur.”

He stops and turns back to face her. She gets to her feet, brushing off her knees and smiling, a pretty smile that shows off her straight white teeth.

“You're David's brother,” she says.

“I ... yeah.”

She steps out of the garden, walks up and gives him a hug. It takes Arthur entirely by surprise. He only just thinks to hug her back and she laughs, delighted.

“He's going to be so happy to see you! Is it a surprise?”

“Yeah,” says Arthur. “I guess so.”

“He's not home yet, he will be soon. He's going to be thrilled. Noah!” she says to the little boy. “Look! This is your Uncle Arthur.”

The toddler is still crouched in the garden, now stabbing at the dirt with the trowel his mother dropped. He looks up, and he's got David's dark hair and features, but Emily's wide smile, lighting up his whole face.

“He likes strangers,” says Emily. “Not that you're a stranger. You're family.”

She accepts Arthur immediately and wholly. They go into the house, and she gives him a brief tour, since there's not much to see. Noah disappears and reappears, each time bringing a new toy and offering it silently to Arthur, who takes each one and thanks him, bemused. He likes the backyard, which is wide and leafy. There's a hutch containing three chickens, and a teddy bear-like creature curled in the cradle of a tree trunk which Emily tells him is a brush-tailed possum.

“It's so cute,” Arthur says, surprised, automatically associating the word possum with rat-like creatures and scaly tails. He's on the other side of the world and everything's all different.

Emily laughs, and tells him they're not so cute when they're scurrying round your roof at night. She adds that she works in wildlife rescue, and Arthur wonders to himself how the hell they afford anything.

“We don't have much room,” she says, leading Arthur back inside, and he interrupts at once:

“Oh, no, I don't mean to -- I'll book a hotel, it's fine.”

“Don't be silly, you're family,” she says distractedly, taking Noah's toy offerings out of his hands and putting them away in a basket. “You can have the bedroom, David and I will be fine on the air mattress.”

“Really, I don't mean to put you out,” Arthur says. “I'll be okay on the air mattress. Thank you,” he adds, bewildered, when Noah reappears with a stuffed horse to give to him.

“He's certainly taken to you,” Emily observes. “Do you like children?”

“I don't know,” Arthur says honestly. “I can't remember the last time I was around one.”

“Well, he's easy to please. He's like your brother, easy-going. Everything rolls off him.” She tousles Noah's hair in passing.

For the past twenty-four hours Arthur has been running on high stress, feeling sick every time he shut his eyes and thought about the wedding reception. Now, finally, he starts to relax. This place is small and cramped and simple, not a touch of luxury about it, and it's like he's on a whole different planet where the world spins backward and nothing is stressful and possums look like teddy bears, and he's been here fifteen minutes and it feels more like home than his apartment ever has.

When David gets home, he looks first shocked and then delighted to see Arthur there. He gives Arthur a long, tight hug, as though to ascertain he's really there.

“You actually took time off work,” he says, disbelieving.

“I said I would,” Arthur reminds him.

“How long are you staying?”

“I don't know yet.”

And he doesn't. He'd sent Cobb a hasty voicemail message from the airport, a babble of words he can't even remember now, I'm so sorry but I need time off right now I just can't come back to work yet and I hope you understand.

But he's in Australia, not New York, not with Eames or Cobb, and maybe the rules are different here and Arthur is allowed to be happy. So he stays for two weeks.

 

&
Once Arthur has adjusted to the vast difference in time, he and his brother spend evenings sitting in the backyard, drinking beer and watching the stars come out. Before now, the last time Arthur saw stars was on an overnight flight to Chicago.

Nothing could ever make him understand what made his brother decide to drop out of college, but he's starting to see what David likes about Australia. It's different from Manhattan. Slower. More relaxed. And there's Emily. Arthur always just assumed that she'd been a fling, that David had married her when he knocked her up because it was the right thing to do and David is a good guy like that, but he's wrong. They're so in love. Noah was probably the happiest accident that could have ever happened to them, because it's so obvious that he is the light of their lives, apart from each other. They're like Cobb and Mal, people Arthur can picture growing old together, never tiring of each other's company. They don't have much -- they consider take-out a special treat -- but they have each other and Noah and that's more than enough.

And Arthur's so jealous.

But it hurts less, on this side of the world.

David watches the stars. Arthur watches the possums. They scurry along the branches of the gum tree in the yard. Arthur likes them. He's never liked animals before. He supposes he never slowed down long enough to pay any of them attention until now.

Arthur's pretty sure his brother knows something is wrong, but he doesn't pry. Mostly they just reminisce, about a childhood that's nothing but a blur to Arthur now, memories David cherishes and Arthur doesn't even remember, but suddenly wishes he did.

“What do you think of Emily?” David asks unexpectedly one night, picking at the label on his beer bottle.

“She's lovely,” Arthur says. “Does she have a sister?”

David laughs. Then, still smiling, he squints sidelong at Arthur.

“Would you be interested if I said she did?”

Arthur looks down at his own beer bottle. He shakes his head.

“I kind of have someone,” he mutters. “Back home.”

“What's his name?”

Arthur wonders when he became so transparent. A quick glance assures him that his brother's smile is gentle, not mocking.

“Eames,” he says, after a pause.

“What's he like?”

“Funny,” Arthur says, and reconsiders. “Different. Kind of a dick. Kind of nice, though, too.”

“Are you together?”

“I don't -- know.” Arthur's voice breaks slightly. He feels like curling into a ball, like a child. He hunches over, and his voice is ragged and small and weak as if he's crying. “Dave, I think I'm gay.”

He hears the creak of David's lawn chair as his brother leans over, squeezes his shoulder with one hand. His voice is steady. “It's okay, Arthur. You're allowed.”

“I'm not, really,” Arthur manages to say, and then it's all spilling out. Joshua and their dad and faggots don't get into Harvard and meeting Eames and feeling better for the first time and he's not attracted to men but women just don't make him feel the same way Eames does, and playing at a relationship like little kids playing house and then maybe not playing anymore and then the wedding reception and Cobb, oh, God, Cobb. It's a big heaving jumble of words and noxious, choking shame, and Arthur will be shocked if David can make any sense of it at all, because it still doesn't entirely make sense to him.

But David listens. He lets Arthur unload all of this on him and soaks it all in patiently, until Arthur can't speak anymore, just tapers off and stares up at one of the possums scaling the gum tree and catches his breath, wishing he could take it back.

“I think,” David starts, after a long pause, then stops and thinks for a moment. “Dad was pretty misguided, Arthur.”

“What are you saying?”

“Do you know why he pushed you so hard?”

“He wanted me to be like him,” says Arthur, wearily.

“Yeah,” says David, “but more than that. He wanted you to be happy, Arthur. Money made Dad happy and he wanted you to have it good like that, too. He wanted both of us to have it good, but I wanted to draw and be an artist, that's why he paid for my art classes, because he knew that's what made me happy. You were more like him. And Dad didn't know a lot about this stuff -- he thought if you were gay, it would make your life so much harder, because nobody would accept you. And he thought it was something you could choose. That's why he pushed you so hard to be straight.”

“I didn't choose this,” says Arthur. “I wouldn't have. I wish with all my fucking heart that a woman could make me feel the same way, but I don't think anyone else could.”

“I know,” says David patiently. “I guess all I'm trying to say is, Dad wanted you to be happy more than anything else. He'd hate to think he pushed you into this miserable life, Arthur. If this guy, this Eames, if he makes you happy? I think Dad would be okay with that.”

“I can't be with him,” Arthur mutters, looking down at the ground again. “Not now that Cobb knows.”

“Cobb, your boss Dom Cobb? Isn't he your friend? He seems like a nice guy.”

“He's not my only boss,” says Arthur. “And I don't see Maurice Fischer being thrilled about having a faggot in his office. You should hear what he did to his son.”

“It's not up to him,” says David. “He's not allowed to fire you for being gay. And if he tries to screw you over, so what? You hate that job, and you could do anything else, with your resume. Just ... do what makes you happy, Arthur. Success is overrated.”

Arthur takes all of this in dazedly and thinks about it. It's not up to anyone else who he's allowed to like. Maybe ... all this time, he's had it backwards; trying to derive happiness from the things that make him miserable, and drawing misery from the few things that make him happy.

“How did my little brother get so wise?” he asks, managing a small, crooked smile.

“It comes of having a wife,” David says, smiling down at his drink.

 

&
Australia is perfect, but Arthur realizes he has to leave when he finally checks his PDA. He expects a barrage of text messages from Eames, and hasn't had the nerve to check until now.

He finds two voice mails and five emails from Cobb, and ... nothing from Eames.

No texts. No emails. No missed calls.

Arthur has made a terrible mistake.

David drives him to the airport and they embrace, briefly, outside the terminal.

“Don't leave it so long next time,” David says. “You should come for Christmas. It's in the middle of the summer here, it's nice.”

“Maybe I will,” Arthur says, and he actually means it. He has a family. It feels good.

He's in New York, home, twenty-four hours later, and since it's the morning, he goes to his office first. Cobb looks startled when Arthur knocks on his open door to announce his presence, the same way Mal looked at the reception.

“Arthur!” he says, getting to his feet, but before he can say anything else, Arthur cuts him off.

“I quit.”

Cobb looks even more stunned. “You quit?” he says, as if to make sure. Arthur takes a deep breath and nods.

“I quit. I'm giving my two weeks'.”

Cobb's eyebrows draw together in a sudden frown. “Well, I don't accept your resignation.”

“You have to,” Arthur blurts out, taken aback.

“Not if this is about that wedding. You're not as cowardly as that, Arthur.”

“Oh.” Arthur hovers momentarily, then crosses the room and takes a seat on the other side of Cobb's desk. Cobb sits, too. “No. It's not about that. I'm ... I'm with Eames. And ...” This may be the most difficult thing he's ever spit out: “I'm not ... ashamed of that.”

“Oh,” says Cobb. “Because ... you know that doesn't bother me.”

Arthur swallows. “I know.”

Now Cobb looks concerned. “Then what is this about?”

“I don't like this job,” Arthur says. “I never have. I like the money, but I can't do this anymore, Dom, I'm burnt out.”

“Oh.” Cobb starts to nod, still frowning. “What will you do next?”

“I don't know,” Arthur admits. “Take a break for awhile, I guess. Then maybe go into financial analyzing or something. Something different.”

“Well,” says Cobb, “you'll always have a good reference from me. And just let me know if you ever change your mind.”

“Thank you.”

Cobb extends a hand over the desk and Arthur shakes it, feeling a great weight lift from him.

“I have something else I have to do,” Arthur says, getting to his feet. “Can I go, or do you want me to stay and get some work done?”

“What did you need to do?”

“I have to find Eames and tell him I'm sorry.”

“Go and do that,” says Cobb.

“Thanks,” Arthur says again, and leaves.

 

&
When he knocks on Eames' door and tries the doorknob, he finds it unlocked. Eames is kneeling in the kitchenette, surrounded by boxes, packing away his cutlery drawer.

“You're packing,” Arthur says, surprised.

“Yep.” Eames doesn't even look up. “Sick of this old place.”

“Can I come in?”

Eames gets to his feet, brushing dust off his knees. “What did you want?”

“To apologize,” says Arthur. “So. Well. I'm sorry.”

“Not accepted. Now piss off.”

“I wanted to give this another shot,” Arthur says, trying to be dogged. “I missed you and I didn't mean what I said, I just panicked. I want to be with you, Eames.”

Eames walks closer, closing the gap between them, until he is standing very close.

“I told you if you jerked me around one more time, I'd be done,” he says flatly. “Well. I'm done, Arthur. There's only so much bullshit I can take. I'm done.”

“Okay,” says Arthur. He clears his throat, which suddenly seems to be uncomfortably tight, and has to blink a few times, looking aside. “Okay. Ah. That's fair. So, uh--”

“Arthur,” Eames says suspiciously. “Are you crying?”

“Sorry.” Arthur turns away slightly, brushing briskly at his eye and clearing his throat again. His voice is hoarse. “It's just, I had all this shit I wanted to say to you and I can't even remember any of it now, stuff like how I was an asshole, and I quit my job today because I want to be a different person -- I want to feel better, the way I do when I'm with you, and I was too scared to admit that you made me happier than I've been ... ever, I've never been happy, Eames, I didn't even know what happy was until we decided to have a relationship.” His throat-clearing turns into a cough, because there seems to be a thick lump in his throat and he can hardly speak around it, and tears are falling freely now. “I'm just really tired and I want to stop being someone I'm not, now, and I don't really know what I am, I'm not attracted to other men, and I just don't like women as much as I want to be able to, you're the only person I've ever felt anything real for. But I know, I know I fucked up, and you gave me fair warning, so I'm just -- gonna go now,” and he's gasping out the words by now. “I'm sorry. Thanks for everything, really. I'm just ... gonna go.”

He does. Eames watches him, and doesn't say anything.

Arthur makes it all the way to the sidewalk outside the building, still wiping shakily at his eyes, when Eames' voice hails him from behind. He starts to turn, and Eames is saying, “Look, I must be even more of an idiot than you are--”

Then he's got Arthur by the arms and he's kissing him. Arthur leans into him dizzily. It's not their best kiss by far, or their most comfortable, because Arthur's lip is trembling and his cheeks are wet, but Eames is kissing him; they're on the sidewalk in daylight and people are around and Eames is kissing him and Arthur doesn't care. He doesn't care at all.

“You have one more chance,” Eames says, when he pulls away.

“Move in with me,” Arthur says.

And Eames says, “That's a good start.”

&&&
epilogue

Arthur works for a private equity firm. He is a pretty good cook now that he has someone to cook for, and he works about fifty to sixty hours a week, which is a pretty reasonable compromise for someone with Arthur's drive. And if he sometimes needs some help balancing his work with his life, well, that's what Eames is there for.

He's almost thirty-three and has no plans to get married any time soon, and that's just fine. His salary is considerable and that's fine too, because that way he can afford for him and Eames to visit their families and go on vacations now and then, whenever Arthur needs a break from work. He's not gay and he's not straight either; he doesn't have to put a label on it because he just likes Eames and that's all there is to it.

Because Eames may be impatient sometimes, he may be rough and he may like to push Arthur, but as it turns out, he is also quite tender and loving, as far as partners go. Arthur wouldn't know; he's only had one real partner.

It's almost Christmas. When Arthur gets home from work Eames is already there, hunched over his desk, reading glasses perched on his nose as he marks test papers by lamplight. Arthur joins him, sliding the glasses away from his face and leaning down for a kiss.

“Oi, I need those,” Eames says, when Arthur's pulled away. He takes them back and wipes them carefully on his shirt. “How was work?”

“Good. Boring, but good-boring. You?”

“Just three more days,” Eames sighs, “and then two whole weeks off from the little terrors.”

He complains, but Arthur knows he's full of shit, because he loves his job, more than Arthur ever could love his, and his students like him. “Tell you a secret,” Eames had said once, back then. “I went for the full-time position because I was hoping you'd think me worth staying with if I had a real job.” And Arthur had replied frankly, “I quit so you'd stay with me.”

“I took care of the cooking tonight, so you don't have to,” Eames calls after him, when Arthur goes into the bedroom to dump his briefcase. “Chinese food's on its way. Dialled the number myself and everything.”

“You're a better cook every day,” Arthur calls back, starting to shed his suit in favour of something more comfortable.

“And I was thinking,” Eames says, startling him, because he's suddenly appeared in the doorway. “We could put your brother and his family up in a hotel while they're here, don't you think?”

“They're family,” Arthur says distractedly, working his tie loose. “You don't put family up in a hotel. Especially not at Christmas.”

“I know, but they'll be here a whole week, and I'm just not sure I can keep my hands off you.”

He's joined Arthur to help him take his clothes off, and Arthur smiles.

“We can be quiet.”

I can be quiet,” Eames agrees. “You, I'm not so sure about.”

Arthur's smile becomes a grin, because it's a fair point. Eames is still his own personal thrill ride -- he's not a gentle lover, even when he thinks he is -- and even though they've had three years now to figure out what works, they never seem to fall into an exact pattern; except that the sex still is and always has been incredible.

“So we send them to the tourist traps during the day,” he says. “Problem solved.”

“Mm. I like the way you think,” Eames says, leaning in, but Arthur pushes him back a step.

“Not now. Dom and Mal will be here soon.”

Eames pouts, but he sits on the edge of the bed to watch Arthur change. Arthur can tell, by the twitchy silence emanating from him, that something's on his mind.

“A student came out to me today,” he says finally. “Says if he comes out to his parents, they'll throw him out. He's worried about his career, as well.”

“Oh?” says Arthur. “What did you tell him?”

“I told him my boyfriend got his MBA at Harvard and has a successful job, and he's the gayest thing I've ever met. What? It was a joke!” Eames says insistently, when Arthur throws a scowl at him and leaves the room. Eames pursues him. “Really, I wanted to see if you have any advice. I'll see him again tomorrow in psych, and I think you can relate a bit better.”

“Tell him ...” Arthur starts, and trails off. He has to think about it for a minute. In the meantime he goes into the kitchen, finds a bottle of wine and starts looking for four wine glasses. Eames waits behind him.

Finally, he says: “Tell him success is secondary to happiness. If he can find what makes him happy, everything else will follow naturally. And he doesn't have to tell anyone, but if people find out, it's not the end of the world. He should never sacrifice himself for what other people want, anyway.”

Eames drapes an arm over Arthur's chest, presses a kiss to his neck and rests his chin on Arthur's shoulder. It's casual and intimate, the kind of thing that makes Arthur want to stand here and stay put forever.

“Yeah,” Eames murmurs. “That sounds just about right.”