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The Habit of Countless Years

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They've made a habit of this: the late night knock, the doorbell lean, the quickly picked lock. Turning up in one another's spaces unannounced, though not unwelcome. The promise of sanctuary has been there as long as they've known each other, which is longer than most people realize and much longer than they'll admit to.

They're both fine with that. Some things are worth protecting.

*

The first time Arthur turned up at Eames' door, Eames almost didn't let him in.

“Oi, mate! Stop hammerin' me bloody door down.” Eames adopted an accent that was a lot rougher than his own. He didn't open his door to people he didn't know, particularly at midnight, and the guy with the dark, floppy hair was doing his best to keep his face in shadows so Eames couldn't even get a decent look through the peephole. “I ain't whoever you're lookin' fer.”

“Eames, open the goddamn door,” the guy said, and it wasn't so much the American accent that clued him in as the tone of pissed-off contempt.

“Arthur?” Eames asked, one hand on his Browning, but the other already turning the lock. He hadn't seen Arthur in six months or more, back when they'd both been letting the military poke around their heads in what started out as a cooperative venture and ended up a political nightmare.

Eames hesitated. “You aren't by chance here to kill me, are you?”

“Yes, Eames,” Arthur said, blandly. Eames couldn't see it, but he could imagine the eye roll that accompanied Arthur's answer. “The CIA recruited me to eliminate everyone who worked on Project Morpheus. That's why I fucking knocked!”

Eames grinned and opened the door to a scowling, familiar face. Six months previously, Arthur had been sporting the Marine Corps' high-and-tight and the camo booties to match; the hair-in-the-eyes student look complete with dark-rimmed glasses was going to take some getting used to.

“Fuck, is it really you?” Eames shut the door behind him and leaned back against it. He looked Arthur over from top to bottom. Slowly. With an emphasis on bottom. He was just as attractive as Eames remembered.

“Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot. You spent more time ogling my ass than doing whatever the hell you were supposed to be doing back then.” Arthur set down his bags and turned his back to Eames, putting his hands on his hips. He let Eames get a good look at the curve of his ass in well-fitted jeans. “Do you recognize me now?”

Eames took advantage of Arthur's position to slip up behind him and wrap an arm around his waist in a way he'd always wanted to, but never dared when they were in the service. He felt Arthur tense, but only momentarily, and when Eames pushed no further, Arthur relaxed slightly. Still wary, Eames could tell, but willing to extend a bit of trust. He wanted something from Eames, that much was clear.

Eames put his lips to Arthur's ear. “I can't be absolutely sure unless you drop your trousers, love. Marine Corps tattoo still where I remember?”

Arthur sputtered and turned around. “How could you—? I never showed you that tattoo!”

“Oh, I have my ways, darling,” Eames said loftily, but he let Arthur move just out of reach. “Give us a peek?”

“No, definitely not!” Arthur tried to look outraged, but the laughter was threatening to take over his face, and Eames couldn't help but grin at him fondly. Arthur. Of all the people to show up at his door.

“So, what's up?” Eames asked, gesturing for Arthur to sit, and it was only then Eames got a good-look at what Arthur had been carrying. One bag was a standard green military-style duffel, although Eames was willing to bet Arthur had left the Corps; the other, was an aluminium briefcase.

“Jesus, Arthur, is that a PASIV?” Eames' voice dropped almost to a whisper.

Project Morpheus had been simultaneously the best and worst thing to ever happen to him. It had been a little like getting hooked on crack, then having it taken away cold turkey. No explanations, no rehab, just non-disclosure statements and promises of an honourable discharge. It had messed a lot of guys up, and Eames had dealt with it the only way he knew how: by honing his skills as a con man, and keeping an ear to the ground for any word about dream-work. He figured it was only a matter of time, and when the technology was leaked, he was going to be ready to make himself indispensable.

Arthur slid the case across the floor so Eames could inspect it himself. It was a slightly modified version from the one he remembered—the U.S. had pulled out of the joint op, but continued to experiment.

“How did you—?”

“Oh, I have my ways, Mr. Eames,” Arthur said with such cock-sureness, Eames could've kissed him for it. He had Arthur's gorgeous arse on his sofa, along with his sharp mind and sharper tongue, and a previously undiscovered larcenous streak that was making Eames' consider all the things he wanted to do with Arthur, and only some of them required nudity. It already felt like Christmas and his birthday rolled into one, and Eames had a feeling things were only getting started.

“What did you have in mind?”

*

Of course, there are still days when Arthur questions the wisdom of letting Eames into his life.

“Eames,” he says, kicking the lump of patterned shirt that's trapped his paper on the step.

The lump groans.

“You're on my paper.” Arthur bends down and gives the paper a tug, leaving a smear of fresh newsprint on Eames' shirt. It doesn't improve the pattern, but it doesn't make it any worse either.

“How long have you been here?” Arthur asks, scanning the headlines. Another earthquake in Indonesia. The Yankees winning in extra innings. The forecast is calling for rain.

“All bloody night,” Eames mumbles.

“Really.” Arthur's eyes narrow. “I didn't think Madison was that ambitious.”

“What are you on about?”

“My newspaper comes at exactly 6:57 every morning, give or take a minute. Madison is very prompt. And since I've had to extract said paper from underneath your enormous hulk, I can reasonably assume the paper was already on the step when you lay on top of it.” Arthur reaches down and tugs Eames' pocket watch loose, so he can check the time. “Ergo, you've been on my step for approximately five minutes, give or take.”

Eames tucks the watch back into his pocket, then uncurls himself like a mustard-yellow hedgehog and stares up at Arthur. No obvious bruises. Just bloodshot eyes and a two-day old scruff. Nothing unusual there. Arthur maintains a placid look. If he appears too concerned it will only serve to encourage exactly this kind of melodrama.

“Perhaps this Madison person man-handled me out of the way, slapped down your precious paper, and rolled me back.”

“She's twelve and her whole body is about the size of one of your thighs, Eames. Do you want coffee or not?”

“Fine.” Eames bounces to his feet, grinning, and follows Arthur inside. “Maddie—she prefers Maddie to Madison, by the way—says you owe her for taking care of the papers while you were gone last month. Apparently they would've been piling up on your stoop had she not realized you were away and taken action. Clever girl. She was protecting your home from wrack and ruin, from thieves and scoundrels—”

“People like you, you mean?”

“I know you haven't had your coffee yet, darling, so I'm going to ignore that.” Eames eyes the percolating coffee maker eagerly. “But the least you can do is give the poor waif her due.”

“Uh-huh.” Arthur takes out two mugs and pours. “Can I assume the two of you have already negotiated a price for her diligence?”

“Well, thirty dollars seemed reasonable—”

“Eames! Every time you come here, her rates go up. Would you stop teaching her new and better methods of extortion? Now I'm paying her to not deliver the paper.”

Eames presses an apologetic kiss to the nape of Arthur's neck as he reaches around to grab a mug of coffee.

“Terribly sorry, Arthur. If it makes you feel better, she's a quick study. I doubt she'll need any additional instruction from me.”

“Her mother is going to kill me,” Arthur mutters into his coffee.

“I'll protect you,” Eames says sincerely, taking his first sip. It's perfect, as always.

*

In the early days, they were always high on the thrill of it, the danger. They were pioneers. Nobody did it better than they did, and they knew it.

“You were fucking brilliant,” Arthur said, pushing Eames back against the door as soon as they were inside. His hands had already found skin and he was doing his best to divest Eames' of his shirt without undoing a single button.

“Not as brilliant as you,” Eames murmured, his mouth on Arthur's throat, his hands working Arthur's trousers open. “The way you took out those projections? Fucking magnificent.”

Arthur bit back a moan when Eames got a hand on his cock. Eames did this to him every fucking time, made him feel like he was going to die if Eames wasn't touching him. That mouth. Those hands. Any way. Every way. Arthur couldn't get enough of it, didn't think he ever would.

“Magnificent fucking,” Arthur repeated. Eames laughed wetly against his throat, but got focused again in a second, clever fingers opening Arthur up, making him beg for it.

“I think I can manage that,” Eames promised, kissing Arthur even as he pushed into him, hot and hard and perfect.

*

Eames opens the hotel room door to Arthur steering a room service cart. He's wearing a burgundy staff jacket too large for his frame, and a glare that could freeze water at twenty paces. His gold name badge identifies him as “Emile.”

“Taken up moonlighting, Arthur? You'll get better tips if you show off those dimples, you know.”

Arthur kicks the door shut behind him and shoves the cart forward with vehemence. It crashes against Eames' not insubstantial thighs and bounces backwards like a bumper car colliding with a rubber boundary. Eames looks at the cart in confusion.

“Have I done something?”

Arthur's already stripping off the borrowed clothes and pulling on a suit jacket that has apparently been on the bottom level of the room service trolley. He removes his gun from the back of his trousers, and lays it on the table, making sure the safety's on.

“You could answer your goddamn phone.” Arthur stalks forward and sticks a hand in Eames' front pocket, but before Eames has even a moment to enjoy such a thing, Arthur has stolen his mobile and is attempting to power it on. “Or replace the fucking battery once in a while! Jesus, what have I told you?”

“Um, always use rechargeables?” Eames ventures, uncertain if that's what Arthur's looking for or not.

He doesn't particularly like Arthur like this, wound tighter than a noose, and he desperately wants to fix whatever wrong he's committed, however unknowingly. Eames reaches out and covers Arthur's hands with his own, the phone caught between them, and Arthur's hands are shaking, from anger or something else, Eames isn't sure.

“I'm sorry if I worried you.” Eames knows there's no “if” about it; he's known Arthur long enough to be able to read all his tells, and Arthur, who can cope with an army of projections or real life hitmen from the mob, only shakes when he's been genuinely worried about something that turns out to be a false alarm.

“It's a cel phone, Eames, not a fucking Cray supercomputer. It shouldn't be beyond you to pay attention to the blinking battery symbol and the goddamn beeping when it's running low.”

Eames may have ignored the blinking—half the things on his mobile blink at various times, so it really isn't a guarantee of capturing his attention—but he's certain he would've noticed beeping.

“It didn't beep.”

“What? Of course it did. That's what they do.”

Eames shakes his head. “It didn't. I'm positive.”

Arthur searches his face for a lie and finding none proceeds to tear the phone apart. Better the mobile than me, Eames thinks. He leaves Arthur gutting his phone like a trout, and checks out the stolen room service tray. There's a cheeseburger with a salad on one plate—obviously ordered by someone trying to convince themselves a healthy salad with diet dressing counteracts the greasy burger, and the other plate is piled high with the most disgusting heap of nacho chips, peppers, ground meat, and rubbery cheese Eames has ever seen. This is no doubt the reason Arthur snagged this particular tray.

Eames carefully carries the plates to the room's small table and sets up dinner for two. Arthur gets the coffee, and Eames takes the mineral water. He's just finished laying out napkins and cutlery when the mobile's frantic beeping startles them both.

“I would've noticed that!” Eames says. There's something vaguely familiar about the sharp sound, and Eames has a moment of deja vu. He's almost certain Arthur had been the one who disabled the damn battery alert in the first place, afraid it would someday give away their position at the worst possible moment.

“Well, we can't have it doing that if you're trying to hide from someone,” Arthur says, frowning, as if he knows he's said the exact same thing sometime before. He glares at the phone, pokes at a couple of wires, and thankfully the beeping stops.

“Come eat something,” Eames tempts. “There are absolutely disgusting nachos.”

Arthur looks up with something akin to a smile on his face. A few more seconds of sealing the case and working the tiny keyboard before he disappears into the bathroom—no doubt to wash his hands—and then he appears across from Eames with the swiftness of a ninja, a nacho chip already disappearing into his mouth.

“All better?” Eames is asking after Arthur, not the phone, but he's used to dealing with deflected feelings and indirect conversations. He knows when he's on Arthur's shit list and when he's been forgiven.

“It will send me a text when your battery's low,” Arthur notes, licking cheese off his fingers shamelessly. Forgiven, then. Eames doesn't bother trying not to stare. “Also, I've manipulated your GPS—”

“You mean my mobile's GPS, right?” Eames interrupts. “You haven't had me micro-chipped without my knowledge, have you?”

“No,” Arthur says with enough of a grin to make it unconvincing. Eames thinks it shouldn't be so appealing to know Arthur would tag him like a deer in a heartbeat if he thought he could get away with it. “Your phone's GPS now reads 1493 miles off your actual location. Anyone who tries to find you that way will be looking in the wrong place.”

“Except you.”

Arthur gives a shrug and snags more nachos. “I need to be able to find you when your battery runs low.”

“You may rev up my battery whenever you like, however you like, and as often as you like.” Eames lets it come out low and dirty, and Arthur grins back, dimples and bright eyes, no trace of the fear and worry that brought him here.

Arthur hums thoughtfully around a mouthful of nachos, sucking salsa off his index finger.

“Whatever would I do without you to keep me sorted, darling?”

Eames sincerely hopes he never has to find out. They've come close a few times, much too close for Eames' comfort, and thinking about it always makes him feel a sentimental fool. He catches Arthur's hand in his and kisses the back of it deftly, ignoring Arthur's questioning look.

“Well, for one thing, you'd work a lot less,” Arthur says, withdrawing his hand. “Fran wants us both for a job in Munich, but no one could get in touch with you.”

“Ah, so you selflessly volunteered to track me down.”

“I said you owed me money.” Arthur shrugs, grinning. “No one seemed to find that hard to believe.”

“Careful, darling. People might begin to think our adversarial relationship is something other than extended foreplay.”

Arthur laughs into his coffee, and talk slowly turns to the job on offer. More speculation than specifics at this point, but Eames trusts Arthur not to steer him wrong. He'll take the job.

It's very late when Arthur stretches his arms behind his back, yawns, and says he should be going.

“You should stay,” Eames says, without a trace of innuendo, surprising them both. It's not that they don't do this, but more often than not they're crashing into bed, high on success or desperate with failure. Gentle offers to stay the night usually mean broken bones and concussions, one of them keeping watch with a gun in hand.

Before Arthur can articulate the reservations that are written all over his face, Eames gets up and slips the chain onto the door. He grabs a pair of sweats out of his bag and tosses them to Arthur.

“We're both heading to the same job, same place. It's a long flight, and company will be nice. Just stay, Arthur.”

They get changed in the semi-dark of the room, taking turns in the bathroom, and when Eames is done, he kills the light, sliding into a king-sized bed that feels virtually empty. Arthur's tucked against the far edge, which might as well be in Siberia. Eames wasn't expecting anything more than sleep, but still—if he's going to be in bed with Arthur, he'd at least like to know he's there. He sighs.

“You're so predictable,” Arthur murmurs smugly, rolling to the centre of the bed and crowding into Eames' warmth. Eames' arms go around him without a thought, and he thinks he should be embarrassed how easily Arthur fits into his life, no matter how long they've been apart.

“And who's in whose bed?” Eames says, letting his eyes fall closed.

“Touché.”

Eames presses his lips gently against Arthur's forehead just as he feels Arthur's lips brush his throat, and then they're drifting into sleep. Warm, safe, together.

*

The last time they'd been together, there hadn't been any sex either. It seemed like the start of a worrisome precedent.

Eames opened the door to his flat, expecting the worst. Cobb had already called from L.A. with a heads-up that self-sacrificing, pig-headed Arthur had insisted on hopping a red-eye back to London in spite of a bad batch of Somnacin, a militarized mark, and a client who'd decided he didn't like the idea of witnesses.

“How bad?” Eames had asked, and Cobb, more honest than tactful, told him everything, which meant Eames had several hours to go from worried to good and fucking mad before he heard Arthur's heavy knock.

“You know, love,” Eames said, falsely cheerful, obstructing the open doorway with his body, “I'm beginning to think you only want me for my medical skills.”

“Not only for your med skills.” Arthur's leer fell flat as he winced with pain. He tried to duck under Eames' arm, but only succeeded in bashing his head into Eames' substantial bicep that was still blocking the way.

“Ow,” he said, withdrawing with a hand to his forehead. “I know Cobb already called and ratted me out, but why exactly are you being an ass about this? It's not like I planned to get hurt, Eames.”

Eames didn't have an answer which didn't make him look ridiculous and petty. Forcing himself to take a deep breath and remember that none of this was Arthur's fault, he stepped back and waved Arthur inside, grabbing his bags and following him in.

“Get your shirt off and let me tape your ribs properly,” Eames said. He dropped Arthur's bags in the bedroom, grabbing the medical kit from the bathroom on his way back. When he returned to the living room, Arthur was half out of his shirt, his face twisted in pain.

“Here, let me help.”

Arthur shot him a glare, but allowed Eames to untangle the shirt from his arms. Arthur's bruises were coming in dark and numerous. The tape around his ribs hid a lot of the damage, but Eames could already predict at least a couple of weeks of Arthur not being able to do anything more strenuous than read a book or watch telly.

“You know, Arthur, I've been reliably informed that they do have hospitals where you lot live.”

“It's a couple of cracked ribs. I didn't need a hospital.”

“You also didn't need an eleven hour flight,” Eames pointed out. “What in God's name were you thinking?”

Arthur's face was pinched and grey, conflicting emotions written in the lines of his mouth. “I—I wasn't thinking about anything! I just wanted—” Arthur abruptly cut himself off.

“You wanted what?” Eames urged.

“The job was fucked, Eames. I felt like hell.” Arthur looked miserable, and more vulnerable than Eames was used to seeing. He reached out and cupped Arthur's chin in his palm, kissed him gently on the mouth.

“I'd make it better if I could.”

“I know. And you do,” Arthur said, leaning forward for another kiss, and Eames was happy to oblige. His mouth was gentle on Arthur's, a lingering softness that offered comfort. “Eames, believe it or not, the only thing I was thinking was that I needed to be with you. Most of the time when I feel like crap, I end up here, and somehow, it's better.”

“Oh, darling.” Eames held Arthur's face then, kissing him again, deeply, with feeling, so there could be no doubt in Arthur's mind that this was alright. They didn't talk much about this thing they shared, but Eames thought the best things, the ones you were most certain of in your heart, shouldn't require speeches anyway.

“Arthur,” Eames said finally, pulling away only because Arthur's breathing was sounding disturbingly rough. He leaned him back against the cushions of the sofa, and gave him a fond smile. “Next time you're hurt and you want someone there, just call me.”

Arthur looked at him blankly, and Eames knew the long day, the pain, and the flight were all catching up with Arthur.

“There's no point damaging yourself further when I can get on a plane and come to you.” Eames could see the flash of surprise in Arthur's eyes, the moment he realized what Eames was saying.

Arthur laughed. “That would've made so much more sense.”

“Next time.”

“Next time,” Arthur agreed.

*

It's been months since Eames has had to stray further than Europe for work. After Munich, there's Paris, then Prague, and finally back to London where there's a fairly established dream-share community. Eames can't stand the lot of them and he's certain the feeling's mutual, but forgers aren't so numerous the London community can snub him entirely.

Arthur's working a job in London that Eames isn't part of, and which he desperately wishes Arthur weren't part of either. He doesn't trust Simon Hawthorne. Never has. But Arthur's always been his own man and whatever is between them isn't enough for Eames to tell Arthur who to work with.

“What did you do to Hawthorne, anyway?” Arthur asks, snagging a beer from Eames' refrigerator.

“I don't recall exactly, but I'm sure he had it coming.”

“Hm.” Arthur hums around the lip of the bottle. “He says you broke his nose, stole his car, and shagged his girlfriend, although not necessarily in that order.”

Eames scowls at Arthur's smile. “If you already knew, why are you asking?

“I'm bored.” Eames throws a cushion at his head.

If Arthur were ever in trouble (a rare thing at best) and were he to need assistance (also unlikely as far as the dream community's concerned), it's widely assumed he would reach out to Cobb, his friend and mentor, or Ariadne, his friend and go-to architect, or even Yusuf, the chemist he prefers, although Arthur doesn't entirely trust him. Most people wouldn't peg Arthur and Eames as friends; reluctant colleagues perhaps, necessary evils, the means to an end.

Simon Hawthorne isn't most people.

The flat's empty when Eames returns from a weekend hop-skip to Paris to do some recon for a future forge. He hadn't expected Arthur to be waiting at the door or anything—he's been spending more time at his hotel room than Eames' flat as the job has progressed—but there's no sign Arthur's even been by. No phone calls, no text messages. Nothing. When he tries Arthur's number it goes straight to voice mail, and after he leaves three messages he gives in and calls Cobb. He hasn't heard from Arthur in the last three days either.

Eames grabs his car keys and heads for the building's small garage space that he rents to house his pride-and-joy Lotus. The harsh overhead light shows him nothing but the rigid skeleton of his car set up on blocks, its engine, tires, all its best bits cannibalized by thieves. Eames feels sick in the same way he would be if someone had slashed the Mona Lisa, or torn a Da Vinci from its original frame.

Then Eames sees something that makes the bottom drop out of his stomach. In garish yellow paint on the wall of the garage it says,

Stole your car
Broke your nose
Shagged your boyfriend

Eames unconsciously reaches for his undamaged nose, hears the footfall behind him a second too late, and he's already turning when he's grabbed and an iron-knuckled fist takes him down. He feels the pain in the centre of his face, spreading out like a shockwave from the point of impact. Before he can get eyes on his attackers, the world's gone soft at the edges, and he knows he'll pass out if he tries to stand. Someone's laughing at him—Hawthorne, he's sure—but the man's far enough away to be out of reach, and Eames is trying to stifle the bleeding and regain his equilibrium.

“Two things done. One to go. Saving the best for last, I'm sure you'd agree. Your darling.”

“I'll kill you, Hawthorne,” Eames shouts and lurches forward, but dizziness arrests his step. He sinks to the floor. He's never thought of Arthur as his “boyfriend” before now, but there's no way Simon's talking about anyone else. There hasn't been anyone except Arthur for a long time, and that's something Eames might need to think about later. “You lay a hand on him, I swear to God I'll kill you.”

Eames gets one knee under him, but he's not steady enough to even think about stopping Hawthorne and his thugs from leaving—a guy like that doesn't have guts to take Eames on alone, of course. Simon was always pretty much a coward. A fair fight isn't his style.

Eames gets his breathing under control, blinks away the haziness, and forces himself to think rationally. Arthur's perfectly capable of taking care of himself. But no one's heard from Arthur since Eames has been out of town, and it's hard not to consider the worst case scenario. It's fifteen minutes to get a cab to Eames' flat, but it gives him enough time to clean the blood from his face, tape his nose, and down a half-dozen painkillers. He tucks his loaded Browning in the back of his trousers and spends the commute to Arthur's hotel considering and rejecting potential plans. When they reach the hotel, Eames tosses a wad of cash at the driver, and takes the stairs to Arthur's floor two at a time.

The hall is empty when Eames arrives, and it requires every ounce of self-control not to simply kick Arthur's door in. Hawthorne could've taken him elsewhere, Eames knows. Three days is a long time to be at someone's mercy, and Eames is seeing red just thinking about Simon casually touching Arthur, let alone forcing the issue.

Eames uses his master key card to beat the scanner on the door, and eases it open slowly, doing his best to block the light from the hallway with his frame. The room is completely dark.

“Stop.”

The cold tip of a metal barrel presses against Eames' temple, but rather than fear, a sense of giddy relief rushes through him.

“Arthur, Jesus, thank God.”

A second later, Eames is blinded in the beam of a torch as Arthur shines it in his face, then a lamp goes on and Eames blinks in the rapidly changing light. Arthur's standing a few feet away, bare-chested and wearing a thin pair of pyjama pants, his Glock lowered at his side. He looks like he just woke up.

“What the hell, Eames?” Arthur scowls at him tiredly, and Eames doesn't hesitate to close the space between them, wrapping his arms around Arthur. They're not typically huggers, and Arthur stiffens at the unfamiliar gesture, but he adjusts quickly, one arm coming up to circle Eames' back, and his voice is full of concern.

“Hey, what's wrong? You look—” Arthur pulls back and seems to register the taped swollen nose, the relief Eames doesn't bother to hide. “You look like hell. Did you break your nose? I thought Paris was just recon! What went wrong?”

Eames can't help the sputter of laughter that spills out, and he hugs Arthur tighter, which Arthur allows, most likely because he thinks Eames has had some sort of head trauma and isn't quite in his right mind. Eames is fine with that. He's never been so happy to realize someone was bluffing to make him suffer.

“Eames, come on, talk to me,” Arthur says, manhandling Eames towards the bed. Guns and flashlights and key cards get discarded on the bedside table, and Arthur locks the door and wedges a chair in front of it when Eames gives it a suspicious glance. “We're safe here. What's going on?”

He tells Arthur everything lying beside him on the bed, and he doesn't let go of him the entire time. Eames' heart is still beating fast, and he's aware the words are a little breathless and his accent's stronger than usual, but Arthur listens without interrupting. He rubs a soothing hand down Eames' arm, and when Eames runs out of words, Arthur fills in the gaps.

“My phone disappeared a couple of days ago, which was probably Simon. I've been busy enough, I didn't have a chance to grab a new phone yet, and we wrapped the job this afternoon. No complications at all. Money's been transferred already, and people have scattered.”

“Simon?”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “He's a smug ass, but that's pretty much par for the course for extractors and forgers.”

Eames is too focused on what might have been to rise to the bait. “And Simon didn't say anything to you, didn't try anything?”

“Eames, I'm pretty sure I can tell when someone's hitting on me, and no, as far as I know he's straight as an arrow. If anything, I got the impression he'd be happier if he didn't have to deal with me at all.” Arthur stares at Eames' broken nose, the distinctive bruises left behind by someone with rings. “Simon's a coward. He couldn't take you out on his own, and you know he's not sticking around London to see how pissed off you are. He wanted you scared, Eames. That's all.”

“Yeah, well, he succeeded,” Eames admits, letting his head fall back against the pillows, his grip on Arthur finally relaxing a little.

Arthur smiles down at him. “I'm going to overlook the fact you tried to ride to my rescue because you've had a rough night. And because it's kind of sweet in a completely misguided way.”

Eames closes his eyes and lets out a shaky breath. “I would've killed him. If he'd touched you, if he'd hurt you in any way.”

“Hey, hey, I'm fine,” Arthur says, and Eames feels Arthur's warm breath against his lips a second before Arthur kisses him. “I can take care of myself, Eames. I'm not the one with the broken nose and the dismembered sports car.” Another soft kiss. “I'm sorry about the car, by the way. I know how you feel about it.”

“I care bugger all about the car, Arthur.” Eames opens his eyes, not caring that all the things they don't talk about are right on the tip of his tongue. He'll never forget that surge of panic when he realized Simon might hurt Arthur. “It's you I was worried about.” Eames touches Arthur's cheek reverently. “It's always been you, daft and difficult as you are.”

Arthur shushes him then, seals their mouths together in a careful kiss that lasts only as long as Eames doesn't have to breathe. Fuck, he hates having a broken nose. It's not the first time, but that doesn't make it any better.

“You know that, right?” Eames asks, searching Arthur's face for confirmation. “I know I've never said it, but—”

“I know, Eames. You've never had to say it. I know.” Arthur peppers Eames' face with small kisses, lets himself be gathered close and held. “Me too,” he whispers against Eames' mouth, and Eames eventually falls asleep, exhausted and numb with pain. When morning comes, he's still clinging to Arthur in an embarrassing way, and Eames might feel bad about it if Hawthorne hadn't made him realize how desperately he wants Arthur to be safe and happy.

It's a revelation of sorts, although Eames strongly suspects it shouldn't be after the things they've been through together.

*

If anyone had asked, Eames couldn't have said when exactly he'd given Arthur a key to his flat. It was more a practicality than a romantic gesture, and it wasn't as if he was asking Arthur to move in or anything ridiculous like that.

But Arthur was in London working often enough it made sense for him to have his own key in case Eames was away. They did try to plan their jobs so that didn't happen often, but still ... Arthur being able to access the flat was simply a sensible idea.

They were friends, after all. Even if not many people knew it. And because they were friends and Arthur travelled so frequently, it was considerably easier to leave a few things at Eames' place for future visits: a couple of changes of clothes, weapons and ammo, a set of toiletries, a couple of books he was planning to read, his favourite tie. Just the essentials.

Eames reckoned it was a good business arrangement, but it didn't mean he was entirely used to coming home and finding someone there.

He opened the door to the flat and almost dropped his sack of groceries when he realized there was a man lying on his sofa. Eames only stopped himself from reaching for his gun (and letting the eggs crash to the floor) because he recognized the figure.

“Jesus Christ, Arthur!” Eames said, bundling the food into the kitchen. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

There was no answer, and even if Arthur was asleep, he should've awoken when Eames walked in.

“Arthur,” Eames called, popping his head around the corner. Arthur was motionless, and Eames felt a prickle of fear raise the hairs on the back of his neck. “Arthur?”

Eames slid to his knees beside the sofa, giving the prone figure a shake, but Arthur didn't respond. Eames turned him, felt for a pulse—weak and far too fast—and realized Arthur was burning up. His shirt was soaked through with sweat, hair plastered to his forehead. Eames didn't hesitate, didn't stop to think, just hoisted Arthur up and ran with him to the tub, turning the water to cool and praying it worked. He laid him in the filling bath and pulled his shirt open. Arthur's heartbeat was racing out of control under Eames' ear, and Eames tapped his cheek hoping to bring him around.

“Arthur, dammit, wake up.”

No response, even when Eames slapped him harder, and it tore something inside him to see Arthur so passive. Even when he was asleep, there was nothing harmless about Arthur, who could go from fast asleep to combat ready in the time it took most people to open their eyes.

Eames found the bullet wound when he got to Arthur's trousers, cutting them off rather than trying to manhandle Arthur out of them. The slacks were ruined regardless. The hole in Arthur's leg was dark and bloody, clearly ground zero for whatever infection was racing through his body. Eames thought the bullet was out, but he couldn't be sure and he couldn't take Arthur to hospital without a hundred questions he couldn't answer.

Eames turned off the water, but kept bathing Arthur's face even as he dug out his mobile. His breathing was shallow, and Eames kissed his forehead while he listened to the distant sound of ringing.

“Come on, Arthur, hang in there. I'm getting help, darling, just please—”

“Hello?”

“Yusuf? Thank Christ you're in London.” Eames was flooded with relief. “I've got an emergency.”

“How many times have I told you a hangover is not an emergency, my friend?” Yusuf's tone was light, and Eames realized he probably sounded the way he always sounded in a crisis: casual, easy-going, a little bit insouciant, which was about as far removed as you could get from how he actually felt.

“No, Yusuf, fuck, it's Arthur. He's been shot,” Eames said, his voice breaking on Arthur's name as he realized he might lose him this time. “It's Arthur, and I need some fucking help here!”

“I'll be right there,” Yusuf said, and the line went dead. Eames tossed the phone aside and tried rousing Arthur again with tiny slaps to the cheek.

“Arthur, darling, please open your eyes. Talk to me. Scowl at me. Tell me my shirt and tie don't match. Tell me I'm a fucking idiot because I haven't told you—I haven't told you anything, and you have a bloody key to my flat and you can't die, Arthur. You can't.”

Eames knew a losing hand when it was dealt, and in Arthur's weakening breaths and the heavily stained towel wrapped around his leg, Eames could see the writing on the wall. It wasn't something that made him proud, but he was an infinitely practical man, and he hadn't survived so far by sticking his neck out for everyone who asked for help. His gambler's instinct was telling him it was a done deal. Time to cut his losses and get out. If Arthur lost much more blood, nothing short of a miracle was going to help him anyway.

And Eames knew if it had been anyone else, he'd have cut and run by now. He could've dropped him at the nearest emergency ward, keeping his face turned from the CCTV feeds, or he could've started making arrangements for the inevitable; contrary to popular belief, it wasn't that easy to get rid of a body in London, particularly if you half-way respected the person and didn't fancy polluting the Thames any further. Eames had people he could call for such things.

But he'd called Yusuf because he was the nearest doctor Eames knew and the only one who might have an inkling what Arthur meant to him. It was a last-ditch effort, a Hail Mary, an all-in bet on the final hand. It was Arthur.

Eames couldn't have done otherwise.

*

Arthur can't sleep. Maybe it's because he's in Eames' flat and Eames isn't there. As much time as Arthur has spent there over the years, it still doesn't feel natural to be there without Eames, who's stuck in Finland because of ice crystals in the air. Arthur's hoping it only means a short delay rather than having to reschedule the flight. He wants to see Eames. It's been too long.

He tries reading, but his eyes are too tired for contacts, and his glasses are old. He needs to get his eyes checked and get a new prescription next time he's back in the States. It's evening in California, and Arthur knows he could probably phone Dom, but it seems kind of pathetic when he thinks about it. Eames will be back in a matter of hours. Even if Dom isn't the most perceptive guy in the world, he has been known to put two and two together on occasion, and Arthur phoning from Eames' flat to kill time until Eames gets home is not that difficult an equation.

Finally Arthur gives up trying to occupy himself and grabs the old, worn-out afghan Eames always keeps in the living room and drags it over himself. The couch is comfortable enough--sofa, a voice chimes in his head—and Arthur doesn't think he can face going back to bed alone. Eames will likely be home in the morning if the weather clears, and there's really no point both of them being exhausted and on edge. Arthur knows Eames is always tense when his flight plans change at the last minute, and Eames had already delayed coming home once because of the job. Besides, they have at least a week before work pulls them apart again, and Arthur starts mentally running through the things he needs to put together for the next job. Somewhere between wondering what an appropriate bribe for an opium den proprietor is and thinking how fucking amazing it's going to be to have Eames back where he belongs, Arthur drops off to sleep.

He's woken by a slap to his cheek—a hard slap that fucking stings—and Arthur has hold of someone's wrist and is bending it back before he registers someone's talking to him.

“Arthur. Arthur, Jesus, fuck, you scared me—Arthur, ow, ow, fuck, it's me. Arthur!”

“Eames?”

Arthur lets go of Eames' wrist and rolls onto his back, kicking the afghan away from where it's caught his feet. The living room is filled with a kind of pale grey light, a rainy morning in London, and Arthur's about to lean forward and pull Eames into a welcome home kiss when he realizes Eames has slid to his knees beside the couch, his trench coat and hair both dripping wet. He looks as if he's seen a ghost.

“Are you okay?” Arthur asks, sitting up suddenly, only to have Eames shake his head and slump, back to the couch, hands going to his face.

“Eames, what? What the fuck?” Arthur puts a hand on his shoulder. “You're shaking. What the fuck's the matter?”

“Make me a cuppa, will you?” Eames' voice comes from somewhere around his bended knees, and he sounds shaken.

“Eames—”

“Please, Arthur?”

Arthur has no idea what's wrong, but he also knows there's no point in pushing. Not if he actually wants an answer out of Eames.

“Yeah, okay.” Arthur pads into the kitchen, filling the kettle with cold water and lighting the burner on the stove. While he waits for the water to boil, he turns on the coffee maker for himself. He doesn't think Earl Grey is going to cut it this morning if Eames' behaviour is anything to go by.

When Arthur returns to the living room with a mug for each of them, Eames is still sitting with his back to the sofa, head pillowed on his folded arms, which are resting on his bent knees. Arthur sighs and lowers himself to the floor beside Eames, ignoring the little puddle of rain that's gathered on the throw rug.

“You want to tell me what's going on?” Arthur asks quietly, gripping his coffee mug a little too tightly. Eames' tea sits steaming on the coffee table.

“Not really.”

Eames sounds faintly hysterical, and Arthur has to work at not tossing his cup aside, grabbing Eames' face in his hands, and ordering him to fucking talk already. They have rules about these sorts of things. They can keep secrets if they need to, although over the years the need for secrets has grown less and less, and Arthur can't exactly shine a light in Eames' face and interrogate him, no matter how much he might want to. By far the most important rule—silently agreed upon and universally respected—has always been “no sentimental nonsense” If they have to work out their feelings, more often than not they'll end up sparring at the gym, followed by a round of aggressive sex. Maybe it's not standard couples' therapy—not that Arthur necessarily thinks of them as a “couple” in the conventional sense—but it's worked well enough for the two of them.

“Eames, come on,” Arthur tries again. It's his job to identify problems and solve them, and one thing he hates is not knowing what the hell's going on, especially with Eames. “Will you please talk to me?”

“It's stupid.”

“Yeah, I figured as much.” Arthur takes a sip of his coffee to hide his relief. Stupid he can deal with. “So, what? You forgot I was going to be here? Like that Youtube vid of the adult panda freaking out when the little panda moves?”

Eames lifts his head enough to give Arthur an incredulous look. It's not a smile, but it's a start. “You realize you're the baby panda in that scenario, right?”

“I'm making an analogy, asshole. You're not helping.”

“Sorry. Carry on.”

“Eames, come on. Something upset you when you got here. The only thing that's not usually here is me.”

“Don't be ridiculous. You're here almost as much as I am.”

It's true, but the more Arthur thinks about it, the more he knows this has something to do with him. Whatever's going on has spooked Eames badly enough that he's not laughing it off, not just pretending he's alright when he's not. It's progress, Arthur thinks, but he wants to tread carefully regardless. He knows Eames, and when his equilibrium's upset, he tends to run. Arthur doesn't want to lose him.

“Let me guess, you're jealous of how much quality time I've been spending with your couch?”

“Something like that, and it's sofa, darling,” Eames says automatically, and it's the first sign of normalcy. Arthur's willing to take it. Eames manages a laugh, and finally raises his head. Arthur gives him what he hopes is an encouraging smile, and waits.

“Do you remember that time you got shot in the leg?” Eames asks, voice subdued.

“Not really. Not very well, anyway.”

Arthur doesn't remember much between getting to Eames' apartment and waking up three days later in Eames' bed with a make-shift I.V. in his arm, Eames and Yusuf watching over him. “Bits and pieces mainly. I was pretty out of it with the fever.”

“Yeah.” Eames reaches for his tea and swallows a mouthful, seeming not to notice how hot it is. “I remember it. Too well, I guess. I thought you were—I mean, you weren't ... obviously, but—”

“But it was close.” Probably the closest Arthur's ever come to dying, if he's honest. It's a sobering thought.

Arthur has pieces of memory from those three days, hazy snapshots of Eames holding him, talking to him, wiping him down with cold cloths. They never talked about it afterwards, and Arthur had figured there wasn't much to say beyond “thanks for saving my life.” Obviously, he'd been wrong.

He tries to imagine how he would've felt in the same situation, that familiar bolt of panic when Eames isn't where he's supposed to be, when he's out of contact unexpectedly. Suddenly everything makes a lot more sense.

“I remember I'd never been so grateful to see your cou—sofa. I crawled onto it and I must've passed out because everything's a little hazy after that.”

Arthur watches Eames' face carefully. He looks a bit like someone in shock. Surprised. Like someone who's been confronted with an unexpected truth. Arthur was military and he's been in dream-share a long time; he knows the power of flashbacks.

“Eames, did you think—when you came in and saw me on the couch today, did you think—?”

Eames nods, not raising his eyes. “It's stupid. I know it's stupid, I knew you were fine! You were snoring, for fuck's sake, and nobody snores when they're dying, but for a minute—Jesus, Arthur, for a minute I think my goddamn heart stopped.”

Arthur puts his mug down and takes Eames' away. He pushes Eames' knees down and straddles his broad thighs, unbuttoning the damp black trench until he can slip it from Eames' shoulders. Then he cups Eames' jaw in both hands, the familiar prickle of two-day-old stubble against his chin as he leans in to kiss him. Eames is hesitant, but only for a moment, and then his arms are a vice around Arthur's waist, lips cold and a little desperate when he kisses him back.

“I'm fine,” Arthur murmurs against Eames' mouth. “That was years ago, Eames. I'm a hell of a lot more careful now. We both are. No gunshot wounds in reality since 2008, right?”

“Right,” Eames says, his hands automatically flattening out on Arthur's back and pulling him in, chest to chest. “I know. I don't know why I—I panicked. Fucking flight delays, and knowing you were here waiting. Fuck, I missed you, Arthur.”

Eames buries his face in Arthur's neck and Arthur can feel the heat of Eames' cheek against his skin. It's sweet and a little humbling to know the thought of him being hurt could send Eames into a panic attack. He's seen Eames face down the Russian mob with nothing more than a pack of cards and a bottle of vodka. There's very little that flusters Eames on the job or off, and yet ...

“Can we please not talk about this ever again?” Eames mumbles into Arthur's skin, and Arthur decides to take pity on him.

“Sure,” he lies, sliding off Eames' lap and pulling him to his feet. He doesn't let Eames step away, snagging Eames' wrist lightly between his thumb and index finger. “Bed? I know it's dawn, but you look like you could use some sleep.”

“Sleep wasn't originally what I'd planned for,” Eames looks sheepish as Arthur tugs him towards the bedroom.

“But after a long job, multiple delays and a three hour flight, I'm willing to bet sleep looks better than I do.”

“That's a filthy lie,” Eames says, but the last word is lost in a yawn, and Arthur's got Eames' shirt unbuttoned and off before he's even noticed. “I'll ravish you in a minute.”

“Sleep, Eames,” Arthur murmurs, pushing Eames backwards onto the bed. Eames kicks off his trousers and burrows under the covers. He reaches out a hand.

“Join me, darling?”

Arthur doesn't hesitate, sliding in beside Eames the same as he's done a thousand times before. Every time it feels like coming home, and Arthur doesn't care Eames is already half-asleep when he kisses him.

“For the record?” Arthur whispers, closing his eyes. “I missed you too.”

Maybe they don't talk about what's between them enough—or, ever—but at least Arthur's certain all the feelings they like to deny having for one another are reciprocated in full.

*

They've made a habit of this: shared beds and lives, the casual stroll through each other's dreams, patching wounds and soothing fears that ripple under the surface waiting to strike. They know they hold the keys to each other's homes; they don't always remember they also hold the keys to far more important things. Secrets. Hearts. What started out as uneasy trust has grown through long habit into something unexpected and sacred in its own way.

Something worth protecting.

*

Epilogue

 

It's years after inception, but the group who pulled it off has managed to wander in and out of each other's lives at fairly regular intervals. Tonight they're at a pub in London. From their table in the corner, Ariadne, Yusuf, and Dom are watching Arthur and Eames alternately flirt with and annoy the hell out of the bartender who's trying to take their drink order.

“Those two have some serious history, don't they?” Ariadne asks.

“You have no idea,” Dom says with a laugh.

“Oh?” Ariadne's never been one to turn down good gossip. “What's that supposed to mean?”

Yusuf and Dom exchange a look, and Ariadne glares at them. She knows when she's being kept out of the loop, and it still gets her hackles up. Some days it feels as if she's right back where she started—young and naive and entirely too wide-eyed for this group of men. She's almost thirty and they still confuse her sometimes: Arthur with his strange blend of intimacy and formality, and Eames, who some days she thinks she knows best of any of them, and other days she realizes she doesn't know at all.

They slide back into the booth with five pints between them, and Ariadne lets herself be squeezed into the middle of the rounded bench between Yusuf and Arthur. She snags a pint.

“Don't take it personally, Eames,” Arthur is saying, his expression oddly serious. “Obviously you weren't his type.”

Eames pulls a face. “Obviously you were, although quite frankly, darling, he's a little young even for you. You'd do so much better with a man of some maturity. Someone who presents a more intellectual challenge and can stimulate your mind.”

Arthur practically chokes on his drink, and Ariadne finds herself patting him on the back and offering him a napkin.

“I'm fine,” he says, getting his breath back. “Eames shouldn't say stupid things when I'm drinking.”

“Well, where's the fun in that?” Eames winks at Ariadne and sips his beer. “Half the entertainment value of an evening out with Arthur is causing him to spit-take on the Dior.”

There are some close calls as the evening wears on, but Arthur's grey suit survives unsullied. Ariadne's feeling warm and a bit tipsy, surrounded by people she doesn't have to lie to about her life. A flicker of light keeps catching her eye, distracting her, and it takes her a minute to discover it's a reflection off Eames' ring.

“What the hell?” she says, launching herself partway across the table and grabbing his hand. Eames is wearing what looks like a titanium band, simple and tasteful, on his left ring finger.

Eames gives her his best look of surprise. “Now where did that come from?”

Ariadne doesn't let go of his hand. She knows how this works. If she lets go, the ring will somehow disappear, and the others will claim it was never there in the first place. She's seen Eames' magical vanishing poker chip enough times to know she can't afford to take her eyes off that ring if she wants an explanation.

“Are you fucking married?” Ariadne asks, incredulous.

Eames casts his eyes down, almost sheepish. It might be endearing if it wasn't so blatantly fake. “I admit it. I cannot tell a lie.”

“You lie all the damn time,” Yusuf points out. “You once lied to your own mother about—”

“Hey, none of that!” Eames cuts him off with a look. “I wouldn't want to lose Ariadne's respect.”

“Don't worry,” she says, still not taking her eyes off the ring. “I never respected you anyway.”

Arthur manages to swallow before he starts to laugh. “She's got your number,” he says to Eames' mock-hurt expression.

“Seriously,” Ariadne says, waving Eames' hand about so that beams from the overhead lights catch the shine of the ring. “Did you know about this?” She means to be asking all of them, but she can't help looking at Arthur.

Arthur nods gravely. “I did.”

“And?” Ariadne genuinely wants to know. She's always figured he and Eames must've at least had a fling at some point the way they're always pushing each other's buttons.

Arthur shrugs. “And what? People get married all the time. It's not a big deal.”

Eames uses his free hand to raise his pint glass to Arthur before taking a sip. “Too right, darling.”

Ariadne shakes her head, glancing between the pair of them. “Doesn't it bother your wife, husband, significant whatever—” Ariadne freely admits she has no idea what kind of person Eames might end up marrying, or even which gender he prefers. “—that you still call Arthur 'darling'?”

“Occasionally,” Eames admits.

“Hardly at all any more,” Arthur adds. The smile he gives Eames is small and significant, and Ariadne suddenly realizes while Eames' ring has been keeping her distracted, she's completely failed to notice Arthur's now wearing an identical ring.

“You assholes!” she says, loudly enough that conversation stops at the next table. “I can't believe you—this is how you tell someone you got married? To each other?”

Eames slips a casual arm around the back of the bench, grazing Arthur's shoulders. “I was all for telling you outright, but Arthur insisted—”

“Don't listen to him.”

“—this would be much funnier,” Eames finishes. “Which it is. Immensely.”

Ariadne steals the last of Yusuf's pint and kicks Dom under the table. “And you two! You knew and didn't even give me a hint.”

Yusuf smiles benignly. “Observation is an essential skill in building a convincing dream.”

“Dom didn't figure it out for months,” Eames stage-whispers to Ariadne.

“Months? How long have you—”

Arthur has the good grace to look guilty. “Not that long?”

“Years and years,” Eames says with a wink.

“In my defense,” Dom says into his pint, “you two didn't act any different than you always have.”

“Habit,” Eames and Arthur say at the same time, and Ariadne shakes her head.

“You two are ridiculous.”

Yusuf looks at the two men grinning at one another. “I don't think that's quite the insult you meant it to be, Ariadne.”

“Seriously, when did you—how did this happen?”

“Habit,” Eames says again. “He kept popping round my flat, usually injured, and well, rent's not cheap and neither are medical supplies. Seemed only fitting he should toss in a share.”

“It was easier than living out of a hotel room,” Arthur concedes. “And Eames makes a fabulous stir-fry.”

Ariadne's a second away from throttling the two of them with her petite bare hands. “You did not get together because it was habit, or because the rent was too high, or because Eames can cook.”

“No, you're right,” Arthur allows. “There are also decent tax benefits to be had now.”

Ariadne can't believe the two of them. “That's—”

“Ridiculous?” the four of them offer in unison.

“Argh!”

But Eames leaves off smirking at Ariadne to gaze into Arthur's eyes, his cheeks ruddy in the warm bar. “Not every relationship, Ariadne, can be some kind of epic love story.”

“Sometimes you just keep ending up with someone because they're always there,” Arthur offers, but his voice has dropped and his mouth seems to have formed a perpetual half-amused smile.

Eames' hand has found its way to the back of Arthur's neck. It settles there as if it belongs, as if that's where it's always belonged. “Sometimes you ogle someone's arse trying to catch a glimpse of a tattoo and he walks into your life six months later offering you everything you never knew you wanted.”

“And sometimes you keep showing up at someone's door hoping they'll ask you to stay.”

“Stay,” Eames whispers, and Arthur's eyes are wide open and indulgent when he presses a chaste kiss to Eames' mouth.

“What's in it for me?” Arthur asks.

Eames just laughs and leans close enough to whisper in Arthur's ear. Ariadne didn't think it was possible for Arthur to blush, but there's definitely colour rising in his cheeks. He clears his throat and takes a drink when Eames pulls back with a lascivious wink.

“I think I'm going to hurl,” Ariadne says, and the other four turn to look at her in alarm, Dom already sliding off the seat to let her and Yusuf out.

“Jesus, not literally,” she says, letting her head hit the back of the seat. “Just—” She waves a hand in Arthur and Eames' direction. “from the level of sap these two are generating.”

“It's part of our distinctive charm,” Eames says. He slips out of the booth, Arthur following on his heels. “Don't tell, though. It's a secret.”

“You don't have to leave,” Ariadne complains. “Even if you're ridiculous, old secret married folk now. I'll forgive you for it. Some day.”

Eames hesitates and Arthur practically ploughs into him. “I suppose we could stay a little longer—”

“No, we couldn't,” Arthur says, and there's an honest-to-God blush on his cheeks now, and he's pushing at Eames' back with both hands.

“Oh, God, just go!” Ariadne says, horrified. She doesn't actually want to think about what could possibly make Arthur's cheeks flush like that, and she shakes her head as Arthur basically shoves Eames out the door.

Dom and Yusuf are smirking, and Ariadne bursts out laughing. She should've realized Arthur and Eames will always be able to surprise her.

“Why do they insist on keeping it a secret?” Ariadne asks, sucking the foam off a fresh pint. “They've been together for, what—years?”

“It's hard to know for sure. They've pretty much always been like that as long as I've known them,” Dom says, “and they knew each other before I met them. Of course, mostly they flirt and antagonize each other. People tend not to know how to take their particular brand of interaction.”

“But why act like it doesn't mean anything?”

Yusuf shrugs. Something in his face is wistful, and Ariadne wonders if she'll always feel like an impressionable young girl under Yusuf's world-worn eyes.

“Because it means everything,” he says cryptically. When Ariadne glares at him, he continues. “Because it's a dangerous world and to show you care about something is a danger in and of itself. To care, Ariadne, is to put the thing you care about in danger.”

“You're saying someone would use it to hurt them?” She knows it's true, even if she wishes it were otherwise.

“The things we love make us blind,” Dom agrees. Mal's shade was laid to rest years ago, but the loss is still there in Dom's eyes. “Arthur and Eames are just better at disguising that fact. Secret means safe.”

“But we break into people's safes and steal their secrets,” Ariadne says almost reluctantly.

“Yes,” Yusuf agrees. “But thieves are often much better at hiding what they value lest someone else come along and spirit it away. I wouldn't worry about those two.”

Ariadne sips at her drink thoughtfully.

*

Arthur slides down into the nest of sheets, sweaty and sated. Eames is partially draped across his back like a living blanket, and every once in a while he manages to press a wet kiss to the back of Arthur's neck, the blade of his shoulder.

“That went well, yeah?” Eames says. He sounds tired, but happy.

Arthur rolls out from underneath him and fixes him with a questioning look. “It went well? I don't believe I'm saying this, but don't be modest, Eames. Two orgasms and—”

The grin on Eames' face is breathtaking. “That's not what I meant, but thank you, darling. Always good to hear you're not growing bored with me.”

“As if,” Arthur snorts, then immediately sobers up. “But, yeah, I thought Ariadne took it well considering. I thought she would've figured it out by now, but ...”

Eames tucks in close along Arthur's side, fingers stroking lazily over his ribs. “It means what we're doing is working. If people who know us reasonably well don't suspect, then everyone else should be completely in the dark about us. Dream-share can continue to speculate: 'will they or won't they?'”

“Rumour has it it's fifty-fifty whether we'll sleep together or kill each other first.”

Arthur catches Eames' hand—the one with the ring—and brings it to his lips.

“The rings'll have to go back into the safety deposit box,” Eames reminds Arthur. It's also a reminder of all the things they keep to themselves.

“Do you ever regret it? Not being able to tell people?” Arthur doesn't, but he's curious. Eames has always been a more sociable creature, more apt to make friends than Arthur.

Eames props himself up on one elbow so he can see Arthur's face. “The only person I need to tell how I feel is you.”

Arthur absorbs the significance of that, drawing Eames close enough to brush a thumb lightly over Eames' lips. “You don't need to tell me.”

"Maybe I do." Eames catches the tip of Arthur's thumb playfully between his teeth, soothes the spot with a flick of the tongue, then lays a kiss on the palm of Arthur's hand. "Maybe I want to.”

Arthur feels a shiver of anticipation as Eames places slow deliberate kisses all the way up Arthur's arm, finally settling near his ear. He hears Eames whisper words he's always known are true, even if neither of them has said them. Hearing them doesn't change anything, but Arthur finds himself smiling anyway.

He's only a little surprised when he finds himself laying the same words softly at the entrance to Eames' mouth in a whisper that turns into a kiss. This is their secret, and keeping it safe has been the work of more years than Arthur can count, but it's worth it. Some things are simply too precious to risk.

They settle into sleep, curled next to each other in bed, always near enough to reach out and touch. As is their habit.

 

THE END