“I don’t think I want to go back, Marty.”
Eames doesn’t quite comprehend the meaning or truth in his own words until they’re already out of his mouth, and even after they’ve been spoken, even after Eames draws a slow breath that he can hear echoing in every little cavity in his head, they just hang in the air between them for a long moment.
One of Marty’s eyebrows creeps up a bit, her black eyes going wide. She purses her lips around her straw, taking a long sip of her Diet Coke, the whole effect coming off as almost a parody of surprise. She doesn’t say anything right away. That’s one of the things Eames likes about Marty: she thinks before speaking, and very often instead of speaking. It’s a quality Eames doesn’t possess himself, but admires greatly in others.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” she says at last, sitting up straighter. Her black hair, fluffy in its pixie cut from being out in the water all day, has a sort of red luminance in the light of the setting sun behind her, and she smiles. When she does, it shows all of the little age lines Eames doesn’t remember being there the last time they saw each other in person, and he realizes how long it’s actually been. He feels, just then, the weight of all the choices he’s made: of the places he’s chosen to go in his life, and the ones he’s chosen not to. The people he’s spent his time with, and the ones that he hasn’t.
“If you’re really serious,” she adds.
“I think I am,” Eames says quietly.
“Wooooow,” Marty says, and Eames kicks her under the table, and she laughs.
He says, “I mean it. I’m sitting at the seaside on a tropical island. It’s twenty-five degrees and I’m having drinks with one of my oldest friends, whom I don’t see nearly enough of. And why am I even here?”
“Because your latent anti-capitalist sentiments and deep-seated sense of helplessness in the face of an unjust universe have been channeled into anti-establishment activities, associating with the wrong sort of people, and pitting the world’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens against one another for your own financial gain.”
“Ahh,” Eames says, because he doesn’t know what else to say.
“Which in a more immediate sense, of course, has resulted in you, here, hiding from a Russian aerospace conglomerate who killed your – and I quote – ‘boneheaded jackass extractor’ and are very, very angry with you for stealing from them.”
“Ah,” Eames says again, but this time he adds, “yes. That’s why. And I’m sitting here thinking, maybe, you know… it would be nice not to have to be somewhere because of that kind of thing. Maybe to just be places because I want to be there.”
Eames is spooked. Eames is spooked and feeling very, very mortal and not at all infallible like people tend to think he assumes he is. But Marty is kind enough not to point out just how shaken Eames is, even though she’s chosen to point out everything else about Eames’s entire psychological profile. She just smiles, and she reaches out and puts her hand over his, and she says, “Well, if you don’t want to go back, stay here. High season is ending and a bunch of my guides are taking off for summer work elsewhere. I could use someone who’s just lazy enough not to mind slow days and doesn’t need to rely on making big tip money.”
“I’m not certified as a divemaster,” Eames points out, but Marty just shrugs and waves her hands dismissively.
“You will be when I’m done with you.”
Marty is a manager at a dive resort. It’s not an upscale sort of place; the buildings aren’t the newest and the rooms aren’t the fanciest, but the divers who come there are far more interested in the scenery under the water than above it, and what’s under the water is spectacular. It’s been a while since Eames logged any serious hours, but there was a time when he was younger and moving from his “errant, petty-criminal youth” period into his “somewhat less-petty criminal world traveler” stage when he spent several summers in Phuket, doing odd jobs and grunt work at a beachfront resort, and in his free time learning how not to die underwater.
He might not do it regularly anymore, but Eames is very good at not dying underwater. He expects that in the end, he will prove to be even better at not dying underwater than he is at not dying on land.
It’s not that it’s not dangerous down there, but at least when you’re down there, there are rules to keep you safe. Watch your depth. Check your air. Safety stop: five meters, three minutes, just in case. Don’t taunt the wildlife. Stay with your buddy. And above all else, don’t ever hold your fucking breath. If you follow the rules, you live.
On the surface, there are so many more variables. There are so many unforeseen circumstances. Drunk drivers, carbon monoxide leaks, Russian aerospace conglomerates and incompetent coworkers, Arthur standing there on the resort’s dock glaring at you as you climb out of the water.
“You,” Arthur says to Eames as Eames stands there at the top of the ladder soaking wet, hands poised to start unstrapping his BCD, staring at Arthur’s ridiculous pressed shirt and vest under the blazing Caribbean afternoon sun. Marty is already sitting on a nearby bench, halfway out of her gear and leaning on her tank, just watching Arthur with one eyebrow raised in bemusement.
“You,” Arthur reiterates, “are an unmitigated asshole.”
He doesn’t even give Eames time to deal with the fact that Arthur is standing in front of him, much less to formulate a response, before he steps forward and shoves Eames right off the dock and back into the water. For a moment, the world is a confusing, windy blur; and then a confusing wet, blue blur; and then Eames bobs to the surface, his regulator noisily spraying water everywhere as his air supply free-flows just out of Eames’s easy reach. Arthur is outlined there against the bright, cloudless sky, leaning over the edge of the dock.
“Fuck you,” he says, and he turns on his heel and stalks off back up toward the resort.
Eames just sits there, flabbergasted, then finally reaches back to find his reg and stop the gushing and gurgling. Marty appears at the edge of the dock, her wetsuit stripped down to her waist, twisting her short hair in her fingers to wring the water from it and grinning broadly. “You didn’t tell me you had a boyfriend.”
Arthur is not Eames’s boyfriend, and he never has been. In fact, they’ve never even so much as kissed, even drunk. It’s not that Eames wouldn’t like to be with Arthur; he’s not a complete idiot. He should be so lucky, but he hasn’t been so far.
“He’s not my boyfriend; didn’t you see his suit?” Eames replies belatedly, and Marty looks after Arthur, narrowing her eyes a bit.
“You’re right. He’s definitely out of your league.”
Arthur is sitting at the bar furiously drinking a Bohemia straight from the bottle when Eames comes up in his wet swim trunks and a damp t-shirt, trying to rub some more water out of his hair. He cut it short not long after he arrived, when having it always flopping in his face began to drive him crazy. Arthur actually glances at it with an air of suspicion and hostility, then looks away again pointedly.
Eames considers for a moment, then starts off safe with, “So, you’re here.”
“I’m here,” Arthur says flatly.
“And you’re angry.”
“And I’m angry. I’m fucking livid, actually.”
For a moment, Eames just stares, and then Arthur takes a deep breath and turns to face Eames, setting his beer down hard on the bar. His voice is low enough not to be heard by the few other people that dot the patio, but no less forceful for the volume. “You think you can up and just disappear without a fucking word? Belland is dead, in case you didn’t notice! I’ve been worrying myself sick! I can’t believe you made me track you down. I can’t believe you.”
Maybe Eames shouldn’t be stunned by Arthur’s reaction, but the truth is that he is. In their line of work, people go off the grid all the time. Eames has done it once or twice before. Arthur did it once, a couple of years ago. When a job goes bad, disappearing is what the team does. Given, this isn’t always after a member of the team is killed, but Eames didn’t think of it that way.
“I’m sorry,” he says, because there’s not much else to say, and Eames isn’t going to go through their usual song and dance of doing his damnedest not to admit that he was wrong. Not when Arthur was so obviously genuinely distressed by his actions. “I didn’t know it would be that big of a deal.”
It’s the wrong thing to say, if the way Arthur’s face begins to go red with fury is anything to go off of. “Oh, you didn’t? You didn’t think that the guy you’ve worked six out of your last eight jobs with would want to know whether you’re alive or dead? You couldn’t break your radio silence long enough to fire off a single fucking text from a burner phone?”
“I was going to, after the thirty days—” Eames says rather pathetically, and Arthur rolls his eyes so hard his whole head moves with them.
“If you didn’t trust me, you maybe could’ve not spent the last year leading me to believe that you did.”
“You’re the only person I trust!” Eames exclaims. “The only person in the business. One of, I don’t know—” He does a mental tally. “Three people in the world. The other two are my grandfather and Marty, and I’ve known Marty for twelve bloody years.”
“Martina,” Eames says, gesturing back towards the dock. “Who, by the way, is so far removed from the business she might as well be on another planet.”
After narrowing his eyes at Eames for a long moment, Arthur scoffs and takes a drink of his beer, never breaking his gaze. “Pretty sure this is another planet,” he grumbles after swallowing. “Do you know how hard it was to get a flight here?”
“Bonaire is pretty small. It’s great, isn’t it?”
Arthur looks utterly horrified. Eames can only suppose it’s because he despises the heat and is the sworn enemy of the sun god. How he’s not sweating straight through his impeccable pinstriped shirt is an utter mystery. “Arthur,” Eames reiterates, “I’m sorry. I really am. I’ll make it up to you.”
“I doubt that.”
“I’ll pay for you to take a well-deserved holiday. Oh, look, you’re already here.” Eames spreads his arms and grins. Arthur looks around as though maybe Eames is pointing to some other location, then wrinkles his nose.
“I could teach you to dive.”
The words are barely out of his mouth before Arthur vehemently shuts him down. “No.”
His face and tone are so serious that Eames immediately amends, “Or you could sit by the pool or I can drive you to the beach or you could spend a few weeks fabulously drunk and stuffed full of rather good food at this bar.”
Arthur still doesn’t look convinced, and so Eames tries, “Just up the road there’s a place that makes the best lionfish pizza you will ever taste in your life.”
“This,” Arthur says two hours later, “is the best lionfish pizza I’ve ever had.”
“Oh, you’ve tried it before?”
“I’m trying to humor you, Eames.” Eames glances over at Arthur and maybe it’s just that he can’t see him very well, but Arthur at least appears more relaxed now than he has all day. Arthur goes to take another piece of pizza from the box sitting between them and adds, “So do you always eat dinner in the dark at the end of the dock?”
“Only on special occasions.” Arthur looks over at him, and Eames just shrugs and says, “Normally I don’t eat dinner.”
“I’m still angry at you,” Arthur says after a moment’s thought, and though he doesn’t sound it, he probably means it, and Eames doesn’t mind. He’s been thinking on it all evening, and he’s aware that he’s become a profoundly selfish person over the past decade of living and working alone. If this is his reminder that no man is an island, whether he’s living on one or not, he’ll accept it.
“That’s perfectly understandable,” he says, and he gestures to the pizza. “Have another piece. These fuckers are an invasive species; it’s your duty to eat as many of them as you can get your hands on while you’re here.”
Arthur stays. Maybe he really is taken in by the delicious novelty of a fish that tastes more or less like chicken, or maybe he actually needs a break. Eames doesn’t ask; he just gets him a room by the pool, and while Arthur doesn’t spend a lot of time in the pool itself, he does seem to like sitting next to it in the shade with a book. Eames works during the day, but he waves when he passes, and he wonders exactly how long it’s really been since Arthur had a vacation.
“So,” Marty says when she finally meets Arthur. Eames has been half-trying to talk Arthur into heading out to a beach up the coast with him at some point, and Arthur has been pointedly not taking the hint, when she appears over them, grinning behind her sunglasses. “You’re Arthur. The man that Eames once described as – and I quote – ‘frustratingly well-groomed and obnoxiously competent’.”
Arthur raises an eyebrow at Eames and takes a slow sip of his beer, and as Eames opens his mouth Marty holds up her cell phone and waves it a bit. “I have emails.” She offers her other hand to Arthur, who shakes it without hesitation, and says, “Martina Perez.”
“Arthur Last-Name-Redacted,” Arthur replies easily, and Marty laughs, loud and sharp, and slides into the third seat at their table.
“Does Arthur have a sister?” she asks Eames the following afternoon. They’ve just come up from a dive; the current was unusually strong today and they’re both a bit tired, so they’re just floating on their backs in the shallows, resting up a little before heading in. At some point while they were out, Arthur himself appeared at the end of the dock, just sitting there in jeans and bare feet watching the water – and now them – from behind designer sunglasses. Eames waves a little. Arthur just nods.
“Not as far as I know,” Eames tells her, and Marty narrows her eyes in thought.
“He must have a mother, though. Is she single? She can’t be too old. He’s… what, twenty-one?”
“He claims to be thirty, but I haven’t carded him.”
Marty sounds genuinely disappointed in Eames when she says, “I can’t believe you haven’t slept with him.”
“It’s not as though I haven’t tried.”
“Have you tried?”
Eames frowns. “Arthur isn’t the sort of person you just… try with.”
“What do you do, put in a written application and a copy of your blood work?”
“He gets my blood work at the beginning of every job. It’s complicated, Marty.”
“You mean Arthur is complicated, and you like easy people,” Marty says. Eames glances over at her, and she looks surprisingly serious, brushing her wet hair away from her forehead.
“There are no easy people,” he replies.
“I know. That’s why you push your friends away when you get to know them too well to pretend that you’ve got them figured out.”
“And not him,” Marty says, nodding toward the dock. “Not yet.”
“I never would’ve pegged you for the scuba diving type,” Arthur tells him, when Marty is back off up to the equipment shack with the tanks and Eames is peeling out of his wetsuit. Eames laughs as he dumps the water out of one of his boots.
“And what is the ‘scuba diving type’?” he asks, and Arthur shrugs.
“Marine biologists, nature photographers, Navy SEALs. I don’t know. Thrill-seekers, I guess?”
“It isn’t thrill-seeking,” Eames says, though he understands why people who’ve never done it might think of strapping a can of highly compressed air and a bunch of lead weights to one’s body and leaping into the ocean as something dangerous and exciting. “It’s actually quite relaxing. Low-stress, minimal physical fitness required.”
“So why do it?”
“Weightlessness. Everyone always talks about wanting to fly.”
“You and I can fly,” Arthur points out, but Eames just shakes his head as he yanks his feet free of his suit. Eames thinks there’s something rather fetching about a good wetsuit that’s properly fitted, but the process of removing one is anything but sexy – which is a shame, because it means that Arthur is watching him with a look of incredulity rather than any kind of baser interest.
“We both know there’s a big difference between dreaming and doing, love. Besides, I started doing this long before I ever walked into a dream den. And a good thing, too; people who get into dreamshare before seeing anything worthwhile in the real world think they know bloody everything.”
“Is that meant to be a swipe at me?”
“Christ, no. Quite the opposite. It’s meant to be a swipe at Cobb.”
“And you are the anti-Cobb.”
Arthur gives him a look that is half annoyed and half amused and almost fond, and Eames’s stomach goes rather funny feeling. “I’m going to take that as a compliment,” Arthur says carefully, “and now we are going to change the subject.”
“Oh, naturally, anything you like. How do you feel about cephalopods? I just saw the most wonderful octopus. Would’ve brought her up to see you, but it’s technically illegal, and I’m already in enough trouble on that front. I could describe her in detail instead.”
Against all odds, Arthur laughs, his dimples showing, and Eames suddenly feels a sharp and unexpected pang of regret. At first he can’t figure out why, and then all at once he realizes that his chances to make Arthur laugh might be coming to an end very soon. Arthur seems to notice, after a moment, that Eames is frowning, but he doesn’t ask why.
Eames wonders increasingly each day if perhaps Arthur doesn’t know how to swim, until one morning he catches him doing freestyle laps in the pool early, before any of the other guests are up and about. As it turns out, Arthur is a much better swimmer than Eames is; he’s quick and graceful and has very good form. He looks, to Eames, like one of those people whose parents put them through a lot of swimming lessons as a child. Judging by Arthur’s basic skill set, which also includes things like ballroom dancing and playing very passable football, his parents probably put him through a lot of different lessons as a child. Arthur is almost obnoxiously well-rounded.
He isn’t sure when Arthur notices him there, because Arthur never pauses until he stops at the wall closest to Eames, and comes up, and folds his slender, tightly-muscled arms on the concrete in front of him. He pushes his dark, dripping hair back from his forehead and watches Eames with slightly narrowed eyes. With Arthur’s pale skin glistening wet in the morning sun and his cheeks flushed pink with exertion, Eames suddenly feels a sharp pang of want that he can only hope doesn’t somehow reveal itself on his face.
“So you can swim,” he says from his spot perched on the edge of one of the deck chairs.
Arthur furrows his eyebrows. “Of course I can swim. Why would you think I can’t swim?”
“You refuse to go to the beach with me.” Technically, Arthur hasn’t refused. He’s just changed the subject and ignored him, but Eames considers those to be practically the same thing. Arthur doesn’t seem to agree, if his affronted expression is anything to go off of.
“I never—I didn’t say—” He huffs and settles on, “You’re always busy.”
“Because I keep busy. I can make time for you. I’d like to make time for you.”
“Make time tonight,” Arthur says. Eames quirks an eyebrow, which only makes Arthur quirk one in return. “What? You have a night dive?”
“Then let’s go.”
Arthur sighs a little. “I’m flying out tomorrow afternoon. I’ve got a job in Germany. I’ve had it lined up for two months.”
He doesn’t actually sound like he wants to go, or maybe he just doesn’t sound like he’s happy to have to tell Eames. For his part, Eames doesn’t want to hear it. His stomach sinks, and his voice sounds just as hollow as his chest suddenly feels when he says, “Oh.” It’s been a little over a week of Arthur simply being there, and it doesn’t feel like enough time at all. Enough time for what, however, Eames isn’t sure. He didn’t have a plan when he told Arthur he should stay, and he doesn’t have one now, and now Arthur is going to leave and Eames doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
“Then we definitely should go out tonight,” he says after a long, awkward silence. “I’ve got to run. I’m on the early boat. I’ll see you tonight, then.”
The look Arthur gives him is a bit perplexed, but he nods and waves anyhow when Eames gets up and beats a hasty retreat.
“Arthur is leaving,” Eames tells Marty later, at lunch.
“Mm, and you were planning on staying,” Marty says. They’re sitting at his little dining table, making sandwiches out of random stuff from his fridge, and Eames doesn’t feel hungry so he’s mostly just watching Marty pile turkey onto a piece of bread slathered with coriander chutney.
“It’s not as though I was invited on the job he’s leaving for,” Eames points out, but Marty just glances up at him through her eyelashes, then looks away pointedly. “No,” Eames admits. “In a broad sense, no.”
“It sounds like you need to decide what your priorities are.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” Throwing his hands in the air and giving up on eating entirely, Eames sits back in his chair. “How am I supposed to prioritize around another person whose priorities don’t even remotely involve me? Do you know what Arthur’s priorities are?”
Marty clearly does not think that she’s going to agree with Eames’s answer when she raises one eyebrow incredulously and asks, “Do you?”
“One.” Eames holds up an index finger to illustrate. “Wake up at half fucking five in the morning, every morning, to spend an hour and a half getting into an immaculate bespoke suit so that everyone he meets over the course of the day will know beyond a shadow of doubt that he’s got his shit more together than they could ever dream.”
“Two. Write down every potentially important thought that floats through his enormous brain in a Moleskine that has its own indexing system – and I am bloody well serious about that – and make sure to refer to it later in front of his colleagues so that they all can see the sheer unholy level of organization he’s filed his entire existence into.”
“Three. Monitor his daily intake of sugar extremely closely. Never gain an ounce.”
“These are all oddly specific priorities.”
“Arthur is an extremely detail-oriented person.”
Marty gives Eames a look that he can only quantify as pitying, then sighs and puts her just-finished sandwich onto his empty plate before grabbing another couple of slices of bread. “You’re an idiot, but I see what you’re saying.”
“You’re a cautious person. You like to know what you’re dealing with before you make a move. And I get that, I really do, but the fact is that sometimes things in life can’t be analyzed. Sometimes you just have to jump in.”
“I’d like to remind you that I’m here because I got complacent about which jobs I was accepting and now a sizeable contingent of very angry Russians would like to kill me.”
“Then maybe what you need to ask yourself is if you’ve done your due diligence where Arthur is concerned.”
That’s what Eames seriously asks himself through dinner, and then on the drive down the coast afterward. Arthur sits in the passenger seat of Eames’s beat-up loaner pickup truck with his feet up on the dashboard, half leaning out the open window, watching the sky change colors as the sun sinks below the horizon, and he actually, for once, looks like a normal human being on holiday. Like he’s really relaxed. Like he really wants to be just where he is.
“Wait a minute, you can’t swim?” Arthur asks as Eames pulls a couple of life jackets out of a duffel stashed in the back of the truck.
“I’ll not be attempting a Dover-to-Calais trip for funsies anytime soon, but I can swim,” Eames replies, and he hands one of the jackets to Arthur. They’re not exactly the big puffy ones suitable for escaping sinking ocean liners in a hurricane, but they don’t need to be. “But there is a time and place for swimming, and it’s not here and now.”
“The beach isn’t the place for swimming?” Arthur asks as he sets the jacket on the tailgate and strips his t-shirt off. Eames does not watch.
“Not at dusk. Loads of huge moray eels out. They’ll wrap around your ankles, drag you straight down if you’re not careful.” Eames strips his own shirt off, tossing it into the truck, then glances over at Arthur.
Arthur looks less amused than usual, and Eames can count the number of times that Arthur has looked even a little amused with Eames in the course of their acquaintance on maybe two hands and a foot. Eames pauses, cocks his head a little. “You know I’m only joking.”
“I know you’re joking,” Arthur replies, but he manages to intone the sentence in just such a way that makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t care that Eames is joking.
When he says, “I’m sorry, darling,” Eames can actually hear the remorse he feels in his own voice, which is odd. He usually doesn’t quite manage such things, but it even seems to be enough for Arthur, who wordlessly slings his life jacket over his shoulders and feels around for the buckles. “You don’t have to fasten it all on. You’re not in any danger,” Eames says, but Arthur clips the front closed anyway.
It’s getting to be properly dark when they start to wade into the water. Eames has picked an easy entry: a nice, smooth, sandy slope in a relatively sheltered area. The night is almost eerily calm; there are no whitecaps and the water is like a sheet of gently rippling glass stretching away to the glow on the horizon. Nonetheless, Arthur hangs back and follows at a bit of a distance. It’s not often that he shows any sort of uncertainty or hesitation, but if he’s making an effort to hide his discomfort now he’s doing a rather poor job of it. Eames pauses when the water is at his waist, turning to watch Arthur, who in turn is watching the surface of the water.
“Come here,” he says, and he holds out a hand. Arthur stares at it for a moment, eyebrows furrowed, then reaches out and takes it.
Eames immediately pulls Arthur toward him, with just enough force that Arthur loses his footing and Eames is able to grab hold of his lifejacket with his other hand, swing him around, and end up with Arthur floating on his back, Eames supporting him with arms firm around his chest. “Eames!” Arthur exclaims, but the moment he’s steady there, rocking gently with the waves but stable in Eames’s grasp, he goes silent, then huffs a little sigh. “I was fine,” he grumbles.
“I know,” Eames says earnestly as he begins walking backwards, further out into the inky expanse of the ocean. Surprisingly, Arthur doesn’t fight him, doesn’t even argue. He just accepts it, and that more than anything indicates to Eames that Arthur isn’t at ease. As the water gets deeper, he slowly loosens his grip, letting Arthur slide more onto his back, until he pushes off the bottom completely and gives a few good kicks, and he lets go of Arthur entirely.
Above the low, steady roll of the waves breaking back on the beach, he can hear Arthur’s breathing. Just a little too quick and too heavy for Arthur to pretend that he’s calm, but Arthur doesn’t seem interested in pretending; he reaches out and finds Eames’s arm, makes sure he isn’t going anywhere.
“Just relax,” Eames murmurs, and he takes hold of Arthur’s lifejacket by the straps on his left side, using both hands to pull him a bit closer. “That’s why you’re wearing this. Just… don’t think about it.”
“It?” Arthur asks.
“Anything,” Eames amends, and Arthur lets out a long sigh and tilts his head back until it rests in the water, and Eames does the same. He doesn’t let go, instead letting Arthur float there just over his own hips, making sure to keep enough of a grip to give Arthur some sort of feeling of stability.
Eames has a friend who’s got a surplus of money and a deficit of sense and spends quite a bit of time in sensory deprivation chambers, just floating in thirty-seven degree water in the dark. It’s some kind of meditative thing, but the idea of being so alone with his own thoughts gives Eames the creeps. He much prefers it out here, cradled easily in his BCD – or, as it may be, life jacket – with nothing but the distant, hushed sound of the surf. The sky is a wash of black to violet to cobalt, stretched dizzyingly wide and punctured with a million points of flickering light.
Vaguely, Eames is aware of the sound of Arthur’s breath slowing and easing. He’s aware of Arthur’s hand drifting down, under the water, to take hold of one of the straps of his own jacket in turn, seemingly not out of fear but rather a simple, steadying act of reciprocity. One that nonetheless sets Eames’s heartrate quickening like he’s an inexperienced teenager with a crush.
People are always after some sort of truth, but Eames doesn’t think the truth is something that anyone can obtain. He’s certain, just then, that all the truth that matters to him in the universe might very well be right here with him, in the infinite space and time above him and the man he has anchored in his grip, who’s so incomprehensibly small in the scheme of things and yet is probably deeper than this whole bloody ocean and so often feels just as inhospitable.
All that truth, and he doesn’t know how to get at any of it, and that existential ineffectuality is really all there is to discover. Locking all of this out – the universe, the sea, Arthur – would only be fooling himself into thinking he can ever get a real grip on anything more than the rough, slippery straps of this life vest.
If he’s waiting for some kind of certainty, he realizes, he’s going to be waiting a very long time. All at once, he draws a deep breath, but the moment he opens his mouth to say something, he’s interrupted.
“I can’t remember the last time I could see this many stars,” Arthur murmurs.
“You don’t take breaks often enough,” Eames replies, lifting his head a bit so he can look at Arthur. Arthur’s tilted his own head so one of his ears is out of the water, but he’s still got his eyes fixed on the sky.
“It’s not that. I have time off. I just… don’t make it out to anywhere this dark, I guess.”
“And where is it you usually go during your time off?”
“Home. To sleep.”
From anyone else it might come off as a joke, but not from Arthur. And he’s not just being dry; he’s serious. When he’s working, Arthur’s sleep schedule is practically nonexistent. Eames doesn’t know how many hours Arthur gets each night, but he does know that Arthur is very often the first one to arrive in the mornings and the last to leave at night, and that he regularly gets unbelievable amounts of work done overnight.
Sometimes Eames wonders if Arthur enjoys extraction at all – actually enjoys it, beyond simply taking pride in a job well done. If he mentions Arthur’s stress levels – which he does, regularly – Arthur points out that there is such a thing as good stress, a fact of which Eames is well aware and with which he can’t really argue.
He knows that Arthur likes building, likes detail work, likes poking holes in plans so they can patch them up stronger. But Arthur doesn’t get the same thrill or sense of wonder that Eames does. Eames never sees in Arthur what he feels: a sheer, euphoric rush of seeing weeks of planning come together and getting away with something that he can sometimes still scarcely believe is even possible. Arthur probably, to some extent, likes extraction. Eames, on the other hand, loves extraction.
But even he doesn’t love it that much. He’d rather stay alive.
“So what’s this job you’re going on?”
“Nothing special. An Italian car company wants to know about something they think a German car company is working on. Not sure which ones, and I don’t know any details yet.”
“Who’s on the team?”
Arthur glances over at him and frowns, then shifts his body weight so that he sits up a little more. He doesn’t let go of Eames, just turns to focus on him more fully, both of them still gently rocking with the movement of the water. “Hye’s extracting, and I’ve got Ariadne coming over from Paris. It’s a small job, no big deal. Seriously.”
“I’m not upset you didn’t ask me on it,” Eames says, but he can tell right off that Arthur doesn’t believe that’s why he brought it up.
“Eames. It’s luxury car companies trying to one-up each other’s fancy cup holders. Small time. It’s fine.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t fine.”
Eames is sharply aware of Arthur’s other hand coming up to take hold of his lifejacket. They’re very close, closer than they’d ever stand normally, and Arthur could drift away with the barest push from a couple of fingers, but he hasn’t. Instead his hand wraps around one of the chest pads of the vest, and Eames can feel Arthur’s fingertips brushing against his ribs.
“Thank you,” Arthur murmurs, “for bringing me out here. It’s beautiful.”
Eames licks his lips, trying to pick the best option out of the thousand things he could say to Arthur in this moment, and then suddenly Arthur shivers.
“Fuck,” he breathes. “Sorry. It’s just—”
It’s just that they’ve been out in the water for a while, not moving, with no wetsuits, and if Arthur has any significant amount of body fat, Eames isn’t sure where he’s keeping it. “No, don’t be sorry, of course you’re cold,” he says. “Let’s get you out of here.”
“I can get myself—” Arthur insists, but he’s cut off when Eames grabs hold of his jacket to begin pulling him along back toward shore. “Eames!”
“A gentleman never abandons his date in the ocean.”
“I can swim, Eames!”
“Ah, yes, but you don’t have to.”
Arthur stops fighting him then, but the moment they’re back in waist-deep water, he scrambles to his feet and knocks Eames on his face, which takes Eames so off-guard that he recovers, sputtering and coughing up water, only in time to watch Arthur thoroughly outpace him back up to the sand.
When he gets there, he throws his lifejacket at Arthur, who’s waiting for him sitting on the tailgate, scrubbing himself off with a towel and laughing. Arthur catches it and whips it right back at him, and Eames decides to be the bigger man and toss it into the bed of the truck. He towels his hair off, watching Arthur as he does, then reaches out and runs his fingers along Arthur’s forearm. He has goosebumps. It’s nearly eighty degrees and Arthur has goosebumps.
“Skinny people,” he snorts.
“I prefer the term svelte,” Arthur grumbles, and he wraps himself up in his towel.
“In a starvation scenario, people with less body fat die first, you know.”
“Well, if you and I are ever in that scenario, when I die you have my permission to eat me. My gift to you.”
He’s smiling, illuminated only by the moonlight, and Eames is aware that Arthur is waiting for him to say something crass. He stares back for a moment, then decides not to take the bait. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Arthur. I am honored.”
“Not that I really need your permission, though. Given the situation. Hypothetically.”
Arthur rolls his eyes, and Eames kicks the truck keys out from the sand under the rear wheel where he hid them.
The silence on the drive back is comfortable, the windows rolled down and the breeze pleasantly warm once they dry off a bit. But Eames thinks the whole time about Arthur leaving the next day, and about not knowing where Arthur will be headed after he’s finished on this job, and about the fact that he has not gotten up the courage to tell Arthur that he isn’t taking another job after he’s finished waiting out the Russians.
Back at the resort, he walks Arthur to his apartment. Arthur talks about his travel plans for the following day, and how long he expects the job to go. It’s the kind of standard information they’d usually discuss before splitting up – for them, it almost passes as small talk. But once they’re at his door, Arthur turns to him, and he they both go quiet, and Eames is standing on Arthur’s doorstep in the dark, and he’s pretty sure that there’s nothing that technically differentiates what they just did from a date.
Eames doesn’t really date. He hasn’t been in this kind of situation in a long time. And of course – of course – with Arthur it finally comes at a time when he’s less sure of their footing with one another than he has been in years.
When he doesn’t say anything, Arthur clears his throat softly and says, “Uh. You’ll probably be good to travel again when I’m done on this job, right?”
Eames presses the tip of his tongue between his lips, and he feels a bit ill. It takes him a moment to get out an answer, and even when he speaks he doesn’t really want to say it, but he has to. “I’m staying here. I’m not coming back.”
He doesn’t know what he expects. There’s no positive outcome from this that Eames can see. He and Arthur have had six years to get their shit together, and they haven’t done it, and now it’s too late. Arthur is going to work. Eames isn’t. And that’s the way it’s going to have to be.
For an interminable moment, Arthur does nothing; he just stares, wide-eyed, lips just slightly parted. And then he swallows, his Adam’s apple and the tendons of his neck sharply outlined in the porch light that illuminates the entryway. “That’s… completely understandable,” he says, but he says it the way he might say it upon finding out that a chain-smoking friend has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Unsurprised, but utterly gutted, and Eames feels like the absolute worst person in the world.
“The business just keeps getting more and more dangerous. Too few extractors, too many high-profile jobs. It’s only going to get worse. You’re the smart one, to be honest.” Arthur is sort of babbling, sort of just talking so that he doesn’t do anything else. That much is obvious, especially when he’s focusing more on Eames’s left clavicle than his face.
“Arthur,” Eames says, but Arthur just shakes his head and cuts him off.
“I’d prefer not to talk about it. I’m sorry. We can some other time. Later. I just… have an early flight.” He turns to head inside, abruptly, like he needs to escape, but Eames takes hold of his forearm. It’s only a gentle grip, but Arthur pulls his arm away like it burns. “Eames,” he says desperately, barely even turning to look at him, “I can’t do this.”
And then he’s gone, the door shutting with a soft click behind him. Eames curses under his breath and runs both hands through his hair, standing there on the doorstep like a fool. He nearly knocks, but he doesn’t know what to say now any more than he did before Arthur fled the situation, so what good would it do?
The next day, Arthur gets on the early shuttle before Eames is even awake. It’s not as though his absence should rightfully feel like a hole in Eames’s life; even since more or less partnering up, they’ve hardly been together all of the time. Likewise, for the last week Arthur has merely been a presence. Someone who hangs around, someone to share drinks and conversation with in the evenings. Not having Arthur about doesn’t exactly change Eames’s daily routine. He gets up, spends half the day assisting in classes and the other half out on the boat, and gets out of a long, pensive, unhappy shower that evening to find Marty cooking in his kitchen.
“Oh, please, don’t let the closed doors or basic societal expectations of privacy stop you,” he says, turning right back around and going to find something more than a towel to put on. Marty just continues singing something in Spanish, slightly off-key, and chopping an onion.
“I noticed that Arthur checked out,” she says, when Eames is sitting at the table, leaning on his folded forearms and watching her dump a pile of fresh vegetables into a large pot of simmering tomato sauce. She’s making way too much of everything, and he knows she’s going to leave it in his fridge because she thinks he’ll let himself waste away if she doesn’t make sure he has food.
“He has a job,” he says, and he doesn’t try to sound casual because he knows it’d be pointless.
“Are you worried about him?”
“No. He’ll be all right. Arthur doesn’t get involved in stupid jobs with stupid extractors who do things that’ll get them killed anymore. He had enough of that with Cobb.”
“I really need to meet this ‘Cobb’ someday. You make him sound fascinating.”
“I assure you that that is the furthest thing from my intent.”
Marty glances over at him, then picks up a mandarin out of a bowl of fruit that’s sitting on the counter next to the sink and was definitely not there earlier. She throws it at him, unexpected, and it’s a bit of a miracle that Eames manages to sit up and catch it. “Eat that and stop looking miserable.”
Eames’s short nails make it a bit difficult to get through the skin, and as he’s struggling with it he tells her, “You and I should get married.”
Immediately, Marty throws her head back and barks out a laugh; it resonates startlingly loud in Eames’s bare-bones apartment. “A marriage of inconvenience, huh?”
Narrowing his eyes at her, Eames throws a large portion of peel across the kitchen at her and narrowly misses. “I think it would be very convenient.”
“It’d be inconvenient as long as I still haven’t quite given up on meeting Ms. Right and you’re in love with Arthur.”
Juice squirts everywhere as Eames digs his thumb into the mandarin much too hard. It’d be hard to say whether his mind is racing or blank; everything is simultaneously fast and slow, and either way he feels immobilized by the comment. If he were pressed on the issue, he’d have to admit that he does love Arthur, and has for some time. But hearing someone else say it – having someone else see it – makes it real when he’s not quite ready for it to be real. Right now, Eames isn’t sure that he’ll ever be ready for it to be real. The relationship forecast is not looking good.
“Yes,” he says slowly, quietly. “Well. Things feel rather inconvenient as they are, unfortunately.”
“You have options.”
“Maybe I do. But I can’t even begin to consider what they might be until Arthur is done with his job, so we’ll just have to wait and see.” It’s an avoidance tactic, a pointless line of thought that Eames wraps up in a tone of voice that’s far less dour than what he’s feeling. It’s fake, and Marty knows it but has the decency to let him get away with it.
He doesn’t hear from Arthur, but that’s to be expected. He’s still supposed to be practicing radio silence, and Arthur is busy, and also probably angry at him if how hurt he seemed the last time they spoke was any indication. It bothers him a lot, even though it shouldn’t. Getting his divemaster certification is a month-long process, minimum, and he’s grateful that he has something solid to work toward, a goal to keep him here so he doesn’t spend more of his time thinking about leaving. He throws himself into it with such single-mindedness that Marty remarks about it some time later, when they’re scheduling out their following week, “You know this isn’t a race, right?”
“The sooner I’m actually qualified to do something, the sooner I can stop being a load.”
Marty snorts. “You just can’t wait for that paycheck.” She knows perfectly well that Eames does not need a paycheck and hasn’t in a while, but they can pretend that that’s why he’s working so hard.
On the day he finishes his qualification, Marty and some of the other staff take him out to a restaurant in town and celebrate his milestone, and Eames smiles and drinks and lets himself have fun, and only lets himself think once, briefly, about whether something can really be considered a milestone if you don’t even know where you’re going.
They ride home in the back of their designated driver’s pickup. Eames can tell that Marty – who holds her liquor exceptionally well and never gives the appearance of being anything less than perfectly sober – is terribly drunk because she sits right next to him and puts her head on his shoulder and her arms around his waist and says, “I’m really glad you’re here.”
He knows that she means it. He knows that he’s been a terrible, absentee friend for a very, very long time. And he knows that she would never tell him such a thing so openly and directly if she were sober because she would worry that it would make him feel guilty, or like she wanted to pressure him into staying.
“You must be utterly shitfaced,” he says fondly, and she lifts her head and scowls at him.
“I am not. I mean it. I’ve missed you, asshole.”
Eames smiles, and slides his fingers into her short, thick hair so that he can get her to put her head back down and stop staring at him. Which she does, but only when he says, “I know. I’ve missed you too. And I am an asshole.”
And that’s good enough, it seems. That’s something Eames likes about Marty; when he says something, she takes it at face value, and she won’t try to patronize him and tell him he’s not a prick if he’s been a complete prick. Instead, she just tightens her arms around him and settles in, and is half asleep by the time they get home. Eames tries to carry her inside, and she nearly decks him for attempting to put her through such indignity.
“Hey,” she says before they say goodnight. “You have to take the day off tomorrow. You work too much.”
“You’re quite literally the only person who’s ever said those words to me, Marty,” Eames says, and he kisses her forehead and gives her a gentle push toward her door.
“I mean it!” she calls after him.
Eames does take the day off, only partially because Marty gives orders and not requests. It’s an unusually calm day on the water, so he borrows one of the resort’s kayaks and paddles out to Klein Bonaire. It’s a tiring round trip between the main island and the smaller one, even in the good conditions, and probably the best workout Eames has had in months. He comes back exhausted and sweat-soaked from the exertion and the midday sun.
Marty yells at him from the other dock as he drags the kayak out of the water. “I said take it easy today!”
“You said take the day off. That’s what I’m doing,” Eames replies.
Strangely, Marty just stands there with the clipboard she’s using to take tank inventory for the afternoon boat, glaring at him. Eames drops the kayak and spreads his arms, wordlessly asking what her problem is. She gives an exaggerated shake of her head, like a disappointed parent, and goes back to her papers.
Back in his flat, Eames takes a long, warm shower, taking the time to thoroughly scrub the salt from his hair in a way that he rarely bothers with because at this juncture in his life, salt in his hair seems to be more or less an inevitable constant. He shaves carefully, because he so rarely takes the time for that anymore, and he actually dries his hair. If he’s going to stay out of the water for the rest of the day, he might as well take advantage of the rare opportunity.
When he finally comes out of the bathroom, Arthur is sitting in one of his kitchen chairs, and Eames stops dead in his tracks, his heart suddenly pounding. “Hi,” Arthur says, quickly getting to his feet when he looks up and sees Eames. To his credit, at least he looks self-conscious about being there. A set of keys sits next to him on the table, and Eames takes a moment to collect himself before speaking.
“Marty told you to let yourself in, didn’t she?”
“Maybe,” Arthur says in a shifty way that clearly means “yes”.
Eames swallows. He’s keenly aware that he’s standing there with nothing but a towel around his waist, and of the way that Arthur’s gaze keeps shifting, then coming back to his face. “How was the job?” he asks stupidly, and Arthur’s cheek twitches just a little, as though some part of him finds the question funny.
“It was fine,” he replies, and then he seems to think better of sounding so ambivalent about it, because he immediately amends, “It was good.”
“Good,” Eames says, and if he doesn’t stop sounding like a complete idiot soon, he’s going to start blushing, and then his embarrassment will only compound from there. He still hasn’t even figured out what Arthur is doing in his kitchen. “I should go… put some clothes on…” He gestures vaguely in the direction of the bedroom.
Arthur immediately asks, “Can I come with?” and Eames is at a loss because Arthur is almost never cheeky with him – with anyone – but Arthur just slides his hands slowly into the pockets of his trousers and watches him expectantly.
“You should really watch the come-withs if you want to maintain your aura of mystery and not let anyone know you’re from the Midwest.”
“I’m not worried about that anymore.”
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” Arthur says, a bit more loudly and a bit more quickly. “All the time, actually.” That same little burst of energy that’s in his words propels him across the space between them. Suddenly he’s quite a bit closer, and Eames vaguely wonders if Arthur can feel the body heat radiating from him, because he feels as though he must be a thousand degrees right now.
“I can do this,” Arthur says, shifting as he pulls his hands back out of his pockets. “I want to do this.”
“What’s ‘this’?” Eames asks, and Arthur nearly swallows his words for him.
Arthur doesn’t kiss like Eames imagined that he would – and Eames has imagined it often. Eames thought he would be pointed, demanding, that he’d have the same exacting expectations in a kiss as he does on a job. But Arthur kisses him, and it’s not like that at all; rather, he’s soft and tentative. He kisses Eames carefully, letting him have just a brief taste of tongue before drawing Eames’s lower lip into his mouth and sucking gently. His breath is hot and measured and he tastes slightly of citrus, and Eames thinks he might be dying.
When Eames doesn’t protest – when he responds and kisses back after the initial shock – Arthur presses in closer, his hands coming up to cradle Eames’s head, one sliding into his hair and the other wrapping around the nape of his neck. He breaks off only when he needs air, but he stays close, and Eames can feel him drawing sharp breaths with every rise and fall of his chest.
“I want to stay here,” Arthur says, when his eyes finally open again. “I didn’t spend the last six years of my life waiting for the right moment with you only to give up because I’m afraid of the fucking ocean.”
None of that is what Eames expects to hear, and he blurts out, “Waiting?” because he can’t quite believe that something of what he’s felt has been reciprocated all along and he never saw it, and then he adds, “Hold on, you’re afraid of the ocean?”
“It’s too big,” Arthur tells him. “It’s the worst, I fucking hate it.” He’s still running one hand through Eames’s hair, still rubbing his thumb in little circles near his pulse point. Eames is a little overwhelmed and beginning to feel as though he might simply melt right here into a puddle on the floor. “But like I said, I’ll get over it.”
Eames draws back, and Arthur’s hands stop, and for a moment they just stare at each other. “You let me take you out in the water,” Eames says at last, as the full weight of that night hits him. “You were scared that whole time?”
Arthur blushes – actually blushes, for probably the first time in their entire acquaintance. “Yeah, well, I was all right. I had you with me.”
It’s a shock. All of it is a shock, from finding Arthur here unannounced to the realization of why he left in the first place. But Eames doesn’t have time to unpack all of it right now, and he doesn’t really want to. He just wants Arthur, and for the first time it seems that he can have him. “I don’t think I want to get dressed anymore,” he murmurs.
Arthur’s eyes narrow in amusement. “It would really hurt my feelings if you did.”
Eames’s room is small – cozy, Eames thinks – the bed a double and the dim light filtered blue through the thin cotton curtains and the abundant foliage outside.
“Minimalist,” Arthur comments as he toes off his shoes and flops down onto the bed, fully clothed, like he’s settling into a new hotel room. His dark hair looks incredible against the cream of Eames’s pillowcase. “I like it.”
“I left all my stuff in Kenya,” Eames tells him as he climbs onto Arthur, straddling him casually, trapping him between his forearms. “I don’t think I’m going to be seeing it again.”
Arthur glances down at the towel still tucked securely around Eames’s waist. He might as well be talking about its continued presence when he says, “That’s very sad.”
Eames reaches over to his nightstand, pulling out the small drawer and retrieving the bottle of lube he knows is in there. He doesn’t even have to look to do it; he just watches Arthur’s face as Arthur watches Eames’s body. “It’s all right. I lose a lot of things, but I’ve found that the most important ones make their way back to me.”
Arthur catches Eames’s wrist tight in his grip, and Eames nearly drops the lube in surprise. Arthur jerks that hand out of the way and takes hold of Eames’s neck, pulling him down and kissing him deeply, and there’s the possessive, bossy Arthur that Eames expected. Arthur kisses him breathless, and he doesn’t relent as he finally just takes hold of Eames’s towel and tears it off and throws it aside.
“You should know,” he murmurs when he breaks off, his hands gripping Eames’s thighs, his slender fingers curling so that his nails bite into Eames’s skin, “that I’m actually a romantic. I really like being taken to dinner. I like massages. Foreplay.”
“But not right now,” Eames replies, because he gets where Arthur’s coming from. He’s pretty sure he and Arthur are coming from the exact same place, and it is not a very patient place at all.
“Not right now,” Arthur agrees, watching rapt as Eames sits up just enough to get the lube open and slick up his own fingers. Something in his expression shifts, then, and he groans, “Oh, god, this looks really bad. I didn’t just come here to fuck.”
“But you want to,” Eames says, unceremoniously tossing the lube onto the nightstand and reaching back behind himself, sliding his fingers between his own legs, immediately beginning to press one into himself. The lube is cold, but he ignores that. His body is tight and it’s been a while, but he ignores that too. It’s uncomfortable, and yet his cock only gets harder.
“I want a lot of things, but—,” Arthur argues, and Eames darts down and kisses him just hard and suddenly enough to shut him up.
“You can have them. One thing at a time, though, darling.”
Arthur blinks up at him, and he is positively the most beautiful creature Eames has ever seen as he slides his hands down and wordlessly begins to open his own clothing. He starts with the fly of his obscenely fitted khaki trousers, then tugs his button-down shirt up until the bulge of his cock can be seen beneath tight cotton briefs. Arthur doesn’t actually remove anything; Eames finds this ridiculously sexy, and he slides his middle finger fully into himself as he hardens completely.
Slipping his long, elegant fingers beneath the waistband of his underwear, Arthur slides them down and lets his cock spring free. He’s mostly hard already, smooth and cut and a nice size that Eames cannot wait to feel inside him. Arthur wraps a hand around his dick, runs his thumb up the length of it and around his own head, and as he stiffens fully he grows even thicker, and Eames makes a sort of low, strangled noise.
For his part, Arthur blushes at that, a lovely scarlet spreading all the way to the tips of his ears, and it’s possibly the most endearing thing Eames has ever seen. “I heard you finished your certification,” Arthur says suddenly, and somewhat comically as he doesn’t let go of his own cock.
Eames barks out a laugh. “Arthur, are you changing the subject while I’m trying to have sex with you?”
“You’re busy! I’m just making conversation!” Arthur exclaims, and in a normal conversation he would certainly throw his hands up to absolve himself of responsibility for his own ridiculousness, but as it is he does not for a moment stop stroking himself.
I love you, Eames thinks. “I did finish, yes,” he says. He licks his lips briefly, pants a little as he pushes a second finger into himself. It’s maybe a little too soon, and he could not care less. “Terrifying as the thought may be, soon rational, thinking people will be putting their lives in my hands.”
“That’s not terrifying; I do it all the time.”
Deep down inside, Eames subconsciously thinks of Arthur as someone who trusts no one but himself. Someone who has a thousand backup plans in his head for every possible situation. Someone who’s always operating on his own level as much as he is anyone else’s. Eames thinks of Arthur as someone reliable, but uncontrollable. A being entirely self-possessed. A steady wind that fills all sails but cannot ever be changed, that will simply follow its own path regardless of the actions of other, lesser beings.
The thought that Arthur has ever, in his own mind, truly relied on Eames for their joint safety is one that’s never even occurred to him before. Yet Arthur says it so easily, as though his trust in Eames is obvious. As though it isn’t the biggest deal in the world that at some point Arthur has simply left his own life and well-being up to someone so unworthy and unpredictable and poorly-dressed.
All of this goes through Eames’s mind in an instant, and it’s more of a feeling – a tight, sharp sense of vertigo – than it is any sort of real, articulate thought. Eames is good at continuing to function under pressure, so he barely falters outwardly. He just grins slowly and says, “Well, darling, we both know you’re far more intrepid than most.”
“No, I just have very sound judgment.”
“Maybe not too sound if you’re getting mixed up like this with a guy like me.”
Arthur finally smiles, and it looks as though it comes surprisingly easy. He shakes his head a little and lifts his hips in order to reach into his own back pocket, and he comes back with a shiny foil condom packet. “I’ve known you too long to fall for your bullshit James Bond image,” he says, and tears the wrapper open. “Don’t get me wrong: it clearly works on less experienced people, and I’m sure it gets you laid or whatever, but right now we’re the only ones here and I’m in the middle of getting a condom on, so drop the act.”
Eames was only being self-deprecating, but he finds himself with a dry throat, staring at Arthur’s fingers as they deftly unroll the condom over the length of his cock, and he just says, “All right.”
His own fingers have more or less stilled inside him, and he could probably be more ready physically, but he’s never been so ready mentally in his life. Arthur is too much. Eames is completely screwed. A second later he’s yanking Arthur’s pants down further, just enough to give him room to work, and he takes a moment to thoroughly enjoy the look of shock on Arthur’s face.
“Eames,” Arthur murmurs as Eames crawls forward and gets into position atop him.
But Arthur just repeats, “Eames!” as Eames takes his cock to steady it and presses back, back against the thick head of Arthur’s erection, and then around it, and Eames barely takes a moment to think, barely even breathes as he sinks down onto Arthur. It isn’t easy, and it burns, but Eames couldn’t care less.
“Fuck,” Arthur groans, taking hold of Eames’s hips, his nails digging hard into Eames’s flesh. Eames lets out a gasp that borders on a moan, and Arthur responds in kind as Eames settles onto him fully. “Christ, look at you.”
“Look at you,” Eames responds, arching his back and spreading his thighs in an attempt to get his body to acclimate more quickly to having Arthur inside him. He slides his hands up Arthur’s flat stomach, bunching up his button-down. “So eager for this you couldn’t even get your kit off.”
“It’s cold in here,” Arthur replies, and it takes a moment for Eames to realize that he’s quite serious.
Eames suddenly feels rather divided. There’s the part of him that’s maybe the most aroused he’s ever been, the part of him that’s relaxing around Arthur’s hard, thick cock because getting on with the fucking part is the most important thing in the world. Then there’s the part of him that is absolutely baffled by Arthur, just continually bewildered by the man even after six years, the part of him that just sits there slack-jawed for a split second before saying, “But you’re sweating.”
And it’s true: Arthur is sweating, just a bit around his temples, but he snaps, “I am now that you’re sitting on my dick.”
“I see,” Eames says, and he leans forward over Arthur, propping himself up with one hand and letting the other shove further up under his shirt, finding one of his nipples. It’s hard, and Eames trails his fingertip around it, getting a hiss out of Arthur. Maybe the poor man really is cold. “Well. Let’s get that blood flowing, then.”
Arthur lasts about two minutes before he starts yanking open the buttons of his shirt, seemingly having a great deal of difficulty getting his fingers to cooperate with Eames riding him harder with each roll of his hips. Eames laughs breathlessly, gripping Arthur’s shoulders tight as he leans forward and grins down at him. He slows his pace, sinks down on Arthur, tightens around him. It’s easy now, a slow burn instead of a sharp pain. “Not so cold now,” he purrs.
And then, suddenly, he’s staring at the ceiling fan with the wind knocked out of him, close enough to the edge of the small double mattress that he’s lucky he didn’t fall off of it. “Fuck you,” Arthur says to him as he sits up, and for a sickening second Eames thinks that maybe he really hit some sort of unpredictable nerve, maybe he’s just poked at Arthur too much for too long and now Arthur’s changed his mind about being here and this is why Eames can’t have nice things, because he just breaks them.
But then Arthur fumbles quickly through the last few buttons and yanks his shirt off and he’s between Eames’s legs, he’s taking hold of his knees and practically folding Eames in half, he’s slender hips and a lithe frame and just the right weight pinning Eames to the bed as he pushes back into him without warning or permission.
“Yes,” Arthur breathes. He hooks Eames’s legs with his elbows and leans in with an absolutely wicked smirk, and then Eames has Arthur’s lips on his own, Arthur’s air in his lungs, Arthur’s cock driving into him so hard he can’t even form a coherent thought. Yes is the only word he knows, and that’s probably just because Arthur just said it, but that’s okay because it covers all his current bases.
Yes, he thinks. “Yes,” he breathes against Arthur’s lips, and when Arthur plies him with another kiss, Eames can feel him smiling.
It’s impossible for Eames to get a hand around his cock; there’s just no room to work in. Arthur doesn’t seem to care about making room, either; he just lets Eames take his weight, just bends him as far as he’ll go. He grinds into Eames at his own pace, moaning his name between possessive kisses, and Eames doesn’t care if this isn’t for him. He lets Arthur take what he needs, and he can’t even say that he doesn’t get off on it.
“Come on, darling,” he hears himself murmur after how long he doesn’t know. “Come on.”
Arthur lets out a choked moan, and he scrabbles a bit to keep hold of Eames’s right leg, and he pushes into Eames, and in. He comes with a broken cry, his brow knit but his eyes open and focused on Eames through all of it, as he draws one sharp, long gasp and lets it out and relaxes with it, his body warm and perfect on top of Eames, resting on his thighs, using him for support.
“There’s a love,” Eames says, reaching up and brushing Arthur’s damp, curly hair away from his forehead, and he smiles when Arthur frowns.
“Don’t patronize me,” Arthur says, but there’s not much force behind his words. He looks so thoroughly satisfied and content that it even rubs off on Eames, who feels a bit floaty even though his cock is still hard and leaking, pressed under Arthur’s stomach. Eames is very aware, just then, that he’s probably looking at Arthur embarrassingly fondly, but Arthur’s eyes are half-lidded and he looks as though he could just fall asleep right where he is.
When he pushes off of Eames, his movements are languid and slow. Eames sighs as Arthur’s cock slides out of him; it’s something of a relief, but he also almost immediately misses it. Sitting up, Arthur slowly lets Eames’s legs slide down his arms and onto the bed, and he gazes at Eames’s erect cock, resting there against his stomach, with a sort of absent fascination.
Eames doesn’t want to pressure Arthur into anything he’s too far gone for, so he begins to say, “I can just—”
“Shh.” Arthur shakes his head, never looking up. It’s nearly enough to make Eames laugh, except that Arthur moves now, bracing himself on either side of Eames’s hips and sliding down languidly, like a cat stretching, until he’s kneeling low enough between Eames’s spread thighs to ghost his lips over the tip of Eames’s cock. “I’m trying to enjoy this,” Arthur whispers, his breath hot on Eames’s oversensitive skin.
“Aren’t we all, darling,” Eames quips breathlessly. Arthur’s dark eyes flicker up to meet Eames’s for the briefest of moments, and then he seals his mouth around the head of Eames’s erection and effectively ends the conversation.
Eames is ready to go off, as much from the simple ecstasy of finally, finally having Arthur (half-)naked in his bed as from having just been fucked rather thoroughly. But Arthur manages to draw it out, taking Eames in long strokes and slow whorls of his tongue. He lets Eames take hold of fistfuls of his hair, even lets him roll his hips, the tip of his cock nudging the back of Arthur’s throat when Arthur takes him deep, and yet at no point does Eames feel like he’s the one in charge. Arthur is unquestionably in control, and Eames likes that. He’s always liked that about Arthur, even when he’s spent whole jobs trying to pry that control from between Arthur’s fingers just to watch the man fume.
Arthur’s mouth is steady, almost methodical in the most wonderful way. He finds what Eames likes, and he exploits it until he has Eames screaming. When Eames comes in only a few short minutes, he doesn’t stop himself from shouting Arthur’s name, and when he’s gasping for air and reeling from orgasm, Arthur climbs back up his body and settles down on top of him and kisses him slow and deep, and he tastes like Eames.
“Has anyone ever told you you’re bloody wonderful?” Eames asks when Arthur finally gives him room for breath.
“A few people,” Arthur replies, his voice a low, contented rumble that Eames doesn’t think he’s ever heard before. “But it means more coming from you.”
Arthur gets his pants off – finally – when he goes to clean up, and he comes back and soon Eames finds himself in a cocoon of Arthur’s body and bedding. It makes him feel a bit stifled, but certainly not enough to complain when Arthur falls asleep on him, his face pressed into the crook of Eames’s neck.
When he awakens again a couple of hours later, however, he feels positively feverish, and somehow Arthur manages to sleep through the process of Eames extracting himself from the sheets. He goes to the bathroom, and on the way he glances at the thermostat and sees that Arthur has turned the air up to twenty-three degrees. “Oh, darling,” he says softly, “you and I are going to have such a wonderful time together.”
Later he can’t help but wonder, when he tries to wake Arthur up with, “Are you hungry?” and gets, “Fuck you,” as a response, just how much of a rush Arthur was in to get back here and how long he might have gone without sleep. Nonetheless, Arthur does get out of bed (reluctantly) and get dressed (slowly).
“There’s something I forgot to mention,” he says when they’re on their way across the docks to the bar. Eames glances over at him, and Arthur looks very interested in the way the setting sun glints off the surface of the water. “I may have told Ariadne where I was going.”
Eames blinks. “Well, I like to play it as safe as the next reckless and irresponsible gentleman of ill repute, but I hardly think Ariadne is going to sell me out to the Russians.”
They reach the top of the stairs to the deck, and Marty is sitting at her favorite table in the shade toward the back of the bar, but she isn’t alone.
“I may also have mentioned that you have a pretty friend who’s single,” Arthur adds lowly.
“Ah,” Eames replies. “Well,” he says, because he knows that Marty largely gave up her love life to come live on an island with such limited prospects, and also that he himself has a natural knack for ruining moods, “let’s not disturb them, shall we?”
They sit down across the patio, where they can still see the others but are unlikely to be spotted if they aren’t being looked for, and Arthur orders a Diet Coke instead of a beer and an absolutely impractical amount of food. “I haven’t eaten since the airport in Berlin, and I’ve had kind of a strenuous day,” Arthur says dryly, glaring at Eames for whatever expression he perceives on Eames’s face.
Eames just shakes his head and shrugs, because what does he care if Arthur tries to put away three entrees? “If you can find a place in that tiny body of yours to keep it, more power to you.”
“Oh, god, they’re going to get married, aren’t they?” Arthur asks as his eyes wander over to Ariadne and Marty, who don’t even seem to have looked away from each other since they came in. Ariadne is laughing at something, hard.
“Not every lesbian is a U-Haul lesbian, Arthur.”
“I didn’t say that! It’s just that Ariadne is kind of intense. She just… puts her mind to things. Why settle for just getting into someone’s pants if you could put a little more effort in and put a ring on it? She’s a classic overachiever.”
“And you’re one to talk?”
Arthur’s jaw clenches at that, but he doesn’t look at Eames. Eames watches him let out a slow breath, and he expects Arthur to do the same thing that Arthur always does when someone (usually Eames) inadvertently hits a nerve: ignore it. But then, surprisingly, Arthur says lowly, “I’m an underachiever, actually. I was the gifted kid who got Bs and always had my teachers up my ass about why I didn’t do my homework. I took six years to finish my bachelor’s and then dropped out of a master’s program to go follow Mal around. I thrive in dreamshare because I get to take orders and keep to a strict schedule and no one job has to hold my interest for that long. But I don’t really have any hobbies that I’ve ever really followed through on and, uh… obviously I don’t have a ton of friends or… anything.”
Eames knew the last part, or at least suspected. But Arthur has never spoken much about his past except in vague generalities and little snippets of detail. He’d just sort of assumed, and it’s a bit of a surprise to hear Arthur talk about himself that way, but not an unpleasant one. He’s always liked being surprised by Arthur.
“Arthur,” he says, which gets him to reluctantly make eye contact. “I get the feeling that this is something you think is a bigger deal than it is. Who cares? Forging is the one thing that I’ve ever found myself to be truly exceptional at, and I’m giving it up. In my opinion, life isn’t about what you do; it’s about who you are. You’re a caring, generous person even if you try not to let people notice, you’re extremely funny even if you think you aren’t, and you’re obviously intimidatingly intelligent. Who cares if you’re not genuinely interested in fulfilling other people’s criteria for a life well lived? Your life is yours and you only get one of them, so do things on your own terms. Now that I really come to think of it, the word underachiever implies some sort of obligation to fulfill a very particular sort of perceived potential, and that’s a load of bullshit, really, so let’s both never apply it to ourselves or anyone else ever again.”
Eames isn’t sure that he’s ever had Arthur simply stare at him for so long, trying to process something he’s said. His reactions to things are usually as understated but whip-sharp as he is himself, but now he swallows slowly, and looks away again, and finally says, “I’m really glad I came back.”
Arthur looks at Eames sidelong, and he smiles slightly, and he ducks his head and when he lifts it again and nods, he’s really smiling, dimples and all. He’s so beautiful Eames sort of can’t believe he’s settled for present company. “Yeah. I am. Why would you even ask that? I think we’re having a pretty good time.”
“Well, to be perfectly honest, darling, I’m still waiting for you to start prodding me with questions about my decision to retire. Implying that maybe I’m overreacting. Which I am, by the way.”
“No,” Arthur says, and the smile vanishes. “No, you’re not. If I’m not underachieving, you’re not overreacting.” Eames raises an eyebrow, and Arthur adds, “How about we both stop judging our own choices? I told you I thought about this a lot. I spent most of my time in Germany thinking about it, and I realized that eight years ago I started grad school because I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my life. But that led me to Mal, and Mal led me to dreamshare, and dreamshare led me to you. And now you’ve led me here, so here I am. It’s taken me this long to just accept the fact that if I see something good – someone good – I have to just go for it.”
Eames’s throat is rather dry all of a sudden, and he swallows heavily but his voice is still a bit cracked when he says, “Did you just compare me to Mal?”
“Is that a problem?”
“No. That’s, uh…” Eames searches for the words for what that is. He can’t quite explain it. Mal was a person who affected people’s lives – especially Arthur’s – in a way that Eames never has. Mal was a force of nature. “That’s quite a compliment coming from you, is all.”
“Eames,” Arthur says, quite forcefully. “I don’t know if you realize how seriously I take being here.”
“And I don’t know if you realize how seriously I want you to take being here,” Eames replies immediately. He stares at Arthur, and Arthur stares back, and then suddenly the server returns and places the first of their food between them.
“Oh my god,” Arthur says, sounding like he’d been just on the verge of sinking into death’s hungry embrace and their dinner’s arrival is an unexpected last-minute godsend. A moment later he’s got a mouth full of guacamole.
“You should stay longer this time,” the server – Eames is pretty sure her name is Delphine – tells Arthur. “Where have you been that they haven’t been feeding you?”
“Airports,” Eames offers, because Arthur is still chewing.
“You poor thing.”
Later, they sit out at the end of the dock, much as they did on Arthur’s first night on the island but this time without the pizza. There’s a group out on a night dive, their torches moving like watery searchlights under the surface, looking much like a school of luminous jellyfish drifting out toward the reef.
“So tell me about the ocean,” Eames says. He keeps glancing down at Arthur’s hand gripping the edge of the deck and thinking he should hold it. He let Arthur fuck him earlier; Arthur can certainly let Eames hold his hand. But he hesitates, because in some ways he’ll probably always be an awkward teenager. “I believe you described it as ‘the worst’?”
Arthur’s fingers tighten a bit, and he lets out a slow breath, his eyes fixed on the lights. “It’s not just the ocean. Lakes, rivers, whatever. It’s… not knowing what’s down there, I guess. I went with my cousins up to their vacation house in Michigan once. I was probably twelve. I didn’t want to do much but sit on the dock or the boat for most of the weekend, but they finally got me on a jet ski. I really wanted to go, and I thought it’d be fine. I wouldn’t even really be in the water.
“So I went out, and it was great until my uncle banked too hard and dumped us both off the jet ski. It wasn’t a big deal and we were both fine physically; I’m not trying to tell you I’m traumatized or I almost drowned or something, ‘cause I didn’t. I was even wearing a life vest, but I started panicking. I was just… thinking about all the seaweed you could see from the dock, and how deep the lake might be where I was. What could be down there. Dead things, live things, I don’t know. Anything. Nothing. It’s just this feeling of being… in something unknown. That I can’t ever know, I guess.”
He sighed again, and nodded toward the dark, moonlit water just below them. “When I think about what’s down there, I think about how I could swim out and underneath me the ground would just drop away. Basically forever. Like, so deep we’re not even mentally equipped to comprehend it. It’s just… a void. That I’d drown in.”
“That’s broadly true,” Eames admits. “We can’t comprehend it. But would you still say that there’s an element of irrationality to your fear?”
“Well, yeah, of course. I know it doesn’t make sense. It’s not even the drowning that I’m afraid of; I’ve been a good swimmer basically my whole life. It’s just… the thought. It makes me feel like I’ve got spiders crawling over every inch of my skin.”
“So essentially how I feel when I think about Piers Morgan.”
“I’m so glad you don’t know, honestly.”
“Look, I know it’s stupid,” Arthur says, but Eames shakes his head adamantly.
“No, it’s not. Of course it’s scary. I can’t say I’ve ever been as frightened as you are, but yeah, the ocean is pretty bloody unsettling. All that space, all those things we don’t know. It’s like another planet. And I’m a nervous every time I go on a dive, even now. Every time.”
“So what do you do to get over that?” Arthur asks. “What’s going through your head?”
“Nothing,” Eames says with a shrug. It sounds like a cop-out, but it’s the truth. “I don’t think about it. I just jump in. And then I’m fine.”
Arthur purses his lips. Eames thinks again about taking his hand, because even in the moonlight he can tell that Arthur’s looking a little grim, but he doesn’t have to. It’s fine if he’s afraid of the ocean. He doesn’t have to like the ocean; Eames doesn’t exactly live in it.
“Arthur,” he says, and he reaches out to twine their fingers, but then Arthur’s hand is gone, and Arthur is gone, and Eames can’t even make sense of what just happened until a split second later there’s a splash, and his legs are wet and Arthur is gone and for a sickening, terrible moment Eames thinks that maybe Arthur has passed out, maybe he’s sick, maybe he’s drowning and Eames has to go in after him, and he’s about to but hesitates because he doesn’t want to land on Arthur and hurt him even worse.
And then there Arthur is: awake, alive, on the surface about five feet below Eames, treading water in his soaked clothes, his hair all in his face. “Fuck,” he sputters.
“Are you all right?” Eames exclaims, though it’s clear that Arthur’s all right from the fact that he’s more concerned about shoving his limp curls out of his eyes than anything else. There is, however, a certain frantic nature to the way he treads water that doesn’t have to be there. He’s clearly not at all at ease.
“I’m fine. I just thought… maybe… if I didn’t think about it… fuck.” Arthur looks at Eames, and then around himself, and Eames can hear his breathing and how fast and heavy it is.
“Hold on,” he says, and he shoves off the docks and manages to slip somewhat gracefully into the water alongside Arthur. It’s warm enough that it’s not much of a shock, but it’s not exactly pleasant, either, trying to come back up in one’s jeans and t-shirt. He feels slow and awkward as he breaks the surface, and Arthur looks at him in disbelief, even as he comes immediately closer as though if there’s anything unknown in the water, Eames will protect him from it.
“What are you doing? You didn’t have to do that!”
Eames laughs wetly. “I didn’t realize either of us was in here out of necessity.”
“I’m such an idiot.”
“No, you’re not,” Eames says, and he reaches out and grabs one of Arthur’s hands and manages to bring it over to one of the struts of the dock, making sure that they grab it above tide level where the wood is dry and smooth. Arthur looks at the dock like he doesn’t like that much more than he likes anything else down here, and perhaps he doesn’t, but at least he can stop treading water. Eames pulls him in by his shirt until they’re floating more or less pressed together. “Look at me. We’re going to stay here until you’re fine.”
“What if I’m never fine?”
“You will be. You know there’s nothing down there but sand, right? Really.”
“Don’t tell me that,” Arthur snaps.
“No, I’m sorry. I just… don’t need to know that right now.”
“All right.” And that is all right. Whatever works for Arthur. Eames watches him as he closes his eyes and gets his breathing under control. He lets go of Arthur’s clothing gently, then slides his hand around under the billowy fabric of his shirt and up his back, keeping him close and massaging the muscles along his spine a bit, trying to help him along.
“This isn’t so bad,” Arthur says at last. And then, suddenly, there’s the sharp, loud, unmistakable hiss of a BCD being inflated as someone pops to the surface less than ten feet away from them, and Arthur screams and nearly leaps straight out of Eames’s grip.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Eames sighs as he pulls Arthur closer.
“Sorry,” the newcomer says as they take their regulator out and set it into the water. It’s Hillary, one of the guides, and she pulls off her mask as it begins to fog up. “Are you guys okay?”
“We were until you nearly gave Arthur a coronary.”
“I was just startled!”
“I was coming in with my group and I just, um… noticed that you’re here. Wearing all your clothes. And shoes.” Hillary says that like she knows that Eames and Arthur must be fully aware that they’re completely dressed and floating in the sea in the middle of the night, but thinks that maybe they need to be reminded that this is odd and somewhat worrying behavior. “Hello, Arthur. Welcome back,” she says as a bit of an afterthought, and she grins, her teeth startlingly white in the moonlight.
“We’re just indulging in a bit of spontaneity,” Eames says. He can’t really feel annoyed, because there’s basically no way for an observer to read this as anything but the two of them being in some sort of trouble or having fallen in; in the absence of irritation, his tone just comes off as self-effacing.
“As long as you’re all right,” Hillary says, still sounding a bit wary. “Do you need any help getting over to the stairs? Or do you want me to grab you some life jackets when I get out?”
“No, thanks. We were just heading in,” Arthur says. There are more sounds of surfacing as what must be Hillary’s group begins to come up a bit farther away, and the funny thing is that now that he’s past the initial fright, Arthur begins to feel more genuinely relaxed against Eames than he was before. Maybe it’s the effect of having more people around. Maybe it’s the reassurance that whatever’s down below them, these people went there and came back unscathed and seemingly un-traumatized.
Hillary nods a little, but her eyebrows are still somewhat furrowed. “Okay. It was nice seeing you anyway.”
Arthur actually ends up helping Eames a bit more than vice versa on the way around the side of the dock to the stairs, and they walk back to Eames’s flat soaking wet. It takes until they’re halfway there for Arthur to start laughing, and he doesn’t stop until they’re inside, stripped out of their clothes and crowded into the little shower together and just leaning against one another under the hot cascade of water.
There’s a PASIV in his flat, Eames realizes the next morning while he’s on his way out. Arthur’s PASIV, formerly Dom’s, formerly Mal’s, tucked between the sofa and the wall in the living room. Not really hidden, not just left out in plain sight.
That evening, he comes back and finds that Arthur is napping, which Eames is happy to see because giving in to jetlag is an indulgence Arthur rarely allows himself, and in Eames’s opinion one of life’s greater pleasures. He makes himself an egg sandwich and eats it standing in the living room, staring at the PASIV sitting there, lost in thought.
“Good morning, starshine,” he says when Arthur finally stumbles out into the world of the living, his hair looking like a terrible, wonderful mess.
“I hate being awake,” Arthur groans. He doesn’t say anything as he crosses the room about the fact that Eames has the PASIV entirely set up and ready to go on the coffee table. Instead, he just slumps down onto the sofa next to him - so close they sink into the cushions, Eames’s right side pressed to Arthur’s left – and stares at the machine like he’s waiting for it to do a trick.
“I thought you might be interested in going back to sleep.”
“I do hate being awake,” Arthur reiterates.
“Let’s have your arm, them,” Eames says, prompting Arthur to hand over his right one, the pale skin of his forearm held up to him. The close proximity is altogether new to Eames in this situation; he’s never dreamed with anyone in a position even remotely like this. In the Venn diagram of people Eames wants to dream with and people Eames wants to cozy up to, the intersection has only ever included Arthur.
“Where are we going?” Arthur asks. He smells like Eames’s toothpaste, and Eames smiles slightly, realizing that Arthur brushed his teeth before coming out here. Apparently they aren’t quite at the stage in their relationship where they don’t have to pretend they don’t have stale, post-nap breath.
“I’m taking you on a date,” he replies as he slides the needle into Arthur’s arm. He can see and feel the way Arthur tenses up, even after all these years, and he gives his elbow a bit of a squeeze, even though Arthur definitely doesn’t need the reassurance.
Arthur watches him with one cocked eyebrow that might have come off as incredulous, if his actual incredulous expressions were anywhere near so subtle as that. He doesn’t move away as Eames inserts his own line into his left arm, and in fact he moves in closer, settling against Eames’s side and stretching a bit to reach the plunger.
They come up still leaning into one another, face to face, as though they’ve been having an intimate conversation. The lights in the space are low and tinted blue, and Eames watches as Arthur blinks a bit and looks around, his mind having to adjust to the unexpected rather than his eyes having to adjust to the light. The room they’re in is a long gallery, with benches down the middle and the walls punctuated with large glass windows into a variety of luminous aquarium tanks. Arthur’s mind has populated the space rather sparsely, with quiet, polite adults watching the animals behind the glass with a quiet, serious sort of fascination.
Arthur pulls away from him slowly and heads over to one of the windows. The world beyond is overflowing with lush, green plants, so thick they block a significant amount of the light inside, wherever it’s coming from. Arthur leans in close, and because it’s a dream and he’s allowed, he puts a hand up to the glass as he peers up, trying to get a view of how far up the tank goes. Eames follows him after a moment, leans in to see as well even though he suspects what he’ll find. The kelp forest stretches up out of view, and Arthur jumps a bit as a pair of bright orange garibaldi suddenly dart out of the plants and through his line of sight.
“Is this all right?” Eames asks, and Arthur glances over at him only briefly, before he looks back to the variety of fish flitting in and out of the masses of seaweed.
“I like aquariums,” he says, with just a hint of defensiveness in his voice. He clearly does; he has the same air of childlike captivation that his projections do as they peer into the tanks.
“I thought it might help to look at things from a different angle.”
Arthur doesn’t respond for a moment. He could easily argue that he’s been to aquariums before, but Eames knows that people don’t really equate what they see at the aquarium with what’s out there in the world, under the surface of the water. How could they, when it’s so disconnected? Apparently Arthur realizes this too, because he nods at last. “Yeah. It might.”
He looks back at Eames after a few more moments, and surprisingly enough he gives him a genuine smile. Eames, in a sudden fit of optimism, reaches out and takes Arthur’s hand, and Arthur doesn’t even hesitate in letting him. He even turns toward him as a clear signal that Eames can lead him around if he likes.
“Everyone talks about dreamshare like it’s just a business,” Eames says after they walk for a while in a companionable silence, stopping at each window down the length of the gallery so Arthur can peer inside. It’s not a subject he ever really broaches with anyone, because damn near everyone he knows does view it as just a business. Most people would assume that Arthur does more than anyone, but Eames has always had an inkling that that’s not the case. “Nobody has a sense of wonder about it.”
“I’m wondering where you came up with all of this,” Arthur says immediately, and Eames smiles, because it’s as though Arthur somehow knew what he was thinking. “These can’t all be places you’ve been.”
“And you can’t possibly know all of these fish.”
“Most of them probably aren’t even real. But that one’s a humuhumunukunukuapua’a.” Eames points it out, a triggerfish with a distinctive orange chevron, just over Arthur’s eye level. Arthur watches it for a moment, then raises an eyebrow at Eames, and Eames hastily amends, “Really. It’s the state fish of Hawaii.”
“I didn’t know states had fish.”
“Your people love to make things official for no apparent reason.”
Arthur rolls his eyes and leads Eames on down the gallery, and Eames adds, “I’ve been to some of these places. Some of them I’ve just seen in National Geographic, or nature documentaries. Some of them I’m probably just making up. To be honest, I’m not sure on most of them.”
“The mind is an incredible thing.”
“Thank you!” Eames exclaims, causing Arthur to jump a bit. “Thank you for saying it. Nobody ever says it. It’s always oh, it’s so amazing to be in someone else’s dream. No, it’s not. Dreams are amazing, all on their own. There’s nothing all that fundamentally incredible about tricking someone else, but dredging up things you’ve forgotten and putting them together in ways too complex to even understand well enough to trick yourself? That’s bloody incredible. People have no sense of proportion.”
“I didn’t say all that.”
“But you agree with me. I’ve seen the way you build. And you’re trying not to smile right now.”
Arthur glances over, his eyes glinting with amusement, their corners crinkled. “Yeah. I agree with you.”
“I always knew you were different from other people in dreamshare.”
“Better. You’re better. Than the lot of them.”
Arthur grins now, though he tries his best not to. “You’re just saying that because you like me the best. And what ever happened to my having no imagination?”
Eames nearly stops in his tracks, but Arthur just compensates by pulling him along with an exceptionally insistent step. “Oh, yeah,” Arthur says, “Dom told me about that.”
“I always talked you down to him. It was part of my strategy of whittling away at your professional relationship with him so I could steal you for myself.”
“Yes, actually. And also I was a bit miffed at you at the time. For being so damn difficult to steal away.”
Eames hears Arthur draw a sharp breath next to him as an enormous stingray glides down from somewhere above them, a school of brightly-colored angelfish scattering to either side of it. When they look up, whatever light source is coming from above is distant and indiscernible. “This is nice,” Eames says; it is nice, and possibly bigger than even the largest real tank in the world. It’s teeming with animals of all sizes, and Arthur doesn’t even seem to know where to look because there’s always something new swimming past.
“Yeah,” he says absently.
“We should go in.”
“What?” Arthur’s head whips around so fast Eames thinks it a bit of a wonder that it doesn’t simply fall off.
“In,” he reiterates. “We should go in.”
They’re alone here in this room. The farther they’ve strolled through this dream, the fewer of Arthur’s projections they’ve passed. Maybe because this is a date, and Arthur subconsciously wants to be alone. Either way, here they are by themselves, and so Eames doesn’t think twice about letting go of Arthur’s hand and stepping straight up to the glass. He reaches up and lightly touches it with his fingertips, causing it to ripple gently in a concentric pattern that moves steadily out toward the edges of the wall.
“Oh, what the hell?” Arthur mutters, and Eames smiles to himself.
“Come now, dear heart, we both know how you love impossible things.”
“Drowning is my least favorite way to die.”
Eames turns and hands Arthur one of a pair of masks that appears in his hands only in that moment. They’re not anything like real dive gear; in fact, they look more like something out of a science fiction film, with a visor that covers the upper half of the face and a sleek black portion that fits over the nose and mouth. It has slits similar to gills running up each side, and overall it’s the kind of item that isn’t real, but that fully looks like something believable, something that could be invented any year now, something that works.
In the dream, you don’t need to follow the rules, but you need to fool yourself into believing that you are. Arthur stares down at the mask, his fingers flexing around the soft silicone edging that will seal it flush to his skin, his face drawn into a little frown.
“Nothing to worry about,” Eames says, his voice low and reassuring. “Just join me when you feel comfortable.”
He slides his own mask on, taking a moment to adjust the bands over the back of his head and the mask itself over his face, and he steps backward, and then again, and he hits a wall of strange, cool pressure. The water begins to seep into his clothing before he sinks into it, and then suddenly it’s as though the surface tension breaks, and he falls backward all at once, and he’s inside. He floats there, impossibly buoyant in the water that’s far, far warmer once he’s immersed in it. Arthur stands on the outside, watching him with his mask still clutched tight in both hands, and Eames can’t really tell what his expression looks like because the surface of the water between them is still rippling heavily with his entry.
Before it settles, Arthur puts the mask on. He does it all at once, with the air of a man who does not want to do something but has made up his mind to get it over with. He steps up to the water, and he looks at Eames as the surface settles, and without even thinking about it Eames reaches out into the air that now feels cold compared to the water, and he holds out his hand for Arthur. Arthur takes it, and Eames pulls it in, pulls him in, guides him as Arthur simply lets himself tumble forward into the water.
They kick up a cloud of sand in the process of getting Arthur inside and calm, but in the end they settle back onto it, sinking down to the floor. Arthur stretches out on his back, still gripping Eames’s hand tightly, and Eames gives him a moment to ground himself. He looks so strange, lying there at the bottom of this tiny ocean in his vest and tie and the mask that Eames just invented for him, drawing deep, sharp breaths as he tries to get used to the mental weirdness and physical pressure of breathing while submerged.
Eames just floats there alongside him, watching Arthur as he stares wide-eyed upward, through the unknown depth toward the light. He sees Arthur’s breaths slowing and evening out, feels Arthur’s hand relax in his own, and when Arthur seems ready he reaches down and gives himself a gentle push and begins to drift, and he pulls Arthur with him. Arthur reaches down with his free hand, giving himself a little bump to help without kicking up too much sediment. Even Eames is a bit thrilled by the ease with which they can move here. It’s for Arthur’s benefit, because real dive gear is awkward and overwhelming for a beginner, but simply existing in the water with no lead-filled pockets, with no air-filled BCD, is a unique and intoxicating sort of feeling.
It’s just like zero gravity, in fact. Eames has experience with that, and Arthur, well… Arthur is practically a pro. The initial shock seems to pass quickly, because his focus never quite makes it back to Eames; instead, he’s mesmerized by the variety of silhouettes darting and gliding about above them, and soon he lets go of Eames’s hand, and then he’s gone. Eames just sits there and watches Arthur kick with a surprising amount of grace for a man wearing most of a suit underwater, and he only follows after a minute, after Arthur has some space to just do as he wants.
Arthur lets himself get swallowed up in massive schools of fish and follows the gentle currents in whichever direction they tumble him. Soon he seems to get annoyed with his clothing and the way it pulls at his body, and he starts stripping out of it while he’s suspended upside-down. His shoes, his tie, and then the rest of his clothing a piece at a time drift past Eames toward the bottom, which is far enough below now that the window that leads back into the aquarium is no longer visible from where they are. Maybe it doesn’t even exist anymore; Eames wouldn’t be surprised to find that it just disappeared. He watches Arthur, and begins pulling off his own clothing after a moment. In the middle of kicking off his trousers, he suddenly feels the water behind him displaced in some indefinable way. Before he can even react, something hits him in the shoulders, and he’s being tumbled end over end by a massive, silky smooth something that he can identify as a giant manta ray only when it’s already blown past him and left him disoriented. He shakes his trousers loose without even really thinking about it and looks around for Arthur.
It takes him a moment, but only because Arthur is a bit difficult to spot in the shadow of a fully grown whale shark, the pair of them not fifteen feet above Eames. Things seem to happen in slow motion in the presence of the truly, mind-blowingly enormous, and Eames is able to take in every split second of Arthur lying there on his back while the shark passes over him, of the way Arthur kicks just a bit to follow along a little, of Arthur’s long fingers when he reaches up to tentatively let his hand run over the animal’s pale underbelly.
And then the shark is gone, and Arthur drifts there for a moment before righting himself and looking around to find Eames, as though he wants to make sure that Eames saw the incredible thing he just saw. Eames can’t see his mouth, but he can tell Arthur grins when he spots him.
The walls seem to narrow as they drift higher, and when they finally break the surface, they find themselves in a world of mottled sunlight and the roar of a waterfall cascading into an adjacent rocky pool. Improbably enough, they’re in some sort of sinkhole in a thick jungle. Arthur pulls his mask off first, and Eames follows, and they both simply drop them and let them drift away into the depths. He watches Arthur draw a few deep breaths, then head for the edge of the pool and haul himself up onto a broad, flat ledge of stone, worn smooth by the water.
“All right there?” Eames asks, following and folding his arms over Arthur’s slightly spread thighs when he gets there, so he can drift there between his knees and look up at him. The air here is humid and hot, and Eames prefers to stay in the cooler water.
“Yeah,” Arthur says, brushing his hair out of his eyes and leaning back on his hands. He’s a bit breathless, as though he never quite fully calmed down, but that’s understandable. His cheeks are flushed pink, his naked body pale and luminous when the sunlight catches his wet skin, and Eames wants to press himself against every inch of Arthur almost as much as he wishes he could take a picture and bring this part of this dream with him.
Arthur cocks his head a bit, looking at Eames with an inscrutable sort of interest written on his face, and then reaches out and shoves Eames’s dripping wet hair back from his forehead, and he smiles just enough to show his dimples.
“Did you have a nice time?” Eames prompts.
“Yeah,” Arthur says again, and his seeming reticence might annoy Eames, except that then Arthur slides a hand under his chin and uses it to lift his face so he can lean forward and kiss him. It’s immediately hot and deep, Arthur’s tongue plying his lips, and Eames hauls himself a bit farther out of the water to meet him, putting his weight on his own forearms. Eames sucks the salt from Arthur’s lips soon enough, and they kiss like that until Arthur is breathless and breaks off, but no sooner has he done that than he slides forward and back into the water, between Eames and the rocks.
The only think holding them there is Eames, and he immediately finds a crack in the stone and hooks his fingertips into it. Arthur wraps his legs around Eames’s waist, hooks one arm around his neck and reaches down between them with his other hand to find Eames’s stiffening cock. Eames has almost no leverage whatsoever, and so he lets Arthur do as he wants. Arthur kisses him deeply, working Eames with tight, deft fingers until Eames is fully hard. As soon as he is, Arthur shifts his hips, tightening his legs and shoving their cocks together. His hand wraps around the both of them, and Arthur pants heavily against Eames’s parted lips as he begins rutting against him.
It’s quick and rough and incredible. Eames gets the most of Arthur’s hand’s attention, and he comes first, moaning low with each breath, watching Arthur as Arthur watches him like Eames is the singular focus of his entire existence. Eames spasms against him, jerking sharply, and the moment it becomes too much and Arthur lets go of his cock, Eames orders him, “Up.”
Arthur immediately takes the hint, letting go of Eames entirely and hauling himself back up onto the rock ledge with both hands. Eames is on him in an instant, sliding Arthur’s reddened, glistening erection into his mouth. He’s smooth and salty against Eames’s tongue, and he twines his hands in Eames’s hair the moment he can, pulling him down further onto his cock. His legs wrap around Eames’s body, holding him close, and his moans are immediate, loud and not quite in the shape of words. Within a minute Arthur goes entirely stiff, and Eames swallows him down eagerly as he climaxes with a broken shout.
They don’t say anything after that. For what can’t be more than a few minutes but seems quite a bit longer, they sit there like that, with Eames’s head resting in Arthur’s lap and the both of them catching their breaths. Arthur strokes Eames’s cheek, his jaw, the nape of his neck, and keeps a tight hold on him with his legs. Somewhere above the canopy of the trees, the sun must come out from behind some clouds; the light dappling their skin intensifies, and Eames floats sits there and enjoys the heat of Arthur below him and the sun at his back.
He awakens slowly, a bit bleary and still very noticeably aroused with his erection tenting his jeans, his body unable to keep up with his mind. Arthur is still pressed against him, and he doesn’t move much until Arthur sits up and goes to remove his own line. Eames does the same, and they both toss them onto the coffee table carelessly. They’ll clean up later; for now, Arthur turns and climbs onto Eames. He’s bleary and a little slow in his movements, hard but not insistent.
Eames grunts a little as Arthur settles down heavily on his lap, and Arthur laughs under his breath. “I’m glad you had a nice time.”
“Very nice,” Arthur says. “My last boyfriend never took me anywhere like that.”
The word boyfriend is strange, like someone else’s honorific. Eames doesn’t feel much like a boyfriend, but he doesn’t want to not be a boyfriend, either. It’s like putting on a new pair of shoes that feel strange but look amazing. Maybe, like the shoes, the word just needs a bit of wear and breaking in. “He never took you to the rainforest?” he asks.
“To museums,” Arthur replies, leaning in so close that Eames can’t see his face but can feel his lips brushing across his jawline.
“Is an aquarium a museum?”
“Is a hamburger a sandwich?”
Eames barks out a brief laugh at that, and he can feel Arthur chuckling. “I suppose I don’t know.”
“It is. And an aquarium is a fish museum.”
Eames slides one hand into Arthur’s hair, encouraging him wordlessly as Arthur takes to pressing little kisses to his neck. “You’re secretly a bit weird, aren’t you?”
Arthur hums his agreement and says, “Who isn’t, though?”
And he’s right, really.
Arthur is a quick study. They lay out in the shade of the palms on the pool deck and do his classwork together. Eames tells Arthur that he doesn’t have to get certified if he doesn’t want to, but Arthur says very seriously, “Do I get an official-looking card to put in my wallet? Then I’m doing it.”
When it’s time for him to get in the pool, he doesn’t hesitate. He’s quick and confident in assembling and checking his equipment, and when Eames helps him get his stuff on he’s always one step ahead. “Doesn’t it make you nervous?” Eames asks as he watches Arthur bump his tank up so he can tighten his straps. It’s not the kind of thing he’d ask a normal student, but Arthur is not a normal student. “Trusting this equipment with your life?”
“Not really. I ride in planes all the time. This is way simpler than that; it’s just a series of valves, right?”
“Ah, more or less.”
“So if one of them fails, I’m probably just going to end up with a free flow of air rather than none at all. Right?”
Arthur is right, but he already knows that and doesn’t need Eames to confirm it for him. “Don’t you think a certain amount of fear is a good thing, going into a potentially dangerous situation?”
“I think a healthy respect and sensible amount of caution are good things,” Arthur replies. “Besides, I’ve got enough to be afraid of without freaking myself out about something as simple as this shit.” He gestures to all of himself. Eames looks at the tank, the two regulators, the inflator hose and console, the suit and mask and snorkel and fins and all the straps on Arthur’s very nice new BCD.
“You’re the first person I’ve ever met who’s described all this as simple.”
“I think other people confuse heavy with complicated,” Arthur quips, and then he slides his mask on and puts his snorkel in just like he’s supposed to, and he steps into the pool.
“I’ll take good care of him,” Marty says from where she and Ariadne are both floating in the water.
“You say that like I’m the one who’s nervous,” Eames replies, and he slides his hands into his pockets and heads down to the docks.
That evening, Ariadne and Marty show up at Eames’s door with groceries, and Marty quickly decides that Arthur is allowed to help make dinner but Eames definitely is not. She shoves a beer in his hand and pushes him out onto the patio, where Ariadne is already curled up in a deck chair.
“You’re not allowed to cook either?” she asks as Marty slides the screen door shut behind him with a decisive click.
Eames sits down next to her and allows himself to pout a bit. “I collapsed a soufflé once, ten years ago.”
“I burned waffles this morning,” Ariadne says mournfully. Pausing with his bottle poised halfway to his lips, Eames just stares at her until she notices that he is, and then watches as a blush begins to spread across her face. “Stop that! I am an adult! I can have breakfast with whoever I want!”
“But it’s not the breakfast part you’re embarrassed about.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” Ariadne hisses. “Why should I be embarrassed? Marty is hot.”
“And also intelligent and extraordinarily kind,” Eames points out, and he gives her a pointed look as he finally takes a sip of his beer.
She scowls. “That stuff goes without saying because I know you already know that.”
“Like I don’t already know she’s hot as well? I’m gay, not blind.”
“How do I know if you notice those things? I look at men and I just don’t understand what anyone sees in any of you.” Eames laughs at how serious Ariadne manages to look when she says that, and after a moment she can’t stop herself from smiling.
He sinks down a bit lower in his chair until he’s well and truly slouching, resting his beer on the arm of it, and says, “Well, thank you for setting aside your latent disgust with my gender long enough to spend this quality time with me.”
“I kinda have to, though,” she says. “I’m not gonna get many chances now, with everybody retiring.”
It’s an oddly serious incursion into an otherwise facetious bit of conversation, and Eames blinks at her. “Everybody?”
“Well, yeah. Cobb went home to his kids, Yusuf doesn’t take field jobs, and now you’re out and you’re taking Arthur with you. And none of the jobs I’ve been on have even come close to the Fischer one, so, I mean, you know. I peaked at twenty-four and all my friends are dead. I might as well try being a real architect.”
Even though it definitely shouldn’t – and even though Ariadne does not at all sound upset about the idea of being a real architect and in fact is simply staring out through the palms toward the sea with a thoughtful, contented look on her face – that makes Eames feel a bit guilty. Taking Arthur with him, she says. Like Eames is simply packing Arthur up and going home, ignoring the fact that Arthur is not a toy and that when Eames went into hiding in the first place, Arthur wasn’t his.
If Arthur is even his now. Eames isn’t sure about that; they still haven’t properly discussed what’s going on between them. Even thinking about the long term would feel a bit hasty, except that they’ve known each other for six years and been through loathing and pigtail-pulling and camaraderie and friendship and everything in between, and Arthur seems as disinterested as Eames is in playing at taking it slow and feeling things out like they weren’t anything to each other prior to coming here. Arthur has always been something to Eames, and the day he came back Arthur implied that Eames had always been something to him as well, and someday Eames is going to work up the courage to ask Arthur to elaborate on that point.
“And you think you’ll be happy,” he asks, “just going back to normal?”
Ariadne looks over at him with a bit of a sly smile. “You’re asking because you wouldn’t have been happy being normal when you were my age.”
“I was quite a bit younger than you when I was your age,” Eames says, and Ariadne snorts, but she seems to understand what he means. She’s only barely out of university; in terms of the real world experience, her twenty-five is Eames’s eighteen.
She says, “But you weren’t interested in a regular job back then.”
“Obviously not. All I was interested in was adventure and excitement and really wild things.”
“And did you have those?”
“Probably a bit too much of them. With or without a price on my head, I’ve had about enough for the time being.”
“As much as I like excitement, I like stability more,” Ariadne says. “I’m debt free thanks to Saito. I’ve got more than a couple grand in the bank for the first time ever thanks to the last few jobs. It’s probably a good thing you and Arthur are leaving. It makes it easier for me to make the decision to just settle down and get my ducks in order. I’ve just been putting it off since graduation by taking jobs.”
“And what are these ducks you’ve got to organize?” Eames asks.
“Well, I’d like a long-term place to live. Maybe a dog.”
“Marty is allergic to dogs,” Eames says, and he has to laugh at the look of unhappy shock that immediately crosses Ariadne’s face. “Only joking,” he adds quickly. “But I do think she likes cats better.”
“Who doesn’t like cats?” Ariadne says, looking over her shoulder, presumably at Arthur and Marty in the kitchen. “I like cats. Cats are great.”
Here are the non-definitive, somewhat abridged, somewhat annotated, possibly out-of-order and definitely unreliable steps of preparing for a dive:
Step one: Gracelessly shimmy your way into a skintight, questionably stretchy neoprene kit. A good suit might have sticky bits lining the openings just to make your job that much harder. Put on your shoes; they may be damp, and they may smell, but they are not optional. If necessary, have a friend help stuff you into your sausage casing.
Step two: Pretend that you, alone among human beings, are capable of looking cool while carrying a dive cylinder. That thirty-five pound, two foot long aluminum tank is nothing at all to you. Not heavy, and definitely not awkward. You don’t stagger; you swagger. You look amazing – so casual and effortlessly strong – and everyone wants to be your friend. Just don’t drop it; that’s highly pressurized gas you’ve got there.
Step three: Get your shit together, or rather put it together. Strap your BCD onto your tank; that stands for buoyancy control device, but it doesn’t look like a device. It looks like a vest, and you fill it with air to keep you afloat. You also stuff a few kilograms of pure lead into the BCD’s pockets at this point, to keep you from floating. It all sounds rather counterintuitive, but it works, and science is rarely intuitive at that. Put your regulator on your tank. Check all the parts: you need a second stage to breathe through, an octo to help your buddy (we’ll get back to this) stay alive in an emergency, a little hose that hooks up to your BCD to fill it with air (again, so you float), and a gauge to tell you how long you have until you die.
Step four: Use the little knob where you attached your regulator to turn on your air. This is important.
Step five: Find a buddy. Really, you should have done this way before you even got started. Never, ever dive without a buddy. Your buddy watches out for sharks, lends you air if you run out, informs you that you are drunk in case of nitrogen narcosis, and calls for an airlift to a hyperbaric chamber in case of decompression sickness.
Step six: Remind yourself that diving is, on the whole, a very safe and enjoyable hobby.
Step seven: Put on your gear. Get your buddy to help hoist it onto you (if you don’t mind looking like a weakling). Once you have everything on but your fins, stagger over to where you want to get in the water. Do not walk while wearing your fins; remember that your primary concern is looking as cool as possible, and your secondary concern is not tripping. Once you get to the water, go ahead and put those fins on. If you can’t do it without falling on your ass, don’t bother. Just hook them onto your arm and worry about it later.
Eames is as aware as anyone that there is nothing romantic or attractive about getting ready for a dive. It’s time-consuming and a bit of a pain, really. There’s just nothing really fun about strapping fifty pounds of equipment to your body. And Eames will even admit that there’s nothing inviting about deep water when you’re looking at it from the beach or a cliff or the deck of a boat. It’s water; it’s dark and cold and you can’t breathe it, and what’s down there? How great can it really be? From above, all water looks flat and empty.
The next step is jumping in. It’s never pleasant; it’s always kind of a nasty shock, because unlike jumping into a pool on a hot summer day, jumping into water in a wetsuit slows down the acclimation process to a crawl as the water slowly fills the suit through the wrists and ankles and the back of the neck. Wetsuits are warm, but they take time to get there.
And the thing is that even after you’re floating there, checking your equipment and waiting to descend, you can look down into the depths below you and most of the time you still can’t see much, and what you can see is distant and murky and not particularly interesting-looking from all the way up where you are. Sometimes it looks downright unpleasant. But the thing is this: you have to go for it. Diving is an activity with a swift, sudden, and incredible payoff. There’s nothing in the world like letting the air out of your BCD and sinking slowly down into a foreign landscape. There’s nothing like whatever’s down there – plant, animal, mineral, or otherwise – rising to meet you, getting clearer and brighter and more real as you go. There’s nothing like the alien landscape of a coral reef, a submerged cavern, a valley of swaying seagrass. There’s nothing like finding yourself in a world where all you have to do is breathe out to sink, breathe in to rise. Where you fly, and so does everything around you, and it’s effortless, and it’s beautiful.
But you have to get there, and Arthur makes it as far as jumping into the water. They’ve taken one of the smaller boats out to the leeward side of Klein Bonaire, just the four of them. The plan was for Eames to stay on the boat while Marty took Ariadne and Arthur out, but Arthur begins to hyperventilate the moment he hits the water. He jumps in without much encouragement, but he’s already panicking by the time he bobs to the surface again. Marty grabs him, makes sure his BCD is fully inflated, helps him get his mask down.
“Arthur!” she says sharply, taking him by the straps of his vest and pulling him in until they’re eye to eye. “Arthur, you’re all right! You’re safe! You’re in the water and you’re doing great!”
“Yeah,” Arthur manages, but it’s clear that he is not even a little all right.
“You can do this,” Marty says to him, but Arthur only shakes his head.
“I can’t do this,” he says after a minute. He’s still breathing hard and sharp, his face red.
“You can. We’ll wait for you.”
“Marty,” Eames says lowly, crouching on the deck at the back of the boat, “he’s going to burn through his air in no time if he goes down like this.” Marty looks up at him, frowning, because from the point of view of an instructor, leaving Arthur behind won’t do him any good. Helping him break through the wall his fear has built around him will. But Eames isn’t an instructor, and Arthur isn’t an eager student. “He can stay with me. We can take him out again later if we need to, off the docks. Take Ariadne.” She hesitates a moment longer, and Eames adds quietly, “Please.”
Wordlessly, Marty helps Arthur over to the ladder and makes sure he’s all right. “Go ahead,” Arthur says, and there’s a bit of a sharp note to his voice. He’s embarrassed, and Marty seems to take the hint. A minute later, she and Ariadne are gone.
“Come here, darling, let me help you,” Eames says, positioning himself to give Arthur a hand in getting back onto the boat. It’s only then that he sees how badly Arthur’s hands are shaking, and how the only thing keeping him on the ladder is his left arm wrapped tightly around one of the rungs. Eames has never seen Arthur so frightened; in fact, he can’t remember the last time he saw anyone as purely terrified as Arthur is now. In a split second, he decides that trying to get Arthur onto the boat before getting Arthur calmed down would be an incredibly foolish decision. Without hesitation, he jumps down into the water, startling Arthur and shocking his own system. He comes to the surface and pulls himself in next to the ladder, close to Arthur, and grins at him as he pushes his hair back.
“Here we are again,” he says, but Arthur doesn’t laugh.
“You don’t have to get in the water every time I do.”
“Pff, I love being wet,” Eames says with a wave of his hand that splashes the both of them a bit. Arthur frowns, and Eames adds a bit more seriously, “And I love being with you. Wherever you are. I love the fact that I can be, and you’ve decided to let me. So just let me, hmm?”
It’s a bit more than Eames was planning to say. It’s a bit more than maybe he should say, but Arthur just looks stunned. He’s rather cute, floating there in his puffed up vest and leaning back slightly the way people in full gear tend to do, and Eames pulls him close in what he hopes is a reassuring way. Something seems to be helping, because Arthur is starting to get his breathing under control.
“Why do you have to be so nice?” Arthur asks him. “You’re hot and talented enough to get away with being a jerk.”
Eames raises an eyebrow. “So are you.”
“I am a jerk.”
“No, you just like to pretend that you are, and nobody has the heart to tell you that you’re terrible at it.”
Arthur looks up, and he draws a deep breath that comes out very shaky, and Eames realizes that he’s on the verge of crying. He’s only seen Arthur cry once, years ago, when he’d had a bit too much to drink in a hotel bar in Argentina and three months’ worth of bottled-up grief over Mal had suddenly come pouring out. The next morning, they’d both gone forward pretending everything was fine. “No,” Arthur says, his voice stretched tight, “you’ve got that backwards. I’m a bad person pretending to be nice.”
It’s probably the most honest thing Arthur has ever said to Eames, and the really heartbreaking part is that it isn’t even the truth. So Eames tells him, “You’re wrong. You’re sitting here hanging off the back of a boat having a panic attack for me. Look at those girls who just left; they’re two of the best people I’ve ever known, and they’re your friends. Bad people don’t end up with friends like that. Trust me, I know, because I’ve known a lot of bad people, and Marty has been reminding me for twelve years that I’m not actually one of them. And neither are you.”
“This isn’t going to work!” Arthur exclaims with such volume and force that it stuns Eames for a moment. Arthur is shaking again, but now he lets go of the boat and starts trying to get his gear off. He reaches down under the water and rolls a bit as he struggles to get his fins off, but he actually manages to come back up with them surprisingly quickly. Eames opens his mouth to say something, but Arthur throws the fins rather violently back onto the boat deck and says almost franticly, “I have to get out of the water. I have to.”
So Eames helps, climbing back up immediately and reaching down to help haul Arthur out by the valve of his tank. Arthur makes it onto the deck and just stands there for a moment, dripping wet and red-faced and short of breath. Eames strips off his soaked t-shirt and tosses it aside, then takes hold of Arthur and guides him over to one of the benches and sits him down. He starts stripping Arthur’s equipment off of him himself, shutting off his air and unbuckling all his straps until he can haul the entire thing off of him.
Arthur even allows him to unzip the back of his wetsuit and pull the arms and chest down, but as soon as Eames tugs the sleeves off his arms, he kneels down in front of Arthur – who’s been silent and passive through the whole thing – and says, “Do you want to tell me what you mean when you say this isn’t going to work?”
“I told you, I’m not a good person,” Arthur says, finally lifting his eyes enough to look at Eames. They’re red, maybe from tears or maybe from being unused to the salt water. “I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it for me.”
“Okay…?” Eames replies. This whole conversation has him feeling ill and frightened and more than a little confused, but he doesn’t see how facing a fear for one’s own self is a bad thing.
“Because I can’t not put in the effort. I won’t let myself just give up on this… idea of being with you, but I’m doing it even though I know it isn’t going to work out. I’m just stringing you along because I need to be driven away. I need the closure of just fucking running us into the ground before I leave. I need to resent you so I can let you be. I’m selfish.”
And Arthur screws his face up and drops his head, pressing the heel of his hand to one eye as he tries to force back tears, and he lets out a loud, long sigh as he tries to calm himself. It takes Eames a moment, because he feels like he’s been slapped, and he still doesn’t even know what Arthur’s talking about. “I don’t understand,” he says, his voice sounding broken even to his own ears, and Arthur responds to it by furrowing his eyebrows more, and drawing a shaky breath.
“I tried to tell myself that once I got over this fear of the water, I could just deal with everything else,” he says after the moment it takes to steady himself. He looks up through wet eyelashes, barely meeting Eames’s gaze. “But I know that I can’t. I can’t live on this island. Any island. I can’t. I don’t even like being in the sun, and I can’t just… not have a city. I’ll be miserable. I hate these little places with the same restaurants and the same stores and the same people who all know you and nowhere you can just disappear. I grew up in a place like this and I couldn’t get out fast enough. Don’t get me wrong, this is amazing and fucking gorgeous. I see why you love it, but it’s not for me. I’m happy in the city, and I’m not ready to give that up. Maybe I’ll never be ready to give that up, and I’m not going to give you an ultimatum over it. I’m not going to tell you that you have to be miserable for me.”
And in that moment, Eames kind of gets it. He knows exactly what Arthur’s saying, at least about his own feelings, though he hasn’t quite sorted out the rest of it, not fully. “You’re a flâneur,” he says, and Arthur does not look as though he’s familiar with the term. “It means you like being alone in a crowd. You act like I didn’t already know that, but look at how you dress, look at the dreams you build. You’ve always been a quintessential urbanite, Arthur. It’s what I’d build off of if I needed to forge you.”
“So you understand why this won’t work and I should have just spared you the trouble and never come back.”
“No, I don’t! Up until a few months ago, I was voluntarily living in a city of two and a half million people, Arthur! What on earth makes you think that—” And then it hits him, and he cuts himself off as he rolls this new revelation around in his head for a moment. “Arthur,” he says, “how long did you think I was planning on staying in Bonaire?”
“Forever?” Arthur blurts out. “Indefinitely? I don’t know. A long time. You got a job here!”
Eames sighs in relief as he realizes what a thoroughly incorrect premise Arthur is having a meltdown over. All at once, the unpleasant, tight heat that’s been coiling in his gut dissipates. “I got a job so I’d have something to do with myself for a little while. Arthur, this isn’t my dream. It isn’t my long-term plan. I realize now that maybe this looks like me just finally snapping under the weight of my life and shedding my skin and becoming a whole new person or whatever it is that people who have major life crises do, but I can assure you that I’m not. This is my idea of a transitionary period, darling. I decided to stay here while I figured out what I wanted the next part of my life to look like.”
For a moment, Arthur just blinks at him, his eyes still relatively teary but no longer looking as though he’s about to actually start crying. Eames takes his hands and leans his arms on Arthur’s knees, and he fixes him with a very serious look. “And right now all I’ve got figured out is that I want you in it. Forever. Indefinitely. A long time. Everything else is extremely negotiable.”
“You’re not settling down here,” Arthur says, and he sounds vulnerable and openly emotional in a way that Eames isn’t sure he’s ever heard from him before.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been settled anywhere in my life. If you want me to settle, I will, but I’m not about to just do it on my own.”
“So you’re open to living other places.”
“Just about anywhere but Russia.”
Arthur laughs, briefly, then sniffles. “What kind of gay couple would move to Russia?”
Eames smiles and says brightly, “Not ones that I’m half of, certainly.”
“I’m such an idiot,” Arthur says, scrubbing at his face with his both hands and sitting up so that he can drop his head back. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me; I’m not the one who thinks you’re an idiot.” Eames sits back and takes one of Arthur’s feet so he can start pulling his shoes off for him. Arthur lifts his head and gives Eames a look that’s halfway between mournful and incredulous, but he doesn’t try to stop him. He’s probably tired; panicking is, in Eames’s experience, very draining. “I do wish, however,” Eames says as he gets the one off and starts on the other, “that you would have told me about your concerns. You do realize that even if I had been planning on staying here for a long time, I would readily have reconsidered that for you?”
“No,” Arthur says immediately. “Why would I?”
Eames pulls the second shoe off, dumps the water out of it, and sets it aside. “Because I thought that maybe somewhere in your subconscious you realized that I’m not in love with anywhere on this god-forsaken planet the way I’m in love with you, Arthur.”
Arthur’s face goes slack and rather pale, then red in quick succession. He doesn’t say anything, and after a moment Eames amends, “And I wasn’t going to tell you that because I didn’t want to frighten you off, but if you’re going to continue to operate under assumptions about what I do or don’t want, you should know what it is that I want.”
When Arthur finally gets his voice working again, it’s very quiet. “You mean like the way you operated under the assumption that I wasn’t in love with you when you decided to just disappear without telling me? That kind of assumption?”
“Um,” Eames says.
“Or the assumption that I don’t want to hear that you love me? Is that the kind of assumption we don’t want to be operating under?”
“I know I can be kind of cold, but Christ, you of all people know it’s not like I don’t have feelings. You’ve seen me at my worst. I always make damn sure you’re looking when I’m at my best. How do you not get it? How did you not notice that the last year with you I was the happiest I’ve been since Mal died?”
“I thought that had more to do with having Dom out of your hair than the increased contact with me,” Eames says, and he feels stupid even as he says it, but he’s too stunned and too flustered to come up with anything to say but the embarrassing truth.
“For fuck’s sake, of all the times you could’ve picked to start giving yourself too little credit,” Arthur chides him, and he takes Eames’s head between his hands and leans down and kisses him, firm and slow and soft, like it’s their first time. When he pulls away again, he gives Eames a rare, secret sort of smile, more dimples and crinkled eyes than lips, and he says, “Let’s go swimming.”
“I’m feeling better, and I find it sort of comforting that my friends are down there somewhere,” Arthur says. He stands, which puts his crotch right in Eames’s face as he starts pushing his wetsuit down to get it off the rest of the way. Eames moves back and stands a bit awkwardly, still taken off-guard by this change of heart.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m riding the adrenaline from panicking. Let’s go,” Arthur insists, yanking a foot out of the wetsuit and then stepping on the rest of it to try to wrangle his other foot free.
“You don’t have to do this,” Eames insists. “I just said I’d come with you.”
“So? We’re here now. We’re on a private boat in the fucking Caribbean and it’s the most beautiful day ever,” Arthur says. “I’m going swimming. I’m getting over this bullshit fear. And I’m not leaving this damn island until I’m a competent diver.”
“You still want to do it?” Eames asks as Arthur kicks the wetsuit aside. He follows when Arthur heads for the back of the boat with an air of determination.
“Of course I do. You can’t just take a guy on an aquarium date like that and not expect him to want more.” Arthur stops at the edge of the boat and turns to grin at Eames over his shoulder. Eames stands there for a moment, just taking in the sight, then grabs Arthur and sweeps him off his feet entirely before leaping straight off the deck and plunging them both, wrapped tight around one another, into the sea.
Arthur turns out to be as good at diving as he is at everything else – that is to say, very. Conscientious and responsible. A model student, Marty says (in the middle of drinking him under the table after he completes his check-out dives three days later). And moreover, he likes it. He’s still nervous a lot of the time, and does better diving with a group, but he throws himself into every opportunity, into learning everything he can.
Eames watches him once, when he swims away from the reef and out over the drop-off where the seabed just disappears down into the depths, beyond the limits of their sight and their own ability to venture. He watches Arthur just hanging there, the teeming fish and vibrant corals behind him and the infinite blue-black expanse of the ocean ahead, and for a moment he worries, but Arthur’s breath is visible as a long, steady stream of tiny bubbles as he sucks air in deep and lets it out slow, and after a minute he turns back and looks for Eames, and he signals that he’s okay, and that’s that.
It’s getting well and truly past summer in areas of the world that are not sunny little spits of land off the coast of Venezuela when Eames says to Arthur, “Where would you like to spend the holidays, then?” and Arthur’s face positively lights up.
He tells Ariadne that they’re leaving, and she says, “I think I’m going to stay a little longer.” Eames is fairly certain that Bonaire has no need of architects, but he’s just as certain that they’re not going to see Ariadne stateside anytime soon.
Eames has never loved the cold, but he loves Arthur in a grey peacoat and black scarf, bundled up on walks in the park, crunching through the last of the autumn leaves. He loves Arthur coming in from a bitingly windy day and practically crawling up into Eames’s jumper with him in an effort to steal his body heat. He loves Arthur sitting in the window seat in his front room, staring out at the fat, fluffy snowflakes piling up in drifts on the street, uncaring that the forecast predicts fourteen inches so long as they’ll have a proper white Christmas.
He loves Arthur so much that two years after the day that Arthur showed up on his dock and shoved him into the water, Eames says in the middle of making dinner, “I should think about creating myself an American identity.”
“Or you could just marry me and become a real citizen,” Arthur replies immediately, and Eames nearly drops his knife. He manages to catch it and place it gingerly on the cutting board, then turns around to stare at Arthur. Arthur isn’t even looking up; he’s just reading something on his tablet.
“You want to have a green card marriage?” he asks, his own voice stiff and awkward to his ears.
Arthur immediately turns the screen on his tablet off the way that other people might pointedly close a book or fold a newspaper, setting it down on the table but keeping his fingers wrapped around the edge of it. “Or maybe I’d rather be married to Daniel Eames Connor now than some other person you just made up later.”
Eames’s hurt begins to turn to flustered nerves, and Arthur adds seriously, “And you promised no more unnecessary criminal activities.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Eames says weakly.
They honeymoon for two months, in a world they build together, in a villa perched at the edge of a sea that is never the same twice.