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“It could’ve been worse.”

Arthur says this in the cab on their way home from JFK, knowing it’s a fucking useless thing to say – and what’s more, a lie – but he’s never been good at breaking silences.

Eames turns away from the window and looks at him, mouth with a ready smile but eyes unmoved, making Arthur think there’s someone in there he doesn’t know, will never know no matter how tenaciously he claws his way in.

“You hardly need to spare my feelings, after all these years,” is all Eames says before he turns back to watch the world, theirs now, roll by.

*

It wasn’t the first time Eames brought Arthur home with him, so Arthur has an idea of how it works, after. He tries to act like they never left and Eames tries to remember what they’ve come back to. Arthur stocks the fridge, reinsulates the windows, bangs around doing a shitty job of fixing the leak in the half bath because he fucking hates calling in a plumber, while Eames practices avoidance and hiding in plain sight. And Arthur wants to say stop, stop hating yourself, stop being terrified of what I might see, because for all he’s incredibly obtuse about people in general, he’s instinctively perceptive about Eames.

But this, he’s not sure how this part works. He thinks that even if he had an instruction manual he’d fuck it up, so he keeps quiet. He drags Eames out of bed for jogs at the crack of dawn, makes reservations at their favorite sushi place, rings up Ariadne about a job, fucking stifles them with normalcy. He knows what he’s doing – he can’t fix the problem so he’s burying it, and mostly he feels like a selfish prick. But he wants Eames wholly, not split between two continents. He wants to study Eames assiduously over his morning coffee, press against Eames in the produce section, and fuck Eames in their bed without the weight of anger, of a far-off and still unbearable loneliness, dragging them down.

*

“Jung’s getting a team together, a short-term thing,” he tells Eames from the far end of the sofa, laptop balanced on his thighs and feet in Eames’s lap, typing at his breakneck pace all the while peeking at Eames through his lashes. “The mark’s in Nairobi but we’d be working out of Mombasa. Yusuf’s providing the cocktail.”

“Mmm,” Eames hums absently, immersed in The Guardian’s sports section he gets express delivered from the UK because it reports on ‘real’ football.

Arthur frowns and tries again. “He also said he’ll give you a chance to win back the pride you lost last time and he’ll go easy on you because you’re probably off your game, having turned domestic and all.”

This time Eames looks up, mouth twitching. “Did he now.”

“Yes. His exact words,” which is another bald-faced lie, but Arthur, contrary to popular belief, has a knack for those.

Eames just hums again, eyes pinning Arthur down one second, infuriatingly opaque, and back to his goddamn football the next.

“How about another time? The jetlag’s still wearing on me and making me feel tragically old.”

It’s a tone that brooks no argument insofar as it perfects utter apathy, grips Arthur casually by the throat, reminding him of Eames’s mother, who looks so much like her son it makes Arthur feel ill because she doesn’t have a single ounce of his warmth, a single inch of his capacity to live, or to love.

*

Arthur’s cleaning his Glock, supplies arranged in order on the dining table, when Eames walks in and sits down across from him, worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth. Arthur’s only seen Eames look this nervous twice before: the time he’d finally worked up the courage to tell Arthur the downstairs cleaners fucked up Arthur’s favorite suit when he’d explicitly told Eames not to take it to the downstairs cleaners, and the moment Eames put the car in park in the driveway of his family’s sprawling estate, done up like a Christmas postcard, before he turned to Arthur and said, I’m sorry.

Which means Arthur should expect something hilariously trivial or completely catastrophic.

“Check that this is real,” is what Eames says and Arthur just blinks, unsure of what the fuck is happening. “Go on, roll your die.”

Eames gives a little encouraging nod, deadly serious. Arthur fishes his die out of his pocket and rolls it, to appease Eames more than anything else.

“Now that that’s settled,” Eames continues, leaning forward like here’s where Arthur really needs to pay attention. “I know I’ve been a shithead the last few days. You’ve put up with it, so beautifully, when you really shouldn’t have – ”

“Yes, I should,” Arthur interrupts, frowning. “Eames, Jesus, I know – ”

“Shut up, darling, I have a point.” Arthur closes his mouth, eyebrows twitching because this is the man who obfuscates a trip to the dentist. “I’ve been thinking about something, not for the first time, because however – misguided my family is, they remind me – they remind me I still want to build a family of my own. And that’ll come with its own madness, its own messiness and heartbreak – but you, you make me think it’ll be something good anyway, amazing, even, if I manage to do it right. If – we do it right.”

Arthur stares at Eames, Eames who’s staring back like Arthur can save him, and the first thing Arthur thinks, reflexively, is, I will, we will, before terror floods him, sharp and sweet, the way it does right before he rides a kick up through a dream and it feels almost indistinguishable from elation.

“I want to do it bloody right. I want – normal, and the more I think about it, the more certain I am that normal is not – Christ – it’s not this,” Eames says, waving an agitated hand at what’s laid out on the table, solvent, bore brush, slide, magazine. “Not safe houses and red-eyes and forged passports, stashing light artillery around the house, mistakenly incapacitating the mail man because we’ve ended up on someone’s hit list for the third month in a row. Maybe I’m tragically old. I used to look at people pruning their rose gardens and driving their kids to school and think, god, someone put them out of their misery. Now I envy them.”

He reaches forward and tugs the gun out of Arthur’s hand, then pushes their palms together, lining up their fingers, and just like that the terror subsides because, well, the truth is, Arthur’s thought about this too, during those in-between moments when the noise of their lives quiets down. The truth is, Arthur’s been certain for a while now.

“Tell me if I sound like I’ve gone off the deep end,” Eames slots their fingers together, grips Arthur hard like it’ll tell him what’s real and what’s entirely in his head. “I’m not saying you should – you have to want what I want. Just that if you happen to agree, even in the slightest – ”

It’s the third time Arthur’s seen him this nervous and it makes Arthur think, Jesus, you’re beautiful like this. It makes Arthur think this is how it works, not perfectly, not as instructed, not on the first try, just one foot in front of the other, trying as goddamn hard as you can.

So he doesn’t let Eames finish. He leans across the table, shoving everything aside to pull Eames to him, and says, “I do. I really, really do.”