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"Eames? He's in Mombasa."

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It’s been over a year, and he still hasn’t figured Eames out. And it’s driving him mad.

They meet on a job in Chiang Mai. Eames is all charm and good looks, and he falls for him a bit, back then. At least until Eames talks him into going to the night market and tries to buy him a small figurine with an enormous penis. And then he realizes Eames has the emotional maturity of a five year old.

So Arthur nips that right in the bud, citing “the need for professional workplace relationships,” and to his credit, Eames backs off. Arthur figures he’s dodged a bullet, because these sorts of things never end well.

And now it’s been more than a year, and they’ve worked a handful of jobs together. Eames always flirts a little, but he never tries to pick Arthur up. And thank god really, because he still acts like a child, pulling Arthur’s pigtails.

One night in Prague they get drunk at a bar, and Eames confesses he’s got a thing going with someone. Arthur’s relieved, in a way, but curious. Who’d put up with him? So he puts in a few calls. Discreetly. It turns out the guy’s an architect in Paris. When Eames finishes the job, Arthur ‘coincidentally’ (and surreptitiously) ends up there as well. Watches them embrace at the airport, have brunch together. The guy looks normal enough. Whatever. It’s not like Arthur’s interested.

The ‘thing’ with Paris Architect lasts six months. Then there’s Italian Fashion Photographer (three months, has an enviable suit collection). Canadian Lumberjack lasts two. That one had been worth the trip to British Columbia — he’d thought Kenta had been joking about the cabin, but he’d scoped it out himself. Very rustic.

He’s not sure why he keeps his finger on the pulse of Eames’ social status. It’s a bit creepy, if he thinks about it too hard, but he tells himself it’s morbid curiosity.

According to Rokuro, their chemist on his last job, Eames’ most recent conquest is a freelance journalist he met in Chile, but the long distance relationship is taking its toll. Apparently. (Chilean Journalist is the only one Arthur hasn’t checked out personally, because this is falling out of the ‘professional research’ category and fast into ‘stalking,’ and he knows it.)

And so, when Eames shows up for the Fischer job, he’s trailing a string of four relationships behind him. Not a horrible record, true, but they probably all left him because he parades around his apartment naked, or tries to have threesomes, or … something. He isn’t sure what types of childish, delinquent things Eames gets up to, but anyone who tries to buy a penis figurine on a first date can’t be trusted. (Not that it was a date.)

And this time, Eames still flirts with him a bit (because he always does), and it’s just as juvenile, but now Arthur is curious. Again. Because he’s dying to find out what they’ve all seen in him that he hasn’t. And honestly, he’s a bit jealous. Maybe Eames is a really good fuck and Arthur’s been cock-blocking himself for the past year for no good reason. Why else would they all stick around for as long as they do? It’s not like they’re a series of one-night stands.

Arthur flirts back. Eames grins like a shark and ups the ante: asks him out to dinner. He panics, but it’s not as if he can back down now.

Eames is uncharacteristically restrained throughout the meal, keeping the joking and teasing to a minimum, and it throws him. He’s not sure what to do with this more-serious Eames.

He asks Arthur about work, about his life outside of work, and they discuss music and art — and when Arthur makes fun of his awful taste in clothes, Eames bears it with good grace.

They have dessert, and coffee, and a horribly clichéd walk along the Seine which manages to be romantic even though neither of them is trying that hard. This arms race of flirting between them that resulted in definitely-not-a-date has led to a perfectly enjoyable evening which, with anyone else, he’d totally classify as a date.

Which is all well and good, except for one thing. The thing that makes no sense. The thing that’s driving him nuts. How did the other guys put up with the ‘normal’ Eames for so long? Because the version he’s seeing tonight is very much not the normal one.

“Eames?”

“Hm?”

And now he wishes he’d thought it through a little more before opening his mouth, because it’s hard to question someone on their previous lovers when the only reason you know about their existence is because you’ve been stalking them. “Lovely night, isn’t it?”

Eames stops and turns to look at him. “Yes, it is, but that was an awfully serious prelude to a statement about the weather.”

“Right.” He remembers their night in Prague, when Eames had confessed to seeing someone. He figures it’ll be better if he plays it stupid. “Are you still seeing that guy?”

Eames smiles fondly. “Alain? No.”

Maddeningly, he doesn’t offer anything further. He’s not sure what he expects — for Eames to spontaneously pour his heart out about all his past relationships?

“Can I … ask what happened?”

“Isn’t that a little personal?”

“God, yes, I’m sorry,” Arthur says, mortified and backtracking.

Eames shrugs. “Some things just don’t work out.”

They end up going on a second ‘not-a-date.’ And then a third, but that one definitely is a date.

And the whole time, he’s trying to reconcile this person he’s starting to think is the real Eames with the ‘emotional-maturity-of-a-five-year-old’ Eames he’s always known.

Over dessert, he asks him, “Why’d you try and buy me that godawful figurine in Chiang Mai?”

Eames starts laughing, a full-body laugh that goes on for a good ten seconds before he gets it under control. “I’ve been paying for that for more than a year, haven’t I?”

“It was —”

“— I thought you’d find it funny.”

“Oh.” And he’s not sure what else to say, because clearly he hadn’t found it funny, and it backfired spectacularly, but maybe he shouldn’t have held that one thing against him this entire time.

Eames shrugged. “I have a juvenile sense of humor. Perhaps you’ve noticed?”

“Well … yeah.”

“Part of the package, I’m afraid.”

“Huh.” He frowns at his crème brûlée like it’s personally insulted him. He pushes it away, completely off balance now, all interest in dessert gone out the door.

“Um, I’m sorry?” Eames offers, looking genuinely contrite, which is ludicrous. It’d be like him apologizing for his spreadsheets.

“No, you’re fine. It’s just —”

“— what?”

“This whole time, I’d —” and he’s just about to say, ‘written you off because of it’ when he realizes how childish and rude that is.

Eames waits for him to finish the sentence, and now he has to come up with a plausible ending.

“Yeah.” Okay, so it isn’t plausible at all. It isn’t even coherent. But at least it fills the silence.

“Sorry?” says Eames.

Damn him.

“Um, you want to get going?” Arthur says, because he needs some fresh air if he’s going to think his way out of this. But this is a French restaurant, so it takes five years to get the check, and it only takes him a few seconds to have the sickening realization, ‘When Eames finds out I’ve been stalking him, I’m going to look like a child.’

He mentally tallies up all the people he pulled in for his little ‘research’ favors. None of them would deliberately say anything, but it would only take one accidental slip …

He’ll have to tell him.

He starts to wish he hadn’t had dessert, because now he feels nauseous.

On their walk back, he avoids the Seine. He’s half-worried Eames will push him into it when he finds out.

Best to get it out in the open though, right? If Eames flies off the handle, maybe that’s a good reason not to be in a relationship with him. After all, it was more ‘intel gathering’ than ‘stalking.’ He, of all people, should be able to understand that. Purely professional reasons. Keeping tabs on his colleagues in the industry. (He doesn’t have to mention how closely he was keeping tabs, necessarily.)

He tries for smalltalk and fails miserably. He’s nervous and it ruins the casual ease they have going.

After a couple minutes, Eames places a hand on his shoulder and stops him. “What’s going on?”

“I … have an apology, of sorts.”

“Oh?”

He turns so he’s facing Eames. “We should sit down.” If they’re sitting down, he figures there’s less of a chance Eames will be able to … what? Punch him? He can’t believe he’s seriously worried about that. Then he remembers how often he’s thought with his fists himself in the past, and searches for the nearest bench. “Over here.”

“Christ, Arthur, what’d you do?”

“Well. I may have kept tabs on your personal relationships for the past year or so.”

Eames eyebrows raise high on his forehead. “May have?”

“Did.”

Oddly, he doesn’t look as upset as Arthur had expected him to. He doesn’t look upset at all. The corners of his eyes crinkle in what could almost be amusement if he didn’t know better.

“Arthur, I’m flattered. I’ve never been stalked before.”

“It wasn’t stalking, it was … light professional curiosity. Research. That’s all.”

“Really?”

And there’s a hint of another emotion there as well, and Arthur’s not sure what it is, but it’s dangerous. But if he can play to Eames’ ego, he can make this work.

“Well,” says Arthur, hurrying before the mood can change, “after Prague, I got a bit —”

“— jealous?” Eames supplies.

“— curious.”

“Right,” Eames says, looking doubtful, and Arthur’s aware he could be coming off as a bit of an ass here. “So you did what exactly?”

And this is when Arthur — in a life-saving moment of clarity — figures out what that dangerous look is. It’s Eames’ “you’d better not fucking lie to me, because I’ll put up with a lot but I won’t put up with that” look. And he decides he’d better not hold back.

“I went to Paris,” Arthur says, “and I saw you with Alain and found out what he did for a living.”

“And?”

“The same with Marco and James. And I heard about Joaquin.”

“You ‘heard about,’” Eames says evenly, “meaning what, exactly?”

“That I didn’t go and, um —” he looks away, rubbing the back of his neck “— visit. That time.”

“Anything else you’d care to share?”

Eames hasn’t hauled off and hit him yet, and still doesn’t sound particularly upset, so he figures he’s safe. He gives him a weak smile. “No, that pretty much covers it. Tell Marco I love his suits, if you’re still in touch with him.”

Eames does smile, then. “They were fantastic suits.”

“So …” Arthur says, hedging, “you’re not upset?”

“Let’s just say that reality is always more complicated that you expect, and you really rather set yourself up for this, darling.”

“Wait. What?”

“Alain’s an old friend of mine from school. Hadn’t seen him in years.”

He shakes his head, confused. “What?”

Eames is grinning now, and Arthur feels like he missed the plot about two steps back. “When we were in Prague and I said I had a boyfriend, I wasn’t seeing anyone.”

Arthur is aware his mouth is hanging open and shuts it.

Eames continues, “I only did it to see what your reaction would be. I didn’t expect you to buy a ticket to Paris to spy on me.”

“But how —”

“I watched your credit card charges. When I saw you were going, I phoned Alain and asked him for a favor. He met me at the airport and we had lunch. It was lovely to catch up.”

“But you were together for months.”

“Bits of gossip here and there — it certainly seemed that way, didn’t it?”

“But …”

“Now Marco, that was a true tragedy. He’s the only straight fashion photographer in all of Italy. He was dating my cousin. Wouldn’t even let me have a kiss.”

“Then why’d he do it?”

“He thought it was hysterical. Also, he needed some loans paid off. But mostly he thought it was funny.”

“And James?” Arthur asks with dread.

Eames looks gleeful. “James was lovely, a friend of a friend who works in the forestry service with a taste for single malt scotch. I was impressed you came all the way out to British Columbia. Quite a trip.”

“You fucking bastard. Do you know how long that flight was?”

He laughs, and Arthur wants to throttle him. “Why do you think I chose it? It took quite a bit of research to keep up with your stalking activities. I wanted to make you work for it.”

“What, you weren’t out there the entire time?” Arthur says.

“Of course not. I stayed at his cabin on the days you flew out to check. You’re very predictable in your ‘research methods.’”

Arthur glares at him. “And Joaquin?” he asks.

Eames beams and says, “— didn’t even exist. Once I found out you weren’t bothering with the in-person visit, there wasn’t much point.”

“You fucking —”

“Darling,” Eames cuts in, “are you really about to criticize my good-natured tolerance of your stalking?”

And he stops, and the all pent-up fight in him deflates in a heartbeat, because suddenly, everything makes sense. All the things he’s been puzzling out for more than a year.

They’re perfect for each other. They’re both a couple of five year olds, terrifyingly competent and stalking each other across the globe.

He quirks a grin. “Mr. Eames, I am impressed. And here I thought I was the only one with research skills. My apologies.”

“Apology accepted,” Eames says, looking smug.

“Does this mean we can have sex now?”

“As long as you can overlook my sordid past, I don’t see why not.”

“Yeah, I think I can work with that,” Arthur says, and kisses him.

As they head back towards the hotel, Arthur says, “Oh, and can you get me the name of Marco’s tailor?”