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Counterfeit Heartstrings

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The situation was a simple one: Eames botched up a job and needed to stay someplace he wasn’t likely to be found until it all blew over.

Then Arthur met him at the airport with a frown and a key and the words, “Don’t make me regret this,” and suddenly everything sprouted several more twists and turns than Eames was expecting.

“I’m not going to say I told you so,” Arthur said, “but I did.”

“Actually, what you said was, ‘Pick your battles a little more carefully this time,’” Eames huffed, cramming his suitcase into the backseat. “That hardly counts as screaming out a warning about Amarinder being a fucking menace.”

“Well, yeah.” Arthur looked exasperated. “Because every time I try to warn you off anything, you take it as a challenge and do it anyway just to see if you can. It’s like every day is opposite day for you, but that would be ridiculous since we’re not in fourth fucking grade.”

Eames slid into the passenger seat and sulked in a decidedly adult manner for the rest of the trip.

Arthur’s house was modest-sized, a Victorian style affair painted a muted gray-blue that actually had a respectable amount of yard. Ivy crawling up the porch railings, honeysuckle starting to burst into bloom around the dark fence posts. Violets growing wild in the shaded patches back near the toolshed, carpeting the grass with swaths of cool purple. The smell of imminent rainfall and wild sweet onions. It was enough to make Eames believe in fairies.

“So, Amarinder, huh?” Arthur said, slinging Eames’s duffle over one sharp shoulder. “Do I get to hear the details now?”

Eames wasn’t exactly dying to explain himself, but Arthur hadn’t made fun of him once and there was a key weighing more heavily in his pocket than it rightfully should. “If you must know, he wanted me to extract some formula or other from Gvazava because apparently she happens to be one of his chemist rivals and he just had to know what she was up to. Then she found out about it and offered me double if I’d work for her instead.”

“And you did.” Arthur’s face wore an expression that was almost unreadable, but Eames had spent years trying to catalogue the nuances of Arthur’s face and was fairly sure he detected a hint of mirth in his eyes.

“So I did,” he said. “But it turned out Amarinder put her up to it in the first place to see if I could be trusted and they both decided I couldn’t be.”

Arthur coolly arched an eyebrow, waiting.

“I also broke his espresso machine,” Eames added, “but that was an honest mistake.

“Nothing about you is honest,” said Arthur. “Your reputation finally caught up with you. I always sort of wondered if that would ever happen.”

“You know, I’ve worked with far too many conniving chemists for it all to be a coincidence. I’m never speaking to another chemist again. Chemistry and forgery just aren’t meant to mix.”

Arthur opened his mouth, no doubt to point out that actually chemicals were an integral part of forging and Eames was a moron. Or maybe that it wasn’t the chemists who were the common variable in all Eames’s problems. Either way, he’d somehow do it sexily because only Arthur could make insults sound like foreplay and then Eames would be at a loss as to whether kissing him or taking him over his knee was more appropriate. So Eames beat him to the punch, gripped him by his belt loops and hauled him closer until they were chest to chest in the middle of Arthur’s hardwood-floored living room.

“Thank you,” he said quietly, “for letting me stay with you.”

And Arthur only lowered his eyes and shrugged, collar gaping just enough for Eames to make out the dip of his collarbone. “I’ve gotta keep you in line somehow.”

Eames pulled him closer still and kissed him anyway.

---

Laying low at Arthur’s place had its advantages. It was rent-free, the neighborhood was several shades more placid than anything in Eames’s life had been for the past six weeks, and everything tended to be neat and organized even though Arthur arranged things in the oddest ways and Eames still couldn’t fathom why he kept tomatoes in the freezer or owned two hair straighteners. As far as he knew, Arthur never ate tomatoes on anything and always tended to keep his hair short or gel the life out of it—hell, sometimes he did both at once—rather than flatiron it.

But he let Eames have full run of the kitchen, didn’t seem to mind clearing out the armoire in his home office so Eames could stash his things inside, and he hadn’t uttered a single peep of complaint about Eames essentially invading his life. There was even a pullout sofa, which Eames had yet to utilize even once. That probably helped.

He’d been there four days when Arthur did something so bizarre it made the mysterious tomatoes seem like nothing. One minute, he was uttering soft little moans and sucking on two of Eames’s fingers like he’d never tasted anything more amazing, and the next he was putting a hand on Eames’s wrist when Eames tried to ease one slick fingertip inside him. “It’s a low three tonight, sorry.”

It was such a non sequitur Eames just gaped at him stupidly, distracted by the pink in his cheeks and the way his fringe curled over his brow. “Are you rating my performance?”

“Quit playing dumb.” Arthur propped himself up on his elbows. “You can still blow me, though, that was going really well.”

Eames had faced down entire armies of projections without losing his cool, but Arthur somehow had the ability to make him sputter just by raising an eyebrow. Someday, maybe when he was brave enough to take the plunge and drunk enough not to shy away from the truth, he was going to have to attempt an in-depth analysis of just how that was possible. “What’s that supposed to mean? If I step it up a notch, am I worthy enough to fuck you?”

Arthur blinked, his half-open mouth red as a freshly cut carnation. It would have been enough to make Eames kiss him senseless if he wasn’t preoccupied with being hopelessly confused. “We’ve been over this, that’s not what this is about.”

“We’ve been over nothing,” Eames corrected, “and what’s not what what’s about?”

Now Arthur was staring at him like he’d just announced he was going to give up dreamsharing and become an alpaca farmer. “Eames, this really isn’t the time. Are you serious?”

“When I say I have no idea what you’re going on about? Deadly.”

“I can’t believe we haven’t had this conversation,” Arthur muttered, seemingly more to himself than to Eames, and flopped back onto the mattress. “Really?” He spent a minute or so just frowning at the ceiling, which gave Eames a stupendous view of his elegant neck, then sat up with a rather martyred-sounding sigh.

Eames waited to be enlightened, which didn’t happen. Arthur’s cock was just inches away, hard and still damp from his mouth, and it’d be a crying shame to not touch it, but Eames needed a few things cleared up first. “The ceiling isn’t going to give you any answers, love. Which conversation haven’t we had?”

“I’m thinking, shut up. How many times have we…” Arthur did something with one hand that looked a bit like a wanking motion and a bit like he was miming tossing something over his shoulder.

Once again, Eames waited for a little clarification, and once again he got nothing of the sort. He decided to assume Arthur was going for more of a wanking gesture than a throwing-things-over-his-shoulder gesture and answered, “First time was, what, seven months ago? No, eight. Mozambique, after we got paid.”

“Oral doesn’t count.”

“It bloody well counted for me,” Eames said, miffed. He’d made Arthur beg and babble out all kinds of things that night, including a veritable hymn of praise to Eames’s mouth. He still treasured the memory.

“No, it was good. It was really good. Oral just doesn’t count on the Likert scale.”

Surely he hadn’t heard that right. “The Likert scale of what?”

“Oh my God,” Arthur said, and dropped facedown into a pillow.

Eames shrugged to himself, settled on his side, and kissed along the edge of Arthur’s shoulder blade until he decided to stop contemplating self-asphyxiation.

“You know what, this is your fault.” One of Arthur’s fingers jabbed him in the chin.

“Um,” said Eames.

“You and your mouth,” Arthur amended unhelpfully. “Do you have any idea how much of my life I wasted thinking about your mouth and how I’d never get to experience it firsthand because you were such an asshole?”

“No,” Eames said. “But do go on, this sounds fascinating.”

“And then, when you finally stopped being an asshole, it’s like I couldn’t stop taking advantage,” Arthur continued, apparently not having heard him. “It’s a problem.”

“Please,” Eames countered automatically, “you were an insufferable prat for at least the first five jobs we worked together. If you’d asked nicely enough, I would’ve gotten you off ages ago just to shut you up.”

But he was starting to realize Arthur had both a point and a tendency to lose his mind whenever Eames went down on him. It had been that way in Maputo that first time, and in Monte Carlo a month and a half later, then in a hastily booked Los Angeles hotel room after performing an honest to God inception, then after about six glasses of moscato in Yonne…and Toledo, of course, always Toledo. Eames wasn’t sure he’d go so far as to call it a problem, but Arthur definitely had a fixation.

“So I never told you about the scale because we haven’t actually fucked often enough for it to be a thing.” Arthur had turned just enough to nudge his lips against Eames’s jaw, where Eames felt the soft gust of a sigh. “And I know you’re gonna ask me what I’m talking about, but can that wait until morning?”

At first, Eames was prepared to argue him down, but Arthur licked at the pulse point in his neck and swore he’d explain everything the next day since he’d really rather not get into it at the moment. Also, he still kind of wanted to get off, so if Eames wouldn’t mind…

Then he slipped a hand down to Eames’s cock and kissed him again.

Eames never denied having a few fixations of his own.

---

Arthur made French toast and bacon the next morning, there in his clean little breakfast nook. Eames knew by now that Arthur kept a few different properties for security reasons, but this one had all the earmarks of being the one he came back to the most often. This one, Eames was willing to bet, he thought of as being closest to home. The idea of being in one place long enough to consider it a home of any kind tended to make Eames cagey, but Arthur seemed to navigate his life during off hours with ease. He kept an herb garden out back, for fuck’s sake. If that didn’t scream domesticity, Eames didn’t know what did.

They ate, and Eames rambled on about his plans to explore a few of the art museums since he had a penchant for gravitating towards them no matter which city he was in. They all had some sort of art scene, either with the assistance of or in spite of the resident population of starving student virtuosos. Then Arthur gave him a peck on the cheek, gently hip-checked him in the direction of the sofa, and disappeared upstairs.

When he returned, he handed Eames an index card that bore nothing more than a few neatly highlighted numbers, each of which had a few words written below it.

At the top of the index card, in bold black ink, was the heading “PENETRATIVE SEX.”

Suddenly, the prospect of spending the day sauntering through museums seemed embarrassingly mundane.

“What,” Eames said deliberately, “is this?”

“It’s a modified Likert scale of how likely I am to let you shove blunt objects up my ass.”

If Eames hadn’t already finished his tea, he would probably be wearing it. “I beg your pardon?”

Arthur gave him a smile that was equal parts cheerful and sadistic. “I came up with it when one of my exes wanted to fuck every single night but didn’t like bottoming. I had to convince him there are some things the human body just isn’t capable of. This was what finally got the point across.”

“Sounds like he was quite a charmer.” Eames flipped the card over, relieved to find the back blank.

“Yeah, I know. But he was scruffy, he had an accent, and he was covered in tattoos. I don’t like to think of myself as having a type, but if I had to narrow it down…”

“You really think I’m scruffy?”

Arthur absently patted him on the knee. “Han Solo was my first childhood crush. Scruffy is good, trust me. Now pay attention. The scale goes up to four. Four means full steam ahead, do whatever you want, I’m good.”

Eames scrutinized the front of the card. “You realize your modified Likert scale is missing a two.”

“Another ex. Fabio thought having a number two on a scale about gay sex was weird. Fabio had some hangups about dating guys.”

“But he was fine with the scale and didn’t think that was weird?” Eames paused for a beat. “You dated a bloke named Fabio?”

“Of course not,” Arthur sniffed. “I just don’t like to use real names when I talk about my exes in case whoever I’m currently dating decides to track them down and kill them or pump them for dirt on me.”

Eames decided to take that as yet another instance of Arthur’s ridiculous organization system. “Has that actually happened?”

“Terrence, two exes after Fabio.” Arthur looked a bit murderous. “Huge dick in every possible way.”

“Does this mean we’re dating?” Eames blurted out, before he had a chance to think better of it.

“It means you’re staying under my roof for the foreseeable future because you pissed off too many people with too much power, which means we will very probably be having sex often enough for this to be a concern.”

It was the most charmingly matter-of-fact admission of intimacy Eames had ever heard and he couldn’t even stop snorting long enough to say so.

Arthur had already moved on, a perfect businessman in polka-dot boxer briefs. “Next number is three. Since there’s no two, there’s a high three and a low three. High three means things should be all right, just take it slow at first. Low three means I’m gonna need to take care of some things before I let you get that far. And one means—”

“Take care of what?”

“Things,” Arthur said witheringly.

“Indulge me.”

“When do I not do that?” Arthur regarded him, a critical look in his eyes. “Do you ever get fucked?”

“Tried it a bit, wasn’t for me. Why?”

“This would all be so much easier if you did.”

Things, Arthur.”

“Yeah. Things. I might need to wash up. Or shave. Or use that part of my body for the act it’s biologically intended to carry out. Or take an enema—which is fine every now and then, by the way, but if you start expecting me to do it every fucking day then we’re gonna have a problem. Or it could just mean I ate something that probably makes fucking a bad idea.”

Eames picked up his empty mug, tried to take a swallow of tea, then calmly set it back down. “Ah.”

“And one,” Arthur finished demurely, the smug little fucker. “One means no penetration, period. You don’t pass go, you don’t ask me why, you don’t try and get me to give a ballpark estimate of when I’ll be ready because, guess what, sex is not a family road trip and my ass is not the destination and asking if we’re there yet does not actually get you any closer to the goal or make me very likely to put out. Clear?”

This, Eames decided, was really no weirder than Arthur organizing his guns by caliber size. Which was still fairly weird, but thoroughly Arthur.

“You,” Eames said, winding an arm around him, “are so incredibly weird.”

Arthur scooted into his lap. “Thanks.”

He studied the card a bit more, rubbed the back of Arthur’s head through his sleep-tousled hair. “You could just have just done a one, three, and four. That would eliminate the need for a low three and high three. Or maybe a disagree, agree, and either/or.”

“It’s always better to have an even number when you’re assessing states of being,” Arthur said, settling back against Eames’s chest. Eames had a gut feeling this wasn’t the first time he’d had this conversation. “If there’s an odd number, that’s just temptation to gravitate towards the middle, which is less decisive. The guy I started seeing after Fabio worked for the state census bureau; he helped me perfect the final version.”

Eames didn’t want to imagine how many times Arthur had drafted this. “Why would you ever break up with someone like that? He sounds almost as particular as you.”

Arthur craned his neck enough to look him up and down. “I’m not that particular. And he turned out to have a fiancée.”

“Fuck,” Eames said, combing his fingers through the most egregiously ruffled portion of Arthur’s hair. “You’ve had a horrible track record. Anyone else you want to tell me about?”

“The guy after Terrence could never remember if one was low or high. I had to use sports metaphors. Tight ends, wide receivers, stuff like that. We, ah,” Arthur paused and made a face as if the memory alone was enough to give him the vapors, “we didn’t last that long.”

“The fuck?”

“They’re football positions, Eames,” Arthur sighed. “Oh, excuse me, American football.”

“I thought the porn industry made those up because they needed titles for all those films about locker room orgies. You mean they’re real?”

Arthur stiffened with almost palpable horror. “There are so many things wrong with you.” His head dropped heavily onto Eames’s shoulder.

“Tight Ends 2 was infinitely better than the original,” Eames mused. “Never saw the third, but I’m sure it exists. I had no idea football was so kinky.”

“Anything sounds kinky when you say it in your voice. Football also has a defensive end, by the way.”

Eames was going to strain something trying not to laugh.

“I seriously don’t understand why this is such a big deal to you,” Arthur complained. “Rugby teams have hookers and you tackle a lot more while wearing a lot less protective gear. Football is fucking dignified compared to that.”

Eames cinched both arms around his waist, gave an experimental squeeze that earned him an elbow in the ribs. “Don’t tell me you were a football player.”

“Cheer captain,” Arthur said glibly, and slapped the index card on the coffee table before sliding out of Eames’s lap and wandering back towards the coffeepot. “Memorize that. I don’t want you carrying it around in your wallet. And I’m not giving this talk again.”

---

It took Eames another day and a half before he realized Arthur had thrown a hell of a lot of his personal history at him just to go about explaining a frankly ridiculous rating system. Arthur, Eames had noticed, didn’t shatter his painstakingly cultivated international-man-of-mystery veneer for just anyone.

“Huh,” he muttered to himself, and proceeded to drink the rest of Arthur’s apple juice.

When Arthur came back from whichever component of his strictly regimented workout routine he’d been wasting the morning on, Eames pinned him up against the front door and got his first taste of the rating scale in action. He was tasting the sweat-salty skin at the hinge of Arthur’s jaw at the same time, which was several times more interesting, but Arthur kept squirming just out of reach.

“I’m disgusting,” Arthur told him, not all that insistently.

Eames tangled his fingers in his damp hair and seared a line of hard, sucking kisses along the pink skin of his throat. Arthur drew in a sharp breath, so he added one more for good measure. “I’ll deal with it, I promise.”

“Let me get a shower,” Arthur started, like Eames didn’t have every intention of doing things that would make him need a shower all over again anyway. “And then we can—” but he was already kissing Eames back.

Arthur had the sort of body that must have taken ages of dedication, determination, and judiciously applied sorcery to perfect. Eames preferred to think this for a variety of reasons, one of them being that he refused to believe anyone could get an arse that flawless without putting in a phenomenal amount of effort, another being that the two of them had once worked a job in Venice and he’d personally watched Arthur practically make love to enormous servings of gelato every single day and the man still hadn’t gained an ounce. He must have been such a wiry little thing, once upon a time. All that muscle clearly came at the expense of hard work and discipline and Eames wouldn’t be a very good guest at all if he didn’t show any appreciation for his host.

Eames rubbed a hand up the seam of his track pants. “Number.”

“What?” Arthur’s fingers were petting almost tentatively at his nape.

“Tell me,” Eames said deliberately, “which number you’re on right now.”

“Oh. Ah, high three.”

Christ, he was actually blushing, like explaining the entire scaling system wasn’t his own fucking idea in the first place. Eames kissed him again, almost disgusted and almost charmed. It was entirely possible Arthur was just still flushed from his workout and Eames was imagining things, but maybe, just maybe, it was also possible Eames had just that much of an effect on him. And that was a very intriguing thought.

“Brilliant,” Eames murmured. “I can work with that. I can work with that for hours.”

Arthur protested a little longer—something about being sweaty, which didn’t hold water at all since Eames only planned on making him sweat even more—but it didn’t take much more convincing on Eames’s part before he stopped putting up a fuss. The track pants wound up pooled on the floor and Arthur wound up with his head ducked, knees spread, arching and writhing back as Eames worked his fingers into him. In the end, Eames used the pullout sofa for the very first time in order turn him over and fuck him on it.

Eames had some very strong convictions about rewarding exemplary hospitality.