So far, Brian was not enjoying his Saturday evening.
“I understand you were reprimanded for shoplifting, Brian?”
Brian opened and closed his mouth. How did he fucking know that? “It… it was only a marble. I was in a fish store and I was… sort of holding it in my hand and…”
Rachel’s father looked back at him pleasantly, right ankle crossed over the left, leaning with one arm atop the mantel. “Say no more. These things happen.”
It really had just been a marble. And he’d been twelve years old, and his mom had gone through the checkout and he’d forgotten he was holding it until suddenly he was outside the door and still holding it and one of the shopkeepers was just staring at him. It was a stupid story. Brian fidgeted in his seat, and Rachel’s father shifted his weight to match, re-crossing his ankles. It was eerie.
But Brian decided he’d take the movement, gladly, because Rachel’s other father, the one standing in the doorway to the kitchen, hadn’t moved a single centimeter in ten whole minutes.
Brian kept his attention on the one by the fireplace, the one who’s accent didn’t match Rachel’s. “I didn’t, uh. Didn’t catch your first name, sir. Mr. Eames.”
The British one smiled, silky as a snake. “Oh, I don’t have one.”
That smile was definitely not reaching his eyes. Brian had heard people say that kind of thing, read about it before, but he’d never actually seen it put into practice, and it was a little horrifying. He rubbed at the tops of his thighs absently, saw those gray-green eyes flick down, and stopped immediately.
“Brian, may I ask you another question?”
Brian spun toward the kitchen doorway, unable to help it. Seventeen seconds, seriously, he’d counted, and every time, exactly seventeen seconds after he himself had stopped speaking— “Huh?”
“May I ask you another question?” Slower. Pointed. Every damn time this guy spoke it jerked at him like a fist wrapped at the top of his spine, shaking him like a baby cat.
“Sure. Sure, uh—” Arthur, Rachel had said it was Arthur, but— “Uh, Mr. Eames,” he tried.
The man’s face somehow went very cool without any notable shift. “That’s not my name.”
“Call him Arthur, love,” offered the one by the fireplace. He had started to pace, slowly, back and forth along that side of the room. Just a constant, quiet movement. Brian swallowed.
In the kitchen doorway, Arthur lifted his eyebrows and Brian wracked his brains, terrified he’d already been asked the question in… in question, but then—
“Imagine you’re in an empty room and there is a fork, a flower, and a glass of milk. Which one do you choose?”
Brian gaped. Honest to god. “What?”
Arthur just stared at him. Mr. Something Eames was also staring at him as he walked, expectant. Always pleasantly expectant. Like Brian owed him something he was overdue to collect. Brian wished he’d paid better attention during the quarter on philosophy in English last year, because this sounded kind of like that, but most of that was Freudian and he wasn’t entirely sure there was a right answer when things were Freudian and one was chatting with one’s date’s dads.
But… Well, he’d probably want to keep his strength up. Right? “Uh, the milk?”
No discernible reaction, except for a very slow, very assessing dip of Arthur’s chin. Brian gulped, and Rachel’s other dad laughed.
“Haven’t heard that one in a while, have we, darling?”
And then, silence, like it should be comfortable, and it really, really wasn’t. Brian resisted taking a peek at his watch. Oh, god, where was Rachel? Wasn’t she ready yet? He knew better than to ask. He’d read that whole ‘Ten Simple Rules For Dating My Daughter’ chainmail thing online. He’d always foolishly thought it was hilarious.
“Any history of mental disorders in your family?” Arthur inquired.
“Um.” Brian’s brain was seriously congealing. He must be positively bug-eyed by now and he couldn’t help it. “No?”
Seventeen seconds of utter stillness from one side of the room, pacing from the other, and— “Insomnia?”
Mr. Eames gave an emphatic grunt, turning and pointing one finger at his husband on his way past the bookshelf, then went back to stroking his lip with thumb and forefinger.
And watching. Pleasantly.
He jumped, spinning back to, to Arthur, his name was—He had a real human name, just like other normal people. Somehow, the knowledge wasn’t very comforting.
“I’m, uh. You mean me specifically?”
Mr. Eames flashed a quick grin. “We do like specificity.”
Brian could have sworn he heard Arthur snort, but when he looked, Rachel’s dad’s face was as still as stone.
“So.” Mr. Eames again. He continued to move, up and down the length of the hearth, but his gaze never left Brian’s face. “How did you meet our Rachel, then?”
“We have chemistry together.”
Mr. Eames’ eyebrows climbed. “Do you?”
Brian’s voice dried up, and he flushed hot. “Uh, I mean, we’re just, she was helping me with my notes and we got to talking. She’s, she’s really nice. Really great.”
“You’ve got a bit of a tic, there, Brian.” Mr. Eames pointed, just a wave of one finger. “Right corner of your mouth.”
Oh, fuck, it was doing it again. Brian almost mashed his knuckles against the offending muscle to stop it from jumping. Mr. Eames’ smile grew.
“I once had an acquaintance with just such a tic.” He tapped his lower lip thoughtfully. “Was a friend until he knocked me over the head with a vase and ran off with my safety deposit box.”
Brian might have choked.
“My most treasured possession was in there,” Mr. Eames continued, squinting at Brian. The tip of his middle finger traced a steady track along the rim of the mantel.
Brian desperately had to break the smothering silence. “Did, did you ever get it back?”
“I did,” Arthur said, and Brian was very sorry he’d asked.
A clacking on the wooden stairs heralded the arrival of the third family member, and Rachel hurried into the room in a blue peasant blouse, skinny jeans and high-heeled white sandals, the most gorgeous, welcome thing Brian had ever seen in his fucking life. He leapt up from the couch way too fast, nearly toppling headfirst over the coffee table, but they weren’t looking at him any longer.
“I’m ready, sorry! I couldn’t get the stupid sink to shut off again.”
Arthur’s eye was vaguely critical as he checked her over. “Think you need a jacket.”
“I’ll get my gray cropped sweater, the one Ari sent.”
“Think you need a thicker jacket,” Arthur muttered, but when Rachel blinked at him, he just smiled slightly. “You look lovely, honey. Let’s see.”
Rachel blushed and turned shyly in front of her father. It would have been terribly cute if Brian weren’t still shaking like a small earthquake inside. Mr. Eames left the fireplace at last and came up behind Rachel, pulling her close and pecking her on the forehead. “I believe the term is ‘stunning.’ You have your mobile, darling?”
Rachel rolled her eyes, fished around in her purse, and waved the phone in the air, her bracelets jangling. “Yes, Dad.”
Mr. Eames seemed satisfied, also proud, and Rachel beamed. She turned for the door. “Okay, then, we’ll see you later!”
But Arthur’s brows came down. “Curfew?”
“One more time.”
“Aw, Daddy, you said—”
“Can I speak to you for a moment?” Arthur interrupted, and Rachel glowered, then followed him into the kitchen. Mr. Eames gave Brian a smile, shoved his hands into his pockets, and sauntered in after them.
It went against every survival instinct Brian had to eavesdrop, and that was why he only let himself hear certain phrases.
“…for a scenario exercise, Rachel, not the waking world.”
“But it went fine… wasn’t even late!”
“…can’t predict like you can in there. …there’s no kick!”
“Daddy, stop it, I don’t need my totem!”
“Darling,” Mr. Eames cut in, then some muttering, too low to make out. Rachel scoffed loudly at one point and Mr. Eames checked her with a quiet, “Rachel.”
There were a few more minutes of murmuring, but when Rachel and her parents came back through the door, Brian was relieved—utterly relieved, relieved beyond reason—to see that she just looked exasperated and not teary or something.
Her parents, for their part, looked… basically like they’d looked since he’d walked into the house.
He was more than happy to bid them goodnight and get out the front door, and careful to keep a certain distance between his body and Rachel’s as they headed to his car. The further he got down the walk, the more his nerves settled. Brian looked over his shoulder once, deciding maybe a friendly, if watery, smile wouldn’t go amiss at this point, and found them both standing in the doorway, staring him down. Arthur was fiddling with something in one hand, close to his hip. Was that a… What was that, a die?
Brian stopped staring before he got caught.
Inside his car, his clunky, un-vacuumed little Sentra with the broken left speaker up front, everything felt safe and glorious again, and Brian took a deep, deep breath. Rachel turned to him and grinned, looking beautiful. Lovely. Stunning.
“Sorry I kept you waiting so long. My bathroom sink’s a pain. Everything go okay?”
She frowned, and—yes, okay, he could admit he sounded a little strained. “What, Brian?”
“No, they’re nice. They’re really nice.”
She peered at him, squinting in the streetlamp’s light as Brian backed down the drive. And then her mouth dropped open and she let her head fall back with a thunk against the headrest. “Oh, god, they did the milk thing to you, didn’t they?”
Rachel let out a high-pitched growl that frankly startled Brian. “Wow, could they not? They’re so freaking paranoid!”
“You’re just important to them.” He didn’t know why he was defending it, but he could understand, especially when it was Rachel. God, she was so perfect it was ridiculous. If he was her dad—but okay, that was just, that was weird.
“No, that’s just it! At least if you actually did something, they'd have a reason to go all terminator. But no, this time they flip for no good reason! I mean, duh, you’re clearly not an international criminal, you act nothing like one.”
Brian didn’t really know what to say to that. There was way too much there that he was just fine not knowing more about, thank you. “Uh. You want popcorn? At the movie?”
“Oh! Yeah.” She turned that same shy smile he’d seen in the house his way, and his heart flipped a little. “Thanks.”
Brian thought about taking her hand, and then remembered, sadly, that he was driving a stick and would have to shift eventually.
“I could drive after them.”
“Darling, come away from that window.”
Arthur snorted, one hand tight around the edge of the drape. “What, and go over to yours?”
“Better view from this angle.”
Arthur gave up with a sigh and went over to Eames’ window. At the end of the block, he could just see Brian’s taillights turning right onto the main avenue. Blinker on, clicking away.
“You just better use your turn signals,” he muttered, and Eames laughed.
“You think she’ll take the tracker out of her phone again?”
Arthur scowled. “She wouldn’t dare. Not after last time.”
“Yes, being grounded for two months will have that effect,” Eames mused. Arthur glanced at him, then looked at him again.
“Darling, I’m sorry, but three was just too much. She’s a teenage girl, she has friends, a social life.”
“And apparently a boyfriend,” Arthur grumbled. He made himself release the drapes again before he ripped a hole in them.
“Alright.” Eames stepped back, brushing his palms together as if dusting them off. “I want ice cream.”
Arthur followed him back into the kitchen, watching as Eames turned on the kettle for tea and pulled the tub of mint chip out of the freezer. “I have to say, you’re much mellower about this than I expected.”
Eames shrugged. “Nothing to get worked up about, is there?”
Arthur eyed him, then went to the drawer and grabbed them both spoons. He came back to the table and sat down across from Eames. “No. Especially if you stuck a tracer in Brian’s jacket when you shook his hand.”
Eames reached into the back pocket of his jeans and slapped his cell phone down on the table. On the screen, a tiny blue dot winked away, heading cheerfully down the main avenue toward the movie theater. “You wound me, darling. I stuck it on his belt buckle. It turns red, it’s fallen off, and then we take a little ride.”
Arthur smirked. “Let’s hope, for his sake, that he doesn’t need to use the restroom.” And he fed his partner a big spoonful of ice cream across the table.