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We All Scream

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As with so many of the best things in life, it all starts with ice cream.

A tub of lemon berry is tipped over on its side on the counter, bright yellow rivulets of the stuff snaking their way down the stainless steel side to drip onto the floor that Arthur had just cleaned. The puddle spreads wider and seeps into Arthur's sleeve, and it's still cold enough that he shivers. Or, at least, that's what he tells himself, looking down the length of his body where Eames is kneeling between his legs. His broad hands are rucking Arthur's shirt up around his armpits and the hem is a mess of yellow and pink and brown that he's never going to be able to wash out, but he doesn't even care, because Eames drops his head and chases lines of chocolate and strawberry syrup up Arthur's stomach with his tongue.

"Eames," Arthur says, the word turning into a choked off groan halfway through when Eames dips his tongue into his navel. "Eames."

He can feel Eames' breath puff out warm and damp against his stomach when he asks, "What, darling?"

There's a familiar thread of amusement in Eames' voice, which would be annoying, except there's also Eames' stubble scraping over his ribcage and Eames' hand sliding down under the waistband of his trousers.

"You're ruining my pants, you ass," Arthur says, because old habits die hard.

Eames laughs and strokes his sticky palms down Arthur's thighs, the light gray fabric clinging to his skin. "You'll look better out of them anyway."

In retrospect, Arthur should probably be a lot less surprised by this whole thing than he is.


 

"Darling!"

Oh God.

Arthur manfully resists the urge to go hide in the walk-in freezer, instead pasting a stiff smile on his face and turning toward the counter. He automatically picks up a waffle cone, but his scoop hovers over the various containers of ice creams, and he arches an eyebrow at Eames as the other man collapses dramatically onto a stool. "Don't get too comfortable. Just tell me what you want so you can leave."

"You wound me, pet," Eames says with a pout, clutching his hands together over his heart. "The world is a cruel and bitter place that's bleeding all the good spirit and cheer that you know and love right out of me, and the only cure is a smile on your gorgeous face and a triple scoop of peanut butter chocolate."

A woman a few seats down the counter looks up from wiping a splotch of vanilla off her daughter's face to grin indulgently at them. Arthur's smile is in full on rigor mortis mode, an uncomfortable rictus on his face, but he keeps it in place, because customers like it when you smile at them.

"You're looking a bit mad today," Eames says, tilting his head to the side as he runs a critical eye over Arthur. "Is it possible to kill someone with an ice cream scoop? Should I take yours away from you just in case? I would hate to see you locked away."

"Eames," Arthur warns lowly as he scoops a generous mound of ice cream onto the cone. He can feel his smile starting to slip.

"You're far too pretty for those prison thugs. More importantly, my life would be completely desolate without you. It would be gray and flavorless and dull. My heart would be broken and my stomach would be empty." Eames pauses, a look of horror spreading across his face. "Darling, I would have to start listening to country music."

"Or you could just start going to that place down the road for your daily sugar fix." Arthur tells himself that the small leap his stomach gives at that thought is hope, hope and anticipation, and turns to fish out a new container of cherries from under the back counter. The smile is officially a thing of the past.

"Ah, but Arthur, light of my life, keeper of my heart and the rocky road. The place down the street doesn't have your magnificent arse."

Arthur feels a little bad about the waste, but only a little, because a few scoops of ice cream is a small price to pay for the gobsmacked look on Eames face when he upends the cone over the top of his head.

"Oh, pet," Eames says sadly, chocolate and peanut butter dripping from his hair into his eyes. "You're so very cold to me."


 

"I think it's cute that he's so sweet on you. Your prince has finally come and he wants to be a part of your world," Ariadne says while she tops off the chocolate dipping sauce in the double boiler.

"I think it's sad that you still take important life lessons from Disney movies. If you start singing, I'm firing you," Arthur says flatly. "Nobody's sweet on anyone. He's just trying to get under my skin."

"No, he's trying to get in your pants. The pants of your heart. And don't mock Disney. The mice want you to find true love, Arthur," Ariadne yells after him as he escapes back toward the storeroom to get more sprinkles. "The mice demand it!"


 

"Tell me you aren't out of cookies and cream or break my heart forever."

Arthur glances up from where he's mixing a milkshake, takes in Eames' slumped posture and the dark smudges under his eyes, and frowns a little. Because he's taking up too much room with his muscles and his broad shoulders and his face. His stupid, not at all attractive face. Not because Arthur's concerned or anything.

"You're a menace and should not be allowed out in polite society," Arthur tries to say, but it comes out sounding more like, "When have we ever been out of cookies and cream and what the hell happened to you?"

"Two months ago. That pack of girl scouts completely cleaned you out, love, remember?" Eames asks with a tired smile and Arthur blinks and thinks,Oh, because he does, but there's no reason why Eames should. He narrows his eyes, wondering what angle Eames is working this time, but before he can examine it too closely, Eames goes on. "Your concern touches me so. Now if only your hands would follow its example."

Arthur rolls his eyes and hands the milkshake off to its owner--who's looking slightly uncomfortable and dashes back to his group of giggling teenage friends with a mumbled 'Thanks, man'--so that he can start scooping Eames' cone. "I take it back," he says as blandly as he can manage. "Clearly you're fine. Two or three scoops?"

Eames yawns fit to crack his jaw, then drops his chin in his hands. "It's definitely a three scoop kind of day," he says with the kind of grave desperation that makes Arthur feel like they should be making this exchange in some seedy alley with the ice cream tucked away in neat little plastic baggies. "And I am most certainly not fine. I'm wasting away for love of you. Come, take me in your arms and to your bed before I perish. Consider it community service. Surely you must have at least a single caring bone in your extremely fit body."

The nuts Arthur had been carefully sprinkling over Eames' ice cream scatter across the counter when he looks up to arch an eyebrow him. "Is that really the best you can do? That's bad, even for you, and you know I don't have high expectations where you're involved."

Eames shrugs an apology. "I'm tired, darling. I have a new show opening soon and art doesn't make itself, you know."

Eames has always been vocal about his being an artist--"I'm not annoying, love, I'm flamboyant and eccentric. It's part of my charming artistic nature."--but Arthur had never put much stock in it until he'd stumbled across one of his showings by accident the summer before. He still doesn't know what had possessed him to go inside the building, but he'd seen Eames' name and had a couple of hours to kill before a date. Four hours later, he had an angry voice mail from his stood up date telling him to go fuck himself and a painting that had nearly drained his meager savings account. He still can't bring himself to regret either of those things, though just the thought of Eames ever finding out about that painting that's currently hanging in the living room of his small apartment above the shop makes his ears burn hot.

"When is it opening," Arthur asks in a tone that aims for casual disinterest and doesn't quite make it.

"Really, darling, I'll get a swelled head if you continue to ply me with this sort of personal attention," Eames says, his tone too delighted by half.

He's still holding Eames' cone, thumb absently smoothing up and down the side of it, and nearly drops it in surprise when Eames captures his wrist in a strong, warm hand and pulls it closer. His tongue curls obscenely over the softening ice cream, carefully gathering some of the nuts slowly sliding down the slope of the balls, and he makes a low, appreciative humming noise that feels almost like a physical caress down Arthur's spine. Arthur swallows hard with an audible click, and all but shoves the cone into Eames' hands, almost dropping it again in the process.

"Cones!" Arthur says a touch too loudly. "I need to go get more. From the stock room. Because we're low. On cones. Ariadne, watch the front."

He feels more than sees the disbelieving look Ariadne's directing his way from the other end of the counter, but the only things that really register in that moment are the small, amused smile curling at the corners of Eames' frankly ridiculous mouth, the lingering phantom warmth of Eames' skin against his, and the fact that he edges past their obviously fully stocked cone container as he quickly backs out of the room.

When he finally comes back out, Eames is gone.

"You're pathetic," Ariadne tells him with a disapproving expression that reminds him more than a little of his mother. Arthur winces a bit at that, but then Ariadne passes him a flier for Eames' gallery showing later that month with Hope to see u there. :) scratched across the bottom in Eames' nearly illegible scrawl.

He most certainly does not spend the rest of the day with a goofy grin stretched across his face.


 

"You can't possibly be serious." Arthur drops his scoop into its cup abruptly enough that some of the warm water circling through it splashes out onto the counter, crosses his arms across his chest, then promptly uncrosses them so he can grab up a towel to mop up the mess he made. He's not going to let his perfect health score suffer just because of Eames. Eames, who's slanting Arthur a little squinty smile like he's the one who's out of his mind.

"What," Eames asks, pulling the hem of his shirt out away from his body so that he can run a critical eye over the paint speckled My Little Ponies on the front of it. Arthur almost swallows his tongue, but that's only because Eames' shirt is so goddamn ugly. It has nothing to do with the sliver of toned, golden skin that the action reveals.

Is that a tattoo curling up over his hip?

Oh God.

Arthur whirls around fast enough to give himself whiplash and uses the towel still clutched in his hand to clean off a smudge of chalk at the corner of the daily specials board.

"You look like you raided a five year old girl's closet," he says over his shoulder, a few beats too late to sound natural. After a moment's deliberation, he picks up a piece of chalk and adds a few more sprinkles to the sketch of a sundae that Ariadne had done earlier. "In fact, I think my niece might have that shirt."

When he turns back around, Eames is smiling, wide and fond, and he strokes a hand down the front of his too tight, possibly bought from the children's section shirt. A curl of heat unfurls in Arthur's stomach and he hates himself a little bit, because this is so beyond the realm of appropriate attraction. Eames probably doesn't even know the word appropriate, Arthur thinks, nearly missing when he says, "Your niece must have exquisite taste in clothing then."

Arthur drapes his towel over his shoulder with a sharp snap of his wrist so he can cross his arms properly. "The last time I visited, she spent the entire time running around in a tutu, her rain boots, and a plastic fireman helmet. Her sartorial taste is questionable at best."

"I don't know," Eames says, leaning forward on his elbows so that his shirt pulls indecently tight across his shoulders and biceps. "I think she sounds absolutely delightful. You should introduce me to the sprog sometime. In fact, isn't it about time you took me home and introduced me to the family all proper like, darling? One would think you're ashamed of me."

Arthur rolls his eyes. It's that or have them fall out of his head, because Eames has shifted into a beam of sunlight coming in through the window and Arthur suddenly notices that his shirt is worn so thin that he can see the shadow of his nipples through the pale blue cotton. They don't even have enough decency to be covered up a little bit by the colorful ponies frolicking across his torso. Really, there ought to be a law against the man, he decides, nervously smoothing the front of his own perfectly pressed oxford.

"I'm not going to knowingly do anything that will put you in contact with impressionable children, Eames, and I'm not ashamed by you."

Eames beams and cuts in to say, "That's right, dear heart, embrace our love in all its sugary purity," and Arthur plows on over him to add, "There's nothing between us to be ashamed of. And if, God forbid, there was something going on between us, I would never take you home. Meeting you would probably make my mother cry."

"Oh, rubbish," Eames says with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Your mum would adore me. I've yet to meet a mum who doesn't."

"And why doesn't that surprise me," Arthur mutters with a dark look at Eames, who's still blithely smiling away. "Are you going to order anything or are you just here to waste my time?"

“Two scoops, my dairy Adonis. Surprise me with something delicious. My tongue, as with the rest of my humble self, is yours to do with and to as you please," Eames says, and it shouldn't be physically possible to look that innocent when saying something like that. Arthur glares at him again for good measure, though it's never done any good before. Hope reigns eternal and all that.

"I might have to start importing wasabi ice cream or something for moments like this," he muses as he surveys his selection. He settles on a rose flavored ice cream that won't clash too horribly with Eames' shirt and starts to scoop.

He feels very proud of how casual he sounds when he asks, "How're your preparations coming? The show's getting close, isn't it?" even though he knows that it's only twelve days away now.

Eames' smile is almost incandescent, it's so bright. "Oh, they're going smashingly, darling. How could they not with you as my muse?"

Arthur blinks and pauses, his scoop freezing halfway into a stroke through the tub. He looks up at Eames, and he's fairly certain he would be embarrassed by the look on his face if there was a mirror close enough by for him to find out what that look actually is. "Excuse me," he says slowly. "What do you mean, I'm your 'muse'?"

"Exactly what I said. You inspire me, pet. You are the butter to my scotch. The cookies to my cream. Arthur," Eames says, leaning forward and suddenly looking terribly serious. "You are the waffle to my cone."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Arthur mumbles, ducking his head closer to the opening of the cooler in the hope that the chill radiating out of it will chase away some of the heat prickling at his cheeks. Something expands in his chest, sharp and sweet like the first time he licked a vanilla ice cream cone and fell in love with the perfect complex simplicity of the burst of flavor across his taste buds, and he can't quite stop his lips from curving up just slightly at the corners.

If he adds an extra scoop to Eames' cone, then that's only because Eames usually gets three and even Arthur makes tiny mistakes sometimes. And if his knees go a little weak when Eames flashes a pleased, crooked smile his way?

Well, there's no way anyone could possibly prove that.


 

There are eight unticked days left before the red circled box that's neatly labeled 'Art S. w/ E' on Arthur's calendar when Eames doesn't show up at the shop.

Summer, which has been teasingly creeping over the city by inches for the last several weeks, suddenly slams home in a sweltering mess of blistering pavement and soupy humidity. If he and Ariadne were anyone other than who they are, they would be working at a near frantic pace. As it is, they're brisk, passing out cones and sundaes and milkshakes with almost military precision, each new crowd of customers dealt with with the same ruthless efficiency as if they're a wave of hostile invaders.

Sometime past noon, during the height of the madness, Arthur overhears a teenage girl asking Ariadne if they're hiring any summer help. Ariadne, sprinkles caught like glitter in the folds of her braid and caramel smeared across the breast of her shirt like a medal, laughs with almost gleeful madness and says, "Are you serious? This is no place for children. This. Is. Ice cream!"

And really, Arthur's seriously going to have to have a talk with her one of these days about scaring the customers and her frankly worrying habit of bastardizing movie quotes, but it really is a big rush and there's no time, so he just smiles and shakes his head when he catches her eye and pretends not to notice when she brandishes her scoop like a sword.

It isn't until they're about ten minutes out from closing that Arthur finally manages to pinpoint the little niggling feeling of wrong that's been plaguing him all day as Eames' absence. At the realization, something that feels a little like relief and a lot like missing a step on the way down a staircase clutches at him, and he nearly drops the container of brownie pieces that he's carrying.

Ariadne looks up from where she's getting an early start at sweeping the floors, asks, "Problem," with a little tilt of her head, and Arthur says, "It's nothing," a touch breathlessly. And it honestly is nothing, really it is, because it's not like Eames comes in every day, except for the way that, yeah, actually, he kind of does. Still, Arthur tells himself as he shifts the brownies to get a better grip on them, the man's obviously been busy. He has an entire gallery to fill with art in less than two weeks and god knows how much time he's wasted loitering around Arthur's shop when he should have been working.

So it's nothing.

The next day, when he doesn't show up again, it's still nothing. Arthur points this out to himself very firmly while he hands out a free cone to a child he accidentally made cry.

The day after that, when it's edging on four in the afternoon--a whole two hours past Eames' regular ice cream break--and it's taken Ariadne giving him countless inquisitive looks throughout the day before Arthur realizes he never slicked his hair back that morning and his shirt is untucked and might in fact be dirty, he's willing to concede that maybe--just maybe--it might be a tiny, nearly insignificant something.

It's past seven, the after dinner rush ebbing away into only about a handful of straggling customers every half hour or so, and Arthur only hesitates for a few minutes to internally beat himself before snagging one of the empty, light pink carry out tubs with Arthur's Olde Fashioned Ice Cream emblazoned across the side in fancy script off the top of the shake mixer.

"I'm going out for a little bit," he tells Ariadne as he starts to fill the tub with perfectly spherical scoops of rich, dark chocolate ice cream studded with chocolate covered espresso beans. He's almost inanely proud of how level and casual his voice sounds for all of about three seconds, then he looks up and sees the knowing eyebrow Ariadne has aimed his way. He clears his throat and adds a scoop of peanut butter for diversity's sake. "It shouldn't take long, but if I...if I run late, you know how to lock up."

Arthur keeps his eyes on his hands so he doesn't have to see the smug little twist of a smile that he can fucking feel Ariadne giving him.

"Of course," she says, and maybe Arthur should ask her for pointers, because she is so much better at the whole 'casual nonchalance' thing than Arthur is. "Take however long you need."

Arthur clears his throat, strips off his apron, fusses a few seconds longer than necessary while hanging it up, ignores Ariadne's muttered, "Oh, you have to be kidding me with this shit," clears his throat again, tucks the ice cream into an insulated tote bag, and steps out into the wall of heat he can see rising in hazy waves off the street.

He hesitates for a minute outside the shop, his brow already dotted with sweat and his hair curling at the tips, before flagging down a taxi. There's a second in the cab when the driver asks him where he's going that he nearly chickens out and says his sister's address--she has two toddlers and caffeine is always appreciated in any of its varied forms--but he digs his nails into the flesh of his thighs to brace himself and manages to give Eames' address with only the briefest stumble over the street name.

It's not...it's not creepy or anything if he shows up at Eames' door, Arthur tells himself on the way there. It's not like he's some kind of stalker.

He'snot.

This is just the sort of thing that friends do for each other and, annoying though he may be, Arthur wouldn't be completely opposed to using that label for the two of them. In fact, he's fairly certain that his first and only other trip to Eames' apartment would stick the two of them in that category. After all, Arthur is an exemplary businessman, but his job is to fulfill people's ice creamy needs, not mop them up when they stumble in five minutes after closing, too drunk to keep their feet underneath them, and slurring things like, "Does the butterscotch have real scotch in it, do you think? Because I think I'm starting to come down, and that is not acceptable." With any other customer, Arthur would have pushed them into a cab and called it a day, but with Eames, well.

With Eames, he had followed him into the cab, helped him climb up four flights of stairs, and even forced a glass of water down his throat before allowing him to topple fully clothed into a pillow and blanket laden nest that looked like sin.

It's just that Eames was so very drunk, and he was irresponsible enough when he was sober. God only knows what would have happened to him if Arthur had left him to his own devices, and hadn't Arthur's mother raised him to be a gentleman and help people in need?

If nothing else, it was a good way to earn karma points, especially seeing as how he'd only threatened to kill Eames a little, tiny bit when he'd thrown up all over Arthur's new shoes.

Every so often, Arthur is struck with the worrying thought that Eames is turning him into a kinder, gentler Arthur. Thankfully, he invariably opens his mouth and says something that makes Arthur want to rip off his arm just so he'll have something to beat the other man to death with and everything slides back into balance.

The drive seems a lot shorter without Eames snuffling and mumbling into Arthur's shoulder, but it still feels like it didn't last near long enough, and instead of buzzing Eames' number to be let up, he waits the few extra minutes it takes for someone to exit the building so that he can get his heart under control. It doesn't quite work and his blood is beating a loud tattoo in his ears when he catches the door and ducks inside. He ends up sprinting up the stairs, because he figures he can at least blame his racing pulse on physical exertion, though he has to slow down after the third flight when his bad knee gives a painful twinge.

It isn't until he's standing outside Eames' door, hand halfway raised up to knock, that he realizes the flaw in the latest of his fucking brilliant plans. It's summer and it's hot and he just ran up more stairs than is strictly advisable considering how much he's slacked off in the exercising department the last few years. His hair is a damp, frizzing mess that he can feel sticking to his forehead and nape. His clothes are clinging to his body in wet patches. A bead of sweat runs down the curve of his cheek, clings to his chin for a precarious moment, and then drips to the ground with a little plip that he would swear he can hear.

He's absolutely disgusting.

Which means, of course, that it's only natural that the door swings open at just that moment to reveal an unfairly beautiful man. They stare at each other for a moment, the man obviously taking in Arthur's rumpled appearance and raised fist, and Arthur is fairly certain he's doing a more than decent impression of a wide mouth bass and he can already feel the heat flooding to his cheeks at the thought that he's gotten the apartment number wrong.

Except, when he finally manages to tear his eyes away from the man's unnaturally blue eyes and stunning cheekbones, he can't help but notice what he's wearing. There's no way Arthur could ever forget the eye searing purple paisley top that's hanging loosely on his shoulders, and there on the knee of his too big jeans is a stain from a chocolate cone that Eames had dropped a month ago. And, when Arthur manages to tear his eyes away from the truly hideous ensemble that Arthur wants to rip off of this stranger--because it's ugly and only because it's ugly, he tells himself--he notices the splotch of blue paint tucked intimately up under the man's ear, a whorl that even from a distance looks like a thumb print.

"Can I help you," the man asks, leaning against the door frame like he belongs there. His voice is cool and refined, completely unthreatened, and it feels like being back in junior high when he was all awkward angles and unruly limbs, except he's sweating about ten times as much as he ever did back then and his hair is a mess, and he'd always had decent hair in junior high since he'd discovered the joys of hair gel uncommonly early. Arthur realizes he's been standing there for too long--gaping and sweating and why did he ever think that someone like Eames could ever possibly...--when the man arches an eyebrow and tilts his head to the side. "Well?"

He doesn't even sound condescending or annoyed, just faintly puzzled, and Arthur wants to hate him so hard that it physically hurts, a sharp, angry pang in his gut. His fingers tighten around the strap of his tote like a vice, and he's not entirely certain what he would have done if not for Eames choosing that moment to shout from the depths of the apartment, "Robert? Did you leave yet?"

And the one thing, the one thing, that Arthur knows he doesn't want is for Eames to come out and see him right now, to see how disheveled and imperfect he is when he's standing next to someone who's so genetically blessed that he's actually managing to almost pull off paisley, so he yanks the tub of ice cream out of the tote and shoves it at the guy--fucking Robert--with a sharp, "That's for Eames. If he and his wallet don't start showing up again soon, I might have to replan my finances and put off replacing my cooler," and this is just stupid, even Robert seems to realize how very stupid this is if the little knowing smile turning up the corners of his lips is anything to go by.

He's already backing away, his foot edging onto the first step, when Robert looks up from the carton with a wide grin that makes his eyes crinkle charmingly and says, "Thanks. You have no idea how big of a pain in my ass he's been the last few days without his sugar fix."

It's possible he says something else, but Arthur doesn't hear, because he's thudding down the stairs as fast as he can go, eyes stinging from what has to be the sweat he's dripping everywhere and a highly suspicious lump in his throat.


 

Ariadne's bent down behind the counter when Arthur gets back to the shop, but she must recognize the no nonsense way he opens the door or the distinctive tapping of his shoes, because she says without looking up, "Well, that didn't take nearly as long as I thought it would. Please tell me you didn't completely screw it up?"

Arthur doesn't answer, just scuttles back behind the counter to put the tote away, and Ariadne's exasperated, put upon sigh dies a quick and mostly painless death midway through when she turns around and gets a proper look at him.

"Oh," she says softly, sliding a perfectly constructed brownie sundae across to a customer without looking away from him. "Oh, Arthur, what did you do?"

"I didn't do anything," Arthur snarls, and it's only the fact that there's still a handful of customers milling about that keeps his voice from raising in a wail. He slams a bottle of cherries down on the counter and glares at them like they just insulted his fashion sense. "I didn't do anything," he says again, softer this time, and he can hear a note of hopeless dismay in his tone that he can't clamp down on. Ariadne just looks at him, arms crossed over her chest and Arthur is pretty sure that even her scarf is staring him down, every artfully frayed tassel silently waiting to pass judgment. He glances up to meet her eyes and shrugs, his lips curving in a poor imitation of a smile. "He wasn't alone."

Ariadne falters at that, her arms dropping back down as her brow creases in a confused frown. The tassels look completely befuddled. "What do you mean, he wasn't alone," she asks slowly. "Like, he had some company over and you didn't want to intrude or he had company over and you didn't want to intrude?"

Arthur sloshes the cherries into a glass container that looks better with the old fashioned soda shop decor, because if he has to look at anyone when he says this, he might actually melt through the floor in embarrassment. "I mean, he wasn't alone. I mean, he had really, really, ridiculously good looking company that was wearing his clothes like it was no big deal."

The thing about acting is that Arthur's kind of shit at it, so while he tries to sound like he isn't bothered in the least, his stupid fucking voice betrays him and cracks like he's some kind of fucking teenage girl who just got dumped by the guy of her fucking dreams.

Which Arthur hasn't, his brain knows he hasn't, but apparently his body hasn't gotten the message yet, and that's when he makes the mistake of looking up at Ariadne. If tassels could cry, he's fairly certain hers would start at right that very moment.

There's a horrifying moment where he thinks she might try to hug him.

Thankfully, the shattered, kicked kitten expression on her face melts after about half a second into terrifying righteous anger. It's a good look for her, even if it makes Arthur's testicles instinctively retreat a little in sheer, unholy fear, and the fact that she looks like she's more likely to punch something than hug him can only be a good thing. Well, as long as she doesn't punch the customers.

Because that would just be bad for business.

It's possible that Arthur's not exactly thinking as clearly as he normally prides himself on--something that Ariadne must pick up on, because another half second and her face is changing again, this time softening into a mixture of sympathy and anger, and she starts pushing him back toward the narrow staircase that leads up to his small apartment up over the shop.

"Okay," Ariadne says, all brisk competence. "Here's what we're going to do. You're going to go upstairs and shower, because, let's face it, you're sweaty and smelly right now and even you can't pull that off, and I'm going to finish closing up early, grab a few pints of ice cream and a few bottles of wine from Yusuf's store next door, and then we're going to settle in on your couch for the night. We're going to get drunk, gorge ourselves on chocolate, and watch Pretty Woman."

Arthur pauses at the foot of the stair, grabbing onto Ariadne's shoulders to keep her from physically manhandling him up them. "You do know I'm not actually a teenage girl, right," he asks skeptically, because even if the signs are kind of pointing in that direction, it doesn't mean he is.

"Oh please," Ariadne says with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. "Pretty much every single teenage girl I've ever met in my life is miles more emotionally healthy and stable than you are, buddy. And don't even pretend like you don't want to watch Pretty Woman. I know how happy it makes you when they finally let her shop."

And there's really no answer to that but to start heading up the stairs, because fuck it, that really does always make him smile.


 

The next morning, Arthur wakes up on the couch with his cheek in a puddle of his own drool, sticky s'mores ice cream matting his hair to the side of his face, a hangover that makes the entire room spin like a tilt-a-whirl, and an email on his open laptop confirming a nonrefundable ticket to Paris for the day after Eames' gallery opening.

Arthur stares blankly at the screen until the words of the email blur together and lose all meaning, his stomach roiling with nausea. He can't find his cellphone, and he doesn't currently have the patience or the balance to crawl around looking for it, so he drags himself back into his bedroom to get changed into something presentable enough that he'll be able go down into the shop at least long enough to tell Ariadne that if that teenage girl who was looking for a job comes back, she should give her an application.


 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 10:24AM

nash just spilled an entire bag of chopped walnuts all over the floor because he was too busy ogling the customers to avoid tripping over a mop. how have you not fired him yet?!?!

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 10:25AM

He's been working here for two years. If you look at it logically, by repeating the same tasks over an extended period of time, he should be getting better.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 10:25AM

this level of incompetence defies logic

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 10:26AM

He isn't THAT bad. Plus, we're distantly related and my mother would tear me a new one for firing family, even if said family is annoying as shit.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 10:29AM

ah say no more

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 10:30AM

out of curiosity what would she do if he had an on the job 'accident'?

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 10:30AM

No killing while you're on the clock.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 10:35AM

pleeeeeeease? :(

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 10:36AM

you could consider it my xmas present for this year. IT'S THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING, ARTHUR

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 10:38AM

I'm too hungover for this. I'm going back to bed. Try not to kill or maim anyone.


 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:03PM

arthur

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:05PM

ARTHUR

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:06PM

ARTHUR PICK UP YOUR PHONE OR IM COMING UP THERE :(

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:06PM

I know you're intelligent enough to know that typing in all caps won't actually make the phone any louder.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:07PM

WHATEVER IT LOOKS LIKE IT WORKED TO ME. EAMES IS HERE WHAT SHOULD I DO

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:08PM

ARTHUR?! WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO? NASH IS SERVING HIM BUT HE KEEPS TRYING TO GET MY ATTENTION

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:08PM

CAN I KICK HIM IN THE NUTS? I WANT TO KICK HIM IN THE NUTS

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:09PM

What is with you today? Assault would be bad for business. Just give him his ice cream.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:10PM

he's smiling at me. what if he asks me about you?

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:10PM

He won't.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:11PM

but if he does?

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:11PM

In the very unlikely scenario that he asks, just tell him I'm out.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:12PM

rat bastard :(

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:13PM

I'm serious, Ariadne. You're not allowed to physically attack the customers. I'm fairly certain I'd actually have to fire you for that.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:14PM

lies and nonsense you cant afford to fire me i know all your secrets O:)

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:15PM

Ariadne. Do NOT kick Eames in the testicles.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:17PM

darling i didn't know you cared. do u have a vested interest in my dangly bits?

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:19PM

Eames, kindly give Ariadne her phone back and refrain from pickpocketing my employees in the future.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:20PM

y is the lovely ariande looking @ me like i walked in here carrying dairy queen?

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:21PM

Because she is a fine judge of character. Give the phone back to Ariadne.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:23PM

more importantly y r u not here? nash isnt normally scheduled 4 today

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:24PM

my icecream tastes less sweet when i cant c your scowling face

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:25PM

r u ill? should i bring u soup? your health is v important to me darling

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:27PM

darling?

 

~DELETE~

~DELETE~

~DELETE~

~DELETE~

~DELETE~

~DELETE~

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:57PM

nash can live for the day. he helped me wrestle my phone away from eames and then kick him out. the shop is safe if you want to come down. *hugs*

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:58PM

You're a fine, upstanding young woman; I don't care what your high school guidance counselor said. Remind me to give you a raise.

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 3:01PM

Thank you.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 3:02PM

anything for you <3


 

The next day, Eames shows up at exactly 2:00 and orders a coconut cone from Ariadne. She gives him vanilla bean in a bowl. Arthur sits cross legged on his neatly made bed and double, triple, quadruple checks his books for the shop.

The day after that, 2:00 rolls around and Eames gets a sundae from Nash with half the amount of syrup Arthur would usually drizzle over it and no cherry. Arthur is tucked back in the stock room, meticulously taking inventory and making notes on what he'll need to put orders in for before he leaves.

The day after that, Eames gets a chocolate shake with too much malt powder in it from the new girl Ariadne is training. She forgets the whipped topping and when he asks Ariadne for some, she grabs the tub of homemade cream and slops as much on his hands as she does on the shake itself. Arthur is across town at his sister's doing his laundry and mending the hem on his niece's princess costume.

"I'm not hiding from him or anything," he tells his sister without looking up from his tiny, careful stitches. He doesn't need to look up to know the exact expression on her face: a mixture of tired resignation and skepticism that's an exact carbon copy of their mother's I'm Very Disappointed In You And You Know Why look.

"Right," she says, stretching the word out like taffy.

"I've just been busy," he insists.

"Whatever you say, Artie."

The next day, Eames doesn't show, but a huge bouquet of candy pink roses is delivered at precisely 2:00. They stay undisturbed on the back counter until Arthur ventures down from making lists of the things he still needs to pick up before his flight a couple hours later. His eyes snag on them, sitting so loud and bigger than Ariadne and incongruous against the black and white checked floor and the pale robin's egg blue splashed over the walls. There's a certain atmosphere that Arthur's always tried to cultivate since he renovated and reopened his grandfather's old shop and those roses are like a record scratch in the harmony he's slowly built up with framed vintage advertisements and a working bubble jukebox in the corner.

Ariadne lets him pretend to ignore them for as long as it takes to fix a cup of coffee in the hideously expensive single brew press that they hide behind the cone display, but once he's loaded it up with enough sugar and artificial flavorings to fell a small elephant, she hooks an arm through his and drags him back over to the monstrosity taking up half the back counter. There's a note tucked in among the buds that are overflowing out of the heart shaped vase--Of course Eames would pick something chintzy like that, Arthur thinks.Of course .--and Ariadne doesn't even try to act discreet about reading it over his shoulder.

Darling,

I've been wanting too thank you for the ice cream in person. It saved my sanity and cleared the clouds from my gloomy heart. Sadly you're all but impossible to find these days. One would almost think you're avoiding me. :( Hope to see you at the opening tomorrow night.

xoxoxoxo E

Arthur stares blankly at the note, barely noticing the way the edges are creasing and starting to give under the tight press of his fingertips, and takes a sip of his coffee.

"Well," asks Ariadne. "What are you going to do?"

Without answering, Arthur picks up the elaborate arrangement and dumps it, vase and note included, into the garbage. When Ariadne lets out a small, surprised squeak, he says, "I'm allergic to flowers."

Ariadne, who once let Arthur drag her into a florist's so he could spend twenty minutes debating which tulips would go best on his dining room table, just nods, gives his wrist a quick squeeze, and goes to take the next order.


 

There are a million reasons to stay away from the Inception Gallery the next night, not the least of which is that his plane is scheduled to depart at 4:45 the next morning and he believes in getting to airports at least an hour early just in case, but just as Arthur's decided that he's going to spend his night double checking his to do list, he makes the mistake of glancing at the painting hanging over his couch. Arthur's never been a huge fan of abstract art, but there's something in the blues and greens and grays that wind across the canvas in a tangle of vibrant color that reminds him of childhood summers spent on the beach and having picnics in the park, back when his family was still whole and happy and together.

It really is a brilliant painting.

A year later and just a glimpse of it is still enough to make his breath catch for a moment.

Goddamn it.


 

The gallery is full to bursting by the time his taxi pulls up in front of it. That's pretty much perfect as far as Arthur is concerned; the more people there are, the better his odds of avoiding Eames are.

Of course, since this is his life, it just makes sense that he's only been there for about five minutes before he hears Eames' laugh ring out strong and loud over the din of everyone's chattering. Arthur's head swings toward the sound automatically, even as he's ducking behind a large sculpture that looks like it might once have been a deformed emu or maybe a small compact car. And somehow, Arthur realizes through the haze of humiliation that settles heavily over him, in all the ways this evening could possibly go wrong, he had never stopped for two seconds and considered the most glaringly obvious.

Eames brought Robert.

They're standing with an imposing looking Asian gentleman who's familiar enough that on any other day Arthur would have paused and puzzled it over until he'd placed where he'd seen him before, but the only thing he can focus on is Eames.

Eames, who looks perfectly at ease in a beautiful, slate gray suit and rolls his eyes indulgently when Robert absently brushes some invisible fleck off his shoulder.

Eames, who's standing close enough to Robert that their arms and the backs of their hands brush if either of them shift even a fraction.

Eames, who grins when Robert jabs him in the ribs with his elbow, then laughs when Robert tilts his head a little closer and says something with a wry smile.

Eames, who's positioned directly between Arthur and the door.

A cater waiter passes by at that moment with a tray loaded down with elegant flutes of champagne. Arthur hates champagne; can't stand the dry, crisp taste or the way the bubbles always get up in his nose and make him sneeze. He takes two.

Arthur's lurking around the edges of the gallery, trying his best to stick to dark corners where Eames won't see him, when he stumbles across the painting. Most of Eames' work is abstract, all bold slices of emotion and subtle slips of depth shaped with paint or clay or metal, and this painting is yet more of the same and nothing like the rest all at once. The light in the painting is low, moody, and it's impossible to immediately separate the blocks of color into first shapes and then objects.

There's a room with cushions and blankets scattered across the floor transforming it into one giant bed. Two figures lounge at opposite ends of the room, one lax and sprawling as if in sleep and the other just pushing itself out of a recline, all its focus fixed intently on the other. They're lit in fragments, shards of light falling from a few strategically placed candles and one high round window to illuminate the slope of a shoulder or faint blue veins pressing up against the delicate skin at the inside of an upturned wrist, but so much is thrown into shadow that it takes several moments before Arthur is certain that they're both men.

There's something achingly familiar about the room, like a half remembered dream, and Arthur moves closer without conscious thought until he wouldn't even need to reach out, only to lift his hand, to touch it. This close, it's easier to pick out details. The hint of shading that indicates crown molding at the top of the walls, the almost invisible curls of paisley print on the blanket draped strategically over the waking man's lap, the top half of a thick book peeking out from under a pillow, its edge catching the tips of three of the sleeping man's fingers and its weight straightening their natural curve that's still evident in the pinky and thumb. Where they're clearly visible, the men have been given the same treatment.

Arthur is less surprised than he feels is his right to realize he recognizes the slight bend of Eames' elbow straightening into the strong lines of pronounced tendons in his forearm as he pushes his body upward and the knob of his ankle where it's turned sideways on the floor. Only the very corner of his mouth is visible, a sliver of the tattoo Arthur had glimpsed on his hip, almost an entire earlobe, but each tiny piece is enough to confirm that it's undeniably Eames.

The other man is further in the shadows, but Arthur can still see the messy tangle of dark hair and the long, slender limbs that are spread open and vulnerable in repose.

Robert, he thinks, unwilling to search out any more of the man's features, but still unable to look away from the painting as a whole.

It's almost unbearably intimate, a love letter given life in linseed oil and pigment, and something in Arthur's chest constricts so fiercely that a tremor goes through him.

"It's stunning, isn't it," a soft, polished voice says from his left, and Arthur barely manages not to flinch. Robert leans in and Arthur can smell the expensive warmth of his cologne that's only slightly undercut by the clinging scent of the garlic stuffed mushrooms the cater waiters are circulating through the gallery. "He did it earlier this week in a sudden bout of inspiration. 'Robert,' he said to me, waving around a paintbrush like a madman, 'Isn't love dreadful? Isn't it simply horrifying? Don't you absolutely love it?'"

Robert pauses, tilts his head nearly imperceptibly toward Arthur's, then adds with a laugh, "And then that prick threw a water balloon filled with paint right at me."

And Arthur hates himself a little bit for it, but he can't help laughing with him, because it's so utter ridiculous, but such an easy thing to picture Eames doing. They shuffle a little closer together in front of the painting, almost regaining control and then promptly losing it again when a stuffy looking octogenarian sniffs haughtily and gives them a disapproving look. When the last of their snickers trail off, Arthur looks up to see Robert smiling at him, easy and open and charming.

"You're Arthur, aren't you," he says more than asks, and just that is enough to make Arthur tense in all the places he had just begun to relax. He nods, and Robert's head bobs back at him, his expression pleased and a tiny bit smug. "I thought so. It didn't seem like you could possibly be anyone else."

Arthur takes a sip of his champagne, uncertain how to respond to that, but it seems his participation isn't exactly required in this conversation, because after a pause Robert keeps talking.

"He's rather fond of you, you know," he says with a funny smile, one well shaped eyebrow lifting minutely higher than the other. People are fond of puppies and rainbows, Arthur tells himself and tries to rein in the scowl he can feel threatening to slip onto his face. He doesn't want Eames to be fond of him.

"Is that so," Arthur asks, and he doesn't do quite a good enough job of smoothing out his clipped tone, because Robert turns fully toward him with a puzzled frown.

"Yes," he says, a line creasing the smooth space between his eyebrows, and Arthur wants to think he's a bastard who's probably right this instant wondering how his boyfriend could ever be 'quite fond' of Arthur, but somehow he can't bring himself to believe that. As far as he can tell, Robert genuinely is as nice as he is attractive.

The whole thing is rather disgusting, really.

Robert looks down at the flute in his hand, then over at Arthur's, and gives a small nod toward it. "You look like you could do with a refill."

"It's fine," Arthur says, fingers playing on the thin, fine stem to keep from gripping it too tight. He'd downed the first glass in one go as soon as he'd picked it up, but he's determined to make this one last. Just because his life seems to be turning into some second rate romantic comedy, it doesn't mean he has to follow the cliches and drink like that's the case.

"Whatever you say," says Robert, that strange little smile back on his too handsome face. "You know, I'm going to have to stop by your store one of these days. Eames wouldn't even let me have a taste of the ice cream you brought over, but the sounds he was making were downright indecent. Not that I didn't believe before that your wares are top notch. Eames is always raving about your shop. I think he'd move right into it if you let him."

It's cruel, is what it is, Arthur thinks, that Robert can say those things and grin as if he finds the entire situation fucking amusing, and Arthur, Arthur can't. He physically, mentally, emotionally can't.

"The painting doesn't have a price on it," he says just to change the subject, and Robert makes a small sound, like he sees exactly what Arthur did there and is disappointed because he'd expected better.

"No," he says though, instead of calling Arthur on his cowardice. "It was brought here with the other paintings by mistake. Eames doesn't want to sell it. Someone tried to make an offer on it earlier and he said, 'No, madam, I couldn't possibly. This painting's destiny is to hang on my true love's wall to forever remind him of my devotion. What kind of cad would I be if I sold it to the highest bidder?'"

Robert laughs again and Arthur lets his lips twitch in an answering smile even as his heart is sinking down, down, down. "Who actually talks like that in real life," he asks, and Robert snorts and affectionately says, "Eames. And he has done since I met him in school."

"Speaking of the bastard, I think he's almost done wowing the critics." Robert cranes his neck around to look at the other side of the room, where Eames is so busy charming a small crowd that he doesn't seem to have noticed the two of them at all. Robert smiles and gives Arthur a small nod when he turns back around. "Shouldn't be but a minute now. I know he wanted to talk to you. He'll be so pleased that you came."

"Because he's so fond of me," Arthur says, aware even as the words are slipping unbidden out of his mouth that they make him sound bitter and petulant. He forces a smile and shakes his head at Robert. "I can't stay. I'm going out of town tomorrow and I have to be up early to catch my flight. If I don't leave now, I'll be thrown completely off schedule."

Robert rocks back on his heels, dismay etched into every fine line of his face. "You can't be serious. Really, I'm sure it'll only take a moment. Please, at least say hello."

"I can't," Arthur says again. Robert reaches out his free hand, like he's planning to grab hold of Arthur and physically restrain him so he can't go--which would almost be funny to see him try. Arthur had been the judo national champion for three years running before a jealous opponent had shattered his knee cap, his chances at being part of the US Olympic team, and most of his plans for his future--but Arthur shoves his empty glass into it instead and neatly sidesteps around him.

"I'm sorry, really, but tell Eames I'm sorry I missed him and that everything looks great. He's as talented as he always claims to be." He pauses in his retreat and tries to ignore the incredulous way Robert is gaping at him. "Actually, leave off that last part. God knows his ego doesn't need to get any bigger than it already is."

And then it's the easiest thing in the world to cut through the crowd and slip out the door.

He thinks he might hear someone--Eames--call his name once, but by then he's already in a cab and pulling away from the curb.


 

Arthur wakes to the feel of cold, wet bristles running lightly down the line of his half hard cock.

"Oh,fuck," Arthur says when they reach the slit of his cock and swirl in a languid circle around the head. There's low, husky laughter from somewhere around his hip, and when he props himself up to look, Eames is stretched out on his side next to his leg, head level with Arthur's pelvis and a paintbrush held in a loose grip. Eames has apparently been at it for a while. There are twin dice sketched out in cardinal red resting in the dips above his hipbones, tilted precisely so that one of the white dots covers a mole just so. A hunter green poker chip circles his navel, TAKE A GAMBLE inscribed where a casino name should be. A tangerine orange penrose triangle is centered over his heart, big enough that the bottom line covers half his nipple. "Misplaced your sketchbook?"

"Morning, darling. Have I told you lately that you're my favorite canvas?"

Eames slowly drags the brush back up, painting a broad electric purple stripe from tip to hilt, then runs it down the crease where his hip meets his leg. Arthur squirms a little and Eames presses a kiss to his knee and asks, "Ticklish?"

"Shut up and don't be an asshole. It's too early for that." Arthur leans back on his elbows and lets his legs fall open a little wider. The smile Eames flashes at him is pure innocence, but there's a spark of wickedness in his eyes.

"You wound me," he says, lowering his eyes back to Arthur's thigh, where he's painting a complex web of spirals that rapidly expand and evolve into an elaborate labyrinth spanning from the bottom of his hip to the top of his knee. "When have I ever been anything other than pleasant to you?"

"Sometimes I think you live to torment me." The paintbrush disappears for a moment, then comes back loaded with a soft pink, a few thick globs dripping down to spatter on Arthur's leg. Two dots and a swipe and there's a smiley face on his knee.

"Not completely true, dear heart," Eames protests while he surrounds the smile with elaborately loopy hearts. "What I live for is the way the tips of your ears go red when you get flustered and the alluring flush that I can see just peeking out from under your collar."

He pauses, absently tapping a jumble of spots over Arthur's shin, says with a leer, "We're going to have to test exactly how far down that goes," and then starts carefully tracing a scoop of ice cream over the top of his foot.

"I hate you," Arthur says, his voice astoundingly conversational considering the wet kisses Eames keeps stopping to suck down the curve of his calf. Calm, cool, and collected. That's Arthur. He certainly doesn't have to choke back a whimper when Eames nips sharply at the delicate skin right above his heel. "You're going to kill me. Or I'm going to kill you. I haven't decided which yet."

"Lies and slander," Eames says blithely. Another lift of the paintbrush and this time it comes back buttercup yellow, and Eames starts working on the waffle cone. "You know you love me above all else. Even more than that little paper hat you wear during tourist season that makes you look so very dashing."

"Mmm," Arthur hums noncommittally and reaches out to card his fingers through Eames' hair. Eames leans into the touch, turning his head just enough for his lips to skim the inside of his wrist. A small smile slips out at that and he concedes, "It's possible that I'm more fond of you than the hat. Maybe. Slightly."

"I'll take it," Eames laughs. The brush dips between his toes and it's only Eames' strong fingers curved around his ankle that keep him from yanking his foot away from the sensation. He still jerks enough that the brush skids upward, dragging through the fine lines drawn over the arch, and Eames pouts. "Aw, love, you've ruined it."

"You'll just have to redo it then," Arthur says, gently tugging his foot out of Eames' grasp. The pout deepens and the brush paints a sad, invisible circle in the air, but then Arthur stretches to hook his leg over Eames' shoulder and pull him closer. "Later."

"Oh, yes, that can definitely wait for later," Eames says as he wriggles further up the bed. He turns to press a kiss to the inside of Arthur's upper thigh, smearing his lips with purple. Then he pushes up onto his knees, jostling the bed, and--

Arthur wakes up somewhere over the Atlantic with an almost painful ache between his legs and a thin airplane blanket that does little to disguise the bulge of his erection draped over his legs.

"Oh,fuck," Arthur says, staring at the headrest in front of him with unseeing eyes, a deer caught in a borderline illiterate, irrationally charming British headlight. "How did I not fucking know I'm fucking in love with the fucking bastard?"

"Mazel tov," says the older gentleman sitting next to him without looking up from his novel.

"Do you mind? I'm, like, trying to think and you're being loud. It's rude," says the surly teenager who twists around the side of his seat to level him with a scowl nearly as dark as her eyeliner from the row behind him. She kicks his chair again for good measure before retreating.

"Fucking bastard," says a young child across the aisle, her hands thrown gleefully up in the air, and her mother shoots Arthur a cutting look that would fell a lesser man.

Arthur drops a pillow on his lap and develops a sudden, desperate interest in the SkyMall catalog.


 

"Arthur," Dom exclaims, pulling Arthur into a very manly hug that is about ninety percent bone rattling back slaps the instant he's made it through security. You could fill entire libraries with the volumes it speaks that Arthur only trods on his foot a little bit for it.

"I think I might be in love with someone who right this very instant is probably balls deep in someone else," Arthur says in lieu of an actual greeting, and Dom blanches, turns Arthur until he's facing Mal with a stilted, "He's all yours, honey," and starts dragging the luggage toward the exit in an obvious attempt to get out of discussing anything that has to do with feelings.

"Your Mister Eames is being unfaithful," Mal asks as Arthur bends to kiss her upturned cheek, his fingertips just skimming over the growing swell of her stomach. She smells like wildflowers and freshly baked bread, and Arthur would happily let her hold him for hours in her arms simply because she would never try to make him. "Should I be making a visit? Do you need me to avenge your heart? If the problem is his sexual promiscuity, I would happily offer my services in rendering his equipment...defunct."

"Who says I'm in love with Eames? I never said anything about Eames," Arthur protests automatically. Mal purses her lips and lifts her eyebrows and he glances away, heat blossoming in his cheeks. "And he's not unfaithful," he says, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow. Her hip bumps against his when they walk, their steps out of sync, and it's pretty much completely perfect. "You can't be unfaithful to someone you aren't in a relationship with. And stop texting with Ariadne. You're a bad influence on her."

Mal smiles up at him and slowly bats wide, guileless eyes. "Now, cher, both those things are patently untrue."

"She threatened to kick Eames in the balls and then practically laughed at me when I told her she couldn't," Arthur says, because he's fresh off a transatlantic flight and the realization that he's in love with a dick and neither of those things are conducive to holding a lucid conversation about love with someone as French as Mal. Dom, who they've caught up with, looks up from where he's trying to tetris Arthur's duffel bag, suitcase, and garment bag into a trunk that clearly isn't big enough for even one of them and squints.

"Do I want to know?"

"This is just further proof that I'm a wonderful influence, the kind of woman every young lady should model herself after," Mal declares to the parking garage as a whole while Arthur glares at Dom and says, "Your crazy wife is corrupting my staff."

Dom just shrugs. "Oh, that. You should know she does that. She was yours first, after all."

"It's that she somehow manages to do it long distance without ever having met the other person that gets to me," Arthur says, waving a hand through the air, and Mal laughs and tugs him into the back seat with her.


 

Arthur meets Mal when they're seventeen. She's just flipped a man at least twice her size over her shoulder and down onto the mat with the same ease as she flicks her bangs out of her eyes. He loves her immediately with a fierce intensity that has nothing to do with the soft curve of her breasts or the smoothness of her cheek, and everything to do with the sharp precision of her right hook and the even sharper edge of her mind.

Two months later, he introduces her to his cousin, Dom, when he comes home from college on break and the two of them get swept up in something new, something that Arthur could never possibly be fully a part of, but it's okay. He isn't losing her. They'd had an entire two months before Dom turned their duo into a trio for the summer, and when you're seventeen, you can fit an entire lifetime into two months.

So, Dom fills the places that Arthur can't and Arthur fills the places he's already claimed and Mal calls them both her own and almost always smiles, which is honestly all any of them really wants.


 

An hour later, while Dom is reading the newspaper in an armchair that looks older than all three of them combined and Arthur is trying and failing to nap away his jet lag on the sofa, Mal pushes Arthur's feet off the end cushion so she'll have a place to sit and picks up their conversation from the airport as if it was never interrupted.

"Perhaps Dom and I should move back to America so that I can show you what true corruption really is," she muses.

"I honestly don't think the world could handle you and Ariadne in the same time zone, much less the same city. Things would probably start to spontaneously explode in protest. Statues would bleed. Rivers would dry up. Cher would age. Truly it would be the end times," Arthur says, clamping down hard on a sudden burst of hope that flares at her throwaway comment. Dom's just been accepted into yet another graduate program and Mal's already picked out her five top schools for the baby in the city. They aren't going anywhere.

"Plus, that way I would be able to right your love life," she continues as if he hasn't spoken. "You Americans. You're all so clueless when it comes to love," says Mal, leaning over the couch's armrest so she can reach out to pat Dom's knee in an absently placating gesture.

"Eames is British," Arthur points out.

"Oh, well, British," Mal says with a dismissive sniff, as if that explains everything. She swivels on the couch and swings her feet up onto Arthur's lap. "If we're going to talk British, then I'm going to need food and a foot rub. Dom, I demand chicken."

"After your baking binge this morning, I don't think there's anything in the kitchen other than twelve loaves of bread and those olives we keep for your mother's cocktails," Dom muses, but he pushes out of his armchair all the same.

"No, I ate the olives last night," Mal says. Arthur arches an eyebrow at her and she catches him hard in the shoulder with the heel of her foot, far too limber for a woman in her third trimester. "None of those judgmental looks, now, Arthur. I'm with child. Unconventional food choices are practically de rigueur."

Arthur rolls his eyes and presses the pad of his thumb against the sole of her foot, rubbing in small, hard circles that have her going pliant almost immediately. "I really wish you hadn't thrown out all of your alcohol. I'm feeling far too sober to deal with you on any level right now."

"This is your problem, cher," Mal says, ignoring Dom's scandalized, "Mal, did you eat that can of tuna that was in here? Honey, I think that was here when we moved in."

"My problem," he says, voice as dry and flat as the Salar de Uyuni.

"Yes, your problem," Mal insists, kicking him in the knee this time. "You constantly make these comments that you don't mean, because at heart you are a defensive child, and then those who don't know and love you the way that I do invariably take you at face value. Saying one thing while meaning another is all very well and good for certain things, such as when you're trying to turn a hunt for some silly whale into a metaphor for man's struggle against fate, but it's murder on a relationship."

For several minutes, the only sounds are Dom's mutterings and occasional clangings from the kitchen and the slow whirl of the ceiling fan. Arthur lets his head fall back against the back of the couch, his fingers still working on Mal's feet.

"I hate that book," he says and means I hate that I do this. I'm tired of doing this.

"I know you do, cher," she says and means I know you do, cher.


 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:04PM

this is getting ridiculous

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:06PM

Is Nash hitting on the customers again? Tell him that just because they smile at him, it doesn't mean they want his number. Or his hand up their shirt. Speaking of, has that lawsuit been resolved yet?

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:07PM

well yes he is, but it's not that (and not yet)

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:07PM

it's eames. he's hanging around all the time now. he wants to know where you are and when you'll be back. what should i tell him?

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:09PM

Tell him I'm on vacation and that you don't know.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:10PM

when ARE you coming back? you're still planning to, right?

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:10PM

Soon. Why, do you miss me? Worried I'll leave you for Paris?

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Received: 2:11PM

oh, like breathing and the fear keeps me up nights. you know my life loses meaning without you around. ;)

 

From: Ariadne

To: Mal

Sent: 2:15PM

how's our boy really holding up? he isn't pining away into a puddle of sad, angry goo, is he? :(

 

From: Mal

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:16PM

Mal's sleeping right now. I'm fine. Really. And stop texting each other. It frightens me. If it comes out that the two of you are plotting world domination, I won't be the slightest bit surprised.

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Sent: 2:17PM

we fret because we care. when we rule the world, you can be our general?

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 2:17PM

Ariadne, I'm serious. It's fine. You two don't need to worry about me. What kind of pension plan does something like that come with?


 

Falling into a routine with Mal and Dom is one of the easiest things Arthur's done in years. Dom gets up early every day and rushes out the door before the sun's even properly risen, pausing only to press a kiss to Mal's cheek and leave a mug of coffee on the table next to the couch for Arthur. Arthur wakes when the apartment door snicks closed behind him and stays conscious just long enough to slide into bed with Mal, his body, sore and stiff from a night on the lumpy sofa, slowly loosening next to her relaxing warmth.

They wake up properly around mid morning when the bedroom's heated to the point of discomfort from the sunlight streaming in through the apartment's huge, picturesque windows, the air sluggishly circulated by an ancient ceiling fan. Arthur drinks the now tepid coffee that Dom made for him while Mal grumbles about the doctor's orders that keep her away from caffeine and forces him to make increasingly bizarre breakfasts for her--crepes filled with fish paste, scrambled eggs topped with chocolate sauce, and, on one particularly memorable morning, a beet and gummi worm sandwich.

After breakfast, they trek down to the open air market a few blocks from the apartment and do the daily shopping. Arthur thinks he could probably spend forever just like this, wandering through a maze of crates piled high with fresh produce and poultry, vibrant fruits and bunches of flowers and jaunty scarves lending color to cobblestone and grime stained buildings, French spoken too rapidly for him to pick out more than one word in ten rising and falling in a gentle cadence around them, a basket looped over one arm and Mal's hand draped over the other. It inevitably ends though, and once they have their purchases, they retreat back to the apartment. Mal whips up head spinningly complex lunches as if they're nothing, keeping up a steady chatter about the year she spent convinced she wanted to be a chef while she chops and slices and stirs, then curls up on the couch afterward while Arthur washes up the dishes.

The hours between lunch and Dom's return are usually spent there, Mal's head cushioned on Arthur's lap, Arthur's legs stretched out and propped up on the coffee table, one hand petting over Mal's hair while the other holds a book. He reads aloud until his voice is hoarse--poetry, philosophy, trashy bodice rippers, whatever book Mal leaves on the armrest for him that day--even after she's dozed off. He only lets the words trickle to a stop when Dom comes back through the door, rumpled and tired, but always, always smiling.

On the nights when Mal claims she's too tired to move on her own--"You're strong young men. You could always carry me, yes? But if you think I'm running all over Paris when I'm swollen like a hippopotamus, you are délirantes."--they settle in with old board games that are falling apart at their cardboard seams and wine glasses filled to the brim with juice, and Mal and Arthur tease Dom with outrageous theories about how things might go wrong with the baby. Nothing serious,never serious, but he sputters beautifully at the thought of piercings and inappropriate romances until they shake with laughter, nearly crying with it every time he squints and insists that it isn't funny.

When she does feel up to it, they spend long evenings wandering through Paris, exploring side streets and holing up in tiny cafes and restaurants until the management kicks them out. Once, they meet up with a group that Mal and Dom know from the university and spend hours talking with them in a bar, taunting Mal with drinks she isn't allowed to drink and ordering nearly everything on the appetizer menu when she pouts. One of the men, a professor with a strong jaw and dark hair that's just starting to go silver at the temples, buys Arthur glass after glass of wine, while Mal silently looks on with amusement. He has kind blue eyes, a generous mouth, and a bespoke Dior suit that makes Arthur's fingers twitch with the urge to reach out and stroke it, and when he taps the back of Arthur's hand with a fingertip or brushes a curl of hair out of his eyes when it falls free of the gel Arthur had slicked it back with, something hot and sweet uncurls low in his gut.

He's intelligent, polite, quietly funny. He behaves like a gentleman, never overstepping or taking things too far. He is utterly and completely perfect, and the idea of leaving with him makes Arthur blanch.

Arthur goes home with Dom and Mal that night and isn't at all surprised when Mal sneaks out into the living room during the middle of the night.

"I know you are not truly asleep," she says, voice low to keep Dom from waking up.

Arthur squirms around on the narrow couch until he's facing her and shrugs. "I wasn't exactly trying to pretend I wasn't."

Mal carefully lowers herself down onto the carpet, legs folded neatly underneath her, and bends to rest her cheek on the pillow with Arthur's, their faces so close that he can feel her mint sweetened breath warm on his chin when she speaks. "Not that it isn't lovely to have you, cher, and not that I'd ever try to hurry you out the door, but have you given any thought as to when you plan to leave and what you're going to do once you've returned home?"

"I don't think I can face him," Arthur admits.

Moonlight and lamplight spills in through the open curtains, softening the room and gilding Mal silver. She smiles, cups his cheek, and looks like nothing so much as a benevolent fairy queen when she sighs, "Oh, my sweet, prickly Arthur. I think it's rather past the point where that's an option, don't you?"

"Stop asking me questions I don't want to answer," Arthur says, but he leans his head forward so that their foreheads touch and covers her hand with his own, intertwining their fingers. "I just can't handle it. I always suspected he wasn't really serious, but the teasing and the flirting...I can't handle it when I know it's not real."

"Your Mister Eames is many things, but he is not deliberately cruel, I don't think. Not if what you've told me is true," Mal says, squeezing his hand gently, like he's something fragile and breakable. "If you ask him to stop, do you not think he would?"

"I have asked. He didn't listen," Arthur says.

"Ah, but did you actually mean it? You've said before that he seems to have a talent for reading people. Did you really wish for him to leave you alone before?"

"No," Arthur whispers into the sliver of space between them.

Mal pulls back just far enough to brush a feather light kiss across his forehead. "Then you will make certain that he understands you are serious this time, yes? Simple."

"Yeah, simple," Arthur says, his gut twisting in a way that tells him it's anything but.


 

From: Mal

To: You

Received: 11:43AM

You're waiting for a plane.

 

From: Mal

To: You

Received: 11:43AM

A plane that will carry you far away from me.

 

From: Mal

To: You

Received: 11:44AM

:(

 

From: You

To: Mal

Sent: 11:45AM

I'm standing right next to you. For the love of god, stop texting me. I'm standing RIGHT NEXT TO YOU.

 

From: Mal

To: You

Received: 11:45AM

Says the man who texted me back. 3

 

"Do I need to take those away from the two of you? Will that make you at least pretend to act like adults?" Dom asks.

"No," says Mal with a wide smile, not elaborating on which question she's answering.

"Why was I upset about leaving again," Arthur asks.

"I haven't got a clue," Dom deadpans, affectionately cuffing Arthur on the shoulder. "Get out of here before you cause an international incident."

Mal tuts at both of them, her eyes narrowing in an impressive imitation of Dom's unhappiest squint, clasps Arthur's hand in both of hers, and presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth and the tip of his nose. Arthur gently untangles their fingers and pulls her into a hug. She's rigid for a moment, then melts against him and wraps her arms around his waist tight enough to almost hurt with a soft little noise.

"Are you, are you crying?" Arthur asks, his chin mussing her soft hair when it moves. "Am I making you cry?"

"No, shut up," Mal says, voice slightly muffled by his collar. She pinches his side hard. "I'm pregnant. Shut up. Don't make me shoot you in the kneecaps."

"One day you aren't going to be pregnant and then you won't be able to use that as an excuse anymore," Arthur points out.

Mal scoffs wetly. "We'll see about that. Maybe I'll just stay pregnant forever."

"That sounds like something I should have a say in," Dom says from the sidelines.

"Hush, Dom, Arthur and I are speaking about private matters," Mal says.

"Just seems like my wife being pregnant forever is the sort of thing I should be allowed to have an opinion on," he says, tucking his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels reflectively.

"Details," Mal says with a dismissive wave of her hand. Arthur wriggles a little and she squeezes him even tighter.

"I worry about you, cher," she whispers into the curve of his neck like a secret. "You're stronger than you think, but not as strong as you pretend to be. I'm happy that you've found Ariadne so that you have someone you can confide in, but I wish for you to have what Dom and I share. Promise me that you won't shut yourself off from the possibility of love."

"Mal," Arthur starts, but she shakes her head minutely.

"No, Arthur. I know you. I know things with your Mister Eames didn't go the way you were hoping, but please don't let it sour you. Promise me you'll let love find you if it comes looking," she insists.

"I love you," he says, dropping a kiss on the top of her head, and it's not an answer, not the way she wants one, but he lets her hold onto him until her eyes are dry and her smile isn't trembling even though he nearly ends up missing his flight, and it's the best he can do.


 

It's late when Arthur's cab pulls up in front of the shop, late enough that he can see Ariadne sorting out the register and the new hire, Megan, pushing a mop around through the window, and he takes a moment to let the travel tension ease out of his shoulders, a warm looseness settling over him at the knowledge that he's home, fucked up though it might sometimes be. He lets his eyes slide shut and tips his head back, breathing in the scents of the bakery two doors down, the dusty construction around the corner, the slightest undercurrent of rot from too many people living too closely together. Of course, in all fairness, that last bit might be in part because of whatever experiment Yusuf's conducting in the workshop above his liquor store this week.

He's so busy trying to puzzle out exactly what the smell is that he completely fails to notice a shadow detaching itself from one of the clusters of darkness shying away from the light cast by the lamp in front of his building. What he does notice is the hand that clamps down on his wrist, tight enough to be restraining, but not actively threatening. Years of training kick in quick as a blink and it's almost as easy as breathing to twist, spin, and pull in just the right way to catapult the other body over his shoulder and down onto the concrete sidewalk.

"Fuck," Eames says from where he's sprawled at Arthur's feet, managing to sound more impressed than angry when he lifts a hand to gingery prod at the back of his head. "I think you cracked my bloody head open, love."

"Oh,shit," Arthur breathes. He can feel the blood draining from his face, then rushing back to color his cheeks and the tips of his ears pink. "Shit, Eames, why would you sneak up on me like that?"

"I figured you'd jump or maybe, if I was lucky, squeak a little. Never counted on you secretly being a ninja under those perfectly crisp oxfords of yours." Eames peers at his fingertips, squinting against the darkness, and is evidently reassured that he isn't bleeding, because he then flails the same hand in Arthur's direction. "I always suspected you might be the death of me, but I was hoping it would be in bed, not in some dank, seedy alleyway."

Eames' palm is warm and just slightly damp, his fingers calloused when they close around Arthur's, and Arthur snatches his hand away almost before Eames has his feet back underneath him, because it's that or possibly not letting go at all.

"I don't think the sidewalk in front of my shop counts as a 'dank, seedy alleyway'," Arthur says, voice dry as dust. He resists the urge to try and wipe the tingling in his skin away on his slacks. "And you should never sneak up on people like that, even if you do think you know them. I spent nearly a decade and a half in a gi more often than not. I got my GED when I was sixteen just so I could devote more time to training. I could have seriously hurt you."

"Two years I've known you and I never would have guessed. You manage to find new ways to astonish me every day, Arthur," Eames says with a smile. "Although I suppose I should be a little less surprised about your ability to sweep me off my feet. Were you good? I'd bet anything you were devastating to watch."

"I was an eighth degree black belt, preparing to test for the next level, and pretty much guaranteed a spot on the next Olympic team when I quit. I was fucking amazing," he says absently as he fishes in his pocket for his key chain with one hand and snags a hold of the edge of Eames' sleeve to pull him into the puddle of light under the lamppost with the other. There's a small flashlight on the key chain and he flashes it in Eames' eyes, mentally reciting everything he knows about concussions from first aid training and having had a couple of his own. "Are you okay? You aren't dizzy or anything, are you?"

"I'm perfectly fine, darling, no need to fret." One of his hands settles at Arthur's waist, fingers gently curling into already wrinkled fabric, and it feels so natural and right that he doesn't even notice. "So, tell me why you quit. What could possibly have made you decide to give all that up? Don't tell me you're just that passionate about ice cream. Not that it isn't a noble pursuit in it's own right, but it does seem bloody dull in comparison."

"Track the light with your eyes," Arthur instructs. Eames rolls his eyes, but does what he's told, and Arthur says, "I blew my knee out at the national championship. Or, if you want to get technical about it, Matthew Cobol blew my knee out. On the plus side, he was disqualified and later banned from competing."

"That's not much of a silver lining," Eames says quietly, his hand sliding down to Arthur's hip and giving a small squeeze.

"It's better than it could have been," he says, cutting his eyes to the side. "I'm not going to compete professionally again, but it's not like he left me disabled or anything."

"Ah, but you don't need to permanently physically incapacitate someone to break their heart." Eames' fingers have managed to sneak up under the hem Arthur's shirt and are lightly tracing tiny, ticklish patterns over bare skin. Arthur, finally registering what's happening, jerks away with a glare that's more flustered than indignant.

"Popular opinion has it that I don't have a heart to break," Arthur says, and it's supposed to be a joke, supposed to be poking fun at the reputation he's carried for most of his life--Arthur the ruthless, the unfeeling, the robot--but if the sad, almost wounded look that flits across Eames' face is anything to go by, it falls more than a little flat. He clears his throat, shakes his head. "What are you even doing here?"

"Oh, you know," Eames says as he pulls a slim, pink rectangle from his pocket. "A little bird might have told me that you were coming home today. It's been weeks since I've spoken to you. How could I possibly stay away when I've so much I need to say to you?"

Arthur narrows his eyes and frowns, then glares. "How many times do I have to tell you to stop pickpocketing my employees before you'll actually start listening to me, Eames," he asks and snatches Ariadne's phone out of his hand. "This isn't some kind of joke. You can't just make people trust you, make people expect things from you, and then change the rules halfway through. You're not allowed to make people like you and then use them like that."

Eames edges closer and slowly, almost carefully, lifts a hand to touch Arthur's neck, the tips of his fingers dipping into the soft hair at the base of his skull. "Arthur," he says, and he's so close that Arthur can count his eyelashes, can pick out the tiny flecks of gold that splinter out from his pupils, can feel him exhaling warm and slightly uneven against his lips. "Would you please calm down so we can talk? I've been trying to talk to you for ages and ages now, but you always manage to slip away just when I think I've finally gotten you cornered."

There's a spray of green paint speckling Eames' cheek like tiny freckles and his breath smells like mint chocolate chip. Arthur swallows and tells himself that the only reason his hands are against Eames' chest, the worn fabric of his faded black t-shirt wondrously soft under the pads of Arthur's fingers, is because he's going to push him away.

Any moment now.

"I didn't say you could do this," Arthur says, his voice shaky in his own ears. Eames' fingers drag down the back of his neck to slip under his collar, nails scraping across delicate skin, and Arthur shivers. "This isn't allowed," he says, and he can feel the warmth of Eames' lips, the tempting wet fever heat of his mouth, against his own.

"I know, love, but you're driving me absolutely mad here." Eames tilts his head and draws the tip of his nose along the line of Arthur's cheekbone, his lips a whisper against his jaw. Arthur's fingers clench in Eames' shirt, knuckles pressing hard against sculpted muscles, and he can feel all the tension that Eames is somehow managing to keep out of his voice thrumming under his skin. "Please, please just say the word. Pretend you're in a Taylor Swift song and just say yes."

"I thought you didn't listen to country music," Arthur says, his breath shuddering across the other man's neck and making him groan low in his throat.

"She sings the songs my heart wishes it could write for you." His hand is back on Arthur's hip and slowly slipping back further. "I would listen to a thousand country songs for you, Arthur. I would listen to nothing but country songs if that's what you wanted."

“I really prefer jazz," Arthur says a little nonsensically, confused as to why they're talking about music when Eames is nuzzling the spot behind his ear that always makes his joints feel like jello. "Or girl groups from the 1950s and 60s. You know, like The Supremes, The Cookies, The Chiffons."

"Always with the surprises," Eames says with a laugh that flutters Arthur's hair where it's sprung free from its gel. "Good to know. I talk a good game, but I don't think I could seriously listen to country for the rest of my life."

The rest of his life.

Like Eames is serious.

Like he's making a commitment.

The warmth that's been spreading through every last atom of his body suddenly turns cold, and Arthur shoves Eames away from him with a force that makes them both stagger.

"I can't do this," he gasps, and it's like breaking through the surface of the ocean and not even realizing he'd been drowning until that very moment. Eames frowns, the expression so out of place on his normally pleasant face that Arthur's fingers itch with the urge to smooth the groove from between his eyes, and starts to reach out again. Arthur knocks his hand away before he can actually touch him and says again, harder this time, "I can't, Eames."

Eames doesn't try to move any closer, but his hands clench at his sides and Arthur thinks he can see his knuckles going white and a muscle twitch in his jaw. "Why not? I'm not blind, Arthur. I want you and I know you damn well want me, so what's the problem?"

"I just," Arthur pauses, rakes his fingers through his hair, and sighs. He's tired, so fucking tired and jet lagged, and he wants to crawl back into bed next to Mal in the early Paris morning where everything's simple and easy so intensely that he can feel a dull pricking behind his eyes. "I like Robert, okay? He's a nice guy, so you need to stop this shit already."

"What?" It's probably a question, but Eames' voice is so flat that Arthur can't really tell for certain. He keeps his eyes down, because it's easier than looking at Eames, and starts to gather up his things with shaking hands.

"He's nice," Arthur repeats. "Really, genuinely nice. Most people aren't."

"You've only ever met him the once," Eames says, his voice raising a little, a note of disbelief creeping in. "How the ever loving fuck would you know anything about him from speaking to him once?"

"Twice, actually, and sometimes that's all you need to know." He does look up then, and the strange, shuttered expression on Eames' face is one that he's never seen before and it makes his heart clench sickeningly tight. He braces himself and says with all the conviction he isn't wholly certain he means, "I need you to stop, Eames. All the flirting, all the jokes, just everything. Please, just stop it."

Eames nods once, a short jerk of his head, and Arthur thinks he might hear him murmur a terse 'alright', but he's already pushing through the front door of his shop. The newbie has made herself scarce, but Ariadne flashes him a worried smile when the door swings shut behind him.

"Welcome home," she says, leaning forward on the counter. "I saw you talking to Eames out there. Looked pretty intense."

"I brought you a scarf," Arthur says, giving the duffel bag that it's tucked away in a small shake.

"Or we could talk fashion," she says agreeably.

"You grab the ice cream, I'll grab Pretty Woman?" he asks and doesn't even feel all that pathetic when Ariadne's lips curve in a sweet smile and she nods.

He makes his way through the shop back to the stairs that lead to his apartment, the familiarity almost strange after being away for so long, and resolutely doesn't look at the mirror mounted over the back counter. Arthur's not certain what would be worse--looking and seeing Eames still standing where he left him or looking and him already being gone.


 

"You're a hateful human being," Arthur says to the counter under his cheek, his breath fanning out across it in a slick spread of condensation.

"We've talked about this, Arthur. People respond better to a positive attitude. That's why you make children cry on a semi-regular basis and they all think I'm delightful," Ariadne tosses blithely over her shoulder, practically radiating rainbows and unicorns and glitter or some shit, which is both unnatural and unfair. She's frying up a pan of apple cider cured bacon--the grease popping and spitting and the strips darkening and curling up crisply at the edges and generally smelling so delicious that it's all making Arthur wish that everyday could be bacon day, all day, everyday, forever and ever--and Arthur still hates her. He didn't think it was possible to hate someone who has complete control of the bacon, but her unfailing spunk is just that off putting.

"Okay." He unpeels his face from the counter and, when Ariadne turns around, he dimples at her as widely and pleasantly as he can manage when his body is pretty much weeping to curl up into a teeny, tiny ball until the withdrawal shakes stop or he injects liquefied ice cream straight into his veins. "You're an absolutely hateful human being, and if it wasn't for the fact that we get most of those little plastic sampling spoons for free because of that time you flashed the delivery guy, I would fire you. Right now."

Ariadne rolls her eyes, because she isn't wise enough in the ways of the world to be properly impressed by Arthur yet--someday she will be, he vows, and then she'll retroactively bow at his feet in reverence for all the times he was benevolent in the face of her insolence--and vaguely waves her spatula at his face. "Yeah, see? That? That's what makes small children cry."

"Hateful," he reiterates, letting his forehead drop back down on the counter with a soft thump. "Hate you so, so," and there should be an ending to that sentence, he knows there's supposed to be one, but Ariadne combs her fingers through his hair, her neatly trimmed nails scratching lightly over the crown of his head, and whatever he was going to say slips away as intangible as the steam rising from the plate of bacon she slides onto the counter.

"How many slices do you think it takes to mend a broken heart," she asks, fingers still massaging his scalp, even when he lifts his head again. "Four? Five? Can't possibly be more than six."

Arthur grunts and pulls the plate toward him, ignoring the eyebrow she lifts in his direction. Her hair is pushed back from her face with the scarf he bought her, the fringe draped over her forehead like bangs, and she's swimming in an old leftover t-shirt from a marathon the shop had helped sponsor a few years back and a pair of Arthur's workout pants that are rolled up so many times at the hem that she looks almost like she has thick gray bagels circling her ankles. By all rights, she should look completely ridiculous, but Arthur's never been more certain that if it ever comes down to him against the world, she's one of the very first people he would ask to stand by his side.

"All of it," he says and bites into a strip of perfectly prepared bacon, moaning when the salty sweet taste explodes across his taste buds like fireworks. "It takes all the bacon, but," he says, pointing his half eaten piece at her, "I'm willing to share, just this once, because it's you."

Ariadne plops down onto the stool next to him and only laughs a little when she snags her own piece. "Wow, boss man, it's almost like you like me or something."

"Or something," Arthur agrees. Then, because it needs to be said, he adds, "And my heart isn't broken. It is, at worst, a minor sprain. Probably not even that. More like a paper cut or a very small bruise."

Ariadne doesn't do anything as annoying as patting his hand, even though he knows she probably wants to, and says, "Whatever you say. Hey, if we have leftovers, can we mix them in with some of the chocolate ice cream? Because chocolate and bacon is supposed to taste amazing," and, yeah, he's pretty much never going to fire her and there's actually a very really chance that he'll do something completely embarrassing like cry when she finally wises up and quits for something better.


 

Eames doesn't come into the shop that day.

Arthur tells himself he doesn't care.

By three that afternoon, he's already made four children, a grown man, and a tiny dog cry, but that's completely unrelated.

Completely.


 

There's no Eames again the next day, though Yusuf wanders in around midday.

"You look terrible," he says pleasantly as he drops down onto the stool in front of where Arthur's wiping off the counter.

"Well, you only have one eyebrow," Arthur says, which is not entirely accurate. It's more like he only has one and a half, maybe one and a quarter, because a good chunk of his left one is singed off.

"There was a small explosion. It'll grow back." He pauses to smile at Ariadne when she passes him a cone of chocolate bacon ice cream, then turns back to Arthur. "So, word on the street is you're all torn up inside with manpain."

"Please, please tell me you're not here to talk to me about feelings," Arthur says, his lips twisting sideways at the sheer horror of the idea. "I will ban you. I will ban you so hard that your grandchildren will try to walk through that door and be pushed straight back out by nothing more than the residual force of the banning."

"Don't be absurd." Yusuf leans over to fish something out of the satchel he'd dropped on the floor. After a few minutes of rummaging--Is it bottomless? Is he Mary Poppins? Who really needs that long to go through a bag?--he straightens with a small sound of triumph and sets an unmarked bottle on the counter. "I'm suggesting we drown them."

"Is this your homemade wine," Arthur asks. His hand shakes a little when he reaches out to pick up the bottle and he has to take a moment to compose himself before uncorking it to take a sniff. "Itis," he breathes. "Oh, you're my best friend in the entire world."

"Is he talking to you or the bottle," Megan asks, pausing next to Yusuf with a broom in hand.

"Probably the bottle," Ariadne answers from the other end of the counter, where she's proving to be the only member of the staff who actually does any work. Arthur probably owes her about ten raises at this point.

"Almost definitely the bottle," Yusuf agrees.

Megan frowns a dainty little kittenish frown at him and says, "You know, if you used an eyebrow pencil, you might be able to fill that in."

"Oh, really," Yusuf asks, turning on his stool to face her with a wide smile.

"She's only sixteen," Arthur says without looking away from the wine.

Yusuf swings back around to face Arthur. "In that case, I'll pass. I have a rule that I only let very small children who are related to me and nonminors put makeup on me."

Ariadne, who's wandered back down toward them, rolls her eyes at Megan. "And to think, statistically speaking these two geniuses are more likely to earn more money than either of us over the course of their lifetimes."

"Them? That's just fucked up," Megan says, glaring at the two of them like they personally installed a glass ceiling over her head.

"Language," Arthur says, because somebody needs to think of the children, then glances up with a small glare. "And I'm still your boss. It's never too late for me to decide you don't make a good fit here after all."

Megan, because she's about a scarf away from being Ariadne's mini me, snorts and says, "Unlikely," while Ariadne nods her approval.

Arthur looks between the two of them warily and, cradling the bottle of wine safely in his arms, darts a glance over at Yusuf, who's slowly edging away. "Can we go drink this now?"

"Wonderful idea," Yusuf says, hopping off his stool and rushing toward the stairs, where they can legally engage in some nice, feelings free drinking and possibly watch whatever game is playing on ESPN.

As much as he loves Ariadne, Arthur reflects, sometimes it's nice to have a bro.


 

Arthur is half asleep and doing a better than decent job of pretending to listen to Yusuf's attempts to explain the science in Back to the Future when his phone vibrates against his hip. He jumps, nearly falling off the couch, but eventually manages to get the damned thing open.

From: Ariadne

To: You

Sent: 3:42PM

just sent the most beautiful man in the world up to your apartment

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Sent: 3:42PM

you are not allowed to tap that as rebound sex. i call dibs.

 

Arthur blinks, rereads the texts, then blinks again.

 

From: You

To: Ariadne

Sent: 3:43PM

What?

 

From: Ariadne

To: You

Sent: 3:43PM

DIBS!

 

"You look constipated," Yusuf says, helpful as ever. Arthur flips him off and tosses his cell phone at him.

"I'm not letting you try any of your homemade 'cure-alls' on me. I like having a working liver." Arthur presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose, ignoring the indignant sound Yusuf makes, and tries to massage a little of the sleep out of his eyes. It's not like he isn't used to Ariadne not making sense, but usually he can at least sort of figure her out from context.

Considering Ariadne's first text, he should probably be a little less surprised when context picks that moment to start knocking on his apartment door.

Arthur's still clinging to the last bit of his jet lag, can feel the urge to sleep creeping over him and weighing him down, and is rapidly slipping from pleasantly drunk to hungover, and he's certain he looks every inch of it. Which means that of course Robert's on the other side of the door, as neatly pressed and fresh faced as if he just stepped off the cover of GQ.

"Damn," Yusuf says from his spot on the couch. "Ariadne has good taste. Do you think she would share?"

"Not even strawberry ice cream, and you know how much she hates that," Arthur answers absently. He leans against the door frame, effectively blocking Robert from trying to come in, and nods in what he hopes is a friendly manner. Judging from the look that skitters across Robert's face, it's probably less than successful. "Robert. How lovely to see you. You know the only place we sell ice cream is downstairs, right? My apartment isn't like a secret ice cream speakeasy."

"I--What?" Robert frowns, shakes his head. "No, please don't try to explain, I don't think I want to know. Can I come in?"

"I don't think that's the best idea," Arthur says slowly.

"Don't you make me come up there and force you to be polite, Arthur!" Ariadne yells up from the bottom of the stairs.

Arthur leans out into the hallway and hollers back, "Stop eavesdropping or you're fired!"

“You fire me and I'll tell your mother!"

Arthur winces and finally notices that while he's been yelling at Ariadne, Robert's slipped into his apartment.

Shit.

"I thought we agreed you weren't going to come in," Arthur says, trying to keep his voice level. Robert crosses his arms over his chest and doesn't move from where he's standing in the middle of the room.

"We need to talk and I'm not leaving until we have."

"Bit bossy, aren't you?" Yusuf runs a speculative eye over Robert. "I like that."

How the hell has his life come to this? "Yusuf, you're straight."

"Only usually," Yusuf says with a shrug. "I can be flexible." A beat. "Very flexible."

"Yusuf," Arthur says, his voice a sharp crack. "As unpleasantly informative as that may be, now is really not the time. This is Robert."

Yusuf finally stops ogling Robert long enough to turn to Arthur and arch an eyebrow. "The one you were going on about earlier?"

"Yes," Arthur snarls between clenched teeth.

"I'll just be going then," Yusuf says, propelling himself up onto his feet with a slightly unsteady push. "Let you two have at it."

"Arthur?" Robert asks. He looks a lot less comfortable than he had only a few moments ago, shifting uneasily from foot to foot.

Arthur could take him. It would barely take any effort at all to physically manhandle him out of his apartment. He's fairly certain it wouldn't even really count as assault since Robert came into his home uninvited. But then he'd have to deal with Ariadne.

"Fine," Arthur says once the door's clicked shut behind Yusuf. "Talk. I suppose I owe you that much."

"Um." Robert frowns with confusion as he tears his eyes away from the door, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallows hard. "Right. I just wanted to say that while I'm extremely flattered, I think you might have the wrong idea about me."

"The wrong idea," Arthur repeats flatly. He isn't quite certain where this is going, but so far it doesn't sound like the bitching out he was expecting for flirting with and nearly kissing the guy's boyfriend.

"Yes." Robert nods earnestly and spreads his hands in what he must think is a placating way in the space between them. "You seem like a wonderful guy--I mean, you obviously must be with how highly Eames thinks of you--but that's really not what I'm looking for. Not that I wouldn't potentially be interested if I was looking for something like that, but, like I said, I'm not, and I just think that you should maybe reconsider--"

"Wait," Arthur interrupts, lifting both his hands. He's not at his best right now; he more than freely admits that. But there is no way he's hearing this right. "Is this you trying tolet me down easy?" Arthur asks incredulously.

Robert heaves a sigh. His shoulders slump a little in relief and he nods. Arthur's more than a little tempted to pinch himself.

"I'm flattered that you think I'm nice and all, Arthur, but I'm really not interested in you like that," says Robert, slightly calmer than before.

"No offense, Robert, but I'm more tempted to punch your dick than suck it." The horrified look that gets him is quite possibly one of the best things he's ever seen. "Why the fuck are we even having this conversation?"

Arthur is going to seriously have to rethink his assessment of Robert as cool and calm. The way he's sputtering alone is enough to take him down more than a few notches.

"But you told Eames you like me."

"Yes," Arthur says slowly. He's pretty sure he's completely lost his grip on this conversation, though it's not like he ever had a very firm one on it to begin with. "You're a nice guy, and I'm not the kind of guy who flirts with someone else's boyfriend, except for maybe if they're an asshole. That's why I asked Eames to stop joking around with me. I couldn't help but take it as something serious, even though I knew it wasn't."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Robert presses his hand to his forehead and frowns. "What do you mean Eames was joking around? Whose boyfriend? How many guys are involved in this and am I going to need a flow chart to keep up with them all?"

"Your boyfriend. I'm not going to flirt with or encourage Eames when he's going out with you."

Robert is gaping at him. It's a little comforting to know that he's not quite as good looking when his mouth is hanging open like that. Arthur grabs a mostly empty bottle of scotch and takes a small, burning swig while Robert visually pulls himself back together. He's never seen someone actually do that before; it's oddly fascinating.

"What?" Robert's exclamation is so loud that Ariadne can probably hear him downstairs. "Eames isn't my boyfriend!"

Arthur pauses and goes over all of the evidence he's seen to the contrary. A queasy, uneasy feeling starts to churn in his stomach when he starts to notice how flimsy most of it is. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," Robert says tersely. He snatches the bottle out of Arthur's hand and swallows down the rest of it in one pull. "Hell, Arthur, I'm not even gay. And not in the way your friend Yusuf isn't gay. I'm really not gay. And even if I was, I'd still probably pick celibacy over dating Eames."

"Oh." Arthur's starting to feel more than a little unsteady. He doesn't even bother trying to make it to the couch, instead just leaning back against the wall and sliding down until he hits the floor. "Oh, shit. I've completely fucked this up, haven't I?"

/actual fic

This is where I threw in the towel, but never fear, because after this Arthur goes to Eames' apartment, awkwardly explains that he jumped to conclusions based on little evidence, and they have sex and live happily ever after with sprinkles on top. The end.