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a secret only both of us know

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The first time they meet, Arthur is seventeen and Eames is twenty-one, and it's summertime in Cambridge.

And, all right, so all of ten minutes ago Eames was whinging about the uni's summer schooling, about the sixth formers trampling on his town, but the kid is surprising and Eames is rarely surprised by anyone, even if they are sharply-dressed American jailbait wearing Oxfords and waistcoats in the middle of July. And if Eames' mouth goes dry when the kid walks in, well. He's only trying to be friendly. Helpful, even.

The kid looks up with a frown when the pint appears in front of him, and Eames lifts his own glass with a nod. The kid's eyes narrow, recognizing the challenge of breaking the law for what it is, and he takes a drink.

If only the rest of it could be so easy, Eames thinks, and sighs.

Eames buys the kid a pint every night for a week, sitting closer and closer every time. The kid—god, will he ever learn the guy's name, honestly—just keeps giving him sharp, narrow-eyed glances, and if Eames weren't so turned on he'd be a little perplexed that the kid is taking so long to charm. Finally he brings the pint himself, scooting into the opposite side of the booth.

The kid just looks up at him and arches an eyebrow.

Eames isn't sure he's capable of speech.

"I'm Eames," he announces, finally, after wetting his lips. "Jack Eames."

"Arthur," the kid says. "Thanks for the drinks."

"Just buttering you up, Arthur," Eames says in response, drawing the name out to see the pretty way Arthur blushes.

"I'm not gay," the kid sputters. It's really the most attractive thing Eames has ever seen.

"Nor I, darling. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate beauty. And at the risk of making you blush again, I find you rather beautiful." Eames pitches his voice low and leans across the table toward the kid. "So, what do you say? Fancy a one-off summer romance? I could be your experienced English Romeo."

He isn't altogether surprised when Arthur slides out of the booth with a shake of his head. He is, however, surprised when one of Arthur's slender hands lands on his shoulder and Arthur's breath is close to his ear.

"Thanks again, Jack. But you assume I'd be the Juliet."

Eames takes a drink of the pint left behind. No sense in wasting it, after all.

He's sure he'll never see Arthur again.

That's the year Eames graduates, a first in English and a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company on the horizon, an endless string of bit parts and backstage jobs waiting for him. His big break comes playing Iago's understudy in the dead of winter two years after he started with the Company. He gets to play the role twice, the Sunday before Christmas, and only about fifty people in total see it, but it's enough. He wonders about Arthur as he struts and frets his hour upon the stage, which is idiotic because they didn't even get past the pleasantries—but Eames has always been something of a deliberate idiot anyway.

When the next season starts he's cast as Tybalt, and for all he really doesn't love this play he does love his elaborate death scene, and the fact that their Romeo looks like Arthur.

Of course, that's all before the esteemed Romeo fucks Eames' on and off girl in the curtains after hours. Maybe the spark of viciousness that brings out in him is what moves him up to Malvolio status. Maybe it's just the way his legs look in tights. Whatever it is, Eames is grateful.

Grateful until he sees Arthur in the audience.

He feels suddenly naked, sweating like a pig in tights in July.

 

 

 

It's the second time they meet. Arthur is twenty-one and Eames is twenty-six and bloody hell, that age gap is perfect, especially when Arthur is biting Eames' lower lip with all the experience five years can offer.

"How about that one-off summer romance now," Arthur gasps into his mouth, and Eames wasn't lying when he said he wasn't gay but Jesus Christ, Arthur's shoulders in that waistcoat, Arthur's fingers under his paisley shirt, and this is something he didn't even know he was waiting for. It's all heat and sound and fury and Eames had no idea how young he himself was until right at this moment, when he's hard and wanting and comes almost as soon as Arthur's strong, supple fingers wrap around his cock. And Arthur laughs, sharp and clean and full, and Eames is lost all over again.

When they wake up in the morning Eames' mouth tastes like something died in it and his sheets are crusty, but Arthur's still there, and it's a triumph. "I thought you'd be gone by now," he murmurs into the roughly tousled hair. Arthur turns until the corner of his mouth is next to Eames' own.

"Shows what you know," he mumbles, and Eames knows he's been in the theatre too long because it feels like a benediction.

Eames catalogs the moments of that summer in snapshots, polaroids that he tucks into the liners of his luggage. It is the summer of Arthur James Spence, of lazy afternoons, of weekends in Ibiza that always end with Eames suggesting sex on the beach and Arthur shoving sand down his trunks instead. Later Eames will find it remarkable, how much is different and how much the same about the Arthur he remembers. Later, he will see pinstripes and waistcoats and think of tanned muscles and smooth collarbones underneath. Later he will wonder where that summer went, and find it in the linings of luggage he had forgotten about. All of that will come later, after years and after Maxwell and after Mal. For now he just watches, takes in the extraordinary heat and shimmer of Arthur and London and summertime, and tells himself he'll use it when he's cast as Oberon someday.

He never gets the chance to play Oberon. After Arthur leaves for home—a day Eames thinks about as little as possible—he meets Maxwell, and Maxwell starts him dreaming. Acting in the dreamscape is easier when he really believes it, and transforming himself is easier every time. The summer of Arthur gives way to the years of Maxwell in an instant. Eames loses track of his polaroids. And Arthur's address. And, somewhere along the way, himself.

To be fair, Arthur loses himself too, a fact Eames is quick to notice six years later.

 

 

 

It is the third time they meet. Arthur is twenty-seven and Eames is thirty-two and neither one would have recognized the other if they hadn't been dreaming.

"I met an old lover in this bar," Eames is musing, looking up and around at the familiar glasses and wood panels.

"A lover? Well, at least that's a step up from boyfriend," Arthur says smoothly, and Eames looks up and it's like no time has passed at all.

They hold it in until the job is over, Maxwell running extraction and Arthur on point and starring Eames himself as a fetching blonde in gloves and a sequined dress. There's a hefty paycheck at the end, after all, and they're neither one of them children any more. But the job is just a job and Arthur is still there when Eames comes out of the dream and there is really nothing better than being opened up on the sheets of an expensive hotel bed and Arthur looking down at him and the smile at the corner of Arthur's mouth that says yes, I remember this too. It is hot and fast and dirty and gorgeous, and Eames thinks he's developed a complex about the line of Arthur's shoulders. He feels twenty-six again when he wakes and sees the back of Arthur's head on the pillow.

The summer of Arthur can't hold a candle to the years that follow.

It's different, to be sure; Eames is more abrasive and Arthur compartmentalizes, and they are both too good at their jobs or to see eye to eye on everything. But there is no denying that they make a good team, Maxwell's imperfect extraction techniques notwithstanding, and the arguments are, in Eames' humble opinion, the best segues into sex ever invented, not just because he often wins that way.

They don't talk about what's past, or how they came to be this way, in this job, together. They don't talk about the years it took to get here, and that is just fine with Eames. The work is good. The money is good. The sex is most definitely good. Eames is almost afraid he's going to wake up from it.

The next job is in Paris. It's legal, for once, teaching the sharing to a professor and his best pupils. It's how they meet Dom, and Mal, married and in love and expecting their second, and itching to learn a brand new world.

Eames sees the way Arthur looks at them.

It doesn't take much to wake him these days anyway, and this kick is obvious. Just because he's got a family doesn't make him a family man.

He leaves, but the years of Arthur don't end.

 

 

 

(This is what happens in between: Dom names James after Arthur. Mal calls Eames, only once, and leaves a message. "Lucky you, getting out while you could. But Arthur still wants you, Jack, mignon, and he will need you soon." The next thing he hears, she's gone.

He travels.

He doesn't go back.

Arthur always found him before.

He ignores the fact that it was always Arthur who left, too.

He winds up in Mombasa.)

 

 

 

It is the fourth time they meet. Arthur is twenty-nine and Eames is thirty-four, and Arthur is probably still angry. Eames calls him names and pesters him constantly but never stands too close and never touches skin to skin, because that would be far too much for either one of them to bear, and he knows it. They do the job. They succeed. Dom goes back to his children and Ariadne looks older and Saito has a little smile on his face that makes him look like a smug cat. Eames doesn't give a shit about anything but the way Arthur almost smiled at him in a dreamed-up hotel room, the soft pressure of Arthur's fingers on his wrist, the first time they've touched in years.

 

 

It is the fifth time they meet. Arthur is twenty-nine and Eames is thirty-four, and they share a luggage trolley at the airport after they land. Arthur has a flat in Los Angeles Eames has always pretended to know nothing about, and he continues to feign ignorance until Arthur turns the key in the lock and says "We have to talk, this time."

Eames considers, as he mouths a response that might be 'yes' into Arthur's lips, that he might have been wrong.

Perhaps the years of Arthur have only just begun.