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Taking Care of Arthur (The Marshmallow Story)

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Arthur never intended to begin an affair with a coworker. No matter the job, he found that unprofessional, and his specific circumstances made it flat-out stupid. But, after months on the run with Cobb, away from everything he knew and in increasingly nerve-wracking situations, he started to lose his cool. He needed something to take the edge off, and, more than that, he needed something that was just his. He’d given up everything to keep Dom Cobb alive and out of jail, with very little in return--Cobb barely spoke to him most days. Arthur wasn’t someone who craved attention or affection often, but even he had needs.

On the second job he and Cobb worked with the young architect, Arthur took Nash to bed. He’d intended it to be a one-time thing, just something to release the pressure for a couple hours, let him feel something good for the first time in weeks. But once he’d had a taste of that feeling, Arthur couldn’t give it up. Not now, not when everything else was so awful. So he kept doing it.

The first complication was hiding the relationship from Cobb. Cobb had turned so paranoid about everything, there was no way he’d react well to learning Arthur was banging the best architect they’d found who would work with them. The risk was too great. Arthur could just imagine the combined disappointment and anger in Cobb’s eyes if he confessed. Even before their first night together, Arthur swore Nash to secrecy. Nash didn’t seem to mind.

The second complication was Nash himself. Arthur was surprised by how much he liked Nash--not just his trim, pliant body, or his willingness to give almost indefatigable head, but spending time with him. He was quiet and anxious, but, when given the chance, softly funny and oddly affectionate. When they spent time together, typically in snatches and bursts in the middle of the night, Nash slowly drew Arthur out, asking him questions that didn’t feel invasive, but instead gentle and curious. Most of them, Arthur answered. He told Nash about his childhood. He told him about his college years, and about the Army (with significant portions redacted, but still). He told him a million silly things that nobody had bothered to learn about him in years--the movies he liked, the first girl he’d kissed (and then the first boy), the way he liked his eggs and took his coffee. Over the course of one job, and then the next, it slowly became clear that as Arthur took care of Dom--as Arthur took care of everything--Nash was beginning to take care of Arthur.

Sometimes, when he wasn’t with Nash, Arthur worried about what he was getting himself into. He knew how much any sort of personal attachment could cost him when he and Dom were taking more and more dangerous jobs. He knew that Nash was taking a risk by even working with them. But he couldn’t find it in himself to care enough to stop. He so rarely did things for selfish reasons, but this was selfish. There was no other justification for it: Arthur kept on with Nash because he wanted to.

“Why are you here, with me?” It wasn’t typical for Arthur to be the one who initiated the conversations they often had in bed, but tonight he felt particularly relaxed. They’d just ended a remarkably well-executed job, with no sign of the ghost of Mal. They’d been paid and split up. Arthur (and Nash, though Dom didn’t know that) holed up for a few days in a nondescript hotel in Nice, while Dom headed to South America to look for a new job. For the first time in months, Arthur had a break. He and Nash had spent the first day of it sleeping, eating mediocre room service, and having a lot of sex. They were lounging in bed in their boxers; Nash was flipping channels on the TV.

“What do you mean?” Nash looked at Arthur with a furrowed brow. “You asked me to come with you to France.”

“No, I don’t mean here in France. I mean, why are you...seeing me?” Arthur wasn’t sure how to characterize their relationship, but he had an inclination that describing it as “fucking” would be insensitive.

“Because you’re gorgeous, and brilliant, and I have fun with you?” Nash shook his head, indicating the answer was an obvious one.

“I’m also on the run and constantly getting shot at,” Arthur pointed out, reasonably.

Nash shrugged. “Don’t mind a little danger.”

Arthur knew it wasn’t true--the dangerous aspect of their work weighed far heavier on Nash than it did on him, or even on Dom. Nash was an artist. He’d gotten into dream architecture for the sake of creation, building worlds with a palette of pure imagination. The high stakes were just an unpleasant side effect, like the needle scars and dreamlessness left by the Somnacin. Nash wasn’t even all that interested in the money.

Seeing that Arthur didn’t buy his response, Nash continued. “You’re right. I don’t like the danger. But it’s worth it.” He ran a hand up Arthur’s bare thigh. “You’re incredible. You’re so fucking far out of my league. But I’m the one who is here, now. That’s worth a risk.”

Arthur frowned. He didn’t like the inequality the answer implied. He was terrible with responding to declarations like that, though. Should he tell Nash that he, too, was incredible? Would that sound trite or forced? “I’m not out of your league,” he said, finally, after waiting longer than he should.

Nash smiled, clearly seeing how difficult this was for Arthur and kindly giving him a way out. “OK,” he said, “but the rest stands. I’m here because I want to be. Because I like to be. Because I like you.”

As Arthur thought on that, Nash returned to the television, trying to find something in English, because he spoke no French. “I like you, too,” Arthur finally said, again later than was really reasonable as a response.

“I know.” Nash smiled.

It would all go to hell eventually, Arthur reasoned. Everything did. But life was going too fast and looking too much like it might end early for him to worry about eventually.

Things with Cobb went from bad to worse. They were in Moscow, and it was bitter fucking cold, and Cobb was nearly catatonic. Arthur was planning the job on his own, doing the best he could to guide Nash through the architecture with almost no input from the extractor. Previous high tension levels were pleasant memories now, and every day felt like a balancing act on an electrified tightrope. For several nights, Arthur didn’t invite Nash into his hotel room after they finished, choosing instead to work alone into the night, then drop to sleep for a few hours in his clothes.

It was sometime in the second week of the job when Cobb informed Arthur and Nash that he was going to be gone for the day. As usual, there was no explanation, just a gruff order to “keep working.” After the door swung shut, Nash fixed Arthur with an inquisitive look. “I have no fucking idea,” Arthur said, not bothering to hide his irritation.

“That’s enough, then,” Nash replied. His voice was soft, as always, but it sounded firm. “You need a break.”

Arthur shrugged. “No time for a break. Too much to do.”

Nash walked toward him and put his hands on Arthur’s tense shoulders--he didn’t squeeze, just held them there. Arthur was immediately uncomfortable--this was the first they’d ever touched outside a completely private hotel room--but he didn’t shrug away.

“You need a break,” Nash repeated. “You can afford a few hours. I know you’ve been staying up all night. You’re going to make yourself sick. Or crazy.” He chuckled, quiet and bitter. “The last thing we need is another fucking crazy around here.”

True, Arthur thought. He took a deep breath, and Nash began to dig his fingers gently into the knots in his shoulders. “What did you have in mind?” He turned his head to look at Nash.

Nash looked briefly mischievous. “I have an idea,” he said. “Get your coat and stuff.”

Thirty minutes later, Arthur found himself at Hermitage Garden, watching Russians of all ages skate around the ice. He hadn’t realized it was Christmastime. He was Jewish, so it wasn’t as if he celebrated, but he’d been so involved in what they were doing he hadn’t even noticed the lights. It was picturesque, though freezing. He felt silly doing it, but Arthur moved his body closer to Nash’s, seeking out his heat.

Nash responded immediately, taking a small step closer to Arthur. He didn’t put his arm around him or anything pushy like that, but he kept close. Arthur smiled.

“Do you ice skate?” Arthur asked. Nash had grown up in California, like him, so it seemed unlikely.

“No,” Nash confirmed. “Never even tried. You?”

Arthur shook his head.

Nash pointed. “There’s a skate rental place, over there. Want to try it?”

Arthur surprised himself by nodding. Given the frequency with which he’d been beat up, shot at, and in car chases recently, what harm could trying ice skating possibly do?

They were both awful. After about an hour, they could just make it around the ice, leaning heavily on each other and laughing. Little kids pointed at them and giggled. The cold bit into Arthur’s face, but he was smiling more than he had in months. His eyes filled with tears when the wind started up, and his ass hurt from his many falls, but he didn’t care. This was fun. He’d forgotten about fun.

Finally, they turned their skates in and left the ice. “Holy shit, I am frozen,” Arthur groused, shoving his fists into his coat pockets.

“Stay right here for a minute,” Nash replied. “I’ll go over to that kiosk and grab us a coffee.”

It was on the tip of Arthur’s tongue to say that he could go himself, but he didn’t feel like navigating through the crowd. It wouldn’t hurt, just for today, to be the one who was waited on. “OK,” he said. “Thanks.”

It took quite a while for Nash to return--everything was so slow in Moscow. Arthur checked his phone while he waited, but after seeing nothing pressing, he shoved it back into his pocket and returned to watching the skaters. Relax, he told himself sternly. This is good for you. You need this. It wasn’t something he could do on demand, of course, but at least he was trying. He attempted to breathe deeply, then regretted it, as the freezing fucking air burnt his lungs.

Finally, Nash returned, holding two steaming paper cups. As he got closer, Arthur could tell they weren’t coffee. He smelled chocolate. Hot chocolate? What was he, five?

“What did you get?” Arthur asked, his brow furrowing. “I thought you were going for coffee.”

“Coffee is the last thing you need,” Nash said, smiling shyly. “Besides, you told me about these, remember?”

As Nash handed him the cup, Arthur saw the top of the cocoa was covered in an explosion of tiny marshmallows. He thought for a moment, then remembered:

It was months earlier, maybe only the second or third time he and Nash had slept together. Afterward they were making idle conversation in bed. Arthur could tell Nash was trying to figure out whether he was invited to stay the night, but he wasn’t sure how to broach the subject without being awkward. The conversation was about guilty pleasures, the things you know you shouldn’t eat but you love. Nash had just confessed to an extreme fondness for Cheetos.

“You know what I love?” Arthur asked, looking at the ceiling. “Marshmallows. But not the big puffy kind--the weird little freeze-dried kind. The kind in Lucky Charms. Or, you know what’s even better? The kind in Swiss Miss hot chocolate. Those little tiny ones that aren’t really marshmallows at all, they’re like something made for NASA. I used to eat that shit straight out of the packet.”

Nash had laughed--maybe not even answered. It had been a tiny, inconsequential thing.

Now here Arthur was, in Moscow, on a job he hated, with a man he was growing incredibly fond of, and a cup of hot chocolate in his hand full of those little marshmallows. He hadn’t seen them in years. “ remembered that?” Arthur couldn’t sort out what he was feeling. It had been so long since someone had taken that kind of effort for him, had remembered a tiny detail for no other reason than to make him happy. So long, in fact, that he wasn’t sure it had ever happened at all.

“Sure,” Nash said easily. “I remember everything you tell me.”

Arthur was quiet a long time after that, returning his eyes to the skaters, sipping his cocoa, and feeling lucky.

It did go to hell eventually, just like Arthur knew it would. A few months later, Nash made a mistake anybody could have made, but the stakes were too high, and Arthur lost his temper. Then Nash did what he needed to do to protect himself. Arthur could neither fault him for this, nor forgive him. Nash had every right in the world not to go down with the sinking ship of Dom Cobb. But Arthur was committed, and so they were on opposite sides. After that, there was another job, a miracle job, and finally Arthur found himself unshackled from his burdens, with no idea where to go next. He thought of looking Nash up--he’d heard Nash made it out alive after all. But by then it was too late, and then there was another man, and then another.

Years later, finally, there was the man that stuck. That man took care of Arthur, in a way nobody had before Nash, and nobody had since. Arthur knew how to let him do it, because he’d learned, at least a little bit, from a quiet, creative man who gave him more than he knew he needed during one of the worst times of his life. If he hadn’t already learned, he may never have been able to open up, to be given to, to learn to take. Once again, Arthur was thankful.

Years after that, there was a little girl. Arthur’s little girl. She liked hot chocolate with tiny little marshmallows. Arthur tended to be strict about nutrition, but he gave in often to that request. They drank it together, and Arthur told her a bit about Russia, and the cold, and ice skating, and knowing, for one perfect afternoon, that somebody would take care of him.