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The Conversation

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The photos are a mix of artsy grayscale images and poorly lit selfies. The username is 'Eames' with the caption 'like the chair' and a winky face emoticon. The profile is a baffling mix of high and low, pretentious and plain, clever and basic. He's even listed as bisexual.

Those lips and those photos, though.

Arthur shows up to the café expecting little. He wouldn't be surprised if this was a catfishing situation, the photos stolen from some porn star and the profile text lifted from a random smattering of OkCupid users. 'Eames' seems like an improbably gorgeous mass of contradictions, and the simplest explanation is that he's fake. If he's real--well, Arthur doesn't want to get his hopes up.

At least if he's being catfished, he'll have a fun story to tell Ariadne next Sunday at work.

What he gets is a guy who is somehow hotter in real life than in his photos, which is pretty fucking crazy since his photos are jerkoff hot. Arthur stands, resists the urge to tug at his vest when he leans over for a handshake. "Hey, I'm Arthur."

Eames shakes his hand (firm, dry palm, calloused) while delivering an admiring once over. When he speaks, it's with a British accent (also unexpected), "You're even more luscious than the photos led me to believe."

Arthur blinks, can't suppress a startled giggle. Others have expressed similar sentiments to him before, but none quite so matter-of-factly. The directness is kind of sexy. "Thanks. The sentiment's mutual."

Eames grins, slides into the seat across the table, and asks, "What are we having?"

Coffee turns into four hours of conversation followed by a walk to the subway; which turns into an impulsive choice to see an impenetrable foreign film at a theater they walk past; which turns into a hunt for a sushi restaurant to fulfill Eames' craving; which leads to dinner and sake and Arthur blowing Eames in the doorway of Eames' insanely huge duplex apartment. It's surprisingly quick, with Eames pulling Arthur's hair and moaning at a flattering volume. Arthur likes it enough to swallow.

Eames offers to reciprocate afterwards. Arthur isn't sure he's ready to have the whole Conversation quite yet, so defers by kissing Eames' lush lips and guiding Eames' hand into his open trousers. If Eames is surprised or dismayed by the size of Arthur's cock, he doesn't show it, seeming perfectly content to stroke and rub until Arthur groans against his lips. After Arthur's come, he maneuvers Eames out of that area by threading their fingers together with one hand while the other zips up discreetly.

They make out for a little while, sweet and a bit sloppily. Eames murmurs, with a deliberate casualness, "Care to wash up and go to bed? I should have a spare toothbrush somewhere."

"I--" The idea of cozying up together between warm sheets sounds singularly appealing. But that means hoping Eames doesn't want to share the shower. Making sure that at no time does Arthur strip fully naked to reveal anything that might--ruin the incredible day they've spent together. "I should head back. I have an early meeting tomorrow."

"Early meeting. Right." Eames steps away immediately, voice gruff as he looks away. "Message received."

Arthur's halfway to the door before the meaning of the words sink in. He halts and turns back. "Hey, so I really like you. Do you want to go out again next week?"

Eames is picking at the surface of a marble countertop, the fidgeting a stark contrast to his nonchalant pose. "I may have some time in the evenings. Shoot me a text if you want to come over."

"No, I mean." Arthur crosses the distance between them to touch Eames' chin. "I'd like to take you out for a second date."

Eames' gaze flickers up. "Yeah?"

Arthur leans in to brush a kiss against Eames' cheek, soft underneath the bristly stubble. "Yeah."

* * * * *

The second and third dates are as lovely as the first. Arthur discovers Eames is a visual artist in addition to a barista; it's also likely that a massive trust fund is in play. There's no way a part time barista gig, even one with benefits, supplies enough income for Eames to rent (or own?) a spacious two-story apartment in Williamsburg with a doorman.

In between occasionally serving coffee, Eames works in the upstairs studio portion of his apartment on sculptures made from COR-TEN steel and upcycled furniture. Eames shows Arthur photos of pieces but not the actual pieces themselves (they're not ready for public consumption yet, apparently). Arthur makes encouraging noises. He has no real idea what the hell he's looking at. Still, he likes to support people who are pursuing their creative passions.

They have sex after both dates, always with Arthur's clothes on. The second date, Arthur manages to pass it off as eager desperation to get at Eames' cock without the fuss of undressing (not difficult given how mouthwatering Eames is).

The third date is a little trickier, since Eames deliberately brings Arthur into the bedroom and lights a candle, managing to undress while they make out. Arthur plays it off as kinky for him to be clothed while Eames is naked, and it sort of works. But he catches Eames' confusion and a hint of dismay when Arthur refuses to so much as take off his shirt.

It doesn't help that after they have sex Arthur always flees the scene, something which bothers Eames more than he seems willing to admit. Arthur doesn't know how to explain that it's not Eames he's running away from, but The Conversation.

It's funny, because Arthur used to think that once everyone saw him as a man, all his dating woes would vanish. But after a few years of successfully passing in most situations, a host of new issues have cropped up--namely, having to "come out" to the men he's sleeping with, which involves explaining all the strange scarring and his unique genital situation.

After The Conversation, some men get up and walk out the door, never to be seen or heard from again. He's witnessed a few sexual crises ("Am I still gay after being attracted to someone who used to be a biological woman?!"). He's answered a barrage of uncomfortable questions about anatomy. Some men react with dumbfounded shock that transitions into anger. No one has gotten violent; sadly, he's heard stories from friends who haven't been so lucky.

The trouble is that Arthur likes Eames. A lot. Likes his imperfect teeth, his sly wit, the way he doesn't mind Arthur's odd schedule or general oddness, period. Arthur knows he should tell Eames the truth--that the longer they go on with all the secrecy, the weirder it gets.

But things have been going so well that Arthur doesn't want to upend it all, risk breaking this happy spell they're both under. He's afraid of losing Eames, of starting over with OkCupid and Tinder and, god help him, Grindr.

It's a fear Ariadne is not particularly sympathetic to. "Not much of a relationship if you're hiding who you are," she remarks as they do a last sweep of the plane for stray garbage. It's a cramped puddle jumper, old with no built-in entertainment system. This means more snacks and drinks are needed to keep the passengers pacified, which means more litter to pick up after they leave.

"You wouldn't say that if you knew how hot he was," Arthur mutters as he fishes a crumpled plastic cup out of the crevice between two seats. It is, thankfully, dry and empty.

"I've seen the photos and yes, he's stunning. But there are other handsome men in the world," she replies. Arthur tosses the cup into the recycling bag and gives her a look. "Okay, maybe not many like him, but still. My point stands."

Arthur picks up what appears to be a used diaper--ugh--off the ground. He drops it and his plastic gloves immediately into the trash. "I guess I just want to enjoy this as long as possible."

"Are you really enjoying it, though?" She begins to make her way down each row of seats, resetting the seatbelts. "Hiding a part of your identity? Hoping he never wants to see you naked?"

"Then he'd really be perfect," Arthur replies gloomily.

"And you'd be even more terrified of losing him," she says, and Arthur can't disagree.

"Two minutes to boarding," the pilot announces over the intercom, which puts an end to the conversation as Arthur and Ariadne hurry to their positions.

* * * * *

"So that's the reason you've been avoiding taking off your clothes." Eames sits back and sighs. "Well, that's a bloody relief."

Arthur stares, not quite sure what to make of this reaction. Maybe Eames is still in shock. "Just to be clear--I'm transgender, and I identify as a man."

"Yes." Eames sprawls back like a fashion spread, somehow elegant on Arthur's lumpy gray couch. His shirt rides up, revealing a patch of hairy skin that Arthur wants to lick and--focus. Stop. Conversation time, not sexy time.

Arthur drags his eyes away from Eames' bare skin and sits up straight. It's the first time Eames has ever been in Arthur's apartment. Under any other circumstance, he would be self-conscious about how cramped and dark it is (the solitary window along the back wall reveals a thrilling view of the solid brick building a foot away). But all of his anxiety is directed solely towards The Conversation. "So you don't--mind."

"Mind? What's to mind?"

"That I'm transgender? Or the fact that I--I didn't tell you sooner? Before we--" Arthur hesitates. "Fooled around?"

"I suppose it might have been nice to know why you were so averse to taking your clothes off. But now I know." Eames shrugs. "Unless--you are open to taking your clothes off now that I know, yes?"

Arthur chuckles, a little thin and reedy with nerves. "You still want to take my clothes off?"

"Well I should say so. You're bloody gorgeous." Eames touches Arthur's knee. "Only if you want to, though."

"I, um," Arthur blinks rapidly, horrified to discover that he's tearing up. Eames is being wonderful and calm and is still interested. Yet here Arthur is, freaking out about it. "Yeah, I definitely--we should--"

"Darling," Eames murmurs as he cups Arthur's face in his palm. "Thank you for having me over, and for telling me."

They wind up going to bed, kissing a little but mostly just talking. Whispered conversation about their pasts, about their dreams for the future. Arthur takes off his pants, shirt, and undershirt slowly. He ducks away from Eames, ostensibly to hang his clothing, trying to work up the nerve to turn around again.

The scars from the double mastectomy are jagged, ugly things. Mostly healed over, but he hasn't been able to save up enough money to do any additional cosmetic treatments. Arthur's been working hard to put on muscle, knows that his arms and back look pretty good, but his chest is still--

He takes a breath. This is where living in a cave-like apartment comes in handy; maybe in the dark it won't be as noticeable. He turns and hurries to the bed, trying to ignore Eames' curious gaze. He slips under the sheets and draws them up to his chest, feeling a little ridiculous--like a Victorian maiden trying to protect her modesty. This isn't how a man would act. Should act.

Eames strips down to his underwear as well, lying on top of the covers while Arthur stays hidden underneath. He yawns and stretches, keeping up a light patter of conversation, seeming unperturbed by Arthur's self-consciousness. Arthur curls up on his side to better look at his broad shoulders, his hairy pectorals, his effortless masculinity. Arthur feels a pang of envy mixed with lust; he knows that no matter what he does, he'll never have a chest like Eames'.

Eames rests a hand on Arthur's waist, warm through the thin sheet. Arthur presses forward for a kiss. Against his mouth, Eames' breath starts to slow, his eyelids drifting shut. Arthur inches closer to rest his head on Eames' chest and listens to his heart beat. It's steady.

* * * * *

The next morning, Arthur hops into the shower before Eames wakes. He returns to a dark bedroom wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist. Eames stirs. Arthur pauses, but doesn't try to hide.

"Morn'lo," Eames murmurs sleepily, beckoning Arthur closer. Arthur obliges and strokes Eames' soft hair for a moment before climbing onto the bed, kneeling astride Eames' chest. The towel falls to the floor.

Eames urges Arthur up to straddle his face, mouthing gently at Arthur's cock. Arthur shudders and sighs, overwhelmed by Eames' mouth.

He quakes when he comes, gripping the headboard until there are gouges left in the cheap wood. Afterwards, he collapses onto Eames for a beautiful minute before flipping around to return the favor.

"No early morning today?" Eames asks while Arthur burrows into his arms.

"Not today," Arthur replies. His face hurts from smiling. "I'm all yours."

* * * * *

A few months in, and it's so easy. So--good. The conversation continues to be sparkling, the dates fun, the sex great. There's a minor bump when Eames evinces a wistful desire to bottom, which causes Arthur to whip out the strap-on he'd purchased months ago for an occasion such as this. Fun sex involving Eames moaning near continuously had commenced that evening.

"When am I gonna meet him?" Ariadne asks one evening, as they board their flight back to New York.

Arthur's mind whirs, waving distractedly at a colleague who is on shift. Introduce his best friend to his--boyfriend? (They'd had the exclusivity and relationship talk last week, punctuated by some celebratory fucking). No one had ever lasted long enough or gotten serious enough for this to be a real consideration before. He'd never arranged a meeting like this.

Once they find their seats, he asks, awkward, "How do you want to meet him?"

"Well, not in the middle of a date," she replies, dryly. "Or in the middle of all the sex you guys seem to be having."

"I don't know if we do… anything… else…" He wracks his brain trying to come up with a suitable, non-romantic activity she could join. "How about rock climbing?"

"You want me to go rock climbing with you?" Ariadne's eyebrow shoots up. "I thought you were scared of heights."

"We haven't climbed that high up yet," he replies, buckling his seatbelt. "And if we do, Eames says there's some kind of safety harness I could strap into or something."

"You're really gone for this guy, aren't you?" She shakes her head, chuckling to herself as the pilot begins his announcements over the intercom. "Fucking rock climbing."

* * * * *

Eames suggested rock climbing to Arthur a few weeks back, and they signed up for an introductory class together even though Eames has been doing it for years. It turned out to be a hell of a workout and Arthur's still bad at it, though with Eames' help he's been steadily improving. Sometimes he frets about falling on his ass or looking stupid, but everyone at the gym is really nice and encouraging; maybe it wouldn't be as humiliating as he imagines.

Besides, today he has a new topic to direct all his nervous energy towards: Ariadne and Eames meeting. Eames, as per usual, seems entirely unconcerned. Seems amused by Arthur's need to double and triple check all their reservations for the evening.

"Darling, I think you're overthinking this," Eames says while Arthur debates the merits of Mexican food versus Thai after a climb. "Ariadne isn't a fussy eater, is she? In which case, all shall be well regardless of where we eat."

"How can you know that?" Arthur asks, and catches himself literally wringing his own hands, something he thought nobody actually did outside of fifteenth century novels. "What if she doesn't like you? What if you don't like her? What if--"

"I know how much she means to you," Eames says, gently covering Arthur's hands in his. "Regardless of what she and I feel towards each other, we shall find a way to be civil and get on. Because you're the one that matters."

"God, that's really fucking mature of you." Arthur sighs and kisses Eames' thumbs. "I guess you're right. This isn't like, friend matchmaking. You don't have to love each other."

"Lessons taken from the wreckage of my first marriage and divorce," Eames says, and there's a hint of sadness in the twist of his mouth. "Taught and learned the hard way."

Arthur squeezes Eames' hands. "Well, I, for one, am glad you are no longer married. Would have made for some bad first date conversation."

"Are you certain I couldn't have persuaded you?" Eames asks, twirling Arthur around in his arms. "The illicit thrill of a married man? The passion and secrecy of an affair conducted in hotel rooms?"

"I've got enough secrets in my life already." Arthur looks into Eames' beautiful gray-green eyes and wonders how he got so lucky. "Straightforward and clear and boring is perfect for me."

* * * * *

The meeting goes well-ish. Eames cranks up his posh British charm while Ariadne is friendly but not quite impressed. They take another beginners class together, which is a helpful refresher on technique for Arthur and probably stuff Eames could teach blindfolded by now.

Ariadne turns out to be some kind of rock climbing savant. Apparently, when she was young all she did was climb trees on her family's estate. Used to take her nanny hours to find her. At that point, Eames and Ariadne segue into a conversation about fond memories of childhood nannies. Once again, Arthur's left at a bit of a loss--he'd known in a vague way that some people in the world have nannies, but he never thought two of those people already existed in his life. Surreal to listen to, but at least they're talking.

They go for Thai afterwards.

At the end of a perfectly pleasant dinner and evening, Eames bids them adieu with a kiss to Ariadne's cheek and brief peck to Arthur's lips. It's the kind of kiss you give to a boyfriend, someone you know you'll see again soon. And that thought, more than the kiss itself, makes Arthur's stomach flutter with butterflies.

Once Eames is gone, and Arthur and Ariadne are standing with a couple dozen strangers on the subway platform, Arthur asks, "What'd you think?"

"He's hotter than his photos," she says, and Arthur nods vigorously. "And I can totally see why you thought you might be catfished."

Arthur chuckles, a little nervous. "Yeah. Do you, um. Do you like him?"

"Does he treat you well?" she asks, and Arthur nods. "Do you have fun together?" Another nod. "Do you like him?"

"A lot." Arthur thinks about the way Eames makes instant coffee in the morning because Arthur likes it better than the fancy kind. "He listens when I talk. It feels like I can tell him anything without being afraid he'll run away or get angry."

Ariadne smiles as a train pulls onto the platform. "Good."

As she steps onto the train and they wave goodbye, Arthur realizes she didn't answer his question. As the train leaves the station, he thinks he might be okay with that.

* * * * *

Signing onto a dating site after months away is a surreal experience. The interface has changed, he has a ton of unread messages, and a boundless potential for more: more men, more choices, more dates.

Some of the guys waiting in his inbox look to be pretty cute. He pauses to look out of curiosity, but doesn't reply. The only message string that matters now is with a user account that no longer exists; Eames deactivated all his dating profiles a month after he met Arthur.

"You knew after a month?" Arthur asked when Eames told him at the end of their commitment and relationship talk.

"No," Eames replied with a shy smile. "I was merely hopeful."

Hopeful, Arthur thinks as he finishes deactivating his online profile. The perfect word.

fin