It begins with the creeping quiet of kisses. The whispering whiskers of stubble; damp, warm lips.
Arthur turns into the cold edge of the pillow with a grunt of encouraging protest.
“Decent folk are sleeping,” he mumbles.
Eames smiles against the very centre of Arthur’s back, a thin scrape of teeth just above the sheets half-kicked away in the night.
The shutters are open. Arthur can feel the sunlight, already strong enough to fill the bedroom with a dappled, kindling heat.
“Decent folk haven’t slept here in years,” Eames reminds him in a low, rumbling purr. Those lazy English vowels knitting into Arthur’s skin like a tattoo.
Arthur keeps his eyes stubbornly shut, bathing in the sun’s fingertips and the heavy anchor of a body stretched over his lower half. The peppery smell of Eames, freshly showered and already dressed.
“Why are you awake?” Arthur grumbles.
Eames pulls away, and as the bulk of that welcome weight lifts from his legs, Arthur shoots a hand backwards to grab him by the collar in an arresting yank.
“No,” he says, even as Eames laughs, coaxing his spidery fingers into letting go.
“I have a flight to catch,” he says with only a hint of regret.
With a loud harumph of discontentment, Arthur blinks his eyes open.
The bedroom is full of sun dust, cloying thick from the steamy air pouring out of the open bathroom door.
Twisting where he lies, he watches Eames start rooting through the heavy oak wardrobe, the one with the chip on the corner from being carried up eight flights of stairs by a jovially drunk Forger and a feather-spitting, furious Point Man.
“How much is Zumani paying you for this?”
“Hmm?” Eames hums, throwing a brown blazer Arthur thought he threw out months ago onto the bed. “More than he paid last time, that’s for sure.”
Arthur rolls onto his back, elbows and shoulders clicking stiffly.
“I will double it for you to come back to bed right now,” he says with complete sincerity.
Eames snorts, throwing over his shoulder a peach shirt Arthur knows for sure he threw out last month.
He’s not sure if Eames is rooting through the trash to reclaim these token eyesores, or if he’s buying new ones to replace them. Either seems pretty likely, much to Arthur’s quiet dismay.
“Can’t,” Eames replies, as Arthur pulls himself up the sitting. To his left, he finds a coffee cup on the bedside cabinet, still steaming. “He’s got Olly Bates on design. I’ve been trying to get him in person for months.”
“I’ve told you, if you’d just let me help -”
“Arthur, I want to talk to him,” Eames says breezily. “If you start asking around for him, he’ll show up in a body bag.”
While not an entirely unfair assumption, Arthur is still rankled by the accusation.
“That was one time,” he mutters darkly to himself.
He could point out that the body bag in question had contained an arms dealer, responsible for the deaths of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of innocent people. He doesn't, because that would probably sound a little too self-justifying.
Stretching his legs out beneath the covers, he balances his scalding cup between his knees and reaches over to start folding the godforsaken clothes Eames is haphazardly selecting like tombola tickets. As far as Arthur is concerned, if Eames is going to insist on dressing himself like a third rate solicitor, the least he can do is look like a third rate solicitor who knows how to operate an iron.
He folds them attentively, taking care not to make a face that would reveal his utter distaste for his lover’s choice of attire.
It doesn’t take long. Eames is a notoriously light packer, and even in Belarus the temperature will be pleasantly warm at this time of year.
Dropping the last item onto the pile, Arthur scoops up his coffee and sips. It’s strong, bitter and nutty, with half a teaspoon of sugar.
When he looks up, it’s to find Eames staring at him.
Arthur stares right back.
Eames’ hair is still wet from his shower, slicked back off his face. He’s not smiling, but there’s a lingering happiness in the parting of his lips. The splatter of sunshine that paints him, burnt gold.
Time feels awfully optional in this little corner of the world, where they are safe and secluded.
“And what are you going to do?” Eames asks without commenting on Arthur’s quite excellent folding skills. “Other than pine miserably for me, of course.”
Arthur grins, biting the inside of his lower lip and cradling his coffee protectively.
“I’ll think of something,” he says, then, “Maybe someone else can be bribed to stay in bed until a reasonable hour for mountains of cash and lazy morning sex.”
“Hang on,” Eames scoffs, sliding a hand under the bed and withdrawing a shoulder carrier to pack the neatly folded, stubbornly uncommented upon clothes. “You didn’t mention the lazy morning sex.”
“It was implied,” Arthur drawls, sipping his coffee and sinking back into the pillows.
When Eames’ hand drifts over to pat his knee, Arthur shuffles out of the way.
“No, you had your chance. No more sex for you.”
“God, you’re in a funny arse mood today,” Eames grunts. “I’ll be back in two weeks.”
Arthur blinks, suspicious.
“You said three weeks before.”
“Are you so eager to get rid of me?” Eames teases with a leer, plucking the coffee cup out of Arthur’s hands to take a gulp and grimacing, no doubt at the sugar. “Look, Zumani says three, but we all know he’s a cheap bastard. He doesn’t want to pay out for three weeks. It’ll be three tops, but probably two. Happy?”
“Mhm,” Arthur replies, satisfied. He takes back the coffee with greedy hands. “You need to give me advance warning so I can get my diamond encrusted rent boy out before you get home.”
“I promise to send the fanfare in advance,” Eames assures him.
He zips the carrier with a sharp tug, frowning when it sticks at one corner.
“Jesus Christ. With a day rate of twenty-five, you’d think we could afford a decent suitcase.”
“That one’s yours,” Arthur retorts without really looking in any great detail. If it’s broken, it’s probably Eames’, not so much because Eames breaks his belongings very often as because Eames rarely replaces broken things with Arthur’s patented efficiency. “And your day rate isn’t twenty-five.”
Eames, under the guise of stealing more coffee, drops a sly kiss to Arthur’s temple.
He feels it in his gut, the heaviness of that kiss.
A forceful, hasty affection that makes Arthur pull upwards, body and soul, to return it on Eames’ lips.
“Ar-hur,” Eames murmurs in the cavernous hollow between their mouths.
“Sshh,” Arthur commands, his cup abandoned on the table in favour of sinking both hands into Eames’ soaked hair.
Eames’ laugh tastes of coffee and the sugar sweet of apricots. Arthur draws back, glowering an inch from Eames’ face.
“Did you eat danishes without me?” he asks, disgruntled.
Eames takes the opportunity of his distraction to extract himself from Arthur’s grip, running a hand over his head to smooth down his freshly tufted hair.
“There’s more on the table,” he says, hoisting his bag up onto his shoulders.
“You should have woken me up sooner,” Arthur says as matter-of-factly as he can. The disappointment bleeds through, though; he feels it contort his mouth in a downwards arc that Eames runs a thumb over, cupping his jaw in his hand.
“Thought I tired you out last night,” he replies slyly.
He opens the drawer of Arthur’s bedside table to pull out one of his wristwatches.
“Think again, old man,” Arthur says thickly through a very ill-timed yawn.
Eames’ eyes glitter playfully as he fiddles with the strap of the watch, a stiff mauve leather one with a brushed gold buckle and annoyingly few Roman numerals by which to read it.
“Be back soon,” he promises, light as the sunshine beaming through the window, solemn as the kiss he leaves on the corner of Arthur’s mouth. “Don’t get too bored without me.”
Arthur smiles tightly, and before he’s forced to watch Eames leave, he turns away to stare obstinately out of the window.
It’s mostly sheets of glorious blue from this angle. The white and terracotta tips of some taller buildings peek past the balcony edge.
Eames’ footsteps are loud, then quiet, until there’s only the snicker-click of the door closing behind him.
Arthur crosses his legs on the bed and stares at the searing blue sky.
Eames is often loudest in his absence, nowadays, and Arthur loves this apartment more than any other place he’s called home before, but it’s ever so empty at half capacity.
Outside, Marseille bakes in the early morning, late summer haze that has taken hold.
With a sigh of resolution, Arthur reaches into the bedside drawer, the one where they keep all the watches that magically show up in Eames’ pockets when he gets bored. His phone blinks at him, a long list of emails, of which he’ll consider replying to half.
Guilt swims through his gut, burrowing upwards like nausea.
He can still feel Eames’ mouth on his spine.
He types in a phone number with slow deliberation, wanting nothing more than to sink deep into this bed, with its soiled sheets and the smell of dirty happiness, and not get out of it for two weeks, three tops.
It rings for a long time, long enough for Arthur to pull his knees anxiously into his chest, his thumb worrying the corner of his mouth.
“Yes?” a man’s voice replies impatiently, gruff and familiar.
Arthur takes a diver’s breath, holds it in the plunge.
“Time frame’s changed,” he says, voice cool and authoritative. “I only have a week. Ten days max. Can you get to Milwaukee tonight?”
There’s a smattering of indecisive noises.
“Fine. Text me your arrival time.”
In a flash of petulance, Arthur hurries to end the call first. It leaves him feeling worse, feeling flushed and embarrassed and hyper-aware of the scent of Eames’ cologne permeating the room.
Tossing his cell on the covers, Arthur pulls himself out of bed, tugging on a pair of sweats and padding barefoot out to the living room.
The balcony doors are open, a cool breeze breathing in and out.
On the coffee table, a plate of danishes. Arthur grimaces, feels that swell of nausea again. He picks one up anyway to eat on the balcony.
Leaning on the railing, he stares down at the trickle of early risers meandering the street below as pastry flakes flutter down to the ground from his hand with every bite.
On the balcony across the street, a ginger and white cat sits proudly on the corner of the rail, his tail curling upwards as he stares back at Arthur.
If Eames were here, he’d probably throw it some pastry. He’d coo at it with exaggerated kissing noises and speak throaty French at it, would say awful things like It’s a French cat, Arthur, it won’t understand me otherwise.
Eames isn’t here though, which is half of the problem.
(The other half is more uncertain, is the half that leaves the sugar and apricots ashy in his mouth.)
The sun washes the colour out of the buildings and Arthur in its warmth, left cold by the phone call.
He’s not entirely sure he’ll get all the way to Wisconsin today, but he has to try.
Everywhere feels so far away from this tiny haven carved into the south of France.
It’s been three years since Eames brought him here, to this place, to this secret sanctuary.
He can still taste the surprise on his tongue, the way his eyes stung and his heart ached and he said, When did you do this?
For over three years, this is where he has retreated to at the end of a job. For so much of his life, he’s never known permanency. Even as a child, dragged from one army base to another, city to city, school to school.
He hadn’t wanted more, hadn’t needed it.
Now, though, his wants have changed, his needs have changed.
Marseille has softened him, Eames has softened him.
And he doesn’t want to spoil this precious place, this golden thing that has emerged amidst the wreckage they first cultivated.
Eames, waking him up with coffee and kisses; leaving danishes and making promises like I’ll be back in two weeks.
Arthur returns to the living room, perches on the couch in reach of the pastries and opens his laptop on the table.
He’s barely paying attention as he books his flights.
Jitters vibrate up his left leg, tapping his foot nervously against the floor as the sounds of the blackbirds in the nest above their balcony start to twitter and screech.
Arthur presses his lips together, mentally calculating how long it will take to get to Milwaukee against the time difference.
Don’t get too bored without me, Eames had said.
That stupid, lovely face of his. Trusting him, like Arthur’s ever been trustworthy in all the twelve years they’ve known each other.
Arthur laughs a hard, quiet laugh. One that cuts up the sunshine into brittle shards around him.
Don’t get too bored, he’d said.
If only that was all he had to worry about.
It begins with a slow moving queue at Marseille Provence Airport.
Eames has no idea what has possessed the entire population of Southern France to plough through MPA’s security at nine in the morning, but here he is, stuck between two anxious parents ill-equipped to deal with their five children and a belligerent businessman who keeps scoffing unhelpfully at said children, doing his best to glare them all into submission.
The youngest child, who is probably five at most, has been sniffling into her mother’s leg for almost half an hour. She keeps peeking up through her hands at Eames with big, dark eyes.
Eames has smiled twice at her to no avail, so the third time she stares up at him, he crosses his eyes and sticks his tongue out at her. She giggles, and sticks her tongue out at him in return.
The mother, startled by sound coming from her only silent child, looks down at her daughter and then up at Eames, who does his very best to look as non-predatory as possible. There’s still a good thirty people in front of them in the queue and if the mother is bothered by the stranger behind them making faces at her five year old -
Luckily, something about Eames must project safety. It’s probably the bright coloured shirt, and he makes a mental note to tell Arthur.
The mother smiles and says with her head tilted towards the bickering twin boys in front of her,
“Sorry about all this.”
The man behind Eames makes a sound of utter contempt, so Eames smiles his million dollar grin and quickly interjects over his disapproval,
“Don’t be silly. Kids are always excited in airports. It’s the holidays after all.”
The woman looks relieved, her eyes, even darker than her daughter’s and with the same almond round edges, are soft with gratitude. She winces when her husband has to raise his voice, a slanting mixture of French and English, for the fourth time to break up the spat between the two oldest boys.
“We’re going to Morco!” the little girl says, still tucked tight to her mother’s legs.
“Are you?” Eames asks, and can only assume she means Morocco. “That’s very far away.”
The little girl nods very seriously as she tugs at her hair, which is tightly plaited.
“One thousand, seven hundred and fifty kilometres,” she says, like she’s planning to walk the whole way.
“How do you know that?” her mother splutters, sounding baffled.
The girl shrugs, sucking her bottom lip into her mouth.
“Michael told me.”
At this point they are interrupted by one of the girl’s older brothers, possibly the knowledgeable Michael, and the mother lets out a despairing sigh as he starts detailing exactly how unfair it is to ask him to be nice to his undeserving twin.
The girl, unconcerned by her mother’s divided attention, smiles up at Eames excitedly, then sticks her tongue out at him, so he laughs.
The queue is crawling along. The air conditioning is utterly merciless and sound always seems to be amplified in airports, as if they had been designed for maximum discomfort.
Behind him, the businessman answers a phone call and complains loudly about bratty children and in front of him the mother successfully starts a game of word association with three out of her five children. The bickering boys lose momentum with their argument and after a while, the girl clambers up onto her father’s back, arms slumped sleepily over his shoulders.
Eames watches two bored guards making eyes at each other for a good ten minutes, until he’s pulled from his amused reverie by his phone vibrating in his pocket.
It’s a text from an unknown number.
Not that he has any numbers saved on his phone these days. Living with Arthur has been mostly wonderful these past few years, but it has also cursed him with with a new, practiced level of paranoia that is exhausting to maintain.
He looks down at his phone.
Have u spoken to O in past 6 mths? L
Eames frowns at the message.
Leon rarely contacts him for anything outside of job suggestions. They’ve never exactly liked each other, made more difficult recently by Eames’ increasingly strained relationship with the O in question.
There was a time when Eames couldn’t imagine going more than a couple of weeks without talking to her. She had held him together long after anyone else would have given him up as a lost cause.
She had taught him, protected him. They had been partners in a world that did not forgive weakness, and in that they had concealed each others' weaknesses from everyone else around them.
It’s gone, now. Whatever tough fibres once threaded them together. Time and distance and too many ill-conceived decisions have driven a wedge between them and Eames can’t help but resent Leon for texting him.
Can’t help but think about how much Leon must love knowing he’s not Olivier’s favourite anymore.
No, he texts back.
Taps his thumbs on the glass screen and takes another step forward in this never ending queue.
There's a ringing announcement on the tannoy that he tunes out with difficulty.
The reply is quick and Eames can hear Leon’s voice in it, that round shaped Lanky tone.
Santiago SH is trashed. Some1 is looking 4 her.
Eames frowns down at his screen, the jagged echo sounds of the airport muting to a fuzz in his head. His heart, thick in his throat, beating hard.
When did you see her last? he texts back.
January. Job in Lahore. She said she was going to see you.
Eames scowls at Leon’s unhelpful reply, and is irrepressibly annoyed to know that Leon is somewhere out there thinking the same thing about him.
Before he can come up with a response, another text comes through.
Keep ears open. Stay East if at all poss.
Eames rolls his eyes.
Leon would happily impose a border ban on all of them if he could. The man hasn’t been to the States in over five years, or the UK in even longer.
Eames would like to retort that he’s been safely holed up in the very non-East French borders for years now, but that would involve giving Leon far more information about himself than he cares to.
He doesn’t reply, which is probably preferable for both of them.
Instead, he opens a new message, taps in Arthur’s number and types,
Don’t eat all the danishes in one go.
He looks up just in time to see the couple in front of him shepherding their children towards a free space at a conveyor belt.
He slips his bag from his shoulder and joins in behind them, faffing irritably with his belt. He takes a small, unnecessary pleasure at seeing the businessman who was behind him get searched after setting off the alarms not just once, but twice.
By the time he’s got his belongings back on the other side of the scanners, he’s got a new text from Arthur.
He sees the little girl, who now has her sparkly blue shoes in her hands, and grins when she waves goodbye to him.
He opens the text and reads,
I’m not the one with bad impulse control, which is absolutely not true at all.
Filthy liar, he texts back.
Ten minutes later, when he’s staring at the racks of ties in Duty Free and wondering which one Arthur would hate the most, he gets a picture message of an empty plate on the coffee table, still covered in crumbs, which had contained five apricot danishes when he left this morning.
Smiling, he puts his phone in his jacket pocket and picks up two ties. One is obnoxiously purple with lots of yellow ducks on it. The other is a delightful tartan pattern.
Checking the price tags, he’s pleased to see each one costs more than some suits he’s bought in the past.
Still undecided, he takes both to the desk, wondering whether he should save the surprise for when he gets home, or send Arthur a picture.
His phone vibrates again. It’s from Leon.
He puts it back in his pocket without reading it. Ignores the uneasy clench in his gut and focuses on the ties instead.
There’s nothing he can do for Olivier, and nothing he wants to do for Leon.
He buys both ties, and puts everything else out of his mind.
There’s nothing he can do.