"Jesus, how long has it been?" Arthur says. He wraps one hand over Eames’ knee and presses it up and out, and then does something with his hips that makes the throbbing ache in Eames’ arsehole ease a little.
"Haven't been keeping track," Eames says. Arthur grins, above him.
"You are so—" he says. "You feel good," and Eames doesn't answer, just bites his lip and lets Arthur fuck him and it hurts and feels good and makes him drag in huge mouthfuls of air, unable to speak, Arthur's eyes on him, face unreadable.
He doesn't come, but Arthur sucks him off after, and spits in the sink. A moment later, Eames hears the shower turn on.
"My check-in's in an hour," Arthur says, when he comes out of the bathroom, rubbing a towel through his hair.
“Yeah,” Eames says. He sits up and watches Arthur run the towel down the damp hair on his chest, over his knees, dry his feet.
“That was great,” Arthur says. He’s dressed again, checking over his wallet and passport. He nods, satisfied, tucks them into his pocket, and then looks up.
“Least I could do,” Eames says.
“Yeah, yeah,” Arthur says. He crosses to the bed and leans over to give Eames a perfunctory kiss.
“See you around, then,” Eames says. Arthur nods, and then picks up his bag and goes.
He's sore in the morning, but it's nothing serious, and it's gone in a few days.
He doesn’t plan to do it again; he can see how people enjoy it and it was certainly interesting, but not something he’s especially keen on for himself. He didn’t like it much, except he liked how Arthur looked at his watch, put his drink down on the hotel bar, and said, “You have a room upstairs, right?” and how it felt to have Arthur pushing him down on the bed, biting kisses along his jaw, opening his belt buckle with deft fingers. It hadn’t hurt him, not really. But he doesn't do it again.
You find things out about people in dreams; it happens.
Arthur removes his IV with more attention than is necessary, looping the tube and stowing it away, putting on a band-aid, staring down. It’s just the two of them, doing a test run; Eames should have been more careful. He starts to shove himself to his feet and Arthur says,
“That was your first time?” Eames shrugs. Arthur looks up at him, finally, and his face is nearly ashen. “Oh,” he says. “You didn’t say.”
“It didn’t really come up,” Eames says.
“You—” Arthur hesitates. “But you’ve done it since, right? With someone else, with—”
“someone who treated me properly?” Eames says, joking, but Arthur just looks tense, and then says,
“Yes,” his voice gone low and gritty.
“Oh, cheer up, you weren’t so bad,” Eames says.
It takes him ages to notice. Eames isn’t used to thinking of Arthur as subtle, although, of course, he is; he just doesn’t usually bother around Eames. They work together often, still, and Arthur starts gradually bringing in new people every now and again, not every job. It’s a good idea, expanding the pool, giving them some options, and it makes things interesting to work with new people. They’re nearly all men, of course, but that’s standard as well; most dreamsharing programs recruited heavily from Special Forces.
There’s Will, who’s a tall, rangy guy with big blue eyes who makes everyone omelets in the shared kitchen and leans against the counter, watching them eat. There’s Etienne, who’s slender and quick and spars with Eames on the roof during downtime until they’re both laughing, a little punch drunk, and then buys him a beer, and of course Eames is a fucking idiot, so it’s not until Ben (heavy shoulders, banged up knees, easy smile) texts him after the job is done and asks if Eames is interested in seeing his etchings that Eames gets it together to notice.
Ben makes counterfeit currency—for fun, mostly. His specialty is antique cash and he etches the plates himself; they’d had a lot of interesting conversations on the job, staying after, sharing takeout even after Arthur and the Elsie, their architect, packed up, but still. still.
“I don’t need you to find dates for me,” Eames says, the next job. Arthur doesn’t even deny it.
“I know,” he says.
“So what is this?”
“I thought you’d like to work with them, that’s all,” Arthur says. “They’re nice guys—”
“What, did you fuck them?”
“No, I—” he shakes his head. “I checked them out, that’s all.”
Eames has to laugh, just a little disbelieving snicker, thinking of Arthur, coming up with a nice objective checklist and working through it, putting in too much effort. Arthur’s face tightens. He looks tired, working overtime on this job on top of—apparently—running a gay dating service.
“I feel—responsible,” he says. “I thought—”
“You’re not,” Eames says.
“Oh, I see, you just did it once with me and it was so fucking awful that you never tried it again but it’s not anything to do with me,” Arthur says.
“I suppose your first time was great, then,” Eames says, knowing it can’t have been. Thinking, Arthur, small, then, sweet face, soft hair, some older arsehole, taking advantage, or maybe later, something rough and desperate in the barracks, some fuckhead who turned out to be straight.
“Yeah, it was—” the corner of Arthur’s mouth curls into a soft smile. “You know, I was sixteen, it was after junior prom—”
“I meant getting fucked by a bloke,” Eames says. Who cares about Arthur peeling some girl’s knickers down; Eames had done that himself before he had to shave every day.
“Yeah,” Arthur says. “I went to school in Berkeley, it wasn’t that big a deal.”
“And then you enlisted?” Eames says, momentarily distracted.
“Destroyed my mom’s dreams of me becoming a Montessori School teacher,” Arthur says, lightly.
“What about your dad?”
“My mom’s,” Arthur says again, inexplicably, and then. “Both my moms.”
“Ah,” Eames says. “Of course. Well. Where I grew up, that wasn’t—. No one even talked about it.” He’d let men grope him, in other bodies, in dreams, for years, let them kiss him and slide their hands down over curved hips, not his, and told himself that was enough, that it was nothing.
"You don't seem like the kind of person who lies to himself about what he is," Arthur says, quietly, staring at his hands.
"How do you think I got so good at it?" Eames says.
Arthur used to—flirt with him, Eames realizes, quiet and smirking, dry as a bone. He used to look; he used to create spaces and wait, patiently, for Eames invite himself into them. That’s gone now. Arthur is startlingly careful around him, never touches him, rarely even gets close enough to him that they could touch, looks him in the eye and nowhere else. At first, Eames is annoyed by it. He hates pity. Later it occurs to him that it’s only Arthur, as always, taking on too much blame for things that were fucked up long before he happened on the scene.
Eventually he has to say something, as much as he’d prefer to let it lie. He catches Arthur alone, just in the first week of the job they’re on, and says,
“It’s all right.”
“It’s—” Arthur’s face coalesces into worry. “I’m closing the loop on some of the holes in the intelligence, it should be done by—”
“No,” Eames says. “I meant that I know you don’t want to—to fuck again. And it was more than a year ago, it’s not exactly on my mind anym—”
“I could show you a few things,” Arthur blurts out. “If—that’s—“
“That was inappropriate, sorry,” Arthur says. “It’s not on your mind anymore, right. It’s—our profile for the mark is—”
“Show me what sorts of things?” Eames says.
“I only thought,” Arthur says. He’s staring down at some of his research notes, and his voice is perfectly level, “perhaps there are things you haven’t done and you’d prefer not to do them for the first time with someone you’re—you know what? Never mind, I’m an idiot.”
“It’s not about you,” Eames says.
“Okay,” Arthur says. “Good. Great. Have sex with someone else, then.”
“How do you know I haven’t?”
“I don’t—have you?” Arthur says. He shoves his hands in his pockets. “Just—I don’t know, get a handjob or something, it doesn’t have to be—
“Handjobs aren’t sex.”
“Yeah they are,” Arthur says, incredulous.
Arthur gives him a handjob that turns into a blowjob that turns into Arthur half-dressed in his lap, thrusting into his hand, kissing him, hand wrapped over the back of his neck.
“Huh,” he says after.
“I’ve never given a blowjob,” Eames says. His voice doesn’t even sound like it belongs to him.
Arthur screws him again, eventually; it takes some convincing.
“You might not like it, is all,” he says. They’ve been working jobs together, screwing and screwing, Arthur’s hair falling in his eyes and his smiles and the way he lies in bed after and likes to watch terrible late night television, the way he looks at Eames’ body, the way he curls his hands around Eames’ face when they kiss, the spinach lasagnas and turkey burgers with feta he cooks when Eames shows up for dinner.
“Right,” Eames says.
“And that’s perfectly normal—“
“Yes,” Eames says. “I know.” Arthur is exceedingly conscientious about this sort of thing, facts about being gay that he thinks Eames might not know. It ought to be irritating, but Arthur is so uncharacteristically fumbling over it, buying him books and tiresome documentaries, doing something truly strange that he finally explains, in one of their first explosive fights, is fucking active fucking listening, moron, that Eames has started to lean towards finding it charming.
“I’ll let you know if I don’t like it,” Eames says, but he does. Maybe not for every day, but it’s nothing like the first time.
“This doesn’t have to be—you don’t have to do this,” Eames says, when Arthur asks if he wants to go to California at Christmas.
“Are you kidding?” Arthur says. “It’s you who—look, they’re going to talk to you about Monsanto and organic mattresses and surrogacy and coyotes and groundwater and Patty Smith and hiking in Yosemite and Reiki and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and—you know. Sorry.”
“Oh,” Eames says. “Well. I don’t—I’ve never heard of any of that stuff,” he says, honestly.
“Also whole grains,” Arthur says, after a moment.”
“Whole grains,” Eames says. “Like bread?”
“Yeah, sure,” Arthur says, and then says something nonsensical that sounds like “spelt.”
“I don’t—“ Eames hesitates. “If it’ll cause you problems—“
“What? They’ll love you,” Arthur says crossly. “They love you already.”
“What?” Eames says, “But—what did you tell them about me?”
“Oh, just—you live in Kenya and you’ve never really had a real job and you’re a bisexual artist with a zillion awful tattoos,” Arthur says. Eames squints at him; he’s still never sure when Arthur is joking. It’s starting to dawn on him that Arthur is really almost never joking.
“Oh?” he says cautiously.
“They’ll love you,” Arthur says, a little more gently. The moment stretches between them, the rueful crease of Arthur’s forehead, the soft dimple in his angular cheek.
“Well, my dad would loathe you,” he says, dumbly, around the peculiar ache in his chest.
Arthur is right about his parents; Eames is wrong. This doesn’t come to light until some years later when Arthur rolls through the basement window in the Ukraine, shattered glass falling off his shoulders, a black eye, a long bleeding slice on his cheek, headbutts the guard in the face, cuts the ropes tying Eames’s hands together and says,
“I thought you said this was some family thing.”
“It is,” Eames says. He takes the knife and cuts his dad’s hands apart. “This is Clarence.” Eames, he doesn’t say—doesn’t need to, he sees, when Arthur’s eyes flick up to his dad’s face, then his own.
“Hello,” Arthur says. He has Eames’ gun and an extra in his backpack. “I counted four upstairs—that right?”
“Yes,” Clarence says, taking the gun Arthur hands him. Two and a half hours later, they’re eating cabbage rolls in the back of a restaurant just across the border.
“So,” Clarence. “This is your—”
“I’m Arthur,” Arthur says evenly. Eames swallows too quickly, the cabbage roll sliding queasily down his throat.
“your boyfriend, then,” Clarence finishes.
Arthur’s moms slouch around the kitchen in threadbare t-shirts with political slogans that make little sense to Eames and flannel pajama bottoms and make quinoa burgers and frown over the still angry bruising from the last job on Eames’ arms and give him arnica. They’re so lovely. Eames’ dad is blunt and often unkind, in the way of people who don’t consider kindness useful. He’s short and broad and has a battered, worn-in face, his nose broken too many times. He’s not, nor has he ever at any point been, lovely.
Eames says nothing—funny how easily he slides into his favored defenses of adolescence—silence, sullen, trying for boredom and failing. Arthur doesn’t say anything either, but his silence is different; he shrugs, a little diffident, and takes a second cabbage roll.
“You thinking about getting a kid or two?” Clarence says, next, and that does surprise Arthur.
“Uh,” he says, eyes widening, although he’d fielded his moms’ gently nosy inquiries with ease, giving away nothing.
“Dad,” Eames says.
“Takes a while,” Clarence says.
“How would you know?” Eames says.
“I watch Oprah,” Clarence says gruffly. “I know things.”
“When did you ever watch Oprah?” Eames says, annoyed.
“S’classified,” Clarence says. “A transport job.” He looks at Arthur and says, “bodyguard—“
“I know what it is,” Arthur says. His tone is very mild, but Clarence winces and says,
“All right, I know. It’s not—I mean, I know you’re not all hairdressers and drag queens.”
“Dad,” Eames says. He hasn’t called Clarence that since he left home.
“Okay,” Arthur says.
“There’s nothing wrong with hairdressing,” Clarence says. “People have hair that needs cutting. Also, I saw on Maury Povitch some of those guys that dress as women and—“
Thankfully, it turns out they were followed, so Eames and Arthur never hear about what happened on Maury Povitch.
Clarence invites Arthur bow hunting, and they have long, intense, incredibly boring telephone conversations on burner phones about knives and the Muay Thai dojos that used to be the real thing and then sold out to tourists. They talk more in a few months than Eames has talked to Clarence in years.
“Are you mad?” Arthur says, standing in the door of the kitchen, watching Eames stirring some yellow split peas.
“No,” Eames says.
“Okay,” Arthur says. “I just—I don’t have to go.”
“I just felt like learning some organic cookery,” Eames says.
“It’s—if we’re going to be together like this, it’s good that we get to know each others’ families.”
“That’s why you’re going bow hunting?” Eames says. The peas are starting to thicken, just a little; he adds another half cup of water. “You think we’re going to be together forever?”
“You—don’t?” Arthur falters.
“Not that,” Eames says. Arthur hasn’t talked much about the trip, but Eames saw his face—keen, impressed—when he opened up the gear Clarence sent. He knows how much prep-work Arthur’s been putting in at the range. Enough time for Eames to acquire canvas bags and a nodding acquaintance with some of the kids who run the stalls at the farmer’s market. Enough time to sprout some mung beans and learn how to soak bulgur—it’s dead easy—and toast raw pine nuts. “I know you just want to gut some deer.”
“I know you don’t have—you haven’t been with any other guys, so maybe,” Arthur is mumbling, forehead creased, and then he seems to catch up and his eyes widen.
“Are you—what about all the pancakes we’ve been eating around here?”
“You said you liked wheat germ pancakes.”
“I do like them,” Arthur snaps. “I also liked them when I ate them every Saturday until I was eighteen, so—“
“Paula says you’re so interested in Clarence because you didn’t have proper male role models—“
“That’s bullshit,” Arthur says. “I just want to gut a deer. You could come, it’s not private or anything—“
“I don’t want to gut a deer,” Eames says. “I hate hunting.”
“Clarence says you’re good at it.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t spend my Saturdays growing up eating wheat germ pancakes,” Eames says tightly.
“Do you want to fuck other people?” Arthur says. His voice cracks a little.
“No, what? No. Do you?”
“No,” Arthur says. “I’ve been. Thinking about the baby thing, maybe.” There’s a pocket of silence. The peas are sludge, burnt to the bottom of the pan, past saving. “You’ve been wanting to take more corporate training jobs,” Arthur says. Legal jobs. “I thought.” He shrugs.
“Yeah,” Eames says. He’s grinning, he can’t help it.
“Mom has that lawyer friend,” Arthur says. “Next time you talk, you could ask. If you want to.”
“I want to,” Eames says.
“It’ll take—it probably won’t be very fast,” Arthur says.
“S’alright. We should get married first, anyhow,” Eames says. “Right?”
“Yeah,” Arthur says quickly. “Yeah, of course we should.”
Paula says “Really?” so loudly that Liz comes in from the garden and picks up the other extension and makes him put Arthur on and then everyone shouts a lot for a while.
Clarence calls at 10:30am; Eames usually gets calls from him in the middle of the night.
“A friend of mine’s granddaughter’s in trouble,” he says. Eames sighs.
“Fine, all right,” he says. “Where is she?”
“Manchester,” Clarence says, after a moment.
“Manchester,” Eames says. “There’s no one closer?”
“I thought—well Arthur said—“ Arthur said. Of course.
“Fine,” Eames says. “I can be there in nine hours, will that do?”
“She’s only about five months along,” Clarence says.
“She’s only fourteen, she’s having a baby, I said I knew some guys maybe,”Clarence says. “Do you want it?”
Eames says nothing.
“She’s a good kid,” Clarence says harshly.
They have Christmas together. Arthur picks up Paula and Liz from the airport. Clarence arrives in the dead of night from parts unknown, says he caught a ride from a friend. They have venison steaks from the freezer and take hundreds of pictures of Josephine smearing pureed rutabaga on her face to send to Evie, who’s studying for exams and couldn’t come. It’s an open adoption, Eames tells Clarence.
“So she can know about her roots,” Liz says.
“Not much use lying about it,” Clarence says. He’s on a second helping of roasted broccolini. “She’d figure it out soon enough.”
“It’s family,” Arthur says. “She should know her family.”