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Double Buck

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1.

Arthur has absolutely no interest in sawing double buck. He’s single buck, always has been; his saw is six foot four, and if you think he’s too short to handle it on his own you don’t know who he is.

So there was no need for a partner, and if he were to have a partner, it certainly wouldn’t be some upstart hot saw competitor who does chainsaw art on the side.

Because really, fuck. Chainsaws are so inelegant.

When Cobb brought the whole thing up Arthur just sat very still and looked at him, trying to convey with the ineffable depths of his eyes how supremely dumb Cobb was, and, by extension, this idea.

“It would just be for exhibition,” Cobb said.

“He’s really very good,” Cobb said.

“He’s making me a chainsaw bear for the front porch,” Cobb said.

“He’s friends with Ariadne,” Cobb said.

“Well of course he’s friends with Ariadne, isn’t he?” Arthur muttered. “Chainsaw artists.”

“That’s all you have to say about this?” Cobb asked, and Arthur got up to leave.

“Yes,” Arthur said.

“Ass,” Cobb called after him.

Cobb is the chair of the local forestry club, and he’s into fostering community and educating the public about loggersports and shit. Arthur is into winning the Lumberjack World Championships.

They’re kind of friends, except when Cobb comes up with dumbass ideas like this.

Arthur only competes in single buck, but he likes to throw hatchets in his spare time. He went out behind Cobb’s house and did that, than, and then Cobb shows up, like he usually did, looking mopey.

“That’s a nice pine,” he said, frowning.

“Just be glad I didn’t go for your precious sugar maple,” Arthur told him, dislodging the hatchet and going back for another throw.

“Don’t fuck with the sugar maples,” Cobb said. “If I have to pay for syrup, ever, you have to buy it.”

“I’ll buy you Aunt Jemima,” Arthur said, and Cobb made a retching noise.

“Seriously, though, someday you’re going to do this and take off one of the kids’ heads or something.”

“Do you doubt my aim, Cobb? You could put an apple on your head and I could cut it in half. I’m fucking William Tell.”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re an ass?” Cobb said, and Arthur shrugged.

“You. All the time. Most recently just now, when I refused to go along with your stupid double buck scheme.” He threw the hatchet again.

“Double buck is so much faster than single buck, Arthur. It’s a crowd pleaser.”

“Like hot saw?”

“Your hatred of chain saws is extremely unreasonable,” Cobb said.

“They’re inelegant,” Arthur said. “They’re contrary to the spirit of the sport.”

Arthur had thought that conversation ended that day in Cobb’s backyard, but now there’s a crunch on the gravel drive and Cobb’s truck is pulling up his driveway with someone Arthur doesn’t know is riding shotgun.

It has to be Cobb, anyway, because no one else has the combination to the padlock at the other end of Arthur’s driveway.

When the other man gets out, he’s wearing buffalo plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows, exposing muscular forearms, and it’s got to be hot saw. In this business, muscles like that only come from hefting around jacked up snowmachine engines.

“I knew I should never have given you the combination to my gate,” Arthur says.

“Arthur,” Cobb says. “This is Eames.”

“I’ve heard so much about you,” Eames says, extending his hand.

“I can’t say the same,” Arthur says as he takes the hand, and gives Eames a look that’s intended to be withering. Eames squeezes hard, when he shakes.

“He’s lying,” Cobb says. “I told him you were making me a chainsaw bear.”

Arthur scowls at Cobb, but it’s really not worth it, because Cobb is practically immune.

“I’m not interesting in sawing double buck,” Arthur says, looking directly at Eames. “Welcome to our club.”

“Charmed,” says Eames, and his face splits into a grin.

Arthur is pretty sure there’s nothing charming about it.

2.

“I heard you were an ass to Eames,” Ariadne tells him the next day when she runs into him at the diner in town, where Arthur likes to go in the mornings to eat biscuits and sausage.

Actually, it’s not so much running into one another as a standing appointment, because Ariadne and Arthur have breakfast together most mornings, but he likes to pretend they don’t. She does use a chainsaw, after all.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Arthur says.

“You really need to get over your unreasonable hatred of chainsaws,” Ariadne says.

“They smell awful,” Arthur tells her.

“I thought they smelled like sunshine and daisies,” Ariadne says brightly. “And I know you think they’re inelegant, but you have to admit I have a pretty snazzy little Stihl.”

“Whatever,” Arthur says, and Ariadne pats him on the back.

“Don’t sulk,” she says. “I know you like the moose I made you.”

The moose is, admittedly, pretty wicked. It’s life size.

“What’s a Brit doing sawing hot saw?” Arthur asks, and Ariadne’s lips quirk into a grin.

“Winning,” she says. “You’d like him.”

“I don’t only like winners,” Arthur says.

“No,” she says. “But you only fuck winners.”

Arthur pushes his last biscuit across his plate. Ariadne laughs.

“Do you want me to eat that for you?” she asks.

“No,” Arthur says, and stuffs most of it in his mouth at once. Ariadne laughs at him again, and Arthur remembers why he never gave Ariadne the code to his gate. Although she usually just parks at the end of the drive and hops over it, but at least that doesn’t mess up the gravel.

“This is why I never gave you the code to my gate,” he tells her.

“Whatever,” she says. “You act like there’s not a four wheeler trail through your backyard.”

“There isn’t,” Arthur says. “Because I have a shotgun.”

“You’re such an old man.”

There’s really nothing Arthur can say to that.

“How’s the commission coming?” he asks, instead. Ariadne’s working on a pair of matched lions for some rich summer people who live outside of town.

“Speaking of,” she says. “I need to get back to work. Tomorrow?”

Arthur doesn’t respond, which is his usual response.

3.

Because Cobb and Ariadne were all up in Arthur’s shit about being nice to Eames, Arthur had kind of assumed that Eames was some sort of absurdly nice person, the sort of imaginary lumberjack who frolics through the forests with deer and rabbits.

It turned out Arthur was slightly off in that assessment. And, also, Eames had apparently snitched the gate code off of Cobb, because there’s truck that’s neither Cobb’s nor Arthur’s in the drive when Arthur gets back, and Eames is sitting in one of this Adirondack chairs.

“Good morning, Arthur,” Eames says.

“Eames,” Arthur says with a curt nod. “I don’t really have time right now.”

Eames gets up and prowls over, and then he stands very close to Arthur and just looks at him.

They’re of height, but Eames is broader than Arthur, and up close his eyes are blue and Arthur isn’t sure if he could take him in a fight.

Which sucks, because Arthur likes to know whether he can take people in fights, if the need arises. It’s not like he gets into a lot of brawls at the bar, but. Well, Cobb would beg to differ.

“So you don’t want to saw double buck,” Eames says after a moment. His voice is low, and Arthur tries not to look at his lips, which are full and thick and seem to move slower than they need to, to make the words come out.

“No,” Arthur says.

“Well that’s good,” Eames says. “Because neither do I.”

“Okay,” Arthur says.

“We’re in agreement then?” Eames asks, and Arthur nods.

“Yes,” Arthur says.

And then Eames leaves, and Arthur feels like he’s somehow being manipulated, though he can’t put his finger on how.

He calls up Cobb when he gets inside.

“Cobb,” he says. “Eames doesn’t want to saw double buck.”

He can hear Cobb mumbling over the line, but there’s no actual talking.

“Cobb,” he repeats.

“He used to saw double buck,” Cobb says.

“So, what, I’m not good enough?” Arthur asks.

“Does it matter? Now you can get out of this and go back to being totally unhelpful to the cause.”

“What is the cause exactly?”

“Educating people about the lumberjack arts,” Cobb says tightly.

“I’m good,” Arthur says. “That’s education enough.”

Then he hangs up. Or maybe Cobb does. Semantics.

“Eames doesn’t even want to saw double buck,” Arthur tells Ariadne at breakfast the next morning.

She sighs.

“You really need to talk with Eames about that,” she says.

“I did talk to Eames about it! He said he doesn’t want to saw double buck!”

“No,” she says. “I mean you really should talk to Eames about that, before you come to me acting all offended.”

“I’m not offended,” Arthur says.

“You totally are,” she says. “Which is why we’re going to change the subject now, and talk about what you’re going to do for the exhibition at the county fair.”

“Nothing. Cobb knows that.”

Arthur hates the county fair, for several reasons he doesn’t want to get into right now.

“You could at least do some hatchet throwing,” Ariadne suggests, and Arthur raises an eyebrow.

“Hatchet throwing,” he says. “Is not an actual lumbersport.”

“No, but it’s cool and you’re good at it.”

Arthur frowns, because he’s not sure if he should run with the compliment or attack the implication that single buck is not cool. Because obviously he’s also good at that.

“Did Cobb put you up to this?” he asks.

“God no. You know Cobb hates your hatchet throwing.”

Which is also true, and a point in favor of hatchet throwing.

“I’ll think about it,” Arthur says, and Ariadne nods.

4.

The county fair is the next weekend, at a park down by the river. Ariadne will sell chainsaw art and do demonstrations, and Eames probably will, too, now that he’s here, and Arthur is willing to bet that Cobb will weasel a stock saw demonstration out of him. Cobb and Mal will do some underhand demos, and Yusuf will set up a booth, and Arthur will try to come up with reasons not to go.

“I think I’m coming down with something,” Arthur says when Cobb stops by on Wednesday, and Cobb just purses his lips.

“I’ll pay for your ticket to the demo derby,” Cobb offers.

“Ariadne suggested I could do some hatchet throwing.”

Cobb frowns.

“I’ll let you do a hatchet throwing demonstration,” Cobb says. “As long as there are no children around.”

“What the fuck Cobb? We’re right off the midway. There are always children around.”

“Fine,” Cobb growls.

“Fine what?”

“Fine, you can do a hatchet throwing demonstration, but you have to do it in the cage.”

“The cage isn’t big enough,” Arthur says. “No one wants to see someone throw a hatchet four feet. Besides, Ariadne needs it.”

Cobb sighs.

“I’m not going to get sued because you whack some kid in the skull, Arthur.”

“If I whack some kid in the skull,” Arthur says. “I’m pretty sure I’d have more problems than a lawsuit.”

“So?”

“It’s not going to happen, Cobb. It’s going to be no more dangerous than the goddamn Zipper.”

Arthur’s feelings about the Zipper are up there with his feelings about chainsaws, and by ‘up there’ he means ‘down there, and negative.’

“Fine,” Cobb says. “We’ll figure something out. But you have to come and talk to people at the table.”

Arthur hates talking to people at the table, but Cobb knows that already, and if Arthur says anything about it, Cobb will just bring up the possibility that Arthur needs to go to counseling.

Arthur slathers on sunscreen before he goes over to the fairgrounds, because there’s nothing worse than getting a sunburn at the stupid county fair.

When he gets there Ariadne and Eames are doing some sort of duelling chainsaws thing in their respective cages, and Eames is wearing overalls. And nothing else. He’s undone the bib so it falls loose around his legs, and his chest is bare and gleaming with sweat, and the overalls are slipping down along the curve of his ass.

It’s vulgar, and also unsafe. Arthur hopes he gets a million splinters.

Mal is sitting at their table wearing a sunhat with James on her lap, and Arthur goes to over to sit down next to her, grateful for the shade.

“Eames is inappropriate,” he says, and Mal arches an eyebrow at him.

“I was rather thinking you’d enjoy the view.”

“Shut up,” Arthur says. “He’s going to get so many splinters.”

“Perhaps you could help him take them out,” Mal suggests.

Arthur remembers, now, why he usually complains about things to Cobb.

“How’s James doing?” he says, instead, and Mal beams.

“You learn quickly, Arthur,” she says, and begins a long monologue about James’ first word.

“Where’s Phillipa?” Arthur asks, finally, because he’s always liked larger children better.

“With her father, in the poultry building,” Mal says, and Arthur gets up to go.

Only then Eames is coming out of his cage, because apparently the eagle he was making is finished.

“Hey, Arthur,” he says, wiping sweat from his brow.

“Put on some clothes,” Arthur says, and leaves.

Arthur fails to find Cobb and Phillipa, but he spends a lot of time watching pigs sleep and letting a girl in 4-H blather on about her goat.

When he gets back, Eames is at the table and Mal has disappeared. He’s done up the bib of his overalls, but he’s still not wearing a shirt, and Arthur does not want tickets to this gun show, but apparently he has them.

“This better, darling?” Eames asks, when Arthur sits down.

“Don’t you get splinters working like that?” Arthur counters, and Eames just grins.

“I have very thick skin,” Eames says. Which is absurd.

“You’re going to get a sunburn,” Arthur tells him, and looks at the pamphlets Cobb had spread out across the table.

“I’m glad you’re so concerned for my welfare.”

“I’m not,” Arthur says, and picks up a pamphlet to read it.

Eames is watching him.

“Why don’t you want to saw double buck?” Arthur asks.

“Why don’t you?”

“Because I compete alone.”

“So do I,” Eames says.

“Cobb says you used to--”

“Gossiping about me, were you?” Eames asks, and then some teenager wearing too much make-up appears to flirt with Eames, and Arthur makes a point of ignoring them both.

“She seemed very interested in the lumberjack arts,” Arthur says, when she leaves.

“Jealous?” Eames asks, and Arthur frowns.

“Of that jailbait? Never,” Arthur says, and Eames stops to look at him.

“I meant of me,” Eames says, raising an eyebrow, and Arthur can feel himself blushing, and almost wishes he had foregone the sunscreen, just to have an excuse.

“My old double buck partner screwed me over,” Eames says, now, and Arthur nods and then they don’t talk any more.

When Cobb returns he sets Arthur up for the hatchet throwing demo, which is kind of a relief. The rig up a chain-link fence and have the audience stand back, like Arthur was going to miss or something. Which he so wasn’t.

He draws a reasonable crowd, and when he gets back to the table Ariadne is there, and Eames has gone back to the chainsaw.

“So,” Ariadne says. “Enjoying the gun show?”

Arthur scowls at her.

“He’s going to get sunburned,” he says.

Ariadne laughs at him, and goes to buy them both Hawaiian ice. Arthur always gets half cherry, half lime, and when Eames comes out of the cage again he purses his lips and frowns, like Cobb.

“What happened to your mouth?” he asks Arthur.

“We made out,” Ariadne tells him with a completely straight face, and Arthur glares at her.

“Hawaiian ice,” he says. “Red dye 40.”

“It looks good on you,” Eames says, and Arthur gapes at him as he walks away.

“I can’t believe you like that guy,” Arthur says to Ariadne when he’s gone, and Ariadne laughs at him until Mal and Cobb get back and relieve them both of their table minding duties.

“We should ride the Zipper,” Ariadne says, and Arthur frowns.

“You know how I feel about the Zipper,” he says.

“How do you feel about the Zipper?” calls a voice from behind them, and of course it’s Eames.

“Arthur hates it,” Ariadne informs him, and then they both look at Arthur.

“Afraid?” Eames asks, and Arthur scowls.

“No,” he says.

So they end up in line for the Zipper, and then a carnie jams all three of them into a car together, with Arthur in the middle. He can feel the bulge of Eames' thighs against his, and Ariadne is tiny but apparently she takes up too much space, and then they're spinning around madly and Arthur wants to puke. He settles for squeezing Ariadne's hand until she screams.

"Darling," Eames whispers from his other side. "Hold mine. I can take it."

Eames' hand is big and warm and rough, and Arthur hopes he splits some bones.

For some reason the man minding the ride is too busy chewing on a cigarette butt to notice them, and they end up going around a second time, and then something happens and they end up stuck at the top, rocking in slow motion.

"This," Arthur hisses to the population of the cab in general. "Is why I hate the Zipper."

"Aw," Eames says, squeezing his thigh. "We'll get out eventually."

"Stop invading my personal space," Arthur says.

When they do get out, Arthur pukes technicolor in a trashcan that smells like shit, and Eames walks him back to his car.

"Tomorrow?" Eames says, and Arthur gives him a look he hopes conveys death.

"Only because it's the demo derby," he says.

Tomorrow, it turns out, is when Eames is doing the hot saw demo. He shows up looking twitchy and sunburned, which makes Arthur feel smug, but he’s still wearing an excessively tight t-shirt that seems like it should be uncomfortable in light of the sunburn. When Arthur arrives at the fairgrounds Eames is fiddling with the jumped up snowmachine engine he has the gall to call a saw.

“Arthur,” he says. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Fancy that,” Arthur echoes, and Eames sits down at the table next to him, grinning.

“Hot saw demo at one o’clock,” he says. “Be there.”

“I don’t think I have a choice,” Arthur says flatly.

Eames spends the next half hour wincing every time he moves, until finally Arthur lets out a heavy sigh and waves over Mal.

“Can you take over the table?” he asks, and Mal nods her ascent, and then Arthur grabs Eames by his arm and tugs him through the crowds.

“You’re stronger than you look,” Eames says, looking at Arthur’s hand clamped around his wrist.

“You’re more of an ass than you look. Which is quite a feat,” Arthur says flatly, and doesn’t talk to Eames until they get to Arthur’s truck.

“Take off your shirt,” Arthur says, then goes to rummage around in the back of the cab.

“I knew you couldn’t resist me,” Eames replies, and Arthur hits him, hard, when he comes up with the bottle of aloe.

“I’m helping you, you idiot,” Arthur says. “Take off your shirt.”

Eames peels his shirt off slowly, like this is some sort of thing, and Arthur frowns at the ropey bulk of his muscles.

“Hot saw,” Eames says, looking at Arthur sidelong.

“I’m sure,” Arthur replies, then squirts a fat splotch of aloe into his hand, and goes for Eames’ shoulders.

Eames winces, initially, and shifts away, and Arthur gives him a sharp prod and rubs harder, digging his fingers into Eames’ biceps.

By the time Arthur reaches the middle of Eames’ back, Eames is actually moaning, arching into Arthur’s hands.

Then there’s a honk, and a wolf whistle.

It’s Yusuf, of course.

Arthur yanks his hands off Eames’ back, and Yusuf leans out the window, grinning.

“Arthur, Eames,” he says. “I hope I didn’t interrupt anything.”

“You didn’t,” Arthur says, picking up the bottle of aloe and waving it around.

“I rather think I did,” Yusuf says. “Help me with the stock?”

“You did,” Eames says, giving Arthur a significant look. Arthur frowns at him, then goes around to the back to help Yusuf with his stuff. Yusuf owns the hardware store in town, and sponsors most of their lumbersport events. Eames puts his shirt back on, and Arthur and Eames end up carrying Yusuf’s boxes over to Yusuf’s booth, and then they take over from Mal again.

“No chainsaw art today?” Arthur asks, and Eames shrugs.

“Didn’t want to steal all of Ari’s business,” he says, nodding towards where Ariadne is working on what appears to be a mermaid. “And of course I wanted to spend more time with you.”

“Right,” Arthur says, not looking at him. “I’m charmed.”

One o’clock rolls around, and Arthur is forced to look at Eames’ musculature again, and admit that he’s kind of good at hot saw. Maybe great.

But being good at hot saw is kind of like being good at something that sucks, so Arthur ignores Eame’s triumphant crow when he finishes making his cuts, ignores the cheering crowd.

He had a crowd for hatchet throwing, yesterday, too. They were pretty into it.

“Good job,” he says when Eames gets back, though he’s still refusing to make eye contact. “Too bad it’s hot saw.”

Eames laughs.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’m good at other things, too.”

Arthur can’t tell if that’s innuendo or if Eames is talking about double buck.

“I’m not worried,” Arthur says. “Because I don’t plan to do anything else with you.”

Eames brings Arthur a frozen chocolate covered banana after lunch. Arthur tries to eat it as unerotically as possible, but Ariadne sees through it and laughs at him.

Arthur kind of talks to Eames, anyway, because he’s curious about lumbersports in England, until sometime in the midafternoon when he remembers that he’s supposed to be angry with Eames for a combination of reasons, including but not limited to: flirting with him, causing people to encourage Arthur to saw double buck, refusing to saw double buck with Arthur (even though Arthur does not want to), and being an idiot who can’t keep his shirt on.

Ergo, Arthur stops talking to him, only then Eames goes off with Philippa somewhere and leaves Arthur with Ariadne.

“You like him,” Ariadne says with a smirk, and Arthur scowls at her. “I knew you would.”

“I don’t,” Arthur says.

“You were having a conversation,” Ariadne says.

“Then I remembered that I hate him, so that ended,” Arthur says, and then Yusuf comes over and leans against their table.

“Arthur was feeling Eames up in the parking lot,” he says, like all of Arthur’s friends have nothing better to do than gossip about him.

“I was administering aloe vera lotion,” Arthur says flatly. “Not that it’s anyone’s business.”

“Of course not,” Ariadne says, shaking her head at Yusuf. “Not our business at all.”

“I hate chainsaws,” Arthur says, and Yusuf frowns.

“Pity,” he says. “I really need to sell more.”

Arthur punches him, just for that, and then stalks off to somewhere else.

Only then it’s evening, and demolition derby time, and Arthur is many things, but he’s not able to resist junked up cars crashing into one another in a pit of mud and occasionally catching fire. When he was in high school he’d done demo derby. And won, of course.

He goes to the stands alone, because the event is really all about the flaming cars, but somehow Eames finds him, coming up the bleachers with a wavering pitcher of beer.

“God, Eames,” Arthur says, looking at him. “Are you already drunk?”

“Beer, Arthur?” Eames asks, holding up plastic cups, and when he pours some into one it sloshes out.

“You are already drunk,” Arthur says, but takes the cup anyway and throws it back. “And this beer is terrible.”

“Of course it is,” Eames says.

“I can’t believe you got drunk on this shit,” Arthur continues, and Eames laughs.

“Faked it, darling,” Eames says, and fills the other cup neatly.

“Now I have a sticky cup, fucker,” Arthur says, and Eames just laughs some more.

The demolition derby is excellent, and they have to bring in a fire truck, and there’s a round with minivans where all sorts of doors fall off and Eames keeps bringing up pitchers of beer until they’re both more than a little drunk, and Arthur is slurring his words and throwing his arm about Eames’ shoulders and telling dirty jokes. Eames laughs uproariously before Arthur even finishes any of the jokes, and they end up stumbling back to the parking lot and Arthur’s truck, the midway lights whirling around them.

“That was great,” Arthur mumbles into Eames shoulder. “Let’s ride the ferris wheel.”

“The ferris wheel,” Eames says very seriously. “Is just the zipper for wimps.”

“Shut up,” Arthur mumbles. “Shut up. Where’s Ariadne?”

“Last I saw, trying to flirt a new chainsaw out of Yusuf.”

“Where’s Dom ‘n Mal?”

“They have kids. They went home.”

“So it’s just you and me, then?” Arthur asks.

“Yeah,” Eames says.

They skip the ferris wheel, and stumble onwards.

“Don’t drive home,” Eames says, when they get back to Arthur’s truck, and Arthur looks at him.

“I can drive,” he says, trying and failing to make it come out sober.

“Don’t,” Eames says, groping at Arthur’s front pocket. “Keys.”

Arthur writhes around, but Eames somehow gets his keys and sticks them down his pants, and Arthur looks at him and sighs.

“Not going in there,” he says, and crawls into the truck bed.

Eames follows him, and Arthur flails him arms around ineffectually.

“Get your own,” he says. “You have your own.”

“Too far,” Eames says, and Arthur unfolds the scratchy blanket he keeps in the back of the truck and wraps it around himself. The midway lights are glowing, and there’s the sound of people nearby, and somehow he falls asleep, anyway.

Arthur wakes up twice in the middle of the night; once to peel off his shirt because it’s suddenly gotten wicked hot, and a second time because the ridged ground of the truck bed is uncomfortable and also to kill the twenty mosquitoes that have settled on his body with greedy glee. He’s an expert mosquito killer, but he’s as of yet unable to do it in his sleep, and before he even opens his eyes in the morning he can feel the bites he has gotten, scattered across his back.

He rolls over and blinks through his headache, only to find Eames behind him, holding his head up on his elbows and watching Arthur.

“You’ve a tramp stamp, darling,” Eames says, and Arthur peers at him.

“It’s not a tramp stamp,” he says. “It’s a back piece.”

“I’m not your darling,” he adds after a moment.

“Roll over again, I want to see it,” Eames says, and Arthur frowns but acquiesces, because his back piece is damn good. It’s a white pine, tall and scraggly, traced up the line of his spine in black ink; at its widest it spans the small of his back.

“I think the roots edge into tramp stamp territory,” Eames is saying, and Arthur groans.

“You got me drunk last night,” he says. “Please do shut up.”

“You aren’t quite as clever hungover, are you?” Eames asks, and Arthur rolls over again to find Eames kneeling next to him, looking down.

“I don’t understand how you’re so goddamn chirpy,” he mutters.

“I went over to the horse people,” Eames says, waving his hand towards the trailers behind the horse barn. “They gave me coffee.”

“Goddamn horse people,” Arthur mutters, only then Eames produces one of the plastic cups from last night and hands it to Arthur.

“This smells like beer,” Arthur says, looking skeptically at the dark liquid within.

“And it’s a little cold, too, so as not to melt the plastic,” Eames says. “It was the only cup I had, and they wouldn’t let me take one of their mugs.”

“I hate you,” Arthur says, but sips the cold beer-flavored coffee anyway.

“Hair of the dog, yeah?” Eames says.

“Whatever,” Arthur says, downing the rest of the cup, and Eames laughs.

It’s still early, so Arthur goes home to find new clothes before returning to the fair. Cobb’s there, of course, frowning.

“Where were you this morning?” he asks.

“What?” Arthur says.

“I stopped by your house and your truck wasn’t there,” Cobb says. “I wanted to do another hatchet demo today.”

“I have my hatchets in the truck,” Arthur says, but Cobb is still frowning.

“But where were you?” he whines, and Arthur stares at him.

“Not home, apparently,” Arthur says. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Arthur,” Cobb says, squinting.

“Seriously, Cobb, I don’t know why you need to know this.”

“Because you’re hiding something from me,” Cobb says. “As chair of this club, it’s important I know everything.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Arthur says, only then someone comes up from behind and puts a hand on his shoulder.

“Telling Cobb about our night together?” Eames asks, and Arthur elbows him and Cobb gapes a little, then quickly claps his mouth shut.

“Does this mean you’ll saw double buck?” Cobb asks, looking between the two of them.

“No,” Eames says.

“It wasn’t like that,” Arthur tells him.

“So if we did fuck, you would saw double buck?” Eames asks speculatively.

“No,” Arthur says. “You don’t want to, anyway.”

“That rhymed,” Cobb contributes.

Arthur goes to get some fried dough for breakfast, because, damnit.

“I heard you and Eames slept together,” Ariadne says. “In the bed of your truck. In the fair parking lot. I didn’t realize you were such an exhibitionist.”

“I’m not,” Arthur says, except he totally is. “We didn’t sleep together. We just happened to sleep in the same place.”

“Whatever,” Ariadne says, waving her hand in the air. Then she goes to talk to Yusuf and unsubtly stare at Arthur, and Arthur wonders at their club’s propensity for gossip.

Eames has gone back to his chainsaw art cage, but at least he has the sense to wear a shirt today, and Arthur watches the other man out of the corner of his eye as he works. He’ll admit, grudgingly, to kind of appreciating the rough hewn style of chainsaw art, but he refuses to admit to appreciating the way Eames’ body moves around the wood, the ripple of his shoulders as he lifts the chainsaw, the indecently tight shirt.

He watches anyway, until Mal comes over to sit with him and gives him a sidelong glance.

“Ready to make the beast with two backs yet?” Mal asks.

“No,” Arthur says, turning to stare at her.

“I’m referring to double buck, of course,” Mal says, then continues in an exaggerated French accent. “That doesn’t mean anything else, does it?”

“Eames doesn’t want to,” Arthur says. “Also, I know you know that means something else.”

“Whatever do you mean, Arthur?” Mal asks, but her smirk gives her away.

“Cobb,” Arthur says when Cobb returns from harassing fair-goers in an attempt at educating them. “Your wife is being vulgar.”

Cobb looks between the two of them and shrugs.

“I don’t know what happened, but I side with her.”

“Exactly right dear,” Mal replies, and rises to kiss him.

“Arthur,” Cobb says, slapping him on the back. “Given any thought to double buck?”

Mal dissolves into laughter, and Arthur scowls at her.

Eames stands in the front row for Arthur’s hatchet throwing demonstration that afternoon, holding Phillipa on his shoulders and blocking the view for several children. Arthur ignores him.

That’s the last day of the fair, and Cobb buys them all french fries doused in malt vinegar to celebrate, and cheap hamburgers from the 4-H stand. Arthur gets roped into going with Eames to bring Philippa and James on the rides, and when they get bored with the cars and boats and trains that go in circles they bring the kids on the Octopus. Arthur rides with James, who spends the whole ride screaming.

“I think that’s actually illegal,” Arthur tells Eames when they get off.

“Don’t worry,” Eames whispers. “I won’t tell.”

“It was your idea,” Arthur says.

“But you went along,” Eames says with a smirk.

They do the Scrambler next, the four of them in one cab. James holds up slightly better this time.

When Arthur goes to bed that night, he can feel the shadow of the whirling motion in his head. He falls asleep pretty quickly, anyway.

5.

Arthur manages to avoid Eames for a month after that, until he two days before the regional Loggersports competition. Arthur comes outside in the morning, shirtless and carrying a cup of coffee because it’s his house, damnit, and Eames is sitting on the porch in Arthur’s favorite chair.

“Did you know Cobb registered us for double buck?” Eames asks.

Arthur spills the coffee.

“What the fuck,” Arthur says.

“I don’t think I’m the one you should be asking,” Eames says, so Arthur lets Eames follow him inside, makes two more cups of coffee, and calls Cobb.

“What the fuck,” Arthur says.

“It’s for you, dear,” Mal calls away from the phone, and when Cobb picks up Arthur repeats himself.

“What the fuck.”

“I think you mean what the buck, darling,” Eames whispers from next to him, and Arthur gives him a look that should be interpreted as “I hate puns, and that doesn’t even make sense.”

“It would be really good if we had a double buck team in the club,” Cobb says.

“So you and Mal do it,” Arthur says.

“Arthur,” Cobb whines.

“Alright, Ariadne and Mal than,” Arthur suggests, and Cobb makes unhappy noises over the phone. “Are you even allowed to this?”

“I’m the chair,” Cobb says. “I register everyone for everything. I can do whatever I want.”

“We don’t have a saw,” Arthur says, in a last ditch effort.

“I bought you one,” Cobb says, and Arthur turns to Eames, aghast.

“He bought us a saw,” Arthur says.

“Is Eames there with you? Can I talk to him? Did you sleep together again?” Cobb asks from the other end of the line, and Arthur hangs up.

“What kind of saw was it?” Eames asks, and Arthur frowns.

“I don’t care. You can’t just go around buying other people saws. Who does he think he is?”

“Chair of the our forestry club,” Eames says.

“We aren’t doing it,” Arthur says.

Arthur makes a couple calls, but apparently there’s some sort of rule about withdrawing from competition two days prior, so their only option is to forfeit the competition.

Arthur carpools with Ariadne to the competition, even though it means his saw has to share the bed of the truck with her chainsaw, and he has to listen to her talk about Eames for most of the drive.

“Why are you so interested in Eames?” he asks, finally.

“Aren’t you?” Ariadne replies innocently.

“Seriously,” Arthur says.

“I’m just pleased there’s another chainsaw artist in the area,” Ariadne says. “I don’t know what your problem is.”

“You know what my problem is,” Arthur mutters, and Ariadne sighs, turns up her Drive-By Truckers CD, and changes the subject.

When they get to the competition, Nash appears, like he’s been waiting.

“Arthur,” he says. “I hear you’re sawing double buck.”

“There was an error in the registration,” Arthur tells him, and Nash narrows his eyes.

“Afraid?” he says, and Arthur wonders why people keep asking him that, like he’s some sort of wimp.

“No,” Arthur says, and then wonders why he keeps falling for that, like some sort of dumbass. He goes over to where Eames is unloading his chainsaw.

“Double buck,” he says. “We’re doing it.”

“What?” Eames asks, looking incredulous. “No.”

“Just once,” Arthur says, and then Nash appears.

“Who’s this, Arthur?” Nash asks, eyeing Eames speculatively.

“Eames,” Arthur says flatly. “Nash.”

“Pleasure, I’m sure,” Eames says, but he doesn’t sound pleased, which makes Arthur inexplicably pleased.

“You’re sawing double buck with a hot saw competitor?” Nash asks, and then both Eames and Nash turn to Arthur, and Arthur looks back at Eames.

“Yes,” Eames says with a sigh.

Arthur could hug him, but instead he glares at Nash and goes to see Cobb about a saw.

“Did you bring the double buck saw?” Arthur asks, when he finds Cobb, and Cobb just grins.

“What changed your mind?” he says, and Arthur frowns.

“Nash,” Arthur says. “What an asshole.”

Nash is Arthur’s primary in-state competitor in single buck, though he isn’t really that close.

They may also have slept together, once. Arthur was shit-faced drunk when it did or did not happen and doesn’t remember much, but he’s pretty sure Nash was a terrible lay. When Arthur didn’t return his calls, Nash unilaterally declared himself Arthur’s archenemy, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“So you slept with him, huh?” Eames asks when Arthur comes back with the saw.

“Shut up,” Arthur says. “Who told you that? No one knows that. Now come on, we need to practice.”

They bring Ariadne, too, and she talks about how Arthur most definitely slept with Nash while Arthur glares daggers at her and Eames laughs.

“You could do so much better, darling,” Eames says, and Arthur turns his glare on him.

Their first attempt at double buck is, frankly, embarrassing. Arthur isn’t used to have someone else on the other end of his saw, and it throws off his balance; he pushes too hard when he should be letting Eames pull. Eames just looks at him disparagingly.

“You’ve really never done this before, have you?” Eames asks.

“No,” Arthur says, and they try again, and the rhythm is a little closer to right this time, and by the third cut they’re about as good as they’re going to be, working on brawn alone and not a proper partnership. Arthur wants Ariadne to time them, but Eames says no, so Arthur shrugs it off, and they rejoin Cobb and Mal by the trucks.

“So you’re doing it?” Cobb asks, looking between Eames and Arthur and the saw. “I knew you’d do it.”

“Just this time,” Arthur says. “And if you register us again, you’re an asshole.”

“Arthur,” Mal says, jerking her head towards Phillipa and James. “Children.”

“I will cut you,” Arthur says to Cobb, and Mal makes a face that suggests, if Arthur were to do that, he would get cut worse.

Eames just sort of stands there, looking uncomfortable.

Ariadne’s competing in stock saw, and her competition is first. The group goes to cheer her on, and Eames stands entirely too close to Arthur the whole time.

“What are you doing?” Arthur hisses, when one of the other competitors is up.

“Nash is over there,” Eames says. “Don’t you want to seem to be on good terms with your new partner?”

“Nash and I never sawed together,” Arthur mutters. “Stop touching my ass.”

Eames doesn’t stop, and Arthur kind of gives up, because Eames’ hand in the back pocket of his Carhartts is inexplicably comforting.

Mal winks at him, and Arthur pretends he doesn’t notice her noticing.

Then Mal and Dom saw underhand in their respective divisions, and Eames and Arthur and Ariadne take Phillipa and James to watch, and then they all go for lunch before Eames and Arthur have to saw double buck, and then their individual events.

Arthur tries not to think about winning when they saw double buck, because they surely won’t; but he figures not winning isn’t as embarrassing as not competing. Instead he throws his body into the motion of the saw, into the returning of Eames’ motion, and their saw eats through the wood quickly enough, by his measure.

Arthur has to turn right around and saw single buck, after that, and Nash is there smirking like he’s been eating shit. Arthur smirks right back, and does what he usually does.

And then it’s hot saw. Arthur can’t not got to hot saw, because Eames went to single buck, and also Nash, who has been skulking around the periphery of everywhere Arthur is the whole day, will notice.

So he goes.

And Eames comes up, before his event, grabs Arthur by the shoulders, and kisses him hard on the mouth--no tongue, just their lips pressed tight together, and then their lips apart again.

“For luck,” he says, and then walks back to his saw, and Arthur is staring at him, not sure why he’d let anyone get away with that, and everyone else is staring at Arthur, who can feel himself colouring a slow, rich red.

Mal winks at him again, and Ariadne slaps him on the ass like that’s some sort of congratulatory gesture.

Like there’s something Arthur should be congratulated for, when they haven’t done awards yet.

“You know the Monty Python lumberjack song?” Cobb asks mildly. “It was written about you.”

“Don’t be so hard on him,” Ariadne says. “Just ‘cause he’s a twink doesn’t mean he’s the one who crossdresses.”

“Eames?” Cobb says, squinting. “You think?”

Ariadne shrugs, and Mal nods, and Arthur ignores them all.

“The point,” Cobb continues. “Is that you are so, so, gay for each other.”

“Mal,” Arthur says. “May I punch your husband in the balls?”

Cobb winces and shuts up.

“To be fair, Arthur was gay already,” Ariadne says.

When Arthur goes to box her ears, she ducks.

The awards are distributed in the evening before they go home, in the order of the events. Ariadne takes first in her age class, which would be lovely except she was the only one in her age class, and third for woman overall. Cobb takes second overall, and Mal first.

Arthur and Eames don’t win. They take third.

Which is not winning.

Individually, they both take first.

“It worked,” Eames whispers in Arthur’s ear, when he rejoins to the group with his medal.

“Who the hell does he think he is?” Arthur rages when he and Ariadne are back in her truck together. “I mean, what the fuck.”

“It’s not like everyone doesn’t know you’re gay after the Nash fiasco,” Ariadne says.

The Nash fiasco was their not-break-up, because they weren’t dating, when Nash decided to ask Arthur why his calls weren’t being returned during an awards ceremony at state two years ago.

“That’s not the point,” Arthur says. “It’s harassment. It’s--”

“Then why didn’t you just punch him?” Ariadne asks.

Arthur had, after all, punched Nash. And broken his nose.

“It’s inappropriate,” Arthur continues.

“Admit it,” Ariadne says with a snort. “You like a man who’s a little pushy.”

“Don’t project,” Arthur says tightly.

“Projecting, am I?” Ariadne says. “I highly doubt that.”

“Yeah, I forgot,” Arthur says. “You’re the pushy one, aren’t you?”

Ariadne laughs.

And then there’s a thud, and the windshield shatters, and Ariadne is cussing and pulling over to the side of the road.

They hit a turkey.

“Fuck this,” Ariadne mutters, looking at the dead bird, which had fallen into the bed of her truck.

“Might as well keep it,” Arthur says. It’s a male, and large, and Arthur might be able to smoke it or something.

“We have more problems than that,” Ariadne says.

They’re two hours’ drive from home, still, and its dark, and Ariadne’s windshield is completely shattered. Which are, okay, problems. But.

“We can just drive back without a windshield,” Arthur says, and Ariadne looks at him flatly.

“Yeah,” she says. “That’ll be fun.”

“I didn’t say it would be fun,” he protests. “But it’s a way to drive back.”

Then Eames pulls over, leaning out of his window.

“I don’t normally pick up hitchhikers,” he calls, and now Arthur seriously does want to punch him in the face.

“We can’t just leave Ariadne’s truck here,” Arthur says, looking between the pair of them.

Eames smirks.

“I,” he says. “Have a tent.”

Eames would have a tent.

Which is how they end up pulling into a state forest campground late at night, with Arthur and Ariadne driving slowly in Ariadne’s truck, Eames ahead. And Eames may have a tent, but he only has one sleeping bag, which he unzips and lays flat beneath the three of them.

“You two can have it,” Ariadne says. “I’ve my own.”

So because Arthur was a halfway decent person and agreed to carpool (and, okay, his truck is kind of shit and prone to break down on trips further than an hour from home), he ends up sleeping with Eames again.

The moral of the story, he thinks as he falls asleep with his back to Eames, is that life is utter shit.

When Arthur wakes up the next morning, Eames’ arm is around his waist, and Eames’ wood is in his back.

“Eames,” Arthur says, rolling over to shake Eames awake. “You’re disgusting.”

Ariadne looks at them from the other side of the tent, bleary-eyed and smiling.

“Aw,” she says. “You haven’t moved his arm, Arthur.”

Arthur glares at her, and rectifies the situation.

“Good morning, good luck charm,” Eames says, blinking up at him.

Arthur storms out of the tent in his shirt and boxers, and goes to the campground bathroom to splash water on his face until Eames shows up, grinning.

“You could’ve given me a hand with my tent,” he says, and Arthur can see his expression in the small mirror morphing into horror, and Eames doubles over laughing.

“I should’ve punched you,” Arthur mutters. “I really should’ve.”

“Want to give it a go now?” Eames asks, quite seriously, and Arthur finds he doesn’t, not really.

“Stop touching me,” he says. “And maybe you won’t have to worry about breaking your nose.”

“I think I’d look good with a broken nose,” Eames says, following Arthur out of the bathroom.

“Your balls, then,” Arthur says.

“I could’ve used your hands on my balls this morning,” Eames mutters, and Arthur goes back to ignoring him.

Eames offers Arthur a ride back to town, but he goes with Ariadne to replace her windshield instead, grumbling. Ariadne blithely ignores him.

When they do get home in the late afternoon, Arthur takes the turkey and puts it in his deep freeze, so at least something good came out of this mess.

6.

It’s Ariadne’s idea for them to take a proper camping trip, which is typical, really. But she gets Mal in on it, and together they are an unstoppable force.

Arthur tries to play the part of the immovable object, but it doesn’t work quite as well as he had hoped. Which is how he ends up riding shotgun in Ariadne’s truck again, with the windshield fixed and coolers of beer in the back, along with Arthur’s own sleeping bag so he doesn’t have to fucking share.

But Eames is on the bench seat, too, which puts Arthur in the middle, and he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Of course Eames couldn’t ride with Mal and Cobb because they have kids and shit. Of course Eames takes up an inordinate amount of space on the bench seat. Of course they couldn’t go to a campground close to home because this is some sort of bonding exercise. Of course they’re going camping as some sort of bonding exercise, and Cobb will harass them about continuing to compete in double buck, and there are so many things Arthur doesn’t want to talk about right now.

“Arthur,” Ariadne’s saying as they drive. “Tell Eames the story about the twelve-point buck.”

“No,” Arthur says, and looks straight ahead out the window.

“I’d love to hear it, darling,” Eames says, and Arthur scowls at the telephone poles along the highway. He doesn’t understand why they couldn’t just camp at the state park in town.

Eames and Ariadne start talking over him after that, which is somehow worse, like Arthur is a child. It’s just that he really does not feel like dealing with Eames.

Then again, Arthur never feels like dealing with Eames. He should probably analyze these feelings, but Eames is such a--Eames that Arthur can’t understand why everyone expects them to start spontaneously fucking.

But he can’t say that out loud, because then everyone will think he wants to fuck Eames.

The journey seems interminable, but they go get to the campground, and Arthur is relieved when Eames spills out of the cab, and isn’t even terribly bothered when Eames holds the door open for him to follow. Ariadne and Mal have booked a couple of campsites along a lake, and the whole thing looks stagnant and is swarming with mosquitoes, but otherwise it might be rather nice.

“No skinny dipping, then,” Ariadne says with a frown, and Arthur breathes a sigh of relief over something he hadn’t even realized he would need to be relieved about.

“I know a place,” Eames says. Arthur whips his head around to stare at him, and Eames is grinning like the cat that ate the canary.

There are so many reasons to hate Eames.

Arthur goes to set up the tent he’s sharing with Ariadne, and Ariadne trails after him.

“I told Eames we had space to spare,” she says when Arthur is putting down the dropcloth, and he is ready to go get his hatchet and throw it at some trees.

“Eames has a fucking huge tent,” Arthur growls. “Why didn’t he bring it?”

Ariadne shrugs, and gives Arthur a significant look.

“Fuck this,” he says, and stalks off.

“Are you on your period?” Ariadne calls after him.

And Arthur realizes his anger is reaching a flash point, and it’s not even Eames doing anything, it’s just the idea of Eames, sitting around like a smug bastard with his hot saw and his muscles and his slightly crooked British teeth. It’s the way Arthur’s group of friends is swirling around them like they’re waiting for something to happen, something Arthur maybe wants to happen, but also emphatically doesn’t, if only because it would make Ariadne and Cobb and probably also Eames unbearable.

There’s no good explanation. Arthur gives up, and goes back to throwing his hatchet, instead.

When he returns to the campsite, Ariadne has finished setting up his tent, has apparently laid out the sleeping bags inside, and she’s frowning at him. Cobb is putting together a pile of wood in the fire pit, and Arthur sits down on the picnic table to watch.

“Teepee or log cabin?” he asks.

“Teepee inside log cabin,” Cobb says, looking smug.

“Is that a statement on colonization?” Eames asks from the side, and Arthur snorts.

“No,” he says. “It’s just a pretentious ass way to build a fire.”

“It’s the best,” Cobb says, and Arthur sighs. They’ve had this argument before; Cobb is a dumbass.

“Want to get more wood?” Cobb asks, and Arthur is grateful for another excuse to go into the woods, so he takes his hatchet and goes to look for fallen lumber, dry stuff, anything, really.

Eames trails after him.

“I don’t need help,” Arthur says, curt.

“I’m sure you don’t,” Eames replies easily. “But here I am.”

In the end, Arthur lets out a long sigh, and loads Eames up as he gathers sticks and chops fallen logs into manageable portions. Eames is blessedly silent, and they move through the forest together until both of them have armloads, and then they return to the campsite Cobb has the fire going, and Arthur didn’t have to see his bastardized--thing, his bastardized fire building thing. He and Eames dump the fuel by the fire, and go to sit down by Ariadne, who is distributing s’mores supplies. Arthur’s brought his own stick, which Eames eyes skeptically.

“So s’mores are serious?” he asks.

“Like a house on fire,” Ariadne says. “Arthur makes pornographic noises when he eats them.”

“I don’t,” Arthur says, but even he knows that’s a lie.

“Only if they’re perfect,” he amends after a beat.

“Well let’s hope they’re perfect then, eh, darling?” Eames says, and Arthur scowls at him. Still, he kind of hopes the marshmallow comes out perfect, because he will deny himself that pleasure for no man.

The first marshmallow goes all to shit, burns to a crisp and the inside is hard, because the fire hasn’t burnt down enough yet. Arthur pulls off the blackened outer shell and throws it back in the pit, but eats the marshmallow inners right off the stick, sucking it off with a soft pop.

“I see why you need your own stick,” Eames says after a moment. He’s staring at Arthur’s mouth like--

Arthur blinks at him, and decides to ignore it.

“Are you two going to saw double buck again?” Cobb asks from across the fire.

Eames looks at Arthur.

“No,” Arthur says, not returning Eames’ gaze.

Everyone is quiet for a moment, and then Ariadne goes to the cooler and pulls out bottles of beer, which she opens on the picnic table and distributes around the fire.

“Let’s get this party started,” she says brightly.

Arthur moves his chair slightly so he’s in the woodsmoke, to avoid the mosquitoes, and squints his eyes against the burn. Eames comes over next to him.

“Will you make me a s’more?” he whispers, and Arthur turns to look at him.

“Okay,” Arthur says, and squints his eyes some more in an effort to avoid making eye contact with anyone.

The sad thing is, it’s not the beer talking, because Arthur hasn’t even finished his first bottle and even he isn’t that much of a lightweight.

When the fire burns down, Arthur positions his stick above some faintly flowing embers, and makes two perfect marshmallows, first for Eames and one for himself. He doesn’t watch the way Eames licks the chocolate off his plush lips, and ignores the soft noises of pleasure Eames makes when the concoction hits his tongue.

Eames doesn’t extend Arthur the same courtesy, which would ruin the perfect s’more if anything could.

Sometime after the fire is mostly burnt out and everyone’s on their third or fourth beer, Ariadne brings up skinny dipping again.

“Eames!” she says, jostling him. “You said you knew a place.”

“Too drunk,” Eames mutters. “You’re too drunk to drive.”

“Cobb’sn’t!” she slurs, and Cobb shakes his head.

“I’m not,” he says. “But I’m also not in high school.”

“You’re the worst,” Ariadne mumbles. “ ’solutely.”

“I think it’s time for bed,” Mal says, frowning at Ariadne. And it really is. The stumble to their tents, crawl into sleeping bags. Ariadne and Eames have laid out Eames’ sleeping bag next to Arthur’s, and he doesn’t have it in him to complain right now, so soon enough all their bodies are stretched out parallel inside the tiny tent.

Arthur falls asleep quick, but wakes up sometime in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. His tent is small, and he can hear Ariadne’s soft breathing, can feel Eames’ warm body next to his. He crawls out, unzips the door and the fly, and goes to sit on the picnic table.

It doesn’t take long for Eames to show up. Arthur is lying flat on the table, looking up at the Milky Way, and he doesn’t have it in him to be disturbed.

“Hey,” Eames says, and Arthur doesn’t move.

“Hey yourself,” he says.

“We could saw double buck,” Eames says after a moment, and then Arthur rolls over to look at him properly. There’s no moon, but he can still make out Eames’ profile, and the bulk of his shoulders.

“What?” Arthur asks.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Eames says, and Arthur just stares at him.

“Are you still drunk?” he says, finally, and Eames laughs.

“I only had two beers.”

“I don’t--”

“Like me?” Eames says, and laughs again, sharp this time.

“I don’t know,” Arthur mutters. “I don’t know.”

“Let’s just try it, yeah?” Eames says. “We could be really good together.”

And Arthur gets the double entendre, he gets it, he’s not a fucking child. He wants to tell Eames that, but instead he just rolls over so he’s looking up at the stars again. They’re bright and far away, a wild welter, freckles of light.

Arthur thinks Eames probably has freckles across his shoulder blades, though he’s never looked that closely.

Arthur sits up, and looks at Eames for a moment. In the dark his expression is almost unreadable, and Arthur leans forward, incrementally and then a little more.

He grabs Eames by the chin and presses their lips together, quickly, before he can rethink this. Eames tastes like he didn’t brush his teeth; like chocolate and graham cracker and woodsmoke. His lips are chapped and gentle, then pressing hard and hungry, and Arthur slips his tongue into Eames' mouth and tastes it all--the beer, the s’mores, and something underneath it all that is uniquely Eames, who is moaning into his mouth, low and sweet, who is arching his body against Arthur’s, like he wants this, like this isn't all some terribly cruel joke.

Arthur pulls back.

“Don’t fuck this up,” he says. “And we’re waiting a week to tell Cobb.”

Because fuck all if Arthur will let Cobb think his plan worked.

When Arthur goes back to the tent, he falls asleep before he knows whether Eames came back, too, before he can think about whether he, Arthur, even knows what he’s doing right now, and whether he's drunk, and what he'll do if he wakes up with Eames' erection pressed into his back in the morning.

From the sounds outside, either there's a perverted wild animal about or Eames is dealing with a stiffy right now.

Arthur grins to himself. Because he might not know what he's doing, but he's pretty sure he's the one in charge now.

Much to his chagrin, Arthur wakes up with Eames spooned against his back, and the taste of Eames still in his mouth, and a problem in his pants.

He lays there, for a moment, wondering what his life has been reduced to, and then he rolls over so he’s facing away from Eames and tries to take care of business as quietly as possible, without thinking of Eames or anyone at all. He bites his lip as he finishes, hard, and then changes his boxers in his sleeping bag.

It doesn’t go exactly as planned, because when Arthur slithers out of his sleeping bag Eames is there watching him like he knows.

“Problem, darling?” he asks.

“Your face,” Arthur growls. Which was, okay, not mature.

“That’s no way to speak to your new double buck partner,” Eames says, his voice dropping to a whisper.

Arthur groans, and would say something about being drunk, but the thing was, he hadn’t even been particularly drunk. He was just a dumbass.

Arthur just flips Eames the bird, and then he crawls out of the tent and walks over to where Cobb is drinking coffee by the picnic table.

“Good morning,” Cobb says brightly. “Given any thought to double buck?”

“No,” Arthur says. Because he obviously hadn’t given it thought, he’d just done something about it.

“You’re not dressed,” Cobb says, then.

Arthur looks down at himself. Cobb is right; he’s wearing his boxers and not much else.

“Fuck off,” Arthur says, and pours a cup of coffee.

“I don’t want my children to be exposed to your naked man flesh,” Cobb says, and Arthur stares at him. “They might get ideas.”

“Ideas,” Arthur repeats, and stares at him.

“Ideas about tattoos,” Cobb says.

Arthur sighs, because Cobb is unreasonable, but he goes back to the tent, where Eames has gone back to sleep and Ariadne has yet to wake up, and pulls on jeans and his oldest t-shirt.

“Better?” he asks when he emerges, and Cobb frowns.

“You put on your two holiest articles of clothing,” he says.

“I actually have a flannel that’s worse. Give me my goddamn coffee,” Arthur mutters, and Cobb squints at him but returns his mug.

“Where is Mal and your tattoo adverse children?” Arthur asks, and Cobb sighs.

“Children,” he says. “Wake up so early. Mal took them to the playground.”

“And you’re not going to go relieve her?” Arthur asks, and Cobb scowls.

“You do it, if you care so much,” he says.

So Arthur does, walking through the campground to the playground at the center, where Phillipa is on the jungle gym and Mal is pushing James on a swing.

“Arthur,” Mal says. “Finally.”

“Now you can go make your lazy husband breakfast,” Arthur tells her, and Mal laughs.

“He just does that to give you an excuse to come out here and act superior about it,” Mal says. “We all know about your secret love of giving underdogs.”

Mostly Arthur just likes how much James laughs after having someone run under his swing, but he’s not going to fight it.

“Go,” he says, waving his hand. “I’ll bring them along in a bit.”

Five underdogs and two piggy-back rides around the playground later, Ariadne shows up.

“Breakfast is ready,” she says, looking between Arthur and James on his shoulders. “If you can tear yourself away.”

“Phil!” Arthur calls. “Breakfast.”

“I hate breakfast,” she says, but comes anyway, grabbing one of Arthur’s hands and one of Ariadne’s and swinging between them.

“So you slept with Eames again,” Ariadne says, and Arthur spares a sharp glance at Philippa’s head bobbing between them.

“Third time,” Ariadne continues.

“We haven’t slept together,” Arthur says. “We’ve just been forced to sleep in the same place several times. Also, last night you were there.”

“But I wasn’t in on the spoon fest,” Ariadne says.

“You can sleep in the middle tonight,” Arthur tells her, and Ariadne just laughs.

“You and Eames gonna saw double fuck?” James interjects, and Arthur and Ariadne both stare at one another.

“Don’t say that word, James,” Phillipa says. “It’s a bad one.”

“I think you meant buck,” Arthur tells James, then looks down at Phillipa. “Can you two keep a secret?”

“Yes,” Phillipa says. “We’re the best at secrets.”

“The best,” James repeats.

“You sure?” Arthur asks. “You can’t tell your dad.”

“We won’t,” Phillipa says, looking at Arthur with wide eyes.

“Eames and I are going to saw double buck,” Arthur tells them, and Phillipa twists away.

“That secret’s lame,” she says, but Ariadne looks wild-eyed and gleeful. Arthur releases Phillipa’s hand to give Ariadne a sharp punch in the ribs, and she winces.

“Uncalled for,” she says. “I won’t tattle.”

And then they come up on the campsite, where Eames and Mal and Cobb are gathered around the picnic table, and there are pancakes with syrup from Cobb’s sugar shack, and bacon, and if Arthur was going to complain about anything he isn’t going to, right now.

“So you’re a babysitter, too?” Eames whispers when he slides on to the bench next to Arthur.

“Why? Do you not know how to use a condom?”

“You’re very intriguing,” Eames says.

Arthur wants to ask if that comment has anything to do with what happened on the selfsame picnic table the night before, but manages to keep his mouth shut.

“You’re not,” he says, which is a lie if he ever told one.

“Liar,” Eames replies, and then he spends a full minute sucking maple syrup of his fork in a plainly pornographic way.

Not that Arthur notices. Across the table, Mal and Ariadne are pretending to have a conversation but watching Arthur and Eames with what is probably amusement, and Cobb is too busy trying to keep the maple syrup from getting all over James’ face to pay them any mind.

Cobb had arranged for them to spend the day doing team building activities, but it turned out Cobb didn’t know shit about team building and apparently had never even seen a team building workshop in a sitcom, so he just made them all go on a hike.

Arthur spends most of the time trying to walk faster than Eames, until he realizes Eames is spending most of the time staring at his ass through his stupidly thin denims.

He realizes this, because Eames says, “Nice pants” in a tone that could only be described as lascivious.

So then Arthur walks behind Eames, and is subjected to a not entirely unpleasant view of his ass the rest of the way up.

When they get to the top, Cobb distributes smushed sandwiches and demands that everyone tell a secret.

“No,” Arthur says, and turns around to go back down.

“Arthur!” Cobb says. “You won’t have any water.”

“I’ll drink from streams,” Arthur mutters.

“And contract giardia?” Cobb asks.

“I’m not telling stupid secrets. I am not a seventh-grade girl.”

“It will help us trust each other more,” Cobb says.

“We don’t need to trust each other,” Arthur says. “We all compete alone.”

Cobb frowns at him, and mutters something about how they’re still a team.

“Actually, we’re a club,” Arthur says, and then he stuffs his sandwich in his face, which is maybe somewhat undignified, wrestles a water bottle away from Cobb, which is extremely undignified, and turns around to go back down.

“You’re a terrible example for the children,” Mal hisses as he passes, but Arthur really couldn’t care less right now.

Besides, James and Phil love it when he’s a terrible example.

Arthur walks until he hits the treeline and loses sight of the rest of the group, then jogs. The mountain has a false peak, and Arthur’s always liked the rocky outcrop surrounded by trees better than the peak proper, so when he gets there he veers off the trail and sits down.

Arthur is willing to acknowledge that he might be a terrible person. But there are certain things, namely relationships of any sort, that he likes to progress at a pace he defines himself. And there are certain things, namely hikes, that he doesn’t like to be marred by ridiculous exercises. He stretches his arms across his knees, and looks down at the landscape knit far below--patches of farmland, and forest, small towns. It’s like the view from any mountain in the area, but the incremental differences don’t matter so much as the idea of landscape, of being able to view it from a great height.

“Nice, isn’t it,” Eames says when he shows up. Arthur isn’t entirely surprised.

“Eames,” he says.

“So I was thinking we should tell one another secrets,” Eames says. “Seeing as we actually will be competing together.”

“No,” Arthur says, twisting to glare at him.

“I’ll go first,” Eames says, not looking at Arthur. “I like you better than my last double buck partner.”

“That’s a secret?” Arthur asks, and Eames shrugs, like maybe it means more than Arthur knows.

“Your turn,” he says.

“I didn’t agree to this,” Arthur mutters, and Eames looks at him, now, with huge dark eyes.

“No,” Arthur says, not breaking eye contact.

Eames leans forward and kisses him, very gently, like he might break something.

“I think you’re afraid of something,” Eames says when he pulls away, and then he gets up to go.

Arthur realizes he isn’t in charge at all.

He watches Eames go back up the mountain, and then goes down on his own, sitting in the bed of Ariadne’s truck until everyone else shows up. He closes his eyes and watches the sun on his lids and thinks about how tight his forehead will feel when it sunburns, and nothing else at all. Not putting aloe on Eames' shoulders, not kissing Eames, not double buck.

That night no one discusses it but Ariadne sleeps in between Arthur and Eames, and no one wakes up spooning anyone else, and then they leave.

7.

Arthur didn’t want to deal with it. He had said he would saw double buck with Eames, so of course he would, but he didn’t want to deal with Eames himself; Eames who was incorrigible, and who was always pushing.

The kiss on the picnic table was terrifically ill advised.

But Arthur called Eames up, anyway, and arranged a time to practice sawing double buck, and then he spent the rest of the day pacing the house, kitchen to living room and back again, living room to hall to bedroom, circles around the couch.

Then he went outside and paced the porch.

There was really only one solution, as far as Arthur could figure.

“What do you want?” he asks, when Eames shows up.

Eames looks at him, barely out of his truck, and he sort of pauses and stands there, looking at Arthur, who is looking back at him.

“Didn’t you want me to come over and practice?”

“No,” Arthur says. “I mean, yes. But what do you want?”

“From what?”

Arthur waves his hand.

“Me. This. Flirting or whatever.”

“I think you know,” Eames says, and his eyes sweep over Arthur briefly, and Arthur starts.

“No,” Arthur says. “No.”

Because Eames--can’t have that. It’s not that Arthur’s a prude, exactly, it’s just that he’d tried to play this game on Eames’ terms and failed, and he had thought--he didn’t know what he thought. He thought maybe he had misread the entire thing.

“What?” Eames says, and he sounds startled, and his face sort of melts, like a bank in a mudslide.

“It’s just--I thought I gave you what you wanted,” Arthur says, and this is why he doesn’t talk about this shit, because it makes him feel young and silly, and he’s supposed to be stoic and not this way at all.

“So I wanted to make out with you once? And saw double buck? Arthur--what?” Eames is staring at Arthur now, maybe angry, his words too fast.

“No--” Arthur said. “But I can’t do this, okay Eames?”

“What exactly are we doing, Arthur? Enlighten me, because I don’t know.” And Eames is angry, now, Arthur can tell.”

“I’m not going to sleep with you, okay Eames?” Arthur says. “I can’t just--I don’t even know you.”

“That’s rich,” Eames says. “That’s lovely. Coming from someone as frigid as you.”

“At least I’m not throwing myself around like some floozy,” Arthur hisses back after a moment. Because, excluding the kiss on the picnic table, when Arthur was maybe drunk or maybe not, he certainly hasn’t been throwing himself around.

“Yeah,” Eames says. “Sure, Arthur. But perhaps if you paid attention, you’d notice that I’m only throwing myself at you.”

“But I--”

“No, I see how it is, Arthur,” Eames says. “This has been a real enlightening chat.”

Arthur stares at him, the lines of his face and the shape of his lips, lips Arthur has kissed three times precisely.

It’s possible, he thinks, that he has misread their entire bipolar courtship, that it might be a courtship after all and not a terribly ill-fated seduction.

He was the one who told Eames not to fuck things up, that night on the picnic table when they’d done nothing but kissed, and Eames hadn’t pushed for anything more. And now Arthur may have been the one to go and fuck things up, asking questions before their answers arose naturally, demanding solutions without trying to understand the context--without trying to understand Eames.

There are so many things Arthur should say right now.

He doesn’t say any of them.

“Can we still saw double buck?” he says, instead.

“Yeah,” Eames says, and his face is unreadable. “Alright.”

Things change, after that.

By which Arthur means, things stop. Eames stops making eye contact with him, and touching him, and talking to him except when absolutely necessary. Eames stops looking at him, and Eames stops walking around with his arms exposed, or his back, and Eames just stops, like he isn’t even Eames anymore, like he’s someone else.

One thing that does start is the dune buggy Arthur keeps in the garage, which is some kind of miracle, and also Ariadne starts lecturing him about being a heartless bitch. She actually calls him that, “heartless bitch.”

The dunebuggy is nice, though, except for all the shit going on in the rest of Arthur’s life.

He and Eames can’t hit their rhythm with double buck, either, which Ariadne says is symbolic and Arthur says is--Arthur just wants to punch her in the face. Arthur’s face punching urges have increased exponentially. Because everyone is hateful.

The solution is obvious, despite all the things Ariadne has to say about Arthur’s stupidity the solution is still obvious, which means it must be extremely so.

“You slept with Nash didn’t you?” Ariadne hisses at him over breakfast.

Which is true. Arthur did sleep with Nash, and it was a terrible idea.

“That’s why just going around falling into bed with people is a terrible idea,” Arthur says. “You saw how much I hurt Nash.”

“Oh my god,” Ariadne says. “Why do I even talk to you? Why does anyone? You are such a dumbass.”

Arthur considers just going along with that, because he knows he’s a dumbass, but he still wants to save face for some reason he can’t explain.

He pushes his biscuits around in their gravy with his fork.

He is talking to Ariadne, he reminds himself.

“I ballsed it up, didn’t I,” he says.

Ariadne beams at him.

“Of course you did,” she says. “Now let’s fix it before your double fuck goes all to shit.”

“Don’t call it that,” Arthur mutters, but he finds he doesn’t really have it in him to complain.

8.

There’s a competition coming up, giving Arthur and Eames a chance to qualify for the Lumberjack World Championships if their time is fast enough. The meet itself is small potatoes, but Arthur and Eames are both bound for the world championships in their individual divisions, so if they can get in for double buck as well it would simply be--better.

That’s the only explanation Arthur can think to for why he’s suddenly so invested in double buck.

When Arthur tells Ariadne that, she gives him a look.

“I can’t believe how much you lie to yourself,” she says.

It’s shit, it what it is. The whole thing.

Arthur goes out to the river for a swim. The river is ice cold and rock-bottomed, and Arthur shucks off everything and dives in, swimming upstream and floating down and trying to rub off his skin, and his fear, and everything.

Fear.

Eames told Arthur he thought he was afraid of something, and of course Arthur is afraid of something, of course he is.

Fuck Eames, Arthur thinks.

Arthur rather wanted to fuck Eames. And he is overthinking it and waiting for things to be broken, expectantly, the way people watch children in antique stores.

So Arthur just avoided bringing his children to antique stores, only then he got drunk and brought them to the door, and then he got sober and took them out of town entirely.

His analogy, he realizes, is going all to shit, so he swims some more.

When he gets back to his house Eames is there, and Arthur is wet and shirtless, and fuck it all if they weren’t supposed to practice today.

“Hello, Eames,” Arthur says.

“You’re late,” Eames says, trailing after Arthur as he goes to find a towel and a shirt.

“Yeah?” Arthur says, and he pulls a towel off the bathroom door and rubs his hair into a moderately dry mess.

“Yeah,” Eames says, sounding annoyed, but he’s watching, Arthur knows he is.

“I had some things to think about,” Arthur says. “You know our double buck is shit, right?”

“God,” Eames says, staring at him now. “You really are--”

“We don’t work together very well,” Arthur continues.

“Are you breaking up with me?” Eames asks, sounding outraged. “Because I can assure you, it’s not me, it’s you.”

It occurs to Arthur, as Eames is leaving, that he may be as terrible at apologies as he is at analogies and understanding people.

“What the hell did you do to Eames, Arthur?” Cobb asks when he calls.

“We really are intrigued,” Mal offers from the other phone.

“Shut up,” Arthur says, and hangs up on them both.

Ariadne calls next.

“I can’t believe you made this even worse,” Ariadne says. “You’re such a dumb fuck, Arthur.”

“I am not,” Arthur mutters, and hangs up on her as well.

When Yusuf calls an hour later, Arthur decides to cut this at the quick.

“Are you calling to tell me what a terrible person I am?” he asks. “Because if so, I already know.”

“No,” Yusuf says. “I’m having a sale next week. But if you are kind of the worst person--”

Arthur hangs up.

Yusuf calls back.

“You know we like you anyway, right?” he tells the answering machine.

Arthur puts his head in the freezer and wonders why he doesn’t keep ice cream on hand.

He leaves his head in the freezer until he gets a headache and wonders how much electricity he’s wasting.

He calls Eames.

“Eames,” he says to Eames’ voicemail. “I think there was a misunderstanding.”

He drinks a beer and tries again.

“Ariadne says I’m a dumb fuck,” he says on the second message.

He finds a pack of warm wine coolers in the garage, and drinks one before leaving a third message.

“Sorry.”

He drinks the another wine cooler.

“I’m drinking fucking wine cooler to leave you these messages, and it’s old and I found it in the garage and it probably came from the person who owned the house before me and I hate it.”

The third wine cooler is, “Sorry I was afraid.”

And the fourth wine cooler, “I was trying to proposition you, you dumbass.”

Somewhere in there Arthur passes out on the porch.

He wakes up in the middle of the night beset by mosquitoes, and pukes in the yard, and goes inside and sleeps on the couch.

In the morning, Eames is sitting in his armchair.

“What the fuck?” Arthur says, starting.

“I don’t think you’re in any place to be asking questions, darling,” Eames says, and he looks lazy and smug, and Arthur has a headache. “But the door was unlocked.”

“I think the juice part of those wine coolers was fermented,” Arthur says.

“That’s not exactly what I wanted to talk about,” Eames says, but there’s a smile playing at his lips.

“Let me eat breakfast,” Arthur says. “I think--this would be better if I were sober.”

“Are you sure?” Eames replies. “Because it seems to me when you’re sober, you’re frigid.”

“Shut up,” Arthur says, rolling from the couch to the floor and landing with a thud. He stands up.

“You want me to be sober,” he continues, jabbing a finger towards Eames. “This is going to be shit, and I’m going to be sober, and you’re going to listen.”

“What?” Eames says, and Arthur glares at him and goes to brush his teeth.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” he says. “Don’t follow me.”

“If you climb out the window--”

“My bathroom doesn’t have a window, so shut up.”

When Arthur’s washing his face, he considers climbing out the bathroom’s nonexistent window.

He doesn’t. He goes to the kitchen, where Eames is already making coffee, and takes out a box eggs.

“How do you like your eggs?” he asks, and Eames stares at him.

“You--”

“How do you like your eggs?” he repeats.

Eames just keeps looking at him, so Arthur just does scrambled for the both of them.

They don’t talk until the eggs and the bacon are done, and Arthur has had three cups of coffee.

“So,” Arthur says slowly, and he can feel Eames’ eyes on him.

“Yes?” Eames says, and Arthur frowns at him.

“I may have misinterpreted some things,” Arthur says. “And because of that--I may have said the wrong things.”

“You think?” Eames mutters, and Arthur glares.

“Are you trying to make this hard on me?” he asks.

“You kind of deserve it,” Eames replies.

“I--” Arthur stares at Eames, and then he stands up, and walks to the other side the table, and puts his hands on Eames’ shoulders.

“I think I can make it up to you,” he says, and then he kisses Eames, properly, for the first time.

Eames tastes like applewood smoked bacon. It’s pretty much the best.

But it’s more than that; it’s Eames’ tongue in Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur falling into Eames’ lap and straddling him on the kitchen chair, and the two of them rutting together clumsily, and then in the rhythm they could never get right for double buck. It’s tipping the chair back into the wall, so their chests are pressed together and Arthur can feel Eames’ nipples pebbling against him, and Arthur’s toes dragging on the tile floor. It’s peeling off t-shirts and tracing Eames’ freckles with his tongue.

“God, Arthur,” Eames shudders, and then he’s biting Arthur’s shoulder, and licking his way up Arthur’s neck, and sucking on his collarbone like it’s the sweetest thing.

“What do you say?” Arthur whispers. “Properly, this time?”

And then he licks Eames’ ear, and Eames whimpers, which Arthur takes for a yes.

Somewhere in there Arthur ends up with his knees on the cool tile and his lips around Eames’ cock, and decides maybe he’s not so bad at apologies, after all.

Though now he needs to disinfect the chair, where Eames is sitting on his bare ass with ruffled hair and bruised lips, looking smug and sated and lazy.

“So,” Arthur says, pulling on his shirt. “Double buck?”

Eames stares him.

“Is this what it’s going to be like, now?” he asks. “How old are you? Do you not get tired?”

Arthur shrugs, and then Eames gets up and grabs him by the hips, and sits him down in the the chair where Eames had been bare assed a moment before, and they do the whole thing over again but this time Eames is the one on his knees, and Arthur’s the one wondering how old they are, and if this is what it’s going to be like, and how Eames exists in real life with a mouth like that, and a tongue so uniquely skilled.

“So,” Arthur says again, only his voice isn’t as smooth as he’d like it to be, it’s hoarse and breathy, and Eames is smirking up at him from the floor, all Eames, and Arthur doesn’t really know what else to say.

And then by some sort of unspoken agreement, they both go take a shower and then a nap, sprawled out on Arthur’s still made bed, on top of the quilt his mother made for him.

When Arthur wakes up Eames is tracing his back piece with a fingertip, from the roots on his ass up the back of his spine. Arthur rolls over.

“We’re going to saw now,” he says.

“Yeah?” Eames asks, and Arthur throws a pillow at him.

“Because what I was just doing, I could do that with my tongue,” Eames continues.

Arthur makes a noise in the back of his throat he’s ashamed of, and glares at Eames.

“You’re incorrigible,” he says, but it comes out worryingly fond, and Arthur isn’t sure if he’s that easily swayed by kissing and blowjobs or if now he has all sorts of suppressed positive feelings for Eames that are coming out to play.

He goes to his dresser, and pulls on clean clothes while Eames watches.

“Are we really going to do this?” Eames asks, and Arthur twists to look at him.

“What?” Arthur had thought the whole thing was fairly obvious, really.

This,” Eames repeats.

“Saw double buck? Sleep together?” Arthur asks.

“Both,” Eames says, after a pause.

“Sure,” Arthur says, and he thinks Eames looks maybe disappointed, just for a moment. Like he expected some sort of declaration of love, but Arthur just puts on his shirt and goes out into the kitchen to get Eames’ clothes, tosses them into the bedroom. Only then Eames comes out wearing a t-shirt that’s too tight and definitely Arthur’s, because it’s from the local badassathon, which is a race that involves mountain bikes and bb gun target shooting, and Arthur wins with some frequency. Eames just smirks at Arthur like he’s making a point Arthur doesn’t understand.

It occurs to Arthur that maybe this hasn’t resolved things, just escalated them.

They go outside, and practice sawing, and while their issues haven’t magically resolved the way Arthur had rather hoped they would, the block has been loosened, and they manage to talk through their problems like they hadn’t been able to before, so by the time evening rolls around they’re well on their way to sawing the qualifying time.

“Want me to stay the night?” Eames asks when they go inside for beer.

“I don’t have an extra toothbrush,” Arthur says, then goes in for a kiss to demonstrate that the toothbrush thing is true, he’s not just being an ass.

“Arthur,” Eames says, and it’s somewhere between fond and exasperated, which--Eames could just go home or to the gas station and buy a toothbrush, if he liked.

Eames ends up going home, to sleep and not just to get his toothbrush, and Arthur curls up under his mother’s quilt and wonders why Eames couldn’t just have gotten a toothbrush somewhere, and then Arthur could’ve made him french toast in the morning, and they could’ve kissed bacon and maple syrup.

9.

Eames does bring a toothbrush over, eventually, and then his clothes appear in a heap in the corner of Arthur’s room, because he keeps stealing clothes from Arthur that don’t fit him, so Arthur washes them and folds them up in the bottom drawer of the dresser where Arthur usually keeps winter clothes, which he moves to the closet.

“It’s not a thing,” Arthur tells Ariadne, and she looks somewhere between skeptical, exasperated, and smug, which makes Arthur wonder how one person’s face can possibly hold so many expressions.

“Would you let Eames sleep with anyone else?” Ariadne asks, and Arthur stares at her.

“Is he?” he says, and if his voice is a little high and strained--it isn’t.

Ariadne just raises an eyebrow, and Arthur will maybe, maybe, give her this round.

“You were the one who called him a floozy,” she says, and Arthur isn’t sure how his private conversations have gotten tossed all over the place--well, he does now how, because his friends are the worst kind of gossips, but that’s besides the point.

“It’s not like it was with Nash,” Arthur says, and that’s as far as he’s willing to go. He changes the subject without subtlety, and for some reason Ariadne lets him, and talks about her new chainsaw instead.

Actually she probably lets him because, for once, Arthur is willing to listen to Ariadne talk about chainsaws without pulling faces, because at least she’s not telling him he’s being an ass about Eames.

Arthur just doesn’t like things to move too quickly. And he doesn’t see why he and Eames need to start going on dates or whatever, when they eat breakfast together every morning.

They qualify for the world championships at their next competition, and when they’re done sawing Arthur looks at Eames, who is wearing one of Arthur’s shirts and has soaked it through with sweat, and there is a hickey on his neck and Arthur did that, which maybe explains why Arthur catches him by the wrist and pulls him off into the woods, and they’re probably going to to miss the awards ceremony but awards can wait, can’t they?

It doesn’t entirely explain how Arthur ends up with his back against a pine and his legs around Eames’ waist, and the bark is rough and he’s probably getting resin all over his shirt, but Eames’ hands are cupping his ass and Arthur doesn’t have it in him to care.

Everyone looks smug when they get back, which is to say Ariadne and Cobb and Mal look smug, and Phillipa asks Eames if he’s wearing lipstick, because his lips are red, and Eames says that Uncle Arthur gave it to him, which--

Phillipa tells Arthur he’s blushing, and Arthur can feel it, rising in his cheeks.

“You also have resin on your back,” Ariadne notes.

“I guess you owe me, for making you saw double buck,” Cobb says.

“Yes,” Eames says, at the same time as Arthur says, “No.”

“I was thinking a threesome would be appropriate payment,” Eames continues, and Cobb sputters slightly and then ignores them.

“You guys won, by the way,” Ariadne says. “I had to go up and accept for you.”

“Nash wanted to know where you were,” Mal says, looking at Arthur, and Eames slips his hand into Arthur’s back pocket like Arthur’s ass belongs to him.

“He left already,” Mal continues. “But he’ll be at the championships.”

“Asshole,” Eames says, for no apparent reason.

Arthur just shrugs, because he has nothing to contribute to this.

“Okay,” he says. Nash is really the least of his concerns, at the championships, and the whole thing is not any of Eames’ business, because Nash is really the least of Arthur’s concerns, in life.

10.

The championships come up faster than they should, really. Thinking about it makes Arthur inordinately flustered, because it’s not like he hasn’t been before--but there’s double buck. And there’s Eames, who is apparently living in his house.

“I still think you owe me one,” Cobb says after Eames hands the phone off to Arthur one morning. “For getting you a boyfriend and all.”

“What?” Arthur asks, and Cobb makes a sound that translates roughly to disapproval.

“The man,” Cobb says. “You’re living with. Do you want me to get Mal to explain it?”

“Oh,” Arthur says, looking across the kitchen to where Eames is poking the coffee maker with a screwdriver. “I think he broke my coffee maker, so maybe you owe me.”

Cobb makes another sound of disapproval.

“If you keep acting like this, I’m going to register you for a chainsaw competition somewhere and get Nash to goad you into going.”

Arthur wishes everyone would shut up about Nash, because it’s not a thing, it was never a thing.

He hangs up on Cobb and throws a balled up napkin at Eames’ head.

“What’d Cobb want?” Eames asks, looking up from the coffee maker.

“Gossip,” Arthur replies.

“That reminds me, Ariadne’s coming over tonight to watch a movie.”

“Which movie?”

“Didn’t say,” Eames says, returning his attention to the coffee maker, and Arthur groans.

“No, you have to ask her which movie, otherwise she’ll bring porn.”

Eames continues to investigate the coffee maker, which means Arthur needs to call Ariadne, now, and is it really too much to ask for everyone to be normal, and okay, and just do their lumberjack shit? It apparently is, because there’s Eames breaking the coffee maker and not policing Ariadne’s movie selection, and Cobb calling just to be an ass, and Mal was probably goading him on, and Yusuf may not be doing anything particularly bothersome right now, but he will. And everyone’s bringing up Nash all the fucking time, like Nash was a thing when Nash wasn’t a thing.

Sometimes it’s like Arthur’s the only sane person he knows, and maybe there’s a colony of sane people some place else that failed to invite him.

“Which movie?” he asks, as soon as Ariadne picks up. Which is on the sixth ring, because she refuses to buy an answering machine.

“Damnit,” she says. “We can just watch something you have, then.”

“Go to the rental store,” Arthur mutters, because he’s sick of all his movies.

“Do you not pay attention to anything?” Ariadne says. “They went out of business two weeks ago. About time, too. Netflix and shit.”

Arthur prides himself on his observational skills, so he’s not sure what he’s been doing that caused him to miss this, especially because if the video store closed there was probably a sale, and a sale would be nice, about now.

Eames is doing something slightly vulgar to a spoon for no reason Arthur can discern, which might explain the situation slightly. Arthur wads up another napkin and throws it at his head, which earns him a scowl but at least gets Eames’ mouth to stop violating the damn spoon.

“Don’t you have Netflix?” Arthur asks, and Ariadne snorts into the phone.

“You don’t want to watch the one I’ve got right now,” she tells him. Which, really.

“Right,” he says. “I’ll see if Eames has anything.”

Eames looks up at the sound of his name, and arches and eyebrow, and Arthur covers the receiver.

“Movies? Do you have any movies?”

“My DVDs are all zone 2,” Eames replies, so Arthur tells Ariadne they’ll watch the fucking “Matrix” even though he’s already seen it a couple dozen times.

“Like leather, do you?” Eames asks when Arthur hangs up, and Arthur frowns at him.

“No,” he says. “I just don’t have very many movies.”

“We should fix that,” Eames says, and that reminds Arthur that yes, they do seem to be living together, and maybe this is something that warrants discussion, like maybe he should give Eames a key instead of just leaving the house unlocked all the time.

But maybe they’re just living together so they can practice double buck, and this conversation can wait until after the championships.

Arthur’s theory about practicing double buck is proved slightly wrong when he suggests doing that and ends up naked on the kitchen table instead, but he’s not in any position to complain. By the time Ariadne shows up they’re both mostly clothed, but she looks between the two of them and shakes her head.

“I don’t know how you two went so long without fucking,” she says.

“I don’t, either,” Eames says, throwing an arm around Arthur’s shoulders, and Arthur just scowls and pokes Eames in the side.

11.

They’re driving to the world championships, because everyone is cheap as hell. And because Arthur is encompassed in ‘everyone’ it’s not like he can even complain when he ends up in the middle of Ariadne’s truck’s ridiculous bench seat again (which doesn’t even make sense, because Ariadne is the shortest, but of course she’s driving because she’s a freak about her truck, which means the bench is pulled up ridiculously far and Arthur’s knees are up against the dash), with one of Eames’ arms flung across his shoulders and Eames warm body pressed fully against his side. And if Arthur falls asleep and drools on Eames’ shoulder, and Ariadne takes a picture with her phone and texts it to Mal and Cobb in the other car, fuck them all. Especially Eames, for permitting it.

“Fuck you,” Arthur mutters to Eames when he finds out, and Eames just smirks at him and says, “Please.”

That’s pretty much the trip summed up.

“I can drive,” Arthur offers when they’re somewhere in some shit state outside some shit McDonald’s.

“No,” Ariadne says.

“Why are you such a freak about your truck?” Arthur asks, and she just looks at him.

“Because you let other people drive your truck all the time,” she replies. They’re sitting on the curb with their legs stretched out in front of them, and eventually Eames comes out with a paper bag and a cardboard carrier full of milkshakes, and Arthur would probably rather have a Frosty but he’ll take what he can.

Eames sucking a doublethick milkshake through a straw is positively pornographic, and Arthur wants to cover Ariadne’s eyes and also keep Eames far away from the play place, but otherwise their meal passes uneventfully, watching heat rise off the pavement in waves.

“You guys ready for this?” Ariadne asks, and Arthur shrugs.

“We’ve been practicing,” he replies, and both Ariadne and Eames sort of snort.

“If by ‘practicing’ you mean ’fucking’,” Eames says, poking him in the ribs. “Then, yes, we’ve practiced every day.”

A middle aged woman walks past and looks at them disparagingly, like they’re ruining McDonald’s normal wholesomeness.

“Shut up,” Arthur mumbles into his apple pie. Ariadne is laughing at him. Cobb and Mal are inside trying to keep Phillipa from burying James in the ball pit, and so they’re no help at all.

They stay at a motel that night, and Arthur wants to fuck Eames into the unsanitary bedspread, but they’re sharing a room with Ariadne so it doesn’t really work out like that.

Even though Ariadne would probably be okay with it, because she’s kind of a perv. You wouldn’t think so, by looking at her, but if the number of pictures of Arthur and Eames spooning that are on her phone the next morning are anything to go by--

“Yusuf had to see,” she says, like that’s any sort of explanation.

Arthur deletes them all, and sends Ariadne to Cobb and Mal’s room to help with the children.

When Eames comes out of the shower toweling his hair, Arthur pushes him back in.

“You know,” Ariadne says when they’re all back in her truck. “We could hear you through the wall. Also, you missed the continental breakfast, but it was just a bag of bagels on top of a toaster oven.”

Arthur sputters.

They do, eventually, make it to Hayward, and no one dies despite the three saws in the back of the truck, which stands as a testament to Arthur’s self control and ability to withstand vast quantities of shame.

Cobb made camping reservations forever ago, and Arthur and Eames have brought Arthur’s tent to share and kicked Ariadne off into her own, which offers the illusion of privacy.

It’s nice, Arthur thinks, as he curls into Eames’ side on top of their sleeping bags. Eames is stroking his back, and his hand is calloused and warm, and it makes up for Ariadne’s shit and Cobb being a smug bastard.

“Ready for tomorrow?” Arthur murmurs, because in the morning both of them will be competing in the quarterfinals for their single events.

“Good luck kiss?” Eames asks, and that--that’s something Arthur can provide.

They drive to the competition grounds in the morning, and there are groups of people there already, clustered around the competitors in the dusty parking lot. There are amateur competitions to watch, and Phillipa’s in the logrolling bit, and she does pretty well for a kid whose limbs are growing too fast for her coordination to keep up. The big events are in the evening, though, and they wander around until then, until Eames has hot saw and Arthur has single buck.

Nash is there, of course, looking the way Nash usually does, skulking around during the quarter finals like watching everyone else saw will somehow make him better. Arthur’s not worried about him so much as he’s concerned about the guy from New Zealand who has a nigh incomprehensible accent but whose saw eats wood like a beaver.

Only then Nash is there, next to Eames, when Arthur’s sawing.

He shuts it out. His saw slides through the wood, and he falls into rhythm with it, his legs lunging forward and then pulling back, because this is something he’s able to do, and he’s not sure if the thing with Nash and Eames is something he’ll be able to deal with.

Then it’s over, the head of the log falling away, and someone is telling Arthur his time, and it doesn’t matter quite as much as Eames, and Nash, standing too close together and Nash is whispering.

What the fuck?” Arthur says, grasping Eames by the shoulder and pulling him away, glaring at Nash.

“I was just talking to your friend,” Nash says, and then he’s slipping away like a fish.

Arthur looks at Eames, who is looking at him.

“Good job on hot saw,” Arthur says.

“Yeah,” says Eames, who is still looking at Arthur with this indecipherable expression on his face. He catches Arthur by the elbow, then, and they make their way through the crowds and back to the parking lot, and they’re supposed to see how Ariadne does on the logrolling, and they’re probably going to miss it now, but--fucking Nash, really.

When they get to Ariadne’s truck, Eames pushes Arthur up against the door, arms on either side of his shoulders, and says, “What was up with you and Nash?”

“I slept with him,” Arthur says. “You know that.”

“And then he freaked out on the podium during some po-dunk competition where he took second and you took first.”

“Yes,” Arthur says, and shifts his left shoulder upwards slightly. “That’s all.”

“That’s all?” Eames says, and his face is very close, and Arthur doesn’t understand what’s going on.

“Yeah.”

“Because Nash thought it was more.”

“Well isn’t that the point?” Arthur says. “Nash is a fucking dumbass.”

“Do you not get what’s going on here?” Eames says, and his voice is slowly increasing in volume, and his hands are on Arthur’s shoulders and they’re pressing, and the truck’s door handle is hard on Arthur’s back.

Eames is angry about something Arthur doesn’t understand, and Arthur can see it in his face, and he hopes Eames can see the same thing in Arthur’s.

“Arthur,” Eames says. “I’m not going to be your next fucking Nash.”

And then he leaves, and there isn’t time for the part where Eames can’t be the next fucking Nash, because there was Avery in between, or the part where Arthur figures out what he’s supposed to say this time to make Eames come back. There are things Eames should be able to figure out, Arthur thinks, and there are truths spoken in eating breakfast together, and sleeping together, and Eames wearing Arthur’s shirts and Eames’ own shirts in the bottom drawer of Arthur’s dresser.

Nash didn’t have any of that. And Arthur doesn’t understand why Eames can’t see that, and he’s not sure what Eames expects him to do about this.

Because Arthur is a fucking lumberjack, and these are the world championships, and he’s not going to carve little E + A hearts into trees or anything.

Arthur goes to Ariadne’s competition, and she isn’t up yet, and Eames is there with Cobb and Mal, and Arthur wonders how Eames managed to turn his whole fucking club against him. He wants to go over and say as much, but instead he stays where he is and watches Ariadne’s tiny feet maneuver the log, and when her opponent falls he claps with the others. But his hands are clapping, and he’s just standing there, trying to work this out.

Fuck Eames, Arthur thinks. If Eames can’t figure this out--just fuck him. If he wanted someone prone to bold declarations, maybe he should’ve slept with Nash himself.

The thing is, they’re still sharing a tent, and Arthur’s used to sleeping with Eames touching him, and it feels weird to roll over so their backs are together rather than their fronts, and to go to sleep with nothing to touch.

Eames had to understand Arthur, to some degree, when this started. He had to know that Arthur was serious when Arthur got down on his knees on the kitchen tile and sucked him off. Arthur doesn’t know what else Eames wants.

By the time he falls asleep, Arthur has to admit that this situation probably calls for Ariadne.

He wakes up spooning Eames, anyway. Eames just sort of rolls over and looks at him, and then says he’s going for a walk and leaves.

Arthur goes to find Ariadne.

“What does Eames want?” he asks when he finds her. She’s going for All-Around Lady Jill, somewhat improbably, so she’s practicing single buck.

“Your form’s bad,” he tells her, and she shrugs.

“Made it to semifinals, didn’t I?”

Which is a point in her favor, maybe. She sits down on the end of the log, leaning forward and putting her head on her arms, and looks at Arthur.

“You know what Eames wants, you dumbass,” she says fondly. “You just don’t want to give it to him.”

Arthur waits.

“He just wants you to ask him to out on a date, or to move in with you, or to be partners, or anything, really,” she continues after a moment. “He just wants to know he’s more than just someone to fuck occasionally.”

“He lives with me,” Arthur says, and Ariadne looks at him.

“Does he know that, though?” she asks. “Or does he think he might need to move back at any moment? What’s his mailing address?”

Arthur scowls.

“Do you want me to fix your form or what?”

She doesn’t respond either way, but she lets him show her how to stand, take her arms and adjust her posture and tell her she’s doing it wrong, and here’s the way it should be done.

They have the semifinals that night. Everyone has advanced, including Nash, and hot saw is the first event up.

Eames flubs it. Arthur isn’t even sure how it happens--some sort of saw malfunction, maybe, because the saw doesn’t start and everything after that is off, radically. Arthur didn’t realize how closely he’d been watching hot saw until he sees how far gone Eames is on this, and he probably isn’t going to make the finals, and Arthur can see it on Eames’ face and all over his body when it happens.

Cobb and Mal and Ariadne are looking at Arthur, like there’s something he can do to fix this, which is so far from the truth. He just sort of stands there when Eames rejoins them, feeling stiff and strange in his body while the rest of them hug, and when Eames turns to Arthur Arthur shakes his hand, like that’s something, like that’s anything at all.

It isn’t. Even Arthur knows that, and the squares of Eames fingertips chafe against the back of his hand, and Arthur wants to be someplace else.

Instead he watches Mal do underhand, and Ariadne do the boom run and single buck, and barely manages to clap in the appropriate places.

Ariadne’s form looks better, on the single buck, anyway.

Men’s single buck falls immediately after intermission, and it’s only moments before that Arthur comes up with the sort of stupid gesture that will satisfy Eames.

He throws the competition. It’s easy enough to do--he just saws slow, gives it less than his whole. Nash beats him, but the guy from New Zealand will beat Nash for sure, so it doesn’t phase Arthur much.

Eames catches him when he comes off, and drags him to the parking lot again.

“We really have to stop meeting like this,” Arthur says, because all told he feels pretty good about things, now, like maybe he’s made his point.

“What the fuck was that?” Eames asks, and he’s glaring, which is not how this was supposed to go.

They were supposed to have sex in the bed of Ariadne’s pick-up until both of them had ridges pressed into their backs.

“Why’d you throw that?” Eames asks. “Why the fuck did you throw that?”

Arthur doesn’t know what to say, because “for you” is corny as hell, saccharine and ridiculous.

He tries to kiss Eames instead, but Eames pushes him off.

“Explain it to me,” Eames says. “Use your words.”

“Use my words?” Arthur spits.

“Explain it!” Eames shouts, and then they’re both looking at each other, breathing hard, and there are people in the parking lot, looking at them and then pretending not to.

“I was--the fuck--Eames,” Arthur mutters, and Eames just looks at him impassively.

“Arthur,” Eames says, quieter now.

“If I threw single buck,” Arthur starts. “If I threw single buck, then double buck is all I’d have.”

“We aren’t going to win double buck,” Eames says, and Arthur stares at him, because everyone says Arthur is the dense one.

“That’s the point,” Arthur mumbles, and he’s ashamed that he can’t speak more clearly, but this is too much.

“What’s the point?” Eames asks, because he is such a dumbass.

“You. I just need you, and double buck is ours, and we don’t need to win, it’s just--. Then double buck is the whole thing, for both of us.”

Eames looks like a sunrise, like maybe he gets it, like maybe Arthur’s done right after all.

“God, Arthur,” he says. “That wasn’t--”

“Yeah,” Arthur replies. “I know.”

And Arthur thinks it might be okay to kiss now, and when he tries the answer is yes, the answer is slow and gentle and soft and not quite like it had been before. It’s waking up together in bed and being exactly where they want to be. Arthur sucks on Eames’ lower lip until he moans, and Eames presses Arthur back against the truck so Arthur’s head bangs across the glass window, and that’s alright.

Somewhere after Eames’ hand makes its way up Arthur’s shirt but before Arthur’s shirt makes its way over Arthur’s head, they pull apart.

“We should maybe go watch,” Eames mutters.

“Yeah,” Arthur says, and they stand together for a moment, foreheads pressed together, and then Arthur catches Eames’ hand is his and they go back to the stands.

Cobb forgives them for missing underhand, and Ariadne just rolls her eyes when they apologize for skipping logrolling.

“It was pretty much the same as yesterday, anyway,” she says. “But unlike you losers--”

“You advanced?” Arthur asks, and she beams and nods. Ariadne will be in the finals for boom roll and logrolling, though not single buck, and Cobb and Mal will both be competing in underhand.

“We’re going to celebrate, if you two can handle that,” Cobb says, and although celebration almost certainly means Cobb buying endless rounds at the nearest bar, Arthur catches Eames’ hand.

“We might celebrate somewhere else, if that’s alright,” he says. “Can we borrow your truck, Ariadne?”

Cobb looks slightly sick, but Ariadne tosses Arthur the keys to her truck for once in her life.

“I don’t imagine you’ll be driving far,” she says, smirking. “Clean up after yourselves.”

Arthur has been thinking about truck bed sex practically since the county fair, and he has a feeling it’s a terrible idea and going to be uncomfortable, but he finds a logging road in the woods and drives them down it anyway, and pulls off to the side, and then he climbs into the bed of the truck and offers Eames a hand.

“You really know how to turn up the romance,” Eames says as Arthur pulls him up into the bed, and Arthur spreads out Ariadne’s disgusting truck blanket and jumps him, just to make him shut up.

After that it’s not entirely clear, but somewhere in there Eames makes good on his promise to lick Arthur’s tattoo from root to tip, and Arthur doesn’t even notice the mosquitoes because it’s too sweet, everything they did before but better, more, and when they’re done Eames wraps his arms around Arthur and they look up at the trees branching above them, spreading and spreading and spreading again, verdant and alive.

“So does this mean I live with you now?” Eames asks, and they’re such a tangle of limbs Arthur isn’t even sure where each of them end, isn’t sure why this is a question.

“Yes,” Arthur replies, and he manages to resist the urge to qualify it. “You do.”

“Okay,” Eames says. “I can work with that.”

They get back to the campground eventually, and there are raised eyebrows all around, but Arthur knows that no one expected anything less.

Arthur and Eames switch shirts for the competition the next day, and stripping in the parking lot to swap is probably one of the most stupidly sentimental things Arthur has ever done. When they get to the competition Ariadne looks between the two of them with a smirk.

“Whose idea was that?” she asks.

It was Arthur’s, but they don’t tell. Arthur just likes watching the taut lines of his shirt across Eames’ shoulders, and he knows Eames likes the way the collar of his shirt pools around Arthur’s clavicle, and why not, really? They’re partners, now, properly partners at last.

So sawing double buck with Eames--is like sawing double buck with Eames. They’re at the world championships, but it turns out that doesn’t actually make a difference. In the end, it’s about the relationship between two people and the rhythm of their bodies and the saw, it’s about twenty inches of white pine, it’s about the pull of Eames on the other end of the metal strip that separates them.

It ends quickly enough, and when the slice of pine falls away, Eames wraps his arms around Arthur’s waist and lifts him off the ground. But that’s not really the end, not at all, which is maybe why those details thin to nothing in Arthur’s memory, because they’re just the culmination of one summer and the beginning of everything else, so many more summers, so many more moments at either end of a saw.

They take second. When the awards are being presented, Eames waves at the Master’s double buck competitors and says, “When we’re fifty, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Arthur says.

epilogue

That winter Arthur and Eames invite everyone over for a white elephant gift exchange, because Eames says couples should host shit, which must be some British thing Arthur’s never heard of, because Cobb and Mal never host anything. Then Eames sends Arthur outside to chop firewood, because he says it makes Arthur more presentable.

Arthur is pretty sure by “presentable” Eames means “pink-cheeked” but if he calls Eames on that Eames will stop wearing plaid, even though he knows Arthur has a kink the size of Alaska for flannel shirts and would probably withhold sex in such an event.

They get on well, really.

Arthur brings the wood in and piles it next to the wood stove, and Eames is making venison stew and putting the smoked turkey from Ariadne’s roadkill out with crackers, like smoked turkey with crackers is something people eat. When Arthur goes to take a piece, Eames slaps his hand.

“I smoked that turkey,” Arthur says, looking at it.

“It’s for the guests,” Eames says, and Arthur hides a snort.

“You’re just being an ass,” he says, and reaches around Eames to a snag a piece. Eames catches him by the hips, and Arthur ducks and looks up through his lashes, which makes Eames scowl.

“Now who’s the ass?” he asks. “Take the turkey, just don’t try to seduce me when our guests are going to arrive any minute.”

“Our guests,” Arthur says. “Are Ariadne, and Cobb and Mal, and Yusuf. I seriously doubt--”

“Mal and Cobb are bringing children,” Eames hisses, and peers in the oven to check on the bread.

Arthur slaps Eames on the ass and leaves the kitchen, then goes to the wood stove and pokes the fire with a poker.

Ariadne arrives first, unwinding a bulky scarf from her neck and carrying what looks like a burnt pie.

“I can’t cook,” she says cheerily, handing Arthur the pie and running back out the door. “So I bought some Danishes at the gas station.”

She reappears with an Entemann’s box and a carton of ice cream, then rifles through their cabinets until she finds a platter to put the Danishes on.

“You’ll make someone a wonderful housewife some day,” Eames says dryly, and Ariadne twists to look at him.

“You’re wearing an apron,” she says. “So shut up.”

“And you’re so charming,” he continues.

“You can eat my pie, if you want,” she offers. “I did bring it.”

“Arthur,” Eames says. “I’m your boyfriend.”

“And I was all-around Lady Jill this year.”

“You’re both wonderful people,” Arthur says, looking between the two of them, and he wonders why he even agreed to this, except for the part where Eames asked him immediately prior to putting his tongue up Arthur’s ass.

“Wow, Arthur,” Ariadne says. “When did you get so diplomatic?”

When Yusuf shows up, he sheds snow everywhere like some sort of bear, and frowns around the living room.

“Arthur,” he says. “What happened to your twelve-point buck?”

Arthur glances at Eames and frowns, and Ariadne laughs.

“Eames made him move it to the garage.”

“Whipped,” Yusuf says with a low whistle.

“That was the worst taxidermy job I’ve ever seen,” Eames says, even though Arthur is shaking his head in the background, because Eames is clearly a dumbass.

“Yusuf did that,” Ariadne says, and Eames fails to look anywhere near contrite.

And then the Cobb family arrives in its entirety, trailing Matchbox cars, and Phillipa and James install themselves in the living room to have races.

Dinner is loud, mostly. Yusuf brought Wild Turkey, which is to say the bourbon, and Mal brought escargot because sometimes she likes to remind everyone that she’s actually French, and therefore classier than them or something. They make a drinking game out of snails and bourbon, and Cobb keeps slipping sidelong glances at the children and trying to remind them all that they’re a terrible influence.

“They’ll be fine,” Mal says, patting him on the knee, and then she proceeds to somehow make doing a shot with a snail floating in it look elegant, and not disgusting the way it does for everyone else.

They put the children to sleep before the gift exchange, which is something of a relief because it turns out Eames’ contribution is a dildo.

“Is this used?” Ariadne asks when she unwraps it.

“No,” Eames says. “But I’ll have you know it’s very high quality.”

Arthur can’t believe he just let this person cook dinner.

“I want it,” Ariadne says, and everyone else sort of pulls faces like they’ll let her have it, only then Eames decides to put up a stink for the fucking dildo he contributed.

“You aren’t supposed to go for your own gift,” Arthur says, only then Eames looks pointedly at Mal, who is hanging onto some Pixar DVD that she brought.

“I wanted it for the children,” Mal says when Arthur forces her to trade him for the plastic pink flamingo Yusuf brought, mostly out of spite but also because he’s sick of all the movies he owns, and Eames’ DVD collection made precisely zero significant contributions.

The game ends when Yusuf and Cobb having a fight in the snow over the ten pounds of coffee that was Arthur’s gift, which makes him feel extremely smug, because he didn’t have to get into a fight over something he himself brought.

“White elephants are supposed to be something you had laying around,” Eames mutters as they sit on the porch and watch Yusuf stuff Cobb’s head in a snowbank.

“You said that was unused,” Arthur says.

Eames shrugs.

“That’s why I had to get it back,” he says, and Arthur stares at him. Ariadne had ended up with the badly rusted hatchet Cobb had brought, which was possibly the worst of the lot.

“That was not--” Arthur starts.

“I sanitized it,” Eames offers, like that somehow makes it better.

“That was in my ass,” Arthur hisses and hopes that Mal and Ariadne don’t hear.

“I was surprised you didn’t recognize it, darling,” Eames says lazily.

“You’re disgusting,” Arthur mutters.

“Says the man who nearly gave my ass frostbite because he wanted to do it in the snow,” Eames mutters, and Arthur gapes at him again.

“That’s what this was about?” he asks.

“It was cold,” Eames says, looking sulky, and Arthur is pretty sure that was the point of this entire party, revenge for the snow sex, and he really should want to do something other than laugh and kiss Eames breathless, but really.

“How about we get them to leave,” he whispers instead. “And take a nice hot shower so I can make it up to you.”

And maybe he gives Eames’ ear a bit of a lick, and maybe they clear their house in record time and don’t bother to clean up the kitchen, but really, that's nobody's business.

Chapter Text

So it turns out that the first year Arthur had known Eames, Eames had allowed his birthday to pass unmarked. It was in August, and Arthur had spent most of August figuring some things out (which is maybe a generous way to describe it, because he’d been so slow about it), and Eames apparently hadn’t seen fit to mention it. But they’d done their taxes together in April, so now the cat was out of the bag, which is what brings Arthur to the diner where he was having breakfast with Ariadne and staring balefully at his biscuits and gravy.

“But what should I do?” he says. “I mean, I’m not buying him a chainsaw.”

“He doesn’t need a chainsaw,” Ariadne says evenly, spearing a homefry with her fork. “I don’t think he wants one, either.”

“So what does he want?” Arthur asks.

“I don’t know, you live with him,” Ariadne says. “Are you going to do a birthday party?”

Arthur hates birthday parties--parties of all kinds, really--just a little bit, but Eames likes them, so that’s something.

“How about a surprise one?” Ariadne continues.

Arthur pulls out a notebook out of his bag.

“Okay,” he says. “Party ideas. Go.”

“Uh, pin the tail on the donkey?” Ariadne says blankly. “Fuck, Arthur, I don’t know. I’m a chainsaw artist, not a party planner. Just make some food and invite everyone over. You guys did that Christmas party.”

“Eames did the Christmas thing,” Arthur says, examining the trails of gravy on his plate.

“Look,” Ariadne says, getting to her feet. “You think on this. I’m sure you can come up with something. I need to go.”

Arthur pays for both their breakfasts, because Ariadne split before he could hold her accountable for her five dollar plate of eggs, sunny side up, and then he drives up the highway north, towards nowhere in particular.

The woods in August are green, and everything in every direction smells like life. It seems appropriate that Eames would be born in this month, when everything is lush and bright. Arthur rolls down the windows and lets the air rush through the cab.

The highway north runs through a state park, the same state park they went to last summer for Cobb-mandated team bonding or what the fuck ever. It might be an alright place for a birthday party--they could rent a picnic shelter or something and get a cake from the bakery in town, if Arthur went in on Tuesday when they were open and ordered one. It’s possible, Arthur figures, but he should drive up and see what they have. He braces his wrists against the steering wheel and keeps driving.

Reminiscing about the past year--Arthur isn’t going to reminisce about the past year. But with the road rolling beneath him, tugged behind him by the rotation of the tires, looking forward seems almost equal to looking backwards.

Arthur does not know what to get Eames for his birthday. It’s a simple problem; practically a cliche. He’s pretty sure people are uncertain about what to get their significant others for their birthdays all the time, that people anguish over jewelry boxes, watches, cologne, ties, whatever.

Arthur just never really expected to be that sort of person. The thing is, he knows he’s not really an overtly affectionate person, or whatever, so it seems important to get a good present, or throw a surprise party, or whatever. Not that Eames would want a jewelry box, and he’d probably just break a new watch, and Arthur likes the way he smells, and Eames has no cause to wear a tie.

So all of those are out.

An hour later and Arthur is at the state park but no better on the present front. He throws the truck into park and goes out to towards the picnic area.

All the shelters are grimy, and Arthur isn’t especially concerned with hygiene, but. He’s staring at a smattering of pistachio shells on the concrete ground, and it’s nowhere near good enough. If they were going to have a birthday party here they’d have to camp out or do a hike or something, and the last time they did that Arthur made out with Eames in the middle of the night and then rejected him in daylight, so maybe that’s not such a hot idea.

Though Arthur’s gotten better at not rejecting Eames since then. In fact, he’d say he’s pretty damn good at it.

He loops around the outskirts of the picnic area and hitches onto a hiking trail for a bit before going back to his truck.

Which won’t start. It’s not until Arthur’s in the cab and has the key in the ignition that this becomes apparent, but it shouldn’t be a surprise because his truck has always been pretty much complete shit. He pops the hood, and when that resolves nothing and his cell phone proves to be out of range for service he goes over to the ranger’s station to see if he can borrow a phone.

Which he can’t.

There is a reason Arthur doesn’t normally take his truck out of town, but he hadn’t been thinking, caught up as he was in the Eames’ birthday thing. It was stupid--poor planning on his part, or maybe poor thinking, and now no one knows he’s out here and Eames was grilling spare ribs for dinner and the prospect of missing that is a little devastating, because they don’t do spare ribs that often and they are delicious.

Arthur’s pounding on the ranger station door again when a woman approaches him from across the parking lot. Her face is round and matronly, and she’s about halfway through a cigarette.

“Need a jump?”

“I need a phone, actually,” Arthur says, exasperated because obviously if he had needed a jump he would’ve gone and asked for one and the woman nods.

“Sorry hun.” She shrugs. “Out of range. I’m heading out, though, could drop you at the gas station.”

Arthur looks at her for a minute, then waves his hand.

“Sure,” he says. “Whatever.”

“Well then,” she says, sticking out a hand. “I’m Ellie. Pleasure to meet you I’m sure.”

“Arthur,” Arthur says, and she pumps his hand up and down and then heads back across the parking lot, obviously expecting Arthur to follow, so Arthur does.

Ellie spends the first several minutes of their drive fiddling with the radio instead of watching the road, and Arthur tries to pretend this doesn’t bode poorly for what’s to come.

“Where you from, Arthur?” she asks, and when Arthur names the town she crinkles her brow. “Why’d you come all the way up here, then?”

“I wanted to look at the picnic shelters,” Arthur says flatly.

“For?” she prods, and Arthur kind of feels like maybe he should’ve just waited it out in the parking lot.

“A birthday party,” Arthur replies, keeping his eyes fixed on the road because Ellie doesn’t seem to be watching. “For a friend of mine.”

“Special friend?” Ellie asks, and she sounds both wry and meddling. “So what’s the present, for your friend?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur says.

“Well, what do they like?” Ellie asks.

“We’re lumberjacks,” Arthur says, because that should explain everything. Ellie shakes her head.

“What do they like, hun? What do they want that they don’t know they want?--And here’s the gas station. Will someone be able to get you if you call?”

“Yes, thanks,” Arthur says, swinging the door open and hopping out. “Really, thank you.”

“Good luck with your gift,” she says, and Arthur doesn’t have the heart to tell her that her advice was not helpful at all. Was, in fact, completely unhelpful.

At least there’s a pay phone here. Arthur dials the home number, staring across the parking lot at a fridge labelled ‘Live Bait’ while the phone goes to voicemail.

“Eames, pick up you fucker,” he mutters. “Seriously, pick up, I’m out of town and my truck broke down, I’m calling you from somewhere called Mitt’s Fuel & Food, and I do not want to eat any of the food here. Eames.”

“Arthur, where the hell are you?” Eames asks when he finally picks up. “The ribs are on the grill.”

“My truck broke down. I’m up by the state park.”

“Any reason you went gallivanting across the county?” Eames asks.

“No,” Arthur mutters. “But can you pick me up? Sooner rather than later?”

“When dinner’s done,” Eames says. “I’ll bring you some food. But I want an explanation, alright? You don’t usually pull this shit.”

“Just joyriding,” Arthur mumbles.

He parks himself on the curb, waiting for something to happen. Birthday presents, damn this, and now his engine is shot again.

It comes to him when he’s sitting on the curb, watching cars roll past. It’s not something Arthur can wrap, really.

Maybe he can skip the party, though.

There’s a thunder storm rolling in on Eames’ birthday, dark thunderheads and sharp bursts of lightning. It will be fine, Arthur figures, not something that makes him nervous. He rubs a hand on the small of his back, mostly nerves. He’s making dinner for the night, and it has been argued that Arthur can’t cook for shit. He’s just going to slap some steaks on the eggs and roast some potatoes and vegetables, and it doesn’t need to be a big deal.

“Is this going to be good?” Eames asks, coming up behind Arthur and wrapping his arms around his waist. “You’ve been known to scorch water.”

“No I haven’t,” Arthur says. “And you love my pancakes. And my bacon.”

“You’ve been known to scorch anything that’s not breakfast food, then,” Eames says. “But this smells alright.”

“Of course it does, it’s a good cut of meat,” Arthur says. “So don’t distract me.”

“I think it’s about timing more than any special skill,” Eames says. “You timing it?”

“Shut up, this is my thing,” Arthur says. “And it’s your birthday dinner, Eames. I’m cooking it, relax.”

“I don’t want dinner,” Eames says. “I just want you, babe.”

“Shut up, now is not the time,” Arthur says, slapping Eames’ hands down. “We’re going to have a nice dinner.”

“Sure,” Eames says. “It’s my birthday, and you’re going to give me a nice dinner instead of what I want. Is that how it is?”

“I’m giving you what you didn’t know you wanted,” Arthur says. “Leave me alone until I finish this.”

The steaks look good when Arthur slides them onto the plates, and they eat outside on the Adirondack chairs, balancing the plates on their knees.

“It’s good, Arthur,” Eames says after a moment of chewing. "Thank you."

"It's not your present," Arthur says. "If that's what you're worried about. Dinner isn't your present."

"Mmmm," Eames says. "I'd hoped as much. So what is it?"

Arthur sets his plate down on the porch and peels off his shirt in a quick, practiced motion.

"It's here," Arthur says. "Right here."

"Sex?" Eames asks. "Not that I don't appreciate it, but--"

"No," Arthur says, twisting around so his back is to Eames'. "No, look."

"I don't know what I'm looking at," Eames says. "I like your back alright."

"Good, you're thick," Arthur says, turning around to look at him, bending down and dropping his head so it's even with Eames' ear.

"It's the tattoo, you idiot. I'm getting you a tattoo. Like mine. You know, if you want."

"If I want?" Eames asks, grinning and getting to his feet, pulling Arthur up with him. "Of course I want. Turn around again, you."

Arthur does, performing a little, self conscious pirouette, and Eames bends forward and kisses him between his shoulder blades, then he licks a path lower.
 
"It's brilliant, Arthur," Eames says. "This is brilliant. I love your tramp stamp."

"Shush, you," Arthur says, turning back around and putting his arms across Eames' shoulders. "Happy birthday."

Chapter Text

It was Eames' idea.

"Every great idea is," Eames says, stretching and draping one of his arms across Arthur's shoulders. Arthur can't see him, but he's grinning in the way he does--a little too wide, exposing too many teeth and crinkling the corners of his eyes. "I'm some kind of a genius."

"Some kind," Ariadne repeats, laughing. "I can't believe you got Arthur to go along with this."

"I'm right here," Arthur says, and Ariadne reaches over and pats him on the knee, because Arthur is in the middle seat of Ariadne's truck yet again, it feels like he's spent his entire life in the bitch seat of Ariadne's truck, and while he warmed to the Ford a little after he and Eames fucked in the bed it's still uncomfortable to sit with his knees up against the dash, and in this situation it's more uncomfortable.

"I think it's cute, really," Ariadne says. "Couples Halloween costumes, seriously. It's like something people do in sitcoms."

"We're going to a Halloween party," Arthur says, very slowly. "You're dressed as Smokey the Bear. Of course we're wearing costumes."

"But they didn't need to match," Ariadne says. "And they especially didn't need to involve ladies' underwear."

"Who says we're wearing ladies' underwear?" Arthur asks, and Ariadne glances significantly at his feet.

"You're both wearing heels. I don't even know how you found them in your sizes, but I know what the reference is to," she starts to hum, and then sing under her breath--"I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay--I wear high heels and I wear a bra--" Eames squeezes Arthur's shoulders, and he wonders if this is a terrible idea.

Not the ladies' underwear, the heels. Their costumes are otherwise nondescript, suspenders and plaid and knit caps and clothes they already had in their closets. But the shoes are uncomfortable. It's tempered by the way Eames had proposed the whole thing in the first place.

It was some dim morning in late October, and when Eames had left the bed Arthur recoiled at the cold and pulled the blankets up over his head. He muttered something that was supposed to be "Don't come back without coffee" but it didn't come out quite right, and he was vaguely annoyed and on his way back to sleep when Eames lifted the covers and slithered back in.

"Fuck off," Arthur murmured. "Cold."

There was a moment of silence, and then Eames slid closer, pressing his body against Arthur's back. His skin still felt chilled, and he wasn't wearing the shirt he normally wore to sleep in--the one from Hayward, way back when, the one Arthur had worn when they didn't win double buck. It wasn't sentimental, Arthur kept telling himself, but practical.

The fact was, he loved the smell and the feel of the fabric, and the firmness of Eames beneath that.

"What--" he started, and then Eames caught his hand and drew it south along his body, along the muscles Arthur knew well, until there--

Eames wore boxer briefs, cheap ones that usually wore out too quickly, with threadbare elastic and holes in the crotch. This was not them. There was a rough edge pulled tight across Eames' hips, and as Arthur's hand dipped lower the fabric became slick, and there was the familiar pressure of Eames beneath it, but the fabric was definitely silk.

"What?" Arthur repeated, and Eames slid forward until his breath ghosted across Arthur's shoulder.

"I thought I'd wrap it," he said. "It's a gift. And a suggestion."

Arthur twisted around in the bed until he was facing Eames and narrowed his eyes.

"Did you brush your teeth?"

"Only the best," Eames said, and he looked strangely sincere.

Arthur shoved the quilt down, below their hips, pooled around their knees.

And yes--there it was--silk panties, and Eames was straining against them, looking both embarrassed and pleased with himself. God it was a strange juxtaposition--Eames was all muscle, no frippery on his body, and there was a twist of dark, inked roots along his hip, where the base of the pine tattoo--twinned to Arthur's--that ran up his left side emerged from the lace. Arthur brought his lips down to Eames' hip, kissed the intersection of root and delicate lace.

Eames released a shuddering breath.

"I bought you a pair, too," he said. "I was thinking, for Halloween--"

Arthur slipped his fingers under the silk, feeling it chafe against his callouses, and didn't let Eames finish talking until he'd shuddered Arthur's name a few times, and they'd both wrapped themselves in old familiar clothes and coaxed the coffee machine to life, and there was some caffeine in his bloodstream.

"Halloween," Eames repeated.

"Why the hell not?" Arthur said.