“That one,” said Dominick Cobb, with the shining eyes that Arthur recognized. Arthur called that look the Arthur’s life is about to become a living hell look.
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” groaned Ariadne.
“What?” Arthur said suspiciously. “Why? What’s the matter with the tree?”
“Tracking down the owner is impossible,” said Ariadne.
“What are you talking about? The tree’s on someone’s land, right? Find out who the someone is, go and throw money at them.”
Cobb made a pained sound. “When you say it like that, Arthur, you make it sound like we don’t have any finesse.”
“We don’t have any finesse.”
“Why wouldn’t he just donate the tree?” Ariadne asked. “They usually just donate them.”
“Naturally that would be best,” Arthur agreed. “But it’s late in the game to still be searching for a tree, so if we have to pay, we’re going to pay.”
“We have finesse,” Cobb said.
“What?” asked Arthur blankly.
“You said we don’t have finesse. We have finesse.”
“Mal has finesse. You don’t have finesse.”
“Arthur’s ties have finesse,” Ariadne remarked thoughtfully.
“My entire wardrobe has finesse,” Arthur said, offended, “not just my ties.”
“Hang on,” Cobb said, sounding wounded. “You really don’t think I have finesse?”
“You have anti-finesse,” Arthur told him.
“I really resent that. You know what? Just for that, I’m going to make this your job.”
“You were going to make this my job anyway,” said Arthur, resigned.
“Just because you are the best, Arthur. Track the guy down and buy his tree.”
“How do you know it’s a guy?” said Arthur. “It could be a woman.”
“I agree,” said Ariadne. “That was sexist.”
“Whoever it is,” said Cobb. “I hope he’s patriotic.”
“Patriotic,” grumbled Arthur to himself, wading through knee-deep snow. What the fuck. Why couldn’t Yusuf and Ariadne find tree candidates that weren’t in the middle of fucking nowhere, with knee-deep snow in fucking November, and Arthur couldn’t even drive up to the house he’d found in the satellite pictures because there was no road.
Clearly Ronald Berry was a man who didn’t want to be found. It had taken Arthur a lot of skillful digging to wade through the mess of the land titles and then to track down this incredibly inaccessible log cabin. A lesser person than Arthur would never have found Ronald Berry. So Arthur didn’t think this boded particularly well for Ronald being flattered at the honorific of providing the tree for Saito Center.
“America’s fucking Christmas tree,” grumbled Arthur, which was probably why he didn’t notice the sudden drop-off in the ground level. With an ungraceful oof, Arthur found himself somersaulting his way down the short slope. When he finally came to a stop, the world was slightly dizzy around him, the snow had soaked through the wool greatcoat he was wearing and had gotten underneath the Burberry scarf he’d knotted around his neck, and the worst part—the very worst part—was that a deeply amused British voice said, “Well, hello. Alright there, love?”
Eames was bored beyond belief. This was the problem with running for your life. It wasn’t as exciting as it sounded. It was usually nothing but waiting. And this waiting involved being holed up in some middle-of-nowhere cabin playing poker against himself and making his way through the thoroughly awful liquor supply he’d located. Ronald Berry had had terrible taste in alcohol. Eames had lost all respect for the man.
Eames sighed in heavy self-pity and that was when he noticed the approach of the man on the security camera he’d rigged along the most likely approach from the main road. The man was wrapped in an expensive coat that was thoroughly inappropriate for a hike. Eames leaned closer to the screen, squinting in astonishment. And…wingtips? Was he wearing wingtips? In all of that snow? Where had he come from? What would possess someone to do something so ridiculous?
Eames considered his options. There was a possibility that this was a hitman sent to kill him. If that was the case, Eames was offended that he hadn’t rated a better hitman than this man who’d shown up in city clothes to wade through snow.
But Eames didn’t know why else the man would have wandered out here, if not to kill him. It wasn’t like Eames was somewhere you accidentally happened upon.
Eames tucked his gun into his pants and pulled on his weather-appropriate jacket and headed out into the snow to meet the mysterious visitor. He was confident that he could startle him and get out the first shot, if it came to that. Except that what happened instead was Eames was just in time for the man to come snowballing his way down the hill, landing in a sprawl at Eames’s feet.
An oddly elegant sprawl, Eames thought. The man was all clean lines, sharp and distinct against the snow, and he blinked dark eyes up at Eames, and Eames had a sudden, clear desire to…make this man fuzzier. Odd and inconvenient, that. Eames chalked it up to sensory deprivation. There hadn’t been much opportunity for instant attraction out here in the woods. Eames hadn’t seen anything alive but deer in a while. And deer didn’t do it for him.
But it was the unmistakable effect of the attraction that softened Eames’s tone into amusement when he said, “Well, hello. Alright there, love?”
The man glared up at him. “Fine,” he grumbled, and sat up and started brushing snow off of himself.
And Eames couldn’t stop smiling. Eames had been alone too long. How was this man the most adorable thing he’d ever seen? “The snow cushioned your fall,” Eames said helpfully.
“The snow caused my fall,” the man shot back, looking around at it disdainfully.
“Here, darling,” Eames said, and offered his hand.
The man took it but kept glaring balefully the whole way up. Then he swept his hair back and tugged his crooked coat back to straightness and looked at Eames regally.
Eames grinned at him. If this man was a hitman, Eames genuinely could not think of a better way to die. “Are you going to ask me if I’ve accepted our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?”
“No,” said the man, scowling.
“Good. I didn’t want to have to disappoint you.”
“Do you know where Ronald Berry lives?” the man asked.
Eames stilled and studied this stranger a little more closely. “Ronald Berry?”
“Yes. Ever heard of him?”
The man sighed. “For a stupid reason.”
“Like what?” Eames prodded.
“He has to save Christmas,” the man said dully.
Eames stared at him. “He has to what?”
The man shook his head. “Never mind. See what I mean? It’s stupid. I don’t want to have to go through it more than once. So if you could direct me to where Ronald Berry lives…” The man gave Eames an expectant look and clearly tried to pretend he wasn’t shivering.
Eames looked at him and decided he’d never met anyone he wanted to keep talking to more than he wanted to keep talking to this sodden, well-dressed man who wanted him to save Christmas. He said, “I’m Ronald Berry.”
Arthur blinked at the man in front of him. He was bundled up for the weather, but his face was clearly visible, and he had a pair of frankly obscene lips and very bright blue-green eyes and tousled hair and a perfect amount of rakish stubble. Arthur had found Ronald Berry and Ronald Berry was apparently blisteringly hot.
Fuck. Just his luck.
“You’re Ronald Berry?” He could barely wrap his mind around it. He’d assumed Ronald Berry was going to be some 75-year-old crotchety man, not some smirking British man who couldn’t be more than a few years older than he was. And probably wasn’t going to be patriotic about America’s Christmas tree.
“In the flesh,” said the hot British man. “Cabin’s that way. Where I have a fire. So it’s warm. Perfect for thawing out.”
And it was probably the worst way to start a business discussion. Well, no, the worst way to start a business discussion was to tell a man he could “save Christmas,” what the fuck, Dom was the worst with this stuff. But probably sitting shivering by a fireplace while your negotiatee made you hot chocolate was probably the second-worst.
Hot chocolate with marshmallows, Arthur saw, when Ronald Berry pressed it into his hands.
“Thanks,” Arthur said, and was at least relieved that his teeth were no longer chattering.
“Least I could do.” He leaned up against the fireplace, still looking deeply amused. Arthur didn’t like the feeling he had that he was being constantly mocked in some low-level way. “Sure you don’t want to get out of those wet things?” Ronald Berry’s obscene lips twisted into a smile that made Arthur feel a flash of heat.
“No,” said Arthur, trying to recover some dignity. Difficult considering he had one of Ronald Berry’s hand-knitted afghans draped over his shoulders.
“So.” Ronald Berry crossed his arms. “Tell me how I’m going to save Christmas.”
“You have a tree,” Arthur said.
“I have lots of trees.”
“Right. But you have one in particular that my boss likes.”
Ronald Berry’s eyebrows lifted up toward his hairline. “Your boss has a thing for trees?”
“We’re in charge of the Saito Center Christmas tree.”
“The Saito Center Christmas tree?” Ronald Berry echoed. “As in…?”
“America’s Christmas tree. Yes. I don’t suppose there’s any chance that, despite your British accent, you passionately love America.”
“America has given me many things,” Ronald Berry replied. “I am very fond of America. But I am not giving America a tree.”
“Why not? You have so many.”
Ronald Berry chuckled. “Your logic is impeccable. But do I seem like a man who wants the publicity of being the source of America’s Christmas tree?”
“I don’t know what the fuck sort of man you seem like,” Arthur said before he could help it.
Ronald Berry laughed, and it was…fantastic. He had a very nice laugh, rich and genuine, and his eyes lit on Arthur almost admiringly, as if he approved, and Arthur wasn’t sure if he was blushing or if it was just the heat from the fire and maybe he hit his head when he fell but he wanted to do that again, a lot, forever: make Ronald Berry laugh and look at him with warm delight in his expression. “That is the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me, darling.”
And Arthur definitely didn’t know what to make of that. He decided on, “Nice enough to convince you to give me your tree?”
Berry laughed again and finally sat in the seat opposite Arthur. He was holding his own mug of hot chocolate that Arthur had noticed was mostly whiskey. He had offered the whiskey to Arthur and Arthur had refused based on some idea that he should stay professional. While wrapped in a blanket drinking a drink with marshmallows. Berry said, “Nice try. But no.”
“We’re talking about real money here.”
“Oh, not counterfeit?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.”
Berry grinned at him, leaning back in his seat. “You are delightful.”
“So you’re going to sell me your tree?”
“How much money?”
“Forty thousand dollars,” said Arthur.
“No,” said Berry, without hesitation, and sipped his whiskey hot chocolate.
“Fifty thousand,” said Arthur.
“No,” replied Berry again.
Berry grinned at him now. “You know that the first rule of negotiation is not to negotiate against yourself, right?”
Arthur shrugged and said sourly, “I don’t really give a fuck how much my boss pays for his stupid perfect Christmas tree.”
Berry tsk-ed at him. “That doesn’t sound like a good employee now, Arthur.”
Arthur refused to give credence to the fact that he got undeniable goosebumps over the way his name sounded in Berry’s rich, accented voice. “It sounds like a Jewish employee,” he said.
Berry burst out laughing in that full-throated way he had that made Arthur want to roll around in glee. What was the matter with Arthur? “Why would he send a Jewish employee to negotiate purchase of a Christmas tree?”
“He isn’t the most logical of men,” said Arthur, which was probably putting it mildly.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, darling, but I assumed you lot had your Christmas tree picked out and purchased far in advance of the fortnight before it’s to be lit.”
“Yes. We do. We always do. But this year’s tree got sick.”
“Got sick?” Berry echoed.
“And died,” said Arthur flatly.
“Yes. Trees die, you know. They’re living things just like you and me.”
“I know about trees, darling,” said Berry, sounding amused again.
“So this one caught some kind of pine tree disease and died. All of its needles fell off. It was pathetic.”
“You speak with a lack of empathy toward the poor dead tree.”
“I also have a lack of empathy toward my colleagues who allowed it to catch the pine tree disease,” said Arthur, mentally cursing Yusuf.
“Surely not their fault,” said Berry.
“And I have a lack of empathy toward my colleagues who have gone and fallen in passionate love with a tree that belongs to you,” said Arthur, mentally cursing Ariadne.
“Now, now,” said Berry. “That doesn’t seem sporting. They introduced the two of us, after all.”
Arthur glared. “But you won’t sell me your tree.”
“I won’t sell you my tree, no.”
“You know people usually just donate the tree. We don’t usually offer money at all.”
“Fascinating,” said Berry.
Arthur sighed. “You won’t sell it to me because of the publicity?”
Arthur looked around the very off-the-grid cabin and thought that made sense. There was a lot of publicity with being chosen for the tree. There would be even more publicity this year because of the last-minute nature of the whole thing. And it would be impossible to keep the tree’s owner confidential. That would only increase the frenzy of curiosity.
Arthur looked back at Berry as a thought occurred to him. “What would make it worthwhile to you? The publicity. What price would we have to pay to make it worthwhile?”
Berry lifted an eyebrow and said drily, “A hundred million dollars.”
“Christ,” complained Arthur. “Be reasonable.”
“I am being reasonable. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to hole up here. Surely that’s evident to you. It would have to take a great deal of money to compensate me for that.”
Arthur eyed him suspiciously. “You’re on the run from the law, aren’t you?”
“Darling, if I were a vicious murderer, surely I would have killed you by now? Instead of leaving you alive to tell everyone my whereabouts?”
Arthur considered. “Tax fraud?” he suggested.
Berry burst out laughing again. “That’s more like it. Now. We have settled the business with the tree—”
“Have we?” said Arthur, although he thought he had to agree. Dom and Ariadne might both be crazy people, but they wouldn’t think this tree worth a hundred million dollars.
“Yes,” Berry said firmly. “And you’re all warmed up again. But, if you like, you can stay for dinner.”
“Dinner,” Arthur echoed.
“If you like,” said Berry casually, although his eyes were anything but casual fixed on Arthur, “you can stay the night.”
Arthur swallowed and felt far too tempted to accept that offer. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so instantly attracted to someone, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d received an offer like this. Maybe he should stay here in this cabin and have a little fun. He kind of deserved it, given the way Dom and Ariadne had been acting.
And, then again, he could not think of anything more reckless and stupid than staying the night in this inaccessible cabin with a man who Arthur still wasn’t convinced wasn’t a murderer on the run.
Arthur swallowed again and licked his lips and Berry tracked the movement of his tongue with his eyes and Arthur stood and for a moment thought he was just going to throw himself on Berry’s lap, but then he removed his blanket with whatever dignity he could muster and said stiffly, “That’s okay,” as if that was the proper response when a hot British guy propositioned you out of the blue.
He thought Berry looked disappointed but that was probably just his own wishful thinking.
“You don’t have to chaperone me,” sulked Arthur bitterly.
He was even adorable when he sulked, thought Eames, and then thought he was being ridiculous and had to get over it. He’d propositioned Arthur as bluntly as possible, and Arthur had politely turned him down, and Eames had to give it up.
Eames said, “I will not have you lost in the early twilight, killed by hypothermia and exposure and frostbite—”
“All of those things?” interjected Arthur sarcastically.
Eames ignored him. “—And, to boot, having turned down your very generous offer for my Christmas tree. I will have failed to save Christmas and killed the Jewish elf.”
“Not an elf,” said Arthur, slipping in the snow.
“Darling, why are you wearing wingtips?” Eames asked, amused, because he’d never seen anything more thoroughly impractical than the expensive designer shoes Arthur had on his feet.
“Because I was going to a business meeting,” Arthur pointed out primly.
“In Vermont, darling,” said Eames.
“What, Vermont can’t be civilized?” sniffed Arthur.
“You’d be horrified if you tried the nearest bagels,” remarked Eames. “You’d be horrified if you knew how far away the nearest bagels are.”
“Good Lord,” said Arthur, looking properly horrified at just the prospect. “Why would you willingly put yourself through this?”
“The arc of life is long, Arthur,” said Eames grandly.
Arthur gave him a look. “What the fuck does that mean?”
Eames grinned. “It means new experiences can be good for you for a time. Challenging.”
Arthur looked unimpressed. “I like new experiences. I just like new experiences with decent bagels nearby.”
“I cannot say that I can argue with that life philosophy, Arthur,” Eames agreed.
“You don’t have to keep saying my name,” said Arthur.
“Does it bother you?” asked Eames, surprised. “Sorry.”
Arthur sighed and looked disgruntled. “No, it doesn’t—Never mind.”
They were getting closer to the road now. Eames was going to lose all excuse to keep Arthur company in a few moments. Eames wasn’t sure why he was still clinging to the excuse to keep Arthur company. Obviously being alone in the middle of nowhere—without access to proper bagels—had caused him to go a bit mad.
And, on cue, Arthur said, “I think I can find my way from here.”
“Yes,” Eames said, because he couldn’t think of a way to say no without sounding like a dangerous stalker, “probably. You’ll be able to get a flight tonight?”
“I have the private plane,” said Arthur absently, and then, “Christ, that made me sound obnoxious. Sorry.”
“Not at all,” said Eames, standing and regarding the red tips of Arthur’s ears, the curling wave to the hair that he kept pushing back from his forehead, the shadow of dimples in his cheeks that he kept trying to suppress, the puff of his breath crystallizing in the air in front of them. Eames realized abruptly he was cataloguing him. How bloody insane was he?
It was starting to snow, one of the brief little flurries that kicked up sometimes. It wouldn’t last very long, Eames knew; certainly wouldn’t jeopardize Arthur’s ability to get out. But Arthur looked up at the snowflakes and scowled, as if he didn’t look lovely with the white of the snow settling in his hair and on the shoulders of his greatcoat.
Too lovely to just…let go. Eames took a step closer to him, crowding into his personal space a bit, and watched him. Arthur looked wary but didn’t move away.
So Eames, telegraphing every movement, waiting to be pushed away, curled his fingers into the lapels of Arthur’s coat and very gently leaned forward to press his lips against his. And then he waited, just a second, for Arthur’s little sigh and then his kiss back, and then suddenly it was a kiss, with tongues and teeth and lack of air or space or thought.
When it finally ended, Arthur stood with his mouth open, wet, rosy, well-kissed, panting at Eames, looking stunned.
Eames looked at him and managed not to kiss him again; managed, after a moment, to say, “Forgive me, darling. But I’d never had a first kiss in a snowfall before.”
Arthur just blinked and didn’t say anything at all.
Eames let go of him and stepped away and then walked away, and with every step he ached for Arthur to call him back. He had put himself out there, and Arthur knew what he wanted, and Arthur had to be the one to say yes.
But Arthur said nothing, and Eames walked through the growing flurry all the way back to his house, thoroughly out-of-sorts with both himself and Arthur, and when he walked through the door he stomped the snow off his boots and toed them off and flung himself melodramatically on the couch and then he thought. First kiss, he’d said. As if there would be more. Idiot.