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False Start

Chapter Text

Mal doesn't just invite Arthur to lunch. Not without an ulterior motive.

She might invite him over to have coffee during James' nap time, or call to see if she can stop by his place when she's out doing weekend errands.

The point is, Arthur knows something is up when she asks him out to lunch downtown one Saturday near the end of the summer.

He makes his way through the thick humidity to the little cafe they used to frequent before the kids were born, wondering what on Earth Mal is going to spring on him this time.

She's waiting outside for him, because Mal is comfortable (or stubborn) enough to just linger outside in this relentless heat, rather than wait inside. She looks radiant, more beautiful than anybody has a right to look in this kind of heat. In spite of the temperature, her hair is down, the way it always is when she has five minutes away from her children, James and Phillipa. Her sundress is clinging to her skin, and he sees her eyebrows rise up delightedly when she spies him from across the street.

Arthur darts through the traffic to meet her, and she offers him a sweaty kiss, perfectly at home on his sweaty cheek.

"Arthur! So glad you could meet me--"

"What do you want, Mal?" he asks right away. He's not being unfriendly; they both know her well enough to know it's going to boil down to that.

She scowls. "Can't we at least get inside?"

Arthur agrees, and so they head in and up to the counter, where Mal orders one of her favorite sweet rolls and "violently strong tea." Arthur opts for a croissant and some not-altogether-terrible-looking prepackaged fruit salad, and a cup of coffee.

Once they've taken their seats, Mal is avoiding looking at him, apparently not ready to bring up whatever it is that's brought them here. Arthur takes a little pity even as his mind races through possible impending disasters. "Where are the kids?"

"At my mother's," she says. "She's going to take them to the park."

"Dom working?" he asks casually.

Mal nods. "He's always working Saturdays, lately."

There's a few moments' silence before Arthur finally prods again. "So why are we here, Mal?"

"It's... I have a bit of a favor to ask you," she begins. She seems to be waiting for Arthur to say something, but he knows his silence is more effective when it comes to prompting her to talk. "I was hoping you might join our Fantasy Football league."

He wrinkles his nose like he smells something funky, which is really still a rather gracious reaction to the proposal, because Mal is very much aware that Arthur has no interest in football.

"I think it might surprise you," she offers.

"Mal, it's football," he says plainly. "What's going to surprise me, how many players get two-week suspensions for domestic assault?" Mal only pouts. "Seriously, what makes you think this is something I'd be into?"

She twists her mouth around the way she always does when she's struggling to dam up the truth that wants to fall out of it. "It's Dominic's league," she admits, and Arthur huffs dramatically at the revelation.

"What, with his bros?" Arthur asks, dragging out the last word with minimal effort to sound like somebody who's been fall-down, piss-in-his-pants drunk in a stadium parking lot.

She wrinkles her own nose in turn at that, but he knows she's hiding a laugh. "I suppose, if you must call them that. Some friends of his, some coworkers."

"Does he really have so much trouble filling spots that he's resorted to sending you sniffing after me?"

"Actually, we have two spots left to fill; we'd like a ten-person league. We had two more on board, but then Yusuf told them it was an eight-person league, because he got all confused for some reason, and they ended up joining other leagues, and..." she takes a deep breath, appealing. "It'd really be great if you'd help us out."

"Two spots to fill? And you're starting with me?"

"I thought, maybe, Ariadne..." Mal trails off like she was totally expecting the burst of non-flattering laughter that erupts out of Arthur.

"Ariadne? Ariadne, the art student?" Mal looks at him with slightly terrifying eyes. "Okay, okay," he relents. "I'm just saying that you'd probably be more likely to get me than her."

At this, Mal smiles. "That's the idea," she replies. "Please, Arthur. You know she will do it if you do."

Arthur groans and genuinely kind of flails in his seat, a mini-tantrum.

"Come on, Arthur, I can practically hear you agreeing reluctantly. Let's get past this part; you know I'll wear you down anyway."

He puts his face in his hands. "Fine."

Mal claps her hands together lightly a few times and grins before ripping into her sweet roll. "You're going to love it."

"So who else is in this league? Anybody I know?" Arthur asks, turning to pick at his fruit.

"Well, there's Yusuf--"

"--of couse."

"Of course," she agrees. "And then there's Robert Fischer, Nash..."

Arthur groans at both names, having been romantically rebuffed by the first and just generally put-off by the second.

"Mr. Saito," she adds.

Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Dom's... boss?"

Mal nods. Arthur stares inquisitively. "They've gotten close ever since Dominic made partner! And apparently he's become a fan of the game over the past few years. Then there's Mr. Charles," she says.

"Who?"

Mal shrugs. "I'm not sure. I don't think he works with Dominic... Perhaps he is a friend of Mr. Saito's."

Arthur nods as he chews on a particularly disappointing bit of pineapple. Then he cocks his head to the side, wondering. "So that's seven spots. Ariadne and I would make nine; who else?"

"Hm?" Mal mutters non-chalantly, not looking up from her plate.

"Who, Mal?"

"Well," Mal answers slowly, taking time to sip her tea and dab her lips with her napkin before finally lifting her head at a positively glacial pace to meet his eyes. "Eames."

Arthur's eyes thin. "Eames? I thought he was back in London."

Mal laughs. "It was a trip, Arthur; they do end. He's home now. And all the same, he could have played from London."

"I suppose. I didn't even think he cared about American football."

Mal giggles. "You never think Eames cares about anything," she says, and stuffs another torn bite of sweet roll into her mouth.

"Wonder why..." Arthur muses softly and sardonically, but lets the rest fester inside him, as he knows Mal doesn't want to hear it. He takes a long sip of his coffee. Fantasy football... he thinks to himself. He's already dreading it. Maybe Ariadne will say no.

 

---

 

"Sounds like fun, actually," Ariadne says that evening, not even looking up from her purple self-pedi in progress.

Arthur stares at her, mouth open. "You did hear what I said, didn't you?"

"Yeah, fantasy football. It sounds fun," she answers again. Arthur is glaring at her, willing her to look up and meet his eye. Back when she first moved in, Ariadne would have made a big stink about Arthur's dramatic glaring ("If you want me to look up just say something!!!"), but by now she knows it's far easier to just look up, rather than hear the soft huffing of his rage.

"Do you know anything about football?"

She shrugs. "Not really, I guess. But how complicated could it be? It's like any other sport. Just watch the ball or whatever."

"I think there's more to it than that," he says.

She rolls her eyes. "So we'll learn. Jesus, Arthur, it's not like we're going out for the Vikings." Arthur wrinkles his nose. "Seriously? You're gonna have the gaul to stank-face my team?"

Arthur stank-faces further. "Your teamWhat the hell?"

"Well, I am from Minnesota; what'd you expect?"

"Well, seeing as you've literally never mentioned football before, I certainly didn't expect you to have a team!" he argues for no reason.

She sighs. "Didn't your family root for teams when you were a kid?"

"No," says Arthur. "Well, my Nana really liked John McEnroe."

Ariadne covers her face with her hand. "John McEnroe," she repeats, incredulous.

"He was the bad boy of ten--"

"I know who he is," she snaps slightly before taking a breath. "The point is, Arthur, that I don't altogether hate football. And I think we ought to join the league."

Arthur slouches in his seat and watches as Ariadne blows softly on her still-wet toenails. "Fine," he agrees. Ariadne grins and picks up her phone. "Who are you texting?"

"Mal! I'm telling her we're in."

Part of Arthur is suddenly suspicious that Ariadne has been in on this the whole time, but there's no use bringing it up. She's right.

They're in.

Chapter Text

It turns out that Ariadne knows little more than Arthur about football, but that seems to change hourly from the moment they decide to join the league.

See, Ariadne, while not particularly gifted at sports, is sort of a powerhouse when it comes to games. Apparently it all began with an early childhood obsession with Mouse Trap. It's sort of annoying, really. She amasses complicated board games that fill up what used to be Arthur's linen closet, and she learns the rules at a freakish pace, and then she destroys everybody she plays.

This is why nobody ever wants to play board games with Ariadne anymore. The most high-stakes thing Arthur is ever willing to play her in is Candyland, and she still wipes the damn floor with him every time.

Still, her predilection for learning rules comes rather in handy in the days leading up to the draft. It takes her something like six hours to know enough about the workings of ESPN's fantasy leagues to act somewhat holier-than-thou toward Arthur. Once she understands the formula, that's when she starts scouting players.

Arthur figures he can let her do most of the leg work in that respect. For now, he just wants to figure out how football works.

There are a lot of positions in football, it turns out. There's the quarterback, and there's running backs, and fullbacks, and a lot of 'backs, really. Then there's wide receivers, and tight ends, centers, guards... And that's just the offense. Arthur's halfway through memorizing the various positions before Ariadne tells him the only offensive players they'll need to draft are quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends.

He's also well into researching different defensive positions before Ariadne explains that they won't actually be drafting defensive players, but rather will pick ONE team's defense.

He's just starting to wrap his head around that when she adds, "Well, their defense and special teams."

Arthur's afraid to ask what Special Teams means, but it turns out he doesn't have to, because Ariadne goes rattling on about kickoffs and returns and punts and Arthur really never would have guessed this could all be so complicated.

 

---

 

As Draft Day draws near, Arthur is getting a little nervous. He shoots Mal texts now and then asking to clear this or that up, which bugs Ariadne, who is apparently now a fantasy football expert.

Text from Mal (12:22 PM): You'll be fine, drafting isn't so hard
Text from Mal (12:23 PM): Just don't start with a quarterback

Arthur is so incensed by her brief responses to his six texts that he doesn't even bother asking for clarification, even if this new advice does go against all his instincts...

"Mal says not to draft a quarterback first," he tells Ariadne.

She looks up with an expression of horror writ across her face, then turns the pencil in her hand around and starts erasing on the page of the notebook in front of her.

"Well, back to square fucking one," she grumbles, and buries herself in her plans again.

 

---

 

By the time the day of the draft arrives, Ariadne has a wishlist of sixty players. She's reading them off and extrapolating on each choice and who'd work well with whom, and Arthur doesn't really internalize any of it, but it makes his heart fucking race.

She notices that he's overwhelmed and takes a breath. "Sorry. I'll shut up."

Arthur nods and turns back to his laptop. "Thank you," he says, eyes darting frantically around the Draft window.

"You're welcome," she allows. "Just don't you fucking dare pick Cam Newton."

Arthur swallows. The familiar na-na-na of the ESPN jingle sounds. The draft begins.

"I'm going to have a fucking anxiety attack," Arthur mutters with a faint grin, throwing Ariadne a sideways glance.

She laughs. "I'm going to remember this the next time you have an actual anxiety attack."

 

---

 

 "I can't fucking believe Dom!" Ariadne is still whining while she and Arthur walk to Chipotle after the draft is over.

"Who was it that you wanted, again?" Arthur asks.

"Cam. Newton. The top ranked quarterback in the league! God, I never stood a chance! I kept thinking to myself, 'Which round is too early to pick a quarterback? How long do I wait?' And then he drafted him in the first fucking round which Mal specifically told us not to do!" She's positively fuming.

Arthur sighs. "Well, you got Aaron Rogers, right? At least I've heard of him, unlike..." he pauses to check the ESPN Fantasy Football app that Ariadne made him download this morning. "Russell Wilson," he reads. Russell Wilson, Seattle's quarterback, was ranked fairly high, but Arthur is skeptical anyhow.

Ariadne scoffs. "Just because he isn't in a State Farm commercial doesn't mean he's a bad quarterback," she tells him. "He'll be fine, I'm sure."

Arthur nods, more out of habit than actual agreement. "And if not, I guess I always have--"

"Bradford," Ariadne finishes the thought for him so he doesn't have to check his lineup again. "Sam Bradford."

"I still feel like I put too much faith in you on that one," Arthur says. Ariadne had convinced him to take a chance on Sam Bradford as a back-up quarterback, for whenever Russell Wilson has a BYE, or if he should get injured. Bradford, she'd explained, was just traded from the Eagles, and the trade would be finalized tonight. Ariadne told him that while Bradford was only a back-up quarterback on the Eagles, once the trade was complete, he'd be the starting quarterback for the Vikings (after the Vikings quarterback ended up with a season-ending injury during practice, only a few days ago; Arthur actually winced upon hearing this, thinking it might be the sorriest story he'd ever heard). As Ariadne had put it (like, ten times before Arthur finally gave in), it was a high-risk, but potentially high-reward draft pick.

"You might be thanking me in a few weeks! Maybe he'll be amazing, Arthur!" she says with the kind of hope a person can only have for their own team.

"Yeah, maybe," Arthur allows.

"And anyway," she says, "you have some other good players. You know I thought you shouldn't have picked Odell Beckham Jr. in the first round--"

"He does that... That one-handed catch! It seemed so impressive in the videos..." Arthur argues.

She laughs. "It is, it's very impressive. He is a solid pick, I think. And..." she has her own phone out now, with Arthur's team displayed on her ESPN app, "Mark Ingram, I think I read that he did well last season."

"I don't even care who I got anymore," Arthur confesses. "I'm just glad it's done."

"Yeah," Ariadne agrees half-heartedly, nose an inch away from her smartphone. "Totally."

 

---

 

Once they're seated with a couple of massive burritos before them, Arthur buries his phone in his pocket and tries not to think about his team.

It's hard with Ariadne glaring intently at her own phone, looking like she's trying to intimidate her lineup.

"So," he starts quietly, "how does it all work?"

"Hm?" Ariadne responds quickly, eyes darting upward like she'd genuinely forgotten she wasn't alone.

"Fantasy," Arthur specifies. "How does it work?"

She puts her phone down and bounces around in her seat excitedly. "So," she begins, "best I can tell, it all boils down to yards."

"Yards?" he echoes.

"Yards," Ariadne confirms with a nod. "Like, your players will throw, or receive, or run the ball for so many yards, and then those yards turn into your points."

"So every yard is a point?" Arthur asks, hoping it's that simple.

Ariadne shakes her head. "I think that some leagues work that way? But ours doesn't. I think we each get a tenth of a point for each yard."

Arthur nods. "Okay."

"But then there are other ways to get points," she explains. "Like, if your quarterback throws a 40-yard touchdown, you get 4 points from the yards, plus 7 points for the touchdown. No--6 points--or..." She's abandoned her burrito for her phone again, swiping and prodding until she's apparently satisfied enough to confirm, "Yeah, 6 points. So touchdowns get you more points, on top of yards."

Arthur nods again. "Okay," he says more softly this time, with little effort to pretend he's retaining all this.

"And then you can lose points if your player fumbles, or if your quarterback gets sacked, or--"

"Sacked?" he parrots helplessly.

"It's just when the quarterback gets tackled. But it has to be before--no, after... no, before he throws the ball."

"Jesus," Arthur sighs. "What are the odds you're even giving me entirely accurate information here?"

Ariadne mulls the question over. "Anyone's guess, really," she admits.

Arthur laughs a little. "So, basically, I'm just wasting my mental RAM here trying to learn all this, when you're not even sure whether--"

"Fine," Ariadne groans. "We'll dig into the league settings tonight and make sure of it."

Arthur wrinkles his nose as he considers this, really not having expected Ariadne to rise to the bait. "That's... that's alright," he insists, then takes a bite of his burrito. "You called my bluff," he manages, mouth full.

Ariadne laughs at him. "It isn't like you not to plan," she points out.

He shrugs. "I'll just figure it out along the way," he says.

She's still smiling. "Yeah, okay," she says disbelievingly. "You'll be singing a different tune if you lose the first game to Fischer."

"God, I'm playing Fischer first?" Arthur complains. Ariadne nods and grins. "Of course," Arthur mutters through another mouthful (something he would never do with anyone else, but, honestly, it's how the two of them communicate half the time ever since Ariadne moved in). "Of course I'm playing Fischer first. Because anything else would be far too kind, and far too easy."

"That's rather dramatic," Ariadne says, some lettuce falling out of her mouth as she does. "You know, there's this expression: 'making mountains out of molehills...'"

Arthur grins. "Oh, I'm familiar," he says. "It always sounded more like a comment on my structural genius than an insult."

Chapter Text

Arthur has dinner at the Cobbs' place on Thursday evening. He's forgotten entirely that tonight is the start of the football season until Dom opens the door in a Patriots jersey.

Arthur scoffs a bit. "Patriots?"

Dom rolls his eyes impatiently. "You knew nothing about football until a week ago, and somehow you have a problem with the Patriots?"

Arthur hears Mal call from the kitchen, "Dominic, everyone hates the Patriots. Soccer hooligans hate the Patriots. Synchronized swimming enthusiasts hate the Patriots."

Arthur nods proudly. He hadn't anticipated this fun new venue for frustrating Dom. He mentally makes a first tick in the "Pro" column for fantasy football.

 

---

 

"GO! GO! SEND IT IN!" Dom is shouting an hour later, mouth half-full of pizza.

Arthur gives Mal a look and she only laughs. "It's been a while," she reminds him.

"What about preseason?" Arthur asks.

Dom buries his disappointment that the quarterback had not, in fact, 'sent it in.' "Preseason?" Dom sneers. "Preseason isn't real football." His eyes never leave the screen.

Arthur frowns. Mal pats his shoulder, consoling. "It's just that the stakes aren't very high during preseason, is all," she explains. "It's like a dress-rehearsal, really."

Arthur considers this. "Fair enough; I guess I get that."

James and Phillipa are building with Legos in the other room. Mostly, the kids are keeping quiet, but sporadically, James imitates Dom's outbursts.

"Send it in!" James cries.

"James, don't be a copycat!" Phillipa reprimands him.

"Don't be bossy, Pippa!" James fires back.

"Both of you just worry about yourselves!" Dom scolds, eyes still not leaving the TV.

Arthur has to laugh. He can't imagine a life with children of his own, but now, he can't imagine Dom and Mal without James and Phillipa. He's even grown rather fond of them.

Finally, a commercial seems to break the spell on Dom, and he turns to Arthur. "I really ought to thank you," he starts. "I thought we were up a creek when Yusuf told Tom and Chris our league was full."

Arthur smiles, sort of. It's what Arthur thinks of as the bare minimum of smiling. "Yeah, well. It's..." he tries to think of any positive remark. "I like research?" he offers.

Dom laughs at that. "That'll help you. Has Ariadne been filling you in on the rules and all?"

Arthur nods. "Yeah, she has, and--"

Dom's head drops. "I was afraid of that," he says. Mal snorts.

Arthur glares at him. "What does that mean?"

"It means Ariadne is very smart, and very ambitious, but she's not exactly a football expert. Here, I can walk you through this game, and--"

"I think I can probably just find out on the Internet," Arthur says.

Dom scowls. "It's a human game, asshole; let me guide you."

Arthur actually laughs at this, and ultimately, Dom does as well. Then the game comes back on, and Dom quickly returns to resembling the little girl from Poltergeist.

Somewhere around the end of the second quarter, there's a knock on the door.

Mal gets up quickly, and (Arthur thinks) somewhat nervously. He can't quite account for the icky feeling in his stomach until he sees the sideways glance that Dom gives him. "No," Arthur whispers, as if he can stop it, but Dom just keeps grinning, and gives him the barest trace of a nod.

Arthur has no further time to prepare because the next thing he hears is a hearty, "Mal! How much have I missed, then?"

Arthur shuts his eyes and tries desperately to teleport himself elsewhere. The voice is gravelly, and downright jolly, and rushed and warm and altogether irritating, and even if he hadn't been able to recognize it instantly, he'd have known at the next thing to pass through the man's lips: "Aaaarthur!"

So Arthur opens his eyes and turns to face him. "Hi, Eames," he offers quietly. Dom is already swearing at one head coach or another.

There's silence for a second, and it's so crushing that Arthur, in spite of every instinct not to, has to blurt out, "How have you been?"

Eames grins stupidly at him. "Oh, you know me. I'm always well," he says with an annoying cocked eyebrow.

More silence. Dom, still not looking away from the screen, says, "Been a while since you've seen each other, eh?" through a wicked, albeit subtle smile.

Mal glowers at Dom. Eames laughs. Arthur's face gets far too hot.

"Oh, who remembers?" Eames mutters when he's stopped laughing.

James saves them all by running into the room and launching himself full-force at Eames, resulting in a rather indelicate collision of James' forehead and Eames' knee. James picks himself up and dusts himself off and reaches his hands up toward the ceiling. "EAMES," he starts chanting until Eames concedes and scoops James into his arms. "Eeeeeeaaaaaaames!" James exclaims with a sort of victorious ferocity, an inch away from Eames' face. He and Phillipa have never been able to get enough of Eames since they started taking the art classes he teaches uptown.

Arthur looks at Mal. "You have the weirdest children."

Mal smiles. James sticks his tongue out at Arthur and then quickly turns around to face Eames again. Phillipa chirps, "Thank you!" from the other room.

Eames just says, "Nonsense. You're just surprised there are people in the world who might be happy to see me."

"Children," Arthur points out quietly. "Not people..."

Mal rolls her eyes. "Honestly, Arthur."

Arthur scowls but apologizes all the same. The quarter is ending, and that takes everybody's attention of the thick scent of discomfort wafting through the room. Eames and Dom are playing each other this week, and they're both shouting as some running back barrels toward the end zone. When he's tackled some yards short, Eames nearly dances in celebration. Dom sticks a finger in Eames' face (as they're both standing in front of the TV now) and shouts, "FUCK YOU."

"FU--" is all that escapes James' mouth before Mal claps a hand over it. She mutters something to Dom in French.

"Oh, it's football; there are different rules!"

Eames laughs. "I think the Brady jersey is going to your head, Dom," he says.

All parties are fortunate that neither Mal nor James witnesses the obscene gesture Dom offers in response.

 

---

 

Halftime comes and goes quickly, and Arthur realizes without having to ask that, apparently, the typical halftime is nowhere near as long as the Super Bowl's, when there's enough time for a half-hour musical performance.

He know's he's clammed up since Eames arrived, and he really ought to try and make some conversation, but Dom and Eames are both talking football, and Arthur has nothing to offer there that either of them would like to hear. Mal takes James back into the other room, so Arthur follows. Phillipa has moved on from Legos, and now has what must be every crayon she owns splayed out on the rug. She herself is half-on-top-of the huge pad of paper she's adorning with her art.

"Arthur doesn't like Eames," she says matter-of-factly. Mal giggles.

"What makes you say that?" Mal asks, though Arthur wishes she wouldn't.

"Because he had a stinky face on when Eames knocked," she says, briefly pointing up at Arthur's face. "And because he came in here."

Arthur frowns. "Oh, you're right, mon chou, there's the stinky face," Mal says happily, picking up a crayon and joining Phillipa. James toddles back out the door, no doubt intending to clamber up Eames' legs again.

Arthur doesn't feel like arguing, so instead he just pulls up the ESPN Fantasy app on his phone.

"Have anybody playing tonight?" Mal asks him.

Arthur scans the match-up against Fischer's team. "No," he answers when he sees that nobody on his team is playing until Sunday.

"What about Robert, does he have anyone in?"

"Yeah," Arthur says slowly, seeing that Robert does have someone in play ("G. Olsen Car," the "TE" slot reads). "His tight end," he goes on, "Olsen."

"Here," Mal says, putting down her crayon and reaching for Arthur's phone. He hands it over and watches as her eyes dart around the screen. "It's not so bad," she offers, but, as Arthur hadn't implied otherwise, he finds this reaction a little disheartening. "Your projections are still pretty close."

"Projections?" Arthur asks, scooting over so that he's seated beside her and they can both look at the match-up together.

"Mm-hm," Mal confirms. "See here," she points to a faded figure beneath his team name and icon. "You're projected at 91.4 points. And Robert," she points beneath his team name, "is only projected at 96."

"That's not exactly encouraging," Arthur points out. He notices that there are also projected scores for the individual players on his team, which make up his 91.4-point projected total.

She hands him his phone back. "Well, projections are never completely accurate. But when they're as close as this, you really shouldn't worry." Arthur pockets his phone and tries to look less worried. "It's also only Week 1, so you really shouldn't worry, Arthur," Mal points out.

"I just don't want to lose to Fischer," he says after a moment, quietly, honestly. Phillipa glances up for a moment with the same knowing look Mal always casts so well, but he's barely noticed it before she turns back to her work.

"I know," Mal says, consoling him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "You shouldn't let him get to you; he's really not worth it."

Arthur sighs some sort of laugh. "That's some way to speak about your oldest friend," he says.

Mal rolls her eyes. "Oldest, maybe. Not closest," she squeezes his shoulder. "Come on," she says, getting up and holding her hands out to him. He takes them, and she helps to pull him up. "Let's go watch the game."

 

---

 

The night passes well enough. The Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers 21-20, and Fischer's tight end (Greg Olsen, it turns out he's named) earns 7.3 points. Dom explains that it's because Olsen received for 73 yards, and Arthur happily informs him that he already knows, as Ariadne explained the scoring to him yesterday.

Dom also explains where his own points come from, between his quarterback (Cam Newton), and one of his running backs (Jonathan Stewart), both of whom play for the Panthers. Arthur listens carefully, and does not share with Dom that, apparently, Ariadne maybe didn't have all the scoring quite right.

Arthur and Eames ignore each other politely for most of the evening. James and Phillipa end up crowding him on the couch, and Phillipa and Eames take turns giving in-depth analyses of her crayon drawings from earlier. Mal sticks close to Arthur, talking about the game and giving him her two cents on who he should start on Sunday, and especially berating his choice of drafting the Texans defense.

He texts Ariadne on the way home: Is Tom Brady the one we hate? Because he cheated last year?

Text from Ariadne (10:44 PM): YES, but it was 2 years ago
Text from Ariadne (10:44 PM): he deflated the balls at the super bowl and they were supposed to suspend him last year but they didn't and now he's finally suspended this year because JUSTICE
Text from Ariadne (10:44 PM): and we always hated him, but still, ur learning!

 

---

 

That Sunday, Mal and Dom invite Arthur and Ariadne both over to watch the afternoon and night games. Arthur pouts and pleads with Ariadne to just let him stay in, but she won't have it.

"Come on, Arthur; I want to go!"

"I hear you, but... Consider instead: not going."

"It's not often you play in a Fantasy league with people you can actually go and watch with," she points out.

Arthur frowns. "I'm beginning to think I've been deliberately misled about your experience with Fantasy."

Ariadne ignores the accusation. "We should go."

"But, what if--"

"Whatever it is," she interrupts, "you should have thought about it before you told me that Dom was dragging me on Thursday night."

He rolls his eyes. "He was hardly dragging you, he was just being Dom."

"IRRELEVANT," she announces. "I am a proud little Ariadne, and I will defend myself."

He and Ariadne watch the one o'clock games at home, both of them trying to carefully follow where all their points are coming from. She's playing Nash this week, and seems rather confident about it. Certainly better than Arthur feels facing off against Fischer, which he complains about tirelessly.

The thing about Fischer is that Mal is completely right: Arthur shouldn't let the guy get under his skin. Mal's father had worked with Fischer's at a university when Mal and Fischer were children, so they grew up together. Mal always spoke so fondly about him to Arthur, always saying how smart and funny he was, and so beautiful. Arthur couldn't argue; from all the photos he'd seen, Fischer was fucking gorgeous. And Arthur had been young when Fischer finally traveled to New York from Sydney to visit his old friend Mallorie. And Arthur had gotten it into his head, for some ridiculous reason, that he absolutely, positively must win him.

Mal still blames herself for this. She talked Fischer up so much, and made it seem like he would simply adore Arthur, and Arthur was thrilled for weeks, waiting to meet him.

Mal admits now that, for all she remembered of Robert and regaled to Arthur, she sadly forgot one very important thing: "Robert Fischer is a damned fool." He had no interest in Arthur whatsoever; that much was clear the moment they met. He was sweet with Mal, but besides that, the man was all business and propriety, and looked as though he had little room in his life for romance... for a moon-eyed Arthur.

It's very annoying that, years later, Arthur still lets the whole thing affect him so much. The problem was Fischer; it was so obvious. Arthur hadn't done anything wrong or off-putting; all he'd done was hope. He felt like such an idiot for hoping so hard to have this person he didn't even know, and even today, it makes him feel like Fischer has some sort of hold on him, because it still makes his skin crawl just to think about it.

Arthur, perhaps, has a small problem with letting things go. Fischer is not the only one who has this kind of hold on him. His visit is not the only encounter that makes his stomach churn, when he thinks about it in bed, wishing his mind would quiet so that he could sleep.

 

---

 

The Bengals beat the Jets, the Vikings beat the Titans, and some bird team performs well against the Bills. Ariadne is still berating Arthur for his classification system as they walk out the door at four. "If you wanna see Dom throw shade, just keep it up with this 'bird team' shit."

Arthur groans. "Okay, the red bird team."

"Those are the Cardinals," she says. "Or... wait, the Falcons... Damn it, Arthur. No 'bird team,' alright? Just learn the names."

He shrugs, and maybe takes a little satisfaction in frustrating her. "You just never expect there to be so many bird teams. Falcons, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Ospreys..."

"The Blue Jays are a Canadian baseball team," she tells him, annoyed. "Ospreys are just birds."

 

---

 

Ariadne settles in quickly once they arrive. Yusuf is there, and Eames as well, and the three of them are nestled on the couch together, shouting this and that at the television (showing the Giants at the Cowboys), and one another. Dom's in his own chair, glued again to the screen. Arthur is in the kitchen with Mal, who's streaming a different game on her laptop on the kitchen counter as she slices cheese.

She mutters delightedly in French, presumably about her score.

Arthur ignores this. "So, the gang's all here, huh?" he asks, aiming for casual, but landing squarely on accusatory.

Mal rolls her eyes. "Do you want me to apologize for not mentioning you wouldn't be here all alone?"

"No..." Arthur says, sheepish. "No, of course not." He feels bad now. "So is Nash hiding somewhere? Fischer flying in for a Sunday visit?" he asks with the hint of a smile, trying to diffuse the tension.

"Arthur, I'm not cruel," she answers. "It isn't as if I want you to be uncomfortable."

Arthur sighs. "Do I seem very comfortable with Eames here?" he whispers.

Mal only smiles and shakes her head. "Well, that, you need to get over. He's really quite lovely, and we see an awful lot of him." Arthur only makes a face. "It was one night; it was one anxiety attack. I think, if you would let your guard down--"

"Go. Go. GO. GO-GO-GO-GO, YES, OH MY GOD--" Eames' shouting cuts her off, followed by Yusuf's laments, and Dom's laughter. "Ezekiel Elliot, you bloody wonder!"

"Maybe," Arthur offers quietly to Mal, once the outbursts have died down, but quickly enough that she doesn't get a chance to finish her thought.

She's finished setting up the platter of fruit and cheese by now anyway. "Come on," she says, picking it up and starting toward the living room.

"You don't have anything else to make in here? Maybe a nice souffle we could bake real fast for three hours?" he asks, and while he's kidding, he's sure she can read his actual desperation.

"Oh, grab my wine and let's go," she says. Arthur gets Mal's glass, along with the bottle next to it on the counter.

He follows her back into the living room, where she puts the platter down on the coffee table. She takes a seat on the arm of Dom's chair while Arthur tries to scooch Ariadne inward on the couch an inch at a time. Eventually, she relents and slides down to the floor, spearing a chunk of melon from the platter on a toothpick.

This leaves Arthur with the unavoidable opportunity to sit in the seat she'd been occupying--the one right next to Eames. He tries not to stand around on edge, but even so, he must linger long enough that Eames feels he has to say, "I won't bite."

Yusuf laughs. "He's well-trained. He's stopped pissing on the rug entirely as well."

Eames might go red, even if Arthur finds it hard to believe. "Well, while sober, at least," Eames offers, which makes Ariadne laugh way too hard. Arthur shoots stank-face at the back of her head.

 

---

 

Between Ariadne and Mal, Arthur gets away without having to speak more than a handful of words to Eames over the rest of the evening. Plus, the Patriots played the night game, so Dom's completely feral behavior distracted everyone well enough.

The Patriots, annoyingly, won. They beat the Arizona Cardinals 23-21, even without Tom Brady. The Giants beat the Dallas Cowboys by a point, which seemed to please everyone. Even Arthur had to admit that after the Jets' loss, it was nice to see a New York team win. And even if they weren't all living in New York, they'd probably have been just as pleased, because Arthur's slowly learning that there are Dallas fans, and then there are apparently just people who hate Dallas. The Detroit Lions beat the Indianapolis Colts 39-35, in what Arthur was happy to have guessed was a particularly high-scoring game.

As for his fantasy score... Well, he lost. There will be two more games tomorrow night, but neither Arthur nor Fischer has any players left to play. The score is 108.1 to 81.9, and Arthur's dragging his feet on the way home about it.

"It's week one, Arthur," Ariadne groans. Again. "Your'e bitching like you're the only one who lost!"

He glares at her. "You're going to win," he bites.

She rolls her eyes and pulls up the app again, leaving him to effectively be her seeing-eye-dog as she closely examines his match-up. "Okay, so Fischer had a few crazy-lucky scores," she starts. "Like, Brandin Cooks with 30 points? That's insane; way more than a receiver would normally get. And... yeah, both his quarterbacks did really well, but that's not going to happen every week..."

Arthur kicks at the sidewalk and nearly trips, but he's pretty sure only Ariadne notices. Not that strangers on the street witnessing him almost-trip would be some sort of crisis or anything, he pretends to believe. "Whatever. My quarterback didn't do anything for me. 16 points... And then some guy on my bench got more than 20! I should have played him..."

Ariadne nods. "Yeah, Theo Riddick," she says. "He did well. But you still would have lost if you'd played him. Some weeks are just better than others, Arthur."

He nods along and they keep walking as she finally puts her phone away. "I just wish it wasn't Fischer," Arthur sighs.

"At least you don't have to see him," she points. And she's right; the logical parts of Arthur know that. It was rather lucky that his first game was against one of the few people he won't possibly end up seeing in person. But, for Arthur, nothing's ever lucky. It's all just different shades of inconvenience.

"It's almost worse," he says. "I feel like I can just see him being so smug, all the way on the other side of the world, at how he beat Mal's doe-eyed little friend who made a fool of--"

"Jesus, Arthur," Ariadne sighs, exhausted. "You don't even know him! He probably isn't even thinking twice about any of this. From what Mal says, all the guy does is work. Why do you do this to yourself?"

Arthur hangs his head. "I don't know."

Chapter Text

Ariadne pesters Arthur for three straight days about how he can't possibly quit.

"I'm not saying I'll quit," Arthur explains, "but I could just... stop, couldn't I?"

Ariadne rolls her eyes. "Didn't you ever have some flaky kindergarten teacher tell you that quitting and not-trying are basically the same thing?"

He hates that she's right. "I don't like losing."

"I know." She pokes him gently in the chest. "But think about how completely un-fun this league will be for everyone else if there's just some crappy ghost team they have to play."

Arthur really doesn't like to feel responsible for other people's good times, but he still feels a twinge of guilt, or obligation, or whatever his nagging moral compass is cooking up. "Fine," is all he says Wednesday night before bed.

Thursday is the beginning of week two. This week, he'll be playing Yusuf, which is better and worse. On the one hand, Yusuf isn't someone who's kept Arthur up at night. On the other, Arthur will still have to see Yusuf.

Last week, Mal beat Yusuf. Ariadne beat Nash, Eames beat Dom, and Saito beat this Charles person.

Thursday morning, Arthur wakes to find Ariadne putting their large whiteboard back up in its spot on the kitchen wall. Yesterday it had a shopping list, Ariadne's class schedule, a bunch of scribbled reminders and notes, and (if Arthur remembers correctly) the chorus of "Call Me Maybe."

Today, it lists all 10 teams in their league by name and owner, plus a column for their wins and losses. Ariadne's also written out all 5 matchups for each of the 13 weeks of the league, and even made an empty playoff bracket at the bottom, for when their regular season ends. On top, the league name is written in block letters: TEAM SHARE

Seeing all the team names listed in front of him, it occurs to Arthur he hadn't really paid any attention to them last week (although he did notice that Fischer came up with the totally uninspired Fischer Kings). He studies them now.

Spinning Tops (MAL)
Dream Team (DOM)
9 Angry Men (YUS)
Bloody Footballers (EAM)
Too Many Men (ARI)
Point Men (ART)
Saito House Rules (SAI)
Team Nash (NAS)
Fischer Kings (FIS)
Hail Mary's (CHA)

All their team names had started out as "Team this-last-name" or "Team that-last-name." Ariadne had to bug Arthur a lot before he decided to come up with a new one. But now that he sees the full list, it does make it more fun. And seeing Team Nash all alone has him grateful now that he wasn't too stubborn to play along.

Ariadne's circled the winners of the week 1 games with red marker. He glances at the week 2 matchups. Yusuf v. Arthur, Nash v. Saito, Ariadne v. Eames, Fischer v. Charles, Mal v. Dom.

Mal's playing Dom. That should be fun. And Ariadne is probably very excited to be playing Eames, because they got along so well. He's about to mention it to her, but the sight of her at the counter, eyes heavy-lidded, staring sleepily at her nearly-empty cup of coffee, makes him forget.

"Did you even sleep?" Arthur asks, wondering how she found the time to dig into the league and map this all out when she'd already gotten in so late last night.

She ignores the question. "I'm gonna be late," she says, gathering her backpack (and about five things that should probably be in it) gracelessly into her arms. "Don't forget to set your lineup," she says over her shoulder as she makes her way toward the door. Arthur doesn't know whether her game-plan is to haul her haphazard lump of belongings all the way to the Subway stop, but he salutes her ambition as she lets the front door close behind her.

Arthur pretends not to care about the whiteboard until he's sure Ariadne's not about to walk back in, having forgotten something. Then, he stares at it sort of helplessly, willing it to come up with more information than it currently offers. "You aren't going to help me with my lineup at all, are you?" he sighs.

He glances at his laptop where it sits, tempted for a moment to pull up the ESPN website and take a look at his team, but thinks better of it, and heads out to work.

 

---

 

The office is slow today. Arthur's got everything done that needs getting done by lunchtime. He considers stepping out to grab a bite at the place around the corner, as he often does, but he's let his stupid lineup worry his stupid brain enough for the past three hours. He ends up at his desk, a microwave cup of noodles growing tepid beside him as he plugs away on the ESPN site.

He looks. He reads. He Googles. He frowns. He sends texts to Ariadne, and to Mal, and even thinks for more than five seconds about texting Dom, which he considers a sign of personal growth. Arthur's been looking at Yusuf's lineup, needing to be reassured of many things, like "The Jets are pretty bad, right?" and, "Did Adrian Peterson's suspension last year seem to affect his performance?" and, "Seriously, should I ACTUALLY play Edelman?" because regardless of what everyone says about the guy, Arthur can't bring himself to trust him. Then again, Arthur benched Edelman last week, and could have probably used even the measly 8.2 points he ended up getting...

Tonight's game is the Jets at the Bills, so Arthur doesn't actually have to worry about setting his lineup yet, as he doesn't have any players from either team. But Yusuf has the Bills' defense, as well as Eric Decker, a Jet who performed well last week. By the looks of it, Yusuf's lineup is all set, and if Arthur's going to have to see Yusuf at the Cobbs' tonight, he doesn't want to show up without his lineup set as well.

He decides to keep Edelman on his bench ("For now," he utters defensively under his breath, as if the other members of the league are watching over his shoulder). Stefon Diggs, a wide receiver for Minnesota, isn't projected very high this week, even if he did earn Arthur 10 points last week as his "Flex" player. (The flex position is unique in fantasy, Arthur learned, because it can be occupied by a wide receiver, a running back, or a tight end.)

He puts Matt Jones, a running back for Washington, into the flex slot instead. Jones actually underperformed last week, earning only 3.3 points. But this week he's projected at 11 against the Cowboys, so Arthur takes the chance. He keeps Russell Wilson as his quarterback, because even if Arthur was underwhelmed by Wilson's 11.9 points last week, he's still not ready to trust his backup, Sam Bradford, however optimistic Ariadne is about him. At least Wilson is a seasoned starting quarterback; Bradford's only been at it a week.

After an hour or so, he's satisfied. He's projected at 89 points, while Yusuf is only projected at 83, and even as Arthur is using these projections to quell his unease, he can just hear Dom's voice somewhere in the back of his head... "Don't trust projections..." Still, Arthur clicks on "Submit Lineup," happy to be done with it for now.

 

---

 

Ariadne is usually scarce on Thursdays. She heads out to the coffee shop early, has classes for hours after that, and usually spends the remainder of the evening holed up in her studio on campus, painting angrily and running on fumes. But when Arthur got home from work tonight, she was already in the apartment.

"Tell me you aren't skipping class for the football game," Arthur had said to her.

She looked up from her laptop, eyes wide with too much guilt, looking an awful lot like a woodland critter from Bambi. In spite of this expression, she still mustered a defiant, "I don't just say things that people tell me to say."

So, unlike last week, Arthur arrives at Mal's place tonight with Ariadne in tow, as well as the six-pack Ariadne made them stop for on the way. Sure enough, Eames and Yusuf are already there. There's no room for awkward silence tonight, though, as Eames stands upon Ariadne's entrance and asks, "Ready to lose?"

Ariadne throws her head back in exaggerated laughter before snapping back to thin her eyes at Eames and sneer, "You're fucking toast." She then scurries over to him, and the two of them hug before diving into a lot of overly-confident speculation about tonight's game.

Yusuf approaches, and smiles as he claps a hand on Arthur's shoulder. "You and me this week, eh?" he asks.

Arthur nods. "Guess so," he offers, grateful that Yusuf is actively friendly in the way Arthur can never seem to be. "Pressure's off me tonight, though," he reminds Yusuf. "I don't have anybody in 'til Sunday."

"More glory for me, I suppose," Yusuf replies with a grin.

Arthur smiles. "Yeah, maybe..." he says, indulging but clearly sarcastic. "Then again, you're counting on a Jet."

"YES!" They hear Dom from the other room. "Arthur's talking shit!"

Arthur rolls his eyes. Ariadne chimes in, "I've been teaching him."

Yusuf laughs. "You do have a point, though. It is risky. Maybe I oughtn't've started him..."

Ariadne sighs. "Maybe Arthur oughtn't've made his opponent second-guess a crappy lineup when he still has time to change it," she says pointedly.

Arthur hadn't thought of that, and for a moment he glances back to Yusuf nervously. Yusuf only laughs harder. "Don't you worry; I'm keeping Decker in. I've got a good feeling about him tonight. I just hope the Jets offense puts up as sorry a display as I've come to expect from them."

Dom butts in. "Spoken with all the sad sobriety of a Jets fan," he teases. Yusuf pretends to pout. "You've got Buffalo's defense, right?"

Yusuf nods. "Yeah. Not my proudest draft pick, but even the Bills' defense should be able to stand up well against the Jets."

Arthur wants to ask whether the Jets are really that bad, but if there's one thing Arthur hates more than not knowing things, it's other people knowing he doesn't know things. So, he makes a mental note to look it up later, or at least ask Ariadne. Some part of him knows he's making a big deal about this. It's the part of him that he suspects is just some chorus of Ariadne's and Mal's voices in his head. After all, every other person here already knows that Arthur knows nothing about football. If he asked for clarification, it wouldn't surprise any of them.

But admitting that he doesn't know literally everything is a concession Arthur just isn't willing to make.

 

---

 

The night is enjoyable, really. Arthur likes getting to know Yusuf. They have a bit in common, and when Yusuf isn't busy playing Julian Edelman headgames with Arthur ("I'm just saying, Arthur, I couldn't keep Edelman on my bench. I mean it's Julian Edelman."), they talk about Neil Gaiman, and Firefly, and Mr. Show.

Ariadne teases Eames relentlessly about starting the Jets defense. Dom started out the night making fun of the Jets along with Ariadne, but it turns out nobody in the league has more Jets on their team than Mal.

Dom's being a real douchebag about it, actually, as the game's starting. "Oh, Mal. My sweet, naive Mal," he drawls. "Well, at least you didn't start Fitzpatrick." (Ryan Fitzpatrick is the Jets quarterback. He apparently led the Jets to a decent season last year—a "restructuring year", if Yusuf is to be believed—but Mal still opted to start her other quarterback, Arizona's Carson Palmer.) "And, really, Brandon Marshall, I get," Dom went on about the Jets wide receiver (who, if Arthur remembered correctly, was ranked pretty high during the draft), "but Matt Forte? With Frank Gore on your bench?"

Mal rolls her eyes. "Matt Forte is a fine running back," she says thinly.

Dom leans toward Arthur, as if they're suddenly on the same team, and says, "This, Arthur. This is what happens when you trust projections."

Arthur doesn't have a chance to respond before Mal grins and says, "Remind me, how did your game go last week? Because am currently undefeated."

"Pfft... There is no 'undefeated' yet. It's been one damn week," Dom responds before wandering off to try his hand at smack talk with Eames and Ariadne.

 

---

 

The Jets fucking win. They beat the Bills 37 to 31, and Arthur is sure there are neighbors cheering along with them. Yusuf is especially pleased. Apparently he and his brother are near life-long Jets fans.

Ryan Fitzpatrick amasses 21 points on Mal's bench, surprising even her. Brandon Marshall didn't do much, but he managed 10.1 points, and and Matt Forte was an absolute miracle, earning 28.9. By the end of the night, Mal's projected to beat Dom by an even bigger margin than before.

Eames' faith in the Jets defense was still misplaced, though—not that Yusuf's Bills defense does much better. The Bills get Yusuf 1 point. The Jets get Eames nothing. Ariadne has a field day with that. Eames just keeps looking on the bright side: at least they didn't go into the negatives.

 

---

 

Saturday, Arthur becomes the unwilling participant of a group text, initiated by Mal. He wishes Ariadne was home, so that he could complain about it, but she's working a late shift at the coffee shop.

Mal (8:47 PM): Very sorry, everyone - Poor James is sick. We went to the doctor's office today. We won't be able to have you over for the games tomorrow.
*7435 (8:49 PM): Sorry to hear that. Thursday then?
*9451 (8:51 PM): Poor bugger .. is it serious
Ariadne (8:54 PM): [sobbing emoji] tell james to get his shit together
Ariadne (8:54 PM): jk
Ariadne (8:54 PM): sorta
Mal (9:03 PM): Yusuf, Thursday should be fine. Eames, it's just a stomach bug. He'll be fine; thank you for asking.
Mal (9:04 PM): Ariadne, you are welcome to come and help James get his shit together. The stomach bug has assured there is plenty of it. Or perhaps you would rather deal with his vomit?
*9451 (9:05 PM): [laughing emoji] [laughing emoji]
Ariadne (9:07 PM): thursday's cool...
Mal (9:15 PM): Dominic wants to go out to watch the Patriots; anyone interested in watching at Nick's?

 

---

 

Everyone agrees. Even Arthur, because he won't be the one to make waves.

Arthur's instinct is to be relieved at Mal's news. He won't have to see Yusuf tomorrow, and be sitting with him when the points start to accumulate.

But then, he'd had a really nice time with Yusuf on Thursday. He was even, maybe, slightly looking forward to watching Sunday's games with him—maybe even trying his hand at more goading. He even thinks, for a moment, about seeing whether Ariadne would like to invite Yusuf to their place tomorrow.

But only for a moment, because that's how long it takes to realize Ariadne would also insist they invite Eames.

Arthur's getting better at playing nice with Eames. It's easier to be around him, really, because Ariadne and Eames have really been hitting it off (which is its own brand of infuriating). Arthur's pretty sure Ariadne knows that it gets under his skin to see them that way, buddy-buddy, but neither of them mention it. They're pretty good at picking their battles.

But, at any rate, she and Eames end up chatting and joking for most of the time that everyone's all together now, so it takes the pressure off Arthur.

Because Arthur doesn't want to have to talk to Eames. He doesn't even want to make polite conversation about the weather. He can't abide the thought of even the most benign exchange of pleasantries. Because even if Arthur and Eames don't know each other at all, Eames still got a window into one of many parts of Arthur that Arthur prefers to keep hidden.

"It was just one night," Mal had said last week. "One anxiety attack."

She wasn't wrong.

 

---

 

Nothing really happened. Nothing ever happened.

Dom had walked into the men's room at the bar the night that Arthur and Eames had met, and Arthur had been crying—standing there crying, like an idiot—not long after he'd been talking to Eames. Dom assumed that it had been Eames that made Arthur cry, and Dom proceeded to inform Mal of this and make a big stink about it.

Nothing really happened. It was just a night when Arthur hadn't had the patience to have somebody smarming over him like that. The crying wasn't about Eames, it was about wishing he hadn't been at that party—hadn't been out at the bar with all those people around.

He'd wanted so desperately that night to cancel, and he was sure that Mal would have understood... but all the same, it was her birthday. And so Arthur had collected himself and pep-talked himself in the mirror, in the apartment that had then been only his. He told himself he'd have fun. He told himself that he'd have nothing to worry about. He told himself that he was totally in control, and that a bar was just a place, even when it was packed with people, and loud and cramped and close. Arthur shook the thoughts of worry out of his head and headed out to Mal's party.

Anxiety's really a bitch. It was pretty new for Arthur at the time, even if he couldn't yet identify it, and that was the night he had his first anxiety attack.

They were young. At least, it seems that way, when Arthur thinks about it now. It was only 3 years ago. Arthur was only 23. Mal, 26, and not even pregnant with James yet. She must have known something was wrong, Arthur is sure. She's even told him as much since then. He'd have forgiven her, even if she hadn't known. But she was drunk, and bombarded so often by people that Arthur couldn't find a way to be near her without getting uncomfortable. He didn't feel much like drinking, but everyone was well on their way to being very drunk, so Arthur just ordered a beer and nursed it, standing in a corner (a corner, for Pete's sake), while others crowded the dancefloor and the bar.

He just felt wrong. He felt like he really, really didn't want to be here, and even thinking about that fact made him feel so damn petulant that he kept himself rooted to the spot, sipping his beer, berating himself silently for shutting himself off in a corner like this when he'd had plenty of fun nights out drinking, even with some of these very people, even in this very same bar, so many times before.

Arthur had been breathing quickly, he knew, but he wanted desperately not to look in any way like he was feeling, so he tried hard to exude the air of someone who was cool, and together, and just fine.

He might have succeeded if not for Eames.

Arthur didn't know him as Eames yet. Not then. Instead, all Arthur saw was a broad man sauntering over toward him, looking unmistakably like he was about to ply Arthur with just the kind of attention that Arthur felt there was no earthly way he could handle right now.

"All alone?" the man asked him, in a voice lighter and raspier and more British than Arthur had expected.

This was so not what he needed. "Yep," Arthur answered, aiming for brevity, but landing squarely on rude.

"Strange place to be to come alone," the man had said with a little smirk, like somehow he and Arthur were sharing a joke. Like they weren't complete strangers.

Arthur was trying, with difficulty, to hide the fact that he might now be actually hyperventilating. "I guess so," he offered, sounding impatient.

"Listen," the man said. "I just thought I might say hello; you don't have to—"

"'Say hello?' I don't know you," Arthur said, all attempts at politeness breaking inside him. "Don't act like I'm supposed to behave one way or another toward a total stranger approaching me."

The man raised an eyebrow in what looked like offended surprise. "You're awfully cheerful, aren't you? It's a bar, alright? Forgive me for seeing a nice-looking man and having the audacity to try and speak to him."

"You're forgiven," Arthur sneered, turning away quickly because his stupid eyes were suddenly wet and hot, and his throat felt raw and dry, and his stomach felt like there was a fucking hole somewhere in it where it certainly shouldn't be. The man tried to say something else, but Arthur simply handed him his practically-full bottle of beer before the guy could even realize it. Then Arthur tore away toward the men's room.

It was a hair quieter in there, but not by much. Arthur found no relief like what he'd been hoping for, and stood there crying, wondering what the hell was wrong with him to make him so upset, to turn his body into this mass of heaving breaths, over absolutely fucking nothing.

Everything felt too short and shaky and wrong, and he needed to fucking leave this place.

Then Dom had burst in, seen Arthur, and Arthur would never forget look on Dom's fucking face as he'd pushed past him and made his way desperately through the bodies, to the front door and out into the street.

 

---

 

Sunday is pleasant.

Ariadne works a half-shift at the coffee shop in the morning, covering for somebody. Arthur spends only a fraction of the time that she's gone staring angrily at his lineup. Most of his players are in 1 o'clock games today, meaning he'll have to decide just about everything by then.

Mostly, he's indecisive about his wide receivers. Odell Beckham Jr. didn't score very well last week, only 7.3 points. But he's still one of the top ranked players in the league, Arthur thinks, and the Giants won last week; they could win again. Beckham stays, he decides. For now.

The other wide receiver that's currently set to play is the Colts' Donte Moncrief, who did well last week with 12.4 points. He glances down to his bench and sees Julian Edelman, projected at 13 points to Moncrief's 7. Still stubborn, he even thinks of putting Stefon Diggs back in, but he's projected lower than Edelman too...

It's comforting that there are slots that don't require him to make a choice. Arthur only has one defense: the Houston Texans. He only has one kicker: Mason Crosby, who plays for the Packers. And he only has one tight end: Travis Kelce, for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Arthur eyes the rest of his choices. He can live with his running backs. He can live with his quarterback. He can even live with Matt Jones as his flex...

He groans. Loudly. Maybe dramatically. This is why Arthur likes to have the apartment to himself once in a while. He can't throw his tantrums around Ariadne without her stepping in like some kind of adult.

He puts Edelman back in his lineup, switching out Moncrief. The Patriots are playing at 1, so at least Arthur won't have to wait in agony too long.

---

Ariadne gets home at quarter to 1. She catches a glimpse of Arthur's lineup on his laptop (which he totally didn't leave open, and maybe zoomed to 110% so that she could appraise it without him having to really ask her).

"Edelman," she says softly, with almost no intonation whatsoever.

Arthur switches him out for Stefon Diggs before Ariadne even has her shoes off.

 

---

 

"Check what games we're getting," Ariadne calls from the kitchen. Arthur turns on the TV, and notes the time on the cable box. 12:54.

He skips through the guide. "The Giants versus the Saints... And the Cowboys versus the... blegh," he cuts off, reading the game info. Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins, "...versus Washington."

Ariadne wrinkles her nose. "I know. It's gross. Luckily, they're also pretty shitty at football most seasons, so you rarely even have to mention them."

She puts a big bowl of popcorn down on the coffee table in front of him. Then she sits on the couch and pulls the big bowl of popcorn into her lap.

"Is that just an Ariadne snack?" Arthur asks.

She nods, shoveling a handful of popcorn into her mouth, through which she barely manages, "What're you having?"

He looks at the time again. 12:57.

Arthur takes Stefon Diggs out of his lineup and puts Julian Edelman back in again.

 

---

 

They order Chinese food. Like, a crazy amount of Chinese food. Ariadne makes Arthur call the place to order instead of just using an app.

"Nice, quiet, relaxing day," Arthur sighs, passive aggressively. "I could have gotten away without talking to anyone."

Ariadne rolls her eyes. "Arthur, the perfect time to challenge yourself is on a nice, quiet, relaxing day," she says.

Arthur frowns. He wishes she wouldn't do things like this, especially since he was mostly joking anyway. She's always trying to make Arthur seize opportunities for growth. To Arthur, it sometimes feels more like reminding him that he's still broken, even in the moments he feels put-together.

But that was sort of her condition when Arthur decided not to pursue professional help. If he won't see a therapist, he'll have to let Ariadne help him where she can.

"I'm just saying," she goes on, gently, trying not to sound patronizing, Arthur can tell, "it's so easy to build up little things into big things. But if you just make yourself face something that you don't really want to face every day, it can help keep the little things small."

He tilts his head at her, and she tilts hers back. It happens like this a lot. Arthur can't just let Ariadne's simplistic advice settle into the room right away. He has to let it shift around, maybe give it a quarter-turn before it falls into place. He shouldn't be so skeptical of Ariadne at these times. She's not trying to sell him something. She's trying to help.

He nods, and the stress of the moment passes, and they watch the Giants game.

 

---

 

Things don't exactly go well for Arthur.

It seems that for every minute that goes by, Yusuf's projected score rises, and Arthur's falls, until the numbers are too depressing to look at.

By the end of the 1 o'clock games, it's looking positively bleak. 7 of his 9 players have finished, and he's only got 58.3 points. His kicker, Mason Crosby, hasn't played yet, because the Packers have the night game. And Mason Crosby, good kicker though he is, won't be enough to seal the deal.

No, what Arthur has to hope for is that Russell Wilson has the game of his fucking career. Because aside from the Texans defense earning him an unexpected 15 points, and Matt Jones pulling through with 12.5 points, nobody on Arthur's team has even broken 10. Including Julian fucking Edelman, who earned a paltry 7.6.

"What the hell is this?" Arthur had complained during halftime. "Does this quarterback even know that Edelman is out there?"

Ariadne had smiled at him. "See, I feel for you," she said, "but I'm also really loving this passion." Arthur frowned. "It's probably just because Tom Brady is still out. He makes really amazing plays with Edelman," she told him.

"Yeah, well," Arthur had huffed. "I'm putting him on my fucking bench 'til Brady's back, then." He had then swallowed the hiccup of self-satisfaction that had arisen when he heard himself talking football, and sounding more than halfway to knowing what he was talking about.

 

---

 

"Nobody on your bench did well, though," Ariadne points out as they wait for the 8:30 game, the Packers at the Vikings. "So it wasn't an issue of you choosing poorly, so far."

Arthur rolls his eyes. "Oh, yeah. I did a great job choosing; it's just my shitty team that sucks."

"You do have a gift for finding the gray cloud behind all my silver linings."

Arthur ignores this. "Like you said, we don't know that I chose properly yet. I still have two more benched players to go." He eyes the names warily on his phone: Stefon Diggs, Sam Bradford. Both are Minnesota Vikings. Both are projected well--better than anybody that Arthur chose to play. But, like Dom said, you can't always trust projections.

He instinctively shakes his head with distaste when he realizes he just partly settled himself with words of widsom from Dom fucking Cobb.

Russell Wilson sucked. He only got 11.6 points. "I'm going to be so mad if it turns out I should have played Bradford," he mutters.

Ariadne laughs. "That'll merit an I-told-you-so or two."

"Oh please," Arthur groans. "I still think you've just got blind faith in Bradford. You just want to believe he'll be great so that the Vikings will do well."

"Sometimes," she begins, like she's doling out priceless wisdom, "blind faith is kind of all you have as a football fan. Just look at Yusuf. Poor guy's a Jets fan. Can you imagine? Now that's blind faith."

Arthur sighs. Some levee inside him bursts. "Are the Jets really that bad?"

Ariadne laughs. "Most of the time, yeah. Slobs haven't won a Super Bowl since Super Bowl 2."

Arthur has to grin at that. "Jesus," he says. "Were they playing with an actual pigskin?"

Ariadne starts laughing her silly laugh. "Probably. Maybe just an actual pig."

"Maybe that's how they won," Arthur says. "When the ball can run itself in..."

Ariadne holds the TV clicker like a microphone. "And the ball's taken off down the field!" she announces, playing the football commentator. "He's at the 40! He's at the 30! The 20! He COULD. GO. ALL. THE. WAY!"

Arthur puts his hands flat on the coffee table. "Breaking news in the sports world. Deflate Gate! Was Super Bowl 2 a fluke? Find out more in our interview with the possibly-deflated pig himself."

Ariadne snorts and falls off the couch.

 

---

 

Arthur loses.

Sam Bradford outscores Russell Wilson by almost 8 points.

Stefon Diggs earns 24.2.

"I'm never playing Julian Edelman again," Arthur swears before they head to bed.

 

---

 

Yusuf technically still has a player left: Alshon Jeffery, a Bears wide receiver, in the game tomorrow night against the Eagles. But Yusuf is already up by 6 points, so unless Alshon Jeffery manages to get a lot of negative points (which, Ariadne pointed out, is only improbable, not impossible), Arthur's done-for.

It doesn't sting the way it did last week. It doesn't feel great, but it's not as humiliating.

He falls asleep proud of himself in spite of everything. Proud of himself for still trying, proud of himself for not hating himself tonight.

And the way some people lie in bed and pray, Arthur lies and bed and thinks strongly of Ariadne, and reminds himself to be grateful each day for having somebody in his life, somebody he loves, that makes it so much easier not to hate himself.

Chapter Text

Thursday comes around quickly again. It's funny, you never actually have to wait that long for a football game. One on Thursday night, games all day on Sunday, and another one on Monday night. So week 3 sneaks up on Arthur the same way that weeks 1 and 2 did.

Ariadne's switched around her entire schedule by now to keep Thursday nights free.

Arthur doesn't feel the usual sense of dread as he and Ariadne get ready to go to Nick's that night. Arthur really likes Nick's, actually. It's not really a sports bar. In fact, it's pretty divey for a place that always has the games on. But not so divey that it actually grosses Arthur out. He and Ariadne used to meet there a lot before she moved in. And it's sort of the perfect distance between Mal's place and theirs.

He's looking forward to seeing Mal. They don't get to see each other the way they used to ("When I was your Ariadne," Mal likes to joke). She's still one of Arthur's best friends, and he loves her dearly, but there just isn't always enough of her to go around. If she isn't with the kids, she's working tirelessly on her blog (one still steadily picking up followers, and even a sponsor or two), or taking advantage of Dom's limited free time ever since he made partner. Arthur didn't really take the time to think about how nice it's been to have a new routine with Mal until it was disrupted when James got sick.

He's also looking forward to seeing Yusuf. He can even abide the thought of Yusuf poking fun at him for losing, or just the look that'll be on Yusuf's face as soon as he sees him. He's looking forward to being around someone he can have an actual conversation with while Ariadne is talking with Eames, as she'll undoubtedly be.

And while Arthur wouldn't say he's "looking forward" to seeing Eames, his skin, at least, isn't crawling about it the way it was last week.

He does his best to ride these positive feelings like a current, and he and Ariadne head out for Nick's.

 

---

 

Nick's isn't empty, but it isn't packed. There's a couple groups at tables and booths, but the bar is empty except for two old men in Giants jackets. And also, Yusuf and Eames.

Yusuf notices them first, then taps Eames on the arm and says something to him. Eames glances up toward Arthur and Ariadne where they stand near the entrance and smiles, wide and crooked.

Ariadne bumps her hip against Arthur's, and he follows her to the bar, where she crowds Eames immediately. "You should really be ashamed of yourself, you know," she says. "Did you see my score? I can't believe I beat you with 74 points."

Eames laughs. "You're just lucky I did so poorly, because besides me, I think you were the lowest scorer this week."

"Nope!" she chirps, then turns to cackle and poke Arthur in the side a lot. Arthur giggles in spite of himself.

"Yeah, yeah," he allows. It helps to know that he beat Eames' score, actually. He hadn't noticed before.

Yusuf shakes his head. "You got unlucky," he says to Arthur, fighting a smile. Ariadne and Eames go back to chatting.

Arthur nods. "I did. And did you see my bench? Diggs got 24 points."

Yusuf bites his lip sympathetically. "I almost regret trying to get in your head about Edelman."

Arthur laughs. "It's fine. I haven't learned, anyway. I'm starting him tonight."

Ariadne breaks away from her conversation with Eames for a second. "What? Why?"

Arthur groans. "Because every projection, and every website, and everyone of you assholes won't shut up about how he's this big power player!"

Yusuf grins at that. "I can't blame you. I told you, I couldn't leave Edelman on my bench. That wasn't just a jibe; I really don't think I'd have the strength."

"I guess I don't have the strength either," Arthur sighs. "Part of me wants to just drop him from my team so I don't keep playing him, but Ariadne keeps telling me I should wait until Brady's back."

"Ariadne is right," Yusuf says. Ariadne overhears him and pumps her fists in the air. "Plus, if anything, you should trade him. I bet Dom would trade for him, or maybe Nash."

"Did Nash set his lineup?" Ariadne pokes in again and asks. Eames gives in and stands to face Yusuf and Arthur fully. "Because I don't think he set it last week."

"I'm not sure," says Eames.

"But he won, didn't he?" Arthur offers.

Ariadne's looking at her phone by now. "Yeah, he won. He beat Saito by like 6 and a half points."

"Saito's hanging in there so far, waiting for Brady's suspension to end," Yusuf says.

"No," Ariadne answers the earlier question. "Nash didn't set his lineup. I mean, it's set, I guess. But he hasn't changed it since last week.

Eames laughs. "I don't think he's changed it since week 1, actually," he says, looking at his own phone now.

Yusuf shakes his head. "He's been weird lately. I think he's going to quit."

Nash isn't a lawyer. If Arthur remembers correctly, he started doing office work at Saito's firm as a temp, then got hired as a full assistant or secretary or something like that. He used to hang out with Dom and Yusuf sometimes. He and Arthur never really got along.

"Quit what?" Arthur asks. "The league or the firm?"

Yusuf smiles at the question for some reason. "The firm. He's had a bad attitude for weeks, so if he doesn't quit, I don't see Saito keeping him around much longer."

"I never liked this guy," Ariadne says, with all the certainty of the damn Oracle.

Yusuf looks her way. "Oh, when did you meet Nash?"

"She hasn't," Arthur answers for her. "She's just a judgy little thing," he adds, even though he knows she'll blow up his spot for it.

As expected, she turns to him, eyes wide, the way they always are when she's about to pull the pin on a grenade. She's got a pointer finger six inches from Arthur's face before she's even begun to speak. This alone has the three men stifling laughter. "I learned everything I know about Nash from you," she fires through a smile, her excitement at the opportunity to shut him down far outweighing any offence at what he actually said. For a moment, he wonders how much she'll actually sell him out here, but she limits herself to a broody impression of Arthur's pouty face, and mutters, "Meh, Nash... Mehhhh," until even Arthur himself has to laugh.

Arthur feels hands on his shoulders at the same time Eames lights up and says, "Mal!"

The hands on his shoulders turn into arms wrapped tightly around him, and Arthur beams in spite of himself. Once she lets go, he turns around to face her. She leans in. "You look happy, my love," she whispers beside his ear. "That makes me happy."

Arthur probably blushes. Ariadne always reminds him that he doesn't need the validation of others to know he has value himself. But as close as they are, Arthur is always a little bit in awe of Mal--her beauty, her effortless confidence, the way she always seems entirely put together. So, even though he maybe doesn't need it, he still craves Mal's validation, her kind words, her warmth.

Mal is pulled away (literally) by Ariadne, and Dom approaches Arthur. He throws his arm around Arthur's shoulder and basically shakes him a bit. "Week 3, Arthur! You ready?"

Arthur doesn't even stop smiling, even if he does shrug Dom off. "Ready as I'll ever be," and barely even worries for a second about playing Edelman.

 

---

 

By kickoff, the six of them are ducks in a row at the bar: Dom, Mal, Ariadne, Eames, Arthur, Yusuf.

Arthur doesn't mind sitting next to Eames so much. Eames is mostly talking to Ariadne, and Arthur is mostly talking to Yusuf.

More importantly, though, Arthur has to admit that Eames is wearing at him, dulling his sharper edges. Tonight, Eames' smiles seem more real. Arthur usually sees them like masks, or jokes. Now, he can see they're just smiles.

One of the bartenders—young, perky, and blonde—has been paying Arthur plenty of attention since the moment he arrived. Arthur got his second Stella Artois before she'd even taken Mal's and Dom's orders, and even though he's only halfway through it now, she looks like she can't wait to serve him another.

It's not unheard of for Arthur. He knows he's nice-looking, and he knows he's well-dressed, and he can't pretend not to notice it when somebody else does. Beyond noticing, though, he doesn't pay any of it much mind.

Arthur watches the game, tries to keep tabs on Edelman. 'What number is he, again?" he asks Yusuf.

"11," Yusuf answers. "That's not seared into your brain yet? You don't see it when you close your eyes?"

Arthur laughs. "I guess it probably should be. You know, they should put their numbers somewhere here," he points out while he looks at his app.

Yusuf tilts his head. "Yeah, they really should," like Arthur's just come up with something brilliant. "It's actually kind of ridiculous they don't have their numbers listed anywhere. I forget most of them."

Arthur nods proudly.

Ariadne's telling Eames all about her strategic decision to drop Javorius Allen, a Baltimore running back, and pick up Shane Vereen, a running back for the Giants. Arthur hears Dom chiming in about a trade with Charles.

"I gave him Michael Crabtree and the Raiders defense, and he gave me Travis Benjamin and the Panthers defense," Dom says. "Poor bastard."

Yusuf makes no attempt to hush his voice when saying to Arthur, "See, the thing I love about trades is that, every time, both parties think they've got the better deal."

Dom, who Arthur begins to suspect has a spider-sense for smack-talk, calls down the bar, "He just wants to believe I made a bad trade because he's playing me this week, Arthur."

"Beating him," Yusuf corrects in a stage whisper, pretending he's still only talking to Arthur. "I'm beating him this week."

Arthur laughs. Dom calls down again, "Don't listen to him. Plus, you're playing Mr. Charles this week, so you'd better hope I did get the better deal!"

Arthur considers this as Dom goes back to minding his own business. Arthur has to admit it takes the pressure off to be playing against Charles this week. If he's a friend of Mr. Saito's, then Arthur's fairly certain he'll never have to meet him. It isn't as though Mr. Saito isn't friendly; Arthur has met the man, and he really is. But he works tirelessly, the way that Mal and Dom talk about him. Arthur's honestly sort of surprised that Saito even agreed to participate in something like this, something that offers such a pleasant (or infuriating) distraction from obligations.

"Do you know Charles?" Arthur asks Yusus, quietly.

Yusuf shakes his head. "I thought he was Mal's friend," he says before taking a swallow of his beer.

Arthur is on the verge of correcting him, but just takes a sip of his own drink instead. Who the hell is this guy?

 

---

 

Sometime around the end of the first quarter, Yusuf goes down to Dom's end of the bar to vent about some client who was in their office today. Ariadne and Mal are trading insults and compliments on each other's teams. And the prospect of speaking with Eames isn't doing a damn thing to Arthur's stomach. "Personal growth," he hears in his head, in Ariadne's voice.

Eames grins at him, sideways, not actually looking at him. "Do I dare point out your obvious comfort with being out at a bar?"

Arthur almost wants to snap at him for this, but as he studies Eames' expression (which looks... nervous?), he can tell that Eames knew this question was a risk; Eames knows that Arthur's bound to snap at him, and yet he asked anyway. Even when Arthur's given him no reason to try and strike up a conversation, Eames has gone and done it, and Arthur figures that maybe he owes Eames that much—a conversation.

"That was... a rough night," Arthur begins hesitantly. He doesn't know exactly what to say. His mind is racing with defensive explanation, with varied I'll-have-you-knows and As-a-matter-of-facts and It-just-so-happenses.

"You know, I didn't realize you were Mal's Arthur when I came up to you that night," Eames offers. "Which is stupid, really, because as Mal has pointed out to me several times since, she'd made some effort to make that perfectly clear."

Arthur finally concedes to a smile. "'Mal's Arthur,'" he echoes.

Eames laughs. "Well, that's how I thought of you back then. She was always going on about you."

There's silence, then. Arthur feels uncomfortable for the first time since he and Ariadne arrived. He's uncomfortable because Eames is so rarely quiet, so rarely at a loss for words. In fact, Arthur's never seen Eames leave a conversation dangling like this. He can't quite wrap his head around it.

"It's anxiety," Arthur mumbles finally.

"Mm?" Eames hums, swallowing a gulp of his beer and sounding gracious for the break in silence.

"I, uh, I have anxiety. Well, probably. That was... That's what was going on that night," he explains clumsily.

"Ah," Eames responds with the trace of a grimace. "Can't have been fun."

"Yeah," Arthur confirms. He looks around and feels completely strange suddenly. He's not upset with Eames, but there's something about sharing this right now that has his skin feeling like it's on all wrong. He does his best to shake himself off casually, glancing around, smiling and saying, "But we don't have to talk about all that."

Eames eyes him curiously, but agrees all the same, and throws back the rest of his bear. The blonde bartender doesn't seem nearly as infatuated with Eames, as she won't even glance down his way as he waves a hand at her, apparently hoping to order another drink. The other bartender, a taller, dark-skinned girl, was bringing pitchers to one of the tables.

He sighs and gets up from his barstool. Arthur gives him an inquisitive look, and Eames clarifies by gesturing over his shoulder toward the men's room. "If that admirer of yours," Eames says, nodding to the blonde bartender, "ever makes her way over here, would you get me another?"

Arthur smiles. "Sure," he says.

He's gone for all of five seconds before Ariadne sidles up beside him. "You two seem to be getting along," she says. Arthur rolls his eyes and takes another sip of his beer. There's still a bit left in the bottle, but the bartender wanders over anyway.

"Another Stella, sweetie?" she asks, and Arthur swears he catches her eyeing Ariadne with distaste.

Arthur almost feels like laughing, but he doesn't need to be rude. He up-ends his bottle and drains it. He wipes his mouth. He plants the bottle back on the counter. "Sure, thanks. Could I get another Guinness too?" he adds, motioning to the empty glass in front of Ariadne.

The bartender, Candace—Arthur can read her nametag now—gives Ariadne another brief glare. "You have ID?" she asks her.

Ariadne raises her eyebrows. "I already have a drink," she says, and lifts the bottle she was holding in her lap.

"Oh," Candace says, looking relieved and possibly embarrassed, and seemingly having decided that Ariadne and Arthur are not romantically involved. Ariadne, too, seems to realize everything that's going unsaid, and of course, Ariadne can't leave well enough alone.

"It's for his boyfriend," she says, and Arthur can just hear her brain rejoicing at getting to rub this woman's nose in it. Ariadne gets really wrapped up in spite.

At this, Candace seems to appeal to Arthur directly, turning her eyes toward him with some mix of hope and disappointment in them that makes Arthur feel a lot of pressure, even though he isn't quite sure why. "She's teasing," he says simply.

Candace smiles. "I knew you weren't gay."

Arthur pulls a face at this, wishing that Candace this time could have left well enough alone. "Actually, I am."

Candace rolls her eyes. "Yeah, okay," she says, like someone is trying to pull one over on her.

She's starting to walk away when Arthur has to swallow, despite the adrenaline now coursing through him at the slightest hint of possible confrontation, and ask, "Is there some sort of problem?"

"I'm just saying," Candace says, "I talk to a lot of guys every night, and I've heard all the clever little ways they—"

"Maybe you just have a thing for gay guys," Arthur mutters, right when Ariadne blurts out, "I'm sorry, how often are you hitting on your customers?"

Candace just shakes her head. "Listen. I'm sorry, okay? I'll get your drinks."

She turns and walks away, Ariadne throwing a snide, "Yeah thanks," behind her.

"You don't have to take such delight in it," Arthur points out.

"I know," Ariadne groans. Then, she jerks up. "Hey, who's the fake-therapist here?"

Arthur smiles. Ariadne pinches his arm. "I'm glad you're having fun."

Arthur tries to think of some sardonic response. He comes up short. "Me too."

He watches the other bartender come back around the bar to join Candace at the register. Candace is speaking really quietly to her, but Arthur does hear the other woman reply, "Well, I told you you needed to chill with that stuff."

"See?" Ariadne whispers. "Is that not vindicating?"

"Nosy," Arthur says, like they weren't both eavesdropping.

Eames comes back from the bathroom, and Ariadne slides back over so he can take his seat again. She leans in and whispers something to him, something Arthur can't hear.

Before Arthur can ask, or even just shoot Ariadne a proper glare, Candace is back with a bottle of Stella, and a fresh pint of Guinness with a thick, foamy head. She places them on the bar in front of Arthur and Eames.

"Thank you, darling," Eames says quietly, and kisses Arthur on the cheek. "How do you always know when I want another?"

Arthur blushes, and Ariadne's giggling like a schoolkid as Candace heads back to the other end of the bar. Eames simply turns, gives Arthur a big grin, and throws his arm around Arthur to give his shoulder a quick squeeze, presumably for Candace's benefit. But maybe not.

Then, everything's just the way it was before. The game starts up again, and the six of them sit there watching. Well, not everything is the same. Arthur's cheek, for instance, feels like it's buzzing somehow where Eames kissed him. His shoulder and the back of his neck feel suddenly cold where Eames' arm just was.

And Arthur is struck with an odd realization.

Oh, Arthur thinks to himself.

Fuck.

 

---

 

Arthur mostly talks to Yusuf for the rest of the night.

Eventually, the game ends.

Mal is gushing in French about LeGarrette Blount. Dom is thanking his lucky stars he didn't play Michael Floyd, and generally just thrilled that the Patriots won. Ariadne is patting Arthur's arm consolingly about Julian Edelman and the Texans defense.

And Arthur's sort of just a half-step removed from everything.

 

---

 

Sunday at the Cobbs' is a blur.

Arthur mostly talks to Yusuf, and to Mal.

But he also talks to Eames, and laughs too hard at Eames' jokes, and probably verges on sitting too close to Eames.

Arthur smiles far too much, because apparently he's fifteen fucking years old again, back in high school, sitting in homeroom, with stars in his head, and a crush.

Arthur's team does a lot better than last week, but Charles is out of control, with 118 points by the end of the night. Arthur will need a miracle out of Mark Ingram on Monday night.

 

---

 

Mark Ingram, the New Orleans running back, makes a really admirable effort. But even his 18.7 points only push Arthur to 91.6.

Arthur loses.

But that's the least of his worries.

Chapter Text

“Uh-huh! This my shit. All the girls stomp your feet like this…”

The music is pouring out of their apartment's windows. Arthur hears it from the stoop as he lets himself into the building. His cheeks are hot when two teenage girls walking by start to giggle at the music. One of them starts singing along.

Gwen Stefani’s ambient humming and singing drift about louder and louder as he climbs up all their steps, until he actually stumbles inside their apartment.

“I heard that you were talkin’ shit and you didn’t think that I would hear it,” Ariadne is singing in his face once the door is open.

His plan is to just turn the music down himself, but Ariadne is way ahead of him, boxing him out of the stereo-zone. You wouldn’t think someone as small as Ariadne could box anybody out of anywhere, but when Ariadne dances, it’s like she triples in size.

Every time he opens his mouth to complain, she just raises her voice and keeps singing at him.

He stops trying to get past her after a pitifully short time. It’s so loud, and it’s catchy, and Arthur isn’t made of stone.

By the time Ariadne is shouting, “Feeew times I been around that track, but it’s not just gonna happen like that,” Arthur is shouting right along with her, and they don’t turn the music down for half an hour.

It’s really been too long since they did this. But the dancing puts stitches in their sides that they ultimately can’t ignore, so finally they collapse on the couch next to each other. Ariadne wipes a sweaty tress of hair from her forehead with some difficulty. “Set your lineup?”

Arthur shakes his head. “Not yet.”

“I got a good feeling about you this week, Arthur.”

He stays too quiet, except for the heaving breaths. He’s quiet because he doesn’t want to admit he’s got a good feeling about this week as well.

Instead of answering, he just smiles at her. They’re both red-faced and breathing too heavily, so everything else just goes unsaid as Arthur opens his laptop and pulls up his lineup. He’d really rather not deal with doing this tonight. So far this season, Arthur has always had his lineup set by Thursday night, even when he didn’t need to. This week, Arthur is finally relaxed enough not to worry about it, but he’ll at least take a look, even though he’s pretty positive that he doesn’t have anybody in the game tonight: the Dolphins at the Bengals.

Arthur is right, of course. He doesn’t have any Dolphins on his team, nor any Bengals. In fact, he’d be totally set, but then he sees the jarring *BYE* nestled in his lineup.

Right, he has to pick a new kicker. He should have thought about it days ago, really, but he’s been… preoccupied. But the Packers have a bye this week. Ariadne has been complaining about it a lot. She had to bench Aaron Rodgers last night and put in her back-up, Tyrod Taylor, the Bills quarterback.

In the off chance that the best available kicker is on the Bengals or the Dolphins, Arthur figures he should probably take care of this issue now.

He doesn’t want to drop the kicker he already has, Mason Crosby, so he’ll have to find some other player to get rid of so that he can make room on his team for another kicker.

The highest ranking free agent kicker right now is Josh Lambo, for San Diego. He’s only projected at 6 points, but kickers are never projected very high anyway. Arthur adds Lambo to his team, and a pop-up alerts him that he needs to select someone to drop.

He decides to cut Donte Moncrief, who’s underwhelmed him more than once so far this season.

Once he’s saved his changes, Ariadne pats him on the shoulder approvingly. “Nash still hasn’t changed his lineup,” she points out.

Arthur shrugs. “I’m sure he will,” he says, looking at their matchup. “He’s got an Eagle in now, Ryan Mathews, but Philly has a bye this week. And he has Dez Bryant in, but Bryant’s got a Q,” he says, pointing to the red letter Q beside the Dallas wide receiver’s name.

Ariadne looks. “That’s for ‘questionable.’ I think he got hurt in the game last week. He probably won’t end up playing since he’s injured, and it’s so early in the season.”

Arthur looks up Dez Bryant. Apparently, he’s got a hairline knee fracture. Arthur only skims the various articles and reports but they all seem to say more or less the same thing: Dez Bryant probably won’t be playing on Sunday.

“So what’s the decision with Edelman this week?” Ariadne asks him with a grin.

Arthur looks at his lineup and sighs with resignation. It’s a good night, and the more he thinks about Julian Edelman, the more likely this night is to go to shit. “You know what? That’s a decision for another day.”

Ariadne smiles at him with her whole face. “You seem happy.”

Arthur closes his laptop. “I think I am.”

“For now,” Ariadne points out, half-teasing.

Arthur nods. “For now.”

 

---

 

They’re making surprisingly good time tonight for a couple of people who let a dance party eat up half an hour of their evening. They’re actually verging on early, and Arthur agrees when Ariadne suggests they get off the Subway a stop early and walk the extra few blocks to the Cobbs’ place.

It’s a beautiful night. Today was the first day in a very long time that the temperature didn’t reach 70 degrees, and Arthur’s grateful that the sweltering summer is coming to an end.

“It might be getting slightly cooler,” Arthur says to Ariadne while they walk, “but is it really scarf weather yet?”

“Okay, first of all,” Ariadne begins, “it’s literally always scarf weather.”

Arthur nods seriously. “And secondly?”

“Secondly, shut up,” she replies. “Tonight is for victory; I just know it. And I won’t face it without a victory scarf.”

“Maybe you should have worn your victory scarf last week,” Arthur jokes. Ariadne lost to Mal last week—and not by a hair, either. Ariadne sticks her tongue out at him. “You know she’s going to gloat, right?” he asks her.

“Yeah, I know,” she groans. Ariadne has a really high threshold for how intimidating Mal can be, but Arthur knows she still really would have loved to have beaten Mal this week. “See, Arthur? That’s why I need my scarf. It’s like chain mail.”

Arthur cocks his head to the side. “So is it chain mail or is it your victory scarf?”

“It’s everything, Arthur; what aren’t you understanding?”

 

---

 

Arthur might not be mentioning it to Ariadne, but he’s spent the better part of the day convincing himself not to immediately drift over to Eames upon arrival, like an Arthur-moth to his Eames-flame.

Arthur is actually kind of bursting to tell Ariadne everything that he’s feeling—specifically, that he can’t stop thinking about Eames. But Ariadne will figure it out soon enough, and when she does, she won’t let Arthur hear the end of it. Even if not in an I-told-you-so way, she won’t shut up about it. So he keeps it to himself. For now.

When they arrive, Eames drags out a far-too-endearing, “Arthur!” and Arthur’s efforts go to waste immediately. He’s kicking himself silently as he greets Eames first, unable to help himself. He’d probably let Eames hug him, if he hadn’t spent so long giving Eames the impression that a move like that would be fatal.

“How are you?” Arthur asks, not knowing what else to say, and also sort of desperately wanting to know.

Eames grins, like Arthur is Barbra fucking Walters and asked him the most delightful question of all time. “Wonderful,” he says. “Only slightly quivering with fear at the prospect of facing Mallorie,” he goes on, shooting a sideways glance toward Mal.

Ariadne pops out from somewhere behind Arthur. “Avenge me, Eames,” she pleads. She also spares a momentary glance toward Arthur that’s somewhere in between impatient and incredulous, like it was somehow a really big inconvenience for her to have to wait to speak to Eames, and also like she knows something . All the same, she moves on quickly. “Because we can pretend like three wins is lucky, but if she wins four in a row, we’re going to have to admit she’s on fire.”

Mal smiles proudly, having heard their conversation. “Well, somebody certainly should,” she says. “Dominic insists the season is too young to call yet.”

“It is, he confirms. “And you know it.”

Mal just hums an airy, “Mm-hmm,” and looks to Arthur with the kind of smile they always privately share over Dom’s Domness.

“Actually,” Arthur says, “I think I’m going to have to side with Dom here.”

Dom shoves a fist into the air. “FINALLY.”

Mal thins her eyes at Arthur. “I”m just saying,” Arthur begins, “Dom is 0 and 3, and so am I. So, if his season’s over, mine is too.”

Ariadne grips Arthur on the shoulder and positively lights up. “And that dog just ain’t gonna hunt, is it?”

Arthur’s instinct is to tease her for her enthusiasm, not to mention the folksier than folksy adage, but she looks so damn happy. “Fuck no, it isn’t,” he offers her. She wiggles around victoriously.

For a moment, then, Eames’ hand is on Arthur’s other shoulder, and when Arthur looks over at him, he looks almost proud .

Then, Yusuf arrives, and the clouds in Arthur’s head dissipate, and they all make themselves comfortable in the few minutes left before kickoff.

 

---

 

None of them has anybody in the game tonight besides Ariadne and Dom. Mal and Yusuf each have a player from Miami, but they’re both benched. Mal is keeping a nervous eye on Jarvis Landry, hoping he doesn’t accumulate too many points. Dom has his flex player in tonight, DeVante Parker, a wide receiver from Miami. And then, there’s Ariadne, who has two Bengals—AJ Green, a receiver, and Jeremy Hill, a running back—plus their defense and special teams. If Eames is nervous, he isn’t letting it show. How quintessentially Eames .

At the moment, James is regaling Eames with tales from last week, in that sort of concise way that only a two-year-old can manage. “I threw up! I threw up twice!” he’s announcing proudly.

“Twice?” Dom says. “James, I think you’re forgetting a lot of puke.”

“Yeah!” James exclaims happily. “I threw up at the doctor’s!”

Mal chimes in. “James, you told him all of this last week.”

James looks curiously up at Eames, as though he’s hoping Eames will clarify. Eames just nods. “You did,” he says. “You told me all about retching and getting your Paw Patrol sticker. Have you still got it?”

Mal sighs. “Oh, yes. We’ll have it for life. He stuck it onto his dresser.”

Eames bites his lower lip. “Now, are you supposed to be putting stickers on the furniture, James?”

James looks away from Eames for the first time since he crawled up into his lap. “No. Stickers go on paper,” he says, more to the floor now than to Eames.

Eames cocks an eyebrow at James. Arthur melts a little and realizes he hasn’t even been pretending not to watch. “Well,” Eames says, “sounds like you learned a lot, right?”

James grins back to Eames now. “Uh-huh.”

“Alright, little guy,” Dom says, removing himself from his armchair and scooping James up into his arms. “Time for bed.”

James pouts. “But I want to stay up! Pippa’s up!”

“Pippa’s going to bed soon, too,” Mal tells him.

Arthur is somehow really excited that James is going to bed. He’s been sitting happily on Eames’ lap for what feels like ages, becoming the very target of Eames’ attention. And it’s not like Arthur is jealous of a two-year-old, but, maybe he is.

He shudders to himself slightly. Then, Dom carries James off down the hall, and Eames turns (almost immediately, Arthur could swear) to Arthur. He smiles. Arthur does all he can not to melt into a big puddle of something that’ll stain Mal’s lovely rug.

“Now, don’t take this the wrong way,” Eames starts, looking like he’s taking a gamble—the way he always seems to look when he’s about to strike up a conversation with Arthur, “but you’ve got a real shot this week.”

Arthur doesn’t waste much time pretending to be offended. A quick glare is all that he manages before he’s grinning in spite of himself, and agreeing, “Yeah, I think I really do.”

“Yusuf and I have been placing bets on whether Nash will set his lineup this week,” Eames continues. “I’m sure that he won’t, but Yusuf seems to disagree.”

Arthur twists his mouth a little before replying, “What makes you so sure he won’t?”

Eames shrugs. “Maybe just wishful thinking.”

Arthur genuinely cannot respond to this right away, because he’s way too caught up in the idea that Eames is rooting for him. He smiles stupidly for a moment before echoing, “‘Wishful thinking.’”

Eames… blushes? “I guess I like an underdog.”

Arthur will squeal if he sits here any longer, so he looks for an out. Mal is talking with Philippa about how she needs to get ready for bed. “I’m going to say goodnight to Philippa,” he excuses himself clumsily, and ignores the feeling of Ariadne’s eyes on him as he crosses to where Philippa is pouting up at Mal.

“James just went to bed,” Philippa is arguing. “And he’s a baby."

“He is not,” Mal argues back, weary. “And don’t you worry about him, just worry about yourself. It’s your bedtime, Philippa. This is too many Thursdays we’ve let you stay up late,” she says peremptorily.

Philippa sighs a bit, then notices Arthur. “What do you want?” she asks, nearly rudely.

“Hey,” Mal snaps at her. “Don’t you be fresh to Arthur; he’s not making you go to bed.”

Philippa looks away, shame writ on her face. “Sorry, Arthur,” she says before looking back to him.

Arthur kneels down. “I only wanted to say goodnight,” he says.

She throws her little arms around his neck with a sincerity that takes him aback—almost touches him. “Goodnight. I’m sorry,” she says again. Then she whispers into his ear, “Mom says I get cranky when I’m tired.” There’s a concession in there, somewhere.

Arthur smiles against her tangled, blonde hair. “It’s okay,” he whispers back. “Your mom has said the same thing about me.”

Philippa kisses him on the cheek and follows Mal down the hall, the same way Dom took James. Mal throws a little smile back at him, over her shoulder.

When he looks back toward the couch, Ariadne’s scrunched up beside Eames, and they’re both hunched over with their noses close to her phone. “It’s not right yet,” she’s saying, “but I think I’m at least hitting some sort of stride.”

She must be showing him one of the paintings she’s been working on this semester. Arthur’s glad she has Eames for this. It’s not as if Arthur doesn’t like art—he’s not a savage— but he can’t discuss it, appraise it, or often understand it the way that Ariadne wants him to. Eames, on the other hand, looks entirely in his element.

“I think it needs more blue,” Eames says finally, and Arthur is silent for a second before cackling.

Suddenly, Ariadne’s and Eames’ eyes are on him, looking amused and perplexed.

“Problem, Arthur?” Ariadne asks.

Arthur regains his composure. “I just… The way you were looking at it,” he says to Eames, “I was expecting some other kind of commentary. Like, something about depth, or brushstrokes, or the rule of thirds...” Ariadne’s eyebrows raise delightedly when Arthur mentions the rule of thirds. “Like two actual artists huddled together, and you come out with, “Needs more blue…’”

Then Arthur’s laughing again, and Eames joins him. Ariadne has her tongue in her cheek and one eyebrow still raised curiously as she stares from Arthur to Eames and back again. “You guys are nerds,” she observes flatly.

Arthur’s cheeks hurt from laughing so he takes pains to breathe and relax again. “All I’m saying is,” he nearly gasps, “if that’s valuable input, I really underestimated myself.”

“All input is valuable,” Eames says, having managed to stop laughing as well. “Everyone’s an artist, darling.”

There’s no time to field that (crippling) endearment, as Yusuf distracts them all by shouting at the TV. “No! AJ Green, NO!”

Ariadne’s eyes flit toward the screen before widening. She gets to her feet. “AJ Green, YESSS!”

Arthur looks too. AJ Green, one of Ariadne’s receivers, just caught a nice pass from the Bengals quarterback, Andy Dalton.

Cincinnati’s defense and special teams have accumulated a couple points, and their running back, Justin Hill (who’s also on Ariadne’s team), has made a couple nice plays and racked up a few points himself. But this catch by Green gets Ariadne 5 points, which suddenly has her score looking that much more impressive. Arthur looks at Yusuf sympathetically.

 

---

 

Arthur plops down next to Ariadne during halftime. “So is your not-blue-enough painting something for your show on Sunday?”

She shakes her head frustratedly. “I thought it might be ready in time but I just don’t think it will be. I have another piece that’s almost done, though, and it should fit well enough.”

“You have an art show on Sunday?” Mal asks.

“Well,” Ariadne says. “It isn’t for a grade, or any of my classes, or anything like that,” Ariadne says. “The call was open to anybody, students, faculty, local artists.”

Eames sticks his head into the room from behind the open doorway to the kitchen. “Did I hear someone say local artists?” Mal snorts a bit into her wine, which hopefully distracts everyone from the way Arthur blushes, because apparently that’s the sort of thing he does now when Eames says literally anything.

“Yes, I did!” Ariadne calls back to him. “I can’t believe I didn’t think to mention it to you. One of my professors has been organizing this totally haphazard show with almost no cohesive theme whatsoever.”

“‘No cohesive theme whatsoever…’ Wasn’t that your concentration, Eames?” they hear Yusuf say from the kitchen.

Eames, who was still leaning into the living room, now looks over his shoulder and goes about kicking one leg backward, slowly but determinedly, apparently to interfere with whatever kitchen task Yusuf’s undertaking. After a few lengthy moments of this, they all hear the clatter of cutlery on tile floor, followed by, “Damn it, Eames!”

Eames turns back to face them for an instant, his smile wider than Arthur’s ever seen it—he could count Eames’ perfect, disastrous teeth even from across the room. His eyes are huge and alight and he sort of looks like a ten-year-old. Continuing with this theme, Eames tentatively sticks his left foot backward again, and this time ends up hopping clumsily on his right.

“Yusuf has his other foot?” Ariadne asks Arthur, who’s sitting with the best vantage point, but even he can’t see for sure.

It’s clear enough when Eames finally loses his balance and topples sort of backward-sideways into the kitchen. There’s a brief stretch of uncertainty followed by an inelegant couple of thuds and honest-to-goodness giggling.

Dom, who was in his office, walks through the kitchen past them (or rather, sort of over them), and goes about drawling, “You can take the boys out of the frat house, but you can’t take the—DAMN IT, EAMES!”

He doesn’t make it out of the kitchen. Ariadne finally gives in to curiosity and gets up. Arthur and Mal follow her, and they find the three men in a pile on the floor, Yusuf heaving with laughter as Dom appears to try to give Eames a purple nurple, which Eames thus far is successfully evading through the use of squirming and the few high-pitched yelps that manage to push forth through his own laughter.

Arthur can tell by the way that Eames’ foot is still stuck out toward the door that he must have tripped Dom as he walked by. At this point, everybody but Dom is laughing. And even he has to give in eventually.

“Anyway,” Eames says when he’s finally extricated himself from the pile of limbs and torsos on the kitchen floor, “you were saying something about an art show?”


---

 

By the time the game is over, poor Yusuf looks utterly defeated. Even if there’s still a lot of football left, Ariadne’s score is already past 44. Arthur points out that Yusuf is still projected higher than Ariadne, but it’s clear that Yusuf’s worried about the matchup all the same.

Dom chimes in, “I told you, Arthur. Projections ain’t shit.”

Arthur actually snorts at this, and what’s more, it seems to pull Yusuf out of his worrisome mood. Dom throws an arm around Yusuf’s shoulders and squeezes, the way he’s done to Arthur too many times. But it seems to do the trick. Yusuf is alight again, and Arthur catches Mal’s eye, and she gives him a look which Arthur interprets to mean, “See? There arguments to be made for keeping him around.”

 

---

 

Ariadne's luck has her proud and excited, but when she and Arthur get home that night, they’re talking about the other thing. The inexplicable thing that happened before they left. The thing where Arthur and Eames and Yusuf are all going to Ariadne’s show on Sunday night.

It all happened so quickly that Arthur didn’t realize his fate until it was already sealed. Nevertheless, by the time he and Ariadne left the Cobbs', there was a concrete plan for Yusuf, Eames, and Arthur to go to Ariadne’s show together.

“I think Yusuf only offered to go to save you from being alone with Eames,” Ariadne says to him while they're getting ready for bed.

“I don’t know,” Arthur responds. “I mean, Yusuf and I get along well, actually,” he points out.

“Oh, I think he likes you, absolutely. But I also don’t think Yusuf gives a flying fuck about going to an art show.”

“So you think he’s coming specifically to be a buffer between Eames and me?” Arthur asks.

Ariadne nods. “I do. Because you obviously don’t want to be alone with Eames, right?”

She asks it in that way that sounds totally normal and matter-of-fact and non-chalant but there’s something underneath it that makes Arthur wonder how much she really knows.

“Yeah,” he answers, because whatever she knows, or thinks she knows, he doesn't want to get into it tonight. “Obviously.”