Arthur has always been a whiz at math, and for the longest time his equation was: him + getting out of town = a good thing. It was, he knew, the requisite dream of every bored boy growing up in Blake's Peak, Pennsylvania, population 9,101 according to the latest town census. That number bothers Arthur both in a mathematical sense and a metaphorical one. That the number wasn't rounded to a neat 9,100 makes no sense to him, and that his mother used to tell him that it was because he was the extra one tacked on, that he was so special no one could bear to leave him out... well, his mother's been dead for nineteen years, and the number is still messy and infuriating.
Arthur left Blake's Peak three months after he graduated from high school. The car that he drove was crammed to exploding with boxes of his clothes and books. His grandfather, who raised him after his parents died, lifted a hand in vague farewell and said something Arthur didn't quite catch, mostly because Arthur wasn't listening. Arthur made sure his car was full of gas, and when he ran out somewhere in Massachusetts, he filled it up again, eyes fixed on the skyline like it was going to bring him his prize.
If TV Guide is to be believed, high school was supposed to have been the most exciting and, by implication, the most melodramatic time of his life. He was supposed to have knocked someone up, become a football star, be branded a slut, joined a glee club, not necessarily in that order. For Arthur, this didn't exactly happen. High school was as unremarkable as middle school, which was worse than elementary school because at least in elementary school they'd gotten to use crayons and have recess. Arthur doesn't have any particularly negative memories of high school. He wasn't popular but he wasn't bullied, he didn't have a lot of friends but he had a few that mattered, and he worked hard to get the good grades that'd push him out of town and into a world where people did more on Saturday night than go to the park and smoke pot.
In New York City, armed with his accounting degree, he'd made a new life for himself. Maybe it wasn't the life he had dreamed about when he was sixteen and doodling numbers into his notebook, but if Arthur held it up as a measuring stick against Blake's Peak, population 9,101, he knew which one came out on top every time. Apartment, check. Decent coffee, check. Dates with people whose soiled Batman underwear he didn't see in preschool, check.
But try to explain that to the economy. Try to explain that to his grandfather's failing heart.
Which is how, at age thirty-one, with a car crammed to exploding with boxes of his clothes and books, and with the gas tank running on half-empty, Arthur goes back to Blake's Peak.
His grandfather's house, the house he grew up in, is full of skeletons. Literally so. His grandfather had collected animal skeletons, of birds mostly, and they hang from the ceiling and the walls as Arthur tries to make coffee and a shove some toast down his throat at six a.m. It's a hop skip dance that Arthur has perfected to avoid getting a nose full of dead beak. His grandfather was a man who hated change, so all the truly worrisome skeletons, the ones that are likely to be bumped into when Arthur is fumbling about in the morning, are located in places that Arthur's body remembers. It's just sensory memory at this point to angle left instead of right, to duck at the doorway to the kitchen, to never go into the study.
It's true, Arthur could throw the skeletons out. His grandfather's dead and it's Arthur's house now. But Arthur doesn't change a thing, because it may be his on paper and in law, but it's not really and it has never been. Arthur plans to sell the house and move back to New York the moment someone in the city answers one of his resumes and says, yes, we'd like to hire you. Can you come in Monday?
Arthur waits for that call. He waits for it on Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday; and Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at that.
In the meantime, there's his grandfather's grocery store to manage, which is how Arthur pays the bills and lives up to the family name. Stein and Son, says the big red sign that was repainted last March after years of neglect. Arthur is there when it opens, and he's there when Yusuf trudges in and starts going through the list of shipments expected to come in that day. Yusuf has been Arthur's friend since they were eight years old, and while Arthur will never understand Yusuf's lack of desire to leave Blake's Peak, he appreciates him nonetheless, especially because Yusuf actually knows how to run the store. All Arthur knows about Stein and Son is from watching his grandfather, which is to say, as little as possible.
"Your job is just to stand there and look pretty, especially at the busy hours," Yusuf says cheerfully as he goes through the list with his pencil.
Arthur scoffs, but Yusuf does have a point. Arthur has become the superstar of the cash register and the magnetic swipe. Elderly ladies and harried soccer moms love Arthur, and they'll linger in the express line even though they have more than sixteen items.
Arthur doesn't need to do it. As the owner, it's his luxury to just sit in his office and make paper airplanes all day. However, Arthur hates feeling useless while Yusuf manages the store. At least working the cash register gives his hands something to do. He watches the prices go by on the screen methodically, and he punches in his codes perfectly, and it's not exactly what he went to college for and what he studied all those long hours of high school for, but it's work. It's more than what New York can offer him right now, what with the downsizing of his old employer.
There are days, though, when he hates it, when he can't bear the thought of rolling out of bed and driving that familiar distance that brings him right back to where he started, in his grandfather's store, coming from his grandfather' house. His grandfather whose eyes went cold when Arthur told him he maybe liked boys as well as girls. His grandfather who refused to speak to him except to ask when he was leaving.
Blake's Peak is full of ghosts, and Arthur is deathly afraid of becoming one of them.
There's one good thing Arthur will acknowledge about coming back to his hometown. Everybody knows that you don't need to drive in New York City, but Arthur loves driving. He loves taking to the back roads as the sun goes down and everything washes out to smooth, milky shadows. Then it's just him and the trees, him and his low headlights, him and the music on the radio. Driving helps Arthur think, and it gives his hands the sort of instinctual routine that he appreciates best. Lately though, he's been taking to the road in other ways as well.
If you'd asked anybody in high school, even Yusuf, whether Arthur would become a biker, the answer would have been no. Arthur was too straightforward to have any wild fantasies, his teachers would have said. Arthur's too boring, you mean, his classmates would have added. But returning to Blake's Peak has proved them wrong, because Arthur has a new 2011 Kawasaki Ninja 250R and the license to ride it.
It's a sleek piece of Japanese machinery, and the guy at the dealer at the dealer -- tattooed, friendly, endlessly informative -- had suggested it as a great beginner's bike. While Arthur flinches at the prospect of being called an amateur at anything, he doesn't exactly relish the prospect of wiping out in front of the entire town because he doesn't have enough experience. So the Ninja is good for him, small and compact without looking wimpy, and responsive to the touch.
He takes it out every evening when the weather is nice, and he rides for miles on the roads leading out of Blake's Peak. He stops at a roadside diner about twenty miles west where he orders a soup and salad, and then when the sky is dark, he rides back.
This is his routine. This is what grounds him. The feel of the motorcycle thrumming between his thighs, the easy grip of the handlebars, the cool air prickling the back of Arthur's neck where his helmet exposes his scalp.
And then there is Eames.
An apple, two oranges, and a jumbo box of condoms.
"Morning," Eames says gruffly, his voice thick with the filmy weight of 6 a.m existence.
"Hey," Arthur replies, punching in the product code for the apples. It's kind of a sign of how far he's come that the sight of Eames no longer fills his stomach with teenage awkwardness, though maybe he has to reconsider the last bit when Eames opens his eyes wider, as if finally waking up, and deigns to smirk at him from the corner of his mouth. Arthur doesn't smile back, but he does nod, and he takes the twenty dollar bill from Eames without letting their fingers touch.
Professionalism in all things, he thinks, and the bill is warm, as if it's been crumpled in Eames' pocket for a long time.
"Are you the only one on the cash register today?" Eames asks, looking around at the four empty lanes beside Arthur's.
Arthur throws Eames' things into a bag and hands it to him. "Yusuf's in the back and Takahashi is shelving," he says. "I don't know where the hell Nash went off to, but I'm sure he'll turn up in an hour or so, drunk out of his mind."
Eames snorts. "If he were my employee, I'd have fired him long time ago."
"My grandfather liked him," Arthur shrugs.
"Not to speak ill of the dead, but your grandfather had shit taste." Eames' eyes settle on Arthur, thoughtful. It's this particular quality of Eames that unnerved Arthur so in high school when Eames came during sophomore year as an exchange student from England that never quite went away. The first time Arthur met Eames, nearly walking into him in the changerooms when they had the same gym period, he'd remembered that stare first, like Eames was trying to size him up. The intensity of the look has only increased over the years, settled into something adult and meaningful.
Arthur raises his eyebrows. "Here's your receipt," he says, sliding it over.
"Right. Thanks," Eames says, stuffing it back into his pockets where Arthur imagines there is an entire colony of bills, phone numbers, and bits of candy. "See you around, Arthur. You've got to let me check out that new bike of yours sometime. A Kawasaki, right?"
"Yeah," Arthur says. Eames owns a small garage over on South Street, in the part of town Arthur almost never wanders into. It makes sense that he would. Eames was always the best at shop class when they were young. He'd heft the spare parts and do the wiring without any instruction from the teacher. There would be a joy on his face while he worked, a real sort of joy, uncontaminated by the slipperiness of his constant smirks. Arthur may not have been a people person, much less at sixteen than he is at thirty-one, but even then he recognized the joy.
Or, he acknowledges, given a couple hours' worth of staring at Eames every day, it'd be hard not to.
Eames lifts two fingers in farewell as he saunters away with his bag, and Arthur tries not to think about why he needed a jumbo box of condoms. Jumbo, really, like there are that many decent people in Blake's Peak to fuck. Or just one that's worth it.
Arthur takes a day off work to travel back to New York. He has a job interview for an accountant position at a mid-sized tech company, and the room where they interview him is painted blue and yellow, long stripes of it that he finds slightly nauseating even as he forces himself to smile and chuckle and to laugh appreciatively at the appropriate pauses. Arthur's good at turning on the charm. It's a gift that he inherited from his mother, or so everybody says, and when he smooths it over his voice, no one can tell that he's really a mess of anger inside, uncomfortably deranged.
Arthur returns to Blake's Peak at two in the morning, getting off the bus with his tie crumpled and his legs cramped. He rides his bike back to his grandfather's house, walks past the skeletons, and tumbles into bed.
He needs to clean his sheets, he thinks as he sniffs them. There's a whole list of things he needs to do. He needs to pay the utilities, he needs to call up his aunt Griselda to see if she'll take some of the family heirlooms off his hands, he needs to finish sending out the next batch of resumes, he needs to make plans to sell the house.
Instead he falls asleep with his legs tucked up against his chest and his hair caught between his cheek and pillow, so that when he wakes up there's a telltale crinkle in his skin, and his hair is a total fucking mess, sticking up everywhere. Arthur spends half an hour with a bottle of gel in the bathroom, and when he goes to run his fingers through his hair for the fifteenth time, making sure he looks decent, he notices the cockroaches.
"Oh fuck me," Arthur groans.
It's an old house, and bits of it are rotting everywhere. There's mice in the basement and an ant colony in the storage closet, and now there are cockroaches in the bathroom and god knows where else. Arthur's grandfather collected dictionaries as well as skeletons -- in fact, Arthur's grandfather collected pretty much everything and that's why the house is so full of junk -- so Arthur takes a hardcover copy of the OED and slams it down on the first cockroach he sees. The second and third skitter away, startled by the noise. Arthur thinks about how furious his grandfather would be at the blatant abuse of language and learning, at the affront to all things literary, and Arthur feels only a dry, fleeting sense of satisfaction.
He calls the exterminator on his way to work.
He doesn't have time to eat breakfast.
"Arthur, seriously, when was the last time you had fun?" Ariadne says when he shows up at the party to celebrate her and Yusuf's second anniversary. "You're getting these lines on your forehead, and also you're scaring the children." She reaches out to touch his forehead and he groans.
"I know, Ari, I know."
"We could go putt putt golfing. You like that."
"I do like putt putt golfing," Arthur admits. "But we'd have to go into the city. Which, actually, might be the best thing we could ever do."
"Is Blake's Peak really that horrible?" Ariadne asks, and Arthur doesn't know how to tell her in a way that she'll understand. Ariadne, who dated Arthur briefly during junior year, who went with him as friends to prom, who laughed and stuck leaves in his hair when he said he was going to live life as big as he could. The same Ariadne who looked at Yusuf one day after their final exams and realized that she'd been in love all along. Ariadne works in the mayor's office now where everybody knows she's going to succeed Saito when he retires, and she and Yusuf are happy, so happy.
Yusuf emerges from the kitchen, triumphant. "I found the alcohol!" he declares, and Ariadne rolls her eyes because they're in for it now. Yusuf and alcohol are an unholy combination, and everybody at the party will be drunk for weeks.
As Arthur takes his first swig of Yusuf's rum concoction, the doorbell rings. "That must be Eames," Ariadne says, and Arthur chokes down the alcohol inelegantly.
"You invited Eames?"
"Don't sound so shocked. He doesn't bite." She pauses. "Well, okay, so I did hear about that one time with him and Tommy Greyson, but it was just a rumour, and Tommy walked around the next day totally blissed out."
"Tommy?" Arthur echoes, remembering the best-looking guy in their graduating class. "Wait, wait, back up. I didn't even know you were friends with Eames."
"You miss a lot when you're swanning around in the big city," Ariadne replies, swatting him on the head as she goes to the door. When she returns, Eames follows her with a big bottle of Jack Daniel's, and his smile broadens when he sees Arthur sprawled out on the couch with one of Ariadne and Yusuf's cats scratching up his leg.
"Lucky cat," Eames says.
Arthur blinks up at him. "Sorry, did you want to molest my leg as well?" he says, while inside he thinks Eames doesn't bite? Fuck, I bet he does.
Eames sits down beside Arthur, passing the Jack Daniel's to an appreciative Yusuf. He drums his fingers on his jean-clad thighs, and Arthur sees a patch of motor oil on the stretch of Eames' leg. Or, he hopes that's motor oil. He jerks his eyes up when Eames laughs softly. "Something of interest, Arthur?" he muses, and yeah, Arthur can see why Tommy Greyson would let Eames bite him anywhere he'd like.
Arthur finishes the rest of Yusuf's drink. He drops the empty cup onto the coffee table. "So how are you?" he asks. "Haven't seen you at the store lately." He narrows his eyes at Eames. "Unless you've decided to go to the big chains, in which case, fuck you."
"Mmm," Eames says, leaning back. He spread his knees and Arthur can see how muscular his thighs are. "Been busy at the garage. Surviving on takeout mostly."
Minutes pass. Arthur looks at the ceiling, at the floor, at Yusuf and Ariadne slow-dancing and giggling over each other's words, as cute as cute can be.
"We do deliveries," Arthur finally says.
"Do you." Eames replies without a beat, as if he's been holding those two words in his mouth all along, and then he's laughing again. "I'd like that."
"I don't even know where you live," Arthur says. He can feel the drink kicking in but he's not as drunk he as needs to be in order to talk to Eames. Eames the Mercurial, the Stranger from Abroad, the Mystery of Rosa Parks High. He rubs his hands over his eyes, and then he goes still as Eames takes a pen that's lying on the coffee table and grabs Arthur's hand. Eames uncaps the pen between his teeth. He touches the pen to Arthur's palm, smiling to himself before writing in bold, smooth strokes.
"That's my address," he says when he finishes. His fingers slide up Arthur's wrist, up to his exposed bit of arm where Arthur has his sleeves rolled up. He glides the pen over the skin there. "And that's my phone number."
"Okay." Arthur's voice comes out muted, croaky. He clears his throat and tries to sound like an adult again. "I'll get in touch with you."
"It's not that hard," Eames says agreeably. "It is a very small town."
The trees bend under the insistence of the wind, and the cold spring rain slants in the direction of Arthur's face, splattering his helmet and his line of vision as he rides westward. It's the kind of weather that keeps most people inside, even the drivers, but Arthur loves the rain and he loves the kick of the water underneath his bike's wheels. His grip is less than perfect because of the water that's coating his gloves, but he doesn't feel any fear. It's just peace, long and expressive, and he takes the turn around the corner with the three stacked rocks more recklessly than he should have.
He reaches the gas station by the time the sky gets dark, and he's striding inside and taking off his helmet, shaking his wet, messy hair, when he sees Eames paying for a coffee.
Arthur walks past him. He goes to the fridges and picks out a bottle of root beer. He takes it to the counter where Eames is chatting with the clerk, sipping his coffee and laughing so that his Adam's apple bobs. "Hey Arthur," he says when Arthur opens his wallet pay for the root beer. "You never called me."
"That's strange," Arthur says. "I put you on the list of deliveries. Yusuf should have given you a call."
"Yes, and that's why I wrote my number all over Yusuf's arm."
Arthur knows he's being deliberately obtuse. He knows that Eames is flirting with him, that this is the sort of casual interest that might lead to sweaty sex above Eames' garage or a quick grope in the staff area. However, if there is one trait that Arthur has inherited from his grandfather, it's that he is cautious. He doesn't make the same mistakes twice. Eames burned him once, and Arthur can forgive it -- forgive it the way anyone forgives stupid high school mistakes, looked back upon with a blurry photographic ache -- but he doesn't forget the pressure of Eames' hand on his forearm, pulling him in for a desperate kiss. Except, as it turned out, the desperation was all on Arthur's part.
There's no use being bitter. So what if Eames wasn't lit from the inside by that one kiss? So what if Eames didn't spend the rest of their senior year panting after Arthur and carrying his books in the hall? High school crushes are always incredibly stupid, and besides, it wouldn't have worked anyway. Arthur always meant to leave for college, and Eames always meant to stay behind and open his shop, servicing the mechanical needs of Blake's Peak, population 9,101.
Arthur doesn't fucking care.
Save for those moments when he does.
"Are you heading back to town?" Eames asks, and when Arthur finally beats about to a reluctant yes, he goes on. "Do you want to ride together then? I'd love to see how your girl runs."
"You know I find it incredibly obnoxious when people refer to their vehicles as women," Arthur says.
"You find breathing obnoxious," Eames points out, and he follows Arthur out into the rain to where he's parked his bike. "It's blue," he says with surprise, and Arthur feels the need to defend the honour of his colour choice, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with blue or any choice that isn't the stereotypical black or red. But Eames doesn't sound mocking. It's as if he's actually delighted. "Ah, bloody hell, I should have guessed. You always did like to give everyone the big fat finger."
"It's illuminating, truly, what you think of me," Arthur says. He watches a drop of rain slide down Eames' nose and onto his lips. He looks away and starts up his bike. "Get on yours and let's go."
Riding beside someone on a motorcycle is nothing like riding with someone in a car. For one, conversation is nearly impossible when they're zooming along at a hundred miles an hour. So Arthur and Eames don't talk as they navigate the network of highways and smaller roads back towards Blake's Peak, but that doesn't mean that Arthur forgets Eames is there. It's impossible not to when there is a flash of Eames' sleek black Ducati every time Arthur glances to his right, or when Arthur can hear the roar of Eames' engine, breaking the silence of a rapidly cooling April night.
Eames' leather jacket is tight over his shoulders, Arthur can't help but observe, and the moment he realizes where his thoughts are heading is the moment he decides to slow down a bit. He doesn't need to be home any time soon, and he's already soaked so there's no need to escape the rain. Eames doesn't need to be told of the change; he slows down to match Arthur's pace. They ride back into the borders of town together, and Eames actually rides with Arthur right up to his grandfather's house, even though Eames lives on the other side of town and this is nowhere near his route home. "Night," Eames says when Arthur dismounts. His voice is low and cheery, like this has been some sort of date.
"Stop sticking everything into your pockets," Arthur says in reply. "Get a fucking wallet."
"Arthur," Eames says.
Arthur turns around at the door. He softens into a smile. It's difficult not to, with the rain and the stretch of leather over Eames' shoulders and the expression on Eames' face, patient. This could be a movie, filmed in sepia and silence, where everything moves slowly and everyone has a reason. Arthur can't help but be moved. "Good night, Eames," he replies. "Have a safe ride back." He lifts two fingers in farewell and hears Eames' laugh.
There's one message on his answering machine. It's from Ariadne, wondering if she left her favourite scarf at his place the other day. Arthur calls her back to say that he hasn't seen it, sorry, and then he erases her message. There's nothing to replace it.
After some deliberation, he picks up his phone and makes a long distance call. "Hi, this is Arthur Stein. I applied and was interviewed for the position in the accounting department at your company two weeks ago. I was wondering if I could get any sort of update on the consideration process," he says.
"Oh, sir, we've already made our hire," says the woman on the other end, brisk and friendly. "But we appreciate your application."
"I see," Arthur says slowly.
That night, he warms up the leftover gnocchi from the deli at Stein and Son. He really should learn how to be a better cook, he thinks, as his current repertoire consists mostly of pasta, salads, and hastily thrown together sandwiches. But in New York City there was always plenty of cheap food to be found elsewhere, and the one of the perks of owning a grocery store with a deli is that he gets to take home whatever no one buys. Arthur takes the gnocchi to the TV and spends the rest of the evening watching game shows and feeling righteously vindictive when people miss the easy questions on Jeopardy!
When he looks up, Eames is peering at him from his window.
"Holy Jesus fuck," Arthur says, reeling backwards. He walks over and opens the door. "You fucking creep," he adds, and Eames, to his credit, does look sheepish as he steps inside.
"Your doorbell is broken," he says. "And I was trying to knock but apparently you were so outraged by Alex Trebek that you didn't hear."
"I wasn't expecting any visitors," Arthur says. No one visits him aside from Ariadne and occasionally Yusuf. Or the exterminator along with his grandfather's creditors, but he has the latter mostly sorted out these days. Eames lingers in the doorway and Arthur stares at him until he realizes that oh, Eames really does have some sort of gentlemanly pretension after all. "You can come inside," Arthur tells him, heading back to the living room where Jeopardy! has been replaced by Wheel of Fortune and Vanna White's bare shoulders. He settles back onto the couch underneath his blanket and cradles his gnocchi on his lap.
"This is..." Eames blinks. "This is quaint."
"I didn't know you were expecting otherwise," Arthur says, "from a grocery store cashier."
"Ariadne did warn me that you have a stick up your arse about that," Eames says. He sits on the couch across from Arthur and for some reason Arthur glances down at his socks, which are, absurdly, pink. "They were on sale," Eames says airily when he notices Arthur's attention. "The blokes at the bar like them. At least, that's what they tell me before they put my dick in their mouth."
"Thank you for that," Arthur deadpans.
"No problem, love," Eames says. "I figure what with the history between us, there's no need for awkwardness, hmm?"
There aren't many instances when Arthur wishes he had been in town, but he does wish he'd been around for the year Eames declared that he was, without a doubt, a flaming homosexual, and proceeded to snog every interested male on the eastern seaboard. It'd caused quite the uproar, apparently, and Arthur wishes he could have seen the look on his grandfather's face when he realized that the Eames boy he always told Arthur he should be more like -- outgoing, popular, on the football team -- was actually quite an unapologetic lover of cock.
"What's so funny?" Eames wonders.
"God, nothing," Arthur says, but he shakes anyway. "Why are you even here? Because of our... history?"
"Actually I'm here to ask if you want to run away with me," Eames says.
"I have a pair of friends. Dom and Mal. They're getting married in California in three weeks."
"Give them my congratulations," Arthur interrupts.
"Don't be snide," Eames chastises. "They live in New York but they want to do something big and grand before their wedding, and since they're both bikers like us--" and here Arthur feels an involuntary spasm of pleasure at being considered a part of this group, being included in that nebulous pronoun 'us' -- "they're planning on a road trip. I thought I'd tag along." Eames tilts his head and looks at Arthur. "I thought you might like to tag along too."
"First of all, why would you want to tag along with a married couple's last swing at adventure?" Arthur says. "That just screams third wheel. Also, pathetic."
"I know, and that's why I'm asking you to come," Eames says. "As for why I want to go on the trip... I have my reasons." He smiles brilliantly. "If you're very nice to me, I might even tell you."
"You got someone pregnant, didn't you," Arthur says, "and now you're trying to run away."
"I'm gay, Arthur."
"I wouldn't put it past you anyway," Arthur says.
Eames ignores the accusation of being an evil impregnator of gay men. "Hey, if you don't want to come, you can say so. I just thought you could use a break. Ariadne and I have been chatting, and she says you're turning into a basket case the longer you stay in Blake's Peak. I thought I'd be doing you a favour."
Arthur makes a fleeting gesture. "We don't even know each other that well, so why would I be excited at the idea of vacationing with you and a bunch of your leather and chain friends?"
"Mal and Dom aren't leather and chain," Eames protests. "Not that you even know what that means anyway, Arthur, what with your buttoned polo shirts and your scented satsuma lotion, Christ. And sure, we might not talk a lot these days, but I don't know if you've hit your head on that huge rock they call New York and forgot, because we used to. We used to be friends," he adds, and Arthur goes quiet.
He doesn't have much in Blake's Peak, but it's more than he has anywhere else.
It makes Arthur feel bleak, at times, knowing that what he had in New York is by now a smudge of a fingerprint on his old apartment wall, fading more day by day. It was once his entire life, that city, that spot on the map, and he misses it with a grief that catches him with its sharp edges. That was home for him, and Blake's Peak is not. The thing about home is that it's not what people say. Home isn't something you carry with you from place to place. It's something that you leave behind and never recover.
If the plan was to go east, he would say yes. Yes, always yes. It wouldn't require a second thought. Arthur would hit the gas and drive without pause. But Eames is heading west like a pioneer looking for a promised homestead, and there is nothing for Arthur out west. Even in Blake's Peak he has a house, has friends, has a reliable source of cash. He has roads that he has memorized, radio stations that he has fixed his player permanently to. Out west there is only --
That Eames had considered him a friend comes as a surprise to Arthur, because he didn't see them as anything approaching friends during high school. They were friendly with each other, sure, and they sat beside each other during both English and history class where the cramped size of the classroom meant their legs would occasionally brush when they were trying to get out of their seats at the same time. They would talk sometimes, about their weekend, about the latest movie they'd seen, typical guy chat, and Eames would help Arthur during shop class if ever he saw that Arthur didn't know what he was doing -- Arthur's fascination with cars and bikes came later in life. But they were never friends, because Eames had always been like a number that Arthur couldn't quite touch, a part of the graph that Arthur crept towards like an asymptote but never reached. Not even that night when they were at one of Tommy Greyson's parties, and Eames had kissed Arthur in the pool when no one was looking.
It'd been Arthur's first kiss, and they'd rubbed together with only the flimsy material of their swimming trunks keeping their skin apart. Or, no, Eames hadn't been wearing swimming trunks at all. Eames had jumped into the pool in his jeans, and the rough material had scratched Arthur all over, so that the next day Arthur woke up with red marks all over his thighs and a goofy smile on his face that faded when Eames treated him the same way he always did in class, which is to say, as if nothing had fucking happened.
Now thirteen years too late Eames is saying, come west with me, and Arthur wants to punch him for being completely, utterly absurd.
But the trees bend under the weight of the rain, and his grandfather's house contains nothing but wounded quiet when Arthur treads through the halls.
Stein and Son can do without him. Yusuf has got it covered. His grandfather's affairs can be put on hold. Arthur's already wrangled the complicated parts out with the lawyers. He has money saved up in the bank, and as owner of a business more comes in every day just because he has a share in the enterprise and, oh god. Arthur thinks about it, then tries not to think about it, and he finally works himself up into a state of restless panic as he paces past the skeletons and the ruined dictionaries and the Styrofoam containers thrown all over the kitchen.
Thirteen years too late it is Arthur's turn to take a chance and make the dive. He bangs on Eames' door at four in the morning, chest tight with the fear that he didn't do this quickly enough. It's still raining, and Arthur's coat cost five hundred dollars and is no way waterproof, but Eames answers the door in his boxers. "What the hell?" he says. "Arthur, do you not own a clock?"
"If the offer is still open," Arthur says, "I'd like to take you up on it." His hair is soaked, pressed flat to his temples, and he has everything that matters to him in a backpack that clashes garishly with his coat, which hurts him a bit inside, but Eames just looks at the backpack, at the coat, at him, and smiles.
"Come back in three hours," he says.
"What? I'm here, I'm ready, I'm all packed." Arthur looks at Eames and his infuriating smile. "Come on, you are going to invite me in and let me nap on your couch at the very least."
"Only if you make breakfast before we go," Eames says.
"Only if you want to suffer a gastrointestinal tragedy," Arthur replies.
"It's like you never left," Eames says admiringly as he opens the door to let Arthur in.
The road at twilight.
Arthur's hands are cold inside of his gloves and his fingers clutch the handlebars stiffly, but Eames is beside him in his leather jacket and his thick, scruffy boots. The rain is letting up and everything smells not like earth but like wet, damp leaves, turned over with the chemical residue of the nearby glue factory. The sun is coming out in sharp, blushing slivers. Arthur breathes in as he and Eames zoom quietly along Route 78 that takes them further from Blake's Peak with every passing minute. There aren't too many drivers or riders out at this hour, especially not in the middle of nowhere. It creates an eerie sensation where the road stretches and elongates, pushing insistently against the flat line of the goldening horizon. Arthur feels like nothing else quite exists but the pressure of his breath in his chest, and the sight of Eames ahead of him.
They ride for an hour or so in silence, but then Eames pulls to the side of the road suddenly. Arthur pulls over beside him, putting his foot on the ground for balance as he keeps his engine running. Eames removes his helmet to peer at Arthur and ask, "You holding up okay?"
Arthur may not be an experienced biker but he's not some kind of princess with a pea.
"You were the one to say it, not me," Eames says brightly.
"What does that even mean?" Arthur grumbles. He has a worn watch on his left wrist. It once belonged to his father and was one of the few items recovered from the wreckage. He looks at it now and sees that it's approaching eight o'clock. Almost time for his regular pick-me-up-and-make-me-alive coffee. He had forgotten to take this into consideration. On the road, you don't get to control coffee breaks. Coffee breaks control you. "Let's keep on moving," he adds. "Aren't we supposed to meet your friends in the next town over?"
"They'll show up absolutely late," Eames says. "Don't worry. Dom and Mal couldn’t make it to a meetup on time even if you were handing out bullion bars."
Arthur gives him a wondering look.
"You'll like them, I think. Mal especially. She'll eat you up, just you wait," Eames says. He clearly isn't suffering from any caffeine withdrawal. Maybe, Arthur thinks sourly, because he got to sleep the last few hours on a comfortable bed while Arthur huddled on the ugly old couch with the springs poking into his back. He swears he saw that couch at Mrs. Patterson's garage sale when he was sixteen.
Eames slides his helmet back on. "Well, as long as you aren't tiring yourself out and your arse isn't too sore, we'll continue."
"Please keep your thoughts way from my ass," Arthur replies, but he doesn't really mean it, and he's smirking a bit of his own as he gets back on his bike. Eames kicks off first – he knows the way. Arthur follows him back onto the road.
Around ten o'clock, they stop at a McDonald's for breakfast. Eames orders a coffee and two Egg McMuffins. Arthur orders a coffee and, after staring at the menu plaintively, a salad. Eames rolls his eyes when he sees Arthur's food come out on the tray, but Arthur shrugs. Just because they're on the road with limited options doesn't mean he has to start eating junk all the time. They find a booth in the back, next to two parents trying to coax their children to open their sleepy eyes and eat. Arthur spares them a brief glance while Eames tucks into his food unabashedly. Arthur sips his coffee and stretches out the cramps in his legs.
"Be right back," Eames says after he's finished eating. "Bathroom break."
Arthur waves his hand airily. "I imagine we're going to be quite familiar with each other's bathroom break routines by the end of this."
"Why, Arthur, that's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me," Eames quips, and his elbow sees fit to brush against Arthur as he slides out of the booth.
When Eames is gone, Arthur lets himself have a moment of anxiety. What the fuck is he doing here again. Is this really a good idea? He checks his cell phone and sends a quick message to Yusuf, and when it's sent he thinks where the message is traveling and about how he's not that far from Blake's Peak. He could turn around and go back now – any further and it might be difficult. But then Eames is coming back from the washroom with his hair in disarray and his shirt buttoned wrong, and Arthur sighs to himself. He's made his decision already. No point in being wishy-washy about it now, and besides, what would he do with all the travel-sized toiletries he stuffed his backpack with? And the GPS he bought from the home improvement store just in case things go wrong? Might as well put them to good use.
"Ready to go?" Eames asks. Arthur's going to get tired of Eames' constant precious concern by the end of this. He can tell that much already. But he stands and throws his napkins onto the table.
"Let's go," he says.
Dom and Mal are waiting for them in a town called Brighton, about an hour west of their breakfast stop. They're parked in front of a convenience store with an erratically flickering neon sign, and between them they have a huge red Yamaha with an equally huge passenger sidecar. Mal grins when she sees Eames and Arthur pull in. Arthur peers at her curiously and blinks again when he realizes that she's noticeably pregnant.
"One last adventure, I said," Eames murmurs into Arthur's ear when they brake. "Before the wedding and the baby comes along and they're forced to settle down. Not that I don't suspect they'll just put their baby where their bags are and ride for hell anyway, but don't tell them I said that."
"Hi," Dom says. He walks over and shakes Arthur's hand. "I'm Dom Cobb."
"I am Mal," says Mal in a light French accent. She leans over to kiss Arthur on each cheek. He doesn't see it coming and there's an awkward exchange of limbs and shuffling, though more awkward on his part than Mal's, who takes it in graciously. There were a few women who greeted with stylish cheek kisses when he worked in New York, but suffice to say, no one does it in Blake's Peak where the occasion to meet new people and want to impress them is distressingly rare. A grunt is good enough for most of the people Arthur knows.
Mal, though. Mal smells like oil and salt and sweat, and Arthur can see the love in Dom's eyes as he looks at her.
"It's good to meet you," Arthur says truthfully, and Mal's face breaks into a sly smile.
"It's good of you to come along. Eames would be quite unbearable otherwise," she says, and Eames starts to protest, but she cuts him off lightly. "Don't deny it, my dear. You would be trawling the bars at night for company and then coming back and weeping into my shoulder about how there are no good boys left in this country. Quite, quite terrible."
"Does that mean Arthur is a good boy?" Dom asks frankly, and Arthur can feel the heat at the back of his neck.
"Oi, that's enough," Eames says. "We've got three weeks till the wedding. Let me keep some of my mystery, you two."
"Eames, there are times when I wish you all the mystery in the world," Mal replies. "Especially when it pertains to your dirty socks thrown all around my hotel room. But come, it's getting cold again. I want the road to warm me up."
Arthur looks at Eames, Dom, and Mal, and thinks that there's a story there, possibly a good one. He wants to ask how they met, but Mal is already antsy and Dom is checking their supplies for the last time, sliding a hand over Mal's stomach protectively when she leans over to ask if he's remembered to pack her bon bons. They're an open, easy couple, and Arthur can see why Eames would get along with them. Maybe it's a requisite of being a biker, that you're supposed to be terminally friendly and relaxed. If so, Arthur's got a long way to go.
He snorts to himself as he slides his helmet back onto his head. He finds Eames smiling at him. "What?" he asks. "Do I have food on my face?" He swipes a hand over his mouth to check. Damn that salad. He'd thought it was a safe choice.
"No, it's your hair. You've got helmet hair," Eames says.
"So do you," Arthur points out.
"Yes, but you're Arthur," Eames replies. "I don't think I've ever seen you with less than perfectly gelled accountant hair." Except that one time in the pool, he doesn't say, and Arthur flicks Eames an impatient look as he climbs onto his bike.
"I'm not an accountant anymore," he says.
They stop for the night at town so small that Arthur doesn't even catch the name on the sign in the darkness. There's one motel in the town, and Dom and Mal pay for a room while Eames looks at Arthur and says, "Want to share? It's cheaper that way."
"Sure," Arthur says, though he hasn't shared a room with anyone since college. Even his romantic encounters in New York never stayed the night, which is rather telling now that he thinks about it – he hasn't had a real boyfriend or girlfriend, ever. Arthur, this is your mid-life crisis, he thinks as he takes the key card from the desk clerk and finds the room on the second floor. Dom and Mal are giggling about something between the two of them, and Mal gives Eames and Arthur a beatific smile before Dom gropes her and they disappear into their room, presumably to have passionate, in-love sex. Arthur is not jealous, not at all.
Arthur calls first dibs on the shower. Eames lets him have it without argument. He flops bonelessly on his bed without even taking off his boots. He starts flipping through the TV channels as Arthur arranges his towels and travel-sized toiletries with a sense of satisfaction. "Out of curiosity, how many changes of clothes did you bring?" Eames asks. "And how many of them cost more than Mal's engagement ring?"
"I'll have you know that I brought a t-shirt too. Two of them," Arthur says.
"You were always the best dressed boy at school," Eames says. "No one was surprised that you turned out queer, by the way."
"One has nothing to do with the other," Arthur says, "and that's funny because you are much queerer than I am, and no one suspected at all."
"Amusing, isn't it?" Eames agrees, and Arthur gathers his shower prep into his arms and heads into the bathroom. He closes the door behind him with a nudge of his foot. He can hear the TV blaring as he strips out of his clothes, punctuated by Eames' occasional laugh as he flips through sitcom reruns. Arthur lets that laugh roll off his skin as he turns on the shower, waits for the water to warm up, and steps inside.
It feels blissful. Arthur can put up with a lot of dirtiness. It wasn't like he was living on Park Avenue in New York, and his grandfather's house does have a cockroach problem, not to mention an ant problem and a rat problem, but he doesn't like the feeling of dirt on him. He washes the dust of the road out of his skin and hair, lathering himself generously, and then he just stands there for a while, soaking in the heat and the steam until his fingers start wrinkling and there's silence from the other room.
Eames is injecting himself with a needle when Arthur steps out.
"What is that?" Arthur asks very evenly.
"Oh, didn't I tell you? I'm a junkie. The whole goal of this road trip is so I can shoot up in as many states as I can, and then sell you for tricks when I run out of money." Eames delivers the line with a military-precise straight face. He pushes the rest of the needle's liquid inside. Then he removes it from his arm and aims the empty plastic into the garbage can. He doesn't miss.
"Eames," Arthur says.
"Relax," Eames replies. "It's insulin."
Arthur lets his breath settle around him. "You're – diabetic?" he asks.
"Type one, recently diagnosed."
Arthur doesn't know what to say to that, so he doesn't say anything. It's Eames' business, not his own. Just because they're travel companions doesn't mean Arthur gets to pry, and there's a hard glint in Eames' face that makes him less than eager to do so anyway.
"We met Eames at an orgy," Mal says.
Arthur takes pride in the fact that he doesn't even bat an eyelash. Two days on the road and he's already slipping into the lifestyle of sin and damnation that his grandfather used to rage about. Hell yes.
Eames interrupts. "Correction, it was only sort of an orgy."
"How can an orgy be only a sort of orgy?" Arthur asks him. The four of them are sitting at a roadside dinner in Maryland, one of those ubiquitous linchpins of patriotic Americana, and they're playing Taylor Swift over the radio while the waitresses serve them pancakes bigger than their lungs.
"It is if Dom clams up at the last minute and won't let me fuck him," Eames says matter-of-factly. Arthur glances at Dom, who just looks exasperated, and then at Mal, who seems to be on the verge of bubbling over with laughter. There's a small mountain of demolished pancakes in front of her -- the victory spoils of a pregnant woman. Okay, Arthur thinks, and relaxes into it. "He was already in love with Mal then, but just wouldn't admit it," Eames says.
"Oh, no doubt," Mal says.
"This is a gross misinterpretation of my character," Dom says.
"He was insanely jealous of me at first," Eames says easily. "Because I got the charm and the moves, and all poor Dom was left with was the strut and the electric iron. But it worked out in the end, I daresay."
"When was this?" Arthur asks. "Because if you tell me there are sort of orgies going on at Blake's Peak, I might have to cry foul."
"I was on a business trip," Eames says. "Picking up some specialty parts for the garage. Business and pleasure as it turned out." He smiles filthily, and there's a moment when Arthur looks at Mal's pregnant stomach with suspicion, but this too is one of those subjects he doesn't ask about, not yet. It's a long road and he's barely got one foot out the door. There are pieces of the puzzle that are starting to fall together though, about this and other things, and he now understands why their stops for meal time are clockwork regular, why even wild, wild bikers keep to a schedule.
"What do you do for a living?" Arthur asks Mal and Dom.
"Dream, mostly," Mal says.
"Try to keep Eames from getting every STD under the sun," Dom says.
"I mean--" Arthur catches the sentence between his teeth. He swallows it down. "I mean, that sounds great," he finishes. Mal smiles at him and then steals his last pancake while Eames gives him a look that says, See, you're learning.
--- he runs
----- he hits the ground running.
If they're going to talk about dreams, this is the one he thinks of first. He wasn't one of the jocks in high school, not like Eames who wore the school letter on his jacket and was a wide receiver on the football team. It's strange, now that Arthur thinks about it, because Eames is English and American football isn't exactly popular where Eames is from. But that's Eames for you, always adaptable, always willing to try something new, and Arthur used to see him on the field during practice as Arthur walked from school to his part-time job at the copy centre. Arthur never had any particular desire to play sports, and he wasn't much for organized team activities, but he did like to run.
His feet on the pavement, the sweat stinging his skin, the burn of his muscles. He stopped jogging in college after he discovered the gym and he never jogged in public in New York because he didn't like the crowds, but he never stopped having the dreams.
He wakes up from one of them, his heart beating a scar against his ribcage. The sheets stick to his skin. He can hear the sound of water hitting the motel window pane. It's raining again.
He looks over at Eames.
Eames, as expected, is not a discreet sleeper. He's loud. He snores. He tosses and turns. He scratches himself. Yet Arthur stares at him anyway, at the splay of his palm over his bare belly, at the low dip of the blankets around his nips, at his tattoos. Jesus Christ, his tattoos. Eames has them all over his chest, swirls and designs that Arthur only gets the opportunity to study like this, in the middle of the night, because Eames covers them up during the day. Covers them up with his leather jacket, which is not so bad, but Arthur prefers him like this.
The slight parting of Eames' lips does something familiar to Arthur, and Christ, it's really like he's in high school again because he used to watch Eames put that mouth on everything -- wrap it around his pen during math class, lick it during lunch in the cafeteria, press it into a mischievous grin at his lockers. Arthur used to have embarrassing reactions to that mouth then, and he does again now.
"Fuck," he says quietly, breathes it into the dark. Eames is a heavy sleeper in addition to being an obnoxious one, so Arthur slides a hand underneath his blankets and prays for the best.
Wrapping a hand around his cock feels delicious, but keeping his eyes on Eames as he sleeps makes it even better. Arthur knows that he's doing something illicit, and it's like his body comes alive with the knowledge. His cock jerks and his balls get larger. He tries to be ashamed about it but he can't bring himself to care when he can see a glimpse of Eames' tongue and Eames murmurs something in a low rasp that Arthur knows would feel amazing against his skin if Eames were to whisper filthy secrets as they fucked.
Arthur works himself with one hand, slowly, methodically. He doesn't take his eyes off Eames the entire time. He thinks about their one kiss all those years ago, and what that truly disgustingly gorgeous mouth had felt like on his. Then he thinks about what that mouth would feel like on other parts of his body, what that mouth would feel like sucking Arthur off, and Arthur's rhythm falters.
He turns his body so that it presses against the bed and he uses the friction of it to bring himself off, snapping his hips sharply against the sheets, once, twice, before his body swells with tension and he comes. He tries to keep it quiet but he lets out a little gasp despite his best efforts, a strangled staccato of his breath. Eames makes an answering noise, and Arthur comes harder because of it, shaking and trembling, spilling all over.
He looks at Eames.
Thank god, Arthur thinks, and this is the part where embarrassment hits him because he's lying in a wet spot now and his hands are covered with his own jizz. He's too old for this shit, and for the stumble to the bathroom where he washes his hands and wipes his thighs with tissues.
He crawls back into bed and scoots over to the left, avoiding the wet spot. He anticipates spending the rest of the night staring at the ceiling and simmering in sexual frustration, but actually he falls asleep pretty easily. When he wakes up, Eames is giving himself another insulin shot. He glances up at Arthur when Arthur stirs. His lashes are thick with sleep. Lazy. Languid. Eames never gives away more of himself than he has to, which is why Arthur always feels like he's stealing bits and pieces from him, furtive.
"Sleep well?" he asks.
"Perfectly," Arthur replies, and it's a good thing he's such a talented liar because he doesn't know how he'll make it through this trip otherwise.