sirona_fics: (team romance rahlie)
[personal profile] sirona_fics
Reposting my other story for [ profile] ae_match, this one a collaboration with the most amazing [ profile] red_rahl, who has been nothing but pure joy to work with! <333

Title: Hand in hand is the only way to land
Author/Artist: [ profile] sirona_gs and [ profile] red_rahl
Prompt: Touch
Word count: ~10,400
Rating: R overall
Warnings: A smidgeon of angst, more fluff thank you can shake a stick at.
Summary: Arthur meets a far-too-appealing stranger when he brings a foundling kitten to Arthur's pet store. This is their story. Or, as [ profile] zolac_no_miko said to me, [It] is all gerbils and pigtails and fluttering hearts.
Notes: This story has been just amazing to write! I want to give out a huge thanks to everyone who commented and cheered this on -- you made it so incredibly rewarding to think up and write! And [ profile] red_rahl -- I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, DARLING. Title from The Cure's Lovecats.

[art] by [ profile] red_rahl

[text] by [ profile] sirona_gs

Christopher is not a happy turtle. Arthur often marvels how something so small can also be so incredibly fussy, and so much trouble. No matter how much he tries, Christopher remains stubbornly curled up in his shell, a tiny ball of mistrustful reptile that is causing Arthur no end of grief. There's nothing for it; he apologises mentally as he pokes his little finger in the back of the shell. Christopher's head shoots out and he looks at Arthur reproachfully. Arthur winces when he administers the vaccine -- it's for Christopher's own good, for god's sake, so why is Arthur feeling so damn guilty?

He gives Christopher a double helping of lettuce nevertheless, quietly grumbling to himself as he returns the turtle carefully to his small tank. Christopher looks lively enough; he heads for the food immediately, his long wrinkled neck enthusiastically outstretched. Arthur allows himself to run an affectionate finger over the back of Christopher's shell; the turtle pays him no mind, content with chewing the fresh leaves.

The doorbell jangles, and Arthur turns from the tank, a ready smile brightening his face. The new customer is -- well. Let's put it this way -- if Arthur got home to find that waiting for him in bed, he'd think it was Christmas and he had been a very good boy indeed. The man is tall, shoulders broad and chunky, tattoos peeking from underneath the tight sleeves of his T-shirt.

He's carrying a kitten. Arthur has to force himself not to coo at him.

"Oh god, I hope you can help me," the man says, obviously distressed, holding the kitten out with both hands. It's just a ball of grey fur, hardly even filling the huge palms. "Found him behind my flat, he'd fallen in the dumpster. Can you see if he's okay?"

Arthur hums, beckoning the man to bring the scrap of fur closer to the counter.

"How do you know it's a he?" Arthur asks curiously, snapping on a pair of latex gloves.

The man looks sheepish. "I don't, really. That was bad of me, wasn't it?"

He looks so concerned that Arthur can't help but smile at him reassuringly.

"Well, let's take a look at you, then," he murmurs at the kitten. It looks up at him with huge eyes, mewling pitifully.

Arthur feels along his body, checks the ribs, the legs, each tiny paw. The kitten looks healthy enough, even if its fur is a little matted.

"Looks like it's just old enough to go around without its mom," Arthur says, checking its teeth. The kitten squirms.

The man hums, leaning close enough that Arthur can feel the warmth of his body, the faint hint of aftershave, something fresh and woodsy that makes Arthur want to bury his nose in the man's neck.

Arthur's lost his focus -- the kitten attempts to claw at his hand, but Arthur gets it pinned with two long fingers and checks between its--his legs quickly.

"You're in luck, it really is a 'he'," Arthur tells the looming guy. Somehow he doesn't really mind the proximity.

The man grins. "That's lucky. I'd hate to have called him Derek for nothing."

Arthur blinks. "Derek?"

The guy looks terribly embarrassed all of a sudden, even going as far as to shuffle his feet. "Um, he's grey, right? So I thought, Grey's Anatomy, you know? And he's a boy, so... Derek...?" he flushes.

Arthur is utterly, irrevocably charmed.

"Makes sense," he says, and the guy smiles at him shyly. "Eames," he says, offering Arthur his hand.

Arthur peels one glove off and takes it. "Arthur Moss," he supplies. "Your discovery is perfectly healthy, Mr Eames. What do you intend to do with him? I can take him off your hands, if you want, I'm sure I can find a good home for him very soon, with those lovely green eyes of his."

Eames looks taken aback. "Oh, no, I'm taking him home," he insists, picking Derek up and cuddling him to his chest. "I found him," he adds, and to Arthur it sounds suspiciously like 'I found him first!'. He grins.

"That's great news, Mr Eames, but I have to ask -- are you prepared to take on a cat? It's not as much responsibility as a dog, but it's still a living thing, and needs a lot of care."

Eames smiles at him. Arthur feels like he's passed some kind of test. "My mum breeds cats," Eames confides. "I know a lot about them, including some things I'd really rather I didn't."

Arthur smiles down at Derek, back on the counter as Arthur prepares the usual vaccination for foundlings. He spreads the fur at the neck, squeezes the skin to form a fold, and deftly injects the liquid. Derek backs away, hissing, but Eames takes him up in his hands and pulls him to his chest again. The kitten sinks his little claws into Eames' shirt peevishly, and Arthur smothers a smile at the way Eames winces, but doesn't let go of him. After a moment Derek seems to figure out what his paws are for, and climbs his way up Eames' shirt, nosing at the skin Eames' open collar leaves on show. Arthur tries not to stare as Eames--giggles, there's no other word for it, a happy sound that makes Arthur warm in all sorts of places.

"Well, thank you ever so much, Arthur," Eames beams at him, digging into his pocket with one hand while the other juggles his new family member. "You have been invaluable." He passes Arthur a twenty.

"That's really not necessary," Arthur stammers, trying to wave it off, but Eames fixes him with those fascinating eyes of his, and Arthur finds himself taking the bill as if hypnotised.

"When do I need to bring him in next?" Eames asks, looking like he wants to whip out a pen and paper and write down Arthur's every word.

Arthur ponders as he stares at Derek, as the kitten curls up in the crook of Eames' arm. "In about three weeks, I should imagine -- he looks about seven weeks old."

"Right," Eames smiles, settling Derek more comfortably. "Well, then. I had better go home and call my mum, get a quick refresher course in kitten wrangling."

Arthur laughs, tickling Derek behind his ear. Derek opens a languid eye, fixes his gaze on him, then seems to decide he's no threat, because he closes his eyes again and starts to purr.

When he looks up again, Eames is staring at him, something warm in his gaze that makes Arthur break out in goosebumps. Arthur looks away, busies himself with unearthing an old business card.

"Here," he says, palming a biro and scribbling a few digits on its back. "This is my phone number. Call if you have any trouble your mom can't fix over the phone."

Eames takes it, again with that unnerving look in his eyes, and now there's a smile, too, and oh god, Arthur is not going to blush. He's not.

"Thanks again, darling," Eames says, low and warm.

Arthur watches him all the way out of the shop. When he's sure Eames is gone, he turns and thumps his forehead against the doorway to the back in despair. It doesn't help any.

Christopher watches him, unimpressed.

"Shut up," Arthur grumbles, and goes back to work.


One week later

Eames pushes his sliding glasses up his nose and leans back in his chair, cracks his neck to relieve the tension making his head ache. He rubs at the sore spot on his nose where his glasses press down, swipes his thumb and forefinger over his tired eyes. It's his own fault, really -- he'd stayed up way later than he should last night with Derek, watching the kitten's antics with barely-disguised delight. Who knew that all the happiness in the world could be found in a ball of string? The memory floods him with joy and he really can't help the smile on his face.

He pushes the weariness away and stands, picking up the pile of books by the till. Today's shipment is later than he would have liked, but the important thing is they're here now, and all the orders have been collected by his grateful customers. Running a bookshop is not what Eames had imagined he'd be doing with his life, when he was little -- international man of mystery had been more his choice of vocation those days. Still, there's a quiet sort of happiness in his chosen profession, and really, Eames would not change it for anything.

The replacement books slip into the empty spaces left by sold copies, and the shelves look pleasingly full once again. He rubs the spine of a beautiful deluxe hard-cover edition of The Secret Garden, his favourite book as a child, and remembers his mother's low, soothing voice reading to him and his twin sister Annabel, remembers her slipping into the different accents like the sleek body of an otter through the flow of the river, remembers the magic coming to life in the dark, cozy space of their bedroom before they'd grown up enough to warrant separate quarters.

He had always loved reading, fascinated by the way he could travel through a pirate ship at noon, dive into the ocean waters at night, all from his living room. And of course, knowing that his father would be back in a week to continue reading The Tempest with him -- he had hardly been able to wait.

The bell over the door tinkles, startling him badly. He always does tend to drift away into his own head at the bookshop, safe between the bookcases he designed himself, filled with everything needed to feed people's imagination, leave them craving more. He makes his way through the maze of books and plush heather carpet, heads for the front till.

"Hello there, how may I... Arthur?" He can hardly believe his eyes, for there he stands, a little awkwardly, his very own superhero.

Arthur stares at him, looking just as startled as Eames feels. "Hi," Arthur says haltingly. "I never realised... I used to come in here all the time, when it was a toy store. I've been meaning to come by ever since I saw it turned into a bookshop, but..."

"Yeah," Eames adds, rubbing at the back of his neck, a nervous tick he's been trying to train himself out of. "We've only been open a couple of months."

There's an awkward silence. Eames finds himself searching for something, anything vaguely intelligent to say, but there's something about Arthur, the lithe frame of his body, the toned forearms exposed by his rolled-up shirtsleeves, that makes all the words fly out of his head without a trace.

Arthur, bless him, decides to help him. "How is Derek? Is he settling in okay?"

Eames practically feels himself relax. "Yes! Yes, he's going great! He's shredded his first curtain, the little tyke," he says fondly.

Arthur dimples at him. Eames' knees threaten to betray him. How had he not noticed those the first time round?

"I'm so pleased to hear that," Arthur says warmly, amusement in his voice. "Congratulations."

"Yes, well," Eames demurs with a wave he hopes doesn't look as contrived as it feels. "I am expecting him to graduate to widdling in my shoes any day now."

Arthur smothers a laugh, half-turning as if to hide it. Eames can't imagine why he should want to do that -- he looks so lovely when he laughs.

Eames becomes aware that he is staring like a lovesick teenager. He shakes himself, feeling a flush climbing up his neck and heating his cheeks.

"Um," he says eloquently. "Was there something--" he trails off, worried that Arthur might think he was trying to get rid of him. That would be terrible, since it's the very last thing Eames wants in the world.

"Oh! Yes, there was! Oh god, I'm sorry, I'm taking up your time," Arthur says, looking chagrined.

"No!" Eames says far too quickly. "No, no, not at all! There's nothing more important--I mean, I don't have anything else--um." Oh god. He's changed his mind. He wants nothing more than for the ground to open up and swallow him whole. Arthur probably thinks he's an absolute idiot.

Arthur is looking at him. Eames has to battle a desperate desire to go hide between his bookshelves, but that would mean that Arthur would go away, and that would be awful.

"Actually, I was hoping you'd be able to help me find a book on exotic birds. I work with the State SPCA, you see, and they've just brought in a toucan that's not been cared for properly. I rarely have to deal with them, though, and I need to brush up on my reading."

It's amazing how much this calms Eames; he feels work mode settle over him like a cloak, the confidence he finds himself sorely lacking around Arthur coming back now he's in his element again.

"Of course, I have just the thing. I'll bring it right out!" He scuttles away, heading for the shop's Biology section.

He thanks his lucky stars for Yusuf's strangely emphatic interest in all sorts of bizarre creatures, because it means he carries everything from the British Small Animal Veterinary Assosiation Manual of Exotic Pets to Exotic Pets: A Veterinary Guide for Owners. He fishes out the former; there's an actual picture of a toucan on the front, but Eames flips through the contents just in case, and yes, there's a whole chapter on exotic birds.

Arthur's perusing the Children's section when Eames comes back. It's a bright spot just by the till, set up in a natural niche of the shop that allows for small chairs to be scattered between the low bookshelves, and an AstroTurf flooring to cover the ground. It's Eames' favourite part of the shop -- all primary colours, the solid parts of the bookshelves painted with aeroplanes and boats and fairies and unicorns. They had taken him ages to draw, especially with the way he'd had to contort himself to get at the odd angles, but he's absolutely chuffed with the way they came out.

Arthur is looking at them, a fond if nostalgic smile on his lips. It sets off a warm, gushing feeling in Eames' chest. It takes him a few moments to recognise it as happiness, pure and simple.

Eames hates to break the moment, hates the thought that as soon as Arthur has what he came for, he would leave, but it's what Arthur needs, and Eames has to stop mooning at him and get him what he asked for. Any minute now.

Arthur turns and spots him; the smile grows. So does the thing in Eames' chest.

"Found it," Eames manages after a moment, determined not to make even more of a fool of himself than he already has.

"Fantastic," Arthur says. Eames has never been more aware of just how bloody sexy an American accent could be. Though it might have something to do with the person shaping his lips around the sounds.

He gives Arthur a discount. Arthur tries to protest, but Eames is adamant.

"I am investing in my cat's well being," he says lightly. "Think of me as your knowledge supplier."

"I'll do that," Arthur says dryly, but he sounds pleased."Certainly you're more pleasant to talk to than my ancient computer."

"I'd clue you in on a deal for a new one, but I think I'd rather keep you coming back to me," Eames grins.

Arthur snorts. "Some dealer you are."

"I know," Eames says happily.

"See you next week," Arthur says on his way out of the door.

"Absolutely," Eames replies, and watches Arthur leave.

He feels the strange desire to get a new pet. The stranger the better, just so he would be able to call on Arthur as often as he could come up with an excuse.

When he finds the gerbil in his cereal cupboard two days later, Eames is not even remotely amused.


"I swear to god, Arthur, I'm not lying. It was right there, chewing away at my Sugar Puffs. I haven't the faintest how it got in, but it's a good thing Derek didn't find it before I did."

Arthur frowns, checking the little thing's teeth. "Derek's too small to cause it much damage yet; he's barely starting to form his hunting instincts. Still, I am glad you found it first. I still can't believe you found it in your cupboard, though."

Eames shrugs helplessly. "It's not like I haven't wondered where it came from, I just can't work it out."

"You might want to check your cupboard for mice tunnels," Arthur says distractedly as he attempts to weigh the gerbil without it squirming so much as to upset the measurements.

"Never seen any mice in it before."

"Doesn't mean there aren't any," Arthur says, wrangling the furry creature gently back onto the counter. "Well, you have your standard Mongolian gerbil here. I'd bet it's someone's pet that's found its way out of the cage and lead them on a merry chase."

"Does that mean I have to give Tony back?" Eames asks mournfully.

"Tony? Is that what you're calling her?"


"Yeah. You've got a girl on your hands. And no, I shouldn't think anyone's still looking for her -- she's been out and about for at least a few weeks."

Eames' eyes light up. "I can keep her?"

"Well, unless someone demands you give her back, yeah, I suppose you can. You'll need better supplies, though. Gerbils require pretty large cages to burrow in, because they like to tunnel, see? That's how this one found its way into your cupboard."

"Brilliant!" Eames gushes, running his finger over the little mammal's back. "She's just so cute. I was thinking maybe I'd make a space for her at the bookshop. The kids will love her--oh. I can't keep calling her Tony, can I... Well then. That makes her Pepper."

"Pepper?" Arthur asks, bemused.

"Yes, for Pepper... Potts..." There's a very fetching flush to the tops of Eames' cheekbones. "Um. Because I named Tony after Tony Stark," he says shyly.

Arthur is hard-pressed to stop himself from beaming at the silly, adorable man.

...Adorable? Surely not. Surely he's not getting so stupidly enamoured of the man, with his god-awful shirts and his square glasses and his enormous yet startlingly gentle hands and his love of all things small and furry and... Uh. What was his point again?

A flurry of wings interrupt his thoughts; it's a bit of a relief, since Arthur isn't sure what he might have done if they hadn't.

"Patrick!" he admonishes when Pepper scuttles quickly behind some flasks, poking her worried nose back out after a moment.

Patrick makes his way to Arthur's shoulder, perching there sheepishly and ruffling his hair with his long beak.

Eames watches them, fascinated.

"Is that the toucan you came into the bookshop for?" he wants to know.

"Yes," Arthur admits, lifting a hand to stroke the bird's feathers. "His name is Patrick. According to the book you so helpfully supplied me with, they'd kept him in too small a cage for his size, and hadn't fed him enough fruit. Toucans can subsist on insects, but they are actually frugivorous -- they eat mostly fruit," he clarifies, seeing Eames' confused face.

"Ah." Eames' face clears and he reaches a tentative hand forward. "Do you think he'd mind if I..."

"Oh, no, go ahead! The one thing his previous owner was good for is socialising him -- if they're handreared, they get pretty much like Patrick here -- they don't mind strangers, and can be quite affectionate--stop that," he squirms when Patrick nuzzles his neck and wraps his tail around it.

Eames runs a careful finger over Patrick's head. The toucan removes his bill from where he's trying to curl around Arthur and nudges his hand, hopping up and down excitedly on Arthur's shoulder.

"They're a bit of a menace when it comes to attention-seeking," Arthur admits. "Here, watch this," he adds, reaching behind Christopher's cage and pulling out a tennis ball. "Patrick! Patrick, what's this?"

Patrick eyes the ball excitedly. Arthur turns towards the door, where there are fewer breakable items; being a vet isn't exactly a job for clumsy people. There are also fewer cages -- his patients and rescues reside further inside. He tosses the ball carefully into the air.

With an excited squawk Patrick launches himself off Arthur's shoulder, piques to the left and catches the ball in his beak. He flies back to Arthur smugly, dropping the ball in his outstretched hand.

Eames' eyes are huge when Arthur glances back at him, and he claps his hands in delight.

"Oh my god, that was amazing! I've never seen anything like it!" he gushes.

Arthur fetches a treat for Patrick, who snaps it out of the air when Arthur throws it at him. He comes to land in front of Christopher's cage, watching the little turtle with interest and ignoring the humans for the moment. Meanwhile, Eames is coaxing out Pepper from between the two beakers where she'd taken refuge. Arthur hands him a hamster treat to help; their fingers brush when Eames reaches for it, and for a second all Arthur can do is stare at him, flushed and warm and wanting.

"Thanks," Eames says, voice a little hoarse.

Pepper sniffs the treat suspiciously, but relents and scuttles out into the open when Eames leaves it for her. She grabs it between her little paws and nibbles at it while Eames picks her up carefully.

"I'd better go find her a home. Large cage, you said?"

"More like a tank, I should think. Look, come here," Arthur says, tugging at his shirtsleeve.

Eames follows happily as Arthur takes him into the back, where there's a large glass tank full of earth and straw and miscellaneous fodder.

"Like I said, they like to dig," he tells Eames as Eames watches a furry head poke out of a tunnel. "So they have to be contained in something not metal or plastic. This is perfect for them. You can put a wire ceiling on the top, but the sides and floor should be either wood or glass."

"Right," Eames says, looking like he wants to be writing all of that down, but his hands are full of a curious, squeaking gerbil. "Duly noted. Would you, maybe, consider coming with me to find something for her? It's just that it's always good to have a professional on hand when it comes to animals' health," he rushes to add, looking down at Pepper like it's vitally important that he counts every one of her whiskers right this minute.

Arthur smiles at how endearingly flustered Eames is getting. "Are you asking me out on a date, Mr Eames?" he fishes.

Eames looks cornered. "Uh... maybe?"

"In that case, I'd love to."

Eames smiles at him cautiously, which turns into a full-out beam when Arthur grins back.

"Pick me up at five today?"

"Five o'clock," Eames repeats happily as Pepper twitches her nose at Arthur like she knows what she's just done.

Arthur's counting the minutes already.


"I promise it won't be long before you get your proper new home," Eames says earnestly, placing Pepper's borrowed temporary accommodation on top of the front desk at the bookshop.

It's a medium-sized glass tank that Arthur had half-filled with earth and straw before he'd handed it over. It's not ideal, but it'll do for the rest of the day until Arthur and him manage to find something more appropriate for her. Just thinking about earlier has Eames all warm and flushed -- the look in Arthur's eyes when he'd first seen Pepper, the gentle way his long, elegant fingers had held her, the way Arthur had looked at him when Eames had suggested they find a home for her together -- it was all like some dream come true. Eames had never hoped, never imagined he might find someone like Arthur, someone who not only got his silly, geeky jokes, but liked them, too; someone who shared his love of creatures in need, someone who could simply smile at Eames and Eames would want to fetch him the world on a platter.

Eames is a little worried about that last. This isn't the first time he's fallen for someone like that, instant, a flash of lightning and dimples. The last time, well. He and Nash had not parted in the most amicable of ways, and Eames had been hurting for a long time since. It was hard to let go of the caution he had adopted as a way of coping, even after all those years.

He was proud of what he had achieved, very much so. When Nash had thrown those callous, vicious words at him in their last year of university -- that he was a loser, a nerd who would get nowhere in life -- well, Eames had believed them for a while, because shouldn't the man who had been your lover for the past two years know those things about you? Besides, a bachelor's degree in English Literature was not really the most marketable of subjects when it came to landing a decent job.

Getting into the Publishing masters degree at Oxford Brookes had been one stroke of pure, exhilarating luck. The other was meeting Mal. He remembers it so clearly, as if it was yesterday -- running late, stumbling his way into his first lecture of the Editorial module, seeing the only free spot next to a tall, elegant girl, legs crossed and covered by cream chinos, silk shirt hugging her shapely shoulders, hair floating in curls around her head. All the guys in the room were staring dreamily at her, but none had dared take that spare seat next to her chair.

None but Eames, nervous, flushed, a little intimidated by the air of sophistication the girl--woman, really--wore like a cloak, but sure she would never look at him twice, so why shouldn't he sit next to her? Then she had turned, said "Hello, I'm Mal" in a low, melodious voice, and bestowed such a warm, happy, generous smile on him that Eames had been charmed on the spot.

Mal had been the one to show Eames that it was okay to be different. That it was okay to want to spend your life surrounded by the truest friends you were ever likely to have -- your books. It was Mal's idea to get a summer internship at Waterstone's, her idea to pack up and move across the pond -- and Eames had followed her gladly, she the sister he never had and he the brother she had always wanted.

And in the end, she had been the one to walk past the closed toy store that sported the 'Space To Rent' sign in the window, and stop in her tracks, tugging him back with an excited look on her face.

Thinking of Mal always makes Eames feel better, but this time doubly so, because he can imagine her excited squeals in his ears when he tells her about the new additions to his household, and about the beguiling vet who has helped with them. He can hear her voice in his ear now, 'Eames, stop being an idiot and go for it! Live it, chérie!' He wishes he could call her, but it's early evening in Paris and it's her father's birthday today, the reason she'd flown over there a week ago.

Pepper squeaks, nose twitching as she regards him curiously, and he is brought back to the present with a rush of heat in his cheeks. Only six hours to go until his date with Arthur! What should he do? Should he change his t-shirt? He should, shouldn't he, Batman is his favourite but it's not something to wear on a date with Arthur! He should go fetch a button-down, maybe the blue-and-purple striped shirt, Arthur would like that, wouldn't he? Should he wear a tie? No, surely not, surely Arthur would think he's trying too hard, because it's not a proper date, is it, they're just going to find Pepper a new home, right, and dressing up for that would be stupid.

But what if Arthur wants to go to dinner afterwards?

His helpless fretting is interrupted by the tinkle of the bell over the door and an excited shriek; seconds later the front desk is surrounded by the Shermann triplets, six years old and adorable in their pastel-coloured dresses, long chestnut hair neatly braided in two thick ropes down their shoulders.

"He is so adorable, Melissa, isn't he adorable?" Anne squeals, nose pressed against the wall of the tank.

Pepper scurries away in the corner, and burrows down until half of her is hidden. The three girls pout while Eames exchanges a long-suffering yet indulgent smile with Mr Shermann.

"Sorry about this, Mr Eames," Mr Shermann says sheepishly. "We're here to get the girls one new book each, for being good," he says, and the girls straighten guiltily at the inflection.

"It's okay. Melissa, Anne, Katie, meet Pepper. Pepper's a Mongolian gerbil, and she's a girl."

"Oh! Sorry, Pepper," Anne says, turning to look at her adoringly again. Pepper pokes her nose back out, blinking worriedly at the three girls.

"When did you get her, Mr Eames? She wasn't here the last time we came," Katie says, by far the most reserved of the girls. She blinks owlishly up at him from behind a small pair of glasses.

Eames likes Katie the most. Not to say that he doesn't love all three, but Katie is quiet and polite and she reminds him of himself at that age, clutching his mother's hand until they get inside the bookshop and he could run off in search of new adventures.

"I found her in my cereal box this morning," he confides. The girls look enchanted. "She came to me, if you like. Mr Arthur the vet said she was someone's pet that got lost, and I decided to take care of her."

"Won't her family miss her?" Anne wants to know.

"I'm sure they will, but see, Pepper has been lost for a while now, and she needs someone to care for her. There's no way to find her family, so I will make sure she is okay instead of them."

Anne looks mollified. When Pepper doesn't come back out while they talk, the girls lose interest and skip off to the children's section.

"One book each!" their father reminds them in the voice of one who knows it's a lost cause.

Mr Shermann wonders off, too, and Eames is free to check that Pepper isn't too frightened of the unexpected attention. He feeds her a few nibbles and she seems to calm, shuffling back out and chewing at them contentedly.

The girls are less noisy this time when they come to the counter, and Eames takes Pepper out, allows them to run careful fingers over her fur.

"Daddy, she's so sweet!" Melissa gushes, watching as Pepper gets another treat.

Mr Shermann looks resigned.

"There's a vet clinic just a couple of blocks East from here," Eames confides while he takes the chosen books from the girls, heart beating a little faster just at the thought of its proprietor. "The owner is called Arthur Moss. He's been taking care of my pets. He has a pair of gerbils in the back that are looking for a new home, if you find yourself under siege later. He takes very good care of them."

"Thanks, Mr Eames," Mr Shermann says with a relieved smile, paying for his daughters' books. "They've been wanting a pet for months now, but I don't think we're ready for a cat or a dog. A pair of gerbils might just fit the bill."

Eames grins back, adjusting his glasses self-consciously, and waves to the girls as they leave. Arthur will be pleased -- the Shermanns are a wonderful, caring family who would give the little critters a loving home.

Eames loses a little time, thinking about a happy Arthur and all the ways he might show Eames his appreciation. He shivers a little, feeling his skin grow tight and too warm, and forces himself to think of something else, immediately. It's not easy, at all. Still, thoughts of Arthur swiftly circle back to thoughts of their date-not-date?, and he starts fretting all over again. If he could just figure out what to wear...

The opening strands of Non, je ne regrette rien float from his phone, the ringtone Mal had insisted she pre-programme for herself. Eames tries not to look too relieved; then he realises he's alone in the shop and stops fighting it.


"Bon soir, cherie! Can you talk?"

"Yes, of course, but aren't you at your father's birthday party?"

"Bah, it's full of boring old farts. Entertain me, darling, before I say something rude that will make Papa give me that disappointed look of his!"

"You could never be rude," Eames says fondly, "and Miles could never be disappointed in you."

"Well, he might not, but Mama will not be so forgiving."

Eames winces, thinking of Marie Miles and her exacting expectations.

"Okay," he says, and proceeds to indulge himself and tell her of everything that has happened this week.

Her reaction is predictably exuberant. "Eames, you cad, how could you not call me and tell me of this lovely Arthur before?" she mock-berates, sounding thrilled. "Is he gorgeous? He is gorgeous, isn't he? And you are panicking, yes?"

Eames smiles ruefully at himself. She knows him far too well.

"Well, stop that right now. You are pretty damn gorgeous yourself, and you are smart and funny and wonderful, how many times do I have to tell you this? What are you wearing for tonight?"

"That's the thing, I don't know what to wear. Is it a date? Is it just him helping me out? I mean, I know he asked if it was a date, and then said he'd love to, but--"

"No buts! You, get yourself home at least an hour early, take a shower, tart yourself up a bit; you'll feel better for it, you know you will. You can close early for one day! And wear that blue-and-purple shirt, the one I bought for you last month, ooh, I knew it would come useful! And don't shave! You look dashing with a five o'clock shadow!"

Eames nods, and doesn't interrupt -- it's no use, anyway, not when she's on a roll like that.

"It'll be great, you'll see!"

"I hope so," he says, I hope I don't make a fool of myself.

"You won't," she says kindly, like she'd heard him ever over thousands of miles of distance. "I love you, darling. You'll be just fine; if he has any sense, he'll take one look at you and snap you right up! And for goodness' sake call me when you get back, or I shall never sleep!"

"I will," Eames promises. "Love you too."

Four hours left until he can go home and get ready. He is never going to survive the wait.


It's ten minutes to five. Arthur checks his hair in the mirror for the thousandth time in the past hour, smooths a hand down his mint-green button-down shirt -- the colour reminds him of Eames' eyes, and okay, he's getting beyond pathetic already, god, it's just finding Pepper a better home--isn't it? And spending time with Eames outside of either of their stores, and getting a chance to talk, and get to know each other better, his pesky subconscious reminds him. Arthur flattens both his hands on top of his dresser to stop their shaking.

This is absurd, to be so nervous about nothing more than an outing with a (gorgeous, lovely) pleasant man his age, who likes animals and superheroes and, apparently, Arthur himself. Arthur watches a flush tinge the tops of his reflection's cheekbones light pink, makes an exasperated face at himself and marches out into the hallway, pushes his feet into his boots and trots down the stairs that lead into the shop. His flat is one store above, which is pretty convenient for all those times when 6am is not at all early for his first patient of the day. He likes living above his charges -- stops him fretting when there's a sick one that needs checking, and he can come down with a cup of tea and do the rounds any time he likes.

He had always loved animals, since the very start on his parents' farm -- playing with kittens and puppies, and lambs and kids while he was at it; watching a difficult calf birth, or nursing a sick duckling to health. He'd been nine and a half when his father had died in a freak accident that involved a hitherto undiscovered brain aneurysm and a combiner, to fatal effect. His mom had not had any living relatives, and his dad's sister, Aunt May, had known nothing about farming. And so they had sold the farm for a tidy sum and moved to the city, where the only green patches were the city parks, and the animals Arthur had grown up with had become a fond memory as he'd made his way through school, and later college. By that time it was almost taken for granted that he'd study veterinary medicine, and his mom had supported him all the way. Arthur could not imagine doing anything else with his life, not having that small circle of friends, human and animal, around him.

He looks at all the creatures surrounding him, absorbs the faint noises that are as familiar to him as breathing -- the flap of wings from Patrick's enormous cage, the faint whines from the bunnies' box, the chirping of the canary that the Hobbs family brought in yesterday for treatment, the rustling as the hamsters woke for the night. It's soothing, and it grounds him in the here-and-now, helps him from worrying about the hypothetical. From all he's learned of Eames from their brief meetings, he knows enough to see that Eames is someone he can trust, someone who won't just take what he wants and leave him behind. He's someone Arthur wants to know better, wants to spend time with -- as much time as he can get.

Arthur tries not to fidget, but if he doesn't find something to do with his hands sharpish he's liable to start fussing with the food containers again, and the last thing he wants is for Eames to come in and find him elbow-deep in hamster feed. Christopher chooses that moment to poke his head out of his makeshift enclosure within his tank, and crane his neck to look up at Arthur.

"Hey, you," Arthur coos, knowing he's only got a few minutes left until Eames arrives, so he might as well spend them fussing with Christopher as anything else. The tiny turtle always manages to calm him down a treat when he's worried.

Right on the dot of five o'clock there's a knock on the wooden frame of the door, and Arthur looks away from feeding Christopher a grape leaf from the batch he'd purchased the day before at the local market. And stares.

Eames is wearing a lovely button-down shirt, a mix of blue and lilac and purple, which hugs his broad shoulders to perfection. His jeans are classic blue and slightly worn at the knees and hips, and the shirt is tucked neatly inside the waistband. He's not wearing a tie, and the top three buttons are open at his throat, showing a tantalising peek of smooth, tanned skin and the hint of black ink curling over his collarbone.

To say that Arthur is enthralled would not be too much of an understatement.

He watches Eames shift from foot to foot, those firm, toned thigh muscles straining against the fabric, and it takes him a moment to lift his eyes to Eames' face -- which sports a day's worth of stubble, and Arthur has a sudden, intensely vivid image of Eames rubbing his chin over Arthur's naked inner thighs, Arthur's body arching desperately under him as he tries to direct those lips to where he really wants them. It's so blindsiding, so stunningly visual, that you could have knocked Arthur over with a feather where he stood, trying his utmost not to get hard in the middle of his shop.

He swallows dryly, aware that his mouth is hanging open and there's a strange look on Eames' face, uncertainty and a touch of trepidation as Arthur does no more than stand there, staring. It punches Arthur in the gut, that Eames could be afraid of him, that Arthur has the power to hurt this amazing man that he's only just getting to know. It's horrible. Arthur never wants to see that look on Eames' face again.

"I'm so sorry," he babbles as he rushes to open the door and meet Eames at the threshold. "I completely zoned out, god, how rude of me."

Eames smiles, and that look fades from his eyes until they're shining with warmth. "That's okay," he says, smiling widely, eyes crinkling in the corners until he looks so fond it's almost unbearable. "Are you ready to go?"

"You bet," Arthur grins back, staring into Eames' beaming face for a long moment before shaking himself.

He fishes the keys from his pocket and locks the door, sets the alarm system to the shop just in case they're not back until late (if at all, flits through his head; he firmly squashes the tantalising thought until it's where it belongs, at the back of his mind).

There's a moment of indecision as they argue which car to take; in the end Arthur wins, because he's driving a hatchback, and there's plenty more space in the back than Eames' Ford allows. Unfortunately, Arthur doesn't remember until it's far too late that the last patient he'd transported had been a very ill, very elderly cat that he'd promised to drop off home for its owner. The smell in the car is, frankly, distressing. Eames has just climbed in on the other side when he freezes, eyes watering a little and nose twitching. Arthur flushes bright red.

"On second thought, we should probably take your car," Arthur wheezes as he thumbs the electric windows open as fast as they'll go.

He watches as Eames stares out of the front shield, while in his head he's calling himself ten kinds of idiot for forgetting, oh god, how could Eames possibly find him attractive now; the nose is the most sensitive organ, the sense of smell is so evocative that anything a person smells stays with them, and more importantly, the circumstances in which they'd encountered the smell in question stay fixed in the mind, and oh jesus, now Arthur will always be associated with old Marcus' weak bladder--

Eames makes a choked sound, and god, Arthur wants to die of embarrassment. He's already screwed this up, before it even had the chance to start. He wants to thump his head on the wheel, wishes the metal would open and swallow him whole. He closes his eyes, preparing himself for Eames to make his (very polite, very British) excuses and run the hell away--

Wait. Was that-- Yep, there's no mistaking it, that was most certainly a giggle, choked as it was, and Arthur dares to look sideways at Eames, and then more fully as it dawns on him that Eames' shoulders are shaking, and there are tears in the corners of his eyes as he bites into the knuckle of the hand he's slapped over his mouth. When he sees Arthur watching, it's obvious that he tries to stop, but it's stronger than him -- and then it comes out, slides around teeth sunk into flesh and fills the car, a sound of pure amusement as Eames stares into Arthur's eyes.

Arthur... doesn't know what to do. Is Eames upset? Hysterical? Should Arthur wait him out or kick him out of the car in a fit of irritation?

In the end, he does neither -- because there's something infectious about Eames' laugh, something joyous and tempting, something that makes Arthur look around and see the two of them, sitting in a smelly car, all notions of nerves about what he's pretty sure is their first date gone without a trace in the face of the near-sentient odour permeating every surface. He starts grinning.

Eames takes that as his cue to give up, removes his hand, throws back his head and laughs, a full belly laugh that Arthur really has no choice but be hopelessly enchanted by, even as tears leak out from behind Eames' thick eyelashes pressed together in hilarity. Seeing Eames like that, letting go so completely, sharing this side of himself with Arthur, trusting him with it -- there is no way, no way that Arthur won't reciprocate. Soon enough they're choking and wheezing and bracing themselves on each other, Arthur leaning an arm on one of those thighs he'd so admired earlier and Eames listing to the side, propping himself up on Arthur's shoulders.

"What... by everything holy, what is that smell?" Eames demands, in between unrestrained guffaws.

"I'm sorry," Arthur wheezes again, wiping his eyes, "I forgot. It was Mrs Potter's cat, he's been sick--"

"Oh dear god, it's appalling, I don't think I've ever smelled anything worse in my life, and I've been a student at Oxford--"

"Do I even want to know?" Arthur demands hysterically.

"No," Eames yells, and collapses against Arthur's side, clutching at his arm.

It's tension breaking into pieces, all the barriers falling, all that time Arthur had spent fretting gone without a trace. He's never felt so comfortable with anyone, ever, and that includes Dom and Ariadne, the people he considers his closest friends.

Eventually they calm. When Arthur has the wherewithal to look, Eames' face is red and blotchy, lips still twitching, pale green eyes dancing enticingly when they land on Arthur, and Arthur can barely breathe for how much he wants to kiss him. It would be so easy, lean just a touch closer, fist his hand in Eames' shirt and draw him nearer, press his mouth to those plush lips, kiss them and kiss them until they open for him, until Arthur can slip his tongue between them and taste.

Eames is watching him fondly, grin slipping into something smaller, more intimate. "Shall we?" he says, voice low and caressing, a little rough from their shared hysterics, but no less warm.

Arthur shakes himself. This isn't how he wants their first kiss to happen, even if the smell has abated somewhat with the air circulating freely through the car.

"Yes. Yes, let's."

They drive off with the windows wound all the way down, even though it ruffles Arthur's carefully styled hair. He finds he doesn't care all that much, not anymore.

The store is situated about eight miles away, on the outskirts of the city not far from the bordering farmlands. It's enormous, and stuffed full of every single thing a pet owner could possibly want. Arthur knows exactly where he's going, knows this shop like the back of his hand, since it's his primary supplier.

Knows its owner pretty well, too, and for the first time considers the prudence of bringing Eames here, especially since they both look like they've made an effort.

"Arthur! I didn't know you were coming to see me!"

Oh, well. Too late to do anything about it now. Ariadne closes the distance between them at a jog, wavy brown hair bouncing loose over her shoulders, and Arthur prepares to be mauled by one of Ariadne's famous rib-crushing hugs. Worryingly, she stops a few feet away, and he watches her eyes running over the two of them.

"I'm so sorry, where are my manners. Ariadne Fairbank, I run this store."

"Joe Eames," Eames replies, shaking the hand she sticks out at him. "I go by Eames, though."

"We need a gerbil tank, Ariadne," Arthur says, trying to direct her attention away from its current victim. She gives in, visibly reluctant.

"Well, you know your way around. Yell if you need anything," she says, still eyeing Eames up and down with an alarmingly sly grin on her face. When they turn to go, she sends Arthur a quick wink and a thumbs up. "You'd better call me later," she mouths at him.

Arthur nods; he knows better than to skip that particular step, not after he's been waxing lyrical to her about Eames so often recently.

The tank is found and bought without fanfare; Eames is obviously relieved and happy to have someone there that knows what they're doing, and he doesn't argue once about what Arthur deems appropriate. Arthur likes the way Eames trusts his judgement enough not to question it; likes even more the interest he sees in Eames' eyes, and the attention he pays to anything Arthur says. He doesn't even get distracted when Arthur gets carried away a little explaining about the advantages of each material that makes up the cages. Arthur knows he could get annoyingly specific, but not once does Eames show signs of boredom. Arthur won't lie -- it's flattering as hell.

Ariadne shoos away the clerk manning the check-out and rings them up herself, smiling all the time.

"You two have fun now," she chirps, smiling sweetly. Arthur wants to bang his head against something. With friends like these, and all that.

Eames looks a little bemused. but shakes it by the time they're out in the parking lot again. Arthur opens all the car doors to let some air in while they fit the cage in the back, and they make their way back into town in silence -- the radio is broken, and Arthur never really got round to fixing it. He tells Eames this when Eames starts fidgeting with it.

"How can you drive in silence?" Eames asks, forehead scrunched endearingly. "I'd go mad."

Arthur shrugs. "I kind of like it? It's soothing, and I don't really spend all that much time in my car, anyway."

"Huh. Well, next time we're taking my car."

Next time, Arthur thinks, and smiles to himself.

Pepper, when they wrestle the large tank out of the back and into the bookshop, loves her new home. Eames lowers her gently inside, and she takes off running to every single corner, jumping over the straw and cardboard on the bottom and burrowing happily into the dirt. Eames leaves some nibbles for her in one corner and fits the cover on, settling the tank in the corner behind the till.

"I'll find a spot for her tomorrow," he says, looking at Arthur, who's leaning on the counter and enjoying the view of those muscles bunching under the clothes.

He pushes those thoughts away when Eames looks apprehensive again.

"What would--I mean. Would you like to, uh. Go for a drink or something?"

Eames looks so appealing, standing there all but shuffling his feet and wringing his hands, that this time Arthur can't push back the urge to reach out a hand and take one of Eames' in his own. It's soft and firm at the same time, and Arthur wants to feel it everywhere.

"I know a great Italian restaurant just down the block," he offers, heart beating fast, hoping like hell he hasn't read this whole thing disastrously wrong, especially when Eames' fingers flutter a little in his grasp.

"I love Italian," Eames smiles shyly, hand closing around Arthur's.

Oh, god. Arthur is a goner.


Dinner turns into lunch turns into dinner again before Eames has time to panic about screwing things up. It's scary, how easy things are between him and Arthur, how he doesn't have to try and try to get it right, how it just is. When Arthur smiles at him from across the table, Eames feels on top of the world, invincible, like nothing can ever get him down again.

He worries this thing can't last. It's too easy, too natural, the way Arthur fits in his life with his animals and his shirts and his easy affection, his laughter and his lips and his hands, holding Eames safe.

Eames has never had anything this easy in his life -- except for maybe Mal's instant and unshakable friendship. The thought gives him hope -- he and Mal have been inseparable ever since. Maybe he and Arthur can be the same.

Now that the weather is turning cooler, Eames has taken to wearing cardigans. He loves the feel of warm cotton on his skin, over his shirts, loves the colours, mustard yellow and light brown and deep red, reminding him of the last days of summer slipping into early autumn. Arthur makes a face at the colours, but he pillows his cheek on Eames' cardigan-clad shoulder with every sign of contentment, the reassuring weight of him settling Eames, pinning him in place until he can let go of his fears and just live. Mal would be proud.

If Eames' domain is cardigans, then surely Arthur is the king of sweaters. They are much more subdued than Eames' explosion of joyous colour, but they suit his slighter frame and darker hair to perfection, and he looks so painfully perfect in them that every time Eames sees him, spending time with Patrick or walking into Eames' bookshop or sipping at his drink in the restaurant, waiting for Eames to arrive, his chest squeezes and expands at the same time, and he can barely breathe for the realisation, again and again, that this is his; he's allowed--no, encouraged--to touch this man, to love him, to keep him. The smile that lights Arthur's face every time he spots Eames lurking in a doorway, frozen in space by the sight of Arthur there for him -- there is nothing Eames can do that will stop the pounding of his heart, the softening of his mouth, the need to close the distance between them in a few quick steps and kiss him, and touch his face, his arms, his back, slip careful, greedy fingers over arms bared by folded-back sleeves, familiarise himself with Arthur's skin again and again.

Time passes. Eames learns about Arthur's endearing obsession with specificity, and takes shameless advantage by describing to him, in detail, what he will do to him when they stumble into Arthur's flat after dinner and a film, where he would kiss him first, and second, and third, how he will slip his hand into Arthur's hair and tilt his head to kiss him deeper, how he will brace them with Arthur's back pressed to the wall, how he will slip a thigh between Arthur's legs falling open, how he will kiss that spot on his neck, yes, that one, as he rocks his hips forward, a tease and a promise all at once. And Arthur shudders in his seat next to Eames, eyes glazed, film long forgotten in favour of quite another reel showing behind his closed eyelids.

They don't often manage to sit through an entire film, except when it's one they both agree is quite spectacular. When it isn't, they make their own entertainment.

Arthur comes round to his flat one day when Eames is wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts and wielding a duster with a frightening lack of dexterity. Even more incriminating, Queen is blasting out of Eames' stereo, and, alone at home, Eames has no compunction to singing along, quite well if he says so himself. He never thought he'd ever regret dropping a spare key into Arthur's hand and closing his fingers around it, until he's executing a somewhat clumsy pirouette to come face to gleeful face with the man himself, standing in the doorway with a grocery bag hanging from his hand. Eames feels his entire face burning with mortification, but all Arthur does is drop the bag, uncaring of where it lands, stalk forward and press Eames into the sofa, grinning into his mouth as he plies his lips open with his tongue, not like Eames is resisting once he feels Arthur's hands over his skin, burning hot and cooling him down at the same time.

Arthur makes him dinner one night, a month or so into this thing of theirs, shepherd's pie and apple crumble and Arthur, sitting across the table from him, eyes soft and fond and earnest, and it's the home that Eames never had, always wanted, never thought he would find outside Mal's unfailing loyalty.

Arthur asks him to move in that night. Eames closes his eyes and takes a leap of faith, trusting, knowing Arthur will be there to catch him.

They move his things in on a Saturday in November, the first chill of winter fogging the air coming out of their mouths and noses in a cloud of exertion. Arthur plans ahead for the 50-odd boxes of all of Eames' books packed up, and calls in a favour -- or so he says. The first Eames knows of it is answering a knock on the door and finding Ariadne on the other side, smiling winsomely up at him, flanked by a broad-shouldered blond man who squints at Eames as if trying to make him out without his glasses.

"Dominic Cobb," he introduces himself, offering Eames a huge hand to shake. "I work with Arthur as a contact for SPCA."

"Pleasure to meet you," Eames says.

Ariadne tugs him closer and plants a kiss on his cheek before pushing past him.

"Let's have it, then," she says. "Where's damage?"

Arthur, creeping up behind Eames, points to the tower of boxes in the living room.

"Good lord," Ariadne says faintly. Arthur grins.

There's the sound of a key turning in the lock, and then Mal's voice is filling the flat, bouncing off the bare walls.

"Eames? We're here," she yells from the hallway, and then she's in the door, beautiful and charming as ever, Yusuf's halo of curls following at her shoulder.

"Blimey," Yusuf says, eyeing the pile of boxes askance. "I don't remember there being so much crap when we moved you in."

"That was four years ago. A lot of books happen in four years," Eames says defensively. At his side, Arthur turns away to hide his face, but Eames can see the telltale shaking in his shoulders.

Mal strides into the cluttered room and almost trips over Derek, in heaven with so many people there to extract petting from, with claws if necessary. It isn't, since as soon as Ariadne clocks onto him it's a moot point. He purrs happily as she swings him into her arms and tickles his chin. When Eames looks away, he really cannot miss the startled look on Yusuf's face as he watches her. She grins up at him, and Yusuf actually steps back, blinking while a flash of pink dusts his cheekbones. Eames has to turn around to hide his smirk.

Introductions are made by both him and Arthur, and Eames watches in astonishment as Cobb takes one look at Mal and looks like he's been punched in the chest, while Mal smiles at him like Eames hasn't seen in quite some time. He looks at Arthur helplessly; Arthur looks back, just as bemused. Then his lips twitch, and a smile starts taking over his face like the sun dawning. Eames can't help but mirror it, happiness sharp and buoyant filling him to bursting, and he bumps his shoulder into Arthur's, and laces their fingers together, and holds on.

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