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A Christmas Mystery

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Even Eames is starting to notice the trail of destruction he’s leaving behind. Cutting your hand on the corner of the desk you just broke off will do that to you. As he’s trying to clean the wound with the corner of his shirt, he catches Arthur, who is giving him the world’s most unsubtle eye roll.

“What,” he snaps, louder than planned. The attention of the whole team is focused on him now.

“Are we not putting enough enrichment in your cage, Mr. Eames,” says Arthur, sounding exasperated.

They’ve been over this. That’s why Eames is able to react in a calm manner - no curse words, just the deliberate knocking over of Arthur’s drying rack. Two Prada’s and an Armani tumble onto the dusty floor.

The gnashing of Arthur’s teeth is almost audible. “Leave,” he bites out.

Eames leaves.

-

The next day brings new challenges. The corner of his desk has been taped off to prevent new injuries (Eames looks at Yusuf, the accusation clear), but, mysteriously, a stack of videotapes has appeared as well.

“I’m not doing it, Arthur,” he declares, slamming the pile down in Arthur’s working area. “You make me forge 42 near-identical diplomas this week without giving me the time to get my supply kit. You had me trail a Gore-Tex reseller for hours in rain and snow, despite the fact that we both know he is barely associated with Solomon. I had to get up around five to even catch him climbing that bloody, buggering mountain. And now you want me to what, watch film material of Solomon’s bloody aunt on video tape? For a fucking one-level low-stakes grind job?”

Arthur opens his mouth to speak, but Eames cuts him off.

“I’m not doing it. This is where I draw the line. This job has been hell on all accounts: tasks, planning and general conditions, and if you want someone to watch outdated video material of yet another vaguely linked relative, I suggest you find another sucker to do it.”
He stares at Arthur, itching for an argument or a fight, anything to divert his attention from this hellish job that is slowly murdering his brain.

Arthur does not take the bait. “The labels of the tapes are written by Solomon. I thought they would provide a good handwriting sample.”

Eames would feel like an arsehole, if he wasn’t so busy trying to look like he didn’t give a damn.

“Alright?” says Arthur, in that uncaring voice of his.

“Alright,” says Eames.

-

Then it’s Sunday, which doesn’t mean anything when you’re a career criminal. Another drawback of the thug life. Eames has fully given in to the job’s misery and surrendered to his old addiction. His stop at the tank station last night has yielded him enough candy canes and peppermint bark to last a week. (Well, three days.)

He almost misses it through his loud crunching, when someone says his name.

“No,” he says, without much hope for that to work.

“Don’t give me that, we’re on a job,” remarks Arthur, who has emerged next to his desk and is giving Eames’ stash the evil eye.

“Whatever it is, my dear Arthur, I don’t want to hear it,” sighs Eames, grabbing the next candy cane off the pile.

“Eames...”

“I know, you’re the point man, I am supposed to listen to you, even in my darkest hour, etcetera. Can’t you see I am a man in pain? Have you no heart? What lies beneath those terribly close-cut suits of yours?”

“Mr. Eames.”

“Darling,” says Eames.

“Stop calling me that. I just came to tell you that everyone else has gone home.”

“Are you suggesting that I did not notice?” Eames did not, in fact, notice.

“Of course not,” says Arthur, the liar. “I just wanted to give you a heads up that I am leaving as well.” He doesn’t look Eames in the eye. Shady.

“You dog, you have a date, don’t you,” smirks Eames. “You never leave this early.”

A pause. “Sure,” says Arthur, a bit slow. “A date.”

Eames gives him a quick once-over. Arthur is wearing a suit (normal), and carries a large plastic bag (odd) with something poking out of it (are those wellies?). “Are you and your date going for a spot of late-night gardening?” he asks.

Arthur looks down. “Oh, these. They’re, er… it’s a bit wet outside. Can’t get my Tom Ford’s all clammy.” His eyes keep glancing down to his watch. “Anyway, got to run, until tomorrow, Mr. Eames.”

“Until tomorrow,” repeats Eames, not present at all.

-

A few hours later, Eames finally decides to end his grinding. He hates to leave a forgery half-finished at the end of the day, but his eyelids are heavy and his lines are not very fluid anymore. It’s definitely time to stop. Sighing, he pulls on his thick cable sweater, the wooly hat that Ari gave him, and his leather jacket. From the pockets, he takes the gloves he stole from his old library’s lost and found box. The gloves don’t match, so his left hand is always a little colder than his right, but he’s used to it now.

As he’s locking up, he notices a reflection behind him in the glass door. Eames tries to focus... but one blink, and it is gone - vanished into thin air.

It’s quiet around him. He looks over his shoulder, feeling a little silly. Was that a human shape?

“You’ve watched A Christmas Carol one time too many, Eames,” he mutters to himself. “Goin’ round the bend at last, not the whisky, but Arthurs incessant chores tipping you over the edge. Who would’ve thought.”
The sound of his own voice is comforting, even if he still does not feel like he’s alone.

As he crosses the bridge over the murky canal towards his hotel, he spots something in the fog. It looks like... tiny spots of light?

He bends over the bridge railing to look closer. Down in the river, small, floating candles bob in the water. Some of them have gathered around a rusty bike that lies on a sandbank, others are floating towards the city. Faintly, somewhere in the city, he hears carolers.

Strange. Strange day.

-

It doesn’t stop being strange. On Tuesday, Eames finds a gigantic candy cane in the flowerpot in front of their warehouse.

“You’re not considering eating that, Eames,” says Arthur, scandalized.

Eames unwraps it and licks it, just to annoy Arthur. Arthurs cheeks darken, and he quickly looks away. Eames is pleased. What a great start of his working day.

At lunch, Eames has already made significant progress on the candy cane. Progress on his forgeries, however, is somewhat less forthcoming. But the size of the candy cane makes it a perfect item to hide behind for Arthur’s disapproving looks.
He has also managed to master the handwriting on the tapes, so his desk is finally a candy cane-only space again. Things are moving forward. Finally.

-

On Wednesday, everything is normal. Well… everything, except for the fact that there is a new door in the back wall of their working space.

Everyone is ignoring it, though.

“Am I the only one seeing this door?” remarks Eames at lunch, having observed the team for a full three hours and seeing no erratic behavior.

“What door?” says Ariadne.

“There’s a door?” asks Yusuf.

Eames sighs. “I really should do that course on deceit and disinformation we talked about. You are both atrocious at lying.”

He can see Ariadne’s shoulders shaking. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snickers. “This door is news to me!”

Eames, shaking his head, goes up to the door. It’s locked. Of course it is.

He looks at Yusuf, but both him and Ariadne are studiously not looking and appear to be buried in their work.

“Okay, I see how it is,” says Eames.

-

Two hours later, it has not been a very productive day for Eames. He’s lucky Arthur is getting some supplies today, because Eames is supposed to finish the forgeries before six.

That is not happening.

What is happening, however, is opening this door. Today - or so Eames has convinced himself. He had the lock picked in five minutes, but strangely enough, the door hasn’t budged. It seems that something is blocking it from the other side.
That leads to a hunt through the building (Yusuf and Ariadne, after thirty minutes of posing, coming along to poke into vents and knock on walls with him). After two laps around the building (he is getting his daily steps in! Mum will be so proud) they gather at the front door, where Arthur is just parking his car askew on the sidewalk.

Eames looks at it.

Arthur glares at him.

Eames, wisely, says nothing and starts on another candy cane.

“What are you all doing outside?” says Arthur, ignoring the fact that two wheels of the car are now slowly drooping off the kerb. “It’s like the class went on a secret outing when the teacher got himself some coffee.”

Yusuf looks to the side.
Ariadne looks down.
Eames looks up, trying very hard not to think of Arthur in a waistcoat and glasses, pointing at a blackboard.

“Hm,” says Arthur. “Back to work.”

Somehow, Eames manages to finish his forgeries that day, even if he has to work until nine to get them done. If he squints, they even look quite agreeable.

-

Thursday is extracting day, and also Christmas Eve.

“Can we be quick about this,” asks Yusuf for the fifth time. “It’s just that me and Ari have plans, and -”

“Yes, Yusuf, we will be professional and swift as usual,” answers Eames, a little stung. “Arthur and I do not expect there to be any problems in the dream. We’ve done a lot of preliminaries in the real world with the relatives and the access routines already.” He looks at Yusuf, frowning. “You know this.”

“I do,” hedges Yusuf, “it’s just that those plans are very time-specific, and - “

“Yusuf -” Eames warns, and Yusuf nods and shuts up.

Eames doesn’t resent Yusuf for having plans. It’s good that he’s finally making a statement to Ari on Christmas Eve, or at least, that is what Eames suspects that will happen. Christmas Eve is just not Eames’ favorite day. And that is putting it lightly - if there was a way to skip it completely (and god help him, he has tried) he would. But no matter how he knocks himself out, no matter how he hides in endless dreams, his Christmas Eve mood will always catch up with him.

Nothing ever happened to him on Christmas Eve; not some illustrious woman who left him, nor a personal loss. It is not some tragic memory that Eames carries with him. It’s only (...only) that Eames has always wished for good company on Christmas Eve. Someone who gets him. Someone smart, but reserved. Someone criminal, but trustworthy. Someone to laugh with, who will fight for him, a mystery for Eames to unravel. Someone who Eames can love with everything that he has.

Eames doesn’t do small dreams.

The other 364 days of the year, he’s fine. Eames can step out in jeans and a pink wife beater and have some lovely company in the blink of an eye. But Eames does not want lovely forever. Eames wants brutal, uncompromising intensity, or nothing. So far, it has been a whole lot of nothing, all 37 Christmas Eve’s of his life.

Finding someone has turned out to be impossible.
Or maybe it hasn’t. But that person also needs to want Eames.

-

The job goes fine. This is not a surprise. Eames is the last one out, everything going perfectly according to plan. It should be a good feeling to finish something, but when Eames wakes up, the building is empty and dark. A beam of light gleams over Arthur’s empty desk.

What the hell?

Of course Yusuf and Ari have left immediately, but it does sting that Arthur didn’t even say goodbye.
It is fitting though, for this terrible day. Eames hates that Arthur does not even understand this about him. As a point man, doesn’t he know what his team needs? Why can’t he see that Eames needs this little thing, that someone gives him the courtesy of saying goodbye after a job?

Moping, he starts to clear out his desk. With a large swipe, everything goes into his backpack, and then, out of habit, he gives the desk a rattle to check if there are any contents left.

Something clangs.

There’s a small, scratched key that wasn’t there before.

Eames takes another lap of the building, which feels larger now that it is entirely deserted. There’s not much in the rooms other than desks, chairs and some empty shelving here and there, but after ten minutes of fruitless wandering on the third floor he finally finds a room he hasn’t been in before. It has a hatch in the ceiling. A little desk-and-chair Jenga brings him up to it, and when he opens it, his head is sticking out into an attic with a beautiful glass roof.

Eames wrestles himself through the hatch and walks around the attic, coughing. It’s so dusty that he would think that there hadn’t been anyone here in years, yet he spots some footsteps near a window. He tries the key on a window lock. It fits.

As he steps onto the roof he notices it’s freezing outside, and even with the light drizzle, he’s immediately drenched. But he doesn't care, not when there are so many stars tonight. The roof provides a great view of the city as well, all of its lights twinkling in the darkness. But he’s not here to turn himself into a popsicle onto the roof. He looks down. Why is he here? Thankfully, the footsteps are still visible, going to the edge of the roof. There’s a fire escape that leads into darkness. This whole escapade is starting to feel a bit silly, but now he wants to see it through.

It’s a long ladder. When he’s finally on the ground again, it is so dark that he can’t see a thing. As he instinctively smashes away something rough grazing his face, that turns out to be a branch, he notices that he has ended up in a small, enclosed garden of some sorts, surrounded by the building.

Eames’ eyes slowly start to adjust to the darkness. He can see shapes, mostly, but even when it's dark it seems to be a lovely place. There’s a fountain, and some intricate paths in the form of a maze. He also spots a door with a heavy beam next to it - this must be his mystery door!

The rain has finally stopped. He’s standing still in the garden, just taking it all in, when he hears footsteps.

Eames immediately knows it’s Arthur. He would recognize that fragrance anywhere. And then, he is pushed up against the wall and kissed, so very gentle. It’s a wonderful kiss: soft and promising, like he never expected Arthur to kiss. Arthur cradles his face with one hand, the other hand holding him at his waist. Eames feels enveloped in him. Safe.

It ends way too quickly. He hears a sigh, Arthur walking away, the creaking of the door, and then he is alone again.

When he enters their work space, there is Arthur still, soaked through and looking sheepish.

“I did not really think this part through,” he says.

Eames walks up to him.

“Did you put lights in the river for me?” he asks.

Arthur nods. Eames can tell he doesn’t know where to look.

“And the largest candy cane known to men…?”

Arthur blushes. “I saw your desk. It seemed… appropriate.”

“And the door,” Eames concludes.

“I found it a few days ago, when I was preparing the room. I thought you would love a secret garden. It seemed like the perfect distraction on a shitty day.”

“You remembered,” says Eames, careful.

“The kiss was unplanned,” says Arthur.

Eames is delighted with that information. “Arthur. I’m shocked.”

Arthur smiles, a little wistful. “I’ve always thought about you on Christmas Eve, since you told me how you felt about it, that night in the bar. And I know, you would never… we could never…” He waves a hand, brusquely. “But I thought I could give you an adventure at least. And then when you stood there, you just looked so… Kissable.”

Eames looks at him. Looks at Arthur in his entirety, his soggy Lanvin, his nervous explanation, his eyes, shining but not looking at Eames, as if he does not want to see Eames’ response. Arthur, who is always there, who seems to have shed a layer of aloof professionalism to show Eames how he feels.

“Took you long enough,” says Eames, pulls Arthur towards him, and kisses him again.

-

Outside, in the enclosed garden, it starts raining again - but if Eames closes his eyes, which he does, because that’s what you do during a great kiss - he can pretend it’s snowing.
And that is the end of his Christmas Eve, and the start of a lot of beautiful Christmas Eve’s to come.