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celestine_fics ([personal profile] celestine_fics) wrote2011-12-24 06:27 pm
Entry tags:

Inception fic: Promises to Keep - Part Three (The End)

Title Promises to Keep (Part Three – The End!)
Author: [personal profile] celestineangel
Fandom: Inception
Character(s)/Pairing: Arthur/Eames
Rating: PG (mostly for the stuff in the warnings, and the extreme schmoop at the end sort of balances that out…).
Word Count: 5,692
Summary: Promises made must be kept, even after tragedy.
Warnings: Mentions of past abduction/kidnapping, mentions of past non-sexual child abuse.
Disclaimer: Not my sandbox. I'm just moving sand around. Building some buildings and knocking them down.
Author's Notes: Honestly I hardly know if this has anything to do with the prompt anymore. It gets kinds schmoopy towards the end, though. :D I'm proud of myself. Just, you know, don't expect miracles from our Arthur. Written as a fill for this prompt at [personal profile] inception_kink.

Part One // Part Two




Promises to Keep (Part Three)



The desk is a study in cluttered order. There are papers, but they are more or less in stacks, and a quick perusal shows the stacks to each be of a particular type of paperwork; near the front right edge rests a pile of invoices, next to that a tilted stack of requests, and on the back left a number of letters from various investors. These are all expected parts of running a business, organized so only the owner will know exactly where everything is, though the disarray is likely not on purpose. The mind behind it is purposeful, but not overly concerned with details.

None of this really matters, anyway. His real prize is in the bottom left drawer. It's locked, but that has never been a deterrent. In moments he's rifled through the contents of that drawer and found a number of letters and papers having nothing at all to do with the business.

He looks up. On the desk between stacks of papers are pictures.

There is one showing dark woman with her arms around a big, red-haired man on one side, and a shorter, thinner dark-haired adolescent. In another picture, the man has a red-haired girl over his shoulder, both laughing, while in the background the teenage boy scowls.

There's a picture of the woman and the man kissing.

And there, tucked in the back, where it will be noticed but will not take away from the newer photos, is a picture of the same woman when she was much younger, smiling brightly, her arms around a boy who does not grow into the scowling adolescent in the other pictures.

Arthur reaches out to pick up that picture in its frame. He's wearing gloves, of course, so there's no chance of fingerprints.

She kept it.

His chest tightens as he studies the picture. The laptop he left with Eames, so he hasn't seen this image since the night he walked out. This one is obviously an original, of lesser quality than current technology allows, faded with time and handling. In it, Paola Esposito always has her first son with her.

She kept it.

Why this should surprise him, he can't say for certain, not even to himself. Some part of him must have been certain that when she married and had two other children—my half-siblings—she would have forgotten all about him. That she obviously hasn't is something about which Arthur isn't sure how he should feel. He supposes Eames would think him insane, but he cannot imagine simply walking into this woman's life and letting her see every part of him. No matter his final decision, there are parts of him he will never want her to see.

How can a man such as he ever learn to be a son?

Carefully, Arthur replaces the picture, careful to set it exactly in the position it was in before, then returns to the real reason for being here.

Two days before, while everyone was either at work or school, he'd broken in to the Jones house to search for a certain type of documentation, and had been disappointed to find nothing. Disappointed and, if he were to be completely honest, just a little vindicated. Finding no proof meant he had every right to be angry, to walk away from this and never look back. He's lived most of his life without knowing this woman, he can continue not to know her and be perfectly happy.

Even if it means losing Eames.

In his hands, however, taken from a drawer where neither husband nor children were ever likely to look, is proof.

In one manila envelope is a copy of the police records on his case. The report taken from the daycare workers, from Paola, and records compiled on the woman who called herself Sarah Sorrenson. There's a complete file of photographs of the daycare as well as Sorrenson's apartment, as well as copies of the résumé Sorrenson used to apply for her position and the listed references. There's nothing here he doesn't already know, other than how detailed Paola's attempts have been.

What interests him more is the separate file of letters complied over twenty-four years.

Many are from various police officers over the years, beginning with calm assurances that they haven't forgotten her case, ending with equally calm assurances that the case is cold, and at this point there's very little new evidence. One is attached to a printout of statistics, with one line highlighted: the hard truth of how many kidnap victims survive their experiences.

Yet, the letters continue, dated far beyond that time, and more and more are from private detectives in various cities throughout the country, even one or two in other countries. One or twice, he sees, one of them came close; there are pictures included with one letter of a small, run-down house Arthur barely recalls, the place where the woman he remembers as his mother finally shot up too much too often. Shockingly, it's listed as the last known location of Tammy Hodgins, a.k.a. Gina Pierce, a.k.a. Sarah Sorrenson. There's nothing in the letter about Sorrenson's drug overdose. It's all Arthur can do not to crumple the paper in his anger. So close, the idiot had been so close, but missed that one, vital piece of information. If he'd just found out about Sorrenson's death, if he'd thought to check the foster care system… if, if, if….

A flash of memory, of shadows and small spaces, of chanted prayers and pain across his backside. He is a quiet boy, a serious boy, a different boy. The devil is in him, they say, and the devil must be driven out.

Arthur closes his eyes brief against the memory. It doesn't matter, none of that matters. It isn't who he is, not anymore.

Isn't it? Isn't it why you're here, and not with Eames? Why you're here, not meeting Paola properly?

Shut up.

His head is down, hands in the drawer to replace the letters when he hears a sound in the hallway outside Paola's office. Arthur closes the drawer swiftly at the same time as he ducks down, sliding behind the far side of the desk from the door. His lanky frame folds easily to hide him completely.

For the first time in years, Arthur's breath catches in his throat. There's only one door out of the office. No one is supposed to be here, he checked all their schedules, he doesn't know who it is in the hall, or where they're going. If it's Paola, what will he do? What if it's Trip, or the kids, Anthony or Pia? His normal reaction to being trapped is to shoot first and never ask questions. That will not serve him here and now, nor does it give him an answer as to what he's going to do instead.

The door opens, and Arthur tenses. Footsteps, something landing on the desk, and then Arthur lets out a slow breath when the footsteps head back out and the door closes.

He waits, and when he's reasonably sure of being alone in the building he slides out from behind the desk, still in a crouch, moving silently to the door. Slowly, he reaches up, takes the doorknob and turns. He has patience, he must in his line of work, but now he breaks a sweat as he waits to see if someone notices the knob moving. No one does, and he opens the door just a crack, peering out.

The lights in the hall are off, but luminosity streams down the hallway from the main room of the restaurant. Arthur can hear someone moving in there, and silently curses himself for not being more prepared.

This was your job, we are not prepared for this!

Arthur slides out of the office door, closes it silently, then makes his equally silent way down the hall to the double-sized doorway leading to the main room. A quick peek around the door shows him the big red-haired man: Trip Jones, Paola's husband and fellow chef.

My step-father.

He can, if he's careful, slip past the open doorway and through the kitchen, then out the back door of the building. It's quick, it's easy, and it doesn't involve confrontation. Confrontation is bad, especially in this situation, where no matter how curious he may be—though he's not curious, not at all, he has no reason to be—there is no possible way for him to explain his presence here.

In the end, he goes the easy route, out the back door, and Trip never knows he's there.


~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~



Arthur exits the plane, and before anything else, before even retrieving his luggage, he goes outside the airport to light a cigarette. He hasn't smoked in years, but of all the destructive habits he's left in his past, smoking is the least destructive of them all and the easiest, at least for him, to cast off. He goes through two cigarettes before he's prepared to gather his luggage, and another three waiting for the taxi to pick him up. He absolutely feels vindicated in the smoking, considering the level of stress he's under.

In the taxi, he takes out his latest cell phone and makes a call. "I'm on the ground safely. Are you sure he's here?"

"He said he didn't want to be alone," Cobb replies, "and I can't think of anywhere else he'd go when feeling lonely."

Arthur feels a smile trying to escape, and allows it to cross his lips for a brief second. "I'll be sure to tell him how predictable he is."

"Only when it comes to you."

Cobb hangs up, to Arthur's shock. He stares at the cell phone for several moments before flipping it closed to return to his pocket. Only when it comes to you. What was that supposed to mean?

Only then does he realize his hands are shaking.

Half an hour later, the taxi pulls in to the estate's three-mile long drive, the shaking only gets worse, and Arthur has to practically put himself in a meditative state in order to calm himself enough to be able to face Eames. It doesn't help that he neither called or wrote before flying to England; he almost loses all his hard-won control when he become conscious of the fact that he is terrified of what will happen when he sees Eames.

He knew, long before Eames told him the truth, that there was something the other man kept from him. He knew because Eames was good, but Arthur was slightly better, and while he'd never been able to catch an entire conversation, there is one phrase that stays in his mind: "Arthur is not the most trusting of men." It's all the more terrible for its truth. At that moment, he understood that whatever Eames kept from him, he kept because he didn't know how to say it; Arthur's own lack brought this on, and Eames cannot be blamed for being unsure of how to deal with him.

This, of course, hadn't stopped Arthur from blaming him anyway.

Lady Eames meets him at the door, face set in an expressionless mask so bland even Arthur must commend her, and even Arthur is a little afraid. This woman greeted him warmly only six months before, but now she is like ice to him.

"I suppose you've come looking for Thomas."

"I am."

"If I told you he isn't here?"

"I wouldn't believe you."

Her eyes reveal nothing. "I suppose you wouldn't. Come in, but do not presume to speak to Thomas before you and I speak."

"Of course not."

They speak over tea, and to say they speak really means that Lady Eames speaks a great deal and Arthur is tasked simply to listen.

"Thomas is not well," she tells him, and though Arthur wants nothing more than to get up and go to him, the look in her steel grey eyes tells him to remain seated and to shut up. "He won't speak of it, but I know he's been through something difficult." Her lips thin, and her nostrils flare just the tiniest bit. "He is scarred, and I don't just mean the new scars on his body. He says he came here out of loneliness—and never you mind the whys of his loneliness, Arthur, we will come to that—yet he mostly stays in his room. He rarely eats. I'm not certain how much he sleeps."

At this point in her speech, the Lady pauses and looks at him, one eyebrow elegantly arched higher than the other. Arthur realizes he is meant to say something, though he isn't sure exactly what he can or should say. He's supposed to know everything all the time, but to be honest he's never quite understood this sort of high-society pretentiousness. He can emulate it, but it's an imperfect emulation at best; his last visit on the Eames estate did not involve it, as then he'd been welcome as part of the family.

"He'll tell you when he's ready," is what he says, knowing it unsatisfactory.

"Don't condescend to me, Arthur," she snaps, and beneath the posturing Arthur can tell she is genuinely worried for her son. "I know very well my Thomas is involved in things he'd rather I not know. He changes addresses and telephone numbers far too often. He won't tell me a blessed thing. Unfortunately, that leaves me ill-equipped to help him."

"Hmm."

She gives him a shrewd look over her teacup. "If it were up to me, I'd have you thrown out on your arse." Something about the way she says it, perhaps because a Lady isn't supposed to be so crude, brings a smile to Arthur's lips, one that dies quickly under her glare.

"It isn't up to you?"

"Unfortunately, no. Thomas wants to see you; he just didn't know how to find you."

Arthur's stomach turns over, then the other way, alternating between a pleasant flutter knowing Eames still wants to see him, and a less pleasant knot of guilt. "Did he tell you why?"

"Why what?" she asks, tone clipped. "Why you left him?" Arthur nods. "He mentioned something about cowardice."

"He told me… about Paola."

"I thought as much." Lady Eames doesn't miss a beat. She and her son are so much alike. "May I say that Thomas was right, and you are a coward?"

He smiles. "You may call me anything you want, Lady Eames. I deserve it."

Her lips purse momentarily, he thinks to hide traces of a smile. Lady Eames is the type to be amused by someone else's self-deprecation, especially when it's in line with her own opinions. He doesn't blame her; she's right about him, and is probably right about most people. "Thomas is asleep. You know where to find him."

Arthur rises immediately, his chest constricting. It's three in the afternoon, and Eames is asleep. He knows where to go, remembers the room they shared the last time he was here, as bare of personality as any guest or hotel room.

He finds Eames in bed, as promised, and he looks terrible. The man has lost weight, and he has the exhausted look of someone who either sleeps all the time or doesn't sleep at all. Arthur sits on the bed carefully, and tugs the blankets down to see Eames' neck and shoulders. There are scars there, relatively new on the map of Eames' body, and Arthur remembers when those scars were fresh wounds that he helped to stitch and bind until they could get Eames to a real hospital. They are white and raised against the rest of his skin. Arthur touches one, running his finger along its length.

Eames shivers, gasps, and opens his eyes. "Arthur."

"Apparently, I still am."

"You left."

"I did. I'm sorry." He touches Eames' forehead, brushing back the hair that's grown out some since the last time he saw Eames. "I had to, but I shouldn't have left the way I did."

This is the moment he's dreaded, more than meeting Lady Eames, dread that's twisted his stomach until he thought he would be sick. Except Eames chuckles softly and turns over to lie on his back, smiling at him. "Stubborn. Always have to do things your own way, hmm?"

Now it's Arthur's chest that tightens, but for a different reason altogether. "You know me too well."

"You hate that, don't you?" Eames peers at him through eyes that are haunted by things Arthur knows only through the story of his scars. "That I know you so well. You hate being known."

Arthur's chest releases, and with it, a breath he didn't know he held. His hand lowers from Eames' hair to touch his cheek, then to ghost his fingers over Eames' lips, the full lips he's grown so accustomed to, and that he's not certain anymore he can live without. "Not this time," he says quietly. "This time it's all right." He reaches to find Eames' hand reaching at the same time, and their fingers thread together in a silent but palpable promise.

"You know I will never let you forget this," Eames says after another moment. There's amusement in his voice, but it cracks with something else as well.

Arthur leans down to kiss his mouth. "You have to get well before you can be that annoying, Mr. Eames."


~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~



Eames is quick to heal with Arthur beside him, goading him up from bed to dinner, though he doesn't have to goad much. It seems all he waited for was Arthur.

In a way, Arthur almost wishes Eames would take longer to get himself back. The closer to healthy Eames becomes, the closer Arthur is to a meeting for which he isn't sure he's ready. He won't go alone, but Lady Eames has already called Paola, already told her that her son has been found. He gave her permission, but not for a meeting, not yet. Not until Eames can go with him.

"You know she can come here, darling," Eames says to him one day, arms wrapped around his waist. "She'd fall over herself to get here."

"No. Not yet."

Eames sighs, but that's the end of the conversation.


~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~



In the nearly twenty-five years since her son was taken from her Paola has come a very long way.

Twelve restaurants bear her name, eight of them in cities around the United States, the rest in other countries. She has a husband she loves and who supports her, a man as dedicated to her craft as she is, and from their marriage she has two other children she loves fiercely. Pia and Anthony are, with Trip, the brightest parts of her life, even if Anthony can be a typically moody teenager.

She doesn't like to think about the dark years between Arthur's kidnapping and the time she met Trip. She has scars from that time, both physical and emotional, to show just how badly she had wanted to forget the pain of losing her first son.

It doesn't help that now she knows where he is, but can't go to him. He's so close, almost within her grasp, but still too far.

He doesn't want to see her.

Somehow, knowing that hurts worse than all those years of not knowing anything.

Trip tries to comfort her. "Paola, can you imagine what he's going through right now? I'm sure it's not that he doesn't want to see you, but he has to be just as nervous as you are.

Sophia tries to comfort her in that way Paola has decided in not uniquely British after all, but simply uniquely Sophia. Nonsense, Paola, you're being hysterical. He will love you like everyone else does, he just doesn't know how right now. If he doesn't, then he will have to learn how to live without his legs as I will divest them from him forthwith.

Even Pia, who understands that she has another big brother somewhere, and why he isn't with them, but only in the way a twelve-year old can understand something that hasn't yet affected her personally, tries to comfort her. You're the best mom in the world. Arthur's going to know that too!

Only Anthony has nothing to say on the subject of Arthur, but then, being sixteen, Anthony has very little to say on any subject these days, at least to her.

"He's doing all right," says Thomas, and the phone crackles because it's overseas. Paola has already spoken to Sophia about Arthur, but she will take any information at all she can get about her son, and so when Thomas answered the phone on this call, she jumped at the opportunity to speak with him. "There's some ways he's not so different than when he was four. He's still too serious for his own good, I can't help him with the stick permanently lodged up his arse. He seems to like it."

She laughs, because Thomas is funny and it feels good to laugh. "When is he coming?" The question is out before she can stop it. She's tried not to ask it, but it seems her willpower broke when she wasn't looking.

Thomas sighs. "I don't know. I wish I did. He keeps saying when I'm ready to go with him, but I think that's just stalling."

"Why?" She should ask after Thomas' health. She should, but she can't. "Why is he stalling?"

Thomas doesn't answer her for a long moment, a moment she hopes is thoughtful and not an attempt on his part to stall. "I have suspicions on that, including the obvious one being he's nervous. But I think there's more to it, but how much more I can't say. Arthur is a complicated man, and in the end, I think his reasons for this are just as complicated."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked. It's just… so hard."

"Trust me, it doesn't get any better once you know him. I—" Thomas is interrupted by another voice, and the sounds of conversation become muffled, presumably by his hand over the receiver. There is a moment of back and forth, then the unmistakable sounds of the telephone changing hands.

"Mrs. Jones."

It's him.

This is his voice, Arthur's voice, she knows it is. There is logic to her conclusion but mostly she just knows.

Paola has spent years imagining her son, from what his face looks like to what his voice sounds like, first as a growing boy, then a teenager, then a grown man. It's difficult to put such a thing into coherent words, because in her head there's simply always been a presence she knew as Arthur, a presence she created and maintained because she couldn't keep herself from it, one she knew would never live up to the real Arthur. Now, she hears a voice on the phone, and she knows it's her son.

"Yes?" she asks, her voice barely above a whisper. In the moment's silence following, she wonders if she should try again, not certain she can force herself to be louder.

"I've eaten at your restaurant. The food is excellent."

Even she knows that as a conversation starter, in this instance, it is an awkward one at best. Yet, somehow, there is complete confidence in his voice. There's no trace of the waver she expects from others who are nervous. It's awkward, but it doesn't sound awkward.

"Thank you." Did she manage to speak above a whisper? She isn't sure.

"Would there be room for Ea—Thomas and myself at your residence next week? We would arrive on Friday."

Paola has a flash of intuition that makes her almost giddy; his speech is incredibly formal, and somehow she knows that means he's nervous. Formality is his retreat. How does she know? She just does.

"Of course," she's saying in a breathless rush, "of course, we'll have the guest room ready for you. I can email directions to the house—"

"No need. We'll take a taxi from the airport, and I'll have Thomas or Lady Sophia inform you of our arrival time." A pause. "Good-bye, Mrs. Jones."

"Good-bye, Arthur," she says, even though something tells her he's already taken the phone from his ear.

There's a curse, Thomas picks up the phone again to hastily tell her good-bye as well, and just before he hangs up she can hear him shouting, "Arthur, you great big arse—"

Then they're gone, and Paola hangs up on her end, already laughing. She's not laughing because of Arthur's formality, or because of Thomas' cursing. She's not even laughing because Arthur is coming to see her finally and she's so relieved, though she is.

She's laughing because she heard his voice.


~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~**~~



A week later, plans have changed. Paola isn't waiting at home, she's waiting in her restaurant, the first one she ever owned, and where she does all of her best cooking. It's after hours, and Pia and Anthony are at home. A full family reunion with mother, step-father and half-siblings may be too much for Arthur.

She doesn't want him to go screaming the moment he walks inside.

Trip is here, but he's in the kitchen, cooking. A trait of all the best married couples, they have decided without discussion not to introduce Trip unless Arthur asks about hm. This moment, this dinner, is for her.

It's almost nine o'clock, late for dinner, but Arthur and Thomas' flight arrived at eight, and this allows for them to have the restaurant to themselves. Paola sighs, pacing between tables, wishing they were here already, wishing Thomas wouldn't be there, grateful he will be, wondering and waiting and not very good at that last. Nine comes and goes and still no Arthur, until Paola is ready to start calling the hospitals, though she doesn't know what he looks like.

She's on her way to the kitchens to discuss options with Trip when the bell above the door chimes; it's a quiet bell in the middle of a business day, but now it carries through the entire restaurant. "He's here," she whispers to herself, then turns to meet her son.

If she hadn't been waiting for this moment for twenty-five years, she might not believe him real. As it is, he's like something from a magazine, sleek and untouchable, not quite genuine. She knows it's him, he has her eyes, and as a child he may have been otherwise a carbon copy of his father, but as an adult he's grown into more of her features—some noticeable, like their lips, and some more subtle, like the shape of his face in comparison to hers, both of them long and lean. His hair is slicked back, not a strand out of place, and she suspects this is the way he prefers his life to be, nothing out of place. It helps lessen the pain of having to wait so long.

The suit he wears is perfection, but it's an Armani and looks tailored to fit him and only him. For her, he is her son who has obviously made something of himself, but she can imagine the sorts of glances he receives from men and women.

Thomas, for example, who is right behind him. Paola's seen him a few times over the years, but not much since he hit seventeen and left his parents' home and all that inheritance. He's big now, somewhat less concerned with perfection than her Arthur, all solid muscle and sinuous grace. There is something of the violent about him, something she can't name, and doesn't think she wants to because some of it clings to Arthur.

Some of it is Arthur's own.

Across the room, Arthur sees her. There is no change of expression, not even the flutter of an eyelash to serve as proof of emotion. The only thing, and she might be imagining it, is the flex of his throat muscles as he swallows.

"Paola!" Thomas, as always, throws himself into any situation, and comes to her, arms wide. He practically lifts her off her feet with his bear hug. "You're beautiful, as always."

She rolls her eyes, she can't help it when he's hamming it up the way he does. "Stop it, or I might have to sic my husband on you." He makes a show of flinching away, and she laughs even though she can see the white stripe of a new scar peeking up over the collar of his shirt.

"I worry, Paola. My boy is neck deep in something I'm afraid will catch up with him sooner or later."
Something Arthur is involved in as well? God, she hopes not.

He is there, having crossed the room while she spoke with Thomas. She can't see any emotion in his eyes or his face as he looks down at her. It's driving her crazy and all she can do to keep sane is think about how serious a child he was, how formality must be his way of staving off nerves, that he must be as nervous somewhere under all that stoicism as she is, but simply cannot bring himself to show it.

"Arthur," she says, and tries to smile. It doesn't feel right to her; it doesn't feel like a smile, it feels like her mouth stretched over every heartache and disappointment. The urge is in her to just wrap her arms around him and hold him until the end of time, but that, she thinks, would drive this man away.

In the end, she offers a hand to him, one that he takes after only a moment's hesitation. Her three-quarter sleeves do not hide the scar running up and down her wrist, but she knows that, and doesn't try to hide it, not from him, not from anyone.

"Mrs. Jones."

She wants to tell him not to call her that, but if not that, and not "mom," then what?

"Dinner's almost ready," is what comes out. "Why don't we have a seat?"

They do, and for a long time it's Thomas who carries the conversation. Paola listens, smiles, and watches them. It's all there in the way Arthur's mouth twitches as Thomas speaks, his brows arch, and the corners of his eyes crinkle just a little in response to something Thomas says. It's by observing his reactions to Thomas that Paola learns to read her son's emotions, or at least to read his expressions. He is quite full of emotion when he doesn't try to suppress it, and oddly that reassures her.

Three hours later, after food and wine, after the awkward questions about his job that earn her a load of bullshit, after she considers asking about what happened to him after his kidnapping but takes Thomas' pre-emailed advice not to, Paola is about to invite them to retreat with her back to her home when Thomas interrupts.

"Paola, do you remember the question I asked the day we all first met?" He's looking at the table, his fingers fiddling with his napkin. "I remember it mostly because my mother won't let me forget it."

"Oh, Thomas, that was forever ago. You'll have to remind me."

"I asked for your permission to marry Arthur."

Oh. Now it's her turn for her mouth to twitch. "I remember. I think my response was that you were too young."

Across from her, next to Thomas, Arthur frowns slightly, his eyebrows coming together. Paola wants to laugh, because he can't possibly be confused over the course of the conversation. He can't possibly be so dense as to not realize why Thomas has brought it up.

"Something like that, yeah. Then you said we'd be betrothed instead."

"Yes, I do believe that was the arrangement."

Arthur's eyes flutter now, before going slightly wider than usual. Already Paola thinks that on him, the look is akin to shock. "Eames, you can't be serious. Betrothal isn't—it's something that doesn't—it's ridiculous."

Thomas takes his hand. "Then just marry me. Forget about the betrothal, you're right, it is a little ridiculous. But marry me. We'll get married in every country that will recognize it if you want."

"I—" Arthur glances at Paola, who looks away, lifting her hands. It isn't up to her. Not anymore. "If I say no I suppose you'll just insist."

"Every day."

"You'll do horribly embarrassing things like serenade my window."

"Absolutely."

"Leave dozens of stolen roses on my doorstep with badly written poetry attached."

"Increasingly ridiculous antics, darling. You're only giving me ideas."

"Fine."

"Is that a yes?" Thomas' face begins to split into a wide grin even as he asks. "You have to say it, you know how thick my skull is."

"Yes, all right. To spare my ears and my literary sensibilities, I'll marry you." Arthur's voice is absolutely dry, oozing sardonic humor. "Only once, though."

"Once is enough for me. Bloody hell, I'd best call Mum and tell her before someone else does." Thomas levels a glare without malice on Paola as he rises from the table, reaching for his pocket.

"Don't look at me, I'm still sitting right here!" Laughter feels good after a somewhat tense dinner.

Thomas winks, then moves off to have a private conversation with his mother, or at least it will be until Sophia insists on talking to Arthur, as Paola knows she will. It may be early morning where Sophia is, but Thomas is right in thinking she'll want to know immediately. Still smiling, Paola turns to Arthur to find him peering at her, his sharp exterior softened somewhat. He doesn't say anything to her, and she doesn't say anything in return, but there's a difference in their silence. They smile at each other.

Thomas and Arthur stay at a hotel, and it will be two more days before Arthur meets Trip, Pia and Anthony. He never calls her "mom," and he may never, but if he doesn't she thinks she can live with that.

All she really needs from him right now is that smile.



Really the end this time!