Breakfast was a noisy, cheerful affair that morning, especially since it was accompanied by the giving and opening of various gifts. Most of them were the sort of normal, pleasant things family members anywhere in the world might give each other.
"Well," Eleanor said with good-natured irony, after thumbing through the third book of recipes she had been given, "aren't you creative this year?"
"Just add them to the library," Charlie advised. "We all know you'll find some use for them, sooner or later."
They were distracted by Philip turning bright red after opening Katie's gift. Hana looked over his shoulder and started to giggle hysterically.
"Oh dear," Julia said, eyeing her sister warily, "what did you do now?"
"Nothing altogether evil," Katie replied, grinning.
"I seriously doubt that."
"I don't see a problem with this gift," Brandon said, leaning in. "I certainly wouldn't wear it myself, but then, I'm not your age anymore, Philip…"
"What did she…?" Eames began, but stopped when Hana held up a good handful of underwear in various daring colors and shapes. He couldn't help but grin. "Nice. I particularly like the turquoise sparkly one. That should go well with your complexion."
Phil, still spluttering with embarrassment, threw the crunched wrapping at him.
Eames turned to his sister. "Should I be afraid to open mine?"
"Is there anything worse than a golden G-string? I didn't even think they made them for men," Phil asked.
"How do you know Katie shopped in the men's department?" Julia asked, grinning.
"So, is it underwear for me, too?" Eames asked. "I can live with that. Arthur assures me that my taste in fashion is a crime against humanity anyway, so I don't think it could get much worse…"
"I'm starting to really approve of you," Julia said to Arthur.
"I trust you to buy your own underwear," Katie told Eames. "So… no, it's not that. But I think…" her gaze darted towards Arthur significantly, "I think you'll find a use for it. Sooner or later."
"Now I'm curious," Brandon said.
"Yes, Dad, and that's precisely why I'm going to open this in private," Eames replied, putting the wrapped gift away. "What did she give you, by the way?" He asked his brother-in-law.
Adam grinned. "You don't want to know."
"Seriously, what did you expect of her after you invited a porn star to her eighteenth birthday?"
"Fair point," Eames conceded.
"I think you need a dose of fresh air to cool down a bit," Eleanor said, shaking her head. "All of you. Time for a nice little Christmas walk."
"Trying to get us out of your hair, Mum?" Eames teased.
"Out!" She made a shooing gesture with her hands.
Not counting Jago, they were seven when they set out for their walk, Julia and Charlie having remained inside to help clear away the remnants of breakfast and wrapping paper.
Katie and Phil were up ahead, bickering about the present she had given him, and occasionally throwing a stick or a snowball for the excitedly barking dog. Brandon and Adam followed them at a somewhat slower pace; having struck up a conversation about work that sounded as if it would bore anyone to death but themselves. Eames and Arthur brought up the rear, together with Hana, who seemed thoughtful and a bit lost.
"Don't worry," Eames told both of them, "you'll get used to it eventually."
"My family is very different," Hana remarked. "Much more… quiet? I only have one sister, and she is younger than me."
"Is it the first time you spend Christmas without them?" Eames asked her.
She nodded. "But Christmas is not as important for us. My father is Jewish and my mother… well, she doesn't care much for holidays and big parties. We usually just have a nice dinner and maybe watch a movie together. No tree, or stuff like that. How about you?" She looked at Arthur.
"I never spend Christmas with my family," he replied curtly.
"Oh? Why not?"
Hana hadn't been there for Eames' 'please don't ask him'-talk, and apparently, she couldn't take a hint, either. Eames winced slightly, but at the same time, he was morbidly curious to see how Arthur would dodge this one.
"My family does not agree with my choice in lifestyle," Arthur said. "The thought of a gay son embarrasses my parents. They do not want to see me, and I don't particularly want to see them, either." His tone of voice was a bit cool, but not unfriendly. Apparently, he didn't fault Hana for her curiosity.
She looked startled and apologetic. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "This must be… awkward."
"Well… not as awkward as watching your boyfriend being presented with underwear by his sister in front of the whole family, I suppose," Arthur replied in a good-natured attempt at humor.
Hana laughed. "The look on his face was funny, though."
"Please do make him wear some of it," Eames said, grinning. "And take pictures!"
She shook her head, still laughing. "Oh no, I couldn't!"
Just then, they heard Phil calling for her from upfront. "See you," Hana said, sounding somewhat relieved, before jogging to meet him.
"That was evil," Arthur chided Eames.
"Where do you think Katie learnt her trade?"
Arthur shook his head. "I really don't envy your mother. How did she manage, all those years?"
"My mother is a surprisingly strong and enterprising woman," Eames said. "So far, she has overcome anything that was thrown at her. When her first husband left her alone with two small children, no job and no higher education to speak of, she managed. Brandon helped out where he could, at least financially, since he always felt responsible for her and for me, but he never really had an interest in actually raising a child. So the raising part fell to Mum, while she was struggling to earn her degree and get a job."
"I do admire her." Arthur said. They trudged on through the snow, but after a moment's pause he added: "Does she want you to have children?"
Eames frowned, not having expected that question and wondering what was behind it. "I think that right now, her hopes are on Katie and Adam when it comes to that. Why are you asking?"
Arthur shrugged, his face betraying nothing of his thoughts. "I suppose my mother would."
Eames was about to take heart and to bluntly ask whether or not Arthur himself wanted children – it was a question that would have to be answered, sooner or later – when an unfamiliar voice interrupted him.
"Daniel Eames. A word?"
The woman stood some twenty feet away next to a tall tree. She wore an unimpressive grey coat and pale blond hair spilled out from beneath a woolen cap of the same color. One gloved hand rested against the tree's dark bark, the other held a leather leash that led to the collar of a small white mutt that Jago in his excitement had apparently failed to register.
She looked, for all extends and purposes, like an ordinary neighbor out for a stroll with her dog.
She wasn't, though.
Eames tensed. "Yes?"
The woman stepped closer. "Alexandra Carrick. I'm sure you remember me. We've met before."
"Twice. And here I thought you had gotten the message the last time."
"I'm nothing if not persistent." She smiled. "And this is…?" She asked, waving a hand towards Arthur.
"I believe I asked you to leave my family out of this," Eames replied tersely.
"Ah, so he's family. Very well then." She nodded. "I won't ask further. It is of no importance."
The small white dog sniffed at Eames' boots.
"Cute. He's new," Eames remarked. "Yours?"
She shook her head. "I borrowed him from a colleague. It looks more natural to be out in the woods at this time of the year when you're walking your dog."
"No doubt. So?"
"So, have you thought about my offer? You've had some time to consider it since we last met."
"And the answer stays the same, for the time being. I'm not so easily bought. I like my freedom."
"Freedom is one thing, but having the security to enjoy it is another."
"Are you threatening me?" Eames asked, raising his brows.
"Why would I, when there are others who would do it for me? No, Mr. Eames, I am not threatening you. Nor is my employer. We have a vested interest in your continued health and safety, since we want to contract your services. That wish remains the same. I'm sure there is plenty of dirt to dig up if one goes looking for it, but that's not what we're after. We are interested in gaining your support and loyalty as a team member. Threatening you would be counterproductive."
"I'm glad we're on the same page in this. But I already declined twice. Why keep asking?"
Alexandra Carrick – if that was her real name, which Eames highly doubted – smiled briefly. "Hope springs eternal. You would be a valuable asset. And I have a reputation to uphold, I am not known to give up that easily."
"Well, I wish you good luck on your other projects, then, because this one is going nowhere."
She sighed, spreading her hands. She had let go of the leash and the little white dog was now sniffing around freely in the mushy snow. "What do you want me to say? We both know that my employer can offer you neither the freedom, nor the rewards you get as a free agent. What we can offer is a measure of security and stability… and I will admit that that probably doesn't sound particularly sexy compared to the great big world and its temptations out there. But I keep hoping that one day, you may find yourself in need of assistance and that we may be able to provide it in return for your services."
"I've always been pretty well off on my own, thank you," Eames said.
"You might not always be on your own, though," she said, looking ahead to where the rest of the family had disappeared around a bend of the path. "And maybe then, we may be able to reach an agreement. Worrying about a loved one's security can be quite straining, after all. Think about it. Our offer of security might extend to someone other than just you if need be…"
Eames took great care not look anywhere near Arthur and to keep his face neutral when he replied: "I appreciate the sentiment, but so far, my loved ones are faring pretty well."
"Well, should you ever reconsider…" She reached into the pocket of her coat and took out a plain black and white business card, handing it to him. "This will help you find me. Once again, let me express my employer's sincerest hope that you'll join us one of these days. Merry Christmas, Mr. Eames." She nodded towards Arthur and picked up the end of the leash, drawing the little dog with her as she turned to leave.
Eames watched her warily until she disappeared between the trees. When he turned around, he found himself faced with Arthur's questioning glance.
"Do I know her employer?"
"Not personally, I think, but you should from the papers. Ms Carrick assures me that she is working for the British government."
Arthur's eyes widened slightly at that. Apparently, it was not what he had expected. "The government wants to contract your services? For what? I'd have rather thought they'd be persecuting you for illegal activities."
"I've never directly moved against them. In our job, it's safer to steer clear of governments where you can."
"Then what is their interest in you?"
"Truthfully, darling? I'm not sure. I have some ideas, but they all seem a little far-fetched. I'm guessing that they have some sort of agency that deals with people such as us, should they become a threat. Maybe that's what they want me for. An insider, to help them flush out their enemies and potential threats."
"But they aren't threatening you? They know your name, your family…"
Eames shrugged. "It's not that much of a secret; and Ms Carrick seems sincere about her offer. So far, she has been persistent, but polite. I assume they keep a watch on me, otherwise they wouldn't know where to find me, but that appears to be all they are doing right now. Have you never had a similar offer?"
"I spend too little time on American soil for that, I assume," Arthur said. "Besides – I work for the other side, so to speak."
"All the more reason."
"The Algerians had a contract out on me a few years back. It was a misunderstanding that could be cleared up when I offered them the people who really were behind the conspiracy against one of their ministers. Other than that, I try to avoid contact with governments. As you said, it's the safer choice."
"The world is a complicated place, isn't it?" Eames asked wryly, reaching out to take Arthur's hand. "Come, let's try to catch up to the others."
Dinnertime found the entire family gathered around the table once more, after they had spent the rest of the day playing various games, talking and enjoying each other's company. The mood was a little more subdued than at breakfast, since this would be their last meal together – both Brandon and Julia would be leaving that night. Katie and Adam had announced that they would leave in the morning, going back to their apartment in London to pack their suitcases for a weeklong vacation in Switzerland.
Eames had a mind to do the same, but he was at a loss of where to go. It all depended on Arthur, and as of yet, Arthur had made no mention of any further plans.
He had tried to introduce the topic by stating that it would be nice to go and see Cobb and the kids, but Arthur had only given a noncommittal answer and moved on to compliment Eleanor on her superb cooking.
Feeling slightly dissatisfied, Eames had put the matter at rest for the moment, vowing to ask Arthur about it once they were alone. As the dinner progressed, he had to resign himself to the fact that it would be quite some time before that happened, though. His family was united in all its chaotic glory, and was demanding his full attention. Excusing himself to have a little chat with Arthur was out of the question.
Brandon noticed his discomfort and raised a questioning eyebrow. "What is it?" His voice was low enough for a semi-private conversation.
"Nothing," Eames dismissed it. "Or at the very least nothing you could help with."
His father smiled faintly. "It did sound a little too simple, the way Eleanor put it."
"I beg your pardon?"
Brandon nodded towards Arthur, who was now talking to Julia. "You and him. He's a peculiar young man."
"That's one way of putting it," Eames muttered.
"I'm a little surprised he agreed to come, from what you told me about him. It's all pretty recent, isn't it? I remember you ranting about him being in denial just a few months ago…"
"Well, he's not in denial anymore, at least," Eames replied wryly. "He's… adjusting. To me, to the idea of having a partner, to trusting another person in general. Judging from how long it took him to come to terms with the fact that he might return my interest in being a little more than friends, it might be quite a while before he grows comfortable with this. And I doubt that he'll ever be the son-in-law that Mum has in mind."
"Your mother wants you to be happy, and I doubt that she cares whether you live with a man, a woman or a zebra, as long as you're happy."
"Thank you so much for putting that image in my mind," Eames groaned.
"Point is, you worry too much. Look around you. They all like him and they accept him. And he seems quite at ease. So stop fussing and enjoy what you have before it's gone." Brandon raised his glass in a smiling salute. "To my only son. Be happy, Daniel."
It was late when they retired to bed. Brandon and Julia had left at the same time, both returning to their respective homes. They were seen off with hugs, kisses and promises.
"You need to call me more often," Julia had told her brother sternly.
"Don't you always?"
Afterwards, they had cleared away the dishes, and Eames and Arthur had joined Katie and Adam in a game of cards that quickly turned into a heated discussing, because both Katie and Eames cheated heavily.
"Remind me never to play poker with you," Arthur said to Eames on their way upstairs.
"As if you would, darling. Although – a game of strip poker would be quite nice."
Arthur snorted. "You should talk to Stella, before playing strip poker with me."
"What?" Eames asked, frowning. "Why?"
"Because she can tell you what happens. I always win."
"Oh? Care to test that theory?"
"If you wanted to see me naked, Eames, all you had to do was ask," Arthur said complacently. "Since you haven't done that so far, I assumed it was not a priority."
Eames stopped dead in his tracks, mouth agape. Arthur, ignoring his consternation, pushed past him and entered the bathroom.
Did I just hear what I think I heard?
Mind still reeling, he sat down on the bed. His hand brushed something solid. Katie's present, unopened and temporarily forgotten. Now, though, it offered the perfect distraction to occupy himself until Arthur returned to – hopefully – elaborate on his ambiguous statement.
He removed the paper and found a square, dark red gift box covered in velvety fabric. Torn between curiosity and a faint feeling of dread, Eames removed the lid and peered inside. It took him a moment to take in all the contents of the little box.
Then he began to laugh.
Cliffie! Yes, I know I'm evil. On the other hand, I've been told that a little anticipation spices up things...
So, what do you think is in that gift box? I know of at least two things that will have to be in there, because they'll be needed in the next chapter (very ominous, I know^^), but I might add an item or two, if there are any interesting suggestions ;)