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Dreams are more real when Cobb is in them. It's something Arthur tries not to think about; he files it away somewhere between the number of times he's died and the line of Eames's throat. Cobb is already impossible to trust and impossible not to follow.

This dream is frayed around the edges, time skipping and an unnamed dread building, like the nightmares he had as a child. There's something he has to do, but he doesn't know what, and he doesn't know why, and if he doesn't, something will happen. He hasn't had a dream like this in over a decade, and while he knows he could control it easy as -- easier than -- breathing, he chooses not to. There's no one here to watch.

He's in his high school, but it's not his high school, and he's searching the lockers for something he needs to hide. It's important. It's scary. His fingers slip against the metal of the lockers -- smooth and gunmetal grey, nothing like the garish blue in his real high school -- and come away wet.

There's something wrong, desperately wrong, and he can't-- he can't-- it's all going to go horribly wrong, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The lockers have crumbled into dust and he's in a warehouse, chained to the ceiling, watching his mother cry.

And that's quite enough of that, his subconscious says, sounding more like Eames than he cares to admit. He lets himself down from the ceiling, banishing the dread and conjuring a bunch of flowers for his -- now smiling -- mother. The warehouse, the high school, the lockers are gone, and he takes his mother to that cafe on 5th and Lincoln, the one with the cookies she pretends -- pretended -- not to like. He leaves her there, kissing her cheek more tenderly than he'd ever done in life, and wakes up.

He's alone, and for two long seconds he doesn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Then he remembers that of course he's alone -- why wouldn't he be? -- and tweaks the curtains open.

It's going to be a beautiful day. Shame he'll be spending it asleep.

===

There's coffee waiting for him when he arrives at their offices -- the entire sixth floor of the building is a gift from Saito; it costs less per month than hiring a large enough, good enough team of private detectives to watch them all -- and someone has very carefully cleaned around his mess of files, papers, photos and scribbled notes.

Cobb's not in, and Ariadne is back in Paris for a while, working ten hours a day on her degree, and another eight on training exercises. Some of them are Cobb's, some of them are Arthur's, most are her own. She's working on a way to use memories without getting lost in them, she says, but she wouldn't be Ariadne if she didn't have another agenda. Maybe he'll fly out to Paris sometime soon -- travelling got a lot easier once Saito adopted them -- and see her work for himself.

Arthur thinks Cobb is chasing up the Maxwell job right now, but he could be following any one of a number of leads, or even having a day with his kids. They take jobs to stay at the top of their game, no longer hungry or desperate for anything but the fix. Maxwell is small fry, but Cobb thinks he can get something interesting out of it.

Yusuf is in, but he's asleep, sacked out on the sofa in his office in the clothes he was wearing yesterday. He's working on remote dream sharing, he says, though like Ariadne, like all of them, there's more to it than that. Maybe he'll have a prototype up and running before Arthur ever books that flight to Europe.

Weirdly, Saito is in too. He's video conferencing with five angry-looking men and two equally pissed off women -- two East Asian, two South Asian, the rest white -- in what looks to Arthur's amateur lip-reading to be Malay. Saito spares him a friendly enough wave through his office window before letting his face fall back into a frown. Arthur raises his hand in an awkward half-wave of his own.

And Eames is in too, drinking his own coffee and making haphazard notes on the front page of a newspaper. Arthur promised him three hours today for a series of tests; he might as well get it over with.

Eames's smile when he looks up is briefly unguarded, a flash of real pleasure that Arthur would trust a lot more if he hadn't seen it turned on so many of their marks.

"Arthur!" he says, standing to greet him as if they haven't seen each other in weeks.

"Eames," Arthur returns, tilting his coffee cup slightly in acknowledgment.

"Shall we?" Eames asks. He holds his arm out as if to escort Arthur to the room where they do the real work.

Arthur tries not to think about it.

===

"The first scam I ever learned was Find the Lady," Eames says as they walk. "Three cards, face up, one of them is a queen. Turn them face down, shuffle them around in full view of the mark, which one's the queen?"

He opens the door for Arthur, no slight intended by the gesture. It's just one of those habits Arthur is busy not getting used to, like the way Eames always raises his glass in a toast before drinking, or the one-two tap of Eames's deck of cards against metal.

"None of them," Arthur says.

"Indeed."

They sit down next to each other, and Arthur reaches for the PASIV. Eames's veins, like the rest of him, need no encouragement, so he doesn't bother with the tourniquet before sliding the needle home. He lets his finger rest over the puncture for one, two heartbeats, a bad habit Eames politely does not mention, and then lets Eames's arm drop.

Eames looks him in the eye. "I promise you, though, in this game? One of the three people you meet will indeed be the queen."

Arthur can't help the tiny huff of a laugh he lets out. Eames's smile softens fractionally, before they both look away.

"Find the Forger?" Arthur checks. "Any more parameters?"

His own line is in. Eames's hand is hovering over the PASIV's sleep button.

"Of course not," Eames says, pushing the button down. "Where would be the fun in that?"

===

He's in his high school, but it's not his high school, and for a brief moment Arthur feels completely exposed. This is not a dream for sharing, not with anyone, not with Eames.

Things flicker, and he's in a coffee shop, nowhere he's ever seen before, awake or asleep, reading the news on his phone. Top Story: Eames Is Fabulous. He's not amused, he tells himself; his smile disagrees.

There are six tables in the coffee shop. He's alone at his. Then, going clockwise:

One couple arguing. He listens for a moment -- "But we can't be together; not when I love Eames." / "Darling, that's what threesomes were invented for." -- before dismissing them as another joke. He gets out a pen, though, and scribbles a note on a napkin, which he then passes over. When they read it -- it would be a foursome - you forgot his ego -- they both shoot him blinding smiles.

A man -- short, Asian, reading a paper with the headline Having fun yet, dear? That's a possible.

A woman -- white, with long blonde hair and killer legs, reapplying her bright red lipstick. That's a very likely.

Two women sitting together -- one black, one white -- knees touching under the table as they tap away at their respective laptops. Cute. One bumps the other with her elbow, half-deliberate, and they smile without looking away from their screens. Either or both are possible.

The next table is empty, and the last seats a small child -- a girl, South Asian, missing one of her front teeth. She's looking round the room in fascination, taking in the world with wide eyes and a wider smile.

And then, of course, there's the guy behind the counter, white with a heavy tan and brilliantly white teeth. His hair flops messily into his eyes, and if that one is Eames then they're going to have Words after this is done.

He sits and watches for a long while, noting mannerisms and snatches of conversation until he's sure: The British-Chinese guy with the paper, the white lesbian, and the little Indian-American girl.

He decides to try the girl first.

Her table is next to his, so he just turns himself in his chair, facing her with a friendly smile. "Hello," he says when he's sure he's got her attention. "My name's Arthur. What's your name?"

"Lily," the girl -- Lily -- says, smiling back at him with open curiosity. "My daddy said I can't talk to strangers, but I can talk to you." She nods firmly, having imparted this solemn verdict.

"Really?" Arthur says. "That's very kind of your daddy. What does he do?"

Lily considers him and his question for a long moment. "He makes people better."

"Like a doctor?"

"Like a--" She sounds out the next words. "--cardiothorasic surgeon."

"Wow," Arthur says. "He must be very clever."

She beams at this, radiantly happy, then nods. "He is."

"And do you have any other mommies or daddies?" Arthur asks, aware that even if this isn't Eames's then she's still one of his creations, and Eames has strong feelings on this issue.

Lily shakes her head.

"Well, I'm sure your daddy loves you very much," Arthur says, feeling more guilty than he should, given that she's not real.
Lily nods, and then stands up, impulsive. "Daddy says we must always ask before we hug someone, because some people don't like it." She stretches out her arms for a hug.

He can't help it. He's charmed. "I will if you will," he says, and kneels down to give her a quick embrace.

Apparently that's all the time he gets. She runs out of the cafe and disappears into the street, leaving him with a thousand clues to sort through and a small, persistent smile.

Next, he goes up to the lesbians. "Mind if I join you?" he asks, pulling up a chair.

They look at him, then at each other. The black one shrugs, and closes her laptop. "I have to get to class anyway," she says. "Have fun."

The white one crosses her eyes, a move designed -- successfully -- to make the black one laugh.

They kiss, a chaste peck on the lips, and then Arthur is alone with the white one.

"Hello," he says. "I'm Arthur."

"Jude," she says, holding out her hand for him to shake. She's got a firm, dry grip. He could see his mother approving of this one.

"What are you working on?" he asks.

She frowns briefly. "Um, that was my girlfriend you just saw?" she says.

Arthur holds up his hands. "Oh, no, I'm not hitting on you, I promise." Then, before he can think about it, "I kind of have someone."

She raises her eyebrows. "Sounds interesting."

He shrugs. "What are you working on?" he asks again.

She smiles, not offended, and turns her laptop so he can see the screen. "The migration patterns of the Arctic tern. It's more interesting than it sounds."

He laughs politely. "I'm sure it is."

"I want to--" Jude cuts herself off. "I'm going to be a conservationist, and migration routes are really important for the sort of work I'm going to do. It's easy--" She stops again. "It's hard to preserve areas we know the birds live, but it's even harder to preserve the areas they need to travel through."

Arthur nods. He took a course on this once. He doubts Eames did. But it's clever, using his knowledge like that, and as he gets up he asks, "Can I buy you a drink? I have to talk to my colleague over there--" He points at the guy with the paper. "--but anything to help the cause."

She laughs and lets him buy her a soy latte.

And now for the guy. Arthur leaves the latte by Jude's laptop and puts his own fresh drink -- say what you like about Eames, and Arthur does, he can dream a damned good coffee -- on the guy's table.

"Hi," he says. "I can't help noticing we're wearing the same watch." And now it's true.

The man smiles at him coldly, conveying a studied mix of politeness and bemusement.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Arthur lies, holding out his hand. "I'm Arthur Fotherington-Smythe, of Smythe, Dock and Cobb. We specialize in, uh, security." He watches for any tell-tale hint of amusement, but none comes.

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Fotherington-Smythe," says the man, looking nothing of the sort. "I'm John Li."

There is a long pause before Mr. Li takes the proffered hand. His grip is light, disinterested.

"I remarked on the watch," Arthur continues, channeling his own inner Eames, "because I was assured by my jeweler that this was one of only ten ever made. Do you mind if I compare them?"

Mr. Li's accent -- already clipped and British -- grows even stonier. "Actually, I do. This was given to me by a close friend, and is of great sentimental value to me."

Arthur isn't sure what to do with that, but it doesn't matter, the music has started playing. Mr. Li has turned back to his paper before he can even say goodbye, and then--

===

"So?" Eames almost asks, looking far too smug for Arthur's tastes. "Which one was I? Lily Nagendra, Jude Law, no relation, or John Li? I was surprised you didn't even consider the blonde. I would have thought she was right up your proverbial alley."

Arthur stretches, stiff from the sleep. "She didn't check me out once -- clearly a fake."

The room is uncomfortable for a few heartbeats, and Arthur, who makes a habit out of trying to follow Edith Piaf's advice, almost wishes he could take that back.

But Eames just smiles, and the moment is gone. "Well?"

Arthur closes his eyes for a moment, thinking. Lily, Jude or Li?

"No tricks," Eames says again. "I was one of them."

Lily? Or Jude? Or Li?

And Arthur can't help but laugh at that, a surprised, happy sound that knocks him off balance as good as any kick. From the look on Eames's face, he's not the only one.

"All three," he says. "You were all three."

Eames's smile is like nothing else.

===

When you die in a dream, you wake up, assuming no lying bastard has you drugged too far down. Arthur has died more times in more ways than he is prepared to count. He ignores that fact.

"I'm telling you," Ariadne says, her smile audible from four thousand miles away, "I can do it now."

They're on a conference call, Cobb and Arthur on phones in Cobb's office, Ariadne walking along the River Seine holding her cell to her ear.

"That's good," Cobb says, and he and Arthur exchange a look.

Cobb wants to believe her. Arthur wants not to be disappointed. Maybe they'll both get their wish.

"You should fly over. Or send Eames." Ariadne always sounds happier in Paris, less frayed and more her. The laughter comes back into her voice while she's over there, and sometimes when they're on the phone, she'll break off to swear at someone in French and Arthur's heart will soar. "I miss Eames."

"You don't miss us?" Arthur asks, making sure she knows it's a joke.

"Yeah," she says, "but Eames."

Arthur tries to school his treacherous smile into pretending he doesn't agree. From the look Cobb shoots him, he's not bringing his A-game.

On this side of the Atlantic, there's an exchange of shrugs and eye rolls. Eames could go. Arthur could go. Cobb probably should go, given as he's the best, but he's been working a lot with contacts recently, and then there are his kids.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there's the sound of traffic, and a quick, bright string of curses from Ariadne. "Fucking asshole ran the light," she explains, mainly for Arthur's benefit. Cobb knows some French, but Arthur's other languages are all Asian.

"Why don't we send Saito?" Arthur says.

"Yes!" Ariadne says, at exactly the same time as Cobb says, "No!"

Cobb is weirdly territorial about Saito, their time in Limbo an unspoken bond between the two, but when Arthur and Ariadne work together, they can cut through his bullshit quicker than a bullet to the back of the head.

"Send Saito," Ariadne says.

"Done," Arthur says.

Cobb splutters a protest, but he's got nothing solid, and there's still a good chance that Saito will be far too busy for anything they're doing.

Saito is not too busy. Saito is delighted, and has already chartered a plane by the time Arthur has finished explaining that of course he doesn't have to go, they understand he's got a business empire to run.

"You don't have plans?" Cobb asks slowly.

"Anyone can orchestrate a hostile takeover," Saito says, and the thing is, Arthur thinks he honestly believes that, "but to test dreams?"

He's smiling. He uses the office once every week or so, maybe, and will video conference with them if he hasn't been around, but Arthur can't remember the last time he saw Saito smile and mean it.

===

As things speed up, Ariadne sends them emails every day, twice, three times a day, progress reports, getting briefer and more technical as the project rolls on.

Saito prefers to call, and he'll leave messages, precise and to the point, letting them know how Ariadne's doing, what Ariadne's doing.

One time they're both under for eight hours, and Arthur thinks Cobb is going to snap and fly over there himself. He's tired of watching Cobb pace angrily through their halls, and goes to stand by a window, to watch the waking world.

There's a hand on his, and a warm presence just behind him. Eames.

"Stop fidgeting, dear," Eames says, holding his hand in place to make the point. "It's upsetting the help."

He stays behind Arthur, and Arthur doesn't turn. The nameless dread that Arthur's been steadfastly not thinking about eases a little, finally letting him breathe.

"Ariadne and our Mr. Saito are both capable adults," Eames says, "not feckless children like us."

His hand is still on Arthur's, a light pressure. Arthur does not lean back. Arthur does not want to lean back. Arthur is lying to himself, badly.

"Speak for yourself," he manages, eyes on the world below.

"They're off for charming eight hour jaunt. Why worry four hours in?" Eames says, irritatingly reasonable.

"Eames--" Arthur tries. The words won't come.

"Arthur," Eames says. He sounds resigned. If Eames were tired, or, rather, if Eames ever let anyone see that he was tired, this is what it would sound like.

"You know I--" Arthur's throat seizes up. He almost reaches for his die to check that this isn't a dream, that he's not going to choke to death and wake up sweaty and scared, vowing -- for that one split second before he gets control -- never to dream again.

But it's not a dream, and Arthur doesn't know what to say next.

"No," Eames says, soft. "I didn't."

===

Saito and Ariadne are geniuses. He flies her back with him, the two of them talking rapidly in a mixture of English and French, gestures flying and voices raised.

It's as if Ariadne has brought a little bit of Paris back with her, a totem to keep her relaxed and happy, even around Cobb. The three of them now -- Saito, Ariadne, Cobb -- are more animated than Arthur has seen any of them since the Fischer job.

Saito has ideas, he's worked out a way to use Ariadne's new scheme to do-- Arthur loses track as the conversation switches to French, better for Ariadne to argue in.

Cobb-- Cobb Arthur can understand in any language, and he's saying no. No, it's too dangerous. No, it hasn't been done before. No, it's too much, too soon, with untested methods.

When Ariadne and Saito turn to Cobb as one and say, "You did," it's all Arthur can do to keep from laughing.

Eames, who, frankly, would have popcorn out if he could be bothered to buy some, has no such compunctions. They're sitting next to each other, and Eames lets their knees bump, once, twice.

No one but Arthur knows about Eames's latest trick. Eames likes his secrets, they all do. Arthur knows better than to interrupt in the middle of this argument -- Saito is using his "I will buy your life and then burn it in front of you" voice, Ariadne's hand gestures are wild and free, and Cobb looks about twenty seconds from a not-nearly-as-oblique-as-he-thinks-it-is reference to Mal -- but he thinks he might fill Cobb in later. Just because the trust doesn't go both ways, doesn't mean he doesn't have a job to do.

Eames tugs at his sleeve. "Dinner?"

Arthur thinks about it. He honestly does. "I--" He gives a sweeping gesture that encompasses Ariadne, Cobb and Saito. "I should stay."

"Another time," Eames says brightly.

He won't wait forever. No one does.

===

Yusuf's lab is also courtesy of Saito, obviously. Yusuf likes to work alone, twenty hours solid work followed by twelve hours of sleep. He has friends, colleagues visit from all over the world, chemists with their own work habits and secrets, thrilled by the promise of a week funded by Saito. Arthur once heard one telling Yusuf he couldn't pull all-nighters like that, he wasn't a young man any more. Yusuf had just smiled. "When young men sleep like I sleep, then you can lecture me."

They decide to test Ariadne and Saito's plan on Yusuf by simple virtue of the fact he hasn't been present for any of the arguments. (Cobb calls them discussions. Ariadne calls them fights.)

He is less than thrilled by this.

"I am on the verge of a breakthrough." He all but shoos them out of his lab. "We could have remote dreaming by as early as September." He looks at their faces. "August."

Yusuf will defer to Cobb and Saito outside the lab, may even take orders from Arthur if necessary, but inside the lab, he is king. Possibly god. That's why Cobb takes him by one arm and Saito the other, and they lead him out of the lab and towards the offices. That's why, eventually, he says yes.

===

Eames and Arthur are there, in Saito's words, to be impartial judges. In the exchange of nods and raised eyebrows that make up more and more of Cobb and Arthur's conversations these days, they're there to make sure nothing goes too wrong.

They're in London, of all places, the air muggy and grey and the people muggier and greyer. Eames is smiling to himself, one hand absently touching a brick wall. Anyone else, Arthur would think he didn't know he was doing it.

Experimentally, he touches the same wall, trying to feel whatever it is that Eames can feel. He can't.

"Just one of you?" he checks, making sure everyone else is out of earshot.

"Just one of me," Eames says. "Unless you'd like a threesome?"

Eames has been so gentle around him recently, since Arthur nearly showed his hand, holding back so much, that for a moment -- about as long as it takes to die from a slit throat -- Arthur is honestly shocked. He very rarely blushes, thank god, but he can feel the tips of his ears burning, and heat shoot through his body.

Eames is watching this somewhere between the way a cardsharp watches a deck and the way Cobb watches his children.

Arthur can't. He just can't. His hand is still against the wall, but instead of brick it feels like a locker, smooth and gunmetal grey. He can't take his hand away; if it comes away wet, he doesn't know what he'll do.

And Eames is trapped, Lily and Jude and Li, waiting for him to choose. There might be other chances after this -- Eames has already waited longer than Arthur deserves -- but they won't be this one, right here, in Yusuf's London, with the air muggy and grey and Eames's face both young and too old.

Arthur's hand comes away wet, and he doesn't care. He puts it to Eames's jaw, pressing his thumb lightly against the corner of Eames's mouth. He can't breathe. He can't--

He presses his mouth to Eames's, no force, no demand, just there, saying yes.

===

They stumble against the wall, Arthur's knees weak. Neither of them deepens the kiss, but Arthur can feel a smile pressing against his lips, matching his own. Eames's hands come up to his waist, thumbs stroking his sides in slow, gentle movements. It's nothing like he imagined, back when he wasn't thinking about it, and it's everything he wants.

They didn't-- They've done nothing, one closed mouth kiss and a few touches that wouldn't scandalize a nun, but when they pull back, Eames is wrecked. He looks like he's been shot in the gut, struggling to stay standing.

He looks like he wants to say something.

Arthur waits, but nothing comes. He doesn't know if he can kiss Eames again and not abandon Ariadne's entire experiment, he doesn't know if he can kiss Eames again and ever stop.

Arthur opens and shuts his mouth. No sound comes out.

Eames visibly collects himself, pulling everything in and away, hiding it beneath mismatched tweed and an easy smile. The man is an excellent forger.

Arthur, on the other hand, is still leaning against the wall. He'll deal with it in a moment, he'll bury it all for another few hours, for as long as it takes for Ariadne to build her castle in Yusuf's mind, but, but he wants. This isn't him. He doesn't regret, and he doesn't want, and he doesn't need -- he keeps busy, he keeps Cobb out of trouble, he keeps a gun in his hand and a lie on his lips. This isn't him.

"Arthur?" Eames says, and it must be serious if he's using that tone of voice.

"Mr. Eames?" Arthur says, standing up straight. They have a job to do.

Eames looks around, checking that there's no one near. "Please tell me there's more later," he says, his voice too raw, too open to match his outward calm.

And Arthur had thought the test was over now, but he should know life doesn't work like that. He presses both hands against the brick, feeling it smooth and cold, the metal of another dream, and breathes in Yusuf's air.

"Yes."

===

They make their way to the nearest tube station, keeping a careful few feet between them as they walk through uncrowded streets. Any other day, Eames would be keeping up a steady tour guide patter, lies and half-truths mixed together to keep Arthur entertained. Any other day, Arthur would be rolling his eyes and wondering aloud if Eames was really British, or if it was just an affectation.

Yusuf is sitting in the cafe at the British Library, surrounded by twenty-somethings with laptops and serious expressions. He's sharing a table with someone reading a medical journal online -- he is writing and scratching out notes on a thick pad of lined paper.

He lived in London for six months once -- Arthur researches everyone before he dreams with them -- while working (illicitly) with someone at Imperial.

The cafe is quiet, the conversations sparse and almost whispered, and Yusuf does not look up when Eames and Arthur enter. Eames goes to get them coffee while Arthur picks a table. The projections don't look up either, which is weird -- by now they should be getting suspicious -- and good evidence for Adriadne and Saito's working hypothesis. The more of the architect's memory there is, the less the subconscious suspects.

"I used to come here when I was working on a new con," Eames whispers, and Arthur fights the temptation to say that he knows. "But you know that," Eames adds.

Arthur raises his eyebrows in agreement.

"Maybe once he and I crossed paths."

Not according to Arthur's information, but he is not arrogant enough to assume that he can track the every movement of even one of his team members, let alone two.

"But I doubt it," Eames continues, eyes flicking from his coffee to Yusuf and back. "The menu's different, for a start."

Arthur wants to sink to his knees and blow Eames until neither of them can remember their own names. He wants to bury his face in the long line of Eames's neck and inhale, bringing Eames off with a rough, frantic hand around his dick. He wants Eames inside him, and he wants to be inside Eames, and he wants Eames to press him down against the bed, or floor, or fucking smooth grey lockers, and suck bruising kisses just under the angle of his jaw.

"Really?" Arthur says, after an unconvincing pause.

"Really," Eames says, and for once, Arthur can't even try to read him.

Yusuf frowns, chewing on the end of his pen, utterly absorbed. Arthur got over the voyeurism of intruding on others' dreams a long time ago -- he and Cobb are criminals, they do bad things, he doesn't have time for a conscience -- but this feels intrusive, something he doesn't want to see.

Losing track of time in dreams is an unavoidable problem; that's why they have the music. An hour, half an hour, two hours later, and Yusuf hasn't moved. The projections come and go, students and researchers, and none of them spare Eames or Arthur more than an accidental glance.

However long this is, it's a record, and when the music starts to play, Arthur is ready to wake up impressed.

===

Eames hadn't been in the dream.

"Where's Eames?" Arthur barks, looking at Cobb and Ariadne and Saito and Yusuf as they calmly unplug themselves.

Cobb shoots him a quelling look, and he glares back, furious at himself, at the world. Eames hadn't been in the dream.

He scrubs at his face with his hands, and for once the vow never to dream again lasts more than a heartbeat, more than two. He's up to ten, now, ten double thuds of his blood hurtling round his body, and he still can't bear the thought of dreaming again. Twenty, thirty, and he's going to have to quit his job. He's going to have to do something else. Maybe he can stay on in research, maybe he can work for Saito in some other capacity, but he can't do it, he can't do it again.

He feels like he's underwater, and for another desperate heartbeat, he wonders if he's dreaming again, if he's going to wake up from this to find Eames there.

And then Eames steps out of the shadow, fighting a losing battle against a broad, happy smile. "I thought I might make some tea," he says, a perfect parody of himself. He raises his hand -- an absent-minded gesture that isn't absent-minded at all -- to the spot where Arthur had his hand, ten minutes, two hours, a lifetime ago.

Arthur doesn't know whether to kiss him, punch him or get down on his knees right there and then and blow him in front of Saito and Ariadne and Yusuf and Cobb. He settles for gritting his teeth pointedly, to which Eames quirks a single eyebrow.

He gets it. Eames had to be sure. Doesn't mean he's not going to punch the fucker, though.

And then the rest of the world comes crashing in again, Ariadne's questions and Saito's quiet smile, and Cobb's grudging admission that yes, okay, it might have worked this time. Yusuf wants to know what happened, if it worked, and whether he could do it again -- Arthur has to choke back a laugh when Yusuf says how restful it was.

===

They're back in Eames's apartment, both of them checking their totems -- Arthur's die and Eames's frayed and marked deck of cards -- without a hint of self-consciousness. It pays to be sure.

Eames looks up, draws a breath as if to speak, and then lets it out through his nose.

Arthur can wait.

But instead of trying again, Eames stands, walks over to where Arthur is leaning not that casually against a wall.

Eames cocks his head, giving Arthur an openly appraising look, and if Arthur were a different man, with wants and regrets, he might almost feel embarrassed. Later they can do anything, they can do everything, but there's only one first time, and what Arthur wants more than anything else in the world is to surprise Eames, to keep him as off-balance as Arthur feels.

He locks his eyes with Eames's, making sure neither one of them will break the gaze, then bends his knees, until he is kneeling in front of Eames, looking up at him, mouth slightly open, waiting, wanting.

Eames draws in a shuddering breath. He looks like he wants to speak, but again, no words come out. He lets one hand fall to the side of Arthur's head, tentative.

Then Eames bites his own bottom lip, and it's the sexiest thing Arthur's ever seen.

For less than a second, just long enough to get his hands to Eames's zipper, he looks away, and when he looks back, Eames's eyes are closed. Eames is holding himself so, so still, looking almost pained, and for one breath, two, Arthur just watches, entranced.

In one fluid moment he stands, grabs Eames by the shoulders and kisses him hard, a rough press of lips until Eames opens his mouth, answers Arthur like a drowning man. This isn't-- It's not-- Arthur doesn't know what Eames is thinking, but he knows he doesn't want Eames thinking it, he doesn't want Eames thinking anything. He's changed his mind: later is for Eames holding perfectly still while Arthur gives him the best blow job of his life, later is for surprises, now is for Arthur showing Eames that he's there with him, and they're in this together, that when Arthur says yes, he means it.

They're kissing deeply, still, but less desperately, more art and less fear. Arthur doesn't know when his hands fell to Eames's hips, pulling them together, and for all he knows right now, there's never been a time that Eames's hands weren't at his waist, holding him, stroking him.

He can feel Eames's dick pressed against his, hot and hard, and if he's ever wanted anything in his godforsaken life, he's wanted this. Eames's hips buck, and Eames lets out a quiet hiss.

Somehow -- but it's not a dream, it's not somehow: they broke the kiss and Eames took him by the hand and they stumbled together through the hallway -- they make it to Eames's bedroom. They're on the bed, pressed tight against each other, Arthur on top -- and he rolls them over, clumsily, until Eames is bearing down on him -- and kissing each other like any moment the music is going to play.

Eames gasps, and shoves his hand roughly between the two of them, fumbling with Arthur's fly before his own. If Arthur could speak, he would make a comment about how Eames is quite the gentleman, but instead he lets a moan escape, shockingly loud.

Now Eames has them both in hand, and his eyes are shut again, his face contorted in something that looks a lot like pain, and Arthur can't--

Eames comes first, dick pulsing against Arthur's, and it's five rough tugs -- seven heartbeats -- and one hard kiss where Arthur's neck meets his shoulders before Arthur is coming too, an orgasm that ripples its way through his body, leaves him gasping for breath, letting go of everything, holding on to Eames.

===

"Have you noticed--?" is one of Arthur's least favorite ways for a conversation to start. Others include "Where the hell is Cobb?" and "Don't panic, but--"

When Ariadne greets him at the coffee shop with, "Do you remember--?" Arthur adds another one to his list.

She's sitting at a table with her hands wrapped around a mug of something too milky to be interesting. Opposite her is an empty chair and a large mug of black coffee, still hot.

"--when I asked you about knowing for certain?" she finishes.

When she asked him about knowing for certain that they weren't dreaming, that Mal wasn't right.

"No," he lies, knowing she won't believe him.

"And you said--" She does something to the corners of her mouth before launching into an appalling impression of him, voice pitched to a growl. "'Keep busy. Don't think about it.'"

"Sounds like something I might say," he allows.

There's a pause while she waits for him to catch up.

"Oh," he says. "Don't tell me you asked Cobb."

She doesn't bother answering.

"You asked Cobb," he says flatly. "And he looked tortured and you looked young and then he said something he thought was profound and you thought was indicative of his deeply troubled mental state."

That draws a laugh from her, hastily smothered as she tries to look reproachful. He can't help smiling in return.

"And you asked Yusuf," he continues. "And you asked Eames. And now you've asked Saito, and you don't like what he's said."

She raises her mug in a mock salute and takes a drink. "Close," she says once she's put the mug down again, carefully placed equidistant from Arthur's mug, Arthur's phone and her plate. "I don't know if I like what he said."

Or maybe she likes it too much. One day, Arthur will find someone who can build him a team of robots to run cons with. He won't use them -- he knows himself well enough to know that -- but it'll be a comfort to have them there, waiting in a warehouse all emotion-free and logical.

"He said if someone is real enough to love, they're real enough," Ariadne says.

"Sounds like something he might say."

Ariadne dips her little finger into her drink and holds it there for a moment, thinking. "No," she says at last. "It's still too hot to throw in your face."

It's Arthur's turn to have a laugh surprised out of him, and he doesn't even try to squash it back in.

"Mal was real enough to love." Ariadne is serious again, more serious than he's seen her in a while.

"Mal was real enough for Cobb to love." He feels less disloyal than he would have thought.

She thinks about this for one heartbeat, two, five. "Where the hell is Cobb, anyway?"

===

Cobb has been out finding them work. Industrial espionage, hidden secrets, plenty of research, and of course a twist.

"Maxwell wants us to extract from Butler, and Butler wants us to extract from Maxwell." He presents it to them like a gift.

Eames chuckles to himself, his hand a deliberate few inches from Arthur's thigh. "Very nice," he says archly.

Ariadne and Saito exchange a look. "I look forward to seeing what you can put together, Mr. Cobb," Saito says. Ariadne just snorts.

Yusuf hasn't even bothered joining them.

Cobb looks to Arthur, waiting for the nod he knows he's going to get. Arthur considers for a moment vetoing the job, just to show he can. Then he remembers he's not Cobb, and instead gives a brisk nod, letting his eyes widen slightly in annoyance.

"We can use--" Ariadne starts.

"No," Cobb interrupts, and they're off again, an argument about memory techniques Arthur lets wash over him. It worked in the test, and the more there is here to keep Cobb interested, the less likely he is to wander off on his own.

Eames pokes Arthur's foot with his own. "One strictly professional colleague to another," he says, voice pitched low, "fancy a quicky?"

Arthur can still feel the burn from Eames's stubble between his thighs. "No," he says shortly. Not at work.

Ariadne thinks Eames's cockiness is a crude attempt to hide his vulnerability. Arthur thinks Eames's cockiness is cockiness.

"Arthur and I are going to go research Butler's family," Eames says loudly. No one even looks in their direction.

They are absolutely not going to sneak off in the middle of the afternoon -- in the middle of a working day -- to have sex. No. Absolutely not.

Eames leaves, and Arthur stands to follow him.

===

Butler's wife has aged gracefully, dressing modestly but with a hint of flair. Her make up is subdued and artful, and she carries herself with poise. More unusually, his boyfriend is cut from the same mold, a middle-aged man comfortably going grey, wearing suits tailored to flatter but not deceive. More unusually still, the wife and the boyfriend know and like each other, and the three of them have meals together once a week, after which Butler will leave with one or the other, following no pattern Arthur can spot.

"Kinky," Eames remarks, testing the waters, but it all seems so tame to Arthur, no whips, no chains, no lies.

Eames's sharp edges are on display so rarely that Arthur is surprised the others know not to raise eyebrows about this around him. It makes Arthur feel a tug of something that might in a different life be close to jealousy: he thought he was the only one who knew this sore spot of Eames's.

But then, in the reflection of a car window, he catches sight of Cobb and Ariadne Not Discussing something, and realizes with a start that they've all been taking their cues from him.

Since when was he the one trying not to piss off Eames? But even asking the question is a lie.

Maxwell's family life is more traditional: A wife, a mistress, and a hooker, all female, all ignorant -- or pretending to be -- of those with less seniority. He doesn't love the hooker, doesn't believe he loves the wife; Eames, of course, knows different.

"Do you think you could be more than one of them?" Arthur asks, running his index finger over Eames's lower lip, exploring, not teasing. Not teasing much.

Eames's eyebrows, in concert with what had better not be a pout, ask more eloquently than words if now is really the time, darling?

Arthur can't compartmentalize around Eames, and that should scare him. It's fine this way round, squabbling in bed and vowing to piss in Eames's coffee, but it's going to happen on a job, he knows this as sure as he used to know Mal would appear, as sure as he knows how long he has when he's bleeding to death: he's going to be distracted, and then. And then.

Fuck.

"You're not here," Eames says, levelly. He knows better than to accuse Arthur of thinking -- Arthur will still be scheming on his last heartbeat, a fact about himself he wishes he didn't know. Sometimes, however, Arthur's preoccupation is more acceptable to Eames, and sometimes it's less so. Arthur has spotted the pattern, but wishes he hadn't.

"I'm here," he says, making it true. "You're here."

There was a brief spell, just a couple of days, when he honestly thought he could make Eames happy.

===

Eames has a bruise Arthur didn't put there, and Arthur honestly hopes it's sex and not violence, because Eames never promised to be faithful, but if someone has hurt him, Arthur might have to set the world on fire.

They're standing on the back of a horse, and he stumbles and falls just as the horse spreads its wings, sliding down the tail to land on a patch of grass in the middle of a stone floor. Eames walks down the steps underneath the horse's left wing, and now the horse is small, smaller, the size of a large dog. It barks at them, tail wagging, and Eames smiles.

Arthur wants to say something about the bruise, but he can't think past the nameless dread. There's something he needs to hide, and he doesn't know what or where.

Eames tilts his head. "Shall we?"

And Arthur's back is to the lockers, smooth and gunmetal grey, and Eames is crowding in on him, the thumb and middle finger of his right hand forming a bracelet pinning Arthur's left wrist to the lockers, the fingers of his left hand twined in Arthur's right.

"I'm going to kiss you now," he says, asks, as if they haven't ever done this before, as if Arthur might break the hold (and Eames's nose).

"You're going to kiss me now," Arthur agrees, then takes the initiative and presses his mouth to Eames's, licks Eames's bottom lip. He shifts, just slightly, so that he can feel Eames's erection against his hip, and where his hands, his back are against the locker, he knows they'll come away wet.

The horse is now Cobb, standing on all fours looking up at them reproachfully. He barks, and Arthur realizes, late, much later than he should have, that this is a dream.

Arthur banishes the locker, banishes Cobb, rewrites the world so he and Eames are alone on a bed, and takes advantage of his own subconscious to kiss Eames gently, tenderly, like it's not a mistake.

===

Cobb's plan is simple: Convince both Butler and Maxwell that they are going to infiltrate the other's dreams, then help each of them break into the other's mind. Everyone's happy.

Cobb's plan is impossible: Convince both Butler and Maxwell that they are going to infiltrate the other's dreams, then help each of them break into the other's mind. It can't be done.

One step of the plan is much easier than it could have been: Yusuf's experimental remote dreaming protocol has yielded a surprisingly cool side-feature, in the form of allowing more than one person to be the designated dreamer. Arthur is wary and Cobb is thrilled; now they can break into two minds at once.

Ariadne wants to use her and Saito's memory techniques, too. The dream will be unstable, she argues, since both Maxwell and Butler will know they're dreaming, and anything that slows the projections down is good.

Saito stays out of the argument, recusing himself on grounds of bias, and for the very first time, Arthur gets to see the back of Ariadne's neck go red. Cobb is wary and Arthur is thrilled; Ariadne is the only person on the team he trusts not to let feelings make her stupid. Not unrelatedly, he wishes Eames were there to waggle his eyebrows at this latest turn of events.

Eames is working "all the hours god sends, darling, and then some" observing all five of the women and men in Maxwell's and Butler's beds. A toothbrush sits unused on Arthur's bathroom counter, and Arthur tries not to think about it.

Eames is going to use the wives -- and others, if necessary, which he doesn't think it will be -- as distractions to get the marks past each other. He hasn't told anyone about his latest trick, and Arthur keeps forgetting to mention it to Cobb. He absolutely doesn't feel guilty about this.

One night, Eames lets himself in to Arthur's apartment. He doesn't have a key, but he doesn't need one any more than he needs the deactivation code to get past an alarm system Arthur's security expert assured him would keep out anything larger than a bee.

Arthur is awake and armed before the front door closes, but Eames -- who, it's becoming clear, knows Arthur as well as Arthur knows him -- taps his deck of cards once, twice, three times against the frame of Arthur's bedroom door, giving Arthur the chance to pretend to be asleep.

Instead, Arthur slips out of bed, pads over to the door. He knows himself well enough to know he's better at emotions in the dark -- stereotypical masculine bullshit, an inner voice sounding very much like Ariadne tells him -- so he turns on the light and opens the door, blinding them both for one heartbeat, two.

"Room for one more?" Eames asks.

Arthur shrugs elaborately. "Sure."

It's the first time they've shared a bed without fucking in it first. Eames's hand on Arthur's hip is possessive, and Arthur sleeps deep and dreamless.

===

Ariadne goes to stay in a hotel that both Maxwell and Butler have used. When she gets back, she builds them a version of the same, plus twist. The even numbered floors are for Maxwell, the odd numbered ones for Butler. There are ways to get from odd to even or even to odd, but they have to be learned.

There are other secrets to this dream hotel, but Arthur will do his job better if he doesn't know them. He's Maxwell's guide, and Cobb is Butler's. What they don't know about the holes in hotel security, they can't give away. Cobb doesn't like this part of the plan. Arthur, surprising even himself, loves it.

Cobb notices. "Getting bored?" he asks Arthur, while the two of them are meant to be crosschecking Maxwell and Butler's backgrounds for the final time.

Arthur doesn't answer.

"Because if your subconscious has decided you like these jobs better with some unpredictability--" Cobb says, just the tiniest hint of irony letting Arthur know that yes, he gets the hypocrisy.

"The fewer lies I have to tell," Arthur says, "the simpler it is."

"Right." Cobb looks almost concerned. "That's all there is to it?"

"That's all there is to it," Arthur confirms. "There's a reason you're always Mr. Charles."

Cobb spots the lie, and he spots Arthur spotting that he's spotted the lie, and round and round they loop, understanding each other too easily.

"I'm serious," Cobb says. "If there's something you need to tell me."

Arthur shakes his head. "No."

Cobb won't ask again.

===

Saito is not in any way involved in sordid corporate espionage. He's also learned the hard way that buying Ariadne anything she couldn't have happily afforded herself before the Fischer job is a bad idea. As a businessman, he knows the value of money, but on a personal level it must seem like such an arbitrary distinction for him -- the difference between five dollars and five thousand more an intellectual exercise than something his bank balance would notice -- that Arthur catches himself thinking that it's sweet Saito would bother to pay attention for Ariadne's sake.

So instead of insisting on coming along, or buying out the company that runs the chain of hotels Ariadne's been visiting, he just leaves a packet of Oreos on Ariadne's chair next to the PASIV.

Eames looks almost put out. "They're cuter than us," he stage whispers to Arthur.

Ariadne and Arthur turn matching death glares on him, while Yusuf laughs and laughs.

"I'm going to kill him," Ariadne says to Arthur, her tone mild.

"Be my guest," Arthur replies.

Eames doesn't even try to look hurt. "I'm going to start buying you flowers," he declares. He sounds proud of this decision.

Ariadne looks torn between delight and embarrassment. The Oreos have vanished from her chair, and she has the beginnings of a wicked grin. "He's going to start shitting in your luggage," she warns Eames.

"I'm not sure if I'm offended or inspired," Arthur says. He does his best to give Eames a calculating look, but his traitor face probably makes it fond.

Cobb claps his hands together. "Children. Enough."

There's this pause, while everyone does their very best to stifle their grins, and then a well-aimed Oreo strikes Cobb on the nose.

In the sort of perfect synchrony that can only be achieved by working with someone for far. too. long, Arthur and Cobb raise their eyes to the heavens and sigh.

===

Inside the dream, everything's serious again. Timing is going to be interesting, to say the least: Yusuf will play them music at ten minute real-world intervals, to keep them on track past time-jumps and minor differences in processing time. Cobb's presence should make things slightly easier, but Arthur can barely acknowledge that, let alone rely on it.

Ariadne plays Maxwell, and Cobb handles a projection in Butler's stead. Arthur will get Maxwell to create a trap for Butler to break into, but at the same time must manipulate Maxwell into hiding his own secret somewhere Cobb will be able to find it. Cobb must do much the same with Butler.

They have one hour for the creation of the traps, one hour for the fake break-ins, and one hour for the real break-ins: altogether that's half an hour in the waking world.

Eames will run interference as only Eames knows how.

Ariadne is nothing like the forger Eames is, and her attention is more on the building than remaining in character. Her face flickers in and out of a crude copy of Maxwell's; it's very nearly unnerving. There's no real point rehearsing this bit, anyway. They might as well just sit and play cards.

An hour in, Ariadne has created a large, obvious lock-box, security code Maxwell's wife's date of birth -- she seems to be buying into Eames's theory of Maxwell's relationships; Arthur would have gone for the mistress's birthday -- with a bunch of flowers inside. She flourishes them at Arthur, and he flashes briefly back to a dream of a dream, presenting flowers to his mother, before giving Ariadne a small, tight smile.

The music starts to play: La Vie En Rose, Cobb's idea of a joke. That's the first hour mark, and now for tricky bit.

Ariadne has plotted them out routes that will let each businessman see the other covertly, with Arthur and Cobb manipulating them into dropping hints as to the location of the hidden secrets. There's redundancy built in -- that was Arthur's doing -- but not much, which is where Eames comes in.

Maxwell's mistress appears in front of them, wearing an evening dress that in the real world would make even Arthur balk at the price. "Honey?" she greets Ariadne-Maxwell.

Ariadne-Maxwell looks to Arthur, who says, "Can we trust her?"

Ariadne-Maxwell nods. "Of course."

And on they go.

===

For the real job, Arthur and Eames bring Maxwell into the -- suddenly and conveniently unoccupied, thank you, Saito -- fifth floor of their office building, while Cobb and Ariadne take Butler to their real offices on the sixth floor. They're directly above the newly colonized fifth floor room, and two modified PASIVs have been hooked up together through wires passing through the walls and ceiling.

Maxwell smiles nervously at them as Yusuf plugs the PASIV in, and Eames lets his knee knock against Arthur's, once, twice.

===

They are in the hotel bar. Maxwell has a whiskey in front of him, Arthur a gin and tonic he knows is courtesy of Eames.

"Mr. Maxwell," Arthur says. "Do you remember me?"

Maxwell looks at him, confused, as if trying to remember the last ghosts of a long-forgotten dream. "I'm sorry," he says, more polite than hostile for now, "I'm not sure I've had the pleasure."

Doing his very best impression of Cobb, Arthur presents his hand for Maxwell to shake, perfectly confident that Maxwell will take it. "I'm Arthur," he says. "You have just paid me a very large sum of money to break into your friend Mr. Butler's dreams."

Maxwell starts to smile. "Really?" he says, more to himself than to Arthur. Then, brightly, firmly, he shakes Arthur's hand. "It is a true pleasure to meet you, Arthur."

Arthur gives a professional smile. "Likewise."

In another corner of the bar, Eames is laying groundwork, drinking Butler's wife's favorite drink through elegantly made-up lips. Maxwell doesn't know he sees her, but Ariadne designed the mirrors in this place, and the first seeds are planted.

Maxwell finishes his drink.

"I await your instructions," he says, in the voice of someone who has not waited on anything in a very long time, and doesn't intend to start now.

Arthur takes the hint.

They're waiting for the elevator, the one that will only stop at even numbered floors, when Arthur notices a movement out of the corner of his eye. He has just enough time to wonder if he should be worried before Maxwell shoots out both his knees.

===

They're tied together, Arthur, Cobb, Eames and Ariadne, sitting on the floor in Maxwell's favorite suite in a large pool of blood.

Maxwell did Eames at the knees, too, while Butler has gone for Ariadne and Cobb's hands. The two businessmen have their guns trained on Arthur and his team, not to kill but to hurt. And fuck but it hurts.

Arthur can feel the press of Eames's shoulder, the weight of Cobb's deep, pained breaths, the unnatural chill of Ariadne's skin.

"The mistake you made," Maxwell remarks, almost conversationally, "was in letting both our subconsciouses in on this."

Butler smiles. It's not a nice smile. "Torture out there in the real world is so fiddly, and if you're not careful you can leave all sorts of inconvenient marks."

Arthur is waiting on Cobb's cue. Eames is disappearing into himself. It's left to Ariadne to voice the question: "What the fuck is going on?"

"Saito," Maxwell says, a one-word explanation that makes whatever blood Arthur has left run cold.

Arthur tries to dream up a gun. A knife. He tries to explode the mirrors, to make the walls come tumbling down. He runs through a thousand deadly possibilities in the time it takes Cobb to draw one more shuddering breath. Nothing happens.

"We've been training too," Maxwell says. "Exciting, isn't it?"

"Exciting isn't the world, darling," Arthur drawls in a poor attempt at Eames's accent, made all the poorer by the waves of nausea and heart-stopping pain crashing through his body.

Ariadne's imitation is better: "Is now really the time, sweetling?"

Arthur tries to smirk. "Sweetling? Really?"

For their troubles, Butler shoots Arthur in the left hand.

"Saito," Maxwell repeats once they can hear him over Arthur's screams. "We have two and a half hours left in which to do what we like to you. Would you like to see how long you can last?"

"Or would you like to start telling us his secrets now?" Butler offers. It's beginning to sound reasonable.

Cobb jerks his head up. "Fuck you. Ariadne, get us out of here."

"I've tried," she says, but it's working -- when Cobb speaks, they all listen, and that's the break Arthur needs, bringing the lights crashing down on Butler's head where--

--where they shatter harmlessly at his feet. Fuck.

"Nice try," Butler says, and shoots him in the right hand.

===

They are confidence tricksters. They're brilliant, obviously, at anything to do with dreams, but deep down, they -- Arthur and Cobb and Eames and Ariadne -- are at the very top of their shared game when it comes to manipulating the dreamers, not the dreams.

When you think of it like that, it's a wonder no one has exploited this weakness before.

"What does Saito want with NanoCorp?" Butler repeats.

Ariadne takes the pain with barely audible gasps; Cobb's breaths come wet and ragged; Eames shakes and swears. Arthur wishes he didn't know any of these things.

"What does Saito want with NanoCorp?"

La Vie En Rose plays, and how, how is this only half an hour? Arthur isn't going to make it through this. Arthur is never going to sleep again.

There's a crash outside. One of Ariadne's.

Butler and Maxwell exchange a look.

"I'll go," Butler says, slipping out of the door.

He comes back a minute, two minutes later, smiling. It's still not a nice smile.

"She blew out one of the elevators," he says. "What do you think is worth an elevator?"

Maxwell seems to honestly think about this for a moment. "A leg."

Butler nods, more to himself, and aims his gun at Ariadne's remaining leg.

Then, with a smile -- and this one isn't nice, either -- he turns the gun on Arthur and blows him out of the dream.

===

Arthur has himself unplugged and Maxwell doubly-sedated in the time it takes for Yusuf to get out the first syllable of his heartfelt "What the fuck?" He counts one, two, three painfully fast heartbeats, giving Eames the time to do what needs to be done, before unplugging Eames, too.

Eames is up and out of his chair, tight breaths a pale imitation of Cobb's gasps, and he's staring at Arthur, and Arthur is staring at him, and this is the point where Arthur should say something glib -- "Took you long enough" -- and Eames should say something vaguely flirty -- "I'm sorry, sweetling; I got a bit tied up" -- and they should kick the fuck out of Maxwell.

Instead, Arthur steps forward and kisses Eames, open-mouthed and desperate. He's clinging, one hand in a death-grip at the back of Eames's collar, the other on the small of Eames's back, pressing them together, and Eames is clinging right back.

All three of their phones are ringing -- dreamlike, Arthur doesn't know when they started, just that they are -- and Yusuf answers his.

"Yes." Pause. "Yes." Pause. Pause. "You'll have to ask him yourself."

Eames's inhale sounds almost like a sob, and Arthur can feel their heartbeats thudding just out of sync.

The door opens. It's Cobb. He gasps once, then: "Arthur, we have to--"

Without looking, without breaking the kiss, Arthur has the muzzle of his gun squarely between Cobb's eyes. The safety's on, and Cobb knows this, but the point is made.

"Anything else you need to tell me?" Cobb asks, sounding more like Arthur than Arthur.

Arthur never, ever wants to let go again.

Letting go, Arthur turns to face Cobb, whose phone is still in his hand. "Maxwell is under. Butler?"

"Yes."

"What now?"

Eames speaks. "I say we kick the ever-loving shit out of them."

Arthur pretends to consider this. "Not without merit."

"We need to go back in," Cobb says, "and find out what they know."

"And who trained them," Arthur adds. "Work that good, we should-- I should have known."

His hand has, without consulting him, tangled itself in Eames's. He never wanted to be this person, he never wanted to be anchored by anything, anyone, but himself. The only person you can ever trust to be real is you, and you can't even trust yourself not to lie to you.

Arthur thinks, briefly, that if Eames says no, he's not sure what he'll do.

Eames says yes. In fact, Eames says, "Let's go in there, extract everything, and leave them with a lifetime's worth of nightmares."

Yusuf is already preparing a new serum from the half-dozen bottles he just happens to have with him. "What?" he says at Arthur's querying look. "It pays to be prepared."

"What does Ariadne think?" Arthur asks Cobb.

She answers the question, standing, pale and brittle, at the door. "Ariadne thinks she's going back in, with or without the rest of you. If they're after Saito, I'm after them."

"You're really very scary," Yusuf says to her. "You too," he says to the rest of them, half-apologetic. "But mainly her."

===

Ariadne had a backup location, if the hotel didn't work: Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport, Terminal 1, turned around and in on itself more times in more ways than Arthur is prepared to think about right now. He knows what little he needs to know, which is where to stand so he can shoot anyone he might need to, himself included.

He's dressed as a security guard, his tie worth more than the entire rest of the uniform, and he can see two copies of Maxwell and two copies of Butler running to catch their flights.

He can tell real-Butler from Eames-Butler only by their positions in Ariadne's maze, likewise the two Maxwells. Ariadne, watching from another vantage point, slows real-Maxwell's escalator fractionally, just enough to make him stumble and not-quite-fall.

Eames-Butler is at his shoulder, tugging him on. "Faster," he says, so perfect a forgery that Arthur's trigger finger itches. "They're coming."

Another part of the airport, still in Arthur's line of sight but totally invisible and inaccessible from Eames-Butler and real-Maxwell, the same exchange takes place between the other pair.

Don't give them time to stop. Don't give them time to think. If they don't know this is a dream, they can't do anything.

The moving walkways stutter at just the right moment, and the two Eameses are pressed into their targets, ably picking the pockets of real-Maxwell and real-Butler's dream coats.

Both Eameses palm something, then ditch over railings in a straight drop down that, thanks to Ariadne's architecture, should land in Cobb's outstretched hand just. about. now.

They land with a double thud that Arthur can't hear, and Cobb is flicking through both at once, looking for something that will make this whole sorry affair worth it.

"Hurry," says Eames-Butler, and over and up and around and then down, real-Butler says, "Fuck, come on, we can't let them catch us."

"They can't--" Eames-Maxwell gasps out, and, in a stroke of luck that has been missing from the rest of today, real-Butler finishes his sentence, "--find out, I know."

Cobb and Ariadne are conferring, and then Cobb lets the wallet -- Maxwell's -- and the Blackberry -- Butler's -- fall down a staircase and into the two Eames's hands. Arthur's favorite Escher painting come to life.

"Fuck," real-Maxwell breathes out. "Which way?"

All paths will lead them where Ariadne wants them to go, but Eames-Butler uses the moment to place the Blackberry -- real-Butler's Blackberry -- in real-Maxwell's pocket, so smooth Arthur, watching for it, can't be entirely sure when it went in. Bait and switch and bait and switch, Arthur renews his vows never, ever to play cards with Eames.

Real-Maxwell's hand goes to his pocket the same moment as real-Butler's, and they hide their surprised curiosity (turning very quickly into recognition and calculation) with matched skill.

The symmetry ends there. Whatever real-Butler finds in the wallet makes him turn on Eames-Maxwell, whereas real-Maxwell just grabs Eames-Butler's sleeve to keep running.

"You bastard," real-Butler shouts, slamming his fist into Eames-Maxwell's gut. There's a set of signals in place if anyone needs Arthur to use his guns, but Eames-Maxwell makes none of them; things are going well. "You sold us out."

"I had to," Eames-Maxwell protests. One businessman's punch is not enough to make him gasp and cringe like that, but it's a good sell, not overdone. "He--"

"Fuck Browning." real-Butler punctuates this with another punch, this to Eames-Maxwell's jaw, and that's it, that's what they needed. Peter Browning, Fischer Sr's second in command, the man they screwed over when they rewrote Fischer Jr's life. Arthur readies himself to get them out, but Eames-Maxwell gives the other signal, the swallow-cough-handflick of not yet. Arthur lowers his gun.

And now, Eames-Butler is using the information, choking out, "Did Browning say--?" in between heavy breaths.

Real-Maxwell doesn't slow at all. "No." His tone suggests of course not, you idiot, but no suspicion. "Same as before: Antigua."

There's only one threat running out of Antigua these days. Cobb and both Eameses give the signal to shoot, but Arthur's gun is already up.

And that, Arthur thinks as he squeezes the trigger, is how you run a con.

====

Ariadne is on the phone to Saito before the IV drip is out of her arm. She tells him, quickly and efficiently, about half of what has happened and then the TV on the far wall flickers to life, and Saito, clearly livid, appears on the screen.

Arthur glances at the four waking people in the room with him. Cobb is impressed, Ariadne pleased -- and continuing with her spare, to-the-point description of the two dreams -- Yusuf intrigued. He can see the cogs turn as Eames wonders how much that trick must have cost.

They are a weak point in Saito's defenses, and if he has any sense, he will cut them loose before-- But no. That's not going to happen. Arthur doesn't even need to finish the thought, given what's written on Saito's face. Maxwell and Butler are finished, and Browning isn't far behind.

"Shall I have them killed?" Saito asks. "Or will you do the honors?"

Eames notices it a second before Arthur, cueing him in with a quick nod: Saito's question was for Ariadne alone. Anyone could have told Saito what the answer would be, Saito included, but that's not the point. The point is to give her the choice.

"No killing," Ariadne says.

Cobb adds, "We'll do what needs to be done. It's our reputation, not yours."

Saito shakes his head. "You know that's not true, Mr. Cobb, but as you wish."

Saito looks at his watch, prompting Arthur to do the same. Two hours have passed in the real world since Maxwell smiled nervously at him over the PASIV. Predictably, it feels like a lifetime.

"I can be there in three hours forty minutes," Saito says to Ariadne.

"Right," she says. "Good."

They can keep Maxwell and Butler under -- not dreaming, just out -- until tomorrow, and Saito doesn't even need to snap his fingers to make sure security for this building is not a problem.

Suddenly, the adrenaline coursing through Arthur's veins is a lot less useful.

"Ariadne, Yusuf," Arthur says.

They both nod.

"We'll stay here," Ariadne says.

"Cobb," Arthur says.

"Right," Cobb says. He'll go home. That's why they're here, after all, so that one of them has a home to go to.

And finally: "Eames."

"Find yourself at a loose end?" Eames asks, probably trying for salacious. It's been a long day, and there's another long day ahead of them, so it comes out close to something Arthur might one day admit is fond.

Arthur pretends to think about it, and Eames's cocksure smile does not dim even a fraction.

"Yeah," Arthur says. Cobb is arguing quietly with Ariadne, and Yusuf is checking through a suitcase that could plausibly have more lab equipment in it than most Ivy League chemistry departments. The only person paying any attention to Arthur at all is Eames, so Arthur lets himself say it again. "Yeah."

===

"One day," Eames says, conversationally, as Arthur pours them both a stiff drink, "we'll share a quiet dream together, somewhere simple." He pauses. "With a bed."

Arthur does not look up. There's something in Eames's voice that makes him think Eames really doesn't want him to see his face right now.

"We'll have that threesome I keep on promising you,' Eames continues. "Me, and you, and me."

When Eames talks dirty, his voice picks up a little extra drawl. It's not quite self-parody, but there's an edge to it, however breathless and filthy, however quiet and desperate it gets, to show that he's remembered his sense of the ridiculous. This is nothing like that.

"You'll be below me and above me, I'll be in you and you'll be in me, there won't be an inch of you that can't feel me."

Arthur wants to look, he really badly wants to look at Eames, but more than that, he wants Eames to be able to speak.

Eames falls silent.

Arthur risks a glance. Eames catches his eye and smiles apologetically, whatever he was trying to say lost again in the space between them.

He can't-- He can't not-- His hands are wet, and for a moment, dreamlike, he is certain that behind him are the lockers, smooth and gunmetal grey.

But his hands are wet from the ice, and behind him is a large fridge-freezer with a single magnet on it -- a gift from Ariadne, chosen only to make him laugh -- reading C'est Paris! in an offensive range of pinks and purples. And in front of him is Eames, who also can't, and can't not, and it's Arthur's turn to try.

"Mr. Eames," he says.

Today he was shot in both knees and both hands. If he flexes the fingers on his left hand, he can still feel a phantom ache. He bled with Cobb, and with Ariadne, and with Eames, and the fact that no one died feels less and less like a victory.

Right. Right. He can't and he can't not. He doesn't like risk, and he doesn't like trusting people, and the only person he's ever countenanced needing is himself. But more than any of that, if he has to face those fucking lockers one more time, he's going to do some serious property damage.

"You matter to me," he settles on. "More than--" He tries again. "A lot. You matter to me a lot." He would gladly blow up the Earth rather than finish this conversation. "You're important," he grits out. "To me."

He hands Eames a generous quantity of whiskey. They drink. He pours. They drink.

Eames takes Arthur's glass, sets it down next to his, steps forward into Arthur's space, presses his lips to the very corner of Arthur's mouth. When he draws back, he studies Arthur's face for ten heartbeats, twenty, thirty.

"Cards on the table?" he asks at long last.

Arthur nods. "Cards on the table."

Eames takes out his much-abused deck of cards -- his totem -- and flicks through it easily. "Terribly literal-minded of me, I know," he says as he draws one card, face down, from the deck. It's worn and slightly bent -- like them, Arthur thinks with a surprised laugh he keeps hidden -- and Eames is running his index finger along one of the long edges.

"You will observe," Eames says, "nothing up my sleeves."

Arthur acknowledges this.

They can't string this out any longer, and Eames must know this. He bites his bottom lip -- which should not be that hot -- and turns the card round.

It's the Jack of Hearts, a crude cartoonish sketch, but that's not what Eames is showing him. Across the diagonal of the card, scrawled in Eames's hand, is one word: Arthur.

Arthur's already been shot today, four times, but this feels like the only one that counts. "I'm going to fuck this up," he breathes.

Eames makes the card leap out of the deck and land in his other hand. "Hmm?" He fans out the deck, then flicks the Jack into the middle of the spread.

Arthur's petulance is at least half feigned when he says, "You know, I don't think you're taking me seriously."

And with that, Eames smiles, warm and open and everything Arthur could ever want. "Never, darling. Never."

===
End
===

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