Despite indulging in a series of romantic affectations ("Because you indulge in a series of romantic affectations, darling," his mother had said once, archly, over a plate of meringue and summer fruit), Eames was not a sentimental man.
He had no illusions that things were something other than what they were. This was what made him such a good forger. He had once heard Cobb describing one of their teams to a potential employer; when the turn to market Eames had come, Cobb had said that Eames' work was flawless. Eames had smiled to himself, neatly tucked between a door and a darkly panelled wall: he was good because his work was anything but.
At the risk of stating the obvious, one simply could not be what one was not. Accepting the differences and imperfections that came with imitation was what made imitation believable. Eames had never quite brought himself to try it, but some part of him believed the day he got someone completely right was the day a mark would see through him. People expected fluctuation, change—give them a static reflection, and they would immediately look more closely, trying to figure out what wasn't right.
All this was to say that Eames did not expect, nor did he believe it made sense to expect, perfection. He might promise grand love affairs over Moët served on starlit balconies, but he rather thought he surrounded himself with people who were intelligent enough to realise that what was being offered was a grand attempt at pretending one could have such a thing. Good sex, good conversation, hopefully laughter: imperfections, and eventually, collapse. That was imitation; that was life.
What made Arthur particularly fascinating to him was the fact that the man seemed totally oblivious to the fact that what made life worth living was trying one's hand at forgery. His was a lack of sentimentality taken to the extreme: a realism as restrictive as the stiff Jermyn Street collars Arthur had favoured when they had all been younger, more ridiculous. Eames was not offering a grand love affair. He was simply offering the opportunity to take a side door out of the inevitable, interminable staircases that Arthur seemed so inexplicably fond of. By now, years into a needling and stimulating acquaintance with Arthur, Eames might even say he was committed to marching Arthur out this door, willing or no.
If he had not been certain from the first that, given time, Arthur would yield, lose form in bed the way his back muscles suggested he might be able to, when he thought no-one was looking and allowed himself to relax in a chair, Eames might not have bothered. But he knew from long and vast experience that when one offered the unexpected, the opposite of what someone else thought might appeal, curiosity always won out.
Eames was not prone to romantic notions, despite (because) of his romantic affectations; Arthur gave the impression that a grand romantic concept had never crossed his mind. And so Eames dedicated himself to feeding Arthur a steady, infuriating diet of what he seemed to want least, knowing that Arthur would inevitably be drawn to it.
+ + + +
Arthur was a logical man. He worked in a business where one's relative mental strengths over others were everything, and where knowing those strengths well was the first step to coming out on top.
Arthur understood that his brain was wired for logic. His synapses fired the quickest when faced with geometric problems, with linear timelines and spatial developments that he could put together, organise, present to Cobb or Eames so that they could square the circle. Arthur was good with hard probabilities and not great with unexpected variables. He tried to limit himself to what he did best, what he knew best, and to benefit from filing away the possibilities that others could see and he could not.
This was not to say that he was not sometimes the victim of surprising moments of brilliance in fields and situations he did not excel at. But he tried to stay inside boundaries within which he knew he could guarantee his own skills, giving the impression of faultless competence that was necessary to thrive in their line of work.
So Arthur knew what Eames was offering. He had known it the moment Dom had mentioned Eames' name in passing, when Arthur had been helping Dom and Mal prepare for a job that required a better forger than their usual, more geographically proximate acquaintances. Dom had said he could vouch for Eames himself, but Arthur had compiled a file on Eames nonetheless. He had slotted pictures of a smiling Eames into the appropriate sections of a biography that had quickly showed Arthur a picture of a man who had made an art form of hedonism, not limiting himself to one or two manageable pleasures (soft cashmeres, softer leather) but seemingly sampling what he wanted, when he did.
Arthur suspected Eames must have a well developed sense of caution, half innate and half the result of a life in which every person who knocked on your door might be there to demand back what you'd taken from them moments before, but Eames had also made an art form of disguising this, particularly when it came to pleasure. And yet Arthur had seen Eames design back-up plans for back-up plans and then pass them on to Mal or Dom (Arthur always saw the logical progression of knowledge from one point to another, even if he did not at first understand why it was that Eames did this), only to strut two days later into the same dangerous situation he had already described to them and told them to avoid. (And he didn't only do this in dreams, where he could hide behind unfamiliar faces and vaguely familiar mannerisms and always, always, the promise of safety at the end of a gun.)
Arthur therefore had no doubt that Eames had identified and weighed the risks of he and Arthur becoming involved in the sort of thing Eames was clearly offering (Arthur was not entirely certain, but he suspected champagne and balconies would be involved, bookended by fantastic sex, and then sex again), and while that gave Arthur some confidence (not that he would admit it), for a long time the concept had seemed intriguing (everything Arthur would not do if not prompted, but nothing, he suspected, that he would not want to do), but ultimately dismissable.
Arthur had offered what he hoped had been one or two gracious nods, some small acquiescences that would clearly communicate thank you, no, but Eames, though Arthur was certain he could not have missed the cues, had not desisted. Since their initial meeting in the living room of Mal and Dom's apartment, where the horrible design of the couch could only have been outdone by the blinding pattern of the shirt Eames was wearing, Eames had done nothing but up the ante: he'd put an interested look in, and when Arthur had folded (amiably, careful not to damage their working relationship), Eames had inexplicably, illogically, raised him a darling.
After two years of this, Arthur could tell when Eames was about to lean too close to whisper something into Arthur's ear just by the colour of the tweed that Eames was wearing when he walked into a room. This foreknowledge did nothing to stop Arthur from tensing, though, from craning his neck uncomfortably away from the warmth of Eames' breath. Every once in a while Arthur would actually struggle to regain his concentration in the aftermath, and while the effects of these lapses in focus had never been obvious in Arthur's work (nor would they ever be), he was beginning to think that, rationally, it did not make sense to continue resisting Eames' advances.
Arthur's lack of attention—and his grudging attention, at times, maybe—was only entrenching this crazy desire of Eames' to see Arthur break. (The evidence suggested that Eames did not yet know that Arthur would never allow himself to fully give way. Eames believed that Arthur did not know his own desire to yield, when Arthur, of course, had documented it as closely as he had documented countless subjects' foibles over the years.) Eames' entrenchment was only leading him to raise the stakes; this raising of the stakes manifested in greater frequency and intensity of advances; these advances made Arthur sloppy; sloppiness made Arthur deeply dissatisfied. The more Arthur thought about it, the more he calculated the hard odds, the more it seemed to him that yielding now—denying Eames the pleasure of the battle through concession, even if that concession had to be partial by definition—could save them both time and effort and no small amount of sexual frustration.
The point was that over time it had become clear to Arthur that resistance, as clichéd as it might seem, really was futile. And when faced with futility, the only logical thing to do was accept it.
By the time the Pierson job rolled around, Arthur had everything figured out. That morning, he dressed in an older shirt—old enough that the time to replace it was approaching (perhaps it would rip a seam under Eames' capable hands; perhaps Arthur's waistcoat would serve the strategic purpose of covering how rumpled the shirt really would be the next morning), but not old enough to be a favourite—and put an extra tie in his bag. He said nothing when he arrived at the old warehouse ("Why Arthur, your ability to make the old new again never ceases to amaze", flatly and not a little disgruntled; whether Eames was referring to the shirt or Arthur's standard refusal to join Eames for dinner after the job was uncertain, and Arthur was sure Eames wanted it that way), but as he punctured the thin skin at Eames' elbow, carefully sliding the needle into place, Arthur put his lips to Eames' ear (as close as Eames had ever leant), and said,
"Okay. You win."
+ + + +
It must have cost Arthur dearly, that moment of boldness. Leaning over right as Eames was teetering on the edge of the dream, in that inexplicable moment that felt like a downward slide into some dizzying elevation.
It was as hard to hold on to that last second of wakefulness as it was to pinpoint when, exactly, you had been shoved out of a dream—the pull of the trigger? The monster in the wardrobe? The sight of the bullet? The pull of an orgasm, or the moment just after?—but Eames continued to feel the brush of Arthur's lips against his ear as they walked through the busy streets, looked for the right doorway, the right room. As they helped Benjamin Pierson extract something from his father's mind; a bank account number his mother had given his father, Pierson claimed, a few days before her death.
Eames had no interest in whether Pierson was telling the truth. But Arthur and Cobb moved warily, peering around every street corner, both clearly uneasy with this new turn their profession had taken. Once upon a time, Eames had protected the two of them and Mal from experiments gone wrong, from subjects that reacted unexpectedly, from subconscious pitfalls—sometimes literal; Eames loved this job—but now he had to do his best to steer them clear from the real danger of their lack of expertise in this darker work. To help them move in worlds that were not their own, in more ways than one.
The job was simple, and when they were done Cobb and the new chemist disappeared with Pierson, leaving Arthur and Eames alone. Eames sprawled back in his chair, letting his legs fall open, smiling as Arthur packed up their things. He kept his eyes on Arthur, watching as he crouched to check the space under the table, unable to resist a taunting chuckle as Arthur blushed under the scrutiny, a faint flush just visible at the collar of his shirt.
Though he had spent months telling himself that Arthur's capitulation was inevitable, some part of him never believed Arthur would go through with it. Arthur, however, shut the PASIV case with a snick and walked to where Eames was sitting, exhibiting more saunter and less determined march than Eames might have predicted.
Eames licked his bottom lip as Arthur leaned over him, found himself surprisingly hard-pressed not to slide his eyes away from under Arthur's unyielding, focused look. When Arthur arranged himself on Eames' lap Eames' fingers spread to settle on Arthur's hips, and when Arthur pressed his mouth to Eames' he softened his lips around Arthur's, leaning back into the wicker chair and the remaining lassitude of whatever it was that had put him to sleep in the first place.
"Crappy chemist," Arthur said, and Eames mmmhed against his mouth.
They only stopped kissing long enough to make their way back to the hotel, and there Eames undressed Arthur only with the necessary restraint to appreciate each strip of exposed skin as it appeared; a seam in Arthur's fairly threadbare shirt snapped in protest.
"Eames," said Arthur, pushing gently but firmly at Eames' chest, as if to slow him down. "I said I'd give you what you wanted."
"You have no idea what I want," said Eames, less teasingly than he might have liked, sounding rougher than anyone focused on showing someone else a good time ought to.
Arthur did not protest. He allowed himself to be pressed back against the bed, and Eames did not speak as he unbuttoned their trousers, licked a stripe across the crook of Arthur's arm. He sat back, looked at the muscles in Arthur's thighs.
"I thought you were going to blow my mind," said Arthur, clearly endeavouring to sound unimpressed.
The words were Eames' own, from some time ago; the hitch in breath was Arthur's own addition.
"I like to get acquainted with the territory before I blow anything, darling," Eames panted against Arthur's knee.
(He immediately had to resist the urge to have the Russian judge deduct points for unoriginality of rejoinder; as penance, he applied himself to the task at hand with renewed vigour.)
"No-one's grading you here, Eames," Arthur forced out on an exhale, gripping Eames' hair tightly in one fist.
Eames tongued at the underside of Arthur's cock, and Arthur continued, "It's not a competition, fuck."
"But competition makes everything so much better, Arthur," said Eames, stretching a hand out to the bedside drawer and using his other hand to wrap Arthur's fingers around his cock.
Arthur stroked lazily, smirking at Eames as if they were out for a Sunday walk, as if he had the upper hand.
(Further point deductions for terrible punning.)
Arthur's body was open, a single giving sprawl across the bed, and it struck Eames that Arthur was granting him this, was bargaining for a ceasefire. Until he had it, Eames had thought that this concession was precisely what he was after, but now, as he watched Arthur's hand, as he slipped his fingers between Arthur's body and the warm sheets, he found that it was not. Not quite.
Arthur flipped Eames over while Eames was distracted with this new thought, and he lowered himself onto Eames' cock in one single, steady slide. He was delectable, he was doing exactly what Eames had thought he would not. They were doing what they had been heading towards for months, and yet it was not enough.
Eames bucked under Arthur's measured movements, curling his toes. He decided then and there (decided again, that was; this had always been another of his life philosophies) that people who said there was too much of a good thing had not picked the right thing in the first place.
"I have a job in Bern," he said, planting one foot against the bed and pushing up against Arthur, gripping his waist in one sweaty hand. "Do you want to come with me?"
"Dom didn't—" Arthur leaned back, altering the angle slightly, fixing Eames with a puzzled gaze, "A dream thing?"
"No," said Eames. At that moment impatience gave him the necessary leverage and he flipped them over again, re-arranging them as Arthur caught his breath. "My sort of extraction, rather than yours."
He looked up, just in time to catch the tail end of a very surprised look on Arthur's face, just before it faded into easy-going agreement.
"Sure," said Arthur. He bit at the juncture of Eames' neck and shoulder, and Eames drove forward with a fairly undignified keen. "Why not?"
+ + + +
When Eames extended the invitation (such as it was, Arthur supposed: could one be invited to a crime?) to fly with him to Bern, Arthur had to suppress an unexpectedly sharp pang of surprise (the rules have been changed without notice; hey, hey, hey—this is not what I signed up for) before he was able to school his face into nonchalance and give Eames an answer.
"Sure," he said. "Why not?"
What he was actually thinking was that Eames was doing exactly what he was not supposed to. That he was not doing what Arthur had assumed he would. That Eames was not following the expectations that Arthur had used to weigh the matter, going into the whole thing.
(He was thinking that some part of him might be a little glad (was that it?) that Eames was not doing what he had expected, and that he had no idea what that was about.)
Arthur said nothing, knowing better than to reveal uncertainty before giving himself a chance to gather as much information as possible. They had sex again (twice) before leaving the hotel early the next morning, once again on the bed (well, in a manner of speaking) and once in the bathroom ("Fuck, fuck me, Arthur, how is your head harder than this tile? I suppose I can only be glad I didn't accidentally murder you after the one night."). Then they had sex again on the plane (Arthur had thought the money was in corporations, in business interests, but apparently rich people rolled out the private planes even when the matter was more personal; both Pierson and Eames' new employer, at least, seemed willing to).
"They steal this painting back and forth from each other," explained Eames, adjusting the lapels of an eye-watering jacket in mauve plaid. There was a sharp crease along one sleeve where Eames had pressed his knee into it, kneeling in front of Arthur's seat.
"And one of these men pays you how much to do this every time?" asked Arthur, genuinely puzzled.
"In ensuring the possession of beauty, Arthur," said Eames, meeting Arthur's eyes in the bathroom mirror, "cost is inconsequential."
They spent the rest of the flight in companionable conversation, watched over by a blonde and imposing member of staff that seemed to know exactly what they had been doing before she had made an appearance, if the stiff set of her lips was anything to go by. Arthur had to fight a grin as she leaned over Eames to serve him a meal and sniffed disdainfully at him (actually sniffed, taking in a long breath through both nostrils and exhaling as if deeply offended). Eames' smirk might have been unnoticeable to a less-trained eye, but Arthur had made it his business to scrutinise Eames' face for evidence of impending danger, and he knew all the signs.
They talked about Ha Long Bay and about Eames' childhood love of someone named Enid Blyton, and Arthur, surprised at this small revelation (not as surprised as Eames had been, if his face had been any indication), found himself confessing his own bizarre childhood obsession with alien abduction.
They talked on the plane, and they talked in the car that drove them to the hotel, jet-lagged and exhausted. When Eames headed off to meet his eccentric employer a few hours later, Arthur dragged himself from the bed and walked around Bern, eating in the Old Town and ambling over to the Zeitglockenturm, which reminded him of something he'd once seen in a dream.
He thought he remembered Dom saying something about using Prague as inspiration, but he could not be sure.
They ate dinner in the hotel, and Eames teased him over dessert ("I know you had to have had some frightening poster of this Mulder character arranged strategically over your bed, Arthur, so you might as well tell me exactly what it looked like. Was his lab coat open, just so?" Eames mimed the motion at the collar of his own shirt). Arthur licked at the chocolate on his spoon, wondering how he might use Eames' revelation that he had once hung a sign saying "221b" on his bedroom door at his parents' house to jab back at him, until the thought that he was having a good time (that this was nothing like what he'd thought he was going to get out of finally saying yes to Eames, that Eames did not look as if this same disparity had impressed itself upon him at all) stopped him short.
"I—" he said, struggling to think about where he might have miscalculated, and finally concluding that, given a few more days of sex and misinformed conversation about the X-Files, Eames was bound to retreat as Arthur had originally predicted, having lost the thrill, and the appeal, of the chase.
Eames laughed loudly, taking Arthur's silence for agreement. His face split open with mirth, and he leaned back in his chair as if they were the only two people in the restaurant.
This was not what Arthur had planned for, but now that he was in it, it only made sense to see it through. It was the only logical thing: if he retreated first, then that would only add fuel to the fire, and Eames was bound to start the whole ridiculous thing all over again, and Arthur would have capitulated for nothing.
+ + + +
The sex was good. Really fucking good, even if Eames' initial calculations of Arthur's primness had really not been anything accurate to go by, which—Eames could admit a mistake—it was becoming clear they had not.
Eames had not bargained on the wanton sprawl of Arthur's limbs, or on the pleasantly unpredictable rhythm with which Arthur drove himself into Eames' body. Most of all, he had not bargained on this level of focus, on Arthur's hot, intent looks.
There was no doubt that they were both playing an unexpected, but not in any way unpleasant, game of chicken: Arthur kept looking at Eames with assessing eyes, and Eames inspected every minute movement of Arthur's fingers for a tell, for some sign of uncertainty. It quickly became clear that Eames' dreams—sometimes literal; he really loved his job—of peeling Arthur's propriety away from him like a cat dragging the tip of a duvet away on a cold morning were not to be: Arthur shagged like he didn't look, which was to say adventurously and unrestrainedly.
But perhaps, Eames had been thinking since he'd found himself needing to redesign his plans, there was something else in this stairs-door analogy. Something not about sex, but about making (cajoling, assisting, coaxing, forcing) Arthur let go of whatever barrier was behind the one Eames had expected and had not found. Arthur was not approaching the sex warily, but whatever the sex was a part of—and in Arthur's silly, wonderfully linear little mind, one could rest assured it was part of something, filed away with both a before and an after—that Arthur was not sure about at all, Eames knew. That was where Eames had to apply the pressure.
By dawn the next day Eames had liberated the Remedios Varo from the Liszt estate and restored it to its place in the parlour of Bergen's house—he thought Liszt was scheduled for tea that afternoon—and returned to the hotel for a shower. Arthur woke up as Eames shut the bathroom door (at a volume that was not entirely unintentional) and Eames pushed him against a wall, intending to ravage him mercilessly but becoming distracted by his collarbones.
"I want to go the Historisches Museum," said Arthur, wrapping one leg around Eames' thigh. His hand was on Eames' stomach, tracing a tattoo, and Eames lifted his mouth from a clavicle to say,
"They currently have a coin exhibition on, you dreadfully dull punter."
Arthur shrugged—not an easy task with Eames' mouth pressing him down at the shoulder—and said, snide and familiar, not very inventively,
"Well, maybe you can steal one, if you're not interested in the history."
"But they have a bear pit in this city," said Eames, trying to give the words bear pit a suitably mature inflection. "And a larger version of it just opened."
"We can do both," said Arthur, oddly conciliatory. Then he lifted his other leg, helpfully allowing Eames to press him more tightly against the wall.
The coin thing was actually passable—the museography was very competent, very Bern; Eames saw an Etruscan coin that made him think fondly of an exhibition he'd caught last year at the New York Met—and the bear park… well, it was a bear park. Eames was not certain more information was necessary.
They ate chips and mussels in a dark little restaurant and then wandered back to the hotel, ducking through a series of narrow alleyways that Arthur had clearly—of course—committed to memory already, and which Eames would not admit to also recognising. When they passed a familiar shop Eames tugged Arthur towards it just as the shopkeeper was moving to flip the sign on the door.
"Eames," Arthur began, sounding like some horrid remnant of Catholic school (certainly in tone, though the nuns had always called him Mister Eames!, delivering the first two syllables like two sharp snaps of the cane they were always threatening the pupils with, a practice which Eames had put a stop to with some careful guerrilla dissemination of NSPCC leaflets around the school). He only stopped the chastisement he was gearing up to at the sight of the shopkeeper's welcoming smile.
The man stepped aside, and Eames took Arthur by the wrist and dragged him inside.
"My great-uncle was a watch collector," Eames murmured quietly as he looked at the glass cases that lined the walls, stopping to smile at an older man working in the corner, lifting the thinnest of cogs with a pair of pincers, squinting at the body of an antique gold watch through a large magnifying lens.
Arthur looked at him suspiciously, just as he had the day before, during a second-to-none retelling of The Famous Five adventures that had been entirely lost on him, Eames was aware.
"I'm fascinated by the precision of it," he said, pretending not to have seen the look, unable to stop himself from explaining, for some reason. "The beauty of one thing turning on another, of that new cog gyrating in turn: the synchronicity, and the inevitability. The design. Great-Uncle Harry always said we'd go inside Big Ben one day, so I could see it all on a larger scale, but he was more than a tad mad, really, and I think arranging the logistics of a trip to London was somewhat beyond him. I have been since, of course, if not strictly officially. They haven't allowed people up for some time."
He stopped, unable to continue pretending that Arthur's gaze was not so heavily on Eames' face that it might as well have been a touch. He smirked suggestively (and incongruously) to break free of the charged moment, then moved to point to a pocket watch ensconced next to the till, nodding in approval when the shopkeeper pointed out the detail on the face.
"What do you think, darling?" he asked, lifting the watch. "To Arthur, From Eames, Do Try To Be Less Dull, Darling, The Way You Are in Bed, Perhaps The Way You Were This Morning, And I Am Referring Particularly To—"
He trailed off, satisfied with the scandalised look on Arthur's face.
"I suppose that won't fit on the back," he said, as he drew his wallet out to pay. The shopkeeper smiled at him, clearly amused. Eames had figured he was looking at a seventy-thirty chance of disapproval, and was glad to be proved wrong.
Then again, perhaps the man did not speak English.
They exited the shop, and though Eames insinuated his way into Arthur's personal space, winding and tightening an arm around him as Arthur half-tensed, then relaxed, he did not look at Arthur as they continued walking back to the hotel.
Eames had told himself that this time with Arthur was an opportunity to shove Arthur over into unfamiliar space, to push him off-balance with intimacy, with whatever it was that Arthur would not expect, once Eames had identified what that might be. But he had shared the story about his uncle not to taunt Arthur, or to disconcert him, but rather because he himself had been unsettled (or pleased, or maybe both) by the sight of Arthur's dark, watchful eyes.
+ + + +
Arthur had never realised that he and Eames really did not see each other very much. Eames' presence had always seemed so pervasive, so comically looming (comically because of the paisley), that Arthur had somehow begun to assume that Eames was around all the time. The truth, however, was that Dom and Arthur only did some jobs that required forgers (though that number was increasing), and that out of those, very few required Eames. And so Arthur and Eames did not see each other very much, at all.
It was somewhat embarrassing for Arthur to realise this.
Another realisation that Arthur had after Bern (had he kept an encrypted, personal timeline on his laptop, which might have perhaps been a practice he had engaged in at some points in his life, though certainly not at others, he would have labelled this period 'A.B.') was that a series of long vacations were among the many advantages that a life of crime offered (if one squinted, looked the other way, and fervently ignored the varied and serious disadvantages, that was). Arthur had not previously realised what a blessing it was, to be able to flee the sight of Dom's pinched, unhappy face. He felt guilty just thinking about the relief of it, but then he thought of Mal stabbing him in the sternum with an ice-pick during a practice run on the last job, and let his guilt go.
He and Eames had sex in coastal Norfolk, in Buenos Aires, at The Strand in Yangon (after Eames misappropriated them some visas), where they each had an honest-to-God butler waiting on their individual rooms and where Eames had delivered what could only be called a treatise on post-colonial injustice (though he declared he was still amused by Prince Philip, ridiculousness or no). Arthur had nodded vaguely, not really very interested in the British royal family and (embarrassingly) really very distracted by the lush tilt of Eames' mouth.
But that was just the thing, really, in all of this: that as good as the sex was (and it was good, so good; Arthur could now fully guarantee that there had been no false advertising in the strong curve of Eames' shoulder as he had leaned over a drafting table, raised two fingers in Arthur's direction, hefted a gun, all before this thing between them had begun), and as embarrassingly frequent as the sex was, sex, it turned out, could not exist in a vacuum.
They had to talk. Well, they didn't have to, Arthur supposed, but they did, in Anderson and Sheppard fitting rooms and in museums and diners and at Red Sox games ("For the love of this country of yours, this country whose flaws are not inconsiderable but which is still your own, please tell me you do not intend to wear a waistcoat to a sports stadium, and if you do, please tell me your martial arts skills have seen at least some marginal improvement since I last had to extricate you from someone else's grip").
Eames also bought things: Hermès loafers and Ferragamo duffles in calfskin, Mumbai street food, Saarinen tables that Arthur approved of until Eames declared he was looking for something to perch his matryoshka collection on (Arthur had seen that matryoshka collection, and unless Eames had purchased it as part of a charitable donation, there really was no explanation for it). Eames was inexcusably extravagant with his money ("Life favours the profligate, Arthur; you must have at some point in your admittedly limited experience realised this"), and generous beyond what Arthur could have imagined ("I wonder if my cousin Susannah might… I hear Oscar recently had to put his cat to sleep, poor thing—not the cat, terrible creature—perhaps this might cheer him up… This is just the sort of thing my father likes…", and things and things and things for Arthur).
What the fuck are we doing? What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck am I doing? Arthur's mind would scream at him, when he would let it. Sometimes the question was unbearable, unavoidable, like Cobb and Arthur's older brother and his old college thesis advisor and everyone rational that he knew shouting together in the space behind his eyes, but then Eames would turn to him, almost as if he knew, and say,
"I only bought the tie so I'd have something to hold on to later, darling. I'll have it back if you're not interested—it'll suit my accountant passably, I should think,"
and Arthur would breathe again, let Eames lick him open with lazy, soothing strokes of his tongue.
Arthur was working some in-and-out job with Cobb (god, nothing was in-and-out anymore, not with Mal, not with Eames looping incessantly in technicolour when Arthur closed his eyes, and sometimes when he didn't) when his mother called. Arthur picked up the phone, distracted, and it took some time for him to make sense of the unexpected greeting.
"Honey? Arthur?" she repeated, and he shook his head, trying to clear it.
"Yeah, mom. I'm here. Sorry."
"Oh, sweetheart, thank you. I love it. A few days before my birthday, but it's much appreciated, of course."
She laughed. Arthur's eyes shot toward his watch, but his mother's birthday wasn't until June, and he wouldn't have forgotten, anyway, so he just asked, vacantly,
"Sorry, mom, what?"
"The Mayakovsky, sweetie. The Mysteriya-Bouffe. It came today. And in such pristine condition, Arthur; wherever did you find it?"
Arthur's first reaction was panic. He hadn't sent anything, and the thought that someone knew where his mother lived, where his family was, what his mother read, made his mouth flood with bitterness and locked every muscle in his back into place.
In the next instant he realised it could only have been one person ("Pardon—your mother teaches… Russian Futurism?" as if he had no idea what that might be), and the panic receded, leaving a strange flush of pleasure behind, which Arthur fought down viciously with a kind of desperate, manufactured anger.
He wrapped up the phone call with his mother as best he could, murmuring vaguely about a friend who was in the business of acquiring things, and then he sat down on his hotel bed, looking angrily at the Tiber glistening darkly beyond the window.
He had given Eames what he wanted, for fuck's sake. Everything that had seemed to draw him in—Arthur's caution, his restraint, his uncertainty—Arthur had surrendered. More than once. But Eames… Eames had kept pushing, pushing like a sloppy architect, like a kid halfway through a long car ride, like a badly trained dog. And Arthur (with his fear for his family, and his pleasure, and his frustration, and Cobb and his brother and the thesis advisor all shouting at him at once) thought he had probably had enough.
+ + + +
"Why are you fucking with me, Eames?"
Oh darling, why am I not?, he thought, before he realised he had no idea why Arthur sounded so… Eames wanted to say 'angry', but a more accurate description might have been 'angry, plaintive, side of confused'.
He shifted the phone onto his other hand, spinning his chair away from the desk. He had just been thinking he and Arthur could go to Uganda now that Arthur and Cobb had finished that uninspiring Iñarritu job—Eames knew some people who knew some people at Murchison Falls—or perhaps that they could return to Myanmar, where Eames' indignation—what exactly had come over him that night he couldn't quite say—in Yangon last time had kept them from Bagan.
In the aftermath of it he had thought of designing a dream for the two of them, of what it would take to get the golden-pink colour of twilight on the pagodas just right, but then he had thought of Cobb's haunted eyes, of his earnest Don't use memories, Eames. Trust me—just don't, and hadn't.
"I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about," he said into the phone, moving from the chair onto the sofa and settling into a sprawl. One never knew what could come of a phone conversation, if the energy was right (and by the sound of Arthur's frustration, it just might be).
"Leaving aside the incredible stupidity of possibly leading someone to my mother's house, Eames, my mother's fucking house—"
"Arthur," said Eames, rolling his eyes at the ceiling. "At least give me the credit that is my due."
"Fine," Arthur bit out. "You wouldn't let that happen; whatever; fine. That aside, Eames, this is not what we discussed."
Eames felt a ridiculous frisson of pleasure; was that actually a declaration of trust, from a man who had once looked distrustfully at Eames' every shift of his feet?
"What we discussed, darling?" he asked.
"Don't play stupid with me, Eames, because we both know that's something you're not. This… thing that we're doing. I did it so you would stop. And I thought you'd get bored and that would be that, and it hasn't been, and that's fine, and I really don't have the time necessary to think about that right now—"
"Oh, fuck off. My point is that you're not following the rules, Eames, and I won't have that."
Eames laughed, honestly surprised, because as well as he knew that Arthur had made a life's pursuit of timelines and simplifications, he did not expect even Arthur to be naïve enough to think Eames would actually follow a set of rules. If there had been a set of rules, that was, which there hadn't been, Eames felt inclined to point out.
"Now, Arthur, I was only trying to do something nice for … your mother."
Eames had almost used her name, which she had given him when she had opened the door to find him there, dressed in a uniform that he had acquired at the last minute, rather than hire some other person to deliver the wretched thing, but he suspected that doing so really might send Arthur over the edge.
"Eames, you and I both know perfectly well that you were trying to fuck with me. The question I have is— Why?"
And suddenly Eames thought about what it had felt to walk across Arthur's mother's well manicured front garden, about the red door at the front of Arthur's house, about the ridiculous expectation he had had, for an instant, that he might be able to see inside.
Eames had told himself he was doing this for the very reason that Arthur was accusing him of: to reach into a part of Arthur's life that was not his to have—and when he thought about it that way, he supposed they did have rules, after all—and hook into him in a manner that he did not expect. But as he had moved to ring the bell at Arthur's house he had been thinking precisely none of those things.
He had been thinking only of the look of pleasure that would grace Arthur's mother's fine-featured face, in which he could see her son's eyes. He had told himself that a grand and unexpected gesture (it had been hell to get that script, frayed and annotated and quite frankly not his cup of tea, though he supposed there was some talent there) was just the ticket to unbalancing Arthur that little bit further, but when it had come to it, all of that had faded entirely to the back of his mind.
She had opened the door after the second knock, and gazed at him with something Eames had thought might have been recognition (as he remembered it, he realised with a stab of almost-horror that he had actually hoped it would be recognition), and Eames had fought a ludicrous desire to ask if he might come in. Instead he had just swallowed once, and asked her to sign.
Eames remembered the heat of the sun, the soft whisper of the grass against his shoes, the red of the door against the darkness of her hair, and said,
"I— I do apologise, darling. Won't happen again."
+ + + +
The irony was that Eames' shameless advances only began to truly bother Arthur after he'd been well and truly seduced. In the past, Arthur had been content to shoot Eames warning looks, or to drive elbows into Eames' ribs, if more active dissuasion had been called for, but if there had been any edge to their interaction, any at all, it had been amusement at best and a vaguely amused exasperation (sometimes resignation) at worst.
Now Arthur caught himself aiming for light-hearted and hitting snippy and awkward instead. He didn't know what to make of Eames anymore, who had been so easy to read in the early days and who now was nothing but a tangled mass of memories and associations: Eames eating rice cakes at Incheon International; the curve of Eames' cold foot under a sheet; the crinkle of Eames' eyes in the sun; Eames' unexpected reticence to talk since the phone call about Arthur's mother.
(She remained delighted with Arthur, and he had been tempted more than once to tell her about Eames' hand in it, but then he thought about how little that probably fit with what he thought was happening between them, whatever that might be, and didn't.)
Arthur would try to tease: "Mr. Eames, if you could restrain yourself," but the pressure that seemed to be permanently lodged beneath his Adam's apple these days meant that it came out sounding supercilious and insufferable. Dom had shot him one or two cool, surprised glances (they were all preparing for another extraction job; a lawyer who was determined to find out if her ex-husband had been unfaithful before their divorce. Nothing dangerous, but hugely tricky, because sex was the hardest thing to separate from anything in dreams—sadness was sex, and sex was sex, and death was sex, and connection was sex, and loneliness was sex, and plentiful fruit was sex), but Arthur had only been able to look away, uncomfortable.
Worse than Cobb's grey eyes were Eames', which did a poor job of hiding his hurt when Arthur misstepped and a worse job at showing leniency when Arthur tried to make things better and only made them worse.
Arthur found himself talking to computer screens and mirrors: "Come on, Arthur. This is about scratching Eames' itch, and about removing some pesky realities from your own life, and that's it, and you can certainly extricate yourself from this without anyone coming out damaged. As long as you keep your head."
Then he'd wonder why he'd begun thinking about this in terms of people coming out damaged, and the horrible squeeze of his chest would be half answer, half added pressure, and he would rub his hands through his hair, vigorously, until it looked as disordered as he felt.
Then he would go find a comb.
"I fucking hate these kinds of jobs," Eames muttered as the two of them walked past a flower stall (did it mean something? Some of the flowers were open-blossomed, with heavy red petals like something out of an O'Keeffe, not at all subtle but, Eames insisted, much more effective than just going in with a female projection when you needed to find out this kind of thing).
Arthur was looking out of the corner of his eye for Tilman's approach (or was it Mal? She had loved calla lilies. Dom had not been able to come to New York with them for the actual job, of course, but Arthur now looked for Mal as a matter of course). He looked back at the flower stall (Eames claimed irises made him sneeze, though Arthur had yet to see this happen—fuck, focus; fuck, don't think about fucking).
They walked past posters advertising an exhibit that would feature The Hunt of the Unicorn, past a bakery where a woman was baking strawberry and pomegranate tarts. They followed Tilman into a store that was playing Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Cher. When Arthur turned to look for Eames he wasn't there anymore—he'd been replaced by a tallish dark-haired man that looked not unlike Arthur and who solicitously followed Tilman around the racks.
"Worth a try," said Eames in an undertone as they emerged back into the sunlight, and Arthur snorted at him, trying for amused and co-conspiratorial and hitting vague contempt instead.
Tilman went into the movie theatre; two women writhed on the screen, and Arthur looked to Eames for interpretation. He shook his head, eyes on the back of Tilman's head, muttering, "Meaningless," and Arthur wondered, not for the first time (not for the first time at all) how it was that Eames had gained knowledge of these things in the first place.
A few hours later (obelisks, maze gardens, a cock fight, a younger version of Tilman selling bouquets of yellow roses on a street corner) Eames declared the man innocent. They called Karen Tilman from her ex-husband's Park Avenue apartment, letting her know the verdict. She gave a clipped, "Yes, thank you," and Arthur was thinking After all that? when someone knocked loudly on the door, shouting, "Open up, police!"
(Arthur supposed the neighbours might have heard the racket when they'd dropped Tilman, trying to manoeuvre him back onto his bed, and probably Eames' and Arthur's ensuing argument, not nearly as quiet as they both knew it should have been.)
They had to run into the guest bedroom with their equipment, and wait for the knocks to wake Tilman and for him to say that he had only been sleeping, and everything was fine, officers. When he ducked into the bathroom a few minutes later, the three of them (they had yet another of Dom's punkish-looking chemists with them) only had a few seconds to get out of the apartment. They split up to exit the building, and it was only once he was outside, staring blankly at cars passing in the street, that Arthur realised he didn't know where Eames was staying.
He took the subway to 51st Street and walked to a pretentious bar on 53rd, which he liked because its equally pretentious bar food was good and the bartenders were efficient and left you alone.
He sipped a caipirinha (Eames' hands, crushing limes into brown sugar in his London apartment; Eames, who bought gifts for Arthur's mother) and wondered, morosely and painfully aware of the pathetic curve of his back, how in the world it was that it had come to this: him trying to think of ways to keep Eames in his life, rather than push him out of it.
When a man sat down next to him at the tall table in the front of the room, gesturing to Arthur's mini lamb burger on three-seed bread and saying, laughingly,
"Good, no? Almost makes you feel like you're not getting swindled out of fifteen bucks,"
Arthur smiled back, pleasantly surprised at the man's friendliness (how in the world had it come to this?), and said,
"Yeah. I like it here."
David was a banker. He was waiting for his friend Greg, who was coming in from Boston ("You know, the consulting group, not the city"), and he also liked the blue tortilla chips with hand-cut lemongrass-infused salsa that they did here.
He had a nice smile and a forgettably pleasant face which, to his credit, showed only mild surprise when a hand snaked around Arthur's waist, pulling him into someone's chest, as Eames said over Arthur's shoulder,
"Yeah, fuck off, mate," rude and unapologetic.
It said considerable amounts about Eames' charm (or perhaps about the vaguely threatening shape of him under yet another terrible blazer) that when he smiled after this pronouncement, David smiled back. To Arthur, Eames only said,
Arthur stood up and went.
It turned out Eames was staying at 60 Thompson ("What the fuck are you doing in midtown, Arthur; could you possibly find anywhere more tedious? Oh, nevermind"). They took a cab there, and Arthur let Eames fold him over the desk (What was one more cliché in Arthur's life?) and fuck him with a focus that Arthur might have called jealousy, if he'd been able to gather enough evidence to make any sort of definitive judgement in any sort of direction when it came to Eames, these days.
The lamp rattled by Arthur's right hand, and he pushed himself back on sweaty palms and moaned, shifting his attention between each of Eames' hands, one of which was on Arthur's shoulder and the other of which was on his hip, his belly, finally his cock.
"Eames," Arthur said, and when Eames' hand gripped him tighter he took a risk and called Eames' first name, one long ragged syllable, and Eames licked a sinuous line up Arthur's neck, and came.
Arthur stayed for a shower; he would have spent the night but he had a flight home out of JFK early the next morning, and all of his things were in a hotel uptown. Eames checked his e-mail as Arthur buttoned his shirt; when Eames finished, Arthur smiled at him and asked,
"How did you know? About Tilman?"
"I didn't," said Eames, turning his mouth down at the corners insouciantly, and Arthur barked a laugh before he could be offended on Karen Tilman's money's behalf.
"I didn't just pick one or the other, darling," said Eames, leaning back in his chair the way he seemed to favour and running his thumb and index finger down either side of his mouth. "Being a forger, it's all about other people. About watching them watch you. About being on the lookout for the one moment when they need reassurance that you are who you say you are, the one instant in which they need you to do something unexpected. I spent hours looking at Tilman's face today, watching him interact with projections while every subconscious trigger for sex and infidelity that we could think of was paraded in front of him, and I can't say anything made me think that his neurotic wife's suspicions were right."
"Ex-wife," said Arthur, sitting on the bed to tie his shoes. "Why neurotic? I think it's…" Eames' goading look just dared him to say it, stupid as it was, so Arthur continued, "romantic, in a kind of demented stalker way. To be that invested in someone else, even after they've gone from your life."
Neither of them said anything for an instant, both no doubt thinking of Dom.
"I don't think it's romantic at all," Eames said, leaning forward in his chair, oddly intent. "I think that when a histrionic, dramatic woman resorts to dramatics, that's just her nature. I think it's an exercise in self-indulgence, and it says nothing about how she felt for Stephen Tilman and everything about how highly she values herself."
Arthur looked at him, shoes tied and ready to go, unsure of what it was he was supposed to say.
"True romance—not that I accept the premise of the question, mind you—is about negotiation, Arthur. Not about the imitation of love through some gesture that was expected of you anyway, but about fitting yourself to someone, about carving some new space in yourself for them or finding some new way to bend that accommodates them in the space where you used to be. Not losing who you are, but being changed by them nonetheless. Now, a gesture like Karen Tilman's from a stick in the mud like you… that might say something."
Eames smiled an inscrutable little smile, and Arthur's mind raced (Was that a hint? A request? A warning? A joke? Nothing at all?).
"And a quiet gesture from you, that would be the same, I suppose?" he asked, trying to give nothing away.
"Perhaps," said Eames teasingly, lightly, in a tone he hadn't used all day.
By the time Arthur turned his head to look at him, encouraged, though, Eames was already turning away, looking at his computer screen again.
"Then again, perhaps not. I am a forger, after all. Have a safe flight, darling."
+ + + +
Eames was taking a mid-morning nap on the sofa when his mobile rang. He toyed with the idea of not answering it: he'd just finished a job, and as soon as Arthur got back from Japan, Eames intended to maintain a schedule in which mid-morning naps continued to be acceptable, at least for two or three days.
The phone stopped ringing, then immediately began ringing again, and Eames stretched an arm over the back of the sofa without looking, trying not to get distracted by the thought of how Arthur had looked on this sofa just last month, shirt rucked up against his ribs and mouth swollen. He brought the phone to his ear, not looking at the display.
"Do you know where your homosexual life partner is?"
It was Madeleine. Her voice crackled between words; she was on a poor connection, but no amount of static and buzzing could conceal the brash up-and-down of her cadences.
"Which one?" asked Eames.
"I hate to break the news to you, buddy, but it's only been the one for a while."
Eames supposed that was true.
"He's in Japan, I think," he said, and he heard her muttering to someone on her end. He sat up a little straighter, pressed the phone to his ear.
"Madeleine, what is it?"
"Look, I don't really know. All I'm hearing is that he and Cobb were supposed to have some information to Cobol an hour and a half ago, and the Dar es Salaam office has called here twice, trying to find out if we know anything."
"Well, as you know, Arthur and I don't really speak that often," he said, tightly, and he heard her sigh on the other end. He wondered how loudly she had to expel a breath in order to be heard across all the crackling.
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Be careful."
Eames was already up, opening his laptop, trying to drag out an address book from the bottom of a drawer crammed with junk.
"Always. Thanks, Mad," he said, just because he knew the nickname infuriated her.
"Don't mention it," she said dryly, and hung up.
Eames tried Arthur first. He wasn't particularly surprised when Arthur didn't answer. He called in a few favours and found out that Arthur and Cobb were due to be airlifted from their hotel heliport in an hour; the news made some of the vague worry he would not admit to feeling recede. They might be able to get Cobol's information to them before then, and if not, at least they would be on the move.
Eames called British Airways and booked a flight to LAX for Thursday; he was fairly sure Arthur would head to America, particularly if it had all gone tits-up for whatever reason. He was just ending the call when the phone rang in his hand—Yuu, who had confirmed the details of the helicopter a few minutes earlier.
"Eames," he said into the phone.
Then he was silent for a long time, as Yuu explained that the helicopter they had just spoken about had been cancelled; Proclus Global had paid the fee and said they'd take care of transport going forward. Eames thanked him and rang Madeleine again—Cobol had already sent people out, she said, but they hadn't been the ones who had cancelled the helicopter. Yes, she thought the original job had something to do with Proclus. No, Cobol was not going to let this go, though it was mostly Cobb they wanted.
Eames managed to find out that Proclus had put Cobb and Arthur on a plane—alone, no architect or chemist—but nothing more. Proclus evidently paid its employees well enough that it was hard to make speaking worth their while, and anyway, Eames was hesitant to force his hand when he wasn't sure what was happening yet.
When his phone rang twelve hours later, Eames had run himself through endless cycles of "Cobb and Arthur can take care of themselves," interspersed with the memory of the two of them creeping uncertainly through alleys during the Pierson job, looking for all intents and purposes like children trying to sneak a pound from their mother's purse. He had taken a friend out for a late lunch and had slept again only because he refused, on principle, to sit about his flat tapping his fingers against every surface they came into contact with.
His phone display read A, and when Eames picked up, he said, quietly and very measuredly,
"Where the fuck have you been?"
"I'm in Paris."
"Brilliant, Arthur, hope you're already enjoying a crêpe, but I asked where you'd been."
"Eames?" asked Arthur.
It was the honest confusion in Arthur's voice that stopped Eames in his tracks—he'd finally allowed himself to indulge the urge to stalk around the flat that he'd been repressing all evening, along with the finger-tapping, and he'd stood up the moment the phone had rung.
The silence stretched, and finally, Arthur continued,
"Saito, the man whom Cobol wanted the engineering plans from—he wants us for a job. It sounds crazy to me, but he says he can get Dom home."
Eames did not say anything. He was looking at himself in his bedroom mirror, at his face with the shadows under the eyes, at the sleep crusted in his eyelashes and at his rumpled shirt.
The reflection in the mirror looked pale and unsure, and Eames was honest enough to admit that he didn't know whether the strain in his face had more to do with the hours of concern gnawing at the pit of his stomach or with the realisation that he had somehow put himself in a situation where hours of concern were something that happened to him.
"Eames?" Arthur asked again, and Eames scrubbed a hand against his face and spoke quickly into the phone.
"Yeah. I'm here. Look, I'm glad you're okay, but it's been a long day. I'll call you tomorrow, all right?"
"Uh… sure," said Arthur. Then, "Listen, Eames, is something wrong?"
"Nothing at all, pet. Speak to you soon."
Eames ended the call, then scrolled down until he came to the number for British Airways again. He stared at himself in the mirror, at the pallor that was not receding, and cancelled his flight to LAX. Then he thought about where it would be impossible for Arthur to follow, and booked a flight to Mombasa.
+ + + +
1. Pierson job, Cardiff (B.B.)
A.P.W., T.B.E., Havannah Street
(Arthur had not expected it to be like this. He had not expected to feel ablaze with it, to want the friction of Eames' skin on his the way he had wanted successes in the past, with the knowledge that he would do whatever was necessary to obtain them.
He had not thought Eames' face would look like that, mouth red and wet and eyes unfocused, wrecked. He had not thought Eames' hand would span one side of his waist, that Eames would shudder out one long, helpless breath when Arthur let Eames inside.
He had thought he was giving something. But as they lay in bed he felt ravenous, desperate to take.)
4. Liszt Job (T.B.E.), Bern
T.B.E., A.P.W., Bellevue Palace
(Arthur kept the pocket watch in a drawer at home. But sometimes, on a job, he would hear the chink of a chain against a button and look down to realise he had dreamed it on.
He wondered why he remembered so much sex. He remembered Eames' tongue, playful, then gentle at the corners of Arthur's mouth. He remembered the hard rasp of Eames' stubble against his neck. Eames' fingers, and the wet pant of his breaths. He remembered the slippery grasp of Eames' hand on his cock as they showered together, and the solid weight of Eames against his back, as they woke.
He supposed it had something to do with what sex allowed him to do: open his eyes to what was happening, drink Eames in, greedily and without concerns, without the inevitable questions that came from walking alongside him in the street.)
9. Willoughby Bay, Norfolk, VA (A.B.)
T.B.E, A.P.W., 4 days
("My father is a thief. Family business, you see."
"My mother is an editor for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times."
"My mother restores Regency furniture."
"My father left when I was four years old."
"Went to buy cigarettes and never came back, did he?"
"That's right. My mother is a diner waitress. I only got out because I got a full ride to CalTech."
Eames raised his eyebrows, looking at Arthur carefully, then laughed.
"My mother is a professional ikebana instructor."
"My father coordinates all charitable donations for the San Diego Zoo."
"My father died when I was a teenager. I was raised by a kindly grandfather."
"My mother is a professor of Russian Futurist literature."
"My mother is a woman of leisure. She does absolutely nothing."
"My father is a cattle rancher in Monta—"
"Pardon—your mother teaches ... Russian Futurism?"
Eames was speeding down Tidewater Drive, gunning the engine of the crappy rental car as if it would actually make a difference, looking at something else and fiddling with the radio. And yet, somehow, he had known that that was the one.)
23. Tilman job, New York (A.B.)
A.P.W., T.B.E., 2 days (Chemist: O.L.)
("True romance—not that I'm saying the idea makes any sense, Arthur, darling—is about compromise. Not about going through the motions, about doing what everyone already expected you to do, but about making space for someone, about fitting around them, about finding some way to bend so that they can come into the space where you used to be."
Was Eames talking about Arthur's awkwardness, about the rigidity he hadn't been able to shake throughout the entire job, until Eames had forcibly shaken him free of it, trapping him against a desk?
"It's not about forgetting who you are, but about letting someone change you. Now, Karen Tilman's dramatics from a stick in the mud like you … that might mean something.")
31. Paris (A.B.)
T.B.E., A.P.W., Phone Call
"Are you crazy? That's Cobol's backyard."
"It's not me they want."
"I know that, but—"
(But what?) Arthur didn't even know how to begin finishing his own sentence.)
"Darling, when a job calls, a job calls."
"What job is this again?")
32. Paris (A.B.)
A.P.W., D.C., Paris Warehouse
("Look, it's not my business, and even if it were, I can't say I'm particularly interested, but is everything okay between you and Eames?"
"I didn't think anything of it after the Tilman job, even though you didn't sound like yourself most of the time we were prepping, but when I went to get him in Mombasa, he asked me if I was still working with you. What, you haven't seen him since Tilman?"
"Aren't you two… "
Arthur tried to keep his face from showing how little he wanted to talk about it; he could feel the muscles pulling into a frown, almost against his will.
"Okay. Are you two going to be able to work together? That's the only thing I need to know."
"Yeah. I see. Like I said, not my business. And I suppose I don't really have room to talk. Sorry I asked.")
33. Fischer job, Paris (A.B.)
A.P.W., T.B.E., Montmartre
(Eames' skin was pale against the sheets. Two weeks in Kenya had tanned him golden-brown, but two weeks inside warehouses and offices had returned his back to one smooth, fair expanse.
His face was turned into the pillow, away from Arthur. He woke by degrees, smiling at Arthur with an unguarded, soft curve to his mouth. Then his eyes focused, slowly, and something in his face shuttered, almost imperceptibly. Almost.
"What are we doing?" asked Arthur, unable to keep quiet any longer. He'd been watching Eames sleep for what felt like decades.
Eames' eyes locked on his. Then he raised an eyebrow, and said,
"What do you think we're doing?"
And Arthur turned his eyes away, because he certainly had no answer to that (and if he couldn't say, why should Eames be the one to have to do the work?), but his stomach twisted with frustration.
A little specificity. Was that too much to ask?)
34. Fischer job, Paris (A.B.)
A.P.W., K.S., Paris Warehouse
"I have a concern, one that I do not yet want to share with Mr. Cobb."
Arthur tensed, and Saito raised a placating hand, smiling before continuing, softly and a little amused.
"No, no, no, nothing serious. I simply wondered if you might be able to shed some light on a particular doubt of mine."
"I can try," said Arthur, crossing his arms and giving Saito his full attention.
"On the evening after you and Mr. Cobb finished your work, in a manner of speaking, for Cobol Engineering, when I made you the offer of this job."
"Yes?" asked Arthur.
"After I left you with my pilot, someone made quite extensive enquiries within my company, hoping to ascertain where you and Mr. Cobb had gone. At the time I assumed it was Cobol Engineering, of course, but recently I have discovered that this was not the case. I am concerned, Arthur—is there another party to consider, as we go forward with the Fischer pursuit? As you know, failure is not really an option for Mr. Cobb."
Saito was looking at him with something that looked almost like amusement.
His mind was turning frantically ("Delighted, hope you're having a crêpe, but where the fuck have you been?") but he kept his face impassive.
"I shouldn't think there's any reason to be concerned, Mr. Saito. But you can leave it with me. I'll report back.")
35. Fischer job, Sydney, QF42 (A.B.)
How in the hell had this happened? Arthur's mind raced desperately to the very beginning (B.B., The effects of these lapses of focus on Arthur's work were not obvious, nor would they ever be), then to the worst possible conclusion (A.B., In limbo, lost only to come out, if at all, to nothing; to destruction, if Mal was anything to go by).
He shouted at Cobb only because he had no idea how to shout at himself without looking less reliable than he already did. Then Eames was there, pushing between the two of them, so Arthur shouted at Yusuf, at anyone who would listen.
The next clear moment was Eames at his ear ("Musn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling"), and then they were racing through the streets, Arthur glancing desperately around him and trying to commit faces and identities and facts to memory, giving himself something to cling to in case he needed a way out from something deeper.
The irony of clinging to a dream in order to escape from another dream was not lost on him. Then Yusuf was asking if they were ready, and Arthur's brain, which always flashed through a thousand things as he fell into dreams
(he had heard others say it was a kind of blankness, a fading, a snap of the fingers that woke you into another reality, but for him it had always been akin to what people described before death: not his life, but his every recent thought, flashing before his eyes),
was twisting his timeline
("A little bigger, darling,"; should there be some form of connective tissue between 35 and 23 (cf "dramatics from a stick in the mud like…"/"dream a little bigger")? Arthur had always hesitated to arrange things in any way but linearly, and yet perhaps),
was comparing, was weighing, was seeing imbalance
(he could feel the van swerving, and everything else was unstable, too).
1 (B.B.), 2 (B.B.), 3 (B.B.) B.B. Arthur had thought he was giving away only a small thing, only for a little while, doing the logical thing, retreating in order to advance, but what did he think they'd been doing (cf 33), doing all this time, how could he tell himself he'd been playing a strategic game when his chest felt like something caught in a vise (10, 17, 23; 28 →), when he could see that what he had thought would be finite, contained, logical, was everything but: one long sinuous curve of change, of endless uncertainties, and how had he not seen it before, lined up like that, a pattern rather than a moment, a foundation stone rather than a façade, building a life rather than negotiating a ceasefire, A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B. A.B.?
+ + + +
Dreamt himself into Browning, into the blonde. Into a wide expanse of snow, out of an air duct—or was it the other way around?—then up, up, and out.
It had been satisfying, having a legitimate reason to be angry. At Arthur, for cocking up; at Yusuf, for selling the rest of them out; at Cobb, for bargaining with them like chips; at Saito, for not heeding Eames' advice and then getting himself shot. At Ariadne, for whatever she knew about Cobb that she wasn't saying.
At Fischer, for greeting them with something they did not expect.
The romantic parallel of it wasn't lost on Eames (he specialised in romantic parallels, after all): the unexpected nature of what they had found, the inability to extricate oneself, once there, the sense of being absolutely, utterly, without a doubt under-prepared for the entirety of the situation.
As the knowledge that they might not make it out wound its way into each of them, knotting and weaving itself in where it found the snagging posts of their unique vulnerabilities, Eames looked at Arthur's face, trying to catalogue the changes of the last month. They'd spent the entire job needling at each other—a familiar practice—but their knowledge of each other made them both sharper, crueller, and Eames' resentment, his own sense that he had lost some crucial grounding, had made him harder still.
He had tried to remember what it had been like pushing into Arthur's space before Arthur had accommodated him there, what it was that he had intended to begin, then—something about staircases and doors, he thought—but all that he could seem to grasp at were his dread and his survival instinct, two familiar tatters of bright fabric fluttering in his mind when the rest of his faculties weren't making themselves readily visible.
He came out of the dreams with his heart pounding, beating madly against his ribcage, the same way he had fallen asleep that last time, with his neck against the hotel carpet and words trapped behind his lips. He had felt it then, too, the relentless thud thud thud thud of his heart as he looked at Arthur's face; he had been so focused on it that it had been a surprise to open his eyes in the next dream and find only a defibrillator, rather than an entire cardiac ward in full and hectic swing.
It was much more disconcerting than the usual job, waking to the white noise of the plane's engines and the smoothness of the flight. They only had a few minutes to reel everything back into the case before Fischer woke up, but they worked efficiently and crisply: Yusuf's sedatives left no evidence of their presence beyond the dream. Eames thought back to that first time, when it had taken the shape of Arthur's hipbones in his hands to bring him fully awake.
Eames tried to catch Arthur's eye, but Arthur's attention was fully on Cobb, and it was hard to focus on anything else, after that reminder. Hard not to be happy for the poor sod, who must have had both hands on his totem the whole way home.
He made time by the baggage carrousel, and when Arthur walked past he brushed a hand against the small of his back. Arthur nodded but didn't turn, and a few minutes later they were in a taxi, headed for the Mondrian.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said, eyes fixed firmly on the motorway.
Eames looked out the other window, not entirely sure what Arthur was apologising for—Fischer? The heavy silence stretching between them?—and said,
"I wouldn't worry," when what he should have said, perhaps, was Me too.
They needed a Saito of their own: some force to sweep into their lives and extend an alternative, offering a way to achieve the impossible. They needed something to give way: between them or within them, Eames could not say, but neither of them had the skill to pry it loose.
He thought of how diligently he had clung, in the last few weeks, to some idea of who he might be, what he might do, of how he might relate to Arthur, of what he might want, and, for the first time in a life of forgery, he felt like a fraud. Arthur's own caution, his reticence, had made Eames feel like a gymnast, endlessly flexible and adaptable. In actuality the two of them had been equally set in their ways, and Arthur had just happened to know it better.
Upon realising this, Eames had tried to buck his limitations one more time: to present the right image to Cobb (Who had said, "He's good at what he does" as if he were arbitrating between squabbling children) and to the rest of the team (to find only Ariadne's curious, "How long have you and Arthur…?" and the sharp edges of Yusuf's smile, and Saito's clipped, "Let me be clear that one free attempt at infiltration into my business is all you get, Mr. Eames.").
Had he not told himself, a thousand times, that one could not be what one was not?
They didn't make it to the bed. They grasped at each other against the door, and they slid their clothes off with their skin already against the carpet, and Eames' knee cracked hard into a bedpost. He barely noticed, too busy sucking kisses into Arthur's neck. Afterward they lay on the floor, kissing and kissing; then the touch of Arthur's long fingers alone had been enough for Eames to want everything again.
They fucked desperately, like their lives depended on it. And who knew? When this was the only space in which they seemed to surrender to each other, and when they both so desperately needed to yield, perhaps their lives did.
+ + + +
It took precisely three days for Saito to call with a new job.
They were sitting amidst the wreckage of the bed, with the sheets tangled around Arthur's feet. Eames was picking meticulously through what was left of the last room service order, holding pieces of fruit up for Arthur's inspection.
"I find myself in need of your services once again, gentlemen," Saito said when Eames answered the phone. There was no preamble, and he used the plural of gentlemen decisively, as if to discourage either of them from trying to weasel away from it.
He explained what he wanted: extraction, a little intimidation, nothing serious. He made it all sound as if it were the only reasonable course of action. Mr. Cobb would not be joining them, but he had absolute faith in the rest of the team. They would assemble in Belize City on Friday.
The entire conversation took no longer than two minutes, and Eames put the phone back on the cradle gingerly, somewhat taken aback.
"If Saito ruled the world, I would be very intimidated," said Arthur, scratching absent-mindedly at the dip of his left hip.
"I am somewhat inclined to believe that he already rules the world, and is constantly amused to find that we do not know it," said Eames.
Arthur had to make it home before flying to Belize; Eames could do with picking up a few things that he kept at a friend's house in Napa.
They showered. They struggled with the gears and levers of the shower stall for the thirteenth time, and if they didn't laugh at each other, it was only because neither of them had yet acquired the level of proficiency that would justify mockery of the other.
They started to dress, but changed their minds halfway through. Eames ran his hands up Arthur's ribcage with an odd sort of gentleness, and Arthur breathed quietly into Eames' ear, as if not to drown out the sound of skin sliding on skin.
The sun was blazing through the window, and through the small gap between the balcony doors, Los Angeles was blaring.
Eames ran his thumbs over Arthur's collarbones as Arthur buttoned his waistcoat, and before Arthur stepped back to reach for his cufflinks, he drew Eames in for a soft, lingering kiss.
There was a strange fragility to the moment, a tangible sense of how easily it would shatter. And then it did, when Arthur said,
"I guess I better go," because there was no logical reason not to.
Eames put a hand to his chest, said,
"Darling, whatever shall I do without you?" But the joke of the sentimentality was on him.
As soon as Arthur was gone, Eames picked up the phone and called his mother, who was the most sensible person he knew, and then his cousin Frederick, who was the most boring.
+ + + +
As soon as Arthur rounded the corner outside the hotel, he dug his phone out of his pocket.
"Ariadne," he said. "About this job."
+ + + +
"I want this man to wake from one dream into another, aware that he has been sleeping," Saito began.
"Mr. Charles?" asked Ariadne, her voice sounding a mixture of sceptical and eager.
"No," said Saito. "Something more akin to what I saw Mr. Cobb and Arthur do once, in a dream."
"You want to intimidate him," Arthur said.
"Yes," said Saito. "But I want this intimidation to come as a very unpleasant surprise. I wish for this man to slowly wake from a dream, the most pleasant dream he has ever had. I want for him to realise he is dreaming, to know this as he is waking because the perfection he will experience in the dream cannot exist in this world. And when he is waking from this softer-edged reality, relaxed and off his guard, still clinging to the last of the wonder, that is when I wish for us to strike. A dream within a dream."
Eames did not think that a lack of respect for Saito was something that any of them had ever suffered from. But as he watched Saito steeple his fingers, turn to Ariadne and Yusuf with a smile, and ask, "Can it be done?" he rapidly revised his reassessment of precisely how dangerous Saito could be, if one were facing off with him rather than standing at his back.
"Yeah, it can be done," Ariadne said. "You want us to build a world so fantastic that a man won't believe he's in it. It can definitely be done."
Her scepticism had entirely faded, leaving only excitement.
"I could customise the compound," said Yusuf, "to leave a feeling of slight weightlessness, to slow the firing of the synapses infinitesimally, to give the impression of a minor sense of blurriness at the edge of the senses, within the dream."
"Good," said Saito. "Good."
He turned to Arthur.
"I wish to recreate this man's bedroom entirely in the second dream. To have the sort of accuracy that would mean he would not be able to tell it apart from the waking reality. For any reason."
"Mr. Eames, I wish for you to be available to assist Mr. Yoon, if necessary, in the realisation that the second-level dream is, in fact, a dream, though I hope that your participation will not be needed. Ariadne, I think it would be helpful for you to also be present. I will wait for Mr. Yoon on the first level, and I had thought Arthur could accompany me. As my … henchman."
He shaped his mouth around the word with self-deprecating pleasure, and Eames fought a grin.
"Yusuf," Saito finished magnanimously, "you may participate if you wish."
"A dream so good you literally cannot believe you are awake? Yes, Mr. Saito. I would like to participate."
"It is settled then," said Saito. "Please, make yourselves at home."
Saito had brought them to a large house near the barrier reefs, not far from where the mark's own house was nestled in the mangrove forests. The idea was to make the setting of the deeper dream similar to the landscapes that surrounded the house, so that Yoon could be "surprised by his own delight", as Saito had put it, as the familiar landscapes became more dream-like.
As the week progressed, Ariadne and Yusuf seemed to become increasingly enamoured of Saito's whimsy, but Eames did not think he was imagining the way Arthur had begun to give the man a wider berth, not unlike Eames' own carefully calculated distance. As brilliant as Saito was—and there was no denying that he was; Eames felt delighted to have come into his acquaintance—it did not do to stray too close to a dangerous predator.
Arthur (or Saito via Arthur, perhaps) provided him with files and video of Yoon's companions: past and present, legitimate and not. There was extensive information on Yoon's wife, who had passed years before and whom Yoon had loved deeply by all accounts, but Eames rather thought even Saito hoped they would not have to resort to that level of cruelty in order to reveal to Yoon that he was dreaming.
Since Eames' job would primarily consist of being on standby for looking alluring, he spent some time perfecting his reflections with Yusuf's help, some time harassing Arthur and Ariadne and looking over the general dream schematics, and the rest lounging in the lawn that looked out onto the mangrove canals.
The place was already dream-like: riotous with flowers and with every shade of green you could imagine, and some you could not. Brightly coloured birds called to each other from the trees that grew further away from the lagoon, and Eames perched outside for long hours, a hat drawn over the top half of his face.
Arthur and Ariadne worked incessantly, and Eames made as much trouble for them as possible. There was something about this place—about the sticky heat of the air, and the brightly patterned tiles that seemed to cover every surface of the house—that made it easy to approach Arthur in the same carefree way that he once had, many dreams ago. He could crowd Arthur over his blueprints and plans here, and Arthur would only turn laughing eyes on him over a shoulder, or drive an elbow into his ribs if he got too close. His skin was tanning in the bright sunlight, and when he smiled his eyes crinkled visibly at the corners.
During the days the air was hot and stagnant, but in the evenings a sea breeze would flutter through the curtains, and Eames would watch Arthur reading Austen and Pound by lamplight, and Arthur would look back at him as if he knew a secret, as if their history and intimacy were a bridge, and not a gulf, between them. Sometimes Eames would be unable to help himself, and he would beckon Arthur from the chair and kiss him until his lips were swollen and red.
The day of the job Eames was first into Yoon's house. Saito's security had dealt with most of the staff, but it was Eames who had to charm the housekeeper into conversation while the others crept in the back door. By the time he made it upstairs everything was ready, and Eames' only job was to allow Arthur to slide the needle under his skin, once and then again.
He was prepared for the feel of the yacht's smooth wooden deck beneath his bare feet, but not for the quality of the light: a crimson and Persian pink sunset behind them, which turned the water violet and the trees golden.
"Nice work on the light," he said to Ariadne, who was leaning back on the railings of the large boat. Her arms were pale and half-covered by the enormous brim of her hat, and the wind fluttered her hair against the red curve of her lips.
"Thank you, sir," she said, waving at Yusuf, who was sprawled on a chair with a drink in his hand, watching Yoon discreetly.
What made the illusion so brilliant was that it was very hard to pinpoint what was dreamlike about it, and yet everything was. Light crept gently from corners where shadow should have fallen, and every sound had a crystalline quality to it. The boat bobbed too slowly for the movement to be natural, and the susurration from the mangroves was literal: someone was whispering in a soothing, steady voice. It was impossible to discern the words, but the dreamer instantly knew that the verses were familiar.
Yoon took it all in with a surprised, wondering expression, and when he turned to where Eames and Ariadne were standing, he saw Ariadne talking to a slight woman who looked just like Yoon's best friend from childhood might have looked in adulthood, if she had not moved away from Seoul. If they had kept in touch.
Eames lifted a hand to point something out to Ariadne, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a tall boy running past, accompanied by three other children and a yapping dog.
"Hurry up, Anne," called a girl with short hair, but as Eames did a double-take to look again, the children disappeared around the corner of the deck, into a space where there should only have been water.
The projections around them had begun to walk around dazedly, as if slightly intoxicated. Eames did not think it could be much longer, but as soon as he thought this, he turned to Ariadne, suddenly unsure, and asked,
"How long have we been here?"
"A few hours, I should have thought," she said. "The compound, the dream—they're designed to make time feel dream-like, too."
A few more minutes (Eames thought it was minutes, at least) passed, and he said,
"How will you push him over? Did you and Arthur decide?"
The original plan had been to have a city rise by the banks of a river, a place too fantastical to believe.
"Ah," Ariadne said. "You will see in just… a minute."
As she said it, the mangrove-lined canal broadened in front of them, turned to a much wider waterway. The light shifted and became the muted glow of twilight. The canal beneath them turned indigo; up ahead, Eames could see brighter lights suspended above the water.
"Is that…?" he asked, and Ariadne turned to him, smiling,
They were bridges in the sense that they spanned from one side of the water to another—though both the light and the structures bent at a distance; it was impossible to tell how wide the riverbed was—but that was the only resemblance they bore to the dozens of structures Eames had crossed in a lifetime of consciousness.
As he watched, one section of the bridge in front of them swung down towards the yacht like a pendulum, avoiding it by a hairsbreadth. As it swung upwards the entire arch of the bridge swung open, not only towards the banks of the river but also perpendicularly, like a gigantic, metallic group of petals.
The yacht kept moving forward, navigating by the time of the steady tick tick tick of whatever mechanism made the bridge function.
Yoon watched, wide-eyed, as they approached the next crossing: a series of interlocked rectangles, shifting away from each other at different angles. The light shone against each of them in a different colour, so that it was hard to see what metal they were made from. Some even looked like stone: black speckled granite that had the translucence of onyx.
They arranged themselves like hour marks on the face of a clock, leaving a gap in the centre, and an instant before the yacht collided with the bottom half of the latticework, it sank into the river, allowing them to pass through the gap in the middle.
"Last one," said Ariadne, and Eames could hear the gears whirring, though it had not yet come into view.
The bridges were perfect in both form and function: the sort of thing that would have required meticulous attention to detail but immense imagination, and could not have functioned if either were lacking. They worked with the precision of finely tuned engines—no, of clock mechanisms—and Eames laughed to himself, because it took tremendous skill to be so creative and ingenious and yet so horrendously literal at the same time.
They came around a bend in the river that had not been there an instant before and came flush with a large cog churning the water like a mill, slotting into another, larger wheel that came out of the water as they watched. It was difficult to tell if its surface was mirrored or transparent. It reflected the last of the violet-grey light behind them, but as Eames watched, the light ahead shifted, and began to suggest a pale, soft-hued dawn.
It looked precisely like the sort of thing that couldn't be, and yet was.
Yoon gasped in delight. Eames watched carefully as the mechanism kept turning, churning the water into an arch overhead. The boat came under the gentle curve of it just as the wheels sank away into the mangroves and the water, their mechanical ticking fading into a series of soft sounds that might have been laughter, or a bullfrog, or a bird.
Eames could feel the pull of wakefulness, and the colour was fading from the edges of the riverbanks even as he watched.
"Very nicely done," he said to Ariadne, just before they both went under and out, hoping she would say—
"The bridges?" She smiled. "Oh. Thank you, but they were Arthur's."
+ + + +
Arthur let Saito take his time with Yoon, "roughing him up" (Saito's gleeful phrasing), looming menacingly over him with the look of a 1940s movie mobster dressed in very fine clothes.
Arthur wasn't sure what was up with this guy—something personal between him and Saito, that much was clear—but the recent revelations of Saito's abilities to serve revenge cold had him leaving Saito to it, watching as Yoon cowered and quickly yielded the name of a series of future acquisitions.
They left Yoon sleeping in his bed. They had plenty of time left in the window that Saito's security had given them to work in, so they picked up their equipment and drove back to Saito's house slowly in two open-topped jeeps.
Arthur didn't look at Eames. One didn't kick the weight of a lifetime of sensible and rational action off with any degree of comfort, and this felt something like letting a toddler take a crayon to every flawless timeline he had ever worked to put together. The knowledge that he was the toddler in this scenario only made everything worse.
There was a hot, pleased flush in Arthur's chest, however, that he would not have given up for all the linearity in the world.
When they arrived at the house and emerged from the jeeps he caught a quick glimpse of Eames' half-smile, of the sunlight shifting in his eyes, but then Eames was disappearing through the front door. By the time Arthur followed, Eames was nowhere to be found.
There was a note, though:
I am told that the average individual, after some length of time, appreciates this kind of gesture more than a second trip to Myanmar.
My cousin the accountant claims all adults want stability; my mother posits that explicitly making space in one's life is what matters.
In your case, I thought it best to listen to Frederick—and here, a hastily scrawled addition in blue pen, inserted by a circumflex above the second e in Frederick—(THOUGH PERHAPS NOT AFTER ALL)—and then the last of the carefully penned note—but it was a relief to discover my mother agreed; she and I are more of a kind.
I am at the London flat.
At the bottom of the envelope, there was a key.
The apartment looked as if someone had tidied it. The coffee table was clear except for a book and some letters. The tableau might have been more convincing, Arthur thought, if the postmark on the top letter hadn't been months old.
There was a shuffling from the direction of the bedroom, and Arthur looked up as Eames emerged. His hair was tousled, and if Arthur had not known better he might have said Eames looked sheepish, unsure.
"Hello, darling," Arthur said quietly. The words felt funny in his mouth.
"Hello," said Eames, making a visible effort to bite off the rest of whatever it was he wanted to say.
The both sounded like idiots.
Arthur took off his coat, already distracted by the sight of the dip between Eames' collarbones and by the faint mark of a pillow crease on his cheek.
Eames smiled, mocking but fond, as he watched Arthur carefully place his coat over the back of a chair.
Arthur carefully unclipped his pocket watch, and smiled back.
+ + + +