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Let Your Ladder Down For Those Who Really Shine

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(New York, January)

Two nights after they finished the inception, they made their way through a bottle of Glenmorangie as relentlessly as if it had been part of the job.

(It wasn't like Eames was unfamiliar with the kind of relationships that you built up with people you worked with. Even when he was a straight-up grifter, there was an intimacy that came from trusting other people to keep you out of jail. There was an even greater intensity to delving in the subconscious of others, that almost encouraged affairs, and messy revelations, and screaming rows. He almost preferred to work with different teams each time, to keep things simple.

Cobb was reliable, was the thing. In the world they lived in, his word was oak. And where Cobb went, then so went Arthur.)

They sat, almost in silence, by the crackling fire in the honesty bar, and Eames watched the flames dance across Arthur's face. Watched Arthur's throat work over the rich, amber liquid, until he was almost lightheaded with desire.

They stood in the elevator together, so close that Eames could smell Arthur's cologne, and the whisky on Arthur's breath. Arthur fingered a cufflink, absently, as the elevator stopped at Eames's floor, and the goodnight was on Eames's lips, disappointment sour in his gut, when Arthur leaned over and kissed the corner of his mouth.

When Eames wore up the following morning, Arthur was lying on his back staring at the ceiling. He felt a trickle of fear, that whatever connection he'd made with Arthur had been crushed, like an insect in the fingers of a clumsy toddler. But Arthur just sat up on the bed, milky white skin like stone in the half light, and pulled on the previous day's shirt and trousers like it was nothing at all.

He raised his eyebrow at the open valise on the floor, with its jumble of clothes and books and gadgets clearly visible. "You could always try unpacking, Eames."

And he wanted to run a lap of his bedroom, t-shirt pulled over his head like he'd just scored an injury-time winner for Arsenal, but he just grinned at Arthur, in the way that he knew made his dimples appear.


(Baghdad, February)

"Can you believe this place?" Cobb appeared at his elbow just as he was walking away from the reception desk with his keycard in one hand.

Eames looked around him. The hotel would have been unexceptional almost anywhere else on earth, but for accommodation on an army base it was fairly spectacular.

"Does it say something awful about me that I can absolutely believe this place?" He hitched his bag more securely onto his shoulder. "You can smell the money swilling around as soon as you set foot on Iraqi soil."

Cobb half-smiled. "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't."

Eames itched his nose with his keycard. "Is, er, everyone else here?"

Cobb's lips flickered. "Arthur's in the bar."

Eames didn't blink. "And everyone else?"

Cobb smiled, and tossed him a casual salute. "See you for a drink later, Eames."

Of course you will, Eames thought, irritated.

He rode the elevator up to his room, feeling the familiar drag of fatigue and the unfamiliar sensation of butterflies starting to gather in his stomach. And this was why he didn't get involved with the people he worked with, because they were nothing more than a distracting menace. He didn't want to be thinking about Arthur, and what Arthur was thinking, and whether there was a chance that Arthur would be warm and sated in his bed tonight.

He took a shower, feeling the tingle of the spray re-energise him, and jerked himself off efficiently, splashing against the tile, and thinking of the feeling of Arthur, tight and silky around him.

He was just pulling a shirt over his head, when there was a knock at the door, and Arthur was standing on the other side, distorted by the spyhole.

He opened the door and Arthur stepped inside, stepped right into Eames's personal space, and put his mouth on Eames's like they were newlyweds. The tension uncoiled in his stomach, and he almost laughed into Arthur's mouth.

Eames pulled back, and Arthur looked at him through his lashes. "I wish you'd been here ten minutes ago."

Arthur smiled. "What happened ten minutes ago?"

"I was jerking myself off in the shower like an overheated teenager." Eames grinned, and slid his hand up Arthur's back. "You could have joined me."

If he hadn't had his palm pressed up against Arthur, been standing close enough to see the flecks of green in his eyes, he might have missed the way Arthur stiffened at that, at the way the muscles around his eyes twitched.

He recovered almost immediately. "We should go and join the others for drinks."

Eames licked his lips, and forced the confusion out of his voice. "Sounds fantastic."


(Moscow, March)

Eames scissored his fingers apart, and Arthur's thighs trembled but he made no sound.

Eames kissed his stomach, and looked up his body to Arthur's eyes, wide open in the dark.


(Mumbai, June)

They did five more jobs before Arthur let him over the threshold of his room, holding the door open, formally, as if welcoming Eames to a stately home. The slant of his shoulders let Eames know that this meant something, and Arthur was so stiff and awkward that Eames felt a small thrill of panic.

Then Arthur kissed him, warm lips against his, and the thought, that this fragile, unnameable thing might be turning to dust, faded to nothing.


(Jo'burg, July)

Eames liked his home comforts, but his were things. Leather slippers from Penhaligon's. A jar of Marmite in his suitcase. A Smythson diary in outré emerald lambskin. Coal Tar soap.

Arthur's comforts were of a different kind altogether.

It took him a while to notice, because Arthur didn't say anything, about where Eames dropped his newspaper, or left his trousers, or put his coins and wallet, but just moved them to where he wanted them to be.

He didn't, Eames thought, ask for things, so much as build wall after wall until he had built a maze that led to the thing he wanted people to do.


(Jakarta, August)

"If you didn't want to eat there, you should have said so." Eames stood on the edge of the curb, scanning the traffic to find a space to cross in. He thought New York taxi drivers were impatient, but this was fucking insane. "Don't you like sushi?"

"It was fine." Arthur said, coolly.

Eames swung around to look at Arthur. "My love, you barely touched your food."

Arthur shrugged. "I'm just not hungry today."

Eames knew, with stinging certainty, that it was a lie. Knew, with equal certainty, that he didn't know how to get Arthur to tell him the truth.


(Frankfurt, September)

Arthur pulled Eames's hand downwards, insistently. Eames palmed his balls, Arthur's fingers resting lightly on his wrist.

"Like this, sweetheart?"

Arthur closed his eyes and turned his head away, breath catching in his throat.


(London, October)

Eames normally fell asleep straight after sex, but that evening he was wide awake, restless. It was only three hours of a time difference between Moscow and London, but he'd spent too much of the last two weeks skipping across timezones like a stone, and his body was extracting its revenge.

He swung his legs out of bed and padded towards the bathroom. The door was ajar, and he pulled it open.

Arthur was cleaning his teeth, brush in hand, and he froze when Eames opened the door.

"Sorry, love." Eames rubbed his thumbs in his eyes, as they acclimated to the brightness of the bathroom. "Didn't mean to startle you."

Arthur didn't move.

"Everything okay?" Eames frowned, and took a step towards the sink. Arthur didn't move his feet, but he shifted his balance almost imperceptibly away from Eames.

"I'll wait—" He gestured back through the open doorway.

He sat down on the bed, feeling cold in the stuffy bedroom, and heard the lock on the bathroom door slide home.


(Edinburgh, November)

He bumped into Cobb in the corridor of the hotel, and a part of him wondered if Cobb had been standing there waiting for him. Cobb could lurk like no other man he had ever known.

"Everything okay?"

Eames nodded. "Arthur's sick, but he should be fine by the time the rest of the team arrives."

"Whatever he needs." Cobb nodded towards the cardboard container in Eames's hand, and sniffed the air. "What is that?"

"Cullen skink. Fish and potato soup. It's Arthur's favourite." He waved the other bag. "And tissues and Vicks."

Cobb looked at him, assessing. "Look after him."

"Of course," Eames said, lightly, but he didn't think that Cobb was talking about the cold.

--

He sat down on the side of the bed.

"I brought you soup. And more tissues" He set a tray across Arthur's lap, and poured the soup into the bowl he had begged from the kitchen.

Arthur blew his nose, gingerly, and dropped the used tissue into the bin. "Thanks."

Eames delved into the Boots bag and pulled out the pot of VapoRub. "I'll put this on you when you've finished eating, darling."

Arthur looked at the small plastic pot, spoon already in hand. "What is it?"

Eames raised an eyebrow. "It's a kind of menthol ointment that you rub on your chest and back when you have a cold. Don't you have it in America?"

Arthur dipped his spoon into his soup. "I don't know."

Eames frowned. "What did your mother give you when you were sick?"

He watched Arthur pause, soup halfway to his mouth. "My mother wasn't home a lot."

Eames looked at Arthur, pyjama sleeves hanging down to his knuckles, and felt a wave of helplessness. "Darling—"

Arthur didn't look up from his bowl. "Thanks for the soup, Eames." His tone was final.

Eames sat on the bed and watched him eat.


(Geneva, November)

"We don't need two rooms. On the next job." Arthur's voice was quiet, but clear.

Eames jerked his head up, and Cobb had smoothed his look of incredulity away, but not quickly enough.

"Are you sure?" He was looking at Arthur, and there was some knowledge, some insight in his voice that prompted a flash of jealousy in Eames.

Arthur nodded. "I'm sure."

Something inside Eames sang hallelujahs.


(Paris, December)

Eames was fisting the sheets, head thrown back, as Arthur twirled his tongue around the head of his cock, and scraped his teeth, just enough, along his length. His balls tightened, and everything went staticky behind Eames's eyelids.

He collapsed backwards, and opened his eyes, to see Arthur running his thumb along his swollen lower lip. "That was marvellous, darling. You are wickedly good at that."

Arthur looked out of the window. "I got practicing young."

"Oh, yeah?" Eames smiled, sated. "Doctors and nurses with the hot little boy next door?"

"Something like that." Arthur's voice was flat.

"Arthur?" Eames sat up, and looked at Arthur, and read wrongness in the hunch of Arthur's shoulders.

"We need to get dressed." Arthur turned back towards Eames, backlit against the open window, and the grey stone of the courtyard merging into the grey sky. "Cobb wants to brief us in five minutes."


(San Francisco, March)

Arthur's head was bent over his plate of pollo en mole, and Eames allowed himself a small burst of self-congratulation for figuring out that Mexican food was his favourite, as though Arthur was a particularly cryptic crossword.

The restaurant was a good choice, unfussy but excellent, and he mentally blessed the concierge who had suggested it.

Eames had spent the whole day watching tape of the mark's ex-wife, a local news anchor, and perfecting her Bay Area vowels. He'd noticed Ariadne looking at Arthur with concern, and smiled inwardly at the way she was incapable of keeping any of her thoughts from marching across her face, but he'd watched Arthur covertly at lunch. Arthur had pushed the deli Yusuf had bought around on his place, and Eames had felt the inward lurch that came when he knew that Arthur was unhappy.

Arthur had seemed pleased as he scanned the menu, and ordered drinks, and was leaning against the leather of the booth with a near-perfect simulation of relaxation. Eames knew better, though, and the fact that he knew Arthur's misery tells was a source of grinding exhaustion as well as pride, because communication shouldn't still be this game of chess, this parry and thrust.

"Everything okay, old thing?"

"How did you meet Cobb?" Arthur asked, in response. It was a non sequitur, always a pissing non sequitur, and Eames didn't know how much longer he could do this.

Eames wiped his fingers on his napkin, and took a sip of his margarita.

"Mutual acquaintances were having a party in Saint-Tropez. I was there on the arm of an heiress I was trying to separate from her fortune. He was there doing something else." Eames scooped up more guacamole. "He offered me a job in meatspace, and I did little bits and pieces for him for a few years. Then he gave me the choice between the red and the blue pill, and I took it."

Arthur ran his fingers up and down the stem of his wine glass. "You were a grifter?"

"A grubby con-man," Eames agreed, lifting his chin. "Disappointed, darling? My father was."

Arthur shook his head, eyes far away, and Eames would have given a million dollars, cash on the barrel, to know where. "What was your father like?"

I'll show you mine, Eames though. "A violent, sadistic drunk. A judge, whose lack of humanity and petty tyranny ensure that he is frequently overturned on appeal. A keen rider to hounds."

Arthur nodded, face serious.

"What were you doing?" Eames took another swallow of his drink, gathered the threads of the conversation. "When you met Cobb?"

Arthur hesitated, smoothing the tablecloth under his fingers, and Eames almost took the question back, because in someone else, that would have been a blazing red distress flare.

"Hustling." Arthur's voice was flat.

Eames raised an eyebrow. "Blackjack? Snooker? Five-card stud?"

"Sex."

"You were a gigolo?" Eames could picture him, handsome in a dinner jacket, with his hand resting lightly on the small of a silk-sheathed back.

"Always wanting to think the best of everything, Eames." The corner of Arthur's mouth quirked. "I was a rent-boy."

Eames looked at the man opposite him in the booth, at his suit, and his neat hair, and his beautiful hands. Arthur's eyes were half-ashamed, half-defiant, and Eames caught a flash of him, in dirty jeans, on his knees in an alley. He swallowed, and Arthur looked away.

"Cobb hired me to seduce a teacher who liked teen boys." Arthur took a sip of his wine, hand steady. "What he now gets from people's subconscious, he used to get by blackmail."

"Christ."

"Which part?"

"All of it." Eames slid his hand across the table and covered Arthur's with his own. "Just bloody all of it."


(Rome, May)

"A Cardinal?" Eames was half-lying, half-sitting on the bed, dressing drink next to him, watching Arthur press his pants. "Don't you think we'll go to hell for this?"

Arthur flicked the iron off, and shook out his pants. "I don't believe in hell."

Eames picked up his drink, ice clinking. "Well, neither do I. But being in the Celestial City does give one pause for thought."

"Eternal City," Arthur said, mildly. "The Celestial City is Christian's destination in Pilgrim's Progress."

Eames swung his legs round and reached for the shirt that Arthur had ironed for him. "I have this image", he said, "of you reading a pile of well-thumbed paperbacks in your rat-infested apartment by candlelight, after a hard day's hooking."

Arthur laughed, a burst of delighted pleasure that made Eames smile.

They dressed in dinner jackets, and Arthur tied Eames's bow-tie, brow wrinkled in concentration. He finally pulled the ends straight and leaned forward, brushing his lips against Eames's forehead.


(London, September)

"Ariadne, could you turn the bloody telly down?" Eames knew he was bellowing, but he only had another day to memorise an unfathomable amount of environmental chemistry, or this job was going to go utterly tits up.

"I'm just watching the news." He leaned over in his chair, and looked around the partition that separated his workspace from the communal area of the office space. Ariadne was sitting on the edge of the conference table, swinging her legs, and sharing takeout from a white cardboard container with Arthur.

"I hardly think that we're going to learn anything from the news." Eames ran his hand through his hair. "Saito is off meeting with the source now."

"I'm just trying to keep myself informed, Eames." There was an unmistakeable tone in Ariadne's voice. "Some of us got dragged away from school before we finished learning about the constitutional niceties of the Vatican."

"Fine." Eames got to his feet. "Is there any kung pao chicken left?"

"The dregs," Arthur said, and passed it to him.

"And what's going on at the Vatican?" He unwrapped some chopsticks and delved into the carton.

"The Pope is visiting the UK," Ariadne said. "It's a shame we don't have time to go and protest."

"You feeling a revolutionary moment coming on, Ari?" Eames had a mouth full of chicken.

"Nice, Eames." She frowned at him, like a sister would. "I just don't think they should get away with protecting a bunch of child rapists."

He was about to respond when something made him look at Arthur, who sat between them, head bowed with his hands clasped in his lap.

He rested his hand lightly on Arthur's knee. "As sorry as I am to break up your lunchtime current affairs club, I need Arthur's help to go over some of this chemistry."

--

"It wasn't a priest."

Eames rolled over, and faced Arthur's back. "What, darling?"

"I can almost hear you thinking, Eames." Arthur's voice was tight. Controlled. "It wasn't a priest."

The silence had hung between them all day, almost palpable in its intensity. Arthur had spoken to everyone else, making plans and jokes and preparations for the next day, but he hadn't met Eames's eye, had only asked him to pass files and papers, and the water at dinner.

He had gone into the bathroom when they'd finally retired to their room, and come out in the pyjamas Eames hadn't seen him wear in months. The sight of him in black silk had made Eames's throat ache.

"Who was it?" Eames didn't know what to ask, but this seemed to be the information being offered.

"Little League coach."

"How old were you?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wanted to take them back, because what the fuck did it matter whether Arthur had been five or twelve or fourteen when some adult had put his hands on him?

"Eight."

A little kid, then, and Eames could almost see a younger Arthur, wearing some kind of baseball shirt, and sneakers, with his knees pulled into his chest. Afraid and alone, and trying to tough it out, and Eames realised that he was crying.

Arthur rolled towards him, and Eames could see him blinking in the dark. He ran a careful thumb under Eames's eye, and rolled the wetness against his forefinger.

"Why are you crying?" Arthur sounded genuinely confused.

Eames cleared his throat. "Because I love you, and someone hurt you."

"Oh," said Arthur, faintly. "I love you, too."

They were so close that Eames could feel the heat coming off Arthur's skin.

"Can I hold you?"

"Of course." Arthur's voice was stiff, and he flicked his eyes away from Eames's.

Eames tucked his hand under his own pillow and inhaled. "Do you want me to?"

There was a long silence, and then Arthur shook his head. "No," he breathed, and it was so quiet that, as close as their heads were, Eames almost missed it. Almost missed the knowledge that he was trusted blossoming in his chest.


(Moscow, November)

"This hotel is colder than a witch's tit." Arthur raised an eyebrow at Eames suggestively. "Are you sure you can't be persuaded to go back to bed."

"Isn't that my line?" Eames didn't look up from the blueprints that Ariadne had given him that morning, which he had spread out across the desk.

"Please?" Arthur leaned over Eames and wrapped his arms around his chest.

"You reek of vodka." Eames elbowed Arthur in the ribs. "That's the last time you're allowed out to play with Saito and his Russian mobster pals. I think you might still be drunk."

"Please?" Arthur stretched out the word, like a child pleading for chocolate.

"Why don't you go and have a shower to warm yourself up?" Eames tapped his finger on the blueprints. "If I get these committed to memory I might come and join you."

"No."

"Well, freeze to death, then—" Eames looked up, and the look on Arthur's face stopped him in mid-sentence. "Arthur?" He stood up.

"I don't do shower sex." Arthur sat down on the edge of the bed, looking at the floor. "Any more. Since-" He stopped.

"You don't have to tell me, darling." Eames sat down next to him, as gently as he could. "Whatever you don't want to do, we won't do."

Arthur considered that. "It's always me." He looked at him, sideways. "You never have to tell me 'no'."

In for a sodding penny, Eames thought. "There are things I won't do, my love," Eames said. "Can't do."

Arthur took his hand, and it was so warm and gentle that Eames was nearly undone. "Like what?"

"Be hit. Be burned." Eames tried to get the tremor out of his voice. "Be hurt."

He'd never caught Arthur looking at the cigar burn on his back, but Arthur dropped his mouth to it then, and Eames closed his eyes against the ache in his chest.

"The bathroom thing," Arthur said, eventually. "A trick went south on me once."

Eames bit his lip, hard enough to hurt, because he wanted to know, but he didn't, all at the same time.

"I locked myself in the bathroom, but he got in." He gripped Eames's hand. "He raped me in the shower. Beat the crap out of me."

There was a buzzing in Eames's ears, like the pain in Arthur's voice had its own special frequency.

"I'm so sorry," Eames said, voice cracking. "I'm so very, very sorry, darling."

"I know," said Arthur. "And I never would've believed that would make a difference. But it does."

"Can I—"

"Yes," said Arthur, simply, and twisted sideways so his head was resting on Eames's shoulder, and his chest was facing Eames's.


(New York, March)

Eames flung open the door. "I can't believe you're finally here, darling."

Arthur laughed, tipping his head back, and dropped his bags on the floor of the hallway. "I feel like I've been on a plane for forever."

"Come in." Eames picked up one of his bags. "I can't wait to see what you think."

"I like the hall." Arthur looked at the hardwood floors, and the green walls, and the enormous mirror just like one that he had admired in Paris. "Is that—?"

Eames nodded. "I had them ship it. The walls are the same colour as the hotel room in Boston that you liked."

"You never even stayed at that hotel in Boston."

Eames shook his head. "No, but I know how to work a phone."

Arthur swallowed. "It's awesome."

"I haven't done much else, because I thought you would want to pick furniture, too." Eames threw open another door. "And the removal people arrived yesterday with all of your things, but I didn't want to open any of those boxes."

Arthur opened a door into a gleaming white bathroom. Eames's toilet bag was lying on the counter next to the sink, and his dressing gown was hanging on a hook next to the door. He closed it, and opened the door next to it.

"What's this?" He turned round to face Eames.

"It's your bathroom, my love." Eames knew that he sounded uncertain. "You're welcome in mine, but yours is for you."

Arthur felt the weight of the door. "It has a spyhole."

Eames cleared his throat. "You can close it from the other side. It's—"

"Eames," said Arthur, eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Thank you."

Eames crossed the floor to him. "No, you silly man. Thank you."