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Eames is a woman in this dream, and so is Arthur. They sip sangria in an Italian villa, and Arthur's fingers taste like breadcrumbs when Eames puts down his sangria and leans over to lick them. His tongue is sweet and rough, and Arthur learns all the points of his new body -- the way it stretches, the way it tightens, the way it twists upon itself like a double helix that Eames slowly unravels with his smooth red nails, bringing his mouth to Arthur's mouth and his chest to Arthur's chest. Somewhere out there it's morning, but Arthur lets that knowledge vanish alongside the language of his tongue, and he is quiet as he takes Eames' hand and leads him back into the villa where they entwine on the sheets. Eames steals Arthur's breath, but Arthur has plenty to spare. He digs his own nails -- French manicured, a perfect moon on every finger -- into Eames' breasts as he comes.

This is a dream they enact often. This is one of Arthur's favourites. 

One of them. Meaning there are others. Arthur keeps them inside his head, neat rows of knowledge that he takes out when he needs to remember how to become an older British gentleman with a bowler hat, or a young man with low-hanging jeans and a score of painful tattoos. He loves all their bodies. He loves becoming them, and he regrets that it took him forty years to discover that maybe he did want to be a forger after all, that what he felt when he worked with Eames wasn't annoyance but jealousy.

These are his favourites: when they are stable hands, when they are high school teachers, when they are investment bankers, when Arthur is a handyman and Eames needs his sink fixed, when Eames is a busker with a guitar and a voice that breaks Arthur's heart -- and in this dream, Arthur isn't Arthur but a young woman with freckles and round cheeks and a plaid skirt.

Arthur learns to love anatomy. Whereas before he only knew how to destroy -- how to break kneecaps, how to crush skulls --, he learns how to create. He learns to appreciate the subtle manipulation and perfection of an outstretched leg, an open palm, a jut of the hip. 

Arthur learns to love the experience of being multiple people, of carrying all their secrets and private worries and successes inside of the dream. So that all Eames has to do is ask, "Who shall we be today?" and Arthur doesn't even need to think twice about it, the way he did in the beginning. He can flip through his catalogue of identities in his head and pick the one he wants most, and then he can slip into that new skin like walking through an open door.

In goes Arthur. Out comes John, Amanda, Varsha, Malachi.

And in this dream, right now, he is a woman in an Italian villa gripping the sheets as Eames slithers between his legs and strokes him to completion. Arthur arches his back and shouts hoarsely; he shouts through a voice that he does not possess in the waking world, but it is his now, and he uses it to sob his pleasure underneath Eames' watchful eyes.

 


 

Arthur is tempted to say that it wasn't always like this, but that's the sort of self-evident statement that he hates the most. Of course it wasn't always like this. Once, he was twenty-nine and at the top of his game. He had his gun collection, his totem, his laptop, the respect of his peers, and he could incept motherfucking Robert Fischer into dissolving a corporate empire. Those were the days when Cobb was still alive -- but not Mal, he thinks, and he hates how much he misses her even now --, when Ariadne still returned his calls, when Saito was still benevolent and not the grim-eyed, haunted man that he is when Arthur visits Japan. Once, he was twenty-nine and could vault over a jagged iron fence when his enemies were chasing him. Now, Arthur is afraid to try.

When they wake up from the dream, the grainy sunlight brings out the grey in Eames' hair.

"See you next month?" Eames asks, standing up slowly as he packs up the PASIV. 

"Yeah, sure," Arthur says. 

Eames crooks a smile, and there are wrinkles growing on the back of his hand. "To be frank, I'm not sure how many more forging lessons you need. Don't make me compliment you, but you're a natural talent, love."

"There's always room for improvement," Arthur lies. "I'll take as many lessons as you'll give me."

"Next month then," Eames says, and then the PASIV is neatly put away and Eames is looking at Arthur with that watchful expression again. Eames is quieter these days, more solemn and pensive, but there's still a hint of his old wickedness when he brushes past Arthur on the way out. The door is a tight fit and Arthur is blocking most of it. As Eames squeezes by, his mouth comes perilously close to Arthur's ear, and even at forty going on to forty-one, Arthur can't tell if it's an accident or not.

But it doesn't matter, he thinks. There comes a time in every dream thief's life when he realizes that reality is quite disappointing. False advertising, doesn't live up to the hype, etcetera etcetera. Reality will ruin you.

 


 

In this dream they're in a library, and Arthur has blue hair and a tongue ring. He's on his knees as Eames -- who is dark-haired with green eyes and legs that go on like the River Thames --, grips the edge of the desk for balance. Arthur licks his mouth and presses the silver of his tongue stud against Eames' cock. Eames groans. They're surrounded by Yeats and Achebe and the complete works of Shakespeare, but Eames sends The Merchant of Venice off the table when he swipes his hand. 

Sometimes there are stories in their dreams. In this one, they're in seemingly unrequited love. Arthur is a librarian fresh out of library school, and he's come home from the big city to find Eames, the formerly swaggering jock of his high school, every bit as appealing as when he left him. When Arthur looks at Eames in this dream, it's like the years fall apart and nothing has changed. Arthur still sneaks glances at Eames underneath his lashes when Eames comes in to check out books on home repair and gardening; he still fumbles over his words when his hands brush Eames' at the circulation desk.

And in this dream, Eames is in love with him too, with the fierce blue-haired boy who went away to college and came back with his head full of poetry. Eames' legs tremble with want, and Arthur gives it to him with the wet slick motions of his mouth. Their sex is a promise neither of them understand.

After they wake up, Eames says, "I was wondering. About James and Phillipa -- have you talked to them?"

It's the wrong thing to say. 

Arthur wishes he was in the library again, giving Eames phantom blowjobs. He likes that part. But not this. He touches his tongue and feels the smooth absence. He says, "I'll handle it."

"Arthur," Eames says, "are you sure?"

"I can handle it," Arthur repeats, because he is goddamn middle-aged and he can make a phone call and a wire transfer at the bank; he can do all of that with the weariness of long practice.

 


 

In this dream they're burning. They're firefighters, big and bulky, and when the fire is contained Eames pulls Arthur against the side of the truck and kisses the smoke off his lips. Arthur kisses back, deep and intense, and he sweats into his heavy uniform; sweats even more as Eames licks the corner of his cheek and says, "We really need to discuss your pyromaniac tendencies one day."

"We don't need to discuss anything," Arthur says against Eames' mouth, and it's easy to manipulate the dream so that they're in the fire station again, lying on top of each other on one of those cramped beds where they wait for the next emergency. Eames is dark-skinned in this dream, and he has perfect hands. Arthur wants them on his new body. He wants them everywhere, and he has no problem telling Eames this. Eames chuckles throatily as he works his perfect hands down Arthur's sweatpants and touches Arthur where he's aching.

Arthur throws his blond head back and hisses his name. Eames' name, which in retrospect was a mistake because they're not supposed to be themselves in this dream. But he hopes that Eames didn't notice, or -- since that is an essentially futile hope because Eames remembers everything --, that he won't make anything out of it.

 


 

They've never fucked in real life and they've never fucked as themselves. 

Possibly this can be classified as strange, though Arthur's sort of lost track of strange over the years. There are times when he senses that Eames wants to bring it up, and he waits it out during these moments -- waits with a fear that turns his organs into stone -- but Eames never actually speaks. He always just gifts Arthur with a brief touch, an imaginary kiss, and leaves Arthur to his fancies. 

Arthur doesn't have sex much in real life. His knee is ruined from an errant bullet, making it hard to bend, and he doesn't have the patience to work through it when there is such an easy alternative. And then there's the chemotherapy. Arthur in real life is tired all the time, and he used to think that if there was a retirement home for dream criminals, he'd be the suave one with the drinks and the excellent stories. But now he knows he's the one leaning in the corner, rubbing sore limbs, asking for more water and pills. 

The blue-haired boy, though, his body is flawless. The firefighter, the girl in the plaid skirt, the woman in the Italian villa -- Arthur loves them with a feral passion.

 


 

When Eames finally does speak, he is, as usual, completely inappropriate.

"Arthur, I love you," he says when they've woken up from being matadors, and Arthur is rolling over his pills, wondering which one to take first.

Arthur hasn't received so many love confessions in his life that he can be irreverent about them. But that's how it comes out anyway. He's distracted. He's forgetting if he already took his meds that day or not. He lifts his head and says, "What?" Then he rewinds his memory back to what Eames just told him. "Oh," he says, suddenly awkward. "Is that so."

"I just thought you should know," Eames says. 

And it should be obvious because Eames has dropped everything and come running whenever Arthur's asked it of him. He's been Arthur's forgery teacher and his comrade in dreams for seven years. That's a long time, even by whatever standard they're using today. But Arthur's throat is dry and he can't quite see out of his left eye anymore, so he simply nods. "All right," he says. 

"Also, I thought you were gorgeous then and you're gorgeous now," Eames adds, the romantic. Eames' belly is paunch and there are so many laugh lines around his eyes, deep enough that Arthur can count them.

Words are difficult, however. Even Arthur's tongue is old and useless. 

Eames leaves the hotel easily, even whistling a song under his breath, like he has no expectations. Like Arthur's non-response doesn't bother him. But that can't be true. It can't, and Arthur is fixed somewhere between guilt and anger, between desire and grief.

 


 

In this dream there is no light. They're fucking in a completely pitch dark room, and Arthur forges the body of a man with long hair pulled back in a ponytail, but it barely matters because he can't even see himself, much less Eames. He navigates by touch. Eames' skin is stubbly and hot, and at one point they knock their jaws together, sparking bright pain, but Arthur laughs wildly. There's a part of him that wonders if Eames has forged anyone at all, that if Arthur isn't actually kissing Eames' body, taking Eames' cock up his ass, but he doesn't want to know. There is no light in the room. He doesn't need to know.

 


 

Someone shoots Arthur. 

It doesn't matter who. The fact of being an aging criminal is that you spend the latter half of your life trying to make up for what you did in the first half. Someone corners Arthur on his way back from the hospital and pops a bullet into his kneecap, into the old wound that burns anew. Arthur screams and falls to the pavement, and luckily he's in the middle of a fairly busy street and not that far from the hospital he just left, where the doctors look back up and say, dryly, "Back so soon?" Because they know who Arthur is and what he's done, and just because they're supposed to heal him doesn't mean they like him.

Arthur leaves the hospital with a cane. He goes home and shuts himself in, tilting the blinds into opacity and pouring himself a generous amount of whiskey. He sits in his living room and closes his eyes, training his breath the way Mal once taught him. It's going to be okay, he tells himself. He has the cane. He can still walk. He's still alive. It's okay.

Eames flies in from Helsinki the next day, his cheeks red from the cold and a scarf wrapped hastily around his neck. He barges into Arthur's apartment and throws the unraveling scarf on the ground -- Eames is always messy, frustrating Arthur to no end. He strides over to Arthur's side and pries the whiskey from his fingers. "Thank god you're all right," Eames says. "I'm going to find those bastards and shoot their knees, you just wait."

"You haven't shot anyone in years," Arthur scoffs.

Eames' smile is deadly. "That you know of," he replies, and then he opens the PASIV case and says, "Come on. This will make you feel better."

In this dream they're both extremely young, jail bait material. Arthur snorts in amusement when Eames picks their forgeries, because this? This is Eames' biases showing all over. Nonetheless, Eames has red hair and a luscious mouth, and when he smiles at Arthur, Arthur is lost in spite of himself. Eames is that good. Eames is always going to be the better forger between them.

Especially when Arthur's knee continues to throb even inside the dream, and as he tries to climb over Eames and rub their groins together, forget taking off their clothes even, his knee is a constant reminder. He licks Eames' collar bone, but when he shifts for a better position, pain arches up his leg and he says "fuck" very quietly.

"We can stop," Eames says, but Arthur shakes his head. He's put up with more pain than this before, and Eames' mouth really is wondrous, so Arthur goes back to running his tongue over every piece of exposed skin that he can get while grinding down on Eames' jeans. Eames pushes up, establishing a rhythm, and then there's pain and sweat and arousal as Arthur pitches forward to kiss him.

Eames kisses back, filthy. His body is stronger than Arthur's in this dream because he actually lifts Arthur up from their sitting position and then pushes him back down, telling Arthur exactly what he wants. Arthur loves it when Eames' character gets pushy like this, and it's not long before even the pain is washed out by a blinding orgasm.

It's not enough, he thinks. It's not enough.

He creates a bed, and then he pulls Eames onto it. His knee screams when he lies down on it, but he wants to see Eames naked, wants to see this teenage boy with the fox red hair naked as he loses it for the second time. He gets his wish, aided by Eames' extraordinary eagerness. Soon they've pushed off all their clothes, and Eames settles Arthur on the pillow before reaching for lube. He slicks his fingers up and then he pushes two of them into Arthur's hole. Arthur writhes on Eames' fingers, turning his head to the side to press his warm cheek against the crisp pillow. 

Eames laughs when he finally enters Arthur. Arthur doesn't laugh. Arthur gasps and holds his breath and is undone by the heaviness of Eames inside of him, stretching his body to capacity.

The pain returns when Eames starts thrusting. The mattress moves, jostling Arthur's knee, and in this dream Arthur is an Asian boy with a crew cut, but as the pain starts to blur his vision, he feels his control over the forgery slip. He doesn't let Eames see it, however, because he knows that Eames will stop and that's the last thing Arthur wants. There has never been a moment in the last seven years where Arthur has not wanted Eames in some form, and when Eames slides over his prostate, the pain and the shocked pleasure make Arthur white out momentarily.

When he opens his eyes again, he's no longer a teenage boy. He's in his own forty-year-old body, and Eames is looking at him with surprise and a smoky glimmer of satisfaction. He keeps thrusting. He doesn't let Arthur gather his bearings and change back. He keeps on pounding, and then he shudders out of his teenage skin, becoming the Eames of the waking world.

Arthur looks up at him, sees the familiarity, and comes as hard as he's come in his entire life.

 


 

"I hate you," Arthur says. He's perfectly calm, which is actually making Eames look a bit scared. He has his cane in one hand and a cup of coffee Eames has poured for him in the other. "You weren't supposed to do that. You weren't supposed to make it real."

"If I recall, you did it first," Eames retorts, "and Arthur, don't be obtuse. It's always been real."

Maybe. If so.

Arthur sees Eames out. "I'll be in the hotel down the street," Eames tells him. "Ring me up if you need me."

"Don't you have work to do?" Arthur asks.

"Yes, and it's called putting up with you," Eames says, and Arthur thinks I hate you, but those are just three words that have lost meaning. Inside his heart is keeping rhythm and his lungs are expanding and everything continues the way it's always done. It's the absolute normality of it that catches Arthur the most. Seven years, he thinks as he sees Eames off, making sure he takes his ugly scarf with him. Then he swallows his meds and goes about the rest of the day. He cooks, he cleans, and he rests when his knee protests too much.

All the while he thinks about the subtle perfection of an outstretched leg, an open palm, a jut of the hip. 

Eames' leg, palm, hip.

 


 

Forging becomes difficult after that. It's patently ridiculous but there you are. Arthur lets Eames fuck him in dreams over desks, counters, random planks of wood. He makes sure that he's within someone else's body when they start, but when Eames is inside of him, his mind inevitably flashes back to Eames' face, slack in orgasm -- the first time Arthur has ever seen it -- and that's enough for his forgery to slip up. Eames becomes a stutter in his rhythm.

Arthur examines Eames' face when they wake up, trying to see the potential. Eames catches him staring and smirks, but Arthur is not ashamed. He has never been ashamed of wanting to know.

And he does now. He's beginning to. Want to know.

It becomes a slow burn in his stomach, a heat prickling his neck, a stray thought when he's fumbling for balance in the shower. He almost fucked Eames once when he was twenty-six and they were working with Cobb. It didn't pan out, for reasons involving intruders and a subsequent knife fight, but Arthur realizes that he could have known it then: Eames' leg, palm, hip. He could have known it then and he wouldn't be wondering now.

But still. It's a long way to go and a long leap to make, and Arthur is old enough that he wants to be comfortable in his methods. So he lets Eames fuck him in dreams, and they're a million people in a million stories, and if sometimes he shivers and becomes Arthur in the middle of pleasure -- Arthur with the busted knee and the silvering of his temples --, it's only a brief interlude, an errant chapter.

Eames says his name honestly, affectionately.

"I know," Arthur replies, and then he takes a breath, followed by another. "Give me time."

"Time is the one thing we don't have much of," Eames says. "But what I have, it's yours."

Arthur has been in love for seven years, ten years, fifteen years, almost since the first moment he saw Eames' reflection in a pane of glass and heard Eames' chuckle from a distant room. Time indeed.

 


 

And one day, in midwinter, on the icy steps of his apartment when Eames is helping him with his groceries and muttering about where Arthur put his keys -- 

Arthur kisses him.