Eames doesn’t feel guilty about it until he sees Arthur in the flesh.
He takes some solo work after the inception job. Aside from Cobb and Arthur, most people in their line of work tend to be either ex-government wankers from the dregs of the PASIV program or low-calibre white collar criminals, and Eames doesn’t fit in with either of those categories. He’s not much of a team player.
He’s disguised as the mark’s husband waiting at the bar of an imaginary cruise ship, and doesn’t even notice when Arthur slides onto the barstool beside him. It’s possible he just materialises, though at this point Eames has no reason to think it’s not the real Arthur.
‘This is a bit pedestrian for you, isn’t it?’
Eames turns, masking his surprise. Arthur looks every inch his typical self, crisp shirt buttoned up to the neck and scotch in hand. He’s not drinking. Arthur doesn’t, when he’s working. ‘You’re the one who always wants to keep things interesting,’ he continues, looking around the bar.
‘Don’t take this the wrong way,’ says Eames. ‘But what the hell are you doing here?’
‘Oh look,’ says Arthur. ‘She’s just come in. You’d better get back into character.’
Eames mutters a curse. He’d slipped out of the disguise’s Texan accent while talking to Arthur.
Sure enough the mark, a businesslike woman in her early forties, is walking towards them. She kisses Eames on the cheek. ‘Hi, honey,’ she says. ‘Care to introduce us? I don’t believe we’ve met.’
Eames’ character is definitely not the type to make friends with random men in bars. Shit. ‘This is Arthur,’ he says. ‘An old buddy from college. Arthur, this is my lovely wife, Charlotte Matheson.’
Instantly the bar quiets and all the projections turn to glare at him.
‘College?’ says Charlotte dubiously, shaking Arthur’s hand. ‘Sure, okay.’
What was wrong with college? Peter Matheson had gone to college, hadn’t he? A job like this didn’t warrant in-depth research on stuff that happened thirty years ago, but Eames knew his disguise had gone to college, at least.
Ten minutes later Arthur’s surprise presence has completely screwed with Eames’ timetable and they are running along narrow, lurching cruise-ship corridors, followed by a crowd of pissed-off cruise ship stewards. Arthur is laughing at him. ‘You’re not very good when you have to formulate your own extraction plan, are you?’
‘I’d have been just fine if you hadn’t shown up,’ replies Eames, annoyed.
Arthur stops in the middle of the corridor. ‘Fine then, I’ll leave.’
It’s only when he vanishes into thin air that Eames realises he’s been talking to a projection.
* * *
So, a projection of someone he knows in real life is a cause for concern, but not overly so. Eames is generally a pretty easy guy when it comes to subconscious desires, which is why he makes such a good forger. He has no compunction about adopting every one of a person’s mannerisms, interests and perversions for the sake of a job. Also, he has very little tendency towards repression, meaning his subconscious is a fairly predictable place.
He has been thinking about Arthur quite a lot recently. Mainly in the shower. So it makes sense it'd be him.
It probably won’t happen again.
* * *
The next solo job is straight-up fun.
Most of the time everything has to be planned down to the last detail in the name of realism, but in this case Eames’ job is to fulfil the client’s fantasy, not perform an extraction. There is a whole subset of the dreaming community dedicated to sex work, but despite his natural talents Eames tends not to take this kind of job. It’s usually not much of a challenge, and he sure as hell doesn’t need the money – but Casablanca is too great an opportunity to pass up.
For three hours he has to construct Casablanca as it’s seen in the movie (including projection-extras, which is fucking tricky) and make time with a 73 year old millionaires. The entire scenario is just so delicious that he decides to stick around for a while afterwards and feel smug about a job well done.
He slips out of Humphrey Bogart’s face and into something a little more comfortable, and goes for a walk around wartime Casablanca. He’s people-watching (god, women’s bras were a horrifying shape in the ‘40s) when he bumps into Arthur.
‘Oh Jesus,’ says Eames. ‘I should’ve known you’d show up. Everyone had to wear a suit in 1942.’
‘It’s not a crime to like looking smart,’ says Arthur prissily, but shoots a look at Eames that’s almost flirtatious.
‘What’re you doing here? I’ve already finished the job so you can’t cock it up this time.’
‘I didn’t mean to get you killed,’ he says reproachfully. ‘I don’t actually hate you, you know.’
‘I’ll give you that. Arthur would never do anything so inefficient as waste time on hating me.’ It’s possible that he sounds a little bitter.
‘What do you mean, “Arthur”? I’m Arthur.’
‘No, you’re not,’ says Eames, fully expecting to be stabbed or shot for his trouble; telling projections they didn’t exist was a recipe for disaster.
‘Just because I’m a projection doesn’t mean I’m not Arthur,’ says Arthur, frowning. He stepped back into the dusty street, passers-by flowing round him without even looking. ‘I look like him, don’t I? For all intents and purposes, I’m Arthur. I can probably even do some of those little perception tricks you pretend not to find fascinating.’
Eames looks him up and down. ‘You do look rather similar to dear old Arthur. Although,’ he smirks. ‘I’d probably have to make a closer inspection if I wanted to be certain.’
‘You’ve never made a closer inspection in real life, so that’s hardly likely to help,’ he replies. ‘Anyway, I definitely shouldn’t be here. This could seriously damage your productivity, you know. You need to get control of yourself.’
‘Are you telling me you don’t want to exist?’ This is giving him a headache.
‘I don’t exist. But the fact I’ve shown up twice now indicates that you need to sort out yourself out before this gets any worse. Eventually we’re going to work together again and the real me won’t want a repeat of the whole Cobb situation.’
‘You are not my dead wife. Fuck, I need a drink.’
‘Not enough time to get back to Rick’s. You’re going to wake up any second, anyway.’ Arthur tips his hat. ‘Maybe you should consider dealing with these projection issues head-on,’ he suggests, and vanishes.
* * *
On a scale of one to ten, one being “no psychological problems at all” and ten being “Dom Cobb”, Eames would probably slot himself in at around a three. He might not be the most moral of people, but until now his subconscious has never attempted to rebel and fuck around with his dreams while he was at work.
He isn’t usually one to go under while there’s no one paying him; the real world is far too interesting. But he has to make sure this Arthur thing stops before it gets any worse.
He sets the timer for ten minutes and settles down on the bed, clearing his mind before he goes under. He wants his subconscious to be as free as possible.
Yellow sunlight cuts geometrical shadows across the walls around him when he opens his eyes. He’s in the lobby of an apartment block somewhere in Italy, maybe Greece, a warm breeze blowing comfortably through his light cotton shirt. In front of him is a door, which is more or less as obvious a sign as one can get round these parts.
The door opens without a key, revealing an uncluttered hallway, a few pairs of shoes lined up along the stone floor. One pair Eames recognises as his own; the rest belong to someone else.
‘You’re early,’ comes Arthur’s voice from the next room.
Cautiously, Eames makes his way through to the kitchen, where bright sunlight is streaming in through the open window to illuminate Arthur. Sleeves rolled up, he is chopping fruit into a bowl using a very large, very sharp knife.
‘Well, this is a lot more domestic than I was expecting,’ says Eames, circling round to the other side of the table. He’s learnt to keep a respectful distance from Arthur when he’s handling deadly blades.
‘I’m not making it for you,’ says Arthur, deftly peeling a mango and tossing the rind into a bin beside him. ‘I like fruit.’
‘Of course you do. Your body is your temple. Anything to increase maximum efficiency.’
‘If I’m such a machine, what does that make you? A robotophiliac?’
‘Accusing me of being depraved?’ Eames drawls. ‘How will I cope.’
Arthur says nothing, dropping the sliced mango into the bowl and popping one wet slice neatly into his mouth. ‘Want some?’ he says innocently, pushing the bowl towards Eames.
‘This is how I know you’re not real. In real life you don’t put this much effort into being a cocktease. It just comes naturally.’
‘Well, you can’t have me in real life,’ Arthur points out.
As if Eames could forget. ‘My, aren’t you catty.’
‘Catty, but accurate.’
‘So,’ says Eames. ‘Is there any particular reason why you’ve chosen now to show up and start taunting me in my dreams? Although you do brighten up the decor, my dear.’
‘Well, you’re obsessed with me, aren’t you? Clearly your subconscious wants me around more.’
He waves a hand. ‘Intrigued, perhaps. Hardly obsessed.’
Arthur smiles. It’s a small smile, but Eames has so few of Arthur’s smiles directed at him that he takes a moment just to appreciate it. ‘Fine. Intrigued. But I’m a manifestation of your subconscious – don’t you think I’d know better than you?’
‘Darling, you always think you know better than me. Yet how many times have I saved your shapely arse? Five, is it?’
‘Four. And I believe we’re even.’ He rinses off the knife and lays it on the draining board, all using the same small, economical movements Eames has watched check the dream-sharing equipment and reload guns on dozens of occasions.
The thing is, on the rare occasions times when Eames projects someone into a dream, they are startlingly accurate. His job is to observe people, to emulate their every move, and Eames has spent a lot of time watching Arthur. Probably his own mother wouldn't be able to tell the difference, he's such a perfect copy. If Arthur has a mother.
‘Reality’s creeping into your dreams, Eames. Your security’s going to be ruined if you can’t get rid of me,’ Arthur continues. ‘You can’t have me showing up in every scenario. It’s a liability.’
‘What, you’re going to help me get rid of you?’
‘Security is my speciality, Eames. And it’s not as if you have the same excuses that Cobb did.’
‘At least you’re not trying to get me to off myself.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not insane and I’m certainly not a manifestation of your guilt. I don’t want you dead any more than you do. But projections of real people are an excellent way to start going crazy,’ says Arthur. ‘You’ll get lost. And what if I’m just the first?’
Eames sits back. ‘What do you suggest?’
‘Either you examine whatever’s causing you to lose control like this, perhaps talk to a shrink. Or,’ he shrugs. ‘Get me out of your system.’
‘Get me out of your...?’ Eames starts to laugh. ‘Oh, bloody hell. You’re a figment of my imagination. Isn’t that a bit narcissistic?’
‘More like masturbatory.’
‘This is the last thing the real Arthur would suggest.’
‘The real Arthur would do exactly the same thing as I’m doing,’ he counters. ‘Tackle the security issue at the source.’
Eames gets up from the table, ready to leave, but suddenly Arthur is right beside him. He even smells like Arthur. Now, Eames has never gone around sniffing Arthur, he’s not actually a pervert, but somehow he knows that this resembles the real deal.
‘You just prostituted yourself out to a septuagenarian,’ says Arthur. ‘This is hardly worse.’
‘You make a good point,’ Eames breathes. Arthur is a little taller than him, but with him barefoot and Eames in shoes, they are of a height. ‘You have very pretty eyes,’ he says seriously.
‘Fuck you,’ says Arthur, just as seriously, and leans in.
Eames has spent a fairly significant amount of time imagining what it would be like to do filthy things to Arthur, but there is a wide gap between imagination and experience. This? Is a hell of a lot better than imagination. Eames runs his hands down Arthur’s back, feeling the warmth of his skin through the smooth cotton shirt. ‘Where did you say the bedroom was?’
‘This is our house,’ replies Arthur, slipping his hand into Eames’ to lead him across the room. ‘It’s wherever you want it to be.
* * *
After that first time, Arthur never acknowledges that he’s not real. Eames can’t decide if this is a good or a bad thing. Sometimes, when he spends more than a day there (even if that’s just a couple of hours in real time), he finds himself forgetting for a moment or two that it isn’t real, that Arthur has never actually looked at him like that. When he wakes up he feels... not guilty, but troubled. Sex makes people stupid, and he has Dom Cobb’s example (and the examples of numerous victims of Eames’ own cons) to compare himself to when he’s worried he might lose touch with reality. There’s a reason why the PASIV dreaming technology never got official government backing after the first series of long-term tests.
The only thing he’d have to do, though, to remind himself he’s living in the real world, is call up Arthur. If Arthur treats him with anything warmer than toleration and professional courtesy, he knows he’s dreaming.
It’s better than a totem.
* * *
‘You remember the time when you fooled that banker into thinking you were his dead brother?’
Eames gazes, eyes unfocused, at Arthur’s throat, an inch away from his face. If he were to choose his absolute favourite part of Arthur, it would probably be that. His neck. And, you know, the part where the neck meets the top of his chest, the tendons there. ‘Yes?’
‘I didn’t say it at the time, but I was impressed.’
They’re lying on the sofa in their little Italian flat where it always seems to be summer, Arthur sprawled half on top of him, sun-warmed and collar unbuttoned, languid as a cat. Most of Eames’s left side has gone to sleep, but he never wants to move.
Arthur huffs out a laugh, breath ruffling Eames’ hair. ‘See if I try to pay you a compliment. You’re usually such a smug bastard I don’t bother.’
‘Oh, compliment me all you like, love,’ says Eames, running a hand up Arthur’s side. ‘Maybe you should write it down for later. For some reason I’m finding it rather difficult to concentrate just now.’
Arthur shifts until he’s straddling Eames’ chest. ‘I’m not going to leave written evidence,’ he says severely. He leans over to reach for the glass of wine he’s left on the coffee table, still perfectly balanced on top of Eames. He takes a sip and Eames watches happily as Arthur swallows and licks his lips wet.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Arthur says slyly.
‘It doesn’t take a genius to work that out, darling,’ says Eames, gently taking the glass out of Arthur’s hand and placing it on the floor.
He never knows what Arthur’s thinking.
* * *
He takes a simple extraction job, just to test the waters. He’s satisfied when Arthur doesn’t rear his head even once, from beginning to end. It’s working.
* * *
It’s completely worth it the first time he gets to ruin one of Arthur’s suits. Arthur’s pissed at him, but not for long.
* * *
They fuck in their apartment, in hotel rooms, and one time somewhere that bears a suspicious resemblance to Eames’ secondary school locker room. They also have a lot of shower sex, Arthur hoisted up and scrabbling against the walls, legs wrapped around Eames’ waist. Eames has never been much for shower sex before, but when you’re in a relationship with someone as obsessively, anal-retentively clean as Arthur you have to develop a liking for it or give up. Not that it’s exactly a hardship for him. The image of Arthur with dripping hair plastered over his eyes is one to keep him warm on all those rainy, shitty grey days of real life.
After a while, they don’t even fuck all the time. One time Eames goes under and they’re in one of the nameless, interchangeable warehouses Arthur and Cobb are both so fond of using. Arthur is planning something when Eames arrives, drawing mysterious diagrams on a whiteboard with colour-coded dry-erase markers.
Eames goes up behind him and kisses him on the neck, just under the neat line of his haircut. Arthur shrugs him off. ‘I’m working,’ he says irritably. ‘Go bother someone else.’
‘But you’re the only one I want to bother, dear Arthur.’
‘Aren’t I lucky,’ says Arthur dryly, and the only reason Eames spots that hint of a smile is because he’s standing six inches away from it.
* * *
He can stop any time he wants.
* * *
Save on days when it’s pouring with rain, the benches along the South bank of the Thames are always full. Eames is sitting on one, reading Fitzgerald and feeling bored out of his everloving mind. He’s retained enough self-discipline (never his strong suit) to only go under once a week, but that leaves six free days of boredom left over when he’s not working a job. It’s almost enough to resort to petty crime to keep himself entertained.
There’s a brief moment of gut-clenching panic when he spots Arthur coming towards him, but Eames catalogues how he got here, where he was yesterday and the day before that, and reassures himself that yes, this is the real world.
It's the first time he’s seen Arthur in three months.
How Arthur tracked him down is of little concern. Arthur prides himself in knowing everything, and besides, Eames only attempts to hide himself from people who want to kill or incarcerate him.
Arthur stops in front of him, his slim silhouette blocking the weak sun. ‘Come on, Eames,’ he says, businesslike.
Eames puts down his book. ‘Well, hello,’ he purrs, making the woman on the next bench over look around at them, startled.
Arthur’s expression doesn’t shift a muscle, but Eames thinks (hopes) he can detect a hint of a blush. ‘Come on,’ he repeats. ‘I want to talk to you.’
‘You want to talk to me?’ he teases, but gets up straight away and follows Arthur before he can change his mind and fuck off once again to locales unknown.
‘We’ve got a job,’ says Arthur as they walk along the Thames. ‘You’re clearly bored and I know you’re not busy, so you’ll take it.’
‘And here was me thinking this was a social call. Who’s “we”, by the way? Just you and me? Or is there a third wheel involved?’
‘Ariadne’s our architect, and I’ve got hold of Nazreen to be our chemist. Yusef retired on the Inception money,’ he adds.
Nazreen isn’t bad. They’ve worked with her before. ‘You’ve partnered up with Ariadne?’
‘We’ve worked together a couple of times,’ is all Arthur says.
‘What’s the job, then?’
‘Extraction. I promise it’ll be interesting.’
‘I’ll be the judge of that.’
‘I think I have a fairly good handle on what keeps you interested,’ says Arthur with absolutely zero inflection in his voice, and Eames turns to stare at him. Arthur was, of course, merely stating a fact, but for him that was practically flirty. But in his pristine white shirtsleeves, jacket folded over one arm, Arthur looks as pure as the driven snow.
‘The job’s in Mumbai. See you in five days,’ he says, and walks off into the crowd.
As soon as he’s sure Arthur is out of sight, Eames fumbles for his totem. Seeing Arthur has brought into sharp relief just how fucking stupid he’s been acting recently. Just a few days ago he’d been biting bruises into that perfect throat, but just because it wasn’t real doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong. If the real Arthur ever finds out, he’ll fucking kill him, and Eames would be hard pressed to bother putting up a fight.
So yeah, he doesn’t start to feel guilty about it until after he’s seen Arthur in the flesh.
* * *
The day before he’s scheduled to get on a plane to Mumbai, Eames hooks himself up one last time.
They are in a restaurant, and Arthur is laughing at him. ‘Are you here to break up with me? Eames, you are such a little shit.’
Eames flinches. He inspects Arthur for tells, for differences to the real thing, but even the way he cradles his wineglass looks correct. Every detail is perfect.
‘I’m going to be working with Arthur again – ’ he starts.
Arthur’s still smiling at him, looking almost pitying, an expression Eames has never seen on his face before. ‘I know. You do realise I have no control over my existence, don’t you?’ he says. ‘It’s entirely up to you whether I show up or not. Stop wanting me to be here, and I’ll stop being here.’
And therein lies the problem.
* * *
It’s hot and cloudy and wet in Mumbai, and Eames has to discard his jacket within ten minutes of stepping off the plane. Arthur’s already managed to ensconce himself in one of his beloved warehouses, barely nodding a greeting to Eames when he arrives. Ariadne, sitting on one of the workbenches flipping through a notebook, looks a lot chirpier than when Eames saw her last.
‘Hey, Eames!’ she says, hopping down from her perch. Nazreen, sitting in one of the lounge chairs, gives him a lazy wave.
‘Afternoon,’ says Eames. ‘Is Arthur refusing to speak to me? I arrived on time and everything. I’m a model employee.’
Ariadne bites her lip, muffling a grin.
‘Not all of us are as childish as you, Eames,’ says Arthur, closing his laptop and getting up. He hands each of them a folder. ‘Alright, everyone. Nazreen and Ariadne already know the basics. The mark’s name is Tomaso Strozzi. He’s a writer, and it’s our job to extract the location of his current manuscript.’
Eames looks up from his dossier, which is mainly pictures. Perhaps Arthur thinks he can’t read. It’s so tragic when people assume he’s just a pretty face. ‘Why? Did he write the new Harry Potter or something?’
‘I was getting to that. He’s a ghostwriter, working on the autobiography of a prominent politician here in Mumbai, and our employers are worried about just what’s going to be in the book when it’s released. Hence the need for extraction.’
Hence, thinks Eames, charmed. He loves it when Arthur uses words like that in everyday conversation.
‘Now, Strozzi’s written the whole thing on a typewriter, meaning it’s not stored electronically. He’s hidden the finished manuscrip, but we have no idea where. The main problem is that he’s practically a hermit. He hardly ever leaves his house, and the only person who spends any amount of time with him is his wife, which is where Eames comes in.’
‘You’re the boss,’ Eames drawls, and Arthur shoots him a suspicious glance before continuing.
‘He’s also been trained to resist extraction so we’re going to go in on two levels. First level as a decoy with Eames using Ariadne’s design of... whatever she comes up with, and second level with me as the dreamer and Eames playing Strozzi’s wife.’
‘Well, aren’t you organised,’ says Eames. ‘I’m going to need access to the wife.'
‘I’ve already bugged the house for sound and visuals.’ Nazreen smiles. ‘I’m multi-talented.’
* * *
Working with Arthur on a daily basis is hell. As long as Eames behaves well (which is fucking hard work) he’s rewarded with professional courtesy, and if he doesn’t behave he gets glared at. Eames isn’t certain which one he prefers, because at least if Arthur is glaring at him he’s paying attention.
Also, Eames is developing some fairly Victorian fetishes. The most he has ever seen of Arthur in real life is a single bare forearm, sleeve rolled up to allow for the needle of the dream machine. Arthur’s suits are so carefully tailored that even when he sits down there is not even a flash of ankle (Eames can’t believe he’s sunk to this level) and his shirts are always, always tucked in. In the four days they’ve been preparing for this job, Arthur has never even removes his tie.
He’s pretty sure Ariadne is getting suspicious. Nazreen doesn't give a shit about Eames' sex life and wouldn’t waste brain cells examining it so he isn’t worried about her, but sooner or later Ariadne is probably going to ask questions. Her nosiness is entertaining, but only when it’s not directed at him.
One of the things that Eames’ projection of Arthur never managed to recreate was his obsessive attention to detail. Eames is constantly impressed whenever one of the team points out a problem with the plan, and Arthur finds a solution to it at once. You can almost see the neurons firing in his lovely little robot-brain.
It is very difficult to concentrate when Arthur is in the same room, doing cruelly tempting things like drinking coffee and writing on things and talking and sitting.
In the end Eames has to take all the surveillance footage of the mark’s wife and study it in the blessed privacy of his hotel room.
* * *
When they go in it goes stupidly bad, stupidly fast.
Fortunately it’s only the first level, so they were actually planning on getting caught. Less fortunately, Eames is the one holding up the dream on this level so he has to stay alive until the kick or until Strozzi kills himself, whichever comes first. And seeing as he has no fucking clue where the mark’s gone to, he’s going to have to stick around for the kick.
So Eames has to spend as long as possible running like all get-out to make sure he’s not perforated by hundreds of angry projections dressed like policemen and carrying very big guns. It’s a thorough pain in the arse. Every time he steals another vehicle or makes a weapon out of thin air, the projections get madder and more violent.
And he’s lost his bloody phone, so he can’t even call Arthur for backup. He knows enough about guns to be able to make one of those, but mobile phones are several rungs up the technology ladder beyond what he can manage.
They’re going to track him down soon enough, but he isn’t going to make it easy for them. He’s crouched behind a not-so-fragrant skip, mud soaking in through the knees of his trousers, when a car screeches to a halt at the mouth of the alley that is his hiding place. Eames gears up to start running again when the passenger-side door opens and Arthur leans out.
Arthur’s wish is his command.
Arthur has always been an excellent driver, Eames will give him that. He can spin a two-wheel turn like nobody’s business; a less likely-looking stunt driver Eames has never seen. It is, he thinks, one of Arthur’s many attractive qualities.
‘Make yourself useful and shoot out some of their tires, will you?’ Arthur requests, calmly swerving onto the pavement and stamping down on the accelerator. They’ve already managed to pick up a tail of three police vans.
‘With pleasure,’ says Eames, and rolls down the window.
For a while there is nothing but wind rushing past his ears and a hell of pain as his torso crunches into the ledge of the car window to avoid being thrown out onto the street, before Eames feels a hand tugging at the back of his jacket and allows himself to fall back into his seat.
‘Going across the footbridge,’ says Arthur. ‘All extremities inside the vehicle.’
Eames stares ahead at the pedestrian bridge crossing the river. It is just about wide enough for the car. He knows this because Ariadn’s spent the last two days hammering every last detail and specification of her design into his head.
‘Oh, bloody hell,’ he says, and starts to laugh.
The engine roars and he turns to see Arthur grinning, hair falling out of place thanks to the open windows. Eames heart beats that little bit faster. If he’s not much mistaken, good old stick-in-the-mud Arthur is having fun.
‘Well, this is going swimmingly,’ Arthur remarks as they speed across the river, the too-wide police vans clustering angrily around the entrance to the footbridge. ‘We’ve still got ten minutes till the kick.’
They rejoin the stream of traffic on the other side of the river, a few cop cars already making their way towards them.
‘Go left,’ says Eames, directing him towards Ariadne’s built-in getaway route.
‘I know,’ says Arthur, and takes another few sharp turns before skidding to a stop for no apparent reason.
‘What?’ he asks, confused until he spots a very familiar figure across the street. Arthur.
Eames stomach lurches. He looks between the Arthur sitting beside him and the one gaping at them from outside the car.
‘Sorry,’ says his Arthur. ‘I couldn’t let you get shot and ruin the job.’
‘Thanks,’ says Eames hollowly, and gets out of the car. He hears it accelerate away, but doesn’t look round.
By the time Eames reaches him, the real Arthur has collected himself, all trace of his shocked expression gone.
‘The next level’s all in your head, not mine,’ says Eames. ‘He won’t be back. You can yell at me as much as we want when the job’s over.’ Then, mercifully, the strains of Edith Piaf begin to echo through the sky, and it’s time to move on.
* * *
‘I need to talk to Eames for a minute,’ says Arthur once they’re back on the dry land of reality and they’ve all congratulated each other on not fucking up too disastrously. ‘You two go on ahead.’
Ariadne and Nazreen exchange a glance but hightail it out of the warehouse in search of celebratory dinner, leaving Eames and Arthur alone.
‘That wasn’t the first time you’ve seen a projection of me, is it?’ asks Arthur, inspecting Eames’ with that piercing gaze of his.
‘No,’ says Eames shortly.
‘Why the hell didn’t you tell me before? You could’ve completely screwed things up in there.’
‘The projection wasn’t trying to do any damage,’ says Eames, stalling for time. He imagines the spectre of Dom Cobb’s neuroses rising up between them. ‘Anyway, I didn’t think he’d show up.’
‘If it’s happened before, it’s probably going to happen again.’
‘I thought I’d dealt with the problem.
‘What problem? Dealt with it how?’
Eames runs a hand through his hair. ‘Dealt with it, alright? No more Arthur, no more projection. I got rid of the source of the problem and told my subconscious to go fuck itself.’
‘The... source of the problem?’ Eames might be wrong, but Arthur almost looks unhappy.
‘Look, I can clear out as soon as I get my cut,’ says Eames, who can’t imagine a conversation he wants to have less than the one they’re having right now. ‘No one says you have to work with me again. I don’t want to be on your fucking team or anything.’
‘What are you talking about, Eames?’ Ordinarily, Eames would take pleasure in his frustrated tone.
‘You’re freelance, I’m freelance. You don’t have to see me after today,’ Eames tries to explain, making for the door. Arthur has long practise ignoring Eames lusting after him, but any second now he’s going to work out what’s been going on inside Eames’ fucked up subconscious. Eames would prefer to be out of here before Arthur punches him in the nose.
‘Is this why you stopped...’ Arthur wrinkles his nose, waving a hand around in some incomprehensible gesture. ‘Calling me by all of those horrible pet names?’
‘I hadn’t noticed.’ In fact, he’d been making a conscious effort not to flirt. Being ignored was marginally less unbearable than being shot down all the time.
‘Right. Because you’ve dealt with the problem. Well, that’s...’ He looks uncharacteristically tentative. ‘Well, we got out all right in the end,’ he finishes, sounding as if he'd been going to say something else.
‘Look, Arthur, I’m as glad as the next man to hear that you don’t want to shoot me in the face for this, all right? But maybe we should just call it a day.’
Arthur is still looking at him with that faintly confused expression when Eames makes himself scarce, ostensibly in search of dinner. Within three hours Eames is on an aeroplane out of the country and like any con man worth his salt, he has no plans to return to the scene of the crime.
* * *
By definition, Eames is a slut. It is incredibly, incredibly easy to get Eames into bed. This has made various aspects of criminal life very easy for him, and it’s a surprise when this power vanishes more or less overnight. He’d never considered until now that monogamy might be one of those things you were forced into involuntarily rather than choosing to go through because you’d got married or whatever.
The fact is that Eames, like it or not (and he really doesn’t like it), has somehow become monogamous with Arthur. This is especially aggravating because Arthur now sees him as a professional liability. In Arthur’s eyes this is probably about ten times worse than his previous perception of Eames as a slovenly, selfish pervert.
Things do not look good.
He’s sure as hell not trying it on with a projection again. In hindsight, that was one of his more spectacularly awful ideas. Now he’s stuck being in love (in fucking love, what the fuck is that) with Arthur, whom he has close to zero chance of getting into bed. Without noticing it, he’s somehow managed to backslide into Dom Cobb territories of mental.
Casinos, sadly, fail to solve this problem, although it's possible he might get some positive karma points due to the huge amount of money he’s now donated to the starving croupier community of Monte Carlo. They should probably erect a statue in his honour, he lost so much money there.
He takes a job while he’s in Monte Carlo, the old-school kind with real-life consequences. He finds himself almost disappointed when it runs seamlessly according to plan and he completely fails to get caught.
Eventually he gives up and goes back to his flat in London. Arthur haunts his waking hours, which is worse because there’s never a kick. He still dreams, occasionally – the only silver lining there is that it’s proof his brain isn’t completely scrambled.
* * *
Desperate times; desperate measures. Time for a long-distance call to the all-time expert in scrambled brains.
‘So, how are the kids?’
‘I’m retired,’ is Cobb’s immediate reply. ‘Find someone else.’
‘I’m not calling about business,’ says Eames. ‘I’m offended you’d think such a thing!’
‘Fine. James is learning to read and Phillipa’s forced me to watch Toy Story 3 four times this week. Now, tell me why you’re really calling.’
‘Only if you promise not to hang up.’
Cobb snorts. ‘Well, that’s reassuring.’
‘It’s about Mal. Sort of.’
‘I’m hanging up,’ says Cobb flatly.
‘No, wait! It’s more like... I fucked up, all right? I’ve got a problem. A projection problem.’
‘And you called me for advice?’
‘You’re the only one. It’s getting out of hand.’ Eames is impressed with himself for admitting it out loud. ‘Arthur started showing up while I was working. A projection of Arthur.’
‘Ah.’ There is a world of understanding in that syllable.
‘Look, I know what you’re thinking. He wasn’t naked or anything. It wasn’t bad, at first. But then we started... you know.’
‘That’s extraordinarily nonspecific of you, Eames. You’re not usually this much of a gentleman. Basically what you’re saying is, you let your embarrassing obsession with Arthur get out of control and now you want me to tell you what to do?’
Eames drags a hand through his hair. ‘Pretty much.’
‘Does Arthur know?’
‘Yeah. I think so. He knows I’ve seen projections of him before, and he’s spent long enough turning me down that he’s bound to put two and two together and make five.’
‘And you’re expecting me to be on your side? After you just told me you’re latest hobby is dreaming up some kind of inflatable-doll copy of one of my friends and having some kind of affair with it?’
‘You make it sound so dirty,’ says Eames miserably.
‘You deserve anything Arthur dishes out,’ says Cobb, exasperated.
‘I know. Fuck, I never should’ve called you at all. You’re no help.’
‘You want my advice? Go out. Sleep with someone. Get over it. Don’t call Arthur.’
Eames doesn’t say anything for a moment. ‘I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here, Dom.’ he says quietly. ‘It wasn’t just a sex thing. Then when I saw him in real life...’
Silence. ‘Oh, Jesus,’ says Cobb. ‘It’s like that? You’re screwed.’
He really shouldn’t have made this call.
* * *
Eames is dragged out of sleep by his phone ringing on the bedside table. ‘What?’ he growls into it, scrubbing a hand over his face.
‘Eames? Is that you? Are you in London?’
‘Yeah.’ He wakes up a little. ‘Ariadne?’
‘Arthur’s in trouble.’
He wakes up all the way. ‘Tell me.’
‘The Berlin job went bad,’ she says, words running together. ‘They’ve caught up with us. They came to my apartment, Eames! It’s a good thing I hadn’t gone to bed yet.’
‘Ariadne. Are you out of your apartment now?’
‘I’m not an idiot. They only sent two, I think. Probably because I’m a girl. I, I shot them.’
‘Good girl. Now, where’s Arthur?’ He puts her on speaker, already pulling on shoes and clothes.
‘He was at home yesterday, but now he’s not answering.’
‘Home with you?’
‘What? No. His apartment.’
‘Alright. Where’s that?’
There’s a slight pause at the other end of the line. ‘His apartment in London? I thought you’d been there before,’ she says, sounding puzzled.
Arthur having a home at all is news to Eames, never mind one in the same city as him. ‘Maybe you haven’t noticed, but Arthur and I aren’t exactly the best of friends.’
‘Whine about whatever fight you guys had some other time,’ she says impatiently. ‘Do you want him to die?’
He takes his gun out of his bedside cabinet and tucks it into the back of his trousers, pulling his leather jacket on over the top. ‘Give me the address.’
He steals the fastest car in his street and speeds across town, parking two blocks over from the address Ariadne gave him. He forces himself to walk casually the rest of the way, looking around for any signs of trouble. It’s a residential area, slumbering quietly at 3am. No one is out.
He’s even starting to calm down a little when he notices someone on the rood opposite Arthur’s flat. Eames’ blood runs cold.
They’re already here.
The fire escape is easy to scale, presumably how the person on the roof got up there themselves. Eames stands on the top railing and pulls himself onto the roof. The figure is crouched over a sniper rifle set up on the precipice of the roof, face glued to the rifle’s sights so he doesn’t see Eames coming. Eames takes his silencer out of his jacket pocket, screws it onto his handgun and takes great pleasure in shooting the bastard in the head. He topples sideways with a soft thump.
Eames goes over to check the body for ID, predictably finding none. The rifle’s still set up so he wipes the blood off the sights and takes a look. The scope gives a perfect view of one of the flat’s windows, through which he can see Arthur sitting on a chair in the middle of his bedroom, surrounded by three bodies. Even in his sleep you’d need to send a whole team to kill Arthur, thinks Eames with satisfaction.
Then he shifts the scope around and sees the three other men in the room. One of them is pointing a gun at Arthur’s head.
Eames has never moved so fast in his life.
His approach on Arthur’s building is a full-on rush, picking the front door lock and running up the stairs. He makes himself stop and think outside Arthur’s door. The element of surprise, he decides, is out. He rings the doorbell.
Sounds from inside. Movement.
He rings again and again; they’ll have to answer eventually to avoid waking the neighbours. Providing they aren’t crazy enough motherfuckers to have killed the neighbours in cold blood.
At last someone opens the door.
‘What?’ demands a man with an American accent. He’s one of the men who were in the room with Arthur a minute ago, meaning there are only three of them in the apartment, total.
‘Is Arthur here?’ he slurs, pretending to be drunk. Clumsy, but why else would someone be calling at this hour? ‘Oi, Arthur!’ he calls out over the man’s shoulder. ‘You in?’
There’s a muted noise from the door on the right. So that’s where they are.
‘I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong house,’ says the man.
‘Don’t think so, mate,’ says Eames, and shoots him in the chest.
Eames is across the hall and through the door in three seconds, just in time to see Arthur tip his chair backwards, kicking the gun out of his captor’s hand and rolling behind the bed.
Eames slams the man nearest the door into the wall head-first, grabbing the man’s gun and tossing it to Arthur with the other hand. Arthur shoots the last guy from behind the bed (loudly – it turns out that unlike Eames, Arthur’s attackers hadn’t bothered with silencers) and he goes down, making an exciting red mess on the wall behind him.
‘Eames?’ says Arthur in a disbelieving tone, picking himself up.
‘Nice pyjamas,’ says Eames, thanking every deity he can think of that he got here in time.
‘What are – ’ The rest of Arthur’s sentence is drowned out by the sound of breaking glass, the window exploding inwards. They both duck.
‘There’s another sniper!’ Eames yells.
‘Get under the window,’ snaps Arthur, and starts crawling along the floor to shelter.
Eames wriggles out of his jacket. ‘Put this over your hands. There’s glass everywhere.’
Together they shuffle over the floor till they’re safe, lying under the window in what Eames hopes to hell is the sniper’s blind spot. There are now four tiny, neat holes in the plaster on the opposite wall from the window, two of which contain bullets which must have narrowly missed making a similar hole in Eames’ skull.
‘Now what?’ he asks. He’s about six inches away from Arthur’s face. One of the shards of glass must’ve caught him, because there’s blood dripping down his chin. ‘You’re bleeding,’ he says, reaching over to wipe it off.
Arthur bats him away. ‘It’s not too bad.’ He reaches p and tugs the curtains closed. ‘Don’t get up yet,’ he says, grabbing Eames’ wrist to keep him down. He flicks the safety on his pilfered gun, weighing it in his hand. ‘Give me your gun.’
Eames does as instructed, curious, and Arthur flicks the safety on that one as well. Then he gets up on one elbow, loose hair tickling Eames’ face, and throws the gun at the light switch on the opposite wall, plunging them into darkness.
‘Nice,’ says Eames admiringly, and they both bolt for the door.
‘Is there a back way out of here?’ Eames asks once they’ve got to (relative) safety and slammed the door behind him.
‘Through the garden,’ says Arthur absently, stepping over the body of the guy Eames shot when he first arrived.
He goes over to a cupboard and pulls out a suitcase, into which he folds two garment bags that were hanging from a hook on the door, leaving one behind. Then he takes out a box and empties it into the suitcase on top of the garment bags, slotting in a small handgun, three passports and a wad of cash.
Arthur spends a moment looking at the (many) pairs of shiny, shiny shoes carefully filed away on the floor of the cupboard, then heaves a sigh and packs one pair. Now the third and final garment back comes down and is unzipped, revealing a pressed white shirt and a pair of grey suit trousers. Eames goggles for a moment when Arthur pulls off his pyjama shirt, and then he averts his eyes.
Eames may very possibly be blushing. He can’t believe he is looking away right now. He is such a fucking gentleman.
He’s not going to be wearing any underwear under that suit, says a treacherous part of Eames’ mind. Eames tells it to shut up.
‘Alright, let’s go,’ says Arthur. Eames turns around. Arthur’s dressed, the suitcase is closed, and the only difference between this Arthur and the Arthur he sees when they’re working together is a slight hint of stubble around the jaw, and the fact that blood is already starting to soak into his shirt collar. The entire process took about ninety seconds. Talk about well-prepared. It’s pretty fucking impressive.
No underwear, repeats the voice at the back of Eames’ head, and he follows Arthur down the stairs and through the back garden to freedom.
They end up on the street where Eames left the stolen car, and he feels virtuous about the idea of returning it to its original owner. Arthur must be in shock, a little, because he doesn’t ask where they’re going until he’s already sitting in the passenger seat, doing up his safety belt. He’s holding a cuff to his jaw to try and stop the bleeding.
‘You can stay at my place tonight.’
Arthur says nothing.
‘Look, I’m not going to molest you in your fucking sleep or something,’ says Eames, suddenly exhausted. Words cannot describe how glad he is that Arthur is still alive and free of major injury, but Eames doesn’t think he can cope right now with Arthur being pissy and aloof.
It’s just a kick in the fucking teeth, all right? Any self-respecting damsel in distress would at least have given him a kiss at this point.
‘I wasn’t afraid of that,’ Arthur says quietly.
‘Are these people going to come after you again?’ asks Eames, changing the subject.
‘I’m not going to lead them to your door, if that’s what you mean.’
‘I don’t give a crap about my door. I want to know if you need a new identity. I can do that for you, no problem.’
‘I don’t need your help,’ Arthur snaps.
‘Oh, really?’ Eames grips the steering wheel. God, he fucking hates Arthur.
No, he doesn’t.
Arthur flushes a dull red. ‘Sorry,’ he mutters. ‘Thanks for this evening.’
‘Don’t mention it. A world without Arthur is like a sky without stars. And I wouldn’t want dear Ariadne to cry.’
‘She called you? Is she all right?’
‘She’s fine. They only sent two after her. She got them both.’
‘That’s what I said.’ Eames parks the car in its original parking spot, reaching round to get Arthur’s suitcase. ‘We’re here.’ He has a thought. ‘Wait, when you came to speak to me before the Mumbai job... were you living in London then?’
‘Yes.’ Arthur has the grace to look shifty. It’s rather adorable.
‘Did you know where I live?’
‘Did you follow me?’ Eames can think of no explanation for this behaviour, but it’s oddly flattering. ‘If you know where I live, surely you know my telephone number. Not that I’m complaining – you certainly brightened my day.’
‘Can you not do that?’ says Arthur in a tight voice.
Eames unlocks his door and sets Arthur’s suitcase down in the hallway. ‘Do what?’
Eames shuts down. ‘Of course. I didn’t realise it made you so... uncomfortable.’
Arthur rubs the bridge of his nose. He looks ready to fall asleep. ‘It’s cruel, Eames. It’s a dick move. I’ve just been woken up with a gun held to my head by a German interrogation specialist, and I just... don’t have the energy to put up with you taunting me, okay?’
‘Oh, play the mortal peril card,’ says Eames, but it comes out weak. ‘It’s not my intention to taunt you Arthur. You know I don’t expect anything from you.’
‘Expect any...’ Suddenly, Arthur’s expression changes. Now he’s got his thinking face on, like when he’s found an exotic problem he just has to solve. Eames can’t help but feel apprehensive about this. ‘Eames, you said you’d had projections of me invading your dreams before. What did they do?’
‘Nothing. It was just you. Look, you can sleep in my guest room. It’s just through here. It’s going to be dawn in a couple of hours anyway...’
‘Stop changing the subject,’ he orders. ‘When you said you’d dealt with the problem, what did you mean?’
‘Now who’s being cruel?’ Eames is starting to get angry. This was not where he’d been expecting the conversation to go.
‘Does that mean the projections didn’t come back? You moved on to someone else? You see, I thought you’d dealt with the problem at the source, but you didn’t, did you?’
‘Arthur. You’ve lost me. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Come on, it’s been a long night, why don’t you just go to bed before you fall over or something.’
Arthur keeps going, relentless. ‘Cobb warned me about you before we met, you know. He told me you were... inappropriate. I didn’t think anything of it. But I was wrong, wasn’t I?’ he turns, running a hand through his already-messy hair. ‘Are you in love with me?’
Eames has never fallen out of an aeroplane in real life, but he imagines the one time he did it in dreamspace must’ve been a fair facsimile of the real thing. He feels like that now. ‘Well, there’s not much I can say to that, is there?’ he says lightly. Freefall.
‘You couldn’t get rid of me,’ he says. ‘Which is why you left. Eames, you utter bastard.’
And... there’s the crash and burn.
‘Do you mind doing your thinking inside your head instead of out loud? There’s a bottle of whiskey in my kitchen that I really need to start drinking. Right now.’
‘I’m an idiot,’ Arthur pronounces. He appears to be having an entirely different conversation from Eames.
‘Are you concussed?’ asks Eames, genuinely concerned.
Arthur takes a step towards him. The hall isn’t wide, and it only takes that one step for them to be very, very close together. Uncomfortably close, considering their current topic of conversation.
‘Eames,’ says Arthur solemnly. ‘I am sorry I assumed you were a heartless, depraved asshole.’
‘Thank you?’ he tries. Up close, Arthur’s eyes are very bright, shining with exhaustion and excitement and adrenaline comedown. He has bags under his eyes and he’s not shaved in a day and he looks utterly fantastic.
All those thoughts vanish from Eames mind when Arthur wraps a hand round the back of his neck and kisses him.
That thing about experience being better than imagination? Well, this experience is incalculably superior to anything Eames has ever had with a projection.
For a moment he freezes, but even in a situation as unexpected as this, Eames has never been a man to look a gift horse in the mouth. He slides his hands down Arthur’s back and pushes him up against the wall. He tugs Arthur’s shirt out of his trousers, slipping his fingers inside just above the waistband. ‘Have I ever mentioned how much I love your suits?’ he mumbles, still not entirely believing his luck.
‘Once or twice,’ says Arthur, sounding amused. ‘I didn’t take it seriously at the time, though.’
‘You never take me seriously, darling. It’s tragic.’ And so is the presence of the shirt. Really, it should just be removed altogether. Arthur’s hands sneak round his back and remove the gun from its place tucked into Eames’ belt, fumbling it blindly onto the hall table.
‘Quite tragic,’ Arthur agrees. ‘Perhaps,’ he says, biting none-too-gently into Eames’ neck, ‘if you treated me with any respect when we’re working together,’ another bite, ‘I’d be more likely to be nice to take you seriously.’
Apparently a fondness for using his teeth is one of those things Eames’ projection of Arthur had never considered.
Arthur draws back a little to allow Eames to get rid of his jacket. ‘Where did you say the bedroom was?’
Eames freezes, something like a kick at the back of his memory. there is one last thing he has to check. Oddly, it’s not his own totem that cements it for him, but the fact that out the corner of his eye he sees Arthur doing exactly the same thing. Apparently, Arthur feels the need to make sure as well.
The die rolls to a stop on a Four every time.