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When We Swam

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Arthur is making a low sound in his throat, and it’s one that Eames has never heard before. Maybe the sedative isn’t working, he thinks, if Arthur can make that sound, but Arthur’s eyes are blinking, awake, and glittering with tears. It’s a sob, a singular desperate cry, and Arthur has his face buried in his hands.

Eames doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t.

A minute passes and Arthur scrubs his hand over his face and finally notices Eames. His face is flushed, but Arthur doesn’t look ashamed, even as a few more tears leak out. His breathing is unnaturally regular, and Eames just looks at him. His shoulders are still, the chocolate waistcoat rumpled over a white collared shirt and dark slacks. Eames opens his mouth but the silence is too thick.

Cobb wakes up then, and pulls out his IV as he turns to Arthur, poised to speak, but Arthur beats him to it. Eames is expecting some sort of explosion, but.

“Jesus Christ, Cobb,” is in fact all he says, rolled up shirt sleeves and his eyes two angry sparks, before he storms out of the work room.

Cobb is too fucking broken for Eames to do any more than look at him, so he leaves.

-

Arthur is stalking away from their warehouse, cigarette in hand, and Eames can see the angry lines of his body.

“Arthur!” he calls out, and Arthur spins around sharply.

“Eames, this really isn’t the time.”

“Time for what?” and for a second he’s genuinely puzzled. Then he notices the lean of his own body, how he is slowly moving in towards Arthur. 

“This isn’t really what I came out here to talk about,” he says, straightening.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” and the way Arthur spits out the word makes Eames pause.

“So what do you want to talk about?”

“You need to stop…this.” His hands flap a little at Eames. “The flirting is fine, but I already said no, we are not going out, so stop leaning and touching me all the goddamn time. It’s not very professional.”

“One, I’ve been trying. It just seems so natural, though.” Eames laughs. “Two, you said ‘not in this lifetime,’ and we’ve both died at least three times since then. And three, I need a better reason than haughty disdain. Can’t sleep with your colleagues?” Eames is trying to loom, leaning up against the brick wall of the warehouse and right over Arthur’s personal space, just like he’d been warned not to. 

“I’m not against sleeping with co-workers,” Arthur counters, and Eames rolls his eyes.

“Sure. Just against sleeping with me, then?”

And Arthur shrugs, and there’s a dark heat in his brown eyes, and it’s something Eames has wanted to see up close for a long time. “We don’t fall in love,” he says, and then sucks deeply on his cigarette.

He exhales, smoke blowing right up over Eames’ face. “That’s a little presumptuous, even for you,” he says into the cloud.

“I’m a chess grand-fucking-master, Mr. Eames,” Arthur says, punctuating the air with the lit end of his cigarette. “Every move I make is planned for any number of possible responses. I know what’s going to happen. I know you. And I don’t do attachments.”

“I can do casual. I’d be more than happy to do casual with you, my lovely Arthur.”

“You don’t do casual,” he says, matter-of-fact, cigarette in hand, and he’s so nonchalant Eames is overwhelmed. Arthur often makes him feel out of his depth, as though he’s disrupted a perfectly still pool of water.

“I don’t usually. I can break my rule for some non-committal, no-strings-attached, incredibly filthy sex with you. Seems like no real hardship.”

Arthur breathes out smoke. “Fine.”

Eames is a little stunned by how easy that was, but he didn’t spend the last two weeks flirting with Arthur because he didn’t notice mutual attraction, after all. “That’s it?”

“That’s the one rule. We don’t fall in love.” Arthur drops the cigarette onto the asphalt and crushes it under $500 Italian red leather shoes. He walks back toward the door to the warehouse and then pauses. 

“And this is my rule, not one of yours. You don’t get to break it.”

-

They’re in the Czech Republic working with some secret police against some other secret police, a routine extraction, and it’s autumn. The winds grow chilled quickly, and Cobb seems to be able to get it together enough that there aren’t any more incidents in the warehouse.

Arthur doesn’t bother to explain the one Eames has witnessed, and Eames knows better than to pry. He’d rather do his own reconnaissance, so he asks to go under with Cobb, to have him check out his progress in the forgeries so far. He wants a glimpse of whatever Arthur saw.

Arthur just shoots him a look that lets him know that the man is on to whatever he’s scheming. 

Cobb’s mind is rather placid until Eames forges into Arthur as a warm up. His forge of Arthur looks perfect if he doesn’t move, but when he takes a step forward it’s all wrong. 

“Eames,” Cobb says evenly. “What’re you doing right now?”

“Experimenting,” he says with a grin.

“Well,” says Cobb, “stop. You’re not going to discover anything like that.”

And Eames doesn’t.

-

On the question of why:

Cobb needed money. He needed so much money, to send James and Phillipa to school, to go into their college funds, to keep himself out of prison, to pay the lawyers.

Arthur worked. He was a pointman, he was Cobb’s pointman, and he was the best. 

He’d once had everything he’d needed. And then Mal jumped.

Arthur worked because that was what he had left.

-

Arthur walks around in slim-fitting peacoats or deliciously soft knit scarves, and Eames spends his time studying for the task at hand and thinking about slowly peeling off Arthur’s outerwear. It takes two days from their talk, but Arthur strides over at the end of the day and says, "I’ve made us reservations for dinner.”

Eames isn’t sure what that means, but he rolls with it.

In the evening, they walk out of the bricked building, and Arthur’s pale skin goes pink in the wind. 

“So, are we going on a date?”

“Yes. Is this a problem?” Arthur looks over at him and there’s a hint of a smile on his lips.

“I just didn’t think you were into romance, what with your rules and all.”

Arthur’s face breaks into a full smile then. “What do you mean? Is my rule ‘no dates?’”

Eames shakes his head, incredulous, and then grabs Arthur’s right hand in his left one. It’s cold and feels delicate, though he’s seen Arthur punch through wood in the real before.

Arthur keeps smiling, and he has dimples, and Eames wants to see more of them. Then he thinks,that’s a dangerous path to go down.

The dinner is pleasant, and Eames can’t help but feel relaxed, because he’s already won this game – there’s no need to seduce because he knows he’ll be getting what he wants at the end. It’s easy now, the fight has gone out of them both, for just a minute. It feels like a breath of fresh air, like somehow they are both just two men, out on a date, rather than internationally wanted mind criminals who were most definitely going to fuck in a matter of hours.

And back in the hotel, Arthur kisses him slowly, sensually by the door. His hands are precise, running across his chest, and thumbs ghosting over his hip bones under his pants.

He’s slow, and measured, and Eames is totally undone.

-

They wake up curled up together, Arthur’s back pressed against Eames’ chest, and when Eames stirs and stretches, he sees Arthur’s entire body go sharp; his arm curling under the pillow for what is probably his gun. 

“You told me to stay,” Eames says, voice rough with sleep, and Arthur relaxes again. It’s fascinating to watch – Arthur so stripped, just wearing boxers – the ripple in his muscles. “Oh.”

“Yes, well,” Eames says, and swings his legs off the bed to put his trousers on. “It’s still quite early. I’m sure you could sneak in a few more hours.”

Arthur blinks at him but doesn’t move for a long moment, then his arm darts out for his totem.

“Oh, was last night that good?” Eames asks as he buttons up his shirt.

“Fuck you,” Arthur says, and he rolls over on his back.

“Maybe next time,” Eames says, and Arthur grins, apparently satisfied by the weight of the die in his hand.

“Yeah, maybe.”

-

What is the nature of suffering, you might ask, wondering:

Dukkha is the first Noble Truth, the truth of suffering. Dukkha tells us at all life is suffering, from birth to death, there will be suffering. This is a fact that Arthur accepts, wholeheartedly, early in his life, even before he ever read a Sutra or sat under a bodhi tree. It is a truth he feels he has known forever – that life will bring him suffering.

-

Nothing is awkward that day as they work, and Eames thinks maybe Arthur is as overcautious about sex as he is about everything else. He’s surprised that he didn’t have to hand over a full health report, get checked out for every STI known to man, maybe get a few vaccines, before Arthur let him get that close.
Arthur’s exactly the same as he always is, professional, slightly antagonistic. His sleeves are rolled up, his collar is undone, and everything is utterly normal.

Eames thinks he should be glad. But part of him wanted to watch the tips of Arthur’s ears to turn pink, for him to stutter that morning upon seeing Eames. He wants to see Arthur ruffled. He wants some acknowledgement, maybe, of the violence that inhabits their arms and the way it grows when they’re twined together.

-

The job takes time.

It’s been a month since Eames slept alone, he realizes, when he wakes up with his chin hooked over Arthur’s shoulder, his arm slung over his waist. Arthur’s mouth is open just a little bit, and Eames can hear the heavy noises of his breathing and starts to count.

Arthur’s eyes snap open in seven seconds.

“Good morning, handsome,” Eames says into his ear and kisses the back of Arthur’s neck.

Arthur frowns. “We should try your room for a while,” he says. “Or maybe not stay together at night.” 

He squirms but doesn’t free himself when Eames simply tightens his claim.

“What, can you also not cohabitate?”

“It’s not that I can’t. I only have the one rule.”

“Well, then what is it?”

“I like my apartment.”

“You don’t have to move into my flat! I could come to yours!”

“I like my apartment.”

“Ah.”

“The job is done in a couple days, anyway.”

“Tossing me out?”

Arthur shrugs, skin sliding over skin. “I just figured you’d have someplace to be.”

Eames takes what he thinks is a hint.

-

This is what Eames knows:

The job only went wrong once, working with Arthur, and it certainly wasn’t Arthur’s fault. 

But the woman who walked straight through the dream had felt just like someone he’d known.

Eames knows, knew, is knowing, had the knowledge, that this was impossible.

And yet.

-

Eames leaves. He means to tell Arthur at the end of the job. He tries to explain in the airport, but Arthur’s shoulders just roll, smooth, in acceptance of whatever Eames will tell him. Somehow, that makes him the angriest.

It doesn’t last long – he takes a job, and he misses Arthur’s dossiers, his crisp e-mails, and his professionalism. No one on his team wears a suit, so Eames takes to wearing one, because someone has to be presentable enough to meet a client.

Within a month, he misses Arthur’s long fingers and the way his lip curls up when Eames would wrap his arms around him, a cross between a smile and a snarl.

He calls Arthur, once, before this team goes under, and Arthur answers and sounds incredibly far away.

“I think I’m headed your way soon,” Eames says.

“Okay,” says Arthur. “I look forward to it.” Eames takes what he can get.

-

The trouble with dream espionage, of course, is that it so fantastical that the small handful of people who practice it rise to fame incredibly quickly. There are always dangers to being an elite in any business, but when your business is already at the seam between illegal and magic, then you have to take extra precautions.

Love, or the facsimile of love, or the pretense of love, makes Eames soft where he doesn’t expect it.

He gets caught.

-

But, you ask, who are the actors here?

They met at a conference of university professors, scientists, conmen, and soldiers. It promised to be an uncomfortable three days in a hotel ballroom, and there was always a fight happening – the personalities all grated up against each other like metals.

The ballroom was crammed with tables and booths hawking ideas, products, and personnel. Dangerous chemicals bubbled all around.

The convention was a secret, of course, which meant anyone who had ever dream-shared was there. The Cobbs, of course, were stars there, showing off their research in dream building. They had a table covered with maps, mazes, and scale models, and their booth was crowded with psychiatrists and a few generals. 

And then there was Eames, standing in a small booth space with two folding chairs, a card table, and himself in an ill-fitting suit.

And then there was Arthur, stiff, brusque, in uniform, and Eames couldn’t help but call out and tease as he walked past without a second glance. The man’s face had a magnificent bone structure, and Eames liked, even then, to consider himself a connoisseur of the finer things.

“What is it that you like, then?” Eames had been born a salesman, and he was better at selling himself than he was at stealing (and his skill at stealing was considerable).

Arthur turned and looked at him, and the first thing Eames registered was how young the military man was. Then he noted how still his face was as he swept an appraising eye over Eames.

“Hot coffee,” Arthur said, “You got any of that in your booth?” He walked over, his moves measured and purposed.

Eames laughed. “No, no, that’s not what I’m selling at all.”

“Well, it doesn’t look like you’re selling much.” Arthur leaned on the rickety card table Eames had set up, elbows down, and he peered past Eames’ bulk. “Unless that PASIV is for sale. It looks like a version 2 model.” Arthur eyed him again. “I’m guessing the serial number for it is 965-248-1026.”

Eames stared, but he didn’t gape.

Arthur was relaxed as he stood up and there was a smile in the crinkle of his eyes. He extended a hand, “I’m Arthur.”

Eames took it. It might have been a monumental moment for both of them. “Eames. Just Arthur?”

The hand shake was firm, and Arthur’s hand was pleasantly cool and dry in the convention room. This detail Eames remembered.

“You can call me Lieutenant if you’d like. So, are demonstrations free?”

“For you, lovely? Of course.” Eames caught himself, and wondered why he was flirting at all with a man who could either easily kill him or have him arrested. Eames never squandered a good opportunity, however, and he wasn’t about to stop being reckless.

They went under together.

-

The job went well, but the team doesn’t sweep the room effectively, doesn’t do something right, because whatever they missed led straight to Eames.

They catch him on his way to customs in Los Angeles, and he can’t even shoot anyone because he’s in a fucking airport. The universe is a cruel place, he thinks, Arthur’s lecture about karmic balances playing out in the back of his brain as he’s shoved into the trunk of a car.

He can take a beating like a champ. He just doesn’t want to take it this time. He wants it to be over with, he wants to be sleeping next to Arthur in whatever kind of luxurious and expensive bed the man might own. He folds instantly, selling out his entire old team (because those fucks deserved it), and gets to sleep on a cot instead of being handcuffed to a pipe. The next day he’s confused, but realizes the thugs aren’t just working for his old mark. 

“Who’s your pointman?” they ask.

Eventually, he tells them about Arthur. He wants them to stop. He needs those fingers. It’s not love.

-

“I talked,” Eames pants out when Arthur rips the tape off his mouth. The part of his brain that can still think rational thoughts is buzzing loudly with the need to apologize, but really, how could he. What would he even say?

Arthur shrugs and begins picking the handcuffs. “Did they ask about Cobb?”

“No.”

“Well, I shot everyone here. So it shouldn’t be a problem for me for a while.”

“All of them?” Eames is lying flat on his back and Arthur’s hands are slowly pressing him, checking for bones shattered. “There were at least twelve.”

“I would have burned the place down, Eames, if I thought it would have gotten you out.” Arthur shifts, crouched down.

“So is this why you can’t fall in love? It makes you weak, like me?”

“Jesus, Eames.”

“I don’t even know why you bothered coming after me.”

“You’re…you’re my friend, alright?”

“And this is what you do for friends, then? Kill a dozen people, try to burn down a sky scraper?” His voice has rocks in it, and it’s hard to hit the correct pitch for incredulity, but he scrapes toward it anyway.

“I don’t have very many friends,” Arthur says. It’s not a parry or a block, and he says it so bluntly that Eames shuts his mouth instead of sniping at him.

“I don’t think you’re bleeding anywhere internally,” Arthur says, standing up from his crouch. “What would you like to do?”

“I’d like to get pissed drunk and then fuck you stupid,” Eames says, and Arthur sighs, but he’s also smiling.

-

What Eames does instead is pass out for a full day, with Arthur checking on every few hours and making sure he hydrates. He’s ordered room service for both of them by the time Eames staggers into the couch area of their suite. He expected an apartment but a hotel would do just as well.

Arthur is reading the Wall Street Journal and looks up. “I got you a cheeseburger.”

Eames pulls the cover off his plate and settles down on the couch next to Arthur to shove food in his mouth.

Arthur keeps reading, glasses that Eames has never seen perched on the tip of his nose. 

“When did you start using reading glasses?” Eames asks in between hurried bites.

“When was the last time you ate? Should I have gotten soup?” Arthur is still reading.

“What day is it?”

Arthur glances down at his watch. “Thursday the 26th.”

“Probably about three days. Nothing major.”

Arthur snorts lightly. “I’d slow down there then. Your stomach’s not going to be happy.”

Eames pops the last of his burger into his mouth and shrugs. “I’ll deal.”

And Arthur is sitting there, not looking at Eames, shimmering, back lit, and fuzzy in his peripheral vision like a ghost.

-

More on the nature of suffering:

The second Noble Truth explains suffering’s origin, of Dukkha Samudaya. Suffering comes from attachment, the want of things, yen for earthly pleasures and a craving for existence.

Though Arthur likes to think he lives in the higher of the ten worlds, perhaps in Knowledge, and that he is above the need for happiness, something base, it is always Dukkha Samudaya that knocks him on his ass. He always finds attachment, or something to want. It always slips out of his hands.

-

Arthur has good odds against six men when he’s unarmed, but not against ten. He’s been warned, but he didn’t anticipate a home invasion. He’ll never be that far from a gun again.

Eames hates unnecessary risks, so once he learns of Arthur’s abduction, he waits until the kidnappers leave.

“Is this why?” Eames asks as he gently unties the ropes around Arthur’s bony wrists, and Arthur spits blood out on the concrete floor.

“No.”

“So you told them everything, right?”

“No,” he says, but it comes out like a low moan.

Arthur slumps over onto himself and Eames carefully lifts him up from the armpits. Arthur puts his whole weight on him and groans.

“Eames, please,” Arthur whines out through gritted teeth, and for the second time in their professional partnership, Eames sees tears welling up in Arthur’s eyes.

He tries to set Arthur down carefully, but he doesn’t know what’s wrong and Arthur breathes in small pants through his mouth and makes a broken sound when he hits the floor again. 

Eames isn’t a doctor.

“Why did they leave you alive?” he asks in an effort to keep Arthur awake, and Arthur’s smile is all blood smeared over teeth.

“Slowed down my heart when they took a break. Thought they killed me.”

“Arthur.”

“I need a hospital, I think.”

“Arthur. That’s not a thing you can do.”

If Arthur could shrug at him, he would have. Eames can see it glinting in the pain-tightened corners of his eyes. “I spent some time in Denver, with some monks. Learned more in Japan.” The words are hissed out.

“Did they hit you in the mouth or is that internal?”

Eames calls Cobb, even though Cobb isn’t a doctor either.

In the waiting room of the ER, Eames spends his time hating Arthur and Arthur’s rule and his stupid, stupid mouth that curved into a grin the second he had crept into that room. He’s sick of rooting out what keeps Arthur ensconced in a labyrinth, of trying to find him, of reaching dead ends. 

Challenges are all well and good, but Arthur is right – he doesn’t do casual very well. He is really too selfish for it, really, too needful to own the whole of something. If it isn’t all his, then eventually, he doesn’t want it anymore.

That’s what he tells himself.

-

Here is the end of a story you haven’t heard yet:

The room was silent, and Arthur lurched out of his seat and toppled over immediately, right into an already-awake Cobb.

“Whoa there,” Cobb said. “It’s been. It’s been a couple weeks.” 

Mal suddenly enveloped them both, a stream of French and a few tears and her arms everywhere surrounding them. Arthur sagged into them.

“We’re taking him home,” Mal snapped, and the major didn’t argue. Luiz watched and just nodded a greeting, which earned him a weary salute from Arthur. 

“You can be Beatrice next time, if you want,” Arthur said into Cobb's neck, and Cobb smiled.

Chapter Text

“So what you’re saying is that you’re breaking up with me?”

Eames snorts. “I don’t see how I’d be breaking up anything, really. I’m just letting you know I’m done with this, whatever this is. Was.”

Arthur shrugs. “Okay. If that’s what you want.”

“Fuck off, Arthur.”

“Would you prefer I burst into tears?” Arthur looks at him and his lip is curled in a practiced expression of mild disgust.

“I’d like you to look at least a little put out, yeah.”

“I can’t say I’m not disappointed, but I’m also not surprised.” He tilts his head to the side while saying this, as if sizing Eames up to compare him to the Eames who walked straight into this impossible arrangement.

Eames tugs on his jacket meaningfully and purses his lips. “Right. You knew all along. Your precognitive powers are still strong, great bloody job.”

Arthur shrugs again. “I like you, Eames,” he says softly, “so I’m sorry I can’t give you what I need.” His fidgets with his hands -- a tell that shows he’s being honest and it makes him anxious, Eames knows.

“And why the fucking hell not?” Eames doesn’t care how honest Arthur can be.

“Who would look after him?”

Eames laughs, unkindly. 

And then it is Arthur in his personal space, pushing into his boundaries and leaning into him, and he is outlined in promised anger. His eyes are so dark. 

“You don’t know, Eames, so don’t even fucking pretend you know what this is about.”

Eames laughs again and shakes his head, his shoulders slumping. “You made a promise, didn’t you?” He’s leaning back, away away away.

Arthur slugs him in the chin with his unbroken hand. Eames can’t say he didn’t anticipate it, but he doesn’t know why he didn’t dodge.

“Good-bye, Mr. Eames. It was nice.”

And it turns out Arthur is the one leaving him.

-

Here is a snap shot:

A dark-haired woman laughed. “And who is this?” she asked when Arthur presented him, having grabbed Eames’ elbow and dragged him away from his booth. 

“This is what you need.”

The man there eyed them both suspiciously. The US government probably poking their head somewhere they didn’t belong, Eames surmised.

The woman seemed to tolerate him, so he shook her hand. “I’m Eames, mademoiselle, and I’m a forger.”

“You should try going under with him. I think you’ll like it,” Arthur said to the woman, who Eames had placed as Mal Cobb, the better half of the Cobbs, the world’s leading dream researchers.

The man stared. Dominick Cobb, then. “I don’t trust you, and I don’t trust some forger with a PASIV that looks stolen right out of a lab.”

“It was a gift!” Eames said, affronted, and Mal laughed. 

“Seriously, though. We don’t need your services,” Cobb said, and Arthur shrugged.

“Well, take my card, should you change your mind,” Eames said, and handed it to Arthur. “It has my private line on it.” He leered and Arthur simply smiled wanly at him.

Talking to the Cobbs aroused attention enough that he soon wasn’t hurting for customers, and by the end of the convention he had enough jobs booked that meeting Arthur was a mere after thought. 

-

On the cessation of suffering:

Here is what is difficult: having the knowledge of the third Noble Truth, Dukkha Nirodha. When everything in his ribcage hurts, Arthur knows that it the cessation of suffering is possible, is within reach. He knows that he must stop wanting, allow this need to fall away.

He meditates, but not well, because the only time he can empty his head of thoughts is when he is in the dead sleep of a Somnacin addict.

So appealing to the universe’s better nature doesn’t help, and when he sits he can only think, well, I brought this on myself.

As mantras go, it is not particularly useful.

-

Eames gets the fuck out of America, because he’s done with the whole sodding continent, thanks. He flies to South Africa, where the beaches are filled with tanned teenagers and beautiful African women, and he figures he’ll work on forgetting about something he’d never had his hands on in the first place. 

He gets word of a job in Kenya, and takes a little hopper over, and is introduced to Yusuf, a man with more chemicals and more clients than Eames has ever heard of. He gets Eames jobs, and Eames in turn provides him with a steady stream of business.

They get drunk.

Eames tells him everything, because Yusuf is the first person to ask questions that aren’t followed or preceded by breaking his fingers or slapping him in the face, and Yusuf is sympathetic to a point.

Two months into his time in Mombasa, Yusuf brews him some tea and tells him to get the fuck over it.

“You need to get the fuck over him,” he says soothingly as Eames nurses a hangover in Yusuf’s kitchen.

“I want to,” Eames says blearily.

“I don’t think that’s true.”

Eames just sighs.

“Also, Eames, while I am certainly flattered by your drunken attempts to put your hands down my pants,” Yusuf says, staring steadily at Eames across the table in his small kitchen, “I would like to remind you that some of us are not as flexible. And by that I mean, I am still straight, and you getting knackered doesn’t really change that fact.”

“Ah,” says Eames, and lets Yusuf continue to berate him.

Eames appreciates that kind of honesty, and he’s trying, but things keep getting in the way. Sometimes it’s little things – a man in a waistcoat, playing a dice game, handling a Glock.

The last thing that reminds him of Arthur, however, is a big thing. 

It’s Dom Cobb.

-

“Still working with that old stick in the mud?” is what Eames asks, but it’s not hard to know that Cobb values loyalty and Arthur is the one to give it.

If there was a magazine for extractors, Arthur would be on the cover for the ‘top 10 best pointmen’ edition. His reputation is sterling, even with all of Dom’s fuck ups.

On his own, he's worked with plenty of people, plenty of teams, but none could really measure up to the well oiled machine of Cobb-&-Arthur. It’s unnerving, but the payoff is promising. So though Eames has to outrun some men with guns, he takes the job. 

They’re always interesting, he tells himself. Arthur’s a good pointman, he rationalizes.

We weren’t in love, he thinks.

But maybe they could be something else.

-

Here is a memory: 


His cell phone rang.

“We need your help. We have to get out of the country.”

“Such good manners you have on you, young man.”

“Eames.” A pause. “You’re the only one I could call.”

“Well, Arthur, I’m flattered. Unless…am I the only unsavory scoundrel you know?”

“Oh, I know plenty of thieves, Mr. Eames. You’re just the best one I know.”

Eames recognized the backhanded compliment but he still let it settle warmly in his chest as he readjusted the phone. “What is it you need?”

“Passports. A pilot we can trust at least once. A contact somewhere in northern Africa, maybe Côte d'Ivoire.”

“Northern Africa?”

“No extradition policy,” Arthur stated, solemnly, his tone leaving no room for questions. “We’ll pay cash.”

And Eames never said no to that. Began to realize he couldn't say no to Arthur.

-

Yusuf always leaves Eames in charge of waking Arthur up. He supposes it’s tacit approval to get a physical sort of revenge, the kind robbed from him by common decency. 

But. The tests, the kicks, the slaps, all add up into a grand gesture of his increasing lack of indifference toward Cobb’s pointman. He tries and tries to rile him; he just wants Arthur to show something beyond fond affection or annoyance.

Eames wants, desperately, to feel either love or hate radiating from that whipcord body.

Arthur just takes it in stride, and then one day runs his thumb over the knuckles on Eames’ hand as he hands him some photographs.

Something inside, brittle and hopeful, snaps.

-

Here is how they really meet:

The Cobbs needed him for a job.

Dominick Cobb was known to be an imaginative man, but he couldn’t think his way into a scenario where the ambassador to Kyrgyzstan will trust him enough to let him find his secrets.

“I don’t even want to do this job,” he said, and Mal murmured soothing sounds at him while looking knowingly at Arthur.

“I know a guy,” Arthur said, and called Eames. The card was battered, shoved into one wallet and then another. It’d been a year, but Cobb was a stubborn fool sometimes. 

“Eames,” he answered. 

“This is Arthur,” he said, “you probably don’t remember me.”

“The young lieutenant!” Eames said, the smile audible in his voice. “It’s been ages, dear, what brings you to my line?”

“I need you for a job.”

What that meant in Arthur’s mind, was teach me how to forge.

Instead, he stood in the dreamscape of a smoky bar with a gorgeous blonde. Eames smiled winningly through the blonde’s face.

“She’s too perfect. You look like a perfume advertisement.”

Eames laughed and his voice was high and bell light. “So you don’t like her?”

Arthur shrugged. “She’s lovely, you obviously built her like that. I just think subtlety fares better than extremes.”

Eames blurred back into his regular body. “Now, the trick is to reject your self-image completely. It’s rather like flying for Peter Pan – you must believe in fairies, and think positive thoughts, or it’ll never work.”

Arthur’s eyes shut tight, and he bit his lip in concentration. He began to blur around the edges, his features softening.

When Arthur changed, it was like something lingering on the edge of vision, blurred and haunting but there. He felt tingly and loose, like being drunk enough that you feel underwater. Then there was a snap, and he stood back in his own body.

Eames looked impressed. “Who was she?” he asked, sliding into a lithe brunette.

“Hm.” Arthur said. “How do you get it to hold?”

“Well, that is the trick, isn’t it?” Eames said. Then he winked. “Trade secret.”

Eames kept it, and got the job.

-

Arthur spends more time under than any of them as they prepare, sleeping by himself. So Eames follows him down one day.

It’s what he does.

-

This is what Eames won’t know:

Eames really had the Army to thank for meeting Arthur again.

-
Here is the story Eames will never hear:

Arthur was ordered to go deeper.

Dom Cobb had started to grow a little fond of the young officer. Mal Cobb had always liked the man and was starting to maybe love him a bit.

Together, they challenged the order.

Together, they said no.

Arthur, alone, said yes sir.

The sedative was too powerful. He didn’t wake after its depletion. They try slapping, knocking him from the chair, and about five minutes out of the drug, he had a seizure. The chemist held him down and plugged him up again, and hit vitals returned to normal as the drug swam through his blood stream.

Trying again could kill him, the chemist said, dark eyes wide with worry, olive skin grown pale.

The Army decided they’d rather have him permanently asleep than dead, so they killed him off in paperwork and put his subconscious to work.

It was a lesson in turning poison into medicine.

Arthur lay there for days before Mal and Dom received clearance to see him again.

“No one’s seen him in two weeks,” a man said apologetically to the storm that is Mallorie Cobb, standing taller than everyone in the room, filling it with anger.

“He must have done it,” she said to Cobb, “layered the dream.”

But it was Dom who had to go under, not fearless Mal, because she was pregnant, only swollen a little, but the new compound held unknown risks. What if she too refused to wake? Dom had only come because he needed to protect the things he held precious and somehow, Arthur had become one of these things.

Arthur’s brain turned out to be a warzone.

Cobb had to find him.

-

The beach is so bright that Eames can see Arthur’s eyes beneath his designer sunglasses. He is blinking, confused, up at Eames.

“Expecting someone else?” Eames leans over him, casting a long shadow over the pale expanse of skin.

“Ariadne, actually. She likes my beaches.” Arthur sits up, and as he brushes sand off his chest a white, cotton button-up appears. A sleeve materializes under his hand, already turned up at the elbow.

“Oh, don’t change on my account.”

“Well, you’re making me feel underdressed.”

And it’s true, Eames is in simple black suit, no tie, though he had kicked off his shoes as soon as he landed on the beach.

“I wasn’t expecting to wake here,” he says, and Arthur is standing up, wearing black swimming trunks and leaving the shirt unbuttoned. His hair falls over his sunglasses, loose and unfettered by gel. Eames wants to touch him everywhere, to roll with him ‘til their chests are red from the sand.

Instead, he blurs out of focus.

“I don’t like watching you change,” Arthur says, looking away. “It feels indecent.”

Eames laughs, high and bright, and he catches Arthur’s hand in his smaller one. Arthur looks over appraisingly and smiles a little. 

“Tasteful,” he says, and he spins Eames’ light body under his arm, catching him by the hips and pulling him close.

“Oh Arthur,” Eames says, girlish laughter in every word. “Tasteful, honestly. A woman’s body is neither tasteful nor distasteful, it just is.”

“I meant the swimsuit,” Arthur says blandly. “Very retro, very pinup.”

Eames beams. He’s a freckled redhead in a bright red 50s style one piece, his hair falling in curls around his face. 

“She’s lovely,” Arthur says.

“I’m lovely, you mean,” Eames says and leans into Arthur’s bare chest.

“I think this batch of whatever’s Yusuf’s got me on has me giddy, because I haven’t punched you yet.” 

Arthur doesn’t look like he minds, and Eames clutches his arm as they stroll down the beach toward a bar, shimmering like an oasis.

“Oh, Arthur! Are we going on a date?”

“We’ve got a lot of time,” Arthur says and shrugs. Eames can feel all the muscles in his arm flexing. “At least six hours. And you haven’t kicked me over in a day. I’ll take a peace offering where I can get one.”

“I’m beginning to think you like me!”

Arthur looks down at Eames and smiles. “Must be sun poisoning.”

-

“Well, who needs to be happy?” Arthur is leaning against the railing of a boardwalk restaurant. They’re drunk in a way that’s only achievable in dreams – all pleasant glow, no sour stomach. Arthur’s smoking, which is a habit Eames finds rather distasteful, even in dreams. It brings the itch back.

Eames stares. “Isn’t that what you Americans are all about? Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness?”

Arthur snorts. “That’s bullshit. People get so caught up in chasing what they think they want that they don’t take any time to try to be happy with what they have.”

Eames swallows his very first response. “And what is it that you want but don’t have, then?”

Arthur tilts his head. “I like my job, I like my friends, I get to travel. What more would I need? I’m fine with being content.”

“But not happy?”

“That kind of longing only leads to suffering.”

“How very Star Wars of you, Arthur.”

“Oh, fuck off,” he says, and puts out the cigarette.

-

Here is the beginning of a journey:

In the first attempt Cobb made to retrieve Arthur from his own subconscious, he was shot in under ten minutes. The sedation was light, and he woke up to the grim face of the major supervising training. 

“Is this what happens to everyone you send under?”

“Well, most of them take longer, but I’m guessing you didn’t shoot anyone.” 

Cobb rubs the back of his neck. The major is a tall, black man, who seemed to be more troubled by the loss of Arthur than the other officers Cobb’s spoken to, and that was encouraging, at least. Maybe.

“I didn’t. Have any of the others seen him?”

“What do you mean? I thought you said he was lost down there.”

“I need a list. A contact list for everyone that’s been in Arthur’s head since he sunk too deep.”

The list was drawn up. The interviews took time, time that Cobb wasn’t really certain he had. But it would be faster than getting killed over and over again in the desert in Arthur’s brain. Cobb knew that Arthur could have built that maze the size of a continent.

They found someone in Walter Reed and Cobb flew to him.

He was nineteen years old, named Luiz Sierra, and a double above the knee amputee after a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

He looked up at Cobb and said, “Yeah, I saw him when we went under, last exercise before we shipped out. We all liked him.” 

“Could you show me where? If we put you under again?” Cobb knew he sounded desperate, but he finally had a lead.

Luiz shrugged. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. The lieutenant was a good guy.”

The flight back to LA was quiet, the hotel was quiet, and the room with Arthur’s wasting body was quiet as Luiz had been the whole time.

But the dream, the dream was loud. Artillery was everywhere. In the dream, Luiz had legs, and was running as soon as they opened their eyes. Cobb startled and Luiz tossed him an M-16.

“Start shooting!”

They ran.

And finally Luiz was pointing at a medic tent. Then Luiz fell, a bullet through his head.

The projections were circling the tent and Cobb hurtled through the bullets, two catching him in the calf and the shoulder. He rolled into the door and there was Arthur, or Arthur’s body, laying on a cot, plugged into a PASIV. He had a bullet wound in his stomach, and the blood was sluggishly soaking his uniform.

Cobb jacked in.

-

“Well, you need another subject to test these compounds on.”

“That was Ariadne, before you rudely butted in an insisted on taking her place.”

“More test subjects the better. It’s not really an exact science, right?”

Yusuf huffs and crosses his arms, peering down at Eames in the chair. “It is, in fact,” he says, precisely and slowly, “a very exact science. An extraordinarily exact science.”

“Ariadne has to work on her mazes,” Eames says, and tries pouting, just a little.

Yusuf glares. “Have you started in on one of your projects?”

Eames looks a little sheepish. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Well don’t fuck it up, okay?” says Yusuf as he bends to swab Eames’ arm.

“I make no promises,” Eames says right before he falls asleep.

-

Eames feels like he could spend years like this, sitting inside Arthur’s head and talking to him. It is surprisingly peaceful there, and they’re always alone.

When he appears, he’s on a beach again, but this time he and Arthur are sitting on a rocky dock looking out at the ocean.

“Does Ariadne know that you’ve taken her place here in my head?” Arthur is lying back again, basking in the sun, and a cool wind whips past them. Here, he is tanned, a light dusting of freckles falling across his face.

“I’m sure I can provide adequate company. What do you do together, anyway? Discuss the merits of Gaudi and Escher and who knows what else?”

Arthur props himself up on his elbows. He’s already wearing an unbuttoned shirt and black swim trunks. “We normally play beach volleyball.”

Eames just stares, so Arthur continues. “I’m sure it doesn’t come up a lot in the countryside of Merry Olde England when you’re out on the estate, but it’s quite popular with American teenagers.”

Eames frowns. “I thought you said you’d stop researching.”

Arthur peers up at him, head tilted. “That doesn’t really sound anything like me, does it?”

“Perhaps not.”

“Regardless, Eames, that’s my job. To know things.”

“Then, dear Arthur, let me describe this way: it is my job to know people. And you haven’t been very accommodating.”

His eyebrows rise above the dark glasses. “What do you mean?”

“Why are you being so very nice to me here?”

“Am I normally very mean?” Arthur isn’t sure what to make of this, if it is a dodge or if it’s leading into a larger point. He starts sitting up, tucking his legs together into the lotus position.

“You’re normally sharper. You need to know things, but I need to know how people are. How to be them, how to deconstruct them, how to build them back up. And here you are, soft and sunning yourself like a particularly lazy cat.”

“I hate cats,” Arthur says, to which Eames looks aghast. “I’m allergic,” he adds, “break out into hives.”

“So you are, deep down, a terrible person. Which just begs the question, what are you playing at here?”

Arthur crinkles his nose. “First, that’s not the correct usage of that particular logical fallacy. Second, you never seemed to mind me so much before. Am I very different?”

“Yes!” Eames snaps.

Arthur looks out at the ocean and the waves suddenly start crashing loudly, rolling hugely before breaking. “I’m trying out this thing,” he starts, and then pauses. “It’s a little stupid, for my line of work. I’m letting the universe unfold itself to me rather than fighting it quite so much.”

“Does that mean?” 

“No,” Arthur says, but it sounds sad.

-

Ariadne beats him to it the next time Arthur goes under, so Eames decides to visit them both. Beach volleyball had to the most ludicrous euphemism he’s ever heard, after all, and Arthur had no compunctions about mixing work with pleasure.

It only takes ten minutes for Eames to decide that Ariadne has to be the best subconscious dream volleyball player in the world.

“Does Cobb know what you two get up to on your down time?”

Ariadne scoffs. “You make it sound so sordid, Eames. It’s just volleyball.”

Arthur is on his stomach on the ground, having dived for Ariadne’s last serve and missed it completely. “Yeah,” he pants, “and maybe it’s time you had a go, huh?” He spits out some sand.

Eames gets up and shakes into the body of an Olympic-level player, beach-curled blonde hair held back by a visor. 

Arthur laughs as he brushes off even more sand. 

“That’s not fair!” Ariadne says, hands on her hips.

“I’ve been researching,” says Eames with grin, but he’s looking at Arthur, who is smiling and squinting in the sun.

-

Eames has to give up his days on the beach when he begins working for Fischer-Morrow, and then it is a long swell of waiting before the job.

He misses the sound of a perfectly conceptualized ocean as he sits in on board meetings, and sunburns that disappear upon waking.

And then it’s time.

-

Everything goes wrong.

Eames isn’t sure what he expected to find in Fischer’s mind, but he wasn’t prepared for Cobb to react so violently at Arthur. Arthur, unsurprisingly, keeps his cool, promising to adjust the plan, until Cobb lets them all know that he’s gambled with their sanities, so please keep your fuck-ups to a minimum, thanks.

Eames find Arthur harried, hiding in a corner away from Cobb, rubbing a hand over his face and writing down cramped little notes while watching over Saito. He is cursing under his breath, a litany offucks and oh my gods.

Eames crouches down near him

“How the fuck am I supposed to plan around this,” he says, maybe at Eames.

“Hush, now, everything is going to be alright.”

Arthur looks up, eyes dark, and his face is tight with anger and panic. “I should have known this. I should have seen this coming.”

Eames opens his mouth, than closes it. Arthur’s face softens.

“I’m sorry you can’t quit,” he says and then looks back at his notebook.

“Yes, well. I’m not the only one stuck here. You’d probably be here regardless, huh?”

“I think I’ve figured something out,” Arthur says, and looks past him.

-

Here is what Cobb finds:

The first thing Cobb noticed was that it was dark. He brought his hands up to his face to make sure there was nothing covering his eyes, that he still had eyes. 

It was pitch black, coal black, the kind of dark that would keep one awake instead of lulling to sleep. Cobb thought to himself, I can still leave now. There was a gun tucked in the back of his pants, he could feel its weight. 

He didn’t use it.

Instead, he shouted. “Arthur?” There was no echo, the name just disappeared out into space, dying.

So Cobb walked.

He had no way to track the time, but in the dark it didn’t matter. He’d tried making a flashlight, a torch, a gas lamp, and an outdoor spot light. Nothing penetrated through the pitch. 

Then, he saw a mountain. It cast off an eerily blue light, and its peak was snowcapped.

Cobb felt a gust of wind, the first thing he’d felt since waking there. It cut right through his clothes, and his whole body shivered.

Eventually, finally, he reached the foot of the mountains. The light stayed dim, pulsing off the rock, and there was no road.

There were, however, footprints leading down a path that snaked through two mountains, so he followed.

It felt like he walked for days. Time has to have stopped, Cobb thought. He had his flashlight out, swinging it wildly and waiting to hear noise. He reached a clearing, surrounded by rocky crags covered in ice that retained that preternatural light. 

Cobb slowly realized he was cold. It started with the soles of his feet and his ears and moved inward, cutting through skin and muscle into his bones, right into the marrow where his blood began, and he could hear his teeth chattering, at-at-at-at-at.

“Ar-ar-arthur?” he called. It was the second noise he’d made.

He could hear…something. His senses felt sharpened, frozen into points by the cold that had enveloped him completely. His skin felt raw and breathing hurt, stung and he sucked in jumpy breathes and saw them escape into clouds, hu-hu-hu.

“Arthur?”

He heard a whimper and tried to run toward it. 

Sitting near to enormous peaks was Arthur. His skin was a sickly blue, matched to the ice and the dull light around them.

He was naked, legs in a lotus position, and his torso was bent over at the waist. He had his arms wrapped around his knees. He tilted his head up at Cobb’s stumbling approach.

He lifted a pale blue hand, frost covering the fingertips, and waved, once. “Hi Dom,” he said, his lips splitting apart and blood welling and freezing around his mouth. His voice was tiny.

“Arthur. Arthur I’ve come to take you home.” Cobb crouched down next to him, and Arthur’s eyes were sad. There were tiny ice crystals trapped in his dark eyelashes.

He shook his head and hunched over more tightly, and there was a sickening wet noise as the skin against his spine split apart. Cobb fell to his knees and retched into the snow.

The skin split apart, layer by layer, forming petals around the bright red blood and muscle and vertebrae underneath.

“It’s a lotus blossom,” he rasped, and then held out his arm. There was an IV in it, leading to a PASIV device. In his hand was a cannula. “You have to go now.”

Cobb couldn’t let himself think, blindly grabbing the needle and plugging in.

-

“So, tell me, do you consider Arthur a friend?”

“Shouldn’t you be breaking Fischer?” Cobb’s gaze isn’t furious anymore, but it is determined.

“I’m only asking, because you seemed awfully enraged at a man whose very job it is to know everything, while simultaneously withholding some particularly pertinent information from him. A bit hypocritical, wouldn’t you say?”

“He’ll figure something out. That’s his job. That’s what I pay him for.”

“So, would you say you’re friends, then? Say, throw yourself in front of a bullet for him kind of friends?”

“Jesus Christ, Eames, I’ve got fucking kids.”

“Ah,” Eames says, and wishes Cobb would at least have the decency to look a little ashamed.

-

Here, he goes deeper:

It was hot. Cobb didn’t want to open his eyes, because instead of the oppressive silence of the ice, there were screams.

Arthur was screaming.

“Arthur?” Cobb called out, his eyes still shut. He was covered in sweat, standing somewhere firm.

“DOM!” was the response, and he opened his eyes and Arthur was right in front of him. They were standing in a cave, and it was very red, and Arthur’s arms were shackled to the ceiling. The shackles were the color of iron being forged – bright orange, and the scent of flesh cooking was acrid in the air.

“Fuck,” Cobb said, standing still. “Fuck, Arthur, I’ll…I’ll get you out, I don’t know, I.”

And Arthur was shaking his head. “No, you need to go deeper.” His face was covered in sweat and tears, and suddenly something burst out of his stomach, something hot and metal and Arthur screamed so loudly Cobb could hear him tear his throat.

There was a tube hanging loosely from his left elbow and Cobb followed it, unable to look at Arthur any longer. 

The PASIV sat by the cave wall, innocent, untouched by hot iron. It was cool to the touch and Cobb missed the vein the first time he tried to plug in, his hands trembled so badly.

-

Everything turns out alright, in the end, as far as Dominick Cobb is concerned, and it feels like Arthur’s entire life was sculpted for this moment.

He watches Dom leave and is dizzy with the unknown.

-

Here is what Arthur knows:

Cobb opened his eyes and could see only white. He was on his back, and he cautiously sat up, looking around. 

Arthur was sitting, back straight, legs crossed. He looked suspended about 3 inches from the white floor, but the walls were white, his shirt and pants were loose and white, and the ceiling was white, so it was hard to discern the places and angles of space. Cobb felt dizzy.

“Hi, Dom,” Arthur said, and light shot out of his mouth when he spoke. His eyes stayed closed, but Dom imagined they would glow. His hands were entwined, thumbs at the top, touching.

“It’s the mudra of Dhyana,” Arthur said, anticipating the question. “It helps me meditate. It helps me balance.”

His eyes opened, and instead of light they were dark, hardly any whites around the brown irises. It was unsettling and alien. “Am I dead yet?” Arthur asked. The light from his lips stopped on the worddead, abruptly.

“What?”

“I got shot,” Arthur said in a placid voice, his face blank, his mouth normal, his eyes blown. “When I went under. I wasn’t supposed to get shot, didn’t think it would happen. I guess the projections were just used to shooting at anything at this point, I’d run so many training exercises.”

Cobb waited, so Arthur continued.

“I died, but I didn't wake up. The sedation, I guess, was too much. And then I was somewhere, somewhere deep. The…place you and Mal wrote about, were trying to find.” Arthur broke eye contact when his voice hitched, staring at his palms.

“What’s down there?” Cobb asked, eyes shining with zeal, with interest. 

“Nothing,” he spat.

“Arthur,” Dom said, “this. This is nothing.” He waved his hand. “What’s here, Arthur, that isn't nothing?”

Arthur’s lip curled. “This isn’t nothing, Dom.” But he tilted his head to the right, and the walls of the small white room shimmered and melted, color dripping over them like paint and coiling around Arthur and Dom’s feet, bright green grass growing up underneath them, spreading into an enormous field.

Blue slid down all around them, curling into the sky. It was bright, still, but there was no sun, so neither of them cast a shadow. 

“What is this?” Dom asked and he walked toward Arthur’s still form. Lotus blossoms burst open, blooming beneath his bare feet. Arthur smirked, still looking past him.

“That’s not funny, Arthur.” The flowers felt like silk under his toes.

“This isn’t limbo,” Arthur said, and dropped his fingertips to drag them across the grass. “The Bhumisparsa mudra,” he said, “where the earth bears witness to my words. This isn’t limbo.”

“What’s down there?”

Arthur looked up into Dom’s eyes and uncrossed his legs, bare feet touching grass. His body unfolded. “I was there forever. Years. Nothing was there but me, and anything I could build, but I couldn’t leave. I tried. Guns. Knives. Poison. I’d wake up there again, surrounded by skeletons of whatever I’d made. I didn't know what could happen there. What would happen.”

“Then suddenly I was back in Kandahar, in the desert, in the medic tent bleeding out and,” Arthur paused and tiny droplets of blood began soaking through his white linen shirt. He hissed. “I was dying again. So I went deeper. I wanted to slow it down. I couldn’t fucking go back.”

“Where the fuck did you go? Arthur, what are those places? Why are you still up there if you’re here?”

“I don’t know!” Arthur snapped, his voice rising. There was more blood, slowly soaking through the pants, trickling down Arthur’s face. 

“They’re narakas. Your karma, it gets. It’s cleansed or something, through your suffering. I didn’t build them – I just had to keep going. They were just there. And I was doing a great job of ignoring the fact that I’m simultaneously bleeding to death, freezing to death, and being torn apart by metal rods until you came along.” His eyes glittered, so so dark, and Cobb took a step back and put his hand on his gun.

“I’m going to take you home, Arthur. And it’s going to hurt. But you need to want it.”

The flowers surrounding him started to wither.

“I don’t want anything, Cobb, except to not go to limbo, and how do I know I won’t go straight there?”

“You won’t. You’re with me, I know how long the sedation will last,” and that last sentence was a lie, but they both ignore it.

“I can’t go back,” he said and then toppled to his knees.

“You think this is real?”

“No!” Arthur’s face was pulled into a snarl. “I’m trapped here, the realm of knowledge. I can learn but I’ll never teach, never be a boddhisatva, never feel that wholeness, that oneness,” and blood just kept coming, dripping down his face as he curled into a ball. “Dom, I just. I don’t. How do I know you're real?"

Cobb shot him in the temple, then himself. Then he shot him a second time in the cave, a third time in the mountains, and then they sat in the medical tent. Arthur wheezed.

“You need to want this. You’re going to make it,” Cobb said, over and over, until they woke up.

-

Eames, of course, follows Arthur home from the airport.

It’s what he does.

Arthur apparently lives in a studio apartment in Little Armenia, Los Angeles. Arthur has also, apparently, never gone to an Ikea.

The walls are painted a subtle slate, which Eames appreciates, and the wood floor looks spotless. Settled against the wall furthest from the door is a metal futon frame set up like a couch, and Arthur. Arthur’s already pointing a gun at him from his seat on the low futon.

“This is not what I expected.” Eames says as he opens the door after picking the lock. 

“What the fuck,” Arthur says, not looking up from his Kindle.

“I mean, I was thinking sparse,” Eames says, closing the door behind him, “tastefully modern. But this is barren, Arthur.”

Arthur looks up and reholsters his gun. “And?”

Eames sits down next to him. It is, after all, the only furniture in the room.

Arthur shifts uncomfortably. “We travel quite a bit. Why burden myself?”

Eames runs his hand down to the French cuff of the tasteful blue shirt Arthur’s wearing. “But your clothes are always so pricey, dear. No love of beautiful furniture too?”

“It’s not that I don’t like furniture,” Arthur says with a scowl, tugging his wrist out of Eames’ grasp. “I just don’t want to buy anything I’m too attached too. What if I had to leave it behind? Clothes travel.”

Eames purses his lips. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Nothing good comes out of attachment, Eames. My attachment to Cobb is the root of all my suffering, after all.”

Eames can’t tell if it’s a joke or not. “It wasn’t really your fuck-up, you know.”

Arthur’s frown deepens. “It was. I should have anticipated it.”

“What, that Fischer would have been militarized? If you couldn’t find it, it wasn’t out there to find, I’m sure.”

Arthur shakes his head. “That Cobb. That Cobb would have gone that far. That he would have done anything, that something was wrong. It’s not like I didn’t know about Mal.”

And Eames, suddenly, is hit with a memory of Arthur, when he still thought of them as young but when they were both growing hard. “I love you, Arthur, but you’re far too hard on yourself.”

Arthur visibly flinches. “Don’t say that.”

Eames is about to reply sorry, just a turn of phrase. But he doesn’t, because it would be a lie and he hates lying to Arthur. And he doesn’t because he still thinks he can push his way in.

“Why not? Don’t you value honesty?”

Arthur sighs. “I want a cigarette for this.”

Eames laughs.

-

The apartment’s balcony, it turns out, is actually quite nice.

“I’m the one that fucked up, Eames.”

Eames shakes his head and lights two cigarettes, appreciating the way Arthur’s slender fingers brush against his. He’d quit, but he needs something to do with his hands.

“I don’t think you would be any kind of man at all if you anticipated your best mate risking your sanity without informing you.”

Arthur takes in a lungful of smoke and lets it curl out his nose. “I would have done it anyway,” he says.

“I know,” Eames says, because what else can he say? Eames certainly wouldn’t have, and then where would they be? Not here, standing so close that he can feel the heat off of Arthur’s body.

“It’s because I wouldn’t ask,” Arthur says abruptly as he looks out at the city, and Eames wonders what’s brought this on. He moves closer, and their shoulders bump, but Arthur doesn’t pull away.

“Excuse me?” he says, and Arthur rolls his eyes.

“Mal asked,” he continues, “if Cobb would go with her.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Eames says. “She also framed him for murder.”

“Sure, but she still gave him a choice.” Arthur’s shoulders slump a little. “I’m not doing this right, am I?”

“I’m willing to take that chance, you know,” he answers softly.

“I don’t do uncalculated risks. Neither do you. Eames, it’s just. You don’t.” Arthur stops. “I just. With what we do, it’s too high.”

“Arthur—“

“Have you ever been to limbo?” Arthur’s eyes are staring out, but Eames’ head snaps to stare at him. Arthur’s face is backlit, the edges blurring.

Eames stops to consider this question.

“There was a monk, right,” Arthur starts. “He tries different things, and he’s wonderful at them all, so he has to quit. What if he becomes a poet? Then he would neglect his meditation. He can only be one thing, to stay on the path. To be unattached and righteous.”

“Arthur,” he says softly and grabs his hand. It’s cold.

“Have you ever been a lover? In love?”

Eames stays silent and waits.

“Mal told me that it’s searing, a fire that settles in your chest and refuses to die. That it grows out from you like skin, every pore is full.”

“Arthur, are you trying to tell me –“

“I can’t. I don’t feel like that, ever, Eames. I’m only me. If I’m not this than what am I?”

Eames chooses that moment to kiss him.

-

A note on the cessation of suffering.

There is a path to follow, that leads to the end of suffering. This is the Fourth Noble Truth, the one that should weigh heavier on Arthur’s mind when he holds a gun in his hand. The Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada Magga, the eight fold path.

Right actions, right intentions, right thinking. Right everything. Arthur has spent much time thinking and thinking and meditating on these things, how to act in order to be.

But at that second, he exists, head free of the drone of panic, of planning, of making sure every motion is appropriate.

Oh, he thinks. I see now.

-

Chapter Text

And Eames follows him home again, and again, and again.

Arthur doesn’t send him away, and there’s an unnamable feeling curling between his lungs when he looks around his studio and sees reminders: Eames’ shoes, mugs of tea, books, trinkets, and calligraphy pens. Sometimes it presses so hard he can’t breathe, but it’s like being enveloped in something he’s never allowed himself to touch.

They take time off to learn each other, the days tumbling into each other under the Los Angeles sun. Arthur and Eames’ work phones sit together in a drawer, silenced and filling with job offers. Arthur sometimes takes his out and touches Cobb’s number, but never hits the call button.

“I think we’ll need a bigger place soon,” Eames says as he finishes assembling a bookshelf.

Arthur looks up from his perch on his futon, the last vestige of his past life. 

“What do you mean we?” He is peering up at Eames from behind his reading glasses, but goes back to his book, a heavy thing in Japanese.

“Well, I haven’t exactly been paying rent on a separate place. Had you not noticed that I’ve been here for three months?”

“Oh.” Arthur hums a little in his throat. “I guess I hadn’t.”

Eames chuckles, shaking his head. “While I should be insulted, I’m going to take that as a compliment.”

“This explains why there’s so much stuff in my dresser, though.”

“My clothes have to go somewhere.”

“And why there’s so much furniture in this place,” Arthur says, but he is smiling, cheeks dimpling.

“I don’t know why you’re so Zen about this place, anyway. Aren’t you Jewish?” Eames asks as he starts to alphabetize books by author.

“I’m non-practicing.”

“I guess that explains all the guilt though.”

Eames feels the pillow connect with his shoulder with a thump and laughs.

“You’ve cluttered up my whole life,” Arthur says with a huff, but when Eames glances over his head is tilted to the side, a small smile playing on his lips.

“You’re quite welcome,” Eames says, smiling back.

-

Arthur cooks, because Eames hates handling raw meat, and Eames does the dishes because of course the kitchen has no dishwasher. He wants to buy Arthur a house, or a sprawling old country manor, with horses and servants. He thinks Arthur might agree to a loft or a condo. Maybe.

Arthur is outside on the tiny concrete balcony, smoking, and Eames slips outside to stand next to him, a glass of wine in hand.

“Hey,” he says, and Arthur smiles. 

Eames snakes his hand around Arthur’s lower back, and Arthur shifts his weight from the railing to settle into Eames’ chest. Eames sips his wine and looks down, and Arthur is clear lines and heavy heat up against his body. He breathes shallowly and waits for time to slow down.

Arthur eventually relaxes into him.