Actions

Work Header

dead birds fly again

Work Text:

- 2008 -

Eames is hit with a revelation somewhere between the words "nicest bum" and "darling" on a Saturday afternoon.

Arthur is asking Cobb why he can't go into the dream with them, why he has to be the one to stay awake and distract their target's wife, when Eames tells him, "It's because you have the nicest bum out of all of us, darling."

In the 1.5 seconds it takes Eames to say "out of all of us" out loud, his brain simultaneously has the revelation and silently articulates it as "oh, fuck."

Eames stutters, all his sleazy charm and practiced insouciance screeching to a halt, his eyes widen and he nearly drops the pen he's been clicking just to annoy Arthur. But he's a professional, so he catches the pen before it's even entirely out of his hand and fumbles for words to cover up the fact that his brain hasn't stopped moaning "Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck. I wasn't joking at all. Oh, fuck."

The rest of the quip is a garbled mess coming out of his mouth, something about Arthur bending over to tie his shoes and the target's wife being unable to leave the room for days, there's a song about apple bottom jeans isn't there, except Arthur doesn't wear jeans, which won't matter to the wife in question since she won't be paying attention to the type of textile covering said bottom, or something, he doesn't even fucking know.

Arthur tips his head slowly to the side, an elegant stretching of the neck. His frown deepens and his eyes search Eames's face like fucking laser alignments from twin sniper rifles.

Eames shivers. Eames's brain helpfully supplies him with this further elaboration: "oh, you are so fucked."

- 2007 -

3.
Eames backpedals as one of the dark shapes swims threateningly close, and nearly falls backward off the tiny platform upon which he and Arthur find themselves trapped, surrounded by water. He emits an embarrassing squeak of alarm, feet sliding and hands grasping at the elbow of Arthur's sleeve.

Arthur makes an irritated noise, yanking the fine-tailored material away from Eames's scrabbling fingers. "Would you pull yourself together," he demands.

Easier said than done, as one of the swimming shapes rears out of the water with an unmistakably hostile roar. Eames grabs Arthur's jacket again and wrings it, refusing to let go no matter how hard Arthur frowns.

"I'm afraid of marine mammals," Eames says in a tiny voice.

Exasperation, as a concept, isn't strong enough to describe the look Arthur gives him. "Of course you are," he says.

"Life shouldn't be that huge!" Eames says.

As if to prove his point, a manatee of some sort, bigger than a manatee in real life had any right to be and possessing glowing red eyes, breaches the water and makes a chomping motion in their direction. Eames wails.

Arthur rolls his eyes, but re-positions himself so that he is standing between Eames and most of the water, because he isn't an actual douchebag. This fact surprises Eames a little.

He really should know better than to make assumptions about people he has only known for two weeks.

2.
Their mark is a rogue naval officer who somehow managed to steal some state secrets before he was dishonourably discharged.

"What secrets?" Eames asks, picking up and turning over a PASIV device to examine it.

"That's what we need to find out," Cobb says, smiling at Eames in the most inscrutable way possible. Mal has the same smile on her face, pleased and fond and calculating and just screaming trouble all at once, when she takes the PASIV away from Eames and sets it down carefully.

"What did he do in the navy?" Eames asks, curious hands wandering without pause from the confiscated PASIV to some files on a desk.

Arthur looks annoyed, eyebrows knit and mouth tight, and he slaps the files out of Eames's hands with fingers as sharp as Mal's were gentle. "You ask too many questions," Arthur says.

"That is a good thing," Mal says.

Arthur looks even more annoyed, and Eames grins. Rationally, he knows he shouldn't be goading any of these people, shouldn't be inserting himself into their politics when he doesn't know the first thing about the dynamics of their relationships with each other and any of them could probably have him killed. But there's something fun about watching Arthur's frown deepen—it's nothing Eames can explain, but he's spent a lot of his life following what's fun instead of what's wise, and he's too set in his ways to change now.

"So? What did he do in the navy?" Eames pushes.

Arthur turns away from him. You can't ignore me forever, darling, Eames thinks, even as Cobb answers his question.

"He trained dolphins."

Eames is busy watching Arthur shuffle files with precise irritation, so it takes a second to register what Cobb just said.

"I beg your pardon?"

"He trained dolphins," Cobb repeats. "Navy dolphins for detecting underwater mines."

It takes Cobb and Mal the rest of the afternoon just to convince him that no, they weren't lying, yes, that is a real job, and no, this isn't an overly elaborate version of Punk'd where they target naïve criminals for television viewers to laugh at. This is actually the job. They are going to extract classified information from the military's version of a SeaWorld employee.

On their final test run, Eames melts effortlessly into their target's very first girlfriend.

Cobb and Mal nod to each other. They nod to Arthur too, but Arthur doesn't nod back. Mal hides a smile and presses the back of Arthur's hand until Arthur harrumphs. Eames twirls his long black hair and snaps his bubblegum, waiting for them to sort out whatever it is they're sorting out. He kind of likes the way his teenaged boobs fill out his frilly tank top, not too big but definitely there. He bounces on the balls of his feet a little, just to feel their weight on his chest.

"It looks great, Eames," Cobb says, when Mal and Arthur are finally done communing. "Can you get it just like this when we go in tomorrow?"

Eames scoffs. Scoffing as an adolescent girl is great fun—he flips his hair and really throws his wrist into it.

"And you know exactly what to do?" Cobb asks.

"Yep."

"You're sure?"

"Find the mark, remind him why you never forget your first love, keep him distracted until you guys are done. It's not exactly rocket science, grandpa," Eames says, voice pitched and modulated to sound like the girl he's wearing. He has nothing to go by, just photographs, no audio. The voice is entirely a product of his imagination, what he decides a girl who looked like this must have sounded like. Memories, even the ones about your first girlfriend, tend to get a little hazy over time. Unless the poor girl had a distinctively weird voice, the mark shouldn't be able to notice a difference that can't be explained away by dream logic and weak memory.

"You know, I think you might be a little too good at playing a schoolgirl," Arthur says later, when Cobb and Mal have gone home and left them to tidy up.

Arthur is a dick and obviously knows nothing about him, if he thinks a dig like that could even come close to bothering him. He wants to say so what if I like it? or maybe you wanna see how well I can play an adult woman?, but instead he says "Why, are you jealous?"

"Of your ability to strongly resemble a teenaged girl? Not particularly, no."

Are you jealous of the way this ability gets me that smile from Cobb and Mal, Eames doesn't say. Or are you intrigued? Eames has no idea where the hell his brain is going with this, and thanks god that none of it sneaks out from between his lips. What he says aloud is simply, "Good night, Arthur. See you tomorrow."

And when Arthur doesn't reply, Eames walks out the door and doesn't put any thought into why Arthur's eloquent, stinging rejoinders leave him wanting more.

1.
The man in the grey suit and the lady in the black dress find him in the desert.

The man says his name is Cobb, says that he works for the government. He says he has a proposal for Eames, something that would get him out of trouble with the gang he's currently tied up with, something that would keep him out of trouble with all the gangs he's ever tangled with, for now and for the foreseeable future, if Eames is really capable of doing what the rumours say he can do.

Eames doesn't even realise until halfway through Cobb's speech that there's another man there. Not even a man, really—a whipcord phantom, younger than a man but too old to be a boy, silent behind the woman whose name is Mal, assessing him with cool eyes. His suit is a darker grey than Cobb's, tailored to make his slim silhouette look sharp enough to cut.

They talk money. It's a lot of money, almost enough to make "I work for the government" sound less dangerous. But Eames isn't in this country officially, he can't afford to—

"We know everything there is to know about you," Cobb tells him.

That's not bloody likely, but Eames humours him and lets him keep talking.

"We can guarantee you protection from the police, from the Russians, from the mafia, from any street thug you've ever bumped into. Your record in England, in France, in Morocco: we can make all of them disappear. If you want, we can even make you disappear. New name, new cards, new everything."

They work with dreams, and they heard that Eames does too. They've been watching Eames for a long time. The kid standing behind Mal is called Arthur, and he continues to watch Eames like he's demonstrating, like they mean Arthur has personally been watching Eames for a long time, like those eyes of his have been raking over Eames for years. They've been watching him, and now they need him. There's technology out there, research and funding for the crazy shit that Eames has always thought was at least partially drug-induced mind fucking. They call what he does "forging" and "freelancing".

"We are offering you a contract," Mal says, and her accent says that this government wasn't always her government either. "No more freelancing. You forge only for us now. Us and the people we work for."

Eames can't think of a way to say no without making the situation worse. He's been worked on enough times to know when the choice he's being offered isn't really a choice at all.

There must be something in the way he cowers like a cornered animal under the harsh Nevada sun, because Cobb motions for Mal and Arthur to back off.

"This isn't a threat, Mr. Eames," Cobb says. "It's just an excellent business opportunity. We'll give you a week to think about it."

Eames looks up in surprise. He kind of thought that they were just going to club him over the head and toss him into an unmarked van if he didn't go quietly. "I'm not sticking around for a week," he says.

"We'll find you," Cobb says.

They do find him, a week later, and he's still limping from the visit he got from someone sent by the mob to take out his knee, not to cripple him but just enough to make a point. Obviously, he says yes. It isn't because he can't take a little rough treatment. It isn't even entirely because the thought of honing his skills in dream manipulation excites him despite himself. It's mostly because it takes Arthur no effort at all to find him, even though he actually did try to hide. Arthur's leaning against his motel door exactly one week after the day they met, and he casually offers him a hand to shake.

"Welcome to the team, Mr. Eames," he says, not asking Eames if he's in, not even saying hello first.

Eames takes his hand.

3.
Arthur shoots a sea lion that tries to clamber onto the platform behind Eames. It falls into the water inordinately loudly, not even with a splash but with a thundering smack, like meat being dropped onto a steel table. The water churns with blood. It's a temporary solution. Ultimately, all it achieves is to draw more projections towards them.

They're inside what is ostensibly an office building, but the room they're trapped in is filled with water and none of it makes any logical sense. Which is the point of a dream, Eames distantly recognises. He objectively knows that a dream doesn't have to make sense, that a boardroom can be filled with man-eating monsters of the deep just as easily as it can be filled with anything else, but staying objective isn't high on his list of priorities right now.

"There's got to be a way out," Eames mumbles, half to himself. He's embarrassed to find his lips are shaking. "Cobb said dreams are like mazes, right? Mazes always have a way out. There's a way out. How do we get out?"

"Calm down. None of this is real. Dying is the worst case scenario, and if you die in a dream you just wake up in real life."

Eames pulls his coat tighter around himself. He's long since given up the girly forge. He had completed his part of the job—he had lured the mark into Cobb's hands, and then he had disappeared into the background of the dream, just like they had planned. Evil belugas hadn't factored into any of their plans.

"So why are you scanning the space where the wall meets the ceiling like you're looking for a way out too?"

"Like I said, dying's the worst case scenario. If we collapse the dream now, we might not get the job done. I don't know how far Cobb and Mal have gotten, but I want to give them as much time as possible to get what we need," Arthur says.

The dead sea lion is being cannibalized by its compatriots. Eames watches them tear into the flesh, like foreshadowing for what they're going to do to him if they get half the chance. "Have you ever heard of the phrase 'fate worse than death,' my dear Arthur?"

"Stop being so dramatic. And don't call me your dear."

Eames smiles back at him, because even as Arthur retorts he's calculating the distance between the platform and a vent in the ceiling, the only viable avenue of exit in the sealed room.

Unfortunately, his calculations only prove that they can't possibly reach the aforementioned vent, which leaves them no better off than before. Eames lurches back, knocking into Arthur as another sea lion pokes its many-toothed jaws close to his legs. He's sure they're taunting him, at this point. Obviously, if they really wanted to, they could mount some kind of team effort and tip their platform over. They must be dragging it out deliberately because they enjoy watching Eames squirm.

"You really are terrified, aren't you," Arthur deadpans.

"Your faculty for observation is astounding!" Eames all but yells. His hands itch to just grab Arthur by the shoulders and hold him in front of himself like a human shield. He thinks he might be getting hysterical. It's really hard to tell what's an appropriate emotional response and what's over the top when he has to watch his worst fears unfold before his eyes.

"It's an unusual phobia to have."

"I'm not denying that it's weird, Arthur. But I'm denying you the right to judge weird things when you regularly do this for a living."

"I'm sorry about that, by the way."

"About what?"

"I didn't do my job properly," Arthur says. "I knew his unconscious would be militarised against extraction, but I didn't research deeper into it. I figured it would be the usual hostile projections. I didn't think about his marine biology background and put two and two together. I'm sorry."

"Well, it would have taken some stretch of the imagination to predict this onslaught," Eames says. And then he says, "Wait, no, why am I making excuses for you? It's completely your fault. It's your job to be imaginative, and you should have fully anticipated this and prepared accordingly. What's more, you can't pre-emptively apologise to me before I have the chance to be properly mad at you. Now I can't even yell at you without sounding like a prick."

Arthur's lips quirk up for an almost imperceptible millisecond.

"So what's the plan, then?" Eames asks. "You strike me as the kind of man who has at least seven backup plans."

"The plan is simply to stall for as long as we can, until the job is completed or until the projections get us, whichever comes first."

Eames whines at the words "the projections," a high, thin sound that he's not entirely conscious of making. It doesn't stop Arthur from continuing.

"And I don't want to scare you, but I think the platform's eroding."

Eames gurgles a choked-off laugh. And so it is. The foundation of the platform upon which they're standing is crumbling away. One side seems to be decaying faster than the other, so that the platform starts to exhibit a distinct tilt. Arthur subtly moves so that he is standing on the lower end, keeping Eames further away from the water. It's only a half inch's difference, but Eames appreciates the symbolic gesture and honestly, every half inch is a half inch away from those blubbery masses of malicious intent.

In the end, they can only hold out for another ten minutes before the whole thing slides inexorably into the water. It's a lot worse than sharks. At least sharks would have sharp teeth and do it quick. But the mark's militarised mammals take their time, chomping here and tearing there and using their sheer bulk to hold them under water. Arthur's gaze connect with the terrified whites of Eames's eyes, and in the moments before his arm is torn clean off he makes an attempt to shoot Eames and put him out of his misery. His gun is waterlogged though, and refuses to fire.

It hurts. Eames realises, as he watches the blunt herbivorous molars of some primeval monster go to work on his thigh, that he is going to need so much therapy for this, after.

Arthur wakes up with a sharp intake of breath, eyes going out of habit to Cobb's face. Cobb and Mal wake up triumphant, another mission successfully completed. Eames wakes up fighting. His arms flail and strike at projections that are no longer there, getting himself tangled up in the IV lines of the PASIV device and nearly tipping himself out of his chair.

Arthur is there, with a solid hand on his shoulder and a calm assurance that they are leagues away from any ocean or aquarium. There are no marine animals within a hundred mile radius.

Eames can't quite get his breathing back to normal. Cobb saunters over to ask how he'd like his money, and he blames the hitch in his breath on adrenaline, not the feel of Arthur's palm between his shoulder blades, when he answers Cobb with a wheezy "cash, please."

4.
Eames shows up at Arthur's door at 2:47 a.m., still breathless, still seeing his own guts dangling from gleaming tusks every time he closes his eyes.

Arthur wears black silk boxers to bed; it's a factoid Eames is sure he would have found interesting if he weren't so traumatised that his skin feels alternately prickly and numb.

"How did you find me?" Arthur asks, putting his gun down on a table near the door.

"I can't sleep," Eames says. His palms are wet with a mixture of sweat and blood from where he keeps digging his nails in. He forgets this until he wipes nervously at his face and leaves a slimy red trail behind.

Arthur gives him an odd look. "No, that's the answer to my next question, which was going to be what are you doing here," he says, sounding unsettlingly gentle.

He pulls Eames inside with careful hands, poking his head out the door to check that he wasn't followed before closing the door. "Let's try this again, in the right order this time: how did you find me?"

"I blew a guy from your payroll department."

Arthur rolls his eyes. "My next question was going to be 'are you about to have a mental breakdown in my foyer,' but since you're still able to make bad jokes, I assume you'll be fine."

"Wasn't joking," Eames says.

Arthur eyes him with deep suspicion, but when Eames startles hard as the building's plumbing system groans in a way that's vaguely reminiscent of a whale call, Arthur allows him to stay the night. Specifically, he allows Eames to stay the night lying spread-eagled on his living room floor, because normal furniture like beds and sofas remind him too much of being on that rickety platform. Arthur even makes a cup of coffee for himself with a sigh and sits up with Eames. On the whole, it's very disheartening for a forger like Eames, to have missed Arthur's compassionate streak entirely when he made his initial conclusions about his character.

Arthur allows it to go on for three nights in a row before he says, "Have you considered talking to a psychiatric professional about this?"

"Can't. There's no way to avoid sounding crazier than I actually am," Eames points out.

"Hmm."

They're on the couch, watching a late-night movie in Swedish without subtitles. Eames is eating popcorn that tastes like the cardboard roll inside toilet paper, and Arthur is using a tissue to meticulously pick up every crumb he drops.

"At least you're making progress," Arthur says when the movie ends, tilting his head to indicate the fact that Eames is stretched out on the sofa, trying to trick his brain into giving him any sleep at all. "Do you want to try the bed?"

"Why, Arthur, I'm not that kind of girl," Eames says, pretending to sound scandalised, pretending his tongue doesn't get a little dry at the thought.

"Still afraid of beds, then," Arthur concludes, not wrongly.

Eventually, Cobb brings Eames into other dreams for other jobs and none of them involve marine mammals again. Eventually, Eames gets over the bed thing and the sleeping alone thing and the nightmares thing, though not in that neat order. Eventually, visits to Arthur's home become technically unnecessary. But it doesn't stop him from showing up on at least one Saturday night per month, with popcorn that Arthur doesn't eat and DVDs of Scandinavian movies that neither of them can understand.

"Don't you have any other friends?" Arthur asks once, when Eames brings a cheesy Viking drama from the 80s over to his apartment. He lets him in, as always.

"He's in India right now," Eames answers.

"You only have one?"

"All the others are in prison."

"Colour me shocked," Arthur intones.

"Besides, none of them would watch Hrafninn flýgur with me. You're the only one who understands my appreciation for Icelandic cinema. We're kindred spirits, you and I."

"There is no way in hell you pronounced that correctly," Arthur says, and Eames takes it as a positive sign that Arthur chose to ignore Eames's declaration of soul-bonding friendship rather than violently reject it.

He doesn't need to ask if Arthur has any other friends, because he obviously does. Aside from Cobb and Mal, who are definitely too close to him to be just co-workers, Arthur casually mentions the names of others all the time, in sentences like "I was out with my friend Cole the other night, and—" or "my friend Sarah told me that—". Eames has the opportunity to meet some of these friends when he appears without warning on a Friday night instead of Saturday one time, and Arthur turns out to be hosting a small soiree.

"Oh, sorry, I shouldn't have…"

"I didn't know you'd be coming tonight. I figured tomorrow…"

"Yeah, no, it's my fault, I should've…"

They stand awkwardly at the door, Eames clutching Mávahlátur to his chest while the sounds of easy jazz, overlapping conversation, and ice clinking against glass float from behind Arthur's back. After too long a pause, Arthur moves to stand aside and invite Eames in. "Look, if you want to—"

"No, no, I don't want to impose." Which is an odd thing to say, considering that he clearly has no trouble imposing when it's just Arthur alone. "I'll just be going. Enjoy your evening."

Eames rushes away, feeling put out even though he has no rational right to do so. It's just unsettling to be confronted with irrefutable proof that even someone as uptight as Arthur still has a richer social life than him, that's all. No other reason to be envious of these people who are allowed into a sphere of Arthur's life that Eames can't even begin to access. Although Eames will admit to being intrigued by the implication that Arthur might have deliberately scheduled his party on Friday so as to leave his Saturday evening free for entertaining Eames.

And Eames is very much aware that that's what Arthur's doing—entertaining him. Indulging him. Putting up with him. He's not sure what Arthur gets out of the relationship, exactly.

"Why are we friends?" Eames asks, hours after the first time he ever has to kill Arthur in a dream. He keeps wanting to touch Arthur's throat, to reassure himself that it doesn't have any more openings than it should, and he keeps wanting to say sorry, even though Arthur's the one who made him do it in the first place.

"Do you mean that question philosophically? Like, why does friendship exist? What is friendship?" Arthur pours him a brandy and waves him aside when he tries to say thank you.

"I mean, we never go out. We just hang about your flat, drinking. Is reclusive drinking really a solid basis for friendship?"

"Our friendship is based more on your post-traumatic stress disorder than reclusive drinking or anything else, I think."

Eames looks at Arthur dolefully, with his chin on Arthur's kitchen table and his eyes rolled up like a sad puppydog. The brandy is quite excellent; he feels warmer already. "Are you saying I'm the bromantic equivalent of a pity-fuck? Because that makes me sad, Arthur. Tell me I'm more to you than just a pity-fuck."

Arthur takes the empty tumbler out of Eames's hand and sighs. "Are you saying you want to go out?"

"Maybe."

"Will it get you to never, ever use the word "bromantic" in my presence again?"

"…Maybe."

So that's how they end up at precisely the kind of club that Eames imagines Arthur might go to, on the occasions that he can stretch his imagination to picture Arthur in a club at all. It's quiet on the outside, understated, no flashy lights or signs but there's still a queue around the block. It has a dress code and Eames has to borrow a tie from Arthur just to get in. The music sounds like a cerebral contemplation about the effect of synthesizers on society, and the dancing is almost solemn, like a ritual. Businessmen buy incredibly expensive drinks and sign contracts in booths, and diamonds flash like constellations from the necks and ears of women and men.

Eames congratulates Arthur on his choice of establishment. Arthur uses Eames's oafish presence as a way to pull a beautiful brunette, by dazzling her with his eloquence as he apologises for the dress Eames ruins when he spills a cocktail on her.

Arthur has the courtesy to ask if Eames'll be alright before he leaves with the girl. Eames has found a man willing to ply him with compliments and alcohol, so he says yes. He watches the way Arthur's hand rests just above the curve of the brunette's bottom and thinks to himself, "well that answers that question, then." The funny thing is, he didn't even know he had been asking a question until then.

- 2008 -

And then Eames has a shocking revelation about his feelings for Arthur's bum, and it isn't just that he thinks it's objectively attractive. He thinks Arthur has the nicest bum out of everyone on the planet, possibly the universe, and even knowing that Arthur's bum is incapable of liking him back, he can't get over the feeling that it's the only bum he wants to like. It's a sign of how fucked Eames really is, when he's mentally using Arthur's bum as a symbol to stand in for something he can't even bring himself to articulate in thought.

Immediately post-revelation, Eames's first order of business is to find and take the first opportunity to get the fuck out of there without being obvious. Not being obvious is the key, he feels. He can't be obvious about the cataclysmic event that just happened in his brain, he can't be obvious about its implications, and he most definitely cannot be obvious about what it means in relation to his friendship with Arthur.

Mal and Cobb keep talking about logistics. Arthur keeps looking at Eames. Eames struggles to keep his face from twitching. Can't be obvious. This is the key.

Eames's phone rings about an hour later, and it's a robot asking him if he wants to fill out a survey for the chance to win a gift certificate worth $500. He's never been more ecstatic in his life to get a telemarketing call. He loudly pretends it's a friend on the other end, a friend who needs him to do a perfectly legal favour that would take the rest of the afternoon. Cobb doesn't bat an eye at the performance, tells him to go and they'll see him tomorrow morning—either Eames has gotten really good at this forging business, or Cobb knows it was a fake call but doesn't care enough to ask why.

Eames doesn't run home. He does, however, propel himself home with the speed-walk of a child who desperately needs to go to the toilet but isn't allowed to run in the hallways.

The knock on his door later that evening isn't entirely welcome, or unexpected. It's Arthur, of course. It's always Arthur. Arthur has that crease between his eyebrows that approximates concern, and it's the last thing in the world Eames needs to see because it just makes him that much more smitten with Arthur.

In the four or so hours since Eames bolted from work, he has come to one very firm conclusion: Arthur can't find out about his feelings, because if he does then everything will be ruined forever. Knowing what he knows about Arthur's affinity for female company and his occasional tendency to see Eames as a chore, there is no future in pursuing these feelings. No good can come of it. Best case scenario, it'll make everything incredibly awkward and Arthur will look at him with even more than the usual amount of pity in his eyes. And the best case scenario is hardly tolerable—Eames doesn't even want to think about the worst case scenario, with the disgust and derision and the never ever seeing Arthur again. That way lies madness. No, the best and indeed only course of action is for Eames to suppress his unhelpfully unplatonic emotions as deeply and ruthlessly as possible until they wither away through time and neglect, and hope that Arthur doesn't notice anything in the meantime. Although the git isn't helping matters by showing up all worried about Eames's well-being. A flush of pleasure is a difficult thing to suppress and/or hide.

"Why the performance with the phone call?" Arthur asks.

Eames loves the way Arthur speaks without preamble, gets right to the point like a really terse and sexy missile. Oh god, he needs to stop thinking about what he loves about Arthur and also stop comparing him to phallic weapons of mass destruction. Get a grip, Eames.

"I'm sure I have no clue what you're on about, darling."

"You don't have any other friends in America," Arthur says.

"I do too."

"Who aren't in jail, I mean."

"He just got out. That was the favour he needed me to do. He needed a ride home from…Sing-Sing." It's the only American penitentiary name Eames knows because it's the only one he's heard in movies.

"Sing-Sing's in New York."

"Right. That's why I decided not to go after all. I mean, fuck him, he can find his own transportation. The price of petrol is obscene these days."

Arthur gives him the narrowed glare, the one Eames knows he learned from Cobb. God, Eames feels like the most obvious person on the face of the planet. He feels like Arthur can not only see right through him, but can also see each and every detail of every molecule in Eames's body as his gaze passes through, reading each love-struck cell like a large-print book with explanatory diagrams. He doesn't know where to put his hands. He slips them in and out of his pockets, twines and untwines his fingers, skims them awkwardly over the frame of the door and feels like he's putting them in the wrong place no matter where they rest, even though they're his hands and his doorframe, for god's sake, pull yourself together, man. Surely Arthur can see his pathetic infatuation written all over his face.

But Arthur only scoffs at him, imparting sarcasm into a whuff of air the way only Arthur can, and invites himself in by pushing Eames aside. He heads straight to the refrigerator to pull out a beer without asking, familiar and untroubled, like he doesn't see at all, like he doesn't know that it's the end of the world for Eames.

- 2008 to 2009 -

1.
When Eames was about ten years old, his mother had developed a small goitre due to thyroid problems. He remembers her self-consciousness, the way she felt like everybody was staring at her neck and thinking something rude even though nobody was saying anything at all. Eames feels a little like that when he comes to work these days.

His ridiculous crush (he refuses to legitimize it with any other label) on Arthur is like an abnormal growth. Everyone can see it, but everyone is too polite to make a comment. His father had told his mum that it was only in her imagination, that nobody even noticed. It was true for his mum, but Eames has trouble believing it of his own predicament. Sometimes, when he passes Arthur a ruler or a file or something and their fingers brush, Eames's knees go ever so slightly weak. How could anyone fail to notice that?

The most annoying part of it is the way he keeps rebelling against himself. His mind seems set on self-sabotage. The brain that resolved he absolutely cannot allow Arthur to know and must get over this silly crush forthwith is also the same brain that then wanders fifty times a day to thoughts of Arthur's skin and concocts fantasies of Arthur saying yes to a date. It makes Eames want to punch himself in the head.

He passes by shop windows, and his brain suggests he could buy this book or that tie for Arthur. Is this the anxiety a pet feels, scouring the neighbourhoods and fields all day for something to bring back to its human to prove its love? Eames makes a note to call his parents and tell them not to yell at the cats and dogs anymore when they lug home disgusting, half-decomposed things and present them on the welcome mat. They're only trying to please. The urge is really strong and hard to resist.

Eames makes herculean attempts to resist, because nothing in the world would look more obvious than a constant shower of gifts. Lord knows how Arthur would react if Eames presented him with an exquisitely-wrapped bottle of designer cologne, far too intimate and too far away from any conceivable gift-giving holiday.

But he wants to, oh god he wants to. He can't get Arthur off his mind whenever he's anywhere near any place that offers any semblance of retail. He wants to give Arthur things. He wants Arthur to accept his gifts, like some symbolic acceptance of little pieces of Eames. He wants Arthur to keep a little piece of Eames in his pocket or on his bedside table and jesus fucking christ, his own mind is starting to seriously frighten him when he lets it wander on the topic of Arthur.

He sublimates his creepy desire to give of himself to Arthur by masking it with rational gestures. He buys coffee for Arthur, and carefully brings coffee for Cobb and Mal as well, to cover up the particularity of the gesture. He buys Arthur stationery when they start to run low, on the pretext of buying stationery "for the office in general".

Arthur's fingers scrape the bottom of the empty cup in which they keep paperclips. He looks at Eames with puzzled surprise when Eames hands over a fresh box of paperclips before he even has the chance to ask. "Thank you, Mr. Eames."

Eames says "you're welcome" and doesn't mention that he's named a metaphorical goitre after him.

2.
Eames looks for excuses to call Arthur, because he likes the sound of Arthur's voice against his ear and he likes to imagine the digital cellular network between them as a solid thing, a literal ribbon tied from his heart to Arthur's like the piece of string connecting the two ends of a tin can telephone.

Said excuses are really hard to find when they're not working on a job. Eames has to seriously stretch his not inconsiderable imagination to justify ringing up Arthur.

"I'm sorry, did you just say 'favourite childhood puppet'?"

"Yes. I was just wondering."

"At midnight on a Wednesday?"

Eames winces and thinks he could have done better, as far as imagining a reason goes. It's just that he hadn't heard Arthur's voice in over a week and his fingers had danced anxiously on the number pad of his phone, begging to press the digits they knew by muscle memory. He had tried sitting on his hands—literally, sitting on his hands, but in the end he had given in like some sad addict and called Arthur. He didn't have a script prepared ahead of time, and so he had blurted the first thing that came to him.

"Look, I can't help that I'm a naturally inquisitive soul. I know it's hard for a mindless automaton like you to understand, but I want to know things about the world. I thirst for knowledge. Positively thirst for it."

"Mm-hmm." The thing is, Arthur doesn't sound annoyed. He sounds like the left corner of his lips might be curving up the way it sometimes does, involuntarily.

"Of course, I'm running on the assumption that you watched enough television as a child to even have a preferred puppet. It wouldn't surprise me if you didn't. Maybe you only played with educational toys and read a lot of literature. Do you remember The Giving Tree?"

"Eames, are you drunk?"

He isn't. Not even a little bit. That's the most wretched part of it. He tells Arthur he is, though, because that's the only way to excuse this whole conversation. Arthur is soft on him when he's drunk and in a vulnerable state; it's probably because Arthur is kind and considerate and the most decent human being Eames knows. Fuck.

It's worse when Arthur doesn't pick up.

The rational part of Eames's mind (dwindling ever smaller as the days pass by, he's sure) knows that Arthur is a busy person, knows that Arthur has an actual job with the government that's unlike Eames's own contract-by-contract agreement, knows that Arthur has an actual life outside of their relationship that's unlike Eames's own lack thereof, knows that even if Arthur didn't it would still be logical for him to not always answer the phone at god knows what o'clock whenever, every time Eames calls.

This knowledge does nothing to ease the knot of anxiety and completely nonsensical sadness that builds in Eames's chest when he goes for a long stretch without talking to Arthur. Without his existence being acknowledged and therefore somehow made better by Arthur.

The knowledge does nothing to stop Eames from leaving ridiculous, compulsive messages on Arthur's voicemail, messages he doesn't know how to erase because he's had to get a new cell phone for the fifth time in two months for security reasons, and he still hasn't figured out all the functions on the newfangled thing yet.

Maybe he leaves more than one message, when Arthur doesn't call back the next day either. Maybe he makes up a little deadline in his head, thinks "I'll call again if I don't hear from him in 36 hours, but definitely not before then." Maybe he cracks at the 29th hour and leaves another message, a long rambling one about noodle soup that ends with a plea for Arthur to call back at his earliest convenience. A polite plea, but definitely pleading nonetheless.

And when, days later, his phone rings and it's Arthur on the other end saying, "Listen, Eames, my grandmother's chicken noodle could beat your grandfather's any day of the week and twice on Sundays, so stop giving me his recipes because I don't need them and you're clogging up my inbox," he can't help that the knot that's been sitting on top of his heart finally unravels.

It's like re-setting a timer back to zero. He hears from Arthur, and he feels better, until the Arthur-less days build up again and the knot returns and it won't go away no matter how many laws he breaks trying to take his mind off it.

3.
Another thing Eames has noticed about himself lately (he's never been an especially self-aware person, but these days he can't help noticing all kinds of things about himself, all undesirable) is the utterly unreasonable percentage of his brain power he seems to be dedicating to analysing casual conversations with Arthur.

When Eames is forging a prostitute, an elegant and classy woman who should really be called a paid escort, he gets cornered on a rooftop by his john and can't decide whether to break the illusion by hitting him back or stick to the plan and take it on the other cheek.

Arthur solves his dilemma by quietly dropping the projection with a silenced shot to the brain stem. It's just professional courtesy, really. Eames licks the blood from the corner of his lipsticked mouth and says thank you.

"My pleasure," Arthur says, helping him up.

Eames then spends the rest of the week intently overthinking why Arthur may have said that instead of "you're welcome," or "no problem." Did he mean to imply all the connotations carried by a word like "pleasure"? Had his voice been slightly husky, or was that just Eames's wishful thinking?

Or when they're having a working lunch in the nondescript van Cobb has hired them for the week, to stake out and thoroughly learn the habits of their mark, and they somehow get to talking about curry despite the fact that they're having sandwiches. Eames mentions that he's been craving a proper curry—no Indian restaurant in America seems capable of serving up anything even approaching the tastiness of the cheap, dirty shop around the corner from his parents' flat. And don't even get him started on the astronomical deliciousness of the authentic curry his best friend's sister makes. The lack of good curry is definitely in the top ten list of America's disadvantages.

"I wouldn't say that," Arthur opines. "I know of a restaurant that serves quite decent curry and incredible naan."

"Bullshit. You only think it's good because your unrefined American palate can be taken in by any food with an "ethnic" label."

"I have eaten in other countries before, you know. I'd argue that this restaurant is at least as good as the Indian food I've had in England, if not better."

Eames snorts, which in hindsight inadvisable when consuming a sandwich. He snuffles and coughs and makes a host of generally unattractive noises before he clears his windpipe enough to say, "I don't believe you. You'll have to take me there sometime and prove it."

"Sure. I'd love to," Arthur says.

Eames subsequently stays up nights, actual nights, replaying that lunchtime conversation in his head. What does Arthur mean by using the word "love"? Doesn't he know that it drives Eames to circle-pacing, hair-pulling, wall-scratching madness? How fucking inconsiderate is he, to so nonchalantly throw out a word that claws at the very lining of Eames's stomach? Does he know the torment he puts him through?

But of course he doesn't know. That's the whole point, and the rub of it. Arthur doesn't know; Eames doesn't want him to know; and it's pointless to take his words out of context, to take them apart like a curious kid who dismantles a clock or a radio to expose the innards and find out how it works, because unlike a clock or radio there are no complicated wires inside Arthur's words. They are friendly pleasantries, and nothing more. No amount of obsessing over them will reveal a secret meaning to Eames.

And even being completely aware of that doesn't stop Eames from doing it to every single offhand compliment, every morsel of interested attention, every "it's my pleasure" that Arthur utters.

4.
On the rare occasions they go out for a drink, or attend a concert that Eames has no real interest in attending, or see a sporting event that Eames cannot even understand, Eames allows himself to do a very dangerous thing.

He allows himself to fantasize.

More than that, he allows himself to pretend that they aren't simply out as friends—he allows himself to pretend that it's a date, that he and Arthur are going out as part of the activities of courtship. Not for any lengthy period, of course. Eames still has enough shreds of dignity to not spend an entire evening in self-delusion, however pleasurable the delusion might be. For just a few minutes, though, when he's fixing his hair before meeting Arthur, he lets himself pretend that he has to look nice because Arthur will notice. (He won't.) And for just a few seconds, when Arthur's stopping him from pulling his wallet out and paying for Eames's lager himself, he lets himself pretend it's because Arthur's his boyfriend. (It's because Eames paid last time and Arthur never fails to remember debts.) For just a split second, when the night is over and he's nicely buzzed and Arthur's still sober enough to drive so he pulls up to Eames's door with Eames in the passenger seat, Eames lets himself pretend that Arthur is going to walk him to his front step and kiss him before he goes inside.

(He isn't.)

5.
Eames, contrary to popular belief, is capable of harsh self-criticism. Especially in those moments when he knows he really deserves his own mental berating, such as when he's thinking about the glossiness of Arthur's hair while Arthur is introducing him to his new girlfriend.

"This is Amber," Arthur says.

The slender, petite thing with long flowing tresses the colour of her namesake has perfectly symmetrical dimples when she smiles at Eames politely.

"Pleased to meet you," Eames says, although he never is, not to meet any of them. But he's not going to be rude about it. His mother had raised him with decent manners that he's occasionally able to put into practice, he sees no point in making Arthur unhappy with his behaviour, and it's not actually the girls' fault that Eames is a failure at life who's going to die alone. Nor is it their fault that Eames wasn't born a woman, a tiny one with a severe mouth and a confident voice—Arthur's type.

Eames knows it's sad and pitiful and borderline sickening that he keeps lusting after Arthur even when Arthur is fucking Amber in Cobb's guest room, the one time Mal invites everyone they know from work to their home for a Christmas party. Eames hardly counts as someone she legitimately knows from legitimate work, but Mal is often inexplicable and it's not like Eames has anything better to do in the dead of holiday season in a foreign country. Arthur brings Amber as his date. Eames brings nobody.

The only consolation is that Amber doesn't last for very long. None of them do. Arthur isn't interested in settling down yet, and although he really liked Amber (and Susie and Giovanna and Lakshmi and Tara and Cheyenne and…well, one gets the idea) he was never dating her with the intent to get serious.

Arthur generally parts on good terms with his girlfriends. It's not like they go into it thinking of marrying him either. But Eames knows that eventually, perhaps far off in the future but perhaps sooner than Eames is ready for, Arthur is going to decide to keep seeing one of those women. It's only a matter of time.

For now, Eames relishes each breakup like a small victory. He knows it's revoltingly petty of him. But it's not like Arthur's terribly hurt by the process—he feels sad for all of two, maybe three days, and during that time Eames has an excuse to hang around and console him.

Eames disgusts himself sometimes, the way he's willing to leap on the opportunity to stay over at Arthur's and pat his back supportively. He's like a bottom feeder, a decomposer, a relationship fungus sucking out sustenance from the corpses of dead romance. And if he's being brutally honest, some tiny unsmotherable (and he has tried to smother it, he really has) part of him hopes against hope that maybe, just maybe, when Arthur has gone through every attractive girl in his dating pool in the northern hemisphere and run out, he might turn to Eames and give him a chance. Even though all the other parts of Eames know that he will never, no matter what, be the next girl in line.

But regardless of how often he tells himself this, regardless of how much self-loathing he musters up, how much contempt he loads into the voice in his head when he gives himself the well-rehearsed "it ain't gonna happen, mate, get over it" speech, he can't stop himself from taking a taxi to Arthur's the next time Arthur calls and says, "I broke up with Marguerite."

Eames is a fucking idiot. But he's an idiot who gets to help Arthur figure out how many beers it takes to get over a beautiful girl, and he's alright with that.

6.
The side of Arthur's jaw juts out sharply when he clenches his teeth in concentration. Eames knows this detail because he watches Arthur read, sometimes. A lot. When they're in the preliminary stages of a job, and there's a lot of paperwork for Arthur to wade through while Eames sits around waiting to be told what to do, Eames bounces on a swivel chair and gazes at Arthur.

The lines of Arthur's triceps stand out when he waves his hands, talking to Cobb about Mal in a volume that cannot even remotely count as a whisper. Eames studiously does not listen, especially when he accidentally overhears the word "breastfeed" and realises it's something so personal about Cobb and Mal that he should probably just leave the room. He doesn't leave the room though, because he doesn't want to let on that he's heard anything at all. Cobb and Arthur don't notice him, or don't think it's important that he's there, and Eames concentrates on not listening to Arthur's words, concentrates on watching each muscle flex in his forearms instead.

The curve of Arthur's ribs rise and fall with a carelessness in sleep that he would never allow when he's awake and in control. There's no real need for Eames to be there when the army tests out a new chemical cocktail to go with the PASIV, but he makes an excuse to come in anyway. Eames knows it's more than a little weird to watch someone sleep (or read or talk) without them knowing. He'd like to blame Arthur for bringing a lot of weird behaviour out of him, but at the end of the day, Arthur's the one with his eyes closed, oblivious, and Eames is the one lurking in the shadows like a creep.

7.
He changes tack once and only once.

One bright afternoon, Eames takes stock of his almost comically pathetic situation and decides he needs to tell Arthur. He needs to just rip the band-aid off and move on with his life.

Arthur interrupts his stuttering and stalling to say, "I know, it's okay. You don't owe me an explanation, but I appreciate you telling me anyway."

Arthur thinks Eames is trying to come out to him. He thinks Eames is trying to tell him he's gay. He doesn't realise it is so, so, so much more than that.

But Eames doesn't have the strength to look at Arthur's open, caring, compassionate face and explain that his friendship isn't enough. Because it is enough. Stupid fucking sex hormones and teenage white wedding dreams aside, Eames genuinely likes Arthur as a friend.

So he closes the door on the "tell him" option once more, not so much out of fear of losing Arthur this time, but because he doesn't want Arthur to think he causes misery for Eames. Even if he sort of does.

8.
Arthur pats his shoulder in congratulations for a job well done. It's something he must have done dozens of times before, but this one time, Eames happens to be turning and it makes Arthur's hand land on his upper arm instead, turning it into more of a caress than a solid pat. Arthur's pinky finger grazes a bit of skin where Eames's short sleeve ends. And it's not like they've never had skin-to-skin contact before, but it catches Eames off guard in this particular moment.

He makes his way casually to the toilet, but once there he locks the door and hyperventilates for several long minutes. He considers asking Cobb for the rest of the day off. Maybe he can feign a sudden-onset flu.

And then he realises how ridiculous he is being over an unplanned skim from Arthur's little finger, and he slaps some cold water onto his face. He's got this. He can get back out there and do his job. He is a fully functional human being.

He gets his shit together so well and acts so normal for the rest of the day that he can almost justify to himself the million billion times he wanks to the memory of Arthur's soft touch on his arm.

9.
Once, when they have to hustle out of a compromised building, Eames rips his IV cannula out of his arm in a hurry and a bright spot of blood wells up.

It's nothing, smaller than even the smallest of actual injuries Eames has ever gotten. But for one frozen instant, Arthur's eyes meet his. He sees concern in those eyes.

The next second, they're rushing to get everything packed up and then they're running the hell out of there, and Eames can't be sure if he just imagined what he wanted to see.

10.
There are some things Eames does in his free time that Arthur doesn't know about.

Well, there are lots of things Eames does in his free time that Arthur doesn’t know about, such as masturbate to the memory of rain sliding down Arthur's skin from that one time they had a mark who dreamt about nothing but monsoons, but there are things that Eames keeps secret for entirely different reasons. Professional reasons.

Those professional reasons collide catastrophically with Cobb's orders one day.

"—so we need to figure out where that arms shipment went, before the Latin Kings can sell them," Cobb says.

"Um," Eames says. "I have good news and bad news."

Cobb's eyes narrow at the slightly evasive tone in Eames's voice.

Eames hems and haws and hedges, until he finally spits out, "The good news is I already know where it is. The bad news is I know because I helped a Colombian guerrilla group get the location last week."

The thing is, Eames has never been the type to get tied down to any one thing for very long. When he was little, it drove his parents mad. He joined and quit sports clubs more often than he changed his underwear; he never finished school because it was too much of the same thing in one place; he never held a steady job for longer than six months; and when he inevitably fell into a life of mercenary thievery and conning, he never worked for the same clients twice. Until Cobb and Mal came along and turned his life upside-down. But even then, after less than a year, he'd started taking some outside freelance work because the law is just too small a cage for his budgie-like mind. There had been no conflicts of interest, but Eames supposes he always knew this would eventually happen.

As expected, Cobb doesn't take the news well.

"I swear, I took the job long before I knew our people had anything to do with it. I had no idea this would happen. You know I would never deliberately jeopardize our operations. Cobb, please." Eames isn't proud of the way he sounds like he's begging, but fuck it, he is begging. He's begging and desperate to get that terrible look off Cobb's face, the one that doesn't spell fury but disappointment.

"Don't say 'our people,' Mr. Eames," Cobb says quietly. "You have no allegiance to anyone. You sell your loyalty to the highest bidder."

It would be easier if Cobb were yelling, if Cobb were screaming and raging and hitting Eames across the face as hard as he can with closed fists. Better. But instead, Cobb is emotionless, flat. Shaking his head slowly like he should've known better than to believe in Eames, even though he had been the first person to believe in Eames and had been believing in him for over two years now, and Eames has busted his ass doing good work for him all this time. It isn't fair.

"You knew what I was when you hired me," Eames spits, using anger as a shield to protect his soft parts from further wounding.

"You're right," Cobb agrees. "A leopard can't change its spots any more than you can change your nature. It's my fault for forgetting."

Instead of killing him, Cobb just releases him from his current and any possible future contracts. He doesn't even do it angrily—he coolly tells Eames "good luck and be careful" while he lets him go.

Mal looks as surprised as Eames feels to be suddenly cut out of everything he's known for the past two years. But she doesn't speak up to stop Cobb. She just gives Eames a wistful smile, a soft squeeze of fingers around his wrist in goodbye.

It hurts. It makes Eames feel eleven years old again, eleven and having done something so appalling that his parents can't even talk to him to punish him, they just turn their backs on him because they can't stand to look him in the eye.

Without the steady income of his government paycheque, and without the steady influence of Arthur and the Cobbs, Eames goes back to doing what he does best. Only, after two years of playing at the highest level, he's now much, much better at it. His not-quite-legal services fetch top price, and he gains a bit of a reputation with all the right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) people.

Neither Cobb nor Mal contact him, which isn't unexpected, since they never socialized outside of work overmuch even before Cobb completely disowned him.

He keeps hanging out with Arthur, though.

Now that he knows for sure that Arthur knows he's up to no good, he feels a bit embarrassed about it, a bit furtive and apologetic. He makes excuses to justify what he does, sometimes, even though Arthur never asks or even brings it up.

Arthur just shrugs, props his dress-socked feet up on his coffee table, and motions for Eames to pass him the television remote. "I'm not your keeper," he says.

Even though Eames kind of wishes he would be.

11.
"You've been living here for two years and you still don't have a proper apartment?"

Eames's adrenaline doesn't immediately allow Eames's pulse to slow down, even though he instantly recognises the man climbing in through his motel window. He flicks his gun's safety back on.

"Jesus christ, Yusuf," he says, "I get enough nagging from my mother."

Yusuf drops the rest of the way through the window, then reaches back to drag his raggedy duffle bag in behind him.

"I could've shot you, you stupid fucker," Eames says, going in for a hug. "Why didn't you wait at the airport?"

Yusuf pounds his back affectionately. "Flight landed early. Thought I would surprise you. Now, where's your liquor cabinet?"

Eames has known Yusuf since he was a young exchange student in London, looking to buy drugs off Eames's older brother. They've been getting blitzed together since they were sixteen, and even though life has taken them to different places, they've never stopped keeping in touch, nor stopped to question why they keep in touch. They just do.

Yusuf visits him for two weeks ("visits him" mostly means "introduces him to all kinds of new recreational drugs that have developed since the last time Eames saw him"). Between crippling hangovers, Eames fills him in on his current situation, as much as he can without breaking the non-disclosure death pact the military made him sign, not because he respects it but because he suspects Cobb would somehow find out even if Yusuf never tells anyone. He attempts to get Arthur and Yusuf to make friends with each other, but Arthur takes one whiff of the patchouli-scented cloud that surrounds Yusuf and scoffs. Yusuf calls Arthur a square. Multiple times. Arthur doesn't punch him for it, and later they go after the same girl at the bar. She turns down both of them, and Eames thinks that's about as friendly as he can ever hope they'll be.

Two weeks later, Yusuf is getting ready to head back to Delhi.

"Come with me," he says to Eames. "My mother misses you. Hell, your mother misses you. You've been hiding here in the asshole of the world for way too long. What the hell is keeping you here?"

"I don't even know," Eames says. But that's a total lie, and Yusuf knows it. Yusuf knows him.

"Should I be jealous of how much you hang out with that Arthur?" he asks. "Should I demand that you give back your half of our bestfriend necklaces?"

"No. No," Eames chuckles hollowly. "It's not like that. It's not even like that at all."

"You know Arthur's a total square, right?"

Eames chuckles again. "Yeah, you've said."

After a long pause, Yusuf says, "You know Arthur's straight, right?"

Eames sighs. "Look, it's not. I'm not…"

"So there's nothing to keep you here then, basically."

Eames can't commit to an answer.

"I'm starting a new business in Kenya," Yusuf says, incongruently. "I know someone who wants to get rid of their shop, and I have ideas to take it in a new direction. It's related to the stuff you've been doing. I could use your help."

Eames thinks of the way Arthur's little finger felt, that one time it barely brushed against the skin of his arm and left him unable to function. He thinks of the way Arthur's eyes light up when his girlfriend of the week walks into the room, the way they never light up the same when he sees Eames. He thinks of the way he keeps a mental tally of the times Arthur smiles at him, even though he knows he shouldn't.

Eames lets Yusuf convince him.

Arthur doesn't throw his arms around Eames and beg him not to leave, of course. Eames feels silly for hoping, even for a second, that Arthur might ask him to stay, or at least express some sadness that Eames is leaving the fucking country. But no. Arthur offers to drive them to the airport.

Eames thinks maybe a change of scenery will be good for him.

- 2009 to 2010 -

1.
Mal dies.

3.
"How's Mombasa?" Arthur asks, sounding tinny over whatever terrible connection he's using to call Eames.

Eames sits up in bed. "It's hot. And dark," he mumbles sleepily, scratching the hair on his chest. His skin is damp with sweat. It's much too hot to sleep with any sheets or even a shirt. "Dark because it's the middle of the night."

"Sorry. I didn't think—"

"It's fine," Eames says. Because it is. Arthur can call him whenever he damn well wants. Mombasa has changed nothing. He flops back into his pillow, too tired to deal with the effort of staying upright. "How's…wherever you are?"

"Fine," Arthur says, giving away nothing about his location.

Eames rumbles an incoherent response. He could fall asleep like this, listening to Arthur's voice just like old times. Only it's a role reversal now, because Arthur's always the one who calls him and not the other way around. He can't call Arthur anymore because Arthur doesn't have a phone number anymore. The thought of being disconnected from him would give him a lot more anxiety if it weren't for the fact that Arthur checks in almost weekly. He's not sure what Arthur gets out of calling him so much, but he isn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Maybe Arthur figures Eames would come looking for him if he left him hanging too much, and he doesn't want anyone looking for him. That's probably it.

"How's Cobb?" Eames asks, because Arthur's silent for too long and the phone call is kind of pointless if he isn't going to let Eames bask in his voice.

"He's…adjusting," Arthur says. Arthur has all kinds of ambiguous adjectives to describe Cobb these days, none of which sound particularly pleasant. "Actually, I was wondering if you know of anyone in Spain who might be looking to get a job done."

"Ah, so this is a crime booty call."

"Yes, Eames, this is precisely what it is." Arthur has this incredible ability to communicate an eye-roll via telephone, somehow.

"Lemme make a few inquiries in the morning," he says. "Call me back in twelve hours."

"Thanks."

"Arthur, wait. Does Cobb know that you've been getting…employment opportunities through me?"

"I haven't told him," Arthur says carefully.

Which doesn't mean Cobb doesn't know. Eames would relish the irony of Cobb now being dependent on the very thing he had dismissed Eames for, except it's too sad.

"Sorry I woke you," Arthur murmurs, and hangs up.

Eames leaves his cell phone on the bed and goes back to sleep with his hand curled around it.

2.
Eames doesn't go to Mal's funeral.

He isn't invited, and he would've sent flowers but he doesn't even know what day it's held. He only hears about it afterward, when Arthur calls to tell him that he and Cobb are going on the run. Arthur doesn't say "going on the run," of course—he makes it sound much more eloquent and sophisticated, if no less reckless and stupid.

"You can come lay low in Mombasa, if you want," Eames says, even though he can picture Yusuf disposing of his body parts in garbage bags just for offering. They've just opened the new shop, Yusuf's pride and joy and entrepreneurial dreams come true. They're busy, too busy to be harbouring fugitives.

So it's just as well that Arthur turns him down. Eames tells himself that he isn't disappointed.

"Mombasa has too many eyes," Arthur says. "And you're there. We can't go to any place that has any links to anyone we know. We need to lay low until we sort everything out."

Whatever grisly rumours Eames has heard about Cobb, about the circumstances of Mal's death, he's willing to trust Arthur's judgement over the word on the street. So he tells Arthur the name of someone he doesn't know in Norway, an associate of an associate, who might be able to get them brand new identities.

"Thanks," Arthur says.

"Arthur," Eames says right before he hangs up. "Will you…I mean, I won't…how do I…" Eames can't articulate the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, the knowledge that once Arthur and Cobb get new passports with new names they have the skills to disappear so thoroughly that Eames might never hear of them again.

"I'll keep in touch, Eames." It sounds like a promise.

3.
"How long do you plan to traipse around the world keeping Cobb alive, anyway?"

Of all the unwritten rules upon which they have agreed, Eames is breaking the most important one. They're not allowed to talk about where Arthur is, they're not allowed to talk about where he will be in the immediate future, and they are most definitely not allowed to objectively analyse the rationality of his actions.

Arthur sighs at him across vast distances. Or maybe he sighs at him from just a few miles away. Eames will never know, because of the other two rules, which Arthur should keep in mind he has never broken, and he should reward him brownie points for that. Eames may or may not babble this out loud to Arthur.

"I've called at a bad time," Arthur says.

"Noooooooooo, never." The new drug cocktail Yusuf fed him is making him feel slack-jawed. On paper he's partial stakeholder in Yusuf's business, but in practice his role is more like guinea pig.

"One of these days, you're going to ingest something that doesn't mix with your system, and you are going to be sorry," Arthur warns, because he is Eames's mum.

"One of these days, you're going to be thrown in prison, and then you're going to be sorry."

"I'm hanging up now," Arthur informs him.

"No, Mum, wait."

"Did you just call me 'Mum'?"

"Are you only doing this because Cobb is innocent or is there more going on? I don't understand."

Silence. It drags on long enough for Eames to kind of forget he's on the phone. He gets distracted by the way the shop lights glint off the dusty glass of the shop front window, and he should really ask Yusuf what the hell he gave him and also remember to clean the windows more.

"Do you remember when you were afraid of sleeping in beds because they reminded you of being attacked by sea lions?"

"It's not something I'll ever forget," Eames says solemnly.

"Right. Well, do you know why I let you sleep on my living room floor? Despite the fact that your hideous shirts clashed with my carpet?"

"Because you're the most awesomest mate in the universe?"

"Because I knew you were a good man who was just going through a weird phase. And I knew that if I stayed with you, you would eventually snap out of it, and become a stronger person for it. This is Cobb's weird phase."

"I see."

"Do you?" Arthur asks, with doubt.

"Yes. I see that you are the most awesomest mate in the universe."

Arthur laughs. "I really am hanging up now."

4.
So Eames stays in the flat above Yusuf's shop and spends most of his days gambling and drinking and fucking a lot of older men. Or being fucked by them, as the case might be. It's like one long gap year, only without the college and without even the graduating from secondary school, and definitely without the excuse of being young and free for the first time.

He stays because he doesn't have anything better to do. He stays because Arthur knows the phone number of the shop's landline. He stays because he loves sitting out on the roof with Yusuf on cloudless nights, watching their smoke rings rise up toward the stars.

And when even the most debauched gap year unimaginable to actual teenagers starts to bore him, Eames starts taking really ridiculous jobs.

His old reputation for being a really fucking good forger starts to become—not overtaken, exactly, but—strongly supplemented by his new reputation for being a seriously weird dude. He starts looking for a challenge instead of a payoff. Of course, the kinds of challenges he manages to pull off always come with a big paycheque, but the monetary rewards are no longer his primary reason for choosing a job. Now he wants to be entertained.

He becomes the first person in the world, as far as he knows, to forge an inanimate object. The client wants to eavesdrop on a dream and asks Eames to forge a sofa in order to remain undetected for hours. It's a trippy experience unrivalled by any drug Yusuf can mix.

He takes a job as a dream-actor in someone's dream-musical. He helps extract the secret recipe for a popular brand of bubblegum from the owner's Willy Wonka-like dreamscape. He even tries to perform inception, although that goes down like a gong show. (He still gets paid for it though, and he files it away as a fun experience and valuable lesson on how not to incept an idea.)

Basically, he lives his life as he lived it before Cobb and Mal ever found him in the Nevada desert—but now he uses the skills they taught him, which makes it a hundred times better and a hundred times worse.

3.
In the end, it's Arthur who ends up breaking the first two rules.

"We're in France," Arthur says without saying hello. "Cobb is coming to see you."

Eames tells himself that excited anticipation is the wrong feeling to have, if he has even a modicum of common sense or survival instinct or self-respect.

It's what he feels anyway.

 

- 2010 -
There's a brief moment, after they've finally settled on every last detail of the inception plan but before they hijack Fischer's brain, when Eames finds himself alone with Arthur for the first time. They're sitting in the first class lounge at the airport, and everyone else happens to be checking in or getting lunch or visiting the washroom.

Eames fidgets and resigns himself to the idea that neither distance nor time is sufficient to alleviate his raging crush on Arthur.

Arthur's content to just sit there, calm and silent and not at all uncomfortable. His slicked back hair and well-tailored trousers are just as Eames remembers. Eames wishes he could lean over and rough him up, muss up his hair and rumple his clothes, shock him out of that self-possessed stoicism that makes Eames's heart stutter. Arthur doesn't even know he's doing it.

In the end, Eames breaks the silence by saying something neutral yet distracting, like "How are the little Cobbs?"

Arthur makes a face and tries to explain Cobb's actions to him all over again, except he's just as defensive and just as vague as he ever was when he called from a billion miles away, and they might as well not even be seeing each other face-to-face, because the proximity doesn't make them any less inscrutable to each other.

The others start filing into the lounge, and Eames gives up the few minutes they had alone together for lost. Yusuf follows Saito, slightly dumbfounded by the zany adventure Eames has brought him along on, but also as eager for a challenge as ever. He shoots Eames a sharp look when he notices how close he's sitting to Arthur.

Before they board, Cobb makes them run through their parts in hushed tones one more time, and that's one thing about Cobb that hasn't changed since the first time Eames worked for him. Even now, battered and broken and batshit insane as he is, he's too meticulous to trust them to remember their roles.

"On the second level, I'll be taking the form of the lovely Natalya, to flirt with Mr. Fischer at the bar," Eames recites.

"Natalya?" Arthur casts a fleeting look of amusement at him.

"She's one of my favourite guises," Eames explains, "a tall blonde with skin like alabaster and legs that go on for days. She's going to wear cherry red lipstick, a strappy black dress, and she'll have hair that looks like a mysterious stranger ran his fingers through it while whispering 'you remind me of someone I once knew.'"

There's silence for a moment, as no one knows quite how to respond, except for Yusuf who snorts.

And then Arthur asks, "Did you somehow manage to get even stranger since the last time I saw you?" and that half-smirk Eames so loves graces the corner of his lips once again, and Eames thinks "god, I've missed his smile."

So he's about as fucked as he was a year and a continent ago, pretty much.

- 2011 -

1.
The Fischer job helped Cobb work out a lot of issues, which must be nice for him. Eames hopes Cobb appreciates his new issue-free life, because the Fischer job compounded his own issues about tenfold. Working with Arthur again was just too much of not enough all over again, and Eames is annoyed by how easy it is to let himself stay in America for a while, for just a bit longer. To stay near Arthur for just a bit longer.

Not nearly as annoyed as Yusuf, who makes a lot of tutting noises at Eames and goes on daily about how they need to get back to their shop in Mombasa. When it becomes apparent that Eames won't go, Yusuf throws up his hands with a sigh and then says, "Oh, what the hell, I have all this money burning a hole in my bank account now and I haven't had a vacation since that time we got arrested in France."

They rent a flat together, the two of them. Eames pretends he isn't hanging onto Arthur's coattails and Yusuf pretends he isn't keeping an eye on Eames. They play a lot of Mario Kart on Wii.

Money, free time, and a lack of social responsibility is a terrible cocktail to give to boys who've been friends since they were sixteen. The neighbours, both next door and downstairs, phone security regularly to complain about the noise of their music, their wrestling, their scientific experiments, and the loud thumps they make when they fall down drunk. Building maintenance asks them in vain to stop peeing out the windows. Eames takes to nicking people's embarrassing laundry and displaying them in hilariously public places. Yusuf finds out from experience that it takes a hundred and seventy packets to fill their forty gallon bathtub with Jell-O.

They're watching an old X-Files re-run while drunk one afternoon, the one about the alien baseball player who fights against the Ku Klux Klan, and even after all the crazy dreams they've romped through it's still one of the weirdest feel-good plotlines Eames has ever seen.

Yusuf is a giggly drunk, or maybe he's high. It's hard for Eames to tell when he's drunk himself. The couch they bought from a garage sale has weird stains on it, but Eames is pretty sure that ninety percent of the stains came from their doing. It's not quite large enough to accommodate two people flopped bonelessly across it, so Eames's shoulder is wedged uncomfortably under Yusuf's hip when he says, "So just for the record, I think I'm still in love with Arthur."

"I know," Yusuf says. "Everyone knows. That tree outside knows. That tree on the TV knows."

"Arthur doesn't know."

"Arthur's a fucking idiot. He has nice shoes, but he is a fucking idiot and his hair looks like an oil spill. You have really bad taste."

Eames headbutts Yusuf in the stomach. Or, he attempts to, but the angle is bad and the couch is too small and he ends up getting him more in the kidney than any other internal organ, which is just as well because the tosser deserves that gasp of surprised pain for saying Arthur's hair looks bad. Arthur has great hair.

"You're not treating my epic lovelorn pain with enough gravitas," Eames accuses.

"I'm too stoned to take anything seriously enough," Yusuf says. But he sits up a bit on the couch and when it causes Eames's head to fall drunkenly into his lap, he doesn't shove it off.

The material of Yusuf's pants is scratchy underneath Eames's cheek. He keeps his eyes glued to the TV, watching the Klansman reveal himself as an alien bounty hunter, and he says, "It sucks. Why me? It's horrible and I hate it."

"Maybe you were lovers in a past life, or are destined to be lovers in a future life. You're just out of sync this time around."

Eames bites his lip. He doesn't respond for too long. The show's almost over when he finally replies, "I didn't know Muslims believed in reincarnation."

"I'm Jain," Yusuf says, laughing. He does shove Eames's head away this time. "Not all brown people are Muslim, you racist."

Eames falls off the couch and it turns into one of those wrestling matches that both breaks something (a crystal ashtray shaped like a bear's paw, so hideous and terrible that Eames feels sorry they knocked it off the coffee table because it'll be hard to find an equally-ugly replacement for it) and results in a noise complaint.

Later, on a rare occasion when they're both sober, Yusuf asks Eames, "Why don't you try to move on by actually moving on? You don't go out with people. You should."

"You're one to talk. You bring back girls whose first names you don't even know and you leave your used condoms all over the fucking place. I had to throw one out for you last week. I washed my hands for so long afterwards I almost rubbed all the skin off."

"Yeah, well, I'm not the one who needs to get over an impossible love, am I?"

It's not like Eames hasn't tried. He goes out and he has a good time. He just hasn't shared his good times with the same person for more than a week, maybe two if they're really entertaining. But he can't stay attracted to the guys he picks up. He holds back, doesn't let himself get fond of them, doesn't even let himself get too interested their bodies, because some irrational part of him is still saving himself for Arthur. Because some obviously malfunctioning part of his brain that evolution really should've eradicated tells him that he's attached to Arthur somehow, even though he consciously knows he isn't. Arthur doesn't—Arthur can't. And Eames knows, but he also can't help but think that the 0.0000001% chance he might possibly have with Arthur would be ruined if he became attached to someone else. He has to stay single, for that one in a gazillion chance, just in case it comes along. He has to be ready and available to take advantage of it.

He never tells Yusuf because he knows how stupid it is. Yusuf tells him that Ariadne broke it off with Arthur after only a few days was because she felt bad for Eames and didn't want to be the girl who got those looks from him. Yusuf can be a vicious motherfucker sometimes, telling a man a factoid like that before walking out the door to go pick up more chicks.

"Oh god, I'm going to die alone," Eames says aloud to the empty apartment.

2.
He isn't.

He can't.

Eames is at the bar he frequents third most often, not his favourite one and not the one with the cheapest drinks, but the one with men who ask the fewest questions the night before and make the least fuss the morning after. Eames is at the bar he frequents third most often, and so is Arthur.

Arthur isn't there with Eames.

Arthur isn't there alone.

Arthur is in a dark corner; the bar's full of dark corners. It's sleazy, deliberate architecture meant to facilitate illicit rendezvous, nothing like the crisp modernist lines of the clubs Arthur prefers. So why is he here.

Arthur is in a dark corner with a man who's wearing entirely too much fishnet to be taken seriously. For a moment Eames thinks surely something else is going on, a joke or a con or a business transaction. But then he sees the man's arm is around Arthur's waist, low and proprietary, and Arthur isn't pulling away, and Eames thinks maybe he should go rescue Arthur from the awkward situation he's found himself in, but Arthur isn't pulling away and then Arthur is lifting his hand to the man's face and palming his jaw and angling it closer and Eames can see the wet flash of tongue all the way over from where he's standing, and Arthur. Arthur isn't.

Arthur isn't capable of being attracted to men, and it's the one thing Eames regrets most in his life not counting that one time when he was thirteen and watched a bunch of more popular girls hiss spiteful words at his little sister and didn't step in to defend her. Arthur can't be attracted to men, can't help being born straight, can't like Eames. Only his fingers are fisting into that other man's hair and his mouth is wet and open.

So it's not a lack of interest in people with penises, then. It's a lack of interest in Eames.

The house music changes and a new song begins. Its beat seems to throb in time to the blood splashing sloppily through Eames's veins. Strange, how that happens. How when there's a catastrophe, you feel like the pinpoint of the universe, like everything in existence zeroes in on you, until there's nothing left but you and the cold feeling spreading from your chest to your fingertips.

Eames stumbles out of the bar before Arthur could possibly notice him.

3? 29? 8? 762?
There are a lot of bottles in their kitchen cabinet and even more in the medicine cabinet, which makes sense because it's called a medicine cabinet and there should be medicine in it, and Yusuf knows what medicine does what but Eames has never been as clever as Yusuf when it comes to chemistry. Eames has never been all that clever at all, really. Eames is a fucking witless dunce, directionless and gormless to boot, probably classless too. He can't remember what Yusuf has told him about the contents of the bottles. There's a colour coded system, Yusuf explained it once, something about how only certain colours can go together or maybe how only things with the same colour labels can mix or maybe how the colours are in sequential order. Maybe you're never supposed to mix blue labelled pills with yellow labelled tablets, or maybe that's the only way you can mix them. Eames just can't be bothered to try to remember right now.

He knows what diazepam looks like—he's stupid but he's not so stupid that he can't recognise Valium—and he knows he needs to relax before his heart pounds its way right out of his throat. So he takes some of those and some of the ones next to them that look vaguely similar because surely they work in concert, that's why Yusuf grouped them together, right? He knows what MDMA looks like too, and he takes a couple or maybe a few of them, because he can really use a quick cheering up right now. He forgets for a second why he needs to cheer up, why he's sad. And then he remembers all over again, and he has to sit down on the side of the bathtub because his knees feel a little bit wobbly. He wonders if he's drunk. He had a few highballs before seeing…someone. Before seeing someone at the bar, and he can't remember who, but of course he can remember who, he can never ever forget who.

The bathtub is slippery.

He thinks that might be why he's looking at the ceiling the next time he's done blinking.

There's a crack spreading from the top of the mirror to the fan. There might be some moisture damage going on, but Eames isn't worried about it, which is a good sign that the drugs are working. He should tell Yusuf. Yusuf would be glad that his drugs are working.

There aren't any cracks in the baseboard along the wall. Eames doesn't remember turning his head to look at the baseboard along the wall, but there are no cracks in it. The bathmat is scratchy underneath his cheek.

He's really hot.

He's really cold.

Maybe he sleeps.

There's an itch behind his left ear but he can't seem to make his hand reach it. He keeps scratching his right ear, harder and harder, but the itch doesn't go away and he doesn't understand why. He scratches hard enough for blood to collect under his nails, but his fingers feel so good digging into his flesh that he doesn't want to stop. And his left ear continues to itch.

Maybe there's a noise in the hall outside.

Maybe there's someone calling his name.

94? 8? 45? 0?
Yusuf is making him drink something vile. Maybe it's more medicine. Eames tries to pull his head away, tries to tell Yusuf the good news that his medicine works, but Yusuf's hand is stronger than Eames remembers it being and it holds him in place until he swallows what Yusuf gives him.

"It's activated charcoal," Yusuf says to Eames. "It'll help absorb the excess toxins."

Eames is pretty sure they're still in the bathroom, although it's hard to tell because he can't hold his head still for long enough for him to get a good look.

Yusuf runs the tap and forces him to drink some water, but it makes Eames want to throw up and Yusuf doesn't push it. He just splashes some cold water onto Eames's face, and it feels nice.

And then Eames is in his bed, his shoes are off but his socks are still on. Yusuf says he's a heavy bastard, and Eames wants to contradict him but he feels heavy all over, so maybe Yusuf is right.

"I'm a bag of ball bearings thrown into the river," Eames says. "I'm too heavy to float and someone tossed me into the water because they didn't want me."

"No, you're a bag of dicks," Yusuf says. His voice sounds watery, which makes no sense because he isn't the one sinking into the river, Eames is. His voice sounds watery and his face looks watery and he's holding a bag of water in his hands. He hooks it up with a cannula and moves to grab Eames's arm.

For a moment, Eames thinks it's a PASIV and he tries to pull his arm away in confusion. "No, no, I don't want to dream right now. I don't want to dream."

Again, Yusuf's hand is stronger than Eames. "It's just saline," he says, inserting the needle into Eames's arm. His fingers feel shaky against Eames's skin.

Eames is tired, tired, tired. Yusuf's hand doesn't leave his arm. He wants to sleep, but he doesn't want to dream.

5.
They don't talk about it.

Eames makes an aborted attempt at saying thanks, at explaining that he wasn't actually trying to top himself, but he doesn't get very far before Yusuf punches him hard in the mouth.

"I had to find you on the bathroom floor," Yusuf says. Eames has never seen Yusuf that angry before. It's possible he's never seen anyone that angry before.

Instead of all the other stuff that doesn't really change the fact that Yusuf had to find him on the bathroom floor, Eames just says sorry.

It's the first time Eames has ever had to live life knowing that Yusuf is harbouring genuine, sustained anger towards him. It sucks. He doesn't quite know what to do with himself. The flat, which has always been the perfect size for the two of them, is now suddenly too big and too small all at once. There's an endless gulf between them the size of the kitchen table, and there isn't enough room to hide from the expression in Yusuf's eyes. Nothing he does feels right. Nowhere he sits feels comfortable.

So he crawls back into bed and he stays there.

There's a knock on the door three days later, and Eames has spent so long trying to train his mind not to jump on these things but of course he can recognise exactly who it is just by the way the knock sounds.

Yusuf lets Arthur in, and although Eames can't hear their muffled question he can tell that Yusuf invited him here. He can tell that Yusuf has told him everything, or at least enough that it might as well be everything, as far as Eames's dignity is concerned. He sinks deeper into his blankets and wills Arthur to believe he's asleep.

Of course, Arthur wouldn't be fooled by fake sleep when inducing real sleep is part of his job. He sits on the foot of Eames's bed without asking if he can. Neither of them says anything. Eames can feel the small of Arthur's back against his ankle, through their clothes and through the linens. He can feel all the nerves in his body reach out towards that point of connection, almost out of habit. They're silent for so long that Eames is about ready to start falling asleep for real, even with all his nerves in the wrong place. And then Arthur lays a hand on his knee (and Eames's nerves take a sharp turn to re-orient towards that) and says, "Why didn't you tell me?"

Eames has lived with the answer to that question for so fucking long that he can't even fathom beginning to say it out loud.

Not getting a response, Arthur lifts his hand and starts to slide it towards Eames's arm, lying on top of the blanket. Eames needs to derail it before it makes contact because there's no telling what he might do if Arthur touches his skin.

"Because you weren't interested. You aren't interested," Eames says, truthfully. He could have lied just as easily, because for all his romantic notions about Arthur flaying him open to the core by just looking at him, he knows that Arthur is actually terrible at telling what's going on in his head. But there's no point in lying anymore—Arthur's already found out about the part he wanted to hide the most. The rest is just a parenthetical aside. "You aren't interested in me that way, and it would've just made you feel bad about not being interested. I didn't want you to feel bad about something you can't help."

Arthur makes an utterly inscrutable noise in the back of his throat. Eames thinks it might express frustration, or anger, or exasperation, or annoyance, or possibly sorrow. He's aware that for all his romantic notions about being conjoined at the soul with Arthur, he too is terrible at understanding Arthur.

Arthur's hand is around Eames's faster than Eames can prevent it. "I don't want you to—Eames, you—look." Arthur's frown is so intense, it's practically interfering with his faculty for speech. "Look. Just because I can't make myself be attracted to you," Arthur says, fingers like manacles around Eames's wrist, "doesn't mean I think it's okay for you to be miserable."

Eames wrenches his hand away as soon as Arthur's grip begins to loosen. "This is exactly what I mean, Arthur. Now you think being friends with you makes me miserable, when that's not true at all. I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to think that our friendship wasn't—that our friendship isn't. You know. Based on actual friendship. You don't have to—there's nothing that you need to…" Eames trails off. He turns his head, because he seriously cannot be looking at Arthur when he does this. He can't even believe his voluntarily bringing this up. "It was just easier," he says in a very small voice, "when I believed I didn't have a biological chance."

"Oh. That." Arthur sounds mildly surprised, which is a rare event. Not that he doesn't get surprised, but he's carefully cultivated the ability not to show it. "That was just for a job. I needed to get some information about our mark, and that guy was her closest friend. I was acting."

"You're not good enough at acting to fool me." Eames doesn't state it as anything other than a neutral fact.

"I'm not gay, Eames. I guess you could say I'm mildly bisexual. I'm not incapable of physical attraction to men, but I don't get emotionally attached to them the way I do to women."

"Well. That's a relief to know. I guess."

"And I'm offended by how little credit you're willing to give my acting skills," Arthur jokes with a lopsided smile.

Eames doesn't have the energy to return to their usual banter. Maybe someday. Not today.

"I could have sex with you, once, if you want. Then you'd see how bad I am at the whole sleeping with guys thing and you'd get over me instantly." Arthur means for it to come out as a joke, still trying to make Eames engage with him in their usual teasing way. But it's a disastrous thing to say, and Eames can tell he knows it as soon as it's past his lips.

Before he can apologise, follow it up with something better but still worse, Eames politely asks him to leave.

6.

Eames can't stop thinking about Arthur's offer. He knows it's a mistake to even be mentally referring to it as an offer when it should properly be categorised as a joke. But there had been a look on Arthur's face, a split second between jocular and horrified, that made Eames sure he would do it if Eames really wanted.

And Eames does want. Eames has always wanted. Eames has been made of nothing but want, ever since he had that revelation about Arthur's bum and possibly long before that.

He's not so completely damaged in the head that he doesn't know it would be an abysmal life choice that will only wreck him in the end. But so is cocaine, and that knowledge has never stopped him from doing it either.

Which is how he ends up knocking on Arthur's door a few weeks later.

Arthur doesn't live where he used to live when Eames used to knock on his door all the time. The fact that said door is a different shape, a different colour, on a different floor, in a different part of town has no bearing on the nostalgic rush déjà vu that courses through Eames when his knuckles rap against it.

Arthur has his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow when he opens the door. Eames wishes he still believed in God because now seems like a fitting time to pray for mercy.

"So let's say, theoretically," Eames begins haltingly, "that we fuck and I get it out of my system. Would we still be friends after?"

Arthur opens the door wider and waves him inside. "We'll always be friends, Eames." And then he rolls his eyes at himself and says, "We'll always be friends, even though I hate you for making me say something so cheesy." He sits on the couch (he'd brought his old furniture over to the new place, Eames notices) and waits for Eames to say what he came here to say.

"What if…I mean, please feel free to tell me to fuck off immediately, but I was thinking. Maybe if we did it just once, it wouldn't be this idealised thing in my head anymore and I'd finally be able to move on. Like, it won't mean anything, just a favour for a friend, and we don't ever have to bring it up again. It'll just be done, over with, and it'll stop hanging over us." Eames doesn't know if he's trying to convince Arthur or himself.

On the couch, Arthur narrows his eyes and assesses Eames wordlessly. And because Arthur has always been and always will be kind of crap at reading Eames, he believes him.

7.
Arthur has two lubed up fingers up Eames's ass, and it's not that it's bad, exactly, but it's obvious he doesn't have a whole lot of practice. It hurts a bit when he pulls them out because he bends the wrong way and the side of his fingernail catches Eames.

"Are you okay?" he asks, and it's the gentleness of a concerned friend catching in his voice, not the barely restrained passion of a lover.

He's still a fucking feast for the eyes, though.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm ready," Eames gasps, spreading his legs wider.

Arthur pushes in with a grunt, and he's hot, so hot, in all the senses of the word. It's everything Eames has dreamed about, had wet dreams about. The sharp bones of Arthur's hips hit the backs of Eames's thighs with every thrust. He doesn't seem all that intent on finding Eames's prostate, but he doesn't hesitate to take Eames's cock in his hand and help him along.

Eames is about three-quarters of the way there, past the point of no return, when he looks up into Arthur's eyes and realises he's fucked it all up.

It's too late though, too late to realise he's making an awful mistake and Arthur's eyes make contact with his and there isn't even a tenth of the love Eames feels for him inside, there's only the carnal enjoyment of moderately good sex, and even though it's mortifying to see final confirmation that Arthur really doesn't feel the same way about him it's even more mortifying to acknowledge that despite the humiliation it's still probably the best thing that has ever happened to Eames, maybe the best thing that will ever happen to Eames, maybe as good as it'll ever get for Eames.

Eames cums first. Arthur brings him off with clumsy pulls and it's horrible, to be naked and open under Arthur's sympathetic gaze. Arthur's not wearing any clothes either, but it's not the same. Eames holds Arthur's shaking body through his orgasm and allows himself to pretend, for the last time, that Arthur is his. And then he stops.

Arthur's his friend. They'll always be friends.

He grabs his clothes off the bedroom floor and tells Arthur he's going to take a shower. He leaves the water running while he climbs out the bathroom window.

- 2011 to 2012 -

Eames fucks his way through most of Europe, and then starts in on Africa.

He goes off-grid, getting a completely new set of fake IDs and not contacting anyone he's worked with before. No one tries to contact him. He doesn't kid himself, doesn't think it's because he's so great at disappearing that he's allowed to melt under the radar. He knows it's under the auspices of Saito that he never gets stopped at a border or harassed for a job. He occasionally feels eyes watching him; he can never catch them at it but he knows they report back to Cobb. Sometimes, there's word on the street that Cobb or Ariadne or Arthur needs a forger, but no offers ever even hint at coming his way. They give him space. Eames isn't too much of an ingrate to appreciate it.

Yusuf keeps an eye on him too, in a much less surreptitious, much more hands-on way. He gamely follows Eames into whatever country his whims take them, makes sure Eames eats every now and then, and bangs insistently on the bathroom door if he's been silent for too long. Yusuf is of the opinion that Eames lost his rights to privacy when he made Yusuf pick him up off the bathroom floor, and Eames pretty much agrees, so he submits to the intrusions and just yells "I'm only taking a crap, alright?" when Yusuf knocks. There aren't enough years in a mortal lifetime for him to atone for the fact that Yusuf is now genuinely scared of what he might find when he knocks.

They go through a whole lot of pot and even more gin together.

The highlands of Tanzania are quite cool and temperate this time of the year. They have to wear sweaters at night because their hotel room doesn't have central heating. They don't do laundry as often as they should, and the smells of their various illicit activities are soaked deeply into the wool of their jumpers. Eames hunkers further down into his and focuses his attention on the game console they've managed to buy from the back of a truck for dirt cheap.

Apropos of nothing, Yusuf says, "Do you remember when you told me that Arthur was waiting for Cobb to snap out of it and stop being a tool? And he was willing to follow Cobb around the world because he was confident it would happen sooner or later?"

Eames isn't sure where Yusuf's going with this, isn't sure he wants to go there with him. He doesn't reply but Yusuf stays quiet too, waiting him out. Finally he clears his throat and says, "Yeah?"

"Well. Just so you know, I'm playing Arthur and you're playing Cobb in this scene."

"Right."

It's the closest they come to discussing it. They don't talk about it any further, because they're not girls. They just grunt at each other and play Left 4 Dead instead.

- 2012 -

1.
They're in Mozambique when Cobb shows up on their verandah.

Eames is sitting on a wicker chair, sipping gin and tonic from a glass that's totally not the right size or shape. Cobb looks good in a khaki safari suit, flowing beige lines in place of the usual sharp grey edges of his suits.

"The HIV rate in this country is 13%," Cobb says, instead of hello. "I hope you're at least using the expensive condoms."

"Most of that percentage is women and children," Eames says. "I don't sleep with those, so the statistics actually aren't as bad as you make them sound."

Cobb scrubs a hand over his face. "This conversation is so inappropriate in so many ways." His words are muffled behind his palm.

"You started it."

Cobb sits down without being invited, in Yusuf's chair. Eames finishes his drink and puts the empty glass on the deck next to his feet. Condensation drips down its side. The traffic sounds of motors and horns and shouting from the main road don't drown out the sound of Cobb's calm, measured breathing next to him.

"Eames, come back. Everybody misses you, you moron."

Eames twitches without meaning to.

"I know what it's like. I let an impossible love take over my life for way too long. Mal—" Cobb's voice cracks at her name, and he has to pause before he can continue. "There's a point where it stops being romantic and starts being selfish. There are other things to live for, besides how you feel for this one person. I know it's easy to forget—I forgot it for a bit, but my friends reminded me and now I'm here to remind you. Just because you can't have the one thing you want most doesn't mean you should give up on all the other things you do have." Cobb leans into Eames's space, lays a steady, paternal hand on his shoulder. "Arthur's your friend. We're your co-workers. Forging's your job. It can be a pretty good life if you'd just come back and live it."

Eames bets Cobb is really good at convincing his kids to go to bed, too.

2.
The job calls for someone to forge a parrot, which doesn't even make any fucking sense. Eames is all over it before he can even help himself. It's hard to tell if Cobb brought him back because no one else can pull this crazy shit off, or if Cobb deliberately picked a crazy job to entertain him. More realistically, it's probably some third ulterior motive because Cobb works in mysterious ways, but whatever the case Eames appreciates it because it involves forging a parrot.

A parrot is considerably smaller than a human. Eames can't quite wrap his mind around the strange feeling of body dysmorphia, when he experimentally moves his avian body and doesn't feel the expected weight of his limbs. He makes it through a mostly-closed door without touching the sides and his brain freaks out because his shoulders should really have at least grazed something. And good god, do feathers ever feel weird.

"The mark is a reclusive old man who lives alone except for his pet cockatoo," Cobb explains. "We need to make the dream happen in his house, and as far as we can tell there's no way to make any other living thing appear in it without looking conspicuous."

Eames stretches his wings and shakes them out. Oh god, he has these things instead of arms. So weird.

"He keeps its wings clipped, so you don't have to worry about the mechanics of making your flying look believable," Ariadne helpfully supplies.

"Good, because I don't think I could figure it out even if I tried," Eames says.

Everyone's eyes swing to him.

"What?"

"We need to do something about that voice," Cobb says.

"What, my voice? How am I meant to sound, like a parrot from a pirate film?"

"Eames, please stop talking. You have no idea how disturbing it is to hear your voice come out of that body," Ariadne says.

"I'm on it," Arthur says.

Which is how they end up at a pet store, he and Arthur, making clucking noises at a macaw named Jerry and stroking its psittaciform head. Arthur, through the special Arthur powers for which he is so prized, has somehow managed to convince the owner to let them hang out with the bird in private in a back room, for as long as they need. Eames observes Jerry closely and mentally envisions himself putting on the same mannerisms in a dream. The voice is harder. He needs to hear it more if he has any hope of doing a half decent imitation.

It's somewhat annoying to find out that his stomach still twists when Arthur stands too close to him.

Eames is trying to concentrate on getting the bird to talk. Arthur's trying to apologise, which basically means that the answer is "no" to Eames's undying hope of "do you love me yet?" Not a surprise, but still sucks.

"Stop saying sorry," Eames says. "It's embarrassing when you haven't done me any wrong."

The bird cocks its head, blinking its milky third eyelid and attempting to mimic the word "sorry" in his bizarre little happy robot voice.

"No, don't you say sorry either," he says to it. He makes a note to do that eyelid thingy the way Jerry does it.

"You're still. I mean, despite that one night, we're still. Friends." It takes a lot to make Arthur sound ineloquent.

"I know," Eames says. "I knew the whole time I was gone."

3.
They pull off the job brilliantly.

Yusuf brings them out of their PASIV-induced slumber, and they meet each other's excited eyes in various permutations. The old thrill of victory hums through Eames's veins. He looks around at the faces of his fellow team members, faces rosy with the flush of a job well done, and he realises that this is what he has.

His life consists of more than his desire for Arthur. Even if it takes him sixty years to get over him, even if he never gets over him, he still has this triumphant rush of blood gushing through his heart. And it's enough.

- 2013 -

Epilogue.
The man who sits on the piano bench next to Eames reminds him of Arthur, which is inexplicable in every way because he doesn't look like Arthur, doesn't sound like Arthur, doesn't move like Arthur, isn't built like Arthur, and is African-American.

But in one rather crucial way, he's not at all like Arthur. Because Arthur has never ever smiled at Eames like that, not even in Eames's wildest imagination.

"Hi, I'm Cole," the guy says.

It's probably pathetic that Eames still feels an immense sense of relief whenever he finds himself attracted to someone who's not Arthur. He'd been afraid for so long that he wouldn't be able to, and now here's Cole, with his large, agile hands and amazing smile.

Cole reaches forward and begins to play a tune on the piano, something high and sweet. Eames joins in with the bass. It takes his mind a few seconds to realise that he doesn't know how to play the piano.

He looks down at his hands with a sense of disembodied detachment, watching them fly over the keys with practiced ease. He's sitting at a piano on a stage in front of patrons in Prohibition-era clothing, and he doesn't remember how he got here.

He doesn't even remember falling asleep, which is a pain because that probably means this is all a set up. He's about to stop trying to figure out what it means and just start shooting people when he sees Arthur across the room, sitting at one of the tables. It's got to be Arthur's dream, because Eames just does not fall asleep thinking about opulent speakeasies with live music entertainment and feather boas everywhere.

Arthur raises his glass to Eames in a toast and cocks his head towards Cole with a smile like a question mark.

And then Eames catches on. It's not a set up, it's a set up. He stops playing the piano because he's laughing too hard.

"I'm a friend of Arthur's," Cole says. "We used to be in the army together. I only came back to the States recently and he said he's been wanting to introduce me to you for a long time."

"Why are we in a dream?" Eames asks.

"Because Arthur said it would impress you if I did this." Through nothing but an exertion of mental will, Cole turns the stage into water and their piano bench into a canoe. He pulls a fish out of the water it transforms into a paddle to row them away.

It does impress Eames.

 

End.

 

endnotes:
* The title of this fic is from a throwaway joke in a short story called "The Winter Market" by William Gibson. The phrase has stuck with me for years, and for the purposes of this fic I think of "dead birds fly again" as equivalent to "the ridiculous triumph of hope over adversity, even when it would be more dignified for hope to just die quietly." (It means nothing of the sort in Gibson's story; sorry!)
* I should credit lj user neomeruru for the line "life shouldn't be that huge!", which was her very reasonable response to my random context-less IM asking if she thought fear of marine mammals was a believable character trait.
* Arthur isn't the most awesomest mate in the universe; lj user maresanctum is. Thank you for the beta job, but mostly thank you for existing.
* When I was looking up the right word for "cannula," I found the Wikipedia entry on nasal cannulation, so then this outtake happened in my head:
Eames: "This is terrible. Do we really have to jab a needle in our arms every time?"
Arthur: "The military has experimented with every possible application of PASIV technology, and this method of delivery works best. Nasal cannulation is another possible, but less effective, technique."
Cobb: "There's also a suppository."
* I'm sorry I made them kill a sea lion. I actually really like marine mammals, personally.
* My artist lj user metatarsus was an absolute dream to work with. She made me beautiful graphics and the most gorgeous and fitting soundtrack to this story, better than anything I could've imagined myself. Everyone should go listen to the fanmix and give her love here: http://metatarsus.livejournal.com/192370.html
* Thank you for reading. <3