Arthur’s e-mail said to courier the files, but the address is right around the corner from Poland, where Eames is just wrapping up a job, so he books a flight to Brussels to drop them by himself. They’re working together in Vancouver in a week anyhow. It’s on his way.
"You’re not supposed to be here," Arthur says, but opens the door and lets him in. "Did anyone see you?"
"No one that I know of," Eames says. "Are you expecting someone?"
"Rafferty and his guys are going to be here in twenty minutes and if you’re here it’ll look like a set-up," Arthur says grimly, taking the flash drive from Eames and tucking it into a pocket inside his coat. Eames hadn’t expected an effusive welcome, but Arthur is usually pleased enough to have a traveling companion for long haul flights and Eames finds it infinitely relaxing to sleep on flights with Arthur nearby, glowering at a crossword puzzle or actually eating an in-flight meal, crunching away dutifully at iceberg lettuce and brittle julienned carrots.
"I’ll take myself off, then," Eames says, just as Arthur’s cell buzzes. Arthur doesn’t say anything but his mouth tightens—worried. "They’re here," he says. "It’ll look worse if you leave now."
"So I’ll just stand over here and look decorative and unthreatening—what?" Because Arthur’s shaking his head, looking almost—alarmed, Eames decides.
"They’re unpredictable, that’s all," Arthur says crossly. "And I don’t like them knowing that I have—associates." He blows out a quick breath and looks around. "Maybe they won’t check the back," he says, but he doesn’t sound as though he thinks it’s very likely.
"Arthur," Eames says. "Are you honestly concerned for my well-being? If I were to incur injury in the next half hour would you weep tears of manly sorrow—"
"Will you get in the bedroom," Arthur says. "and don’t punch anyone this time; that’s the last fucking thing I need."
"Look, just. make something up," Eames says, although that’s never exactly been Arthur’s strong suit. "tell them I’m the hot piece of arse you’re fucking."
Arthur rolls his eyes. "Get in back, and be quiet," he says.
There’s a dark grey robe hung on the bathroom door. Eames stares at it a moment, hears the heavy muffled voices of men in the next room and then Arthur’s, low, controlled. Arthur would say—has said, many times—that he’s impulsive, but Eames prefers to think of it as being good at thinking on his feet. The robe is soft, thick terrycloth, and stretches a little when he pulls at the collar. Eames grins at himself in the mirror and yanks his shirt off over his head.
Arthur’s never been much of an actor but perhaps he’s been practicing because his eyes barely widen when they drag Eames out of the bedroom. There are four guys, all armed—not impossible odds, but not good ones, either. Eames hunches his shoulders a little and looks defenseless; Arthur’s robe is too tight across the shoulders and chest and too short to wear underwear beneath. The guy gripping his arm smirks nastily at him when he shoves him down on the couch next to Arthur.
"Who’s this?" The lead guy—Rafferty, Eames assumes—is leaning back carelessly in the chair across from them.
"He’s the hot piece of ass I’m fucking," Arthur says flatly. "He’s nothing to do with this."
Rafferty gives Eames an oily once-over, Eames stares at the ground and counts the steps to the guy nearest to him. "He must be quite a—distraction."
Arthur goes still. "That’s not your business," he says.
"Maybe it is," Rafferty says.
"If you touch him," Arthur says quietly, and then doesn’t finish the sentence. It’s creepy and effective, which is about par for the course for Arthur, who clearly thinks of himself as a precise, steady, reliable and moderate person but comes off like a cyborg raised by feral cats: disquieting, dangerous, occasionally stupidly loyal. It’s one of Eames’ absolute favorite things about him. Rafferty looks at Eames in a way that’s meant to be demeaning; Eames lets himself shrink under his stare.
"Do you think you’re really in a position to make threats?" Rafferty says.
"I think," Arthur says. He’s staring at Rafferty icily, his hands loose on his knees; he hasn’t looked at Eames once yet. "I think he’s going back in the bedroom and we’re going to conclude our business. Is that acceptable?"
Eames waits in the bedroom for what feels like too long, but is probably only another 20 minutes. He finds Arthur’s spare knife taped beneath the chest of drawers and tucks it under the pillow in case Arthur needs an 11th hour rescue, but after a while he hears footsteps, doors opening and closing and then Arthur knocks and comes in the bedroom.
"All sorted?" Eames says.
"Yes," Arthur says. He stares at the hem of the robe. "Was that really necessary?" he says.
"Worked, didn’t it?" Eames says, unrepentant. "Rafferty doesn’t think you have associates, just exquisite taste in companionship."
"That’s one word for it," Arthur says. Eames steps around the bathroom door and starts to change. He’s just buckling his belt when he hears Arthur clear his throat in the other room.
"What—what did you think of the angry, possessive boyfriend thing?"
Eames has known Arthur for more than a decade, since he was just Cobb’s psychotic little shadow, and has never once heard him use the word "boyfriend."
"A little much, I know," Arthur continues. Eames yanks his sweater over his head and comes out of the bathroom. "I just thought—I didn’t want them to think." Arthur does not normally have trouble finishing sentences. "I know you can take care of yourself."
"Worry not, you’re a better liar than people give you credit for." He means it as a compliment but Arthur just winces and says,
"Next time—that is, you probably ought to have have touched me a little," Eames says. "If you wanted it to be more realistic."
"Oh, this is this the constructive feedback portion of the hour?" Arthur says wryly.
"Yes," Eames says. "But—very gentlemanly, sending me back in the bedroom, away from prying eyes. That was a nice touch."
"You were half naked," Arthur says harshly. "I didn’t want—Rafferty’s a thug. He’d hurt you just for fun, but he has a short attention span."
Arthur takes care of everyone all the time, as though it never occurred to him that Cobb could fuck right off, that Yusuf would get by on a different brand of tea than the one he likes that’s only available in Kenya, so Eames knows better than to take it personally.
"I’ll see you at the airport," he says, as he leaves; Arthur has his flight details already. "If you deign to honor me with your presence."
"Read the brief before you show up this time, will you?" Arthur says.
"Don’t I always?" Eames says.
"No," Arthur says. "Not always."
"I was shot that time, you know. Wounded in the line of duty."
"So don’t get shot," Arthur says.
The dreamsharing community is vanishingly small, especially once you weed out all the doublecrossers and fuckups, so Eames has worked with Arthur dozens of times now, in bigger teams or just the two of them, sometimes just a quick two-day turnaround and sometimes weeks—long enough that he knows Arthur’s favorite combo at the deli on the corner of wherever they are, long enough to fall into some kind of routine of rolling into work with coffee, late lunch breaks, the occasional drink after work, desultory arguments about the late night movie on Lifetime—dreamers are invariably insomniacs or chronically jetlagged, secret watchers of sit-com reruns and made-for-tv movies. Eames used to crash up against Arthur jaggedly, snag his poorly-hidden sharp edges, he used to like it, to work at it, but lately Eames feels worn smooth; he wants Arthur to smile at him and put down the number 3 with curly fries on his desk. Best to be honest with yourself when you lie for a living.
"Look," Arthur says, over the phone, later that afternoon, without any preamble. Eames pulls it away to look at the caller ID again. Arthur never calls Eames, just texts him terse messages - "20th and Pine, 1530" and "C. is brother-in-law, not brother" but now Arthur is on the phone, a distinct note of—something—in his voice. "I have to meet Rafferty again."
"And—" the words sound like they're being dragged out of Arthur. "He's bringing his girlfriend."
"Oh, let me guess," Eames says, oddly delighted by the prospect of spending more time with Rafferty and his dead eyes. "He said you should bring me along and show me a good time to make up for how hard you've been working."
"Something like that," Arthur says. There’s a pause. "You’re busy," he says. "I’ll make something up—"
"About how you’re too scared of Rafferty to let him see me again, that’ll go over well," Eames says.
"It won’t look like that," Arthur says, in a voice that says he knows exactly how it’ll look. "I’ll figure it out myself."
"How did you get into business with these gentlemen in the first place?" Eames says.
"They had something I needed," Arthur says shortly. "I wasn’t trying to drag you into it."
"But I’m so pleased you did," Eames says, cutting off Arthur’s next objection by asking "What should I wear?"
"I don’t know, it’s some bar," Arthur says. He draws a breath—Arthur always knows exactly how he wants things, once made Ariadne go back up to her hotel room and change into a pair of warmer boots even though they were running late. Eames can tell from Arthur’s reluctant silence that he knows very well what he thinks Eames should wear and would really rather not have to say it out loud.
"Something sexy," Eames says suggestively, imagining the pained look on Arthur’s face.
"Christ," Arthur says. "Please don’t."
Eames doesn’t want to think about what Arthur wants, what Arthur likes; that’s not the job, anyhow. Instead he thinks about what Rafferty thinks about Arthur and wears a dark suit with a thin, black cashmere sweater. Without a shirt underneath, the neckline crumples softly too far down his chest. He’s more careful than usual when he shaves and less careful when he tries to get his hair to lie down neatly.
Arthur gives him a prefunctory once-over when he climbs into the cab, his eyes lingering a little over Eames’ clavicle and then he says "Fine," and leans forward to give the cab driver the address. They ride in silence for a little while and then Arthur sighs deeply and yanks something out of an inner pocket—a long, narrow, velvet box.
"I got you this," he says. It’s a bracelet, gold, but a heavy, dark, old gold, with a complicated clasp. The outside is unmarked, deeply burnished, glowing in the dark of the cab, but the inside of each of the links is delicately carved with—a stag, Eames sees, under Arthur’s narrow fingers, a wild boar, a falcon, a wolf.
"Sorry," Arthur says. He sounds embarrassed. "I’m sorry, I know it’s not—I didn’t exactly have a lot of advance notice."
"It’s not quite your taste," Eames says, as Arthur fastens it around his wrist, his hands deft and impersonal.
"It’s your taste," Arthur says. Eames assumes he means flashy, vulgar, ridiculous and not 19th Century Etruscan Revival jewelry, probably from the Compana collection before—or, quite possibly, knowing Arthur, after—it went to the Louvre. "This is what a stupid fucker like Rafferty understands," Arthur says.
"Did you tell him my name?" Eames says, getting down to business.
"Of course not," Arthur says. "I’m not an idiot."
"I know," Eames says, patiently, "but you still have to call me something. It could come up."
"Call yourself whatever you want," Arthur says, slumping back against the seat. "Call yourself Jimmy the dogfaced boy for all I care."
"You sound nervous as shit," Eames says, although mostly Arthur sounds angry, off-balance.
"I’m fine," Arthur says.
"Pretend you like me, just a little bit," Eames suggests, as the cab pulls up in front of a crowded club, all glittering lights and glass, a hundred girls in tiny dresses and boys trying too hard, the kind of place Eames hasn’t been voluntarily in a decade. Arthur, next to him, lets out a nearly inaudible sigh. "Oh Arthur," Eames breathes. "You always take me to the nicest places."
"Oh shut up," Arthur says, sounding more like the Arthur Eames has grown used to on the job—annoyed, amused in spite of himself.
It’s winter outside, a few snowflakes falling on the shoulders of Arthur’s jacket and in his hair, but the noise and heat of the club burst open lushly around them when Arthur pulls open the door and ushers him through. The bar is lit in dark reds and purples, boys and girls grinding against each other to the heavy, slick, throbbing beat of the dance floor, lapping against the long, glass bar in waves.
The hostess has long legs and a tight dress and a crisp, professional smile lights up her bored expression after Arthur’s first few words. She draws them expertly back through the crowd and up a wide staircase, past a couple toughs trying to look inconspicuous to a few low couches overlooking the dance floor. The music is muted here, just a low, occasional pulse, and Rafferty and his girlfriend and a few other guys are sitting, waiting for them. Rafferty shakes Arthur’s hand and then, after a moment, Eames’.
"I never caught your name," he says.
"James," Eames says, dropping his eyes. "Jimmy."
Building a character in a dream is both easier and harder than running a con in reality; Eames has more recent practice in dreams but he started having to hide himself—his size, his strength, his intelligence, all of the things he desperately wanted and knew he wouldn’t be allowed to have if he stayed just himself—since he was fifteen and one thing’s the same, in dreams and reality: people only ever see what they want to. Rafferty sees Eames’ vulnerable mouth and naked throat, his soft hair and too-nice clothes, his tentative handshake and the way he looks at Arthur and thinks he’s observant, thinks he knows everything, and Arthur—buttoned-up, intense, his mouth thinning to a hard line when Rafferty touches Eames—does half the work for him.
"Sit down, please," Rafferty says. Eames smiles at him; Arthur doesn’t. After a moment, Arthur drops a hand down on Eames’ thigh. It feels heavy and warm, he can feel how still Arthur’s body is next to him, but Arthur looks normal, giving Rafferty a grudging smile and ordering drinks for both of them. Eames smiles and slouches and keeps his mouth shut, considers the hand on his thigh—Arthur has done surprisingly well; not high enough to look like he’s trying to prove anything, but high enough to be suggestive, and once or twice he lifts his hand to make a point and then settles it back down, thumb stroking against Eames’ leg.
The last time Arthur touched Eames was eight months ago, in a dream, scrambling up an ever growing pyramid, rain pounding against their faces. Eames had a gunshot wound in his shoulder and Arthur had to help him up as the steps grew steeper, bracing his bad side, careful of his arm.
Rafferty and his guys are boring as fuck, his girl glassy and hard to cover for some secret childhood misery. Rafferty’s eyes flicker over him, unblinking as a lizard.
"This is my little apology for my behavior earlier," he says. "Arthur never mentioned he’d be bringing someone along, so you can imagine my surprise."
"He wasn’t part of the job," Arthur says. "I changed my shaving cream too, did you want an update about that?"
"Come on, Arthur, relax a little," Rafferty says. "You have to know I don’t care who you fuck."
"It sounds like you fucking care," Arthur says, clipped and aggressive. "It sounds like you invited me here to stare at his ass some more."
"hey, don’t," Eames says, softly. He angles an anxious glance at Rafferty and puts a conspicuous hand on Arthur’s knee. "It’s okay," he says to Rafferty. It’s been a long time since he was a pretty kid who wanted people to like him, but not long enough to forget what he’s doing. "I really like your club."
"Oh yeah?" Rafferty says.
"It’s really posh," Eames says earnestly and feels the moment that Arthur’s body goes liquid and tense beside him. Trying not to laugh, Eames thinks. Arthur leans in and brushes a gentle kiss against his jaw and Eames can feel his lips quiver a little, hidden in the kiss.
"Sorry," he says, his mouth still nearly brushing Eames’ skin. He pulls away and turns to Rafferty, saying, "I don’t take him out as much as I should."
Eames thinks about Jimmy, who likes Arthur’s dark, flashy suits and nice body, likes the expensive presents Arthur buys him and the trips Arthur takes him on, Jimmy, who knows not to ask too many questions and never to touch Arthur’s things and says, "I don’t mind."
Rafferty and Arthur start talking business—nothing serious, just who they know and what those people are doing; Arthur gives nothing away but appears to drop little bits and pieces by accident; Eames has seen him do this in a dream a time or two but never in real life, where Arthur is either infuriatingly close-mouthed or e-mails a 75 page single-spaced document and expects everyone to know it backwards and forwards by the next morning. But Jimmy—Jimmy wouldn’t pay much attention to that, and Eames doesn’t either, concerning himself instead with sipping carefully at his drink and tilting his body softly into Arthur’s. Jimmy, Eames thinks. Jimmy has never met anyone like Arthur before. Arthur is generous, even kind, but doesn’t talk much about himself, and he disappears for weeks on end but doesn’t want Jimmy to sleep with anyone else; probably. Or—maybe he doesn’t care and just wears condoms, but that doesn’t seem much like Arthur, not the Arthur who is giving Rafferty a narrow smirk, his hand hot on Eames’ thigh, his mouth wet from his drink, not the Arthur who drummed up a quarter million dollar piece of jewelry in Brussels on half a day’s notice.
Arthur doesn’t kiss him again, but he keeps one hand on him, on his thigh or stroking down his arm, brushes his fingers across his knuckles lightly when Eames finishes his drink and gets him another, looks at him occasionally. Eames thinks about what will happen with Jimmy and Arthur in the cab back to the hotel, Jimmy a little tipsy and eager to please, maybe his mouth on Arthur’s cock in the cold dark of the backseat—both no, Arthur would never allow that. It’ll be Arthur’s hand hot on his thigh still, sliding higher and Jimmy twisting to allow him access but Arthur never taking it. Arthur in the bedroom taking off his jacket and tie, stripping down to his undershirt and trousers before kissing Jimmy, holding his cheek in one hand and then pushing him down on the bed and climbing on top, shoving his hands up under Jimmy’s sweater and Jimmy wants it the same as Arthur does, sweet and a little rough, wants to press his face against Arthur’s neck afterwards and Arthur will let him, stroke his hair a little, before getting up to do more work.
Fucking Jimmy, Eames thinks, in the cab. Arthur tilts his head back against the seat and closes his eyes, says nothing for ten long city blocks.
"I should say thanks," he says, finally.
"Anytime," Eames says lightly.
"Okay," Arthur says. He looks exhausted and too serious in the dark light of the cab, and Eames feels a sudden pang of worry. "Thanks anyway, though."
"There’s no other way I would have wanted to spend this evening than being your spoiled boyfriend—at least, I hope you spoil me; I like diamonds and oral sex—"
"Stop it, please," Arthur says dully.
"That’s not—I know this is all some hilarious joke to you," Arthur says, "but I’m not like you, I can’t just turn it on and off. I know it was just—you were just faking it, but you were all over me tonight and I need you to stop."
"You want to fuck Jimmy?" Eames says, insulted. Jimmy’s an idiot; might as well fuck a golden retriever.
"Don’t rub it in or anything," Arthur mutters.
"You have awful taste in men," Eames says.
"Tell me about it," Arthur says.
"All right," Eames says, reckless. "Want to come up to my hotel room and fuck me? You can leave some pocket money on the night stand when you leave—"
"No," Arthur says explosively. "That’s not how I want our first time to—I—"
"Oh," Eames says.
"Sorry, fuck, sorry," Arthur says, but he doesn’t try to take it back. The taxi slows, and then stops at Eames’ hotel.
"The bracelet," Eames says dumbly.
"Keep it," Arthur says, his voice suddenly light. "See you in Vancouver."
Eames has always worked for long stretches, job after job, habit from when he had no choice, needed the money or couldn’t risk offending any of his carefully cultivated contacts by turning any of them down, worked until his head is too crowded with all the people he’s had to be and then fucked off for weeks at a time, traveling, drinking too much, screwing beautiful boys and girls in expensive hotel rooms, until he knows it’s only himself again, until he’s alone. He has spent most of his life avoiding people—no one moves to Mombasa to keep up with the old home crowd—and the squeeze of pleasure he feels when a message from Arthur drops into his inbox, when Ariadne sends him some kind of inexplicable joke from the internet, when Cobb mails him a couple school pictures, the kids scrubbed and golden and James looking so like Mal—has come as a surprise, but not an unwelcome one.
Arthur’s waiting for him at the departure gate.
"Couldn’t wait?" Eames says.
"Nope," Arthur says.
When the fasten seatbelts light goes off, Arthur settles his hand slowly on Eames' thigh, the tips of his fingers first and then his open palm, as though he’s never done it before, as though he’s been waiting, Arthurish and prudent, for a sign.