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a contraption, armed to the teeth

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It’s no real secret that Arthur and Eames have known each other for years. They don’t exactly advertise it, but most of their closer associates know or could guess that they met in the military, back in the days when dreamsharing was the latest superweapon in the war on terror and governments were pouring billions of dollars into black ops missions so clandestine that even the operatives themselves didn’t know what the hell they were doing. A handful of longtime colleagues have some vague idea of the work itself, the grueling training sessions and those first clumsy, ham-handed extractions.

What no one knows is that, the first time they met, Eames was saving Arthur’s life.

He wasn’t Eames yet, in name or reputation, but he was the one who took out the man holding the knife to Arthur’s throat. He was the one who untied him and checked his vitals while the rest of the team poured into the room, securing the PASIV and debating whether the surviving abductors were worth the hassle of bringing in alive. He was the one who gripped Arthur’s shoulder and told him it was okay, he was all right, repeating himself in a low steady voice until Arthur realized it was true.

To his credit, Eames doesn’t use this against him nearly as much as he could.

+++

“Just once,” Eames says, “I wish you’d let me come round when I’m not in mortal peril.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Arthur says dismissively. “You’re not in mortal peril.” Granted, he’s probably felt better, between the two relatively minor bullet wounds and the noticeable favoring of his left arm that suggests recent dislocation, but he’s survived worse and they both know it. Arthur prods the deep graze on Eames’s bicep, taking a certain malevolent satisfaction in the undignified squeak the action elicits. “And I’ve never said you can’t come here.”

“You don’t need to say it,” Eames says, just lightly enough that Arthur knows he’s being serious. Arthur glances up from a sluggishly-bleeding knife wound to find Eames watching him, smiling a little, with that knowing look that always makes Arthur want to shoot him in the face.

“Come on,” he says instead. He’s feeling generous, and he figures Eames has been shot enough for one day. “You’re ruining the rug. How did you even make it past customs like this?”

“Oh, I have my ways, you know,” Eames drawls with an exaggerated wink. The act would be more convincing without the blood caked under his fingernails, the bruises darkening his throat. Arthur wonders idly how many bodies Eames left between Belgrade and Paris.

They make it to the bathroom, leaving a trail of blood and discarded paisley in their wake. Arthur sits Eames down on the edge of the bathtub and rummages under the sink for gauze, tweezers, silk suture.

“Who were you working with?” he asks over his shoulder. He needs to restock; he’s almost out of Betadine.

“You remember Mariam, from the Hendricks job?” Arthur nods, focused on measuring out the iodine. “She’s made quite the name for herself. Brought in Jefferson as architect, Velázquez running point. Not a bad team, really.”

“Name or not, she’s still running messy jobs,” Arthur says, drawing up the disinfectant solution into a syringe. “And Velázquez is an asshole.”

“Quite,” Eames agrees easily. “But they can’t all – fuck, ah, shit, that stings – they can’t all be you, can they.”

Arthur isn’t sure what to make of that tone. He squirts another syringe of disinfectant over the graze on Eames’s arm. “I wouldn’t have gotten you shot.”

Eames lets out a deeply unflattering snort. “Far be it from me to question your professional pre-eminence, darling, but the four gunshot wounds I’ve sustained in your company would beg to differ.”

“Three. Kandahar doesn’t count.”

“I still get the odd twinge in that shoulder. It counts.”

Arthur shrugs. “Not my fault. Blame the higher-ups.”

“Oorah,” Eames says, eyes warm in his blood-smeared face, and Arthur smothers a smile and jabs him a little harder than he needs to with the needle.

He patches Eames up quickly and efficiently, hands steady with years of practice. Eames is quiet, for once, letting him work. After a while, his hand comes up to settle lightly on Arthur’s waist, a damp heat through the cotton of Arthur’s shirt.

“I know you wouldn’t,” he says, as Arthur is tying off his final knot.

“Hmm.” Arthur sweeps a thumb over Eames’s cheek, brushing away flakes of dried blood. Eames closes his eyes, turns his face into the touch, and Arthur clears his throat and amends, as coolly as he can manage, “Only if you deserved it.”

Eames laughs and leans into him, a solid weight, smearing blood and iodine all over Arthur’s second-favorite Borrelli shirt. Arthur lets him.

+++

He doesn’t see a lot of Eames these days. Not that they’ve ever spent much time together, not since those first two years of government-sanctioned mind-rape in the desert, but he finds himself more aware of the long periods of radio silence these days. Arthur has never made a habit of forming close relationships, could never afford to trust anyone beyond Mal and Cobb, and now Mal’s dead and Dom is in L.A. with his kids, packing lunches and attending PTA meetings. It still feels a little strange to be on his own, now, after so long spent following Cobb from one job to the next.

It’s not like Arthur is a hermit, or a social outcast, or anything. He generally gets along fine with his teams, and there are a handful of colleagues he’ll readily join for a post-job drink. He goes to the opera with his downstairs neighbors in Berlin. He chats with old ladies at the supermarket. He sleeps with people, sometimes, if they’re attractive and he’s reasonably sure they’re not going to kill him. It’s fine. He’s fine.

He visits Cobb every few months. There’s a pleasant routine to it: Dom’s warm smile at the airport, waking up the first morning to Philippa clambering up on the bed with orange juice and burnt toast, falling asleep on the couch with James curled up against his side. Cobb is at peace, or at least as close as he’s going to get, content with his children and a teaching job and staircases that start and end. Arthur can’t begrudge him that.

He sees Ariadne once in a while, when he’s in Paris. They sit in cafés and drink strong coffee, people-watching and arguing about politics. She tells him about her classes, shows him her latest sketches, and he fills her in on the latest industry gossip. She can be tempted into the occasional job, but she’s busy with homework and friends, busy being a real girl.

And then there’s Eames.

+++

“You look like shit,” Eames observes.

“If you don’t let me inside in the next ten seconds, I will beat you to death with your own clavicle,” Arthur says.

“We really must work on your people skills,” Eames says, moving aside to give Arthur room to come in. He shuts the door behind them, locks both deadbolts and secures the chain. “Though something tells me that’s what brings you here in the first place. Job gone awry, is it?”

“Something like that.”

Eames raises an expectant eyebrow as he takes Arthur’s coat and hangs it on the stand alongside a plaid overcoat Arthur has always loathed and a slightly wrinkled Zegna suit jacket. “Angry mark?” he prompts, clicking the safety on his Walther and tucking it away in the hall table. Eames’s prudently paranoid sense of vigilance is one of his better qualities, Arthur thinks.

“Cobol, I think. They’ve been tailing me since my last job. I thought I shook them in Budapest, but – “ He trails off with a sigh, scrubs a hand over his face. He probably does look like shit. He certainly feels like it.

Eames eyes him critically, which is a little insulting coming from a man in pleated front slacks. “When’s the last time you slept?”

“I left Mumbai on Friday.”

Eames seems to accept that for the answer it is, which Arthur appreciates. He hums and taps a blunt finger against the skin under Arthur’s eye, which Arthur appreciates somewhat less. “That explains the suitcases,” he says, grinning when Arthur bats his hand away with a dark look. “So what is it you require, Arthur? You know me, I’ve got enough firearms in this flat to put down a small uprising. Or start one, I suppose. No grenade launchers, I’m afraid, but I imagine we can make do without.”

“Coffee,” Arthur says. They’ve drifted into the living room, and he drops heavily into one of the heinously ugly armchairs Eames swears are worth thousands, presumably to blind mental patients. “Real coffee, not that instant mocha shit you drink. Don’t think I won’t shoot you in your own apartment.”

There’s a pause. Arthur has known Eames long enough to know that’s not a good sign.

“Not that I don’t appreciate the sincerity of your threat, dear heart,” Eames says, carefully, “but perhaps you’d do better with a few hours of real sleep.” He settles on the arm of Arthur’s chair, close enough that Arthur can feel the heat rising off his skin. “You need to rest, Arthur. Why don’t you lie down for a bit? I’ll keep an eye out.”

“What I need is caffeine,” Arthur corrects. “And a new phone. And your laptop, assuming you haven’t destroyed it with porn viruses yet.” Eames opens his mouth, clearly ready to protest, so Arthur talks a little louder. “I didn’t come here so you could babysit me, Eames.”

Eames studies him for a moment, long enough that Arthur’s skin starts to itch. “No,” he says finally. “I suppose you didn’t.” He looks suspiciously happy for a man who’s just lost an argument. Arthur resolves to worry about that later, some time when he’s not half-drunk with exhaustion and on the run from trigger-happy South African thugs.

“Stop looking at me like that,” he mutters, closing his eyes to shut out the distressing quirk of Eames’s lips. His head is pounding to the rhythm of the rush-hour traffic on the street below. He’s so fucking tired.

“I can’t help it, darling. You’ve got a lovely scowl,” Eames says, brushing a kiss against the downturned corner of his mouth, and goes to make the coffee.

+++

In spite of the attendant headaches, he does genuinely enjoy working with Eames. Eames is an arrogant bastard at the best of times, a menace to society and Arthur’s mental health at the worst, and an absolute nightmare when he’s drunk or under-caffeinated. He is also almost as brilliant as he would have the world believe, and far more reliable. Bringing Eames on for a job means a certain amount of heckling, backtalk, and outright insubordination, but it guarantees that the job will get done. Above all else, Eames is relentlessly competent.

Arthur appreciates competence.

Not every job requires a forger, of course, and Eames has his own side projects outside of dreamsharing. It’s not uncommon for months to go by without an overlap in their schedules. Even after breaks of four or five months, though, it never takes long for them to fall back into their familiar pattern of verbal abuse and intuitive coordination. For someone who makes his living pretending to be other people, Eames is remarkably consistent. He may show up with an appalling haircut, a fractured rib, a new fondness for Davidoff cigars, but he’s always Eames, and there’s a small, grudging part of Arthur that appreciates that too.

+++

“If my Aunt Janice asks me one more time if France has turned me into a lesbian, I will not be responsible for my actions,” Ariadne says venomously, banging into the studio with the kind of aggression she normally reserves for hostile projections and particularly hectic Starbucks runs.

“Can you wait until after the job to kill her?” Arthur asks mildly, not looking up from the mark’s November MasterCard bill. “We still have some kinks to work out of the second level.”

“I make no promises.” She drops into the seat across from him with a sulky sigh. “God, how am I going to survive another week of this? I love them, but they’re driving me up a wall.”

“Don’t look at me,” Arthur says, sparing her a brief glance as he flips to the next page. “My family thinks I’m dead.”

Ariadne looks thoughtful.

“Whatever you’re thinking, I can guarantee it’s a bad idea,” Arthur warns. He turns back to the bill and immediately spots yet another absurdly extravagant lingerie purchase. It seems Herrera is sparing no expense in decorating his latest mistress, or at least her breasts, which according to February’s AmEx bill set him back $8,000.

“It would really cut down on my Christmas card list,” Ariadne argues.

“No,” Arthur says firmly.

She huffs. “You never let me do anything.”

“Ignoring the fact that your definition of ‘anything’ apparently does not include introducing you to paradoxes and automatic weapons – which, by the way, was the biggest mistake of my life – ”

“Not my fault you can’t duck,” she grumbles, admirably unapologetic.

“ – the benefits to your holiday to-do list would not make up for the awkwardness of running into your cousin on the street and having to spin the encounter as an LSD flashback. Trust me.” He circles another order from Agent Provocateur. “God, this is ridiculous. How many diamond-studded G-strings does one woman need?”

“Maybe they’re not for her,” Eames suggests, shrugging out of his coat as he kicks the door shut behind him. He ruffles Ariadne’s hair as he passes, then rounds the table to peer over Arthur’s shoulder. “Though I shudder to think of old Fernando as a cross-dresser. No woman deserves to see that body in a silk teddy.”

“Something tells me you’ll find out, Miss Edwards,” Arthur says. Eames’s forgery is impeccable, as usual. He’s already nailed down the mistress’s mannerisms, going so far as to take up gnawing his cuticles in imitation of her nervous habit. Revolting, but committed: a perfectly Eames combination.

Eames leers down at him. “Jealous, are we?”

“Beyond the telling of it,” Arthur says dryly.

Their mini-reunion owes more to chance than to any planning on Arthur’s part: Eames was just coming off a real-world heist in Madrid, and Ariadne happened to be in Chicago for the holidays and was more than happy to come in on a job. Arthur has gathered that she has a strained relationship with this side of her family, the kind where you’re obligated to visit but can’t spend too much time around each other without things deteriorating into shouting matches and weaponized flatware.

Premeditated or not, it’s been surprisingly enjoyable working all together again. Ariadne is shaping up into a world-class architect, and Eames, for all his faults, is still the best forger in the game. Arthur likes a challenge as much as the next mind thief, but it’s a pleasant break from the norm to have such complete confidence in his teammates.

As if she can tell what he’s thinking, Ariadne suddenly pipes up, “Hey, what are you guys doing after the job?”

“No plans yet,” Eames says. “Why? I warn you, I’m rubbish at body disposal.”

She makes a face, but pushes on. “Seriously, why don’t you stay a couple days? I haven’t seen you guys in forever. I can’t even remember the last time we drunk-dialed Saito’s private line.”

“We?”

“Oh, come on, you thought it was funny.”

Arthur can feel Eames’s eyes on him, waiting for his reaction. He shakes his head. “Sorry, not this time. I have another job lined up.”

“Already?” Ariadne asks incredulously. “Jesus, Arthur, when do you sleep?”

“Automatons do not require sleep, Ariadne,” Eames informs her. “Our Arthur does not share the same appreciation for basic human comforts as we mere mortals.”

“You’re significantly less funny than you think you are,” Arthur says.

“Who says I’m joking?” Eames retorts, with a bright and transparently insincere smile. It grates on Arthur’s nerves.

“Did you get the compounds?” he asks, turning the conversation back to the job. “I want to test out the maze again as soon as Liu gets in.”

“Of course,” Eames says, and produces the vials with a flourish. If he has an opinion about the abrupt subject change, he keeps it to himself.

Later, when their extractor has arrived, they all plug in and go under. After an abridged but promising practice run, Ariadne takes Liu off to show him the shortcut she’s created into the bank vault – the one Herrera is hopefully going to fill with the details of the upcoming merger – leaving Arthur and Eames to wander idly through the twists and expertly disguised paradoxes of her cityscape.

They end up on the roof of a five-star hotel, reminiscent of the place where the mark first met Andrea Edwards. The view is impressive, a mix of Chicago and New York with just enough Paris thrown it to be disorienting under closer examination.

“She’s done a good job,” Eames says, looking down at the projections milling around on the street below. They’ve been under for a while, and Arthur’s subconscious is starting to get suspicious. He would describe his personal sub-security as well-trained and appropriately wary; other opinions have ranged from “almost schizophrenically paranoid” to “fucking terrifying, you utter sociopath.” It certainly livens up routine training exercises.

“She always does,” Arthur agrees. He pauses, adjusts his cufflinks to have something to do with his hands. “She’s thinking of faking her own death, you know.” It feels a little like a peace offering, though he’s not sure why Eames is so irritable in the first place, or why he even cares.

Eames snorts. “Family time going that well, then?”

“Evidently.” They’re quiet for a moment, watching the projections. A number of them have started mobbing the front entrance of the hotel, seeking out the dreamer. Already, Arthur can hear faint footsteps in the stairwell. “I told her it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Frozen bank accounts, and all.”

“Come now, it’s not so terrible being legally dead. No fussing about taxes and such.”

“I file a tax return, actually,” Arthur says absently. More and more projections are swarming into the hotel, most likely joined along the way by the guests and housekeeping staff; he estimates that the first of them will reach the roof within the next thirty seconds. “Or, Henry Gondorff does. I might need the paper trail someday.”

“You are the most tragically straight-laced criminal in the entire world,” Eames says. “Do you donate your ill-begotten gains to charities for legless orphans, as well?”

Arthur can’t quite contain the smile that tugs at his lips. “Bhenchod,” he mutters, without much heat behind it. The footsteps are louder, now, a deafening clamor echoing up through the emergency exit door.

“Language,” Eames tuts, but his eyes are bright, and Arthur feels an irrational twinge of regret about tackling him backwards off the edge of the roof.

+++

The sex is good.

Better than good, actually. If pressed, Arthur would probably have to admit that it’s the best sex of his life, fierce and urgent and spine-meltingly hot. He keeps waiting for them to slip up, for one of them to have an off night (or morning, or afternoon, or – yeah, the sex is good), but it doesn’t happen. Eames knows him dangerously well at this point, can persuade Arthur’s body to betray him with nothing more than a well-practiced twist of his wrist or a scrape of sharp teeth in the hollow of Arthur’s throat.

So the sex is pretty much spectacular; it’s far and away the easiest part of his interactions with Eames. That’s never been the problem. Not that there is a problem. They fuck, sometimes, and other times they work jobs together, and most of the time they’re half a world apart, fucking and working with other people.

It’s fine.

+++

Of all the places Eames has called home over the years they’ve known each other, Arthur likes his London flat the best. He’d never tell him as much, of course, but he likes the simplicity of it: the old crown molding in the bathroom, the bookshelves creaking under the weight of Eames’s addiction to first editions. He likes the long windows in the bedroom and the way the weak afternoon sunlight slants across the bed, a warm line on his back as he ducks down to bite at the hinge of Eames’s jaw.

“Christ, you feel so fucking good. Perfect.” Eames’s breath is hot on Arthur’s cheek. Arthur nips at his earlobe before pulling back, easing himself up and slamming down, and Eames’s fingers dig into his hip, his thigh. “Arthur.

“You talk too much, Mr. Eames,” Arthur grits out. His legs tremble under him as Eames’s cock drags against him at just the right angle, sparking a surge of pleasure he can feel in his fingertips. He holds them there for a few seconds, small rocking movements, lightheaded with the ache in his ass and the slick planes of Eames’s chest under his hands.

Eames slides a hand up to tug roughly at Arthur’s nipple. “You love it.”

He does. Sex does unspeakable things to Eames’s voice, turns it dark and gritty and heavy, dripping with want, and Arthur feels it like a hand around his cock.

Speaking of which.

Shit.” Arthur’s hips stutter, and Eames smirks, stroking him with a tight, slow touch that never fails to leave Arthur feeling desperate and over-hot, trapped in his own skin.

“Say it,” he says. His thumb ghosts over the head of Arthur’s cock, slipping in the wetness there.

Arthur grits his teeth and twists his hips, reveling in the groan that wrenches out of Eames’s throat. “No.”

“Arthur,” Eames says, and it should not be possible for one word to do so much damage. That fucking voice. Fuck.

Arthur shakes his head, biting his lip. He doesn’t trust himself to speak.

“Arthur,” Eames repeats, coaxing, and then his other hand is releasing Arthur’s thigh, skating back and over and oh fuck oh God his fingertips drag over hypersensitive skin, exploring the join of their bodies, a deadly and delicate touch and Arthur can’t stop the words that rip out of him.

“Please, please, Eames, fuck, please – “

“Yes,” Eames breathes, almost inaudible over the rush of blood in Arthur’s ears. His hands are hot, determined, breaking Arthur apart and holding him together. “Yes.”

Arthur does not scream when he comes, but it’s a close call.

Afterward, Eames is as smug and satisfied as ever, taking advantage of the opportunity to trace lazy patterns over Arthur’s skin before Arthur regains the motor skills required to break his arm. “This flat suits you,” he says. He draws a three on Arthur’s belly. A coincidence, probably.

Arthur hums, noncommittal. “There’s a job for you in Jakarta, if you want it.”

“Your timing leaves something to be desired,” Eames informs him, stroking one sticky finger up his center line.

He takes the job.

+++

It turns out that Eames is right about Arthur’s timing. Usually it’s pretty good. Superb, even. He’s always twenty minutes early, always two steps ahead of his enemies, always knows the exact right moment to swoop in with a semi-automatic and save his team.

When it’s off, though, it’s really fucking off.

+++

He’s swallowed enough blood that he’s starting to feel sick, nausea roiling ominously in his gut. He clamps down hard on the feeling. His mouth is taped shut: if he vomits, he’ll most likely suffocate. He’s still not sure whether this is a dream or not, but he’s not willing to risk being remembered as the point man who drowned in his own puke.

(He’s drowned dozens of times in dreamspace – swimming pools, bathtubs, sidewalk puddles, whitewater rapids, sewers. A washing machine, once. He really hates drowning.)

If this isn’t a dream, he is almost certainly going to die. He’s always known that this line of work would kill him sooner or later. Frankly, he’s a little surprised that it’s taken this long. There have been a lot of near misses. He’s been gut-shot, stabbed, beaten, strangled, almost decapitated. He’s thrown himself out of a third-story window with a broken leg. Time after time, he’s narrowly escaped the wrath of angry marks and the vengeance of dissatisfied employers.

He should already be dead a dozen times over, but that doesn’t really make him feel any better about the fact that he’s going to die today, tied to a chair with his blood-soaked boxers glued to his thighs. Eames will be pissed off about the boxers, probably. He likes this pair, likes palming Arthur’s ass through them and mouthing up the silk-covered line of his dick, pressing close and breathing deep where Arthur’s leg meets his body and oh, God, he’s never going to see Eames again. More than anything, more than he wants to kill the bastards torturing him or say goodbye to Cobb’s kids or check in on his mother one last time, Arthur desperately wants to tuck his face into the curve where the warm, scruffy line of Eames’s throat meets the hard muscle of his shoulder. He wants to kick Eames’s feet out from under him and fuck him into the polished hardwood in his Paris apartment, hipbones aching where they slam against Eames’s body. He wants to wake up from this dream and realize that the painful, constricting pressure in his chest is because Eames is sleeping half on top of him again and not because he’s bleeding out in some dank Kinshasa shithole and he’s just figured out that –

“Oh, fuck,” he says, or would say, if his mouth weren’t taped shut. It comes out as a low, muffled groan, and one of the guards gives him a blindingly white smile and shoots him in the foot.

+++

Eames is in Medellín.

They argued about it. Not that Arthur cared where Eames went or what jobs he took, but van der Steen had botched his last two jobs and Arthur had never cared for his approach. Too sloppy, too much left to chance.

“Is there anyone in this industry you don’t despise?” Eames asked. Arthur could hear a faint whistling sound over the line, imagined the battered old kettle boiling on Eames’s range. Still in Mombasa, then.

“I don’t despise him,” Arthur said. “I just don’t trust him, and I need you alive for the Khader job in two weeks.”

“Kindly give me a little credit, Arthur,” Eames said. “I know what I’m doing.”

Arthur politely withheld his doubt on that subject. “Suit yourself. It’s your funeral.”

“As always, your confidence in me is staggering.”

Now boarding all passengers for flight 734 to Brazzaville. All passengers –

“You have two weeks,” Arthur said, lifting his satchel onto his shoulder. “Say hello to Yusuf for me.”

“Will do,” Eames said, and that was that. Arthur flew to Brazzaville, from there into N'djili, and a week later Eames is in Medellín with fucking van der Steen and Arthur is choking on his own blood.

It’s probably a good thing that Arthur is going to die, because Eames would be insufferable about this.

+++

“It is good that we have this opportunity to talk,” the man says. He grips Arthur’s hair a little tighter, tugs just hard enough to remind Arthur of his position. ”You and I have much to discuss.”

“I doubt that,” Arthur says, teeth catching on the sharp edges of his broken teeth. His lips are on fire, raw from the rip of the tape. He’s lost track of how long he’s been here. Weeks, maybe. Years.

He can still see, a little, through the eye that hasn’t swollen completely shut. The man standing over him is short and slim, holding a small and wickedly sharp knife in his left hand. His eyes crinkle at the corners when he chuckles, a soft and cultured sound. “You will find, I think, that I can be quite persuasive.”

Arthur’s nose is broken, crushed under the scarred knuckles of the hired muscle. He breathes, carefully, through his mouth.

“Tell me, Mr. Arthur,” the man says, dragging the blade across the exposed curve of Arthur’s throat. “What do you know about inception?”

+++

Arthur is stubborn. He knows this about himself. It’s a good thing, he thinks, for all that Eames calls him impossible and unreasonable and bull-headed, along with a number of far filthier things when Arthur brings this particular idiosyncrasy into bed with them. It’s part of what makes him so good at his job: the absolute refusal to stand down or admit defeat, even with his back against the wall and an army of furious projections clawing at his limbs.

“It’s going to get you killed someday,” Cobb told him once, years ago, before limbo and Mal, back when he still considered himself eminently qualified to tell other people how to run their lives. “You’re the best, Arthur, we both know that, but you need to learn when to fold your hand or you’re not going to make it.”

As it turns out, it’s going to be Cobb that gets him killed, Cobb and the stupid fucking job Arthur told him to walk away from – but the stubbornness probably doesn’t help.

+++

“Your integrity is noble, but misguided,” the man says. He adjusts his grip on the knife, slippery now after an hour of discussion. It would be the perfect opportunity to take him out – head-butt to the stomach, knee to the groin, knocking the knife from his slick fingers – if Arthur could just think past the quivering, nauseating pain in his gut. “What is that expression – ‘no loyalty among thieves.’ Any one of them would sell me your secrets in a heartbeat.”

“Guess you picked the wrong thief,” Arthur says. The blood is warm and thick in his mouth, sliding down his chin.

“Perhaps.” His hand drifts tenderly down Arthur’s chest, pausing just above where the knife has laid him open. “Or perhaps I have not yet been sufficiently persuasive.”

+++

Cobb will be devastated when he finds out, probably. They’ve had their rough patches, but they’ve been friends for a long time. Cobb is the closest thing Arthur has to family, the bossy and overprotective older brother he never had. He’ll be furious with Arthur for being so careless, for letting his guard down. Mostly, though, he’ll blame himself. He always does.

James and Philippa will cry when Dom tells them; they’re old enough now to understand what it means that Uncle Arthur is never coming back. They’ll cry again at the funeral, sloppy hiccupping kid sobs, the same fat tears and runny noses Arthur remembers from the week Mal died.

(If there is a funeral. If they find his body. If there’s a body to find.)

Ariadne will be crushed. She’s never lost anyone close to her before, has no personal experience with the grim risks of the world they’ve lured her into. It’ll put her off dreamsharing for a while. Not forever. She loves it too much to stay away.

His mother and sister think he’s been dead for the last seven years. They’ll never know.

His landlords will send him a series of increasingly aggravated letters and eventually move his things into storage, or sell them, or throw them out. His neighbors in Berlin will be annoyed and a little concerned when he doesn’t show up for the Ring Cycle next month. Architects, extractors, other point men will gossip about his messy end, speculating on the misstep that brought him down, relieved that it wasn’t them.

That’s it, really. No one else will notice. No one else even knows he exists.

No one except Eames.

Arthur doesn’t know what Eames will do.

+++

“I must admit to some frustration, Mr. Arthur,” the man says. “I was told that you were a reasonable man. You disappoint me.”

Arthur couldn’t answer if he wanted to. He’s probably been in worse pain at some point, in dreamspace at least – he’s been eaten alive, for God’s sake – but it’s hard to believe that anything in dreams or reality could hurt more than this, that there’s anything anywhere that could begin to compare with the sickening squelch of his viscera or the seizing, breathless, deafening pain of the man’s manicured hands pulling him inside-out.

He can’t believe he’s not dead yet. Why isn’t he dead yet?

“There is still time, you know. We will have another chance, you and I. As many chances as we – “

The man jerks forward, suddenly, like he’s been shot. He crumples against Arthur, dead weight, pinning him to the chair, and the agony is indescribable: the pressure on his open wounds, the grinding of his shattered bones.

Arthur screams, raw and soundless.

(Somewhere beyond the boundaries of his awareness, there is trouble: heavy footsteps, shouting in panicked French, what the fuck is, one thud and then another, the dull sound of bodies hitting the floor.)

It hurts it hurts Jesus Christ, why isn’t he dead, he wants to be dead, craves it like air water Eames and then the world tilts around him and he’s falling –

+++

The first three things Arthur knew about Eames:

The weight of his hand.
The pitch of his voice.
The color of his kameez.

+++

Immediately, overwhelmingly, he’s conscious of his body: the wholeness of it, the tight stretch of skin across his stomach and the rounded edges of his teeth. The sharp ache in the back of his head where he hit the ground.

“Easy,” Eames’s voice says in his ear, “easy, easy,” and Arthur realizes belatedly that he’s coughing, choking for air, lungs spasming in phantom panic. “You’re all right, just breathe, Arthur, breathe for me, please – “

“Sorry,” Arthur says, ridiculously, a strangled hiss of sound between convulsions, and Eames lets out a loud, harsh noise that might be a laugh.

“Of course. Of course you are. Just breathe for me, darling, and we’ll call it even, yeah?”

Arthur considers responding to that, some scathing rejoinder or possibly (probably) a humiliating adrenaline-fueled confession, but then he’s caught up in another coughing fit, and for a while all he can do is lie there and try to breathe, for Eames.

The details of their surroundings filter in slowly, leaking in around the overpowering awareness of his unbroken bones and the ache of his fingers where they’re clenched in Eames’s jacket. The dim room, windowless, peeling paint and cement floor. The PASIV whirring away on the floor, trailing IVs in all directions. The bodies all around them, splayed gracelessly in plastic chairs and slumped against the walls, gore-splattered faces slack and familiar. The smell of blood and gunpowder, strong in the confined space.

There’s a chair trapped between Arthur and the floor; he must have dragged Eames down with him when Eames gave him the kick, though it’s possible that Eames followed him down of his own accord. Anything is possible, at this point, with his body in one piece and Eames sprawled heavily on top of him. Eames, who’s supposed to be in Medellín.

“You’re here,” Arthur says, when he can breathe again. He recognizes how stupid he sounds, but his brain isn’t cooperating with him right now.

“Yes,” Eames agrees. His grip tightens painfully on Arthur’s neck, thumb digging into the soft flesh under his jaw.

He means to ask about van der Steen, how Eames knew, how he found him, but what comes out is: “Why?”

Eames makes that sound again, sharp and ugly. Maybe it’s not a laugh after all. “You idiot,” he whispers, and Arthur would take offense at that, but Eames is moving away, pulling back to look Arthur in the face, and he looks like shit. He looks like he’s been hit by a truck, like he’s the one who just spent an eternity getting ripped open and torn apart. “Where else would I be?”

+++

“Can you stand?” Eames asked, years ago – before he was Eames, before he was a forger and an international criminal and the love of Arthur’s fucking life, before he was anyone other than an undercover SAS officer with bruised knuckles and that garishly-colored kameez that made Arthur’s eyes hurt just looking at it.

“Yeah, sure,” Arthur lied, delirious with relief, and, “Jesus, that’s the ugliest fucking shirt I’ve ever seen,” and he passed out.