“I don’t suppose I could trouble you to pass the sugar,” Eames says.
“You don’t take sugar in your coffee,” Arthur replies, not looking up from his newspaper. The paper appears to be in French, but Eames can’t make out any of the apparently enthralling details. Eames’s inner thoughts and darkest secrets, probably, though he suspects that Arthur knows most of those already. No doubt he keeps a spreadsheet.
Arthur porte culotte de dentelle, he thinks, forcefully, and is pleased to see a muscle twitch in Arthur’s jaw.
They’re sharing a table at a small, crowded pavement café in what could easily pass for the 4th arrondissement at a glance. It’s the sort of neat and polished environment in which Eames imagines Arthur feels most comfortable, peopled with his predictably well-groomed and hopelessly monochrome projections: tidy clean-shaven men sipping espresso and checking their smartphones, sleek businesswomen click-clacking down the pavement in sky-high designer pumps.
“You don’t feel any different?” Eames asks.
Arthur turns a page. “Not really. A little cold, I guess.” As he speaks, a few flakes of snow drift across the table, vanishing into the foam of their untouched cappuccinos and settling on the delicate ridges of the madeleines.
“That’ll be something top-side,” Eames says. “Reckon Yusuf’s left the window open again. Let’s go inside, shall we?”
“I’d rather not,” Arthur says.
Eames frowns at him. “You’re being terribly difficult, you know.”
The hint of a smirk flickers across Arthur’s sharp features. “Try again, Mr. Eames.”
Their mark on this job is Kathleen Stone, a tightly-wound VP at Panacea Corp with confidential knowledge of a rumored dengue fever vaccine and exceedingly poor taste in ex-husbands. She’s likely been militarized, which would be challenge enough, but she’s also notoriously close-mouthed; if her subconscious is anywhere near as wary as her waking self, she’s going to be a tough one to crack.
Conveniently, Yusuf has been experimenting with a new sedative, trying to pinpoint the delicate balance that will lower the dreamer’s inhibitions without throwing the dream into chaos. He’s come up with a compound that he thinks may do the trick, pacifying the mark’s subconscious and making the mark herself more biddable and accommodating.
It only made sense, really, to test the sedative on Arthur, who might fairly be described as “obstinate” in the same way the North Sea might be labeled “damp.”
(Arthur tried to wriggle out of it, of course, but Yusuf quite reasonably pointed out that Eames had no inhibitions to lower –
“It’s true,” Eames agreed, “I find they’re dreadfully inconvenient, chucked mine years ago.”
– and their extractor pulled rank, claiming a debilitating allergy to “anything described as ‘experimental,’” so Arthur it was.)
Arthur’s projections do seem slightly less murderous than usual, sparing Eames no more than the occasional disinterested glance as they swan by, but Arthur himself is proving to be as unyielding as ever. Eames has to admit to some disappointment: half the reason he agreed to assist Yusuf with this test was the prospect of seeing Arthur do something ridiculous, and here the uptight bastard has yet to even loosen his tie.
He makes another half-hearted attempt. “It’s really quite chilly out here, isn’t it? What do you say we go for a stroll to warm up a bit?”
Arthur finally deigns to glance up from his paper, mouth tugging up at the corner. “You’re not even trying anymore. Don’t you claim to be some kind of expert at manipulating people?”
“Oh, piss off,” Eames grumbles. It’s not his sharpest riposte, but he’s increasingly distracted by a nagging sense of wrongness in the way Arthur is behaving. There is nothing he can pin down, nothing he can point to as concrete evidence of something amiss. On the surface, Arthur is as perfectly composed as he always is in dreamspace, from the carefully positioned full Windsor to the unfastened button of his waistcoat. But there’s something off in his steady dark gaze, in the familiar smug tilt of his lips - some nearly imperceptible quirk skittering along the edges of Eames’s awareness, like the dissonance of an imperfect forge.
“You’re almost out of time,” Arthur says, and turns his attention back to the newspaper.
As if on cue, a very faint melody begins to filter through the background noise of their pseudo-Paris, just barely audible over the murmur of conversation and clink of flatware. There is no moon above, when love is far away too… Yusuf must have had another falling out with the latest love of his life; he only ever plays Ella when he’s moping over someone.
“I think we’ve got to chalk this one up as a failure,” Eames says, bracing himself for an argument. “It’s all well and good keeping the projections under control, but if we can’t get Stone to spill, I don’t know that it’s worth the added risk of the sedative.”
Arthur folds the paper, neatly. His fingertips are smudged with newsprint. “You’re right,” he says.
“Hear me out, Arthur, I know you think you’re – “ Eames begins automatically, then grinds to a halt. “Hold on – I’m right?”
By default, in Arthur’s eyes, Eames is never right. Arthur invariably takes issue with some aspect of Eames’s contributions to any discussion, whether they’re strategizing for a job or brainstorming ideas for where to go for takeaway. If Eames recommends an architect, Arthur has worked with her before and she’s utterly incompetent; if Eames thinks it looks like rain, Arthur just happens to have a detailed weather report on hand that suggests otherwise. If Eames were to propose that the earth revolves round the sun, he has no doubt that Arthur would personally discover a fatal flaw in the heliocentric model in order to prove him wrong.
Arthur shrugs, seemingly unmoved by the fact that he has just overruled seven years of precedent. “There’s no point in using a potentially unstable compound if it’s not going to get us what we need. There are safer ways of keeping the projections in check.”
Eames stares at him. And then says, slowly, “Hand me a biscuit, would you, please?”
“Get it yourself,” Arthur says, and kisses him.
It’s barely a kiss, really, just a fleeting brush of lips, gentle and dry. It’s the sort of thing Eames might easily excuse away, attribute to a stumble (whilst seated) or a sudden need for cover (alone in the dreamscape) or a sodding aneurysm, any number of things that would make more sense than Arthur kissing him, but then Arthur pulls away and he’s smiling, eyes crinkled at the corners and breath hot on Eames’s chin, and –
“Oh, fuck me,” Arthur says, and shoots himself in the head.
Eames stares down at the body crumpled across the table. He touches his mouth, stupidly, fingers cold against the lingering warmth of Arthur’s lips.
“What,” he says, voice echoing in the sudden silence of the deserted café, “what just,” and then the music swells, though the words may be wrong, we’re singing it –
He jerks awake in the lawn chair with somewhat greater force than usual, reaching up immediately to rip the headphones away from his ears. Yusuf gives him a curious look from where he’s crouched next to the PASIV, but Eames’s attention is focused on Arthur, who is sitting bolt-upright in the next chair over wearing a look of sheer horror that Eames hasn’t seen since the time Cobb suggested they pretend to be married for the Meijer job.
“All right?” Yusuf says cautiously.
“What the fuck,” Eames says.
Arthur turns to look at him with wide, unblinking eyes. There’s something sharp and accusatory in that look, which is distinctly unfair, considering that Eames is not the one who’s lost the fucking plot and started attacking coworkers with his mouth.
“What the fuck,” Eames repeats.
Arthur opens his mouth, and then closes it again.
Well, there’s a silver lining. Any turn of events that renders Arthur speechless is worthy of celebration. Eames will have to relish the victory later, when he feels less as though he has been flung off a skyscraper, waiting with his lungs in his throat for a kick that doesn’t come.
Yusuf glances between them. “Did it work?”
Eames looks back at Arthur, who is still staring at him the way Cobb used to stare at that top of his, as if he can’t take his eyes off Eames for a moment or reality will collapse around him. “Define ‘work,’” he says.
“Yusuf,” Arthur says, voice rough and urgent. He is visibly shaken, which is nearly as disconcerting as the kiss itself. Arthur wouldn’t be the best at what he does if his nerves were anything short of rock-steady. He’s the sort of man who can fire into a crowd of bloodthirsty schoolchildren without a hint of distress, who treats shrapnel wounds like paper cuts and has been known to soldier through a collapsed lung. “Yusuf, what the fuck was in that compound?”
Yusuf’s response is interrupted by the arrival of Keisha, their extractor, who in typical fashion begins issuing directives before the door has finished closing behind her. “Meeting in twenty to go over the first level – Reggie’s on his way. Arthur, I need you to meet Abrams with me at five. He’s getting antsy about the timing again.” When Arthur doesn’t respond, she looks up from her BlackBerry. “Arthur? Jesus, are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I,” Arthur says. “I, uh.”
“Did something happen?” Yusuf asks, sounding concerned. “You think something’s gone wrong with the sedative?”
Eames is suddenly struck by a terrible thought. “Wait,” he says, “wait, Arthur, you’re not still – “
Arthur’s face darkens – he’s flushing, Arthur is flushing – and he looks away.
“But that’s impossible,” Eames says dumbly. “That’s, you’re awake, it shouldn’t – “
“What happened?” Yusuf demands.
Arthur lurches abruptly to his feet, surprisingly graceless, and jerks the line from his arm with a careless yank. A sharp flare of pain twists his mouth, clenches his jaw, and that vulnerability is so out of place on Arthur’s normally impassive face that Eames reaches out instinctively, fingers closing round Arthur’s wrist.
Arthur freezes at the touch, head whipping round so quickly Eames half expects to hear a snap. The pain has vanished from his face, leaving behind a helpless sort of – something, something Eames’s brain recognizes but categorically refuses to associate with Arthur. His eyes are very, very dark.
“Arthur,” Eames says.
“Let go of me,” Arthur says, but he doesn’t pull away, doesn’t do anything but stand there with his pulse hammering rabbit-fast under Eames’s thumb and his eyes fixed on Eames’s mouth.
Eames licks his lips, unthinking, and Arthur makes a small, pained sound.
Keisha has been observing this exchange with narrowed eyes.
“Yusuf,” she says, dangerously, “did you give my point man a love potion?”
“Er,” says Yusuf.
“Gordon fucking Bennett,” says Reggie, their architect, who has a tremendous talent for turning up at the worst conceivable moment.
“Okay,” says Arthur, loudly, and wrenches himself free of Eames’s admittedly lax grip. He rounds on Yusuf, stabbing a finger in his direction with a violence that suggests he wishes it were a rifle. “You, you are going to figure out how to fix this. Now. Sooner, if possible. Or else – ”
“I’m not a bloody psychic, Arthur,” Yusuf protests, commendably defiant in the face of one of Arthur’s more terrifying scowls. “You won’t even tell me what happened, how am I supposed to – “
“Or else I will kill you,” Arthur finishes.
Yusuf swallows audibly.
Arthur turns to Keisha. “Can you postpone the meeting with Abrams? Tell him – I don’t know, tell him we’re tailing Stone to that benefit tonight.”
“Yeah, no problem,” Keisha says. “We’ll expense him for the tuxedo rental.”
“Good,” Arthur says. He nods to himself, smoothes an imaginary wrinkle in his waistcoat. “Right. Okay. I’m going to go throw myself into traffic.”
They all watch as he stalks out of the warehouse, pausing only to snatch his suit jacket from his desk chair before disappearing through the side door.
“He’s joking, right?” Reggie asks.
“Of course he is,” Eames snaps, at the same moment Yusuf says, “I don’t think so.”
Eames glares. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not much inclined to trust your judgment at the moment, Dr. No.”
“Look,” Yusuf says heatedly, “I think you’re all misinterpreting what’s – “
“Yusuf,” Eames warns, allowing a hint of menace to color his voice. He may not possess Arthur’s vaguely Uncanny Valley-esque gift for unnerving the general populace, but he does have considerable Krav Maga training and a left hook capable of breaking a man’s jaw, not to mention a number of very large guns.
Yusuf’s visible recollection of these facts is gratifying. He heaves a disgruntled sigh and says, “Right, I’ll just be getting to work, then, shall I?”
“Brilliant idea,” Eames says. “And shut the damned window. It’s freezing in here.”
“So I heard you kissed Arthur,” says the familiar and worryingly cheerful voice that apparently belongs to Unknown Caller. “Was it everything you’d dreamed of?”
“I didn’t – how did you even get this number?” Eames demands.
“I have my ways,” Ariadne dismisses, with a calculated nonchalance she almost certainly picked up from him, the cheeky shit. “Let’s focus on the part where you made out with Arthur.”
“I did not make out with Arthur,” Eames says. “He kissed me when we were under. Once. Full stop.”
“The old ‘distracting the projections’ move, huh?” she says knowingly. “He likes that one. Although he must have been pretty desperate to use it on you.” A beat. “No offense.”
“If you must know,” Eames says, feeling irrationally defensive, “we were testing an experimental compound of Yusuf’s, he reacted badly, and now he thinks he’s in love with me.”
There is a very long pause.
“Holy shit,” Ariadne says finally.
“Yeah,” Eames agrees. It does sound bad when he puts it into words like that.
Another pause, and then: “Was it, like, a grandma kiss? I got a grandma kiss.”
Despite himself, Eames chuckles. “It was – “
Light. Warm. Not careful, exactly, but not careless either – more the sort of casually affectionate gesture he might mimic whilst forging a long-term lover, easy and impulsive.
He coughs. “Ah, yeah. Yeah, I suppose.”
“Uh huh,” Ariadne says, sounding skeptical. “So does Cobb know yet?”
Eames’s mobile beeps, alerting him to an incoming call.
“Oh, Christ,” he says.
Ariadne just cackles.
Contrary to Ariadne’s insinuations and Cobb’s frankly unbecoming accusations, Eames does not in fact have any designs on Arthur’s virtue.
He recognizes that Arthur is an attractive man; he’s not blind, after all, and Arthur is really quite shameless the way he struts about in those arse-hugging trousers. But there are a great many attractive people in the world, and most of them aren’t such supercilious arseholes. Most of them have never shot Eames in the arse with a goddamn M40 – Arthur still insists it was an accident, but he is a horrendously incompetent liar – or had him sacked from a very well-paying job for “acting like a four-year-old.” Perhaps more importantly, most of them haven’t the ability or inclination to garrote their unsatisfactory lovers with a length of dental floss.
Not that Eames has ever – ever – been an unsatisfactory lover. Eames fucks like a god, even when concussed or under the influence of prodigious quantities of mnazi. But Arthur seems the sort to detract points for the kind of filthy, rude moments that make sex worth having: spit dribbling down cocks, come smeared into coarse hair, lube sliding slick and messy down finger-bruised thighs –
So, no, Eames has never seriously considered pursuing Arthur, any more than he would have considered trying it on with Saito. He’ll stick to the charming, sweet-tempered things who’ll warm his bed without setting it on fire afterward, ta, and leave Arthur to his committed relationship with the stick up his arse.
(And if he has, once or twice, jerked off to the thought of long pale fingers curled round the hilt of a commando knife – well. He’s only human, isn’t he.)
Arthur is already at his desk when Eames arrives at the warehouse the next morning, which is nothing out of the ordinary. Arthur has always worked ludicrous hours, taking some sort of grim pride in being the first to arrive and the last to leave every day. Eames would assume that he catches up on sleep between jobs, though it’s not inconceivable that he has trained himself out of the need for rest entirely and survives solely on willpower and triple ristretto.
What is out of the ordinary is the look on Arthur’s face as he squints down at the PASIV laid open in front of him.
Eames supposes he knows Arthur as well as he knows any of his more regular colleagues. In the seven years they’ve known each other, they have worked together on fifteen jobs – sixteen, if you include the time they were hired to competing teams and managed to beat the living shit out of each other on the second level before realizing the client/mark had set them up.
So Eames knows that, for all of his neatly-pressed suits and slicked back hair, Arthur is not immune to the wear and tear of everyday life, particularly when that everyday life includes the occasional firefight. Over the course of their acquaintance, Eames has seen Arthur in varying states of disarray: rumpled, dirty, half-drowned, splattered with arterial blood. He remembers the dull horror in Arthur’s eyes after the Solovyov job, his drawn face and hair-trigger temper in the months after Mal jumped and Cobb went on the run, but he has never seen anything that compares to the pinched, miserable exhaustion that seems to have settled heavily over Arthur’s whole body, slumping his shoulders and carving stark lines in his face.
Eames’s shoe scuffs against the floor, loud in the silent warehouse, and Arthur looks up, registering Eames’s presence for the first time. Instantly, his face clears, smoothes out into an expression of such naked relief that Eames feels almost embarrassed, as though he’s walked in on something unspeakably private.
Arthur catches himself after a moment and quickly turns back to the PASIV, schooling his features into a scowl that is not quite convincing enough to disguise the color rising in his cheeks. “You’re here early.”
“Mmm,” Eames says, noncommittal, because it seems safer than, So I see you’re still involuntarily besotted with me.
They both fall silent. Arthur pokes and prods at the PASIV, clearly determined to ignore Eames until he goes away, and Eames stands there awkwardly, torn between a vague sense of obligation and the far more visceral urge to turn round and run like hell.
“Rough night?” Eames ventures finally, when the silence threatens to become actually physically uncomfortable.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Arthur says shortly, jabbing his screwdriver into the PASIV’s innards more vigorously than is probably warranted. The flush has crept down his throat, pinked the shells of his ears.
“Are you, ah…” Eames hesitates, unsure if that there’s a way to end that sentence that won’t result in Arthur shooting him in the face.
Arthur’s jaw clenches. “I’m still feeling the effects of the compound. If that’s what you’re wondering.”
Obviously, Eames doesn’t say. “So Yusuf hasn’t – “
“No.” Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose, mouth set in a thin, unhappy line. “Don’t you have work to do?”
“I’m tailing Cordelia this morning,” Eames says. “Don’t worry, I’ll be out of your way soon enough.”
He tells himself that he’s only imagining the disappointment that flashes across Arthur’s face.
He ends up tailing Stone’s daughter and the nanny for most of the day. She’s a feisty thing, Cordelia, with quick darting eyes and the incongruously deep, throaty laugh of a 40-year-old chain-smoker. She’s clever, perhaps too clever, and at an age where she’s just starting to test the boundaries of her life of privilege. She’ll be bunking off school and sneaking cigarettes in the ladies before she hits fourth form, if Eames is any judge.
By the time he returns to the warehouse, most of the team has left for the day – even Arthur, who has hopefully gone to get some rest and not to drown himself in the Thames. Only Yusuf is still there, alone at his worktable in a pool of light, tapping his pen against an empty beaker as he frowns down at his notes.
“Any luck?” Eames asks. He squints at the notes, trying to make sense of Yusuf’s impenetrable shorthand, but he can’t make out anything beyond “ART” and “EMS” and, troublingly, several exclamation marks.
Yusuf shakes his head, grim. “It’s going to be slow going just to determine the extent of the compound’s impact, much less reverse the effects. I did talk Arthur into telling me his version of what happened, at least, but I think he may be holding back.” Eames snorts – the idea of Arthur holding back anything right now is laughable – and Yusuf gives him a sideways look. “Perhaps if you – “
“No,” Eames says immediately. “La. Are you joking? I’m not asking him for anything, not when he’s like this.”
“Why not?” Yusuf asks. He sounds genuinely confused, and Eames is reminded of how little Yusuf really knows of Arthur beyond his sharp suits and sensitivity to norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors.
“He’s already going to murder me after you’ve fixed this,” Eames explains, slowly, the way he might speak to a small and fairly dim child. Rather the way Arthur speaks to him, come to think of it. “I’m not giving him any more motivation.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Yusuf scoffs.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Arthur and I were not on the best of terms to start with,” Eames says. “Now that you’ve gone and given him a fucking love potion – “
“That’s not what – “
“ – I’ll be lucky if he simply refuses to ever work with me again.”
Yusuf looks skeptical. Eames crosses his arms over his chest, prepared to hold his ground. Yusuf may be a probable genius with a staggeringly comprehensive grasp of neurochemistry, but when it comes to the subject of Arthur’s antagonism and propensity for unreasonable grudges, Eames is a sodding Nobel laureate.
Instead of pushing, though, Yusuf sighs and looks away. He takes off his glasses, wipes them carefully with his shirt. “Look, Eames…” he begins, and hesitates. “This compound, it’s not…I mean, it doesn’t…”
Just when he’s in danger of actually getting to the point, his mobile goes off. He glances at the screen and winces.
Eames smirks. “How is Hasina these days?”
“Hasina is the joy of my heart and the candle that lights the whole world,” Yusuf says, with distressing sincerity. “Her mother, on the other hand…”
Love, Eames reflects as he beats a hasty retreat, seems to be a great deal more trouble than it’s worth.
He’s awakened that night from a rare natural dream – something about feijoada and his house master from Bradbys; his subconscious is daft when left to its own devices – by the sound of the Scissor Sisters blaring somewhere near his head. He fumbles a hand out of the covers, gropes uselessly at the bedside table with nerveless fingers before finally managing to retrieve his mobile from beneath a heap of mostly-genuine Kenyan shillings.
“Someone had better be dead,” he mumbles into the phone.
Eames sits up abruptly, fog dissipating in a dizzying rush of adrenaline. If Arthur is ringing him at half-past bastard, someone is most definitely dead. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, there’s no – sorry, it’s just – shit.”
Arthur sounds frustrated and a bit flustered, nothing like his steely calm in crisis situations. Eames allows himself to relax, settling back against the pillows with his heart still pounding wildly in his chest. “Let’s have it, then. To what do I owe the pleasure of your call at this god-forsaken hour?”
“It’s nothing,” Arthur repeats. “Seriously, Eames, it’s not – look, I just, I’m having some problems with, uh.”
“…with?” Eames prompts, when Arthur doesn’t continue.
“Impulse control,” Arthur says stiffly.
Eames thinks that over for a moment, scratching idly at his three-day stubble. “So you’re saying you – “
“I’m not saying anything,” Arthur snaps. “Jesus, Eames, just – go back to sleep, okay? Sorry to bother you. It won’t happen again.”
“Arthur,” Eames says.
“What,” Arthur mutters.
“It’s all right, if it does. Happen again, I mean.” He pulls a horrified face at himself in the dark. What is he saying? Of course it’s not all right, there is nothing all right about being jolted out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night by someone who just last week was threatening to sell him out to the Toa-kai –
– but Arthur sounds slightly less agitated when he huffs and says, “Good night, Mr. Eames,” and anyway Eames falls back asleep in less than a minute, mobile mashed between his cheek and the pillow.
“You have to do something about this,” Keisha says bluntly. For such an artful extractor, she’s remarkably direct. Eames has always liked that about her. Or he did, at least, until she cornered him by the washroom and started lecturing him about professionalism in the workplace.
“But – “ Eames begins.
“I don’t care how you do it,” Keisha interrupts, talking over him. “I have a job to run, and I can’t do it with two members of my team refusing to talk to each other.”
She’s got a point, of course, though in Eames’s defense, Arthur has been impossible lately. It’s been a week since The Incident, and in that time, Arthur has voluntarily spoken to Eames exactly four times. (Not counting that bizarre phone call, but then Eames isn’t entirely certain that wasn’t some sort of perverse hallucination brought on by too much curry before bed.) He runs hot and cold, avoiding eye contact when Eames approaches him and then staring holes into the back of Eames’s head the moment he turns round. He’s tetchy in general, hypercritical and unusually quick to anger, which probably has something to do with the fact that he looks as though he hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep in something like twenty years. Eames has never seen anyone so simultaneously wretched and murderous.
Eames tries again. “Yusuf – “
“ – fucked up, yes. Believe me, we have had a long chat about the wisdom of testing unstable compounds on coworkers,” Keisha says. “He’s working his ass off to fix this. In the meantime, you and Arthur need to figure out a way to work together.”
“Just fuck him already,” Reggie calls from behind his models, with characteristic sensitivity. He’s been in a foul temper since Arthur told him his blind grandmother could build a more convincing mock-up of Canary Wharf.
At that moment, the far door opens and Arthur enters, looking grim and drizzled-upon. Keisha and Eames both watch as he stalks to his desk and strips out of his suit jacket, throwing it over a pile of blueprints with a moody carelessness that has become all too familiar over the past few days.
Eames groans under his breath. “This is not the job I signed on for.”
“But it is the one you’re getting paid for,” Keisha reminds him, with that practiced extractor’s smile of sympathy masking utterly unyielding resolve. “Now put on your big-boy drawers and go talk to him.”
Once he’s committed to a course of action, Eames doesn’t like to waste time. No time like the present, and all. With that in mind, and well aware that Keisha is watching him like a hawk, he strides purposefully across the warehouse, straight up to Arthur’s desk, and announces, “We’re going for lunch.”
Arthur looks up, plainly startled. The skin under his eyes is bruised and swollen, like he’s taken a punch or ten. “What? Why?”
“Because that is what humans do, Arthur,” Eames says. “They eat, sometimes multiple times a day. I’m sure you’ve read reports on this peculiar tribal behavior.”
Arthur’s eyes narrow in annoyance. For a moment, he looks like himself, dangerous and coolly irritated; Eames is oddly cheered by the sight. “I’m not hungry.”
“Well, I am,” Eames says, generously ignoring the blatant untruth of that assertion. Arthur really is a hopeless liar, even when he’s not been drugged into involuntary sincerity. “And I’d appreciate you coming with me. Can’t carry all those sandwiches myself, you know.”
Arthur stares at him for another long moment, before finally he says, shortly, “Fine.” He sounds enormously put out, as if Eames has requested his company for something extremely disagreeable – mine clearance, perhaps, or a spot of hostage negotiation – but he shrugs back into his jacket and follows Eames out of the warehouse without further protest.
It’s cold and damp outside, exactly the sort of shit weather Eames always forces himself to remember when he’s struck by the odd pang of nostalgia for the country of his birth (and of his first handful of indictable offenses).
“Pret?” Eames asks.
Arthur shrugs, unexpectedly acquiescent. “Wherever.” He smoothes a hand over his perfectly-gelled hair and then, astonishingly, slants Eames the smallest, most knowing smile Eames has ever seen in his life. “Keisha?”
Eames doesn’t bother to deny it. “She’s a very persuasive woman.”
“That she is,” Arthur agrees, still wearing that conspiratorial little smirk. It takes ten years off his face, and against his better judgment, Eames finds himself grinning back.
Their tentative truce lasts until they reach the sandwich shop, where they argue briefly but enthusiastically about which crisps to buy and Arthur hurls a cheddar and pickle baguette at a thin bespectacled girl who “accidentally” brushes a mustache-tattooed finger against Eames’s arse.
It’s progress, anyway.
”Any which way, any which way – you better take me – “
“Sorry,” Arthur says immediately, the moment Eames picks up. “Shit, sorry, I wasn’t thinking – I didn’t mean to – “
“Stop fretting, it’ll give you lines,” Eames interrupts round a yawn. He scrubs a hand over his face and squints at the alarm clock. “Christ, what are you doing awake? You sound disgustingly alert.”
“I can’t sleep,” Arthur says, and there’s so much in those three words: fatigue, impatience, resignation, a hint of petulance. Eames isn’t sure he’ll ever get used to this new Arthur, exposed and helplessly sincere.
“Another side effect of the compound?”
“Not exactly,” Arthur says. “I mean. Sort of, I guess. I just, you know.” He clears his throat. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh,” Eames says.
“Yeah.” Eames can hear him flushing, practically squirming with discomfort. In another moment he’ll apologize again, end the call, and then he’ll go back to brooding, the way he’s probably done all night.
Something about that thought makes Eames’s chest tighten. He suffers from the odd bout of insomnia himself every now and again – it’s inevitable, in their line of work – and while he would (and does) happily wish such a thing on his worst enemies, he’s surprisingly troubled by the thought of Arthur pacing round his expensively sterile hotel room: sleepless, angry with himself, wanting to talk to Eames.
Just as Arthur is drawing in breath to speak, Eames says, “Actually, since I’ve got you, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about the second level. I’m not convinced that the playground is the right setting to draw Stone out.”
It’s a fairly transparent pretense, and Arthur makes a skeptical noise, clearly not buying it. But he allows Eames to draw him into the charade easily enough, and falls asleep fifteen minutes later in the middle of a very genuine debate over whether they should make their move at Stone’s upcoming dentist’s appointment or wait until her annual holiday to Mallorca.
“Well, that’s settled, then,” Eames says. “You agree, yeah?”
Arthur snores in response.
Eames smiles. “I knew you’d come round.”
The circles under Arthur’s eyes have faded slightly the next day, which Eames takes as a sign that he managed to sleep through till the morning. A touch of color has returned to his face, and he looks generally better rested and less like a surly, incongruously well-dressed street waif.
His mood is also markedly improved, as evidenced by the fact that they make it through an entire team meeting without a single death glare or dramatic adolescent eye-roll.
Overall, Eames is quite pleased with himself. If he’d known that a late-night chat was all it took to make Arthur less of a prick, he’d have tried it years ago.
“You’re in a good mood this morning,” Yusuf observes. It takes Eames a moment to realize that he is speaking to him, not to Arthur. “Did you steal something?”
“Not recently,” Eames says. It’s mostly the truth; a packet of cigarettes doesn’t really rate when you’ve a half-million pound Cézanne hanging in your master bath.
Yusuf looks unconvinced. “Are you planning to steal something?”
Eames ignores him, preferring to focus his attention on the idle tap-tap-tap of Arthur’s middle finger against a coffee mug as Arthur skims through a stack of financial records. Arthur has never displayed any nervous habits before, and it’s fascinating to see this little trickle of humanity, charming and a little bizarre, like watching a circus animal perform a trick.
Eames can’t be certain from this distance, but he thinks Arthur’s left thumbnail is looking a bit ragged, as well. He supposes the last week has been rather trying, even for someone of Arthur’s constitution. There’s the standard everyday stress of hacking intelligence databases and outmaneuvering an Interpol red notice, and then there’s being unable to sleep without a bedtime story from your least-favorite work colleague.
Absorbed in the (no doubt extremely tedious) records, Arthur sips distractedly at his coffee and pulls a face. It’s there and gone, a fleeting grimace of distaste – the kind of look normally inspired by some of Eames’s livelier shirts – but it’s enough for Eames to be struck by a sudden flash of insight.
Arthur doesn’t like black coffee.
It could be something else, of course. Perhaps the coffee is too cold, or the wrong brand, or brewed too strong. All equally possible explanations, but Eames knows that he’s right, instinctively, the same way he can watch Stone brush Cordelia’s hair out of her eyes and know that she’s feeling guilty about missing last week’s piano recital.
Arthur doesn’t like black coffee, and yet he drinks it by the liter, always has done, as long as Eames has known him. Probably he picked up the habit in his military days, and now he’s either grown used to it or thinks it makes him look tough. But the silly bastard doesn’t even like it.
He doesn’t realize he’s staring until Arthur shoots him a curious look and asks, “Did you need something?”
“You,” Eames says, “are a ridiculous human being.”
Arthur glares, then pointedly turns away to shuffle noisily through his papers in a way that is no doubt meant to indicate how very little time he has for Eames’s nonsense. He’s flushing again, from either embarrassment or irritation, or possibly from a lifetime’s worth of pent-up coffee-related disgruntlement.
“Ridiculous,” Eames mutters under his breath, and goes to fetch his coat.
Once again, Eames is out of the warehouse for most of the day, tailing Cordelia and the nanny as they bustle round on various errands before attending the most revoltingly twee birthday party Eames has ever had the misfortune of observing through Steiner 15x80 military binoculars.
“This peeping Tom business is beginning to grate on me,” he complains to Arthur later, as he massages feeling back into his frozen fingers. “All this lurking in the bushes, spying on small children. I feel like a pervert.”
“You are a pervert,” Arthur says mildly. He eyes the Costa cup Eames has deposited on his desk. “Your coffee’s in my way.”
“So move it,” Eames says. “And it’s not mine.”
“You put it there.”
Arthur frowns, brow furrowing, confused and a bit suspicious. His face is so open these days, when he’s not careful, every emotion spelled out with such undisguised intensity that Eames sometimes wants to throw a towel over him, or perhaps a fig leaf. “Why are you bringing me coffee?”
“If I’d known you’d be so appreciative, I’d have done it much sooner,” Eames says. “Just drink it, you ingrate. It’s all yours, truly.” God knows he isn’t going to touch that sugary, milky, chocolate- and hazelnut-tainted abomination.
Arthur still looks wary, but he obediently raises the cup for a cautious taste, eyes closing briefly as he considers.
“This is disgusting,” Arthur says. He takes another sip, though, and the flash of dimple in his cheek tells Eames all he needs to know.
So that’s how it goes for a while.
Yusuf works rather feverishly on an antidote, with the sort of hyper-intense focus Arthur’s wrath tends to inspire, and the rest of the team carry on preparing for the job, adjusting as best they can to Arthur’s new mercurial temperament. In time, they settle into an arrangement that’s both reasonably productive and tolerably civil, although they do learn the hard way not to plug into Arthur’s subconscious.
(On the first attempt, things seem stable enough for the first ten minutes or so, right up until Keisha directs some vaguely critical comment toward Eames-as-Cordelia and a smartly-dressed projection stabs her in the throat with a Cartier fountain pen.
There is no second attempt.)
Eames mostly occupies himself with studying Cordelia – writes with her right hand and doodles with the left, prefers her jacket potatoes with both beans and tuna, chews on the ends of her plaits when she’s upset with her mum – and bringing Arthur his fussy overpriced coffees, which Arthur pretends, not very convincingly, to hate.
Arthur rings Eames most nights. He stops sounding so furiously humiliated after the first few times, although the excessive apologies persist well into the second week. To tell the truth, Eames is not much bothered by the calls. He’s accustomed to keeping strange hours, after all, and his body learns to anticipate the nightly interruption, to the point that he’s often already awake when his phone goes off. Besides, Arthur is significantly more agreeable when he’s had a few hours’ sleep. If it’s a choice between twenty minutes of drowsy small talk and a full day of sniping and scowling – well, Eames is willing to take that hit for the team.
Of course, it’s not always twenty minutes. Sometimes Eames hardly has time to say hello before Arthur falls asleep. Other nights, they talk for hours, about whatever comes to mind: Stone, mutual acquaintances, the latest round of rumors about developments in remote dreamsharing.
(“Kareem claims he had it straight from Langley.”
“Kareem also claimed he could build us a replica of the Củ Chi tunnels that wouldn’t collapse on our fucking heads in the middle of the job. Kareem is full of shit.”)
Industry talk will only take them so far, though, and their rambling conversations inevitably start to drift onto more personal topics. Eames learns that Arthur likes Mexican soap operas and loathes Faulkner; that he dislikes flying because the pins in his leg always set off the metal detectors; that he used to wear contacts but opted for laser eye surgery after losing a lens during a shoot-out.
In response, Eames finds himself telling Arthur about his ancient miraa-chewing landlady in Mombasa, the new watermark in Dutch passports, the way his sister has never forgiven him from turning up to her wedding with three cracked ribs and a black eye.
They talk about European centralization and the Dior fall collection, about Ariadne’s blossoming criminal tendencies and the special hell that is Ikebukuro Station at eight in the morning.
And they argue, of course. Love potion or no, Arthur is a man of very strong opinions, many of which happen to be completely wrong, and so they fight it out over everything from past jobs to Dominic Cobb’s mental state to the ethics of extracting from children – and once, heatedly, the merits of submachine guns versus assault rifles in close combat.
(Arthur is still wound up about that one the next day, until finally Eames can’t stand all the glowering and resorts to buying the sulky shit’s forgiveness with lamb korma and a package of whiteboard markers.
“To replace the ones you keep throwing at people’s heads,” he explains.
“You’re still wrong,” Arthur says, but he’s dimpling magnificently, and he makes good use of Eames’s gift fifteen seconds later when Reggie ignores his emphatic suggestion to quit staring and mind his own fucking business.)
The whole business is beyond ridiculous, of course. It is, without question, the stupidest thing that has ever happened to Eames, and that’s including the incident in Vatican City with the German prostitute and the time his lunatic extractor’s dead wife nearly got the entire team trapped in limbo.
The sun rises, and sets. Eames’s real surname turns up in the papers when his uncle becomes embroiled in some minor expenses scandal. Yusuf spends a small fortune on phone calls to Mombasa. The tube workers strike one day, pissing off everyone but cab drivers and Eames, who takes advantage of the crowded bus queues to lift the fat leather billfolds off a number of disgruntled City boys. Cordelia’s nanny buys a new handbag.
Life, as is its wont, goes on.
The warehouse is quiet when Eames wakes, shadows beginning to lengthen across the floor. He’s been under for thirty minutes, just long enough to give him a crick in his neck and a hellishly dry mouth. Yusuf’s sedatives are as sharp as they come, but he’s never been able to correct for the mild dehydration.
Eames fumbles for the nearby bottle of water and takes a long drink. He glances over to the desk, expecting to see Yusuf, only to find Arthur sitting there instead, writing in his notebook and apparently indifferent to Eames’s rousing. His brow is furrowed, but his shoulders are relaxed; Eames notes with a distant sense of satisfaction that the circles under his eyes have all but disappeared.
Arthur is leaning back in his chair, seemingly as unconcerned as ever with the fact that he’s one good kick away from landing on his arse. He’s perfectly balanced, trousers pulling taut over the lean muscles of his thighs, and Eames feels a burst of want deep in the pit of his stomach, instinctive and irrational. It’s nothing serious, just the sort of dumb animal lust that tends to flare up when he sees a beautiful woman sprawled naked in his bed or a fit young man with a cock down his throat – or Arthur, apparently, scribbling away in his Moleskine with his sleeves rolled to his elbows and a smudge of blue ink on the sharp corner of his jaw.
“If you even think about kicking my chair, they will never find your body,” Arthur says, not looking up from his notes.
“I would never,” Eames lies. He sits up properly and stretches, shaking off muscle stiffness and the haze of inappropriate desire with the ease of many years of practice. “Where’s Yusuf?”
“He had to step out for a minute,” Arthur says. “Urgent business matters to attend to.”
“Who else?” Arthur closes the notebook and looks over at Eames, eyebrow quirked in query. “How’s the forge coming?”
“Nearly there,” Eames replies. “A bit more tweaking, and our Cordelia wouldn’t be able to tell the difference herself.”
“Your humility is inspiring,” Arthur says dryly. The sarcasm is familiar, but it’s tempered with a fond, teasing warmth. His expression, too, lacks its once-customary edge. He looks young, impossibly young, and relaxed. Affectionate.
Love potion, Eames reminds himself. And then, as additional deterrent: A goddamn M40.
He tears his gaze away from Arthur’s not-quite-smiling mouth and says, loftily, “False modesty would be beneath me, darling,” dialing up the poshness of his accent for maximum effect.
“You sound like a BBC announcer,” Arthur informs him. He moves to Eames’s side and deftly slides the line out of his arm – and why is he always doing that? It’s not as if Eames needs the assistance. He’s been doing this for years, thank you, and he does not in fact require any hand-holding, much less the careful pressure of Arthur’s fingers on his skin or the skin-warmed base notes of Arthur’s cologne –
“Everything all right?” Yusuf asks, appearing suddenly over Arthur’s shoulder. He’s soft-eyed, wearing a decidedly foolish grin. Eames is illogically furious with him.
“Fine,” he says curtly, and pushes to his feet. “We’re finished here?”
Yusuf shrugs agreeably. “I am if you are. Did you still want to go down to the pub? South Africa are going to thrash your precious All Blacks tonight.”
“Like hell they are,” Eames retorts, readily shifting to this more concrete point of aggravation; Mils Muliaina is a god among men. “Anyway, I can’t tonight. I’ve other plans.”
“Ah,” Yusuf says, with a knowing glint in his eye. He claps Eames on the shoulder. “Well, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Eames says, and deliberately does not examine the way that Arthur’s face has changed, his earlier easy expression shifting into something harder, less comfortable. Eames could dissect that face effortlessly, if he wanted to. He could take Arthur apart, could read emotions and motivations into every fine line and twitch of muscle. He doesn’t, though. He walks away, rolling down his sleeve as he goes, and he doesn’t think about that tense, unhappy look on Arthur’s face at all.
He’s still not thinking about it later that night at the bar, when he catches the eye of a curvy dark-haired woman drinking Macallan 18, neat. She’s gorgeous and responsive, with an appealingly genuine laugh and a tattoo of the molecular structure of adrenaline on her left forearm. Eames doesn’t hesitate when she invites him back to hers.
They have outstandingly wild, boisterous sex on her leather sofa, knocking a framed photograph off the side table and scaring the hell out of the yellow-eyed tabby lurking by the television. She moves beautifully against him, sweat-slick and pliant, and he kisses her goodbye at the door and then drops her number in the gutter as he slides into a cab.
Twenty minutes later, he’s sprawled fully clothed on his hotel bed with his mobile smashed against his ear, arguing with Arthur about the best pastrami in Manhattan.
“This is stupid,” he mumbles at one point, blurry with alcohol. “You should just – you ring me every fucking night, and I don’t even – why don’t you just come over – ”
“You’re trashed,” Arthur says.
“It’s stupid,” Eames repeats, because Arthur doesn’t seem to be absorbing this. They talk every night, about everything, and Eames doesn’t even know where Arthur is staying. Arthur must know where Eames stays, because he’s Arthur, and he knows these things, and, fuck, what is he talking about now? Something about water, and sleep. He’s got a lovely voice, Arthur has, deep and smooth like the single malt Eames can still taste hours later. Eames wants him to keep talking forever.
“ – even listening to me?”
“Always, darling,” he sighs, eyes drifting shut, and wakes up five hours later to a skull-splitting headache and a dead mobile battery.
Arthur’s not there when Eames arrives at the warehouse that morning, but there’s a bottle of paracetamol sitting on the corner of his desk with a post-it note fixed to the lid.
YOU’RE AN IDIOT, the note says, in Arthur’s clean functional handwriting. The twist in Eames’s gut is probably the hangover talking.
Three days later, Yusuf has the antidote.
It’s a gradual process. One day, Arthur stops visibly wincing every time Keisha cracks her knuckles; the next, he accepts Eames’s proffered triple-shot caramel macchiato with a polite, “Thank you.” His dimples fade back into obscurity as his face grows increasingly impassive and serious. He spends less time surreptitiously observing Eames’s arse and more time dispassionately critiquing his forge. He stops fidgeting.
They take the tube over to Kensington one day – Eames to have a look at Cordelia’s new haircut, Arthur on some mysterious business to do with the CCTV cameras near the dentist’s office – and Arthur doesn’t snarl or glare at a single person, not even the disorientated-looking tourist who treads on his foot disembarking at Leicester Square. He just stares blankly into the middle distance, wearing the same mask of polite disinterest as their fellow passengers. His silhouette is hazy and indistinct in Eames’s peripheral vision, blurring into the crowd.
Gloucester Road station is quiet; he and Arthur are the only ones getting off their train. They’re meant to be ignoring each other, but Eames finds himself quickening his pace on the steps up from the platform. He catches Arthur on the first landing, intentionally jostling Arthur’s shoulder as he passes.
“Sorry,” he says offhandedly, one preoccupied businessman to another. Arthur doesn’t even look at him. They continue on their way, strangers brought together by a common destination, until they reach the street and Arthur goes left while Eames goes right.
Arthur doesn’t ring, that night.
Considering all the hiccups along the way, the extraction itself is almost anticlimactic. It all goes off without a hitch: Eames's Cordelia tugs at Stone’s Armani suit with ice creamy fingers and whips her into a frenzy of maternal guilt, paving the way for Keisha back on the first level to expertly coax her into brooding over the details of her latest time-consuming project. There’s one tense altercation with a fractious secretary, but for the most part they’re left alone, which indicates that Arthur is off somewhere wrangling projections with his typical pokerfaced flair. In the end, they’re in and out of Stone’s mind with the particulars of the vaccine in twenty minutes.
They scatter immediately after the job. Keisha hails a cab to St Pancras; she’ll be going to Paris, then, and from there perhaps back to America, or on to another job. Reggie disappears into a tube station, headed for God only knows where. Hell, most likely. Yusuf has already gone, departed on a morning flight to Nairobi, and Arthur vanished as soon as the last fingerprint was wiped, which leaves Eames standing alone in Heathrow, staring at the departures board and trying to work out where he’s going next.
He hasn’t got any jobs lined up, and he finds that he’s in no rush to return to Mombasa. His options are somewhat limited, of course – he’s not been welcome in Moscow since he fell out with an erudite but predictably unforgiving arms trafficker (cum very poor gambler), and Bangkok is best avoided unless he fancies another stint in the Hilton – but for the most part, the world is his oyster. Or, strictly speaking, it’s Gerald Robertson’s oyster, or perhaps Thomas King’s, depending on which passport he uses.
His mobile rings as he’s scanning the list of destinations – Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Philadelphia – and he fishes it out of his trouser pocket and glances down at the screen.
Of course it is. Arthur always calls each team member after the job to let them know that the payment has come through. It makes no difference if the two of them are barely on speaking terms, or if they’re on the run with a handful of broken bones between them, or if Eames has spent the last week watching Arthur fall progressively and comprehensively out of love with him. Arthur always calls.
“Arthur,” Eames greets. “Good news, I hope?” Mumbai might be nice: it’s pleasant enough this time of year, and Joshi has been making noises about how long it’s been since his last visit.
“Abrams came through,” Arthur says, voice tinny but brisk and professional as ever. “The money will be in your account by the end of the day.”
“Cheers,” Eames says. Rio is a possibility, though the red-lipped flight attendants on TAM tend to be rather unsettlingly indistinguishable.
Arthur is quiet for a moment. Eames waits for the polite dismissal. Arthur always calls, but he never lingers; any moment now he’ll say, “Goodbye, Mr. Eames,” and in a few hours the money will turn up in Eames’s account, and that will be that until the next time Arthur tracks him down for a job.
“Where are you going?” Arthur asks suddenly, interrupting Eames’s mental figuring of the odds that he could make it in and out of Istanbul without acquiring any significant damage to his person.
“I – “ Eames falters, thrown by the question, then admits, “I’ve no idea, actually.” He looks back at the departures board – Accra, Tel Aviv – and says, on a whim, “I was thinking Stockholm.”
“You don’t speak Swedish,” Arthur says, as if it matters.
“I know the important things,” Eames counters. “Hej, hur mår du, var är toaletten, jag har en kulspruta.”
“Your accent is terrible.” He might be smiling – but then, he might not. Eames can’t tell, anymore.
(They’d already been on the phone for nearly an hour when Arthur mentioned the term he’d spent in Gothenburg. They were both tired, worn down after a long day of practice runs. Arthur’s voice was low and unraveled, thick with sleep, and he passed out in the middle of a drowsy ode to salty licorice. Eames stayed on the line a few minutes more, half-asleep, drifting on the ebb and flow of Arthur’s breathing.)
“You could translate for me,” Eames says abruptly, because suddenly, insanely, he does want to go to Stockholm. He wants Arthur to mock his conjugation and his scarves, and he wants to eat that disgusting licorice until they’re both ill, and he wants to steal something together, state secrets or maybe a Rembrandt, and after that he wants to go to Zurich or San José or anywhere, really, anywhere, as long as Arthur –
“I have to be in Melbourne in two days,” Arthur says.
“Right,” Eames says. Of course Arthur’s got another job lined up already. Of course he has. Of course he doesn’t – he’s not – “Right, no, of course. No rest for the wicked, yeah? I expect I’ll be hearing from you again in a few months.”
“Most likely,” Arthur says. There’s another pause, longer this time. Eames wonders, idly, what the exchange rate is between pounds and Australian dollars these days, and whether that Afghan restaurant he likes in Dandenong is still open. He wonders how many connections Arthur will be making to disguise his trail, and why the stubborn bastard hasn’t just had the pins in his leg removed if he’s so concerned with keeping a low profile, and if he ever uses that Canadian passport Eames gave him years ago as a token of appreciation for alerting him to the price on his head in Rome – and then Arthur clears his throat and says, “Goodbye, Mr. Eames.”
The line goes dead, and Eames goes back to considering his multitude of options: Milan, Shanghai, Beirut.
Prague is too cold for his tastes, and nearly as lousy with hipsters as the East End. He spends only a day there, drinking plum brandy and practicing his Scouse accent on a wild-haired backpacker wearing an Everton jersey, before moving on to Brussels (disagreeably damp, but with excellent chocolate) and then booking a ticket for Mumbai.
Joshi is pleased to see him. As always, she conveys her affection through food and criticism: he’s got too many tattoos, that identity card wouldn’t fool her five-year-old grandson, and those euros look like toy money, what is he, an amateur? Here, have more biryani. He stays with her for three weeks, and leaves without bothering to lie about when he’ll be back.
After that, he bounces around for a while, restless and oddly dissatisfied. He pulls a quick, effortless extraction job with an old colleague in Pretoria. He loses deliberately and extravagantly at cards to a sunburnt sex tourist in Havana, and decides on a whim to drop the man’s passport in the sewer instead of saving it for later use. He steals a minor Goya print from the Prado, just to keep his hand in.
He keeps moving.
“Are you in prison?” Yusuf asks.
“Not currently, no,” Eames replies.
“Are you dying?”
“Prepared to admit the physical, tactical and moral superiority of the Boks?”
Eames scowls. “Never.”
“Then I’m forced to conclude that I’m speaking to you at half-three in the morning because you’re still not sleeping and haven’t got a single shred of human decency.”
“Not one,” Eames agrees. No remorse, either. In the balance of things, Yusuf owes him a great deal more than a few late-night phone calls.
Besides, he’s bored. Normally, his bouts of insomnia follow the same pattern, but this latest spell is different: he’ll sleep for a few hours, then jerk awake sometime after midnight, exhausted but irreversibly alert. He’s tried all his standard tactics for tricking his body into falling back asleep – drinking, wanking, watching aggressively stupid infomercials – but nothing seems to be working. He’s still not sleeping, only now he’s got a sore dick and a drunkenly-ordered food processor into the bargain.
“This is ridiculous, Eames,” Yusuf says grouchily. “You need with deal with it.”
“Thank you for that constructive insight,” Eames says. “‘Deal with it’ – there’s an option I never considered.”
“Don’t be an ass. You know what I’m saying.”
“I don’t, actually. Would you care to enlighten me?”
Yusuf mutters something that sounds like, what have I done to deserve this, and then, louder but just as inexplicably, he says, “Just call him.”
Eames must be drunker than he’d thought. “Call who?”
“Arthur, you idiot.”
No, Yusuf must be drunk. “What’s Arthur got to do with anything?”
“Eames, come on,” Yusuf says impatiently. “Think about it.”
“I don’t – “ Eames objects, and then he stops, and thinks about it. About the way he keeps waking up already pawing at the bedside table, reaching instinctively for his silent mobile. About the random details about Arthur that have started popping into his head when he’s jerking off – not just the expected bits, but things like the shallow dip above his upper lip, the insufferably patronizing arch of his eyebrow. About the way something lurched in his chest when Yusuf said, Just call him.
“Jesus Christ,” he says, stunned.
“You’re in love with Arthur,” Yusuf says. “Did you wake me up for this?”
It’s true. He’s in love with Arthur. Arthur is the most pompous, unimaginative, anal-retentive little fuck to ever walk the earth in four hundred pound Ferragamo loafers, and Eames is arse over fucking teakettle in love with him.
And Arthur – Arthur’s not –
“Jesus Christ,” Eames says again. He wants to punch the wall, or shoot something. Mostly, though, he wants to suck Arthur’s cock until he screams and then maybe steal him a Maserati – but that only brings him back round to the point that it doesn’t matter what he wants to do to Arthur, the hours he’d happily spend trailing him round Savile Row or the bruises he’d like to suck into the soft skin behind his knees, because Arthur doesn’t love him back.
There’s a dull sound over the line, like something covering the receiver, and then Yusuf’s voice, muffled. He comes back a moment later and says, “Hasina wants to know if you’re finished being a total knob yet.”
“This is all your fault,” Eames accuses.
Yusuf sighs. “I’ll take that as a ‘no.’”
“You and your experiments, Christ, you use him as a guinea pig for your mad scientist potions and he starts giving me those eyes, of course I’m going to – and now he – and I – fucking hell.“
“Oh, don’t be stupid, Eames,” Yusuf snaps, sounding irritated now. “There’s no such thing as love potions.”
“Well, of course there’s – “ Eames draws up short. “Wait, what?”
Yusuf makes an aggravated noise. “Use your head, mate. If I could come up with a genuine love potion, I’d be richer than Saito. But it’s not possible.”
“But,” Eames starts, and finds that he’s got nothing to say.
“You can’t create something out of nothing,” Yusuf continues. “You can’t just implant emotions in someone’s mind – you of all people should understand that. I didn’t incept him, for God’s sake. The sedative was meant to lower his inhibitions, and it did. Did exactly what it said on the tin. Granted, I didn’t anticipate the spillover effect, but – “
“Yusuf,” Eames says, slowly, “what are you saying?” His brain doesn’t seem to be working properly; he feels dazed, almost numb, like he’s been drugged or wrapped up in cotton wool – but unstable as well, thrumming with repressed energy. One false move and he might fly apart.
“I’m saying you can’t make someone feel something they don’t. Arthur lashed out in meetings because he was genuinely annoyed. He called that cab driver an incompetent jackass because that’s what he was thinking. And he kissed you in that dreamscape because he wanted to kiss you.”
Eames doesn’t respond right away. He’s too busy thinking about the way Arthur’s eyes would follow him across the room, the way he’d stare at Eames’s lips when he thought Eames wasn’t looking. He’s thinking about those hot flushes of color across Arthur’s cheeks and the easy, familiar cadence of his voice late at night. He’s thinking about the look on Arthur’s face that first morning in the warehouse, wide-open and raw, how he looked so relieved to see Eames standing there.
He’s thinking about Arthur asking, Where are you going?
“From your stunned silence, I surmise that you’ve managed to piece things together,” Yusuf says. “Congratulations: you are quite possibly the last person on earth to know. Even Reggie figured it out, and he’s an idiot.”
“You’re all idiots,” interjects an aggrieved sleep-scratchy voice in the background.
“Yeah, I – I’ve got it,” Eames says, weakly, though in truth he’s only starting to put together an idea of what “it” is. “God, I – why didn’t you say something?”
Yusuf snorts. “I tried. You didn’t want to hear it. In any event, what could I have said? It was so obvious.”
It was. It was so damned obvious, and Eames looked right past it.
“I’ve got to go,” he says.
“You’re welcome,” Yusuf says pointedly. “Feel free to demonstrate your gratitude by never ringing me this late again.”
“If you’re not on a plane tomorrow morning – “ Hasina shouts into the phone, but Eames is already ending the call, reaching for his laptop.
Getting on that plane is easier said than done. Eames has never actively sought Arthur out before. Arthur has always been the one to find him, to ferret out Eames’s most recent contact information or turn up at his latest gambling den with a new job offer. For his part, Eames has always been content to let Arthur come to him. He thought it was a good working arrangement, that it suited them both. He thought a lot of daft things.
He hardly knows where to start looking. The mobile number from the Stone job has been disconnected; the phone itself is likely in pieces at the bottom of the Channel. The job in Melbourne wrapped two weeks ago, and neither the extractor nor the architect have any idea where Arthur might have disappeared to. He’s got a vague idea that Arthur passes frequently through Paris, possibly even owns a flat there, but Ariadne says she’s not heard from Arthur in weeks. (She then proceeds to make repulsive kissy noises into the phone until Eames hangs up in disgust.)
He calls in a few favors with the sort of people who can track down anyone for the right price – and, no, he’d much prefer that Arthur’s head stay firmly on his shoulders rather than be posted to him in a polystyrene cool box, thank you, Sergei – but not one of them manages to turn up a single lead. Either no one in the entire criminal underworld knows where Arthur is, or they’re all more frightened of him than they are of a twenty-stone Nigerian mercenary – and it’s telling, isn’t it, that both theories are equally plausible.
Four days into his search, Eames swallows the last bitter dregs of his pride (and two fingers of Glenfiddich, to bolster his resolve) and rings Cobb.
“If you’re calling about a job, the answer is no,” Cobb says in greeting. There’s a loud crash in the background, and Cobb sighs loudly into the phone, then calls, “Phil, honey, what have I told you about playing pirates near your grand-mère’s china cabinet?”
“I’m not calling about a job,” Eames says.
Cobb is quiet, waiting for the punch line. His squint is nearly audible.
“I, ah,” Eames says. “I’m looking for Arthur.”
“You’re looking for Arthur,” Cobb repeats tonelessly. “Why?”
“I need to talk to him,” Eames equivocates. He suspects that Cobb is not likely to appreciate the finer details of his plan, which involves minimal talking, a fair amount of shouting and (with any luck) a great deal of nudity.
“You need to talk to him,” Cobb says, in that same flat yet strangely menacing voice.
“Is there a bloody echo in here? Yes, I need to talk to him,” Eames snaps. “Look, do you know where he is or don’t you?”
“I know,” Cobb replies, and doesn’t continue. Eames is starting to wish he’d stayed trapped in limbo.
“Look, I’m in a bit of a rush,” he says, as calmly as possible, “so if we could just skip to the part where you tell me what exactly it is you’re waiting to hear, that would be marvelous.“
“Do you remember the Cohen job?” Cobb asks, apropos of absolutely nothing. Eames doesn’t care what Arthur says: the man is patently mental.
“Of course,” Eames answers, attempting to humor him.
“You remember what the client’s thugs threatened to do to us if word got out about the extraction?”
“…yes,” Eames says, suddenly not liking where this is going.
“Okay,” Cobb says. “Just checking. Because, if you fuck Arthur over, I have absolutely no qualms about selling you to the highest bidder.”
Surprising even himself, Eames just snorts. “Cobb, I’m in love with a man I’ve seen kill someone twice his size with his bare feet. You really think I’m frightened of you?”
It doesn’t occur to him what he’s admitted until Cobb chuckles, an unexpectedly warm and sympathetic sound. “Yeah, good point.” He pauses, and then, just as Eames is sincerely considering flying to California to personally orphan those two adorable sprogs of his, he says:
“He’s in Mexico City.”
Arthur is far and away the most detail-oriented person Eames has ever met. It’s what makes him such a formidable point man. He’s sharp-eyed and meticulous, verging occasionally on fastidious, though even Eames knows better than to let that particular assessment cross his lips. After all, Arthur may be particular, but he’s also quite astoundingly lethal.
So Eames is not terribly surprised, three seconds after breaking into Arthur’s short-term flat, to find himself pinned to the wall with an arm across his throat and what feels very much like the muzzle of Arthur’s favorite SIG shoved into his gut.
He’s also not going to complain, not when Arthur’s aggressive vigilance results in Arthur’s body pressed right up against him, Arthur’s damp unstyled curls tickling his cheek. He’s clearly interrupted Arthur in the middle of getting dressed, which is convenient, as it will mean fewer layers to remove later.
He can tell the instant Arthur recognizes him. He feels the catch of breath against his ear, the stiffening of Arthur’s already tense body against his own – and then, beautifully, a slight relaxing.
“Eames.” Arthur pulls back far enough to look at him, and the pressure eases on Eames’s throat, just enough to allow him to talk. The gun stays where it is. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood,” Eames says, as lightly as he can manage. He feels a bit breathless, and not just from the steely forearm so recently crushing his windpipe. It’s one thing to know intellectually that he’s in love with Arthur, and a different matter entirely to see him in the flesh like this, close and in his shirtsleeves, threatening Eames’s life.
“Marrakesh is not ‘the neighborhood,’” Arthur says.
“You’re behind the times, I’m afraid,” Eames says. “I left Marrakesh three days ago.”
Arthur’s jaw clenches; he does hate being caught out with flawed intel. “Why are you here, Eames?” he asks sharply, and lets out a short, startled noise as their mouths collide.
(The thing is: once he’s committed to a course of action, Eames doesn’t like to waste time.)
Arthur huffs a surprised breath against Eames’s mouth. His lips are warm and dry, a bit chapped. He smells faintly of shaving cream. Eames wants to eat him alive.
For now, he restrains himself to a single parting nip to the tempting curve of Arthur’s bottom lip. He pulls back reluctantly, and is delighted to see Arthur’s eyes blinking open, dazed and unfocused.
“What the fuck,” Arthur says. His voice is even, his breathing steady, but there’s an unmistakable tremor running down the arm still wedged against Eames’s throat. And Eames understands Arthur, now, in a way he never did before. He knows that Arthur says a number of things he doesn’t actually mean, and swallows back many more that he does; that he’s distracted by Eames’s mouth and thinks about him sometimes in the middle of the night; that he’ll buy coffee he hates every day of his life before it ever occurs to him to ask for what he really wants.
Eames wriggles a hand free from where it’s crushed between their bodies, and carefully removes Arthur’s arm from his throat. When that provokes no resistance, he brings his hand up to rest along the long, slightly damp line of Arthur’s neck. He strokes a thumb over Arthur’s jaw, his pointy chin.
“Eames,” Arthur says.
“Hmm?” Eames responds absently, thumbing the spot where he’s seen one of Arthur’s dimples appear as if by magic, sudden and unpredictable. He’s had a lot of egregiously sentimental thoughts about those dimples lately. More than a few filthy ones, as well, come to that.
Something jabs him uncomfortably in the stomach – Christ, he forgot about the gun – and Arthur’s voice and face are both a bit harder when he says, “Tell me what you’re doing here.”
Eames manages, barely, to keep from rolling his eyes. “Arthur,” he says patiently, “there’s no such thing as love potions.”
“Well, I know that – “ Arthur snaps, indignant, and his cross little face is so angry and lovely and so very Arthur that Eames really can’t help but kiss him again.
The first go was necessarily brief, but Eames takes his time on the second round, deliberate and thorough. He memorizes the precise shape of Arthur’s mouth under his, learning the taste and supple give of it, lingering over its curves and corners. He drags their lips together, a sweet velvety glide, then breaks away to lay down a line of kisses along Arthur’s jaw.
He’s investigating the delicate skin under Arthur’s ear when Arthur shifts against him, raising his arm. Eames has a moment to wonder if he’s about to be choked again, and then Arthur’s long fingers are sliding into his hair, skating lightly over his scalp. He tilts his head into the touch, lets out a small sigh of pleasure. Arthur makes a delicious little sound in return, and his grip tightens, insistent, urging Eames back to meet his soft, hot mouth.
Arthur is pressing eagerly back against him now – finally, finally – and the kiss gains momentum quickly. Arthur catches Eames’s bottom lip between his teeth and worries it gently, bites down hard and then soothes the sting with a slick swipe of his tongue that makes the bottom fall out of Eames’s stomach. He presses his advantage, working Eames’s mouth open with clever nudges of lips and tongue, and Eames lets his hand drop down to Arthur’s side. He trails teasing fingers over Arthur’s flank, smoothes a palm over his ribs and then round to his back, skimming up over the peaks of his shoulder blades before sliding back down to rest above the waistband of his trousers.
The gun wobbles where it’s digging into Eames’s stomach, so he prudently maneuvers it out of Arthur’s slack grip and tosses it blindly onto the entryway table.
“Safety on?” he asks belatedly, as Arthur’s newly-freed hand curls round the back of his neck.
Arthur’s lips curve against Eames’s, wet and scornful. “Of course it’s not.”
Eames grins back. He recognizes that this is not an appropriate reaction to narrowly escaping being gut-shot, but he can’t help it. He’s exhausted and jet-lagged, most likely smells like an airplane toilet, and Arthur is pushing forward in his arms, aggressive and demanding, prying Eames’s mouth open again and stroking inside with his tongue. He’s got everything he wants.
Well. Maybe not everything.
He tugs experimentally at the back of Arthur’s shirt where it’s tucked into his trousers. Arthur hums into his mouth, and then, monstrously, he actually pulls away. “I’m supposed to be tailing the mark’s son right now.”
And, look, Eames appreciates that Arthur takes his work seriously; in fact, his relentless single-mindedness is normally quite appealing. Still, he refuses to be cock-blocked by a spoilt nineteen-year-old brewing heir, particularly when Arthur is standing in front of him with his lips so indecently swollen and his hair in such enticing disarray.
“He can wait,” he suggests, hand drifting down over Arthur’s wool-clad arse.
“So can you,” Arthur returns, but there’s a slight wariness in his voice, a note of uncertainty at odds with his confident words.
“So can I,” Eames allows. It’s technically true; he’s waited this long, and another eight hours would probably not physically kill him, no matter how vehemently his cock disagrees with that estimation. “I’d rather not, though, if it’s all the same to you,” he adds, and gives Arthur’s backside a persuasive squeeze.
Arthur’s lashes flutter at the touch. Still, he looks entirely too doubtful for someone about to have the best orgasm of his life, so Eames peels his hand away from that magnificent arse and reaches up to thread his fingers through Arthur’s drying hair.
“Arthur,” he says seriously, “I called Cobb to find you.”
Arthur’s dimples flare in his cheeks, deep and dazzling. “You must have been pretty desperate.”
“Yes,” Eames agrees, simply, because he was; he is.
Arthur stares at him for a moment, smile faltering. Eames winds a curl round his finger and waits, allows Arthur to read what he will into the regrettably dopey grin he can feel tugging at his bruised lips – and then Arthur is on him again, shoving Eames’s jacket off his shoulders, clawing at his shirt.
“God, I hate this shirt,” he mutters into the hollow of Eames’s throat.
“Why – ah, shit – why do you think I like it so well?” Eames replies, fumbling with the buttons of Arthur’s own oxford. They’re tiny and slippery under his fingers, thwarting his fervent efforts to get at Arthur’s naked skin. “I’m going to rip this off you in a moment.”
“It cost more than your life is worth,” Arthur informs him. He slides his hands over the bared expanse of Eames’s shoulders, scratches lightly down Eames’s chest with blunt nails, and Eames groans and scrabbles again at the elusive buttons. Arthur’s chest is hard and warm beneath the oxford, bleeding heat through fine cotton; Eames has never resented an article of clothing more in his entire life.
The last button slips free, and Eames wastes no time in tearing off the stupid hateful shirt and the sweat-damp undershirt beneath it. He scarcely has time to take in the sight of Arthur’s chiseled chest and belly – the jut of his collarbones, the thin white scar near his navel where Eames recalls spying fresh stitches during the Zhao job – before Arthur is pressing up against him in a long solid line of muscle, biting none-too-carefully at his lips.
He consoles himself by running his hands up Arthur’s back, then down to slip under Arthur’s waistband, fingertips grazing the silky skin just above the swell of his arse. Arthur moans into Eames’s mouth and rocks his hips forward. His cock is half-hard and impossibly hot against Eames’s thigh, a searing brand through the fabric of their trousers, and Eames is sorely tempted to bring them both off like this: to grip Arthur’s arse in both hands and grind their cocks together, maybe flip their positions and haul Arthur’s leg up over his hip, rut into him mindless and crude until they’re both shaking apart.
Then Arthur drops to his knees, and the half-formed idea joins the rest of Eames’s thoughts in flying directly out of his head.
Arthur’s hands are quick and efficient at his flies. He yanks Eames’s trousers down and leans in, mouths Eames’s cock through his pants. Eames’s hips stutter forward, instinctive; Arthur makes a wordless scolding sound and pins them firmly to the wall, thumbs pressing hard against Eames’s hipbones. He licks a long tantalizing stripe up Eames’s cock, ducks down to nuzzle the heavy weight of his balls before pulling back to suckle gently at the crown.
Eames has endured actual torture less painful than this, less cruel than the agonizing drag of wet cotton over hypersensitive skin, the shivery heat of Arthur’s breath through the fabric. His nerves are on fire, and he’s never wanted anything the way he wants to fuck into that mouth, to tangle his fingers in Arthur’s hair and lose himself in that yielding wet heat.
Arthur draws back a bit, lips pursed red and swollen over the cloth-covered head of Eames’s cock. The sight of it sends an electric shock of lust tearing through Eames, and he moans, hips jerking ineffectively in Arthur’s hold.
Arthur’s gaze flicks up to meet his, eyes hot and black, all pupil. Eames nearly comes on the spot. Arthur looks desperate, starving, like he’s the one suffering here, tormented by the shape of Eames’s cock against his lips.
“Do you want me to beg?” Eames demands. “Is that what this is about? Because I will, God, I’ll say anything you want, just – fuck, Arthur, please – “
He knows, logically, that there must be some steps between that breathless plea and the head of his cock bumping up against the back of Arthur’s throat. There are laws of physics to consider; his cock does not actually magic its way into Arthur’s mouth. That’s the sort of thing that happens in dreams, the telescoping of time between wanting something and having it. But he remembers arriving at the airport, smiling blandly through customs, falling into a taxi, slipping into Arthur’s building on the heels of a distracted German businessman. He remembers how he got here, right here, with Arthur’s tongue sliding messily over him and Arthur’s strong hands gripping the backs of his thighs, and he doesn’t need a totem to tell him that this is reality. This is real.
It’s not the most technically accomplished blowjob he’s ever received. Arthur’s mouth is rough and impatient around him, sloppy-wet with the faintest hint of teeth, and it’s so fucking good Eames feels like he’s coming out of his skin. He uncurls one hand where it’s clenched against the wall and traces clumsy fingers over Arthur’s smooth jaw, his cheek, the outline of his own cock through flushed skin. Arthur moans, ticklish against Eames’s fingertips and indescribable vibration round his cock, and Eames is gone, climax ripping through him with the relentless force of a hurricane, ruinous and deafening.
He’s distantly aware of Arthur manhandling him out of his shoes and trousers and pants, kissing up his chest and throat, tugging him away from the wall and – somewhere. He can’t really be arsed to care, not with little aftershocks of pleasure still shuddering up his spine, until Arthur prods him hard in the chest and he teeters over backwards, landing flat on his back on what feels like a very expensive mattress.
“So you do have a bed,” he says, groggy but pleased. “And here I thought perhaps you slept hanging from the ceiling, like a bat.”
Arthur does not dignify that with a verbal response. He does glare, but Eames hardly notices, which is Arthur’s own fault, really, as he’s chosen this moment to strip out of his preposterously well-fitting trousers.
Undressed, Arthur is slim and graceful, all clean lines and precise angles. Men who wear suits as well as Arthur does tend to look somewhat lost out of them, smaller and more vulnerable, but Arthur is strikingly confident in his skin, as though it too has been measured and fitted to his exacting standards.
Eames sits up and reaches for him, reels him in until he’s standing between Eames’s legs, close enough for Eames to nose at the line of hair leading up from the waistband of his pants. He fits his hands round Arthur’s narrow waist, flicks his tongue into the dip of Arthur’s navel. Arthur’s abdominal muscles jump under his palms.
“That’s disgusting,” says Arthur, who would probably commit hara-kiri before admitting to such a plebeian weakness as ticklishness. “Stop it.”
Eames does it again, just to be contrary. “I don’t see why I should.”
Arthur’s hand curves round the back of Eames’s neck. “Don’t you have better things to be doing with your mouth?”
“Well, if you insist,” Eames says, and tumbles him inelegantly down to the bed.
He runs his hands up Arthur’s long legs, enjoying the gentle friction of hair and warm skin. Arthur’s thighs are lean and very pale, unblemished apart from a scattering of small round burns near the bend of his left knee, each one slightly larger than the approximate diameter of a cigarette. Eames wants to hunt down the person who put them there and flay them alive. He settles for brushing his lips over the scars, mouthing at the damaged skin until Arthur is squirming under him, wriggling like an eel in his hands.
He’d like to carry on teasing Arthur for a while, torment him the way Eames himself was so recently tormented, but his mouth is already watering at the line of Arthur’s erection straining against black cotton. He tugs Arthur’s pants down his legs, then ducks back down to press his face into the join of hip and thigh. Arthur smells amazing, soapy and salty and alive, and Eames decides that teasing can wait for another day.
Arthur makes a low, broken sound when Eames takes him in. He’s close already, which is both arousing and disappointing, as Eames could quite happily work him over for hours. Eames sinks down on him, relishing the weight of Arthur’s cock on his tongue. He slips a hand round Arthur’s hip to grope shamelessly at his arse, encouraging the little abortive thrusts Arthur keeps making into his mouth, and Arthur’s legs fall open a bit wider.
Perhaps it’s just the force of his personality, but Eames has always thought of Arthur as hard and inflexible, the sort of man who would break before he’d bend. He’s wonderfully pliant now, though, loose-limbed and malleable. Eames could probably fold him right in half, if he wanted.
His cock twitches optimistically at the thought, and he pulls back, lets Arthur’s cock slip from his mouth. Arthur’s little whine of protest morphs into a groan as Eames sucks a proprietary mark onto his inner thigh.
“I hope you’re not overly fond of this mattress,” he pronounces around a mouthful of Arthur’s skin, “because I’m going to fuck you straight through it.”
Arthur chuckles, panting. “I’d like to see you try,” he says, defiant in a way only Arthur could manage in the midst of a blowjob.
He’s got a point, though. Eames isn’t a teenager anymore, and he’s too fucked out at this point to even consider lavishing Arthur’s arse with the attention it deserves.
(He will, though, later. He'll roll Arthur onto his belly and bite a trail of bruises down his back, work him open with two slick fingers and then lick into the wet, melting heat of him until he’s a shaky incoherent wreck. Please, he’ll hear, please, please, and it’ll take him a while to realize that it can’t possibly be coming from Arthur, who will be beyond words at that point, sobbing for breath and clawing at the tangled bed sheets.
Arthur will arch up against him when he pushes in, thighs trembling against Eames’s waist. For one long moment Eames will be frozen in place, completely undone by the miraculous curve of Arthur’s spine, the wild machine gun rattle of his heart – and then Arthur will fist a hand in Eames’s hair and say, Move, and Eames will move.
Later still, Arthur will haul himself out of the ruined bed and into the shower, spouting some nonsense about “work” and “responsibilities” and “basic hygiene.” Eames will take the opportunity to rifle through Arthur’s things, and afterwards he’ll take a terribly puerile pleasure in tugging Arthur in by his freshly-scrubbed hips and thoroughly dirtying him again. They’ll take another (enjoyably inefficient) shower, and together they’ll go tail Rafa Torres Alvarez as he drives at approximately five hundred kilometers per hour down the shady winding streets of Las Lomas, banging the undercarriage of his Mercedes E-Class against the topes.
No one will protest Eames’s unofficial joining of Arthur’s team, which will probably have something to do with the stony look of challenge in Arthur’s eyes the first day Eames shows up at the storage facility they’re using as a base. And, really, things won’t be so very different from the way they were before the Stone job. The two of them will argue as much as ever, and Arthur will continue to be scrupulously polite to everyone but Eames, though Eames will occasionally catch him eyeing a whiteboard marker with unmistakable longing. The only real difference will be Arthur’s new addiction to the most appallingly adulterated coffees he can find, which he’ll usually force Eames to pay for, claiming that la mordida is bleeding him dry. He will still be a terrible liar.
The job will be a success, the way their jobs always are, and they’ll go from Mexico City to New York to KL, and eventually to Mombasa. Arthur will develop an unexpected and deeply worrying friendship with Hasina, who will insist on having them both round for dinner, where her six-year-old niece will pester Arthur with questions about America. Yusuf will smirk and smirk into his coconut rice until Eames tells him to fuck off, at which point little Imani will echo, Fuck! and all hell will break loose.
In the ensuing chaos – Hasina’s sharp scolding Swahili, Yusuf’s guffaws, the dogs barking outside, the neighbor’s radio blaring yet another Bollywood love song – Eames will slide his hand onto Arthur’s thigh and squeeze. Arthur will shoot him a look, perhaps slightly more irritable than fond, but he won’t tell him to let go, and so Eames won’t.)
For the moment, he’s content to wrap his lips round Arthur’s cock, hollow his cheeks and stroke his tongue under the head until Arthur cries out, hips bucking off the mattress as he comes in hot salty pulses in Eames’s mouth.
Eames works him through it, pulling away only when Arthur’s little noises begin to cross the line from over-stimulated into pained. He’s exhausted, all of a sudden, wrung out with pleasure and jet lag. He crawls up a bit and collapses gratefully, head pillowed on Arthur’s heaving stomach.
Arthur shoves halfheartedly at his shoulder. “You’re heavy,” he complains.
“Mrrmph,” Eames rejoins, and stays where he is. He’ll move when he regains feeling in his arms and legs. Shouldn’t be longer than a week or so.
Arthur doesn’t put up much in the way of a struggle, just squirms a little, settling Eames’s weight more comfortably between his thighs. After a while, his hand comes to rest on the back of Eames’s head, fingers combing drowsily through Eames’s sweaty hair.
Perhaps two weeks.
Eames is already hovering on the languid verge of unconsciousness when a troubling thought occurs to him. He lifts his head and peers up the length of Arthur’s chest at his appealingly flushed face.
“You’re not going to set the bed on fire, are you?”
Arthur appears to think about it. “Not with you in it,” he concedes finally, magnanimous.
Eames looks at him, at the smudge of come on his chin and the poorly concealed twitching of his lips, and feels a great surge of affection wash over him. It’s overpowering, towing him under, and the riptide drags him up to press his lips to Arthur’s hairline, his chin, the point of his nose.
“Sorry, sorry,” he mumbles against Arthur’s eyebrow, “impulse control problems, you know, can’t be helped.”
Arthur kicks him in the shin. “Get off me, you asshole,” he says, but he’s smiling as he says it, wide open, with his eyes crinkled at the corners and his breath hot on Eames’s chin.