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We Can Replace You

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There was the bruise from Mogadishu, where they dreamed in the back room of a halal shop and Eames stumbled into a table when they jolted out of the dreamscape. Arthur would run his fingers over it again and again as if he could translate it into architectural parlance instead of mere clumsiness.

And in Saint Petersburg, when they ducked and rolled in an alleyway in order to dodge the agents after them, because that was the problem with taking military technology and using it for things the military didn’t condone. The resulting mark flared, mottled and multicolored, on Eames’s arm for weeks.

“Poking at it won’t make it any better,” Arthur would tell him each time he caught him prodding it. Eames sometimes expected him to reach out and slap his hand away.

“Pretending that it’s not there won’t either.” And Arthur would sigh or frown or generally look disapproving, and he wouldn’t be Arthur if he didn’t have that inhuman attention to detail, which made his little moments of humanity all the more treasurable.

Eames knew, very well, that he had the market cornered on poking at things that should be left alone and Arthur could never compete with him there.

They parted ways for separate jobs after the Saint Petersburg incident, talking only occasionally and only of inconsequential things on the phone, since Eames didn’t like to make a habit of letting people who had his confidence know they had it.

Arthur, so he’d heard, was the one who had saved everyone from a very sticky situation in the second level of the Fischer job by roping them together and making his own gravity with explosives and an elevator shaft. It was more creativity than Eames would have thought to give him credit for, and it amused him that maybe he’d missed something about Arthur, something he should have seen before.

“How’s your shoulder?” Arthur inquired suddenly, his voice wavering over the shoddy service Eames’s basement flat provided.

“I’m sorry?”

“Your shoulder, when I saw you a few months ago. You fell and dislocated…”

Eames didn’t want to say anything, but Arthur had stopped talking and after ten seconds of silence it was too late to pass this off as more precious proof of Arthur’s humanity. “That was in Goa, in Rody’s dream. The Ferris wheel. It never happened.” He tried to ease the silence on Arthur’s end. “But I must say your concern is most appreciated.”

“Shut up,” said Arthur, but there was no rancor in it. Eames would have preferred at least a little.

The next time they reunited, it was in New York. Nothing outlandish, just the two of them meeting in a small restaurant with subpar food and decent beer and there was reminiscing and reiterating and Arthur smiling almost broadly enough to flash his teeth.

“Chaudhry wants me for a bit,” said Eames. “Trusts my judgment, even, poor man. No one’s taking point since Farrah’s still in prison. There’s a place for you, if you want it.”

Arthur snorted. “No one in our line of work goes to prison. Who recruited her?”

“Doesn’t matter. Are you in?”

---

The thing about talking business with Arthur was that he took an unholy amount of pleasure in ironing out the details, even ones that weren’t any of his concern. “And if we have a panic room for a failsafe,” he was saying, stern-faced in the back of the cab, like he didn’t also have a hand on Eames’s knee, fingers absently sketching where a bruise had once been, “we can’t make it that inaccessible again. There were too many of them before and it screwed everything up. I didn’t make it there in time.”

“One,” Eames told him, “you’re not building. Two, what you are doing is micromanaging and we haven’t even started yet. Three, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“No, you do,” Arthur said firmly, and his touch was relentless as it crept higher. His voice dropped into a register that managed to make a friendly argument sound like something much dirtier, one of many things Arthur did without seeming to have a clue how it went over. “It was your idea to have one in the first place.”

“You’re a very big star in a very small sky, at least in your own mind,” said Eames, and he was laughing, stepping out of the taxi and wondering if Arthur would allow it or resent it if he hauled him out after him by one long-fingered hand.

Instead, he settled for keeping Arthur too busy to speak right up until he was bearing him down onto the bed, an impressively lavish piece of work in a hotel room Eames wasn’t paying for, and Arthur didn’t seem to resent a moment of it.

“But it really did happen,” insisted Arthur, never one to leave a conversation unfinished even if he had to finish it half-dressed and panting, and his eyes were brighter than any stars in the smog-cloaked city. “I know it did. I was there.”

“Of course you were.” Eames slid his hands under cloth and over bare skin, kissed him again, and Arthur said nothing more.

Naked, Arthur was so much less acerbic than he liked to let on he was, long stretches of lean muscle under surprisingly unscathed skin—less sallow than he’d been after his stint in Sydney, since Arthur had willingly taken the short straw while the rest of them took their respective cuts and ran. Arthur on his back with his legs parting and his cock in one loosely curled hand was still as striking as Arthur in a close-cut suit. But this way it was far easier to see how he was marked in the most unfair places by small things like the hollows of his anklebones and the strip of hair under his navel and the liquid rhythm of each breath as it traveled through his body.

All of this, combined with the way he let himself fall open so easily when Eames gripped his erection and stroked, and Eames was sure he could get lost there, just staying and staring his fill. Arthur’s hips were bucking up into his fist, but Eames deliberately drew out each touch as long as humanly possible, memorizing the curve of his eyelashes and the crest of his Adam’s apple as if he might need to forge Arthur at a moment’s notice.

Then Arthur rolled his eyes and flipped them over, fingers two sets of no-nonsense manacles around Eames’s wrists. “This isn’t fucking prom night, Mr. Eames.”

Eames blinked up at him. Arthur’s leg slipped between both of his, bearing down, and Eames’s breath hissed out as his body mindlessly rutted up into the pressure. “I really wouldn’t know, since I never had a prom.”

“And you think I did?” Arthur let him go and started pawing through the covers, triumphantly popping the cap on the container once he found it

He poured out a palmful of the stuff and cinched a slippery hand around Eames’s cock, doing a bang-up job of driving Eames to distraction while he fumbled his way through the process of locating and tearing open a condom wrapper. “Or do I even want to know what you think?” Arthur added, drizzling out some more, a bit of a waver in his words. He had one hand on Eames and the other out of sight, torso arcing in a single long curve of pleasure as he slipped a pair of fingers into himself.

“I think your adolescence was so painfully normal it’s a constant source of embarrassment for you. I think,” Eames confided, once he could, “that you were a self-conscious little slut who flashed your bits to anyone showing an interest, just so you could feel wanted.”

He paused, toppling Arthur off him and catching him up against his front, countering Arthur’s squawk of indignation with vicious rolls of his hips against the cleft of his arse. “Am I close at all?” Eames whispered against his jaw. “I think maybe I am.” He slid a hand down, skirting Arthur’s cock but giving a judicious amount of attention to the inside of one lean thigh, pinching and toying with the sensitive skin with his nails, leaving it marked red when he was finished.

Arthur was writhing in his arms, trying to hike a leg up and behind to hook over Eames’s hip, the blunt head of Eames’s cock nudging against the slickened clench of muscle. Eames bit the edge of his ear, sucking there until something almost a growl and almost a wail was ripping at Arthur’s throat. “And I think I’d have paid a lot of money to be a fly on the locker-room wall.”

“You’re delusional.”

“And you love it.” Eames hitched his leg higher. “Hold yourself up now, that’s it.”

And Arthur, beautiful, obedient Arthur, wrapped an arm behind his knee to keep it up and out of the way, and he groaned like a whore and spilled over the sheets when Eames fucked him from behind.

When Eames came, it was with Arthur squirming down onto his cock and still somehow contorting enough to crush their mouths together and suck Eames’s tongue into his mouth. Eames found it endlessly fascinating, the way his mouth went from thin and harsh to absolutely fucking irresistible in the space of a sigh. Arthur still tasted like lager.

The second he was able, Eames was turning him until they were face to face, slanting his mouth over Arthur’s lips all over again and chasing as much of that taste as possible.

But Arthur frowned, ducking away. He pressed a kiss to Eames’s chest, tongue licking along a scar half-hidden under a few looping tendrils of ink. “Where’d you get this one?”

It took Eames a second to realize what he was asking. Arthur wasn’t typically one for talking at all. “Shoddy playground equipment when I was seven. The seesaw was rusty. My mother was positive I’d given myself tetanus.”

“The tattoo.” Even from above, Eames could see the lines deepening in Arthur’s forehead. “That’s new, then, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid that’s always been there, ever since I had about six pints too many one St. Patrick’s Day several years back.”

“You’re such a liar.”

“Why would I ever lie to you?”

Arthur gave a snort, then turned over and burrowed into a pillow. Streams of streetlight through the blinds cast stripes of skin and shadow on his back. Eames reached to trace them and vertebra shifted with subtle, fluid grace under his fingers.

“Because,” Arthur mumbled, rather dreamily, “that’s what you do. That’s what we all do.”

---

The job was nothing particularly exciting, but Chaudhry was straightforward about it. Eames had always appreciated that about him.

“It’s bullshit, but we need blueprints.”

He was perched on a piano bench, since they were conducting their work in what had once been a dance school. A few broad tables that looked like they’d been salvaged from a landfill were scattered here and there across the worn wood floor. It occurred to Eames that someone like Cobb, in all his classically-trained-architect loftiness, would have probably cried.

“This fucking international power corporation,” Chaudhry went on, “they’re taking on some commodity software from a new provider and the old provider isn’t too keen on it. They want to know what kind of leg up this new client-server technology shit has on theirs. We need to get everything we can on the CTO of the project, one Robin Ahn-Patton, and make sure we know what we’re getting into.”

Eames took a sip of his coffee. “Does that mean we’ve got absolutely no clue what we’re getting into just yet?”

For a tiny bespectacled man, Chaudhry did an impressive imitation of a thundercloud. “That means, Mr. Eames, if she turns out to have a fetish for giant purple squids, you will turn into a giant fucking squid and it will be purple.”

Arthur’s mouth twitched.

“I don’t know if that’s within my abilities,” Eames answered, straight-faced, “but for you, I’ll research it extensively.”

But as fascinating as it would have been to spend every spare minute reading up on tentacles, he did actually have a work ethic.

The half-renovated dance school consisted of three studios, one of which had been taken over by Everson, who was building. He didn’t appear to be that old, but Ariadne was still in school and Arthur could look all of nineteen when he didn’t have his professional face on, so Eames didn’t judge. Everson was from Leeds, laconic and crew-cut and given to playing Morrissey songs on the out-of-tune piano when he needed a break from thinking in planes and angles. Eames had no clue how or where Chaudhry had found him and he didn’t ask.

Since Arthur had disappeared to start working his magic and Eames had dabbled in architecture in the past, the way he had dabbled in most things, he developed the habit of working with Everson on the level he’d begun creating. Models cluttered up tabletops, doubled by the mirrored wall. “One might be all it takes,” Everson told him, doing something on his laptop that involved a dizzying number of vectors, “but I want to have a second just in case. It’s too early to be able to tell anything for sure.”

Arthur did what he did best and threw himself into his own kind of forgery: part hacker, part private investigator, part whatever kind of unscrupulous bastard he needed to be in order to learn the details. He disappeared for days at a time, only occasionally appearing in the workspace to pass on what he’d found out. He probed and bribed and finagled his way into learning, among other things, that the CTO of Kenet Technology was a Coast Guard veteran, an eBay fiend, and a huge fan of James Bond films.

There was plenty of other information in there, but Eames’s inner child was still delighted at possibly getting to forge James Bond, any of them.

“I get to be Bond? Please tell me I get to be Bond. I’ll do him justice, I swear, and it’s perfect: who wouldn’t tell Bond whatever he wanted to know?”

Everson, bless him, seemed convinced, but Chaudhry looked perturbed. “Why do I feel like you’ve used a PASIV to live out your boyhood fantasies a time or two?”

“Everyone needs a role model,” Eames said seriously.

“This means no bodies of water,” Chaudhry specified, not responding to that. “None. If she’s a CG vet, who knows what kind of nautical havoc her subconscious might throw at us if she starts to realize something’s not right?” He was already opening the PASIV.

“So I don’t get to whisk her off in Wet Nellie?” Eames couldn’t resist asking, taking a seat.

Arthur made no move to take a line for himself. “For all we know, she might have encountered extraction training,” he warned, even though the Coast Guard wasn’t typically a branch of the military associated with it. “I need to keep working.”

---

The world Everson was building seemed stable enough. Chaudhry would be dreaming the first level, which was a penthouse restaurant, and Eames would get to play Bond after all, with the aim of putting the subject at ease and getting her to sleep again by whatever means necessary. Then Arthur would dream the second level, which was a bit trickier.

Arthur was still flitting in and out of the workspace at his leisure and had yet to actually go under with the rest of the team. Eames had hardly been able to catch him alone for days, which to him was the biggest and most unforgivable crime. All these rooms filled with mirrors and he hadn’t fucked Arthur against a single one of them.

“It’s going to be an auction house,” Eames was explaining to him. “So it’s risky since it’ll be full of projections and she can’t even consider that maybe she’s dreaming even for a millisecond or it’ll all be over. Going by what we know, though, she’ll be too busy bidding to notice.”

“And we’ll have her engaged in a bidding war for her own plans.”

“All this could all be done in a single level, really, but it was more of a challenge to have two. Keeps things interesting, right?”

Arthur was facing away from him, but Eames watched the reflection of his smile in the mirrored wall. “This feels almost too easy.”

“Yeah, well, you’d better get to learning the levels since you’re going to be the dreamer if we do need the second one.” Eames slid both arms around him, kissing the back of his neck, and Arthur’s reflection seemed all too happy to let him. “And when will you learn,” Eames deftly undid the first button of Arthur shirt, tugging at the collar to bare a little more nape, “that James Bond can do anything?”

Then Arthur sighed and turned and asked, in a voice too neutral for the words it carried, “If I need you to do something for me in there, you’ll do it, right?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Just promise me.” He kissed him, but even that wasn’t enough to muddy Eames’s thoughts.

“What sort of ‘anything’ are we talking about, exactly?”

Arthur snorted. The small bared triangle of his throat looked startlingly vulnerable. “Never mind.”

---

When Arthur finally did go under with the rest of them, it was chaos.

Everson and Chaudhry were saying something about stairwells, but Eames didn’t catch a word of it.

“Shoot me.” Arthur’s voice was an agonized hiss at his ear.

“What?”

“I need you to shoot me.” His face was practically gray. “Fucking do it, Eames, I need it.”

And Eames did.

---

Chaudhry demanded to know that the hell that was about, of course, but Arthur only said that something seemed off. Almost immediately, he disappeared to do more research. Off the map for a few days, once again. Everson was irritated at Eames for letting him get away, but Eames insisted it was with good reason and proceeded to text Arthur like a nagging aunt even though there was never any response.

It wasn’t strictly bluffing. Arthur rarely did anything without a very good reason.

The second time Arthur went under, it was with Eames and Everson and he lasted only slightly longer than the first time.

It was the same as before: Arthur with his head down and his hands behind his back, approaching Eames almost deferentially and demanding to be killed. The same death-gray skin, the same bloodshot eyes, the same barely controlled despair in his words.

“If he really needed to get out,” Everson asked afterward, “why didn’t he just shoot himself?”

Arthur had already eased the cannula from his arm and walked away. Even though it was probably only the fifth complete sentence he’d heard Everson utter, Eames didn’t reply.

He took him aside himself this time, once Everson had left for the day and Arthur was sullenly packing up the PASIV. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on or is this going to keep happening?”

Predictably, Arthur was pissed and surly and told him in very unambiguous terms to mind his own fucking business.

Eames smirked. “You are my fucking business.” Baiting Arthur was like baiting a tiger. A huge, hungry tiger with a Do Not Touch sign dangling from the door of its unlatched cage.

Arthur spun around and the gun under his suit jacket gleamed as darkly as his eyes. “Don’t push me, Eames. Just don’t.”

“If you can’t keep yourself steady,” Eames said seriously, “you’ll bring all of us down.”

Arthur denied nothing.

He fucked him that evening. Arthur gripped his shoulders and sank down onto his cock and had Eames take him until marks stood out in angry brands on his skin. It was the opposite in every way of Eames’s daydreams about kissing against the mirror, of sucking the curve of Arthur’s throat and stripping him bare and watching every little bend and curve and nuance of him at once as he finger-fucked him into his own reflection and made him come against the cool glass. No matter how much he knew of Arthur’s body, there were so many other places he hadn’t come close to glimpsing.

Then Arthur proved this point phenomenally by pressing a kiss against his cheek and sliding off the bed. “I’m going to try again,” he said, too businesslike to be referring to anything but work. “I need to.”

Eames groaned. “Right this second?”

“Right this second.” Arthur didn’t look guilty, but he didn’t look Eames in the eye either. “I have some catching up to do. You know that.”

“I’ll come along, since I know the layout better than you anyway.” He had no trouble meeting Arthur’s gaze. “You shouldn’t go alone.”

Arthur grunted noncommittally and drew out the PASIV.

This time, when they entered the first level, Eames was ready for it.

This time, he saw.

---

“How long?” Eames demanded.

“It happens,” Arthur said tonelessly.

“Right, I understand that, but how fucking long?”

“I can handle it. I don’t want to discuss it.”

Even for the master of understatements, this was a bit much. “You can’t handle anything like that.”

That got him a groan, at least. “Very funny. Tell me, do you actively seek out sources for horrible puns or do they just come naturally?”

“I’m serious. What in the hell was that? How long has it been like this for you?”

Arthur only briefly looked at him, but his eyes were like polished stone. “It doesn’t matter. I’m off the job. I’ll tell Chaudhry myself.”

“And go where?” Arthur was twisting in his arms, but Eames gripped him harder. “Line up something else? Magically cure whatever the fuck is going on in your mind that makes this happen?”

“Yeah, actually, maybe that’s exactly what I want. Some other job where I can dream in peace.” He nearly spat it out. “Somewhere without you.”

Eames swallowed, forcing down the dread slicing at his gut like a knot of splintered rope, and ignored him. If Arthur was hitting him where it would hurt the most, it had to mean he felt too vulnerable to do anything but lash out.

“Arthur,” Eames said, very gently, “you didn’t have any hands. I’m asking you as a friend to tell me what the fuck is wrong with you.”

“Bullshit. You don’t have friends, Eames.” Arthur sounded weary, pitying. “You pick people up like trinkets and throw them back when you don’t have use for them anymore.”

“No...” Arthur’s temples and forehead were clammy under his lips, but he didn’t pull away. “You’re not a trinket, darling,” Eames whispered. Stroking him, soothing him, kissing the pinprick at his wrist. “Not that, never that. You’d clash with the décor if I left you sitting on my mantel all day.”

Arthur wasn’t laughing because there was nothing funny about any of this, but he wasn’t shaking either because Arthur would never allow himself to do anything that human. Whatever he was doing, Eames drew him in and let him do it.

“Don’t leave yet,” Eames murmured. His words were lost in the cadence of Arthur’s pulse under his palms. “Not just yet.”

And Eames touched him and Arthur let him and it was a whirlwind of sighs and pleas with the PASIV wires snaking across the covers and three of Arthur’s long, slender fingers crooked inside himself. Arthur’s eyes were closed but his brittle-eager voice urged Eames to add one of his own, stretching him open still more until he was cursing and whining and slanting his mouth over Eames’s so desperately he could have come from that alone, because it was Arthur. And then he took Eames into him, still wet and aching from before, and sighed and shook and groaned Eames’s name like an invocation.

Eames couldn’t fuck any answers out of him, but he tried.

No words passed between them. When Arthur finally slept, it was face-up on top of the covers, as if he might need to grab a weapon and flee at any point.

Eames slipped Arthur’s fingers through his own and didn’t remember sleeping at all.

And in the morning, Arthur did something he almost never did and walked away from a job he’d already begun.

Chaudhry invented a whole new echelon of profanity and leveled it all at Eames for bringing Arthur into it to begin with.

“Don’t fucking give me someone who can’t live up to their reputation,” he shouted, and Eames wasn’t sure he could honestly claim that Arthur could, but he did it anyway.

“He’s the best there is.”

Chaudhry didn’t even acknowledge that. “I need at least one person who can do their goddamn job. If you’re going to cut and run too, tell me now so I can find someone else. Getting someone to fill in for point is already going to cost more time than we have.”

Eames wanted to tell him that there was no one who could come close to replacing Arthur. Not Arthur, with his gun-dark glare and mutilated subconscious; Arthur, who could be anywhere by now. Sense memories of the previous night flowed through his mind, of Arthur’s beautiful hands all over him like he needed to touch everything in case he never had the chance again.

“I’m not leaving,” he said.

---

Raiding medicine cabinets was such common thievery, but sometimes common thievery was all that a situation called for.

“All the bottles were unmarked,” he told Yusuf. “I just took a bit of everything.”

Eames had done what he’d had to do, stayed on Chaudhry’s good side and waited out the job and given Arthur plenty of time to contact him, which he didn’t. He’d expected nothing else and it wasn’t as if he hadn’t worked far more jobs without Arthur than with him anyway, but playing James Bond could only last so long. It wasn’t quite the same without Arthur discreetly mocking him for it.

At a glance, he’d never have known how wealthy Yusuf was, since everything about his shop looked much the same. Deadly little jars, not a single one labeled. Yusuf surrounded himself with concoctions exactly like himself.

Yusuf leaned forward when Eames passed over the packet of pills. “You just want to know the contents of each one?” He sounded dubious.

“I need to know everything’s as it should be. And if you could tell me if there’s any way these might interact and have a negative effect on one’s dreaming, that would be perfect.”

“As in what?”

“As in, could anything somehow cause a person’s subconscious to go a little off the rails?”

Yusuf gave him a suspicious glance.

“No questions asked, please,” said Eames, delicately picking lint from his sleeve. “I’m a paying customer.”

“The hell you are,” Yusuf replied. “Were you aware that you’d brought me aspirin?”

Eames frowned. “That’s aspirin?”

“This one is.” Yusuf picked up a small white pill. “The rest, I’ll need a little more time. Please go eat lunch so I know you aren’t ransacking my wares while I work.”

Eames was too distracted to take umbrage at being treated like a toddler. “How long will you be?”

Yusuf shrugged. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you. Now run along and play. There has to be a casino you haven’t frisked yet.”

He did have a point.

Eames burned through a respectable portion of his intake from the Bond job, increased the remaining portion by an even more respectable amount, drank enough coffee to make himself bleed mocha, and turned up to heckle Yusuf every afternoon. Sometimes twice.

Mombasa was full of distractions, but he wasn’t about to lose sight of his objective.

When Yusuf deigned to get back to him, it was almost disappointing that all he had to say was, “Good news, everything’s fine.”

That didn’t seem right at all. “What do you mean by fine?”

“Some were standard, like the aspirin and acetaminophen, others less so, but you didn’t bring me anything capable of lethally screwing around with Somnacin. It’s been my experience that dreamers with nerve pain are often able to function subconsciously with no trouble at all.”

Eames stared at him, bewildered. “I think something’s off, then. This person doesn’t have nerve pain.”

“Nothing is off.” Yusuf heaved a monarchal sigh. “If he doesn’t, maybe he thinks he does. Maybe he just has trouble sleeping and finds that these work the best. Dreaming’s long-term effects are still being discovered as more of them manifest. It’s fascinating stuff.”

“Right, it’s a marvel.” Eames paced to the front of the shop, hunting in vain for something resembling a CLOSED sign he could flip against the window. Yusuf made his own hours, always did. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Of everything you gave me, three of them stood out.” Yusuf looked him up and down with professional wariness. “Have a seat and tell me if anything is too incomprehensible.”

Eames was ready to protest that when Yusuf declared, “Cyclobenzaprine,” which could have been anything from an avant-garde salad dressing to something he’d made up on the spot. Shutting up and listening suddenly seemed wiser than any retort.

“That one’s a relaxant,” Yusuf went on. “If anything, it would soothe muscles and make sleeping easier. Gabapentin, that’s for depression and neuropathic pain, or to suppress convulsions if you have epilepsy or any other condition that could lead to them.”

Fucking hell. “Sorry, convulsions?”

“Let me finish. Carbamazepine. It’s harder to say about this one. Normally a person would take either this or gabapentin, not both together, but that alone wouldn’t result in negative interaction anyway.” Yusuf paused, staring at him a little too intently for comfort. “It would interact with the cyclobenzaprine, though, and make it harder to suppress muscle spasms. It could also result in nervousness or fatigue if the patient isn’t sleeping well.”

“That’s a problem with quite a few dreamers anyway, though,” Eames said, still stuck on the word convulsions.

Yusuf held up a hand. “True. And you don’t have any way of knowing what or how often this person’s been taking any of these, so I can’t tell you anything for sure. But if they were combining all three, in addition to habitually using Somnacin, then…”

“Then what.” There was really no point in making it a question.

“Then,” Yusuf conceded, “you can be worried.”

“Wonderful. And what’s this last one used for? You never said.”

“Much the same as the gabapentin, but it can also be prescribed for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or non-neuritic pain.”

Eames’s stomach doubled up like a brass-knuckled fist. “The fuck’s that?”

“That means it’s sometimes used by patients who have undergone amputation. It can help combat phantom pain.”

Fucking buggering fuck.

He leaned down to scratch the cat sidling up to his chair, keeping his face downcast until he could form a sentence that wasn’t composed of vitriol and blasphemy. “And you’re sure that’s the best you can do?”

“Unless you can get your hands on a copy of his medical history, yes. And considering how many aliases Arthur probably has, good luck.”

He sat up, mustering an indolent little smile. “I never said anything about Arthur.”

“Mr. Eames, I’m so sorry to disappoint, but I do have more than two brain cells to rub together.” Yusuf’s tone was so dignified it practically had its pinky out.

“You didn’t get this far by being stupid, it’s easy to forget that.”

“I prefer it that way,” Yusuf said neatly, an innocently off-the-rails scientist with a secret lab stuffed full of test dummies.

Eames slouched in his seat. “Have you heard anything about him?” he asked, since there was no point in pretending he was here about anything else.

“I’m a pharmacologist, not an extractor,” replied Yusuf, polishing his glasses. They still hung around his neck, making him look nebbish, but there was a designer name scripted on the stems and Eames was positive if he were to examine them closely he’d find they were the real deal. “Our paths have little occasion to cross and I don’t think I want them to.”

“Right, maybe because you fucked us all over by throwing in with Cobb for the Fischer job.” Eames nodded cheerfully. “So nothing, then. No rumors, not a peep, is that it? All that money you raked in and you don’t spend any of it making sure your former colleagues haven’t been found out?”

“I hear,” Yusuf answered, pronouncing each word with a terrible hesitancy, “that he’s losing his touch.”

Alarm bells resounded in Eames’s mind before it occurred to him Yusuf might not mean that literally.

“There was some work going on in Irbid, maybe a month ago, and they had a point man who refused to dream at all. One of the best, supposedly.”

So not literally, then. Which just meant it was only a matter of time before Arthur either couldn’t keep his secret under wraps or tried something drastic to get rid of it altogether. “Thanks. Really.”

“Best of luck.” Yusuf’s mouth twisted wryly. “Give my regards, if he’ll have them.”

“I can try.” Eames nodded towards the heavy ring of keys still hanging behind the counter. “Tell me, what’s down there now? Have you laid in a wine cellar, a massage parlor, something like that? Or maybe a VIP suite for the dream junkies who can afford it?”

Yusuf smiled cherubically. “None of your bloody business.”

---

For once, Eames had the finances as well as the patience and connections needed to track down anyone he wanted. He even got in touch with Cobb, which he’d sworn never to do again, but he knew Arthur contacted him regularly and that was enough to tip the scales.

It amounted to nothing anyway, since Cobb actually seemed to think Arthur was vacationing. Eames privately found it rather amazing how quickly one person could go from criminal mastermind to oblivious mentor.

The entire process took more time and cajoling than he would have liked, but if the end result was worth the struggle he decided he would forgive Arthur for everything. Arthur had always been good at eliciting forgiveness without making any effort of his own.

Outside Maastricht, that was where he finally found him. Arthur was renting a ramshackle flat with neighbors on either side who were more than happy to chat about the odd hours he worked. Eames played the role of the jet-lagged cousin to the hilt, since it had been ages since he’d had the chance and it was a method that never got old.

There was no spare key, but that was never a problem for Eames.


---


Improbably, Arthur was doing some sort of work in what appeared to be a half-renovated church. Despite having been gutted of everything liturgical, the interior was churchlike enough for the thick blue mats covering a portion of the floor to look shockingly incongruous. There was an overturned chair nearby, where someone had probably been playing the guinea pig to a chemist. Tables here and there were bedecked with a few half-finished models, evidence of where Arthur had been working in conjunction with the most recent architect.

And there he was in the middle of it all, slouched in an armchair and tapping militantly away at his laptop, face drawn into an expression as harsh and frosty as winter.

Eames coughed.

When Arthur looked up, there was an exhaustion in his face that overwhelmed any hint of surprise. “What are you doing here?”

Since it wouldn’t do to blurt out that Arthur looked like death warmed over, Eames went with flippancy instead. “Until an hour ago, I was having tea with Gwen and Monika, who both think you’re a workaholic and I’m your cousin, by the way. I was about to ask you the same thing.”

Arthur’s icy profile cracked, just barely, or it could have been Eames’s imagination. “Cousin? Seriously? It’s a good thing I haven’t been pretending to be German or you could’ve really screwed yourself over.”

“Right, aside from the part where you’re embarrassingly bad at passing for anything other than American. A few foreign-language classes in university don’t do all the work for you.”

Normally, Arthur bristled at being called out on his weak areas. It was telling when he did nothing more than cast a weary look at the steeply pitched ceiling. Stepping forward, Eames could see just how dark the shadows were under his cheekbones and eyes. “Arthur. What have you been doing with yourself?”

With a dangerous sort of primness, Arthur drew himself up and set the laptop aside. “I’ve been lying low. That happens sometimes when you do work like this, Mr. Eames. Didn’t you know?”

“You’ve been lying too low is what you’ve been doing.” Eames ventured closer. With each step, the mats emitted sullen little squeaks and the stiffness of Arthur’s posture became that much more evident. “People are talking. Saying you’re getting bored with things, so you must be retiring. Did you know that?”

Arthur rose. “It’s not your goddamn business.”

“It is. I know you don’t get bored with this,” Eames said. Belatedly, he realized he was approaching Arthur with both arms at his sides and his palms turned forward. Unconsciously minimizing whatever sort of threat Arthur might imagine him to be, even though there was a pistol under his coat that Arthur had to know was there. Arthur made it his business to know these things, and even when they’d both been piss-drunk on rice wine Eames had had to strip off everything remotely hazardous before Arthur would even kiss him for the first time. As a line, it had worked impressively well.

Arthur was scowling at him. Eames sighed.

“I also know you normally wouldn’t even glance at this sort of work. Who in fuck’s name orders an extraction on their own thirteen-year-old child so they can find out why she tried to kill herself? That’s where therapists are meant to come in, not you. No bloody wonder you’re already on your third architect.”

“You’ve done your research.” Each word was bone-dry.

“I have. You’re better than this. Don’t pretend otherwise.”

“And you came all the way here to set me back on the right track.” The look on Arthur’s face could have incinerated a small village. “What would I do without you?”

“Shall I tell you?” Eames propped a hip against the edge of a table, ticking off on his fingers. “You’d end up in some cavity of a workspace, hardly holding a small job together. You’d only be working it at all by providing point outside of dreams and refusing to go under. The team would be laughable. You’d have a chemist come round every now and again to make sure you don’t turn the girl into a vegetable by botching up the dosage for someone so young. You wouldn’t be able to hold onto an architect because they’d all be made uncomfortable by the circumstances, and rightfully so.”

“You’re shitting me,” Arthur said flatly. “When did you go and develop standards? I thought you made your name by not having any.”

Eames smiled and closed the space between them. “Then there’s you, researching what could have driven her to do it, and the extractor to pull it off since you won’t be going in. Maybe,” Eames said deliberately, “you think if you figure out the mark, you can figure out yourself.”

Arthur laid a palm on his shoulder, leaning in as if he was about to whisper a secret. “Leave. Now.”

His hand traveled downward, working open Eames’s coat buttons, easing beneath the wool to close around the butt of the Beretta tucked underneath. Then—slowly, slowly—he went about drawing it out. “I’m afraid,” murmured Eames, “I’m not quite ready to do that.”

Arthur was looking at him through his lashes, almost coy if not for the joyless little curve to his mouth. Lightly, he lifted his gun hand, touching Eames’s cheek with the barrel.

“You used to have more scars.” Arthur’s voice was soft, verging on sad. “And not from any fucking playground equipment either.”

Cool metal skirted Eames eye socket; he stared straight ahead, unblinking. Arthur, Arthur, what did you do to yourself? “And one time you had a bruise—this huge ugly shiner, right here—and I can’t remember where it came from and I know you won’t tell me.”

“Never did. You’re not making any sense.”

“Yeah,” Arthur mused, “I had a feeling you’d say that. And I know I should believe you because why the hell would you lie about something like that? Especially since you hunted me down to pat me on the head and tell me things are gonna be okay.” The touch of the gun was gentle as he drew it down the hollow of Eames’s throat, his torso, eventually pressing the muzzle to the front of his trousers.

“Fuck’s sake, Arthur,” Eames began, and then that ruthless mouth was on his like flesh-warmed steel, harsh, unyielding, too close to perfect for Eames to ever admit.

“I don’t need anything else screwing me over,” Arthur said, all but biting the words into him

“Of course not,” Eames agreed, and crept a hand up the nape of his neck.

It wasn’t very elegant, wrenching him back by the hair and sweeping his feet out from under him, but it had the advantage of getting the gun to the ground and getting Arthur pinned beneath him.

Arthur landed a glancing blow to his shoulder before Eames managed to gather his wrists in one hand, laying him out with both arms stretched over his head. His face was as pained and angry as it had been that time in in his dream when Eames had finally glimpsed stark white shirt cuffs and nothing beyond them but air. “How long since you’ve been under?” he demanded, applying more weight when Arthur twisted under him. “Not since we were with Chaudhry?”

“What part of leave did you not understand?” Arthur was straining to sling a leg over Eames’s back and use his leverage to topple him. It bothered Eames how easy it was to keep him from doing it. Normally, Arthur fought dirtier than a back-alley boxer.

“No…” He cast a meditative look over Arthur’s face, keeping a forearm across his throat to prevent him from butting. Unsophisticated but effective, which was becoming an unfortunate theme. “You’ve got Cobb’s PASIV now and as long as you fly under Saito you can take it wherever you please. For all I know you’ve been plugging yourself in every night, trying to change things and hating that you can’t.”

“You came here to be an audience for this?” Arthur’s hooded eyes went wide, outraged. “I cannot fucking believe you.”

The next thing Eames knew, Arthur was wrenching a hand free and slamming the heel of it to the underside of his chin. Stars and Arthur’s voice detonated inside his skull. “Does that hurt as much as it did in Bilbao? You remember that?”

Of course he did. The two of them had gotten into a brawl and come out unscathed aside from an uppercut that had sent Eames reeling and left his jaw a variegated mess.

Arthur struck again, this time ramming a knee into his hip. “And Mogadishu?”

Pain shot through him, but Eames clenched his teeth and caught him by the shoulders. “What about it? Are you going to tell me anything or just be a stubborn twat?”

For a moment, Arthur sighed and went slack under him, eyelids blue-veined and fragile in the harsh industrial lighting. “No.” Then he rolled free of Eames’s grip and the two of them were grappling on the shabby blue mats on the floor of a Dutch church and Eames didn’t even have a chance to feel absurd about it because Arthur suddenly succeeded at twisting out of his hold altogether, fist colliding with his bicep, voice gritting, “Saint Petersburg,” with a wild sort of satisfaction. When he moved, it was without any apparent reason or technique, so unlike himself that Eames nearly hesitated before laying hands on him. Arthur’s knuckles gouged at him again, forming a trio of new bruises ready to rear their heads under the skin of his ribs.

“And Maastricht,” breathed Arthur, almost triumphant, even as Eames pressed his full weight on him. “You’ll remember Maastricht too, so don’t tell me later that none of this happened.” He glared up at Eames, defiant and challenging and sounding so profoundly tired. “Just don’t.”

There was something bigger at work here, something he wasn’t understanding, since Arthur’s memory had always been excellent and he’d never needed this kind of reassurance before. But Eames was reassuring him anyway, whispering as if he wasn’t practically crushing the breath out of him, “Yes, it all happened, of course it did, you were right there with me each time.” And Arthur was kissing him again, cold hands on Eames’s face, hot tongue flickering into his mouth, fingers moving to catch in the folds of Eames’s coat and go about tugging it off his shoulders.

He wanted to tell Arthur to stop being so goddamned obtuse about everything, that of course he hadn’t hunted him down to be a fucking audience, but Arthur’s lips were pliant and he tasted just as Eames remembered and getting a word in edgewise wasn’t worth stopping even for a fraction of a second. Arthur watched through half-closed eyes as Eames shed his coat, hips bucking thoughtlessly when Eames spread his hands over them, throat working around wet little sounds that would have been pleas if there had been any words in them. One of Arthur’s hands closed around his wrist, tugging, and Eames deftly undid the fastenings on his trousers, letting Arthur press his palms flat to his back and push him down to ride each thrust of his body.

“Eames…” Arthur said his name like a lament, wrapped up in a soft sigh he breathed against Eames’s neck while working a knee between his thighs and squirming his slacks down as much as he was able, somehow managing to succeed with flying colors at both. Arching all the while, there in his argyle sweater-vest like he was an adjunct professor and not something far more terrible.

His eyes slid shut when Eames shoved it up his chest, catching the shirt underneath it in the process and murmuring ’s fine, love, I’ve got you, nothing to worry about since consoling him seemed like the proper thing to do. And he ducked, biting at Arthur’s taut stomach to see if it still made him tremble, circling a fingernail around one small nipple, burying his face against soft bare skin and inhaling the smell of him. Arthur’s scent was mint-clean and spice-sharp and so wonderfully familiar he nearly wanted to stay there, savoring that scrap of sameness even though Arthur was flat his back with his shoes still on and his cheeks too hollow and some sort of undetectable virus working away at him from the subconscious inward and clearly, clearly several steps away from nothing to worry about.

He hadn’t ever imagined it would come to this, the two of them rutting on the floor with Arthur hard and grinding against him, under him, Arthur’s dick bare against his belly when Eames moved back up his body to capture the feverish desperation of his mouth again. Arthur wasn’t idle, working Eames’s shirt out of the way, working his trousers undone, licking a hand and touching him, hissing c’mon, c’mon, let me until Eames relented.

There was only one person in the world who he’d let get away with manhandling his crotch after pulling his own gun on it, probably the only person in the world he’d be able to get it up for at all after that kind of stunt, even though Eames was a self-confessed adrenaline junkie. Sleeping with Arthur had never been anything close to boring and didn’t show any sign of changing now, not with Eames’s trousers down around his knees and his shirt half-undone, a shoe slipping off and Arthur’s cheek blisteringly hot against his own as he clasped a hand tight around his cock.

And, right on some cruel cue, Arthur was scrambling from beneath him, gripping the Beretta again and pressing it to his stomach, tongue licking a wicked little line over the flesh he’d crushed his fist against earlier. Eames reached for him, wary. “The hell do you think you’re doing?”

Arthur’s mouth left a string of kisses up his side, softly hushing him. “No, shhh, you’ll like it, I know you will.” And Eames shivered as he slid the barrel up his thigh, mouth dropping open as Arthur leaned in lower to lap at the tip of him like he was tasting an expensive delicacy.

He stopped, making Eames hiss, and replaced his tongue with something else, something smaller, a little metal mouth kissing the head of his cock. Eames’s throat contracted, his nails digging into the mat beneath him. “Arthur…”

“Hey.” There was a strange tenderness to Arthur’s voice. “It’s all right. You’re doing fine.” He kissed him, watching with serious eyes and wet-parted lips, and drew Eames’s foreskin over it, molding the thin skin over too-cold metal. Eames bit hard at the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out, hands clammy against the mat, lower body riding forward in spite of himself.

Then Arthur was letting him go to rub circles on his abdomen with his other hand, sounding awed. “Christ. Think you’re gonna come on it?” The muzzle went nudging behind his balls and pressing further, Eames curving his back and spreading his legs even as his muscles jumped in resistance.

His hips jerked as Arthur skated his hand back over the blunt head of Eames’s erection, and Eames’s eyes were squeezed shut but he could hear the wonderment in Arthur’s voice. “Shit. You’d let me do it. Eames, I strongly suspect you have issues,” and it made Eames want to laugh, coming from him.

A dry wheeze of a laugh twisted in his chest. “You’d be right, one in particular.” Namely, running around like a fool because trying to catch up with Arthur was like trying to catch a curl of smoke in his hand, always disappearing and just out of reach. Arthur, who could be sweet and businesslike and pitiless, like a half-cocked weapon, like the one he still held firm against him, sleek and steady as if he was prepared to actually push it into him.

“What if I took the safety off?” Arthur breathed, and Eames swore and froze and his cock jerked, faithless. And maybe he would, because it was Arthur, beautiful unforgiving maniacal Arthur who was finally, physically here and not some ghost of a person dissipating into nothing.

“I—” It did, in fact, occur to him that none of this was remotely sane, but that was his life. He pressed his palms flat to the mat, unable to speak, trying to nudge into the touch of Arthur’s hand even though it meant the barrel of the gun pressed harder, hard and dry and so cold.

Arthur was snorting and shaking his head. “You don’t have a death wish, Eames.” And he was tossing the gun aside to kiss him, jerking him so hard it chafed, and Eames tangled his fingers in Arthur’s shirt and came for him anyway.

When Arthur arched to rub against him, Eames gripped his bony hips, not ready to let him place any friction on his cock yet. “Maybe I don’t, but you seem to. You can’t give this up even though you should. And I think you know what people are saying and that’s why you’re making yourself so scarce. You can’t have word getting around that Arthur, one of the best in the business, is finally cracking.”

Arthur’s teeth sank into his shoulder and Eames swore, gripped his jaw hard with his free hand, forced fingers into his mouth only to have him bite and drool and curse around them. “Can’t control himself, always needs to have a bullet put through his brain but can’t do it on his own with no bloody hands.”

Arthur was digging his nails into Eames’s chest, pulsing and wet in his fist, making garbled sounds around his fingers.

“No,” Eames barked, louder than he intended, not particularly inclined to mercy. “Listen to me. You’re going to drag everyone down with you if you keep trying to work like this. Do you understand that?” Kissing his forehead, his ear, making it up as he went along. There wasn’t ever any guidebook when it came to Arthur, always such a fine line between dousing a fire and setting a fuse, and at one time Eames had almost dared to think he knew how to balance there without breaking his neck. “Do you?”

Arthur shivered and spilled over his hand, crying out around Eames’s bite-marked fingers.

His mouth was raw when Eames withdrew his hand, chafed at the corners, wetness and anger sheening his eyes. It made him look used, young, and Eames shouldn’t have found that as captivating as he did, but he’d always been attracted to things unsuitable for polite company. As he watched, Arthur heaved an irritable breath and swiped at his face, turning over onto a cool portion of the mats. And for a long, cold time he didn’t utter a word.

“Of course I do, asshole,” he finally said, so quietly Eames could scarcely hear him at all. “Why do you think I don’t want you around?”

Arthur’s hand found his and closed over it. Eames didn’t look at him, but his fingers parted and Arthur’s slid between them.

They stayed, sprawled and spent in the chilled half-church, gradually creeping closer together for warmth. With an indolent arch of his hips, Arthur slipped back into his briefs. “I don’t go under anymore. I’m not a risk.”

“And what kind of point man does that make you? The kind that digs into the minds of children?” Arthur’s cheek was dry and cool, scarcely brushing his lips. Eames traced it with a sticky hand. “These people, they’ll take you because they’re desperate and they don’t care that you won’t even enter a dream. If someone had offered Cobb work like this, you’d never have let him take it. He’d probably put you over his knee if he knew about it.”

Arthur lifted a brow. “Maybe that’s the plan.”

Eames could have laughed at that, another time. “Think you’re ready to clock out for the day? If you keep pulling weapons on me and then jumping me, I might start thinking this relationship isn’t entirely healthy.”

“But it is a relationship,” Arthur said, so glibly that the remark pierced Eames like shrapnel.

It was a brisk process, dressing in soiled clothes, Arthur shepherding him through the door, then falling victim to black ice in the parking lot and eating asphalt there beside his rental car. It had Eames tittering like a child until he realized Arthur wasn’t getting back up.

“This happened. I was there.” Arthur’s words were a defeated exhale. “And I don’t know when.”

For Eames, two things were clear. First, that someone, sometime, had taken him and dashed him against the ground. And second, that wasn’t acceptable in the slightest.

“I meant it,” Arthur insisted, glumly pushing himself onto one knee. “You really should just leave.”

Eames held out his hand. “Not happening. Now shut up and stand up.”

---

“It won’t be any different than last time,” Arthur said, not even bothering to hide his irritation. “That’s not going to change just because you’re around. And I don’t want the neighbors to hear me killing my implausibly British cousin.”

Eames paused in his exploration of the damage Arthur had done to his chin. “It wounds me that you don’t think I can do justice to your disdainful drawl. Give me fifteen minutes and an ugly sweater-vest and I’ll do you better than you do you.”

“I don’t think I want them to hear me fucking my cousin either,” Arthur added, after a beat.

“Their loss,” Eames said merrily. “Arm out.”

Arthur proffered a sinewy wrist. “It won’t work.”

“Positive attitude, please. How long has it been since you were last under?”

Arthur turned aside and didn’t answer, which Eames thought was incredibly silly since he was just as capable of interrogating Arthur inside his subconscious as he was outside of it. But he could take a hint.

Unfortunately, Arthur was right, as he so often was.

“Shoot me.” His face was downcast again, words imperious, every centimeter of him resigned. This time, he didn’t bother hiding anything. Pinstriped suit sans the jacket, shoes shined to a blaze, and arms that ended at an unnatural point, before the sleeves of his shirt did.

Eames expected to see redness spreading over the crisp cloth, but there was nothing, only an odor that turned his stomach.

“Arthur, maybe we can figure out—”

“Goddamnit.” Arthur raised his head slowly, as if it took more effort that he could afford. As if his entire body had more important things to focus on. “I can feel this.”

Arthur had never asked him for anything, but Eames knew he would ask for this. “Eames. I can’t do it myself.”

Eames did.

By the time he opened his eyes, Arthur was already winding away his line, back bent. Eames swore he could see every bone in his neck.

“You haven’t been sleeping well, have you?”

Arthur didn’t say anything.

“Have you been dreaming?”

“I don’t dream.”

“Maybe not before, but you have been lately, haven’t you?”

Arthur sighed and drew in his knees, which was enough of an answer.

Eames left him be for a minute as he finished putting away the PASIV. “Tell me what you know.”

For several seconds, Arthur gave no response. When finally he spoke, Eames couldn’t be sure he’d even heard him correctly. “Come again?”

Arthur plodded across the room and collected the wastebasket from beside the desk. “Fischer,” he repeated, gingerly sitting back on the bed.

“But we finished with that months ago.”

“Yeah, but if all this started right away, I would have figured it out right away. It took a little time for it to start coming through.” And it was true. Directly after the inception, Arthur had been on top of the world. They all had.

“For what to start coming through?”

“Every mistake I’ve made since…I don’t even know when.” Arthur stared morosely down at the wastebasket. “They tightened up their employee screening policy. Extraction prevention training. Mandatory. I had to do it.” He retched and Eames pushed back his hair.

Fischer Securities, the first business enterprise to openly focus on combating thought crime by developing training programs and educating people on its importance. The first time it was acknowledged as a legitimate threat in the public eye, period.

None of them had any room to be outraged. In the end, Robert did exactly what they wanted him to do: broke up the empire his father built.

Ariadne had been the first to respond, texting them all a picture from the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Robert Fischer beaming in front of that building with its inane pinwheel logo. Are u fucking srs? had been her only commentary. They’d laughed over her spelling, agreed that they’d all have to be on their toes more than ever now, and Eames had texted back irony is a bitch and a half. Arthur alone had reacted mirthlessly, immediately dropping off the grid to learn more.

“There was an orientation. It didn’t matter how experienced you were or how long you’d been there, you were still required to go through the whole thing.”

It had been ambitious work, infiltrating Fischer’s new company, and not even entirely necessary. But Arthur had always liked a challenge, going above and beyond.

“I had to do it,” Arthur said again.

“I know you did,” Eames told him.

---

The first thing Eames orchestrated was pulling Arthur off the Maastricht job and making plans for getting them both out of the city. The second thing was considerably less satisfactory.

“I want to suggest something. Just to see if it rings any bells.”

Arthur didn’t look up from the suitcase he was filling. “Fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“I can take it.”

Eames apologized silently. “Suppose I forged Fischer for you.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

Instantly, he regretted mentioning it and promised not to do it again, but Arthur was already fumbling for a cigarette and Eames was already pretending not to notice his hands were unsteady as he lit it.

“Have you ever seen Munich?” Arthur asked.

“No, but I was in Berlin a few years back.”

“It’s a movie. Munich. About an assassin squad killing members of the Palestinian organization that arranged the Munich Olympics massacre.”

Eames waited while he paced into the tiny kitchen to compose himself.

“One member of the team, he’s a toymaker by trade,” Arthur continued, face hidden by the freezer door as he rooted through the contents. “He makes the bombs, but something always goes wrong and eventually the team starts laying into him for this. He ends up yelling that he was trained to dismantle bombs, not build them. Then later he’s building a bomb in his toyshop and one of the toys causes it to detonate. And they say, after, to rationalize it, they say: bomb makers often die accidental deaths.” Desolately, he dropped ice cubes into two mismatched glasses, seeming to address them more so than Eames. “But he was never meant to be a bomb maker.”

“All that’s just apples and oranges,” Eames whispered, settling him into a kitchen chair, hands kneading at his shoulders. He bent and kissed the top of his head, feeling Arthur ease up ever so slightly. “It’s got nothing to do with what happened to you.”

Arthur’s fingers stroked under his shirt, gentle over the bruises that stood out like smears of paint on Eames’s skin. “I don’t want to die an accidental death for something I never should have been in the first place.”

For one blood-bright fraction of a section, Eames almost took that to mean Arthur regretted getting into the dark side of dreamsharing at all. But Arthur had always loved his work and the danger to it; if he regretted anything, it was being careless, being unprepared, being less than the best.

Arthur didn’t fear death itself, he feared it wouldn’t be with a bang. Eames was certain of this down to his bones.

Against the side of his neck, Arthur’s mouth pursed and parted. “Do you know what it’s like, being kept under against your will and having to keep your subconscious from falling apart? Not that I do, I mean, since it’s not like I can remember more than five goddamn seconds of it at a time and even then it isn’t consciously, but go with me on this.”

“Arthur.”

“Do you know what that’s called?”

Arthur.”

Arthur released an outbreath of smoke, studying his cigarette, and Eames was wondering when he had started smoking at all, if he’d only taken it up to keep his hands busy. “It’s called torture. And it’s a pain in the ass.”

Eames poured them both drinks and they drained them in silence.

“I gave myself away,” Arthur said flatly. “It was my own fucking fault. There was a simulation to see how new employees reacted under pressure. The marks were staff members specifically trained for it, meant to deflect or play along with us, depending on how well each person did. And they stressed that, in orientation: ‘think, this could be happening every day, people trying to sift through each other’s minds.’ Everyone had to get hooked up and go under with the goal of trying to get the subject to give away a certain bit of information—could’ve been anything, a girl’s phone number or someone’s birthday or just a key, whatever they assigned you. It was just meant to show us how real a possibility extraction was, to show us what we were up against.

“And what was yours?”

“An address. Piece of fucking cake. The scene was a bar, so I bought the mark a drink, sat him down to play some poker. He either didn’t know how or he acted like he didn’t, so I taught him. Each time around, I told him to bet the first numbers that came into his head, which was fucking stupid.” He laughed. “It was supposed to be a wake-up call to new employees, to disturb us by showing how simple it could be to walk into someone’s dreams and take from them. I think I proved their point.”

He stabbed out the remains of his cigarette and Eames’s heart sank. “Fischer found out.”

Arthur stood, chair scraping along the floor, and deposited their glasses in the sink. “I thought I’d dumbed myself down, but apparently news traveled back to him anyway. There was an additional staff member hooked up to each employee, monitoring their reactions and taking note for later. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I should have.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, there was no way for you to know—”

“My job,” Arthur interrupted, his teeth bared and his eyes fierce, “is to know. Fischer said he’d heard I’d used some very inventive tactics. He wanted to know what made me think of them, asked me to go under and show him…and I couldn’t say no, it would have looked too suspicious, and I knew it was my fault for sticking out too much, so I…”

“And he didn’t let you back out once you agreed. Christ, Arthur, how long were you down there?”

“I don’t know.” He looked up, eyes glassy. “I dream sometimes and it comes back to me, but everything’s mixed together. It took me a long time to realize some of them weren’t actual memories.”

“But there must have been something,” said Eames. “You can’t have just flown out of Sydney without realizing something had gone wrong.”

Arthur laughed. “Do you have any idea what it’s like trying to remember a dream you didn’t even know you were in to begin with? You still keep in touch with Yusuf, so you know what’s hitting the market, the things you can add to sedatives so your memory recalls even less. Or maybe I just blocked everything out all on my own, no drugs needed.”

Eames thought of the pills he’d had Yusuf analyze, wondered if they actually did Arthur any good, if they made him feel like he had control of his body, if not his mind. “If Fischer knew about what we did, we’d all be dead.

“He doesn’t know.” Arthur’s hand was suddenly around his, tight and insistent. “It was just because he remembered the number tactic. All he knew was that someone had been in his mind, but he didn’t know why, and I don’t think he even knows the possibility of inception exists, so that’s good.”

Leave it to Arthur to consider that good. Eames still wasn’t clear on why Fischer had let him go without learning everything he wanted, but he was beginning to form a few theories, none of them pleasant.

Under the table, Arthur’s leg pressed against his own. “We’re safe. That’s another part of my job, not throwing my colleagues under the bus.”

“Or the train,” Eames muttered, and hauled Arthur into his lap before he had a chance to resist. “Organized and loyal and practical to a fault. That’s why everyone wants a piece of you. That and your penchant for obscenely well-fitting trousers, but we can’t have you getting too full of yourself.”

“Wanted,” Arthur corrected, perfunctorily trying to push himself to his feet and giving up when Eames kissed him.

I still want you.” Arthur’s mouth was sharp with smoke and liquor and Eames tasted him again, over and over until Arthur’s breath was ragged and his face was hot to the touch. “Don’t forget that part. It’s an important one. Understand?”

Hearing Arthur utter a gruff I know against his temple made Eames want to somehow hold him forever and break things at the same time.

He settled for kissing him once more, smoothing back his hair, wrapping an arm more firmly around his waist to keep the lip of the table from digging into his back. “Fischer’s an arsehole. We should have saved ourselves a fuckload of trouble by just serving his head to Saito on a silver platter. My platter collection is especially wonderful.”

Arthur smiled, a wan stretch of skin that made him look haunted. “I know I must have been pissing my pants thinking he’d remember everything, somehow. You were the one who worked for Browning, Cobb was the one who interacted with Fischer the most as Mr. Charles. Anything could have triggered a memory of one of his dreams. Some people are more sensitive to that. There’s no telling who or how.”

“Not interested in playing the what-if game,” Eames told him. “Up you get.”

Taking him to bed was easier than filling in the blanks Arthur couldn’t, but Eames gamely did his best at both.

Fischer wouldn’t have been crude about it, not at first. His approach would have been more subtle, gradual. Stringing Arthur along as a development associate to keep an eye him, then backing him into a corner and having his mind ransacked, trying to learn who Arthur was and what part he played. That was when the subtlety would have evaporated. Nothing decorous came of trying to tear a human mind apart, demanding to know the identity of every projection unfortunate enough to pop up and stopping at nothing to force out the answers. If Eames knew Arthur at all, he knew he would have been fighting tooth and nail not to give anything away.

There was something a mark had demanded of Eames when she realized she’d been the victim of an extraction: “Why bother living when your brain’s been rummaged through like a goddamn toy chest?” She’d turned the gun on herself rather than Eames, who had been young and green and out of his depth, but the incident had lodged itself in his mind forever. For someone like Fischer, all weapons would be directed outward, not in, and Eames would tear every past, present, and future associate of Fischer’s limb from limb before he would take that lying down.

Arthur stretched out beside him, lean and sleepy and having no idea when he might stop repressing the memories he didn’t know he had. Under Eames’s hand, Arthur’s heartbeat ticked like a bomb that might be set off by anything from a toyshop to the barest remnant of a dream.

Eames knew the answer before he asked, but he did anyway. “Have you told Cobb?”

“Cobb.” Arthur lolled his head against the pillow, his face hardening. “He has his life back. He’s cut ties to this kind of thing. I’m not going to be the one who brings him back into it.”

“You should go visit him. See the kids, stay close for a little while. I need to take care of some things.”

“Things,” Arthur repeated, eyes narrowing.

“Things,” Eames said firmly. “And I want you in one place. By which I mean, don’t make me chase you again. Are we clear?”

---

“What did they do to your hands?” Eames asked.

“There was burning,” Arthur said tersely.

He tried to roll off the bed, but Eames only held him tighter.

---

Peter Browning, as it turned out, was still quite accessible if one had the right references.

Eames didn’t keep a portfolio, per se, but he was judicious about helping the process along.

“What if,” he asked Yusuf, “there’s this hypothetical person who has all these repressed memories that could pop out at any moment?”

Even over the phone, he could tell Yusuf was pulling a face. “Did you really ring me at this hour to talk about PTSD?”

The time difference actually hadn’t even occurred to him. “Sorry. No, not quite PTSD in the traditional sense. More like he has all this built-up stuff streaming through his system and he doesn’t even know it.”

“Or doesn’t want to, maybe,” Yusuf yawned. “I would call that unfortunate.”

“I would call you a terrible chemist it that’s the best you can do.”

“Two things, Mr. Eames. One, it’s bloody late and I’m half-asleep right now and I’m being very kind by not laughing you off the line for using stuff as a scientific term. Two, people go through trauma all the time. There are support groups for that sort of thing. You are not a support group.” Yusuf actually sounded a bit worried. “In fact, you’re probably one of the furthest things from a support group, so if you’re entertaining thoughts of making a career switch I’d advise against it.”

“I’ll have you know I aced my psychology A Level,” Eames retorted. “And when it comes to this sort of thing, twelve-step programs are regretfully scarce. You shouldn’t be so heartless when I’m just trying to relieve someone’s suffering.”

“How do you know they’re suffering at all if they don’t even know it?” Yusuf demanded.

“He might not recall everything,” Eames said, “but his subconscious does. And it’s screaming.”

“That was very lyrically put. Get to the point and tell me what you need this time. More aspirin analysis?”

“No.” He waited for Yusuf’s laughter to die down before continuing. “What I need is for you to recommend a few things, namely something to help a certain individual talk and something to ensure he won’t. Topside, all of it. I’m not extracting from anyone, I just need to guarantee we have a certain conversation.”

There was a long pause. “Does Arthur know you’re doing this?” Yusuf asked at last.

“I never said it was about Arthur,” Eames answered automatically.

Yusuf groaned.

The next phone call was a bit simpler.

“I’d like to cash in on a favor,” he told Saito.

Eames liked to think that Saito might very well have handed him his own private island if he asked for it. As of the Fischer job, Saito had it made and wasn’t very likely to refuse him anything, especially something as small as ensuring an entire restaurant was reserved in order to ensure privacy and that the staff would be as discreet as possible.

That and Fischer’s strange new hiring process was of interest to Saito, too. Eames had a certain respect for individuals who tracked the progress of their investments instead of relying on their own assumptions about them.

Freddie Simmons, existing only on paper, was the easiest to get in touch with.

---

Freddie Simmons was smart and competent and had no trouble arranging a lunch meeting with Browning. They’d briefly but effectively worked together, parting on good terms shortly before the elder Fischer had passed away.

Freddie Simmons had been a very diligent operative, nearly never letting Browning out of his sight.

Becoming Freddie again was the easy part. Freddie was charming enough to take Browning for lunch and say all the right things, offering his condolences about the dissolution of Fischer-Morrow and his congratulations on Fischer’s new business venture. Freddie was married and had a kid on the way and wanted to thank everyone who ever gave him a chance to advance in the business world, especially now that he was heading a biotech company that, unbeknownst to Browning, didn’t exist.

“I’m interested in training a few upper-level employees the fundamentals of extraction defense,” Eames admitted. Freddie’s words were enough to hold Browning’s full attention as Eames’s hand helpfully garnished his plate with something unpronounceable and Yusuf-approved. “I have to admit, I never thought of it as a serious threat, but it seems like the thing to do now, doesn’t it?”

Veering the topic to extraction took approximately five seconds. Either Yusuf was a god, Freddie was a better conversationalist than Eames had given him credit for, or Browning simply had a lot to say on the subject. As it turned out, he initially wasn’t too keen on Fischer’s new company but was still with him anyway because he had always stood by the Fischers.

Eames allowed Browning to believe he was the one steering the conversation, nodding along and agreeing extraction was a fascinating thing, that it was daring for Fischer to have an entire new empire centered around it. Freddie excelled at playing the wide-eyed naïf if he had to, but it was still unexpected when Browning opened up to him and explained, just as Arthur had, that the employment process for Fischer Securities was—in his words—rigorous.

“Robert gets full reports on everyone who’s hired because it’s such a sensitive field. There was one new associate in particular he was really impressed by, couldn’t seem to get enough of.”

A twenty-one gun salute promptly went off in Eames’s brain, but Freddie didn’t know any better and continued sawing away at his meal. “It must take a lot to impress someone with a screening process that intense.”

“Perhaps impress wasn’t the right word. Obsessed, maybe.” Browning chewed for several seconds and Eames watched with clinical approval. “Decided he knew him from somewhere, but not anywhere in real life. Robert was positive that he’d been inside his head.”

“I don’t see how anyone can be able to tell something like that.”

“He was convinced.” Browning frowned as he ate, and it spoke volumes to Eames that he was able to eat while having this conversation at all. “I saw Robert do things to this man I’d never seen before. I can’t even remember the guy’s name, but it wasn’t his real one anyway, I’m sure. What I do remember is that Robert wasn’t himself at all.”

“That’s awful,” Eames said truthfully. “You know, I never actually thought extractions happened. I always assumed they were a product of urban legends and paranoia.”

Browning uttered something between a laugh and a cough. “Exactly. I didn’t either, but I went along with militarization because it was the thing for corporate executives to do. Then I saw Robert and his security team working away at this man and everything was real.”

“But how much damage can you really do in a dream?” Eames scoffed, with Freddie’s blitheness.

“More than you can out of them.” He fell silent for a long while. “The things they did to this man…at first, he would dream up a gun and put himself out of his misery, which was enough to give him away in and of itself, but they would just sedate him again. Robert believes it’s possible to create a dream within a dream, which would have gotten rid of that problem entirely, but I don’t know if I’m with him on that one.”

Freddie was unimpressed. “So what happened? It’s not much of a defense if you realize someone’s in your head and they can just disappear.”

And Browning actually smiled at him, looking like an indulgent grandfather telling a bedtime story. “In order to keep him from waking himself up by dying, they snapped his fingers. Then his wrists. When gangrene set in, they said they’d have to take drastic action and then did it by pouring gasoline on them and burning them right off. I can’t be sure, but I want to say they drugged him with something to keep him from becoming overwhelmed. Then they kept him in a concrete box—you couldn’t even call something like that an actual cell—and waited.”

Skeptical, strong-stomached Freddie lifted a fork partway to his mouth. “You can survive burns in reality.”

“In reality,” Browning corrected, “once you get beyond fourth degree burns, there’s nothing left to burn. In dreams, you can put someone under over and over and keep doing it until they break.”

Eames laid his fork back down on his plate and thought of Arthur, unable to do anything but lie there and let himself hurt. “I had no idea.”

“But it worked,” Browning told him in a low voice. “That’s the amazing thing. I can’t vouch for the procedures being the most sophisticated ones available, but he actually admitted to being in Robert’s subconscious.”

Eames froze, tried to focus on keeping his façade steady, unable to recall a single extraction, military mission, or game of chance that had left him feeling this rattled. “Shit. Never would’ve guessed.”

“He tried to tell Robert it was just him in there, just him and projections he brought along with him, but security didn’t believe him.”

“Oh, there must have been a team,” Eames agreed. “No one extracts alone.”

Browning straightened his cuffs, one of many involuntary movements Eames had memorized and practiced a hundred times or more. It felt like it had been so long ago. “Robert said the very same thing. Then, after he’d been in his cell long enough, he started bringing his projections into Robert’s dream and you could tell he knew he was screwed because he was in too much pain to keep them out.”

Eames was familiar with this. Some extractors, in times of crisis, projected their mothers or spouses when they wanted some comfort. It could happen without rhyme or reason and even experts were hard-pressed to prevent it. Considering Dom fucking Cobb couldn’t keep his wife out when he subconsciously wanted her around, it was sometimes near impossible. “What did they do to him then?”

“He wouldn’t give up any names and Robert let him go. Said he’d set a good example for other people like him.”

“That doesn’t seem very smart.”

Browning cocked a brow. “After everything he went through, I can guarantee you he’s pulled out of the business by now. Maybe he’s even taken a few others with him.”

“You could shut down the entire world of extraction with tactics like that,” Eames murmured, because a little obsequiousness couldn’t go amiss. “Is that the eventual plan?”

“One step at a time,” Browning told him. “I’ve been wondering” he added, casting a meditative gaze at some point over Eames’s shoulder, “if it’s possible to self-immolate. If you could will yourself into burning in order to throw yourself out of your own dream and wake up that way. It’s a concept I’ve been looking into, maybe something to try out the next time Robert gets a mole trying to work for him.”

Next time. Fucking hell. Whatever “looking into” meant, Eames didn’t like it.

“Fire is simple, but it works,” he agreed, polite because Freddie was polite and not the type to have homicidal thoughts at the table. “Think of the Inquisition. They would take great pains to burn heretics as gradually as they could. Can you imagine it? Being in the center of a slow-burning fire until you’re trying to suck in as much smoke as possible so you die of inhalation instead of incineration. It’s such an awful way to go. There are accounts of the accused’s friends and families throwing kindling on the pyres to make them burn faster. It’s really quite fascinating.”

Browning looked contemplative. “It is. In dreams, you can do anything. Create whatever you like. There’s plenty more to learn.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Eames smiled Freddie’s smile and watched as Browning did.

After the meal was done, Freddie went about picking up the bill, wishing Browning well at getting the snarls smoothed out with the new company, and promising to keep in touch for when he needed his staff trained. Eames, when they stood for a handshake, went about picking his fake business card back out of Browning’s wallet so there was no evidence of him left behind.

I don’t remember much, Arthur had said, but I remember the burning.

When Peter Browning died of a stroke that evening, Eames was already out of the country. The next day, he read the obituary with pleasure.

---

It was always refreshing when Arthur listened to reason instead of disobeying it just to be a contrary bastard. Eames had never been able to understand how Cobb managed to keep him so devoted. Maybe he had dirt on Arthur from his pre-military days, things like middle school photographs involving bow ties and headgear. It used to chafe at him that Cobb knew things about Arthur that Eames hadn’t even scratched the surface of. None of that seemed important anymore.

When Cobb answered the door, he looked years younger, having lost the scruff and the severely scraped back hair, no longer needing the intimidation factor on his side. It was odd to see him taking some time to himself, but it had to be even odder being domestic again after everything he and Arthur and been through.

Arthur, Eames was instantly sure, hadn’t confided anything to him. Eames had half a mind to do something violent and unproductive like punch the doorframe. “I hear you’ve got a visitor,” he said instead. “How has he been?”

And Cobb smiled in a way Eames had never seen before. “It’s good to have a spare set of hands. I think he’s been here more than he’s been in his apartment.”

“He wanted some downtime before going mainstream again, is that right?”

“I can’t say. He’s never mentioned it.” This time, there was a guarded cast to Cobb’s face and Eames was absolutely, unshakably certain that he had noticed something was different about Arthur. He was just as positive that Cobb didn’t have a clue what it was or how to fix it or if it was even wise to acknowledge it to begin with, especially after Mal. Topics like this weren’t meant to be brought up around the dinner table, not in this kind of world.

“I hope,” Eames said quietly, “you don’t mind if I borrow him.”

Cobb pointed him towards the living room, which was where Eames found him. Hair in his face and a teetering Lego structure on the floor in front of him, like the sheer proximity to Cobb’s American dream had leached some of the stiffness right out of him. One of Cobb’s children was regarding his creation with the critical eye of an architect’s progeny.

“No wonder you don’t get hired for your building skills.”

Arthur’s head shot up and the tower promptly collapsed.

“Philippa likes Legos,” Arthur said defensively.

Philippa was, in fact, so set on correcting whatever structural errors Arthur had made that she didn’t even turn around when Eames swept down and kissed him.

Cobb was the one who ended up the most scandalized, but Eames didn’t care.

---

“When his kids grow up,” Arthur said solemnly, “he’s going to be the dad who sits outside with a machete each time there’s a school dance. I can tell.”

“All this just because he said he wasn’t comfortable with us giving such personal attention to his living room couch in front of the little ones?” To be fair, Cobb’s phrasing had been slightly less genteel, but it really was remarkable how focused his daughter was when it came to Legos. Eames doubted she’d noticed a thing.

“He’s gotten back into dad mode too fast. Anyone could be the next victim.”

“I like your place better,” Eames admitted, turning onto his stomach. Cobb’s sofa had nothing on the glory that was Arthur’s bed. “No Legos, though.”

“Somehow, I think I can survive.” His fingers trailed down Eames’s back, nails skimming invisible tattoos between the ones that were already there. “Those things you needed to do. How did they go?”

“Marvelously, thank you.” He twisted, reached, caught it, circling his thumb over the translucent skin of Arthur’s inner wrist, where a needle would slip into him if they were dreaming. “Do you think,” Eames asked, an eternity between forming the words and making himself say them, “that you could try to recreate whatever you can?”

“Believe it or not,” said Arthur, “I don’t think my subconscious wants to.” He tugged his hand back, sliding it beneath a pillow as if for safekeeping. Eames feigned obliviousness. “I’ve tried it on my own and it’s just been blank. And it hurts like hell.”

“I know it does. Will you try it for me anyway? Maybe if your subconscious recognizes it, it can move on.”

Arthur eyed him, not seeming convinced, not answering. “Did you hear about Browning?”

“What a tragedy. He had such a beautiful soul.”

“Eames. I’m not a moron.”

Eames ignored him. “It’s not creating from memory, it’s creating one dream from another.”

Arthur reached his arms over his head, sleek and slow and brazenly distracting. “When I’m under, I can’t think of anything but wanting to wake up and not hurt.” Sinking against the deep green of the sheets, he looked ghostly. “I can’t.”

“I shouldn’t have asked. It’s all right.”

“It’s not,” said Arthur, and his hair brushed against Eames’s nose when he turned his face the other way. “But yeah, it’d be nice if you’d stop asking.”

Eames hesitated. “I learned what happened.” Beside him, Arthur tensed. “Not all of it, but enough to piece things together. He said you brought in your projections. That it took forever and they kept you in a concrete fucking box, Arthur. Those were his exact words.”

Abruptly, Arthur was over him in a ripple of scattering sheets, one hand fisting in Eames’s hair. “He could have recognized you, you fucking idiot.”

“Arthur, I’ve seen your projection of me. Many times. And each time, it’s always wearing things that are three sizes too big and were apparently selected by a blind upholstery salesman. Leaving aside what this says about your feelings on my wardrobe, I can assure you your projection only bore a passing resemblance to Freddie Simmons.”

“To who?”

“Doesn’t matter.” As carefully as he could, Eames pried open Arthur’s fist and extricated himself, stroking both palms up his sides. “And Browning is gone.”

Arthur was already pulling away, up and pacing, looking for something to do. “You want to know something funny? You told me everything would be okay.” He pulled a clean shirt over his head, face hidden when he let out a clipped laugh. “I can only remember bits and pieces and maybe I’m making it all up, but you kept saying that Cobb was there, Cobb was coming, and you were going to get me out. I must have tried to say no, that I needed you to stop talking because I’d been working so hard not to give anyone away, but my subconscious knew I wanted it.”

He finished dressing, sinking into his desk chair. “You know what this means? I can’t get you to listen to me even when you aren’t real. Unless this is something that actually happened—”

“It didn’t,” Eames cut him off, and Arthur gazed at him with eyes as bright as they’d been that night in New York. “And let me guess, my projection told you to build a panic room and hide out in it until you could figure a way to get yourself out of everything.”

“Your projection’s kind of smartass.”

“Come on, it’s practically impossible to not populate a dream world with projections. I’d be more worried if you hadn’t.” Reluctantly, Eames rolled out of Arthur’s bed and pushed a pile of papers aside so he could perch on the edge of his desk. “Your subconscious was only screwing you over to keep you safe.”

“My subconscious can go fuck itself.” Sometimes, Arthur seemed to drop a dozen years off his age when he scowled. In Eames’s private, never-to-be-spoken opinion, it was almost sweet.

“Your subconscious won, you twat. They weren’t going to let you go until you told Fischer who had been in his dreams and why. But you didn’t. And here you are anyway.”

Arthur’s scowl eased up, ever so slightly. “When you and Cobb showed up, they did things. I know it must have happened, but all I can remember is you being there and telling me Cobb was coming and you’d help me.” He rolled a ballpoint pen between his fingers, pale and dexterous as ever, determinedly looking anywhere but at Eames. “I’m just guessing here, but I assume they dislocated your shoulder and gave you a black eye and did things that would’ve left some very nasty scars.”

“But you didn’t break. Don’t forget that bit.” Eames reached to touch him and Arthur flinched, shaking his head.

“I wanted to,” he said. “You, or maybe Cobb, must have told me to warp the world to protect myself. But I couldn’t do it. It was just part of my subconscious telling me what I wanted to hear.”

Eames could make some guesses of his own, all of them bloody. Browning had never mentioned specifics, but it didn’t seem unlikely that Arthur’s projections had been killed in front of him, maybe even each time he brought them into the dream, and Arthur knew it wasn’t real but still had bear it all the same. Then, when they tired of it and Fischer was sure Arthur was useless and had learned his lesson and wouldn’t be trying any other extractions—and if he did, he’d be so wrecked he’d bring each job down from the inside—they set him back on his feet and let him be. A loose cannon who tore apart any work he tries to start, doing Fischer Securities a weighty favor without even realizing it. If they’d torn into him topside instead of subconsciously, Arthur would at least know for certain what had been done to him and what the consequences were.

Once again, the urge to break things reared its head.

“If it hadn’t been a dream, I’d have killed myself and that would have been that,” Arthur said flatly, as if he’d plucked the thought straight out of his head. Eames’s mouth went dry. “Then I wouldn’t have had to deal with any of this shit.

“They were only projections, love.”

“Yeah. I had to know they’d eventually get sick of it and either give up or let me die. I had to know that.” Arthur stood and kissed him, folding his arms around Eames’s waist, lashes casting subtle shadows on his cheeks.

“I’d never give anyone on my team away,” he was whispering, and Eames was curling his hands in Arthur’s messy hair, eyes sliding closed at the feel of Arthur’s mouth, warm and lovely against his own. “Sweetheart, you have no self-preservation sometimes.”

“I have plenty of it.” Arthur’s neck arched under his lips, aristocratic, vulnerable. “And I would have killed myself a thousand times to keep them away from you.”

Eames knew he should have been ready to make some glib remark about Shakespearian tendencies, but all he could do was stare.

Arthur graced him with a half-smile, his face still framed in Eames’s hands. “I’m not saying it again. Please try to keep up.”

---

Inevitably, Arthur could only go without work for so long.

“Have I mentioned this is a horrible idea and I’m steadfastly against it?”

“Many times,” Arthur replied. “Have I mentioned that it’s a small job, it’s only in London, and it’s point work that I could do in my sleep?”

Poor choice of words. “You won’t touch a PASIV, do I have this right?”

“Is it too much to ask for you to stay out of my affairs?”

“I’m afraid so,” Eames said in his most contrite voice. “Besides, you’re the one coming to my neighborhood. I wouldn’t want to seem inhospitable.”

“I don’t need a baby sitter. I’m not some basket case who can’t take two steps outside without moral support.”

Eames spread his hands. “Never said you were.”

“Glad we had this talk.”

Eames followed him anyway.

Under any other circumstances, he would have taken Arthur at his word because it really was a ludicrously simple task. Arthur’s part in it involved trying to dig up more information on the mark by befriending his sister. Taking on a new identity and taking a girl to the theatre was the sort of thing Eames once would have once done for free, without thinking twice.

He couldn’t exactly blame Arthur for being pissy when they bumped into each other during intermission, but it really was for his own good.

“Would you believe me if I told you I love this play?” Eames asked brightly.

Arthur’s face had a distinctly murderous cast to it. “You mean would I believe you just happened to tail me and probably have been since I got off the plane? Yeah, I would.”

“Don’t be absurd. I’m dying to see if the French win this time around. Where’s your lady friend?”

Arthur nodded towards the serpentine queue for the ladies’ room. “I’m trying to do my goddamn job. Can you not be a pain in the ass about it?”

Eames gave him a prim little pat on the arm. “You know very well that I live here for part of the year. This could just be a happy coincidence.”

“Fuck you.”

“Everyone’s got flaws. ’Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,’ all that.”

“I don’t need to piece them out. They’re all right here.”

“Some people,” sighed Eames, “have no appreciation of the arts. You don’t even need this job, you know.”

Which was a true enough statement, but a weak one. No one, barring Cobb, fell into illegal dreamsharing because they needed to. It clawed at Eames’s wits more than a little bit, the conviction that Arthur wouldn’t ever truly give up the chase and rush of it even though he’d amassed enough savings to set himself up for life. It didn’t matter how practical he seemed on the outside, sometimes Arthur’s rationality was as transient as the wind. Once, Eames had admired the contrast.

“If you start sitting outside my room with a machete, we’re going to have a serious problem,” Arthur grumbled at him, and disappeared into the smoking room.

Eames was thinking of buying himself a biscuit in the shape of Shakespeare’s head when the shot rang out.

---

He should have been furious. He had every right. Furious because Arthur had overestimated himself, because Arthur couldn’t handle a simple fucking job without paying his own tribute to Mal, furious because that was why Eames found himself on tenterhooks in a hospital waiting room, waiting to hear the prognosis for jumping out a window.

Falling.

Arthur didn’t jump. He was pushed, he fell, an unfortunate truth of gravity.

“There was burning,” Arthur had whispered before closing his eyes.

Eames hadn’t put two and two together at first. Just a shattered picture window, a crowd clustered around it, Arthur’s Glock on the cream carpeting, and the mark’s little sister there weeping her pretty eyes out. Then he’d shouldered his way through to look outside.

Burning. That could have meant anything from someone lighting a cigar to whipping out a flamethrower. It could have meant something inside Arthur’s head that never happened at all. It could have been thugs sent by Fischer, but Fischer never sent anyone after him before and Eames didn’t know why he would start now unless someone had traced the Browning incident back to him, which seemed even more unlikely. It could have just been Arthur getting triggered by something new, something his conscious mind didn’t recognize, just something a stranger said or did that made him feel like he needed to get away from them at all costs.

Two floors up, probably nearly eight fucking meters high, lucky to get out with an olecranon fracture and a couple cracked ribs, and thank fuck he’d landed in the bushes and not the pavement.

It could have been worse. It still could be worse.

Arthur was nimble enough to take a fall without serious injury, but any higher and he might not have been so lucky, or maybe he wasn’t thinking about landing at all. He’d had enough training, military and otherwise, and he knew about breakfalls and how to keep himself landing safely, knew not to put out a hand to land on, but must have done it anyway. Maybe it was a novelty, experiencing this sort of thing in reality as opposed to subconsciously, just real pain and real medical treatment.

Any more speculating and Eames was going to drive himself mad.

Arthur had been right. Torture was a pain in the ass.

Eames hadn’t ever experienced anything close to what Browning had described, undergoing the same repeated trauma. He couldn’t begin to imagine being burned again and again until he passed out and woke up with nothing left, no blood or blisters, just nothing at all, so devastated he eventually started projecting himself with no hands from the get-go. The bastards doing it to him probably found hilarious. Like they knew, somehow, that Arthur wouldn’t be able to control it in the future.

He wondered if Arthur’s projection of him had tried to throw fuel on the fire so Arthur would die more quickly. He wondered if Arthur would ever know for sure.

“It could have happened to anyone,” Arthur argued when they released him the next day.

Eames signed him out under a name that wasn’t his own, a little surprised he didn’t snap the pen from gripping pressing so hard. “Because anyone in their right mind would have shot through a window and swan-dived towards solid ground. If the play was that awful, darling, you should have just suggested bowling instead. And taken the elevator.”

“Anyone in their right mind,” Arthur repeated, once Eames realized what he’d said. “You think I’ve lost it.”

“I think you’re drugged up to your exquisite eyeballs,” Eames told him. Later, he would blame his next words on being overwhelmed by a troublesome inability to decide between kissing Arthur and strangling him. “And I think it’s time to consider retirement.”

“I don’t,” said Arthur, sounding exhausted, sounding defeated, sounding so many things that Eames didn’t want to name, “I don’t think I can.”

---

Of the dwellings Eames had scattered around the world, this one wasn’t anything remarkable aside from being the first one he’d acquired after getting into the business, but it was nearby and it was private and it was better than leaving Arthur to his own questionable devices. Arthur seemed a little suspicious about being hauled up the elevator of a Bromley high-rise, but he kept his thoughts to himself until Eames was steering him towards the sofa and instructing him not to put up a fight about something as petty as lying down.

“What is this?” No one but Arthur could sound that imperious despite being bandaged, splinted, and bruise-blackened within an inch of his life.

“This is where I’m staying for now. Where you’re staying, assuming you want to. Neat enough, lovely view of the sunset currently starting to smear across the sky, hardwood floors, top-notch company.” Eames chucked a blanket over his legs just to see him scowl. “I can go on, if you like.”

It took a moment for Arthur to realize that Eames wasn’t shacking up in someone else’s place for once, but his face was priceless when he did. “You live on the thirteenth floor.”

“It was hard to find a good place that had one—you’d be surprised how many buildings go straight from twelve to fourteen.”

“Jesus, you’re more superstitious than my grandmother.”

“Arthur, my beautiful little idiot, I’d think a truly superstitious person would want to avoid the thirteenth floor.”

And that was all the bickering that occurred, which was the most accurate reading he was likely to get on the true state of Arthur’s wellness. Arthur dozed, and he ate, and when he was done he allowed Eames to strip him and usher him into the shower, careful with his injuries, wet and slick and letting himself be touched even though his face clenched into an expression that looked more pained than anything when he finally came.

After he finished taking his arsenal of medication and fell facedown into bed, Eames assumed he was down for the count. He was trying to determine whether or not it would be foolhardy to try and get him under the covers when Arthur’s eyes cracked open. “Eames, do you know what this means?”

“Hush. Get some proper sleep, all right?

“This means…” Arthur started, drowsy.

“It doesn’t have to mean anything,” Eames told him. “Now sleep.”

“I’m never going to be able to work again,” Arthur said. “That’s what this all means.”

And he was asleep again before Eames could formulate a response.

It was just as well. Eames didn’t know how to even begin reassuring him. Arthur wasn’t like Cobb, happy settling down and living a life of respectability, and it wasn’t as if he could suggest Arthur just hang up his hat and start working at the supermarket. Returning to the military was probably out of the question, as was studying architecture again, because the temptation to dream would always be there, jeering and reminding him of what he was and what he used to be capable of. He was damaged goods and Fischer knew he would be damaged goods. It was an ingenious thing to do, letting him go and wear himself down instead of putting him down themselves.

In the end, he didn’t have to say anything at all. Arthur looked up from his oatmeal and stated, almost casually, “They figured I’d bring about my own destruction and they were right. It’s actually pretty smart.”

Eames told him to stop talking like a character out of a bargain-rack comic book and stole the remains of his toast.

As a patient, Arthur was almost passive. It was a pleasant revelation, since Eames was used to Arthur bitching and moaning over any wound that had the gall to cramp his style. Eames ceded his bed, setting him up with blankets and tea and his iPod dock within easy reach, letting Arthur be the first to touch him if he didn’t hurt too much to do it.

“I can go without this kind of work, you know,” he mentioned later, when Arthur had given up on pretending to read and was curled against him. “I hear retirement homes are lovely places.”

For a moment, the Arthur he knew flickered to life. “There is no retirement home for this kind of work.”

“I’ll give you one,” Eames said without missing a beat. “And it will be amazing. Wood floors and all. I’ll even let you use the remote control. It can have a disco ball if you like.”

“Why,” Arthur muttered wryly, “do I feel like you already own one?”

“I mean it.” Eames touched the smear of bruises peeking out from beneath Arthur’s shirt, feeling Arthur sigh against his cheek. “You’re stunning and intelligent and you’re better at holding onto your pay than I am by far. You don’t need dreaming. You’ll get along fine.”

“I won’t be myself.”

Eames pretended not to hear the regret in his words, holding him as close as comfort allowed. “You thick-headed oaf. I never said you had to figure it out all on your own.”

“You love this work.” Arthur’s voice was curt, but there was a wistfulness in his tone. “I’m not going to keep you back. I’m not going to make you stop doing it.”

“I wasn’t aware that was all I was allowed to—” Eames began.

His mobile rang.

When Eames made no movement to reach for it, Arthur rolled his eyes and answered for him. “Chaudhry,” he said, passing it to over. “It sounds like you’re still in demand.”

“I’ll call back,” Eames said, and hung up.

“Tell him you’ll take it.” Arthur’s head was a comfortable weight on his shoulder. “It’s all right. I know you want to.”

“I’ll speak with him later,” Eames answered firmly, and wrapped his arms back around Arthur before he could protest.

It took a long time, stroking his back and waiting for the rigidity to start draining out of his body, but eventually Arthur’s good arm curved around him, Arthur’s leg twined over one of his, and he slept.

On previous occasions, Arthur had vehemently denied any sort of affinity for snuggling. Eames had never had the heart to fight with him about it and now was no time to start.

The afternoon sun was streaming through the window, painting everything in shades of gold, when Arthur moved again. “Could you get me some more tea?”

Arthur didn’t ask for things. He ordered, commanded. When he kissed Eames, his mouth tasted like sugar and sleep and his hands stroked through Eames's hair for a long while, until Eames nearly forgot there was an answer expected of him. “Please?”

“Of course.” Eames went.

Behind him, the familiar strains of Edith Piaf began to play and he cringed. “Forward to the next one, will you?” He had no clue why Arthur even had Piaf on his iPod to begin with. Surely he wasn’t masochistic enough to listen to it recreationally.

The bedroom door was closed when Eames made his way back from the kitchen, which was odd. He stepped inside, mug in hand, noting that the duvet was crumpled at the foot of the bed. There was no trace of Arthur.

Across the room, his window was open.