Eames has known Abby longer than she’s known almost anyone she still sees.
They are nothing remotely approaching friends, of course, but they move in the same circles, and Abby has the distinction of being the only other woman Eames has met in the business. Eames thinks that Abby tries to run cons like corporations run sales campaigns, and Abby says that Eames acts like she’s still a high-school kid vandalizing bridges, but they both do have to admit that each can get the job done.
Nonetheless, they don’t ever outright try to work together, so it’s a bit of a surprise when Eames picks up her cell and it’s Abby on the other end.
“I need to get a contact out of the States as fast as possible. He’s been legitimate up till now, other than some shady trading on the side, so no connections, and he’s wanted for first-degree. We’ll need false papers and help staying undercover. Can you do it?”
“Hello to you too, Abby,” Eames says, crossing her still-shod feet on the dingy hotel bedspread. “Well, let me see – I can probably do that, but it will take quite a bit of effort, and although naturally I could arrange a discount for your charming self, I’m not entirely sure –”
“Cut the crap, Eames,” Abby snaps. “Look, I’ve got money, I’ll get more if I need it, just, please, skip the bargaining and the sales pitch and name your fucking price. I already know what you can do, I just need it done.”
She can never for the life of her remember exactly what she says to that, but she gets a friend of hers to hide the guy, Cobb, for a bit, and three days later she’s meeting him and Abby in O’Hare. From there they’ll drive to JFK, and from there on to London. It’s inelegantly convoluted, but the best she could do on this notice.
Abby comes out of the gate with her arm around a man who looks like he hasn’t slept in months if not more, and Eames looks at the two of them and simply stays quiet. They slip away from the crowds as fast as humanly possible – there’s no luggage, just carryon – and Eames leads them to her battered old car. Abby slides the contact, Cobb into the back, whispers something that Eames doesn’t catch, and then drops into shotgun.
Eames typically cannot stand keeping her mouth shut, and it’s a steady itch at the back of her mind that sends her pushing the speed limit for all its worth, but she does have some sense of self-preservation, and she recognizes that she has absolutely no right to break this silence.
That honor goes to Abby, twenty minutes out of the city, who glances in the mirror and says, “I think he’s asleep.”
“This is good, I take it?”
“This is very good. I thought he was going to collapse.” Something about that make Eames look over at Abby, silhouetted against the setting sun, and it’s all she could do not to slam on the brakes and gape. The point woman is slumped in her seat, head tilted back and eyes half-closed; her hair has come loose at some point, hanging crumpled and slightly dirty around her face, and she has never looked so pale before. She’s been rubbing at her eyes – mascara smudges on her temples – and Eames recognizes the signs of cover-up wearing off over truly dramatic sleepless circles.
“Abby, have you been all right?” Eames feels as if she’s started forging by accident, but Abby looks crumpled, used up, like tissues do when left all over the house by someone too sick or miserable to restrain their slobbish habits.
“I’m fine,” she says, straightening up a bit in her seat, and the lie is so pathetic that it would be insulting under better circumstances. “A little tired, that’s all. Incidentally, I’ve been meaning to ask you what’s going on with the accent.”
“I’ve been using this accent for nearly a year,” Eames says blankly, “why the bloody hell didn’t you ask me about it on the Cohen job?”
“I assumed it was for professional purposes,” Abby says, combing her fingers through her hair, “but you’re still using it. It’s very good, but I know how you normally talk.”
“This is, as of nearly a year ago, how I normally talk,” Eames says, keeping it arch. “Any Jane Gatsby cracks had best be made immediately or forever hold your peace.”
“I fucking hate that book,” Abby says dully. “Why the identity switch?”
Eames gazes out at the twilit road and the nearby patches of neon billboards and listens to the dual breathing of the contact and the point woman, and says “Because I wasn’t going to be that cheap whore from Tennessee for the rest of my fucking life.”
She never hears Abby’s response to that, because it’s swallowed by a bone-shuddering yawn. “Sorry,” she mutters, smoothing back her hair again and straightening her crumpled shirt as if she can make the exhaustion go away by putting up a convincing enough façade, and that is not territory that Eames is going to allow her mind to cover.
“You do realize that the world won’t end if you let yourself fall asleep for a bit,” she says instead, infusing it with as much sardonic condescension as she can muster because pity is the last thing this needs. It works well enough; Abby’s breathing slows and evens out not long after, falling into a snuffling not-quite-snore that’s as unfamiliar as everything else about tonight; either the PASIV muffles it or she doesn’t do that when going under.
Eames doesn’t notice when she decides to be the only one to drive, but she does, and it requires a vast supply of cheap coffee and too-sweet soda and dishwater tea, and cigarettes so foul they almost make her want to kick the habit.
She stops just outside of Cleveland around one in the morning to restock on that last; it’s when she’s getting back in the car with her already-crumpled cardboard packs and a six-pack of soda that she really looks at Abby again. She’s slouching, head lolled sideways, with her winter-static hair spread out and clinging in strands to the battered seat, and the stark deathly pallor is even more apparent in the harsh fluorescence that floods the parking lot.
She’s frowning in her sleep, anxious and tight.
Eames shoves her stuff into the gap between the seats and goes to see if she’s still got a blanket in the trunk. Turns out she does.
She doesn’t wake her passengers up until they’re fifteen minutes from JFK. Once there, Abby ducks into the bathroom and comes out with a hat over her fresh-brushed hair and a new shirt, creased but not crumpled, pulled straight over the same pencil skirt. She looks like the up-and-coming point woman again, if a bit strained still. All three of them wait for the flight, in a stiff silence that puts Eames inexplicably in mind of morning-afters that involve a few more crumpled sheets; that doesn’t stop Eames from hovering in the airport until the plane takes off. At that point the escape is out of her hands; she finds the nearest hotel and collapses on the bed without even taking off her shoes. By the time she wakes up, the others are well out of American air, and the night in the car feels stranger and more distant than dreams ever do.
It becomes one of those things not discussed. Abby wires Eames her fee, and she never bothers to check whether it’s enough, and nothing is ever said to the effect of thanks or apologies or condolences.
They work together often in the next few years, all but twice with Cobb as well. Something shifts, in then; nothing Eames thinks about, but something she would corroborate if the question were raised. Abby hardens, locks down; there’s less room on the job for a momentary joke, for the adrenaline rush of a risk, for pushing at the boundaries of possibility or for the casual camaraderie of rolled eyes and loudly expressed exasperation. Her reputation shifts from dry to serious to cold.
Her reputation also shifts from respectable to solid to admirable to intimidating, and if Eames were pushed she would admit that this part is far more deserved. Somewhere between the anal-retention and the asinine levels of focus Abby becomes the best there is, and she’s got herself so closely linked to Dom Cobb that he gets towed to the top along with her.
Exactly once, in Amsterdam, Eames asks her if she’s in love with him. The point woman denies it, monosyllabic and cold, and then confirms the dyke rumors in the most clinical terms possible. Three weeks later, the job goes off-schedule and everything gets cocked up, and it ends in Eames’s fist twisted in the front of Abby’s tidy pinstriped blouse and heartless bitch scorching her tongue, Abby backed up against the table with one elbow through Cobb’s models as she snarls every obscenity on record into Eames’s face, worthless dirt-trash incompetent whore, and plenty else.
Eames stalks out without another word after their chemist, Mitch, pulls them apart. It’s way too late to stay silent, but she doesn’t hear a word from them until eight months later, when Cobb finds her in Mombasa. She doesn’t put too much effort into avoiding him – he was still under for the entire thing, and she already knows that he hasn’t heard the details – and then he dangles inception in front of her, of all the impossible things. What are the odds?
(One hundred percent, of course, if you take a serious attempt at inception as a given.)
Eames saunters on into the Paris warehouse with nausea sprawled in her stomach and her chin in the air, and Abby shakes her hand and welcomes her to the team with carbon-copy cordiality. Eames quickly finds that she can still crack that featureless professionalism, at least, but the faint tinges of amusement have been dropped from the equation. She isn’t even sure whether or not this is a recent development, but she tries not to think about it and instead takes a perverse pride in pissing Abby off. It isn’t like she’s ever been averse to schadenfreude.
Then they go into the last stage of the job, and the most intricately planned heist Eames has ever run turns into the most spectacular clusterfuck of her sporadically disastrous careers. Somewhere between the rain and the freight trains and the fight by the cars, the pieces of the last few years slot together and Eames realizes that this has been Abby’s life: planning things down to the millisecond and picking up the pieces when it all goes wrong.
She tries not to process that, but in the rain-soaked wait on the first level, her own thoughts are far harder to escape than Fischer’s now-quieted subconscious. Abby didn’t look at all surprised, screaming at Cobb in the warehouse – furious, yes, but not shocked, not surprised – and she followed along and pulled out a gun when he played the children card and beckoned. And right now, they’re all waiting, and Abby is always down by the shoreline, her shirt soaked through and flattened against her hunched shoulders.
Eames drifts down there once to smoke, during a pause in the rain when the week is almost over. She doesn’t plan on saying anything, but after about twenty minutes she says, “So you really cared a lot about the bastard, then.”
“We’ve been through this, Eames,” Abby says, a little too loud as if that will stop Eames from noticing how tired she sounds. “I’m not in love with him, I’m not fucking him, I never was. Not Mal, either, if that’s the current rumor.”
It isn’t, in fact, and Eames files the possibility away. “Did I say anything to contradict that?”
“It seemed to be the likeliest direction for this conversation.” The wind picks up a bit, and she shivers, but other than that she doesn’t move.
“There’s actually surprisingly few rumors about it, given that you two have been practically conjoined.”
“Well, I guess people are smarter than the evidence would suggest.”
Eames flicks some ash off the end of her cigarette, watching it fall into the water. “Why do you do it?” she asks quietly, remembering fourteen hours across the States and people too tired for anything but honesty. “What the hell’s the point in babysitting him?”
“He’s my friend, asshole,” she says.
“Really? Funny, last time I checked the definition, friends don’t risk each others’ lives without permission.”
“I have never intentionally –”
“I wasn’t talking about you.”
Abby stares at her, and this, this is what shocks her? “Fuck you, Eames,” she whispers at last, no venom, no strength, and she turns and walks away.
The job ends, and by a conglomeration of miracles they all make it out alive and not too hideously scarred. Eames spends three nights in an L.A. hotel remembering what natural sleep feels like on something other than the bloodstained backseat of a car, and then resolves to spend the next few months in the warmest, driest place she can find a comfortable bed.
Two months later, she’s made her way to a casino in the south of Italy, to get bored with roulette and loose spectacularly at every form of poker. It always irritates her, but at the same time, she doesn’t come to win. There’s something sharply alluring about the dim gold light and the expensive air, the reckless calculation and the smooth feel of the cards.
She glances down at the ace and the nine in her hand and says “All in.”
The pot ends up going to a bearded guy in a suit pricier than it’s worth; she sighs and shoves her chair back, grimacing, and heads for the bar to see if she can con a drink. Then she pauses.
There’s a suspiciously familiar woman leaning against the divider between the gambling section and the restaurant, bare elbows braced against the gleaming wood, dark hair twisted up into a schoolmarm’s bun.
“Hello, Ms. Eames,” Abby says calmly, and slides a cocktail along the divider. “Somehow I thought you’d be better at poker.”
“And whatever would have given you that idea?” Eames asks, taking the drink and inspecting it carefully.
“I know you can bluff.”
“That is not the problem,” Eames says, and decides that Abby plans too well to drug her here. She sips. “I almost never fold.”
“I can understand that,” Abby says, reaching for her own glass.
“My difficulties with cards aside, why the hell are you here?”
“Well, the other rumors about your location were Mombasa and Vegas. Yusuf debunked the first and I believe you swore to avoid the latter for the rest of your life after the Dana Ocean job.”
“I will be far less likely to shoot you if you never mention that lunatic to me again. The same goes for her ridiculously oversized crew, the summer of 2016, and in fact the entire state of Nevada, if possible. Why are you looking for me?”
“I need a good forger with a background in surface crime, and you’re my best option.”
“What, is it Cobb again, or did something go wrong with the Fischer job?”
Abby blinks. “Nothing, everything’s fine. More than fine, actually. Fischer’s going ahead just as planned, and he seems to be pretty healthy, which is a bonus. Saito’s had some trouble re-adjusting, but he’s doing all right now, and Cobb’s well out of all this.” She smiles, tiny but genuine, and completely unexpected. “I think he’s happy, actually.”
Eames takes another sip of her cocktail and looks the point woman over carefully, inch by inch. She looks different, and it isn’t just the smile. The sleeveless blouse is still far too corporate for a casino, but the October-sky blue is a bit unusual, and she’s wearing it half-buttoned; she has surprisingly nice collarbones. She’s gained a bit of weight, although she’s still quite skinny, and –
“I realize this is an odd question, but please, forger’s pride. Did you –”
“No, I didn’t have pierced ears the last time you saw me,” Abby says, reaching up to run a finger over the tiny pearl stud. “Also, if I find you’ve been forging me unnecessarily, I will shoot you.”
Eames shrugs and finishes off her cocktail. “Didn’t hurt much the last few times. Anyway, why do you need my particular skill set?”
“There’s a job in Berlin. Simple extraction but there’s a few tricky circumstances. I’m not explaining it in public, can we get out of here?”
The task is interesting enough – digging up the reasons for a particular hit woman’s retirement, whether it be age, guilt, or sufficient finances – and it’s a chance to work with a few new people. Eames takes the same flight as Abby to Berlin; the bickering starts with standards in alcohol and drifts through half a dozen subjects before becoming an in-depth debate on movies made before they were born. Abby actually concedes a couple of points, on the grounds that they’re movies she hasn’t seen in years, and one of Eames’s biting summaries wins a quick but genuine laugh. This trip is a veritable jackpot of useful information for any future forgeries that arise.
The trip also rapidly shows itself to be the only remotely bearable part of the job. It would probably be better if things would just go collectively to pieces; instead, every miniscule detail requires twice the time it should.
“When we hired you, we gave you some very specific parameters,” Abby snaps at their architect, detaching herself from the PASIV with a sharp jerk. “You told us you could meet them and be ready a month ago. I realize that there have been difficulties, but after that kind of wait I expect the desired results.”
“Yikes, can you cut the kid a break?” Albert asks, frowning at his chemicals as they turn milky yet again.
“The last architect I worked with was twenty and completely fresh to the business, and she built three dreamscapes in the same amount of time. I’m not accepting the kid excuse from someone on his seventh job running.” She glances from one mulish face to another and sighs. “Fix the layouts by Thursday, and Albert, keep working on those chemicals, contact someone for help if you need to. We’re not going to get anything else done tonight, so clear out, take your things.” She turns on one heel and exits by the back door, moving with such carefully studied calm that Eames nods to the others, grabs her overcoat, and follows the point woman.
Abby kneels delicately and inspects a loose chunk of concrete in the alley, weighing it in her hand as she stands. For a moment it’s a modernist tableau, the primly tidy lady in the twilit rubble. Then she plants her feet, heels skidding across the cement, and hurls the concrete down the alley like a missile. Somewhere past the building’s edge, a large piece of glass shatters; the pieces clatter musically to the ground in the wake of the crack.
“A bit frustrated, then, are we?”
Abby doesn’t quite manage to hide her cringe as she turns. “Eames. You weren’t supposed to see that.”
“Somehow I gathered. Have we honestly driven you to petty vandalism?”
“That factory has been abandoned for a decade. It’s in such a wreck it hardly counts as vandalism anymore. I checked beforehand, believe me.”
Eames runs a quick analysis on that. “So I take it this is a common habit.”
“Well, this job hasn’t been exactly relaxing.”
“I would have thought it would be at least par for the course, really.”
“No, not at all. If it were pure incompetence, I could just fire them, but as it is there’s nothing to do but work out a fix for every little problem, which is cutting into my research time. Add that to the times when they do slip up, couple it with the difficulties of adjusting to other peoples’ methods, and…” She sighs and dusts off her hands. “Petty vandalism.”
“I find that getting laid works better, assuming you don’t want a hangover.”
Abby snorts, turning away and rubbing again at the tight lines of the back of her neck, disturbing a few bound wisps of hair. “I don’t exactly have time for a love life, Eames, and I’m keeping highly illegal technology in my hotel room.”
“Well,” Eames drawls, “I’m always available for the service.”
It echoes a bit off the walls, and she realizes that it’s wrong; this isn’t normal teasing, hasn’t been. Even so, she doesn’t expect Abby to pause and twist around, one hand still wrapped in her hair; she certainly doesn’t expect the point woman to look so distinctly… speculative.
Instinct takes over, and Eames trained herself into the brazen it out instinct long ago. She smirks.
Abby nods, quick and decisive, as if she’s signing off on something. “Well, since you offer. Can you come by around nine? I’m at the Hilton, room 249.”
“Nine works,” Eames says automatically, still a mile behind this conversation. Abby steps closer and back into the warehouse; she brushes against Eames’s outstretched arm as she passes, gentle but just a little too close. Eames stops breathing for a moment as her mind tries to catch up.
Abby’s gone in moments, only needing to pick up her things as she passes, and Eames leans back against the doorframe and closes her eyes.
“Dear God,” she mutters, “what did I just agree to?”
She could, of course, cancel; backing out wouldn’t be hard, standing Abby up would probably turn it all into an excellent facsimile of normal. Still, something about the idea bothers her, and besides…
She remembers those few wisps of hair at the base of Abby’s neck, soft against the smooth skin. Eames would be a truly dreadful forger if she hadn’t ever noticed that the point was a beautiful woman, but there’s a difference between cataloging the flex of her calves and imagining the muscle trembling against her palms. She wonders what Abby is like in bed – the same confident expertise as in everything else, perhaps? Or, well, there are jokes made about the uptight ones, and there’s been truth to it before. She can almost imagine Abby wild and hungry and desperate and loud; maybe even violent, which is a bit of a departure from Eames’s normal tastes, but nobody was ever hurt by a judicious application of teeth…
Dear God, she is actually thinking about this. And she’s curious. Dear God, this is actually going to happen.
“Well,” she says to the rust-speckled rafters, “I’d better go put on something that isn’t slush-colored, then.”
Nine o’clock arrives faster than she expected; it’s around five past when she knocks on Abby’s door. The point woman opens it almost immediately. She looks the same as before, plain white shirt and pencil skirt; she hasn’t even taken off her pumps. Her hair is loose and down, though, brushing in layered curls against her face and her throat.
“Well, I won’t have to deal with any questions about why you were visiting,” Abby says, eyeing Eames slowly from head to foot: clinging jeans, tilted heels, black top mostly a frame for her shoulders and collarbones and the skin of her ribs. Eames knows exactly what she looks like, and she shrugs.
“No point in hiding it,” she says, “unless you’re worried about your reputation.” Abby snorts.
“I really don’t think this is going to affect it,” she says. “Come on in.”
Eames does, running a finger quickly along the ends of Abby’s hair as she passes. The point woman starts slightly, eyes widening, but the barest hint of a smile flickers across her lips.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asks, crossing to the mini-bar while Eames drops onto the couch; Abby’s room is really a small suite, all dark neutrals and square furniture.
“Not really a necessity,” Eames drawls, “I’m already here.”
“Forgive me for remembering the rules of basic hospitality,” Abby says, handing Eames a martini. She settles onto the couch, plucking a half-drunk cocktail from the end table and taking a sip edging a bit more towards a gulp.
“The rules of basic hospitality, ah, are those the ones that call for insulting people who are about to sleep with you?” Eames doesn’t actually care, but giving Abby a hard time is a thoroughly ingrained habit.
“I wasn’t trying to insult you, Eames. You look… very nice.” She gulps at her cocktail again and quickly sets it down, the clunk echoing slightly.
The fridge in the mini-bar drones loudly into the silence.
“Right,” Eames says abruptly, “this is stupid,” and she puts her martini down. Abby glances up, face crumpling into an unfamiliar weary disappointment; Eames presses two fingers to her jaw, tilts her face close, and kisses her.
Abby’s lips are bone-dry under a slightly waxy lipstick, and for just a moment she is utterly motionless; then she settles one hand against Eames’s bare arm and kisses back steadily. Eames licks a little bit along her lower lip and hooks her fingers into the edge of her skirt, tugging it up and up, trailing her thumb across Abby’s thigh. She catches a bit of unexpected lace, slips her finger under the edge of the strap discovered just above, and breaks the kiss to chuckle.
“Not quite what I expected you to wear, Abby,” she murmurs, deep and throaty, still toying with the garter. “Are you always this lasciviously dressed under all that stiffness?”
“No,” Abby whispers roughly, breath hot against Eames’s skin. “Someone made me buy these years ago, and I almost never wear them. Not usually practical.”
“Just for me, then?” Eames laughs. “I have to say, I’m flattered.” She kisses her again, sliding her free hand against Abby’s waist and tracing circles against the first edge of bare skin on her leg, soft and almost silky.
“We are not doing this on the couch,” Abby hisses, clenching her fingers into Eames’s shoulder. Eames shrugs.
“All right then,” she whispers, shifting her hands to cup Abby’s hips, and starts sliding the two of them onto the floor. She takes care, almost cradling the point woman in spite of how physically indestructible she is, but they still thump clumsily down the last inch to the carpet, and Eames stifles a laugh that quickly fades when faced with Abby laid out with her hair spread against the rug and her skirt now all around her waist. It takes her only a few moments to manage the buttons on her shirt; she presses a damp kiss to her breast over the fine black lace. Abby gasps, arches back and twists her face away, cringing into the carpet; Eames shifts her weight and inches up to whisper in her ear.
“Tell me, love,” she whispers, feeling power collect in her stomach and her hands, “are you enjoying this?”
“Don’t tell me you need validation,” Abby murmurs, breathless now, Eames grins.
“Maybe I just want to hear you say it,” she says, and dips her head to trace abstract patterns of kisses against the other woman’s throat. “Having fun?” She slips a hand under the edge of her bra, and Abby gasps.
“Yes,” she chokes, head thrown back, “but, honestly – ridiculous – I mean, there’s a bed right there–”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Eames asks, focusing hard to form the words. “For fuck’s sake, stop worrying. Just relax.” She runs her hand delicately downwards, presses two fingers very carefully against the soaked black silk between Abby’s legs, and makes sure that she doesn’t have any breath left for talking.
Afterwards, they collapse against the rug, tangled together and struggling to catch their breath. Abby’s a half-smiling wreck, lipstick smudged and clothes all askew and crumpled; Eames is a little better off, still mostly dressed but with her shirt hiked up over her ribs and her jeans unzipped and half falling off her hips.
“Well,” Abby says at last, eyes opening, “that was…”
“Fantastic?” Eames offers; the cockiness dissolves somewhere between her mind and her air-starved mouth, leaving nothing but a level of honesty entirely inappropriate for their lives. Abby doesn’t seem to notice.
“You fuck,” she says, “exactly the same as you do everything else.”
“And you, it turns out, can actually do something without acting like you’re about to write a report on it.”
Abby rolls her head sideways and tries to piece a frown together. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Eames shrugs as best she can while mostly horizontal. “Well, if you were thinking clearly already I’d obviously have done something wrong.”
Abby snorts, closing her eyes again, and the quiet dissolves into their shared ragged respiration. They rhythm of it slows, drifting towards half-asleep, and as perversely pleasant as it might feel to be sticky and sweaty and scented with sex, that will be a truly dreadful way to wake up, and even worse when they have to beat it to the warehouse. Eames drags herself to semi-seated, shirt flopping downwards as she does.
“My cue to leave, I think,” she says, fixing her jeans. “Take a shower, or you’ll feel absolutely disgusting in the morning.”
“Yeah, I know,” Abby says, sitting as well and awkwardly tugging herself back together, wrapping her shirt around herself and pulling her skirt back over her hips. “Do I owe you anything for this?”
“I haven’t taken money for a fuck since I was nineteen,” Eames snaps, yanking her fingers through her hair.
“Not what I meant,” Abby says; her leg taps against Eames’s knee, but she’s unbound enough that it might be accidental. “I meant more along the lines of a favor.”
Eames shrugs, fiddling with the ends of her hair because it’s the only thing to hand. “Not really. Buy me dinner next time we have a free evening and we’ll call it even.”
“Done,” Abby says, handing Eames her shoes, which migrated under the couch at some point Eames doesn’t remember. “Good night, and thank you.”
The cab ride home is one long struggle to stay awake, and she has to spend five minutes arguing with the doorman before he lets her in; still, as she sinks clean and thoroughly worn out into her own bed, she thinks the entire thing was worth it.
The next morning things carry on as normal, except for Abby’s occasional yawn; three days later they have to run the job slap-dash and half ready. They find their answers – the hit woman wrenched an already bad knee on the job and decided attempting assassination was just plain stupid when it hurt that much to walk, a ridiculously simple and rational thing for so much effort – but it’s a near thing, and all four end up taking the next flights out without regard for destinations more specific than ‘far away.’
Eames, who never develops plans when on the run, winds up in fucking Manchester, which is really the last touch on the entire mess that is the Berlin job. This is the fourth time she’s been to Manchester, and the fourth time she’s decided that this is the last time she will ever go to Manchester. The best part is that a source warns her not to travel for a while; an old enemy is poking around for her.
There are some advantages, though. A month later, by a combination of luck and a great deal of time spent at the Pipe Dreams bar, which has that name for a reason, she finds a job. More accurately, she finds Juan Mochizuki, an extractor she worked with in Argentina.
“You’re a fucking godsend,” he says shamelessly, braiding a strand of hemp pinned to his knee. “I’ve got a line on a guy who wants me to dig up some kind of secret on this mid-level politician, but nothing specific, just anything that we could turn into a scandal, but he has to be at least a little bit ashamed of it personally. Some kind of revenge gig, I don’t care what the logic is, but I’m not sure how to do it. I figured you could, though.”
“Shame isn’t that hard to trigger,” she says, taking another swig of her beer on the grounds that he’s paying. “What have you got for a crew?”
“I’ve got all the compounds we need,” he says, “and I think I’ve got the architecture covered personally, but I don’t have a point yet, and I can’t find anyone I trust. Can you get me anybody decent?”
“Well,” Eames says, smirking, “I can probably get you Abby Whittemore, how’s that?”
It’s a risky claim for her to make, but she lucks out, and Abby’s in the city within the week. They base the job out of Juan’s living room, and plan out a three-pronged attack amid stacks of greasy wrappers. Abby grumbles about the mess, moves books into stacks when she needs a clear surface and kicks Styrofoam boxes under the couch, but Eames sinks into the comfortable messiness like a beanbag chair.
This job, at least, goes smoothly (“A lot more smoothly than the last one,” Abby says with the same rueful half-smile she uses to reference half a dozen other disasters, and no one Eames has ever known could guess she slept with anyone.) The only problem is someone to watch them on the surface, and Juan bribes his friend Mike into it. They’re ready to run in just a few weeks.
“All set, folks?” Mike asks, fiddling with his chauffeur’s cap. “I have to say, your kind of crime means much nicer clothes,” he adds, checking himself in the mirror.
“It does at that,” Abby says, lifting the PASIV into the back of the limo. The mark, Willingham, is passed out cold already; spiked drink. “Eames, make his excuses.”
“On it,” she says, already dialing the cell phone. Juan glances from one to the other, shrugs, and leans forward to whisper something to his friend, while Eames imitates Willingham’s secretary’s voice and explains that he’ll be a few minutes late for his meeting.
“All as planned?” Abby asks, setting out the PASIV.
“Didn’t even raise an eyebrow, as far as I can tell,” Eames reports, sprawling gracelessly out on the limo seat.
“Juan, here’s your line, swab your wrist first,” Abby says, handing it to him. “Mike, you know the drill, keep us in motion and under the speed limit, get us away from anyone investigating, and if we’re not awake in ten minutes, detach us – carefully.”
“Yes, Cap’n!” he says, grinning, and twists around to start the car.
Abby takes Eames’s wrist and dabs at it with the alcohol swab, ignoring Eames’s rolled eyes. Her fingers are cold but gentle as she slides the cannula in.
“Good luck, Ms. Eames,” she says, corner of her mouth crooking conspiratorially. She’s just grabbing for her line as Eames’s eyes slide closed.
She comes to in a sun-flooded white hallway, staring at a set of abstract prints. It’s a pleasant dreamscape, amber glass accents in the open windows and a vase of bright red lilies right next to the mirror; not a reproduction of the mark’s house, but distinctly suggestive of it. If everything is going as planned, Eames is right outside Willingham’s study. She shifts into his wife – piled-up auburn hair, painfully pale skin just slightly sunburned, teal sundress and wedding ring – and pushes the door open.
He’s at his desk, exactly as planned; she whispers an apology for disturbing him, eliciting nothing but a shrug, and searches casually through the bookshelves. It’s all going exactly as planned until her hand brushes against the diary.
“Hey!” Willingham snaps, shoving his chair back. “Put that down!”
“I’m just looking,” she says mildly, flipping through the soft ivory pages. It’s a beautiful piece of bookbinding, but it’s got nothing useful, just the minutiae of his days.
“Well, I don’t want you to look,” he says; his cane clunks against the floor as he moves closer. Promising, promising.
“I’m not hurting anything, I promise,” she says, skipping a chunk. Still nothing useful, dammit –
The head of his cane smashes into the wall in front of her face.
It’s astonishingly loud, although nothing whatsoever like a gunshot. The cane is metal-headed, which she knew, and the gleaming wood is almost perfectly on a level with her eyes. He isn’t a projection, isn’t militarized, doesn’t think this is a dream.
The diary drops to the floor with a clunk, pages crumpling against the carpet.
“I’m sorry,” Eames whispers, scrabbling to stay in character, and fuck, it seems she only half-knows who that character is and this is not part of the half she knows. “I’m sorry.”
Every piece of the dreamscape hovers, it feels like, as she takes in his furious, frantic eyes and the pale lines of his knuckles halfway down the cane’s smooth black line and the hair standing up on the back of her neck. It takes every ounce of self-control not to dream the weight of a gun against her hip or a polished switchblade pressed against her hand.
The silence is split by the doorbell, melodious for the first few seconds and then just loud. Juan, almost doubtless, in position already.
“Should I answer that?” Eames asks, barely moving her lips.
The cane slips away from the wall – it’s left a dent – and Willingham taps it back against the floor. “No,” he says, “I’ll get it.”
Eames doesn’t so much as blink until the door closes behind him; then she shudders, once, twice, wrapping her arms around herself. Inhale, exhale. She looks up.
The pictures behind the desk are different, now: half a dozen shots of her current face, mouth bloodied, cheek scratched, eyes teary pink or swollen black, sickly green bruises running along the cheekbone and the throat.
She finds Abby in the hallway, slipping through the window with a baton in her hand.
“Find anything?” the point woman asks, straightening her cap and shoving open the study door. “Juan will be coming in soon, probably.”
“Well,” Eames says, swallowing hard, “for a start, he beats his wife.”
Abby’s fingers clench on the study doorframe as she glances in and back. “Drop the forge.”
“Is that really –”
“We’ve got enough to get paid. We’ll finish the plan just in case there’s anything else, but the safety of the team takes precedence over backup.”
Eames nods and convulses once, soaking her mind in the knowledge of her own muscles and her own stance, her expertise and skills and the incontrovertible fact that the mark is essentially helpless, that she is the one in power here.
They don’t stay under for much longer; a few steady questions, a check of the safe and a cursory search of the study, and then they blow the house to kingdom come; keeping the sedative separate from the PASIV means that the mark stays under regardless. Mike drops them on the sidewalk at different points – Abby takes the PASIV, concealed neatly in a wheeled suitcase – and Eames expects that to be the last she sees of them for some time to come, as long as there are no problems with the payments.
Instead, it’s barely two hours later when Abby calls. Even stranger, nothing is wrong, and they work through a few moments of exchanged ‘fine’ before she finally reaches the point.
“I still owe you dinner,” she says at last, with that crisp briskness that means business, and it’s absolutely the last thing Eames expected.
“From Berlin,” Abby says, sounding oddly guarded.
“Ber – oh. Right, I did say dinner.” She hadn’t ever actually intended to collect, but she’s hardly going to turn down food, either. (Some habits die hard.) “Did you have anywhere in mind?”
“A few ideas, but I wasn’t sure what you’d prefer. In the mood for anything in particular?”
“Hot and salty,” Eames says honestly, then snorts. “Ignore my total lack of class.”
“Not a problem. I’ll pick you up in around twenty minutes, then, if that works.”
It does, and twenty-nine minutes later the two of them are settled into a corner table at a neon-and-chrome place, digging into hamburgers and massive heaps of fries. Eames’s fingers will be practically shining with grease soon, she has a soda that is sweating water all over the table, she’s sticking slightly to the seat, and it is perfect.
Talking with Abby starts out a bit awkward – it feels more than a little strange to snipe at her when she’s buying Eames dinner, for a start – but they trade notes on old associates and favorite bits of former jobs. Abby swears on her life that one set of projections tried human sacrifice on the incoming extractors; Eames demands details, and by the time that story is over, her plate is half-empty and she’s in badly-concealed stitches.
“The worst part is, that is not the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened,” Abby says, smiling, as she slices a chip through her pool of ketchup. She isn’t eating fast, but her hands are either still or darting across the plate, all just a quick flick of the wrist. It’s something Eames hasn’t seen her do before, and she wonders where it comes from.
Ah, shit. “Er, sorry, what?” she asks, glancing up. She’s more tired than she thought.
Abby lays the chip down on her plate. “Eames, are you all right?”
Eames blinks. “What?”
“You’re not usually like this. I’d assume it was from the thing with Willingham, but you’ve seemed slightly off this whole job. What’s the problem?”
She shrugs, carefully casual. “Nonexistent, beyond being stuck here. I hate Manchester.”
“Really? It seems like exactly your kind of place. Big, busy, plenty of places to gamble…”
“Bad memories, that’s all.”
“What? I hadn’t heard about anything happening here.”
“It is entirely possible that you can’t look up my entire life story.” Abby winces, which Eames chooses to ignore. “The first time I came here was right after I’d run three jobs with that chemist Bezrukov, which made everything delightful.”
“Bezru – oh. That asshole with the addictive Somnacin?”
“Yes, him. So, I mean, withdrawal was fun enough the first time, but I thought I was clean, and of course the rest of the team would cut me loose if they found out. And no one else in the city knew me from Eve, so…”
“I understand your aversion, then,” Abby says, reaching for her food again. Eames mumbles something noncommittal into her burger, swallows, and then turns the conversation to former teammates. This is far safer, and the rest of the meal vanishes as they gleefully savage the incompetent and the sadistic and celebrate the successes of the few they both like.
After the grease on their empty place has been cool for at least twenty minutes, Eames makes her excuses and stands; Abby grabs her arm, slightly sticky fingers gentle against the underside of her wrist.
“Are you going to be all right tonight?” she asks quietly. “Between the city and Willingham –”
Eames snorts. “What, do you need someone new to baby now that Cobb’s retired? I’m a big girl, Abby, I’ll be fine.” She overdoes the scorn a bit; too hasty. It doesn’t stop her from ripping free of Abby’s hands, shaking her arm slightly as she does, but she does drawl, “Dinner was delicious, thank you,” before she saunters – a bit fast to technically qualify as such – out the door.
A quick check around the Net reveals that someone wants a forger for a job in Bangkok. It’s not especially interesting, the most basic industrial espionage, but the extractor is supposed to be one to watch.
She regrets taking it almost immediately; a basic distraction and safe raid, the kind of thing she’s been running since before the rest of the team ever heard of shared dreaming. They don’t even need a forger, just think they do. She’s tempted to give them a quick lecture on the exact definition of small fry, and then clear out, but the chemist has potential without the courage to ditch her friends. (The architect should go home to his mother, the point is going to be nabbed the second legal looks for him if he doesn’t learn not to leave electronic bulldozer tracks, and the extractor is a loudmouthed windbag who crumples like tissue paper when you push against the talk on which he runs. Eames, who has always felt a sort of solidarity with the few other women in mind crime, hopes the chemist grows a spine in time.)
It takes two months to finish up; someone is tracking their progress, because less than a week after the run, she gets an offer for a job in Cincinnati.
“Mob rivalries,” she repeats into the cell phone, gazing out her bedroom window at the glowing nightscape. “I’m assuming you’re joking.”
“Nope, not my style. It’s not as tricky as it sounds. The way these people work, revenge jobs go for your employer, not the pawns. And they pay well.”
“So do a lot of other people, Mister…”
“Now, Ms. Eames, are names such light currency?”
“Well, you have one of mine,” she says lightly, tracing her fingers along the window’s filthy glass. “You could give me a role, at any rate. Extractor, architect? And should I be presuming Mister?”
“Liaison,” he says, the smooth polish designed to slip an answer out of reach. “And Mister is fine. I’m contacting a number of other people for the actual work. Incidentally, one of them has worked with you before.”
“Really?” That doesn’t narrow it down at all. “I’ll assume this is a no-name basis across the board.”
“Until you’re in.”
“If I decide I want to be in.”
“Well, yes. See, the one you know, she said to tell you that it’ll be interesting. The mark is – well, the closest term we have is militarized, but it’s a rather more complicated setup than that.”
“Well, if Abby Whittemore calls it interesting, there must be something to it,” she says, and drops her opinion of him a bit at the consternated hiss. There aren’t a lot of women among her former colleagues, even fewer who’d send that message along. “I’ll let you know in a week.”
She snaps the phone closed without waiting for a reply and taps it against her cheek, thinking. The buzz goes straight through her jaw, and she jumps out of her skin and scrambles to answer. “Forget something?” she asks.
“Eames? Take the Cincinnati job, dammit.” It’s Abby.
“You just got offered a job in Cincinnati, right? Take it.”
Eames lifts the phone from her ear and squints at it, then sighs and moves it back to a useful position. “As flattering as your devotion is, darling…”
Abby snorts, causing a rush of static. “I’d hang up right now, but I need someone who can plan.”
“I’m not the only candidate for that position.”
“Well, we only have one role unfilled, and I can’t change lineups here. Name me one other forger who can work out a way to get past a freakish militarized menagerie, and I’ll give them a call.”
“Get past a what?” Eames demands, sitting bolt upright.
“I assume I’ll see you in Cincinnati, then.”
“There are more than a few people out for my head in that city, you know.”
“Eames,” Abby inquires, absolutely deadpan, “how does this distinguish it from any other city?”
Five days later, Eames strides into the back room of a Cincinnati bar, drops her coat on the back of the nearest chair, and glances around the room; either the team relies on the barman for security or they’re used to drop-in visits from Mr. Liaison, because no-one has challenged her yet. That would be worrying, except Abby is deep in argument with someone Eames assumes is the extractor: a young white guy with strange greenish hair, probably the result of a bad bleach job. There’s a middle-aged guy, brown-skinned and in desperate need of a shave, leaning against the wall with a book in his hand and a compass behind his ear; nobody else is present.
“I believe someone was looking for me?” Eames asks, once it becomes clear that no-one is going to notice her without prompting. Abby glances up.
“Eames! Perfect timing, now explain to Harris that militarized projections can and will go after forgers regardless of what they’ve forged.”
“He doesn’t know that?” Eames asks disdainfully, folding her hands and thinking that this could be either a disaster or enormously entertaining.
Disappointingly, the job goes spectacularly south without ever getting near the mark. An attempt to grab some background information from a local business gets unexpectedly complicated, but Eames improvises and they mistake all for well.
That lasts for a week, until they slip into the back room on a Thursday afternoon – when the bar is empty – and find a three-man greeting committee waiting, guns gleaming in their hands. Eames only has time to think honestly, only three? as she goes for her gun before one of them grabs her wrist; a sharp twist makes her drop the weapon, he blocks her chop at his windpipe, and then it slams into her faking an all-out fistfight of the kind she loves in dreamscape while she’s actually pulling out her knife and manipulating herself close enough to actually use it – okay, weapon out, fuck but she wishes she could dream it. She takes a risk and twists sideways so he can grab her, and he’s just smart enough to take it, arm around her throat; she holds her breath and drives the knife back into his stomach, hitting pay dirt, then twists it out and hacks at the already-slackening arm cutting off her air. He stumbles backwards, dropping her; she twists and goes for the heart, slamming her knife into the muscle with everything she has.
She’s backing up and scanning by the time he falls, but the rest is done. One man is on the floor, bullet to the head – probably Abby – while the other is vanishing out the back, doubled over. Outside a car roars to a start; Eames moves to follow, but Harris slams the door. Fucking stupid decision, but she can hear the car leaving, and he at least has the sense to check the window. Abby checks the bar, yells “All clear!” and runs for the architect, who – fuck – is bleeding, slumped against the wall. Eames is moving towards him too, knife dropped, when Harris yells her name. She glances towards him –
Fuck. No, really, fuck.
He’s far too close, gun pointed straight at her.
Her own gun is on the floor; between everything, it’s now a good five feet away.
Okay, not good.
Fuck fuck fuck, she should have known better than to drop the knife. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Every quantifiable level of bad call. It’s been way too long since she fought outside of dreamspace; she isn’t used to needing to keep track of weapons.
“All right, calm down,” she says as nonchalantly as she can, inching backwards; he advances, faster, furious.
“You sold us out, you bitch!” he snarls.
“What? No!” It’s actually true, too; simpler not to double-cross as a general rule. She’s at the wall, pressing cold and sticky against her back; misjudged the distance. He doesn’t stop
“They knew to come here!” he snaps, spittle flying; he’s tearing up, she observes distantly, and then the barrel of the gun is pressing into her stomach and she doesn’t need to check her totem to know that she isn’t dreaming. She could rip the gun away, but his finger is already on the trigger, and she’s seen him practice, she knows he’s fast enough to pull it, and that’s all it takes when he’s this close.
“I didn’t tell them,” she says, cursing everything she knows. Really, she couldn’t have gone down lying? Really? This is not the way she wanted to go, gut wounds are a nasty drawn-out way to die and one of the advantages of this life is supposed to be that you don’t die slowly, and all of this is really avoiding the major fact that she doesn’t want to die because of her own mistrained miscalculation and a stupid panicked pissed-off kid and in fact she would really prefer not to die at all –
That’s the point when Abby says, “All right, that’s enough.”
Her heels click slightly on the floor as she adjusts her stance; her gun is most definitely still loaded and pointed straight at Harrison’s head. He swallows.
“You too? What is this, a double –”
“Nobody betrayed anyone,” Abby says calmly, “or at least, I very much doubt it.”
“Well, then, how the hell did they find us?”
“There’s a number of possibilities. Any of us could have been followed –”
“Last week,” Eames says, eyes still trained on Harris’s trigger finger. “Did we show up on camera?”
“It’s possible,” Abby says slowly. “Likely, actually.”
“Well, there you go, then. They followed us here.”
“Why here? How did they know to follow us?” Harris demands. “We didn’t do anything that would get us followed for no reason.”
“If they saw me,” Eames says, wincing, “that would be enough to raise heads, and if they tracked me, this would be the only place they’d turn up. I’ve been switching hotels.”
“So this is your –”
“Hardly,” Abby interjects, stepping closer; the tip of her gun kisses Harris’s temple. “For one thing, if not for your blatant incompetence, she wouldn’t have been caught on camera in the first place.” Eames swallows twice; it isn’t that she’d rather be shot, but having someone else defend her sits in her stomach like disease. “Now, back up, and put the gun away. Right now.”
He does, slowly but without hesitating. Eames inhales, slumping away from the wall, and crosses the floor to collect her own weapons. “Well, what do we do now?” she asks.
“You need to clear out,” Abby says, holstering her gun. “Harris, your friend needs a hospital or an equivalent, can you get him that?”
“I – yeah, I know someone who can get him treated and keep things off the record, I –”
“Good, call them. We’re splitting now, the job is off. I’ll let the client know. Eames, can you get out of here?”
“Sure, I’ll grab a train south,” she says, pulling her coat straight; the gun goes back into its holster under that, and she slides the knife easily into the hidden pocket of her skirt. “I’ll have to call the car rental and let them know it’s at the station, though.”
“That’s fine,” Abby says, handing the wall phone to Harris. “I’ll come with you to the car, in case anyone’s waiting out there.”
Outside, no one gives them a second glance. Abby braces one hand against the roof of the car and watches as Eames runs a quick check for any kind of traps. “Where are you headed next?” she asks with her head under the glove box, mostly to break the silence.
“I’ll probably go to ground here for a week or so,” Abby says, “and after that I have business in Baltimore.” She coughs. “Incidentally, if I find out you did betray us, I will be very annoyed.”
Eames snorts. “There you are, thank God. I was getting a little worried.” Abby blinks. “I wasn’t exactly expecting you to trust me. I’m glad neither of us is losing our touch.”
“Oh, well,” Abby says, shrugging. “You’re a lot harder to replace than a two-bit extractor, for a start.” She glances away; Eames tenses, but she doesn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular. “For the record,” she says, “I don’t trust you completely, but more than I trust most.”
“Oh,” Eames says, sliding into the driver’s seat. “Well then.”
“Don’t take advantage of it, I won’t hesitate to shoot you if I turn out to be wrong.”
“Noted,” Eames says, twisting the key in the ignition. She hesitates, drumming her fingers on the wheel. “I owe you for this, I know.”
Abby shrugs, straightening, and steps clear. “Buy me dinner and we’ll call it even,” she says, half-smiling.
Eames is halfway to the train station when she remembers, and she bites back a laugh, but the whole thing feels uncomfortably like charity. Surely the lack of metal in her stomach lining is worth more than a good fuck.
General aimlessness and a few minor coincidences with trains land her in Baltimore a few days later; she spends a while sightseeing and then calls Abby up.
“I don’t like leaving debts lying around,” she explains, tapping a pen against her cheek. “Or at least, not ones I intend to pay.”
The sound on the other end of the line sounds suspiciously like a chuckle. “I see. What do you have in mind?”
“You have anything formal available?” Eames asks. “There’s a place on the waterfront that sounds pretty good.”
“I don’t have anything right at hand, but if you give me a couple of days I can find something. Next Tuesday?”
Next Tuesday arrives miserably rainy and grey, which is absolutely hideous for most things but does look rather nice on a glass curtain wall after dark, so the window table isn’t a total waste. Eames is settled at the table well before Abby arrives, a feat which requires some fairly flagrant lying about timing, but it deprives the point woman of the opportunity to start anything unexpected.
It doesn’t, however, mean she can’t do something unexpected: in this case, evidently, show up looking like sex itself in shining scarlet stilettos and a sharply plunging black neckline. Luckily, Eames sees her before being noticed herself, so she has a chance to swallow a couple of times before she waves.
“I feel like I’m having dinner with one of your classier forgeries,” Abby comments as she approaches. Eames snorts.
“If I were a forgery, my shoes would match my dress,” she points out. She crosses her ankles and the straps gleam, a navy that distinctly clashes with the peacock silk of her dress.
“What, I’m not worth matching shoes?” Abby asks, failing to hide a smile as she sits.
“I thought they did match until I actually tried them on at the same time,” Eames grumbles. “The shoes come from the most oddly-lit store I’ve ever seen.”
“I see. Any particular reason you decided to point this out?”
“You’re telling me you didn’t already notice?” Eames asks, raising an eyebrow, and Abby laughs a little wistfully.
“I don’t categorize everything, you know, particularly not when I’m off the clock.”
“Well, yes,” Eames says, shrugging, “but don’t tell me you weren’t looking at my legs.”
That laugh is more startled than anything else. Her earrings flash in the light, and Eames leans forward to look.
“Nice jewelry,” she says, tapping her own earlobe for emphasis. “Not what I thought you’d pick, though.”
“I didn’t, actually,” Abby says, running a finger along the curved edge. “They used to be Mal’s.”
“Aaah.” That makes more sense. Across the table, Abby fiddles with her napkin.
“Speaking of the Cobbs, how’s the spawn?” Eames asks, leaning back.
“You know, the Cobblets.”
“The – James and Phillipa? Doing well, as far as I know. Slaying dragons in the yard at all hours of the day, I think Cobb said.”
“Dragons? Why dragons?”
She shrugs, which is a bit distracting really, all shadows and sharp collarbones silhouetted under the silk. “Not my area of expertise. Maybe they saw a movie or something.”
They’re interrupted by the server at that point, and Eames’s odd craving for obscenely spiced chicken sparks off a conversation that starts with the difference between global cuisine and global food before wandering through an in-depth discussion about favorite cities, whether Dan Brown novels ought to be burned for the good of humanity (Abby’s perspective) or treasured as unintentional comedy (Eames’s), and the importance of accuracy in details versus accuracy in overall impression while in the dreamscape, depending on purpose.
All of the food is really delicious, which is satisfying on a number of levels, but the desserts are the real highlight. Abby pops one forkful of chocolate cake into her mouth and her eyes slide closed. “Mmm.” Eames almost accuses her of looking orgasmic, which isn’t in fact particularly accurate, but then she takes a bite of her pie and loses her train of thought.
They’re both scraping up the last few bites in surprisingly companionable silence when Abby chuckles quietly at her plate. Eames frowns at her.
“Ah – nothing. I was just remembering the first time we ate together, that’s all.”
“What, in Manchester?”
“No, no, New York, back when we were starting out, remember? You had a habit of dragging me to every seedy pizza place you could find.” The corner of her mouth twitches. “And then conning me into paying, as I recall.”
“Funny,” Eames drawls, “I don’t remember that bit.”
“Conning me? Are you actually going to try to deny that one?”
She considers. “No, probably not.” That scores her a brief grin. “What was amusing you about it?”
“Oh, just how much things have changed.” She gestures vaguely around her. “Not exactly where you’d have predicted we’d end up.”
“Very true,” Eames says, although truth be told she doesn’t remember ever feeling surprised at Abby’s maddening competence. “Whatever happened to that helpful little lady from Vermont that I used to know? So sweet and demure, it’s a pity she vanished.”
“From what I hear, she ran into some punk with fluorescent fishnets and a face full of metal,” Abby says with that look she gets, the one that’s a peculiar mixture of irritation and the victorious little smile that means she just dispatched the last projection. Eames runs her fingers along the stem of her empty wine glass.
“Did she really? Impressionable little waif, it sounds like.”
“Hmm,” Abby murmurs, and takes a sip of water, the ice clinking. “And yet there’s a distinct shortage of either facial piercings or brightly colored stockings around here.”
“And plenty of criminal tendencies,” Eames says, keeping her voice low. She runs a finger along the side of her nose, catching the tiny pockmark where the stud used to be, closed over now.
“You don’t get any credit for those,” Abby points out.
“Well, at least I stopped you from acting like you were turning in job applications,” Eames snorts.
Abby starts to say something and then stops, sighs, shakes her head, fiddling with her fork. “We’ve changed quite a bit,” she says. “Ourselves, specifically.”
“I’m not quite sure what you’re driving at here,” Eames admits after a moment.
“Nothing, really. Just a mood.”
“Fair enough,” Eames grants, fidgeting a bit. Her shoe bumps Abby’s ankle; she decides to ignore it.
Abby scrapes up the last chunk of frosting and pops it into her mouth. Eames watches, the mixture of chocolate and tines and tongue.
“I don’t suppose I could tempt you back to my hotel for a few hours,” she says, shifting slightly, just a little more seductive. Abby’s head snaps up.
“Eames, I know this is – that isn’t necessary. Debt paid in full, all obligations cleared. It’s fine.”
She rolls her eyes. “Yes, of course, because the only possible reason I could want to sleep with a beautiful woman is a misplaced sense of obligation. Clearly.”
Abby’s answering smile hovers somewhere between flattered and amused as she folds her hands primly behind her plate. “Well, in that case.”
“In that case?”
“Let’s get the check.”
Abby doesn’t stay the night, of course, although the two of them do doze for a bit, somewhat by accident. (It’s really rather pleasant; they ended up on the floor of the suite living room again, all the lights off and the stars just visible through the slats of the blinds, Abby smiling in the dimness as Eames leans against her shoulder, and the post-coital haze spreading over them both.)
It’s around one in the morning that Abby stirs, muttering about having her own hotel and not wanting to head home in this state, gesturing apologetically. Eames nods and pries herself off the floor, loans Abby a hairbrush and helps her wipe away the lipstick smudges. She misses one along the jaw, doesn’t notice until Abby’s actually walking out the door, and doesn’t bother mentioning it.
Abby has to leave the city a couple of days later – business in Buenos Aires, she says – and shortly after that, Eames joins up with some old associates working on surface-world theft. It’s a nice change of pace, up until she finds herself in a department story flicking through a stack of the exact kind of disgustingly boring shirts that she never, ever wears, simply because she would look so different wearing them. Time to get back in the dreamscape.
“Marianne Morganstern was looking for a forger,” her best contact says when she calls him up. “I heard you two knew each other?”
Marianne Morganstern is one of Abby’s lesser-used pseudonames. For fuck’s sake.
“Yeah, we’ve met,” she says. “Where’s she based?”
“Vienna, just now.”
Vienna is, oddly enough, a new city for Eames, and rather a nice one. Their current job is basically to enable some rather incompetent art forgers, but they’re going to pay well, and in the meantime Eames gets to forge half a dozen people within the course of one dream, which is enough to keep her interested. Also, they’re working out of an apartment above a vacant storefront, which means that there is rather a lot of sunlight and they leave the windows half-open, and God but Eames had forgotten what a proper spring feels like. The whole thing is really rather lovely.
Three weeks in, they’re all settled and busy; their architect fine-tuning a design, Abby settled at a cheap desk and neck-deep in research, and Eames tailoring a specific (original) forge while she waits for their extractor to finish running a test. The light beep of a ringing cell phone only half-registers as she fiddles with the length of her character’s hair, but then she notices Abby’s noncommittal yeses and nos getting progressively more grim. She glances sideways, noting Abby’s hand clenched around the phone, her half-hidden scowl.
“I remember,” Abby says; there’s a pause, and then the muscles in her arm practically spasm. “I miss her too,” she says, and Eames winces, wondering what’s going on. Abby reaches sideways, tapping against a couple of things on the desk before brushing a pile of books; she shoves once, hard, and they crash onto the floor, making everyone jump.
“Watch out!” Abby calls, staring at the wall. “Sorry, I have to go, I’ll call you back –” and she slams the phone shut. Both Eames and the architect are staring at her.
“Sorry about that, everyone,” she says tightly, standing. “I’ll be back in just a moment.” She heads for the hall; Eames hears the light clang of heels on a fire escape.
She picks up the books, leaving them deliberately haphazard, returns to her seat and taps her pencils against the legal pad. Huh.
“I’m stepping out for a minute,” she lies, and heads for the roof herself.
Abby is perched right on the edge, legs crossed over a three-story drop, a light swirl of smoke rising from the cigarette in her hand. Eames drops to a seat beside her, knocking her feet childishly against the brick.
“Care to explain what all that was about?” she asks after a moment, when Abby stays predictably silent.
“Cobb calling. He wanted to talk.”
Abby flicks ash off her cigarette; the sparks flicker as they tumble to the sidewalk. “It’s Mal’s birthday.”
Oh. “I see,” Eames says, very slowly. It’s a lie.
“She was one of my best friends. My first real friend besides Cobb. And –” Eames doesn’t fill the pause. “I keep forgetting that she’s been gone for so long.” She takes a brief drag on her cigarette and then holds it out to glare at it. “Fuck, this is the worst brand of cigarettes I’ve ever bought.”
“Here.” Eames fishes a replacement out of her jacket pocket and hands it over. “These aren’t bad.”
“Thanks.” She lights it off the old and drops the latter over the edge. “I’m sorry, I’m being ridiculous, it’s just –”
“Don’t,” Eames interrupts sharply, jabbing her in the arm. “Don’t.”
Abby shrugs. “All right, sorry.” She tries out the new cigarette and sighs in smoky relief. “I just – she could recite half a fucking library worth of sketches from all these stand-up comedians I’d never heard of. And do it well, too. I mean, not that I’m any judge of what makes a good stand-up comedian, but everyone I’ve ever seen listen to her thought she was funny.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, I mean, why would you? And it’s just – when Cobb wants to talk about her, it’s never that. Or about the way that she was about people, or –”
“Not quite what you think about when you think about her,” Eames says before she can stop herself, because dammit, she’s made a life out of reading people and how they feel about each other. Abby stares at her for a moment, and then stares out over the street and takes one long, slow, shuddering gasp of smoke, the cigarette trembling in her hands.
After a minute, Eames lights up one of her own.
They don’t say another word until Eames’s cigarette is most of the way gone and Abby’s already stubbed hers out on the roof and kept staring at the sky. Eames reaches over and squeezes her knee, soft and gentle.
“I’ll buy you dinner later,” she offers. Abby looks up and smiles wanly.
“Thank you,” she says, standing, and they head back down together. Luckily, the others on the team are smart enough to stay quiet.
Six hours and a change of plans later, Abby is pressed up against the wall of Eames’s tiny temporary apartment, blouse hanging unbuttoned and untucked over the too-tight waistband of her skirt, smiling for the first time all day.
“This is turning suspiciously habitual,” Eames whispers into her lips, and Abby shifts focus from her battle of wits with Eames’s overcomplicated belt buckle to raise an eyebrow at her.
“This is the third time we’ve done this in eighteen months.”
“Well, you can’t expect any decent math from me at this point,” she lies. Abby actually laughs, halfhearted but real, and Eames kisses her until neither of them can think anymore.
They don’t really mean anything by it, ever, but after that things do start turning into a habit – twice more on the Vienna job, more often on the next, almost regularly after that. Sometimes they get dinner first, sometimes they don’t bother; a few times, dead on their aching feet and almost too crabby to fuck, they order pizza and wolf it shamelessly, Eames’s legs stretched obnoxiously across Abby’s lap. The cities blur together into a string of hotels, sometimes Abby’s and sometimes Eames’s (never overnight, though – just easier that way). They don’t talk between jobs, of course, no reason to, but sooner or later collapsing on the couch and talking as her fingers inch up Abby’s thigh starts to be as much of a routine as anything else in Eames’s life.
It’s still a surprise when a contact reaches her with a message addressed to her and Abby both; more so when she counts up and realizes that they’re finishing up their fifth consecutive job together. Particularly given Abby’s Cobb-related history, that would look like Eames is the new partner. Fair enough.
She doesn’t mention it to Abby, and she doesn’t take the job. When the current one finishes up and Abby buggers off to do whatever it is she does (exactly what Eames does between jobs, i.e. watch movies and sleep too much, except that whenever she starts to think about the Cobbs she visits the odd art museum and bores herself to death), Eames has a few days of kicking herself for turning down any kind of work at all. Luckily, Ariadne gets in contact after a week, looking for a last-minute replacement on a heist.
“Depends on what you did to the last fellow,” Eames lies, adjusting the phone as she picks her shirts off the floor.
“I got sick of his excuses for not doing his job. You’ll be fine.”
“Hold on a second, are you spearheading this?”
“Yeah,” Ariadne says, deadpan.
“God, that makes me feel old.”
“Last time we worked together you were the baby of the team, pet,” Eames says, voicing her best stereotypical-maiden-aunt. “Has it really been long enough for that sweet little girl to be running her own show?”
“It’s been three years, and I wasn’t even sweet. Listen, are you taking the job?”
“I think your tolerance for bullshit has actually decreased with age, which is rather impressive. Yes, of course, when do you want me in Melbourne?”
“Soon. Also, can you fly here via Paris? I need a file collected from Miles, and I don’t want to fly out there myself.”
Collecting files from Miles, she can do. The problem is, that requires notifying him several days in advance so as to ensure that he won’t have her arrested, and this apparently sets off the strange and selective guilt-ridden spy network that is family, because she’s loitering impatiently about in an empty classroom when the door swings open and it isn’t Miles.
“Hello, Eames. How’ve you been?”
“Busy,” she says, resisting the urge to shove past him and out.
“Yeah, I heard. Picking something up for Ariadne, right?”
“Yes.” She chomps at the metaphorical bullet. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to talk to you, actually.” He grabs for the nearest chair and drops into it; Eames raises her eyebrows.
“Yeah. Look, ah – about you and Abby.”
Her fingers twitch towards clenched; she resists. “What about?”
“Are you together?”
“Well, seeing as neither of us is her and nobody else is in the room right now, I’d say no, we’re not together at the moment.”
He sighs. “Goddammit, Eames, don’t do this. Are you dating?”
There’s a coin on the heater beside her; she picks it up and flips it idly across the backs of her fingers. “Depends on the definition. We certainly haven’t formalized anything.”
“Then what is going on there?”
She flips the coin and catches it. “A lot of rather enjoyable sex and a great deal of mutual bitching, at least when we’re working the same jobs.”
Cobb visibly struggles not to pass judgment. “How long has this been happening?”
“Depends on what you’re referring to. The bitching has been going on since we met, so, Jesus Christ, around a decade now.” She digs out a cigarette in defiance of their location, but she isn’t quite pissed off enough to light it. “The sex has been going on for –” It occurs to her that she isn’t sure whether to count from Berlin or Vienna, so she settles on, “A while.”
“I didn’t think you liked each other much,” Cobb probes, folding his hands in and out.
Eames shrugs. “Eh, I don’t know. She’s almost entertaining, once you get her to forget about the poker up her ass. And she’s reliable.” She frowns, glancing around the room again in futile hope of some distraction. “Why are you bothering me about it?”
Cobb sighs, shoving himself to his feet. “I don’t – God, I wish Mal was here.” Eames blinks as he paces back and forth. “She’d be better at this, probably. She and Abby always seemed to be on the same page about everything, you know. Birthdays, Christmas, Mal would insist on a present that I didn’t think Abby would ever use, and I don’t know if she did, but she was always so happy to get it –”
“That’s very nice,” Eames interrupts, tossing her coin again. “Back to the question of what the hell you’re on about.”
“Sorry.” He shakes his head, sighs, fidgets for a moment, inspecting the windowpanes. “I… owe Abby a lot. I want her to be happy.” He shifts, bracing his hands against the nearest desk to eye Eames dead-on and close. “I don’t want anyone to compromise that happiness. Or to make her believe that she has something that she doesn’t.”
Eames stares at him for a moment, cigarette and coin forgotten, and then it hits her. “Oh, God, is this your idea of the pissed-off big brother speech? Break her heart and you’ll make sure I never walk again?”
Cobb reddens, but he stares her down, which is actually a remarkably unfamiliar experience at this point. “There are very few people who think of Abby as anyone other than an excellent point man. She stands by the ones who do. I don’t want to see anyone use that to hurt her, and I don’t want to see anyone betray that trust.”
It takes Eames several gaping moments to wind up her astonished rage; then she advances on him, slamming her palms to the scratched-up tabletop. “The sheer nerve of this is fucking ridiculous. Are you actually listening to yourself at this moment? First of all, she is a grown woman and she can take care of herself – she took care of the both of you for four fucking years, that ought to have been a goddamned hint. Second, even if she weren’t, where the hell do you get off sneaking around to manage her life for her? And third, you of all people have absolutely no right to talk to anyone about abusing a trust, and especially not about abusing Abby’s, you miserable fucking cunt.” She stops, breathing hard and half-surprised, but really, the woman nearly kills herself babysitting him around the world and now he gets concerned?
“Do you even know her actual name?” Cobb demands, tense and wincing but not backing off.
“Her projections call her Abby Whittemore, and that’s all the information I need. Get the fuck out before I throw you out.”
“I’m the one with a relative on faculty.”
“I’m the one carrying. Out, and mind your own fucking business.”
Cobb shrugs, standing, and waves his hands. “Looks like I don’t have much to worry about in any case. I’m sorry for bothering you.”
Eames doesn’t move until the door has been closed for a careful count of eighty; then she kicks the nearest desk with such vicious precision that it crashes onto its side and skids into another. She storms out by way of the first-floor window just to make sure that she avoids Cobb completely, stalks straight to Miles’s office to wait for him there, and collects the file in enough of an obvious temper that she can hear frightened grad students chittering as she stalks out.
That night she gets as far as the penultimate digit of Abby’s number half a dozen times, slamming the hotel phone down with a clatter that shakes the desk or snapping the cell shut hard enough that it almost breaks every single time. She doesn’t have the slightest clue what to say – it’s over or this isn’t even anything or do something about that asshole you call a friend or possibly just fuck off, you icy bitch, which doesn’t even make sense but is ridiculously tempting. The only thing that stops her is that they never call each other between jobs, and she isn’t going to be the one to start, even just for that.
She ends up with the hotel phone hanging off the hook, her cell phone on the floor by the wall, and her shortest skirt baring goosebump-coated thighs as she hunts down the seediest bar in the city. She doesn’t know if she’s looking for a fight or sex or what, but she ends up extraordinarily drunk on something that tastes like piss, and shortly after that it’s her fist in someone else’s eye. Things turn a little blurry after that, muscle-mass people and plenty of target, fingernails and mercilessness and the full awareness that this is the stupidest thing she’s ever done, and by some miracle all that happens is that she ends up puking on the sidewalk with a clump of hair ripped out, scratches down her arm, and a bruise turning purple on her jaw. None of them hurt as much as the hangover she develops the next morning, and that – plus a halfhearted shower – is the state in which she arrives in Melbourne.
It calls for more than a little fast talking when she arrives. She’s worked, and worked well, in far worse condition than this, but Ariadne wants to chuck her straight back to Europe. (Ariadne has, since the Fischer job, discovered pixie cuts, fedoras, and the joys of a good gun; she has also run into a few vivid lessons about the price of incompetence, judging by the clear pink scar on her cheek and the steely meticulousness of her methods.)
The architect runs her team hard, once she’s convinced that they belong there; in the fragile half-hours when Eames is awake enough to think and not frantically studying the case, she finds it vaguely reminiscent of Abby at her most tight-wound and withdrawn, and the sensation is bizarrely unfamiliar. Luckily, Eames is too busy cramming her mind with methods and approaches, air ducts and hand gestures, to really think about it.
“There’s a reason we didn’t all become grad students,” she grumbles late one night, gulping bitter coffee as if it’s the elixir of life as she goes through security tapes.
“You could have been,” Ariadne says, shifting a detail of her model millimeters to the left.
It’s blatantly untrue, but she doesn’t feel like sharing that, so she drops the subject in favor of the exact tilt of her target’s head as he talks.
That detail isn’t too hard to commit to memory, but some of them are harder, particularly since the ideal timeframe turns out to be two weeks; Eames barely sleeps outside of dreamspace by the end, but she’s ready in time.
It isn’t an overly complicated con – the core principle is that they fabricate standard business meetings – but it calls for solid, detail-by-detail replication of reality. Razor-sharp work from start to finish, and it lasts nearly twelve hours in dream-time without a rest. Eames’s headache starts to build around hour six and clings to her from forge to forge; she pulls off the job, but by the time they wake she’s headed for a full-on migraine.
“Good work, everyone,” Ariadne tells them, hands flickering over the PASIV without her evident supervision as she packs up. Eames grimaces cheerfully about and flees back to her hotel room, which is thankfully equipped with obscenely thick blinds and the blessed glory of her bed.
Naturally, she’s only barely settled in when the phone rings. Normally she’d throw something at it, but nobody should be able to reach that number besides the hotel management, which shouldn’t be calling her.
“What?” she snaps, tugging the pillow halfway over her head in a pointless attempt to block out everything.
“Check your damn email, Eames.” Abby. Of course.
“What the hell?”
“Look, I don’t want to go through the whole explanation right now –”
“I feel like a herd of lions went on a drunken rampage through my head, I’ve been forging for twelve hours solid, and I’ve been running on three hours’ uninterrupted sleep for the past week. I am fucked if I’m going to get my computer out and sort through whatever you put on the email. Either explain or go away.”
“Your manners are impeccable.”
“Don’t even. They would be if I wanted them that way.”
Abby tsks, somewhere between sympathetic and scolding. “Anyway. Condensed version, Saito is running a complicated setup, three interconnected marks, none straightforward. It looks like a challenge, but doable, and we’ll be working to our own schedule and with pretty much whatever we need for resources. That’s in addition to pay – we don’t have exact figures for that yet, but we’re talking a fortune at his base offer.”
“Sounds wonderful. There a reason it was so goddamn urgent?”
“Well, for one thing, I’d already waited two weeks. For another, you’re my cheapest contact to Ariadne at the moment, and I wanted you to send word on to her before you lost contact. Rumor set your job together at ending fairly soon.”
“Forty-five minutes ago, actually.”
“Ahh. In that case, sorry about this.”
“Yeah, I’m in a mood for a reason. Anyway, Ariadne has business in the city for a week or two still, so I’ll get it all to her tomorrow. How long before you need us in Tokyo?”
“He’s running this out of New York, actually. Think you’ll take it?”
“Probably,” Eames grumbles, burying her pounding head in another pillow. “Given our mutual taste in jobs and the kind of money he pays. I’ll let you know in the morning.”
“Great. Let me know when you’re flying in and I’ll save you the trial by taxi stand.”
“I can catch a goddamn taxi.” Suffocating herself in the pillow isn’t working; she rolls sideways and drags the comforter almost to her ears. Abby huffs with quiet laughter on the other end of the line.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. They’ve gotten rarer. Anyway, I’ll see you. Sleep well.” She disconnects, and Eames flops backwards into the pillows.
Four days later she weaves, ducks, and occasionally shoves her way through the crowds at JFK to find the point woman leaning against the wall, compact umbrella swinging from her hand.
“The one time in your life you have an excuse to be late, you’re willing to hurt people to be on time,” Abby drawls as Eames shoves past a particularly obnoxious bearded fellow shouting into a cell phone.
“First of all, I’m not hurting anyone by sane standards, and second, this is hardly the only time I have a reason to be late. Pleasure to see you too.”
“As always. That all your luggage?”
Eames eyes the wheeled suitcase, the duffel currently dragging her shoulders lopsided, and the carryon thumping against her leg. “No, I’ve got an infinite carpetbag lying around here somewhere.”
“No harm in checking, Ms. Eames. Come on, then.” She shoves off the wall and towards the exit, slow enough for Eames to fall into step beside her.
“As a matter of interest, darling, how many times do you have to sleep with someone before you stop calling them Miss?”
“I’ll drop it when you stop with the pet names. All of them, not just one.”
“Damn. What if I stop it around teammates?”
“Then I’ll only call you Ms. Eames when we’re in private. Here, give me that.” She snags the duffel one-handed, slinging it over her own shoulder before the forger has time to do anything but blink.
“Er, thank you.”
“No problem. At least this way you won’t hit anyone with it.”
“Your faith in my coordination is astounding,” Eames drawls as they reach the exit.
“My faith in your coordination is based off of careful observation. You don’t care enough about irritating anyone here to bother paying attention.”
“Well, I wasn’t hitting you, so why do you care?”
Abby shrugs, shoulder rolling under the strap. “Basic moral principles?” she deadpans. Eames muffles a laugh – somewhat – against the back of her hand.
“Stick close to me,” Abby instructs, undoing the ties on the umbrella and shifting Eames’s duffle to her other shoulder. “This thing isn’t quite big enough for two people and this many bags.”
“Does it really matter? It’s only a little water.”
“No, it isn’t.” They’re almost out the doors by this point. Eames, confronted with the sheets of water pounding out of the sky and sliding sideways in rippled miniature waves across the pavement, blinks twice.
“Dammit, I hate it when you’re right.”
“Funny, since usually when I’m right it means that you don’t get soaked, sick, or shot.” She manages to maneuver the two of them out and pop the umbrella up in one motion, and Eames sidles a bit closer, wishing she’d brought a coat. By the time they make it to Abby’s car – a small silver rental, same basic kind she always gets – both of them are soaked to the knees, and Eames is glaring at the atmosphere as if she can intimidate it into being warm enough that she won’t shiver. Abby cranks up the heat the instant she has the keys in the ignition.
“Don’t take it out now,” she says, sliding the car into gear, “but there’s a spare gun in the glove compartment, if you’re missing one. And no, it isn’t a Glock.”
“Why, Abby,” Eames murmurs, pressing a hand to her chest with all the melodrama she can muster, “I’m touched.” The thing is, though, she’s been tapping her hand vaguely against her jacket pockets and the side of her leg all through the plane ride, missing the familiar pressure of a weapon. It’s as much a part of flying as the uncomfortable seats and the soporific safety speeches; probably happens to Abby too.
Still nice not to have to deal with the discomfort longer than need be, even if it doesn’t bother her nearly as much now as it did when she was on her own.
“Anyway,” Abby says, completely ignoring a driver whom Eames feels ought to flipped off immediately, “what the hell did you say to Cobb?”
That takes a little mental backtracking. “What, you mean in Paris? How did you know about that one?”
“He told me about it. Fairly simple methods.”
“Ah.” Eames sighs. “What was it he said?”
“Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what he was driving at. He seemed to be operating under the idea that we were in some sort of love, or something like that.”
Eames snorts. “Oh, there’s a good one. I can just see us settling in some tiny house with a cat and lilacs. We’d burn it down in a week.” Abby doesn’t respond for a moment, squinting out the window at the pounding water, and Eames half-chokes, trying to figure out if she could possibly have misinterpreted things that badly. “Er, that is – I mean to say, you’re not –”
“What? Oh, oh God no, I should damn well hope not.” The rushed flood of the assurance and the astonishment on her face as she glances away from the steering wheel long enough to goggle reassure Eames’s faith in her own abilities. “I’d really prefer that neither of us got killed anytime soon, for one thing.”
“You’re right, that’s a far more probable outcome.” They’re out of the airport now, and Eames tugs her borrowed weapon out of the gun compartment: a Heckler & Koch USP Compact, one of her favorites but common enough to be entirely familiar against the heel of her hand. It’s a pleasant reassurance, particularly coupled with the knowledge that if Abby is handing her this, than the point woman is armed as well. Realistically speaking, being killed is the only likely outcome regardless of whether they lose their heads over each other, but it’s unlikely to happen just now.
“Anyway,” Abby says briskly, pulling past a particularly slow-moving businessman headbanging away to God-knows-what, “are you tired?”
“Tired? Not particularly, no. I slept a bit on the plane.” She glances from the quiet tap-tap of Abby’s fingers against the wheel to the slight smile as she maneuvers the roads. “Your place, I take it?”
“If you’ve no objections.” The wind picks up, and she curses as gallons of water smash horizontally against the windshield. “Sorry, I need to focus on the driving just now.”
The threat of watery death on ostensibly dry land is enough to make Eames shut up, at least until she realizes that they’re headed an odd direction. “Which hotel are you staying at?” she asks, frowning at the sodden city. Abby clears her throat.
“Actually, I’m in an apartment at the moment.”
“Wait, do you know how long we’re going to be here already?” (Abby is, by and large, less likely to get an apartment than even Eames.)
“No, I don’t. I bought the place years ago and never got around to putting on the market.” The careful neutrality in her voice is one she uses when she’s dodging an issue, and Eames doesn’t generally hear it directed at her these days. She turns the issue over.
“Bought it around six years ago, I take it?”
Abby looks away from the road long enough for Eames to pick up on gratitude-tinged relief soaking through the warning: enough. “Yes.”
Eames leaves it at a noncommittal hum.
The rain only gets worse, until it’s bad enough to pull over and buy dinner (oversized sizzling mozzarella sticks and taco salad sprawling across the plate, messy undignified food covered in strings of molten cheese and sauce that sticks and smudges on their cheeks.) By the time they make it to Abby’s apartment – all cool shine and crisp corners, probably purchased with the full take from one of her first big jobs – it’s past nine.
“The bedroom’s through that door,” Abby says, toeing off her shoes. Eames does the same, somewhat begrudgingly, and runs the pad of her thumb very lightly along the side of Abby’s throat, base of her jaw down to the collarbone. When she rests her fingers against the edge of her shoulder, just underneath the cotton blouse, Abby arches catlike into the touch and gestures towards the bedroom.
“I have to clean this house, Eames,” she says. “Bed, this time.”
“So dull,” Eames mutters, but she complies, stripping as she goes, fingers teasing and restrained against Abby’s throat until she can push the bedspread back and sink into the crisp cotton. Abby’s buttons are easy work, even one-handed.
The sex ends up slow, almost languid, less about hunger or teasing and more about the familiar shape and sense of muscle and breasts and fingers and lips. By the time it’s over they’re deeply tangled into each other, sticky and satisfied, and it takes a long and dozy while before Eames forces herself to open her eyes properly.
“Damn it, I never did book a hotel.”
“You didn’t book in advance?” Abby scolds sleepily, forehead still resting against Eames’s shoulder. “Oh, right, too lazy to cover your tracks.”
“Not too lazy, considered it more effort than getting a room when I got here.” She tries to persuade herself that she needs to get out of the bed, and can’t quite do it. “What’s the nearest place?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Abby grumbles, pulling the blankets closer around them. “Stay. I can grab your clothes out of the car in the morning.”
“That would work too,” Eames agrees, the ruefulness muffled by weariness and warmth. “Rather well, actually.” She closes her eyes again.
When she wakes, it’s surprisingly easy to orient herself: first Abby, easy to recognize, and the rest of the setting – first bed, then flat – is fairly easy to deduce. By some miracle, they still possess about equal shares in the blankets.
Slipping out of the bed without waking Abby is easier than she might have expected; the point woman mumbles something that sounds like a mixture of obscenities and buries her face in the pillow. Eames might take a moment to chuckle at her attempts to meld with the bed, but she’s entirely naked except for one forgotten sock and shivering slightly in the cool apartment air. Her clothes – the ones not strewn across the apartment – are still down in the car.
Taking quick stock of the room reveals a terry-cloth bathrobe hung over a plain desk chair; Eames shrugs into it, enjoying the softness against her bare skin, and discovers a hotel logo emblazoned on the pocket. A little petty theft, apparently, to go along with all these felonies. The matchbook in the pocket is labeled in Mandarin, faded with age, and mostly empty. Oh well; Eames won’t need a cigarette for another half-hour or so anyway.
Abby’s kitchen is, on first glance, a case of pristinely gleaming tile raised to an art form. It proves, on further inspection, to be almost completely empty. Eames is elbow-deep in the fridge for the third time, hoping that something edible will appear to assure her that this is in fact Abby’s house, when she hears footsteps behind her.
“Oh, go-oo-ahd,” Abby yawns. “I thought you’d left.”
“If I had, I would’ve woken you up to let you know,” Eames says without extracting her head from the fridge. “Your coffeemaker is doing something esoteric that I’m fairly sure is generating coffee, but you might want to check in case I accidentally programmed it to explode on us. Are you aware that you have no food in the house besides a box of crackers and one slice of pizza?”
“I think there’s the remains of a box of cereal in one of the cupboards, but yes, I know. If you know what’s in the fridge, stop wasting power, I’m going to have to actually pay the bill.”
“It’s not like you have to worry about that,” Eames snorts, obeying. “And that cereal isn’t going to taste very good when you don’t have any milk.”
“Damn, I knew there was something I forgot to do on the way back from the airport. I’m blaming you for that one.” Abby, wrapped up in a bathrobe that looks to be unaffiliated with anything and a little bit too small, is bent over her coffeemaker, eyeing it as if it has some stranger’s business secrets hidden in it somehow. “I think you managed to get this to work right, but I’m not sure.”
“You can’t operate your own coffeemaker?” Eames asks, folding her arms as she leans against the counter. It’s more than a little out of character for Abby, who shrugs, looking slightly defensive.
“I’ve only been here for three days, and this is the first time I’ve been back here since Mal died.” She coughs and turns away to rummage through her shelves. “Besides, I’ve been mostly eating out.”
“Somehow I noticed,” Eames says somewhat less dryly than she could, mostly to watch the tips of Abby’s ears turn pink. “By the way, your coffeemaker might be done. Or about to kill us, I’m not sure.”
“Have you actually encountered an exploding coffeemaker at some point and that’s contributing to the paranoia?” Abby asks, wrestling with the handle on the pot. “Jesus Christ, I think they actually managed to make this thing harder to operate than a PASIV.”
“That takes so much incompetence it’s almost a talent,” Eames agrees as Abby finally persuades the thing to pop free. “Your mugs are in the cabinet over the stove.”
“I knew that much, but thank you.” She digs out a plain piece of pale-blue china, sloshes it full of coffee, and hands it off to Eames, who takes it with some surprise.
“My thanks.” The effect is thoroughly ruined when she takes a sip and immediately sprays it into the sink, gagging. “Fuck, this tastes disgusting.”
“Wait, why – did you find this in the cupboard?”
“Where else would I have found it?”
Abby sighs, rubbing her eyes. “Sorry, wasn’t thinking. Yeah, that stuff was some of what I left here when I moved out the last time. I must have forgotten to throw it out.”
“So this coffee is old enough to send to kindergarten, is that what you’re saying here?”
The two of them glance from the coffeepot to Eames’s mug to the sink, then back to each other in almost perfect synchronization.
“There’s a café down the street,” Abby says. “Go hit the shower, I’ll throw on something temporary and go get your bags.”
“That sounds like a much better plan,” Eames says, dumping her mug in the sink. “Somehow I don’t think either of us is cut out for domesticity.”
Abby snorts. “Don’t use up all the hot water, I’m going to shower after you.”
Forty-five minutes later, they’re settled in the rather cutesy blue-washed café, Eames watching with amusement as Abby pours spoonful after spoonful of sugar into her tea cup.
“You and your sweet tooth,” she says, shaking her head. She can generally take or leave tea, with or without enhancements, but what she’s currently drinking – something with a name that she didn’t quite process, flavored with nothing but lemon mostly to emphasize her point – is pretty good.
“Thank you for your input, Ms. Eames. How many cigarettes are you going to smoke today?” Abby asks, stirring her tea properly. Eames rolls her eyes.
“Fewer than you are, I suspect.”
“Well, now you’re going to deliberately skew the numbers, so yes.” She lifts the tea to her lips and hums softly, eyes sliding closed. Eames sips her own, smiling.
“I have to say, this is rather more enjoyable than our usual system,” she says, settling her teacup back into its saucer. Abby nods.
“Definitely. I think we’re both getting a bit old for the walk of shame.”
“Does it count as a walk of shame when it’s still in the middle of the night?” Eames asks idly, stirring her tea for no particular purpose.
“It does when you have to get past two doormen and a taxi driver who wants to chat.”
“This is true,” Eames says, grimacing with the memories of one particular taxi driver who’d mistaken her for a prostitute. (She’d told him she was and then spun an elaborate tale about obscenely high rates and dressing down somewhat for the exotic tastes of a famous regular client, but that was entirely beside the point.) “A pity you don’t have handy apartments tucked away in every city.”
“We can share a hotel room next time,” Abby says, leaning back in her chair. They’re at forty-five degrees to each other at the round table, backs to the window, and the sunlight is picking out a few flyaway strands that look a little pale. Eames thinks it’s about time, all things considered, although it may be a trick of the light. “At least that way you’ll be sure to have one.”
“How much will you mock me if I argue that I’m perfectly capable of booking my own hotel room?”
Abby eyes her over the rim of her teacup, eyebrows eloquently raised.
“Right then.” She is saved from any further losses of dignity by the arrival of the waitress with their food, which is surprisingly hearty considering the affected delicacy of the décor. This could be happening in dozens of cities that Eames could name, she considers, and probably several others not on that list; the basic elements – herself, Abby, breakfast, sunlight – could fit precisely like this into almost anywhere in the world. It’s rather a nice thought.
Eames is mostly done with her food – eggs and bacon – well before Abby is done with her waffles, since the point woman has picked up a newspaper. She swipes a syrup-saturated strawberry with no response, and initially intends to leave it be, but it’s extraordinarily good. She inches her fingers across the tablecloth for another.
Abby, of course, pins her hand to the table without looking up. “Get your own next time, Eames.”
“Have I ever complimented you on your kindly and generous nature?” Eames asks, trying – somewhat – to twist away. Abby’s using more than a tiny bit of her strength, so she gives that up and flips her hand upwards, cupping her fingers around Abby’s cool ones. The point woman’s grip softens slightly, enough that Eames could slip free without a struggle if she were so inclined.
“This is going to make it rather difficult for me to finish my food,” she protests, running her finger along Abby’s. The point woman manages to turn a page in the paper one-handed, flapping it noisily as she does.
“You should have thought of that earlier,” she says, smile lurking in her voice even if she’s managing to keep it from her lips. “Forethought saves lives.”
“So does food, under the right circumstances.”
“Indeed it does, but not these.”
It occurs to Eames that they could be doing this for years to come, dipping in and out of each other’s lives, splitting hotel rooms and buying breakfast after sinking into each other’s shapes. The threat of permanence is entirely absent, but this could happen rather indefinitely, until they get too slow to escape the realities of the life they’ve chosen.
Leaning back in the sunlight and lightly squeezing Abby’s hand, she thinks that there are worse things to do in the meantime. In fact, she rather likes the idea.