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Butterfly Day

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"Who's in the next room?--who?
A figure wan
With a message to one in there of something due?
Shall I know him anon?"
"Yea he; and he brought such; and you'll know him anon."

- Thomas Hardy


Eames ran down the hallway as fast as his five-inch stilettos would allow. Someone had already pulled the fire alarm on this floor, and Eames was willing to bet it had been Arthur. A veritable shower rained down from the sprinklers above, making it hard to hear anyone coming (and utterly ruining his lovely Terani evening gown, some small part of him that was the forgery mourned – a part he quickly suppressed.)

Footsteps echoed behind him and he whipped around, firing his Sig blindly into the artificial rain. A masculine cry of pain echoed down from the other end of the hallway, followed oddly by a cheer.

The projections were becoming bloody unhinged. Emphasis on bloody.

Eames took the rest of the hallway at a sprint, snagging a fresh gun-clip from his bra as he went and shoving it into his gun. It seemed that the mark's security wasn't too concerned with catching him, just yet. This was still all about the chase. They still wanted him running – wanted him panicked and scared.

They'd killed Cobb in a grisly way, but evidently were content to take their time with Eames. Apparently Mr. Mitchell had a subconscious desire to hunt down women who looked like his ex-wife. The forgery had at least given him opportunity to escape and regroup for plan B.

Eames was man enough to know when he needed to be a woman.

He'd turned two more corners before he heard rapid gunfire coming down the next hallway. Eames slowed: through the artificial rain he caught sight of a hunched figure, hurriedly ducking into a side conference room and using the door jam for scant cover.

Arthur seemed to sense his presence at the same time and swung around to face him, gun leveled.

"It's me!" Eames yelled, raising his hands.

Arthur's eyes widened in recognition a split second too late and jerked his wrist upward. The gun went off and a section of wall just over Eames' head exploded into bits of plaster.

"Shit!" Eames cursed as he dodged the debris. He pushed aside a lock of wet hair and caught a glimpse of his own reflection in a standing puddle – blonde, slim, with a wide-eyed frightened doe expression. He concentrated, seeking out his own features in the face of a stranger. And when he joined Arthur in his hideout he was his dashing self once again; golden evening dress exchanged for foggy grey trousers and a sports jacket. And finally out of those heels, thank God.

"Bit twitchy aren't we?" Eames said, with a grin. "Been having trouble with the projections?"

Arthur gave him a glare reminiscent of an annoyed, wet cat. It helped that he was soaked to the skin, his hair nearly plastered to his head, washed of all gel and dripping loosely about his ears. He offered no apology for nearly shooting Eames in the face, only asked, "Where's Dom?"

"Dead." Eames stuck his head around the door, and quickly pulled back as several fresh shots rang out from down the hall. "The mark is crazy, you know? Cobb was torn limb-from-limb right as we arrived there. I was only able to get back to you because Mitchell prefers to play with his women before killing them."

Arthur winced. "Time?"

"I give it eleven minutes. Less if Cobb decides to yank us out early."

Calmly, Arthur nodded and leaned out of the doorway to fire. A charging projection in a lavender suit— what kind of sick mind dressed their security in purple? – went down, thrashing and screaming only six meters away. Arthur whipped back just as several more projections returned fire and Eames picked up the slack, nearly emptying his clip all over again to give them breathing room.

"The projections are getting more aggressive," Arthur said, pausing to palm dripping water out of his eyes. "Do you still think you can still open that safe if we get down there?"

"Easy as falling off a log, darling."

Arthur shot him a half-irritated scowl for the pet name, but his brown eyes glinted devilishly: the was the look of a man who had just willingly signed himself on for a suicide-mission. "Okay, let's do it." And he turned to rummage through a smart looking backpack, coming out with a grenade. Taking the pin out with his teeth, Arthur threw the grenade down the hallway.

Then Eames and Arthur ran for their lives, squelching through puddles in the carpet. Another lavender-suited projection ran out after them with something like a war cry. Eames plugged him twice in the gut without breaking step.

The explosions went off with a vengeance, shaking the entire hallway. Eames staggered, but Arthur was there – one hand closing around his upper arm, the other placed lightly on the small of his back as if to steady him. Their eyes met, briefly.

There was a sudden, unearthly howl echoing down their hallway, and muffled through the walls – something inhuman and almost animal. It was the projections, screaming after the intruders, wordless and utterly mindless.

Eames dared not to look back. He and Arthur ran to the elevator like the hounds of hell were after them. Once inside, Eames mashed the close button, only breathing an audible sigh as the doors shut and the howling stopped.

"You know," Eames said with forced casualness. "I think you just pissed them off with that grenade."

The point man's face was ashen as he shook his head, his lips pressed into a thin, serious line. "This sort of instability should have shown up in the background checks. I was thorough."

"I have no doubt about that, darling," Eames said, thinking again of how viciously the projections had torn into Cobb. After he was dead, a couple of them had gone after one another. Eames shuddered. "It's possible for these things to remain untreated and unreported."

Again, Arthur shook his head. "No. I missed something. I was sloppy." Then, lower, almost a mutter. "Distracted."

"Distracted?" Eames repeated with a glance to him, but Arthur wouldn't look at him.

The elevator door opened with a soft ding and Eames was initially relived to see that the sprinklers had not gone off on this floor. Then he stepped out into the hall.

It had changed.

The layout of the dream had been a Mallory Cobb special: what looked like a typical office-building on the surface was instead a maze-like warren, complete with three separate floors full of exits and side-passages to keep projections on their toes, and an air-duct system if things really got hairy.

As Mal was currently under the weather and unable to join them for this jaunt, Arthur had taken over the architecture and, naturally, had furnished the layout with boring décor of washed out earth-tones, frosted windows, and uninspired light fixtures.

The floor they stepped into now, however, was nothing of the sort.

The walls were painted a deep purple, almost voluminous black in areas of shadow with low hanging lounge lamps strung from the ceiling, and what looked like mauve shag carpeting.

All in all, Eames felt like he had walked into a seventies-style love nest.

"Darling," he said, his lips ticking upward in a smile. "I didn't know you had it in you."

Arthur's scowl deepened. "I didn't do this."

Which went far to explain Arthur's foul mood. It seemed that their mark had a forceful personality – quite stubborn (and possibly insane) to wrestle control of a dream from Arthur. Eames should know. He'd tried it before.

Eames cleared his throat. "Right. Well, let's get this over with shall we?"

Guns drawn, they made their way down the hallway.

The décor may have changed, but luckily the layout remained much the same. And it was, for the time being, empty of violent projections. Eames and Arthur turned right, then left and right one last time, following a pre-designed plan to the safe-room.

The hallway came to an abrupt end and Eames' mind briefly stalled out as he tried to remember what seeing butterflies in a dream were supposed to represent. Sexual frustration? Longing?

It hardly mattered, because Mitchell had them in spades.

Where one door to the safe-room was supposed to be, two now stood. And covering every inch of them were butterflies – butterflies of every conceivable shape and size, a few so large Eames was sure could not possibly exist in the real world. They blanketed each door so thickly they crawled over each other, their wings placidly rising and falling, attracted like an iron filling to a magnet.

Conveniently, they were also color-coded: the door on the right sparkled with thousands of deep blue wings. The left stood equally stunning in vibrant red.

Well red and blue do make purple, Eames thought, eyes falling again to the oddly painted walls. Maybe their mark had some sort of split-personality issues.

He cocked an eyebrow at Arthur. "Door number one or door number two, darling?"

On the heels of his words came a distant elevator ding. The projections were following. Arthur glanced quickly back, hesitated, and then nodded to the blue door.

Eames reached for the doorknob. The butterflies all came up at once, drifting up and away in a burst of wings of every shade of blue, from electric sky blue to deep mauve – leaving behind a plain, steel door.

Arthur made an annoyed sound, slapping away the few butterflies that had tried to linger in his hair. Eames had to quickly turn away to keep from laughing, and opened the door. Together, they quickly ducked in.

The room beyond was small and had a distinctly unfinished look about it – sheetrock showing through bare walls, and was completely featureless save for a small steel safe with a digital keypad mounted in the back.

Eames' stomach sank. "Electronic," he muttered. "Brilliant."

"Is there a problem?" Arthur asked, voice cool as he closed and locked the steel door behind them, thankfully free of butterflies on this side.

"No, but this may take awhile to crack. Be sure you're ready."

Eames watched Arthur nod and position himself before the door – all well-tailored lines and dangerous confidence.

Turning his attention back to the digital pad, Eames attempted the code Cobb had tried to plant into the mark's mind upon their first meeting: seventeen-seventeen. But the keypad only beeped and errored out.

And this was why he loathed electronic safes. Fickle things, especially in dreams. "The code didn't take," Eames called over his shoulder. "What's Mitchell's birth date?"

"February twenty-fifth, nineteen sixty eight," Arthur called just as a loud slam impacted against the other side of the steel door. The projections had found them.

Eames keyed in the numbers only to have the pad beep at him again.

There was a horrendously loud bang and Eames glanced back to see a portion of the metal door had actually bulged in under the force of a blow. Arthur stood still, calm, and collected before it, but thumbed the safety off of his gun.

"This door won't hold for long Mr. Eames."

"This is going to take a little time, love," he answered, and turned back, frowning at the safe. This wasn't working. It was time to improvise.

Holstering his gun, Eames concentrated instead on the idea of a wired-card with an attached reader. Then, reaching into his vest pocket, he pulled one out.

Changing objects within the dream with already hypersensitive projections was a risky prospect at best. Still, they only had a few minutes before the kick and a little imagination couldn't possibly—

The steel door abruptly shook under the force of multiple blows, sounding as if there were a dozen fists pounding upon it. Eames cursed and Arthur turned to glare accusingly at him.

"What did you—"

Arthur stopped as a meaty hand literally punched through the thin sheetrock wall just beside the door, grasping for his arm. Arthur jerked back, firing twice in automatic snapshot. There was a scream and hand retracted.

And then, as if that were the watershed moment, the unearthly howling started again.

"You have two minutes!" Arthur yelled, backing a step.

Eames would have personally put their time at less than that, especially since the door looked closer than it had been before, indicating the room was shrinking. But for once he didn't argue and returned his attention to the safe. The card slid into the slot and he watched the tiny screen flash through a series of numbers, hunting for the right one.

Eames heard several more shots and then a panicked yelp. He looked back just in time to see several hands punch through the thin sheetrock at once, grabbing Arthur and hauling him to the slowly advancing wall.

Oh hell, they were going to tear him apart bit-by-bit just like they did with Cobb.

Eames didn't think – only reacted. It happened like that in dreams sometimes.

Abandoning the safe, he leapt over and grabbed Arthur around the middle. Then with a yank backwards, he ripped him away.

Arthur twisted in his grasp. "What are you doing? Get back to the safe!"

Eames saw a glint of steel in one of the grasping hands and heard the crack of gunfire.

Sudden pain sent him down onto his knees, hands over his stomach.

Arthur yelled something indistinguishable and fired back. Then, abruptly, he was in front of Eames, shoving his hands away–warm and sticky with blood.

"Shit, shit, shit," Arthur muttered and met his gaze. Fear, irritation, and a distant sort of sorrow in his eyes.

The bullet had hit something vital, maybe an artery, and Eames knew he was bleeding out – it had happened before, like this, and it wasn't the sort of sensation he could ever forget; the lethargy in his limbs, the coppery taste of his own blood, and how much harder it was, suddenly, to breathe.

It seemed to take all of his strength to lift his head and see the card reader, still dangling from the safe. It was flashing green. Unlocked.

"Darling," he rasped, and tried to point, but Arthur was looking behind him, his eyes going wide.

The metal butterfly-door collapsed inward, torn from the hinges, and lavender suited projections fell in, scrambling over one another to get at them. Arthur lifted his gun, the look in his eyes terrible. Eames felt a cold pressure on his brow and then –

 

****

He came awake with a start to see Cobb hovering nearly over him.

"Did you get it?" Cobb demanded. "The safe?"

"Oh hell," Eames groaned, shaking his head. Then, with one quick movement he reached over to Arthur – he was still asleep and at this time probably at the mercy of whatever that raving lunatic's projections decided to do to him. Eames took hold of the top of the lawn-chair and unceremoniously dumped Arthur out of it.

The impromptu kick worked. Arthur started flailing on his way down, still apparently caught in the throes of the dream, and came awake wide-eyed.

Their mark, Mr. Mitchell, was laying face down upon a massage-table. He was rather tall, but otherwise completely unremarkable; thin, gray, and balding. He started to twitch, head lolling back and forth as the dream collapsed and he came awake. Eames reached for the PASIV kit and the small vials stored within, but Cobb was already at the mark's side, jamming a syringe urgently into his arm. Mitchell's movements slowed, then stopped.

The quick acting sedative should give them a half-hour. Forty-five minutes tops. But it wasn't Somnacin: it didn't inspire dreaming. The job was done.

Arthur, meanwhile, regained his feet and pulled the cannula from his arm. "You should never have come after me," he told Eames, voice low and angry. "You almost had it."

He was right of course, but Eames was never one to let something like that ruffle his feathers. "You're welcome, Arthur, for saving you from a quite painful death."

Arthur took one menacing step closer to him. His hands balled into fists. "Putting myself in danger is my job. If you stuck to yours we would have got what we came for."

"Children," Cobb said loudly, coming between them. "This isn't the time." He nodded meaningfully towards Mr. Mitchell. With any luck, he would think he merely fell asleep after a lengthy session. "We need to leave."

Arthur turned away with a loud, expelled breath and Eames rolled his shoulder in a shrug. He was quick to make his way out, knowing full well Cobb's policies of every man for himself after a job gone bad.

They had failed, and dammit all to hell, Arthur was right. It had been his fault.

 

****

"Door number one or door number two, darling?" Eames asked.

His words were followed by the sound Arthur had been dreading: a distant elevator ding. The projections had found their trail.

Arthur only hesitated for a moment before he nodded to the red door.

He covered Eames as the other man stepped forward to open the way, but moment Eames reached for the doorknob the door seemed to explode in butterfly wings. They flew all up at once, bathing them in a moment in every red hue imaginable. They were harmless, although some, irritatingly, tried to land on Arthur. He quickly batted them away.

The door hidden underneath the insects looked to be a slab of metal, though thankfully unlocked. Together, he and Eames stepped inside.

The room beyond was as oddly furnished as the rest of this floor. The walls were still deep purple (reminding Arthur strongly of the backroom of a strip-club) but covered in a new texture, soft like crushed velvet. There was a long rectangular conference table in the middle, as if the dream were still the office building it was suppose to be. In the far corner sat a heavy combination safe, gilded with gold.

Eames smiled jauntily at the sight of it and said, "I'll have it open in a tick, love," before heading over.

Arthur took point at the door and concentrated on the idea of steel reinforced wall. Nothing changed, although it should have. This was hisdream. It seemed, though, that Mitchell had taken over the architecture from him.

His jaw clenched. This wasn't right. There were no signs the mark had any experience with lucid dreaming. He had been thorough, damn it!

Behind him, Eames made a soft, satisfied sound in his throat. Arthur glanced back to see the door to the safe open and the other man reaching inside.

The self-satisfied smile suddenly slid off Eames' face, and he jerked his hand back sharply – slicked red with bright blood.

Arthur was at his side before he could think about what he was doing, grabbing Eames' wrist and inspecting the hand for damage. "What happened?"

"Nothing," Eames said, staring at his own hand, but more curious than alarmed. "The blood's not mine." And both men jumped as a loud bang sounded from the front of the room – an ominous fist-sized bulge stuck out from the door just at eye-level.

Arthur and Eames exchanged a look and then, together, they both plunged their hands into the safe.

It was deeper than it appeared – warm and disgustingly moist, like sticking his hand inside a still living body. Arthur went up to his elbow before his fingers found something. When he withdrew his arm it was completely soaked in blood, but the pictures clasped in his hand… those were clean.

"I don't understand," Arthur said in frustration, leafing through a stack of pictures: photos of smiling women and children. "These are just people! Where are the documents on AmerTek?" He didn't get an answer and flipped over some of the photos to see dates – some of them in the recent past. What the hell? "Eames?"

"This is what Mitchell meant to keep hidden." Eames' voice was odd, far away and disconnected. When Arthur looked at him, he saw the other man still staring into the bloodied safe, arms limp at his side. "I thought his projections were a bit grabby when I was a woman, but I failed to make the connection…" Eames trailed off, cleared his throat, and offered Arthur a sickly smile. "These are his trophies, you see."

It felt like the bottom had dropped out of Arthur's stomach, and he startled all over again as a meaty fist literally punched through the purple-wall at the front of the room, clawing in the direction of the door-handle.

Arthur shot the hand. Twice.

But he could hear more projections coming – they had taken up that awful howl again.

Photos of women and children in his most secret place. Ultra-violent projections. Trophies.

Arthur swallowed hard, feeling a chill crawl up his spine, and spared a glance to Eames. "I think we've seen enough here."

He did the honors; a clean shot right between Eames' eyes before he put the gun to his own temple and—

****

Arthur woke to the sound of Eames' voice.

"—didn't exactly get what we came for, but it seems he does have some secrets."

Without Arthur, the dream had collapsed. Mr. Mitchell was coming awake, balding head lolling back and forth on the massage-table. Before Arthur could remove his cannula and take care of the problem, Eames had risen from his seat and jabbed Mitchell – rather harshly – with a new sedative. His movements stopped.

Dom Cobb glanced at the forger, startled, and Arthur explained, "We found photographs of women and children inside a bloody safe."

At that, Dom went very still. He could read people like Eames could read people – could decipher dream metaphors in an instant. He didn't need the implications spelled out to him.

"It's not the corporate secrets we came for," Arthur continued, swallowing back the taste of acid in mouth. "But if we play this right, Accenture will still be able to go through with the takeover." Especially if AmerTek's CEO turned out to be a serial killer.

Dom squinted down at Mr. Mitchell with an expression that said he wished he had another syringe to stick into him. "Alright," he said, at last. "Good work, you two. Let's pack it up."

"Always happy to help," Eames said, smiling obnoxiously at Arthur as he moved to help roll up the supplies and put away the PASIV device. Then he added, lower, probably so that Dom wouldn't hear. "We make a good team, you and I."

A dozen responses flitted in and out of Arthur's mind. He flashed to that moment where he had steadied Eames after the grenade went off – how he'd felt, warm and steady in his grip. Eames was dangerous. Arthur knew he was as well, but Eames was the type of dangerous that could charm a person out his common sense, leave all of one's secrets exposed. The type of alluring competence that Arthur knew he could fall for, if he wasn't careful.

Arthur pushed the thought away, and looked levelly at the other man. "Your money will be in your account by midnight, Mr. Eames," he said, pleased with how his voice sounded; professional and cool. Remote. "I'll contact you when we're in need of your services again."

Eames' lips ticked upward, as if Arthur had just said something amusing. "You do that, darling," he said, and with a nod to Cobb – who was still looking down at Mitchell like he wanted to do something rash – he showed himself out

Arthur made sure to clean up the room to his usual exacting standards, leaving no trace behind. They had done the extraction during the mark's biweekly visits to a massage parlor and the last thing Arthur did before leaving was to relight the snuffed incense stick and turn the radio back onto a soothing new-age beat.

He tipped the masseuse quietly waiting outside generously with a rolled stack of hundreds. Then, silver briefcase in hand with a final glance to Cobb to indicate he was finished, they made their way to the door.

 

 

The Blue Door

The world just on the other side of the windows seemed to be cast in every gray shade between black and white. The clouds were especially colored a steely sort of ominous, and the heavy snowfall reducing the large jetliners and tarmac into indistinct dark blobs.

The way this blizzard was going, Eames had the feeling he would be stuck in Zurich all night.

He frowned in the direction of the windows and took another long pull at his beer: his second – maybe third? – of the night. Bad jobs always put him in a dour mood, and the lingering stomachache didn't help. But it was only a bit of phantom pain left over from the dream. Later, he hoped to find a friendly illegal game of dice to pass the time. With his luck had ran tonight, though, he'd probably lose his shirt.

Until then, he drank. After all, it was one thing to fail a job, it was quite another to be the reason why it had failed. That stung, professionally.
If only Eames had been able to reach that card-reader, been a little quicker in breaking the safe, hadn't bothered to waste his time in trying to save a bloody priss of a point man who hadn't appreciated the gesture anyway...

Closing his eyes, Eames took a long breath and conceded that the last was unfair. Yes Arthur was a prick, but he was an exceptionally competent. Eames had no doubt whatsoever that had the job been on the line, Arthur would have shoved Eames directly in harms way, and then apologized later. Maybe.

Until today, Eames would have wagered that he would have done the same thing. Funny how life worked, sometimes.
Instinct, well honed from years of watching his own back, made Eames glance up to see a figure dressed impeccably in a pinstripe suit-vest of Italian wool, glaring daggers at him from the front of the bar. Well, speak of the devil.

Eames felt his lips quirk up, and, lifting his glass again for another drink, he gave Arthur a sarcastic two fingered wave.
The muscles along Arthur's jaw line clenched noticeably. There was an air of indecision about him, as if he had spotted Eames only a moment before Eames had seen him, and had been about to turn around and walk back in the other direction. But now that he'd been spotted, Eames knew Arthur wouldn't leave: it was beyond him to ever back down.

Sure enough Arthur strode inside – his walk stiff and uptight as if there really was a stick shoved up his ass. He kept moving past the bar and instead sat himself at a booth set against one of the tall windows overlooking the airport's tarmac. Sitting down, he pulled out a slim smartphone and started to type.

Eames was completely unsurprised when his own phone buzzed a few moments later: a text message from Arthur.

Business as usual. We don't know one another.

Eames snorted. The job was over and that meant he was less inclined to follow any of Arthur's orders. And after the day he'd had, Eames was feeling a bit contrary. Besides, Arthur was not the only one loath to back down from an informal pissing contest.

Which was why he casually rose from his seat, walked over to Arthur's booth, and with his most charming smile said, "I can't help but notice you're sitting by yourself. Would you care for company?"

If glares could be measured on a scale from mild to kill, Eames would have been reduced to a puff of vapor. Every muscle in Arthur's shoulders was tense— always watch the shoulders, Eames knew. People could normally fake an expression, but never considered how telling the set of one's shoulders could be. Still, 'tensed' was a far cry from 'bunched and ready to strike'.

"Mr. Eames..." Arthur warned, in a low growl that probably should not have made Eames want to shiver.

"You worry too much, pet," Eames said, as he slid himself onto the bench-style seat directly across from Arthur. "No one is watching, and if they were it would only look like one bored passenger picking up another."

Arthur's eyebrows furrowed, although he didn't bother to correct him, which Eames found... interesting.

"What are you doing here at the airport?" Eames asked. "I thought you were to rent a car and drive out to Berlin."

Arthur's scowl disappeared in a moment of surprise. "You were keeping tabs on me?"

He shrugged a shoulder. "It pays to know these things."

Paranoia of one's team members seemed to suit Arthur's sensibilities. The set of his shoulders eased. "How many drinks have you had?" he asked, instead.

Eames shrugged again, seeing the evasion for what it was but choosing not to comment. "I can handle myself, Arthur, but thank you for your concern." He nodded to the window where the snow was falling harder than ever. He couldn't even see the jetliners by now. "Anyway, by the looks of things, I have time to kill." He paused and asked again, "Why are you here?"

Arthur, in his irritating fashion, only crossed his arms and said nothing.

The waitress came by a few moments later and Arthur ordered a Long Island – a sweet drink, which didn't surprise Eames in the least. Eames ordered a White Russian for himself and causally leaned back against the seat, waiting the other man out.

Their drinks came and Arthur toyed a bit with his little red straw. He seemed to almost wince when he finally said, "I got a bad feeling at the car rental lot."

"A feeling," Eames repeated, as if surprised Arthur even had those. He sort of was.

Predictably, Arthur bristled. "I'll have you know that there have been scientific studies on it – small details noted by your subconscious which, when put together culminate in a warning." He stopped, seeing Eames' grin, and scowled anew at him.

Eames was not above finding his earnestness cute. "Go on, darling."

"I have good instincts," Arthur said. "And I listen to them when they tell me something isn't right."

"Well, there you have it." Eames again looked out the window, to the falling snow. His own instincts were kicking in, telling him that was certainly not the whole reason why Arthur was here. There were other car rental businesses within the city, certainty more airport bars.

It took more than a couple of beers and a sip of a White Russian to knock him on his ass, but he was feeling relaxed with a pleasant buzz in his veins. It made his next admission easier. "I feel I owe you somewhat of an apology," he said.

Arthur snorted and took a drink from his tall glass. "Yes you do."

Eames' lips parted. "Funny. I thought you were going to tell me otherwise, that I was overreacting."

"Being put in the line of danger to protect my team is my job." Arthur took a quick look around for ease-droppers then leaned forward, jabbing a finger on the table. "I've been drowned, hung, stabbed, thrown off buildings, mauled by dogs and shot to death more times than I can count. I don't enjoy it, but if getting hurt helps the team to complete a job then I'll do what it takes."

"It doesn't mean it's at all pleasant to watch it happen," Eames noted, wryly. "Give me more credit than that. No one wants to see someone get torn apart."

Arthur's brown eyes met his. "Then I suggest you learn to suck it up, Mr. Eames."

A number of inappropriate (and filthy) replies flitted through Eames' head, but he manfully tucked them away, settling for a noncommittal "Hm."

"Besides," Arthur said, "it's my fault that you and Cobb were put in that position. Those projections," he winced again and took another sip of his Long Island. "I must have missed some kind of mental health issue during my research. It won't happen again."

"My, Arthur," Eames said, with a smile. "Is than an apology I hear?"

Arthur looked sharply at him. "Yes," then, added a little lower, "Thanks for ruining the moment, asshole."

Eames, who had no idea they were even sharing a moment, blinked. "Ah. Well." He cleared his throat, and when Arthur met his eyes there was a ghost of a smile on his lips.

Arthur was first to break their gaze, glancing to the window and the falling snow. "Do you think you'll be able to get a flight out tonight in this?"

"Not a chance," Eames replied, and lifted his drink. "Cheers."


The Red Door


Arthur had a feeling.

He'd probably only admit it only under pain of torture (or, threat of another extended clothes shopping trip with Eames: the man had a secret love of thrift stores and clashing colors which had nearly left Arthur traumatized), but when Arthur had feelings like this – the ominous sense that he was being watched – he'd learned to pay attention.

The line to the car rental counter was long and slow moving with at least ten people in front of him. A snowstorm was bearing down on Montreal and it seemed everyone was as desperate as Arthur to get out before the streets became too deep with snow to plow.

Casually, Arthur switched his suitcase containing the PASIV device from his right hand to his left on the pretext of taking out his phone from his pocket. He glanced up as he did, noting bored, neutral faces around him – but watching eyes and hands for signs of unusual movement.

There.

A thin looking man and a woman had sat themselves off to the side, taking advantage of a wooden bench for the use of weary travelers waiting for their cars to pull around. Their casual business suits were unrumpled, their eyes alert and not fatigued from hours of travel. Now that Arthur thought about it, he couldn't recall the pair getting in line or coming from the counter at all.

They had simply walked in and sat, watching.

It could be nothing, but Arthur was not above fostering a little paranoia. Especially after coming off of a sensitive, completed job.

He had two choices: lose the tail, or try to find out what they were after.

Had the job not been successful, he would have followed his instincts, assumed they were hired hitmen from AmeriTek and rabbited out of there without a second thought. But Cobb would have already contacted AmerTek to let them know of the good news by now... so were these working for? The mark?

Arthur made his decision within seconds. With a heavy sigh, as if he had just been forwarded some bad news, he tucked his phone away again and quietly exited the line to head to the men's bathroom.

He sensed more than saw the male of the pair get up from the bench and start to follow.

Arthur felt a surge of vindication. It felt good to be right. But if someone was indeed following him, he was in trouble. Maybe Cobb and Eames as well. Had they been made?

The men's bathroom was a simple affair with a single urinal, sink, and a separate stall. A quick peek proved that it was empty and Arthur stood just right by the door nearest to the sink, waiting. He didn't have to wait for long. A silent count of ten and the door opened.

Arthur leapt at him at once, grabbing the man and shoving him with his full weight against the opposite wall. The man let out a startled yelp and reached for something in his pocket, but Arthur already had surprise on his side and snatched his wrist away, bringing it up behind his back.

"Who are you working for?" Arthur growled.

"Fuck you."

Wrong answer. Arthur grabbed the back of his neck and cracked his forehead against the white tiled wall. The hitman groaned, started to sag for a moment, but caught himself in time. From the wet snuffling sound coming from him, Arthur suspected that he had broken the man's nose.

"Who are you working for?" Arthur repeated. "I'll only ask one more time." Then he would most likely knock him out, not kill him. But the hitman didn't need to know that.

The other man sucked in a wet breath. "Front right pocket," he said, and when Arthur carefully reached in he withdrew a single business card. He continued, "My employer wanted to talk to you about a job. He wanted—we were to bring you in person. You and the extractor."

"That's not how we work." Arthur said, but eased up a little on his hold to search the rest of his pockets. To his credit, the hitman didn't budge and Arthur found no gun or any other weapons on hand. It seemed the two were just sent as strongarms for an overly ambitious employer.

Arthur read the name on the business card quickly: Ivan Marcovic, finding it familiar, though he couldn't place it, and pocketed it. "Tell Mr. Marcovic that if we're interested, we'll give him a call." After he ran every background check known to man on him, of course.

"Wait—" the man started, but Arthur hit him again, a clean strike to nerve bundle in his neck. He went down, unconscious.

Arthur took a moment to check himself in the mirror— making sure he was free of blood and unrumpled, before he picked up his briefcase and left.

He saw the woman watching him as he exited, and, catching her eye, he nodded meaningfully towards the bathroom.


The Blue Door

 

Eames came alert the exact moment Arthur stilled; his second Long Island halfway to his lips.

"What is it?" Eames asked.

Arthur's eyes shifted slightly to the right. He raised his glass again to as if to drink, covering his mouth as he spoke. "I've seen that couple before, at the car rental place. Behind you, seven o'clock."

Eames waited until the silent count of sixty to casually turn. It would have been too obvious to twist completely around, but night had fallen outside and the wall of windows provided an adequate reflection. He spotted the couple Arthur pointed out at once: a man and a woman sat at the bar, amicably chatting. But as Eames watched, the man's beady eyes darted over in their direction once, twice.

"Hmm. They are being a bit too casual about it," Eames noted, wryly. "What are the chances of seeing the same two twice at a place like this?"

Arthur frowned, showing off a flash of dimple on his chin. "I don't want to take the chance. I thought I lost them once already." He looked at Eames. "It'll be easier to split them up. I'll go to the restroom and take the male down if he follows. You watch the woman."

"Well, that's a rather unimaginative plan," Eames said, with a put-upon sigh.

Now the frown was directed squarely at him. "You have a better idea?"

Eames had to work not to betray himself with a smile. Arthur was intelligent, yes, but sometimes he made it far too easy. "I do, actually." And without further ado Eames rose from his bench-seat and slid in beside Arthur instead.

Arthur's eyes widened, then narrowed dangerously. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Improvising," Eames answered, and rested his arm along the top of the seat in an almost proprietary manner, leaning over to snag Arthur's drink and take a taste. It was almost sickeningly sweet.

This close, Eames could smell Arthur's cologne – citrus and spice.

Arthur rewarded him with a glare and Eames had a moment to think that he seemed more put off by the drink than his proximity. He was half-surprised he hadn't been pushed away yet, or received a punch the diaphragm.

Then Arthur abruptly shifted, one hand snagging the glass back and the other sliding under the table where he gripped Eames' knee, hard. Arthur leaned in, his breath tickling Eames' ear, his voice low and dark. "Are you trying to give them a show, Mr. Eames?"

Eames felt his mouth go dry, and that wasn't fair, really. He shouldn't be turned on when he wasn't sure if Arthur was about to gut him or not. Luckily, it was rare for his words to fail him. "You know how it is, Arthur. I've been looking for an excuse to get my hands on you for some time now. This will have to do."

Arthur watched him for a disbelieving moment, then huffed a laugh. He turned his head, lips brushing against Eames' ear. "We can't do this here." And that hand slid several inches up his leg, fingers pressing hard on the inside of his thigh. A warning and a come-on at the same time.

Sitting at this angle, Eames could see the man and woman unobtrusively watching, and Eames let himself smile, easy and languid, as if Arthur had just whispered something obscene in his ear. "Capital idea, darling," he said, a touch too loudly. With any hope the two watching would blame the drinks. "I know just the place."

As a matter of fact, Eames did know quite the place – for smoking rather than blowjobs, but one could not afford to be choosy at a time like this. It was a little tucked away alley just outside the terminal, tagged and vandalized with blue graffiti. Since it was outside and situated between two buildings, it was open to the weather and by this time quite snowy and bitterly cold.

Arthur walked beside him, oddly stiff and indignant like Eames had forced him into coming with him... and maybe it was the alcohol but Eames couldn't stop wondering what it would take to get him to loosen up -- how far Arthur would let him go, or if it was to be all a ruse.

Eames touched Arthur's elbow, guiding him to the shadowy patch of darkness to the right. He had no doubt they were being followed— their trap was being set, but first they needed to bait it. "Steady on," Eames said, as Arthur visibly flinched. He leaned closer, whispering, "You're supposed to look like you're anticipating this."

Arthur wrinkled his nose as they stepped into the ally. "If you expect me to get on me knees here you're insane. I just bought this suit."

Which... surprised Eames. He wasn't quite expecting that to be the problem. It wasn't often that he misread someone. Then again, this was Arthur.

He grinned. "Gentleman's choice," and, stepping into the shadowed ally, pushed Arthur against a wall liberally decorated with blue graffiti.

Eames could have easily mimed whatever needed to be done. It was dark in the alley, and it wouldn't be the first time he'd faked this in order to provide a distraction. But Arthur's eyes glinted with challenge, unafraid and Eames kissed him – kissed him like he meant it, without question or hesitation.

And Arthur... he kissed him back, tilting his head up ever so slightly to fit them together, mouth opening in invitation. His hands slid over Eames' shoulders, his back, pulling him forward, and Eames heard him make a low, pleased guttural sound.

It went straight to his groin and he pressed his weight against Arthur's own, hands against that smart vest of his – too much fabric when he dearly wanted to feel skin over muscle -- pushing him against the wall.

"Darling," he heard himself whisper, adding an unvoiced, Why did I ever wait? He let his hands fall lower and then paused in surprise. "Are you just happy to see me, or...?"

Arthur huffed, "That's my gun." Then Arthur grabbed his wrist, pulling it downward and between them. "That's me."

Eames grinned, pressed the heel of his palm against the bulge and started kissing a hot line down from Arthur's jaw to his neck. He felt Arthur shiver arch sweetly into the touch, his hands clenching briefly on Eames' back.

"Damn it," Arthur said, voice a little too high and breathy, "One followed us. The male."

Eames clenched his jaw and tried to pull himself back into control. It was difficult. They had only been together for a moment, yet he was already painfully hard and wanted to claw Arthur's vest off, wanted to turn him around and take him against the wall. Wanted to—

"Eames." It was a half-groan, half warning. "Now."

Arthur lurched to one side, Eames to the other and he watched, out of the corner of his eye, Arthur lift his arm and shoot. His gun must have had a silencer, because all he heard was a puff of air and then an abbreviated shout as the man who had been following them fell to the slushy pavement, rolling and clutching his thigh.

Eames left the injured man to Arthur and made his way to the mouth of the alley to look for the woman.

She cut a rather impressive figure: taller than Eames himself, blonde hair in a pony-tail, which was a little too tightly bound to be anything but severe and dress a little too red against her pale skin. She glared at Eames with a too big handgun held cocked and ready in her hands.

"Ah-ah," Eames said, forcing his body-language to remain casual and confident. One hand shoved into his jacket as if he had a weapon, although he didn't. He offered a grin, "We've already got your partner," He gestured back to the darkened alley. "Let's go in for a friendly chat."

She looked at first scornful, but Arthur must have done something because there was another hoarse shout from the alley, followed by panicked babbling. The woman paled and at Eames' gesture, threw her own weapon to the side.

They returned just as the man, gasping with pain whimpered, "We were supposed to bring you in person for—for a job. That's all. You and the extractor."

"That's not how I do business," Arthur growled, lowly, and the sound shouldn't have made Eames' pants feel as tight as they did. Especially as Arthur looked about ready to shoot the prone man again. "And he's not my extractor."

"I could be an extractor," Eames said, helpfully.

Arthur turned his attention away from the man just long enough to glare at him. "No."

"What? I've been one before."

Ignoring him, Arthur addressed the pair. "Tell your boss that I will contact him with my extractor if we're interested." And no doubt after a painfully through background check, the type Arthur excelled in.

"That's not how now he works," the woman said, speaking for the first time. Her voice was low, with a soft Russian accent.

Arthur gave her a look that said he clearly didn't care. "You'd better get your partner to a hospital. He could be bleeding out."

"Helen," the man wheezed, looking ashen.

The woman, Helen, visibly hesitated then nodded once, sharply, tossing Arthur what looked like a single white business card. "You have his contact information," she said, looking between the two and then settling on Eames as if she thought he was the reasonable one. "I warn you, don't take long. Mr. Marcovic will not wait."

The snow was falling heavily as Eames and Arthur made their way out of the alley.

"Right," Eames said, after several blocks of increasingly oppressive silence. "Well, it was interesting working with you as always, Arthur darling. Do keep in touch." And made to leave.

Arthur caught his arm in a hard grip, stopping him. "I swear to god, Mr. Eames, if you don't finish what you started I will shoot you right now."

Eames stared at him, at Arthur's small, quirked smile and how his color had grown high on his cheeks again. Then he hailed a taxi for the both of them.

 

The Red Door

Arthur broke into a run once he was out of sight of the rental lot, dashing down several snowy streets, and slowing only to duck into a graffiti-littered alleyway.

He hid in the shadows for forty-five long minutes, trying not to touch the disgusting soot-blackened walls, or do more than glance at a used condom laying stretched out beside a dumpster. Obviously, more than one person had used this place for privacy recently.

Finally, with no sign of his pursuers, Arthur pulled out his cell phone and typed out a quick text message addressed to both Dom and Eames.

Be on your guard. I just lost two hitmen working for an unknown.

His phone buzzed a few moments later. A message from Eames.

Need any help darling?

Arthur amused himself for a moment with a mental image of Eames riding in like the preverbal knight in shining armor. The only problem with that was it would make him the princess in distress. Arthur was no one's princess. Still, he smiled as he typed:

I'm fine. Will contact you for next job. Business as usual.

A new message came in just as he sent his reply, this time from Dom.

u ok?

"God, Dom." Arthur muttered, embarrassed in a second-hand sort of way. This was why he handled most of the communication with the clients.

It's handled. Will meet at the rendezvous.

The two of them were to meet up in LA – Dom was probably on a train right now and Arthur had elected to take the long, roundabout way for the very reason of losing a tail: a long drive to Berlin, assuming he could get through the storm, followed by a flight back to the states under a different identity. He had been working under the table with the Cobbs for years, handing the criminal underworld, while they pursued legitimate study on dreamshare at the University of California. Extraction was only a side venture for the Cobbs, but it fell right into Arthur's skill set. He loved it – except when plans went haywire, like today.

Arthur made himself wait another hour, shivering in the cold, before heading back to the same car retail he'd skipped out from. If those two were still after him, they'd never expect him back there again.

It was snowing harder now and he stuffed his hands in his pockets as he walked. The airport was not far away and Arthur heard the roar of a jet take off, despite the storm.

A small, whimsical part of him wondered if Eames was on board.

The Blue Door

 

Eames woke to shafts of sunlight streaming in from a nearby window and hitting him in the face. He blinked and glanced over.

The other side of the bed was empty, the sheets long cooled. He sort of figured Arthur wouldn't be the type to stay for breakfast the next morning, but Eames still felt a moment of wistful disappointment. Round one had been fun. Round two would have been even better.

Rising, Eames fished around in his pants pocket for his totem. After determining all was well, he went to the bathroom to take care of his necessaries.

Arthur, he found, had apparently not only showered while Eames slept on completely unawares— he blamed the jet-lag plus alcohol– but he had taken time to arrange the various soaps, shampoos and conditioners in alphabetical order. The man was clearly a menace.

Once showered, shaved, and feeling like his glorious self again, Eames went in search of his phone.

Arthur, it seemed, had been at that, too.

His phone's wall paper had once been of a vivid Mumbai sunset taken from the porch of Eames' own apartment. Now, Eames stared down at the image of a butterfly.

It was not exactly the same species as had been prominent in Mitchell's dream – Eames wasn't sure if something like that actually existed – but the electric blue wings were similar, and the curly antenna.

It also seemed to be pinned to a mounting board, which was either a subtle threat or a misaligned romantic gesture. Eames wasn't sure which.

There was one text message in his inbox, sent while Eames had been showering.

Cobb can't make the job for Marcovic. Are you in?

Eames thought about it for a total of three seconds before he tapped in an answer.

Only because you asked darling.

The Red Door

 

 

"Ivan Marcovic?" Dom repeated, and even though his voice held that tinny quality that came from long overseas connections, Arthur still thought he sounded exhausted. More than what an overnight flight back to California would make for.

"I've done some quick checks. He's involved in some major cartels in Moscow. Guns and drugs, mostly," Arthur said.

"Risky but potentially lucrative." Dom sighed and Arthur could easily imagine him rubbing his left temple – a tick Dom fell into when he was tired, just as he tended to squint as he concentrated.

"I can't do it," Dom said, at last. "Not in the immediate future."

"... How is Mal?" Arthur asked, tentatively.

"Good days and bad. She's still... a little broken up about limbo."

"If you need any help—"

But Dom cut him off. "You should see about Eames, if he's still in the area."

Arthur frowned, but did not push further. Dom had been really touchy about Mal recently. "Eames?"

"He's done some work as an extractor."

"So have I." Well, that one time he and Dom had been killed via carnivorous vines in the dream and Arthur had to go on to seduce the mark to get secrets out of him – the old fashioned way, in real time. He didn't like to talk about it.

Dom made a humming sound, as if in thought. "As much as you snipe about him, you two still completed the job yesterday."

"On luck."

"Just think about it. Will you— Arthur I have to go," he said, suddenly urgent and Arthur thought he heard Dom calling Mal's name before the line clicked closed.

Arthur pressed the end button and sat on the edge of his hotel bed, frowning at his phone.

Dom was right. When push came to shove, he and Eames had worked well together. Despite the other man's bad jokes, pet names, clothing style which would make Arthur's own mother cry, penchant for frittering away every cent that ever fell into his hands, his luscious lips, the way he would look at Arthur sometimes...

Arthur felt his cheeks heat and he scowled at the phone, as if it were its fault.

Eames was a distraction. His entire presence spoke of chaos. Arthur craved order and efficiency and Eames turned everything he touched completely upside-down. And Arthur – well he should have not been able to stand the man.

But he was nothing if not honest with himself and he knew that if Eames were ever more than half-way serious, Arthur would be tempted to take him up on it. Maybe. If the stars aligned and he found himself completely desperate.

They had worked well together.

But Eames would be halfway to Rio right now and the fact was that Arthur wasn't that desperate. Not yet.

Snapping the phone shut, Arthur carefully filed Ivan Marcovic's contact information away should he need it some other day.

The Blue Door

Several Months Later


The job was going well... or at least as well as could be expected, considering they were weeks behind schedule, their architect was an idiot and their chemist was quite possibly imbibing on the very solutions he mixed.

The plus side was that Ivan Marcovic was easily placated with a little professional ego stoking. (Eames, as the official extractor for this job, was left to that. Luckily, he was very good at it.) And so far no one had ended up with cement shoes or waking up to dead horse-heads or any other mob clichés which sadly tended to be true.

"All in all," Eames said, swinging his chair around and straddling it. "I think things could be much worse."

Arthur glanced up from his laptop and graced him with a dark look. "Why did I agree to take this job again?"

Eames gestured to the bare, chilly warehouse that nonetheless had a rather impressive view of the Kremlin further down the Moscow River. "Can't get enough of the wonderful views?"

"Our architect," Arthur said, flatly, "can barely understand a basic schematic."

"May I remind you, darling, that architects do not actually have to be architects to build dreams."

"Marcovic is a paranoid old man," Arthur growled, which took Eames a little by surprise. Arthur prided himself on his professionalism and had never before spoken poorly of a client within his hearing. "He keeps changing who our target is because he doesn't trust anyone but himself."

He had a point. "Ah, but you can't say that it doesn't keep life interesting."

Arthur made a face. "I've had to create six separate dossiers, Eames." He pointed a finger at the thick stacks of files to his side. "Six. And they will all be completely useless the next time he changes his mind on who should be the target."

"In the future," said Eames, "I'll make sure to choose our client more carefully."

Arthur started to say something, then stopped and scowled. "Who says there will even be a next time?"

"Arthur," Eames said, pitching his voice deliberately low and watching in unconcealed delight as the other man's adam's apple bobbed, even though his face remained stern.

Eames wanted to roll his chair closer, pull him into a kiss and suck on that bit of skin showing between his collar and his throat — Arthur wouldn't let him near his neck or any other exposed areas which couldn't be easily covered up.

Truth to tell, Eames was a little startled at the possessive desire to mark Arthur, stake a claim – what the rest of the team, or their boss thought be damned. Yet... he enjoyed Arthur's company during their off hours and he made sure Arthur enjoyed himself, too. There should be no shame in it.

"You know I pay you very well for your efforts," Eames said, innuendo as thick as he could make it.

Arthur rolled his eyes. "You're making me sound like a hooker."

"Most dangerous whore in all of Moscow," Eames agreed lightly, and ducked behind his hands when a pencil went flying at his head. "Can bring a man to his knees in thirty seconds or less."

That got a bark of laughter out of the other man, and Eames grinned in triumph, lowering his hands. The frustrated tension had gone from Arthur's shoulders as he leaned back in his chair, a slight smile on his lips. Eames liked him looking at him like that. As if he was constantly evaluating Eames, and kept liking what he saw.

"What makes you so sure I'll work with you again?" Arthur repeated, but there was a new shade to the tone— something light and heavy all at the same time. Something that made Eames ping onto a 'relationship metaphor'. And the strangest thing was... he normally ran away from such things, screaming.

Well, a question of that gravitas deserved an answer, didn't it?

He met Arthur's gaze dead-on. "I'll let you pick the next job, our next location... hell, even the pay, Arthur. Just name it, you'll have it."

Arthur's stared at him in surprise. He took a quick breath to say something – then of course the bloody phone rang.

Breaking the gaze, Arthur scooped the cell up and opened it with a practiced snap. It almost looked like he was reaching for a lifeline.

Eames tried not to feel disappointed.

"Yes?" Arthur said curtly, and rose from his seat, tucking the cell between his chin and shoulder. "Dom? ... Is something wrong?"

And the rest of the conversation was lost as Arthur moved into the adjoining room for privacy.

Eames busied himself for the next few minutes looking through the schematics and profiles Arthur had managed to pull up. Because Marcovic kept changing their mark approximately twice a week, there was quite a lot to go through. Eames suspected that by the time this job was finished he would have had sufficient practice forging every high ranking member of the Family. Useful information to have in a pinch, should the need ever arise.

He looked up from the files, realizing that nearly twenty minutes had gone by and Arthur hadn't returned. Eames drummed his fingers on the desk for a moment, then got up. He wasn't a particularly clingy person – unless Marcovic paranoia was catching – but they were working for the equivalent of the Russian mafia, after all. And as much as he was sure that Arthur could take care of himself, Eames would be very put out to learn the hard way that a hit had been placed on them.

He found Arthur outside, standing in the cold, his back against the wall with an unlit cigarette between two fingers. Just staring out at river and the city vista.

Eames hesitated, wondered if he should retreat back to the warehouse and allow Arthur to deal with whatever breakdown he was having, alone. And maybe he would have, had Arthur's face not been nearly ashen.

"Arthur? Darling?"

The other man didn't even look at him. "Mal's dead."

The words were so flat, so devoid of any inflection that for a moment Eames didn't understand. "What?" he said, blankly. "Oh... Oh hell. Darling, what happened?"

Arthur's lips pressed together as he shook his head. "She killed herself. I don't know how. Dom was—he could barely..." he broke off and brought the cigarette to his lips, realized it was still unlit, and threw it down in disgust.

Arthur was obviously still in shock. Eames stepped closer, slowly, giving him every chance to move away. "Arthur..."

"Shit," Arthur whispered, and in the next moment had ducked his head against Eames' shoulder, grabbing him and holding on hard.

Eames didn't know what to do— what to say, really. He had only known the Cobb's professionally, unlike Arthur who had apparently been the best man at their wedding. So he said nothing at all, just wrapped his arm around the other man's shoulder, held him close.

Arthur wasn't crying, but his body was trembling – from the cold or the stress Eames didn't know.

"Let's get inside," he whispered, after a minute or two. "Get you warmed up, yeah?"

Arthur nodded, pulled back. His eyes were red but there weren't any tears.

Eames' mum – God bless her soul – always said that if the words were in his head, they'd come out of his mouth. This was far from the truth... or maybe it was and age had made him better. In any case, Eames regretted instantly his next words, even though he knew they must be said.

"If you need to go back, I'll understand." He forced a smile as Arthur looked at him sharply. "We've got your files. I can manage without... for a bit."

"Are you kidding?" Arthur's voice came out broken, like a laugh that died mid-way. "This whole thing would fall apart without me."

And that, Eames realized, was Arthur's answer... the one he had been asking before in the warehouse.

"Yeah?" he asked.

Arthur's hand found his and gripped tight. "Yeah."

They didn't go inside for quite some time.

 

 

The Red Door


Arthur felt like someone had rubbed sand in his eyes. He rubbed at them absently. His totem sat on the stark counter, face up to four. As much as he checked, this still wasn't a dream— a nightmare. Whatever.

"Doctor Patel is a quack," he said, tiredly cradling his phone in one hand.

"He's a very well respected quack," Hockley answered, deadpan. "And Mrs. Cobb visited two other very well regarded physiologists who made the same statement confirming her sanity."

"Well what's Dom paying you for?" Arthur snapped.

Hockley was silent for a moment. "Arthur," he said, voice careful. "You and I have known each other for a long time."

Longer than he'd known Dom, Hockley meant. Since they were both wet behind the ears at law school. But Arthur had seen Dom's mind, shared his dreams and he would never— well, never say never, but Arthur had a very hard time believing Dom was capable of cold blooded murder.... Even though the man had been acting less than innocent over the last few days; shut up in his house, leaving Mal's parents to take over watching kids, calling Hockley to inquire about countries without extradition treaties...

God, his eyes hurt. "Your point?" he asked.

"Off the record," Hockley said. "It's only a matter of time. I can stall the DA for only so long— maybe until after the funeral. But if they bring him in for questioning, he's not going to come out. The judge isn't an idiot and Cobb's a flight risk."

Arthur paced the length of his living room, his mind awhirl with airline schedules he'd memorized the night before. "Do what you can." If Dom was being watched discreetly, as he no doubt was, then it would look highly suspicious for Arthur to visit and for Dom to then leave with tickets in hand. Arthur was loyal, not stupid. Above all else, he needed to make sure he could at least return back to the states without suspicion. They'd have to be careful. "Cal, would you be willing to pass a message along next time you meet with him? For me?" Meaning airline tickets.

Hockley sighed, but said, "Just say the word."

"Thanks."

"I'll call you when it's time."

Arthur hung up. It was late. He had not gotten more than a couple hours of sleep the night before. His bed was luring him like a siren, but there was still too much to do.

His browser had several tabs open: both a public and a private airline, refresher pages on the nuances of the California penal codes... funeral houses, because Dom wasn't able to function right now, much less plan the services.

And it wasn't like Arthur hadn't pulled all nighters before....

A sharp knock at the door made Arthur jerk his head up. He blinked and looked blearily at his monitor. The screen now showed a cheery screensaver. He had fallen asleep at his desk.

The knock came again and Arthur shot out from his chair, knowing it had to be Dom or Hockley— that the axe had fallen and, fuck, why did he have to sleep now?

He yanked the open, readying himself for the worst... and stared.

"Arthur," Eames said, from where he was leaning casually against the door jam. "You look like shit."

"What are you doing here?" Arthur asked, feeling slow and stupid. Then, his mind caught up with what Eames had said. He scowled. "I've been up all night."

"Yes, I can see that." Eames scratched the corner of his mouth meaningfully. Arthur copied the movement. His fingers came away wet from a streak of drool.

"Come in," Arthur said, feeling his cheeks heat. He turned away without waiting for a response, retreating to the bathroom to wash his face.

The man staring back at him in the mirror did look like shit. Sallow complexion, simple buttoned down shirt with sleeves untidily-rolled, tie loosened, with hair sticking up on one side where he must have slept on it. Arthur reddened all over again, embarrassed Eames had seen him like this, and quickly took up both comb and toothbrush.

Returning, he found Eames in the living room looking over a framed picture he had removed from the mantel. Eames was turned away from him, and while Arthur could not see past his well muscled back, but he knew which picture he held.

It had been taken on a warm spring day when Phillipa was only about six months old. They'd taken a trip to La Jolla right outside of San Diego to picnic on the beach. Dom had taken the picture – Arthur had held his goddaughter, the sun bright in Phillipa's baby-fine hair and Mal had been so, so beautiful...

Eames glanced over his shoulder, and, perhaps seeing Arthur's stricken expression, replaced the framed photograph back in its place. When he spoke, his voice was rough.

"How's Cobb taking it?"

"Not well."

"The children?" Eames asked, taking a step closer.

"... Not well."

"You?"

Arthur's throat felt thick and his eyes stung all over again. He turned away. "I'm managing."

"I have no doubt." Eames' voice was closer than it had been before, and Arthur didn't flinch as a warm hand lay on his shoulder.

"Why don't you pop off to bed, darling," Eames suggested. "Let me take care of things for a bit."

Arthur snorted. He knew better than to let a professional thief run around unsupervised in his condo. He turned, a comment ready, but Eames' eyes were unexpectedly kind... worried. And now that Arthur's head had unclouded a little from his impromptu nap he noticed that he wasn't the only one who looked haggard. Eames might habitually dress himself like an affront to the eyes, but Arthur had never seen him look rumpled, and the stubble on his chin had passed charmingly rouge and was veering into hobo territory.

Wasn't Eames supposed to be working some job in Russia?

"Why are you here?" Arthur asked.

"Come to pay my respects of course." Eames tried for a smile, but Arthur didn't buy it. He said nothing, only crossed his arms and pinned the forger with a look that had made many a man squirm.

The smile faded and for the first time Eames seemed uncomfortable. He shrugged. "Bad job, you know? The client has too much time and money to think about how all of his many various enemies wish to off him."

"Let me guess. Ivan Marcovic."

Eames blinked. "I take it you're acquainted?"

"Just by reputation," Arthur said, thinking of the two he'd encountered right after the Mitchell job. If he had taken them up on their offer, he would have probably been stuck in Russia by now, too far away and unable to help Dom.

Eames shook his head and idly scratched at his jaw. "My architect is an idiot. And the chemist..." He shook his head. "I was planning on doing this better— perhaps over some wine, but there it is. I found out about Mal... on the way over."

He wanted a point man for a job going bad. Arthur felt his shoulders slump, like a new weight had settled upon him. He had thought— well. It didn't matter.

"Eames..."

"Don't answer me now," Eames said. "Why don't you get some sleep, Arthur? I promise to behave myself."

Which Arthur felt was a bit rich, considering this was his house and Eames damn well behave himself. But he was so, so tired. Exhausted and sick down to his heart with grief he hadn't allowed himself to feel.

"If you touch anything, if you go through any of my files, I will find out and I will shoot you." Arthur said. Then added, just to make sure they were crystal clear, "In the balls."

Lesser men had pissed themselves when he used that voice. Eames was just obnoxious enough to smile at him. "You do realize that if you take me to your bed you can easily keep an eye on me."

Arthur rolled his eyes in reply and pushed past him on his way to the bedroom. "You can have the couch." It was newly purchased from the Seabury collection and therefore about ten times better than whatever rat-nest he supposed Eames usually crashed on. "Good night, Mr. Eames."

 

 

The Blue Door


Arthur's next phone call came at 3AM the next Tuesday.

Eames heard at first with only half an ear, mentally writing it off as yet another late-night change to the program from Marcovic. He sensed, rather than felt Arthur's sudden stiffness, and came fully awake, rolling over to observe quietly in the half-moon night.

"Yes," Arthur said, shortly. His face was turned away, but Eames could see the stark ligaments of his neck where they stood out. Arthur listened for a moment then asked, "Are you sure? When? No, no." Pause. "I understand." And he hung up the phone. He didn't look at Eames, but must have known he was awake and listening because he said, "Dom's been placed under arrest for Mal's death."

Mal's murder. Arthur didn't say it, and Eames couldn't blame him.

Still, this development wasn't wholly a surprise. More and more disturbing information had been filtering out from California over the last few days since Arthur first got the news. There had been evidence of a struggle in a hotel room under Dom Cobb's name. Mal, apparently, had been to three different specialists to confirm her sanity in case... something had happened to her. And she'd expressed fear of her spouse in a sealed letter to their family attorney.

Arthur seemed to slump in on himself. "They caught him while he was trying to leave the country. It... doesn't look good."

Eames sat up against the pillows and mentally braced himself. "Do you think he did it?"

Arthur still didn't look at Eames, didn't answer, just stared down in his lap and shook his head once. But it wasn't a no.

Then he swung his legs off the bed and walked, naked, to the bathroom, returning after a few minutes fully clothed and looking fairly scrubbed. Eames had no idea how he did that.

"I should make some phone calls," Arthur said, distracted, hunting around for his moleskin notebook. Eames reached to the nightstand and held it up.

Arthur paused as he picked it up, fingers ghosting over Eames' in a silent apology, even though, really, he had nothing to apologize for.

"I can get in touch with a few lawyers," Eames offered. "They're expensive, but they can get a man out of any bind."

He half-smiled. "You would know people like that, wouldn't you?" Then he sobered. "I have a friend who owes me a few favors. We... went to law school together. I trust him." Arthur swallowed, face guilty. "I should have called him first thing, but this..." he gestured to their shared hotel room, the large stack of files. The job. Everything.

"Arthur," Eames sighed, snagged him by his brown herringbone vest, and tugged him closer, "You needn't be responsible for the whole world."

"I didn’t know it was this bad—if Dom told me it was this bad, I would have—" he broke off again, guilt and more guilt lining his face.

Eames valiantly controlled a flash of hot jealousy – bloody Cobb didn't deserve someone as good as Arthur – and answered him with a kiss, long and lingering. "It's alright, love," he said, after, letting him know he understood. Even though he certainly didn't like it.

Arthur breathed a huff of a laugh. "You're a liar, Mr. Eames."

"Well. As long as I'm a good one."

Arthur kissed him again, hand to the back of Eames' neck to tilt his head up. It was forceful, passionate, and spoke of a fierce emotion neither of them were willing to admit out loud.

"I'm not going to leave now, you idiot," Arthur said, mouthing around Eames' ear and generally looking so delectable Eames wanted to strip him out of his suit and get him all dirty again. "But I am going to hire the best, most crooked lawyer I can for him. And the second this job is done, we're going to California. Even if it's only for emotional support."

Eames whole-heartedly showed his agreement.



The Red Door

When Arthur woke up next the sun was slanting rays through his bedroom window and there was the smell of garlic thick in the air. He checked his die to make sure he was truly awake, checked his phone to make sure he hadn't somehow missed a call and, yawning, padded out to the living room.

Eames had taken up residence on the couch, looking more refreshed (and sporting more bristles on his jaw than before), eating a bowl of pasta with the TV tuned to what looked like some sort of nature show.

"Arthur," Eames greeted sunnily, and held up his bowl. "I left more in the fridge for you."

Arthur was too groggy still to be hungry, but a quick glance into the kitchen showed him that Eames had cleaned up after himself, and therefore could live to see another day.

So, still blinking sleep from his eyes, Arthur joined him on the couch. "Are you watching a show about butterflies?"

"Fascinating creatures," Eames replied. "Did you know the monarch migrates south every winter?"

Arthur shook his head, still feeling too out of it for this... whatever it was. Mal was dead. Dom was under suspicion for killing her and the source of many an annoyance (and yes, the occasional masturbation fantasy) was in his living room, eating his pasta. He'd still think he was having some sort of odd dream if he could still do so naturally.

He wanted to ask, Tell me about the job, wanted to listen to Eames' crisp accent, his obnoxious endearments – how he'd no doubt smooth over the unpalatable edges of the job to make it look more appealing, and offer to pay Arthur whatever exorbitant price he asked for.

He wanted all of that, and, selfishly, he knew that he wanted more. He wanted Eames to be there in his living room not because of a job; because of sex, or because he missed Arthur or wanted to give comfort. Something. Anything.

But Arthur was a realist and Eames was here to hire him. Nothing more.

"Tell me about the job," Arthur said, and sat back to listen.

He was arguing some of the finer points of Eames' proposal: "You're going to need a solid exit plan: if the client is paranoid nearly to the point of delusion, you will want to disappear afterwards."

"Or present some old fashioned blackmail," Eames replied.

Arthur shook his head, setting his bowl of pasta down on the table. Eames had served him a portion sometime while outlining the facts. He was a good cook, Arthur had to admit, although a little heavy on the salt. "Anyone can get around blackmail with enough persistence."

"That would depend on the quality, don't you agree—"

There was a sharp knock at the door. Arthur stiffened, casting a warning look at Eames. He was more alert this time around and therefore more cautious as he went to the door and looked through the peephole.

Hockley stood on the other side, looking impatient.

"It's time," Hockley said briskly, forgoing a greeting when Arthur opened the door. The lawyer took one step inside, spotted Eames, and halted in surprise. Then he ducked his head, adding in a low, urgent tone, "My contact at the DA's office says they've just applied for the warrant. We need to get him out, now."

Arthur let out a long breath and nodded once. He went to his printer, took out the ticket he'd purchased under Dom's name last night and placed it into a plain, white envelope.

Hockley raised a fine eyebrow when he saw Dom's information on the ticket, but only said, "They'll search for him at the international airport. It will be the first place they look."

"It's just a diversion for—" Arthur started, but Hockley held up his hand to stop him.

"Plausible deniability. I don't want to know. Just tell me what I should tell him."

"Tell him to go to Laurel Canyon Park and leave the ticket stub in the car in plain sight. I'll meet him there."

"All right." Hockley slid the envelope into his front jacket pocket and swept out of the room.

There was a moment of strained silence before Eames cleared his throat into his fist and said, "Right. Well I guess this is it then." His voice was dry as an old bone, oddly clipped, and Arthur turned to see him take one last sip of water and stand. Eames offered a small smile when Arthur said nothing, but it was as false as Arthur's own passport. "Don't trouble yourself, darling. I knew it was a lost cause the moment I came in here, but... I had to try."

Arthur felt a stab of annoyance. "Dom won't be able to get out of the country without me. He needs my help."

Eames sighed, "Yes, of course he does," and stepped around the couch towards Arthur -- his body telegraphing his intent and Arthur shouldn't have felt surprised, but he did anyway when Eames closed the distance between them and kissed him lightly, almost chaste, on the lips. A goodbye kiss.

Eames pulled away almost at once and like hell Arthur was going to let him go with the last word like that. He fisted his hand in Eames' stupid, ugly shirt and pulled him in again.

Their next kiss was not chaste: it was rough with teeth clicking and desperation Arthur wasn't aware he even had until now.

"Come with me," Eames breathed, his hands resting on Arthur's hips, holding him. Just holding him there like he could keep him in place.

Arthur shook his head, nipped on Eames' lower lip. "Dom needs me... Join us," he offered, in turn.

"Can't risk it, love. I'm wanted in this country."

Arthur's eyebrows rose. He leaned back eyebrows raised. "You're wanted," he repeated. "And you still came here to see me in person?"

Eames winced, looking a little sheepish as if he had not intended to give that much away. "The Americans are very unforgiving when it comes to espionage. Did you know that?"

Rolling his eyes, Arthur reached up to adjust Eames' collar— it was very hard not to keep touching him, this close, and what he really wanted to go was to drag him into the open bedroom and forget about Dom and Mal and all of it. Just for a few minutes.
Eames was watching him with heavy hope in his eyes and Arthur couldn't meet that gaze as he said, flatly, "There's not room for two more on your team, is there?"

"No," Eames answered, regretfully. "Had enough trouble convincing the suspicious bastard to allow for one more—he doesn't know it's you, and I didn't want to bring it up until later as he's a bit peeved that you turned him down."

It took an effort of will for Arthur to drop his hands. "I need to leave."

"Arthur." Eames started forward, kissed him again, and it took everything in Arthur to stay still. He couldn't bring himself to push Eames away, but held himself stony, unwilling, forcing himself to think instead of the second pair of tickets he had purchased under one of his false names... one set for a private airline which would jet Dom out of the country undetected.

"Arthur," Eames said again, but stepped back, shaking his head. "Cobb doesn't deserve your loyalty, you know."

He flinched. "And you think you do?" he snapped.

Eames' lips thinned and he shook his head, quick and angry. "I don’t know, but I should like the opportunity to someday find out."

He didn't know what to say to that, so instead said nothing, his throat aching as Eames showed himself to the door.

 

 

The Blue Door


Inception, Eames thought, flipping through the folder Saito helpfully provided for them. It would be one hell of a trick, if they were able to pull it off.

Glancing up, Eames watched Arthur scan his own folder. The other man's face was a blank, giving nothing. No evidence of whatsoever of the row they'd had last night. Arthur insisted that it couldn't be done, that there were far less risky jobs with comparable pay. Eames had dug in his heels: this was an opportunity, he had argued. Yes it was a risk, but they had the chance to be the first of their kind in their field. A successful inception. Why didn't Arthur at least want to try it?

Eames had made his point and been banished to sleep on the couch because of it. Arthur had greeted the morning sullen, but at least willing to go to the meeting with Saito to hear his proposal.

Arthur had kept his council while Saito made his case. Given no indication of the direction of his thoughts, save for a light tap-tapping of his pinkie finger against his thigh.

Being able to read people accurately was how Eames made his way through life. The fact that Arthur still eluded him at times was both maddening and alluring.

He tried to catch his eye, but Arthur ignored him. So Eames turned his attention back to Saito who was quietly watching the two of them with a nearly perfect poker face.

"I take it," Saito said at his look, "that you're interested."

"I take it you're aware of our usual fee," Eames answered, and waited for his solemn nod before he said, "Yes, well, you can double it for a job like this."

Saito raised an eyebrow but he did not object. Eames wasn't surprised: money was nothing to this man.

Arthur closed his folder with a snap. "Mr. Saito," he said, "You do realize that if you want to have any shot at completing inception we will need to bring on other team members."

"I was under the impression I was already hiring the best," Saito replied, coolly.

A ghost of a smile played over Arthur's lips, there and gone again, and Eames knew for certain that there was some plot going on in that delightfully cunning mind of his. It took every bit of self control Eames had not to shift around, telegraph any of his unease. Just what are you planning, darling?

"Mr. Eames and I are very effective if you want access to someone's secrets," Arthur said. "But in order to plant the seed of an idea inside a mind, you need to go very deep. Multiple levels down. What we need, Mr. Saito, is a talented architect and a chemist to take us that far."
And at once Eames saw where Arthur was heading. He cleared his throat. "I dare say we need an extractor as well, wouldn't we?"

Arthur glanced at him sharply in surprise, and then flashed a smile — a full smile this time, showing both dimples.

Saito, meanwhile, looked less than amused. "I thought you were the extractor. Was I mistaken?"

"I am," Eames said, keeping his tone light and relaxed. "But in my heart of hearts I am a forger, just as my partner, Arthur here, is the best point man in the business. Although he can and will serve as an architect as the need arises."

"Mr. Saito," Arthur said, picking up the conversation so smoothly it may as well have been planned in advance between them, "Have you ever heard of a man named Dominic Cobb?"

"Of course. I looked into hiring him first. But considering his current circumstances..." Saito's upper lip curled. "I decided it would be inefficient to hire him."

"What you're asking for hasn't been done successfully before," Arthur said, leaning forward, folder resting on his knee. "If you want a shot at this, we will need to ensemble the best team possible. We need Dom Cobb."

To his credit, Saito only looked thoughtful. "It will not be easy." He speared Eames with a look, "Or cheap. He is well guarded."

"Consider it my fee," Arthur said.

Eames smiled thinly. "I will take the cash, thank you." One of them had to make money off this insane venture.

"One last request," Saito said. "I will come along."

"We don't have room for tourists," Eames said.

Now Saito smiled. It was a wolfish smile, aggressive and full of teeth. "It seems this time, you do. I will assist you in assembling your team," he glanced at Arthur, "and breaking your companion out of state prison. But I insist on coming along to make sure you are successful."

Eames saw Arthur shake his head, almost minutely, but they had handled tourists before. At least it seemed that Saito would not require handling by kit-gloves; not like those morons at Cobol who had almost mucked things up on their last job.

"Mr. Saito," Eames said, putting on his most charming smile, "I do believe we will enjoy working with one another."


The Red Door

"So, tell me what's going on between you and Eames."

Arthur was so startled was forced to quickly sidestep in order to avoid crashing headlong into one of his own projections – Ariadne was really getting better at these double-blind loops.

He turned around to face her, scowling, only to see her smiling, her large dark eyes a little too knowing.

"Me and Eames," Arthur repeated.

"Well, I was halfway convinced he was just the type to flirt with anything on two legs, but... his eyes follow you. Haven't you noticed? And your reaction just now told me the feeling's mutual." She quickened her pace, catching up and looping an arm around his. "So, spill."

Arthur raised his gaze towards the heavens as if asking for patience, and noticed that his subconscious had suddenly decided the day should go from cloudy to sunny and spring-like. Ariadne was taking him through a tour of the first level: a cityscape resembling downtown Manhattan. The projections walking the streets around them looked sullen and annoyed like they had all had a bad day at work. Not far from the truth, really.

"There's nothing to 'spill'," he answered, wrinkling up his nose at the last word, and pointed to the nearby traffic. "Tone down the brightness of those red cars. We'll be using a taxi to make the grab. Red catches the eye, so aside from yellow taxis, everything should be in bland tones: black, white, grey."

Ariadne narrowed her eyes in concentration and shortly after the traffic flowed by in distinctly uninteresting colors.

"I thought the architect built the construct and the subject supplied the finer details and the projections. Wouldn't cars be included?"

Arthur nodded, grateful Ariadne was willing to get back to business. "There is some give and take. As a lucid dreamer, you hold the advantage." They were walking along the sidewalk again, and he stopped before a wide set of windows and gestured to the storefront. "I know you built this space for a generic department store, but my mind filled the details," he said, eyeing the racks and racks of well-tailored menswear. "It's mutual creation."

"Wow," she breathed, stepping forward to admire the mannequin the window. "Your subconscious has some expensive tastes."

Arthur began to reply, but stopped as something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He held up his hand and a red and orange butterfly alighted delicately upon it. A monarch if he wasn't mistaken. The insect gently raised and lowered its wings. Arthur couldn't look away.

"What do butterflies represent in dreams?" Ariadne asked in a hushed whisper.

"Longing." The answer was automatic. Arthur glanced quickly at her, not wanting her to get the wrong idea. "But not—"

"It's okay," she said with a quick smile, stopping him. "I only asked because when I mentioned Eames all of the pigeons on the buildings turned into butterflies." She paused, taking in his startled expression. "What, you didn't notice?"

Arthur let his hand fall, startling the butterfly into flight again. Looking up he saw that there were indeed more like it – flittering in between buildings and sunning themselves on eaves and ledges. No, he hadn't noticed.

"I'm the one dreaming, remember?" he said, somehow keeping his voice steady. "It makes it easer to... overlook oddities."

She smiled impishly at him in reply, as if she had not fully realized what she had done – a basic extraction. On him.

He would have snapped at her for it, but karma it seemed, was quick in coming. The projections all around them had noticed the butterflies too, and stopped one by one, craning their necks upward and pointing. An elderly couple glared in their direction with ugly, suspicious expressions.

A non-descript man with squinting eyes and a horribly furry overcoat stopped nearly in mid-step and spun about, reaching for Ariadne.

Arthur got there a split second before he did, snatching his wrist hard and digging his fingers into the tendons. The man's hand jerked open, a switch-blade clattered to the ground, and Arthur shoved him away.

"This is why you never call a dreamer's attention to anything unusual," Arthur said to Ariadne, who looked a little stunned. "We need to get out of here." Grabbing her arm, he dragged her into the open storefront. More projections, shopping among the fine suits, turned to look their way as one, openly suspicious.

But Ariadne had seemed to pull herself together. "Down here," she said, leading him past rows of displays to a stairwell. They went down several floors but when she pushed open the door to the sub-basement, they stepped out into what was unmistakably a rooftop; the sun once again shining brightly in their faces.

Arthur blinked in surprise and Ariadne grinned, striding out into the gravel-lined rooftop and upsetting flocks of monarchs into flight.

"I wanted to show you that, too. What do you think?"

"Useful." He made sure to lock the door behind him, though they were now trapped on the roof. Their journey was over for now, come death or the kick.

Ariadne seemed unperturbed, walking to the edge and surveying the cityscape – her handiwork.

"I’m sorry," she said, as he joined her. "I know it wasn't any of my business, but... well, it helps, you know? Cobb has some serious issues.... It's nice to know his business partner is a big softy inside."

"I could shove you off this building," Arthur told her. "Without any remorse."

But he didn't. Instead, they sat on the roof's edge, dangling their feet over like children and watching the come and go of bland traffic below. Waiting for the musical count-down.

"I picked Cobb over Eames," Arthur said, partially because he would rather have this discussion in the relative privacy here, rather than up above where it could be overheard. But also because he hadn't told Cobb – couldn't tell Cobb. The man was already dealing with enough guilt to sink a ship without Arthur adding onto it. "They both needed me and... I don't regret it, but I don't think it's fair to expect Eames to give me another chance."

"You say one thing, your subconscious says another," Ariadne teased.

This time, Arthur did shove her off the edge, but in all fairness the first chords of Non, je ne regrette rien were filtering through on the wind. He quickly jumped after her.

 

The Blue Door


Eames couldn't wait another moment. The instant the hotel door was shut them he whirled around, grabbed Arthur and kissed him hard. The other man grunted in surprise, but he quickly got with the program and returned the kiss just as intently, just as fierce.

The PASIV briefcase fell from Arthur's fingers as Eames shoved up his back against the wall.

"Did I ever… tell you how brilliant… you are?" Eames panted between breaths, and ducked his head to kiss a wet line down Arthur's neck.

Arthur chuckled and threw a leg around Eames' own, a hand tangling in his hair. "You can say it more often—ah!" He let out a groan as Eames nipped a spot on his throat and then smoothed it over with the flat of his tongue.

"Brilliant," Eames repeated, lightheaded and still energized from completing the impossible. They had done it. They had nearly lost their lives and sanity, thanks to Cobb's issues he'd told no one about until it was almost too late. But still, they had actually accomplished inception. "That elevator drop was – how did you manage that?"

Arthur arched against him. "No gravity. I had to – Eames! I'm not doing this here."

Which was a shame because Eames had just got a hand down Arthur's primly pressed trousers, cupping around his ass, and he had every intention of doing this right there, against the wall. Preferably with Arthur's strong legs around his ribs and riding Eames' cock all the way down.

But Arthur had other ideas. He shoved Eames back and Eames stumbled, off balance, and landed on the bed. Arthur followed and before Eames could recover he straddled his legs, and pushed Eames' jacket down half off of his shoulders, pinning his arms in place.

Eames felt Arthur's grin as he kissed him, slow and deep. Like had all of the time in the world. They'd nearly had all the time in the world, if Eames hadn't been that much faster, and if Saito hadn't turned into an asset instead of a liability.

Bloody Cobb.

"What happened down there?" Arthur asked, as if following his thoughts. He pulled back long enough to divest Eames of his jacket and free his arms. "With the third level?"

But Eames wasn't ready to talk about Cobb or Mal's shade or any of it. Not yet. He shook his head and neatly reversed their positions, using every ruthless trick in the book to distract Arthur; exploiting every place that he knew would make him groan.

Finally, when Arthur was slicked up and ready, Eames pushed inside. He stilled there for a moment, relishing the clench of Arthur's body around him. Overwhelmed by the thought that they could have all been trapped in limbo. He could have lost this.

Then Arthur, flushed, mouth open and panting, grabbed the back of his neck. "Eames. Move." And he let out a low sound of pleasure as Eames snapped his hips into him, fingers scrabbling on Eames' back as if to pull him closer, get even more into him.

Eames bore Arthur down with the weight of his body, pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the knee rucked up just under his arm. He thrust long and hard into Arthur – he knew his body enough by now, how to simply brush his prostate and when to hit it hard until Arthur was nearly whining, bucking back in counter-point to Eames' thrusts.

Arthur reached down to bring himself off, but Eames caught his wrist and held it. Keeping him there on the edge. Eames was close, could feel orgasm burning just under his own skin.

"Eames... " Arthur groaned and his fingernails of his free hand cut deep into the back of Eames' neck as revenge. He tossed his head, every line in him stretched taunt, bearing down around Eames like a pornstar. "Jesus. Fuck. Eames—!"

It felt so good, so good and Eames could bear it no longer. Releasing Arthur's wrist, he reached between them and—


The Red Door

"Eames," Arthur choked as he came, shuddering, nearly bent over double as shocks of pleasure coursed through his body. Biting his bottom lip, he milked his cock through the last of it, until over-sensitivity started to outweigh pleasure.

He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling; the hotel room empty and cold around him.

The daydream was gone – although it had felt more real during the heat of the moment than some shared dreams. But now with his own semen cooling on his skin, the fantasy was broken and faded. All he was left with was a vague sense of loneliness.

Arthur rose from the bed to retrieve a washcloth to clean up.

Dom would be reuniting with his kids by now, Ariadne was flying back to Paris to finish her degree. Yusuf was returning home by other means and Eames...

Eames had tried to catch Arthur's attention at the baggage claim, but Robert Fischer had been right there, too close. Arthur turned away and when he looked back, Eames had gone.

It was for the best. Really.

Arthur let out a long breath, scrubbed his face with the back of his hand, and reached for his luggage. He needed a shower.

 

 

The Blue Door

Several months later

Eames strolled into the bare, dusty warehouse that was their current workspace, weighed down with what felt like an entire tray of Starbucks coffees. If it were left up to him, the team would make do with a single coffee maker, but Arthur and Cobb were addicted to those fancy, sugary coffees which were actually half-milkshake.

Since Eames was currently sleeping with Arthur, and Cobb had some bloody-vicious projections when the mood struck him, Eames had long ago learned roll with the punches.

"Morning gents," he called setting the tray down and picking out his own; black, no cream, no sugar.

Cobb peeked up from his 3-D foam model of what looked to be the second level of the Leffler job. "Do I smell coffee?" he asked, half hopefully, and at Eames' nod he rose from his chair.

Prison hadn't much agreed with Cobb. He seemed to have lost a good two stone of weight he had yet to gain back, and there was a lean, half-wild look about him now. It reminded Eames uncomfortably of a miserable, hungry dog. The type that was liable to bite the hand that feeds.

Cobb agreed to stay on to work as strictly in-house consultant/architect since his own violent projection of his deceased wife made him useless in the field. (They'd learned that the hard way on the Fischer job.) And although Arthur seemed to be able to trust Cobb just fine, Eames had his doubts.

"Stay the night again, I take it?" Eames asked, noting Cobb was on day two of wearing that particular sports jacket.

Cobb smiled at him, smooth as silk, and gestured for Eames to follow him back to the 3D model. "I wanted to get an early start on the second-level."

No doubt, Eames thought, he'd find the PASIV once again used, their supply of Somnacin down more than expected.
But before he could comment, Cobb asked, "So, Arthur's not feeling well?"

"What?" Eames looked around in surprise, and realized he and Cobb were alone in the warehouse. "He's not here yet? He left the apartment before I did." Come to think of it, he had not seen Arthur's car parked either, though sometimes Arthur pulled around the back.

But when he stepped to the far window to peer to the back lot, it was empty.

"He's not picking up. It's going to voice mail," Cobb said, lowering his phone from his ear.

And Eames got a very particular kind of sinking feeling in his gut, the type which never led anywhere good.

"That... isn't like him," Cobb said, winning the award for the most obvious statement of the day.

Eames shook his head and made his decision abruptly. "Stay here and ring me if he shows," he said, hurrying to the door to grab his coat.

"Where are you going?"

"To back-track his route." He paused and gave Cobb a significant look. "Don't go under until you get word."

At any other time, he would have savored the look on Cobb's face – though really, he had been docking his pay for the extra Somnacin use for months – but he didn't have time now. Eames swept out the door hurried to his car without another word.

Please darling,
Eames thought, for once in your life be unpredictable. Be at our apartment sick with the flu.

The Red Door


Arthur felt ridiculous – keys clasped in his teeth as he attempted to navigate briefcase, cell phone, and a tray of ridiculously expensive coffees to his car, all at the same time. He would have blamed Ariadne for it, but he was the one who had gotten her and Cobb both addicted to a sugar/caffeine high during the Fischer job. Now, one short-lived retirement and several months later, Arthur learned the hard way that his team just didn't function very well in the mornings without. As point man, it was up to him to ensure his team was functioning at maximum.

His job was fraught with peril. Really.

His mind was on other things, schedules and the briefing he was to hold later in the day, as he placed the tray on the roof and juggled his keys. Perhaps this was why he didn't notice the crunch of gravel, didn't sense the two figures resolving behind him in the thick fog until it was nearly too late. Some half-instinct made him turn and bring his arm up at the last second... but that only meant he caught the fist in his left shoulder instead of the side of his head.

The blow knocked him back a step. Arthur turned and brought his briefcase up. His attacker's fist hit it, hard, and the man yowled in surprise and pain, backing away and shaking his hand out.

Arthur had a second to realize he knew the face, the stub-nose and the receding hairline. But as in Zurich, the man wasn't alone. Arthur heard the click of a safety and felt something suspiciously like the hard muzzle of a gun shoved into his kidney.

"It would be best for you to come with us," said a low feminine voice, lightly touched with a Russian accent. Arthur didn't have to turn to look to guess it was the tall blonde woman.

He stilled, reluctantly, casting a look around for help. It was late morning and the parking-lot wasn't as full as it could be; a large black van cut off the line of sight from the coffee-house. The unusually thick fog that day did the rest.

"I already told you: this isn't how I do business," Arthur said, keeping his voice calm as he raised his hands in the classic surrender position. His slim smart phone fell neatly from his palm into his open sleeve, unseen by the male attacker.

"Sonofbitch broke my hand," the man cursed, cradling his arm to his chest and giving Arthur an ugly look. "Just do it, Helen, and get it over with."

Arthur thought quickly: if they wanted him alive, the woman may not be willing to shoot him if he turned on her. He would need a distraction, though.

"Be quiet," Helen snapped. Then, to Arthur, "You've been given a chance to come on your own, darling." The accent gave her voice a pleasant lilt but the 'darling' that fell from her lips sounded wrong, like a bad parody of the real thing. "Now your presence is requested, specifically. Don't make this harder on yourself than it—"

Arthur didn't wait for her to finish. He swept his upraised hand sideways to the carton of coffees still on the car's roof, knocking the cups back and hopefully splattering them all over her. He started to turn and—

Abrupt, searing pain raced through his body. Everything muscle clenched completely out of his own control. Arthur felt himself falling and the world went white.

He had been wrong. It hadn't been a gun. It had been a taser.

****

Arthur came back to consciousness slowly; first becoming aware of soft rumbling vibration all around him, then of a gentle swaying motion – familiar and confusing all at the same time. The right side of his back hurt in a deep throbbing ache like he had torn all the muscles there. His fingers tingled unpleasantly.

In fact, he couldn't move his hands at all. They were bound behind his back.

Arthur's eyes snapped open. He saw only darkness, then, by twisting awkwardly around, a faint strip of greyish light above.

It probably said something about his life choices that he knew at once that he had been trapped in a trunk of a car. Recognized it because it had happened before, back when Cobb was still on the lam and a job in Denmark had gone horribly awry.

He twisted around to the other side – easier said than done in a small, confined space – and searched for a hard edge, or better, a release of some sort. There was none, and his hands had been tied back with what felt like plastic zip-strips. They would be hard to snap without clippers. But his legs were left unbound and no one had thought to gag him. He could kick and he could yell for help if his captors were foolish enough to stop for gas.

From the smooth vibrations under him and the gentle back and forth sway of gravity, he guessed the car was travelling fast; probably on a freeway with wide, sinuous curves. It was raining, too. He could hear drops hitting the top of the trunk and the low rumble of tires against wet asphalt.

Arthur wondered a bit bitterly if they had locked him in the trunk of his own car or if they had stolen a new one for the occasion.

It was then that he remembered his cell phone.

Amazingly, it lay undiscovered, tucked up his sleeve. It still took Arthur a good half-hour to shake the phone out, past the confining zip-strips, and then fumble the buttons with half-numbed fingers behind his back.

He finally managed to hit the SEND twice, redialing his last call: Ariadne. Then he wiggled quickly around and scrunched down to get his head level to the phone in time to hear a tiny voice from the speaker.

"Hello? Hellllo? Arthur? Is that you?"

"I'm here," he rasped, unsure if he could be heard by the passengers in the car. He could hear music faintly over the sound of tires and road-noise, but that wouldn't cover much.

"Oh! There you are." Ariadne gave a relieved laugh, sounding a hundred thousand miles away. "I thought you butt-dialed me for a second. Where are you? Cobb was about to go looking—"

He didn’t have time for this. "Tell him I've been taken by associates working for Ivan Marcovic."

"What?" she squawked, and then there was a shuffling and low urgent conversation sound as the phone was passed between hands. Dom's tense voice came on.

"Where are you?"

Arthur had the insane urge to laugh. If it all weren't so stupid, he would be worried he was stuck in a dream. Tased and kidnapped – he was losing his edge. "Tied up and locked in the trunk of a car. I think they have me traveling down a freeway, but I'm not sure."

"Jesus," Dom muttered. "Okay. Okay. How do you want to play this?"

"This still may be strictly business." Although Arthur had to admit things appeared more serious now as he was currently staring into the back panel covering the spare tire compartment. "But Marcovic is a known eccentric so it could be anything."

"He's unpredictable," Dom confirmed. "This is the second time he's targeted you. That means something."

Arthur closed his eyes and thought about Eames, their conversation about Marcovic's job when Mal died. "The last time he was searching out to hire a team for an extraction – I don't think he knew where you were, but he may come after you next. Especially if he doesn't get the answer he wants out of me." Dom and Mal were still fairly legit back then and didn't exactly advertise themselves. That had been Arthur's job.

Dom's voice took on an edge. "I can take care of myself and Ariadne. We need to focus on getting you out of there. Do you have any idea where they're taking you?"

"They didn't exactly tell me, no." And other than the swoosh of tires against wet asphalt, he couldn't hear anything distinct. Nothing accurate enough to pin-point his location, at least. "My phone has a GPS program you can access through my laptop— my login details are in my car. It should be still parked at the Starbucks at Market Street."

"Okay," Cobb's voice took on a hollow, tinny quality as if he had moved to another room. Possibly looking for a pen and paper. "What if they've dumped your car?"

"I have a storage unit, the one near Embarcadero." He had multiple copies of important documents – PASIV schematics, an extra passport, important numbers, changes of clothes and the like, scattered throughout several such units throughout the world. Dom knew of them, but not where. "You should be able to get in there. Number 2934. The information you need will be in the red binder." He waited a beat. "Dom?"

But there was no answer, and when Arthur looked the phone was flashing the no signal icon.

He waited, hoping for a call back, but the phone remained deathly silent. The gradual curves in the road had taken on a sharper edge, too, as if the car were travelling over more rugged territory. He could hear the engine pick up as it shifted gears and it strained to keep momentum up what felt like a steep incline.

As carefully as he could, Arthur tucked the phone back up his sleeve, thankful he kept it on silent as a habit.

He didn't know how much had gotten through – Cobb wasn't exactly cutting edge when it came to technology outside of dream sharing. But Arthur trusted Ariadne to help fill in the gaps. Together, they should work out something... if Arthur didn't find a way to get himself out of this mess, first.

He spent the rest of the long, boring trip mentally replaying everything Eames had told him about the Marcovic job.

And although he would have only admitted it under pain of torture, he found himself wishing that he'd called the forger instead. It was dark and small inside the trunk. Even if Eames were a half a world away and completely unwilling to help, it would have been nice to hear his voice.

 

****


By Arthur's rough estimate, it was more than an hour and a half before anything changed: the car slowed several times as if they had run into traffic or were forced to make turns at a slower pace. The road become rougher, then all together bouncy as the car went over rough terrain. Wherever they were taking them had to be remote.

Then finally, finally the car slowed to a stop. The engine cut.

The trunk opened, letting in hazy grayish light and cold wind scented strongly with cedar and musty rain. Arthur had planned on fight his way out if possible, but Helen stood out of easy kicking range, taser in hand as a silent warning.

He was hauled out by the man, who still had a sour, ugly expression; his hand wrapped tightly in ace bandaging.

The rain was splattering heavily, half-frozen to sleet. Looking around, Arthur took note of tall coniferous trees looming in every direction. They had come in on what looked like a narrow dirt road, with no other buildings in sight other than a large, A-frame cabin: all dark and remote with bug-eaten siding. Through the rain, he could hear the purr of a generator.

It all spoke of disuse, of isolation. A place once loved now falling into shambles by way of neglect.

Arthur kept his face a blank to give nothing away as he was marched up a warped porch, grey with age.

The inside of the cabin could not be more different from the outside. It was decorated in that overblown way that Arthur hated – everything was overly large to the point of barely being functional. The entryway opened to a living room with high, vaulted ceilings which went to the roof. A six foot tall dirty granite fireplace dominated a large part of the wall in the back while a roaring fire provided the heat. Arthur counted five men seated on dusty-looking sofas while they watched a small TV – foil-tipped rabbit ears sticking out from the top. Another, older man, sat apart from the rest at what looked like a temporary card table.

Arthur took a guess that this was Marcovic, and sure enough, Helen and the other strong-arm pushed him over to stand right in front of him.

"This is him, then?" Marcovic asked in Russian, and at a nod from Helen, broke into a smile showing off large, fleshy cheeks.

"Mr. Turner," Marcovic said, this time in English, and Arthur had to work not to react. He had taken great pains a long time ago to cover his trail, forge a new identity for himself. David Arthur Turner was long dead according to the authorities, but apparently, not to Marcovic.

And Marcovic wanted him to know it, too.

"Thank you for coming on such short notice," Marcovic continued, and gestured grandiosely to the fold-out chair in front of him. "Please, take a seat."

It must have been a signal of some kind because Helen grabbed Arthur's wrist and with a snick the zip-ties were cut. He was then pushed down into the chair, Helen and the other flanking him on either side as guards.

Arthur let them do it, taking the time observe the exits – there were two, and other doors which led to bedrooms. The front door was closest, although from the quiet yet watchful body language of the other five men, he wouldn't doubt they were packing some kind of weaponry. It was doubtful that Arthur could sprint to the forest fast enough not to be shot. And then what? He still had very little idea where he was, and he could hear the rain still pelting down upon the roof. He had no desire to spend the night in the middle of the forest in the middle of a storm.

So, instead, Arthur projected an air of casual disinterest; adjusted his sleeves over his bruised wrists and made sure the cell phone was well hidden. Marcovic watched him with small, watery eyes.

"I didn't have much of a choice," Arthur conceded. "Your associates were very... persuasive. But I'm currently in the middle of a job. I will be missed."

A small smile crept over Marcovic's face, as if Arthur had just said something amusing. "Don't worry, Mr. Turner, this will only be a small thing."

"Please," said Arthur, "Call me Arthur."

Marcovic didn't bother to acknowledge him. "I promise you that you will be paid very well, and returned back, shortly."

Something in the way he said it, the easy smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, made Arthur sure he was lying.

Marcovic turned and gestured to one of the men watching from the couch. The man – beefy looking with a head as perfectly round as a soccer ball – walked to a closet and withdrew a sleek black briefcase.

Arthur's heart sank. He'd bet anything the inside of that briefcase contained a PASIV device – one of the black market machines made by way of stolen schematics and second-hand information. They were knockoffs: buggy and dangerous.

"As you can see, I have the tools." Marcovic said, as it was placed on his desk and snapped open. Sure enough, Arthur caught a glimpse of familiar tubing and wires. "Everything you will need to complete an extraction for me."

"I need a team to do a proper extraction," Arthur said, looking at the briefcase like the snake it was. "A minimum of three people to build the dream, distract the projections, and find the information."

"I have hired a team already," Marcovic replied, with a shrug. "They were an expensive disappointment. They did not find what I needed to know."

"What makes you think that I will?"

Marcovic's beady eyes fixed upon him. "Are you are refusing to work for me?"

The question was weighted and Arthur hesitated. He got the feeling that if he answered incorrectly, his corpse would be tossed out among the trees. Probably not to be discovered for years, if ever. "I'm saying," he said, carefully, "That a proper extraction takes time and careful planning. I am a point man, sir. Not an extractor."

"I was told you were able to do extraction work." Marcovic smiled grimly. "In fact, the one who told me bet his life on it."

Arthur's hand clenched into an involuntary fist by his knee. "Who?" Not Eames... don't let it be Eames...

"A man you're acquainted with. Mr. Nash, I believe he's called."

Arthur let out a breath. He had not known that idiot was still alive – and still trying to pay off the price on his head by Cobol Engineering, from the sound of it. "I can," he said, "but it's not my specialty."

"You will work for me," Marcovic confirmed. It was a statement, not a question and he snapped his fingers.

Another goon from the couches peeled off and ducked into another room. He returned a moment later, practically carrying in a teenager by the scruff of his collar. The kid was sixteen or seventeen at the most, but small and mousey looking with darting blue eyes and looked at Arthur as if he was his doom.

"My son, Nicolai," Marcovic said. "You will start with him."

"Papa," Nicolai whispered, staring at Arthur as if he were death incarnate. "Papa please... don't..."

"Wait," Arthur said, and would have stood if Helen hadn't pushed him down again. "No, we can't do it like this. If the subject is aware what is going on—"

"And this is why I hired the best. This is why I hired you." Marcovic looked to the round-headed goon. "Clear off the sofa. I am told it is much like sleep and they should both be comfortable."

"Papa I haven't done anything wrong!" Nicolai wailed as he was sat down and another goon brought over the knockoff PASIV device.

"Mr. Marcovic," Arthur tried, "This isn't how extractions work. The projections will be on guard if he goes under in duress. I can't—" he was stopped as he heard the click of a safety, close to his ear. Ferretti's hand on his shoulder and the cold muzzle of a gun shoved to the base of his neck.

Marcovic's eyes were flat and pitiless. "Do you know why I think the last team failed? They were not properly motivated. So it will be interesting to see, then, how far you can go if your life is on the line."

Arthur swallowed, took a deep breath, and tried to ignore the sounds of the weeping boy on the couch behind him. "I don't even know what I'm looking for," he said through gritted teeth.

"Treachery, Mr. Turner," Marcovic said. "Someone in my family has turned their hand against me. You will tell me who it is."

 

 

The Blue Door

"I have one of my storage units near Embarcadero," Arthur said, calm, cool and collected as if he were not currently being kidnapped and hauled off to God-knows-where. Eames would have to tell him how much he admired him for grace under fire – after he found him and made Marcovic pay, first. "Number 29—" Arthur's voice went distorted then, wobbly like a channel going into snow. "—four. You should—" More distortion and Eames gripped the cell-phone so hard he heard the creak of plastic.

"Come again, Arthur? You're breaking up."

"...in the... binder..."

"Arthur?" he repeated sharply, clutching the phone hard.

No reply and Eames pulled the phone away from his ear to see the phone flashing 'Call Ended'.

He tried back once, twice, three times, but his calls went straight to voice mail.

Eames wasn't one to dawdle. Arthur hadn't given him enough information to go through the normal route, but there was more than one way to skin a cat.

The next call he placed went international. He waited impatiently, fingers drumming on his dashboard as the phone rang and a woman's voice with a light Chinese accent picked up. "This had better be important," she said.

"It's Eames," he said, and something in the quality of his voice must have shown through because Allison Chang skipped her usual unpleasantries and got right to business.

"Eames? Do you know what time it is? No, of course—are you all right? What do you want?"

"The world, money, riches." Arthur and in bed next to him and safe. "But I will settle for that favor you owe me."

Allison was silent for a moment before saying, "What do you need?"

"I need you to track down a cell phone – it's lost its signal, but you should still be able to get a heading from the route, yeah?"

"Eames," she purred, interested now. He could tell. "Such an unusual request from you. Boy trouble, I take it?"

Eames tilted his head up, looking out to the foggy sky, now giving way to clouds as a storm slowly blew in. "No. I'm afraid it's a tad more serious than that. How long will this take?"

"For you?" she answered, and laughed. He heard the click of a keyboard in the background. "I don't suppose you have the ESN? No, give me the number. Let me see what I can find."

 

The Red Door


Nicolai Marcovic, Arthur found, was one of those kids who played way too many video games: the first-person shooter kind where everyone is screaming bloody murder over the comm lines and weapons came in all sorts of fantastical shapes and sizes and never ran out of ammo.

As Arthur had feared, Nicolai's projections were on high alert – whipped nearly into a frenzy from the onset. Like ants swarming over their disturbed nest. Despite this, Nicolai was clearly not militarized. Not even close.

It was child's play to blend in with the rest of the flaily, panicked projections. Arthur imagined himself into fatigues and, with gun in hand, followed the rest of the men on his side out into the battlefield.

He'd only had seconds to plan, but his subconscious had come up with a capture-the-flag scenario. The field, now churned with mud from hundreds of booted feet, sported a single barrack with a hidden safe room where Nicolai's subconscious would naturally try to hide its secrets. A banner-red flag waived gaily from atop.

Projections died all around him: sniped by gunmen on the opposing team, blown away by hidden land-mines, taken out by what looked like completely indiscriminate airstrikes.

Nicolai's mind was a warzone. Scared and fighting tooth and nail to keep any enemy extractor out.

Arthur managed only by experience and by luck to get the bunker first. He slammed the door on the carnage behind him and bent over, hands on his knees and gulping air like a fish. His heart was beating double-time and he got the bad feeling it wasn't because he had just spent the last hour running for his life. The sedatives were either poor, the mixture was off, or he was receiving an improper dose. Maybe a mix of all three.

It would be just his luck to die in a dream and drop into limbo instead of waking.

Arthur allowed himself only a minute to compose himself and straighten, to get moving again. His ears still rang from being too close to blasts outside – the high whine the only real sound in the room.

The bunker itself was stark: concrete walls and floors with simple ladder leading up to the flag-pole above. A single file cabinet stood bare in the room under a puddle of light. Arthur simply kicked it open instead of picking the lock – he was usually a fan of a more elegant solution, but he was body-sore, vaguely nauseous, and wanted this over with yesterday.

A leather-bound diary lay inside the broken remains. Arthur picked it up, and sat with his back against the far wall to read.

Nicolai's mind was young, completely undisciplined. His diary was equally so. Arthur found himself thumbing through a literal cache of shameful secrets: everything from cheating on tests to being kissed by his babysitter when Nicolai too young to understand it was wrong. His father's own expectations of him, and his punishments when Nicolai couldn't meet up with them.

Arthur read through his hopes and ambitions. Nicolai wanted to be a mechanic; work on motorcycles. Modify his own machines and watch them race in the Supersport World Championship. And when he graduated high school in a couple of years, he was going to run away and do it. He was already diverting his generous allowance into a savings account. Arthur had the bank numbers right at his finger-tips.

But there was no treachery to be had there. Nothing but the hatred of a teenage boy for an uncaring, often cruel father.

Arthur put the diary carefully away in a file cabinet that had restructured itself while he had been reading, feeling dirty in a way that he had never had during his usual extractions. Then again, he hardly went after innocents.

The muffled sounds of war were still coming in from outside, and Arthur couldn't stand to hear it any longer. He placed the muzzle of his gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.

 

****

Arthur blinked awake, feeling groggy with his mouth dry as sawdust and everything coming in blurred colors and foreign sounds. He felt a sharp sting against his cheek and heard the sound of the slap two beats later, as if parts of his mind were having trouble processing at the same time.

When things came into focus again, he found himself staring into Ivan Marcovic's fleshy face.

"So?" Ivan asked, and Arthur got the feeling this was the second or third time it had been repeated. "What is it you found?"

"Whoever mixes your sedative is a hack," Arthur answered, and when Ivan backhanded him again he felt it perfectly fine.

He had been sitting, propped up on the dusty couch and glanced over, saw Nicolai's head rolling as he, too, struggled to come free of the sedative. Their gazes met and Arthur saw pure fear in Nicolai's muddy eyes.

Arthur dragged his gaze away, forced himself to focus on Marcovic. "Nothing," he said, and his voice came out flat. Hard. He hated this man at that moment. Hated him for forcing an extraction on a knowing subject, and putting his own son through this.

"Nothing?" Marcovic repeated.

Arthur shrugged. "Nothing of consequence. He's cheated a few times on some tests, kissed some pretty girls but I scoured through his entire subconscious. There's little of importance there."

Marcovic's watery blue eyes narrowed. He stared at Arthur as if he could look right through him and find the lie he was concealing. Then he nodded and walked over to his son, smiling, putting a hand to the back of his neck and murmuring something in his ear. Nicolai nodded back and smiled a small sick smile up at him in return.

The look he threw Arthur when Ivan turned away was relief tinged with more than a little awe.

Then Marcovic said, "Bring in Arina."

One of the goons rose and disappeared into the back room. He returned moments later and to Arthur's horror, brought out a woman around his own age. Her hands were duct-taped together and tears-tracks stained mascara down her cheeks.

"No. Wait—" Arthur started. He tried to get up, but was nearly blind-sided by a wave of dizziness. It was easy for Marcovic to push him down again.

"This is my brother's sister," Marcovic said. "You will tell me what's in her head, too."

"You can't do this," Arthur said, but Marcovic was. His goon pushed Arina, still struggling, to the couch next to him while another ungently rolled up her sleeve and slid in a clean needle. "Listen to me, this is dangerous."

Marcovic barked a laugh. "You forget, I know all about extraction. If you die, you just wake up. No?"

That's not what he had meant, but Arthur had no time to argue as Marcovic reached over and pushed the plunger on the knockoff PASIV.

In that moment between consciousness and dream, Arthur saw himself, like a third party observer: clinical and detached. A dreamer forced to extract again and again... building a dream from nothing was taxing, extraction was a whole new level of difficult. There was a reason why they operated in teams.

How many people did Ivan Marcovic expect him to extract from? Three? Five? His whole family?

Arthur didn't know how long he could hold out, but in that second his resolve boiled down to one idea: clear as crystal.

He would stall for as long as he could, wait him out and give Dom and Ariadne time to find him. Marcovic wanted answers? Arthur wouldn't give them to him. Not real ones, at least.

The world faded away from around him, and Arthur found himself standing in a desert valley. The sun burning away at the back of his neck, and the landscape as vast and empty as his mind could make it.

He adjusted his sleeves and started walking. In a few hours he would find a road and hitch-hike back to the city in Arina's mind. Until then, he would take his time.

There were no answers here.

 

 

The Blue Door

Rain had been pelting down for hours now – fat drops that splattered as soggy ice against Eames' windshield as he climbed in elevation.

Allison had come through just as Eames knew she would. Within a half-hour she had triangulated Arthur's cell signal up to the point where it had ended and plotted a route. Arthur had been traveling due east, up highway 50 towards Nevada. Signal was patchy up there, in the mountainous regions, which helped to explain the lost calls.

Eames had set off at once, only stopping briefly at the apartment he and Arthur shared and then the hardware store to pick up additional supplies.

As the rolling foothills became mountains, the highway narrowed to two lanes. And even that was slow going with the curves becoming sharper, and traffic slowing down as the rain began to freeze into snow.

Eames only set his jaw and continued driving. He dared not think about Arthur – what was possibly happening to him now, what Marcovic was capable of. Everything had gone cold and hard within him, like it had in his SAS days when he had been preparing for one of those missions. He felt that his heart had become a lump of ice encased within a body of steel, as it had in the time before he had been assigned into the Dreamshare program and thawed out again by the art of creation, by the effort of pure imagination.

Dreamshare had destroyed men like Cobb. It had saved Eames. He never told Arthur that, never shared that part of himself, though he had a feeling that Arthur suspected.

He would tell him everything, when this was all over with.

The two-lane highway dipped in and out of a shadowed canyon and wound along a river. He was passing through remote towns with one gas station apiece when his phone buzzed in his pocket.

Eames' heart leapt and then fell again as he looked at the caller ID. It wasn't Arthur.

"That phone you wanted tracked started picking up signal again. It's no longer on the move," Allison said, forgoing a greeting. "I have coordinates."

He frowned. "Coordinates? Not an address?"

"You wish. It's too remote for an address. It looks like someone is trying to hide up there, and they're probably doing a good job."

Eames dutifully copied the numbers down and pulled off onto the shoulder to plug them into his GPS unit.

Allison was right: it was very remote. Arthur's cell phone had stopped at the end of an unincorporated road about nine miles outside of South Lake Tahoe, between Fallen Leaf Lake and the much more ominous sounding, Desolation Wilderness.

Grimly, Eames stepped on the gas.

****

He was forced to make yet another stop, this time to boost a large-bed truck out of a campground. The weak afternoon light was draining away, replaced by plummeting temperatures and thick snowfall. Eames had to put the windshield wipers on high just to keep up.

He was waved by a chain control checkpoint when he explained his truck had snow tires and four-wheel drive.

The unincorporated road, when he finally found it, was hardly a road at all. Just a dirt track, now frosted with snow, and pinned in on both sides by evergreen trees. Rocky and steep, it was barely wide enough for the truck to pass in some places.

Eames pulled off the road and abandoned the truck within the trees when the GPS said he was within a half-mile of his location. He quickly rechecked the rounds on his two handguns and pulled out a duffle-bag of home-made C4 with a remote detonator. Some of it had been pre-prepared at their apartment for just such a needed occasion. It was amazing what one could mix from simple household items.

He chose to hike the last half mile in the snow – only ankle deep now and threatening to get much deeper. His breath puffed out in clouds, carried off by stinging wind and fat snowflakes.

Eames spotted the lights of the cabin well before he got there. It stood out like a torch in the gathering darkness; the light pouring out from the tall windows and illuminating everything around it.

Eames crept forward to look about and a predatory smile stretched across his face. A fleet of black SUV's stood parked in the driveway like horses at a stable – all of them clustered stupidly close to a bottled propane tank.

Eames planted the first of his explosives there.

The cabin itself was quiet. Eames could only hear what sounded like a TV inside, and the sounds of hushed conversation. No yelling. No screaming.

He had made himself walk around the entire outside of the cabin, keeping well out of way of sight of the windows, and had just circled around to the front porch again when he heard the soft tread of boot steps in the snow. He crouched, crab-walked into the deeper shadows and stilled, waiting.

A barrel-chested man came around the corner. He was clad in black from his beanie down to his black leather boots, but standing in the porch-light he was completely visible. He stared, frowning, above Eames' head, out to the forest.

"Alex? What do you see?" asked another voice in Russian from further off. The front door, perhaps.

"I thought I heard something... a bear," Alex in black called back, then stilled as his eyes focused on a C4 pack set not three feet from his left boot.

Eames leapt from the shadows, the length of his belt between his hands just as Alex drew in a breath to shout. Whipping the belt around his neck, he pulled, cutting off the noise before it could begin.

Alex twisted and Eames rode him down, the snow serving to muffle most of the impact. They were of a height, but Eames had used his surprise to his advantage and within a minute it was over.

The other guard called, "Was it a bear?"

"No!" Eames answered, hoping the winds would obscure his voice just enough. He turned the body over to search the pockets and was rewarded with another handgun. "No bear!"

This seemed to satisfy the other man. Eames heard the front door open and close as he retreated back into the cabin.

He gave one last swift look around to be sure he wasn't about to be ambushed from behind – but there was only the wind, the snow, and the silent forest.

Then, gun in hand, remote detonation device in the other, Eames ran up the pouch and gave one solid kick to the front door.

It flew open and Eames had a second to take everything in. A snap-shot of every detail, all crowding in at once: the large, cavernous living room, bare of rugs and spare furnishings. Ivan Marcovic sitting at a worn armchair, mouth open and laughing at a small camp TV. Arthur, lying slumped on a dirty, old couch, pale and hooked up to something which only vaguely resembled a PASIV device - the beginning of a bruise upon his cheek.

And then, of course the barrels of four, no, five handguns bristling in his direction.

Eames lifted his left hand, showing them all that his finger was quite literally on the trigger. "Gentlemen," he said, and sought out Ivan Marcovic who had stopped laughing and was staring at him with mouth dropped open. "You have something precious of mine. I want him back."

"How-How did you find us here?" Marcovic demanded, dumbfounded.

"That hardly matters, does it?" Eames nodded to the man sitting closest to Arthur. "Unplug him."

"No! Don't touch him!" Marcovic barked. "He has not finished the extraction."

Eames was about to tell them all that they would have a very hard time indeed if they expected to extract anything from Arthur's mind. But upon second glance, he saw that Arthur was hooked in with a woman, and that his was the lead for the dreamer, not the subject. Which meant...

"So you thought you would get an extractor to work for you for free, hm?" Eames asked, voice pleasant while rage simmered in his blood. "Even after you hired our team?"

Ivan looked like he had sucked on a lemon. "I paid you to do nothing. Nothing!" he spat. "My enemies close in on all sides and you tell me their minds are clean? You lied!"

"There wasn't anything to be found you paranoid bastard," Eames said in disgust and looked again at the man next to Arthur. "Go on then, or I'll blow you all to kingdom come."

Marcovic half-stood. "You wouldn't—"

Eames' voice went hard. "Unplug him or you needn't worry about your family coming to kill you. I'll do it right here."

They stared at each other across the room – but Marcovic never had a chance, really. Eames had been playing roles for too long to come off less than wholly convincing that he was ready to die for this. Right here, right now.

Marcovic looked away. "Do it," he told his man.

The guard shot a nervous glance at Eames and then unceremoniously reached over and jerked the cannula from Arthur's wrist.

Arthur snapped into consciousness. Gasping, he jerking about to look all around him with eyes wild and unseeing.

"Arthur," Eames said, and Arthur's gaze fell to him, focused a little. He lurched to his feet and staggered over to him with a low, muttered, "Took you long enough."

Eames smiled tightly and handed him his extra handgun. Arthur was swaying alarmingly, but he was willing to bet he could still shoot.

But Marcovic was standing, his face red, and Eames could see intent in his eyes: the look of a man whose prize falcon was about to wing away. In the next second, he would give word and every gun in the room would start shooting.

So Eames simply got there first.

He pressed the top of the two buttons on the detonator and turned, shielding Arthur's body as an explosion ripped through the back room of the cabin. A wave of heat washed over them all and Eames yelled, "Go!" as he shoved Arthur out the open door, into the falling darkness and snowfall.

They ran and within seconds the crack of gunfire sounded behind them.

Arthur cried out, falling briefly to one knee, a hand to his stomach. Eames caught his arm, hauling him bodily upright and to the nearest of the parked SUV's while firing back blindly over his shoulder.

Somehow, he shoved them both inside. Arthur seemed to recover his wits and used the car's door as a shield to fire back at the figures pouring from the cabin while Eames ripped out the wires from the dashboard and twisted them together.

The engine roared to life and Eames fishtailed briefly, speeding out of there in the thickening snow. He pushed the last button as the exited the driveway, triggering the second set of explosions which were stuck onto the propane tank.

He was gleefully certain the resulting fireball could have been spotted from low orbit.

That didn't mean he was willing to take chances. He barreled down the narrow road at what was definitely an unsafe speed – Arthur's breathing was ragged as he clutched the top handle over the door.

"Well, that was a mess," Eames commented lightly a few minutes later and glanced over to Arthur, but the shadows were not in his favor. He couldn't see much of Arthur other than he had let go of the handle and seemed to hunch in his seat.

"Are you all right, darling?"

"No," Arthur replied. "Keep driving."

Ignoring him, Eames reached up and hit the switch for the interior light. And stared.

Arthur had unfastened the buttons on his vest, and had both hands pressed to the middle of his stomach. Blackish red blood had seeped up around his shirt through his fingers. He looked pale, white as a sheet.

"Look where you're going Eames! Shit!"

Eames glanced up in time to see that the road ahead had taken a sharp turn. He jerked the wheel but the tires slipped and lost traction. The SUV barreled over the embankment and down again into a bare, rocky wash. The car jolted and shuddered to a halt, the road some twenty feet above them. It had been a miracle they had not run headlong into a tree.

"Damn it..." Arthur breathed. "I knew I should have driven." But his voice was weak, thready.

Eames didn't waste time cursing his own stupidity. He got out of the car and came around to the passenger's side. "Here," he said, "lie back and let me have a look at you."

The bleeding looked as if it had slowed some, but when Arthur turned on his side, Eames got an eyeful of exit wound – and more blood. Black blood drenched his shirt in a wide swath down his back.

"Eames, I think... I think I'm dying," Arthur said. He sounded amazed.

"None of that now," Eames snapped and helped him lie normally before pulling open the glove compartment in search of a first aid kit. Something. Anything. But it was empty save for some napkins. Eames pulled out his cell phone and tried to dial with fingers slick with Arthur's blood. No signal.

Arthur gripped his wrist, stilling him.

"Eames... I'm sorry. It's not your fault." Arthur's face looked paler now, nearly chalk white, his brown eyes burning with knowing as he shifted their grip and laced their fingers together.

And that was when the panic truly set in. Eames' breath caught in his chest and he shook his head. "Darling don’t say that. Just keep pressure on it. I'm going to go look in the boot and—"

"Eames," Arthur said, with more force. He squeezed his fingers, but only briefly. "It's okay. Just... stay with me?"

"Arthur, don't... I love you. I love you." Eames had a feeling, distantly, he was babbling. It didn't matter. He kissed Arthur's forehead, clasped their hands together as if it were a physical lifeline. As if he could keep him there. " Don't leave."

"It's okay," Arthur repeated and huffed a tired laugh. "Weird, you know? It always hurt more in dreams."

Eames couldn't think what to say, and when Arthur smiled up at him he felt his heart lurch as if it were in the process of breaking.

"Shouldn't have picked that door, you know?" Arthur's words slurred a bit at the end, eyes unfocused.

"You're not making much sense, love," Eames said, touching his cheek with his free hand. His skin was so cold. "Arthur, stay with me."

"I love you," Arthur whispered, and tipped his head up. Eames kissed him, tasted salt in form of his own tears and Arthur's. He pulled back, stroked his chin with his thumb. Arthur smiled at him and took one last breath, eyes slipping closed.

"Arthur... Arthur..." Eames repeated, running his fingers through Arthur's hair. He pulled him tight, kissed his closed eyes, and wept.

 

The Red Door


After a time, it simply became impossible for Arthur to gage how long he had been under.

He and Dom always insisted worked with high-grade chemicals: where five minutes meant an hour of dreaming. There were reasons for this – safety and efficiency being chiefly among them. Now when he woke on purpose (or occasionally on accident thanks to wayward projections) he knew he had been dreaming for hours, but the hands on the large clock on the living room wall always moved as well. Arthur had lost hours in reality, too.

Arina's extraction was long past. Arthur couldn't even remember what had been in there anymore, or what he had told Marcovic. He was currently in the mind of Ivan's own uncle – a man from the old country who spoke little English and whose projections knew none at all.

It was a bad idea to use memories, but Arthur still found himself in his favorite café in Luxemburg City, eating green bean soup and watching the projections – though after a only a few bites his stomach roiled and he had to push the bowl away. Nausea caused by the bad sedative, no doubt.

"Pardon my saying so, but you look terrible darling."

He glanced up as Eames took the seat across from him. He was as Arthur last remembered seeing him at the end of the Fischer job: dressed in dove-grey suit and hair parted just off to the side. A little unshaven, in that rough-but-casual way of his.

Arthur frowned. "What are you doing here?"

"Oh, I thought I'd pop in and see how you were getting on." Eames plucked the menu from the table, scanned it briefly, then set it aside with a smile. "Your Russian is terrible – don't lie. And I knew you would need help."

Arthur laughed, and even he could hear the almost hysterical edge to it. The projections in the café all turned to glare at him and he stopped, rubbing at his eyes. He was so tired.

"It won't do you any good," he said slowly, as if testing the idea. "As my projection, you'll only know what I know."

Eames smiled at him, that cheeky smile which was so Eames even as he didn't even try to deny it. "Well, maybe we could work something out together."

They did.

Not that it mattered. Ivan only replaced his uncle with another unfortunate the moment Arthur woke and reported back with fake findings threaded with enough truth to be believable.

Next was Marcovic's head of security. Then his second wife. Then his best friend.

And Arthur didn't see Eames' projection again. Not until he was in a bank vault in Ivan's brother's mind – his hands trembling so badly he could hardly hold the lock pick.

He was deteriorating, he realized clinically. Either mentally from marathon extractions or, more likely, physically from the sedative. In any case, he—

A hand closed gently over his own.

"Let me get that for you," Eames said as he carefully plucked the tools from Arthur's nerveless fingers. Arthur nodded and stepped back. It took Eames only a moment – the clever thief that he was – before he had the vault door open and courteously handed him the envelope inside.

Arthur opened it gave a listless glance over the contents before he tucked it in his vest pocket.

Eames eyed him up and down. "Shouldn't you take this dream off?"

"I falsified the last two extractions," Arthur replied, closing his eyes and leaning back against the wall. He'd spent the last two dreams on the white-sand beaches of Waikiki, and sipping hot chocolate at a snow lodge, respectively. It hadn't helped. Now the stone wall felt pleasantly cool against his skin. He was probably running a fever, in reality.

Arthur took in an unsteady breath. "I don't think anyone is coming for me."

He heard Eames walk over, and then felt the gentle touch of fingers on his wrist before Eames cupped a hand under his cheek. Arthur swallowed, opened his eyes to see Eames' face, only inches from his own.

He looked as he had that day they kissed.

"Try to hold on just a bit more, yeah? Help's coming," Eames said, softly.

"It's been too long… maybe more than a day. I can't tell anymore. If Dom knew where I was, he would be here."

The skin around Eames' eyes tightened in worry. "I'm certain it's not for lack of trying, pet. Neither Cobb or Ariadne are ones to give up. You know how clever Ariadne is, and Cobb is every bit the fighter you are."

Arthur shook his head. "As soon as Marcovich is done, he's going to dispose of me."

A heavy sense of lethargy seemed to sink into his bones at his words. Arthur sank down, to a sitting position, back against the wall.

Eames said nothing, only sat with him. And that, if nothing else, convinced Arthur that this was only a projection – the best Arthur's subconscious could do, but still not the real thing. The real Eames always knew what to say, even if Arthur hadn't wanted to hear it.

"I'll give myself the kick," Arthur continued, and realized, belatedly, his fingers had become tangled with Eames'. He didn't pull away. "I'll go for the closest gun. I—I'm sure I can take a few out with me."

"You could try to wait it out," Eames suggested. "Stall for more time."

"I can't." He let out a long breath. "The sedative is killing me. I should strike while I still can." Arthur raised his head and looked at Eames, drank the sight of him in a way that he never allowed himself to do while he was awake, because this was the last time he could. "I should have told you," His throat burned as he said, "God, why didn't I ever tell you?"

Eames squeezed his hand. "Tell me now, love."

But Arthur shook his head. He was no romantic, given to great confessions. And even if he were, he would never have wasted one on a projection. A fake.

"I wish you were real," he whispered.

He had no sooner spoken then a sudden rumble shook the room. Arthur scrambled for some sort of a handhold, but of course there was nothing. A violent lurch sent him tumbling into Eames.

Eames yelled, "Something's happening above—"

Sharp pain flashed through Arthur's left wrist. The colors all around him leached away, like an exposure left to light for two long. Sounds dimmed, jumbled together, and then became loud and distinct again.

Arthur found himself, suddenly, back in the cabin and lying on the couch. He looked about, confused, unsure if he was still dreaming.

And Eames – Eames stood in front of the open door. Jacket rumpled and shadows under his eyes and holding both a handgun and what looked to be a detonation device in each hand.

Their gazes locked and Eames smiled. "Arthur," he said, voice pleasant. "Ready to leave?"

Arthur just stared at him, the words not fully registering until Eames nodded sharply towards one of Marcovic's associates. When the man reached for him, Arthur reacted instinctively, jerking away.

Somehow, he was able to get his legs under him and stagger over with his knees like water and hands shaking so hard that he fumbled the extra gun Eames shoved in his hands.

"What are you doing here?" Arthur asked in a low tone, adding a silent, Am I still dreaming?

Eames graced him with a tight smile, though he didn't answer – at least not in words. He winked and pressed one of the two buttons on the device.

A blast shook the back room and Arthur felt himself being shoved out to the porch, nearly slipping as his shoes slid on ice. It must had been snowing all the while he was in the cabin because Arthur found himself nearly wading through knee-high drifts, following Eames to the black outline of parked cars ahead.

Arthur's vision blurred, blackened at the edges as a wave of weakness stole over him. His knees buckled and he fell, bullets ripping through the snow and missing him by inches.

Suddenly, Arthur found himself yanked back up by his arm – caught a flash of Eames with a grim, set expression on his face.

Somehow, Eames managed to half-haul him the nearest of the SUV's. Arthur crawled in, suddenly remembering he held the extra handgun. He twisted around, firing back towards the cabin, although his hands shook so hard he doubted he hit anything at all.

Eames hotwired the SUV with quickness borne of much practice and Arthur was pushed back in his seat as they sped out of the driveway, fishtailing nearly off the road before the tires found traction.

Gripping the top handle above his door, Arthur shut his eyes, nausea rolling through him in waves.

He heard, rather than saw, the second of the explosions go off. He didn't know what Eames blew up, but it sounded impressive.

"Well, that was a mess," Eames commented lightly, sounding smug.

The SUV jolted as Eames took a corner too tightly, and the sudden drop in Arthur's stomach felt so much like the dropping-lurch back in the bank vault that Arthur found himself reaching in his pocket, digging for his totem.

The die clattered on the dashboard and fell, rolling beneath his seat. Arthur swore and pawed blindly for it, still shaking, with fingers that didn't want to work right and, oh God, what if this wasn't real?

"Arthur." Eames' hand rested on his shoulder, the weight warm and comforting. "Arthur, stay with me. You're not dreaming."

His fingers closed over the die at last and Arthur straightened, clutching it so hard the corners bit into his palm. He couldn't make himself roll it again. If this was a dream then he wasn't sure if it was worth it to wake up.

This was what Dom must have felt like all that time he was on the run.

"I'm fine," Arthur said tightly, focusing only on the feel of his totem. It's weight. "Just keep driving."

"Bollocks," Eames said. "How long did they keep you under?"

"I don't know." He glanced at the dash and the friendly blinking clock which informed him it was 4:40AM. "What day is it?"

Eames glanced at him from the corner of his eye. "Tuesday."

Less than twenty-four hours, then. He'd been under for longer, once, but only under Dom's watchful eye and the smoothest Somnacin blend they could afford.

"Is this real?" he heard himself ask in a small voice.

The logical part of Arthur – the part that had identified Eames-the-projection expected the other man to smile, to turn the question around on him. Ask, 'What does your totem tell you, darling?'

But Eames only continued looking straight ahead at the road. His knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel.

"Ariadne called and told me what happened," Eames said, at length. "That your call to her had dropped before you could relay the instructions. She's a smart one, our Ariadne. She knew exactly what I would do." He paused. "I have some contacts in low places, and I probably used my last favor to find you. Then, I abandoned my job in LA– it was very lucrative, I don't mind telling you– chartered a private flight here from the only pilot who was crazy enough to take me in a bloody snowstorm." Eames let out a long breath then, rolled his neck as if to ease some tension, although his death grip on the steering wheel never relaxed. "And the entire way I was half-sick because I knew Marcovic was an utter bastard, and what he was capable of. I couldn't stop thinking of was what a tragedy it would be if I lost you now, and that I could never tell you how very much I..."

His voice cracked and he stopped, cutting a glance at Arthur as if to gauge his reaction. Their eyes met for a long, long moment before Eames turned back to the road.

Arthur felt like he couldn't breathe.

"Eames..."

"So why don't you ask yourself, Arthur? Do you find this too unbelievable to be real? That, surely, it must be a dream because I would never do something like this." Eames' voice went soft. "Or do you believe this is real because you know you would do the same thing for me?"

Arthur couldn't speak. Not at first. Not without knowing he would say the wrong thing – embarrass himself. Everything was all too jumbled in his head, all of his usual shields stripped away by exhaustion and Eames' own words. Too raw.

So instead he reached out, gently prizing one of Eames' hands off the steering wheel, returning the grip on his fingers with strength that matched his own.

"I would have used more explosives," Arthur said, simply.

Eames laughed, deep and relieved, and lifted their joined hands to place a kiss tenderly on Arthur's fingers.

****


Arthur hadn't meant to fall asleep during the long ride away from the cabin. But it seemed only like a few minutes later when he felt a touch to his shoulder, heard Eames' voice telling him to wake up.

He judged it to be late morning by the brightness of the sun peeking out through broken clouds. The snowy, mountainous landscape was gone, replaced by flat, brown vista and the wild odor of sagebrush. They had crossed over into Nevada.

Eames parked their car at a country inn on the outskirts of the town of Sparks – an unremarkable town off from the main freeway and Reno's large casinos.

The room Eames rented was at the corner of the inn, facing towards scrubland vista and well away from the road noise and any foot-traffic. Arthur's jangled nerves appreciated the quiet. The nausea had eased with sleep, but he still felt disconnected – as if he had left a part of himself back under during one of the extractions.

He was able to make a short call to Dom to assure him and Ariadne that he was safe and still in one piece.

Arthur could feel Eames' worried gaze on him from the other side of the room, but he couldn't quite look him in the eye before he shut himself in the bathroom, and rolled his die upon the counter over and over again.

It landed on four each time.

Arthur stared at it, then at his own haggard reflection in the mirror. This was real. Eames had come for him. This was real.

"Okay," he told himself, and ran a hand through his messy hair. It didn't help, nor did it take attention away from a darkening bruise along the side of his jaw. Arthur remembered Marcovic hitting him there, but it felt like a long time ago. He stared into his own bloodshot eyes and tried to make himself accept the truth: he was awake. "Okay."

He took a shower, shamelessly using all of the hot water until it ran cold. He didn't have another change of clothes, so instead made use of the fluffy towel provided by the inn; scrubbing out his hair and then hitching it firmly around his waist.

He found Eames sitting against the headboard of the bed, tapping away at a laptop. Arthur watched him silently for a moment: noted his nicely formed biceps peeking out of his sleeves of his paisley shirt, how his light brown hair was mussed from the day before, the way his lips formed into an unconscious pout as he read the computer screen.

"Where did you get the laptop?" Arthur asked.

Eames glanced up from the screen and stilled. His eyes flicked down Arthur's bare chest, lingered for a moment at towel over his hips, and then up again to Arthur's face before he answered, "In the SUV." And Arthur saw his tongue flick out and lick his bottom lip before he slid the laptop to the side. "It's been very helpful with providing Marcovic's account numbers and a list of his contacts."

"Marcovic told me Nash sold me out."

Eames' eyes darkened a shade. "Did he?" he asked, voice low and oddly possessive. He stood from the bed and walked over, eyes never leaving Arthur. "Well, I plan to find a way to deal with him as well." Carefully, he reached out and brushed his fingers around a reddened welt on Arthur's side: the result from the taser. "Is this the worst of it?"

He touched a tender spot and Arthur flinched, but before Eames could draw back Arthur closed the distance between them. Their lips met, and he felt Eames' hesitation before he returned the pressure, gently – so carefully that it annoyed Arthur.

He wanted more of this – had wanted it for a long time. Now, with the consequences of regret having been recently thrown into his face by his own subconscious, he was done dancing around his attraction with Eames. He was done waiting.

Arthur pushed his body against Eames, a hand cradling his jaw and sucking his tongue in. Eames groaned, and Arthur felt the vibration echoing in his own chest. It sparked heat in him – the first strong feeling he'd had for the first time since waking up.

Arthur rolled his hips and let Eames back him up a step, pressing him against the wall. Eames slanted their mouths together, taking him in a kiss that had Arthur fisting his hair in one hand, the other working the buttons on Eames' shirt. He got the first few undone easily and slid his hand up the fabric to feel warm skin.

When Eames pulled back, he could have screamed.

"Darling, you aren't..." Eames trailed away, his thumb rubbing against Arthur's bottom lip. He could feel him trembling, as if it were costing him effort to hold himself back. "I won't have you like this."

"I'm—" Arthur bit off the lie before it could fully form. He wasn't fine. "I'm good enough."

But Eames looked doubtful even at that.

"When I was down there," Arthur said, the words falling from him as if compelled, "trying to find a way to pull off all of those extractions, I could tell that the Somnacin was a bad mixture. I thought I was going to die. I was ready to die at the end, and... your projection was there, helping me." He tilted his head up, locking gazes with him. "Not Cobb, or my parents, or Ariadne. You, Eames."

Eames' eyes softened. "But you know that wasn't me," he said, gently.

"I know," Arthur replied. "That was the problem."

He saw Eames visibly swallow, his resolve wavering. "Arthur..."

"Eames," he said, with a bit of force. Arthur leaned up, kissing softly along his rough jaw. "Trust me."

And Eames did – surging forward and taking Arthur in a powerful kiss that once again flashed heat through his veins.

They soon fell to the mattress. Arthur impatiently shoved Eames' shirt away and ran his hands over the expanse of his chest, the curl of a tattoo over his shoulder, and down to the slope of his back – all hardened muscle.

Eames nudged him onto his back and kissed into him again. The towel suddenly felt too thick, too many layers against his hardening cock. He wasn't sure who shoved it away first – him or Eames.

"Arthur..." Eames said his name in a groan and dragged his hips upward. Arthur's breath escaped him in a stutter, and he had to clamp down on the desire to thrust back against him. He was too worked up already, with every touch from Eames shooting bright sparks of want straight to his groin.

In an effort to calm down, Arthur shifted his weight downward to mouth along Eames' collarbone and work open the button over Eames' fly. His knuckles brushed against Eames' erection, causing the other man to hiss quietly – he was just as hard as Arthur, the tip of his uncut cock leaking pre-cum.

"Where are the condoms?" Arthur asked, his voice coming out a little shakily.

Eames suddenly stilled and Arthur bit back a curse. "You're kidding."

"Well," said Eames, as he easily pushed his own pants down and kicked them off. The sight of him, all lovely skin and muscle and flushed cock made Arthur swallow. "I rushed up here to mount a rescue, didn't I? Not to mount—"

"Finish that sentence and you're a dead man," Arthur said.

Eames only chuckled and bent to brush his lips down Arthur's neck and lower, taking each nipple gently between his teeth before releasing. And when he parted Arthur's legs with a strong thigh and took his cock in his hand, Arthur forgot why he was annoyed.

Arthur groaned arched up, wrapping a leg around Eames' waist.

"Arthur," Eames breathed, "You've no idea how long I've wanted to..." But he didn't finish. His lips fell to Arthur's again and as if that were the breaking point, he grabbed Arthur's hip with his free hand to grind into him.

It was almost primal – all slick sweated skin and rutting against one another. Arthur snapped his hips up, their erections sliding together and caged by Eames' fingers.

His own hands splayed along Eames' back, his ass, pressing him in as hard as he could. His whole world was Eames – the entirety of him, his body more real and solid than it had ever been in a dream and—

Eames' fingers tightened around his cock, jacking him up and down. He twisted at the end and Arthur broke, letting out a guttural cry as orgasm crashed hard within him. Eames followed a moment later – his teeth closed over the juncture of Arthur's shoulder hard enough to sting as he pistoned into him. His face was flushed and glorious.

Eames sagged against Arthur: his body was heavy, but pleasantly warm. Absently, Arthur trailed his fingertips up and down his arm. After-sex endorphins always made him feel languid and content.

He was barely aware when Eames eventually shifted and got up to retrieve a towel to wipe away the sticky mess between their bodies. Arthur felt too relaxed to care much – whole, he realized, quite unconcerned that he hadn't felt this way in some time.

He felt Eames settle beside him once more as he drifted off to sleep.

The Blue Door

Eames couldn't bring himself to leave Arthur's body. He sat with him, thumb running endless circles over the back of his cold hand while the winter storm raged outside of their car.

As soon as the storm eased or the sun came up – whatever happened first, Eames would hike back to the cabin. If Marcovic and his men were alive, he would kill them. Then, he would find their computers, account numbers, contacts, hopes, dreams.... He would destroy everything Marcovic was and leave his legacy utterly bereft.

He didn't expect to sleep, and it had been years since he lasted dreamt naturally. Exhaustion and grief found him, anyway.

Eames dreamed.

He dreamed that he woke up in an unfamiliar hotel room: Arthur warm, solid and alive in his arms. He dreamed he felt as he had at the beginning of their relationship, when everything was new and uncertain and he suspected he might just be falling in love.

He ran a hand down Arthur's side, noted an angry red welt there, along with some purple bruising on Arthur's wrist and the side of his face where it looked like he had been struck.

Arthur stiffened and blinked open his eyes. Then he smiled at Eames – dimples showing on each cheek.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Arthur asked, his voice still rough with sleep.

"It's nothing," Eames lied, but when Arthur just looked at him he confessed, "I was half-afraid you would be gone when I woke up." He had a vague memory – there and gone again, a flash of blue butterfly wings. But surely that had only been a dream?

Arthur hummed in answer, unconcerned, and stretched, bare legs sliding against Eames' own. Eames found himself smiling back and became thoroughly distracted as Arthur leaned over him, an elbow planted to each side.

"I'm still here," Arthur said and tilted his head down, lips brushing against his own. "So what are you going to do with me?"

And Eames... Eames dreamt that he showed him.


/The doors are open/

 

~ Fin ~

Click to see additional art by DatingWally: Eames Dreamed