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Finders, Keepers

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Eames, Copenhagen, 2011

 

Eames has just stepped out of the hotel shower when his mobile starts to ring. He slings one of the plush white towels around his waist and digs in his discarded trousers. Arthur.

“You've an uncanny ability to ring when I'm naked, darling. I wonder—”

“Jules Munshin!” Arthur's voice is too high, winded, and Eames hears the whap-whap of suppressed gunfire in the background. He lets the towel drop away completely, tucks the phone into his shoulder, and starts pulling on clothes, mentally making a list of what he needs to take, what can be left behind.

“Fuck! Where are you?” Eames says, as close to all business as he can given Arthur's just sounded the alarm. He wishes he'd gone with Arthur to Paris instead of taking the job in Copenhagen. Things like this always happen when they're apart; of course, if he's honest, he knows they happen when they're together, too, but somehow it never seems as bad. He tries to remember who's on the Paris job with Arthur—if there's anyone for backup, if there's anyone who would sell him out. “Arthur? Are you—”

There's a sharp intake of breath and then an earful of Arthur swearing. Eames knows from experience Arthur's probably taken a hit. Nothing too bad, or the pain would be ratcheting through his voice, but likely a graze or a piece of flying glass or wood. Whatever it is it's not enough to slow him down. Arthur sounds angry more than anything.

“Get out of London, Francois,” Arthur says in perfect, unaccented French.

Arthur knows that Eames' first name is not Francois, nor is he anywhere near London, which means whoever's shooting at him is likely close enough to overhear Arthur's words. Which means bad people with guns are entirely too close to Arthur for Eames' tastes. He knows Arthur can take care of himself, but it's little comfort at times like this when Arthur's under fire and Eames is half a continent away.

“Where to, Daen?” It's maybe not the most sophisticated system of codes and keywords, but it's served them well for as many years as they've known each other. If nothing else, Eames knows Arthur is still in France and Arthur knows Eames is still in Denmark—for the moment—and the situation is FUBAR.

More gunfire, not nearly as suppressed this time, and Arthur laughs, an edge to it Eames hates. Arthur's been caught off-guard, something that almost never happens. “Where? Russia, maybe. Can't tell for sure.”

So, maybe the Russians, which covers a lot of possibilities. It's not much to go on.

Eames is mostly dressed and rapidly throwing toiletries into his bag, along with his clothes and passport. “I'll find you.”

There's another quick burst of gunfire, the distinctive ra-ta-tat of a sub-machine gun, and Arthur's voice is soft in his ear. “You always do.”

The line disconnects and Eames tugs on a shirt over his damp skin, takes one last look around the hotel to make sure he's left nothing incriminating behind, and pulls on his jacket. With a bit of luck and an immediate flight, he can be in London in a few hours.

*

Arthur, Nevada, 2000

 

After Arthur meets Eames at the local off-base watering hole, after they share information and objects they'll one day call totems and one chaste, impulsive kiss, Arthur looks for Eames everywhere: in the corridors, bustling with soldiers and scientists; in the compound when Arthur and his team make their way to the hangar that serves as a base for the virtual reality/dream-sharing project; in the sounds of distant gunfire and grenades on the edge of all his dreams. If he didn't have in his pocket a red die that always lands on six he could almost believe he'd imagined—or dreamt, some days it's hard to tell the difference—the whole thing.

Everything at Area 51 is classified. There isn't the easy chatter of a regular base or the kinds of unofficial social activities Arthur's heard of in other places. They're kept busy with reading and training, drills and the kind of constant information dump that means Arthur spends most evenings going over notes and memorizing layouts. They've all been assigned individual rooms—a luxury, Arthur knows—but sometimes he wonders if it's just another way to keep them from talking to one another. He'd learned more from his brief encounter with Eames than from anyone else in the program. He has no real sense of what the guys in his unit are like outside of dreams, and in there, they're usually too busy trying to survive to ask personal questions. Every day they're reminded they're here to do a job, that it's a privilege to be selected, and that there isn't time for anything but work.

For the most part, Arthur's okay with that. He signed on for it, but he's also nineteen and sometimes he gets lonely. Sometimes it's not even sex he wants so much as a friend, someone to talk to. He'd basically known he was putting his sex life on hiatus when he'd joined up. He knew what DADT was and that what it really meant was don't give them an excuse to kick you out; he'd been prepared for it, he thought. When he'd suggested sneaking off-base for a drink to one of the guys in his unit—and he'd honestly meant a drink and nothing more—Taz had politely turned him down, shown Arthur a picture of his girlfriend, and suggested he focus on work.

So Arthur had gone by himself, which as it turned out was a good thing because he'd met Eames. Eames, who'd looked at him with amazement. Who'd run from him, laughed with him, shared a cigarette, a secret, and a kiss with him, and they'd only just met. Arthur isn't used to feeling any sort of connection to people that quickly, but now he's had a taste of it, he wants to feel it all the time. Maybe Eames was being polite, but Arthur's pretty sure a straight guy would've backed off or hit him. Eames did neither. Just brushed a finger over his lips and looked thoughtful, asked him “what's that for?” as if the answer genuinely mattered.

Now, if only he could find him. Arthur hasn't heard a whisper of a British accent since he's been here, nor are there any foreign units listed in the complex. He's done as much as he's comfortable doing in terms of hacking the databases, and there's no Eames anywhere. Of course, he couldn't find his own records either, which was cause for some measure of alarm. He hates to admit it, but the military is efficient at hiding things when they want to be.

Arthur can't say he minds the more serious, quiet atmosphere at Area 51—people keep to themselves and mind their own business—but sometimes he feels ridiculously alone, as if he wants to stand on one of the cafeteria tables and shout something just to see what would happen.

“You look like you're considering doing something reckless,” a low voice says. Arthur's mind registers a soldier in a black t-shirt and desert-style BDU. His cap is partly obscuring his face as he sets a lunch tray down across from Arthur, but the voice is honey and molasses, American South. Arthur can't make himself care about being polite.

“You're having the Turkey Tetrazzini,” Arthur remarks, taking in the guy's lunch choice. “I'd say you're being reckless enough for both of us.”

There's a quick burst of laughter, bright and cheerful as fireworks, and Arthur looks up then because the light tone seems incongruous with the slow drawl of a moment before. He's greeted by a grin and eyes that fall somewhere between blue and green.

“Hello, Arthur,” Eames says, but the voice is American, and Arthur blinks. He feels strangely bereft and he doesn't know why.

“Why are you talking like that?” Arthur whispers, annoyed with himself for not being able to focus on the more important questions of how Eames found him and why he's here now.

“Talking like what?”

“Like you grew up in the fucking bayou wrestling alligators for your supper.” Eames seems inordinately pleased by that, and Arthur shakes his head. He didn't mean it as a compliment.

“What happened to your accent?” Arthur demands quietly.

In a stage whisper loud enough to be heard two tables over, Eames says, “I'm trying to blend in with you Yanks,” still using an accent he seems to have copied from Deliverance. Arthur's grateful that the regular lunch crowd has thinned, and the stragglers who remain tend to be like Arthur, keeping mainly to themselves.

“Oh, for fuck's sake,” Arthur says, tamping down the urge to reach across the table and strangle Eames and his stupid fake drawl. “Are you going to eat that or can we get out of here?”

“Well, you did such a good job of selling the turkey whatever-you-called-it—” Eames pokes at the food unenthusiastically. “Yeah, we can go.”

Arthur is already on his feet when Eames' fork clatters to the table. It's a testament to how desperately he wants to talk to Eames that Arthur doesn't care what it looks like: the two of them grinning, firmly in one another's personal space, rushing headlong out of the mess. Arthur leads them through the maze of corridors, only stopping when a salute or greeting is required, and Eames follows Arthur's example and doesn't draw attention to them. Five minutes later they're safely hidden away in Arthur's small room.

“Nice place you've got, Arthur.” Eames' voice is still too slow, inflection too flat, and Arthur smacks him on the arm, and says, “Stop that.” He doesn't want to admit how many times he's replayed their only conversation over in his mind, how he's already gotten used to the lilt of Eames' voice in his head. He needs to know he wasn't imagining it.

“Stop what?” The innocent look fails completely, but the accent doesn't change. It's clear Eames is just as stubborn as Arthur, and for whatever reason he wants Arthur to say it.

“Stop talking like that. Without your accent. It's—” Wrong, Arthur thinks, but settles on “weird.” He leans against the desk. “It's bad enough I've been wondering if you were a figment of my imagination without you sounding like someone else entirely.”

Eames looks genuinely apologetic then, and fishes Arthur's poker chip from somewhere in his pockets. He flips it lightly across the backs of his knuckles and grins.

“Better, darling?” Eames' voice settles into its familiar register and cadence, and Arthur feels something inside him slot into place. “Fancy a cuppa? Or maybe a snog? I could do with a fag, there's a love.”

Arthur ignores the litany of cliches rolling off Eames' tongue because this is real, Eames is real, and Arthur isn't alone. He wants to fling himself at Eames and hold on. He settles for rolling the die on the desk where Eames can see it land on six three times in a row, and the room falls silent.

“So, that's that, then. We're both real and we've found one another. Now what?”

Arthur smiles. “I've got a few thoughts on that.”

*

Eames, London, 2011

 

It's raining when Eames hits London, and he remembers why he prefers desert climates. He feels cold down to his bones, and by the time he manages to flag a cab to take him to his flat, he's soaked through and shivering. He tips the driver well, grabs his bag, and stares for a moment at the key-less entry and security pad before he remembers which set of codes to use. The door opens into a familiar space, a bit stale from months of absence, but in no time Eames has the kettle bubbling, the radiator fired up, and dry clothes on. He checks his backup mobiles for messages from Arthur, who, with any luck, should be well out of Paris and on his way to London. No new messages greets him.

“Fine, darling. Be like that. Play hard to get. I've always managed to find you before,” Eames murmurs, settling his laptop on the coffee table beside his tea.

He drags a blanket from the bedroom onto the couch, and he puts it to his face when he catches the faintest whiff of Arthur's favorite cologne. It's been a few months since they've been here, but Arthur lingers in the small things: the handful of clothes in the closet, the freeze-dried coffee which he'll make do with until they can get fresh beans to grind, the bookmarked copy of David Copperfield Arthur only reads when he's in London. Eames figures it's going to take Arthur the rest of his life to finish the bloody book, especially given how often Eames manages to interrupt his reading. Not that Arthur ever complains about Eames' distraction techniques.

Eames grins at the thought—god, he hopes Arthur's somewhere safe—then makes a list of people to contact. He knows Arthur would be going about this differently—would choose digital information, airlines and train schedules, hackable databases and satellite links over people. But Eames likes people with all their messy, complicated flaws. He sees the value in the personal touch, and Arthur's ways have never been his ways. They complement each other, and Eames has learned a few things about finding his way around firewalls and spoofing IP addresses, but he'll start with what he knows.

He dials a number in France and waits. A woman answers “Allo?” and though his French is nowhere as fluent as Arthur's, Eames can hold his own just fine. “Colette, c'est Eames. Quelles nouvelles de Paris? Est-ce qu'Arthur t'a contacte?”

*

Arthur, Nevada, 2000

 

Eames glances around Arthur's room at the base and takes immediate possession of the bed, tossing his cap onto Arthur's desk and stretching his long limbs everywhere.

“I can't believe you don't have to share,” Eames mutters into Arthur's pillow, and though the voice is slightly muffled, Arthur's ridiculously pleased to have Eames' accent back to normal. He watches as Eames rolls onto his back, eyes to the ceiling, and Arthur realizes he likes the way Eames looks there, relaxing on Arthur's narrow bed as if he belongs. “I've got five English mates and they sound like the bloody 1812 Overture when they get going at night. How the fuck do you rate a private room, Lieutenant?”

Eames puts a crisp “lef” at the beginning of the word, and Arthur grins. “Loo-tenant,” Arthur corrects, and dodges the pillow Eames tosses at him. “Shouldn't you know how to pronounce your own rank?” He gestures at the lieutenant's bars on Eames' collar.

“Yeah.” Eames looks down at the uniform and Arthur realizes for the first time it's the same as his. It's got someone else's name on the pocket. “Had to nick this from the laundry. Couldn't exactly wander over in my own kit, could I? Top-secret restricted areas and all that rubbish.”

Arthur nods, but he's looking at Eames curiously. “What's your rank then?”

“What's it matter?” Eames looks almost guilty, and Arthur's inquisitive nature is piqued.

“It doesn't. I'm just curious.” Arthur looks Eames up and down, lets a sense of appreciation carry his gaze. Normally, he's not this brave, but Eames makes him want to be. Arthur suspects Eames is going to make him want a lot of things he's never wanted before. “I'm wondering if I need to salute you. Call you 'sir.'”

Eames flushes high on his cheeks, and looks away. Arthur moves from the desk to the edge of the bed and sits, his hip resting against Eames' thigh. “Or maybe you should be calling me 'sir.' Maybe you're just a lowly private, or a sergeant, or—” Arthur searches his memory for something that sounds more British. “Or a seaman!”

“A seaman, eh? Well, if it's semen you want...” Eames snorts with laughter and catches Arthur's wrist, tugging him down against Eames' chest. Arthur can feel the laughter shaking his frame, as a broad arm snakes around his waist. “You've watched too much military porn.”

“I really don't think I have.” Arthur grins down at Eames, revelling in the feel of the warm, comfortable body tangled with his. “Unless Anchors Aweigh counts?”

Eames laughs even harder and Arthur goes with it, detailing his early love of seamen and his mad crush on Gene Kelly. “Then there was On the Town,” Arthur adds.

“More sailors, Arthur? Truly, I'm shocked!”

“No, you're not.” Arthur takes advantage of Eames' laughter to nudge closer to his neck. He smells good. English Leather, sunshine and sweat. “And this time, there's Frank, Gene, and—”

“And the other guy no one ever remembers.” Eames is still helpless with laughter. “No one wants to be that poor sod.”

“Jules Munshin,” Arthur supplies triumphantly, loving the look of utter surprise on Eames' face.

“You're fucking brilliant, Arthur,” Eames says, breathless, his eyes bright. He reaches up, cupping Arthur's face between broad palms, grinning at him like no one else ever has, and then Eames kisses him, sweet and hungry. It's all Arthur can do not to mash their noses together or bang their teeth; it's a little desperate, the angle of their mouths awkward, and Eames seems to be trying to move Arthur to a better position with one hand on his belt loops and the sheer force of his will.

“Fuck this,” Eames says, dragging his stubble across Arthur's cheek. Suddenly Arthur's on his back, lungs emptied by Eames' weight landing on top of him. Eames props himself on one elbow, the other arm still around Arthur's waist, his grin wolfish.

Arthur's reaching back through the last few seconds, registering too late the moment Eames' arm contracts around his waist, the way Eames is suddenly bracing feet and one arm against the bed, abdomen and thighs tightening, leveraging them both up and over, their bodies locked together in the process.

“You just—you—” Arthur's a little dumb-founded and a lot turned on by Eames' manhandling.

“Did you like it?” Eames has them lined up now, cocks and thighs, delicious friction even through all their layers, and Arthur's arching off the mattress even as he's trying to say, “No.”

“Liar.”

Eames grinds against him, both of them hard. Arthur scrabbles at Eames' shirt, manages to pull it aside enough to get hands on warm flesh, fingers clutching Eames' back. The rhythm they've got going is frantic, off-kilter, too hard and fast to be anything but over quickly. Arthur can feel Eames shaking against him, grunting with every thrust, and Arthur doesn't even care that they're completely dressed or that Eames is coming without him, breathing out Arthur's name in sharp gasps as his hips buck, ragged and graceless.

No, Arthur does care, he realizes, wants to come so fucking much he's got fingers in Eames' cropped hair and the other hand wrapped in fabric at his hip, and he's tugging at Eames whose rhythm is flagging, post-orgasm.

“No, you don't, you fucker,” Arthur says, and bites what's closest to him, which happens to be Eames' ear.

“Christ!” Eames yelps, but it has the desired effect, propelling Eames forward, thigh rock-solid against Arthur's cock, and he only needs a few hard thrusts to get him there, orgasm coiling in his spine and wrenching Eames' name out of him as he trembles through the climax.

He realizes his fingers are locked in Eames' hair, have creased permanent wrinkles in the fabric of Eames' stolen pants—he should probably feel more guilty about that, but he doesn't—and Eames is red-faced, sweaty as a racehorse, heavy and hot on top of Arthur.

Arthur eases his grip, lets Eames shift to the side.

“You bit me,” Eames says conversationally.

“Sorry.” Arthur's too relaxed to mean it. “Did you like it?”

“No.” It's a filthy lie, one Arthur can see right through given that Eames is grinning like a loon. A happy loon.

“Liar.”

“That's insubordination, mate.”

“Only if you're—” Arthur pauses, scrutinizing Eames' face. He's older than Arthur by a few years. There's a chance he's not joking. “You're not.”

“Captain Eames.” He tucks his head into Arthur's sweat-damp throat, leaving the ghost of kisses on skin. “Special Air Service.”

“British Special Forces?” Arthur isn't sure why he's surprised. They're all hand-picked. The best of the best. It makes sense.

“Sorry to disappoint, mate,” Eames murmurs.

“What are you talking about, you idiot. That was hardly disappointing. Except maybe we could actually get our clothes off next time.” Arthur shifts, trying to get Eames to raise his head. There had better be a next time or he's going to be tempted to shoot someone. “Eames. Hey, Eames, look at me.”

“I just know you would've preferred a Navy man,” comes a melodramatic huff from near Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur's deceptively slim, but he's a fucking Green Beret, and he figures it's time to nip this silliness in the bud. This time it's Eames on his back, surprise and delight warring with renewed lust on his face, and Arthur straddles his hips, pinning Eames' hands to the bed.

“Darling!” Eames beams up at him. “Next time, promise you'll wear the beret.”

Arthur rolls his eyes, catches Eames' irrepressible grin in a hard kiss. “You're ridiculous. How could I possibly have had sex with you?”

“I don't honestly know,” Eames says, sounding amazingly sincere. “I suppose we'll have to keep at it until we figure that out.”

“Well, you're no Gene Kelly, but I suppose you'll do,” Arthur says, kissing Eames' sputter of indignation away, already greedily anticipating round two.

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

Colette's not in the dream-sharing business, but she's been a friend to Arthur and Eames for a long time, and a friend to Dom and Mal before that. She's wealthy, smart, well-connected, and discreet. She's never failed to help when she could, or be honest with them when she couldn't. She welcomes Eames with a kiss on each cheek, but her face is grim.

“Come in, come in,” Colette says, taking his rain-damp coat from him. “I wish I had better news.” She leads him into a small sitting room with a fireplace pumping out heat in the corner. A young man in butler's raiment appears with two petite crystal glasses on an oval silver tray. Eames drinks his in one long swallow, letting the sweetness of the sherry warm him from the inside out.

Colette sips from her own glass, her lips dark, mouth pensive. “You know he's made no effort to leave the country, yes?”

Eames nods. He'd uploaded one of Arthur's tracking subroutines that would alert him if any of Arthur's passport aliases were scanned. There've been no hits on any of them, not even Jules Munshin, the emergency passport with a flawless background. No credit card activity. No phone calls after the one to Eames. Nothing.

“It's possible he's, as you say, 'gone to ground', n'est pas? That he waits until it is more safe to make contact?” Colette is practical where Mal had been fierce, and Eames can hear the cautious hope in her voice. “Arthur is clever. Careful. He won't risk exposing himself. Or you.”

Eames shakes his head. He knows all of Arthur's quirks. He's meticulous and stubborn, loyal to a fault and overprotective. He has moments of insecurity, of brilliance, even recklessness, but he's never had a death-wish, and he'd extracted a promise from Eames a long time ago that if they were going to do this, there wouldn't be any self-sacrificing nonsense. If they were truly in this together, decisions had to be good for both of them, and one of them getting needlessly arrested or killed for the sake of the other didn't fit that criteria.

They've made very few promises in the eleven years they've shared. They've had times when they've fought, when they've run from each other, when they've cut each other deep and turned the knife—but neither of them's ever gone back on a promise, so Eames knows the only reason Arthur hasn't left France as he'd planned is because he isn't able to. He just hopes Arthur's still alive.

Colette presses another sherry into his hands, and runs through her list of contacts for him again. It's information Eames already knows, but her voice is soothing, and short of roaming the streets of Paris in the middle of the night calling Arthur's name, Eames isn't sure what else to do. Everyone he trusts to know something or do something is already at work on finding Arthur.

“Sleep, mon cher,” Colette murmurs, and dims the lights. Eames' lids feel heavy, the room overly warm, and he knows he needs to find Arthur, but he can't seem to keep his eyes open. He drifts off thinking French women are the most devious creatures he's ever known. He hopes Arthur can forgive him for not anticipating that fact.

*

Arthur, Paris, 2011

 

Arthur loves Paris. He always has. The art and architecture, the sense of history, the music of the language, the way the smell of baking bread announces it's morning. It's why he keeps a flat in Paris when he can afford to live anywhere. He likes it here. It reminds him of Mal, of being young and daring, dreamers on the edge of a new frontier.

Except at the moment, he's tied to a chair in an empty room, the cold metal like ice against his wrists. He knows he's lost time, but he doesn't know how much. Not enough to have been taken out of the city, though; of that he's sure. He draws in a shaky breath, tries to assess the physical damage. Tightness in his chest: most likely a cracked rib, but it doesn't feel like it's broken or in danger of venting his lung. He thinks Eames would be pleased he's looking on the bright side of things. The duct tape across his mouth makes smiling hard, but he can't help it. Eames is going to be so pissed off when he finds him. And Eames always finds him.

Arthur shifts the muscles in his face, feels the pull where skin tightens near his eye: dried blood. Yes, he'd been hit, he remembers. A man with a solid fist. And a fucking ring. That had done more damage than the fist. Arthur wiggles his jaw, rolls his shoulders, flexes all ten fingers, and continues a systematic assessment. He's sore and various bits of him are swollen and bruised, but the cracked rib and the graze to his arm seem to be the worst of it. All things considered, he's been in far worse situations. The graze across his shoulder had been more annoying than anything, a reminder that he's not invulnerable. Even the worst shooters occasionally get lucky.

The door creaks open, a splash of natural light reaching Arthur's face, and for a moment all he sees are silhouettes lurking in the doorway. Then the light slips back behind the door, silhouettes solidifying into two distinct faces without masks. They look every bit the definition of “thugs.”

In awkward, halting French, one of the men explains they will ask questions and Arthur will answer them, or “there will be consequences.” The background accent sounds Russian. He resists the urge to roll his eyes, and wonders, not for the first time, why he's always the one who ends up playing out scenes with characters who would be at home in a “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon. He can almost hear Eames' dreadful cartoon-villain accent declaring, “Fiendish plan is working! Also, Moose and Squirrel must die.” In spite of himself, Arthur snorts behind the tape—Eames' reckless bad habits have rubbed off on him over the years—and the shorter of the two men, grey-eyebrows furrowing over pale blue eyes, slaps him hard enough to make his ears ring. Arthur decides he's going to call the fucker “Squirrel,” and yeah, Moose and Squirrel definitely need to die.

*

Eames, Nevada, 2000

 

It's almost two weeks after Eames finds Arthur in reality on the base that he finds him in the dream. Stupidly, he'd imagined after working out Arthur's likely schedule, stealing a uniform and waltzing into the American mess hall, reaching Arthur in the dreamscape would be simple. He hates being wrong.

Their training scenarios are usually objective-based. Take that hill. Retrieve the dossier. Rescue the prisoners. All while trying to evade an army of militarized projections who don't believe in mercy. Eames supposes it's meant to reflect real-world combat, but when every day's a kill-or-be-killed scenario, he's forced to consider what they're really training them to be is as ruthless and single-minded as those projections. Sometimes it makes his stomach churn with the thought of what he's becoming.

After the first few times running through a particular scenario, they're rarely supervised. A completed mission will immediately kick them out of the dream, as will death. Most times, if they die, they can send themselves back in as if it never happened; Eames can understand why it was easy for Arthur to think they were in some type of virtual reality gaming system. You lose a life, it doesn't matter, except for the pain; there's always another round in which to get it right.

Eames' crew is a good set of blokes. Professional, likable, adaptable. They learn fast and rarely make the same mistake twice. As a unit they function seamlessly with occasional hand signals or barked commands. Eames would go into the field with any of them and know a good man has his back. He assumes it's the same with Arthur's team.

So when Eames tells the guys he wants to try something in the dream, they only want to know what he needs from them.

“Just don't reach the target too quickly,” Eames says. “I need time to find someone.”

“Someone?” Fitzgibbon asks. “It's just us and the projections in here, Eames.”

“Not always.” Eames rubs a hand over his face. “There are units like ours. Americans, for sure. Probably others.”

“Makes sense,” Harris agrees, and Eames has never been so grateful for this team. “How long do you need, Captain?”

“Not sure. An hour to start?” Eames has been hearing machine-gun fire over the ridge from their location, and he figures that's most likely where another unit will be. Projections typically don't fire unless there's something to shoot at.

“Right then,” Harris says, and shoulders his rocket launcher. “Let's give the Captain some cover, gents.”

Eames slips over the ridge to the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade going off.

*

Arthur, Paris, 2011

 

Moose and Squirrel are not as stupid as they look. What they are is brutal, persistent, and extremely goal-oriented. Whoever hired them was looking for a blunt instrument and nothing more.

Moose is wiping blood off his hands with a white towel. He's the one with the fucking ring, and Arthur's never been vain, but neither does he want to go through life with a face full of short, deep scars. Eames will say, “It gives you character, darling,” and he'll kiss every scar tenderly, but Arthur would rather keep his unblemished face, and he'll only be able to do that if Eames hurries the fuck up and finds him. Arthur wants to go home.

“Must we ask again?” Squirrel says. They've switched to English, only slightly more fluid than the French, but Arthur thinks more quickly in English, so it's preferable. He doesn't volunteer to converse in Russian, although he could. He takes a perverse pleasure from watching them fumble with the language.

“What's the point in me saying anything if you won't believe me anyway?” Arthur asks.

They're not exactly asking for state secrets. As near as Arthur can tell, all they really want to know is the location of an Italian extractor, Lucio Conti, who Arthur worked with in Parma once six months ago and will never, ever work with again. The guy was young—younger than Arthur ever remembers being—and over-confident to the point of recklessness. Quite frankly, Arthur doesn't care who wants to shoot the guy. If he knew where Lucio was, he'd probably tell them considering he managed to fuck a perfectly simple job up because of a girl. Arthur's all for loyalty among thieves in principle, but Lucio's not someone Arthur even likes, let alone someone he'd take a bullet for. At this point, if Moose and Squirrel don't kill Lucio, Arthur will do it himself when he gets out of this mess. That is if Eames doesn't get to him first. Neither of them has ever had much patience for people who endanger their lives, and Lucio's already got one huge strike against him from the last job.

“You are point man,” Squirrel says, as if it's something he hasn't already said a half-dozen times. He speaks as if he thinks Arthur is stupid or slow. “You are the best. Therefore, you must know where Lucio is. And you must tell us this, or—”

“Or there will be consequences,” Arthur finishes. “Yeah, I got that, and I hate to point out the errors in your logic, but I don't know where everyone in the business is at any given moment.”

“You work with him.”

“Once! I worked with him once, and I won't make that mistake again.” The throbbing in Arthur's head is starting to wear away his patience, and he's almost certain this situation has nothing to do with him or Eames or any of their jobs. It would be just his luck to get killed by cartoon villains for something that isn't even remotely his problem. “Fuck, don't you think I'd tell you if I knew where he was? I don't even like the man!”

Moose frowns at that, and puts a hand on Squirrel's shoulder. He says something in a voice so low Arthur can't even register the language, let alone the content. Squirrel looks thoughtful.

“Perhaps,” he says, and Moose gags Arthur with a cloth before the two of them leave. Arthur closes his eyes and thinks of his apartment in Paris, the beautiful carved headboard on the king-size bed, the way Eames always migrates in his sleep so that some part of him is touching Arthur.

Hurry up, Eames, Arthur thinks, and lets his head loll. With luck he can catch a few minutes of rest before the pointless questions begin again.

*

Eames, Nevada, 2000

 

Eames slips down the dream hillside, careful to move quickly and quietly. He doesn't know what to expect, but the sound of gunfire is closer, and Eames can see a defensible plateau where the majority of shots are originating from. Just in case, he chambers a round in his Sig Sauer, and works at manoeuvring closer to the soldiers and steering clear of the projections firing from the treeline.

Eames can place four Americans at the position, but none of them looks like Arthur. Still, he's got to be somewhere close by, and Eames figures in for a penny, in for a pound. He's come this far, already. He crawls the last fifteen feet almost on his belly, then rolls to a sitting position just inside the Americans' sandbagged perimeter.

In retrospect, he supposes he should've anticipated that surprise was not his best option in this situation, but he doesn't even have time to say, “Hey,” before a bullet has launched him out of the dream and back into reality. Eames sits up, gasping “Son of a bitch!” and ignores the concerned look from the on-duty medic.

“Captain Eames?”

“Small miscalculation,” Eames says, and puts himself back under, concentrating on a spot near the American position, so there's a chance he won't have to recreate the entire trek a second time.

He opens his eyes to a wall of sandbags ten feet away. He can hear raised American voices—probably trying to figure out who they shot and if it's a problem—and realizes this might be more challenging than he thinks. He could simply attempt to take the position, he supposes, but four against one means he'll have to kill at least two of the Americans flat-out, and use a third as a shield while he tries to explain he's looking for Arthur. He'd rather not start out by making enemies of half of Arthur's unit.

Instead, Eames rises to his feet, trying to look non-threatening, hands raised in the universal gesture of surrender. He immediately takes four rounds to the chest.

“Fuck!” Eames shouts, back in the recliner in the dream lab, and Corporal Firth, the medic, is half a room closer.

“Captain? Is there a problem?”

Eames shakes his head sharply and concentrates on a position farther from the trigger-happy Yanks, closer to the trees. He gives himself the hit of Somnacin and feels the familiar moment of disorientation when he opens his eyes to deep grass all around him, blue sky above. The sounds from the American position are further away, but Eames can hear the obvious tension in their raised voices. He rolls onto his stomach and considers his options, none of them good. While he's wondering if Arthur's even in this particular dream, a Somali soldier bayonets him through the back, then slits his throat.

“Motherfucker.” Eames sits up so fast he almost bashes heads with Corporal Firth, who's now the definition of hovering, leaning over him with a penlight in one hand and a damp square of folded linen in the other.

“Are you having some kind of reaction?” the medic asks. He flashes the light into Eames' eyes and attempts to lay the cloth against his forehead. Eames dodges his concern.

“No, I'm—look, just send me back in, okay?” Eames feels like a boxer that's already gone ten rounds and is (stupidly) asking for more punishment. Around him, the rest of his unit appear to be asleep. “I'm having a shite day is all.”

The look on Firth's face says, No kidding, mate, but he doesn't say it aloud. Just before the corporal hits the button, Eames grabs the white cloth from Firth's hand and concentrates on it. It's easier to manipulate something in the dream that's already associated with your person, and when Eames opens his eyes in the dream field, he's clutching a white handkerchief. He ties it to the barrel of his gun and cautiously lifts the makeshift flag into the air above the long grass and waves it, encouraged when his hand isn't immediately shot off.

“Who the fuck are you?” comes from the American position. Eames is halfway between the Americans and the Somali projections with no backup, and quite frankly, he's not above lying. He looks down at his uniform and pictures the design of the one he stole to visit Arthur. The fabric of the dream seems to reform around him, and Eames grins. Piece of cake.

The accent's the easy part after changing the uniform, and he stands cautiously, still with his gun in the air, and says in a voice that couldn't originate anywhere except Texas, “I've got intel for Lt. Arthur.” He thinks Arthur will be proud of him for remembering to say “loo” instead of “lef.” There's a flurry of whispered conversation, tight sentences in a few different voices, and Eames really hopes the projections are otherwise occupied because it would be absolutely his luck to get killed while the Americans are figuring out whether to shoot him. Again.

Suddenly from behind him there's a series of explosions, charges going off in the trees and men screaming. Eames spots two American soldiers sprinting away from the treeline behind him and Eames realizes Arthur's been off setting explosives. Lots of explosives judging from the cloud of black smoke billowing over the trees.

“Arthur!”

One of the runners glances up and swerves towards him, pistol in hand, and Eames forces himself to stay still, white flag raised, even though he's making a bloody good target of himself at the moment.

“Eames?” Arthur yells as he gets closer, then grabs Eames by the arm and tugs him forward. Eames doesn't need any further encouragement to get moving, and the three of them make a mad dash for the American position, the other four soldiers covering their retreat. In seconds they're sprawled behind the line of sandbags as another set of concussive rounds go off.

Arthur is looking at Eames as if he can't quite believe he's real, and Eames lifts his handkerchief-wrapped Sig and waggles it at Arthur. “I surrender,” he says, as he realizes Arthur's the only one not pointing a weapon at him. He carefully draws out the poker chip and hands it to Arthur.

“What are you doing here?” Arthur says, ignoring the rest of his unit. He runs his hand along the edge of the poker chip and Eames knows he'll find it smooth.

“I said I'd find you.”

“I know, but—I can't believe you're here.”

“Lieutenant,” one of the soldiers says. “They've got some kind of fucked-up clone army of this guy. We've been killing him for the last hour. He keeps showing up in different uniforms.” The guy stares menacingly at Eames. “And I don't think he's from Texas.”

The one who shot Eames the first time chimes in: “I say shoot him.”

Eames opens his mouth to protest, but there's movement from just beyond the barrier. Fitzgibbon's accent is icy as he says, “First man to move, dies. And for the record, when someone surrenders to you, you don't fucking shoot them! Goddamn Yanks!”

Four SAS armed troops step up with weapons drawn, and Eames briefly wonders where Barnes has got to before he and Arthur are jumping to their feet. Eames doesn't bother trying to hold the details of the uniform together and he's back in SAS gear in the space of a blink, which doesn't help the already on-edge Americans. He and Arthur are at the centre of a two-tiered circle: American guns pointed at Eames, British guns trained on the Americans. Fitz has two guns, and the Browning High Power is fixed firmly on Arthur.

“Stand down!” both Eames and Arthur are ordering, but no one's moving a muscle. Eames looks at Arthur who's got 9mms in both hands, neither of them pointing at him, and realizes someone has to make the gesture. When he sees the red laser dot line up on Arthur's chest, he knows it's going to be him. Barnes is the best sniper Eames has ever seen, and he honestly doesn't feel like watching Arthur, or anyone else, die today. He raises his hands slowly and takes one step in front of Arthur, the red dot transferring to Eames' chest.

“Eames, what the fuck are you doing?” Arthur's anger is apparent even though his voice is restrained. Every pair of eyes is focused on them.

“Making a command decision,” Eames replies, his accent as usual, letting go of the pretence that he's anything other than SAS. “Stand down.”

“Captain?” Fitz says, and Eames nods. “Stand down,” Eames says, enunciating the words clearly enough even Barnes will be able to understand them from his sniper's post on the hillside. The red dot winks out of existence. To his credit, Fitz lowers his weapons, and the others follow suit. They're unhappy, but they trust him, and Eames feels a swell of affection for the whole lot of them.

Then Arthur's pushing out from behind him, glaring daggers at his own men. “You heard the captain. Stand down. That means everyone. Last I checked, we were allies, so put your weapons away.”

Arthur's voice is steel, and Eames can't help but feel a shiver of appreciation for Arthur like this. He may only be nineteen, but when he talks, people listen. If he stays in the service, he'll be a general someday, Eames has no doubt, although what a waste that would be.

“Would someone be so kind as to explain what the hell's going on?” Fitz finally asks when all the weapons are, if not holstered, at least no longer directly aimed at anyone.

Eames and Arthur glance at each other. “It's a long story,” Arthur begins.

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

Eames wakes up with a headache, dry mouth, and the lingering haze of sleeping pills mixed with sherry. He's lost several hours, and he's absolutely livid. He wants to take Colette and shake her, so he forces himself to concentrate on keeping his distance on one side of the kitchen's spacious island, fists clenched at his side to stop from smashing something he'll regret later.

Colette's face is tear-streaked and Eames doesn't doubt she's been up all night, following leads he should've been chasing. Her accent has thickened with emotion and lack of sleep, and Eames distantly recognizes they're now shouting in French, although he can't pinpoint the moment when they switched languages.

“You were a mess when you arrived. Useless! What could you do with no sleep, Eames?”

“That wasn't up to you to decide, damn it. Arthur's out there—”

“You think I don't know this? How much he means? That I didn't make a hundred calls—friends, gendarmes, hospitals, even the morgue—to save you grief!” Colette barrels toward him, seemingly unaware of how angry Eames is, and she's crying when she stops in front of him and puts her hands on his arms. “I know you will not rest. You will not eat, or sleep, or—or bathe until you find him—”

“For Christ's sake, Col, I bathe! Just last night I got rained on quite soundly.”

“Pah! London rain makes you wet not clean.”

“Colette—”

“No, no talking,” Colette continues as if he hasn't spoken. “I know you'll be unbearable and probably stupid until you bring your Arthur home, and I—I wanted to give you a moment, just a moment, of peace, before this longest day begins. I wanted to help!”

Her face is a red, blotchy mess, dark hair tangled and wild in the grey morning light. Eames knows she's worried, and he knows she won't apologize for doing what she felt necessary. It's one of the inherent dangers of befriending smart, independent women with access to alcohol and sedatives, and giving them both means and opportunity. Eames puts his arms around her, anger subsiding, and it's not forgiveness, but it's the best he can offer. It's not like he's never drugged someone he cared about.

“Never have children, my dear,” he says, stroking her hair. “The world isn't ready for your kind of love.”

“Mal would have done no less.” Colette's voice is quiet but proud, and Eames sighs.

“Mal's not necessarily the best role model, Col,” he chides, but he doesn't mean it harshly, and she nods against his shoulder once before pushing away. She reaches for the kettle and begins filling it with cold water. He considers how many hundreds of years France and England spent engaged in useless wars. He understands it far better since knowing Colette and Mal.

Eames drags a wooden stool up to the counter. “Let's not waste any more time. Tell me what you've found.”

*

Arthur, Nevada, 2000

 

Everything changes once they find each other.

Eames continues to plunder American accents with alarming accuracy and to pilfer other people's laundry on a regular basis when he sneaks over to see Arthur. He seems to take particular delight in snagging uniforms that belong to Arthur's unit.

“I'm not having sex with you while you're wearing Davidson's gear. Just no!”

“You're so difficult to please, Arthur.”

The napkins Arthur routinely shoves in his pockets are a jumbled mess of arrows and cubes with triangles on top that Arthur has to assume are buildings. There's a somewhat liberal interpretation of how big Eames' sidearm is in relation to his stick figure rendering of himself—“Darling, that's not my pistol”—but Arthur takes Eames' jottings and compares them to the limited blueprints and surveillance photos of the compound. He's surprised how accurate Eames is, given that he's most often navigating the compound at night, trying to avoid sentries and anyone who might recognize him as being out of place, or during peak activity times when another body in the mix is easy to camouflage.

“This is delicious,” Eames says around a mouthful of cheeseburger in Arthur's mess. To Arthur's horror, he's making no attempt to preserve the cleanliness of the napkin he's currently sketching on with a black marker. “Another serving of steak-and-kidney pie and there's going to be a revolt, mark my words.”

“There is not a tank parked in between those two hangars.” Arthur jabs a finger at the napkin, carefully avoiding a greasy drip.

“How do you know? I'm the one who's out there doing recon.” Eames turns the napkin around and quickly sketches a daisy hanging from the tank's main gun. “Does that better suit your pacifist sensibilities?” The words spill out with a Midwest twang, and Arthur cringes at its familiarity.

“I've never regretted letting you watch Fargo more than at this precise moment,” Arthur says pointedly.

Eames has seen Arthur in dream-combat on a number of occasions. There is nothing about him that could be considered remotely pacifistic, and Arthur knows Eames is fully aware of this. He's just trying on roles again, the way he tries out voices, and Arthur thinks Eames should have joined the theatre instead of the armed forces.

“But I did,” he says one day when Arthur tells him so. “The theatre of war, darling.”

Arthur has no response to that because he'd done the same thing without Eames' conviction for Queen and country. Arthur is forced to consider the likelihood that he and Eames, in spite of fantastic IQ scores, are both idiots who'll be lucky to survive their twenties. This isn't contradicted in any way when Eames blunders into the Americans' dreamscape position and gets himself killed three times before Arthur shows up. It had taken some fast-talking on both their parts to bring everyone up to speed, but both units had accepted the information about the dream-sharing program with minimal drama.

“I'm just fucking glad they're not building an army of clones of that guy,” Samuels says, tilting his head towards Eames.

“Something we can all agree on, mate,” Fitzgibbon replies, and after that, everyone seems to relax.

The twelve of them decide to keep what they know to themselves for the time being, making plans to connect in the dreamscape when possible. Arthur and Eames agree to continue passing information in the real world; if they have personal reasons for wanting to see each other, the rest of the teams seem none the wiser. Instead, they all thrill to the distraction of subterfuge. Code names and passwords develop.

“I think they're enjoying themselves entirely too much,” Arthur remarks one evening at Marty's bar when the entire lot has staged a strategic escape from the base so beautifully executed Arthur swears Eames had tears in his eyes. Eames buys the first round, Arthur the second, and no one seems to care they're sitting closer together as the night wears on.

Eames continues to pop up in the mess, and sometimes in Arthur's room, with scraps of information and creatively rendered maps, most featuring aliens with disproportionately large heads and eyes that seem to follow no matter what angle you're looking from.

“Just because we haven't found the alien remains or the spaceships, doesn't mean they're not here,” Eames says too seriously for Arthur to tell if he's joking. “We're part of a top-secret international government project too, remember,” and Arthur reluctantly concedes the point that if it goes to hell, their governments will be all too happy to pretend that they, the PASIV devices, and dream-sharing never existed.

The possibility should probably be the thing that scares him most, but it isn't.

What scares him most is Eames, and the desperate pull Arthur feels whenever he's near. Arthur's never wanted anyone or anything so much in his life; he isn't entirely certain what to do with that feeling.

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

Eames hangs up his mobile and accepts the tea Colette brings him.

“Still no word from anyone on Arthur's team?”

Eames shakes his head. He's already been to the warehouse Arthur was working out of. The place is clean. No sign that Arthur, or anyone, was ever there. Eames puts a hand in his pocket and rubs at the rough-edged poker chip there. He knows Arthur's real, and somewhere, he's waiting for Eames to find him.

“There are people you should telephone,” Colette says without preamble.

“We've been through this.”

“He cares for Arthur very much.”

“I'm not ringing fucking Dominic Cobb, and that's the end of it, alright?” Eames is tired and angry and sick with fear because Arthur's been gone for almost a full day with no word. Eames has nothing but contradictions and whispers to go on.

“He's known Arthur a long—”

“So have I, Colette. Longer than Dom.” He closes his eyes and wills his temper into place. Too many people think of Arthur as Dom's man, but he's always belonged first and foremost with Eames. “For Christ's sake, he's my—he's—” The words get caught in Eames' throat because it's so rare either of them puts a label on what they have. Boyfriends. Lovers. Partners. They're all of that and more.

Eames looks up at Colette and there's a fierce kind of sympathy in her eyes. “He's my everything,” Eames blurts helplessly, and grabs for his tea because, Christ, he's English and he doesn't have time for a bloody breakdown. Keep calm and carry on, indeed. Arthur would be laughing if he could see him.

Eames swallows the scalding tea, happy for the burning distraction. “Besides there's nothing Dom can do right now except worry. It's kinder to ring him when there's actual news.”

Colette makes a humming sound that might be agreement. Eames doesn't really care; he knows Dom would want to get involved, take control, orchestrate something, and right now Eames doesn't need the interference. He'll find Arthur. He always does.

“What about Ariadne?”

“Arthur wouldn't go to her if there was any chance he'd be followed. He wouldn't put her in danger.”

Eames' mobile rings and he grabs it immediately.

“Eames,” he says.

“Oh, Eames, uh, it's Sonja.” There's some hesitation in her voice. “Sorry to bother you, but Arthur always sends payment right after a job, and—well, is he there? There's no answer on his mobile.”

Sonja Santiago is the architect on Arthur's Paris job, and Eames has never been so grateful to hear her lyrical voice.

“Sonja! You mean the job was done?”

“Well, yes. We wrapped late yesterday afternoon. The three of us had dinner, Franz left for the airport, then Arthur and I cleaned the warehouse—you know how thorough he is—and said goodbye. I assumed he was on to another job or to meet up with you. You haven't heard from him?” Sonja sounds as upset as Eames feels, and he's reminded that not everyone in the business is untrustworthy. Franz is a forger, a decent one although not in Eames' league, and Eames has never heard a whisper of trouble about him. Arthur works with good people more often than not.

“When Arthur rang last night he was taking fire.”

“What? No, the job was done. In and out. Simple. Everyone was happy.”

“Someone wasn't. What time did you and Arthur leave the warehouse?”

There's a pause. “I left around nine. He was going to do one final check, then go.”

“Shortly before he called,” Eames confirms. “Have you heard anything from Franz?”

“No,” Sonja says, “but I didn't expect to. You know the protocol is to split up, avoid contact. I'll ring him right now.”

“I'll do it,” Eames offers, surprised when Sonja laughs. “What?”

“Poor Franz will be too tongue-tied to speak to Mr. Eames, the famous forger.”

“Oh, for Christ's sake.”

“I'll call him.” He can hear her flipping through pages, no doubt looking for Franz's number. “Arthur has been telling many stories of you. Franz thinks you are 'un hombre peligroso,' a dangerous man.”

“I am a dangerous man.”

Sonja ignores him. “I'll call you back.”

The line goes quiet, and Eames knows there's nothing he can do but wait.

*

Arthur, Paris, 2011

 

According to Arthur's internal clock, it must be nearing late afternoon when Moose and Squirrel return. They've been gone long enough Arthur's exhausted his fantasies of what he'll do to them when he gets free, and all possible escape plans have been formulated, revised, and discarded. He's been left with bouts of uncomfortable sleep and memories of Eames from days long passed. Arthur wants nothing more than for this to be over so he can press his face into Eames' warm neck and know he's home.

Squirrel keeps his distance, and Arthur gets the feeling he's been upgraded from the dream-world's social secretary to something more accurate. More dangerous. Arthur's not sure if that's more or less likely to result in either his release or his death.

“It seems you have many interested friends.”

Arthur smirks. Damn right, he does, and that means Eames has been poking into hornet's nests and generally stirring up trouble. It's about time.

The thing about Eames is that he excels at underachieving. He leads people towards assumptions that are wrong and lets them underestimate him in every way. Sometimes it drives Arthur crazy, but he understands it's part of what Eames does. People dismiss Arthur as a lightweight all the time, and he's become ruthless about turning that to his advantage, encouraging people to view him as young, weak, even helpless. In the same way, Eames lets people judge him for the slouch of his shoulders or the accent and vocabulary he adopts. He doesn't care if people think he's more muscle than brains, or that he's everyone's best chum when the drinks are flowing, because the reality few people see is that Eames is brilliant in his own way. He's as persistent as a fucking bloodhound and he's quick to make connections, associations, to see the bigger picture and all its tiny details. Arthur feels a thrill of pride.

Squirrel narrows his eyes at Arthur's smile. “You are still a useful bargaining chip to secure the information required by our boss. Lucio Conti must be found, and if you know his location it would be best to simply tell us.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Did you know that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?”

Moose and Squirrel exchange glances that suggest they understand enough of what Arthur said to be insulted.

“I don't know where Lucio is,” Arthur says slowly, just to make the point. “I didn't know when you asked me the first time or the fifty times after that, and I don't know now. Seeing as how I've been tied to a chair and locked in a room for hours, I haven't gotten any new information that might change my answer.”

Moose taps Squirrel on the shoulder and points toward the door. Arthur thinks that maybe, just maybe, they're finally getting what he's been trying to tell them for hours.

*

Eames, Nevada, 2000

 

Rendezvousing in the dreamscape is not without its challenges. They only train in dreams three days a week, broken up by actual physical training, classroom time, and other assignments. Arthur and Eames have been able to suss out that there are at least four teams rotating through the dreams: British, American, Italian, and French, although they haven't tried to make contact yet. Everyone's reluctant to have a replay of their first contact situation, so they concentrate instead on getting to know each other and accumulating intel.

Arthur is brilliant, with an almost photographic memory and a talent for organizing information. Eames understands exactly why at nineteen Arthur's in the dream-sharing program and a lieutenant. He imagines there'd been a veritable cock-fight between divisions that wanted him. Military intelligence. CIA. FBI. Cryptography. Counter-intelligence.

Arthur's good with facts and scenarios, with layouts and tactics and strategy. He's precise with both planning and resources, so he uses his people and his supplies with a calculated efficiency. Eames knows already that Arthur will be the person who can make the hard decisions, the one who'll recognize a losing battle and sound the retreat, the one who'll sacrifice the few to save the many. It's not actually something that makes Eames feel better.

They spend most Friday nights at Marty's bar, sometimes with the teams and sometimes by themselves. Marty's mostly given up on chastising them for being there or for Arthur being under-age, although Eames suspects Marty's watering down their drinks. Still, when the whole team is out and Fitz and Davidson are leading the charge, flirting with the barmaids and the local single girls that always turn up on Friday nights willing to dance and kiss and sometimes more, it's easy for Arthur and Eames to disappear. The rest of the guys assume they've found hook-ups or that Eames has gotten into a backroom poker game, and they're all adults, so no one keeps tabs on what anyone's doing. No one asks, and no one has to tell.

“Fuck, Eames, keep doing that,” Arthur whispers, writhing on Eames' fingers, and Eames does exactly that, stroking and scraping Arthur's prostate while he bites kisses against the damp curve of Arthur's throat. They're in an alley a block down from Marty's and it's stupid, but they couldn't wait, Eames pushing Arthur roughly against the brick wall as soon as they'd cleared the backdoor of the bar.

“Not here, not here, you idiot,” Arthur had said, his mouth lost under Eames', and they'd managed to fumble themselves one alley over before Eames' strong hands and hot mouth had made Arthur say, screw it, and give in.

Eames keeps expecting it's going to stop being like this, stop being frantic and desperate and so, so good. But Arthur's fucking himself on Eames' fingers, spreading as far as he can with trousers still mostly on, and Eames is close to getting off just on Arthur biting his lip to keep back the rough moans he can't seem to keep from making.

“Oh, Jesus fucking Christ, Eames, fuck, just—oh God,” Arthur breathes against Eames' cheek and clenches hard around Eames' fingers. He feels Arthur's orgasm shake through his frame and drip down onto his hand, and God, Eames wants nothing more than to turn Arthur around and fuck him right here, hard and messy, knowing it wouldn't take much, a few strokes to undo him. Eames has a sticky hand on Arthur's hip and one in his hair, and he's about to growl at Arthur to fucking turn around, when Arthur drops to his knees and licks him, nuzzles a face against his wiry hair, and sucks him in, tongue continuing to stroke as Arthur finds a rhythm.

Eames doesn't know where to look. He reaches a hand to the brick wall to steady himself, but he can already feel his knees shaking, the pressure of orgasm settling in his tailbone, and Arthur's hot, wet mouth is the best thing Eames has ever known. He glances down, and it's too much: Arthur's lips spread around him, mouth shiny with spit, eyes dark and so fucking hungry Eames has to wrap both hands in Arthur's hair, hold him in place while he comes, Arthur swallowing around him, and Eames can't imagine not knowing this reckless passion, knowing Arthur.

He pulls Arthur up, up off the ground and back against the wall, moves in close and tight against him, kissing the wet of his mouth. Eames can taste himself there in Arthur's kisses, smells his own sweat and musk on Arthur's face. It's unsettling and unbelievably sexy, and Eames can't get close enough to Arthur to do justice to what he's feeling, the overwhelming need to kiss him over and over, breathless, senseless, to tell him things he's never wanted to tell anyone. Eames has never been in love before.

“Me too,” Arthur's saying, “me too,” and Eames isn't sure how they've gone from hot for each other to this strangely focused intimacy, breathing the same air, not wanting to let go or even move further away than this.

The sound of an army jeep rumbles past, reality sounding its alarm with a squeal of tires, but they stay there, in the dark, hearts drumming, holding on to whatever this is.

“We should—”

“Arthur, if you say 'stop,' so help me God—”

Arthur looks at him like he's the biggest idiot in the world. “We should be careful. If we get caught—”

Eames lets out a sigh against Arthur's lips. “I know, I know. I've just never wanted so damn much with someone. I want everything, and I want it all now.”

Arthur's head tips back against the brick with a groan. “Fuck, me too.” He looks Eames in the eye and it occurs to Eames how very screwed they both are. They've become necessary to one another.

“We should get back to base,” Arthur murmurs, not meaning it at all, but one of them has to say it. “I'm scheduled for psych evals and firearms recurrency all week.”

Eames nods, but keeps kissing Arthur lightly. “We won't see each other. Maybe a week or more.”

“I know.”

Eames slides his hands up to cup Arthur's face, thumb sketching the edge of his lips. “You know, I'll always come for you, no matter what happens.”

Arthur smirks. “You just did,” but they both know it's so much more than that. They don't make promises lightly. “It goes both ways, Eames,” Arthur whispers, letting his hands linger on Eames' skin as they reluctantly start to put themselves back together.

“Yeah, it does,” Eames manages before they're kissing again, Arthur's mouth warm and perfect, meeting him with equal force every step of the way.

*

Arthur, Paris, 2011

 

Eames. That's what Arthur's thinking about tied up in an empty room in Paris. His hands, his mouth, the way he still makes Arthur breathless with want, even after all these years. Sometimes they make each other insane, but Arthur's never had a real moment of regret where Eames is concerned, and he thinks that says a lot about them. They say what they need to say—not often, but enough that it means something. There's never been anything they couldn't deal with together.

Arthur's life is details, but not when it comes to Eames. The things he thought he needed from someone have been reduced to the knowledge that Eames loves him—completely, steadfastly—and it's the one thing Arthur trusts in. It's his totem now, the thing that keeps him going when the world goes to hell around him. Eames loves him and will come for him, and God help anyone who stands in the way. And Arthur would do the same, with less wise-cracking and more explosions, but the end result would be the same.

Arthur almost feels sorry for Moose and Squirrel and their boss, whoever that might be. Almost, but not quite.

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

Eames is certain he's paced a rut into the hardwood by the time Sonja gets back to him with news.

Her voice is cautious. “Now, Eames, remember Franz is still new to the business—”

“What the fuck did he do, Sonja?” Eames is tired and twitchy, and Arthur's been gone too damn long.

“Calm down. Franz was approached by two men outside the warehouse as he left. They were Russian, he thinks.” Eames does his best to hold his tongue, but he's pretty sure Sonja recognizes the sound of a gun being assembled because she speeds up her delivery. “They asked for Arthur by name, knew he was a point man, and Franz assumed Arthur was meeting clients or someone in the business.”

“So, he just gave Arthur to them.” Eames slides a fully-loaded clip into place, making sure the phone picks up the sound.

“I would suspect they waited for him until Franz and I were gone. Franz didn't know they intended to take Arthur! He feels horrible.”

“Yeah, well, he's going to feel worse before I'm through with him.” Eames holsters his Sig and starts working on the Browning. “And if he's a fucking forger, he's a piss-poor judge of people!”

“Eames,” Sonja says, and her voice is suddenly hard. “Get the fuck over yourself. Being angry at Franz won't find Arthur, but I've got a lead on something that might. Do you want to hear it or not?”

“What do you have?” Eames doesn't want to let go of his anger yet. Sometimes the dream-sharing business is like the world's worst social club with everyone knowing everyone else's business, and no one knowing when to keep their mouths shut. Sometimes that works to their advantage.

“The men also asked about Lucio.”

“Lucio Conti?” Eames asks. “What's that useless excuse for an extractor got to do with this?”

“Well, it seems Lucio dropped off the grid after your job in Parma.”

“Good fucking thing, too, or he'd be dead.” Eames looks up to see Colette hovering at the edge of the room. She brings him a cup of tea, which he accepts with a whispered merci, cherie. He's cursed to never be able to stay angry at people he cares about. “The job went tits up because Lucio couldn't keep it in his trousers. He met some girl ...” Eames starts putting the pieces together. “A Russian girl. Christ, Sonja, who's the girl?”

“Boris Volkov's daughter.”

Eames sits down, sloshing hot tea onto his hand. He barely notices. “Boris Volkov's daughter.”

“Her name's Anastasia. She's twenty, and she's dropped off the grid along with Lucio. No coincidence that. Her father's somewhat upset about the whole thing, as you can imagine.”

“Boris Volkov,” Eames repeats, still stuck on the fact the head of one of Russia's biggest mob families is involved. “If he wants Lucio, why grab Arthur?”

“You and Arthur were the last ones to work with him. If Boris had people asking around, it wouldn't be hard to learn Arthur generally has good intel about people in dream-sharing.”

Eames lets out a breath. The Russian mob can be heavy-handed, but they've got no reason to kill Arthur if all they want is information. Information, Eames is relatively certain, Arthur doesn't have.

They'd bugged out of Parma as fast as they could after men with automatic weapons and heavy accents had shown up. By that time, the client, the mark, the Russians, the Italians, the military, the police and the government were all taking entirely too much interest in them, and they decided to cut their losses. It still ended with Eames in first-class trying to dull a gunshot wound through a haze of vodka, and Arthur bitching about having to leave behind three custom-made Italian suits, which Eames knows wasn't the real reason Arthur's face was pinched with anger.

“Eames?” Sonja asks, and Eames realizes he'd gone quiet.

“Yeah, still here. Just considering next steps.”

“I asked Katrina to make some inquiries.”

Eames knows the Russian architect, although he's never worked with her. “And?”

“Turns out Boris Volkov is flying into Paris at 9:00 tonight.” Eames wishes he could say he's surprised. Boris showing up could go either way for Arthur. Either they'll consider he isn't a threat and release him, or they'll decide he's expendable. In Eames' experience, the Russians don't seem fond of witnesses.

“Sonja, can you do me another favor?”

“Anything.”

“Call in any contacts you can. We need to find Lucio and that girl before Boris's plane touches down in Paris. I'll backtrack from the job in Parma; see what you can find on the Russians.”

Eames hangs up, and gives Colette a hug. “At least we've got something to go on,” he says, and Colette brushes tears from her eyes.

“Je connais un agent immobilier—a realtor?—who owes me a favor,” Colette volunteers. “She might be able to find any properties recently acquired by Volkov. Somewhere they could be keeping Arthur.”

“Good idea,” Eames agrees. For the first time since Arthur's phone call, Eames feels like they're making progress.

*

Arthur, Nevada, 2000

 

It was bound to happen eventually. Too many chances taken, too many attempts at cheating fate.

They get caught.

It's an unfortunate way to learn in practice what Arthur has long-known theoretically: namely, that nothing quashes an erection or a post-orgasmic glow faster than the appearance of a superior officer and a pair of M.P.s.

Eames gives him a look, one that Arthur's pretty sure is echoed in his own eyes. It's hard to go from holy fuck, don't stop to “Good evening, sir,” in the space of a few seconds, and Arthur can see Eames is considering kissing Arthur one last time, knowing full-well it will only make the situation worse. Arthur can't help but love him a little bit more for that, but he forces himself to step away, wiping his hands on his pants because, really, there's nothing else he can do. He tucks everything back in where it belongs. Eames appears to be doing the same.

They're bundled onto a jeep and escorted back to base where they spend the night in separate interrogation rooms answering questions. Of course, Arthur doesn't respond to the majority of them considering they're all essentially variations on “you're a homosexual, aren't you?” to which the answer is painfully obvious. He's got dried semen on his pants, teeth marks on his neck, and three witnesses who got more than an eyeful of him and Eames. It's not as if Arthur's got plausible deniability on his side.

Arthur reveals only what's absolutely necessary and nothing that could be considered an admission of guilt, and he's fairly certain Eames has been telling the military to go fuck themselves because every time the officer in charge returns, he seems more pissed off. Arthur's careful to keep the grin off his face.

All things considered, he knows he's got nothing to be smiling about. He's effectively destroyed his career and bought a one-way ticket to military prison, but he remembers the way Eames' hands felt against his skin, Eames' mouth whispering filthy promises between achingly sweet kisses, the way Eames so clearly wants him as much as he wants Eames, like he's never wanted anyone before. Arthur can't bring himself to regret a moment of it—other than getting caught.

It's near dawn when Arthur's commanding officer, Colonel Stapleton, Director of Special Projects, arrives. He's tall and thin with a sharp, hooked nose and brown eyes that seem to register everything. Arthur's only had positive dealings with the man, although he doubts that will help him here and now. The colonel takes a seat across from Arthur, his expression grim.

“You've put me in an untenable position, Lieutenant.”

“I'm sorry, sir.”

“If it had been on base, if the other party were American, if it was a one-time incident—” The colonel looks hopeful until Arthur shakes his head. “Yes, well, there would've been more options available to us. As it is, the SAS Liaison, Colonel Lawford, will be speaking with Captain Eames. The British armed forces recently changed their policies on matters like this, so it remains to be seen whether Captain Eames will be charged. It is an American base, but it's a multinational project. The legalities will be sorted out by someone more qualified than me. If it gets that far.”

“If it gets that far?” Arthur echoes. He knows the DADT policies and there's not a lot that's open to interpretation.

Colonel Stapleton is impossible to read. “Captain Eames is older than you, more experienced, and the ranking officer.”

Arthur feels a twist in his stomach. Christ, they want him to say it was Eames' fault. “There was no coercion, sir.”

“You're nineteen, Arthur. Captain Eames is twenty-three, charming, persuasive—”

“Sir.”

“—physically intimidating—”

“Sir!”

“Whatever you think you have with him—”

Arthur has to work at keeping his anger in check. “No disrespect intended, sir, but you don't know what the fuck you're talking about.”

Stapleton shakes his head. “Arthur, you've got a bright future, a promising career. You were hand-picked for this project, and from all reports you're performing extremely well. Do you really want to throw it all away for a fuck-buddy?”

The words are like a slap, and Arthur realizes he can taste blood on his tongue where he's bitten his own lip. He's never been so angry in his life, and it occurs to him that, in spite of his outward calm, all the military sees is a skinny nineteen-year-old kid who's easily manipulated, coerced, and threatened. Someone they can push around.

Fine, Arthur thinks. They expect him to be young and brash and reckless, he can do that. He was recruited at seventeen, fast-tracked through Green Beret and officer training. He's smart, motivated, and exceptionally good at almost everything he does. He's given up a lot to be in the service, and until this moment, he's never felt they owed him anything in return.

“Arthur, be reasonable,” the colonel tries again. “We both know there's only one way this charge is going away. You don't owe Captain Eames anything.”

Arthur leans forward on his elbows, steepling his hands together. “Actually, sir, I have a counter-offer.”

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

The last thing Eames wants to do while Arthur is missing is track down Lucio Conti and his runaway bride. However, it seems Eames is unlikely to get to Arthur without some kind of bargaining chip and Lucio is his best bet. He's called in far too many favors and made a considerable number of promises in return, but he's got a marriage license registered in Venice, and passport hits for Luke and Anna Compton, travelling under obviously forged Canadian passports to France about a month ago. Considering Lucio has even less imagination than Eames usually gives Arthur credit for, he's willing to bet Luke and Anna are Lucio and Anastasia, and once he's got the names, it's no effort at all for Eames to find phone numbers, credit information, a location.

He calls Colette from outside a block of flats in the Latin Quarter. “I think I've found them. Any word on where Arthur might be?”

“Non, I'm sorry, Eames. Nothing.”

“It's okay, Col. We'll go with Plan A.”

“You think you can persuade Lucio to go willingly to see Volkov?”

Eames slides a round into the chamber of his Sig Sauer and glances up at the lighted windows on the second floor of the building. “I'm almost positive I can provide a convincing argument.”

“Time is growing short. Volkov's plane—”

“I know. I'm going right now.”

“A coeur valiant rien d’impossible, mon cher,” Colette says emphatically. “Go and be safe. Bring him home.”

*

Arthur, Nevada, 2000

 

There's a vein pulsing in Colonel Stapleton's forehead. Arthur's fairly sure it's a sign of an impending aneurysm, but at this point, there's not much he can do about it without backing down, and he has no intention of doing that.

“Lieutenant, you can't be serious.”

“I've never been more serious in my life, sir.”

“You took an oath, soldier. All the information about Project Somnacin is highly classified, and you know it.”

“Which is why I'm certain you'd prefer the files I've accumulated not be released to the media, the government, or the public.”

“You'd be violating every non-disclosure agreement you signed.”

“And yet, the information will still be out there. You can send me to prison, you can send Eames back to England, but it won't stop the facts from getting out.”

“Cryptography's working on your laptop. You'll have no evidence to support these wild accusations—”

“Even if the tech guys can crack the encryption, which I doubt, surely you don't think that's the only copy?” Arthur's face hardens into an expression that makes him look far older than his age. It's closer to how old he feels most days. “Sir, I've been killed hundreds of times in hundreds of ways. I've killed enemies and team-mates and strangers. I've shot myself in the head more than once to escape a dream. I understand what the program was designed to do, but that's not all it does.”

Stapleton looks taken aback, but only for a moment. “The combat scenarios train international soldiers who are more capable of responding in any hostile situation.”

Arthur shakes his head sadly. “You think you're getting soldiers who have the benefit of experience to counteract fear. Instead, you're getting men who've learned death is inevitable. Every scenario ends in death and it's always painful.”

“It's a dream, Lieutenant.” Arthur notices they've dropped the pretext of virtual reality and Americans-only involvement. “The reason for the dream is so soldiers learn to act without fear, to do what needs to be done when situations are dire, so that when faced with similar situations in the real world, they'll respond accordingly, secure in the knowledge they have the skills and training to succeed.”

Arthur's heard it all before. “But it doesn't feel like a dream, sir. Most times you land in media res, in the middle of a hot zone, fighting for your life . You have no time to wonder if it's a dream or not, no time to do anything but try to survive. Pain in dreams is real. Death is real. Yes, you wake up at the end of it, but a gut shot hurts the same and takes the same amount of time to kill you. Losing a limb to a grenade still leaves you with a bloody stump before you bleed out. Arterial spray in a dream feels warm when it hits you. When someone dies in your arms, choking on his own blood, you're not thinking it's a dream. Every thing about it feels more real than anything else.”

“It's not supposed to be—”

“I know, sir, but it is. Every moment of it is real. You're not training heroes; you're creating men who'll be ruthless and efficient killers, who'll do the unthinkable to ward off death a little longer.”

To his credit, Stapleton's face has gone white. “Arthur—”

“Are you really surprised some of us would start to reach out to one another, try to find something good in the middle of it all?” Arthur knows his face is flushed, but he doesn't care. None of this has turned out the way he thought, and the best part of it, the only part that doesn't hurt, is about to be taken away from him by people who don't have the slightest idea what they're doing. Arthur refuses to let that happen.

Stapleton leans back in his chair, and Arthur thinks maybe, just maybe, he's gotten through.

“Regardless of what might be wrong with the program, you can't blackmail the U.S. military, Arthur.”

“With all due respect, sir, apparently, I can.”

*

Eames, Nevada, 2000

 

Eames isn't entirely unfamiliar with the inside of a military stockade, but he can think of several places he'd rather be. Arthur's room. Arthur's bed. The warm space between Arthur's thighs. The curve of Arthur's neck.

He knows it was a stupid risk and he feels responsible for that, but God, Arthur had been pressed against his side at the bar most of the evening, his arm casually slung around Eames' shoulders. Arthur had smiled at him as they were leaving, and Eames couldn't help himself. It was warm and dark, the shadows inviting, and he'd had to kiss that mouth, the edges of Arthur's smile, worry his teeth against Arthur's skin just to hear him moan.

Of course, that was before the interruption of a torch in their faces and three sets of disapproving eyes. Part of Eames wishes now he'd grabbed Arthur's hand and run, but he knows it would've been futile. He's fully-prepared to take the brunt of whatever punishment is meted out if it will help Arthur's position. Thankfully, British policies on same-sex fraternization are nowhere near as draconian as the U.S. regs. Eames had said as much to Colonel Lawford when he'd stopped in to introduce himself as the SAS Liaison, but the grey-haired colonel had simply waved a hand at him and suggested he not put the cart ahead of the horse, whatever the hell that means.

It's a couple of hours later when Lawford reappears. Given the wide grin on the man's face, Eames allows himself a moment to believe everything's going to be alright.

“Good news, sir?” Eames asks, rising to his feet. Lawford waves him down and takes a seat.

“Well, I'm not sure it's good, but it's certainly got their attention.”

“Sir?”

Lawford laughs and shakes his head. “Your Arthur is a firecracker, Captain.”

The sentence manages to derail all of Eames' thoughts. His Arthur? Firecracker? “I don't understand,” Eames says.

“As these things go, there's a fairly predictable pattern. The U.S. blames our permissive policies for corrupting their impressionable youth. Given you're older and higher ranking, you've done half their job for them.”

Eames swallows hard as he realizes the implications. “Sir—”

Lawford keeps going. “In most cases, the poor misused American lad will sign a statement saying it was a one-off, not his idea in the first place, and swears it will never happen again. Our man is returned to England so as not to tempt any more young Americans, and life goes on much as it did before.”

Eames nods shakily. If that's what it takes to protect Arthur from discharge or prison, he'll do it. He'll do whatever it takes. He hates the thought of going back to England, of not seeing or touching Arthur again, at least for a very long time, but ... suddenly, Eames is aware Lawford's kept right on speaking.

“—wouldn't do it. Outright refused, and then—”

“I'm sorry, sir,” Eames interrupts. “Could you repeat that?”

“Your Arthur wouldn't agree to hang you out to dry, and quite honestly, he's got Stapleton by the balls. He's threatening to go public, to blow the lid off the entire dream-sharing program. Says he's got documents, files, sworn statements from participants.” Lawford looks at Eames carefully. “If he's bluffing, he's doing a damn fine job of it.”

Eames takes a moment to process what Lawford's told him. Arthur could have taken the easy road, played naive, claimed coercion, and let Eames take the fall. Eames would've even been okay with that, which is something he knows he'll have to examine later, when he's not in the middle of what could potentially become an international incident.

“The cryptography boys are absolutely stymied with whatever Arthur's done to his laptop; it's a fine thing to see MIT graduates get their comeuppance at the hands of a nineteen-year-old with spirit. For that alone, they're going to want to keep Arthur around so he can teach them a thing or two.”

“But we all signed non-disclosure agreements,” Eames says weakly.

“Yes, you did, which means what Arthur's doing is tantamount to treason.”

“Oh, Christ,” Eames says, wondering if they still hang people for that. What does Arthur think he's doing? “What's going to happen to him?”

Lawford smiles conspiratorially. Eames gets the distinct impression the colonel's enjoying himself immensely. “This is where it gets interesting. Normally, they'd lock him down and throw away the key. But Arthur clearly knows enough to convince the higher-ups he's capable of delivering on his threat. He's rattled off the name, rank, and serial number of everyone in our unit and theirs, and he's accurately identified at least two other allied countries' involvement.”

“Colonel, should you be telling me this?”

“Don't kid a kidder, lad. Non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality clauses aside, I'm fairly certain you and young Arthur—who aren't supposed to even know each other—have already discussed any number of things you shouldn't be discussing, most likely while doing things you shouldn't be doing.”

Eames can't help the flush that stains his cheeks. Lawford's smile is not unkind, and Eames reminds himself not everyone in the military thinks or feels the same way.

“Stapleton's not a bad commander nor is he a fool. He'll do everything in his power to convince Arthur to back down, and if he doesn't—well, Stapleton's long been keen on making the program more public, at least where it relates to government funding and support. No one's yet willing to admit there's a machine that lets people dash about in your dreams, but if they can sell more governments on its potential for solving conflicts virtually or providing risk-free combat training, Stapleton will be kicking up his heels.”

“So, he'll use Arthur to pressure for better funding?”

“As much as Arthur's using him to save both your hides.”

“He shouldn't—”

“But he is, Eames.” Lawford's voice is oddly gentle. “And it's my feeling, Arthur's going to get what he wants, which seems to include you.”

Eames wonders if his face is going to be a permanent shade of red when this is all over. He supposes he can live with that if it means staying within easy reach of Arthur.

“This way, Stapleton also has the chance to address some of the problems. There's a bloody great danger in asking lads to routinely shoot themselves in the head.” Lawford's jaw hardens, and he shakes his head. “It's taking a bad situation and making it win-win without having to admit it was ever anything else.”

“They're not just going to let us walk away and pretend nothing happened,” Eames says. He's been a soldier long enough to know the military holds grudges.

“The only people privy to this incident can't afford to discard competency and resourcefulness like yours and Arthur's.”

“Sir?”

“You two boys managed to consistently sneak off one of the most secure bases in the world, punch holes in its security, map secret compounds, move freely between restricted areas, and communicate when you're not even supposed to be aware of one another. Against all odds, you found each other—in dreams and in reality—and managed to avoid notice for months. They need him and we need you. The program will go on, but it's my feeling things will change for the better.”

“What happens now?” Eames asks, almost afraid of the answer.

“There are two M.P.s and a hot-under-the-collar major who'll be receiving transfer orders. There'll be no point restricting units from associating with one another any more, so the program might truly become international instead of American-directed. Perhaps they'll even listen to you boys when you tell them what's wrong with the project.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Lawford gets up to leave, extending a hand. “You're SAS, Captain Eames. For God's sake, if you're going to keep shagging the American, don't get caught.”

*

Arthur, Paris, 2011

 

Moose and Squirrel have brought Arthur water and something to eat, but there's a heated discussion going on in Russian about how best to give him the food. Arthur pretends he doesn't understand what they're saying, and he's almost amused they're so concerned about what he might do to them; clearly, they've got intel on him they didn't have when this whole thing started.

“Apparently, he killed someone with a spoon, once,” Moose is saying, eyeing Arthur cautiously. It's times like this Arthur's grateful his reputation is partially built on rumor and lies. It helps.

“No utensils, then,” Squirrel agrees, which makes the bowl of soup suddenly an awkward choice. They eventually decide they'll have to feed him—much to Arthur's dismay—and with Moose standing behind him, two large hands on Arthur's head, it's clear if he tries to do anything other than swallow, he's going to be the recipient of a broken neck. He's got the distinct impression he'd be trussed up like Hannibal Lector if they had access to a wheeled dolly and a face mask.

The soup is pale and watery, but it's the first sustenance Arthur's had in almost a full day, so the heated broth is welcome. Squirrel even manages not to spill anything on Arthur's clothes.

“Thank you,” Arthur says when he's been fed and watered. The Russians just nod and Moose pats Arthur awkwardly on top of the head with a huge hand.

“It won't be much longer,” Moose says on his way out the door, and Arthur isn't sure whether that's good or bad.

“Come on, Eames,” he murmurs to himself. “Find me, you bastard. If I get killed by cartoon Russian villains, I'm coming back to haunt you like the characters in every Gothic novel you pretend you haven't read.”

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

Eames has never liked the sound of a woman screaming. It sets his nerves on edge and makes his English sensibilities dictate he immediately find the root of the woman's distress and make it stop. It doesn't help when he's the cause.

“Lucio, tell her to calm down,” Eames yells over Anastasia, and Eames honestly doesn't know how she's continuing to get that much volume considering his hand is covering her mouth and half her face. She's squirming like an eel, and despite his considerable height and weight advantage, he's having a hard time holding her and keeping a gun on Lucio. “I don't want to have to hurt her. Tell her to stop screaming!”

This would've gone so much more smoothly if Anastasia hadn't popped out of the bathroom while Eames was sneaking down the hallway to their bedroom. Instead of a nice, quiet discussion at gun-point, he's got a screaming Russian girl who swears like a sailor and bites, and a twitchy Italian who's paranoid enough to have not one, but two, loaded Berettas at his bedside even when making love to his bride. It doesn't even matter Lucio's a crap shot; with that many bullets, he's bound to get lucky, and Eames is still cheesed about the first bullet hole in Parma, so he doesn't fancy letting Lucio try for two.

Lucio says something in rapid-fire Italian, and the girl shuts up, but doesn't stop squirming. “Fine,” Eames says, and gives up trying to hold her, watching as she sprints across the bedroom and into Lucio's arms.

If Eames were here to kill them, it would be easy. The moment Anastasia's within the circle of Lucio's arms, they only have eyes for each other, and Lucio's twin Berettas are pointed uselessly at the floor and the wall as he embraces the girl, kissing her face. Eames listens to endearments and reassurances spilling out in a mix of Russian and Italian, and it's nauseatingly genuine enough to remind him of the times he's gotten Arthur back from the brink of death. Eames holsters his Sig, and sits on the edge of the bed while the lovers ignore him. Eames is certain he used to be more intimidating than this. He blames Arthur.

Lucio finally manages to separate himself from the clinging arms of the dark-haired Anastasia and realizes Eames is sitting on the bed. He thrusts the girl behind him, but doesn't raise his pistols, which is wise since Eames doesn't particularly want to kill him.

“Is this revenge? For Parma?” he asks, and Eames reminds himself Lucio's young, and young people in love do stupid, stupid things. Even Arthur had been young once, and the thought makes Eames grin. Arthur had taken on the whole goddamn military for him and won.

“No, Lucio, it's not revenge. But there's been a little misunderstanding, and I need your help.”

Lucio and Anastasia both look suspicious, standing there in their bedroom in boxers and a plain cotton shift, pressed against one another as though love alone can protect them. Eames knows people, and everything in their body language is telling him this is what love looks like.

Let no man say Eames isn't a romantic. “Lucio, put the guns down. I've got a proposal, and if it works, you and Anastasia can stop running, and I can take Arthur and go home.”

“Arthur,” Lucio says, seeming to realize for the first time how odd it is for Eames to be alone. “I don't understand.”

“Let's just say, I think it's a good time to meet your father-in-law,” Eames suggests, and starts to explain.

*

Arthur, Nevada, 2000

 

After the MIT graduates admit defeat in the face of Arthur's encryption program, after Lawford has reminded Stapleton this gives him what he's wanted all along anyway, and after agreements and terms have been struck, Arthur's allowed to leave. Victory feels a lot like exhaustion, and Arthur's still half-afraid he's never going to see Eames again. It's not as if they've ever talked about it: what they are to each other, what they're doing. Arthur's not naive enough to think sweaty promises and declarations of love in the middle of sex are any kind of guarantee, but he's pretty sure Eames feels it too, the connection between them. Considering Arthur's just fucked over the U.S. Army for Eames, he hopes he hasn't misjudged the situation.

Arthur hovers in the corridor at the detention center, caught between wanting to get the hell out and not look back, and wanting to make sure Eames is speaking to him. He's not sure what happens now. He's been released and Stapleton's essentially made the whole mess go away save for the part where he's keeping Arthur's statements to pressure somebody higher-up for funding and information-sharing among the allied participants. What does someone do after holding the military hostage all night? Arthur supposes he should get some sleep. He's expected to report for duty later today.

“Lieutenant?”

The familiar cadence of the word makes Arthur smile as he looks up, only to realize the voice belongs to a grey-haired colonel in a British uniform. “I'm sorry, sir,” Arthur says, snapping to attention. “I didn't see you there.”

“That's understandable,” the man says. “I imagine you've got other things on your mind. You've had a long night.”

Arthur reads the name on the uniform pocket and realizes this is the SAS Liaison. One more person who knows exactly what Arthur's done. He tries to look innocent. He shouldn't ask—he knows it's just inviting more trouble, but Arthur has to know: “Sir, do you know if Captain Eames is here?”

The colonel appraises him with kind eyes, and nods. “Come with me, Arthur,” he says, and leads him to a room further down the corridor. They stop outside a grey metal door marked Interrogation Room #4. “I'm sure I don't need to remind you these rooms are monitored?”

Arthur feels his face heat. “No, sir.”

“Good. You and the captain are both free to return to duty. I suggest you avoid giving your superiors any reason to regret their decision on this matter.”

“Yes, sir,” Arthur says. He's surprised when the old colonel reaches out a hand to him, but Arthur shakes it and thanks him for his part. The colonel's grip is warm and firm, and Arthur swears he hears him whistling “God Save the Queen” as he ambles away.

When Arthur pushes through the door to Interrogation Room #4, the first thing he sees is Eames' broad back turned away from him. He looks to be pacing, and when he reaches the far wall and turns around, the look on his face tells Arthur everything he needs to know. Eames has taken three strides towards him before he stops and looks up at the camera in the corner of the ceiling.

“Arthur,” he says, hands at his sides, clearly restraining himself from covering the remaining ground and wrapping Arthur in a bear hug.

“Hey,” Arthur says meekly, and it takes every ounce of will not to throw himself at Eames. If they didn't realize it before, Arthur thinks it's damn clear now: neither of them is walking away.

“Are you okay?” they ask at the same time, laughing when their answers—“yeah, I'm fine”—are in stereo too.

“You didn't have to—” Eames starts, and Arthur's already shaking his head.

“Yes, I did. I couldn't—”

“It wouldn't have mattered. I would've—”

“I know, Eames. I couldn't let you.” They're a foot closer to one another, and Arthur has no idea which of them moved.

Eames is looking at him with awe and pride and something that makes Arthur's heart beat faster. “I can't believe you—”

“What else could I do?”

Eames laughs and to Arthur's ears it sounds a little hysterical. “Only you would think that was a reasoned response to the situation.”

“It worked, didn't it?” Arthur's not entirely sure why it worked, but he's grateful nonetheless. It's possible Colonel Stapleton's just not as good at reading his tells as Eames is. He's never been good at bluffing, but he's never had as much at stake before either.

“You're the most brilliant idiot I know,” Eames says, voice all fondness and unguarded affection, and Arthur wants nothing more than to reach across and pull him close, kiss him until last night feels like a bad dream.

“We need to get out of here,” Arthur murmurs, his voice huskier than usual, and Eames' eyes darken, his smile turning predatory.

“Yes, we do,” he agrees and follows at Arthur's heels, careful to keep two feet of space between them all the way back to Arthur's room.

*

In a secure office elsewhere in the building, Lawford and Stapleton are shaking their heads.

“Christ,” Stapleton says. “Those two have no sense of self-preservation. We should just court-martial them now and be done with it.”

Lawford laughs. “Come on, Henry. Surely you were young once? In love?”

“Not like that. They're 'The Gift of the Magi' with machine guns and explosives.”

“That kind of loyalty is something we don't see much anymore.”

“I'm not sure I've ever felt that way about someone, Nigel. Not even Carolyn, and we've been married almost thirty years.”

Lawford gives the screen a considering look. “Food for thought, isn't it?”

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

Boris Volkov's flight arrives on schedule at Charles de Gaulle, and Eames is there to meet it. Volkov's a short, thick man with greying hair and too many years of hardship apparent on his face. Eames wonders how he wound up with a willowy, beautiful daughter.

“Do I know you?” Volkov asks, gesturing Eames closer when he sees the sign he's carrying. It says, LUCIO & ANASTASIA in bold block letters.

“We have mutual friends,” Eames answers, and Volkov's bodyguards eye him suspiciously. Eames is unarmed because airport security is a nightmare to deal with, and he figures Volkov's not likely to have him shot in public. At least not until he has more information. Eames makes it very clear he's not carrying, even though Volkov's men are making it equally clear they are. At least everyone knows where they stand.

“I'm listening.”

“I have reason to believe your people are holding someone. A colleague of mine.” Eames tries to keep it casual, act like Arthur's just a business acquaintance. A useful asset but nothing more. That kind of feigned disinterest is hard for him; he's never felt anything remotely akin to disinterest towards Arthur since he met him. “I'd like to arrange his release.”

Volkov doesn't give anything away, and Eames wonders what he'd be like to play poker with. Eames suspects it would be a challenge.

“Even if it were true about your friend, what could you possibly have to offer me?”

“The location of your daughter.”

Eames sees he's finally got Volkov's undivided attention.

“Your name?”

“You can call me Mr. Eames.”

“It appears we have something to discuss after all, Mr. Eames. I trust you won't mind accompanying me to my hotel?”

“Not at all,” Eames says and follows him through the concourse towards a waiting limousine.

*

Arthur, Nevada, 2000

 

The trek across the base feels interminable to Arthur. It's true that he's mostly exhausted after the night-long interrogation and all the revelations that came with it, and really, what he needs most is a shower and a few hours of sleep. But Eames is matching his stride, a careful space between them as if a ruler's been set there by an over-protective chaperone, and Arthur can feel his muscles wound tight with anticipation. He needs to touch Eames, more than he needs anything else and possibly more than he's needed anything ever.

His room seems like a mirage that never gets any closer, and Arthur refuses to break into a dead run because he's not a teenager—nineteen doesn't count—and Christ, he doesn't know when this became so fucking important, when Eames grew to be the entirety of what's vital in Arthur's world. He's still pumped on adrenaline, but Arthur suspects when it wears off and the weight of what he's done hits him, he's going to be terrified of what it all means.

They're jogging side-by-side—it's not running, it's not—through the last set of hallways, and when they turn the corner both Eames and Arthur pull up short. Parked in front of Arthur's door are Fitzgibbon and Davidson, playing cards. It looks like they've been there a while if the empty aluminium cans of Red Bull are anything to go by.

“Guys?” Eames says, trying for casual and missing by a mile. “What's up?”

Fitz doesn't look up from his cards, but his voice is tense. “You two didn't make it back last night.”

Eames doesn't blink, and Arthur decides to let Eames play this one through. Fitz is his man, after all, and his friend. “I wasn't aware we needed to check with you.” Eames voice is all command, and Arthur really wishes he didn't find that hot right now.

Davidson looks uncomfortable, and Arthur fixes him with a stare that could melt steel. Fitz hauls himself to his feet, all six-foot-two of him, and crosses his arms over his chest. “Excuse us for caring, Captain, but when our unit leads both disappear the same time someone puts us in lockdown mode and calls the cryptography techs to break into the lieutenant's room and ransack his laptop, we take that a mite seriously.”

Eames swallows and Arthur wants there to be an easy solution to this. They've already narrowly dodged charges and though Stapleton has to be aware their units are involved, Arthur doesn't think it's wise to call attention to that just now. If anything, they all need to stay off the radar until the people in charge start giving them something to work with, even if it's stuff they already know.

“Fitz—”

“For fuck's sake, two great bloody Yanks were running their gobs 'bout the officers they nabbed shagging—”

Arthur's heard enough, and he pulls the door to his room open. There's no way they're having this conversation in the hallway.

“Get in there, all of you,” Arthur says, grabbing Eames and Fitz by the arms and dragging them with him. Davidson doesn't need the encouragement. Arthur kicks the door shut, and realizes his room looks like it's been burgled by monkeys and his laptop's gone. He pushes the crap off the bed, and sits down feeling shell-shocked.

Fitz is red-faced and angry; Eames doesn't look much better. Davidson looks like he'd rather be anywhere but here, and Arthur doesn't blame him. He's getting fucking tired of the universe cock-blocking him and Eames.

“Everyone needs to calm the fuck down,” Arthur says. “Right now.”

Fitz keeps going like a train without brakes. “You think I don't know you're a fairy, Eames? It's not about that. Fuck, Rupe, I've known you since Grammar School!”

Arthur sees Eames wince and Arthur can't help grinning because, well, Rupert. When the world's not falling down around them he knows that's going to be worth a shitload of mocking.

“Fitz.”

“We've been mates for years, and I've never fucking cared about that.” Fitz runs a hand through his blond hair. “You bloody tosser, I thought they'd dragged you and Arthur off to the Glasshouse or Leavenworth, or whatever they call it here. We'd no idea whether we needed to stage a jail break or a protest, or just leg it the hell out of here. Now you turn up looking jammy, so I guess none of that matters.”

Arthur follows most of the conversation, though Fitz's accent has turned heavier than normal, and Eames looks as if he can't decide whether to be pissed off or pleased. Arthur stands up and sets himself between Fitz and the door.

“Arthur, mate, you don't want to do that,” Fitz warns, and Arthur feels Eames tense beside him. Fucking SAS.

“Sit down, Fitz,” Arthur says. “We're going to tell you everything.”

“We are?” Eames blinks.

“You are?” Davidson's turned an alarming shade of pale.

“We are,” Arthur confirms. “And not a word of it can leave this room. I've already had to blackmail the U.S. Army once tonight, and I'd rather not try it again.”

Fitzgibbon and Davidson exchange looks, but they each grab a piece of wall and sit down. Eames hops up on the desk, and Arthur grabs the chair.

“So, this is the story of how Eames and I found each other, fell in—” Arthur stops, realizes what he'd been about to say, and suddenly can't find any words at all.

Eames takes pity on him. “Fell in with one another, and fucked up beyond all recognition.” Arthur carefully doesn't look at Eames, although the squeeze to his shoulder tells him everything he needs to know. Yeah, they`ve fallen in something alright.

Eames keeps going: “Basically, Arthur threw a spanner in the works of the military machine with a fucking bluff—Jesus Christ, I still can't believe you—”

“Focus.”

“The gist of it is we're likely to be thrown together more than apart; information-sharing, international cooperation, all that codswallop.”

“Isn't 'international cooperation' what landed you in the stockade?” Fitz's grin is wicked, and Eames flushes bright red.

“Shit,” Davidson says, choosing to ignore pretty much everything Fitz said. “Arthur can't bluff worth a damn.”

“Colonel Stapleton didn't know that.”

The room fills with laughter, and it's the best sound Arthur's heard all night.

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

Boris Volkov prefers the finer things in life. It's apparent in everything from the Stolichnaya Elit vodka chilling in the limo to the suite he's booked at the Hotel Meurice. Eames can appreciate the sentiment, although he'd like to progress past drinks and offers of Sobranie Black Russian cigarettes to finding Arthur and getting the hell out of Paris. At this point, he'll settle for Arthur.

“Mr. Volkov,” Eames begins. “I know you're a busy man, so why don't I explain my proposal?”

Volkov lights a cigarette and leans back into the elegant Louis XVI-style sofa. “If you're bargaining with my daughter's life, you're either very stupid or—” He thinks for a moment. “No, just stupid, Mr. Eames.”

Eames is aware of the shadows of Volkov's henchmen falling in behind his chair. The shadows have guns. With suppressors. Eames swallows his vodka, and leans forward. There's a reason he avoids dealing with the Russians if he can; he likes staying alive. “You misapprehend me, sir.”

“I don't think I do.” Boris puffs on his Black Russian. “You were part of Lucio Conti's three-man team in Parma where my daughter disappeared.”

Eames tries not to be offended; he imagines the look Arthur would be wearing if someone described him as part of “Lucio's team.” Arthur would've probably started shooting, and Eames holds that image in mind. Everything he does here is for Arthur.

“My colleague and I—Arthur, the man you're holding—were on a job with Lucio in Parma. It was the first, and the last, time we worked with him. We were forced to flee Italy and Lucio shot me in the leg. I can show you the scar, if you like.”

Boris looks unimpressed. “Did he shoot you before or after you helped him abduct my Ana?”

“Neither,” Eames says. Speaking to Boris is like conversing with a brick wall, and Eames knows he's probably going to have to do a lot of talking without any sign he might be getting through. “This might be difficult for you to hear,” Eames says, beginning to regret taking this particular tack, “but there was no abduction. Lucio and your daughter simply fell in love.”

The suppressor nuzzling against the back of Eames' neck suggests that neither Volkov nor his bodyguard could in any way be considered a romantic.

But Eames doesn't have any cards to play except the truth, so he does what he does best. Talks to people. Empathizes with them. Makes it possible for even a cold-hearted killer to believe in love because that, quite possibly, is the only thing that will ensure he and Arthur are both breathing at the end of the night.

*

Arthur, Paris, 2011

 

Moose and Squirrel appear to be fairly low on the organization's food chain now that Arthur's thinking about it. They've been coming and going since Arthur ended up here tied to a chair, but beyond the basic questions and slapping him around a bit, they haven't pushed for more.

It's clear when a third man enters behind Moose that Arthur's interrogation has been bumped up the line. The man fills the doorway, even more than Moose, and he's wearing a well-fitted grey suit and black calf-skin gloves. His movements are precise and silent as he screws the suppressor onto his handgun. Professional. Arthur thinks he'll call the new guy “Natasha.”

Just not out loud.

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

The silence that settles over the suite at the Hotel Meurice is stifling. Eames can feel a bead of sweat working its way down his forehead, but he doesn't dare move to wipe it away. The suppressor's still against his neck and Volkov is blowing out smoke, obviously weighing whether Eames is the world's biggest idiot or not.

“This is the story you bring to me,” Volkov says finally. “You paint a pretty picture, Mr. Eames, but it's smoke and mirrors, hearts and flowers. These things mean very little to me.”

“But they mean a great deal to your daughter.”

“And what do you know of Anastasia?”

“I know she's in love with Lucio Conti, and he with her.”

“Because they ran off together?” Boris laughs. “Because my child is taken in by a young man who talks of love?”

Eames shakes his head, mindful of the gun at his back. “I know what love looks like. He didn't want to seduce her, he wanted to marry her, and he did. He fell in love and he married her in Venice, and the only reason they dropped out of sight is because you sent men to Italy to bring her home, and she was afraid you would kill Lucio when you found out.”

“She tells you this?”

“Yes.”

“I will speak to her. She must tell me herself.”

Eames licks his lips, considering how best to phrase his answer. “She'll only agree to see you if you promise no harm will come to either of them.”

“I would not harm my own daughter!” Boris grinds the stub of his cigarette into the ashtray on the coffee table, and Eames watches the flickers of hot ash flare and go out.

“I'm here, Mr. Volkov, because I have no other choice. They want to be together. They're adults, they're legally married, and they're honest-to-God in love, whether you believe that or not. You can track them down, you can execute him, but the only thing you'll succeed in doing is making your only daughter hate you. For better or worse, she's made her decision and she's standing by Lucio. Now you have to decide if you can live with that, if having your daughter in your life is important enough to give Lucio a chance.”

“And you refuse to tell me where they are.”

“Not without assurances of their safety.”

Volkov gives Eames a puzzled look. “You owe Lucio something. A favor? Money?”

Eames laughs. “No. If anything, I owe him a bullet, but I'm choosing to be the bigger man.”

“Why? What do you gain from this, Mr. Eames?”

“Good karma? A chance to help true love?” Eames feels the suppressor nudge him once. Fine. He's surrounded by skeptics. “Hopefully, I get Arthur back. In one piece. That's the only thing I'm interested in.”

Volkov leans forward, settles his chin on a rough hand. “And if I offer you Mr. Arthur's life in exchange for the location of my daughter and the man who's taken her from me?”

Eames takes a breath and lets it out. This is the moment that matters. “If you plan to kill Lucio, I can't help you.”

“What if I tell you I will have your Arthur killed if you don't tell me what I wish to know? There is a man with him at this very moment. A man who is very good with a gun. It will not be quick. It will not be painless.”

“My answer doesn't change. The only way you'll see your daughter is on her terms, and that means killing Lucio is off the table.”

“He's more than just a colleague, your Mr. Arthur, yes? He matters to you. I can see it in your eyes.”

Eames doesn't look away. “You can kill Arthur. He never had the information you wanted anyway. But if you do that, you may as well kill me too.”

Volkov looks surprised. “Why would you wish that?”

“Because I've been in love with him since I was 23, and I honestly can't imagine being in this world without him.”

*

Arthur, Nevada, 2000

 

It's been two weeks since Arthur's bluff, and not much has changed. They've got weekly meetings scheduled with all the international units involved—six of them, it turns out—and there have been a handful of overlapping training sessions.

Arthur's spent a full day balancing how much information to give the crypto techs against the need to protect himself and Eames. In the end, he gives them something but not everything. Arthur's fairly certain they don't know he's holding back. The techs are excited to have something new to play with, and at the end of the day, everyone seems happy.

When Arthur gets back to his room, Eames is there waiting. Arthur can't stop the grin that breaks over his face as he quickly closes and locks the door.

“Hey,” he says, starting across the room, but Eames holds up a hand.

“Wait.”

“What?” They're standing on opposite sides of Arthur's bed, and the most they've seen of each other in two weeks has been across a room full of soldiers. “No fucking way,” Arthur says, but the look on Eames' face gives him pause. “If you don't have the plague or some other good reason for being way the hell over there—”

“Just stay where you are.” Eames looks entirely too serious and too far away, and Arthur can feel a twist of emotion in his gut. “We need to talk.”

Arthur barks out a laugh even though nothing about this is funny. “Are you serious? Since when do you need to be ten feet away to talk to me?”

“Because I actually need to talk to you, and if you come over here, there won't be any talking.”

“You know that's not exactly incentive to stay put,” Arthur says honestly, but he stops. “Eames, what's wrong?”

Eames looks miserable, and Arthur's never seen him like that. He wants to walk over and kiss him until he smiles.

“What are we doing, Arthur?”

“Well, right now you're being an ass who's cock-blocking himself. What do you think we're doing?”

Eames shakes his head. “It's too big a risk. We can't—”

“Oh, yes, we fucking can,” Arthur says, and he doesn't care Eames wants to keep him at a distance, Arthur needs to touch. He crosses the room in three long strides, crowds Eames back into the corner and presses in against him. “You are not dumping me after I took on the fucking U.S. military for us.”

Eames holds himself stiffly, all muscle and bone, refusing to reach out and take what Arthur's offering. It's a lot like trying to hug a wall.

“Christ, Arthur, don't make this harder. I'm trying to—”

“It feels a lot like you're trying to get away from me. I just don't know why.”

“Because you almost got chucked out of the service because of me.” Eames closes his eyes. “And because I'm fucking in love with you, and I don't want you throwing your life away for me.”

Arthur freezes with his hands on Eames' biceps. Eames' head is tipped against the wall and he won't meet Arthur's eyes.

“Let's get something straight right now,” Arthur says, his voice dangerous. “I don't need you to protect me. If I'd claimed coercion like they wanted me to, you wouldn't have fought the charge, would you? Eames?”

“No.”

“You would've been sent back to England and disciplined, possibly discharged, when you didn't do anything, and you sure as hell didn't do anything I didn't want.” Arthur puts his hands on Eames' face and tugs. “Look at me, you idiot. That's self-sacrifice and I don't want it. Not from you, not ever.”

“You risked everything for me.”

“No, for us. Don't you get it? That was so we can keep being together. None of this matters without you, Eames. If I had to give it up—dream-sharing, the military, all of it, but I could still have you, I wouldn't care.” Arthur kisses him with conviction. “Because I fucking love you too.”

“Arthur—” Eames sounds broken and his hands are still clenched at his sides.

“No, you don't get to make bad decisions in the name of protecting me. I was protecting us and there's a big fucking difference. I'm not a kid, Eames. I know what I'm doing and what I want. Jesus Christ, do you not see what you do to me?” Arthur punches him in the chest with a flat hand, and Eames' eyes pop open. “This isn't just you; this is us, so will you fucking touch me already?”

And that's it, that's all Eames can take apparently because the next second there are big hands on Arthur's hips, and Eames is kissing him like he never thought he'd get the chance again. Arthur wraps his arms around Eames' neck and doesn't think, just lifts his long, slim legs and curls them around Eames' waist. Hands boost Arthur's thighs, holding him, and who knew it was such a fucking turn-on to be five feet ten inches, 165 pounds of lean muscle, and to be completely in someone else's hands, as if it's not taking Eames any effort at all to hold him four feet off the ground.

“Fuck, Eames, you're—god, you're fucking amazing.”

The wall hits Arthur in the back, but it gives him the leverage he needs to rut against Eames, desperate for the friction. He knows he's swearing, two weeks of frustration and repressed desire pouring out in guttural sounds until he's coming like that, hard and fast, legs and arms clamped around Eames like he'll never let go, and through it Arthur becomes aware of a soothing hand at the small of his back, the soft cadence of Eames' voice repeating his name.

“Arthur, Jesus Christ, it's okay. No self-sacrificing, I promise. Do you hear me? I promise, love.”

Arthur feels exhausted, strung-out and emotionally raw. He's only vaguely aware of Eames walking them over to the bed, unwinding Arthur's long limbs and lying down beside him. The bed's too narrow, but Arthur doesn't care, pulls Eames as close as he can, aware that Eames is kissing his face, his cheeks, his eyelids, and murmuring ridiculous endearments.

Eames will have to leave soon. They can't stay like this, and there's too much risk in being caught again, but Arthur's spent his whole life doing what was expected of him and now he wants something for himself. He wants Eames and he knows Eames wants him too.

“You have me, darling. You always will.”

*

Eames, Nevada, 2000

 

Eames slips off the bed once Arthur falls asleep. Arthur's clearly exhausted, dark circles under his eyes, and Eames kisses him lightly on the forehead, the cheek, lets his fingers caress a wayward curl. He accepts that there's no turning back from this. He tugs off one of his dog-tags and presses it into the palm of Arthur's hand. His fingers automatically curl around it, but he doesn't wake.

He's tried to do the right thing, to walk away before they're in too deep, but they've already passed the point of no return. Evidently they passed it some time ago and failed to notice until they were on the brink of giving everything for one another. Eames closes his eyes and wonders what he's done to deserve this kind of love. He's used to being the one who cares too much, who falls too hard for the person who can't or won't love him back with the same abandon.

But Arthur ...

Sometimes Eames feels he can't even breathe in the face of so much emotion, the open want he sees on Arthur's face. Eames feels naked all the time; as if Arthur's taken the measure of him, laid his heart bare, and maybe that's exactly what Arthur's done.

Once he gets outside, Eames takes a deep breath, tries to light a cigarette with shaking hands. A shadow steps out and offers him a light.

“Checking up, Fitz?” Eames asks, but he can't be angry. Not after everything.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” Eames says. The smoke hits his lungs and he feels some equilibrium return. He's just a normal guy, a soldier; falling in love doesn't change that. Fitzgibbon lifts the silver circle of the single dog-tag between his thumb and index.

“So that's how it is?”

“That's how it is.”

“Arthur's not keen on you walking away then?”

“You could say that.”

“Knew I liked that lad.” Fitz laughs at Eames' expression. “You headed out like a man about to walk the plank. Any half-wit with eyes could see you went to break it off. So, what happened?”

“Arthur happened.”

“Ah.”

Eames lets out a breath. The shakes have stopped—at least on the outside—but he can't help feeling his world's shifted sideways, that whatever he does from here on is different because of Arthur. It scares the shit out of him.

“I'm rubbish at relationships.”

Fitz slings an arm around Eames' shoulders, nudges him in the direction of their barracks.

“Maybe Arthur's the dog's bollocks at it.”

Eames and Fitz exchange a glance that quickly slides into laughter, earning them glares from the night patrol.

“We're so royally fucked.”

“Yeah, mate, you really are.”

*

Arthur, Paris, 2011

 

“Natasha's” accent is touched with a hint of British education and he smells of expensive Russian cigarettes. Arthur catches Moose and Squirrel looking at one another nervously. They don't like the new addition to the team either.

Natasha chambers a round in his Makarov and slides the safety off. He's wearing a Bluetooth headset, and appears to be listening for instructions.

“You will answer my questions truthfully, or I will shoot you in non-vital areas first. Then I will start on vital areas. Do you understand me, Mr. Arthur?”

“Absolutely,” Arthur says, and prays the increase in aggression means Eames is getting close. Arthur just hopes he's got all his vitals intact when Eames shows up.

“Do you know where Lucio Conti is?”

Even Moose and Squirrel look apologetic. Arthur bites down the urge to be a smart-ass and says, “No, I don't know where Lucio is. I honestly don't. The last time I saw him, we were in Parma, and he shot my partner in the leg.”

The gunshot Arthur's expecting doesn't come.

“Do you know the location of Anastasia Volkov?”

Arthur doesn't try to hide his confusion. “Um, I'm not even sure who that is, so no, I don't know where she is.”

“Do you know Mr. Eames?”

A smile creeps onto Arthur's face. He can't help it. Eames still does that to him. “I do. I've known him since I was nineteen.”

Something crackles through the headset. “How old was he when you met?” Natasha asks.

“He was 23.”

“What is your relationship?”

Arthur takes a breath. His instinct is to lie. He's a private person and it's never been anyone's business what he has with Eames, but something's going on here that's bigger than Arthur. He doesn't know what it is, but he trusts Eames has a plan. It might not be a very good plan, but he's sure there's a plan, and considering he's the one tied to a chair, he probably doesn't have room to criticize.

“He's my work partner, and my ... he's my life. He has been for a long time.”

Even as Arthur says the words, he realizes how true they are. Eleven years since they found each other and thought they could take on the world. There have been rough times; months when they didn't see each other, moments when they convinced themselves and each other it was hate they were feeling. Arthur still isn't sure Eames has completely forgiven him for standing by Cobb when everything went to hell, but he's never doubted Eames loves him like no one else ever has. If he's honest, it's always been Eames.

“One more question, Mr. Arthur.”

Arthur isn't sure why he suddenly feels like a contestant on The Dating Game, or why his love life is so important to Russian gangsters, but if that's what it's going to take to get him out of here, Arthur's willing to play along.

“Shoot,” he says, then shakes his head. “I mean, go ahead. Ask your question.”

Natasha smiles and it's a little frightening. Arthur looks over at Moose and Squirrel and gets a thumbs-up from Moose. It's more disconcerting than it is reassuring.

“Would you die for Mr. Eames?”

“I'd rather not,” Arthur says, “mainly because he'd be pretty pissed off at me. We have a deal about sacrificing ourselves—we don't if we can avoid it. But if you're asking if I'd step in front of a bullet for him? Without hesitation. My life wouldn't be the same without him, and I'd really like to get back to him if that's alright with you and whoever's on the other end of that headset.”

Natasha says something into the headset in a dialect Arthur doesn't quite follow. Then he ejects the round from the Makarov's chamber, watching it fall harmlessly to the floor. He unscrews the suppressor and pockets it, nods once to Arthur, and leaves.

Moose and Squirrel scurry along after him, closing the door behind them.

“I really have no idea what's going on,” Arthur tells the empty room. He hates that feeling.

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

Considering the sheer audacity of the plan, Eames is surprised things go as smoothly as they do. Boris asks a few questions about Lucio's character, which Eames is careful to answer as diplomatically as possible, and requests a chance to talk to his daughter. Eames obliges with a phone call that seems to leave both father and daughter tearful and apologetic. It's a best-case scenario in Eames' opinion.

The henchmen have retreated back into the corners, and Eames can't say he misses the press of a gun at his back. Boris snaps Eames' mobile shut and hands it back to him.

“She is a married woman,” Boris says, shaking his head. Eames knows that's going to be a sore point for awhile, but Boris hasn't stayed alive in this business without being able to read the writing on the wall. The man loves his daughter, and he's not prepared to lose her.

“Lucio's young—they both are—but they'll figure it out.”

Boris nods, gives Eames an evaluative look. “The voice of one who knows love.” Eames snorts—he can't help himself—and Boris allows a smile to creep onto his face. “I would like to see Anastasia now.”

Eames takes out a card with Colette's address printed on it. “The woman they're with is a dear friend of mine. If anything were to happen—”

Boris waves off the insinuation. “I have promised I will not kill him. Not even a little.”

“Not that I don't think you're a man of your word, Boris, but you'll forgive me if I have a couple of ex-SAS mates hang about for good measure.” Eames has never been so grateful that Fitz runs a private security firm in Paris. They've been through a lot together, and all Eames had needed to say was “Arthur's in trouble” and Fitz had offered his considerable resources. Colette and the young lovers are in safe hands, Eames knows.

“There is still the matter of releasing your Arthur. It's unfortunate the two of you became involved in this, and I trust you will pass on my sincere apologies to him for the trouble. I remain in your debt.”

“Of course,” Eames says. At this point, an apology's not going to cut it with Arthur, but a potential ally in the Russian mob is nothing to sneeze at. “About Arthur. I've a few suggestions if you'd rather not have whoever's guarding him returned to you in body bags.”

Boris raises an eyebrow. “I'm listening.”

*

Arthur, Paris, 2011

 

Very little time passes before Arthur hears the key in the lock. Moose and Squirrel shuffle in, looking nervous and apologetic.

“Where's Natasha?” Arthur asks because either they're going to let him go or they're going to kill him. Moose and Squirrel blink with confusion, and Arthur sighs. It's so much more fun when the bad guys get the jokes.

Squirrel is holding up something in his hand, and it takes Arthur a minute to realize it's a key. A handcuff key.

“Now that's more like it,” Arthur says, flexing his fingers. He's stiff and aching and as soon as the damn handcuffs are off, he's going to break someone's jaw. “Well, come on. Uncuff me. I've got places to be.”

Moose says something that sounds like “zhal”—sorry—and Squirrel sets the key carefully on the floor about two feet from Arthur.

“Seriously?” he says, as they start to back out of the room. Arthur doesn't hear the door lock behind them, so he figures that means he's free to go. If he can get himself out of the damn handcuffs and the ropes binding him to the chair. He really hopes they're not about to torch whatever building he's in.

“Motherfuckers!” Arthur yells, and tips his chair onto the cement.

*

Eames, Paris, 2011

 

Eames pushes through the door of the abandoned warehouse at a run. He can hear Arthur swearing even before he finds the unlocked office at the back of the building. It's the sweetest sound Eames has ever heard.

“Goddamn motherfucking Russians!”

Eames forces himself to stop, take a breath, and compose himself into something casual, less frantic. When the metal door swings inward, Arthur's on the floor, tied to a chair, but he's got one handcuff undone and the second drops away as Eames enters. “Need an assist, darling?”

Arthur looks up and though his scowl doesn't change, his eyes are riveted to Eames. “It's about fucking time you got here.”

Eames saunters into the room, flips open his knife, and goes to work on the ropes. “Traffic was an absolute beast.”

“Did you at least remember to stay on the right side of the road?”

Eames shrugs and raises a finger to linger against one of the cuts on Arthur's face. Someone was wearing a ring when they hit him. “Ow,” Arthur says, and Eames lets himself look. Arthur's alive, mostly undamaged, and he'll survive being angry. Eames has never been so grateful to see him.

“Eames,” Arthur says, impatiently. “Get me out of this fucking chair. You can fulfil your pathological need to mother me later.”

“Right,” Eames concedes and starts in again on the ropes. “So, do you want the long or the short version of this daring rescue?”

“Short, and it's hardly a daring rescue. They left me the key and ran away.” Arthur's eyes narrow suspiciously. “Almost as if someone warned them what might happen when they let me go.”

Eames tries not to look guilty, and fails. He can lie to anyone convincingly—except Arthur. “Look, I'd already spent an hour and a half convincing Boris not to off anybody. It would've hardly aided matters to have you turn 'American Psycho' on his lackeys when they're untying you.”

“Boris?” Arthur asks. “Christ, I had Moose, Squirrel, and Natasha. The gang's all here.”

Eames puts a hand to Arthur's head. “Are you concussed, love? Boris Volkov. Russian mob boss. Lucio Conti ran off and married his daughter, and we got caught in the middle.”

Arthur shakes off the rope Eames has sliced, and lets Eames help him to his feet. If they end up standing in the middle of the room with Eames' arms fast around Arthur, Eames figures he's earned it. The past 24 hours have been absolute shite.

“Let's get out of here,” Arthur murmurs against Eames' shoulder. “And as much as it pains me to say this, I think you'd better give me the long version. This has been fucking confusing.”

Eames nods, kisses the top of Arthur's head, and keeps an arm around him as they exit the building. “In the words of the immortal bard, 'the course of true love ne'er did run smooth'—”

“Is it too late to opt for the short version?”

“Yes, darling. Now, hush.”

*

Arthur, Paris, 2011

 

Arthur's sitting in the round marble tub at the Hotel Meurice—and Arthur's not about to ask how Eames managed a suite there considering a single room runs 900 Euros a night—letting Eames dab antiseptic and ointment on his face while he soaks his aching muscles in a tub of the hottest water he can stand. The cuts aren't as bad as he'd thought, the graze is shallow, and Arthur has to admit, he's had worse kidnappings. This one doesn't even crack the top five.

“And then I raced to your rescue, and you know the rest,” Eames finishes.

“That's not an explanation, that's a romantic comedy gone wrong. Or an episode of Dr. Phil.” Arthur pulls away to look at Eames' face. “You know you're an idiot, right? There's no way that plan should have worked.”

“Ah, but it did, and that's really all that matters.” Eames sounds entirely too smug for his own good. Arthur knows it's all a front, covering the worry and tension of the last several hours, but he'll let Eames have his story. His versions are usually better than Arthur's anyway.

“You're an enormous sap, Eames. You do realize your entire plan depended on showing a Russian mob boss the glory of love?”

“As delightfully unsavoury as that sounds, I can assure you the only one I'm showing my 'glory of love' to is you.”

Arthur can't help it. He takes in Eames' grin, the filthy wink meant only for him, and Arthur laughs so hard he snorts in bubbles. He fucking loves this man and his ridiculous romantic streak and his ludicrous schemes that have no business working.

He grabs a handful of bubbles and smears them against Eames' white dress shirt. His fingers fit neatly under the lapels and it takes no strength at all to tug Eames forward, bring his mouth in close, and kiss him. Eames' hands immediately land on skin, and Arthur leans into the touch, everything about it familiar and comforting.

“Thank you,” Arthur whispers, barely audible, and Eames' hands still for a moment; it needs to be said, even if Eames never seems to need to hear it, but Arthur feels better. He's profoundly grateful for everything they've found with one another, and sometimes they both need to be reminded.

Arthur kisses Eames with purpose, hoping it conveys everything they don't often say. “You found me.”

Eames breathes out a laugh. “Of course I did, Arthur.” His hand strokes lightly down Arthur's side, mindful of his cracked rib, coming to rest on his hip beneath the soapy water. “What would be the point of it all—of the last eleven years—if I didn't?”

“You're a hopeless romantic, Eames.”

“I'm not. I'm simply pragmatic. I've invested a great deal of time and effort in you, Arthur. I can't have you wandering off and getting kidnapped and killed by crazy Russians, can I?”

Eames' smile is softer, less brittle than it was an hour ago, and Arthur realizes it's starting to sink in. He's home. With Eames. Exactly where he belongs, where he's always belonged.

“Besides, I've been telling you for years, I'll always come for you, love,” Eames says, tone suddenly low and lascivious.

“And as usual,” Arthur grins, “you've managed to turn a romantic moment into cheap innuendo.”

“Darling, you wouldn't have it any other way.”

 

THE END