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Training Days

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Area 51, Nevada, 2000

 

Arthur holds up a hand to signal a halt. He's got Samuels and Davidson behind him, and it's the first time they've run this particular dreamscape. The environment looks like a cross between Afghanistan and 1980s Beirut, and Arthur wonders sometimes who's designing these layouts and whether they've actually been in a war-zone before. His brief tour of Afghanistan was more than enough to wipe away any illusions he might've had about war, and he knows on some level it's ironic that opting for a stint in Special Projects back on U.S. soil has translated into more combat tours than he'd ever see in real life.

At times, the details of the dreams seem frighteningly accurate; Arthur can practically feel the heat rippling the air, the grit of sand everywhere. But there are also old Soviet tanks left derelict alongside modern Humvees, and the architecture is not quite European and not quite Middle Eastern. There's a broken Coca-Cola sign flashing against a burned-out building ahead of them.

“Fucking product placement even in here,” Samuels says, taking a swig from his canteen while they're stopped. He's a big black guy from New York, and he wants to be a cop when his service is done. Arthur thinks everyone in New York will sleep a little safer with Samuels on the streets.

“Maybe whoever's dreaming this thing up is thinking about having a cold one,” Davidson says, his voice low, eyes watchful for any hint of movement.

Arthur snorts softly, consulting the map. “Last time somebody was thinking about drinking and dreaming, we almost drowned in here. It was a fucking monsoon.”

Samuels takes another mouthful of water, swirls it around, and spits into the sand. “Who do they have dreaming this shit up, anyway? Do we even know that?”

Arthur shakes his head, pocketing the map and drawing out his binoculars to get a read on their objective. With luck, the other three men in his unit should be circling around to flank their target, but with radio silence in place, Arthur has to trust they'll make it.

“That's higher than our paygrade,” Arthur says, getting ready to move out again.

“Maybe you should ask someone higher up?” There's a hint of teasing in Davidson's light southern tone and bright blue eyes. Arthur glares at him.

“Yeah.” Samuels is quick to pick up the train of thought. “You could ask Captain Eames. If you're planning to see him sometime, that is. You know, to discuss team lead stuff.”

Arthur has to stop from rolling his eyes. Considering how close he and Eames came to getting kicked out, Arthur thinks teasing about this should be forbidden, but it's as if he's suddenly become everyone's little brother instead of their unit lead, and they all seem to think it's sweet that Arthur blackmailed the U.S. military to keep his boyfriend. His reputation as a hard-nosed bad ass is seriously in jeopardy. Arthur really wishes his unit were made up of staunch, no-nonsense military guys with ice in their veins instead of rabid sentimentalists who tease him like he's a thirteen-year-old girl with a crush. If he finds his locker decorated with hearts and flowers one more time, he's going to send somebody to the stockade.

Arthur turns and drops his voice to low and dangerous. “Are you two finished? Do you think maybe we could, I don't know, finish the goddamn mission, or maybe you'd prefer to stay here and braid each other's hair?”

Arthur gives the signal to move, and trusts the other two to fall in behind.

“Somebody's touchy,” Samuels mutters, and Arthur chooses to ignore it. He hasn't seen Eames in over a week, so he figures he's got the right to be touchy. Just thinking about Eames is making his skin heat, and Christ, he doesn't need the distraction in the middle of an op. He concentrates on navigating the narrow, winding alleys, watching for any hint of aggression.

They keep to the shadows, the sheltered sides of buildings. They haven't run into much in the way of projections, but that's not unusual given this is a first-time through. It's pretty much a recon mission, although Arthur knows that still means they need to be ready for anything. Just because it's a dream doesn't mean they can afford to get sloppy.

Suddenly the air is rent by automatic weapons fire, and the three of them are on the move in a split second. An explosion rocks the ground, and Arthur can see a spire of black smoke rising up a few blocks away. Right about where the rest of the team should be.

“Shit,” Arthur says, and there are days he hates his job because he wants to run towards that smoke and the sounds of his men being pinned down, but the mission is to reach the HQ building with a packet of intel. In the distance, he can hear Flint's throaty rebel yell, followed by what sounds like a grenade going off, more black smoke billowing like a cape, and Arthur would be a fool not to use the diversion to his advantage.

“We keep going,” Arthur says to Davidson and Samuels. There's no apology in his voice, none in the hard lines of his face, and he knows they're with him, moving double-time towards the objective. At least if they reach HQ, the dream ends, and some days that's a good enough goal for Arthur.

“Davidson, stay here, give us cover.” Davidson takes up a position behind a low stone wall and raises his M16 to his shoulder. Arthur and Samuels sprint, the openness of the square providing no protection, and almost as soon as they're moving, there's a spray of bullets from the rooftops. Davidson returns fire, but a few seconds later, Arthur hears the familiar whine of an RPG and Davidson's position disappears in a burst of sand and rubble.

“Fuck!” Samuels yells, taking a step backwards, as if there's something he can do, and Arthur grabs him by the arm and practically throws him ahead, saying, “Move! Fucking move, Samuels!”

There's no grace to their running now, the two of them charging flat-out towards the target building marked with a green door. Green for safe, Arthur has time to think, before Samuels zigzags to avoid sniper fire and triggers an anti-personnel mine buried in the sand. The blast knocks Arthur to the ground, and his vision is hazy—blood running into his eyes, he thinks—but he knows he's got to get up and keep going or he's dead.

Arthur looks back, and Samuels is alive, but barely, uniform tattered, flesh torn, and Arthur will never get used to the sounds men make when they're dying. He drags himself to his feet, ignoring everything except the green door twenty feet away. Arthur is so pissed off he can't even think straight because they've been handed snipers, landmines, and RPGs all within the last hundred yards, which is just fucking overkill on a recon practice run.

He gets slippery fingers on the rusted handle of the door, has a moment to think there shouldn't be doorbell wires, and then the world disappears in a burst of fire and wood, Arthur falling backwards through pain into darkness.

*

The debrief seems to take hours, and Arthur does far more yelling than he normally does, but given the clusterfuck at the end of their run-through, Arthur figures he's got cause. It's not his unit he's angry with, and he's already sent them back to barracks to unwind, do something to wipe away the day. It turns out there's a new design team—Architects, they're calling themselves now, as if they actually have any kind of real training—and Arthur hates having to remind people who should already know better that every booby-trap or weapon they put into play in the layout is potentially going to kill someone. Usually him and his men.

“But it's a dream,” someone says for the hundredth time, and Arthur can't take it anymore, stands up and leans his weight forward on his hands, eyes not bothering to hide his contempt as he looks at the puzzled faces around the table.

“Then you fucking run the simulation yourself and tell me it's 'just a dream' when you watch someone blown apart by an anti-personnel mine.”

Arthur walks out then, slamming the conference room door behind him. He'll probably have to apologize to somebody tomorrow, but right now, he needs a shower and something to eat. He needs to stop trying to wipe phantom blood out of his eyes, erase the feeling of sand in his clothes. They have no fucking idea what it's like inside the dream and Arthur doesn't know how to explain it any more clearly than he already has.

*

The shower helps immensely—more so because he's got the showers to himself, which is a rarity on a large base—and Arthur revels in the heat and the privacy. He stays under the water until the room is filled with steam and his skin is flushed and pink. On the way back to his room, he grabs a banana and a handful of cookies from the mess.

When he opens his door, he's surprised to see Eames sitting on the bed, leaning against the wall, ankles crossed, reading Arthur's ops manual.

“What are you doing here?”

“Delightful to see you too, Arthur.”

“Sorry—I'm sorry,” Arthur says, and even to his own ears his voice sounds tired, small—a shadow of its normal timbre. Arthur busies himself setting the food on the desk, stowing his shower items in a drawer. He can feel Eames' eyes tracking him around the room. “Bad day,” Arthur says finally, although he's fairly certain Eames already knows that. Now that they're actually allowing them to communicate between units, very little slips by unnoticed.

“I heard,” Eames confirms, setting the ops manual back on the bedside table. He slides off the bed, and comes to a stop about a foot from Arthur. “I thought you might need ... something.”

Arthur knows Eames is there because he cares. Every nerve-ending in his body is crying out to just let Eames help, let him put his big hands on Arthur's back and turn him around, draw him in. But there's also a part of him that's still reeling from the dream, raw from the blood and sand, edges worn thin by the teasing about Eames. It's all good-natured, nothing ugly or mean, and Arthur knows it could be so much worse. And yet, it galls him that everyone thinks he needs Eames to help him out, to comfort him. He doesn't go running to Eames over every little thing; it's not who he is. But Eames is here nonetheless, offering comfort, and inexplicably it touches off a surge of anger. If he believed Arthur could handle the situation on his own, he wouldn't be here.

“Arthur, are you—”

“Why are you here, Eames?” Arthur doesn't turn around, but he can feel the tension in the room become palpable.

“As I said, I thought you might need something.”

“I don't need anyone looking after me, least of all you. I'm fine!”

“Obviously.”

Arthur doesn't turn around until he hears the door close behind Eames. He lets out the breath he's been holding.

“Fuck.”

*

An hour later there's a knock at Arthur's door, and he sighs. He knows it isn't Eames because Eames never knocks. He usually just flings the door wide and waltzes in, or picks the lock if Arthur's actually bothered to lock it, or slides in through the window after negotiating the rooftop. Arthur's been expecting this, and he really wishes the whole lot of them would mind their own damn business.

Arthur opens the door just as Davidson's about to knock again. “What?” Arthur barks.

Davidson looks taken aback, and Arthur doesn't miss how his eyes dart over Arthur's shoulder to the room beyond.

“Am I interrupting something? I can come back.”

Arthur shakes his head. “No, no, I'm sorry. What do you need?”

“Um, can I borrow your notes on anti-personnel and incendiary devices? My handwriting's shit, and I wanted to review a few things.”

Arthur grabs for one of the binders on the desk, and hands it to Davidson. “Samuels?”

Davidson shrugs. “He's spending a lot of time watching where he steps. He'll be fine in a day or so. You know how it is.”

Arthur knows exactly how it is. “And you?”

Davidson grins. “RPG's pretty much a ticket back to the real world. Didn't even see it coming. I've had worse.”

They all have. Arthur wasn't lying when he told Stapleton what it's like to die over and over. It's something you never really get used to, and Arthur thinks that's probably not a bad thing. What's worse, though, is watching people you care about get killed. There's always a part of Arthur that's afraid it's going to turn out to be real instead of a dream.

Davidson tucks the binder under his arm, and looks at Arthur. Davidson's tall, dark-haired and lean. He's a few inches taller and a couple of years older than Arthur, but his build's not dissimilar and their features are alike enough that sometimes people get them confused. Davidson's a good second lieutenant; Arthur trusts him with his life and because of that, he gets away with asking the occasional personal question.

“Arthur, are you okay?”

“Why wouldn't I be?” Arthur snaps, and it's harsh enough Davidson takes a step back in surprise. Arthur hates feeling like this, on the edge of control, a step away from falling. “And why does everybody keep asking me that?”

Davidson fixes him with a glare that says he's an idiot, and Arthur feels some of the tension bleed out of him. “I don't know, maybe 'cause your entire team got blown to hell today? Maybe because you watched Samuels buy it with a fucking landmine? Or maybe you're not okay because a door exploded in your face and killed you. Pick one.”

“I'm fine.”

Davidson laughs. “You're a lot of things, but fine isn't one of them. You're so tightly wound, you look like you're a step away from beating the crap out of someone. You don't have to be the Boy Wonder all the time, you know. The only person who expects you to be unaffected by all of this is you.”

Arthur nods, reluctant to concede even that much, but he trusts Davidson to tell him the truth, even when it's not what he wants to hear. Davidson puts a hand on his shoulder. “Everybody copes differently. Taz writes letters to his girl. Flint gets drunk or laid, or both. Colby runs.”

“You and Samuels?”

“I study—try to figure out what went wrong and how to anticipate it.” Davidson holds up Arthur's binder. “Samuels? Well, he'll never admit it, but he comes to my room at night, crying like a baby.”

Arthur's not expecting that and it takes him a second to realize Davidson's messing with him. “Oh, fuck off. He does not.”

Like a baby.” Davidson repeats solemnly. “It's a hard thing to see a big black man weep like that, but it helps. Samuels would say it's cathartic, even.”

“You are so full of—”

“My point is, Lieutenant, we all need someone to talk to about this shit. It can be one of us, or somebody else,” Davidson's tone suggests he's got an idea who that somebody else should be, “or the base shrink. I don't care who, but you need to let somebody in, or you're going to go nuts, Arthur.”

Arthur crosses his arms over his chest, but the anger has fled, replaced by a weary sort of acceptance. “Any other advice?”

Davidson thinks for a minute. “Nope, think that's it for tonight, sir.” He checks his watch. “It's about this time Samuels starts getting weepy, so I'd better ...” He hooks a thumb over his shoulder.

“By all means,” Arthur says, grinning, and lets him go.

*

Eames had no intention of going to Marty's bar. It's a weeknight, for one thing, and he and Fitz are scheduled to teach hand-to-hand techniques to a group of Italians tomorrow, so he really should be going over what to cover.

“It's going to be a piece of piss, mate,” Fitz says to him, shoving a pint over. Of course, it's not a proper pint, but they've learned to adjust. “It's the fucking Italians! It's not going to be hard, and bugger if I care what they think, anyway. Being shit-faced might make the whole thing easier to be honest.”

Fitz has a point, and Eames is feeling just low enough after his non-conversation with Arthur that getting pissed seems like a decent idea. He knows Arthur tends to keep things bottled up, likes to think he can take on the whole world with one hand tied behind his back, but Eames had thought maybe it would be different with them. He doesn't expect Arthur to spill his heart out, but it isn't like Eames wouldn't understand.

“Oi!” Fitz pokes him in the arm. “None of that. You look like a hound dog. A depressed hound dog. Drink your damn beer and get your chin off the table.”

“My chin isn't ...” Eames trails off at the look Fitz fixes on him. Oh, his metaphorical chin. Funny.

“Look, give him some time. You're not always sunshine and fucking unicorns after a bad op.” Fitz finishes his pint and points at Eames. “And Arthur's not a fucking girl, either. He won't appreciate being mollycoddled.”

“I don't—” The indignation makes his voice loud, his face red.

“You do, Rupe.” Fitz slings an arm around his shoulders. Eames only just manages to grab his drink before Fitz is pulling him through the bar. “You do, and sometimes it's the best thing, and sometimes it's so bloody annoying we'd shoot you if we could.”

“I just wanted to be there for him,” Eames says morosely, and he knows it sounds pathetic, but he wants to be the person who can make Arthur's bad days better.

“You realize you sound like a bad love song, right? One of those by some boy band or Britney Spears or whatever else thirteen-year-old girls like.”

Eames would be deeply offended if he didn't suspect it was probably true, and if that wasn't a fucking clue that he was screwed, he didn't know what was.

“Fine, Fitz, lead on,” Eames says, giving in. It's not as if Arthur wants to talk to him, and Eames swiftly tamps down the hurt that threatens to overwhelm him, replacing it with forced cheerfulness. “Let's show this place a good time.”

*

Arthur knows it's not a good idea to be sneaking off base to Marty's bar. Sure, the base commanders tend to turn a blind eye as long as fights are kept to a minimum and nobody's spilling classified information over tequila shots, but Arthur knows none of them can afford to push it. Especially him and Eames.

When Flint knocks on Arthur's door, he's already been not-sleeping for over an hour, so it's not much work for Flint (and Taz and Colby) to convince him that a beer run is in order. They bribe the night patrol with twenty bucks and the promise of a bottle of scotch, and from there it's clear sailing over to Marty's. The place is packed when they slip in. There's something raucous with a country twang loud on the jukebox, and Arthur can't help but feel his spirits lift a little. Maybe this was a good idea after all.

The bar's absolutely alive with people, drinks being served around by waitresses in short denim and cowboy boots, and there are wall-to-wall people on the tiny dance floor, so many that Marty's opened the patio doors and people are dancing out on the wooden deck as well. It's a warm night, laughter and music pouring from every corner, and Flint disappears, comes back with a couple of Corona, presses one into Arthur's hand.

“Cheers, Lieutenant,” Flint says over the noise, and they clink bottles.

Taz has a girl back home in Memphis—a beautiful girl with dark skin and eyes, and Arthur has no doubt the two of them will make beautiful little people together someday. He's seen the way Taz holds the well-worn picture. Colby's a farm kid from the Mid-west, and he's half a head taller than most of the bar, which is saying something given the number of military personnel who hang out here, restrictions notwithstanding. Arthur can see where the two of them have talked their way into a pool game with some of the lab techs; it's clearly going to be physics versus physiques, and Arthur sees the flash of green as wagers are struck. It's anyone's guess who'll win.

Flint hangs out with Arthur for the length of time it takes to finish the Corona, and then Arthur cuts him loose, knowing Flint is all nervous energy and sexual frustration. Arthur can sympathize, but Flint's here to score with someone warm and willing, no strings attached, and Arthur's never been good at playing wingman, mainly because he finds it hard to be casual.

“You'll be okay, Lieutenant?” Flint asks. His Texas drawl seems lazy against the driving beat of the background music.

Arthur snorts and nods. The idea of needing Flint to look after him—or anyone, really—is laughable, and Arthur just waves him away and tells him to have fun.

“Oh, I intend to,” Flint shouts back, disappearing into the crowd.

Arthur lingers at the edge of the pool game for a few minutes, watching his men play, a certain tension gone from their faces. It was a crappy day all around, and any measure of distraction is welcome. Arthur slowly works his way towards the bar and orders another Corona because it's too much work to decide on something else. It's cold and alcoholic. It'll do.

The bar is large, a sprawling ranch-house style that seems somehow larger on the inside. Arthur slides in and out through gaps in the crowd, slowly makes his way through to the back rooms, further from the music and the dancing. It's only slightly quieter here, the buzz of conversation a constant noise, and there's a hazy cloud of smoke in the far corner. Arthur's not sure why smoking and gambling seem to go together like peanut butter and chocolate, but wherever there's a cloud of nicotine-scented air, there tends to be a poker game in progress.

He catches a glimpse of the table through the haze. The game's been going a while if the pile of bills in the middle is anything to go by, and there's a crowd three deep around the table, watching the play. Arthur edges closer, knowing bodies will shift, watchers will come and go, and eventually he'll have a view to the action. Gambling always reminds him of his own snitched poker chip, his tiny rebellion on his first day in Nevada, and he thinks of it nestled in Eames' pocket, something real to hold onto.

A cheer goes up at the same time a groan escapes the crowd, and clearly it's been a back-and-forth game. It's always more entertaining when the players are well-matched, and Arthur's curious to see who's playing. There's the bright sound of a woman's laughter, and Arthur grins into his drink because he wouldn't be surprised if Flint's found his way here. Women seem to be attracted to gamblers, even bad gamblers, which Flint most assuredly is; maybe it's the confidence, Arthur thinks. The ability to bluff when you've got absolutely nothing on your side. Some risks are definitely worth it, though.

Arthur slips a layer closer to the table, and he can start to make out voices.

“I'll take two.”

“One card.”

“I'm in for fifty.”

“And I'll raise you twenty.”

“Bugger all this.” A familiar voice drifts into Arthur's ear. “I call. I do believe Lady Luck is on my side tonight.”

“That's not your side, mate,” Fitz chimes in. “That's your lap.”

There's a wave of laughter, and Arthur forgets about being subtle or patient. He shoves his way into the front where he can see a pair of broad shoulders in a black t-shirt directly in front of him, swirls of ink just peeking out from the right sleeve. Eames is smoking, two fingers of scotch in front of him, a stack of money, and a lap full of girl. She's pretty and dark-haired, slim like Arthur, and Arthur swallows hard and thinks about reaching out and dragging her off Eames' lap. Fitz is across the table from Eames, a wriggling blonde curled around his shoulders, and his eyes go comically wide the instant he recognizes Arthur. Eames is obviously too busy with his muse because he doesn't notice Fitz's face turn pale, and Arthur has time to shake his head at Fitz in warning. There's no reason Eames needs to know he was ever here.

Arthur knows he should walk away, should turn and leave, but the dark-haired girl is turned away from the game, whispering in Eames' ear, one arm wound around his neck like a living scarf. Arthur isn't sure where the other arm leads, and isn't sure he wants to. While Arthur watches, she darts a pink tongue along the edge of Eames' ear, murmurs something that's probably an invitation, and Arthur can't watch anymore. Getting hit in the face with an exploding door wasn't as painful as standing here and pretending this doesn't hurt. He ducks through the crowd, the picture of nonchalance, then bolts out the nearest exit.

*

Eames is up three hundred dollars and hasn't paid for a drink all evening. The poker game's getting a fair amount of attention, the players are all decently good, and Eames has an enthusiastic college girl who stumbled into his lap (on purpose, he's sure, but it's not gentlemanly to point that out), and doesn't seem to want to leave. For the life of him, Eames isn't sure how to get her to go without being rude, and it's not helping that across the table Fitz has a blonde one he appears to be taken with, and the two girls seem to be engaged in some kind of silent one-upmanship. Eames has had to shift her roving hands at least twice already, and he's not overly fond of having his ear licked by strangers. He knows how to fend off unwanted advances from guys, but he always feels a little caught out when women put their hands on him. Fitz likes women, so obviously he doesn't consider it a hardship at all.

“Sweetheart,” Eames murmurs. “Maybe you'd like to get yourself a drink from the bar?”

He lifts a ten from his pile with two fingers and gives it to her. She giggles and takes a sip of his scotch, then starts folding the bill into some sort of origami creation. Eames suspects it's going to be a heart, and this is one of those moments he's glad to be gay because he honestly doesn't think he has the patience to deal with women on an ongoing basis. He can't imagine Arthur acting so ridiculous.

The thought of Arthur makes Eames reach for his scotch again, and he's not happy to see his lap-warmer's sipped away a considerable amount. He empties the glass. He's still frustrated by what happened earlier with Arthur, and maybe it's not women that are the problem, but relationships in general. Eames really is rubbish at them; the longest relationship he's had to this point is with Arthur, so he really doesn't have anything to compare it to. There are moments when Eames has to admit to himself there's a real possibility it's the only relationship he's going to have from here on out. It's terrifying.

A pretzel hits him square in the forehead and he blinks across the table at Fitz. They're in the middle of a poker game, and Eames would at least like to pretend he's an adult some of the time. The fact that Fitz has known him since he was nicking cigarettes from shops and learning to shave doesn't help.

“What the fuck?”

“Arthur was here,” Fitz says meaningfully, and Eames feels his stomach turn in on itself.

“When?”

“Just—just a minute ago.”

“Christ,” Eames says and stands up, unseating the young woman from his lap. There's a cry of protest around the table—it's the middle of a hand—and Eames just says, “I fold” and leaves everything on the table. Fitz can sort it out, or not, and honestly Eames doesn't care about any of it because Arthur was here and Eames knows how it must have looked, and this thing between them is good, but it's still new enough to be fragile. Eames hates himself a little for letting Fitz talk him into coming out tonight.

“Eames,” the girl calls after him, and Eames mumbles an apology because he's got manners, but the only thing he cares about right now is finding Arthur. Eames looks for the nearest exit and runs.

*

The base isn't far—across a street and an open field bordering the desert, really—and it will take Arthur no time at all to get back there. His eyes are prickling with emotion, and he wants to scream or punch something, and neither is a very good option, especially since what he really wants to punch is Eames, who's back in the bar, oblivious, with a girl in his lap.

“Fuck!” Arthur says, just loud enough to hear it bounce off the alley walls, and then the back door of the bar crashes open with a bang, and it's Eames, backlit by the smoke and the bright lights, a frantic look on his face. Eames spots him immediately, and Christ, Arthur's going to kill Fitz because this isn't how he wants to deal with Eames, when he's all raw inside, hurt and anger racing through his blood.

“Arthur, wait,” Eames shouts, and Arthur doesn't think, just runs, adrenaline kicking in, and he's pounding across the street and into the open field. He doesn't need to look back to know Eames is behind him, and Arthur knows he hasn't thought this through because Eames might be stockier than Arthur, but they both run regularly with full packs as part of their training, and this distance with no load is nothing to either of them.

Arthur isn't even sure what he's going to do when he hits the edge of the base. Sure, he's bought off the night patrol, but Eames must have too, and seriously, Arthur thinks, the night patrol must be making pretty damn good money off bribes. Plus no bribe in the world will be enough if the two of them come in running flat-out—no patrol in their right mind would ignore that just in case there's a real emergency—and neither of them can afford another incident. Arthur veers off into the desert, away from the fenced perimeter, and it's a good thing the moon is full because at least it makes the terrain easier to navigate.

“Arthur, fuck, will you just stop? Please!”

Whatever Eames has to say, Arthur doesn't want to hear it. He picks up his pace, dodging around scrubby bushes and rocks, and it's clear Eames has stuck to a straight-on path instead of following Arthur's back-and-forth when Eames hits Arthur with a flying tackle from behind.

There are reasons Arthur didn't play football and getting the wind knocked out of him by a wall of muscle is only one of them. Eames is on Arthur's back, trying to pin his hands behind him, and Arthur knows if he doesn't break the hold now, he won't be able to. He flings a handful of sand back into Eames' face because nothing says he has to fight fair, and it's enough of a distraction to allow Arthur to twist his hips and push Eames off. He gets halfway to his feet, but even blinking through sand, Eames is quick, and he gets a hand on Arthur's leg and yanks, not enough to bring Arthur down, but enough to upset his balance. It buys Eames time to get a better hold, an arm wrapped around Arthur's knee and a solid push to his lower back makes him stumble forward. They both go down, Arthur with his hands out in front of him to soften the landing, Eames still clinging to Arthur's leg and taking a kick to the pecs as they hit the sand.

“Christ, Arthur, let me explain,” Eames says, and Arthur kicks out viciously again, connecting with hard muscle, and drawing a grunt from Eames.

“Let me go!”

“No. Not like this.”

Arthur squirms, tries to find his knees. Eames crawls up his back and just lies down on top of him, dead weight, and maybe Eames wouldn't get points for technique, but it's effective. Arthur can't get any leverage to push him off, and after a minute or two of useless trying, Arthur gives up and lies panting into the sand. Eames is breathing heavily too; Arthur can feel the rise and fall of Eames' chest against his back, unwanted and too familiar all at the same time.

“Let me up, Eames,” Arthur manages, his voice shallow. He can't draw a deep breath while Eames is crushing the life out of him. He thinks how ridiculous they must look: two grown men, chasing each other through the desert, take-downs with all the finesse of a Mack truck without brakes, and honestly, Arthur's embarrassed for both of them. Their close-quarters combat instructors would be appalled.

“Get. Off.” Arthur shifts his shoulder as much as he can under Eames' bulk, which isn't a lot, but it's enough so Arthur can turn his head. Eames' breath is warm on Arthur's neck

“Darling, will you please let me—”

“Don't fucking call me that.”

“Arthur.” Eames voice is soft and wrecked, and so close to Arthur's ear it gives him goose bumps. He hates how much Eames affects him. “Arthur, it isn't what you think.”

“Yeah, because a girl sitting in your lap can be misconstrued in any number of ways. Now let me up before I break your nose with my occipital bone.”

Arthur feels some of the weight ease, and there's a hand against the back of his head. Arthur braces himself, expects to be shoved into the sand face-first, but there's only a fleeting touch of fingers in his hair, barely there at all. Then Eames is on his feet, standing a a yard away, and Arthur brushes sand off his clothes and gets up warily.

There's silence for a few minutes. The kind of silence where you can hear the wind tumbling over the ground, the distant loneliness of an owl hunting for mice, the brittle sound of crickets. They watch each other, the rutted outline of their bodies hollowed in the sand between them. When someone finally speaks, it's Eames.

“Can we at least attempt to talk about this like reasonable adults?”

The question is quiet, but Arthur has the impression every word matters. He's been tumbling words around in his brain, like rocks in a polisher, searching for the right ones to show what he's feeling. It's clear Eames has been doing the same.

“I think things were pretty clear back there, Eames.”

“That sounds suspiciously like 'no, we can't talk about it like reasonable adults.'” Eames sighs, shaking his head as if he's disappointed in Arthur. “I know how it looked, but that's not how it was, and I'm very sorry you had to see that.”

“Getting caught with someone else is always so inconvenient.”

Eames flinches at the words, and Arthur feels a petty sense of triumph. Yeah, it hurts, and he wants Eames to hurt too.

“Fine,” Eames says, and his accent is clipped. “Think what you want. Ignore the fact that I'm gay and that you happen to be wearing one of my dog-tags. By all means, ignore every bloody thing you know about me and how I feel about you, because it's so much more fetching to act like a bull-headed teenager whose feelings have been hurt.”

Arthur glares, petulant, because it's one thing for him to feel he's acting like a lovesick teenager, and it's another to have Eames call him on it. Eames isn't that much older than Arthur, after all. Underneath it all, there's the bright white pain of seeing Eames with someone else—even if it doesn't particularly make sense, even if it's logical there's some other, more innocent explanation.

Eames shoves his hands in his pockets, and looks at the sky, and Arthur can swear he's got the same look on his face Arthur's mother used to wear when praying for patience. It doesn't help Arthur's mood.

“Arthur, I went to your room because I was worried about you. Because I'd heard about training and how much of a cock-up it was. I went to see if I could help, but you pretty much ignored me until you told me you didn't need me.”

“So this is somehow my fault?

“I'm not saying that.” Eames meets his eyes and takes a step closer. Arthur has to stop himself from backing away. The urge to run is still there. “I'm saying you need to let me in. Don't try taking on the world by yourself.”

“I'm perfectly capable—”

Another step closer, and Eames looks like he wants to reach out and touch. Arthur's not sure he can deal with that. “I've never thought you were anything but capable. That isn't to say you don't need people who care about you, who want to make life less painful.”

Arthur laughs. He can't help it because the dark-haired girl is a dagger in his heart, and he doesn't know a way to make her something less.

“If you're trying to make my life less painful, you're doing it wrong,” he says, and Eames takes it like a slap, face flushed red. He bites his lip and it's clear they're done here. Arthur isn't sure if it's sadness or relief he feels watching Eames' face.

“Goodnight, Arthur,” Eames says, his voice curt. Then he turns and walks away, back towards the gates of the base. Arthur waits until Eames' outline is a distant shadow before he follows him in. The wind has swept the sand clear of footprints and Arthur wishes it were that easy to forget what happened tonight.

*

Arthur's unit spends the morning off-base on a gruelling run through desert terrain, and the physical exertion is welcome. Cataloguing his muscle aches and pains gives Arthur something to do other than think about Eames. It's about two-thirds of the way through the ten mile route when Arthur isn't thinking about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other. It's exactly what he needs after a night with very little sleep and too much emotional turmoil. He slept wretchedly, taunted by dark-haired women with snake-like arms, forked pink tongues. Arthur's subconscious has never been subtle, even before the dream-sharing project.

As a reward for the run, the six of them grab lunch in town, and Arthur's thankful the town is used to sweat-soaked guys in fatigues stumbling in and asking for pitchers of water before they can think about anything else. They order full lunches and leave a good tip. Arthur returns to base feeling like maybe he can deal with hearing what Eames has to say. He knows he owes it to him to at least hear him out, and okay, he couldn't do it last night, but he's damned if he's going to let Eames be the mature one in this relationship. Arthur knows he handled the situation badly; all he can do now is try not to make the same mistake twice.

They hit the showers as a group, and it's easy-going, tension draining away with soap and dirty water. There are the usual crass comments, the towel snaps, and someone's underwear goes missing, but it reminds Arthur he can rely on these people—they're like family, but better—and so, in many ways, is Eames. Arthur glances down at the silver tag attached to his own and reads, Rupert Charles Eames. His fingers brush over the indented letters like braille, and he feels something in him give way. He doesn't want to fuck this up. He'll go and find Eames, talk to him, and apologize. He'll find a way to make it right because, more than anything, Arthur doesn't want to lose him.

*

Arthur changes into a clean uniform. On impulse he dabs a splash of cologne in the hollow of his throat, then feels foolish for doing so. He's trying to decide whether he should wash it off, or just leave it, when there's a knock on the door.

Arthur opens it to Fitzgibbon and Davidson standing in the hall looking grim.

“What is it?” Arthur asks, and Fitz juts his chin forward and says, “Inside.” Arthur steps back and lets them in, and it's only then he realizes Fitz has an arm in a sling. Fitz eases himself onto Arthur's bed with a wince, and Davidson, hair still damp from the shower, leans against the door.

“What happened to you?” Arthur asks. “Are you okay?”

“Training accident,” Fitz says, but Arthur knows that term covers a multitude of sins from twisted ankles to downed airplanes, and there's something on Fitz's face that Arthur can't read. He's never been as good with people as Eames.

Arthur feels his heart sink. “Eames? Oh, God, is it Eames? What happened? Is he okay?”

Fitz looks over at Davidson, and Arthur realizes his second lieutenant is standing in front of the door to keep Arthur from leaving. That tells him it's bad.

“For Christ's sake, somebody tell me if he's okay!”

“He's in surgery,” Fitz offers, and he sounds worried. “Two gunshot wounds, shoulder and abdomen. They don't think it hit any organs, but he was bleeding pretty bad.”

Arthur finds himself dropping into his desk chair, formulating plans. He needs to get out of here and get to the infirmary. He needs to see Eames, needs to be there the moment he wakes up so Arthur can tell him how fucking sorry he is about last night.

“Arthur.” Davidson's voice cuts through his planning. “You need to stay here.”

“What? Why?”

Fitz makes a disgruntled sound. “Well, aside from the fact you didn't want anything to do with him last night—”

“Fitz!” Davidson interjects, and it's clear from the murderous look he's levelling at Fitz that they've already talked about this, and Fitz is deviating from the script.

“—it's still a bloody U.S. military base, and you're not family, you're not even part of his unit.”

“I'm—it's—” Arthur stutters. He doesn't know what they are. Important. Necessary.

“You've got no business being there, and honestly, I'm not sure he'd want you there.”

It stings like someone's pulled open a scab and poured lemon in it, and Arthur thinks maybe he deserves that, but it's still not something he wants to hear right now.

“Fuck you,” Arthur says, and the room descends into uncomfortable silence.

*

A few hours earlier

It's supposed to be a routine training exercise, which, considering Eames' headache—not a full-blown hangover like Fitz's, at least—crappy disposition, and lack of sleep, is a good thing. They hit the showers at sun-up, down a dreadful concoction of raw eggs, Worcestershire, Tabasco, and salt that Harris swears by as a cure for everything from hangovers to the common cold, then go running. They don't talk about what happened with Arthur, but then again, this is Fitz. Eames really doesn't have to go into details for Fitz to have a decent idea what went down. Eames doesn't feel like rehashing the whole thing; he just wants to figure out how to fix it, to wipe that awful, wounded expression from Arthur's face.

By 10:00, they're front and centre with the Italians in one of the gyms, demonstrating techniques for hand-to-hand take-downs. Eames and Fitz have done enough of these sessions in the past that they've got the routine down solid. Explain, demonstrate, break down the steps, demonstrate, practice. There are six Italians, and they pair them off, circulating to watch and correct as necessary.

“They're pretty good,” Eames says, as he and Fitz stop to confer on what to do next. Fitz grabs the water bottle and downs half of it while Eames is listing off strengths and weaknesses. “Angelo' has the agility, but also one crap knee he needs to learn to work around. Gino's stocky, but he has great balance. Centre of gravity that's absolutely solid. Guido—”

“There have to be Italian names that don't end in 'o', right?” Fitz asks, and Eames slaps him in the back of the head. They're both captains, but Eames signed up two days before Fitz four years previously, so technically he's the ranking officer. It's a little like being twins and as far as the military's concerned Eames will always be two days older, much to Fitz's eternal dismay.

“Stop being an arsehole and go help Guido with that takedown. If he keeps bending his arm that way, he's likely to dislocate his shoulder.”

“Which one's Guido?” Fitz asks.

“Short, wiry frame, dark hair.” Eames looks up and sees Fitz grinning. “Oh, piss-off. Go do your fucking job.”

“Yes, sir, Captain!”

Not all of the Italians are fluent in English, and Eames' Italian is about useless beyond ordering a drink or flirting, so Franco—it's possible Fitz has a point about the names—is helping out with translation as necessary. They've moved on to techniques against combatants holding firearms when Eames realizes someone's talking in rapid Italian, and no one's paying attention to him.

“What's the problem?” Eames asks, and then there's a sudden pop, and a spike of pain through his shoulder. He goes down on one knee, swearing, reaching for his sidearm as he does, then remembers he's not wearing it. It's training and it's safety first, and Eames would have sworn no one came in with a sidearm. They checked. He'd laugh if he wasn't in such fucking pain.

He can now see exactly what the problem is: Guido with a gun to his own head and another pointed towards the Italians, swaying back and forth to cover the whole group. Fitz is off to the side with raised hands, trying his best to look non-threatening, while still getting into a position for a strike.

“Eames?” Then a little more forcefully: “Eames?”

“Yeah, yeah, I'm okay. Flesh wound,” he quips, and if the circumstances were different Fitz might laugh. “Franco, what's he saying? What's going on?”

“He thinks this is a dream.” Franco's voice is shaking. “He wants to wake up.”

Madre Mia!” Gino says, crossing himself, and Eames can feel blood running down his arm. It's a little more than a flesh wound, but there are bigger things to worry about first. Like the fact that they have no guns in this room, nowhere to take cover, and Guido's Berettas each hold 15 rounds fully-loaded.

“Tell him it's not a dream,” Eames instructs. “Everyone back up a step and give him room. Slowly.”

“He says he can feel the needle in his arm. He keeps saying he wants to wake up. He thinks we want to stop him.”

“We only want to stop him from hurting himself or anyone else,” Fitz says. “If he caps himself he's not going to wake up, he's going to die. Franco, tell him that. This is not a dream.”

“It's not a dream,” Eames repeats. Maybe it's the blood loss, or the fight with Arthur, or Guido's conviction that this isn't reality, but Eames can't stop himself from slipping a hand into his pocket and touching the poker chip there. He needs to check for himself. Rough edges. Reality.

Eames isn't sure if it's that slight movement that does it, or if Guido's fragile hold on things has just slipped enough, but either way Guido starts shooting. Unfortunately, he's better with firearms than with his take-downs and he fires the full clip with speed and precision.

Eames feels a wet burst of agony tear through his side, and Christ, he's on the floor now, and all he can hear is shouting and gunfire. He fucking hates these training sessions, and if he survives, he's not doing another one.

“You don't have to, mate. I promise. No more training sessions.”

Eames hears Fitz's voice, thinks the pressure on his abdomen must be Fitz's hands trying to keep the blood inside, but Eames is familiar enough with bleeding out to recognize the faint euphoria dulling the pain. His vision is tunnelling to black. There's probably something he should say, but he can't seem to fit the words together.

“Damn it, Rupe! Stay with me.”

He wishes he'd kissed Arthur goodnight.

*

When Fitz is done recounting what happened, Arthur's room is deathly silent and growing dark. Arthur reaches over and clicks on the desk lamp.

“It doesn't take long for everything to go to hell, does it?” Davidson's shaking his head.

Three of the Italians are dead, including Guido, who shot himself in the head, but not until he'd managed to empty a full clip. Franco caught one in the shoulder, and Angelo's bum knee isn't ever going to get any better with a bullet in the kneecap. He's probably going to get a medical discharge. Gino's the only one who managed to escape unscathed. Fitz's shoulder wound is a through-and-through, painful but no permanent damage.

“We were in the fucking gym,” Fitz says, frustrated. He's been dragging his uninjured hand through his hair, a nervous tic, and he's starting to look like a scarecrow with straw-coloured bits sticking out in all directions. “No cover, nobody had sidearms, except fucking Guido. We checked when everyone came in, but we didn't think we had to frisk anyone. Then suddenly he's got two guns out, everybody's shouting in Italian, and Eames is fucking shot. It was like being trapped in a goddamn Fellini film.”

Arthur flinches at every mention of Eames and being shot. He knows Fitz deals with it by being angry, expletives and idiom tripping over one another loudly. Arthur just feels numb and vaguely sick.

“I really need to see him,” Arthur says, not for the first time, and Davidson shakes his head, doesn't move from his post in front of the door.

“Somebody will let us know—”

The sharp knock cuts him off, and all three of them are on their feet. Davidson swings the door wide. Harris and Samuels duck inside.

“He's out of surgery,” Harris says, and there's a collective sense of relief. “Doc says it's still touch-and-go, but they gave him a blood transfusion, and they're 'optimistic'.”

“That's what they said? Optimistic?” Fitz shakes his head. “Bloody doctors. That's just code for 'we don't fucking know if he's going to live or die, and there's nothing else we can do,' so keep your fingers crossed. Think good thoughts. Fuck!”

Samuels levels a glare and a finger at Fitz. “You. You shut the fuck up. Being negative's not going to help anybody.” And by anybody, Arthur's pretty sure Samuels means him.

“It could be a lot worse,” Davidson says, always the peacemaker, and Arthur realizes how much he's come to depend on that calm stability in a crisis. “Everybody's worried. Let's just remember we're all in this together, okay?”

“I really need to see him,” Arthur says again, and the whole room goes silent. There must be something in his face, something different from the other dozen times he's said it, because Davidson's got a hand on his arm, and even Fitz is looking at him with less contempt than he's been sending his way the last few hours.

“Yeah, okay, Arthur,” Davidson says, looking at him as if he's never seen him before. “We'll get you to him. We'll figure something out, okay?”

Next thing Arthur knows he's in the head, puking his guts out. Davidson's got a cool hand on the back of his neck, and his voice is gentle, low. “Arthur, it'll be okay. Eames will be okay.”

Arthur's never wanted to believe something so desperately in his entire life.

*

It's not bad as plans go, Arthur knows, but he really wishes it didn't involve getting him admitted to the infirmary as a patient. Of course, given that he spent most of the last forty minutes on the bathroom floor, stomach heaving until there was nothing left inside, he gets that his team's concerned. Hell, even Fitz looks concerned, and given how he feels about Arthur at the moment, that says something.

“It's the simplest solution,” Davidson's saying. “We don't have to get around security or hack a video feed and loop it. Once Arthur's in the infirmary, he can find Eames, see how he's doing. It's the benefit of having an inside man.”

“If he can stay on his feet,” Fitz says, voice heavy with doubt. “He looks like my Aunt Mathilda's knickers.”

“What the hell does that even mean?” Samuels asks.

“Grey and about ready to fall to pieces.”

“Charming."

And that's how Arthur ends up walking the halls to the infirmary with Davidson at his side, Arthur's arm slung around his shoulders—“for authenticity,” Samuels said; “so he doesn't go arse over tea kettle,” Fitz said—and somehow they're both right. Arthur feels shaky down to his bones. As if someone's twisted him like a dishtowel, wrung everything out of him. He can taste bile in the back of his throat, but there's nothing left to throw up. He feels like a shadow. Like part of him is missing. He feels like he's walking through a dream.

Davidson hands him off to the night nurse, a Corporal Firth, who's British and not at all related to Colin Firth, or so he tells them. Arthur isn't sure how that's even relevant, but it seems important to the corporal. Davidson spends a good five minutes listing Arthur's symptoms for him, as if he's incapable of doing it himself. Arthur thinks he should be more annoyed about that, but since he gets to lie down while Davidson and the nurse are talking, Arthur can't bring himself to mind terribly. The pillow feels cool against his face.

Arthur feels something in his ear—a thermometer, apparently—and then Corporal Firth is shooing Davidson out of the room and patting Arthur down with cool cloths.

“I'm fine,” Arthur mumbles, but he suspects he's really not, and he hears Firth talking to someone, using words like “104.3” and “severe vomiting” and “Somnacin reaction.” Arthur's stomach lurches again, and there's a stainless steel pan in front of him while he dry heaves, but Corporal Firth's voice is lilting, enough like Eames' to be comforting, and Arthur wants to feel better so he can find Eames. He has something he needs to tell him.

“I'm sorry,” Arthur mumbles, and Corporal Firth soothes his forehead with a damp linen cloth, slipping an IV into his hand. Arthur doesn't even try to resist, lets himself fall.

*

When Arthur opens his eyes, he's still in the infirmary, and the curtains around his bed are drawn. The lights are low and Arthur can hear the steady beep of a blood pressure monitor. His mouth feels parched, as if he's stood with it open to the desert and let sand build up in his throat. His jaw muscles are stiff as he works to move them.

“Water.” It's a whispery croak that would never be heard, except someone's sitting by his bedside.

“Easy, mate,” and there's a hand at Arthur's back helping him sit up, and a plastic glass being lifted against his lips. Every swallow hurts. When Arthur's laid down against the pillows, he realizes it's Fitz at his bedside, which makes no sense at all.

Arthur starts to open his mouth again, and Fitz shakes his head. “Persistent bugger, I'll give you that. Just for the moment, Arthur, don't try talking. You've had a rough few days.”

Few days? Arthur raises an eyebrow, and Fitz nods. “You had a reaction to the last run of Somnacin. They think it's what set Guido, the Italian, off, so for now the program's grounded until they can fix it. Stupid fucks changed the formula and instead of letting us know so we could be alert for problems, they just waited to see what happened.”

“Anyone else?” Arthur rasps out before he remembers he's not supposed to be talking. He remembers throwing up a lot, and enough dry heaves that his stomach muscles are sore. It feels as though someone's been sitting on his chest and punching him in the ribs.

“You, Flint, Barnes, a couple of the Frenchies, a few others.” Fitz's mouth quirks into a grin. “Mainly you little guys.”

Arthur processes that and glares. Even if he can't talk, he can still project what the fuck does that mean? with his eyes. Fitz laughs, and at least from that Arthur knows he's not dying, though he feels like it. Even Fitz wouldn't be that cruel.

“When they altered the drug apparently nobody thought to adjust the doses to account for body mass. Anyone with a smaller, slimmer build got hit hard.”

“Eames?” The word's barely a whisper, but it's enough.

“He came through. It's probably lucky he's a big lout; dealing with a Somnacin reaction on top of being shot would've—” Fitz breaks off, and for the first time Arthur's aware of the exhaustion on Fitz's face. “He hasn't been awake much—they're keeping him sedated—but he's going to be fine.”

Arthur lets out a sigh of relief. He wants to see Eames—it feels like it's been years since he saw him. He just needs to get out of this bed.

“Arthur, Christ, lie down. You're in no condition—” Fitz's big hand, the one not still in a sling, is resting on the middle of Arthur's chest, and although Arthur doesn't think Fitz is actually putting any weight on him, Arthur still can't move. He feels exhausted just thinking about it.

“Why. You?” Arthur manages, his tongue heavy in his mouth.

“I lost the toss,” Fitz says deadpan, then shakes his head. “With the program on hold, we've got bugger all to do. We've been switching off—you just happened to luck out and wake up to my handsome mug.”

Arthur rolls his eyes, but he can feel his lids growing heavy, his breathing deepening.

“Get some rest, Arthur,” a soft British voice says, and it's not quite right, but Arthur finds it soothing nonetheless.

*

Arthur's beginning to think that the laws of probability are not operating properly; either that or Fitz spends far more time on bedside duty than anyone else. It's a distinct possibility.

The first time Davidson's there when Arthur wakes up, Arthur asks him.

Davidson looks slightly guilty, which wasn't Arthur's intent at all. “We're mostly doing physical training and waiting around. Fitz doesn't get twitchy as fast as everyone else. More time doing field surveillance, we figure, and he seems to rather be here at night. Do you want someone else?”

“No,” Arthur rasps, his throat still sandpapery, but getting better. “It's fine.”

*

“You know what could knock you down right now, Arthur? Wind,” Fitz says after another of Arthur's failed attempts to get up. “And I'm not talking a strong Northern blow, or even a gust, or a zephyr.”

Arthur makes a noise that sounds a little like he's tried to cough through his nose, and Fitz's eyes narrow.

“Oh, yes, Arthur. I know the word zephyr. So called after Zephyrus, Greek god of the west wind.; but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about a breeze, mate. A light puff of air would tumble you on your arse in two seconds.”

“Fuck off,” Arthur says, but he suspects Fitz isn't wrong.

*

Samuels is there a few times, and Arthur can always tell because he'll hear the recognizable New York cadence of Samuels' voice reading to him even before he opens his eyes. Sometimes it's the newspaper; more often it's weapon specs or sections from the ops manual. On one memorable occasion it's Tennessee Williams, and Arthur never does open his eyes, just lies there listening, lost in a world of glass animals and hope.

*

But most often it's Fitz's familiar face Arthur sees when he wakes in the night, and Fitz's big hand on his chest when he tries to get out of bed.

“You know who could best you in a fight right now, Arthur? Kittens,” Fitz says. “Tiny, fluffy kittens.”

“Eames?”

“Kittens could take him down too. You're a pair.”

“No, I—”

“They've got him in a clean room to prevent infections. He's pretty weak, and they're not letting him have visitors. You just concentrate on getting better. He's not going anywhere for a while.”

The and neither are you remains unspoken, and Arthur's oddly grateful.

*

“You know who could kick your arse right now, Arthur? Schoolgirls. Little English schoolgirls with pigtails and uniforms.”

“At least I've been upgraded from kittens.”

*

Flint shows up one day, dressed in infirmary garb like Arthur and dragging an IV stand with him, He's got a deck of cards in his hand.

“I'm so fucking bored, Lieutenant, I will be forced to take desperate measures if I have to play one more game of solitaire.”

Arthur's glad to see Flint looks almost normal. Pale and like he's lost weight, but mostly the same.

“Deal,” Arthur says, and Flint's face lights up like the Fourth of July.

*

“Arthur, if it was a fight between you and the Cambridge University rowers, I'd bet on Cambridge, which wounds me on a deeply personal level, mate.”

“Hasn't Cambridge won the last seven Boat Races against Oxford?”

Fitz glares. “Oxford won this year, and that's all that matters.”

“Uh-huh,” Arthur says, not hiding a grin, and it feels like the first time in ages he's had something to smile about.

*

Corporal Firth seems to be the regular night nurse on duty, and Arthur's gotten to like him. He's quiet, efficient, and aside from bristling at the mention of Colin Firth or Pride and Prejudice, which considering it's a military base gets talked about far more than one would think, he's a decent guy and a very good nurse.

“Lieutenant, can I speak with you about something, sir?”

There's caution in Firth's tone, and Arthur can't help but feel his heart clench with worry.

“Of course.”

Firth reaches out a hand and lifts Arthur's dog-tags. Well, only one of them is actually Arthur's; the other belongs to Eames. “This is dangerous, sir.”

Arthur can feel his back straighten, his jaw set to deal with somebody else's idea of morality.

“No, not because of that, or not only because of that,” Firth says, colouring. “I don't care. My brother's gay.”

“Then what?”

“It's not a varsity jacket or a ring, Lieutenant. It's lovely and romantic and all that, but medics rely on these tags for essential information. Name, blood type, religious affiliation.” Firth lets go of Arthur's tags. “Luckily, U.K. tags are circular; they're not identical to yours, but aside from broadcasting you're wearing someone else's tag, which is dangerous for other reasons, you're both putting yourselves at risk in a medical emergency.”

Arthur can't help rubbing his finger over Eames' tag. It's been strangely comforting during his extended stay in the infirmary, but Arthur can see the seriousness of Firth's expression. He's genuinely trying to help, and Arthur respects that.

“I guess we didn't think.”

“People rarely do, but if you get injured in the field, someone's going to check your tag, and if it's the middle of a firefight or an emergency, there's no guarantee they'll know which one is yours. If they pull Eames' tag, you could get the wrong blood ... you see what I'm saying?”

Arthur lets out a breath. “Yeah, I see what you're saying.”

Firth looks relieved, and Arthur realizes how difficult that must have been for the corporal. “You can each request an extra tag. It's not going to raise eyebrows. People lose tags all the time. Just stow his elsewhere. It's for your own safety.”

“Thank you, Corporal,” Arthur says, and he's pleased to see a small smile cross the man's face.

“Sir, if, um, you could pass on what I've said to Captain Eames when he's recovered, I'd appreciate not having to do this again.”

Arthur grins and nods. “Speaking of Captain Eames, any chance I can—”

“Soon.”

*

“If it was a contest between you and a Navy SEAL, I'd give you two-to-one odds against,” Fitz says.

“What if it was SAS?” Arthur asks. They're finally letting him out of this place after two weeks, and he can't wait.

“Not on your best day, mate.”

“You want to put that to the test, Fitz?”

“Are you keen on a return trip to the infirmary, Arthur?”

“Not particularly.”

“Glad to hear it.”

*

It's been two weeks by the time Arthur's allowed out of the infirmary; three before Eames is sufficiently weaned off heavy sedatives to be able to recognize and remember people are there. Everybody who'd reacted to the Somnacin has recovered, although the program's still on hold temporarily. The waiting is driving everyone crazy.

Arthur can't help but think his two weeks in the infirmary would've felt like two years if he hadn't had company. Especially Fitz. Of course, it's only in retrospect, he realizes the constant companionship had a secondary purpose.

Davidson has the grace to look guilty about it when Arthur asks. “No one wanted a repeat of what happened with Guido, especially since the doctors aren't entirely sure why it happened. So, the rest of us were on guard duty, essentially. Rotating shifts. Some people connected better than others, so we tried to take that into account.”

“And I got Fitz?” Arthur asks. He's not ungrateful, just curious.

Davidson sighs. “Nobody—and I mean nobody—wanted to babysit Flint. He's got the patience of a four-year-old on a sugar high. Me and Samuels were about the only ones who didn't feel homicidal after an eight hour shift with him. Fitz said he'd take the night shift with you because you always asked about Eames, and he figured you needed someone who'd make you stay put.”

Arthur shrugs. It's not untrue, but now that Arthur thinks about it the two of them never talked about Eames beyond the usual “how is he?” and “when can I see him?” that never had satisfactory answers anyway. They never really talked about anything at all.

*

Eames knows he's in bad shape. He knows it in the way the world's been sliding in and out of focus for the last while. He feels slow—as if everything's running at half-speed—and every once in a while he'll become aware of a dull ache in his body. He can't quite remember what happened, but he knows it wasn't good.

Eventually, the fog clears for more than seconds at a time. The pain is there more too, but it lets Eames know he's alive. There's a sharpness to it that Eames appreciates and he concentrates on relearning his body's signals.

One day, the shapes around him form into a tall blond man wearing a backwards gown and a mask over his mouth and nose. The blue eyes look worried.

“Fitz?” Eames says, although the sound that comes out isn't in any way discernible as a name. Still, even behind the mask, Eames can tell Fitz has broken into a grin, and he feels a squeeze to his arm.

“Yeah, mate, it's me. God, it's grand to see you, Rupe. You fucking scared us.”

Eames would apologize for worrying everybody, but he can't make his mouth work and his eyes are heavy as shutters. He wants to ask about Arthur, but even that thought is slipping quickly away. Eames figures Fitz will understand if he just grabs a few more minutes of sleep. He's so terribly tired.

*

The first time Arthur goes to see Eames, he runs into Fitz sitting in a chair outside the recovery room. The door is solid maple, and doesn't even have a little window in it, so Arthur can't get a glimpse of Eames unless he can get past the door.

“I'm a little concerned that all you've been doing for weeks is sitting in different chairs around the infirmary,” Arthur says, trying to keep his voice light, though he's not entirely joking. Fitz looks pale—as if he hasn't seen sunlight in a while—and Arthur respects he's concerned, but there's such a thing as taking on too much responsibility. He's not above ratting Fitz out to Colonel Lawford if necessary.

“I'm conducting a study.”

“A chair study?” Arthur asks, pulling up an orange plastic chair and taking a seat across the narrow hall. It's not terribly comfortable. “How's it going?”

“Predictably.”

“I'd be happy to monitor the chairs out here, or even the ones inside if you need a break.”

“I'm good,” Fitz says, and Arthur lets out a small sigh.

“I wasn't aware we had a problem.”

“No problem, Arthur.”

“Eames is only allowed visitors that are on a list. Corporal Firth informs me to get on the list, I need the permission of Eames' listed next-of-kin, which is apparently you.”

“It's more convenient than trying to deal with Rupe's actual family in an emergency. You know how it is.”

Arthur smarts at that because it's clear he knows nothing about Eames' family. Nothing at all, and Arthur's forced to recognize in spite of the epic romance he and Eames seem to have going on these past months, they really don't know much about one another.

Arthur pushes ahead. “Given that you and I spent a considerable time together recently, Fitz, and given that you know how badly I want to see him, I have to ask, why the fuck didn't you add me to the list?”

Arthur's trying to keep his voice calm, but he's really not calm. Eames has been awake and able to see people for over a week, and Fitz has been dodging him at every turn. Everyone else in their two units is on the fucking list, so not adding Arthur is obviously personal, and Arthur wants an explanation.

Fitz leans back in his chair and crosses his arms over his chest. “I'm not sure it's a good idea for you to see him. The doctor says he's not supposed to have stress.”

“I'm not going to stress him out! I just want to see him with my own eyes. I want to know he's alright.”

“He's fine. Better every day. I still don't think you should fucking see him.”

“For Christ's sake, what did I ever do to you?”

Fitz flushes, and he stabs a finger in the air near Arthur's face. “What did you do? The last time the two of you saw each other, there was hand-to-hand combat involved, in case you've forgotten.”

Arthur feels his face heat in response, but he's not backing down. “It was hardly hand-to-hand. More like a playground fight. I threw sand in his face. He sat on me till I gave up. It was all very mature. If that's your reason for keeping me away from him, you don't have any right.”

“Careful, Arthur,” Fitz cautions. “I'm the only one who can get you in to see him, and if I don't think it's going to be good for him, you'll be sitting here until he can walk out on his own.”

Arthur takes a deep breath, and a mental step back. Fitz is holding all the cards, and the last thing Arthur wants to do is piss him off further. It's not as if he can march into Stapleton's office and demand to be allowed to see his boyfriend. It's painfully clear they've used up their one and only free pass on that subject.

“What do you want me to say? We had a fight. A stupid fight. People do that. It doesn't change the way I feel about him, and we would've resolved it weeks ago if we hadn't both ended up in the infirmary. I'm pretty sure you know that, so why don't you tell me what this is really about?”

“You don't know him very well, Arthur. For someone who thinks he's in love with Eames, you know bugger all about him.”

“You've noticed that we're on a military base, right, and that we don't exactly get to spend all that much free time together?” Arthur shakes his head. “Give me a break, Fitz. We're figuring it out as we go.”

“If you knew him at all, you'd know the thing with the girl was no reason to throw a fit.”

Arthur can feel his jaw tightening. He hasn't thought about that night in a while, the dark-haired girl all over Eames. It ceased to be the most important thing once Eames got shot, but if Arthur thinks about it, it still hurts.

“That's between me and Eames.”

“He's gay, Arthur. I thought that would've been apparent to you of all people. Women do nothing for him. He puts up with the handsy ones because I was trying to score with her friend, and because until he met you, Eames' standard behaviour here was to let people think he's straight, given how your military thinks. Sometimes that means letting a girl sit on your lap. Don't tell me you've never kissed a girl or let her drape herself over you a little just to keep up appearances?”

Arthur can't really deny it—it's part of surviving—but that doesn't mean he likes it any better when Eames does it. He was jealous; he knows that now.

“I was wrong and I was stupid, but that's still between me and Eames. It's not up to you to decide whether he wants me or not after that fight. I get you're his best friend and you're trying to protect him, Fitz. I do. But you don't have to protect him from me, okay?” Arthur looks down the corridor before continuing. “I'm so damn in love with him, you can't even imagine. I'm begging you, Fitz. I just want to see him. Please.”

They've been so fixated on one another and their battle of wills, neither of them has noticed the maple door start to open. Suddenly, Eames is standing there, looking grey, an IV stand propping him up.

“Arthur?”

Arthur's on his feet in a second, leaping past Fitz and over to the door. “Eames! You shouldn't be out of bed, you idiot.” Arthur wraps an arm around Eames' waist, mindful of the bandages he can feel beneath the gown, and slowly helps turn him around. “What were you trying to do?”

“I heard your voice. Wanted to see you.” Eames sounds drugged, and there's sweat on his face from the exertion of getting across the room.

Arthur doesn't even bother to send a triumphant glare Fitz's way; he's too busy taking in the sight of Eames in a poorly-fitting hospital gown that seems to have trouble containing his shoulders. His face is pale and thinner, and his usual growth of stubble has turned into a full dark blond beard, a bit lighter than his hair. Arthur helps him back into bed, and tugs the sheets over his legs. He reaches out and touches Eames' face gently; the beard feels strange under his palm.

“Are you okay?” It isn't at all what Arthur wants to say, but it's a start. Fitz has drifted over to the edge of the room, and Arthur thinks it's a good sign he's not buzzing for someone to remove Arthur. At least, not yet.

“I was shot. Twice.” Eames holds up one finger, and Arthur's wince turns into a tiny grin. Drugged Eames is adorable, although Arthur would rather have him whole and healthy.

“I know. You had us all worried.”

“Sorry,” he says, the word tumbling out with a heavy exhale. “Like Jules something.”

“What?” Arthur asks. “I didn't catch that.”

“I'm like that guy from that movie you like. The one nobody wants to be. Poor bugger.”

Arthur ignores the fact Fitz is in the room and kisses Eames lightly. Just the press of lips, just enough to convey Arthur's there and not going anywhere. “You're not Jules Munshin, Eames. You're doing much better than that. You're going to be fine. I promise.”

Eames' new beard tickles, and Eames catches Arthur wrinkling his nose. “You like the beard?”

Arthur laughs. “I don't know. It'll take some getting used to.” He lets his fingers trail over the scruffy hair, and Eames grabs his hand and presses it to his mouth. His lips are warm and chapped.

Every word seems like an effort, but the look in Eames' eyes is bright, happy. “Speaking of beards,” he says, then falters. “The girl at the bar?”

Arthur moves his fingers to press against Eames' lips and gives a small laugh. Even like this, he's trying to crack jokes. “Forget about her. I was jealous, that's all. It doesn't matter now. I just want you to feel better.”

“I missed you so much, my darling Arthur,” Eames says with such longing, it almost breaks Arthur's heart. Eames' eyes are starting to close again, exhaustion taking over.

“I missed you too,” Arthur says, gripping Eames' hand in his. “I missed you too.”

 

THE END