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The Age of Blossoms

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title: The Age of Blossoms
author: [personal profile] ninemoons42
pairings: Arthur/Robert, Eames/Ariadne. Implied Arthur/Eames.
warnings: Angst. Longing. Infidelity.
So this is basically me writing the characters of Inception into the marvelous Wong Kar Wai film In the Mood for Love [Wikipedia link]. Arthur plays Tony Leung's character [and directly uses the character's name as a pseudonym]; Eames plays a different take on Maggie Cheung's character, with a dash of Duo Maxwell [the Gundam pilot].
This story is set in the Hong Kong SAR and references several important places, concepts, and food items in and around the region.
The plot of the story that Arthur and Eames are co-writing directly references the plot of Inception.
This is for [livejournal.com profile] anatsuno, [livejournal.com profile] laria_gwyn, and [personal profile] the_ragnarok.
disclaimer: I don't own the original story or the characters. Not making any profit, just playing in the sandbox.
summary: Hong Kong. The present day. This is how not to fall in love.


I. Robert

“Hello? Hey, Arthur, I’m home.” Robert hung up his coat, stepped out of his shoes, and he was crossing the flat to stop just behind the tiny cubicle at the eastern end. Through the beaded curtain he could see the man sitting at a blocky, rickety desk. He knew that there was an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter there, and a large plastic bin full of assorted drafts and stray sheets of typewritten manuscript.

He watched as Arthur sat up straight in his desk chair and beckoned to him. “Hello, Robert. Come see for yourself.”

Robert pulled his tie out of his collar, padded toward the other man on silent feet. There was a sheet of paper in the typewriter, covered about three-fourths of the way down the page with assorted strikeouts and the terse, fragmented paragraphs that Arthur was so fond of in his writing.

He took it all in, and then his eyes fell to the typewritten line nearest the ribbon. Two words set dead center.

THE END

And he felt his eyes widen and he looked at the unabashed grin on Arthur’s face, the quiet joy in his expression. “Arthur,” Robert said, “oh my god, you’ve done it – you’ve finished it!”

Yes,” Arthur said – and then he was surging up from the chair, and Robert was catching him up in a passionate embrace, and Arthur was kissing him and there was nothing for it but to work his hands over the thin cotton shirt, over that soft, pale skin, hold Arthur close and kiss him and kiss him over and over again.

After, he smoothed a hand over Arthur’s hair, dark strands fanned out over the light pillows on the narrow bed. The curve of his back as he slept face-down. His shoulders, still tight from concentration and stress, but a little looser, a little more languid in the tropical heat and the post-orgasmic haze.

Robert leaned over, touched his forehead to the back of Arthur’s neck. Breathed a kiss over the skin, over the faint scarring of an old, erased tattoo.

Arthur was murmuring his name in his sleep.

Robert tore his eyes away, tore himself away from the bed. Threw himself back into his clothes, slipped out of the apartment.

Before he closed the door he looked back at Arthur, obliviously asleep. Leaned his forehead on the doorjamb and turned away, whispering, “I’m so sorry.”

///

Arthur opened his eyes to silence.

The clock on his mobile phone read midnight.

There were no messages waiting in his email or in his phone.

He wrapped the blankets loosely around himself, hardly aware of what he was doing, and he crossed the apartment toward his typewriter, the sheet of paper with the words THE END on it.

A jerking motion, and the page was free.

Arthur looked over the paragraphs. Some good work here and there, a hollow smile quirking the corners of his mouth as he tried to remember a good turn of phrase, a sentence he could reuse in the future.

And then he began to tear the page to pieces. The first rip was the loudest. The page torn in two, lengthwise, right through THE END, and then into smaller and smaller fragments.

He threw the pieces of the page into the trash can next to the desk, and then collapsed into the chair, opened one of the drawers and pulled out a white envelope, addressed to him under the pen name “Chow Mo-wan”.

Dear Mr. Chow,

We are pleased to inform you that your novella “A Secret in Siem Reap” has been accepted for publication and will be serialized in upcoming issues of....

Prick of tears in his eyes, and he quickly threw the letter back onto the desk as he began to cry.

He remembered the first day he sat down and faced the typewriter, the day after he’d moved into this apartment. It had been Robert’s idea to come to Hong Kong, to run away from their families and from the judgment they would have faced back home for being who they were.

Arthur had thought that this was no place to write, no place to live – but after backpacking through Cambodia and Vietnam in those heady first few months, he’d let Robert talk him into attempting something, anything, to make a name for himself. He’d secretly picked the pen-name out of an English-language phone directory, and soon spent his days drafting and redrafting, nothing but the soothing click and clash of the typewriter keys, the white paper and the endless nights of revision.

Robert had been more worried when the pages began to pile up, when the word count began to climb – but Arthur had kept going, dogged to the end, and it was he who had encouraged Robert in the darkest nights, telling him he knew what he was doing, telling him to let him do his job.

As Arthur bore down over the final parts of the story, he started to notice the little changes. Robert had brought him food, had cajoled him into bed and sometimes seduced him into it, fought tooth and nail to make sure he took care of himself, dragged him out on sunny weekend afternoons to the movies and to amazing little hole-in-the-wall restaurants all over the SAR.

He remembered the moment when that was suddenly all gone, leaving him to days and nights of nothing but typing, the stone-cold cups of watery tea next to the lamp, the pile of finished and revised pages growing, and no word from Robert. No emails, no reminders saying “Go and get something to eat!”

He remembered the morning when he woke up and Robert was already tying his tie, hair still wet from the shower, all dressed up and hurrying out the door, with a perfunctory kiss to Arthur’s temple as he’d left.

Arthur hadn’t noticed that it had been a Sunday until he looked at the next morning’s newspaper.

He dressed, listlessly, and found his way out the door. Click of the lock, the endless Hong Kong night sky stretched out before him as he went down the stairs.

II. Ariadne

Xie xie ni,” Ariadne said as she paid the cabbie and slipped upstairs. A man coming downstairs, his face hidden in the shadows. She slipped her hand into her pocket, felt for the weight of the switchblade engraved with her initials, but the man simply flattened himself against the wall to let her pass.

Keys into the lock, step into the apartment. Quiet, but not empty. A familiar pair of shoes sitting near the door, the soft mewling of her ginger tom making his usual midnight rounds. She petted him and then heaved him out the window, the cat’s claws scrabbling for purchase on the narrow sill.

She undressed and showered and slid into bed.

“Hello, sweetie.” A deep, familiar rumble of a voice. “Overtime again?”

“Mmyeah,” Ariadne said. “Go back to sleep, Eames.”

Creak of someone turning over on the bed. A large hand, warm against her skin, drifting over her arm and her stomach.

Ariadne caught him by the wrist, kissed the back of his hand. “Not tonight, please?”

“Something wrong?” And Eames got up, then, and she saw the concerned look in his eyes.

“Just tired,” Ariadne said, and she inched closer to his arm, accepted the kiss he placed on her forehead.

“When’s hols for you, then?”

Ariadne shrugged, watched as Eames settled back down onto the pillows. “No idea if I’ll even get it this year. All this work on opening the new Shanghai branch – the office is a madhouse.”

“So they can’t spare you,” Eames said, understandingly. “I’m pretty sure I know why.”

“Why?” Ariadne asked, humoring him, resting her head on his broad shoulder.

“Because they can’t do without Superwoman. Also known as you.”

She allowed herself a laugh, pulled him into a quick kiss. “You always do know how to make a girl feel good. Thank you, Eames. I appreciate it, really.”

“Always welcome,” he said, and then he was settling in next to her, his breathing falling back into the easy, slow rhythms of sleep.

Ariadne was still awake.

In her mind’s eye she could see Eames, his easy grin, his hands cutting a deck and shuffling the cards. The throw of the dice that had landed them both here in Hong Kong, two expats coming together, speaking rapid-fire English in a strange blend of her Boston accent and his near-indecipherable British accent. She still didn’t know where he was from, and he had never asked about her background apart from a few perfunctory questions the first time they met.

It was an affair, that was all, but here they were, sharing an apartment and a bed, two years and change after meeting up in a bar in the Mid-levels.

Sometimes, Ariadne would look at herself in the mirror, see a different silhouette walking along the streets beside her. Piercing blue eyes that were worlds away from Eames’s storm-gray, full of emotions. Pale skin like hers, unmarked and unscarred. A different warmth. Stolen kisses in the backs of taxicabs, holding hands in the back of an elevator.

Ariadne kissed Eames’s cheek and fell into dreams. Dreams of Eames, dreams of another man.

She never noticed that she was smiling.

///

Eames touched Ariadne’s face gently, tracing the soft curves of her cheek, the hint of a smile on her face.

And he snatched his hand away after a long moment, as though he’d been burned, and he slid out of bed and almost ran on silent feet to the bathroom. Sank to his knees on the damp tile, put his head silently in his hands.

Sometimes he felt that life was playing a hell of a joke on him: why was he finding traces of another man’s scent on Ariadne’s collar? [Woodsy, a hint of lime and amber.] Whose handkerchief was tied around Ariadne’s head the last time they went out to Victoria Peak? [White-on-white paisley, maroon stitching in the corners.]

He’d been so good at sitting on the sidelines and observing how relationships fell apart – he was good at helping people pick up the pieces, whether as a friend or as a lover. A man fell apart in unexpected ways; he’d had to gently pry one away from his online gaming obsession and another from various kinds of cheap alcohol. A woman simply picked up the pieces and kept going, for whatever definition of “keep going” the woman happened to have.

He counted his options: break up with Ariadne; stay with Ariadne. Confront her; don’t confront her. Go home; don’t go home. All right, perhaps not that last one; he was pretty sure his family had already gleefully written him off, good riddance to bad rubbish.

He reached in his pocket for the cracked poker chip he’d lifted from some dive of a casino in Tsim Sha Tsui, turned it over and over in his hand as he thought. Occasionally he would look over his shoulder, through the door, seeing Ariadne turning over in her sleep.

She had never gotten properly used to the heat and humidity of Hong Kong, while he had positively flowered in it, eschewing the traditional armour of suit and tie in favor of loud shirts and chinos and the occasional pair of denim shorts.

His stomach began to rumble and silently he padded back out to the bedroom. He ignored Ariadne as he got dressed, haphazardly buttoning up his shirt as he slipped out the door.

III. Arthur

He’d seen the girl on the staircase before; she lived just two doors down from him, and she was often rushing to and from that apartment, always dressed in some combination of a suit and an overly colorful scarf. Skinny scarves, expensive ones, a knockoff Hermes, the incredibly incongruous green and silver of Slytherin House.

There was a weapon in her pocket of some kind.

He swirled the tea in his cup listlessly. He was itching for a pen, for his notebook – but he’d left his apartment without even thinking, and it was only by a stroke of sheer luck that he was carrying both his keys and his battered wallet.

Someone slapped a plate down next to his elbow and he looked down at his order. Three golden-yellow dan tat in their paper cases. A burnt edge here and there. Picking one up, he took a tentative nibble out of the crust, sank his teeth into the trembling yellow custard. Chewed, swallowed, took a large gulp of his tea.

He felt his appetite come back and the next time the serving girl passed him, he ordered a plate of noodles.

The food stall seemed to be doing a lot of business tonight; all the tables were taken, even past midnight, and many of the men and women hunched over their food were also talking at the tops of their voices. He could make out a few words of Cantonese, the stray sentence in Hakka; one of the corner tables was occupied by a handful of Americans, talking about AC Milan of all the things.

“Sir,” the serving girl said, in passable English. “Table share okay?”

Arthur blinked, took the dish of noodles from her, shrugged.

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

Arthur looked at the man sitting at his table, felt his eyebrows climbing into his hairline. Powerfully built, tattoos peeking out of his sleeves; stubble; a pair of amazing gray eyes. His hands, his crooked fingers; layers of scars on his knuckles, a freshly healed white line on the side of his left pointer finger. A knowing expression on his face that soon dissolved into something more neutral.

The man tilted his head inquisitively – then seemed to realize what he was doing and quickly shook his head, muttering, “No, no, that’s not right.”

“Some kind of unconscious habit?” Arthur asked, after swallowing his mouthful of noodles. He was still watching the man’s movements, the way he held his hands close to his body at all times, the way he’d rapidly assessed everything and everyone at the dai pai dong in one comprehensive glance.

“Must’ve picked it up from the roommate,” was the easy reply, complete with one-shouldered shrug. “Looks good on a girl, especially when she’s a wee slip of a thing, but on a bloke like me, it just doesn’t work. You’re in the flat two doors down from me.”
“You’re in the apartment with the girl with a weapon,” Arthur said, nodding as he got it. “And the scarves.”

The man looked taken aback for a moment. “You have pretty good eyes, don’t you?”

“Part of the territory. I’m a writer,” Arthur said.

“Aaaah, that’s it. Xie xie ni,“ Eames added as the serving girl dropped off his order.

“Gun? Knife? A pig-iron paperweight?” Arthur asked, slurping his tea and snickering.

The man chuckled. “Persistent, aren’t you? Do you plan to write her into one of your novels or stories or whatever? Well, there’s no harm in it. It’s a switchblade. Birthday present last year.” And then he wiped his right hand off on his shirt and offered it over the table. “My name’s Eames.”

“I’m Arthur.”

They finished eating at about the same time, and then Arthur slid his other plate over to Eames. “Egg tart?”

Eames frowned, clearly confused for a moment – and then his face cleared and he smiled, a genuine grin that reached all the way to his eyes. “Seriously?”

“Wouldn’t be offering if I wasn’t serious,” Arthur said, and waved for a refill on his tea. “Call it thanks, for giving me new character ideas.”

“I probably should take that as a compliment, hmm?” Eames laughed, and took one, pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “Do you mind?”

Arthur waved his hand. “Yeah, but don’t let me stop you.”

“Obliged, then,” Eames said, and made sure to exhale in every direction except toward Arthur as he smoked.

When it was time to pay the bill, Eames coughed and offered Arthur a handful of Hong Kong dollars. “For your hospitality,” was all he would say. “Most other nonsmokers would have been rude to me. Also, those were good egg tarts. Never thought to order them here before.”

Arthur shrugged and accepted Eames’s money, and they left together, walking back toward their building.

“Good...morning,” Arthur said, as he stood at his door.

Eames chuckled and shrugged. “And to you.”

///

At sunrise, Arthur was vaguely aware of a key scraping in the lock, of Robert walking past him, muttering as he got changed into another suit to begin another day.

He was too busy writing.

She was a legend among fighters, a whispered tale in the jianghu. A tiny slip of a woman, searching for the men who murdered her lover. A woman who fought fearlessly with her hands and feet. A steel fan in her belt, a handful of knives hidden in her sleeves. Ancient markings on her skin, and rumors of a great power that she had mastered. It was no wonder she was sought throughout the land, hunted relentlessly by those who would challenge her....

IV. Eames

“How’s yours doing?” Arthur had asked.

“Out again,” Eames said. “Works for this business consultancy firm in Admiralty; they’ve been in the news lately, about to open a new branch in Shanghai. Being run off her feet, that one. Sometimes I don’t see her for days at a time.”

“Sounds like mine,” Arthur said. “Though I don’t know what else he’s working on. HKEx isn’t exactly busy after hours like the Dow Jones is.”

Eames laughed. “I never really did pay attention to the stock markets.”

“What makes you think I do?” Arthur shot back, grinning. “We have a rule. I can watch him fiddling with his BlackBerry all day, and he can listen to me type all night – but no talking about work ever.”

The serving girl put down their orders – a plate of fried rice for Eames; a fried-egg sandwich for Arthur. They were both drinking milk tea.

He watched Arthur pull a battered notebook from his pocket, extract a pen from the collar of his t-shirt, and write down a few words. “So what are you working on now?”

Even in the low light of the dai pai dong he could see the slight blush that had appeared on Arthur’s cheeks. “Um, well, you gave me the idea a couple of weeks ago, the first time we had a conversation.”

“Did I?” Eames said, trying very hard not to laugh. “And dare I ask?”

Arthur buried his blush in his milk tea. He took a large bite out of his sandwich; after he’d swallowed, he said, “Maybe I could show it to you?”

Eames smothered his smile and nodded, as gravely as he could. “I would like that very much.”

///

Climbing the stairs to the flats was familiar.

Standing in front of the door to Arthur’s place wasn’t.

Arthur was swearing under his breath as he jiggled his keys in the lock.

Eames suffered his first shock when the door opened and he followed Arthur into the apartment.

A woodsy scent with a hint of lime and amber.

His eyes were tracking Arthur around the apartment – he was picking up some clothes from the floor around what Eames was assumed was the laundry hamper; he was depositing his pen and notebook on a battered desk next to an actual typewriter; he was stepping up to the stove shoved into a corner of the flat, and putting the water on for tea.

His mind was in overdrive as the shocks came, one after the other: the scent, a small stack of books bound in a familiar shade of maroon, the plain white shirts folded neatly at the foot of the bed, a bottle of eau de cologne on the dresser. Ariadne eating fresh strawberries when he couldn’t find any, when he knew strawberries were her favorite fruit. The differences between her bootleg Hermes scarf and the genuine one that she said had been given to her by a friend at Christmas.

“Eames?”

Eames shook himself back into reality. There was Arthur, sitting on a low chair near the table with the typewriter. Tray full of tea things next to his bare feet. A concerned expression on his face.

“Eames, are you all right?”

“Um. Yesnomaybe,” Eames said. “Mostly no.”

“Something wrong?”

“Your Robert. He wears a very specific scent.”

“How did you know....”

“I’ve smelled it before, Arthur.” A deep breath had never pained him so much. “On...on Ariadne.”

And he watched as Arthur slowly turned pale; he watched as Arthur looked him over carefully, looked around himself and his own apartment, looked into his own memories.

At the end: “Now that is what I would call a coincidence,” Arthur said, faintly. “Robert started disappearing....”

“...After I brought Ariadne back here to stay with me, yes,” Eames said, equally staggered. “I had known that she was having an affair for some time now. But I’d not had an idea of who she was having it with....”

He watched as Arthur passed a hand over his face. “You and me and him and her.... So you’re...and I’m.... Wow. My brain hurts. And to think I brought you up here just to show you a story.”

“Instead there’s this. Some story. Yeah. I’ll drink to that,” Eames muttered, and he poured himself a cup of tea and threw it back in one swallow.

V. In the mood for....

He couldn’t believe he was doing this.

But then again, he knew he wasn’t doing something wrong.

Eames’s credo was “He runs, he hides, he never lies.”

And there was no lie in it when he called up Arthur one night and said, “Come and meet me somewhere.”

“Where?” Arthur said. He sounded a little tinny over the mobile phone lines.

“I’ve booked a room for the night,” Eames said, and gave him the name of the hotel. “We could work on your story, we could get drunk, I don’t honestly know. These solo nights are getting tiring, and I don’t feel like running off to Macau and taking the casinos there for all they’re worth.”

“You’re a gambler.” Arthur sounded both surprised and amused. “I thought you were some sort of pugilist or whatever. Your hands, the scars on your knuckles.”

“You’ve been stuck in your wuxia world for a while, haven’t you? Come on, I’ve got some ideas to bounce off you. Room 2046. Oh, and Arthur?”

“Yes?”

“Can you get some egg tarts?”

The last thing he heard as Arthur hung up on him was the sound of him snorting out a laugh.

Eames sat down on the bed and stared out the window at Victoria Harbour, waiting.

///

“Do you think they’re together right now?”

At the foot of the bed, Eames blinked several times, pushed away the box of egg tarts. He had suddenly lost his appetite.

Arthur was still sitting cross-legged against the pillows. His notebook and pens on the bedside table. He was staring into space, straight ahead, unblinking.

Eames thought about Ariadne, about her dark-grey shoes and her oversized man’s watch. How she’d talked herself into a pantsuit today instead of a skirt. The same hug she left him with every day, still as strong as ever. And answered: “Probably.”

“Drinking? Dancing? Robert’s big on dancing. Of course, he has two left feet.” Arthur chuckled, but he sounded hollow and lifeless. “I always was a better dancer than he. He only survived that class at school because his sister and I helped him.”

Eames looked away, tried to distract himself. Ariadne burning an omelet; Ariadne rolling around on the floor with her cat. His own hands, braiding back her long brown hair.

But he kept coming back to the image that Arthur’s words had created: Arthur leading a group of other dancers, Arthur holding glowsticks at a rave. Arthur dancing with him: something incongruous like a waltz.

He looked up, and Arthur was on his feet, his hand outstretched.

“What?” Eames asked, baffled.

“Do you want to? Dance with me?”

He looked at Arthur’s hand as though it would bite him. “Are you taking the mickey? We don’t even have any music.”

“Don’t need it.” And Arthur was pulling him up, and Eames was giving him his other hand. Eames was getting up and stepping into Arthur’s arms. Eames was humming, a snatch of music from the upstairs neighbors’ radio: “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.”

At the end of it, Arthur smiled, and stepped away, back to the pillows at one end of the bed.

Eames sat down on the floor, at the foot of the bed, his thoughts churning.

///

“Come on, Eames, haven’t you ever heard of being embarrassed?” Arthur was laughing, he was slapping ineffectually at Eames’s shaking shoulders. He could feel his cheeks heat in the already oppressively humid hotel room.

It was his own fault, really, for wearing a sleeveless shirt and a thin button-down. When he’d stepped into the room and closed the door, Eames had immediately said, “If I’d been the man who did your tattoo, I would be very angry right now.”

And Arthur had been forced to explain that he’d gotten the tattoo during a terrifying three-day bender, that Robert had laughed at him for days because he’d misremembered the quote from Henry VI, Part 1.

“It read Fight till the last breath,” Arthur said, sheepishly. His notebook and pen were sitting, temporarily forgotten, on the nightstand.

Eames was laughing, too. “They call’d us for our fierceness English dogs / Now, like to whelps, we crying run away.”

Arthur looked away, looked down and made a show of looking through his notes. He wanted to write to Eames: tell him better stories, come out a hero and an equal. He wanted to hold on to those broad shoulders, to feel warmth and not just mere commiseration.

Instead he cursed himself, told the story of how he’d had the tattoo erased with Robert snickering by his side. Watched, helpless, as the other man chuckled to himself and muttered lines from other plays, Richard Gloucester’s opening soliloquy.

He knew that one; for some reason it was a favorite of Robert’s. Its ending lines: “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul.”

///

“Ta,” Eames said, and clinked his beer against Arthur’s.

It was another night, and they were sitting in a bar a couple of blocks away from the flats.

Ariadne had told him that she was going to stay a few days in Shanghai – and, coincidence or not, he’d been awake and smoking around the corner when a taxi pulled away, carrying the man with the blue eyes whom Arthur had identified as Robert. Bag and baggage and freshly washed hair.

“What’d he tell you,” he asked Arthur.

“Business trip. If you look at it a certain way,” came the bitter reply, “technically he’s not lying? His company does have a branch there; we nearly took an apartment there when he decided Hong Kong was a cooler place to live in. He could work at the Shanghai office if he wanted.”

“Not really what they’re doing, though, is it,” Eames said, draining his bottle.

“Not in my head, no.”

He looked over at Arthur, the unshed tears shining in his eyes even in the low light, and he had to tear his eyes away before he could do something stupid, like put an arm around Arthur’s shoulders. He knew it would lead to trouble; he wasn’t blind – he’d seen Arthur looking at him.

///

Arthur looked at the back of Eames’s head and began to write again.

He’d done his best to avoid touching Eames; to steer all of their conversations back to the story. It was hard to talk about emotions with him, hard to keep hiding his own growing feelings.

Giving credit where credit was due, though, Arthur was thinking of giving Eames a byline. Not only had he inadvertently provided the main character – but he had also wound up suggesting the main conflict of the story: the heroine’s lover wasn’t dead after all, but he believed that she was, and that anyone fighting in her style was either an impostor or just a figment of his imagination.

In just a handful of meetings – many of them here in this room – Arthur had fleshed out the characters and their tragedies completely. His hands hurt constantly, now, from the extended longhand sessions and the nightly typing marathons, but he was at a white-heat, and he knew the end was within reach. He just needed to flesh out a few more details.

“Do you have an ending already?” Eames asked, from the foot of the bed.

“The one I have sucks,” Arthur admitted, still scribbling, and not really caring about the typos. “I guess I’m still stuck in a mode where I want them to actually be able to reconcile? And if there’s to be a twist ending I’m trying to make this one actually difficult on the readers. I don’t want them to see it a mile off.”

“Point. So, how about this,” and the bed creaked as Eames levered himself up to sit on the sheets, “none of it has been real, and one of them has been dreaming the whole thing. Maybe the girl finally managed to sleep after several nights mourning her lover, and that was the dream her poor tired mind came up with.”

Arthur stopped dead and stared at the other man. “You’re a genius,” he breathed, and bent over his notebook, scribbling as fast as he could. “You’ve basically wound up giving me the entire plot of this thing. That’s it, I’m submitting it under two names. Got any ideas for a pen-name?”

“Flatterer,” he heard Eames say, and then, “Is that even English?” It sounded as though the words were coming from a great distance.

Arthur finished the paragraph and looked up at Eames slowly. “What?”

“Your handwriting,” Eames was saying. “I can’t read it.”

“I’m not exactly writing in English,” Arthur said. “This is shorthand. It’s the only way I can keep up with myself when I’m not working on my typewriter.”

He watched Eames shake his head and chuckle, watched him turn away, and Arthur was smiling as he added a few more sentences to his notes. “This is going to be amazing when I type it out,” he said, and then he wrote “Draft ends here” in longhand at the end of the page, carefully recapped his pen and closed the notebook.

And then he threw the pen across the room, laughed gleefully as it hit the wall and clattered down to the floor.

“You’re insane,” Eames said, grinning.

“I am now,” Arthur said, easily, and he dropped into the pillows, pulled one into his arms, and fell asleep.

///

Eames woke up slowly, to an insistent pressure/rhythm against his leg.

His phone, which had been silent during the past few nights.

A message from Ariadne: “Looks like I missed you today! Have a good one!”

Eames deleted the message in a hurry, contemplated chucking the phone across the room. In the end, he simply put it back in his pocket – no point wasting a perfectly serviceable device – and rolled over onto his stomach. His hand moving up to grip something warm; a gentle pressure on his shoulder.

He drew in a deep breath. Sweat on cotton sheets, an unfamiliar scent, not at all unpleasant. Far from it. He inhaled again, gripped tighter. Rasp of hair and rough denim against his palm.

“Eames,” someone was saying quietly. Not Ariadne. A man’s voice.

A man’s foot, with a faint hairline scar running up from instep to inner ankle.

He started to move his head, to look up – but the hand on his shoulder tightened, warningly, and he stopped, and stayed where he was.

“I...I woke up, and you were already like this,” Arthur was saying. “And for a moment I thought, what do I do? Should I panic? Wake you up?

“For a while there, I was pretending you were him.”

Somehow, looking away from him made it easier, and Eames said, “Shall I pretend you’re her, then? Because I can do that. For as long as you think it takes.”

“If you like, Eames.”

Pause. Eames drew a deep breath. “And if I don’t want to pretend?”

The hand on his shoulder moved upwards, fingertips dragging lightly over his clothes, the nape of his neck. Came to rest in his hair, and instinctively Eames reached up to hold that hand, lightly.

And Arthur wasn’t pulling away.

“We’ll talk about it when you wake up.

“Go to sleep, Mister Eames.”

fin