The problem was Sevastopol, Eames reflected sourly. He crouched over Arthur's unconscious body, shifting on the hard kitchen floor -- lino in the sort of pattern that in the West had mostly been taken out and set on fire. There was a bloodstain on his left sock, just over his anklebone. Really, they should have stayed the hell out of Sevastopol, no matter how lovely the chestnut trees were. Nothing good ever came of meddling in the Crimea.
Arthur's breathing sounded dreadful, slow and loud and dry, with an unpleasant deep wheeze. He'd be better off if the room were warmer. He'd be better off in a bed, but the flat Eames had broken into had proved to be unfurnished. Wasn't his fault. He'd had a few other things on his plate at the time.
Russian wasn't his best language -- he'd been saying for years he was going to brush up, but he never seemed to get round to it. And the only medical contact he'd been able to find here had had some impenetrable urban class-marker accent, anyway. So all Eames knew was that the bullet had finally been dug out, and Arthur was stoned out of his skull on antibiotics and painkillers. There was nothing to be done but let him rest on his makeshift pallet on the kitchen floor, watch for signs of infection, and shoot anybody who trifled with them.
Their chemist could have helped, of course, if their chemist hadn't been in league with their turncoat extractor.
Arthur's hand was limp and cold. Eames put his fingertips on Arthur's face, which was clammy with sweat, same as five minutes ago. He remembered the last time he'd had his hands on Arthur's face, and then he forced himself not to think about it. He'd just have to see to it that Arthur survived long enough to get over it.
He wetted his handkerchief at the sink and began wiping the sweat and blood from Arthur's skin. What kind of a world was it where Arthur -- Arthur -- got in trouble for being too trusting? Daddy issues; it had to be. Otherwise Eames couldn't imagine how it had taken Arthur so long to guess that their extractor had a deal on the side.
When the shooting had started, Eames had been deep under, forging Kvasov's Ukrainian nanny. (A most unpleasant piece of business. If he never had to smell another sausage, he would be delighted.) He'd had all sorts of kicks in his years in dreamshare, but having a colleague's bleeding body knock him from his lawn chair was a brand-new one.
"Arthur, my friend," he said, pushing the damp fringe out of Arthur's sallow face, "always assume that everyone is out to get you, and you'll never be disappointed."
He was feeding Arthur water, quite literally drop by drop -- ice was not to be had, of course -- when Arthur's eyes came open.
"Hush. It's only me." Eames put on a proper sickroom attitude, laying a comforting hand high on Arthur's chest, well above the bandages. "Lie still, there's a love." Fuck, he'd spent too much time bandaging Kvasov's skinned knees. Give him someone to nurse and he turned into Mary bloody Poppins.
"Vanished into the ether. I've got good people looking for him, but you want to keep your voice down."
Arthur nodded weakly. "Luciuk?"
"Bullet to the calf. Probably off flirting with the nurses in some private hospital. No, no, one small swallow. Keep that in your stomach for a bit and then you can try a little more."
For a moment he thought Arthur had gone back to sleep, which would be ideal, as sleep was the only other medicine they had for him. But his fever-bright eyes came open again, and he raised one hand and placed it on the back of Eames' hand.
"Eames," he said. "Thank you. For pretending."
Eames snatched his hand away. He was only playing nurse, this time. Not -- anything else. Did Arthur think he was that much of an ass?
"No, it's all right." Arthur's voice was only a thread, and his eyes were already half-shut. "You're very good at pretending."
It had been a whim, that first time.
Dreamshare teams were as incestuous as acting companies. There was just something irresistible about bedding down with someone with whom you'd done something amazing. And what could be more amazing than a successful inception? It had definitely called for a celebration of the salacious variety.
Cobb's attention was elsewhere, of course, and Ariadne was far too young. A dalliance with Saito, while an intriguing thought, was probably more than his life was worth. And he and Yusuf had already worked out the boundaries of a good working relationship.
So that left Arthur, and Arthur suited Eames nicely. They had worked together before, often enough that Eames had a number of pleasant fantasies about putting in the hours required to get Arthur naked and possibly even relaxed. Even very uptight people usually weren't proof against Eames' mouth. Even actual straight men, on the rare occasion that he ran into one, succumbed eventually.
So when he'd arrived at Arthur's Los Angeles hotel room with a bottle of champagne in one hand and a lockpick set in the other, he'd been anticipating a night or two of just the sort of challenge he enjoyed most.
Except that instead of reluctant but persuadable, Arthur had been disconcertingly willing and tractable. It should have set off some alarm bells. It did, eventually, but not before the damage was done.
Arthur had met kisses with moans and touches with shudders. He'd gone off once before he was even out of his trousers and had been ready for more by the time he had got Eames properly stripped. "Christ, Arthur, how long has it been? You shouldn't deprive yourself like this. It isn't healthy," he'd said while Arthur delicately scored his nape with his teeth, groaning extravagantly and rubbing off against the back of his upper thigh, and Arthur had said, "Fuck you," without rancor, and used his knees to shove Eames' legs apart, so that the only possible response was "Yes, do."
"Can you come like this?" Arthur had panted into his ear, doing his best to fuck a climax out of him with the same brutal precision he used with his firearms. "Can I make you come like this?" and Eames had said, "Almost -- not quite," but reluctantly, and how strange it was to want so badly not to say no to Arthur.
And the next thing was Arthur's hand folding warmly around his cock, and Arthur's voice murmuring, "Whatever you need," and Eames coming so hard his ears rang.
Arthur had leant over Eames' back, breathing fast, for a few moments, and then he'd got him over onto his side and eased smoothly into him again. And instead of immediately going for his own climax, which couldn't have taken long the way his heart was pounding, he'd elbowed up, drawn Eames' shoulder back until a quarter-twist brought them face to face, and kissed him, soft and dry and sweet. Down below, their bodies were barely moving, Arthur's cock rocking over the smallest space, in and out. Up above, Arthur alternated between those sweet kisses and beaming a soft look down on him. Eames found himself struggling not to give that soft look back.
"This enough to get you hard again?" Arthur pressed the words into his cheek, his chin. His voice was rubbed rough with pleasure, his eyes dark and avid. "Or do you need my mouth?"
"Fuck," Eames said. "How much time can you give me?"
Arthur's eyes went half-shut and he bit his lip.
Eames was a very good forger, and he knew when he was getting the second thought rather than the first. But Arthur murmured huskily, "As much as you need," and Eames let it go and said, "Yeah, yes, I will."
It took three days to get them out of Sevastopol. Eames didn't like leaving double-crossers unpunished -- it was bad for business -- but sometimes a person had to prioritize.
Arthur slept most of the time at first, which was rather worrying but also gave Eames time to figure out how to act like a concerned colleague without misleading the poor fellow. By the time they got back to more hospitable parts, Arthur was able to be vertical, or conscious, or both, for fairly extended periods. He directed Eames to a good business hotel in Milan and then immediately spent half a day on the phone -- arranging for deliveries of food and technology, locating the nearest emergency care clinic.
"Thanks for getting me out of there," he said between calls. "That was closer than I like." He didn't look at Eames as he said it, and that was it for them, really; Arthur wasn't good enough to pretend he wasn't in love with Eames, and, insultingly, he didn't believe Eames was good enough to fake not knowing. This was not the path to a good working relationship.
"Yeah, me too," Eames said, and fucked off to South America before he could accidentally invite any other unfortunate confidences.
So that was the end of a very nice part of his career, he thought as he got settled over a casino in Brasilia. He'd always liked working with Arthur -- he did good research and chose his teams well, he made fewer mistakes than a lot of people, and Eames found his vast collections of neckties and scowls entertaining. But if Sevastopol had been the one try to see whether they could still work together without talking about it, then obviously the answer was a resounding no.
He thought about it sometimes when he had a wank. He tried not to, but you couldn't control what your mind got up to when you were hard, could you.
Arthur had shown no sign of impatience, no boredom, no difficulty holding back. He'd rocked into Eames, so gently, cock just kissing Eames' prostate to send a zing through him as his cock came back to life untouched. He'd talked, just above a whisper, an intimate secret-sharing tone: you're beautiful and you were so amazing in there, I never saw anyone so at home in dreamspace, you're like a fish in water. And he'd watched. He couldn't be teased into anything harder or faster. He wouldn't let Eames hide his face, until Eames truly had no idea what he might see there.
And when a slow lifetime had passed, he said, "Yeah, you're ready now," in a low, rough voice, and in a flurry of dizzying motion Eames was gloved and slicked and on him and in him before he could get his bearings. Arthur threw back his head, exposing the long strong line of his throat, groaning, "Eames," and came immediately, and then put his fingers where his cock had been and brought Eames off without a break.
The next time Arthur called, Eames told him he was busy.
It made everything worse, imagining Arthur out there somewhere working with a second-rate forger. Every forger was second-rate compared with Eames; it wasn't ego if it was true. Whoever Arthur chose might bollocks up the whole thing by not doing the research or not being able to sink deep enough into the character. Some of them couldn't even do accents. It was like amateur theater hour out there.
Just because Eames wasn't in love with Arthur didn't mean he wanted him getting hurt.
And Arthur did get hurt. People in dreamshare talked, so Eames heard all about it, after the fact. A motorcycle crash, topside, but he walked away from it with only minor scars, so it was just a scratch by the standards of the business. But Eames remembered him pale and dry-lipped on the faded kitchen floor, and he decided that the next time he called, Eames would say yes.
Eames didn't divide the world into marks and colleagues, the way some conmen did. Everybody was more or less congenial companions and more or less troublesome marks, all at the same time. "You'd rob your best friend," Yusuf had once said to him, and he'd said, "Have done. Turnabout, hm?"
So when he couldn't make Arthur come into focus in his mind, the natural thing was to go and track down where he was living and break into his flat, just to look around.
Arthur kept flats, condos, houses, and miscellaneous properties -- caravans, for all Eames knew -- scattered about North America, generally protected by being in places no one in his right mind would want to live. An ordinary person would have had difficulty finding them, but somehow, any time Eames needed to see Arthur, he'd recall some bit of conversation about Lake Effect snow or the northward march of fire ants or Devil's Night -- just enough that he could triangulate and find the place.
It didn't embarrass him that he couldn't find Arthur without help. No one could find Arthur without Arthur's help.
It was the middle of the day when he arrived at the place (outside Stockton, what the hell). He undid Arthur's extremely paranoid security, hacking his password on the second try, and showed up in his beige-on-beige living room with a smile. It was just like Arthur to have a place so unlike Arthur. There was nothing in this room with any personality at all --
Oh, wait. There was. Over in the corner, on a table draped with an orange cloth. It took his breath away.
It was done in some heavy-looking dark wood, not polished. A woman's body, barely discernible, almost abstract except for the way the light picked out a bare shoulder, the undercurve of a breast, the soft flesh below her navel -- otherwise she all but faded into curves and undulations like the ocean.
He took a step closer, moving automatically to one side to stay clear of the window --
and it shifted, and now it was quite clearly a man's hand, upright and open to the sky the way a person might reach up to catch the rain.
With the next step he couldn't resolve it into anything. Then glimpses -- a coin, a flower, a mountain -- until he was close enough to look down on it where it stood --
A woman again, but only her face this time. But the same woman, he was sure of it, the lushness of her mouth echoing the curves of the body he'd seen in the other view, the roguish tilt of her head perfectly congruent with the angle of the shoulder from before.
"Oh," he said, aloud, in the empty flat. "Oh, beautiful, you were made for me."
Ten hours later, he'd got her home to his favorite place, where one wall of the study was painted just that same burnt orange of the cloth -- though how Arthur ever allowed anything orange into his living space Eames had no idea. In the lamp glow, she looked even more as though she were keeping a secret, something funny and yet just touched with sorrow.
It was only when he went into e-mail to accept a little job in Hong Kong that he noticed the date.
"Well." He lifted his bottle to the lady in orange. "Happy birthday to me."
It was only natural, really, to think about it -- Arthur's eyes locked on his face as his cock and his hand wound Eames up higher than the first time, Arthur pulling in great whoops of breath that were almost sobs. Arthur had been trembling by the time the first kiss was done and he'd never really stopped, and even with his cock in Eames' arse, he'd flushed sharply when Eames spoke to him -- "Yeah, yes, you beautiful fucker, touch me, make me come, Arthur --"
Eames' pose of careless, casual lust had slipped as he was lifted on the wave of Arthur's ardent responsiveness.
And in the night he'd fucked Arthur from half-asleep to howling, and Arthur had clamped his mouth shut and come with his teeth in his lower lip, and Eames had understood.
And when he'd got up a bare hour later and slipped away while Arthur slept curled around an Eames-shaped emptiness in the bed, he'd told himself it was kinder, because that's the sort of bastard he was.
The next time Arthur called with a job, Eames made certain he was available.
Which meant that when Eames was two levels deep and a mudslide buried him and he was resigning himself to a long and most unpleasant death, it was Arthur who figured out what was happening and kicked him early to pull him out of it. Arthur watched him gasping and flopping on the lawn chair and said, "Jesus," disgustedly, "jesus, you're fine, you're fine, you couldn't dream yourself a grenade and pull it one-handed?" Arthur's hand was warm on his knee, the only place he could bear to have weight restricting his movement, but by the time he noticed, the hand was gone because the mark's blood pressure was suddenly through the roof and Arthur was on to the next crisis without a backward glance.
Arthur took care of Eames.
Well, Arthur took care of everyone. It was his job; there was a strong element of tea boy or mother hen in a point man's work. He always made sure the chemist smelled legal before he let him out of the workshop. He made arrangements to get the mark's dogs looked after if something went wrong. More than once he'd paid Eames' gambling debts out of future earnings to keep him out of jail and free of dangerous obligations, but he would do the same for anyone; he'd gone much further for Cobb, after all.
So really it wasn't that he took care of Eames, specifically, at all.
Eames had a number of old friends who were always up for sex without strings. His intention, if all had gone well, had been to add Arthur to that list.
He didn't typically go in for romance as himself, though he enjoyed it while in character. He was a good lover, attentive and playful and just selfish enough to give his partners the pleasure of seeing him enjoy himself. He was a good boyfriend, too, easygoing, genuinely interested. Not around for the long haul, but skilled at choosing partners who were similarly inclined. He was all there, right up until he was all gone. He was *very* good at pretending.
Except not any more. Not with Arthur.
With Arthur, now, he was an impossible colleague and an unreliable friend. He couldn't help noticing the things Arthur needed (a cup of coffee, a good night's sleep, thirty seconds of solitude, a stiff drink, a swift kick, a fuck, a hug). He did nothing to provide them, but he couldn't seem to stop making it obvious he had noticed.
But Arthur just went on as before.
Possibly the whole thing was Eames' imagination? But no; he'd a strong memory of that morning, before dawn, rolling into Arthur's warmth, only half awake, and Arthur coming alert with a gasp that came out almost in a wail, and Eames didn't have to have been in Arthur's subconscious to read it on his face: not a fantasy this time, not a projection; oh, god, real.
So he was left with nothing but a strong admiration for Arthur, who was apparently a much better actor than anyone gave him credit for. Almost good enough to fool Eames.
And when the formula was extracted from the depths of the dreamer's diamond mine, and they had all gone their separate ways and lain low long enough to deflect unwanted attention, Eames broke into Arthur's flat (in some shabby outer suburb of Chicago, what the hell) in the late afternoon and pulled him out of his beige armchair.
When Eames kissed him, Arthur went stiff, and then pliant and melting, and then stiff again. When Eames pulled back, Arthur was giving him the poker face. "Very generous of you, Mr. Eames, but unnecessary," he said, and without quite knowing what was happening, Eames found himself back down on the pavement with nothing but a strange warmth where Arthur had patted him on the chest in a particularly final way.
He went back up, of course, but the system had all been re-coded, and breaking in again took him the better part of an hour, and by then Arthur was gone.
How could he not think about it? How could he not imagine having that again and understanding what it meant? -- that he could have anything he asked for, anything. Arthur with his hands tied behind him, emphasizing his beautiful posture. Arthur in public, under the table of a restaurant or in the half-lighted mouth of an alley. Or Arthur in his bed all a long Sunday morning with the birds singing outside the open windows and coffee on the nightstand, clean sheets and sunshine, spent for now but happy to squabble over the paper and purr like a cat when Eames scratched his back. Arthur didn't like to let his guard down, but for Eames he would, he would, because he --
Eames went down into dreamspace, to a place he'd made long ago when everyday life wasn't enough to satisfy his risk-taking impulses, and found a short, fairhaired, demonstrative woman he hadn't seen topside in twenty years. He let her turn him into someone else, let her tie him up and delicately take him to pieces until he could hardly remember his name.
It helped a bit.
A very confusing year passed.
Without making any effort to avoid Arthur, Eames still somehow never saw him or had any direct contact with him. At the same time, all Eames' affairs prospered. Certain difficulties went away -- when he was unable to escape detainment, for instance, it turned out his fingerprints had vanished from Interpol's database, leaving them to fine him for a broken headlamp, and, scratching their heads, release him.
Two of his old enemies threw in their lot with each other, and he found their truce extended to him. A third, a man so evil that he gave narcotistas nightmares, turned up dead not a mile from Eames' Amsterdam hideout, for all the world like a dead mouse left on the doorstep by a cat.
Eames woke up one morning when the rays of the sun touched his pillow and imagined Arthur, hunched over his laptop in the late evening, coffee untouched at his elbow, silently smoothing Eames' path from a distance. It gave him a strange feeling that only a daring theft and a good chase could dispel, something that demanded his full attention.
Later, when he saw the mysterious absence of serious consequences from that small adventure, he had a new idea of how close Arthur's long-distance scrutiny was.
The next time Eames broke into Arthur's flat (in Iowa, what the hell), he chose early morning. If you were going to be confident of finding a man at home, 5 a.m. was a good time.
Security with Arthur was always deceptive; the more defenseless his position appeared, the surer it was that he was actually unassailable. This flat had the layer provided by building management (laughable), the layer Arthur created to give the unwary the impression he was simply a cautious layman (no challenge for a man of Eames' talents), and an additional layer that would have been fiendishly difficult for anyone else, but which incorporated elements of Arthur's work in Dubai, in Jalisco, and in that travesty of Jenkins' in Miami.
Undoing the last trip-switch, Eames counted over the personnel and determined that he was the only one who'd worked with Arthur in all three of those jobs. Strange coincidence.
As he glided across the dim living room toward the bedroom passage, it occurred to him that he might find Arthur home and not alone. The thought made him shudder; horrible to think of a civilian getting between him and an armed and alarmed Arthur.
But Arthur was sleeping restlessly in the precise center of the bed, and alone.
Eames hadn't seen as many awakenings as Arthur -- no one had -- but he'd seen a fair few, and he knew Arthur's pattern. Noisier breaths, and then with consciousness an information-gathering stillness while he used all his other senses to make a risk assessment for thirty to sixty seconds before he opened his eyes, just in case others might not know he was awake. Someone who didn't know him would think he was still dreaming.
Immediately Eames could see that he knew he wasn't alone. At about the twenty-second mark, he figured out who was with him. By gait, by smell; who knew how he could identify Eames with his eyes shut?
There was nothing so flattering as a visible relaxation, but he stopped shamming sleep-breathing rhythm. The next step would be to open his eyes. Fairly confident now that such a move wouldn't result in his head being separated from his body, Eames sat down on the edge of the bed, placing one hand next to Arthur's crumpled and abused pillow, leaning over Arthur's sleep-creased face.
Arthur opened his eyes halfway. "To what do I owe this dubious pleasure?"
"I was in the neighborhood on business."
"On business, eh?" Arthur's diction was as crisp as ever, but his voice was soft with sleep.
Eames swallowed. "Important business. In Dubuque."
"*East* Dubuque." And evidently the 'ue' was silent, not like Albuquerque at all. "Then I won't go to any trouble to make it worth your trip." And quick as thought, Arthur was up on his elbows with his face against Eames' flies.
"Jesus, Arthur." Arthur's breath was warm and his lips were insistent. Eames looked down on his bedhead and his naked shoulders and the knob where his neck bent. Once, before Sevastopol, he'd been used to think of himself as more spontaneous than Arthur, more likely to take a person off guard. "Thought you might like to talk."
Arthur raised his head, mouth straight but eyes mischievous. His hand cradled Eames' cock warmly through his travel-grubby trousers. "Unzip for me first, and then you're welcome to tell me anything that's on your mind."
But who could have anything on his mind after something like this? Eames unfastened his flies with speed. Arthur touched the red silk of his pants and made a noise that Eames cautiously interpreted as half amused and half aroused, but before Eames could make yet another defense of the occasional touch of color, Arthur had thumbed down the elastic and pulled Eames' cock into his mouth with such lush softness that Eames had no argument left in him at all.
"Fuck," he said instead, reverently and unsteadily. Arthur was good with an uncut cock, very good, not rough but not intimidated. "Fuck, Arthur, let me watch you," Eames gritted out, and Arthur took a fast breath and angled his head so Eames could see the delicate workings of his lips, the occasional secret glimpse of his tongue. His eyes were shut, his lashes a smudge against his flushed cheek. Eames looked down the line of his spine and then pulled his own shirt and vest over his head at once, desperate for the feel of Arthur's skin.
It knocked Arthur's mouth off his cock when he jackknifed down to put his lips on that knob at the top of his spine. The skin felt thin there, as though only the smallest membrane separated Eames' mouth from Arthur's pulsing blood. It was intoxicating, that vulnerability -- confusing, necessary -- and Eames shrugged out of his trousers and pants and followed it down Arthur's body.
He kissed the space between pelvis and ribcage, firm with muscle but not undergirded by bone. He tasted Arthur's wrist and the inside of his elbow where the arteries lay close to the surface, rested there trying and failing to feel Arthur's pulse with his tongue. He drew the edges of his teeth up Arthur's jugular, laid the fingertips of both hands on either side of his adam's apple -- and vibration under his fingers made him register for the first time that Arthur was speaking. "Oh, god, Eames, Eames, fuck, oh --" but Arthur's voice was tight with something that sounded like pain or panic. Eames raised his head and found Arthur's eyes squeezed tightly shut, the corners of his mouth tense. "Eames. Oh, god, don't."
Frowning, he let his hands fall away, though by now he was half on top of Arthur with a knee between his legs. Arthur opened his eyes, looped a calf around the back of his knee. What did he want Eames to stop, then? "What was I --" Eames began.
The smile Arthur gave him was sad. He ran his fingers through Eames' hair. "Never mind," he said, and with a slow roll he was on top, bending to kiss Eames' throat, his breastbone. "Here, let me --"
But Eames didn't want to stop. He wanted Arthur, all the secret places he hid under his upright posture and his workplace armor. He shook off Arthur's hand, biting the slight softness below his navel and then diving lower to scoop up Arthur's bollocks onto his tongue -- the most delicate, softest part of him. Arthur whimpered, canting a knee to the side to give him room, and Eames licked him dripping wet, panting, gasping.
By the time Eames had pity and took Arthur's cock in his mouth, Arthur only had time for one half-wild thrust before he came.
"Oh, my god. Oh, my god, Eames," he whispered. Eames caught the hand Arthur reached for his face and saw toothmarks on his knuckles. "What can I -- do you want --"
"Kiss me," Eames said thickly, and barely got his tongue into Arthur's mouth before he was coming into Arthur's bitten hand.
Eames slept, after. Jetlag and satisfaction knocked him into a profound unconsciousness that would have surprised anyone who had ever seen his usual one-eye-open catnaps.
When he opened his eyes at last, the angle of the sun told him it was well into afternoon. Arthur was sitting in the straight-backed chair by the bed, fully dressed, one ankle crossed over the other knee.
Eames watched Arthur looking at him, at his mouth and his hands, his forearms, his bristly chin. It wasn't a soft, romantic look. It was a forger's look, the way you looked at something when you wanted to be able to recreate it from memory later. His eyes came to rest on Eames' feet, which had kicked free.
Eames wiggled his toes. When Arthur met his gaze, he had a strange expression, soft-eyed and sad, like someone revisiting the memory of a hurt so old it was hardly more than a picture in a scrapbook.
"Eames," he said, "I really need you to go."
Nothing came to mind in the way of the odd retort, argument, cajolement, or insult. His face felt blank. "All right," he said.
When there was nothing else to do, you fell back on your first skill, the one that got you young enough, that defined who you were.
Eames went deeper underground than ever before. He found a motheaten little flat above a chemist's in Tulcea, on the border, and settled in for a spell of advanced Russian lessons, enhanced with dreamwork which was questionable from a legal perspective but helped him make better use of time. When he was confident he could speak the language like a native even if someone were pulling out his toenails, he slipped over the border, shaved his beard, lost the prosthesis and the limp that went with it, and went to work secure in the knowledge that if he couldn't pass for a Ukrainian, it meant everyone would assume he was a Romanian. It was a pity he couldn't go back to Sevastopol, which at least was as beautiful as it was corrupt, but Chartwell and Luciuk were living inland now, where the weather was filthy and the people were slow.
It had been a long time since he'd had the patience for a revenge con, but what else was he going to do with his time?
They fell like dominoes, in the end -- what he couldn't get by patience, he got by being a mad sod who didn't care very much what happened to him. He'd planned the whole thing himself from beginning to end. He liked to think no one else could have done as well. He liked to think Arthur would be proud of him.
He hadn't been conscious of the warmth of Arthur's long-distance regard since he'd left East Dubuque. He wondered whether word of his exploits would make its way back to Arthur, or whether, without him to boast about them, they'd fade without a trace. It had been a grim little job; no fun in it at all.
Back in civilization -- well, back in Istanbul -- he wondered what to do next. The hotel was foul, of course, but the gambling was good, and he might stay here indefinitely fleecing tourists. He could begin another long con; the good lord knew there were plenty who deserved what he could dish out when he cared to take the trouble. He could ease his way back into the dreamshare community, enjoy the broader possibilities of dreamtime forging over the sadly limited dayside variety, somehow manage to find jobs that didn't put him closer to Arthur than Arthur wanted him.
He could even go legit; he'd done it before, for upwards of two years, busking or acting or painting, smiling blandly at officers of the law who were confused by a face so plainly guilty of something.
Eames didn't have Arthur's flawless network of sources, but he heard things. He heard that Arthur had agreed to work with Phon again, like an idiot, even though he couldn't have forgotten how the last time had worked out, and then he heard that Arthur had escaped the raid and gone to ground, only to be heard from again in Wales, as if there were anything worth committing a crime for in Wales. He heard that Arthur and Ariadne had worked a perfectly, depressingly legal job together, extracting information from a mind so destroyed by dementia that the mark called them by the names of his children while his wife stared at the wall. He never heard of Arthur working with any other forger, but whether he was avoiding forgery jobs on purpose, or whether it was simply chance, it was impossible to say.
He heard that Arthur was pulling together a team to take on Feller in Lagos. And then months went by and he heard nothing at all.
Months. Ariadne didn't know anything, and neither did McNee or Szu. There were no more miraculously erased criminal records, as he discovered to his chagrin when he stole a small diamond just to keep his hand in, and when he'd extricated himself from that difficulty, his phone calls got even more frantic. Arthur's trails of breadcrumbs seemed to have tailed off.
Nobody had seen him dead; that was one good thing. Nobody had seen him arrested, jailed, kidnapped. But nobody had seen him alive, either.
At last, on the verge of giving up hope, Eames bought one more set of plane tickets and managed to followed the least cold of the trails until it grew warm again in Canada.
It was a pretty little cabin in the wood. Eames couldn't see water, but he could smell it, which meant a lake or stream nearby. It was a nice place, though he couldn't fathom how Arthur was surviving so far from 24-hour dry-cleaning.
Security was almost certainly better than it appeared, because it appeared as though any gap-toothed rustic could biff a screwdriver under the peeling frame and lift the window right up. He had arrived with every intention of doing just this.
But now it seemed to him that this wasn't that sort of visit.
Instead, he sat down on the back doorstep -- which, lying in the morning sun, was warmer than the autumn-chilly air -- to try examining the dark corners of his own mind.
There was no sound of motors. Arthur arrived from the other direction, carrying a walking stick, something clearly picked up in passing. Eames could have carved him a better one, a bit longer, shaped to his hand.
"You're covered in flowers," Arthur said at last.
Eames looked down. The chain of clover he'd been weaving had wrapped round his neck and tangled over itself in his lap. "It was rather a long wait."
Arthur frowned at him. It wasn't his usual frown, resigned and a little fond and full of soft anticipatory regret, nor his oldest frown, annoyed both at Eames and at himself for reacting. It was simply puzzled.
"Did you want to come in?"
Eames rose stiffly. "Yes, please."
It was lovely inside, with the sort of clutter that took years to accumulate: crow feathers and snail shells and pine cones not so much displayed as drifted into odd corners. One recess was painted orange, with nothing in it but an ugly vase. Maybe he'd been wrong about Arthur not liking orange.
The wealth of detail would have been an architect's dream -- the slight sandy crunch underfoot, the way one end of the couch, under the lamp, was noticeably lower than the other. Bowls and cups on the floor and the coffee table, all the detritus of living -- no beige here.
Arthur was moving easily, no stiffer than you might expect after a long hike. There was no medical smell in the cabin, just the slight smell of damp and the faint scent of Arthur himself.
"What did you need? -- oh," Arthur said. "You heard about Lagos."
"I heard that no one could hear about Lagos."
He could remember a time when Arthur would have bristled at any suggestion that he needed rescue. Now, with less to prove, he looked over and down, the expression that stood in where another man would smile. "Good to know you would have had my back."
And now Eames felt restless, almost angry. He'd been ready for -- he didn't know what, but he hadn't been prepared for -- there was a fishing rod in the corner. Arthur had on cargo shorts and a fleece jumper and his fringe flopped in his face and, well, a fishing rod. It made his head spin.
"If I had your back," he began, but he didn't know how to finish that. It was Arthur's lookout, having someone's back, sitting awake with a gun on his knee while dreamers dreamed. "Look," he said instead. "We need -- a code, like. Some way for you to tell me you're all right, hm? Because in this business, you can't rely on no news being good news."
"It's a good idea. One box for bad news and one box for good, regardless of the content of the messages." Arthur was frowning, another of his repertoire of frowns for all occasions; every time Eames thought he'd got them all memorized, Arthur came up with another one. "So you came here to --"
Eames tossed the clover at Arthur, shrugged off his jacket, his shirt. The bag underneath fitted close against his vest, almost invisible; he tore loose the velcro and threw it on the table between them, spinning across the wood. Syringes, powders, flash drives, ink and pens and several kinds of paper. He'd had it made for him in Romania, where concealment was an industry. "I didn't know what you'd need, so I brought a bit of everything."
"That's --" Arthur swallowed. "It's just a vacation, Eames, jesus."
"I didn't know that, did I." It wasn't anger; it was a bizarre amalgam of fear and hunger, perhaps -- some grasping emotion that had no name, spiky and difficult in his throat.
Arthur was wearing an entirely different frown now. "Eames," he said on a low, rising tone, like the start of a question. Whatever it was, Eames knew he didn't want to answer it. He took Arthur by both sides of his collar and tugged him into a kiss.
His imagination might run to fast, harsh, violent couplings, pushing his bag of tricks off the table and bending Arthur over it, sending furniture crashing to the ground. But his body wanted something different. Without his volition, his hands had come up to cup Arthur's face, shaping the miraculously unbroken bones of his skull, the soft unbruised planes of his face.
Arthur made a plaintive sound in the back of his throat, and Eames licked into the kiss, so ravenous his mouth was wet with it.
It wasn't enough.
"Will you take me to your bed? Arthur, will you --" He choked on it, because Arthur ought to say no, it would be better for him to say no, but Arthur's eyelids sagged, and he hauled Eames' vest out of his trousers and pulled him across the room.
Eames had seen a bed off the shadowy passage beyond the kitchen, neatly made, but Arthur pulled him to a ladder, a row of rough wooden slats, some not as tightly nailed as they might have been. Eames came up into a warm twilit space under the eaves, and before he could look round, Arthur was pressing him down to the bed.
The sheets smelled of Arthur, who hadn't joined him but was throwing off his kit so fast he was done before Eames had half wriggled out of his trousers. Arthur's mouth lit him up, burning over Eames' throat, collarbones, breastbone.
"You're thin," he said into Eames' ribs, "and pale."
"Indoor work," Eames said, flipping them. Arthur himself looked as healthy as Eames had ever seen him, long strong muscles, lightly tanned all over. Eames wanted --
Eames wanted this -- Arthur pulling him up to his knees, Arthur's fingers in him with a casual familiarity that took his breath away. He wanted it now and he wanted it tomorrow, and the bed was more than big enough for two -- or there was the downstairs room, if Arthur had trouble sleeping with other people in the room; fair enough. Arthur's cock was perfect in him, perfect. Eames was an excellent cook and a very fine field medic, though hopeless at household repairs, and the two of them had always been companionable together before Arthur discovered he -- before Eames went mental from --
If only he could offer what he knew Arthur wanted, what Arthur was offering him with every touch of his lips to Eames' skin. Or if only Arthur could accept that the real thing didn't exist and be willing to make do with an expert forgery.
"Arthur," he whispered, tenderly, the way a real lover would sound, the cadences he'd observed and memorized and used to good effect in so many people's dreams.
Arthur, who had been outlining his left shoulder blade with kisses, bit down suddenly. "Stop that."
"Arthur," he sighed in his own voice, which sounded defeated even to his own ears. "I only want to give you what you need." Eames bowed his head, eyes falling closed.
Arthur's hands framed his hips, pulled him back, experimenting. "You tell me the truth or you keep your mouth shut." Another slow withdrawal, another new angle, and if he kept that up, Eames wasn't going to be able to talk.
"I want to," he said while he still could, all on a rush of breath. "You know I want to. If I had it in me."
"Eames," said Arthur, "you're being stupid."
"I'm being honest," Eames snapped. "It's not something I do every day. You might at least appreciate the effort -- ah! there, like that --" and Arthur was smiling into his shoulder and doing that beautiful twisting slow powerful shove that sank his cock into Eames like a needle hitting a vein. "F-fuck," Eames said, hands slipping on the headboard.
Arthur kissed his neck, over and over, so gentle while his hips moved so deliciously rough. His hand left off holding Eames' hip.
Eames caught it before Arthur could touch him. "No."
"You can't --" Arthur's breath was wild and fast against his neck. "Come like this. You can't. You said -- get close but --"
Eames let his head loll back onto Arthur's shoulder. "Can't," he agreed. "You decide. Long as you want. Won't come till you touch me. Long as you want."
"Oh, fuck," Arthur said through his teeth. "Fuck, that is so -- Eames --" and for a moment his thrusts were out of control, fast, hard, and Eames readied himself to be pushed right into the high headboard. He almost looked forward to the impact. Anything would feel like pleasure now.
But Arthur heaved in a great breath behind him and got himself under control. "OK," he said, "OK, yeah, OK, just," and he drew his hand up Eames' side over his chest, pulled his chin round, but still couldn't quite reach his mouth however much Eames yearned back for it. "OK," Arthur said, kissing his ear instead, "just a little bit longer, all right? Just -- a little -- bit -- more --" And Eames braced his arms to hold them both off the headboard and took it, panting. "Oh, god,* you are so, you are so --"
He wanted -- he wanted -- he wanted Arthur to listen to him -- he wanted Arthur to make him come -- he wanted Arthur to take the mad weight of his love off Eames' back and send him on his merry way -- he wanted Arthur to keep him here forever --
Arthur muttered something into the knob of his neck and shoved nearly to a stop, scarcely moving, each breath sending just the tiniest spike of pleasure through Eames' nerves. "Is it OK?" It felt as though his heart would burst -- quite literally explode in his chest -- and with Arthur like this, his body couldn't do anything but wind tighter with every careful nudge of Arthur's cock in him.
"Fuck," he said thickly, and let his head fall forward, and so when his eyes flew open at one unexpected, powerful thrust, he was looking down his own body to see Arthur's beautiful long-fingered hand close around his cock, just right, not more than he could handle. "Perfect, perfect, yes," and Arthur pulled it out of him, until he was weak and trembling, the headboard and Arthur's weight the only things keeping him upright, and then Arthur had both arms tightly around his chest and was shaking apart and smearing Eames' belly with his own come as he came deep into him.
The last thing he felt as unconsciousness claimed him was Arthur lifting his head to shove the only pillow under him.
He judged it shortly after dawn when he woke. Arthur was still deeply asleep, back turned, not touching him. Eames' hands, face, chest felt clean, and he imagined Arthur descending that ladder in his pants, climbing back up with a washcloth to clean Eames up while he slept. He didn't wake when Eames sat up and went to the railing.
The layout of the cabin looked less accidental when he gave it some thought. His position at the railing allowed him to cover both the front and back doors, while being difficult to see in the dimness as the big windows bathed the ground floor in light. One half-door on the other side of the bed, under the sharp slope of the roof, would lead into an attic space, probably with its own hidden exit -- perhaps in the shadow of the deep chimney he'd seen outside, or perhaps even inside the fireplace. The other little door, unless he was much mistaken, was a gun safe, right under someone's gran's framed cross-stitch, mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam. The security wires round the window were half obscured by a handful of green acorns. The window at the head of the bed covered the path Arthur had come up from the wood.
The place was perfect for Arthur. He wondered whether Ariadne had had a hand in designing it.
He was well and truly awake now. Might as well put on some trousers and have a look at the kitchen.
A half-hour later, he was cursing Arthur, Ariadne, and anyone else he could think of, hauling himself up one-handed with two mugs hanging from one finger and a too-full coffee pot burning his bare chest. Arthur smirked at him from the bed, making no effort to help. He was naked, his hair a rat's nest and his neck and shoulders dotted with red marks. The sight of him sent a pang of longing down Eames' spine, and he spilled coffee on himself and swore.
"This is why I usually drink coffee downstairs." Arthur took pity on him and lifted the pot out of his hand, fishing a book up off the floor to set it on.
"Need a dumbwaiter, mate."
"Are you volunteering?" Arthur poured out a cup and grimaced into the first sip. "You'd probably stab me if I sent you back down for cream, right?'
Since when did Arthur take cream in his coffee? Black and punishingly strong was what he always drank, what Eames had been intermittently providing him with for years.
Arthur read his look: "Well, I don't bother with that powdered shit, but here I have the real thing."
"Arthur." Eames put his own cup down, untouched, on the floor. He couldn't bear it, suddenly, to be here in Arthur's private sanctuary, within arm's reach of his gun safe, on such false pretenses. "You wouldn't let me tell you last night, but --"
"You don't have to," Arthur began.
"Will you listen to me?" Eames grated out. "I'm not -- it isn't the same with me, the way it is with you. What you want from me, I haven't got, not for you or for anyone, believe me, Arthur. But I'm good at pretending, you said so yourself, and if you'd let me stay, I could keep on, long as you wanted, if you'd -- Arthur. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm trying to be serious here," because Arthur was smiling. Grinning, even, eyes going warm; dimples -- even through his annoyance Eames had to stop short at how delicious it was.
"Eames," Arthur said. "You spent eighteen months in motherfucking Ukraine punishing someone who'd already forgotten double-crossing me. You tracked me here -- which I know very well is not easy -- and showed up ready to do anything from get me through morphine withdrawal to set me up as a surgeon in Quebec." He shoved his coffee cup onto the windowsill, heedless of the drops he spilled on the white sheets. "You decked me with flowers and gave me the kind of fuck most people can only dream of, and then you carried coffee up a ladder for me, and now you're offering to hold a forge for the rest of your life -- Eames."
He went up on his knees, suddenly, and Eames leaned toward him like a sodding houseplant too far from a window. "You are. Like me." He put his warm hand on Eames' face, eyes soft. "Didn't you know? This is what it feels like."
The kiss was a sort they hadn't had yet, soft and shallow, the sort you'd take when you knew you could have another any time you liked. Eames pressed his lips against Arthur's and tried to feel whether Arthur was wrong or not. Like this? Really?
Arthur pulled back, just far enough to shake his head. "Idiot," he said fondly. "Yes."