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disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage

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O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

 

Eames has a series of internet dropboxes he uses to keep in touch with those worth listening to. His cell number changes from job to job, if not more quickly, because there’s little more embarrassing than running into trouble when someone has made a flash copy of your mobile. Once and never again, that’s Eames’ rule, if he can’t prevent it the first time around.

There’s no end to potential jobs for Eames these days. Now that the word is out inception is possible, now that someone has done it, every Tom, Dick, and Harry wants to try it too. And Eames is the Forger du jour – he’s never been so popular.

This doesn’t change the fact jobs start going wrong all over – one could argue it’s the cause. Inception is too complex for most people, too arduous to be taken on lightly. Eames spends more time walking away from jobs than actually working them. He was lucky enough to be part of the team that didn’t drop into Limbo last time, and he has no intention of exploring it now.

There’s a message from Gmelin - Eames would have to be starving and quite possibly syphilitic before taking another job with him - three from Theresa, almost certainly in various states of panic, and one from Arthur. Eames looks at Arthur’s first, of course; Arthur always gives the best job.

The message itself is short, even for Arthur. Certainly not sweet.

Cobb’s dead. And the children.

And then the second line, set off from the first. As if Arthur needed a moment to collect himself.

Not an accident.

| |

Eames doesn’t go to the funeral. He’s on a job halfway around the world, and on the not-so-off-chance that Cobb’s death has something to do with Fischer’s inception, the last bloody thing they need is to all gather in one place, public or not. He sends flowers annd signs the card Patrick Heron, though Arthur’s the only one left to get a kick out of that.

| |

A few months after Cobb’s death, Eames starts to hear whispers about Arthur. About how he’ll take the jobs no one else will. Not just extraction, but inception –not just three levels down but four, faint rumors of five, even six. Half of his jobs end in complete and abject failure - comatose bodies left behind, chemists discarded like tissue paper - but what he does pull off no one else can. On top of that, he’s quiet, he’s discrete, he’s smart and clever and as good as he ever was, and Eames only manages to snag a job with him in Cairo with luck and a little of Ariadne’s snooping.

They’re scheduled to meet later that night, but it’s fairly easy to narrow down which hotel Arthur is staying at now. His tastes have always been comfortable, and his aliases are predictable, if one is familiar enough Arthur’s interests. There’s a Laszlo Kreizler staying at the Concorde, and when Eames knocks Arthur answers the door by pointing a gun in his face. It’s a little like old times – a lot like the first time they met, actually – and Eames can’t help grinning, even in the face of mortal peril. Arthur has always been a little trigger happy, regardless of reality.

“Happy to see me, darling?”

The ever reassuring click of the safety. “Happy might be overselling it,” Arthur says, but the hotel door swings open.

| |

Happy is overselling it, but Eames knew better than to expect any sort of open emotional reaction. Arthur is already dressed – linen pants and jacket, button-down shirt with an open collar – so they have dinner, and talk shop, and say nothing of any importance while Eames watches Arthur in the very peripherals of his vision. After, they meet their architect and chemist at a busy teashop, before moving to a small rented house just past one of the market areas of the city. It’s the first job Eames has done with Arthur since the Cobbs’ deaths, and once he gets over the sheer cognitive dissonance of not seeing Arthur and Cobb in each other’s pockets, there are other things he notices.

Arthur has always been standoffish – prickly, concise to the point of parody, impeccably dressed, whether in a Zegna suit or jeans and a leather jacket, quick hands, quicker mind, little inclination to deal with bullshit. But now – now, Arthur tears plans to pieces, rips dream layouts into shreds, the ‘you idiot’ implied nearly every time he opens his mouth. His movements are economical; not just pared down, but sharpened to points. His voice is rougher, his eyes are darker, offset by the bags under them and the lines around them. Patria, their architect, seems inclined to smother him in his sleep, but equally afraid of being killed first whenever she turns a corner. It would be a little funnier if Eames wasn’t sure Arthur was considering it – granted, it took Patria a day too many to really grasp the more basic paradoxes, but not everyone can be Ariadne.

They accomplish the job itself easily enough, and afterwards they scatter, the way they usually do. Arthur goes back stateside and Eames goes to Monaco – there’s a post-structuralist inspired sculpture an old friend has his eye on. Personally, Eames thinks it looks like a melted bed of nails best suited to a junkyard, but he’s rarely paid for his opinions, more’s the pity. He calls Ariadne for all the gossip – her roommate has decided she’s a lesbian, apparently, and Ariadne would be happier for her if she wasn’t deciding it so loudly; Yusuf just spent a month in London and adopted another cat; Arthur has finished his job in Chicago and is going to Da Nang. Eames advises Ariadne to convert or invest in earplugs, offers Yusuf his secondhand congratulations, and follows Arthur to Vietnam.

| |

Arthur doesn’t look particularly surprised when Eames sits down next to him in the Hàn market. He looks even thinner than before – not weaker, Eames wouldn’t say weaker, or even run down. Compressed. Pulling into himself, not unlike a tortoise, perhaps, or an animal storing up energy for the winter.

They have pho, huge bowls of it. Eames munches on a disproportionate share of bean sprouts, which are particularly delicious in the way they rarely are outside of Vietnam, cool and wet, only mildly bitter at the ends.

“That desperate for work?” Arthur asks, when they’re done, a colorful dong note left under their bowls.

“I am a man of leisure, thanks to Mr. Saito,” Eames says, which is more or less true, if he stays away from the blackjack tables. “But if you’ve got the work, I won’t say no.”

| |

They check into separate hotels, a block apart. Eames checks in as Frank Bowling, and he calls upon Johann Spurzheim later that night.

Then Arthur and Eames get absolutely shitfaced drunk.

Eames tells himself it’s a belated wake, and anyway, he’s not on a job right now. He’ll get as smashed as he damn well pleases. Eames has taken the liberty of procuring a bottle of Glenfiddich, courtesy of the very helpful desk clerk, which they drink until Eames’ need for alcohol has been overcome by a craving for crisps.

They’ve been dancing around the elephant in the room too long, and now they’re prodding at its feet with memories of past jobs shared, chitchatting about the job Arthur just finished, a toast or two to old friends. Eames doesn’t know how to bring it up without sounding like an asshole, or treating Arthur like a mark. Being great at people doesn’t always mean you’re great at friends, or whatever it is they are. Eames has always seen relationships are incredibly multidimensional – how can there ever be one word for anyone?

“Was it Fischer?” Eames asks, eventually. There isn’t much of a way to ease into it, and Arthur knows most of Eames’ better tricks anyway. “Or Cobol, or… someone else, I never could—” Eames was a criminal long before dreamsharing, but a thug who graduated to conman doesn’t have the same contacts as Arthur, whose military service barely glosses over a background in hacking, corporate espionage, the works.

Arthur tosses back the last of his drink and sets the glass down carefully, the too-steady hands of a man who knows he’s completely drunk. “Cobol,” he says. “It was Cobol, but Fischer set them off. It’s one thing to fail to complete a job, it’s another entirely to run to Cobol’s competition and block their takeover of the global energy market. They took Cobb’s defection… personally.” Arthur nearly bites off the last word, an attempt to lock down his anger. “They sent a team after me in Italy. They haven’t since, but I’m not writing them off just yet.”

“You’re alright though?” There might be more than one reason Arthur is looking more tightly wound than usual. And Eames has always had friends good at making people disappear, one way or another.

“I burned through a few identities, just in case. And I sent Ariadne on vacation when I first heard, but I think they’re willing to accept she’s an architecture student, more or less. Probably have eyes on recruiting her somewhere down the line.” Arthur’s tone says he’s already made sure that’s never going to happen, and Eames makes a mental note to talk to Ariadne tomorrow.

“And Cobol?”

“They’re going to burn,” Arthur says, far more sober-sounding than Eames would have given him credit for five minutes ago. “They won’t get away with it, just because they think no one will come for them. Because they think their money will protect them. Their reputation. They think because we mess around with dreams we can’t cause them pain.”

“Arthur –”

“And you can help me,” Arthur says, like Eames hadn’t spoken, “Or you can get the hell out of the way.”

He’s serious. This is the important part – Arthur’s serious, this isn’t drunken bluster or semi-rueful imaginings about what Arthur might do if he were that sort of man. Arthur is that sort of man. A man who has killed men sent to kill him. A man without a home, without history. Nearly without friends, now. In their business, for most people there are only contacts. Emails that are routed and rerouted, burn phones, internet drop boxes, everything written in code and shorthand. Men like Arthur slip away without anyone noticing, and death isn’t even the worst way to do it.

And of course it would be Arthur, Eames thinks. Who else is there but Arthur? Miles is too old, too unconnected. Too broken down. Too much of a pacifist. He will mourn where Arthur will rage.

It’s not that Eames doesn’t understand where Arthur’s coming from. This isn’t just for Cobb’s death, but for whatever fuckhead thought that children were acceptable collateral damage.

“You’ll need someone to watch your back,” Eames says. “Another pair of eyes.”

Arthur doesn’t say yes or no. He just looks back at Eames, steadily, and calculating.

“Ask me again in the morning,” Eames groans, and rolls over onto his back. Not that Arthur asked the first time around.

| |

Arthur isn’t there when Eames gets up the next morning, but he slides him an envelope over lunch, with a ticket to Mexico City inside.

| |

Though Eames works as an Extractor now and again, he’s mainly settled into being a Forger. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Billing himself as a Forger meant fewer jobs, more risk, but better payoffs – not everyone can extract, and certainly not everyone can extract well, but even fewer can properly forge.

Sinking back into the extracting game wasn’t particularly difficult. And he doesn’t stop Forging. He takes Forging jobs now and again; he doesn’t follow Arthur around the globe. He’s not that sort of man, and Arthur knows it. Eames likes adventure, the unplanned and the exotic, and the hot climates that Arthur doesn’t particularly favor; he’d rather take a heist job in Borneo while Arthur does an extraction in Prague. Factor in that Arthur was never really the type to partner up with anyone, at least until Cobb got himself in so deep he needed someone to be his right hand, conscience, and brain all at once, and it feels a little too twee to keep such close tabs on Arthur right away. Ariadne is a good source of information at any rate; never underestimate a girl up-to-date on all the latest gossip, and with adorable puppy eyes.

“Our next job’s in New York,” Arthur tells him, and Eames can’t resist groaning aloud.

“Ugh, New York.” Eames hates New York. There’s traffic, and tourists, and pollution, and a certain proximity to New Jersey he is uncomfortable with.

“You know where I’ll be staying.”

“Ta,” Eames says. “End of the week alright?”

“Stopover in London?”

“Paris. Figured it was time to harass Ariadne again. You’re welcome to join us, of course.”

“Give her my regards. And –”

“Buy her something pretty?” Eames suggests.

Arthur sends him a level and yet somehow rather pointed look. “Get her some Rapidographs, and coffee from that place.”

Eames rested his chin on his hands and tilted his head to the side. “What place, Arthur?”

“You know the place.”

“Do I?”

“Did I say New York? I meant Yakutsk.”

“Oh, that place,” Eames says breathlessly. “I’ll introduce her to Guillaume personally.”

Arthur mutters something under his breath but Eames happily ignores it.

| |

“So how’s Arthur?” Ariadne says, the minute Eames steps into her flat.

Eames rolls his eyes. “Still pretending he has no feelings.”

“Big surprise there,” Ariadne mutters. She looks a little pale herself, Eames notices, and then reminds himself, chidingly, that apparently he was the only one of their team not a little in love with Dominic Cobb. Sensitivity, Mr. Eames.

“But enough about our favorite Robot Overlord. How are you doing, sweetheart?” he asks. “I’ve got a lovely prezzie for you, if you’d be kind enough to point me towards your sofa.”

| |

The New York job is going well enough, if startling in it’s ability to increase Eames’ blood pressure – bloody socialites, far too concerned about who’s wearing what to which party; it’s enough to make Eames go and assassinate Sarah Jessica Parker himself – but midway through it Eames looks at Arthur, really looks at him, like Eames would look at a mark, or someone he was going to Forge. And he’s stunned by how much Arthur has changed, at how different he is from the mental picture Eames carries in his head. When did it happen?

“Darling,” Eames says, “try not to take this the wrong way, but I don’t think you’ve slept in months.”

Arthur turns to look at him. There are bags under his eyes, his cheekbones standing out starkly below them. “Not natural sleep, no.”

It tugs at something in his gut. “You can’t keep on like this.”

“I can...”

“You can’t,” Eames interrupts. “You really, really can’t.” Arthur is just the sort of man to go through all the motions – eating, drinking, showering, shitting, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling for hours at a crack. It’s not that he hasn’t noticed Arthur’s been running on fumes, he’d just assumed Arthur would get over that particular hump sooner or later. He should have known.

“I can,” Arthur says decisively, and even Eames knows better than to argue with that tone. The ‘if you’re not helping me I’m going to have to shoot you out of the way’ tone. Not any particular favorite of Eames’. “Do you have the file on Riedel’s daughter?”

Eames hands it over without another word. This is Arthur, now – forever on edge, a bite to his words, sharper words, even when his manner is calm. Like he can’t quite remember why he’s holding it together.

Eames wonders sometimes, when he lets himself wonder, what Arthur is going to live for after this. Will what he lived for before– the job well done, the rush, the excitement, the thrill of being the goddamn best – even compare? Can he rediscover the accomplishment of pulling of an insane risk, of going another level down and living to tell the tale, of building beautiful places that no one else will ever see, could ever even comprehend, just to do it? Can Arthur see that beauty again? Does he ignore it, now, in favor of purpose, or is it simply lost to him?

It’s a dangerous place, the dreamshare. It does strange things to people, gives them impossible choices, impossibly addictions, impossible needs and wants. Dreams they can never really fulfill. But men need dreams, Eames likes to think, and a man without one, a man who has convinced himself that all dreams are illusions – what sort of life could that man live?

| |

Two weeks later they are in Los Angeles, and there is a knock on Eames’ door. Eames grabs his gun, closes his laptop, and makes his way towards the door.

“It’s me,” someone says, “don’t shoot, I don’t have the time for it.”

It really couldn’t be anyone but Arthur, but Eames checks the keyhole just in case. Considering some of the ways jobs have gone squiffy over the years, there’s no sense being ambushed inside your own hotel room. That particular story’s only funny if you live through it.

Arthur stares back at him, fish-eyed from the distortion, gaze darker and more tenebrous than usual.

“Eames,” he says, a hint of impatience, and Eames opens the door so Arthur can step inside.

They stare at each other for a moment. No hellos. No how-are-you, no why-are-you-here. Eames, like any good therapist or torturer, knows the value of silence.

“I can't sleep.” Arthur fists tighten against his dress pants in frustration, pulling at the lines. Did he get redressed to take the elevator three floors up? Or has he even tried to go to sleep yet? Oh Arthur. Sometimes Eames feels as though that’s becoming his catchphrase.

“I’ve started dreaming again,” he says, and Eames can feel the way his eyebrows stretch to his hairline, despite his best intentions. People in the dreamshare business don’t dream naturally. Ariadne still might, or Saito – Eames has never dared ask what effect Limbo had, or didn’t – but after a decently lengthy job or two, your brain begins to realize it can’t compete with the PASIV. Eames knows extractors who have been out of the business for years who can’t achieve a proper REM cycle. “Nightmares,” he continues. “Terrible ones. And vivid, so vivid I – I try to think of how I got there, and I can’t. But I keep thinking I can wake myself up, and I can’t do that either.”

“Not even if you kill yourself?” Eames asks. The PASIV sedatives make it a bit trickier than naturally lucid dreaming, but suicide always does this trick; in this case, it is the answer.

“It’s a weird sort of – dream logic. If I try and shoot myself, the gun misfires. If I jump off a building, I slow down on the way, or the concrete is as soft as pillows—”

“Right, right, I’ve got it,” Eames says. No need to get into it, with Arthur getting more and more agitated. There’s a trick to knowing when to shut someone up as well.

Arthur sits down on the edge of the bed, gingerly. “I can’t get them to stop until I dose myself too heavily to dream.”

“Which isn’t really sleeping, Arthur. You know that.”

“No,” Arthur agrees, far more pleasantly that Eames would have guessed. “No, it’s not, which is why I’ve been walking around like Frankenstein’s monster. I thought I could get through the job, but I’m losing it, and I can’t afford to lose it.”

“Arthur…” Eames begins, gently. He doesn’t know where to go with this, or what to say. He’s tiptoeing around Arthur, around the subject. The way it feels like he does everything, these days. Oh, jobs are always the same – he and Arthur rip each other’s plans apart, they round on anyone who thinks they know better, they mow through projections like they were made of paper, but there are a great many things they don’t talk about.

“I thought –” Arthur chuffs. “I don’t know what I thought. Why I’m here.”

You’re here because you trust me, Eames thinks, but there is nothing in the world that would send Arthur running from the room quicker, and you don’t have to be the connoisseur of human nature that Eames is to realize that.

“Stay,” he says, and tucks the way Arthur instantly stills away for later. “Your poor overworked brain, darling, you just need to turn it off. Go take a shower while I get you something to wear.”

“And then?” Arthur says, already headed towards the bathroom.

“And then you sleep,” Eames say absently, mentally rifling through his suitcase. He’ll sleep in his boxers, but he can’t imagine Arthur in anything less than sweats. He lays them out on the bed and, just to be cheeky, a commemorative royal wedding t-shirt with a
hook-nosed Prince William and plasticy Kate Middleton.

Arthur is out of the bathroom within minutes, towels held loosely around his hips, precisely folded clothes in the other, wet hair slicked back and curling just around his ears. He looks at the clothes laid out on the bed, and shoots Eames an accusing look.

“You bought one of these monstrosities?”

“Nicked it,” Eames says cheerfully. “You can have that bed, I’ll take the other,” and strolls into the bathroom to give Arthur the chance to change.

“That doesn’t make it better!” Arthur yells after him, as Eames begins to brush his teeth.

When he comes out Arthur is settled underneath the blankets, on his side, covers tucked up around his chin and the royal wedding t-shirt on the floor. Eames tries to internalize his eyeroll.

“Now,” he says grandly. “Go to sleep, and if there are any problems I’ll wake you straightaway.” He closes his eyes and waits until Arthur moves around, gets himself comfortable, and then goes quiet again, before opening them again.

He’s not entirely sure how much time has passed – the PASIV, among other things, has fucked with Eames’ internal clock irrevocably – but Arthur doesn’t look so different when he sleeps. His hair has fallen loose around his face, but he still scowls, faintly, and grinds his teeth.

Eames has to wake Arthur up three times that night. It barely takes more than a touch to the shoulder before Arthur startles awake and reaches for his token on the bedside table, and for his gun, which Eames has moved because he wants to make it to tomorrow morning.

“Back to sleep,” he says soothingly, like a mother with a recalcitrant baby, and Arthur glares before nodding back off with the alacrity of the truly sleep deprived. Eames holds off sleep until early in the morning, his last memory of sky lightening from inky darkness to a deep grey.

He wakes when Arthur gets out of bed, and decides to make a show of luxuriously stretching as Arthur fumbles for his proper clothes.

“There now, pet,” he drawls, before switching to an American accent. “Don’t you just feel like a million bucks?”

Arthur pauses in buttoning up his shirt. “I do, actually,” he says slowly, like it physically pains him to admit it. Which it probably does. Arthur never gives anyone credit if he can help it; not even himself. “I—thank you, Eames,” he says, discomfiting in his sincerity, and for a moment Eames doesn’t know what to say.

“Come back tonight,” he says impulsively. “I imagine one night’s sleep is only the start of your sleep debt. And I prefer that the man watching my six not be functioning at anything less than his best.”

“I might,” Arthur says, nonchalant, but neither of them is surprised when Arthur shows up at Eames’ door every night like clockwork. Like he’s a toy soldier and Eames is the one who has to unwind him for the night. It’s a strange routine, an unusual one, but oddly comfortable, just knowing someone is sleeping in the same room as you. Someone who knows how to use a gun.

Then, on another job, in another hotel, there is only one bed in Eames’ room.

Arthur makes a face at it, annoyed, too exhausted to hide it, and Eames can see him physically ramping himself up to tell off the concierge.

“Darling,” he says, because Jesus Christ, they’ve just finished a two-month long job, they’ve flown halfway around the world on not one, not two, but four flights due to changeovers and inclement weather, if Arthur thinks Eames is doing anything but dragging them both into that bed and collapsing, he is overestimating his own sex appeal and/or Eames’ sex drive. He doesn’t make it past ‘darling,’ but something in his tone must make his feelings perfectly clear, because Arthur sets his suitcase down and breathes deeply.

“If I take a shower, I might drown,” he says, and Eames feels it too, that bone deep weariness that makes it seem as though the Grim Reaper is waiting just around the corner for you to do something stupid. “Do you care?”

“I sleep on the left,” Eames says, and unzips the top of his suitcase to root around for some sweatpants.

| |

By the time the alarm rings the next morning, Eames’ arm has snaked its way around Arthur’s waist. The bones of Arthur’s spine feel solid and immovable, even as the ribs of his chest rise and fall. He’s warm under Eames’ hands, and strangely dense – though where Eames got the impression Arthur was made of cobwebs and air, he will never know.

One of Arthur’s hands is tucked under his head, the other curled up on Eames’ chest, his nails digging in just a little. Eames’ lips are an inch from Arthur’s forehead, maybe less, and his erection is nestled next to Arthur’s, rubbing against his hipbone.

Of course they’ve gotten hard, Eames reminds himself. They’re not teenagers, thank God, but they’re not dead either, and Eames wouldn’t have put money on Arthur having had sex anytime recently.

Eames racks his brain for something to say that will not, under any circumstances, sound like a come-on. It’s hard – difficult. Very difficult.

“Ahh,” he says. Brilliant.

Arthur rolls his eyes, and momentarily digs his fingers into Eames’ chest. “First shower,” he says around a yawn, and that appears to be that.

| |

There’s a job in Belarus Eames can’t turn down. He owes Alexei a favor, and the chance to steal a Caravaggio is not only a wet dream, but comes around less often than one would think.

“Do all right without me, pet?” he asks.

Arthur doesn’t look up from his papers. “I’ll try to hold it together,” he says, dry as dust, and only possibly sarcastic.

| |

Their next job is supposed to be in Auckland, but their employer doesn’t want to hear it can’t be done, or at least not the way he wants it, so they skip up to Kyoto for a last minute favor. They’ve worked with the chemist before – Jordan, a university student who lives for the occasional dash of danger. Much like Ariadne, Eames gives it a matter of months before she gives up and works on her compounds full-time.

They all meet at the airport. There are places in Kyoto it would seem strange for a foreigner to go, and Arthur is about nothing but being unobtrusive. Jordan is unremarkable in her uniform, almost comically straight-laced compared to the man standing next to her. He’s wearing a red leather jacket and acid washed jeans, his hair spiked a half-foot high. His name is Ruogi, their architect, and he’s very new – an amazing memory, supposedly, great mathematical ability, an intuitive understanding of illusions and paradoxes. Almost no training, but Arthur said that with a gleam in his eye, like he’ll get the chance to train him into good habits instead of out of bad ones

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Ruogi says to Arthur, and Eames would feel a little like chopped liver if the smile Arthur turned on the guy wouldn’t make sharks cringe in fear.

“How nice,” Arthur says, deadpan, like he wasn’t raving about Ruogi five minutes ago. It’s really one of the things Eames likes best about him.

| |

The job is a straightforward one, if a bit of a rush. Their target is a corporate giant, Tatsuo Ramadu, and their client is his soon-to-be ex-wife. Her lawyers are offering her a settlement, which she is only willing to accept if turns out Ramadu has solid evidence of her infidelity. The deadline for the settlement is the end of the month, which is tricky, but not impossible. Unfortunately, most lawyers these days are militarized, particularly the high-powered sort Ramadu would be using. Ramadu, of course, has a multitude of his own mistresses who would be much easier to perform extraction on if they happened to know anything.

A week into his surveillance, Eames strolls into their rented office space and tosses a folder on Arthur’s desk. “Here are the reports on Ramadu’s mistresses, darling,” he says cheerfully, “though I don’t think they’ll be of any help.” He notices, dimly, that the room has gone deadly quiet.

Arthur doesn’t seem to care. He flips through the pages, rapid-fire. “Not even Ya-Ling?”

“Fallen out of favor with the old man, I’m afraid. No flowers this week, few gifts in the last month. And Linshou is far too burikko to ever want to hear about another woman, particularly Ramadu’s wife.”

“I’ll take your word on that,” Arthur says dryly. “Suggestions?”

“There’s a pretty young thing he’s interested in, a hostess at one of his nightclubs. She’s probably slated to take Ya-Ling’s flat, once he scrounges up a proper send-off gift.”

“He can’t trust her already.”

“No, but he’s trying to woo her.”

Arthur’s lip twitches. “Woo.”

“Court her favor, dearest,” Eames says, the prickling feeling at the back of his neck reminding him how close Arthur is to elbowing his spleen into rupture. “And under the right circumstances, I think that can reveal more than trust.”

Arthur nods. “Ya-Ling’s apartment, then?”

Maybe redecorated—”

“Or the nightclub?”

“There’s a private room that would do nicely, I think.”

Arthur nods. “Ruogi!”

Ruogi pokes his head slowly over the paper models crowding his desk, his shock of black hair coming first, looking for all the world like a reluctant cockatoo. “Yeah?”

“We’re changing the level,” Arthur says briskly, and ignores the face Ruogi pulls before turning on their chemist. “Jordan, do you have anything that lowers inhibitions a little? Makes someone more trusting?”

| |

Eames takes Ruogi to the club with him that night – Eames to observe Ramadu’s new squeeze, Ruogi to scope out the look and feel for the dream. They’ll have to bribe one of the bartenders to let them in during the day and measure it out, but never underestimate properly replicating the culture.

After the fourth time Eames catches Ruogi watching him out of the corner of his eye, he can’t take it anymore. He’s never allowed to get properly drunk on a job, and how Arthur always knows

“Yes?” Eames asks pleasantly, which is a good sign he’s not feeling all that pleasant, but some mores of polite behavior die harder than others. “Something puzzling you, Ruogi?”

“Yeah, so,” Ruogi starts, fidgeting in his seat like a child. Ruogi is younger than he looks, Eames admonishes himself. He was raised on the streets, so wild that Eames couldn’t even find out exactly how young. “You and Arthur, are you guys, like…?” He trails off significantly, eyes darting from Eames back to his drink.

“Poofs?” Eames says, suddenly amused.

“Uh.” Ruogi hedges. “I’m just saying, when you called him darling I nearly pissed myself.”

Eames smirks. “Arthur’s never particularly happy about it either. But no, to answer your question. Our history is long and storied,” he intones, slipping deliberately into his best professor-at-Oxford. “But not sexual.”

“I just can’t imagine anyone not sleeping with him getting away with it.”

Probably a fair assumption to make. If it were anyone but Eames, he would have come to the same conclusion.

“Arthur isn’t like the rest of us mere mortals,” Eames offers, in lieu of a real explanation. Platonic sleeping doesn’t really sound like an explanation, for one thing.

“Is he a robot?” Ruogi asks, leaning forward earnestly. “You can tell me.” When Eames doesn’t say anything, Ruogi’s eyes widen. “So he is a robot.”

Eames begins to laugh. “You Asians and your robots.”

“He would be more attractive to me,” Ruogi admits, and Eames snorts so hard he has to bury his face in his sleeve before ordering another drink.

| |

Eames’ forgery of Ramadu’s new fling goes perfectly, a rather complex blend of cuteness and studied helplessness that has Ramadu falling all over himself to impress her, if one would allow Eames to toot his own horn, and they’re on their way back to the warehouse to clean up – grab what is reusable and destroy what they don’t want found.

“I’m heading back to school,” Jordan says, clutching a box in her arms. She’s been steadily removing most of her equipment over the past few days, as the plan slid into place. “Call me the next time you’re in Kyoto.”

“No celebratory after-job drink?” Eames asks, disappointed. Jordan is full of stories of academic intrigue – there’s generally as much lust, machination, and murder as any traditional court conspiracy.

She smiles at him lopsidedly. Strangely. “Not this time, Eames-san,” she says, and walks out of the warehouse.

Eames is puzzled. “Arthur,” he calls out, “did you know Jordan was heading back to Uni early – ” His question is interrupted by a gunshot.

Eames ducks behind the nearest desk and reaches for his USP. When he peeks around the corner, he sees two things – Ruogi, lying in a puddle of blood on the concrete floor, and Arthur standing over him with his Glock in his hand.

“What the fuck,” Eames yells. “Did you just…?” Because, really, what in the bloody fucking fuck¬

“Cobol approached him two weeks ago,” Arthur says, already polishing the fingerprints off his gun.

Arthur,” Eames stumbles, searching for the words. “That doesn’t mean –” He’s been blindsided by this, fucking blindsided by it, the whole thing. Arthur was a military man, Eames knows that. He knows Arthur’s killed. Knew Arthur was good at it, because Arthur would never have settled at being anything less. But for Eames, it’s always been self-defense, it’s nearly always been projections, it’s always been in dreams. Even when Arthur killed Eames, it’s never been real. It had never been an execution.

“Doesn’t it?” Arthur says. “I’m not willing to take the chance. If it wasn’t anything, he should have told us. And he was friendly, didn’t you notice? Friendly to us, but not to Jordan.”

And these are true things, all of them, and maybe that’s what’s thrown Eames off. That Arthur was the one to put them together, instead of Eames. But the truth is that Arthur is only focused on Cobol, and these days Eames is only focused on Arthur.

“Jordan didn’t need to see it,” Arthur continues. “And I didn’t think you’d act so much like a… what was it? – big girl’s blouse.”

“Well, there’s brain matter on my shoes,” Eames hears himself say, finally.

“They were ugly anyway,” Arthur says, and snaps his briefcase closed.

| |

Back in the hotel Eames looks at the ticket on his dresser. It’s for Moscow, leaving tomorrow at noon. He wonders whether he’s going. He’s beginning to realize how greatly he underestimated Arthur, or perhaps overestimated Cobb. He used to think that Arthur was propping Cobb up – keeping him going, keeping him in line, keeping his head on as straight as he could. And he never realized how greatly Cobb was holding Arthur back, reining him in. And perhaps, all original evidence to the contrary, Arthur was the one who needed Cobb, rather than the other way around.

Eames has a precious few personal acquaintances. A life of crime, whatever the venue, doesn’t really encourage them. Cobb and Mal were favorites of Eames, Yusuf is precisely the sort of good-natured person you can’t help but adopt, and Ariadne is sticking to Eames like gum on the bottom of his shoe – not that he’d ever scrape her off, so to speak. Before this, Eames would not have said that he and Arthur were particularly close. He was wrong about that, maybe. Although tragedy does have a way of pulling people together.

This Arthur’s got nothing to tether him, nothing but Eames, it would seem, and Eames is torn over that. He doesn’t know if he wants that sort of responsibility – there’s a reason he doesn’t have any pets, much less another human being he’s responsible for – but he can’t leave Arthur to his own devices, so. Maybe that’s the answer right there.

In Warsaw, Arthur shot their architect in the knee for trying to interrogate one of his projections. He wasn’t even doing it very well. And now this – Ruogi. Eames can’t pretend his past is bloodless. Did he expect something different from Arthur, somehow? For Arthur to be better? Arthur’s the one on the path of revenge, or retribution. Arthur’s the avenging angel, and Eames is the devil on his shoulder. They do strange jobs sometimes, weird jobs, and Arthur has been known to take his cut in contacts, or information, or very specific favors. Arthur must have a goal in mind. There must be some sort of plan, and Eames is just too close to see it.

Someone knocks on his door. Eames’ brain scrambles for a moment – did he order room service, or not? He puts his gun in his hand and stares down through the peephole.

It’s Arthur, of course. Eames debates, for a moment, sending him away, but he doesn’t know what to say, and he’s too tired and confused and conflicted to even think about it. Important decisions in the morning, Eames knows, only after you’ve slept.

He opens the door and Arthur steps inside – swiftly, decisively, pivoting around Eames with a hasty precision that’s… odd.

“Arthur?” Eames asks. He’s not sure what’s happening, for a moment, if something’s happened. Cobol. Ariadne, or Yusuf, or even Saito.

The look on Arthur’s face is calculating. Confusing, really, and before Eames realizes anything else, it’s perhaps strangely exciting to realize Arthur is still afraid of something. Still able to calculate risk and not just reward.

It’s only a moment – barely enough to see it, barely enough to grasp what’s going on – before Arthur crosses the room and shoves Eames against the wall.

It’s like an explosion, heat and noise, everything upside down and topsy-turvy. Mouths and hands and rutting, pants barely open, Arthur half-strangled with his own tie. Eames can barely keep up with Arthur, he’s so completely blindsided by it. The way Arthur just – oh fuck – just goes for it. His hands digging into Eames’s shoulders just to hold him place while Arthur rubs himself off against Eames’ hip, like Eames is an overly large fuck toy that happens to be breathing. His hands press bruises into Eames’ skin. And there’s something wrong with Eames, more than probably wrong with Eames, that he gets off on Arthur’s desperation, and his need. The way Arthur’s barely even there, that this need had taken the hell over.

“Arthur,” he says, “Arthur, Arthur, Arthur,” over and over, practically chanting it, as though it were an incantation to bring Arthur back to him, back into this moment, to keep him here for all time.

Arthur goes for it, he just does it, rutting up against Eames like it’s the first, last, and only thing on his mind, and when he comes he falls to fucking pieces. Trembling, the way scared animals do, desperately fast shivers moving throughout his whole body. Breathing in little in-and-outs, not enough for a full breath, just enough to stay this side of consciousness. Eames is aware of how hard he still is, the only thing between them the pair of sweats.

Eames doesn’t remember, later, what Arthur says next – the exact way Arthur asks Eames to fuck him – if Arthur begs, pleads, bargains, argues, threatens, whatever it takes – Eames just knows it’s fucking sick the way it gets him hot, the way he folds.

They move towards the bed, shedding clothes as easily as Eames sheds his skin, as much of an afterthought. Arthur launches himself on top of Eames, greedy with touch, with kisses, exploring Eames’ mouth with a thoroughness, a single-minded purpose that is so Arthur Eames feels relieved for a moment. Whatever else is happening, this is Arthur, this is what Arthur wants. He’s been so unreachable these past few months, surrounded by a ring of fire Eames couldn’t cross, trapped in a hell of his own making; he’d burn himself to a cinder if he thought it would get him what he wanted in the end.

“Arthur,” Eames says again, dazed, and the press of Arthur’s mouth to the pulse in his neck breaks something in him, bridges something between them, and Eames is having trouble drawing lines between where he ends and Arthur begins.

Arthur is getting hard, again, almost impossibly quickly, the head of his cock purpled and angry. He grabs the lube out of the bedside table – Eames tries to think of how Arthur would know it was there, only comes up with magic, clearly – and can’t think any further when Arthur slicks himself up, one finger, two, just watching as they disappear inside Arthur, eyes sliding from between Arthur’s legs to his face, his closed eyes, the way his lashes flutter against his cheekbones. Then three fingers, just briefly, and Eames can’t help asking, “Arthur, let me –”

“No,” Arthur says, laughing, like some infernal incubus, curling up beside Eames and whispering, “condom, condom,” in his ear, and Eames scrambles in the bedside table himself, thanking God for his eternal optimism. He nearly rips the package in half; rolls it on with shaking fingers, and Arthur straddles Eames with his rickety legs, too skinny by half outside of his pants, and Eames wants them wrapped around him until he can’t breathe anyway.

Arthur rides him. Hard, too hard, his face pained with ecstasy, like a saint, tied to a tree or a wheel or a stake, the flames licking at his heels, and Eames can’t do anything but worship. He barely dares to touch. He puts his hands on Arthur’s hipbones, finally, feeling that movement all up and through his arms, down and into the bed. Darling Arthur. He slides his hand to Arthur’s thigh, thumb over sparse hairs, tacit permission to touch further.

“Eames,” Arthur gasps, and that’s – that’s it, rather, that’s what does Eames in, the growling noise in the back of Arthur’s throat. The way it grows softer, dropping into something like a whine, and Eames puts his hand on Arthur’s cock and fists it, hard. A little like a punishment, he thinks, for all the things Arthur has done to him, and made him do, all the little spaces he has crawled inside and pushed at, until Eames broke right open for him.

His own orgasm blindsides him. A hot white explosion behind his eyes that makes him believe, momentarily, in a benevolent universe. When he comes back into himself, Arthur is still straddling him, his mouth making wet noises, indescribably arousing, and Eames pulls him down onto the bed carefully, his cock slipping out of Arthur’s flushed ass. He kisses Arthur, settles down next to him and slips his fingers into Arthur, briefly, just so Arthur tightens around them, hot and wet, twitching feebly against the sheets.

“Don’t,” Arthur says, “I can’t—” His whole body writhes, like one drawn-out shudder. “Unless you can fuck me again, don’t, I—”

Eames prays, briefly, for strength, and a steady voice. “Oh darling,” he says. “That’s the least I will do to you.” He slides down the bed and pulls the head of Arthur’s cock into his mouth, and sucks. Arthur’s hands scrabbling for hair that isn’t quite long enough. Eames looks up at him, after a few minutes. Pleased to see Arthur’s out of his mind with it – pupils blown, so unhinged he couldn’t tell you his own name, if you asked.

Eames fucks him. And fucks him and fucks him and fucks him. Until it hurts, until he begs Eames to stop, until he begs Eames to do it again. Until he humps the sheets in desperation, sucking on Eames’ fingers. Until something in him breaks and he gives and he gives and he gives and Eames is so fucking out of control. He can’t keep track of who comes when, who asks for what, if they even speak at all. What could Arthur ever say that means more than the way he feels under Eames hands?

He doesn’t fall asleep so much as pass out. Rubbing himself off against Arthur’s ass, his thighs. Arthur’s fingers clumsily stroking from his balls to where Eames is rutting against him. They wake up glued to the sheets, and each other. Every bloody muscle in Eames’ body hurts, like he’s run a marathon or moved a mountain.

Arthur is lying next to him, on his side. Licking his cracked lips, rubbing his flushed face against the pillowcase.

There are no words. Eames doesn’t know what to say. What is there to say? You fuck like there’s a demon inside you. You kiss like an angel. You’ve ruined me for other men, and even some more creative women. Can we do it again? Should we?

“Shower?” comes out instead, barely better than a croak, and Arthur nods.

They pull themselves out of bed and hobble into the bathroom together. Part of Eames longs for a bath, but there are various bodily fluids they should rinse off first. He washes Arthur’s hair instead, presses him into the tile wall just – because. Arthur groans approvingly; rests his forehead against the tile and arches his back.

He’s a minx, Arthur is. Who knew.

“I need to pack for the flight,” Arthur says, when they stagger back in Eames room. He looks strangely untouched by it all, in spite of the marks – the bruises, the scratches, even the slightly bowlegged way that he stands.

Eames looks around at his mess of a room – clothes everywhere, bed torn to pieces. The envelope with the ticket, still on the dresser, like the eye of the storm.

“Me too,” he says.

| |

It’s like nothing happened. They go to the airport, through security. Onto the plane. They get off in Moscow, sleepy and gritty-eyed from recycled air, and they don’t look at each other in the taxi any more than they looked at one another on the plane.

Eames thinks, later, that maybe sleeping together wasn’t even a question. Maybe they were headed for it from the moment Eames showed up in Cairo, the moment Eames put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. Maybe earlier. Maybe the moment they met. Arthur liked men, Eames knew – he’d be a piss-poor Forger if he couldn’t even discern a persons’ general sexuality – and Arthur hadn’t not reacted to Eames, which, for Arthur, was practically an announcement.

Eames had never thought it would be serious, he can admit that. Arthur seemed too rigid to put up with Eames on anything more than a semi-professional basis. A good fuck or two and Eames would be out of his system.

But maybe Eames is wrong about everything. Maybe Arthur is Eames’ magnetic hill, where nothing is what it appears, where reality is stranger than a dream, and even gravity seems to be working against you.

“What’s the job?” Eames asks. He doesn’t know before the fact, a lot of the time, because Arthur is always meticulous in his choices. Ever before all this Eames would have willingly followed him around the world.

“A billionaire’s third wife wants to make sure she’s first in his heart,” Arthur says, scathingly, and Eames can’t help a reflexive smile.

“And in his will, I imagine.”

“I’ve got preliminary reports on both ex-wives, as well as previous and current mistresses, and his lawyer. No family. Your call on what might be best.”

In many ways, nothing has changed, Eames thinks, somewhere between fond and disappointed.

| |

They check into the hotel – separate rooms, the way they have been – though it doesn’t surprise Eames when there’s a knock on his door a half hour later. He’s more or less planned for it.

“It’s unlocked,” he yells. There’s a pause, then the click of the door. Eames half-expects a lecture on letting just anyone come into the room, but Arthur’s eyes fall on Eames, lying in the bed, scrolling through the files on his laptop; Eames writes wife #2 off almost immediately – she has a penchant for younger men that didn’t endear her to their client, but one of his mistresses had lasted longer than both his wives. She might be useful.

“Eames,” Arthur says, and his voice – trembles, slightly, at the end, which makes Eames’ head snap up. Caution is Arthur’s style, but not indecision. Arthur avoids his eyes, slightly, focusing somewhere between the two king-sized beds.

The pieces fall into place – click, click – and Eames snaps the laptop shut.

“Darling,” he says, and tosses the computer squarely onto the other bed. “Come here.”

| |

Eames sticks closer now. They rarely take a job apart. They sleep together, though they’ve usually got separate hotel rooms, if not separate hotels. For a stolen moment of privacy, or plausible deniability, Eames doesn’t know. He’s really no closer to solving the mystery that is Arthur.

They become a matched set: Arthur and Eames, the way it was once Arthur and Cobb. Not entirely the same, of course, though Eames wonders if Arthur and Cobb ever slept together. They were together before Mal came along, after Mal tore her way through their lives, always living in each other’s pockets. A man has to wonder. But Eames isn’t a jealous man, particularly of someone who’s dead, poor bastard, and there’s no delicate way to ask even if he gave a damn.

Eames isn’t normally the type to go for a partner, himself. He’s a chameleon, he goes whither and thither, whenever he wants. And he loves people, certainly – their quirks and foibles, their predictabilities, their patterns and the rules and the places the patterns break, the exceptions they make. But they rarely hold his attention for long. Arthur seems to be that exception. and realizing that Eames has one, just like everyone else, is only half the intrigue.

| |

A few weeks later, Eames comes back from tailing their mark to find Arthur in the hotel bar, the most upset Eames has seen him since —well.

“I heard a rumor Nash might be alive.”

It takes him a moment to connect to Nash, to Cobol and to Cobb. “I thought Saito had taken care of him.”

“One of Saito’s men did. Beat him, then dragged him off. Saito doesn’t ask questions after that, apparently.”

Eames nods. “Well, if he doesn’t know, he can’t lie, can he?”

The look on Arthur’s face is a million miles away. Like Eames had said nothing at all.

“Saito’s offered to look into it. To a point.”

“Only to a point?” Perhaps Eames has overestimated Saito’s respect for Cobb.

Arthur shrugs. “He’s a businessman, not a criminal. Not more than any other businessman, anyway. And I can’t ask him to do that. He can’t find Nash without compromising himself.”

“But we can,” Eames says, and crosses his arms. “And you think he’s involved.”

“He’s got no integrity,” Arthur says grimly. “And worse, he knew where Cobb lived when he wasn’t being Dominic Cobb.”

A great many people did, really, or could have easily found out. Cobb was far from careful. But Eames knows better than to say that to Arthur. Besides. Nash is a worm, and that certainly wasn’t Cobb’s fault.

“Any more details to your little rumor?” Eames asks, and Arthur obliges.

| |

Sometimes Arthur freaks Eames out.

A turn of phrase he borrowed from Ariadne, but somehow so particularly apt, there are no other words for it.

They fuck, Arthur and Eames. There’s no other word for it. Even if they’re gentle, or slow, exploring each other’s bodies – there’s something about it that defies lovemaking. That uncertain experience of connection.

Sometimes it feels like Arthur is punishing himself, or trying to see if he can feel anything, if he can make himself feel something. Eames feels, sometimes, like there is something in Arthur he can never touch, that nobody could ever touch. And Eames doesn't think it's a matter if revenge, or justice, or payback, or whatever the hell Arthur calls it in his head. Something died in Arthur the night the Cobbs died in that fire, and crystallized into something hard and untouchable. Something Arthur would give the world to have cracked open, but doesn’t know the first thing about changing.

Then again, maybe Arthur’s always been this way. Maybe it’s something Arthur’s always wanted, or needed, the way he asks to be held down, and grounded. The way he asks Eames to do it, to use his weight, and his height – his biceps and his thighs, until they’re tangled together, until Arthur is limp and still, his brain is buzzing only in the background. Maybe Arthur has always liked to be fucked, always been willing to beg, to open himself up and work Eames’ cock into him. How was Eames ever to know?

What he does know is that when Eames fucks him, it’s so beautiful, so painless. His body molds to Eames’ like this is what it was made for. And Eames lets himself think maybe, maybe this time –

Because Arthur is always hot for it, hot for Eames, hot to the taste, to the touch, but Arthur can’t connect. Anything that builds up between them gets burnt in the moment of it. There’s nothing between them after, no matter how desperately Eames tries to hold onto it.

But by the time the sun hits them, whatever was there has vanished.

| |

It’s nearly a year before Eames sees the carpet.

They’re in London, doing a dry run for an extraction, one slightly complicated by the fact that their target is a rich shut-in who hasn’t left his unfortunately large mansion in twenty years. Their architect, Trey, built secret panels into most of the room for quick access, but Eames is having a hard time distinguishing those from the secret passageways already built into the real mansion, ruddy insane billionaires, and for once Arthur doesn’t appear to be faring much better. They’re trying to figure out the quickest way to get from the kitchen to the master bedroom, from the master bedroom to the library, like the world’s most frustrating game of Clue, when Eames catches the faintest whiff of smoke.

“D’you smell that?” he asks, already turning and taking off down the hallway. There’s light coming out from one of the doorways, flickering eerily. What in the world?

“Eames –” Arthur says, low and urgent, but like bloody hell Eames isn’t going to open it now. Someone always opens Bluebeard’s cupboard, no matter how well they’re warned.

In the real world it’s a child’s bedroom, Eames remembers. It belongs to the target’s younger son, who drowned at the family summer home nearly thirty years ago. In real life the room is neatly preserved, cleaned briskly twice a month. In the dream it’s a burnt out husk of a room, the curtains in tatters, the wallpaper scorched. He recognizes, in the rubble, a favorite doll of Phillipa’s, a toy truck of James’, a picture of Mal. The floor is stained with smoke, except for two small, lumpy outlines on the charred carpet.

He turns to Arthur, and sees the way his eyes widen when he comes into the room. Not in horror so much as recognition, and Eames has a sudden and sinking feeling he has seen this before. Because they’re in Arthur’s dream, Eames suddenly remembers. Not his, or Trey’s – Arthur’s. It’s Arthur filling in the nooks and crannies Trey so carefully created. Arthur who’s shoved this behind the door, in a dead boy’s room. It’s Arthur’s subconscious, and he didn’t know what was in here any more than Eames did.

Arthur,” he says, and recognizes, belatedly, the taste of ash in his mouth. Behind him, something bursts into flame; he can feel the heat of it on his cheek. The bedspread starts to smolder. He says Arthur’s name again – quieter, harsher, and something in his tone snaps Arthur out of his trance.

“Don’t,” he says, “just – don’t.” His eyes are wild, mostly showing white, like a spooked horse. He shoots himself, quick as a wink, and Eames watches Arthur’s brains splatter all over the wall next to them.

Eames pulls out his own gun and shoots himself. He realizes a few things, abruptly – exactly how many times in the past few months Arthur has gone into a dream, or let himself be the dreamer. The way Arthur avoids children in public, subtly but deliberately. He understands, Eames understands that Arthur’s fucked up, but he – he underestimated the degree of it, he thinks, and he shouldn’t have. It meant a lot to Arthur, Cobb’s happy ending, because it was Arthur’s too. Mal vanquished, buried properly, remembered properly, the way she deserved. Cobb reunited with his children, his home. An incandescent sort of happiness. And part of that was Arthur’s – right hand man Arthur, Uncle Arthur, dear Arthur – so once upon a time part of that happiness was reflected back on him. Part of it was his.

Eames opens his eyes to the dull grey ceiling above him. He wants to – he doesn’t know what he wants to do, really, or what Arthur would accept from him, but there are too many people around anyway. Too many people watching.

He takes the needle carefully out of his arm, and then leans over to do Arthur’s as well. Arthur, who is still looking down into his lap, his free hand rubbing at the cloth over his knee, trembling slightly.

“Going again?” Trey asks, cheerfully oblivious.

“I think we’re good,” Eames says.

| |

It’s the damned carpet, Eames thinks, that made him realize. He doesn’t know why it was the carpet, precisely, why the carpet instead of the way Arthur looks in the mornings, the way his eyelashes collect drops of water in the shower, that he makes Eames’ royal wedding commemorative shirt look like an ironic sartorial choice rather than a terrible mass-produced piece of cotton and raylon. But it was something in that moment, between blasting out his own brains and touching Arthur, where there was nothing he could do; where he would have given anything to wash the blood from his hands and lock Bluebeard’s cupboard up again, forever. That was when it hit him suddenly, stupidly, that his fascination with Arthur isn’t professional, or friendly, or scientific. It isn’t even sexual, not at the root of it.

“I’m in love with you,” he says, practicing, and touches the skin on the underside of Arthur’s arm. The puckered scars there. The Somnacin is the drug, not the addiction, but it leaves its marks anyway. “I love you.” There’s a metaphor there, perhaps, but Eames is too tired to explore it further.

It works, in some weird way. The dichotomy of Arthur – feared Arthur, inception Arthur, six levels down Arthur. Military Arthur, crack-shot Arthur, executioner, avenging angel, Grim Reaper in a three-piece suit. Hell bent on revenge Arthur, like something out of a sci-fi noir.

Then there is Arthur with Eames – needy Arthur, soft Arthur, forgiving Arthur. Human Arthur. Lost Arthur. Sleepy Arthur. There-are-no-monsters-in-that-closet Arthur. There are no Cobbs when they sleep together. There is no Cobol. No Nash. It’s like a dream – a reality untouched by reality, a place with its own rules, a different set of faces.

And so Eames sleeps.

| |

One of their jobs takes them to Tokyo, and Eames ends up having lunch at Saito’s compound. The invitation arrived at the hotel front desk within an hour of check in. Arthur received one as well, but declined. When Eames expresses his regrets Saito does not seem surprised.

Their conversation is polite, not quite stilted. Saito subtly pokes around about Arthur’s mental health. How it’s really all going. About whether Eames needs help, or if Arthur is on his way to becoming as crazy as Cobb once was. Who knows.

“He is very driven, your Arthur,” Saito says, and spears a cherry tomato. The lunch is Western style; Eames is pants with chopsticks, which he imagines Saito somehow knows.

Saito’s use of ‘your’ is somewhat ambiguous – they’re teammates, after all – but deliberate. Eames is not being particularly careful about their relationship, not for those who know him. And Saito is not particularly subtle, when he wants to make a point. Saito can afford to be blunt.

“You know Arthur,” Eames says pleasantly, “if you’re not helping, get the hell out of his way.”

Saito hums, and smiles. “Well. He is making things difficult for Cobol Engineering, that is for certain. You will tell me if you ever need anything.”

Dessert is crème brulee, which Eames has a terrible fondness for, and they talk about Ariadne and Paris until Eames excuses himself to go.

| |

Eames isn’t an idiot. He’s of course thought about incepting Arthur. He went so far as to plan it out, once.

The onset wouldn’t be particularly difficult. Late at night, in some shabby warehouse, when Arthur is there working late, and Eames lounging in the corner, someone breaks in. It could be Cobol, or Fischer, or any of the dozens of other enemies they’ve made over the years. Their attackers wouldn’t get very far, of course; Eames is almost certain they would be killed. But things could go just bad enough for Arthur that Eames has to call in a doctor he knows, just bad enough that Arthur might need to be sedated, or he might pass out. And while there’s no doubt Arthur’s subconscious would be nearly impossible to work with, everyone has their weak spots. If Cobb could do it Mal, Eames could do it to Arthur. He could go three, four, five levels down, its old hat to him now.

And the idea is simple enough, isn’t it? That destroying Cobol, killing whoever is behind this, isn’t going to change a damn thing. It’s not going to bring Cobb back. Not going to bring back the children. It won’t make Arthur feel better. It won’t fix a goddamn thing.

In the end, Eames couldn’t do it. Not because he didn’t think it would work, and not because he didn’t think it was true, but because Arthur had probably realized that already. Maybe he didn’t even care.

And that was a truth Eames couldn’t face.

| |

When they take a job in Morocco, Eames manages to convince Arthur to spend an extra three days in the city. Arthur has a weakness for gardens, impossibly, and they tour them all – les Jardins de l’Hôtel des Cascades, Jardins des Oudayas, Majorelle, Chellah, Menara – before spending a night at a nearby casino. Eames works his way into the high rollers room, them loses everything on a long shot just for the fun of it. Arthur dresses up, sharp enough to bleed, playing roulette and craps and trying to run the numbers in his head, Eames is certain. They stumble out at two in the afternoon, gritty-eyed from the air-conditioning, mildly drunk on whiskey sours. Eames flips extra chips clumsily over his knuckles in the car back to the hotel. He’s off his game.

It helps Eames with indulging this fantasy he has. Nothing complicated, or kinky. Nothing he should really be ashamed of. But he has a house in Antigua, hardly ever used, attached to a name that is not really his. And in his head they’re on a job there, or near there, and Eames shows it to Arthur. Dusty, and filled with all sorts of strange and wonderful things, some of which, yes, Eames has stolen. And Eames pretends, for one moment, for one beautiful night, that this is something he can have.

And maybe he can. Maybe they'll find who’s at the root of Cobol and Arthur will have his revenge and break down and cry and rage and generally lose the months of emotionally repression he's been carrying around. Maybe it will be a catharsis worthy of its Greek origins, epic and tragic both, the pinnacle of their journey. Maybe they will refuge someplace warm. Someplace no on can ever touch them. After Cobol no one would ever dare touch them. They could go anywhere they wanted, do anything, see anything. It’s an idea Eames keeps, even though he knows – he knows that secrets, even the benign ones, the simple wishes, the clandestine little hopes you give yourself to get through the day – they eat you up inside. It doesn’t matter who put them there. It doesn’t matter how much you might initially disbelieve. If you keep it there, close to your heart, it will find a way to take root.

Some day, Eames will muster up the courage to go and see the house Mal and Dom built together, their beautiful house. He remembers it well, all mahogany and glass, and copper through the kitchen, on all the door hinges and handles, the bathroom sinks. A house to grow up in. A house to grow old in. But Mal and Dom grew old before their time, and Phillipa and James will never grow up. The house is dirt and ash, not a wall left standing, and when Eames goes he won’t be able to remember why he came. What he meant to remind himself of.

He doesn’t want to say Cobb had it coming. He didn’t, and Heaven knows Phillipa and James didn’t, but you don’t claw your way to the top of the extraction business by being a Boy Scout. Cobol was the top of a very long list of people they’d fucked over, and Dominic Cobb was Dominic Cobb wherever he went. He never cut his ties properly, whether you call that too little brains or too much heart. Eames’ own mum only assumes he’s alive – or maybe she assumes he’s dead unless she hears different, he’s never asked. Point is, you can’t live in two worlds and do them both justice. Eames should keep that in mind himself.

Eames, at his core, is a romantic, and a hedonist. He has the urge to kiss the joints of Arthur’s wrists, buy him silk ties, bring him coffee, peel his oranges, wash his hair. He wants to touch Arthur in public more – on his neck and face, his knees. Higher on his arms, lower on his back. For the bones in their hands to grind together.

Every one of these urges, he squashes, he kills.

Because he passes Arthur files, hands him guns, grenades, car keys. He tails clients, and marks, and sometimes employers. He presses his fingers into the curve of Arthur’s elbow, slides the cannula into his arm. He slaughters Arthur’s projections, and his own are slaughtered in turn. He tips Arthur out of chairs, and never once, where anyone might see them, does he touch Arthur’s face.

| |

The end comes far more quickly than Eames ever expected. He knew what they were doing was dangerous – Cobol is the sleeping dragon, and they’ve been poking at its feet with single-minded purpose.

Something smashes through their warehouse window – spewing smoke everywhere, and then there’s a flash, a spark of something, and suddenly the inside of the warehouse is completely ablaze, fire everywhere. Eames makes it halfway across the room before he has to drop to the floor and pull his jacket over his head, crawling on hands and knees to the back door.

When he gets there, and breathes in the new air – fresh air, clean air, as sharp to his lung as if he’d inhaled ice – he realizes, somehow, in all the confusion, Arthur is no longer behind him. Knows with a gut-deep certainly that Arthur is trapped in the warehouse. Being burned alive. But there are no screams, he thinks wildly; surely Arthur would be screaming, surely he would be struggling – before he thinks of the white carpet, the outlines, two little bodies felled by smoke and not fire. It could happen to Arthur as much as anyone, the fire burning around him and licking his limbs clean -

And then he wakes.

He stares at the ceiling, for a moment, before realizing where he is – in Prague, on a job, a favor to a friend – a moment more before he regains his equilibrium enough to lunge for his totem. The weight, the familiar slide over his knuckles, the underside of his palms. The tiny nick just below the gold lettering.

It’s a dream. It was a fucking dream, he reminds himself, for fuck’s sake, and wills himself to stop shaking. Eames knows better than anyone you shouldn’t look for meaning in them. At worst, its random neurons firing. At best, it’s your subconscious using archetypes and symbols to express unconscious fear and desires, no more significance that what you attribute to it. There’s no greater meaning to natural dreams.

And yet – and yet, it’s been so long since he dreamed naturally, he can’t help but see it as a portent. A sign of things to come, and a sign of things past. He’s afraid, he realizes. He’s genuinely afraid.

His thumb hovers over the keypad of his mobile, Arthur’s number at the forefront of his brain. He feels ridiculous, calling. But he’s also a little afraid not to.

Arthur picks up on the second ring. “Yes?”

“Darling,” Eames says, throat clearing. “I’ve had an epiphany about the next job.”

| |

In Cordoba, Eames has a singular stroke of luck. An old friend from the neighborhood comes through for him – says he just did a job with a chemist called Saira, and an architect named Nash. He’s got a name, and a hotel room number. Eames has done a lot better with a lot worse.

And in no time at all he’s calling Arthur.

“Dear heart,” Eames says. “I have a surprise.”

| |

Arthur shows up somewhere between mildly annoyed and mildly alarmed. Arthur is not one to enjoy surprises, poor darling.

“Eames,” he says, every muscle in his body so deliberately loose, its clear to Eames he couldn’t be more on edge.

Arthur,” he mimics, and smiles. “There’s someone here I think you’ve been wanting to see.” He contemplates a drum roll, or perhaps some sort of mangled version of Taps. But no. Eames lacks a certain sense of humor that would make these things possible.

Eames pushes the door and watches as Arthur takes the scene in – the shadowed figure, handcuffed and chained to the drain in the floor. The exact moment Nash lifts his head, and Arthur stares him in the face. The look on Arthur’s face is – more than mildly frightening, Eames can admit, and it’s not even aimed towards him.

“I’ll be outside,” Eames says gently, and Arthur’s gaze jerks from Nash to Eames’ face. “I’ve left a few things on the table you might find yourself in need of,” he adds, and shuts the door behind him.

He stands there for two hours, ignoring the screams, the noises – he knows every one of Arthur’s, backwards and forwards, the good and the bad. He works on his slight of hand, pick-pocketing, the bum leg he likes to pull out every so often. No sense getting rusty.

Two hours later, Arthur comes out with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his hands dirty, dark under the nails and around the knuckles.

“Help me get rid of the body,” he says, and he’s so damned relaxed – so different from the stiff way he normally holds himself, or his faked ‘man of leisure’ sprawl, it might as well be a come-on. Fucking in front of a corpse is not on Eames’ bucket list, however, so it’ll have to wait.

“Been awhile since I did this,” Eames says honestly. “But you never really forget how to tuck up a tarp, do you?” They’ve a few of them lying around the warehouse, to cover up the windows.

Arthur cracks a smile. “And you thought you were moving up in the world.”

“It’s goddamn Minsk,” Eames mutters. “Something always happens in Minsk, I blame the Bolsheviks.”

“You have something against democratic centralism?”

“I prefer the unitary parliamentary type of democracy, thank you,” Eames says, and they both snicker as they load the body into the car.

| |

The true beauty of expensive hotels is not the thread count, or the room service, or the view. It's the way you can walk into the lobby at three in the morning on a Tuesday covered in bloodstains, smelling like the nearby docks, and no one so much as bats an eyelash.

“Will gaspadín be requiring anything?” the concierge asks them.

“Two hot meals,” Eames says. “Red meat. And you can leave them outside the door.”

The shower is the second best part, obviously. Arthur rinses off vaguely pink, at first, and they use so much hot water the towels on the rack feel damp, sticky. They forgo them in favor of heading for the sheets, and then they descend upon the food like locusts, or perhaps hyenas. Room service has included two bottles of cabernet sauvignon and two servings of syrniki with bilberry jam. Eames will be forced to tip them handsomely tomorrow.

They lounge on the bed after, among the pillows. Eames’ hands move over Arthur’s belly, the way you'd pet a cat, scritching and rubbing. Arthur doesn't purr but it's a near thing. His head back on the pillow, mouth slightly agape. Hair everywhere, and a hand over his eyes.

“Learn anything useful?” Eames asks, and he can’t decide if it’s a good sign or a bad one that Arthur continues to languish under his hands.

“Maybe. Nash was always good at running his mouth. The trouble comes with sifting the lies from the half-lies.”

“Tell me if there’s anything you need help tracking down.”

“Always,” Arthur says, and it’s so very much the word Eames wants to hear, even if not the perfect circumstances, he leans over to kiss Arthur, and the rest of the evening ends much more predictably.

Nash’s body is found a week later, mutilated and waterlogged, but they’re long gone by then anyway.

| |

Finding Nash – or killing him, more specifically – settles something in Arthur. Focuses him. It changes something in Eames’ head, not that he could ever really figure out what. Eames can’t touch Arthur, really. They never share dreams anymore. Arthur doesn’t let anyone into his head if its not absolutely required for the job. Never to just fool around, to create a museum of all the things Eames has stolen, to create a city to explore for the afternoon. It could look like Luis Bunuel in there, or Quentin Tarantino, and Eames would never know. Eames lies awake at night, sometimes, stroking Arthur’s forehead when his sleeps; it’s always smooth and unlined now, like a child’s. He doesn’t seem to dream anymore.

| |

“The mark is Jason Milkovich,” Arthur says, “head of PR at Picone Energy Sourcing. Word in the business is they’ve managed to refine the solar energy cell charging process, obviously very interesting information to a number of people if it turns out to be true.”

Saito, Eames thinks. No doubt there are others, but they’ll tell Saito, if it’s true.

“There’s a press conference the Saturday after next, right after a big gala,” Arthur continues. “Our client wants that information before then.”

Eames’ turn. “Luckily, Mr. Milkovich has a dental appointment next Wednesday. Industrial strength teeth whitening.” Eames tone makes it clear what he thinks of that. “We’ve approached the dentist, and the details should be tied up in two days.”

“Nothing fancy,” Arthur says. “But it needs to be seamless. Milkovich’s likely had his subconscious militarized, and we should avoid facing that head-on unless we have to.”

The architect has questions, then, and Eames stops listening, mostly. Most of his job was done in the planning stages. He just needs to make sure and show up, now.

Arthur shoots him a look, part behave yourself, part are you even paying attention? Eames grins, and leans back in his chair. Arthur sucks in his cheeks, like he wants to roll his eyes or rip Eames a new one, but Arthur only fights in front of those he trusts, implicitly, because Arthur is not above airing dirty laundry in public when it suits him.

After the briefing Eames corners Arthur, crowding him up against the desk in a way that makes escaping exceedingly awkward. Behind them, their chemist is fiddling with something that looks incredibly technical, and their architect is muttering to himself while looking at photos of the dentist’s office.

“Picone Energy Sourcing,” Eames says. “A subsidy of Cobol Engineering.”

“I know.”

Eames holds his gaze. “You’re alright?”

“Oh, right as rain,” Arthur says, and Eames nods. It’s an exaggeration, but not a lie.

“Alright.” He puts his hand on Arthur’s arm, the quickest and slightest of touches. Whatever he can get away with.

| |

The job is simple. Two levels, for a Plan B scenario, and just because they’re damn good at it these days. The top layer is the dentist’s office – Eames will be Dr. Myers, he’ll explain the original tank of nitrous oxide was low, they’re replaced it, and down into the second level Milkovich will go.

The second level is his office building. Eames should be able to also do Milkovich’s secretary passably – Milkovich thinks her name is Jenny, and forgot her birthday last week, so it won’t be his most challenging job. He’ll hand Milkovich a sheaf of papers, prompt him to look over the details of next week’s gala and press release, and the details should fill themselves in. It requires a delicate touch, a casual off-handedness that Eames should be able to pull off, but sometimes the simplest of jobs end the strangest.

| |

It starts out textbook perfect, if there were a textbook for dreamsharing. Milkovich goes under once, twice, and doesn’t suspect a thing. He starts the second level in the elevator and disembarks with Arthur and a handful of projections. Eames, as Joanne, greets Milkovich with a cup of coffee, a folder, and a pasted on smile that barely covers the sheer terror Joanne manages with Paxil.

“Details for next week’s gala, sir,” he says, heels clicking double-time to keep up with Milkovich’s brisk walk. “The confirmation on some of the details is due today, I wanted to make sure –”

Milkovich flips open the folder and flips through each page – one, two, three. “Looks fine. Run it by Kevin, then take care of it.”

Eames discreetly flips through the pages himself – dinner menus, music, guest list…

“Sir,” he says, still scrambling in the bloody heels. For God’s sake, has the woman never heard of sensible shoes? She works at an energy firm, not a fashion company. “Sir, what about the press release?”

Milkovich paused slightly before his office door. “Press release?”

“For after the gala?”

“The annual puff piece about remaining committed to green energy and saving the world, blah blah, one nuclear reactor at a time?” Milkovich asks, puzzled, reaching for the coffee. “I think one of the junior members revamped it. Ask Emily, if it’s important. And hold my calls!” He doesn’t quite slam the door, but it’s close. Several of the projections are staring.

Eames walks to Joanne’s desk calmly and sits down. After a moment, the projections returned to their work – talking on phones, typing on computers, photocopying all manner of things.

Eames tries to work it through in his head. Milkovich, the head of PR, has never even seen the statement they’re releasing next week. Is the rumor of new solar cell technology just that – rumor? No news might be good news, in this case, at least for Saito.

And then it hits. It hits so hard for a second Eames thinks the must have it wrong, that he’s missed a perfectly basic frame of logic. But the details pull together – click, click, click – slotting into place, perfectly. Milkovich is the head of PR, which means he’s a shiny immaculate shell keeping the shareholders happy for a tidy sum, or he’s neck deep in all the shit that needs to be covered up, because he’s the one who caused it. Picone Energy Sourcing. A subsidiary of Cobol Engineering. Arthur. Jesus, Eames is stupid.

Eames stands up and scans the floor, discreetly. Arthur is in one of the further desks, typing on a computer furiously. In a suit, but not so high a quality as would be his tastes. Eames crosses the floor, taps Arthur politely on the shoulder, and then drags him into the hallway.

It’s a good thing no one is there to see them, Eames thinks, Milkovich’s mousy little assistant slamming a cubicle monkey up against the wall. She’s got scrawny chicken arms that couldn’t pelt a stapler across the room, much less toss someone of Arthur’s size, but warping the rules of the dream where no one can see doesn’t hurt anyone.

Well. Besides however much it hurts Arthur to get Joanne’s pointy elbow shoved into his trachea.

“You arsehole,” he hisses. “Did you think I wouldn’t figure it out? You did, didn’t you?” he asks, while Arthur’s eyes scramble back and forth, thinking, always bloody thinking. “You thought I was too bloody stupid to put two and two together, too goddamn trusting to ever think about whether you’d ever be lying. You –”

He forces himself to let Arthur go before he does any semi-permanent damage. It’s a dream, yes, but pain is in the mind, and Eames is of the opinion that just because the effects don’t last doesn’t mean violence gets a free pass.

He leaves Arthur there, gasping against the wall, and goes to the ladies’ to calm himself down before people start staring again. He’s halfway through his second cigarette when a woman comes in, one of the other workers on the floor. She comes out of the stall after a minute and washes her hands, while watching Eames smoke furiously out of the corner of her eye.

“Maybe it’s none of my business,” the woman says, in that hesitant tone that women seem to perfect early on, the one that conveys how sorry they are to be doing something they just said they wouldn’t. “But are you okay?”

“Men,” Eames says, and takes a long drag. “You really can’t live with them.”

| |

Eames finishes the job because he a professional. Because if Arthur can get any information from Milkovich that has to do with Cobb’s death, he owes that to Cobb, not Arthur. He plays the Good Secretary until he snaps awake in the dentist’s office, Arthur sitting at his side, their chemist and architect already gone.

Perhaps not a smart move, Eames thinks wryly, still so angry he shakes with it. Witnesses could save Arthur, here.

Arthur looks at him from under hooded lids. Utterly blank. “He knows who ordered the hit on the Cobbs.”

It makes him angrier, almost inexplicably. Cobb is a get-out-of-jail free card for Arthur, and he knows it, because Eames knows what it means to Arthur. Arthur knows what it means to Eames. Just because he didn’t love Cobb, or he wasn’t his partner, or barely even his friend doesn’t mean he couldn’t stand to see justice done.

He forces himself to remain calm. “And?”

“Marie DiAngelo,” Arthur says hurriedly. “Vice-President of GANTT Incorporated. The money’s tied to her, anyway. That part was clear.”

“I’ll put the word out for info, then.” He stands up. The real dentist needs to come back in, perform Milkovich’s whitening, preferably before the dream becomes too unstable and Milkovich wakes himself up. Anything to get away from here.

“Eames…”

“Yes, Arthur?”

“Eames.” Arthur touches his wrist, hesitantly. Eames stares at it, thinking – he shouldn’t wrench it off, shouldn’t break anything. “I wasn’t… I wasn’t sure it was him, I didn’t know –”

“You had an idea,” he snarls, viciously. “But that wasn’t important enough to share with me, apparently.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Arthur says, angrily, “if you were – if you kept—”

“What, Arthur?” Eames says. “If I kept look out for you? If I kept caring? Jesus Christ, this is not the sort of thing you keep from me!”

“It’s Cobol, Arthur says, and something… something in Arthur’s eyes is panicked. Because Eames is leaving, or because his plan is failing to pieces, Eames doesn’t know. “You know I would do—”

“Anything,” Eames fills in. “I’m beginning to understand that, yes.”

| |

Eames goes to Paris. Ariadne is a particularly soothing person, when she wants to be, and while Mumbai has a certain milling anonymity that Eames is fond of, there’s nothing quite like being brokenhearted in Paris. The weather obliges him as well, cold and rainy, windy, the occasional beam of sun snuffed out within minutes.

“You’re depressing,” Ariadne declares, her hands on her hips. “You’re depressing me. You’re depressing the whole apartment. You’re – you’re fucking with it’s chi.”

“Do apartments have chi, then?”

“Feng shui, then,” she says, flopping onto the sofa next to him. “I know they have that. And stop trying to distract me. Your black hole of depression is trying to suck us all in, and I’ve got to cut that shit off at the source, so. We’re going out.”

“I don’t want to,” Eames says stubbornly.

Ariadne laughs. “No shit, Eames, you’ve made that perfectly clear. You’re going to anyway.” She sits on him until he agrees, and all told, it’s not a particularly bad night. It’s hard to have a bad night out in Paris; that’s true about the city too.

There are messages from Arthur, in the drop box. Impersonal ones, Eames is willing to bet. Just jobs. Just details. He can’t bring himself to look at them because he assumes it would be considered impolite to break Ariadne’s computer afterwards. But he looks at them, the number steadily building week after week, and he thinks, Arthur, what do you think of me? Do you love me? he even has the urge to ask, sometimes. Is that even on your radar? Was it just your way of keeping me close, the way you use Saito’s honor, and Ariadne’s naivety, and Yusuf’s good nature? Surprisingly simple Eames – sex will keep him coming back more reliably than any paycheck.

Eames’ phone vibrates in his back pocket. He digs it out reluctantly, wiping the heinously orange Doritos cheese all over his jeans. Ariadne could have locked herself out again, and decided to buy another enormously heavy pieces of furniture she’d be leaving behind soon enough. It’s the only reason she’s still letting him sleep on the couch, he’s certain – free labor.

But it’s Arthur’s number.

He clicks ignore. Or, rather, he thinks about clicking ignore, and then… doesn’t. He can’t put his finger on why. The weeks and weeks of anger, maybe – they’re exhausting. And he misses the field. He can’t deny that.

So he hits answer.

There is a pause on the other end.

“Eames,” comes out, cautiously, and Eames has to shut his eyes at the treacherous way his heart jumps.

“Arthur,” he says, and there, the worst is over. Like ripping off a band-aid, he would think. Exposing the wound to the air.

“I didn’t think you’d answer,” Arthur says, and Eames has to bite back, I nearly didn’t, get on with it, so he can hang up and root through Ariadne’s kitchen for the best vintage of the overworked architecture student winery.

“Yes, well,” Eames says, and there’s that damned silence again. “Did it pan out, with Maria DiAngelo, and GANTT…?” The least they could have gotten from this whole fiasco was a bloody lead.

“Nothing useful,” Arthur says, cautiously. “It’s a family company. Most of the money goes through her, regardless. I’m tracking it down.”

Eames doesn’t offer to help, this time. Whatever else Arthur wants from him, it’s not that.

“There’s a job,” Arthur says abruptly. “Obviously, I – it needs three levels, at least, and a good Forger. I thought of you.”

“Of course you did, darling,” Eames says, flip, and can nearly feel Arthur wince through the phone line.

“The mark is an art collector,” Arthur continues. “He’s found a lost Giotto fresco, or so he claims. Our client wants to know if it’s real before she sinks any money into it.”

Against his will, Eames is intrigued. “Militarized?”

“Of course,” Arthur says. “Cosimo, you’ve probably heard of him.”

“A Forger,” Eames says, surprised. Not a good one, of course, or he wouldn’t be counterfeiting lost artworks – but still. “You told the client it would be difficult?”

“I told her it would be nearly impossible,” Arthur says. “So you’re coming. You’re coming, right?”

So like Arthur, to assume. And so unlike Arthur, to ask twice, and so desperately.

“Yes,” Eames says. “I’m coming.”

| |

Eames takes a taxi from the airport and checks into his own hotel, under the perfectly ordinary name of Christopher MacKenna. He does his job perfectly, to the letter, and he’s very careful to never let Arthur catch him alone. He doesn’t know what he would do, how strong he is – Arthur looks worn-in, he can admit to himself, and he doesn’t know if he can resist that, his pale and careworn face, his shadowed eyes.

The worst part is they still work together perfectly. Eames knows Arthur backwards and forwards, the way he thinks, the way he moves. No matter how much Eames resents it, it’s a part of him now, like a muscle memory, and it would take much longer than a few weeks to remove Arthur’s imprint from Eames’ body. The job goes off flawlessly, breathtakingly, the third level a glittering cathedral, the light that filters through the stained glass luminously opaque.

“I’ve got a job lined up in Santiago for next week,” Arthur says, quietly, while Trey crows in the background. “We could use a Forger.”

Eames says yes. It’s a terrible idea, he thinks, but he says yes anyway.

| |

Ariadne and Yusuf phone him later, on a conference call.

Eames groans. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“It’s an intervention,” Ariadne says grimly. “You have to stop punishing Arthur.”

“I’m not…”

“You are,” Ariadne shrieks. “He called me yesterday to talk about LEED certification. LEED certification, Eames.”

“Shit or get off the pot, one could say,” Yusuf chimed in cheerfully.

“If you weren’t going to take him back eventually, you shouldn’t have gone back,” Ariadne scolds. “Punish him, sure—”

“Make him grovel a little –”

“Perform unusual sexual acts –”

“Ariadne,” Eames warns, and Yusuf snickers.

“Seriously,” Ariadne says, in what is, in fact, her serious voice. “You knew what he was asking when he called about the job. The fact that he called at all. You didn’t have to go back. You never had to see him again, if you didn’t want to. But you did. Clearly, you did.”

“You make it sound so simple,” Eames says, dryly, like there isn’t something pricking behind his eyes.

“It is,” she and Yusuf chime in together. “I mean, Jesus, Eames,” Ariadne continues, “What are you waiting for? A grand declaration? This is Arthur we’re talking about. You wouldn’t get one of those in a perfect world, much less this one.”

Which is completely and utterly true, Eames knows. That Arthur ever came to him in the first place is a miracle in itself. Caution is Arthur’s way, caution and moderation, and nothing about Eames fits with either.

“I don’t know if I can,” Eames says quietly. “I don’t know if I can meet him halfway. I don’t see that I should have to.”

“That’s your decision,” Yusuf says, with the strangely relevant sagacity Eames has come to expect from now and again. “If you think principles are the most important thing at play, here.”

Eames doesn’t know anymore. Maybe that’s his problem.

He knows that a look from Arthur – a real look, Eames doesn’t know how to explain it – pierces him to his very soul… like he sees everything about Eames, and embraces it all at once. You are mine, Arthur seems to say, the good, the bad, yes, the ugly, the sound and the fury, the beautiful and the sacred and the profane, all of it. There is no part of you I do not know, and if its an act, it’s the best Eames has ever seen. He likes to think he knows a con when he sees one. But he knows, too, that people believe what they want to believe. They ignore what doesn’t fit. What is Eames ignoring? What does he want to be true?

“I don’t know,” he says again. “I don’t know.”

| |

He goes to see Arthur at the warehouse. Arthur works non-stop, in the beginning, because his job is the basis of everyone else’s, usually. It’s not an unfamiliar sight, is what Eames means, Arthur slumped over a desk in the dead of night, collar and cuffs unbuttoned, rumpled, a cup of coffee by his side. It’s Arthur’s natural state of being, the less glamorous, put-together side.

“Darling,” he says, and watches Arthur swallow, the tightening of the muscles in his jaw. “Aren’t you tired?”

Arthur turns back the papers spread out in front of him. Some photographs, a blueprint. “I’ve got a few more hours in me. Did you decide whether to use his daughter or his wife? The house works well for either, but –”

“Not precisely what I mean,” Eames says, and reaches out to stroke the short, feathery hairs tucked behind Arthur’s ear. “Aren’t you tired?”

Arthur turns to look at him, wide-eyed. “Eames—”

“Don’t talk,” Eames warns him. “Just – come back to the hotel with me. We’ll talk in the morning, but for now… for now I just want to be with you, and I can’t think about it anymore than that.”

| |

Arthur feels brittle under his hands, like the wrong move with snap him in half. They’re throwing themselves against each other, fucking, colliding, tearing little pieces out of each other to patch back together. It’s a relief, when Eames comes, trembling all the way through his thighs and his stomach and his arms, sick deep in his gut, sore, and used.

“I – ” Arthur says afterwards, his eyes wet and shimmering. “I—”

I’m sorry? I’m glad you’re here? I could stop? I love you? Eames doesn’t know which Arthur wants to say. Which Eames wants to hear. Which would even be a lie. He just knows he can’t walk away. He did, and he walked right back.

Arthur is a man running on the reserves of who he was. If this is what he needs - Eames as his keeper, his lover, his partner – Eames is willing to give it. Willing to follow him around the world. Watch his back. Bring him jobs, like a cat leaving dead mice on the porch. Turning a blind eye to Cobol, the way a wife does to a mistress, as long as her own place isn’t usurped.

“Tell me everything,” Eames says, the next morning. He’s never been so serious in his life. This is it, the turning point, the crossroads, the edge of the cliff where they fall or fly. “Everything, darling, or – “

Arthur nods. “Everything,” he says, “I’ll tell you everything,” and does.

| |

This doesn’t mean Eames is completely off his guard. He knows, yes, Arthur could be duping him. Maybe Arthur doesn’t give a damn about him one way or another. Maybe Arthur was hurting so badly he decided to stop feeling anything. Maybe this is just Arthur. Maybe it always was. Maybe they’ll take down Cobol. Maybe they won’t. Maybe if they do, Arthur will break down, then. Maybe they’ll go to Eames’ house in Antigua, in between jobs. Maybe they’ll retire there someday. Maybe right after the Cobol Job, temporarily, or even permanently, Eames doesn’t know. And that’s the beauty of real life, he supposes. That’s its pain. Whether you flip heads or tails, land on red or black, roll a two or a three or a six. Life isn’t dreams. There’s no fixing reality in your favor. There’s no realizing you can just wake up. It’s all a gamble.

Make no mistake, and don’t jump to any conclusions, now – Eames is still playing to win. He never does anything less.

| |

The Nairobi sun is like a warm slap to the face. Eames can roll over and try and get out of the way, but the damage is done; he suspects Arthur has drawn the blinds for precisely this purpose. He hears Arthur on the other side of the room, the clicking and tapping of the laptop, the whir of the fan, already manically productive.

“Good morning, Mr. Eames.”

Eames grunts, and picks up Arthur’s coffee. No sugar, no cream. It’s little better than going out and getting his own, but he takes a sip just to watch that little wrinkle appear on Arthur’s forehead.

He looks at Arthur. The bags under his eyes, the ragged file folder under his elbow. Everything he has on Cobol, and Fischer, and wherever else he’s chased the leads and the money, the contacts and the information and the data. A thousand endless spools of thread falling down a hundred endless rabbit holes.

If they were different people, Eames would kiss Arthur’s face, his shoulder. Shut his laptop and pull him back into bed. They’d spend the spring in Paris with Ariadne, one of Mombasa’s dry seasons with Yusuf. Saito would surprise them somewhere, in Milan or Sydney or bloody Minsk, which Eames will visit for sentimental reasons. They will live in Antigua, and Eames will convert the attic to a studio, paint Arthur in oils but never pastels.

This is not who they are. Not where they are. Maybe not even what they are capable of.

“How long ‘til the meet?” Eames asks instead, and busies his hands with sorting through the clothes in the closet.

“An hour. The water’s lukewarm, but Wintha promised to save you some kaimati.” Arthur, somehow, manages to draw the maternal instinct of at least one woman in every city they visit. Eames doesn’t complain, usually, when it gets him fried foods.

He showers and dresses on autopilot. Arthur is repacking their PASIV, unpacking their guns from the hidden segment of the casing.

“Ready?” Arthur asks, and holds out Eames’ USP.

Eames takes it, checks the safety, and tucks it under his jacket. “Let the good times roll, darling.”

Arthur doesn’t smile, but they walk out of the hotel side by side, perfectly synchronized, the swing of their hands not quite touching.

“How are your contacts in Copenhagen?” Arthur asks, and hails a taxi. “Someone who could get us in touch with another Forger?”

Eames thinks about it for a moment. His contacts are usually as migratory as he is, but there’s always someone. “A forger will definitely cost you. Even an amateur.”

“Not even close to our biggest problem,” Arthur mutters, and he’s off in his head, running numbers and logistics and who will work with whom and who’s likely to shoot on sight.

The sun reflects off the metal roof for a moment, sending a corona of light out around Arthur’s head before he slides into the darkness of the cab. Eames smiles, briefly, and shuts the door behind them.

“What?” Arthur asks, bemused, while Eames tangles their feet together in the back of the cab.

“Nothing, darling. Nothing at all.”

 

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory