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I
The Forger


 

Mr. Eames was a forger.

"You can just call me Eames, darling," he told Arthur the first time they met. His voice was low and a bit rough, and Arthur could feel himself blushing. Mr. Eames' laughter was warm and amused.

"Well, aren't you precious," he said, sweeping his knuckles playfully across Arthur's heated cheek.

Dom came back in with the new PASIV prototype, took one look at them and narrowed his eyes at Eames.

"He's seventeen," he said, dumping the case on the table.

"Oh, yeah?" Mr. Eames looked Arthur up and down, smirking like he enjoyed watching Arthur's blush deepen. It made Arthur feel mortified and turned on in equal measures.

"Eames," Dom said, and Mr. Eames took a step back, holding his hands up.

"Alright, I can take a hint. No corrupting your little stray, however delicious he might be."

"I appreciate your self-restraint," Dom said. He was feigning exasperation, but Arthur could tell he was amused.

"I'm right here," Arthur said, crossing his arms.

"How terribly rude of us," Mr. Eames said. "My sincerest apologies."

"Yes," Arthur said, rolling his eyes not-quite-discreetly. "You sound completely sincere."

Mr. Eames' laughter was smoky and infectious, and it sent a thrill through Arthur's blood to know that he'd done that; he'd made Mr. Eames laugh.

"We do have some work scheduled for today," Dom said mildly. "So whenever the two of you are ready."

"Of course," Mr. Eames said, quirking an eyebrow, still amused. Arthur was already moving to the table, feeling the sting of Dom's reprimand even though, logically, he knew it wasn't intended as such.

"So this is the improved version, then?" Mr. Eames asked, hand skimming over the machine Dom was setting up.

"Yes," Dom said. "We're still testing the chemical compounds for the best effect."

"It's more precise," Arthur said, shifting as Mr. Eames looked at him. "The previous prototype was sometimes off with the countdown. By a small margin, but it all counts in the dream."

"Good catch," Mr. Eames said.

"Arthur has an eye for details," Dom said, and Arthur felt a flare of pride at the offhand compliment. "Okay, let's try it. Five minutes."

Arthur winced a little as he hooked himself up, still not quite used to the sting. Dom activated the machine and they went under.

-

It was Dom's dream. The setting reminded Arthur of Dom's campus during the summer, the lawns between the buildings dotted with projections of students.

"Who's that, then?"

"Excuse me?" Arthur said, startled, turning to look at the woman who'd come to stand next to him. The woman grinned, and Arthur's eyes went wide.

"Mr. Eames?" He asked, and the woman pursed her lips, disappointed.

"I told you to call me Eames," she said, touching Arthur's chest briefly with a perfectly manicured hand. "No need for formality between us, is there?"

Arthur stared. With her blond hair, heart shaped face and curvy body, she didn't look anything at all like Mr. Eames. Dom had explained forging to him, of course he had, and it had sounded fascinating, but it was only real to him now, seeing it with his own eyes. His whole life was far-fetched these days, and forging, as it turned out, was just another one of those impossible things that could only exist in dreams.

"Is it really you?" Arthur couldn't help asking, lifting his hand before he could stop himself. He curled his fingers into his palm, but the woman snatched up his hand before he could drop it.

"It's okay," she said, "you can touch. I promise I won't bite." Then she winked at him and added, "Unless you want me to, of course."

Arthur blushed even as he rolled his eyes, but didn't resist as she pressed his hand against her cheek, then dragged it down all the way to her chest. Arthur watched his hand resting against her breastbone and swallowed.

"You feel real," he said.

"I'm as real as anything else in the dream," she said with a shrug, still smiling that flirty smile at him. His fingers twitched, and he ducked his head, taking his hand back.

"Can you really be anyone you want?" He wanted to know.

"Looks are the easy part," she said, and morphed into another woman, one with long, dark hair and flowing skirts, looking more at home in the college setting than the blonde of a moment ago. "Well," she said, smirking. "For me, at least. Getting the mannerisms right is where the real skill lies."

"Why does this one look more -- genuine?" Arthur asked, frowning. He hadn't really thought of it at first, but the blonde woman hadn't been quite as lifelike as this one -- there had been something off with her, like she'd been too much of a part of the dream, smooth and unreal.

"In comparison to the bombshell?" Even the voice of the new woman was different. "That's because she's a creation of mine -- this one is modeled after a real person. It's easier to imitate someone than it is to create a person from scratch. Like my little bombshell, they end up looking too perfect, not enough flaws -- it puts people off. I'm working on it."

Before Arthur could inquire more, Mr. Eames nodded towards Dom and asked,

"So, hey, who is that?"

"Who?" Arthur turned.

"The leggy brunette Dom's talking to."

"Oh, that's --" Arthur sighed, put upon, as he caught sight of Dom, who looked completely preoccupied. "That's Mal. She's Miles' daughter -- you know, Dom's mentor? I guess that's a part of why Dom hasn't had the guts to ask her out yet."

"So he stalks her in his dreams? How very charming and not creepy at all."

"You could call it practice for when he does ask her out?" Arthur said with a shrug. He glanced at Mr. Eames from the corner of his eye. "Speaking of-- Do you think --"

"Full sentences, please, my dear."

"Could you show me how you... do that," he said, vaguely indicating the shape of the woman Mr. Eames was pretending to be.

"You want to forge, my sweet little morsel?"

"Um," Arthur said, then decided to ignore the fact that Mr. Eames was obviously messing with him. "I would like to try?"

"Hmm." Mr. Eames looked at him with a thoughtful expression, then glanced at Dom, who was still deep in the imaginary conversation with his crush. "On one condition."

"What is it," Arthur asked, wary but not surprised. He knew better than to expect anything for free.

"Drop the 'Mister', alright?" Mr. Eames said, surprising him.

"I haven't --"

"You're still thinking it, I can tell," Mr. Eames said and, embarrassingly, Arthur's hands flew to his head, as if it would make any difference if Mr. Eames really could see his thoughts. Mr. Eames' laughter sounded different coming from the college kid's mouth, but it was still just as infectious and easy.

Dom turned at the sound of it and seemed to realize that getting caught up in a conversation with a projection of your crush wasn't the most professional way to start the day, even if they weren't in the dream to do much more than observe. It was the principle of the things, Arthur thought.

"Fine," he told Eames, hating the fact that he was blushing, again. "So will you teach me?"

"We'll see how you take to it," was all the reply he got.

-

Arthur didn't take to it. It had been two days, and there hadn't really been any progress. He couldn't understand why it was so difficult for him when the thought of being someone else, even if it was only in dreams, was so appealing to him.

He looked into the mirror, frustrated at seeing his own face staring back at him. The best he'd managed hadn't quite been him, but it hadn't been anyone else either. Just... wrong.

Eames came to stand behind him, letting the bombshell slide away like water, easy, leaving just himself behind.

"You think too much," he said, his hands coming to rest on Arthur's shoulders, heavy and warm. "You're too attached to your perception of yourself. Even if you do figure out how to look like someone else, I'm not sure you'll ever have the imagination -- the flexibility of the mind -- it takes to be a forger."

Arthur shrugged Eames' hands away. Knowing that the words weren't said with malice didn't make them sting any less.

"Hey, hey." Eames tugged him back and turned him around, away from the mirror. "So you're not a forger -- it's not the end of the world."

"I just," Arthur said, taking a deep breath. "I just wanted-- I'm not used to-- to failing."

"I get it," Eames said. "No one likes to suck. Or, well..." He paused, tilting his head in thought.

Arthur pushed at his shoulder, exasperated, biting his lip to keep from smiling.

"You're incorrigible," he said.

"It's part of my charm," Eames said, smiling, and all at once Arthur realized how close they were standing. "Look at it this way: at least now I don't need to worry about you pushing me down the stairs to become the next star in forging."

"That makes me feel so much better, yes, thank you," Arthur said, rolling his eyes.

"You're welcome, darling," Eames said, teasing. He smoothed his hands soothingly over Arthur's arms, and suddenly Arthur wanted. If he couldn't have forging, he thought, recklessly, maybe he could have the forger.

He leaned up and pressed his mouth against Eames' before he could think better of it. For a moment, Eames was still against him, and Arthur pressed in closer, insistent, desperate. Then Eames gave in -- Arthur could feel it in Eames' body, like an inhalation, like a surrender -- and kissed him back, his hands coming to hold Arthur, one at the small of his back, the other cupping the side of his face.

It was intoxicating. Arthur curled a hand in Eames' shirt and hooked an arm behind his neck, pulling him in. Eames pressed them together, pushing a thigh between Arthur's legs, and Arthur moaned.

"Christ," Eames murmured against his mouth, "I'm going to hell."

"I'll send you there myself if you stop," Arthur told him. The next thing he knew, there was a wall at his back and Eames hoisted him up, burying his face in Arthur's neck with a groan as Arthur lifted his legs up and around Eames' hips, crossing his ankles and using the leverage to grind their hips together.

"Yes, fuck," Eames said, his breath hot and moist against Arthur's skin. Arthur felt a hint of teeth at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, and then Eames was pressing open mouthed kisses along his jawline. Arthur shivered, his breath catching in his throat, and clenched his hands in the back of Eames' shirt.

Eames crushed him against the wall, seeking and finding more contact, the roll of his hips against Arthur's insistent. Arthur started shaking with how good the friction felt, loosing coordination until he was just hanging on, panting and shivering in Eames' arms.

He came apart with a cry, his head connecting with the wall, the orgasm so intense he could feel tears in his eyes from the agony of it. He held on, trembling, as Eames reached his own climax, his hands bruising where they gripped at Arthur, holding him up. Eames leaned against him, heavy. He felt Eames' lips against his cheek and turned his head to meet him. They were too wrung out to put much effort in it, and the kiss was little more than the two of them breathing against each other, open mouthed and messy.

After a while, Eames patted him on the hip, and he unhooked his shaky legs, letting them drop back down. They barely held his weight, and if it weren't for Eames' grip on him, he might have slid down. Eames' breath was warm against Arthur's cheek when he chuckled.

"Baby's first time having sex in a dream?" He asked, sounding amused, but he was still a little out of breath, which made Arthur feel better.

"You wish," he said, not about to give Eames more ammunition by admitting his lack of experience.

Eames drew back from him, his expression still amused, but didn't test Arthur's claim. His eyes went a little unfocused as he took in the state Arthur was in. He licked his lips, bringing his hand up to smooth a thumb over the corner of Arthur's mouth.

"You're a mess," he said, his voice rough and lazy. "We're lucky this is a dream, or Cobb would take one look at you and murder me on the spot."

"He's not my keeper," Arthur said, frowning. "I can make my own decisions."

"I believe you," Eames said, pressing his thumb harder against Arthur's lower lip, pulling it down. He watched as Arthur tentatively licked it with his tongue, eyes half-lidded.

-

Eames stayed with them for a week. The night before he was scheduled to fly out, Arthur showed up at his hotel. It had taken Arthur the whole week to work up his courage, and he was still nervous enough that instead of announcing his presence, he was standing in the hallway, debating the merits of knocking versus turning on his heel and walking out of the hotel. They'd fooled around a couple of more times in dreams, but that had only fueled Arthur's yearning for something more, ultimately leaving him frustrated and wanting. Which was why he was standing outside of Eames' hotel room like a fool, trying to gather up his nerve.

Finally, fed up with himself, he raised a hand and knocked sharply on the door. He knew what he wanted, and he hadn't come this far just to back out. It took Eames just long enough to open the door that Arthur had time to go through several scenarios wherein Eames had already left, or had company, or would laugh in Arthur's face, or --

"Arthur," Eames said, sounding surprised, but not unpleasantly so.

"Expecting someone else?" Arthur asked, putting his hands into his pockets. He was wearing jeans and a striped shirt under a short jacket, and suddenly wondered if he looked too much like a kid, or if Eames found his clothes boring. "Room service?"

"Haven't ordered anything," Eames said, opening the door wider to let Arthur in. He closed the door behind him, and it was only when he tucked the gun into his waistband that Arthur realized he'd been armed. Eames noticed him looking and shrugged.

"Unexpected visitors aren't usually a good sign in my business," he said. Arthur nodded, feeling chagrined. It also made him wonder about having a gun of his own; he was getting to be a pretty good shot, but Dom said he was too young to be carrying a gun around in the real world. Arthur wasn't sure he agreed, but he supposed he could go along with it for now.

He looked around the room, bare apart from the duffel on the floor near the end of the bed. He moved to the window, restless, and flicked the closed curtains a little to look outside.

"So," Eames said from behind him. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"Maybe I just came to, I don't know. We could get coffee or something," Arthur said, turning to look at him. He didn't know what showed on his face, but it made Eames raise an eyebrow.

"Oh, darling, no," he said, shaking his head. "This is a terrible idea."

"Why?" Arthur asked, feeling stubborn enough to forget about his nerves.

"You're seventeen," Eames pointed out. Arthur smirked a little, shrugging off his jacket and letting it fall to the floor.

"So? It didn't seem to bother you before," he said. Eames licked his lips.

"Cobb will kill me," he said, but his eyes were fixed on Arthur, watching his approach with a conflicted, hungry expression that thrilled Arthur to the core.

"You afraid of him?" Arthur asked, stopping right in front of Eames, resting his hand lightly against Eames' stomach, feeling the heat and muscle through the threadbare t-shirt he was wearing.

"I'm in no hurry to die, love," Eames said, but didn't step away from Arthur's touch, didn't tell him to stop.

"He doesn't need to know," Arthur said, looking at Eames through his lashes. He didn't think he was very good at being coy, but Eames didn't seem to mind. "I can keep a secret," he whispered, pressing flush against Eames.

"Arthur," Eames said, closing his eyes. Arthur loved the way Eames said his name. It sounded different, coming from him; better. Beautiful, almost.

"Say my name again," he said, looking at Eames' face intently. If Eames felt his stare, he didn't show it. "Please," Arthur breathed against his mouth, and Eames gave in with a groan, sliding a hand in Arthur's hair.

"Anything but temptation," he murmured, opening his eyes. "Arthur," he said, and pressed his mouth against Arthur's. When Eames threw himself at something, it was with abandon; Arthur squeezed his eyes shut and did his best to keep up -- being the sole focus of Eames' attention was overwhelming.

He slipped his hands under Eames' shirt, inhaling through his nose at the feel of heated skin against his fingertips. Eames withdrew from the kiss in order to pull his shirt roughly over his head before swooping back in to possess Arthur's lips. His hands slid around Arthur's back, bunching up his shirt; he pushed forward, backing Arthur against the bed. Arthur went without protest, running his palms up and over Eames' chest, enjoying the feel of coarse hair between his fingers.

He was so hard, so painfully aroused, he was afraid he'd come the minute he got any kind of friction at all. He raised his arms, obedient, when Eames tugged at his shirt. Once the shirt was gone, Eames pushed at him and he fell backwards onto the bed. He got up on his elbows and scooted back, expecting Eames to follow him, but for a minute Eames just stood at the end of the bed and stared. Arthur felt like a wreck, blushing at the though of what he must look like, half-naked and hard, sprawled across the bed with kiss-swollen lips and messed up hair.

"What?" He said, breathless and defensive, and Eames shook his head like he was trying to wake himself up.

"This is crazy," he said, climbing on the bed before Arthur, thinking Eames was about to back out, could protest. "You make me crazy." Eames fitted his hand behind Arthur's neck and pulled him up and into a kiss while working Arthur's fly open with the other. He broke the kiss, sitting upright to drag Arthur's jeans and underwear over his hips and off his legs. Eames tossed them carelessly on the floor and pushed Arthur flat against the covers. Arthur ran his hands over Eames chest, across his shoulders, his breath hitching when Eames ducked his head to suck kisses against his collarbones, down his chest.

"Eames," he breathed, fisting a hand in Eames' hair. Eames ghosted his fingers across Arthur's ribs, his palm settling, heavy, on Arthur's lower stomach, the flat curve of his hip.

"What do you want, Arthur?" Eames asked, his lips brushing against Arthur's breastbone. He ran the backs of his fingers up the underside of Arthur's cock, and Arthur almost choked on nothing, his hips coming off the bed. He gulped for breath, cursing.

"Don't-- Don't do that, I won't last long," he said, embarrassed but not willing to settle for a quick handjob.

"Of course you won't," Eames said, wrapping his fingers around Arthur's cock, holding it. "You're seventeen." He flicked his tongue against Arthur's nipple, and again, slower, mirroring the upwards drag of his hand; Arthur whined.

"The upside," Eames continued, flicking his thumb over the slick head, "is the recovery period. Given proper motivation," he said, his tone contemplative, mouthing over Arthur's ribs until he could nip at his belly button with his teeth, "I'm sure it won't take long for you to show interest again."

He raised his head, looking straight at Arthur, the movement of his hand becoming quicker, rougher; it was the look in Eames' eyes, intense and dark, no trace of amusement or ridicule, that finally pushed Arthur over the edge. His head slammed back against the pillows, his back curving, his hands grasping against the covers, empty and wanting.

He was shuddering, gasping for air as he came down from his orgasm. He felt Eames moving away from the bed but lacked the capacity to question it. After a while, the bed dipped under Eames' weight, and Arthur made an effort to open his eyes. He blinked a few times, feeling like his lashes were clumped together, too spent and relaxed to feel startled when Eames ran a damp cloth over his stomach.

"Hi," he said, stupidly, as he blinked up at Eames.

"Hello," Eames said softly, amusement back in his eyes, in the curve of his lips. His eyes dropped briefly to Arthur's mouth, and he bent down to press an open mouthed, almost affectionate kiss against Arthur's parted lips before getting up and off the bed again.

When he came back sans the damp cloth, he'd taken off his own pants and underwear. Arthur followed the strong lines of his body with half-lidded eyes, his appreciation matching his body's lazy response, a distant echo of arousal tugging at his insides. He let his eyes linger on Eames' cock, running his tongue absently over his lower lip, thinking, yes, I want that; I want him.

"I want you to fuck me," he told Eames, who paused, kneeling on the bed with his hands braced on his thighs.

"Yeah?" Eames asked, his voice rough.

"Yeah," Arthur said, moving his hands up above his head in a full-body stretch, enjoying the way Eames followed the movement of his body with his eyes, the unconscious parting of his lips. "Do you want me to use my mouth on you while we wait for the proper motivation to catch up?"

Not that Arthur had any real experience, but he'd done research, and some practicing -- he was ninety per cent sure he could avoid completely embarrassing himself or tipping Eames off about it being Arthur's first time with an actual human being.

"Uh," Eames said, the corner of his mouth twisting up as he tugged at his own balls a little. "Probably not the best idea if you're serious about wanting to get fucked. Unlike some, I'm not a teenager anymore."

"Hmm," Arthur said, shifting his hips to find a better position. "Suit yourself."

Eames shot a look at him, shaking his head even as he lay down on the bed, propped up on his forearm, and reached over Arthur to get the lube from the bedside table. Arthur swallowed, covering up his nervousness with a twist of his lips and a raised eyebrow.

"You don't even bother to keep it in a drawer?" He looked pointedly at the bottle in Eames' hand.

"Hey, who wants to waste time opening drawers when they can just keep everything close at hand?" Eames asked like it was a philosophical question, opening the top with a flick of his thumb.

"The hotel cleaners would probably appreciate it," Arthur said, his eyes fixed on the sight of Eames slicking up his fingers.

"Eh, I bet they see far more scandalous things than a guy with a habit of jerking off," Eames said, dismissive. "Move your legs a little, there's a dear," he said, nudging at Arthur's thigh with the back of his hand.

"Are you an exhibitionist too, then?" Arthur asked, blinking at the ceiling as he spread his legs.

"Aren't you a riot," Eames said, moving to kneel between Arthur's legs. He trailed his fingers along the back of one thigh until he could hook a hand behind the knee, lifting the leg up and to the side. Arthur felt a flash of arousal mixed with embarrassment. He took a deep, quiet breath and didn't startle when Eames' slick fingers brushed at the skin behind his balls, sliding down the crack to his opening. The fingers stayed there for a moment, rubbing in slow circles, and Arthur's hips twitched, a blush licking at his cheeks.

"Come on," he said, tilting his head against the pillows to look down at where Eames' hand disappeared from sight.

"Patience, young one," Eames said absently, not taking his eyes off what he was doing with his fingers, but finally did push in the tip of one digit.

"I'm, ah --" Arthur said as the finger slipped in further. "Not that young."

"If you say so," Eames said, wetting his lips. "What you are though --"

"What's that?" Arthur swallowed as Eames withdrew the finger, then pushed it back in, a slow slide up to the third knuckle. The corner of Eames' eye twitched, and he shifted his shoulders like he was uncomfortable -- then he smiled a little, meeting Arthur's eyes fleetingly before looking back down.

"Lovely," he said. "You look lovely."

Arthur wasn't sure how he was supposed to respond, so he didn't. Eames pulled his hand back and reached for the lube again, pouring more of it on his fingers before pushing back in, and it was fine, it felt fine -- a little uncomfortable, a lot weird, but Arthur liked it, wanted more of it. The thought -- the sight -- of Eames between his legs, Eames' fingers in him, preparing him for getting fucked, was enough to send spikes of arousal down his spine until all he wanted to do was push back against the hand gently working him open.

Eames added a second finger, and it was -- it wasn't painful; Arthur focused on that thought, forcing his body to relax. And then Eames' fingers pressed against something inside him that tore out a completely unintended sound from his throat, a breathless cry that mirrored the way his body suddenly seized up with want.

"There we are," Eames mused, resting Arthur's leg against his thigh and leaning forward, curving his free hand against Arthur's waist. "You like that, right? Not everyone cares for prostate stimulation."

"Yeah, it's," Arthur managed, took a deep breath; "It's good."

"Good," Eames said, his eyes crinkling in the corners, and then did it again. And again.

By the time Eames withdrew his fingers and slicked himself up with long, smooth strokes, Arthur was a shivering mess, his body flushed and hard with arousal. He felt wanton and open, but he could still feel the thread of nervousness at the back of his mind, threatening to undo the work the foreplay and the previous orgasm had done to loosen him up. He eyed the size of Eames' cock, fully hard and flushed dark with blood, and bit his lip. Eames tossed the lube back on the bed and Arthur pushed himself up into a sitting position, drawing his legs up and turning around, getting on his hands and knees. His body wasn't too fond of having to move, but he thought it'd be better like this, easier; at the very least, he wouldn't have to worry about what his expressions might reveal.

"You want it from behind?" Eames said, rising up on his knees behind Arthur and running a heavy hand over his spine.

"No," Arthur said, looking over his shoulder and rolling his eyes, trying to shake the lingering feelings of embarrassment and uncertainty. "What made you think that?"

"No need for snark, pet," Eames chided him, his voice soft and smoky, his hands sliding down to cup Arthur's ass, massaging gently before prying the cheeks apart with his thumbs. Arthur let his head drop, feeling vulnerable and so turned on he could hardly breath.

"Eames," he said, swallowing, his throat suddenly dry, and Eames said, "Yeah," and, "Arthur."

Arthur was so slick he felt like he was dripping with lube, but Eames' cock felt huge going in, stretching his opening until Arthur felt like sobbing with it. He swallowed a breath, his hips twitching -- away from the invasion or towards it, Arthur wasn't sure -- as Eames pressed further in, then withdrew a little, his thumb rubbing softly against the stretched skin next to where he was breaching Arthur's body.

"Arthur," Eames said, sounding strained and faintly troubled.

"Wh-- ah?" Arthur asked, pushing back a little, experimentally.

"Nothing." Eames sounded gruff, but his hands were gentle. "You're so fucking tight."

"Mm," Arthur said, his eyelids fluttering, his fingers curling into the sheets as Eames got over whatever hang up had made him pause. He grabbed Arthur's hips, his hands big and rough on Arthur's flushed skin, and pushed in, slow but relentless, until his whole length was buried within Arthur's body.

Arthur could hear himself making noises -- embarrassing, helpless noises -- but couldn't make them stop. Eames withdrew until just the head was inside, then pushed pack in until his balls were flush against Arthur's ass. He did it slowly, at first, and then faster, rougher, fucking Arthur with long, deep, relentless strokes. When he shifted the angle and the head dragged across Arthur's prostate, Arthur let out a throaty, wrecked moan, and his arms gave out; he gave in without a fight, resting his forehead against the bed, panting.

"Yeah," Eames breathed, snapping his hips forward, hard. "Yeah, Arthur, you look so good like this."

Arthur gasped for breath against the covers, feeling desperate. Eames was overwhelming, the roll of his hips unrelenting. Arthur felt like he was coming completely undone, and he thought, Eames' hands, Eames' cock, Eames --

-- and, oh, he was so in over his head, he thought, choking on a laugh, and then Eames took hold of his erection, jerking him off with hard, rough pulls, and it took no time, no time at all, before Arthur was tensing up and crying out and shaking apart, coming in Eames' hand, with Eames still rocking in and out, the rhythm of it hard and unforgiving.

Arthur focused on getting his breathing under control, letting himself be fucked; his body didn't even feel like his anymore, just something of Eames' he'd get back, maybe, when Eames was done with it. The hands holding his hips were the only thing keeping him from crumbling bonelessly onto the wet spot. He felt floaty and wrung out, weightless and worn in the aftermath of his own pleasure. The room was filled with their harsh breaths, the sound of flesh against flesh, until Eames' strokes into him became shorter, harder, more erratic; Eames grunted, cursed, his hips flush against Arthur's ass. As he came, his grip on Arthur tightened almost painfully, his fingers pressing against the bone and muscle of Arthur's hips. Feeling the flood of warmth inside him, Arthur thought, condom -- but the thought was muddled and distant, his mind too close to sleep to hold on to it.

Eames leaned his hand heavily against the bed next to Arthur in an attempt not to collapse on top of him. For a minute, Eames stayed where he was, breathing hard. Then he touched Arthur's back with a gentle hand, smoothing his palm over the curve of Arthur's spine as he slowly withdrew. Arthur bit his lip as the head slipped out of him, leaving a sticky trail along the back of his thigh. Eames moved to the side and fell next to him on the bed, and Arthur laid down, too tired to care about the wet spot. He closed his eyes, trying to get used to the sudden emptiness inside of him, the ring of muscles at his opening grasping at nothing, unable to close completely. He shifted; the area felt swollen and sticky. Used, his mind told him, a trace of something that might have been satisfaction curling around the thought.

After a few minutes, Eames got off the bed again. Arthur fluttered his eyes open, watching as Eames disappeared into the bathroom and reappeared a couple of minutes later with a freshly dampened cloth.

"You alright, love?" He asked, brushing a strand of hair away from Arthur's sweaty forehead as he knelt next to him on the bed.

"Mm, yes," Arthur said, rubbing his cheek against the bed. Eames chuckled softly, shaking his head.

"Let's clean you up a little," he murmured, nudging Arthur's legs apart.

"Um," Arthur said, blushing.

"You're getting shy on me now?" Eames asked, snorting. "Darling, I've already seen it all. No need to pretend you're modest."

"Fine," Arthur said with as much bite as he could in his current condition, which admittedly didn't amount to much. He frowned against the pillow and spread his legs, tilting his hips for better access, and shivered at the feel of the damp cloth against his skin. He closed his eyes as Eames cleaned away the sticky trails of lube and semen, turned his head further into the pillow when Eames touched the hot skin around his entrance with cool fingertips. He moved when Eames urged him to turn over, watching with half-lidded eyes as Eames ran the cloth over his stomach for the second time that evening, and allowed himself to be prodded until they could strip off the top sheet. Eames took a minute to fetch a glass of water while Arthur got under the covers, setting it on the night table within Arthur's reach.

"Drink it," he told Arthur before going back into the bathroom. Arthur felt like pointing out that he wasn't a child, thank you very much, but was too thirsty to get around to it. He leveled himself up on an elbow and drained the glass. He was mostly asleep when Eames stepped into the room and switched the lights off. He felt the bed dipping when Eames got in next to him -- it was his last flash of awareness before sleep overwhelmed him, dragging him down like an anchor.

He didn't dream.

-

When he woke up, Eames was gone. Arthur swallowed as he sat up, tangled in the messy sheets, naked and sore and alone. There was a note on the nightstand, next to the empty glass, on which Eames had written in a messy scrawl,

 

Thanks for the coffee, pet.

PS - The room's booked till ten.

 

Arthur stared at the note for a long time, the quiet of the hotel room loud in his ears, and told himself he hadn't expected anything else.

 


II
Sidesteps


 

Once upon a time, Arthur had been a part of the sort of life that might have eventually lead to him becoming a lawyer or perhaps a doctor -- something prestigious and well paid. But that had been then, and real life didn't begin with once upon a time nor did it end in a happily ever after. Arthur had stopped believing in fairy tales when he'd realized that life wasn't one, but some of his child's naivety must have lingered; it was the only reason he could think of why this thing with Eames had blindsided him so completely.

He hadn't been thinking of happily ever afters, hadn't been planning ahead to a future together, but some part of him had expected a morning after, had nurtured the idea of something more. To be left with nothing but cooled sheets and an offhanded note that in no way acknowledged the connection he'd thought they had, or gave any indication that their time together had meant to Eames even a fraction of what it had meant to Arthur, made Arthur realize how stupid he'd been. He couldn't believe how easily he'd given himself to a man he'd foolishly trusted, but who, Dom's acquaintance or not, was really nothing more than a stranger to him.

He'd liked Eames. He'd liked his voice, and his laugh, and the way he talked; his hands, and his body, the outrageous stories he told, the easy familiarity. He'd liked it all.

Arthur didn't trust easily, was the thing. He didn't feel comfortable letting people get close to him. That he'd let Eames in so easily, charmed by his manners and enamored by the perceived glamour of forging, was unacceptable.

Arthur curled his hands into loose fists; he might be slow, but he wasn't stupid. He wasn't the sort of person to repeat his mistakes -- he'd learned his lesson. Nothing like this would ever happen again.

Should he cross paths with Eames in the future, everything would be different.

Everything.

-

Even without Eames around, Arthur felt out of sorts, tired and irritated more often than not. Dom noticed, which shouldn't have surprised Arthur, but somehow did. He felt Dom's eyes on him all week, saw the raised eyebrows and concerned looks when he snapped at nothing, when he lied about being busy with something so he could take an afternoon to find a free clinic and get himself tested -- he would rather have waited until the bruises on his hips had faded away, thus avoiding awkward questions, but figured it was probably better not to wait.

In retrospect, it was only surprising that Dom waited for as long as he did before approaching Arthur with his concerns.

"Arthur," Dom was standing awkwardly next to the desk where Arthur was making notes on the chemical compounds they'd used within the past month. He was wearing an open, serious expression that made Arthur automatically feel wary. "Are you okay?"

"I-- yes," Arthur said. He didn't bother asking why Dom wanted to know. "I'm fine."

Dom looked at him for a minute without saying anything, assessing. Then he sighed.

"Arthur," he started, awkward, and Arthur ducked his head, staring at his notes without seeing them. He could guess where this was going now, but despite not wanting the conversation to happen, he couldn't see a way out of it. Dom cleared his throat. "I know you liked Eames, and I'm glad you two got along so well, but he's not-- I don't want you to get too attached."

"Dom," Arthur attempted, desperate to interrupt, but it did him no good.

"I'm not saying he's not a good man," Dom continued, earnest, "And he's without a doubt good at what he does. I trust him to do his part on a job. But you're young, and he's -- unstable."

"Dom --"

"I just don't want you to pin any hopes on him. I don't want you to get hurt."

Arthur looked away, pushing down a scathing reply along the lines of Too little, too late. He shrugged, schooling his expression before meeting Dom's eyes.

"You don't need to worry," he said, honest; "I won't."

And he wouldn't -- he knew better now.

Dom looked at him, his eyes intense, searching for cracks in Arthur's facade. Arthur maintained eye-contact, letting the truth -- or rather, the part of it that served him best just then -- show on his face until the line of Dom's shoulders relaxed and he smiled, clapping Arthur on the shoulder.

"I'm glad," he said, warmth in his voice. Arthur shook his head, managing a smile of his own.

"Go back to your sketches," he said, pushing at Dom's side playfully. "They're supposed to be finished by tomorrow, and I know you hate it when Miles looks at you disapprovingly."

"Ingrate," Dom said without heat, but he was already moving back to his own table.

"Yeah, yeah," Arthur said breezily, waving a hand in Dom's general direction. "You ask Mal out yet?"

He laughed as he ducked the wad of paper aimed at his head, feeling better than he had all week.

Time to get over it, he told himself. There was more to life than English forgers who shagged and ran.

-

The club was packed; Arthur felt dizzy with heat and too many drinks. He wasn't feeling it tonight. Truth be told, he hadn't been feeling it, not for months now. Maybe not even in the beginning, when he'd thrown himself into it, trying to drown out memories he didn't want but couldn't forget -- worse, didn't want to forget.

He weaved his way through the moving crowd on the dance floor, ignoring the press of bodies, the wandering hands; he wasn't in the mood. It'd been a mistake to come here tonight. Stupid, really, with the new job lined up, with the way Dom, and more recently Mal, were increasingly often looking at him with a mixture of worry and disapproval.

Arthur shook his head as he pushed open the back door that lead into the alley, hating the thought of having disappointed either of them. They were the closest thing to a family he had now, and the thought of losing them, or dream sharing, was unacceptable. The heavy door closed behind him, the sudden absence of sound deafening. He hunched his shoulders a little, his thin jacket not quite enough to keep out the chill of the night. He walked down the alley, unhurried, wanting to take his time and let his head clear a bit before making his way back to the flat he shared with Dom. He had vague hopes of Dom being at Mal's for the night; he wasn't looking forward to the raised eyebrows and unasked questions waiting for him in case Dom was home and awake.

There was a burst of noise from behind him, quickly muffled again -- the club door opening and closing -- but he paid no attention to it, preoccupied by his thoughts. He was just drunk enough to not see it coming: he was grabbed from behind and slammed against the wall of the building. He grunted, the right side of his face throbbing from the impact.

"Stay still," his attacker told him, forearm across Arthur's shoulders pressing him against the wall. "You think you're all that, huh? You think you're too fucking good for me?"

"What --" Arthur began to say, only to be pushed further against the wall. The man's voice was vaguely familiar. Arthur thought maybe it was the guy who'd tried to buy him a drink a couple of times; not bad looking, but also not the type Arthur went for. He had an unfortunate habit of picking up fit, rough looking guys -- not that he'd done it often, but even once was too many when his 'type' resembled the guy he was trying to forget.

"I've watched you, picking your way through guys who're no good for you," the man said, pushing his face against Arthur's neck, inhaling. Arthur shivered, adrenaline spiking in his blood. The man wasn't big, but he was still a good deal heavier than Arthur and was using it to his advantage. Arthur swallowed with some difficulty and squirmed, trying to find leverage, and the man chuckled.

"Yeah," he said, his breath hot and unpleasant against Arthur's ear. "You want it. You want it just like this, you filthy slut."

The guy's erection pressed against Arthur's ass, his free hand was tugging at the zipper of Arthur's jeans, and no, Arthur thought, bile rising in his throat; this isn't happening. He sagged against the wall, the pressure against his back easing for just long enough -- he slammed his head back, hard, and the guy cursed, high pitched, and staggered back; Arthur hoped he'd broken the fucker's nose. Taking the opportunity to move before the man could get his shit together, Arthur turned around and kneed him in the crotch, making him bend over with a strangled cry, then took him out with a well placed elbow. The guy crumbled down, out cold.

Arthur took a few shaky steps back and stood there for a moment, dizzy, wanting to make sure the guy wasn't going to get up the second he turned his back. He took a harsh breath, running a shaking hand over his mouth before turning around and making his way out of the alley. He walked until he found a payphone, holding the receiver against his shoulder while he rooted around his pockets for spare change.

He dialed the apartment first, hanging up after getting no answer. He took a deep breath and picked up the phone again, re-inserting the coins. Mal picked up after the fourth ring.

"'Allo," she said, sounding sleepy.

"Mal," Arthur said, and then fell silent, his throat closing up.

"Arthur?" Mal said, her voice becoming more alert. "What's wrong?"

"Um," Arthur said, and had to pause to swallow. He cleared his throat, trying again. "Is Dom there?"

"Yeah, honey, just a second," Mal told him. Arthur waited while she handed the phone over to Dom, the murmur of their voices indistinct.

"Arthur," Dom said, and Arthur felt an unexpected wave of relief at hearing his voice, even if the edges of it were rounded with worry. "Are you alright? What happened?"

"I'm fine," Arthur said, running his fingers over the torn pages of the phone book. "I just, I need, could you come and get me?"

"You don't sound fine," Dom said, a frown audible in his voice.

"I just need a ride," Arthur said. "Please, could you --"

"Yes," Dom said immediately, sounding chagrined; "Yes, Arthur, of course. Tell me where you are."

It took Arthur a minute to figure it out, and then Dom was telling him to stay there, don't move. Arthur set the receiver back into it's cradle and, after staring at it for a moment, feeling numb, moved to the closest wall. He slid down and sat on the sidewalk with his back against the bricks, his legs drawn up. He closed his eyes, resting his elbows on his knees, and tangled his fingers in his hair, waiting.

It was a good twenty minutes before a car slowed down to a stop near the payphone, but it wasn't Dom's car, and Mal's flat was clear across the city. No way could Dom have gotten there that fast. When it became apparent Arthur wasn't getting up, the driver got out of the car and came to him. Arthur blinked at him, wondering if he was actually dreaming, even as he knew he was not; however muddled his thoughts were at the moment, he didn't have to wonder about how he'd gotten there, could still recall the thoughts and actions that had lead him to this place, this moment. He pressed his palms against his eyes, almost wishing he couldn't remember, because the man who'd gotten out of the car -- it was Eames.

"Hey," Eames said, and Arthur told himself he hadn't missed the honeyed edges of Eames' voice. "Arthur. Are you alright, mate?"

Arthur rubbed his hands against his eyes and told himself to get a grip.

"I'm fine," he said, reluctantly dropping his hands and looking at Eames, who'd lowered himself down to a crouch next to him, close enough to touch. The look in his eyes was troubled.

"Forgive me for stating the obvious here," Eames said, "but you don't look fine."

Arthur tilted his head back against the wall and looked away, wishing he was anywhere but here. "It's none of your business. Why are you here, anyway? Where's Dom?"

There was a pause before Eames said, "They didn't want you to have to wait and I was closer, so they called me, said you needed a ride." From the corner of his eye, Arthur could see him shrug.

"I didn't know you were in the city," Arthur said, picking at the fabric of his jeans at the knee.

"Flew in yesterday. For the job," Eames added, and Arthur nodded, biting his lip; of course Dom had called him in. Of course he had. "You feel like getting up yet?" Eames' tone was mild, but Arthur felt stung nonetheless. He pushed himself up without replying and walked to the car, Eames following close behind him.

Arthur got in and did his seatbelt. He expected Eames to start the car after getting in, but instead he just sat there, staring through the windshield, his hands unmoving on the steering wheel.

"What happened, Arthur?" Eames eventually asked, like he had any right to. Arthur stared at his profile, wishing the expression there wasn't so unreadable to him.

"Nothing," he said, pressing his hands flat against his thighs to hide the tremors. "Nothing happened." It was true, technically speaking. Considering what could have happened.

"Really now," Eames said. "I would hardly be here if that were true."

Thanks for reminding me, Arthur thought, the corner of his mouth pulling down.

Eames reached out suddenly, catching Arthur's chin in his hand, and for a second, Arthur forgot how to breathe. Eames turned him toward the light, his grip tightening briefly when he got a good look at Arthur's face where he'd been slammed against the wall. Arthur twisted out of the hold and pushed Eames' hand away, his heart, inexplicably, in his throat. He pressed himself against the door, as far away from Eames as he could get, and refused to meet his eyes.

"Someone hurt you," Eames said, his voice colder than Arthur had ever heard it before.

"It's nothing," Arthur said, hunching down in the seat. "I took care of it."

"Arthur --"

"It was just some guy, okay?" Arthur said, wanting the questioning to come to an end. "I don't want to talk about it."

Especially not with you.

"Some guy," Eames repeated slowly, looking straight through the windshield. "And this happened where, exactly?" His hands were clenched on the steering wheel, his knuckles white.

"Look, could we just go?" Arthur said, starting to feel claustrophobic, which, god, had never happened before.

Eames looked at him for a moment, then faced forward again, his lips pressed together. "Alright," he said. "Alright, but --"

"I took care of it," Arthur snapped, at the end of his rope. "It's fine. So help me, if you don't start this car right now --"

"It's not even remotely fine, Arthur," Eames said, but he did finally do as asked. Arthur crossed his arms and looked resolutely out of the passenger side window, swallowing convulsively. Neither of them said anything until Arthur started paying attention to the buildings flashing by and realized they were going in the wrong direction.

"You missed my turn," he told Eames, having somehow expected to be dropped off at his and Dom's place, where he could have his breakdown in peace, thank you very much.

"I've explicit orders to take you to Mal's," Eames told him, shifting the gears smoothly. "Cobb's one thing, but it'd be right foolish of me to get on Mal's bad side."

"You don't even know her," Arthur said, frowning.

"We met -- that week, a few months ago," Eames said, a muscle in his cheek jumping. Arthur looked away, and Eames cleared his throat. "I went with Cobb to his campus one afternoon, you were -- studying? Researching?"

"I remember," Arthur said.

"Met her there," Eames said, coming to a stop at a red light, his fingers tapping idly against the steering wheel. "We've been corresponding on and off since then. She's got some fascinating ideas, that woman does, but like I said," Eames glanced at Arthur with a half-smile that didn't reach his eyes, "I'd rather not get on her bad side, not even for you. Now be a good boy and don't argue about this."

"Fuck off," Arthur bit out as the lights switched to green and they were moving again. It wasn't like he was completely opposed to not being alone right now, but being managed like this, like he couldn't decide for himself -- Arthur cut himself off, pushing his hands further under his arms, breathing through his anger. "Thanks so much for taking the time to let me know, by the way. So thoughtful of you."

"You're quite welcome," Eames said, deliberately missing the point, and Arthur's lips thinned. He refused to say another word for the rest of the drive. Eames didn't even seem to notice the sulky silence, which only made Arthur feel more resentful. At least being mad at Eames distracted him from the rest of it; by the time they reached Mal's apartment complex, Arthur's hands weren't shaking anymore, and he felt less like his chest was about to fall open with some unnamed weight.

-

He ignored Eames to the best of his abilities, not commenting when Eames followed him upstairs. Dom and Mal met them at the door like they'd been waiting right there the whole time, and looked Arthur over, asking questions he didn't know how to answer, or didn't want to. They exchanged a look, which Arthur was too tired to get irritated over, and then Dom guided him into the living room while Mal stayed behind to talk to Eames, which Arthur also decided to ignore. Dom made up the sofa for him, talking quietly about something to do with Mal and studying, maybe; Arthur wasn't really paying attention.

"I --" Arthur said abruptly and then fell silent, rubbing his hands tiredly over his face, wincing as he inadvertently put pressure against the bruised cheek. He felt exhausted all of a sudden, worn down to the core and desperate to shut his mind down. "I'm going to take a shower."

"All right," Dom said quietly, looking at the pillow he was holding like he'd forgotten what it was for. Then he nodded, as if to himself. "I'll get you a towel," he said, putting the pillow down.

Arthur waited until Dom came back with the promised towel and some spare clothes, then locked himself in the bathroom and took off the clothes he was wearing, pushing them into a corner with his foot. He didn't think he wanted them anymore; he almost felt like he didn't want his skin anymore.

He stood in the shower for a long time, his thoughts hollowed out and filled with the sound of falling water. When it cooled down enough to make him feel chilled, he got out and reached for the towel. If he rubbed at his ear and the side of his neck with more vigor than a simple drying off required, he chose not to overthink it. He hung the towel to dry and picked up the clothes Dom had given him. The shirt was Dom's, too big on him by far, but the faded, mint green sweatpants weren't a bad fit; he had a sneaking suspicion they were Mal's. He shuffled into the living room and curled up on the sofa, tugging a blanket over himself and ignoring the sounds from the kitchen.

He could allow himself this one night; if he wasn't feeling better by the morning, he'd lock it all into the mental box where he kept the things he didn't want to think about, things that hurt him or confused him or got in the way.

Eames belonged in the box, Arthur realized, momentarily blinded by the thought. Thinking about Eames hurt. Trying to get over him the way he had, getting wasted and sucking off guys with superficial similarities, like it in any way counted as getting back at Eames or proved how little Arthur really cared -- it wasn't working. Instead, it was getting in the way, clouding his judgment and causing him to make stupid decisions.

Even as he laid there, feeling shaky and unnerved, Arthur had faith in his ability to process and compartmentalize the memory of the assault in the alley that night, and the residual fear over what could have happened. He didn't feel anything beyond impersonal loathing towards the entitled fucker who'd attacked him, and more to the point, he'd kicked that loser's ass.

Eames, though; Eames was far more complicated than that, and all Arthur knew was that if he continued on the path he'd been on these past few months, he might never get over him.

Arthur drifted off to sleep to the soothing murmur of voices from the kitchen, his mind both more turbulent and more at peace than it'd been in a long time.

It was time for a change.

 


III
Purgatory


 

The dream seemed structurally sound, a perfect copy of a particular high school, but something was wrong, Arthur could feel it. It took some effort not to keep looking over his shoulder, the feeling of being watched a constant itch between his shoulder blades. He rounded a corner and almost ran into -- Eames, his brain supplied, for all that the slim brunette looked nothing at all like him.

"Um, hi," Arthur said, then frowned. "Aren't you supposed to be working the mark?" He asked, moving off to the side where they could talk without being in the way of the projections of students loitering in the hallway.

"Sure," Eames said, leaning against the wall and looking at Arthur with a flirty smile. Arthur's heart gave a painful thud; stupid heart, he thought, reminding himself that it was just an act on Eames' part so as not to make the projections suspicious. "But there isn't really much more I can do in this form. Cobb's keeping the mark occupied."

"Right," Arthur said, trying to mimic Eames' easy pose. Just a couple of high school students having a chat -- nothing to see here. "Well, I checked the maintenance room and the supply closet, and there was nothing there. Are you sure you got him to think about the right subject?"

"Give me some credit," Eames said, idly examining the nails of his forgery. They were painted with glittery blue nail polish, flaking at the tips like they'd been picked at. "She matches the victim profile perfectly."

"Blue nails and all?" Arthur couldn't help but asking, earning himself a raised eyebrow and a flick to the chest with said fingernails.

"He doesn't care about her nails," Eames said.

"No, I guess not," Arthur said, looking away. He barely suppressed a flinch when he caught a couple of projections staring at him. "Are the projections getting suspicious, do you think?"

Eames frowned a little, glancing in the same direction, but by then the projections were back to minding their own business.

"Not particularly, no," he said, then looked back at Arthur with narrowed eyes. "Why? Have you noticed something?"

"I don't know," Arthur said with a shrug, feeling awkward. "It's just a feeling I have, like there are eyes at my back. It's stupid."

He expected Eames to brush it off, but instead he regarded Arthur with solemn eyes for a moment, then shook his head minutely.

"Things being seemingly normal is no reason to ignore your instincts. Especially not when it comes to dreams."

"So what are you saying?" Arthur asked, stuffing his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders a little.

"You're surrounded by the subconscious of an alleged serial killer, Arthur, that's reason enough to be on your toes," Eames said, glancing at the projections again while scratching at his jaw in a startlingly familiar gesture that didn't exactly suit the high school girl he was pretending to be. "Besides which," he said, looking at Arthur again, "you fit the profile of the victims rather alarmingly well."

"Not this again," Arthur said, not wanting to rehash the argument that had come up repeatedly during the last couple of days as they'd gotten closer and closer to executing the job. "Eames --"

"All I'm saying, darling," Eames said with a bit of a bite, "is that if you're feeling creeped out, there might be a reason for it."

Arthur swallowed, not saying anything. Eames sighed, then surveyed the hallway again.

"Well, if the info wasn't where we assumed it most likely to be, we better start checking other options."

"Like where," Arthur said, relieved to change the topic. Some hostility between them was perhaps inevitable, but it didn't mean Arthur enjoyed it. "The lockers? There are hundreds of them!"

"So we best get started," Eames said, looking irritatingly unconcerned as he pushed away from the wall.

"Whose bright idea was it to pick a high school as the dream proper, anyway?" Arthur complained as he followed.

"Mine," Eames said easily. "But consider this: two of the lockers are more likely to contain what we're looking for. Our odds aren't all that bad."

"The victims," Arthur said, catching up quickly. Then he had a thought; "The boy from another state was taken from his high school as well -- maybe we'll get lucky with his locker number even though this isn't really his school?"

"That's the spirit," Eames said. "Now hurry up, love, time's a waistin'."

Arthur's mind only stuttered over the endearment a little, but he still felt pathetically grateful it hadn't been said in Eames' own voice.

-

More students poured out into the halls from their classes as Arthur and Eames reached the first of the three lockers. The projections were acting peacefully enough for now, but they still made Arthur feel nervous; he squared his shoulders, trying to focus on the job. Since the number combination had been included in the info provided by the feds, opening the locker took no time at all. Eames went quickly through the contents while Arthur kept an eye on the projections. Was it just his imagination or were they starting to get restless?

"It's like they know this locker doesn't belong to either of us," he said, voicing the thought.

"Huh?" Eames looked briefly up and over his shoulder. "Well, I suppose it's possible."

"You don't sound too concerned," Arthur said, shifting his weight on his feet.

"Won't change a thing," Eames said, sounding preoccupied, "whether or not I'm concerned. Though I would of course prefer to get the job done and avoid being dismembered in the process."

Arthur glowered at his feet. He was contemplating the differences between the shoes he was wearing in the dream versus the ones he was wearing in reality, when Eames suddenly stilled next to him.

"What is it?" Arthur asked, looking up. "Did you find something?"

"Nothing very helpful, I'm afraid," Eames said, sounding odd. His movements were stilted as he showed Arthur what looked like a yearbook, except the page being displayed didn't seem like a part of it. There were six pictures on the page. The first five were black and white close-ups of sleeping -- or dead; Arthur felt ill at the thought -- teenagers, with their names spelled out beneath each picture; Patrick, Emilia, Carlos, Ray, Michelle. They all had dark hair and similar features. That was enough to give Arthur a pause: there were only three known victims in the case they were trying to find evidence for.

"So," Arthur said, striving to sound professional. He didn't quite succeed. "I guess that's two more victims we didn't know about."

"That's really the least of our concerns right now," Eames said, looking down at the sixth picture with an unreadable expression. Arthur forced himself to take another look at it, a chill running down his spine as his own, unsmiling face stared back at him from the page.

-

"It'd be way more time-efficient if you took one of the lockers and I took the other," Arthur said, discreetly trying to extract himself from Eames' hold, the blue fingernails digging into his arm.

"Did you happen to not notice that this psycho most definitely is a serial killer --"

"They might still be alive, I mean, they haven't found the bodies yet," Arthur tried, but it was weak and they both knew it.

"Please," Eames scoffed, turning a corner into another hallway and marching to the second locker on their list. "And now his subconscious seems to have fixated on you, which is just perfect. You know, Arthur, I wish someone would've noticed the similarities between you and the known victims and pointed out what an awful idea it was to bring you anywhere near this guy-- oh, wait."

"Oh, of course," Arthur bit out, finally wrenching his arm free when they came to a stop in front of the locker, ignoring the glare Eames sent his way. "If only everyone would do exactly what you want them to do -- because you always know best, right?"

"I was right about this, weren't I?" Eames said, yanking the locker open with more force than strictly necessary. Arthur opened his mouth, a scathing reply on the tip of his tongue, when someone slammed against his shoulder from behind, sending him stumbling into Eames.

"Fuck, sorry," Arthur said on automatic as he straightened, looking at the retreating back of the projection. There weren't enough people in the hallway to justify thinking the contact had been an accident; now that he looked around, he could see the projections were definitely paying more attention to them than before. He startled when he felt a touch against his cheek, turning to find Eames closer than expected.

"Here," Eames said, and kissed him. The forgery was an almost even height with Arthur and nothing at all like Eames' true form, but she kissed like Eames kissed, and Arthur had closed his eyes before he could think twice about it. The kiss was soft, bordering on chaste, and over almost before it began.

"What --" Arthur said when their lips parted, keeping his eyes closed for a moment longer, half-afraid of what they might reveal. When he did open them, Eames was appraising the projections, looking mildly disappointed.

"Oh well," Eames said, throwing Arthur a bland smile as he turned back to the victim's locker. "It was worth a shot."

Arthur blinked, looked at the projections, then back at Eames. He took a step back, then another. Eames didn't notice, muttering to himself about the shit teens saw fit to keep in their lockers. Arthur brushed a hand against his thigh, vaguely aware that his fingers were trembling. Eames was... such a jerk. Such a --

He spun around and made his way down the hall, barely suppressing the urge to run.

"Hey," Eames suddenly called out after him. "Hey, Arthur!"

"I'll check the last one on my own," Arthur shouted back at him, quickening his pace. A projection nearly body checked him against the lockers, and he didn't even care. Fuck Eames anyway.

-

It had been two weeks since that night in the alley, two weeks since Eames had shown up. There hadn't been much time to dwell on either during the preparations for the job, for which Arthur was grateful. Keeping his mind occupied had made dealing -- or not dealing, as the case might be -- that much easier. He'd tried to keep his interactions with Eames to a minimum, something he knew would've caught Dom and Mal's attention, but he figured he'd deal with that if they decided to approach him about it.

Keeping Eames at an arm's length had turned out to be more easily said than done. It wasn't that Eames had been purposefully trying to be a nuisance; despite being more short tempered than usual, he'd actually made an effort to respect Arthur's obvious need for space, which should have made it easier for Arthur to ignore him but somehow hadn't. Arthur's awareness of him had made it seem like he took up more space than people normally did, simultaneously making the place they worked in -- an old shop with its windows boarded shut, because Eames, at the very least, had refused to set foot in a federal building before the actual job -- seem smaller. The fact that Arthur had been having trouble sleeping had only added to the stress of having Eames around; if he had dreams, he didn't remember them, but he kept waking up feeling shaky and chilled, unable to fall back to sleep.

On top of everything, Dom had had some obvious concerns about having Arthur on the job, and had made aborted gestures to side with Eames when the topic of Arthur not going under with them had come up. Arthur had refused to back down, feeling like his abilities were being questioned and hating it. To be fair, Dom hadn't outright doubted Arthur's skills. He did, however, have a habit of acting like he thought himself some sort of pseudo-paternal figure in Arthur's life, which Arthur supposed might have been sweet, in theory, but was really just irritating, not to mention completely misguided.

It was this damned job, Arthur thought as he took one of Dom's shortcuts to the second floor. He checked to make sure there weren't projections around on either side before climbing through a rigged window in one of the first floor bathrooms, dropping silently into a matching one on the second floor. It was unlikely that Eames would stop searching the second locker in order to start after Arthur -- no matter what else Arthur might think, he knew Eames was a professional first and foremost -- so Arthur had a good head start on him. He would reach the locker long before Eames would catch up with him. He'd be quick; one of them had to find something of value, and soon. He wanted this job to be done (he wanted Eames to be gone).

Knowing they were running out of time, Arthur pushed his way through the rowdy projections in the hall and quickly found the locker he was looking for. They were in luck: the other school's combination worked like a charm, and Arthur made short work of opening the locker. He got jostled a couple of times as he went through its contents, but it wasn't anywhere near bad enough yet to make him consider aborting the job. Not that he would've, anyway; he'd rather get torn into pieces than fail because he gave up too soon. He pushed a useless biology textbook back into its place, pressing his lips together in a grim line. It was starting to look like he'd fail whether he gave up or not; there was nothing in the locker they could use, no maps or coordinates or photographs or letters, just regular textbooks and pens and random papers that had nothing to do with the missing teenagers or the mark.

The more frustrated Arthur got, the more abrupt his movements became, until he knocked some of the papers off to the floor by accident. Gritting his teeth, he knelt down to gather them up. He paused, blinking, when his hand came to contact with them. Puzzled, he ran a finger through the dirt on top of the papers and brought his hand up, rubbing his fingertips together. Curious, that.

It was then that he became aware of how quiet it had become. Slowly, he looked up, half-expecting the projections to have gathered around him, a silent, menacing wall of people -- but it was worse; the projections were gone like a mirage, like they'd never been there at all. Without them the hallway was empty and void of sound. Empty, except for him, him and --

Arthur scrambled up to his feet, leaving the papers scattered on the floor, his back colliding with the wall of lockers. He straightened, trying to regain his composure. His heart was beating too fast, but he tried his best to smile.

"Hey," he said, trying to sound non-threatening. Friendly. "You're Shelly, right?"

Shelly, short for Michelle. The nickname hadn't been in the file, but that's all Arthur could think of when he looked at her. She tilted her head at him, standing barely three feet away from him, the long, messy waves of her hair half-obscuring her face.

"You don't belong here," she said, and was suddenly closer, close enough that their noses almost touched and Arthur could see her pale face and sunken eyes with far too much detail. He instinctively pressed himself further against the lockers, trying to put space between them. Then she was back to where he'd first seen her. "I don't belong here," she said, and was gone.

Down the hall, a door to a classroom swung open, slowly and without a sound. Arthur stared at it, telling himself it was foolish to even consider walking through that door, but at the same time -- the lockers were a bust, and he was running out of both ideas and time. The regular projections, even if they hadn't vanished into thin air -- leaving behind a void like something hollow that you'd once thought to be alive -- would've likely known nothing useful. Shelly was one of the victims, though, and had potential for far greater knowledge. If there was any chance Arthur could get her to talk, if this was the last chance to get solid information that could put away a serial killer, how could he not at least try?

Taking a deep breath, Arthur pushed himself away from the lockers and crossed the hallway, his eyes fixed on the open door.

-

He stepped through the door, cautious, and nothing happened. It was almost anticlimactic. He moved further into the room, smoothing his palms over his thighs, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. The room was dimly lit, the shutters closed on the windows, and there were no chairs, no desks, nothing but an empty stretch of floor and there, curled up in a corner, Shelly.

She was rocking back and forth, silent. Her face was half-hidden, but Arthur could make out a glimpse of her eyes -- she was staring at him, unblinking. Arthur took a few hesitant steps toward her, but he didn't get further than that. He felt so cold all of a sudden, so cold he couldn't move, and there was a boy standing between him and Shelly. It was Patrick, the first victim; his friends had called him Trick.

"She doesn't want to talk to you," he said, tilting his head at Arthur. He was suddenly closer, the same way Shelly had been in the hallway, there and then here, all in a blink of an eye. He had hollow eyes, hollow cheeks, and Arthur couldn't move, couldn't do anything but stand there, frozen, as Patrick raised a skinny hand to his face, tracing his cheekbones with spidery fingers.

"You should call me Trick," he said, touching his fingertips against Arthur's mouth, thoughtful. "You're one of us," he said, his fingers digging in a little, pressing against the flesh of Arthur's lips, the hard surface of his teeth. "You belong with us."

Arthur wanted to tell him, no, wanted to step away, raise the gun he only carried in dreams, anything -- but he felt like he wasn't breathing, like his body wasn't real. Like he was nothing but a projection, a thing, a memory --

Patrick's body jerked, a splatter of blood hitting the side of Arthur's face. Arthur watched, numb, as Patrick crumbled to the floor, and found out he could breath again, and move. He blinked and looked up, feeling slow and out of sorts, and found Eames striding toward him, gun in hand.

"There's something," Arthur said, and only then noticed how hard he was breathing. "I can't --"

"Arthur," Eames said, taking hold of Arthur's arm and drawing him none too gently away from Patrick's body. "What the bloody hell just happened?"

Arthur took his arm back roughly. Instead of feeling grateful, he felt -- almost angry that Eames had shot Trick, which he recognized was insane.

"I don't know," he snapped, spooked. "Something's definitely wrong with the dream, and the -- the projections, they're --"

"Affecting you," Eames said, frowning. He looked at Shelly; she was still staring at Arthur. "He's affecting you."

"The mark? But he's not even here," Arthur said before he could think better of it. Eames shot him a look that bordered on pitying, and Arthur clenched his hands into fists.

"He's everywhere," Eames told him. "These are manifestations of his subconscious, Arthur, and they want to keep you."

"That's not," Arthur began to say, then cut himself off with a frustrated sound. "Why would they affect me like this, like I'm not even -- I've never encountered anything like this before."

"Says the kid who's been doing this for all of a year?" Eames scoffed, looking back to Shelly, his trigger finger twitching. "And this would be your, what, third actual job?"

"Please," Arthur said, barely keeping from throwing a punch at Eames, the condescending shit. "Don't even try to tell me this is a regular occurrence."

"No, you're right about that, this is quite bizarre. Well, stranger things, I suppose," Eames mused. Then he rolled his shoulders and his whole countenance changed. He gave Arthur a lopsided grin and said, "Remind me to never again take a job in a psychopath's head, yeah? The advertisement promised more fun than this."

"Let's just get this over with," Arthur said, kicking at a scuff mark on the floor. "You should probably hold off shooting her until you've talked to her," he said, nodding toward Shelly, knowing that Eames would have a better chance at getting her to open up. "Unless you found a map or something, I think they're the only ones who have the info we came here for."

"Oh, joy," Eames muttered, then looked back at Arthur with a look in his eyes Arthur didn't much care for. "I think you should probably wait this out topside."

"And I think you should mind your own business," Arthur said, feeling raw inside.

"I'm just saying, the way you're reacting to them --"

"I can handle it," Arthur snapped. "I'm not a liability," he added, though at this point, he honestly couldn't be certain that was true. And maybe it was another strike against him that he was incapable of admitting it, especially to Eames, but risky or not, right now he'd rather take his chances.

Eames looked skeptical, but eventually shrugged and muttered something that could have been a 'suit yourself' before making his way to Shelly. Arthur could hear a low murmur of hello, sweetheart, but couldn't make out the rest of it. Feeling useless, he needlessly checked his gun, then moved to the side, hoping that being out of her direct eyesight would make Shelly focus on Eames instead of him. When he glanced back, Eames had shifted into Shelly's mother, and she was crying and shaking her head, alternately clinging to Eames and trying to claw at his face. The projections didn't usually take note of Eames changing in front of them, but there was something about Shelly that made Arthur wish Eames could have been more careful. Not that they had much choice under the circumstances. He looked away --

-- and found himself face to face with another one of the mark's victims. He took a startled, shaky step back, a chill going through his body, and the girl -- Emilia, he thought, unbidden; seventeen -- tilted her head at him, a mirror image of Trick, earlier. She looked at Trick's body on the floor, then back at Arthur, unblinking, accusing.

"We don't belong here anymore," she said. "Why have you brought us back?"

Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, trying to steady himself. He felt like he was breathing in icy water without drowning, or maybe he'd already drowned and didn't know it yet. "Where do you belong, then?" He asked, pushing through the ice in his lungs, and forced himself to meet her eyes. "Can you tell me?"

She leaned in close, close enough to touch, to kiss, and smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. Cold hands slid around Arthur from behind, another victim (projection) he hadn't seen coming. Maybe Eames had been right, Arthur thought on a shuddering exhale, and then, fiercely, like hell he was.

He gasped for breath when another boy -- Carlos -- stepped up beside him and slid a hand up his throat. The one behind him had to be Ray, then. All accounted for, he thought, a bubble of hysteria getting stuck in his throat. He shook his head, trying to focus, his cheek brushing against Emilia's cold one.

"Please," he tried again, "Please, can you tell me?"

"We'll show you," she said, pressing close against him, the three of them bracketing him in.

"He should pay for what happened to Trick," Carlos said, his voice sweet, his nails pressing against Arthur's throat.

"He will," Emilia said.

"He will," Ray said.

"You'll take his place," Carlos said, with an air of finality, "And we'll be a family."

"Yes," Emilia hissed.

"Yes," Ray said, his non-breath freezing against Arthur's ear.

"Here," Emilia said, "look."

And there was a house, and a room, and a bed; and there was Trick, alone, and there was Emilia, alone, and there was Carlos, alone, and there was Ray, alone, and there was Shelly, alone, and now there was Arthur, and he was alone; days and days on end, alone, with nothing to do and no one to talk to, with no idea where he was or why. He'd never get out, never see his family or friends again; he would die here, in this room, alone and afraid and hungry, weak and filled with impotent anger. The chain around his ankle had chafed against skin and bone, his fingers were bleeding from clawing at it, at the walls, and his eyes were stinging from the dim light coming through the grimy windows. He was going to die here, no one would come; he'd screamed and shouted and begged, and no one had heard.

No one but him. The man. He never spoke, just looked, sitting on the other side of the room where Arthur couldn't reach.

Near the end, when Arthur was too weak to move, the man came and sat next to him on the bed, carding his fingers through Arthur's hair, touching his face. One day, the man closed his hand around Arthur's throat, and didn't let go.

When the night came, he lifted Arthur's body in his arms and carried him outside, where the stars stood out bright against the clear, dark sky, and drove out into the desert where he laid Arthur's body in the ground, next to Trick and Emilia and Carlos and Ray, and covered him with dirt.

Arthur opened his eyes, gasping like he'd been held underwater. His flailing hands were caught in icy ones, and he wasn't dead or alone; he was on the floor of an empty classroom, with Emilia, Ray and Carlos kneeling on the floor around him, looking up at -- the mark, Arthur realized, his heart skipping a beat.

"We thought you would like him," Ray said.

"He belongs with us," Emilia said.

"We're a family," Carlos said.

"No," the mark snarled, his eyes flashing. "Let him go."

"We want him," Ray said, unblinking.

"We want him," Emilia said, baring her teeth.

"We want him," Carlos said, his fingers digging into Arthur's skin.

And then Shelly was there; she jumped on the mark's back with a yell. She cried out, "No, it tried to trick us, full of empty promises delivered with bullets! A hollow man with many faces!"

Arthur, his mind muddled and slow, had no time to figure it out before Emilia, Ray and Carlos were rising up in unison, leaping at the mark -- only it wasn't the mark; it was Eames. The projections were quick and brutal, managing to use Shelly's distraction and their numbers to bear Eames to the ground, hitting, kicking, screaming, like a pack of wild dogs tearing into a prey.

Arthur gritted his teeth and rolled over, pushing himself up until he was kneeling. He pulled out his gun and took aim, feeling sick as he shot Emilia in the back and took Ray out with a headshot. Carlos abandoned Eames with a shout of dismay and leaped at Arthur, jerking in mid-air and crumbling to the ground to reveal Eames laying on his side on the floor with his arm outstretched, a gun in his hand.

Their victory was short-lived as neither of them could react in time to stop Shelly from dropping to her knees behind Eames and stabbing him in the back once, twice in quick succession. Eames' gun clattered to the floor, a surprised, pained exhale driving the breath out of him. Shelly stabbed him again even as Arthur pulled the trigger. The shot hit her in the shoulder, and she fell back with a wounded noise; Arthur was on his feet in the next instant. He crossed the floor and dropped to his knees next to Eames, who'd rolled onto his back and was blinking at the ceiling, his breath rattling in his lungs, blood staining his lips. Arthur dropped his gun, his hands fluttering uselessly over Eames' chest. Eames was laying in a pool of blood that got larger with every breath he took, creeping toward Arthur's knees and soon soaking them. Arthur clenched his hands into fists.

"Shit," he whispered.

"Not," Eames croaked, pausing to inhale; he sounded horrible. "Quite. According to plan."

More blood splattered on his lips and on his chin as his exhale turned into a cough, his body straining in its attempts to suck in oxygen. Arthur took a sharp breath and clenched his jaw. He picked up his gun and pulled the trigger before he could second-guess himself, then stared at Eames' still form for a moment, the mess his head had become, feeling like he was about to throw up. He kept his eyes averted when he pushed himself up and took stock of himself and his surroundings. He was covered in blood, his jeans soaked in it, and surrounded by bodies. He wiped his face with his free hand, probably just further smearing the blood there. It hardly mattered. None of it mattered.

The dream trembled around him, beginning to collapse. Eames hadn't been the dreamer, Dom had, which meant he was dead as well. Arthur noted this with a curious detachment. He staggered to where Shelly had dragged herself to lean against a wall, bleeding but not dead, her eyes fixed on Arthur. She was still gripping the knife she'd stabbed Eames with, but she made no attempt to attack Arthur as he crouched down next to her.

"Will you stay?" She whispered to him.

"I can't," he said. He wasn't sure why he was still there, why he hadn't followed Eames right out of the dream. There was something about Shelly he couldn't quite put his finger on, something important.

"Are you sure?" She wanted to know, closing her eyes as she leaned her head against the wall in defeat. "I'm so lonely."

Arthur's breath caught in his throat as the pieces clicked together in his head. Slowly, he raised a hand and gently touched her cheek.

"Shelly," he said. It wasn't really her, but even so, Arthur couldn't help but smile at her a little. "Thank you."

She looked at him, her expression smoothing out into a blank mask. Her sunken eyes were nearly swallowed by black as she watched him raise his gun.

He pressed the muzzle of the gun under his chin at an angle and blew his brains out.

-

The job was finally over. It had taken two days, multiple maps and a bit of a road trip to translate the vision he'd been shown in the dream into reality, but Arthur had found the house, and the burial site; even more importantly, he'd found Shelly, and she'd been alive. Overall the job was just one more thing that cluttered his mind with unwanted memories, just one more thing to suppress and compartmentalize -- but at least there was this one thing he could focus on, and believe it was all worth it.

Arthur took a sip of whiskey, curled up in an overstuffed armchair in the boarded up shop they'd used as a base while preparing for the job -- the lease wouldn't run out until next week. Dom and Mal thought he was out, letting loose, and in a way he was. He just didn't want to deal with people right then; it had been a rough few weeks.

The narrow steps leading upstairs groaned under someone's weight, and Arthur sat up, startled. He knew Eames had been sleeping up there, but he'd thought he'd already left. Stupid; he should've known better than to make assumptions.

Eames took the last few steps down, pausing as he caught sight of Arthur.

"Well, hello," he said, raising an eyebrow. "Didn't know you were here -- make some noise next time, yeah?"

"You're leaving then?" Arthur asked, looking at the duffel bag hanging from Eames' shoulder. It was a dull sort of hurt he felt at the thought, a residual ache dating back months. This time, he hadn't expected anything else; he doubted he ever would again. This time, Eames leaving had been something he'd hoped for. Except now that his wish was about to come true, he resented Eames for being so predictable (so disappointing).

"World waits for no man," Eames said, shifting the strap of his duffel higher up on his shoulder. His eyes fell to the glass in Arthur's hand. "Aren't you a little young for that?"

Arthur snorted into his glass before knocking back what was left in it. "Who're you gonna call, Dom?" He asked, reaching for the bottle again.

"Arthur," Eames said, his voice quiet.

"What?" Arthur said, pouring himself another glass. "I can't imagine you never drank before you turned twenty-one, or whatever the legal age is in the UK."

"That's different," Eames said, and Arthur paused in bringing the glass to his lips.

"That," he said, pointing at Eames with the glass, some of the liquid sloshing over the edge, "is a bullshit argument, and I'm dismissing it based on, on," he set the glass on the table with a hard sound of glass on wood. His fingers were wet and sticky. "Look at what you made me do, that's, that's dozens of drops of perfectly good whiskey, wasted."

"If anything's wasted here, darling, it's you," Eames said, dropping his duffel on the ground and making his way to the table.

"Hey!" Arthur said, then frowned and thought it over. "Huh."

Eames looked amused as he picked up the bottle to examine it. The movement caught Arthur's attention, and he failed not to stare at Eames' hands (Eames' wide, capable, wonderful hands).

"You can't take that," Arthur said, irritated when he realized where his thoughts had gone. "You can have a glass if you want, but you can't take it away. It's not yours."

"Where did you even get this?" Eames asked, frowning at the label. "This is the good stuff."

Arthur picked up his sticky glass and buried his nose in it. There was a pause, and then Eames said, amusement rounding the edges of his voice, "I take it that strictly speaking this isn't yours, either. Maybe I should call Cobb after all, hmm?"

"Oh, shut up," Arthur muttered into his glass, and Eames laughed like he couldn't help it.

Arthur shivered at the sound of it, and drank deeply from his glass to cover it up. So of course he ended up swallowing the wrong way, sending himself into a coughing fit. God, but he hated embarrassing himself in front of Eames.

"Arthur, hey," Eames said, suddenly right next to him. He placed a hand on Arthur's back, a warm, heavy weight, which only caused Arthur's breathing to tangle itself again. He coughed, pressing his fingers against his mouth, and closed his eyes, concentrating on getting his breathing under control.

"I'm afraid I can't in good conscience leave the whiskey with you," Eames said, moving his hand in slow circles against Arthur's back. "You're a menace to yourself."

"...Cruel," Arthur managed, his breath only wheezing a little.

"I'm only thinking of what's best for you," Eames said, his hand settling on Arthur's shoulder.

"Yeah, right," Arthur said through his fingers. "You just want the whiskey."

"There is that," Eames conceded, and Arthur looked up, unable to help himself. The corners of Eames' eyes were crinkled with amusement that slowly melted away as their eyes caught and held. Arthur could smell the whiskey on his fingers, and without thinking too much about it, he parted his lips and ran his tongue over them, chasing the taste. Eames' hand twitched against his shoulder, and Arthur could see him swallow. Maintaining eye contact, he slowly pushed a finger into his mouth and then dragged it out, his lips pursed around it. He felt a dark sort of thrill at getting a response from Eames, at seeing his pupils dilate and feeling his fingers dig into his shoulder.

"Arthur," Eames said, his voice strained, but Arthur wasn't interested in anything he might say. He stood up and moved close to Eames, who'd fallen silent on whatever protest he'd been about to make and had moved his hand from Arthur's shoulder to his side, and brought his whiskey-and-saliva covered fingers to Eames' lips.

"Hey," Arthur said, his voice low. He stretched up a little to press his lips against the side of Eames' mouth and his own fingers. "Wanna taste?"

Eames took hold of Arthur's wrist, forcing his hand back -- but he didn't push Arthur away. He released Arthur's wrist, and his hands came to rest on Arthur's back, rucking up his shirt and drawing him in until their hips were in contact. Eames was hard, Arthur could feel it. Arthur was too, but that was less important right now. This was, Arthur recognized, his last chance at having his way with Eames, and he didn't even consider turning it down. One last fuck, Arthur thought, pressing his face against Eames' cheek and inhaling. One last hello, and goodbye.

"Arthur," Eames said, his voice tight.

"Eames," Arthur said, resting his hands on Eames' chest and -- pushed, until Eames' back hit the wall. He slid his hands down and unbuckled Eames' belt, worked his fly open, his fingers quick and deft at their task. Eames didn't make a single move to stop him, not until Arthur dropped to his knees.

"Are you --" Eames paused, the touch of his hand in Arthur's tousled hair oddly gentle. "Arthur, are you sure?"

Instead of answering, Arthur freed Eames' cock from his underwear and weighed it in his hand for a moment, his eyes half lidded. He glanced up at Eames when he leaned in, licking a wet stripe up the underside and swirling his tongue over the tip before opening his mouth wider and letting the head slide in. He moaned a little, and Eames' inhaled sharply, his hand briefly tightening in Arthur's hair. Arthur wrapped a hand around the base and closed his eyes as he sucked Eames further in. He made it wet and dirty, almost sloppy at times, until Eames was breathing hard, struggling not to thrust forward and give Arthur more than he could handle.

Arthur pulled back, letting Eames slip out with a wet pop. He looked at the length in his hand, the pre-come already gathering at the tip, and ran his tongue idly over his swollen lips.

"I can," Eames said, and Arthur looked up. "You don't have to --"

Arthur felt his lips pull up in a smirk, and Eames fell silent.

"You think I want to stop now?" Arthur asked, ghosting his mouth over Eames' cock, flicking his tongue out to catch a bead of pre-come, feeling reckless and filthy. "You'd be surprised," he breathed, and took Eames in until the head hit the back of his throat, until his nose was buried in the coarse hair at the base, and above him, Eames was cursing, breathless. He swallowed and drew back until just the tip rested in his mouth, then pulled completely away.

"Fuck, don't stop-- Arthur --" Eames said, his hand clenching in Arthur's hair before he got a hold of himself and regained his control. That wouldn't do; Arthur wanted Eames to lose control, to really want it (want him).

"You can fuck my mouth," he told Eames, his voice coming out more breathless and raw than he'd intended. "I can take it."

Eames licked his lips, his expression conflicted until Arthur said, "Please, Eames," and then he nodded.

"Okay," he said, his voice wrecked. "Okay." He brushed his thumb against the corner of Arthur's mouth, against his cheekbone, before gripping a fistful of hair in both hands, the sting of it sending spikes of arousal down Arthur's spine. Eames' eyes got darker like he knew; he held Arthur's head still as he pushed his cock back into Arthur's pliant mouth.

It wasn't quite enough, at first, he didn't give Arthur enough. Arthur moaned, his fingertips pressing against the warmth of Eames' hips; he was gagging for it, beyond caring of how desperate he seemed. Eames groaned and stopped holding back, beginning to fuck Arthur's mouth in earnest, his hips snapping forward with an almost brutal force, leaving Arthur no choice but to take it -- and Arthur wanted it, wanted it. His jaw was aching, his throat and lips felt bruised, and his chin was wet and sticky with saliva and Eames' pre-come. He was so hard it was painful, but he had no coordination or brain capacity left to do anything but cling to Eames and let himself be used.

Eames came with his cock buried in Arthur's throat, the press of his fingertips against the back of Arthur's skull hard and unforgiving, and it was perfect. Arthur choked, just a little, when Eames tugged at his hair as he drew back, another burst of come hitting Arthur's tongue and the back of his throat before Eames pulled out completely. Arthur swallowed, pressing his face against Eames' hip as he dropped his hands to tug at his zipper of his jeans, desperate to come. He was panting, his mouth hanging open, bereft without the weight of Eames' cock there, and he was smearing Eames' skin with the fluids dripping down his chin -- and he didn't care, he didn't care. He'd barely touched himself and he was already coming, letting out a keening cry and gasping as he spilled over his hand. He choked, feeling himself beginning to tear up, the reaction unexpected and incomprehensible; he squeezed his eyes shut against the tears threatening to spill.

When he felt less like he was about to fall apart right then and there, Arthur drew back a little and brought a shaky hand to his mouth, wiping his chin with the back of it. He then wiped his hands on his jeans and zipped himself back up, forcing himself to stand up despite feeling like his legs might not support his weight. He didn't look at Eames as he staggered to the table and drained his glass of whiskey in one go. Behind him, he could hear Eames putting himself to rights, the sound of him buckling his belt loud in the quiet of the room.

"Where are you off to, then?" Arthur asked, not sure why he wanted to know. He had no intention of ever seeing Eames again.

"Haven't decided yet," Eames said, his voice subdued.

"Well," Arthur said, not turning around. "Goodbye, Mr. Eames."

For a moment, Arthur couldn't hear anything; then Eames moved again. Arthur tensed up when he walked by, but didn't feel relieved when Eames continued past him without pausing. From the corner of his eye, Arthur could see Eames picking up his duffel. Eames lingered in the doorway, his back to Arthur, a hand resting against the door frame.

After a few heartbeats, he patted the frame twice and said,

"Goodbye, Arthur."

Arthur didn't look up to see Eames go, didn't move until he heard the front door fall shut. Then he curled up in his chair and picked up his glass, staring at it like he could will whiskey to appear in it -- Eames had taken the bottle when he'd walked by the table, just like he'd said he would.

"Fucker," Arthur told the empty room, pushing the glass across the table. He hugged his knees to his chest and stared at the peeling wallpaper on the opposite wall, swallowing back stupid, stupid tears, refusing to let them fall.

Grimly, with determination, he began to sort through and fold away his memories of Eames, gathering up his feelings and molding them into a more easily manageable shape; he imagined them to be small enough to fit into the palm of his hand, unable to overwhelm him, and then he put them into a little box, which he put into a bigger box, the one where he kept all the things he didn't want to think about -- things that hurt him or confused him or got in the way.

Eames belonged in the box; there could be no other place for him in Arthur's mind.

 


IV
Bridges


 

It was ridiculous to miss someone he'd barely known, but Arthur managed to do just that. He supposed it made sense, in a twisted sort of way; when it came to Eames, his reactions had always been a bit off, as if sense and rationality were an unknown in any equation Eames was involved in.

As it was, Arthur never did quite get over Eames, always feeling that small, bittersweet pang at hearing his name, rare as it was -- but over time, he thought of Eames less, and his heart stopped jumping at every little mention of him. As months, then years passed without any contact with Eames apart from the occasional comment from Mal or Dom indicating he was still alive somewhere out there in the world, Arthur stopped missing what he'd never had in the first place; he grew up.

He soon understood that however fascinated he was with dream sharing, and for all the talent he did possess, he didn't have the same level of academic knowledge or scope of imagination as Dom and Mal. When he stopped to think about it, he realized he had no idea where his life was going, and as Dom and Mal became more and more focused on the theoretical, as well as each other, Arthur couldn't reconcile himself with being the third wheel in their lives anymore.

He joined the military.

In retrospect, neglecting to mention it to either Dom or Mal in a timely manner was, perhaps, not the smartest thing he'd ever done. Mal, despite her family connections and the fact that she was involved in a project that originated in and was still in large parts controlled by a branch of US military, fancied herself a bit of a rebel, and treated her fickle principles accordingly -- she didn't approve of Arthur signing his life away to the government, and spoke not a single word to him in months. Seeing as he was being run to the ground in basic training at the time, Arthur didn't really have the energy to care. Dom, heaven help him, wanted to talk about it. Being busy with being told what to do turned out to be useful with that as well.

Overall, Arthur liked being in the military more than he'd suspected he would, even if, during the first few years, he only had a chance to use a PASIV when he was on leave. He didn't attempt to make use of his connections to catch the attention of the people running the military side of the Project Somnacin, but at the age of twenty-three, after more than a year in black ops, Arthur found himself being involved anyway. He didn't try to find out if someone he knew had been pulling the strings -- he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

He ended up designing training levels with military architects and running teams through mazes filled with hostile projections, directing gruesome games of cat and mouse. He died, and saw others die, more times than he could count. After a while, it became such routine that even the most horrific deaths barely made him blink. He gained a bit of a reputation; considering that he was the one who spent the most time dealing with people getting shot and gutted and torn apart, Arthur had to wonder what they'd expected would happen.

The work took its toll on him, but some part of him was almost grateful for being forced to learn how to lock himself down and get better at wearing masks; he honed his compartmentalization skills until they shone, and didn't think about the pieces of himself he might be leaving behind.

-

Dom and Mal got married, and Phillipa was born -- not necessarily in that order. Arthur spent his twenty-fourth birthday with the Cobbs, letting their warm laughter, bickering and theoretical arguments ranging from layered dreaming to the qualities of different brands of baby wipes wash over him as he held Phillipa in his arms, careful like he'd never been before in his life.

He felt, almost, content.

-

A year later, he met Richard Hale who, smarmy overtones and all, was sort of regrettably Arthur's type.

Hale was not exactly what one would call an honest businessman, but he wasn't an outright crook, either. He was older than Arthur, and had both money and looks, all of which he was well aware of; he was a bit of an insufferable jerk when it came right down to it, but Arthur found himself enjoying his company nonetheless. What they had could hardly be called a relationship, but Arthur was fine with that. He didn't want what Dom and Mal had, not really. Love complicated everything; being with Hale was easy, and Arthur intended to hold on to that.

He wasn't happy, but he was at peace with his life and his choices, and couldn't find it in himself to complain. And then, late one night, he got a phone call.

Mal was dead, and Arthur's carefully constructed life fell apart like a house of cards.

-

Getting through the funeral (Mal's funeral -- Arthur still felt nauseous at the thought) was hard enough, but when it became clear that the police wasn't going to drop the investigation, and Dom took off instead of fighting the charges, Arthur realized that without him, Dom would self-destruct within a year, and that unless Arthur was willing to choose his career over Dom, he had no choice but to leave the military.

And so, within weeks of Dom fleeing the country, Arthur followed. Whether Dom wanted the company or not was irrelevant -- at the time, he needed looking after at least as much as his kids did, and Arthur wasn't about to just give up on him, even if it meant burning bridges he'd been building for years. Even if looking after him was a thankless task; unlike his kids, Dom was a grown up, and the best Arthur could do was attempt to make sure he ate from time to time and back him up when he started accepting increasingly inadvisable jobs.

After the first few months, Arthur was forced to take a solitary trip back to the states, for both their sakes. He had a breakdown in a bathroom stall in LAX, and instead of going to see Phillipa and James like he'd meant to, Arthur checked himself into a hotel and spent a week alternating between sleeping and staring at the ceiling.

-

As a result of Dom managing to not get himself killed in Arthur's absence, Arthur made a habit of taking off for short periods of time when he wasn't needed. It kept him from having another breakdown, even if it didn't make it any easier to deal with Dom, who became more and more closed off as time passed and Mal stayed dead, her shade becoming more vicious with each day Phillipa and James were out of reach.

Arthur started keeping a coded list of contacts, started tracking some people -- started tracking Eames after finding out he was still in the business, more sought after for his skills than ever. Arthur made sure to have other options whenever they needed a thief, a second extractor, a forger. The last one was the trickiest to find a good substitute for, and sometimes he failed, but Dom didn't push it, and they got by.

Months passed, and they fell into a routine of sorts -- things didn't get better, but they didn't get visibly worse, either. Sometimes, unable to sleep and staring at the ceiling of yet another hotel room, Arthur thought he could almost feel the world watching, waiting, holding its breath. He knew it would be impossible to maintain this uneasy truce for long -- sooner or later, for better or for worse, something would tip the scales, and Arthur couldn't even begin to wonder where that would leave them.

-

There was nothing about the Cobol job to set it apart from a dozen other dangerous, foolhardy offers Dom had accepted since starting to work on the wrong side of the law, except, maybe, that it was that little bit more dangerous and foolhardy than the job before it -- but that had been the norm ever since they'd started gaining a reputation in the business, and Arthur didn't give it too much thought.

Then the job fell through, Nash sold them out, their mark manipulated Dom into accepting an impossible job, and Dom said --

"We don't just need a thief. We need a forger."

And Arthur didn't bother trying to argue about it, knowing the cause was lost; there was no list that could provide him with a name that wasn't Eames', because for a job like this, nothing less than the best would do -- and there was no denying that Eames, ever the opposite of what Arthur needed him to be, was the best.

 


V
The Box


 

Arthur's reservations about Ariadne, which had little to do with her to begin with, faded fast once they started working together. She was a quick study, and he liked her well enough that by the time he received a message from Dom about the meeting with Eames (successful), and their ETA (too soon), Arthur didn't feel too sore about having been left to deal with giving their new architect a crash course on dream sharing while Dom waltzed into hostile territory like he was daring Cobol Engineering to catch him.

All right, so maybe Arthur still wanted to have some words with Dom -- but that was basically his default setting these days, and he'd learned early on not to push it. Besides, thinking about Dom, no matter how infuriating, was infinitely better than thinking about Eames.

Arthur had known Eames turning Dom's offer down had been too much to hope for; a challenge like this, combined with the sort of paycheck Saito was willing to sign on? It wasn't surprising in the least that Eames had said yes. With the way things had been going for Arthur lately, it was only a wonder his luck hadn't ran out sooner.

He wasn't even sure why the thought of seeing Eames again was so -- difficult. It wasn't like he'd spent all these years pining. He'd locked Eames away; he'd moved on. There were so many years standing between them, and Arthur was so far removed from the teenager he'd been, he might as well be another person entirely. There was no reason to get anxious about the prospect of working with Eames. In fact, his reluctance probably had nothing to do with Eames, as such; he just hated the thought of Eames dragging up memories he would rather keep buried. That was all.

He had nothing to worry about. For all he knew, Eames might not even remember him.

The thought wasn't as comforting as it should have been.

-

Arthur arrived at the workshop late. It wasn't by design, but for once he didn't mind the delay. Not that postponing the inevitable would help in the long run, but right now he welcomed every extra minute of reprieve he was allowed to have. What use was it not being a teenager anymore, if Eames didn't even have to be present to make him feel like one again? Arthur took the stairs up to the workshop two at the time, feeling frustrated and sort of furious at himself. He was supposed to be better than this; he was better than this.

He could hear them before he reached the top -- the curious cadence of Ariadne's voice echoed by the dubious tones of a man Arthur didn't recognize, eclipsed by Eames' rumbling laughter that washed over Arthur, impossibly familiar, and made his heart skip a beat. He forced the reaction down, scoffing at himself as he climbed the last few steps and walked into the workshop.

He was spotted immediately.

"Arthur," Ariadne called out to him, waving him over. Arthur took a moment to duck under the strap of his shoulder bag and shrug out of his coat before making his way over. The way Eames' gaze roamed over him as he approached them made Arthur feel electrified, unbalanced; ignoring it wasn't as easy as he might have hoped, but at least he could be reasonably certain none of his inner turmoil showed on the outside.

"This is Arthur, he's on point," Ariadne said, matter of fact, when Arthur reached them. "That's Yusuf," she told Arthur, indicating the man Arthur assumed was the chemist Dom had mentioned would be coming with them, "And this is Eames."

"Oh, we've met," Eames said, his stance casual, his expression not nearly so as he looked Arthur over. "Well, well. Look who's all grown up."

Arthur met Eames' slow appraisal with a cool look, ignoring the shiver running down his spine. So much for Eames not remembering him.

"Eames," he said, relieved that his voice came out sounding normal. Arthur had changed, sure -- he was taller, fitter, more sharply dressed, to name a few -- but so had Eames. There were lines on his face Arthur didn't remember, and shadows in his eyes that were unfamiliar. Most noticeably, he'd bulked up over the years, the extra muscle adding to his solid build and the breadth of his shoulders.

He looked like a thug, and Arthur didn't find him appealing at all.

Arthur looked away, feeling flustered.

"Where's Cobb?" He asked Ariadne, trying to redirect his thoughts. He felt numb with the realization that whatever he might wish to tell himself, the attraction he'd felt for Eames was still there, low in his belly; the only difference now was that he knew better than to let it show, never mind acting on it.

"I think he's somewhere in the back," Ariadne said, glancing over her shoulder with a frown that was slow to fade. Before Arthur could excuse himself to find Dom, Ariadne, curious and misguided, said, "I didn't realize you and Eames knew each other."

"Neither did I," Yusuf said, looking between them with some interest.

"It was a long time ago," Arthur said. "Excuse me."

"Hey, hey now," Eames said, standing up from where he'd been leaning against a table, a move which, incidentally, brought him closer to Arthur. Too close; Arthur could smell him, a warm, masculine scent that made him swallow. "No need to rush right off."

"I need to talk to Cobb," Arthur said, curt. "We have work to do."

"Work, is it," Eames said, and it sounded amiable enough, but his expression was closed off.

"Yes," Arthur said, sharper than he'd normally would. "Perhaps you've heard of the concept?"

"Oh, I've heard of the concept," Eames said, settling back against the table. "I'm wondering if you've heard of anything else?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Arthur demanded.

"Well, with the reputation you've build for yourself, one wonders if you do anything but work. Then again, with the way you apparently follow Cobb around like a puppy... or is that part of your job description now?"

"Excuse me?" Arthur said, barely recognizing his own voice. He didn't realize he'd taken a step forward until Ariadne took hold of his arm, tugging him back.

"Guys," she said, sounding as tentative as she ever got, which wasn't much -- but it was still enough to give Arthur a pause.

"The two of you don't get along particularly well, I take it?" Yusuf said, taking a pair of glasses from his chest pocket and beginning to clean them with the hem of his shirt. "What an auspicious starting point for us as a team."

Arthur took a deep breath and backed down -- because whatever issues he might have, whatever Eames' problem was, this job wasn't about him, or Eames, or the two of them put together. It was about Dom, and Arthur intended to see it through. Letting Eames get to him was a stupid, immature thing to do.

"It'll be fine," he told Yusuf. "We're both professionals."

He sent a challenging look Eames' way, daring him to disagree. The look in Eames' eyes was opaque, but finally he shrugged and looked away, conceding Arthur's point.

It didn't matter, Arthur told himself as he left to find Dom. It wasn't like he'd expected -- well, he didn't know what he'd expected. It wasn't important. Eames wasn't important; his presence, necessary as it was right now, wouldn't last beyond the completion of the job. Whatever problem Eames had with him, Arthur could deal with it until Dom was home free.

And by 'deal', he meant 'ignore'.

-

After that, things between them were -- civil. Eames turned out to be even more annoyingly brilliant and competent than Arthur remembered him being, which was unfortunate for Arthur personally but boded well for the job, which was the priority. The fact that his policy of ignoring Eames was working beautifully made it easier to swallow it when Eames did something to get on his nerves; Arthur's cool facade seemed to annoy him to no end. It did mean that whenever Arthur did acknowledge him, he responded with thinly veiled sarcasm and snark, but if Arthur was to be completely honest with himself, he didn't exactly count that as a downside; maybe they'd never be even, but right now, Arthur had the high ground. So to speak.

It didn't last for long.

"What exactly are you trying to say?" Arthur asked, frowning at the stairwell. From the corner of his eye, he could see a woman's hand coming to rest on the railing.

"I'm saying, it's out of proportion," Eames said.

"Your boobs are out of proportion," Arthur retorted, because it had been a long day and being around Eames reverted him all too often back to the teenager he'd been last they saw each other; usually he just had better control over it. That, and they were arguing about the proper dimensional measurements of a stairwell.

"Hmm," Eames said. "Better? I wouldn't want you to get-- distracted."

Despite himself, Arthur looked -- and sure enough, the forgery's chest was much smaller than it had been a moment ago. He shook his head and looked away, not wanting to dwell on the form Eames had taken.

"I'll talk to Ariadne," he said, wanting to bring the argument to an end.

"Talk to me about what?" Ariadne asked, the safety door closing behind her as Arthur turned around at the sound of her voice.

"Eames thinks we should re-do the stairwell," Arthur said.

"Oh," Ariadne said, peering down the stairs. "I can make some adjustments, I guess." Then she tilted her head at Eames. "That's pretty cool. Is that the one you're planning on using to distract Fischer?"

"You like?" Eames asked, holding his arms out to give her a good look. Ariadne blushed like she never did when Eames was himself.

"She's, uh, pretty," she said, sliding her hands into the front pockets of her jeans.

"'Course she is," Eames said, looking down with a pleased expression as he ran his hands over the forgery's stomach and hips. "Do you think her tits should be bigger, though? They were, but Arthur didn't appreciate them."

"Um," Ariadne said, her eyes dropping to Eames' chest like she couldn't help it. "I think they're, uh... fine."

"Okay, enough of this," Arthur said, glaring at Eames who was leaning against the railing, a wicked smile curving the lips of a woman who'd never existed anywhere but in Eames' mind. "Don't you have a meeting with a mirror or something right about now?"

"I wanted your opinion, Arthur," Eames said, painstakingly pleasant. "Since you've had the opportunity to meet an earlier version of her. I'm sure you remember."

"That's bullshit," Arthur said, unimpressed. "You don't need me to tell you she passes."

The only reason Eames was using this particular forgery at all, as far as Arthur could tell, was to get under Arthur's skin.

"So," Ariadne piped up, breaking the staring contest between Arthur and the blonde bombshell Eames was pretending to be. "Did something happen on a job, or have you always had trouble getting along?"

Arthur pressed his lips together, dismayed. Ariadne was smart, but she was also -- blunt, for lack of a better word. Right now she was probably just trying to distract them from having another unpleasant exchange of words, but her methods left something to be desired.

"Ariadne," he said. "What makes you think --"

"Oh, you know how it is with ex-lovers sometimes," Eames said, his tone bored, and Arthur stilled.

Ariadne was staring at Eames, her mouth hanging open. It wasn't a flattering look for her.

"Really?" She said, glancing at Arthur again. "You and --"

"Well, perhaps the term I used was a bit misleading," Eames said, and continued before Arthur could unfreeze enough to interrupt; "We shagged a couple of times, but we were hardly in --"

Arthur shot himself out of the dream before Eames could finish.

He opened his eyes to the workshop and got up, ignoring the curious look Yusuf sent his way. He felt nauseous. He felt like walking out of the workshop completely -- but he was a professional, and professionals didn't skip work just because something caught them unawares and made them feel like shit.

Professionals, as it turned out, dealt with their unwanted emotions by finding a bathroom to hide in; Arthur locked the door, opened the tap, and braced himself against the sink with his eyes closed. For a few minutes, there was nothing but the sound of running water filling the small space, filling the hollows of his mind until there was no room for thought, until the urge to punch Eames subsided and floated away. For a few minutes, he didn't have to think, or feel.

It lasted until someone knocked on the door. Arthur ignored it, but the person on the other side didn't take the hint.

"Arthur," Eames said -- and of course it would be him. Getting no answer, he knocked again. Arthur shut off the water and took a moment to stare into the mirror, making sure none of his mixed feelings showed on his face. Then he moved to the door and opened it.

"What do you want?" He asked, leaning against the doorknob.

"I don't know why I said what I said," Eames said, a muscle in his cheek jumping. Arthur waited for him to continue, but nothing more seemed to be forthcoming.

"Okay?" Arthur said, raising an eyebrow. "Well, as long as we're clear on that."

"Piss off," Eames said, shifting his weight like he didn't know whether he wanted to back off or step forward. Arthur let out a frustrated breath.

"Just, what is your problem. We haven't seen in years, and then this job -- five minutes in and you're acting like --"

"I already said I was sorry, didn't I," Eames snapped.

"No, actually, you didn't," Arthur said, straightening up and crossing his arms.

Eames frowned. After a pause, his face cleared up. "Bugger. I didn't, did I? I am, though, alright?"

"Okay. Okay then," Arthur said, looking down. It wasn't fair that he felt more vulnerable now than he had when Eames was just taking a piss on him. "I don't remember you being such a dick, before."

"I half-wondered if you'd remember me at all," Eames said with a weird sort of self-deprecating smirk, and Arthur's breath caught a little, surprised at hearing his thoughts echoed by Eames'.

"You're hard to forget," Arthur said before he could think better of it. It was true -- Arthur had certainly tried hard enough to erase Eames from his mind to know -- but it wasn't a compliment, though of course Eames took it as such; he grinned and rocked on his feet a little.

"Well," he said. "Naturally. I knew that, of course."

"Of course," Arthur said, his voice dry, and leaned his shoulder against the door frame, beginning to relax.

"Truce, then?" Eames said, the corners of his eyes crinkling a little as he smiled. Arthur hesitated, but finally shrugged.

"Truce," he said. His smile was a tentative, fledgling thing, but it was there, reflected in the deepening of the laugh lines on Eames' face.

Maybe they didn't have to be at odds. Maybe they could be -- friends, Arthur thought, testing the concept. Friends, like they might have been had Arthur not ruined everything by throwing himself at Eames.

Everything would be different, this time around. Better than before; easier.

Could-have-beens weren't worth wondering about.

-

Arthur remembered the job in flashes. Rain slicked streets, gunfire -- the sudden fear grasping at him, making him turn to make sure Eames was okay. The red, blooming stain on Saito's chest.

The utter dismay of realizing he'd made a mistake, and the hopeless, defeated anger that surged within him when he found out what Dom had kept from him.

Kissing Ariadne, because the situation reminded him of another time, another place, and another person in ways that made him feel angry at himself (at Eames).

The calmness he felt after putting everyone asleep on the second level, the calmness he was able to hold on to even when he lost gravity, even when he had to come up with another plan on the go.

Being underwater, unable to wake Dom up, his lungs burning with anxiety and fear as much as they did with the lack of oxygen.

Sitting on the rocks by the river on the first level, giving Fischer and Eames-as-Browning time to make it to the city before them, rocking back and forth and not even trying to stop; he was wet and cold, and even with Ariadne's assurances, he feared the worst. He couldn't get it out of his head, the possibility (probability) of Dom being lost, and all of it having been for nothing.

The trek back to the city was miserable and did nothing for Arthur's state of mind. He wasn't looking forward to spending days on end cooped up in a hotel room, no matter how nice Ariadne had built it to be, but it turned out to be not as bad as that. She'd turned the whole top level of a building into an apartment set up, which at the very least meant plenty of space and comfort for each of them.

Eames was supposed to be joining them after making his excuses as Browning and disappearing on 'business', because spending extended amounts of time in Fischer's company, pretending to be someone he knew, was too risky, no matter how good Eames was. Despite Fischer's mellow state of mind at the moment, it would be similarly too risky for them to draw attention to their presence, which meant staying in one place until the clock ran out.

After Eames turned up and they were all accounted for, there was nothing for them to do but wait.

-

The first couple of days in the dream were uneventful. They had food and water and space, and they got along well enough that they started playing games and watching films in the living room. The games had rules that changed on a whim, and the movies were only entertaining because they were such bizarre re-tellings of actual movies, since memory was all they had to work with. Arthur didn't mind. He'd take the distractions and be grateful for them.

The problem was, pooling their thoughts within the enclosed space of the apartment turned out to have some unforeseen consequences.

In the beginning the apartment had provided them with the basics, but as the four of them settled in, they started coming up with little things to improve their environment or to alleviate boredom -- things like favorite foods or care products, nothing big enough to cause alarm; but eventually they started finding little pieces of themselves all over the apartment.

The cat was little more than a shadow at first, but gained color and density until it looked real.

"So I miss my cat," Yusuf said, shrugging as he settled onto a sofa in the den with a purring feline on his lap.

Yusuf also, apparently, missed his notebooks, a shelf of multicolored vials, a broken Bunsen burner, and a drawing of an elephant and a bunny wearing party hats, as drawn by his niece.

After finding a book on architecture that, apart from the covers, had nothing to do with architecture, Arthur decided to leave alone anything else he might find that even vaguely had to do with Ariadne; he didn't need to know about her sex life, and definitely not in such loving detail.

Eames was harder to pinpoint. There was a stamp collection in the kitchen with stamps from all over the world that Arthur thought probably belonged to Eames. A broken vase appeared in the living room, on the table beside the chair Eames preferred to sit in, and one morning Arthur walked into the bathroom to find the bathtube filled with water, dozens upon dozens of art prints floating lazily within, moving along with invisible currents.

One evening, Arthur found a night sky sketched onto the ceiling of his room, the constellations just as he'd seen them as a child, laying on the roof of the garage attached to their house. Another time, Yusuf's cat found a plastic dinosaur Arthur had bought for Phillipa no more than a year ago.

It was all fairly benign, or else only held meaning to the person it belonged to.

And then there was the box.

Arthur's box.

The one he'd locked and put away, the one Eames was never supposed to know about or see, let alone hold in his hands.

Arthur stood in the doorway of Eames' room, resting his head against the frame and closing his eyes for a moment, feeling somehow defeated.

"What are you doing with that?" He asked quietly, and Eames almost dropped the box in surprise.

"Arthur," he said, his voice giving out a little. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to tell you dinner's ready," Arthur said, sliding his arms around himself. "What are you doing with that," he repeated, looking at the box in Eames hands, open and damning.

"I found it here, in my room," Eames said.

Arthur didn't say anything, and after a moment, Eames snapped the lid shut and took a step forward, offering the box to Arthur, who took it with some reluctance. He pressed it against his stomach and looked down at it, wondering why this, why now.

"I didn't meant to look," Eames said. "I didn't know it was yours."

"Yeah," Arthur said.

"What," Eames said, then paused to clear his throat. "What was that?"

"You saw," Arthur said, looking up at Eames, away from the box he'd never touched like this before. "What, didn't expect me to be so maudlin?"

"I don't understand."

"Don't read too much into it. It's just a-- just a box of memories."

"But that was --"

"Symbolic. I guess they're right when they say you never really get over your first," Arthur said, making light of it. "I'm not actually heartless now, if that's what you're worried about."

"No. That can't --" Eames ran his hands through his hair, shaking his head. He looked more distressed than Arthur felt. Actually, Arthur felt calm -- sort of disconnected, but calm. "You would've told me," Eames accused him, or maybe pleaded.

"That it was my first time?" Arthur blinked and looked away. "You never asked," he said, shrugging, as if it had been that simple, as if he hadn't been doing everything in his power at the time to disabuse Eames of the notion that he was sleeping with a virgin. In retrospect, it had been a stupid thing to do, but he'd been seventeen, and he'd wanted it; he'd wanted Eames.

"Anyway," he said, wetting his lips. "Dinner's ready."

He was half-turned to leave when Eames' hand closed around his upper arm, yanking him back with too much force.

"You can't just --"

Arthur felt his fingers slipping even as he realized how close Eames had pulled him, a flash of heat running through his body, and then the box tumbled out of his grasp --

But what fell onto the floor instead, were photographs, scattered like someone had up-ended a crate full of them. For a moment, neither of them moved. Then Eames slowly released his hold on Arthur's arm. He scratched at his forehead absently, looking down at the mess.

"This is getting a bit ridiculous," he said.

Arthur silently agreed. He knelt down on the floor and began to gather up the photos; after a moment, Eames joined him. Arthur tried to be efficient, quick, but he couldn't help looking at the images -- memories -- as he picked them up. He frowned, his movements slowing down.

"Eames," he said, pausing at a candid shot of a group of people he didn't recognize. "Some of these are yours."

"Yeah," Eames said, his voice tight. "I noticed."

Arthur tried not to pay too much attention to the photos he was shuffling into piles, or Eames, who was kneeling close enough that when Arthur inhaled, he could detect a lingering echo of what Eames had smelled like in reality, a hint of clean sweat mixed with a faint scent of aftershave; he startled when their fingers brushed by accident, reaching for the same photo. Arthur snatched his hand away like he'd been burned. It was... awkward.

It didn't get any less so when Eames picked up a photo that uncovered one of Arthur -- a much younger version of him, naked, looking up at the 'camera' (at Eames) with such an open, unguarded expression that Arthur burned with retroactive embarrassment for his younger self.

"Shit," he said, stashing it in one of the piles he'd been making.

"Arthur," Eames said.

"What?" Arthur snapped, hating the way his cheeks were heating up. Eames didn't say anything for a moment, reaching out to bring closer a few lone photos that had fallen further away on the floor.

"We should talk about this," he finally said.

"I really don't think --"

"I took your virginity," Eames said, not looking at him. "And I'd like to say I would've stopped had I known -- but maybe I wouldn't have," he continued roughly. "It crossed my mind at one point, that maybe you were -- but I thought -- I didn't care enough to ask. I was a selfish bastard, back then, and you were so --"

"Eames," Arthur said, reaching out to touch, his fingers curling around Eames' wrist. "Stop."

Eames ran his tongue over his teeth and looked away.

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah. A lot of good any of it does for you now."

"I don't --" Arthur said, and stopped. He squeezed Eames' wrist a little. "I wanted it. You didn't take advantage of me."

Eames glanced at him, a humorless smile on his lips.

"That's sweet of you to say, love," he said. "But really, I did."

"Eames," Arthur said, trying to reason with him, but was met with a sharp shake of Eames' head.

"Come now," he said, gently extracting his wrist from Arthur's hold and going back to picking up memories. "These won't gather up themselves."

Arthur sighed but didn't push it. When they were almost done and Arthur had gotten good at ignoring the little glimpses of himself he was gathering up -- his hands, mid motion; the curve of his lips; the slant of his eyes when he smiled; his profile; the shape of his ears, and the arch of his neck; it didn't mean anything. Eames was a forger, he noticed these things -- Eames cleared his throat.

"I was wondering," he said.

"Yeah?" Arthur prompted when he fell silent. From the corner of his eye, he saw Eames pause and slowly pick up a photo. "Eames?"

"Nothing," Eames said. Arthur frowned, turning to look at him. "It's nothing," Eames repeated when he notice the look, sending him a quick smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Who's this, then? An old boyfriend?"

"Oh," Arthur said, looking at the photo Eames had turned his way. "A current one, actually," he said, though it was a bit of a stretch to call Hale that. They hadn't seen each other in over four months -- not that that was unusual. When he'd first followed Dom out of the country, Arthur had thought Hale was one of the bridges he'd burned in order to do so. By the time he'd gotten a chance to visit, they'd gone months without any kind of contact, and he'd expected Hale to send him packing, figuratively speaking. But Hale was one of the more unconventional people Arthur had known in his life, and their relationship, such as it was, had never had many strings attached; apart from Hale now calling him 'my lovely stray' with some frequency, there had been no consequences for Arthur's prolonged absence.

The photo was from a time before Arthur's life had fallen apart. The only reason he was in the picture was because he'd been standing in front of a mirror, getting ready to leave; he'd been doing his cuff links, and Hale had come to stand beside him, taking over -- helping, even as he chided Arthur for not being able to take more time off work. Hale was often contrary like that, but it was a good memory.

Arthur took it from Eames' motionless hands and put it on top of his pile, raising an eyebrow in inquiry when Eames didn't resume finishing up with the photos, just absently rubbed his fingertips together, a distant look in his eyes.

Before Arthur could open his mouth to ask, he was interrupted by Yusuf coming to stand in the doorway.

"Hey," Arthur said, looking up at him.

"We were wondering what kept you," Yusuf said, glancing down at the photographs, now in neat piles instead of littering the floor. "But I see our collective subconscious has made its presence known again."

"That's one way to put it," Eames said, snapping out of whatever thoughts had preoccupied him, groaning as he pushed himself to his feet. Arthur shifted the stacks closer to the wall and got up as well.

"Pray tell me," Eames continued, "Is there anything left for us, or has sweet Ariadne already demolished our food supply?"

"She does eat a lot for such a small person, doesn't she?" Yusuf shrugged, smiling. "But there should still be enough left that you won't go hungry. It is getting colder as we speak, however."

"We better get to it, then," Eames said. "We're done here, in any case."

He didn't look at Arthur when he passed by.

-

Waking up on the plane was a relief. Seeing Dom wake up was something more. Arthur shook his head, unable to contain his smile, and thought, Dom, you son of a bitch. You amazing bastard. You did it; you're going home.

And he'd go see them, see Dom in his own home, with his children, in a few days -- but right now, Dom didn't need him, and Arthur didn't begrudge him for it. For Arthur, being at loose ends like this was a relief on its own, proof that they'd really done it. He felt like his life was his own again.

He thought, tentatively, that he could find out if Eames wanted to celebrate. See if Eames would maybe want to come with him to visit Dom and the kids, to witness the good that had come out of the job; but by the time Arthur had gotten his luggage and made his way outside, Eames was nowhere to be found.

It shouldn't have mattered. Arthur had just successfully completed the biggest job of his life, Dom was going home, and the weather was perfect; he should have felt like he was on top of the world.

Instead, he stood in the taxi queue, surrounded by people, and felt lost.

 


VI
Secrets


 

Arthur stayed in Los Angeles for longer than was strictly necessary, but when everything continued to go according to plan, he booked a flight to New York.

He did his best not to think about Eames, but it was a struggle, and it bled through into his relationship with Hale; being with him didn't feel quite right anymore. Arthur would have resented Eames' ability to screw with him and his life without trying, except he really only had himself to blame. He'd learned early on in his life not to expect too much from people, and it frustrated and even scared him a little that despite knowing better, he kept expecting too much from Eames, as if he were a blind spot Arthur kept stumbling over, a scab he kept picking on despite knowing it would only make him bleed again.

He'd gotten over Eames once, or close enough; he could do it again. He had to face the facts. He had a life, and Eames wasn't a part of it -- had chosen not to be a part of it.

Eames could keep his distance; Arthur didn't care either way.

He was still trying to make himself actually believe that when, a couple of weeks after he'd left Dom in the sweet mercies of Phillipa and James, he received a text message from a number he didn't recognize.

darling, it said, the weather in naples is dreadful cheer me up. ps do u own a sword?

Arthur spent a couple of minutes staring at the message with some disbelieve before replying with,

How did you get this number?

Eames (because there wasn't anyone else it realistically could have been) quickly texted back with,

shouldnt insult ur intelligene luv. no sword?

Arthur refrained from making a snide comment about intelligence, because that would be petty and also? Inaccurate.

No sword.

:(

Arthur frowned a little as he emptied the message folders on his phone, unable to come up with a good reason for why Eames would a) need a sword, and b) ask Arthur about it, especially if he was in Naples like he'd said, while Arthur was across the Atlantic, something Eames had to be aware of.

He called Dom, just to be safe.

-

"He did ask about you," Dom said.

"You have been in touch with him, then." Arthur said, confirming his suspicions. He frowned, playing with the edges of the newspaper he'd been reading before making the call. A black and white picture of Robert Fischer stared up at him -- the business world was still in an uproar over the news concerning Fischer-Morrow. "He asked about me?"

"I gave him your contact information," Dom said, sounding distracted. Judging by the sounds coming through the line, he was trying to make dinner. "Phil, honey, give Miss Mickey back to your brother."

Arthur couldn't make out what Phillipa said, just the upset tone of her voice. In the background, James' wailing was starting to gain strength.

"Miss Mickey is James' friend," Dom was saying to her. "I'm sure she'll tell him herself if it bothers her that he keeps chewing on -- no, Phil, it's -- oh, fudge, the soup --"

Arthur bit his lip, torn between frustration and amusement.

"I'll... call you back, alright?" He suggested, because he was a good friend and could absolutely put his own, shallow needs aside in favor of Dom's sanity.

"Yes, yes, I think that would be --" Dom said, and, "James, no, hitting your sister will not solve --"

The line went dead, and Arthur half-wondered if Dom had accidentally dropped his phone in the aforementioned soup. He set his cell on the table, shaking his head.

"Bad news?"

Arthur looked over his shoulder at Hale, who'd come to stand in the kitchen doorway behind him.

"No," he said, hesitating for a moment. "Just the normal chaos in the Cobb household during dinner time."

It wasn't quite that simple, of course, something Arthur could give testimony to; his post-inception visits had given him first hand knowledge of how every situation and problem that came along was magnified by the fact that Dom had been gone for over two years. Building up routines and getting back to some semblance of normalcy would take time, but Arthur didn't feel the need to tell Hale about that.

Hale had met Dom exactly once, when Dom had taken a business trip to New York a few months before Mal's death. Hale knew that part of the reason Arthur had been away so often during the past couple of years had to do with Dom being unable to deal with his wife's death, but that was all. Arthur hadn't felt like sharing, and as far as he could tell, Hale hadn't gone digging for more information on his own, which Arthur appreciated.

"Mm," Hale said, and Arthur could tell he'd already lost interest in the phone call. He came to stand at Arthur's shoulder and scanned the newspaper where it was open on the table. "Such a shame, that whole spectacle with Fischer-Morrow," he mused.

"You wanted Fischer to take over instead of dissolving the company?" Arthur said, raising an eyebrow. "I though you were against corporate monopoly."

"Oh, yes," Hale said, moving to the deluxe coffee making monster that hated Arthur -- which was just insulting, considering his technical expertise -- but produced heavenly coffee for Hale. "I'm all for healthy competition. I only meant it's a shame I didn't see it coming. I'd have made a fortune. Coffee?"

"Yeah, thanks," Arthur said, turning the page so he didn't have to look at Fischer anymore. "And you already have a fortune."

Hale waved a hand at Arthur, dismissive. Then he glanced over his shoulder with a speculative look.

"Speaking of people who don't believe in ever having too much wealth," he said, "Care to join me at a charity gala this weekend?"

Arthur raised an eyebrow, skeptical.

"You want me," he said, leaning back in his chair, "To be your plus one at an event you're probably just going to use as a cover for wheedling money out of people?"

"Don't sell yourself short, Arthur." Hale leaned against the counter and crossed his arms while he waited for the coffee machine to do his bidding, giving Arthur an appreciative look. "You'll make for an excellent arm candy. Besides, the upper echelon thrives on scandal. Not that showing up with a man will be much of a scandal, but it's just titillating enough in certain circles to get them talking."

"And somehow, convolutedly, me being distracting and fending off veiled questions about our sex life gives you the opportunity to talk to the right people," Arthur said with a wry smile.

"You know me so well," Hale said. Crooned, really, the jerk, like Arthur was a beloved pet who'd done a clever trick.

"With 'plans' like this, I wonder how you ever succeeded in gaining yourself a fortune in the first place," Arthur said, going back to reading his newspaper. "And you're talking like I've already said yes, which I haven't."

"Ah, but Arthur; would you really give up such a perfect opportunity to show off the new suit I paid for as a welcome back -- again -- present?" Hale said, and Arthur rolled his eyes, not looking up from the paper.

Hale pursed his lips disapprovingly. "Do I need to remind you that being on my bad side means getting good coffee around here is going to become a struggle for you?"

Well, Arthur thought, admitting defeat, it wasn't like he'd really expected Hale to play fair.

-

He didn't hear from Eames again until the night before the charity event, and then it was just another text with little to no meaning.

not in naples anymore if thats where youve sent ur assassins ;)

Arthur touched the screen with his thumb, and thought of not replying. Eventually he did, sending back,

Good to know.

There were no further messages from Eames.

Arthur hadn't expected any.

-

The new suit was nice, Arthur would give Hale that much. Other than that, he didn't expect much from the night out. He didn't hate such social gatherings, but they always reminded him of work more than anything else; before meeting Hale, Arthur had only ever attended rich people parties in dreams. He wasn't much of a people person, which might have explained why, awake or dreaming, he found such gatherings rather more boring than not.

It wasn't that he didn't like people -- he liked some of them just fine, however questionable his taste in friends and lovers might be -- but for a dreamer, getting lost in a crowd wasn't always a good thing, and Arthur had gotten torn apart by projections one too many times to ever be entirely comfortable in the midst of a large group of people. It wasn't a problem; he had no trouble telling reality from a dream. It was just an itch in the back of his mind, keeping him on his toes. The real issue was that no matter how much money he might have on his various bank accounts, these people -- these rich, upper class citizens -- they weren't his people. He could pretend with the best of them, but he didn't enjoy it.

Eames would probably have felt differently. The thought crossing his mind made him look at the people around him with more interest. He didn't think these were Eames' people either, but Eames was a people watcher, would never be bored just because he had little in common with those surrounding him.

It was because he was thinking of Eames that he at first thought his mind was playing tricks on him. It took a second, then a third look before he believed what he was seeing. He touched Hale's sleeve to get his attention and excused himself; Hale gave him an inquiring look but let him go, not willing to interrupt the conversation he was having with a couple of older gentlemen and their check books.

Arthur took care not to be obvious about it, circling around and stopping to exchange a word here and there with people Hale had pointed out to him beforehand. By the time he got to Eames, he was practically churning inside. This, here, was the last place he'd expected Eames to be. Arthur wanted to drag him off and demand to know what the hell he was doing there, maybe throttle him a little, but regrettably had more self-control than that.

"Fancy meeting you here," Arthur said when he finally paused next to Eames at one of the refreshment tables, keeping his voice low. "Mr...?"

"Whitley," Eames said, quirking an eyebrow. "Charles Whitley, at your service."

"Charmed," Arthur said through gritted teeth and replaced his flute of champagne for appearance's sake, looking at Eames from the corner of his eye while doing so. Eames fit in with the people around him in a way someone who didn't know him and had seen him fresh out of Mombasa would never have expected him to. It wasn't just that he was clean-shaven and was wearing an exquisite suit -- it was in the way he held himself, the haughty set of his eyebrows, the hint of arrogance in his upper lip.

"What are you doing here?" Arthur asked, making sure his voice didn't carry.

"So we're done with the pleasantries already?" Eames mused in a similar tone, his eyes sweeping over the people around them. "I came to see you, obviously."

Arthur didn't bother wondering how Eames had known he'd be here, or insulting them both by asking how he'd gotten an invite.

"You could've let me know in advance," Arthur said. "You have my number. And what's so important it couldn't wait until later?" He glanced back the way he'd come. He could just catch a glimpse of Hale, deep in discussion with the people Arthur had left him with. He turned back to Eames with an expression that demanded an answer; he didn't appreciate whatever game Eames was playing.

"Oh, it's not an emergency, you needn't worry," Eames said, moving the flute he was holding in his hand in tiny circles, making the champagne swirl within. "And I did let you know, did I not?"

Arthur scoffed.

"The text message? Hardly informative. Doesn't count. Even if you really were in Naples, knowing that wouldn't have done me any good."

Not unless Eames had used an alias Arthur was familiar with on his way from Naples to New York, anyway, but in an attempt to keep his emotional distance, Arthur hadn't been tracking him.

"Arthur, you wound me," Eames said. "Would I lie to you?"

"In a heartbeat," Arthur said. "Now, why are you really here, and why didn't you tell me you were coming?"

"You might've told me not to come," Eames said after a beat of silence, like he'd been contemplating on whether to tell the truth. "As it is, I wasn't counting on you acknowledging my presence here tonight."

Arthur pursed his lips. As if he could have gone on about his evening, pretending he hadn't noticed Eames skulking at the periphery of his vision. Eames was right about one thing, though -- he would have told Eames not to come. (He wouldn't have expected Eames to actually listen.)

"And now that I have?" He asked. Eames gave him a lingering look.

"I recon this would be an opportunity for us to have the conversation I came here for," he said, glancing over Arthur's shoulder. "Assuming you're not in a hurry to get back to your boyfriend?"

"He's --" Arthur cut himself off with a sigh. "Fine. Talk."

"No need to get snappy, darling," Eames murmured, sipping his champagne.

"Mr. Whitley," Arthur said.

"Fine, fine, have it your way," Eames said. He cleared his throat. "I've been thinking --"

"Lord have mercy," Arthur said, unable to help himself.

"Ye of little faith," Eames said, the corner of his mouth curling up. "While talking to Cobb," he continued, "It occurred to me that you might be in need of a partner. He's out of the business, or so he told me -- who knows how long that will last, but in the mean time, at the very least --"

Arthur blinked.

"You're here," he said, "To ask me to be your point man?"

"I'm not a half-bad extractor, as I'm sure you know," Eames said with a shrug. "I've been thinking about setting up a more permanent team for a while now, see how it turns out. Interested?"

It was such a bad idea, Arthur thought.

"This is such a bad idea," Arthur said.

"On the contrary, it's a brilliant idea," Eames argued. "It makes sense. Cobb might be retiring, but I know you won't. Are you really looking forward to being on point for different extractors from one job to the next?"

Such a bad idea, Arthur told himself again. Before he could reply, Eames caught sight of something over Arthur's shoulder and straightened almost unnoticeably. Arthur looked over and greeted Hale with a strained smile.

"Did you hook them?" Arthur asked when Hale came to a stop beside him, wondering about the discussion he'd ditched in order to talk to Eames.

"We'll see," Hale said, noncommittal. "Would've gone better if you'd been there to distract Mrs. Madelyn Goldstein when she came around to reclaim her husband."

"Sorry," Arthur said, even though he wasn't feeling particularly sorry. "I got caught up. This is Charles Whitley, we've met before. Mr. Whitley, meet Richard Hale."

"A pleasure," Eames said with a tight smile, offering his hand.

"Likewise, I'm sure," Hale said, shaking hands with him. He looked Eames over and raised his eyebrows ever so slightly, saying, "What is your business here, Mr. Whitley, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Oh, I don't mind at all," Eames said, his smile now showing teeth. "I'm afraid I've come to steal Arthur away from you."

Arthur's traitorous heart gave a little jump at that, but he ignored it, rolling his eyes instead.

"It's just work," he explained to Hale, who was looking between them with faint amusement and -- something else Arthur couldn't quite pinpoint.

"Is it?" Hale said, but it didn't sound much like a question. "Well, when you say steal him away, I do hope you don't mean right now. I have plans for him tonight."

"Do you now," Eames said, staring Hale down in a manner that bordered on hostile, and Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers, wondering how this could be his life.

"It's not --" He started to say, and then didn't, because what was he thinking. He didn't owe Eames any explanations, and the compulsion to tell him, in front of Hale no less, that it's not like that; it's not what you think, was embarrassing to say the least. "I'll talk to you later, okay? And the proposition -- I'm not saying no, but I need to think about it."

"Yes, alright," Eames said after a pause that lasted a moment too long. He was slow to drag his less-than-friendly gaze away from Hale, and the smile he gave Arthur was wane. "Later."

"It was wonderful meeting you, Mr. Whitley," Hale said with studied politeness, nodding at Eames. "If you'll excuse us."

Arthur allowed himself to be drawn away by Hale's hand at the small of his back, but couldn't help looking over his shoulder at Eames one more time. Eames was staring after them, a still, solid figure among the milling people. He raised his glass fractionally when he saw Arthur looking, his eyes hooded. Arthur turned away, biting the inside of his lip.

"Charles Whitley, was it?" Hale said, like he knew the name was an alias.

"Yes," Arthur said. "Sorry about him."

"Haven't heard you apologizing on anyone's behalf, before," Hale said. "Is he an ex of yours?"

Arthur felt himself stiffen, unable to catch the reaction in time to do anything about it. Hale noticed, of course, glancing at him with a look that was almost apologetic.

"I don't mean to pry," he said, "But for future reference, the two of you are pretty obvious about it."

"It's nothing," Arthur said. "It's all in the past."

Hale shook his head but didn't say anything for a moment. He snagged a champagne flute from a passing waiter's tray while Arthur waited, wary; he knew these silences -- they never lasted.

"Did you know, Arthur," Hale said, looking at the pale liquid in his flute, "I rarely sustain interest in people over long periods of time. You've been something of an exception for me, and I think that's in part because you've never expressed any interest in staying."

"Hale --"

"I came to think you'd always come back to me -- but there was always the possibility that you wouldn't. And now --"

"Whatever it is you're trying to say, just say it," Arthur said, the taste of champagne souring the words on his tongue.

"His proposition, whatever it is -- you're going to say yes," Hale said, and Arthur looked at him sharply. "Oh, don't look at me like that. We haven't always been honest with each other, but I believe we know each other well enough to be honest about this. You're going to say yes. To him. And I don't think you'll be coming back to me anymore."

Arthur shook his head, looking away.

"You don't have to say anything," Hale told him, pensive. "It's enough that we both know the truth."

"It's more complicated than you make it out to be," Arthur said. "And if it's not..."

He trailed off, closing his eyes for a fleeting moment. If it was not...

"Let's talk about something else," he said, and drowned the rest of his champagne so he couldn't ask Hale what he was supposed to do, here. So he couldn't say: If I give him half-a-chance, he's going to break my heart again.

He wasn't ready for that conversation. Not with Hale -- not with anyone.

Mercifully, Hale complied, and for the span of the night, Arthur was able to pretend nothing had changed.

-

"If we do this," Arthur said three days later, his hands curled around a sub-par cup of Starbucks coffee, "It will be on a trial basis."

"Of course," Eames said, his own coffee sitting on the table between them, untouched.

And for better or for worse, that was that; they were a team.

-

Privately, Arthur called himself all kinds of fool for saying yes to Eames' proposition. The problem was that Hale had been right -- about some things, at least. It was stupid, but Arthur had never been very good at saying no to Eames. As it was, he knew, deep down, that when this partnership fell apart -- as it inevitably would -- it was going to be Eames who walked away; it was always Eames who left.

Going in, Arthur didn't have high expectations. Not only was he setting himself up for a fall, but from a purely professional point of view, the two of them were never going to work out in long term. Arthur was good at his job because he'd made a point of carving a place for himself and being on top of the food chain, and Eames was... Eames. They were both excellent at what they did, but when put together, they too often brought out the worst in each other. They weren't going to last six months, and Arthur wasn't sure why he was giving it a shot in the first place, except to maybe prove something to himself, once and for all.

Their first job, two months after incepting Fischer, was an easy one and went off without a hitch. It was almost insulting how smoothly they pulled off the extraction, just the two of them, except that was the point -- to test their new partnership with something simple before moving on to more challenging jobs.

The second one had more of an edge, but not by much. By the third, they were getting the hang of it, navigating each other with more ease. They counted the job as a success even though they'd ended up running through a maze of narrow streets and back alleys in Cairo due to an unfortunate case of miscommunication -- Eames' words, not his -- with the architect they'd hired for the job.

It was the planning stages that kept tripping them up; they had a different approach to most things and got annoyed with each other regularly. They fought, occasionally sending whatever extra team members the job needed scurrying out of the room, but when it came down to it, none of that mattered. In a dream, in executing a job, they were seamless, complimenting each other. Even when they fought while planning, there was something thrilling about it. Arthur didn't think it was just him; the way Eames' eyes flashed sometimes when they argued, Arthur could swear he was enjoying himself.

A small voice at the back of his head kept trying to tell him that, just maybe, he'd been wrong about their ability to work with each other long term. They fit together in ways he hadn't expected them to, and as time passed, he began to think their partnership was worth ignoring the way his heart ached and his skin flushed with want sometimes when Eames smiled at him or stood too close. They weren't lovers; they weren't friends; they were partners, and Arthur was slowly beginning to think that maybe he could trust Eames in this, if nothing else, and maybe it would be enough.

Then, as they were getting ready for their sixth job, he came back one evening to the little apartment in Lisbon one of his contacts had arranged for them, and found Eames alone and asleep, wires sneaking out from under his sleeve, the PASIV open and active on the floor next to him. Arthur felt his stomach lurch even as he reminded himself that it wasn't unusual for people to go under on their own, and that whatever reasons Eames had for doing so -- whether it was for work or for pleasure -- it was none of Arthur's business right now. He told himself to walk away. Talking with Eames could wait.

He stood there for a minute, trying to convince himself to leave. It wasn't working.

"Fuck it," Arthur muttered. He sat down on the ground next to Eames' chair and reached for the PASIV. He checked the settings and the somnacin levels, wiped his wrist with a disinfectant, and hooked himself up. He was being paranoid, but he'd already done this dance once with Dom -- he wasn't going to repeat his mistakes with Eames. He didn't care that it was a breach of privacy, or that his worry was irrational, given that Eames had showed no signs of having any of Dom's issues; seeing Eames like this reminded Arthur so much of the times he had seen Dom go under alone and had done nothing about it, that it made him feel sick. It made him want to be sure. If Eames wanted to continue their partnership, he'd better be willing to prove to Arthur that he wasn't keeping secrets.

Arthur lay down, blinking slowly at the ceiling as he was dragged under.

-

The first thing he saw was a hallway, stretching out in front of him. It looked like it belonged to a hotel, numbered doors on either side. Except when he took a closer look, the numbers didn't make any sense. Some looked like dates, others were upside down, and a few had letters mixed in. At the end of the hallway, double doors stood open, leading into a suite with wall-to-wall windows, sunlight streaming in unhindered.

As he moved closer, Arthur saw that the sitting room was empty. He could hear a murmur of voices coming from further in. Eames' he recognized. The other -- it sounded familiar, but it wasn't until he was standing in the doorway leading to the bedroom that he understood why.

It was his own.

He wasn't sure what he was seeing, didn't understand it; there was Eames, wearing the same clothes he did in reality, sitting on the bed, angled away from the doorway. He was saying something, but Arthur felt like his head was filled with white noise, could only make out the warm, fond tone of his voice. Kneeling on the bed next to him, facing the doorway and yet not appearing to notice Arthur, was a projection.

Arthur stared at it, him, this strange, adolescent version of himself. He looked painfully young, but more painful than that was the open expression on his face as he looked at Eames -- the want there, the adoration. Arthur rested a hand on the door frame and curled his fingers against it, his nails digging in.

Eames fell silent and twisted around like he'd sensed he was being watched. Their eyes met, and Arthur could see the moment Eames realized that Arthur wasn't a projection. Eames shot up from the bed like he'd been burned.

"Arthur," he barked. "What the hell?"

"What the --" Arthur cut himself off with a sharp inhale. "You're seriously asking me that?"

Eames ran a hand through his hair, agitated. The projection slid off the bed and went to him, reaching out to touch his hand.

"Mr. Eames?" The projection said, looking up at Eames with a tentative expression. Eames closed his eyes briefly and shook his head.

"Everything's fine, pet," he said, a rough quality to his voice.

Arthur was beginning to feel faint.

"I-- Have you been fucking him?" He blurted out.

"No!" Eames exclaimed, looking at Arthur with something akin to alarm. "Good Lord, no."

"Have you wanted to?" Arthur asked, forcing himself to let go of the door frame, uncurling his fingers with some difficulty.

"He's just a kid," Eames said.

"I used to be him," Arthur said. "You had sex with me."

"Point," Eames said, running the back of his hand over his mouth. "But I was not in my thirties at the time, and I was -- I wasn't who I am now."

The projection made an inquiring noise, frowning up at Eames.

"Right, let's --" Eames said, "Let's not do this here." He picked up the projection of Arthur's teenage self like it was nothing and deposited him on the bed. He cupped the projection's face in his hands, and the look in his eyes was -- tender. Arthur absolutely did not feel a spike of jealousy, because feeling jealous of an imagined version of himself would have been ridiculous.

"You," Eames told the projection. "Stay here."

The projection blinked, and then a slow smile blossoming on his face, wicked and sweet in equal measures.

"I will -- if you promise you'll come back soon," he said, nuzzling Eames' hand, not breaking eye contact. Arthur looked away, uncomfortable with the display. He couldn't have been that unselfconscious and forward at that age. Could he?

"And none of that, alright?" Eames said, stern. "Stay."

The projection pouted but stayed put when Eames stepped away and turned to Arthur. He scratched the back of his head, looking embarrassed.

"I'd, uh, appreciate it if we could talk in the sitting room. Or the hallway, if you'd prefer."

Arthur stepped away from the doorway with one last look at the boy who was sitting on the bed, leaning back on his hands and looking at Eames with singular focus. He cursed silently and turned away, walking across the sitting room and into the hallway. They could've just left the dream completely, but Arthur didn't feel like dealing with this particular mess in the waking world, as if it might make it -- real.

"He's being pretty provocative," he said, not turning to look at Eames.

"He's --" Eames said. "You. You've always been persistent."

"Is this about, you know, our first time being my first time," Arthur said, feeling inexplicably discomfited talking about it. "I mean, if it's not about sex, then what? Guilt?"

Eames didn't say anything, and Arthur spun around to face him.

"It is, isn't it?" Arthur demanded starting to get angry again. "You feel guilty about something that happened a decade ago, and -- and you come here to, what, not have sex with him -- me -- like it'll change history?"

"I don't expect it to change anything," Eames said. He stood there, his stance relaxed, his expression open and somehow sad, like he didn't expect Arthur to give him the benefit of the doubt but was willing to accept his judgement anyway. It made Arthur's chest ache. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose.

"Goddamnit, Eames," he finally said without any heat, letting his arm fall back to his side. "I'm not looking for another Cobb. Whatever your issue is with what happened between us --"

"It isn't an issue," Eames interrupted him, snapping out of whatever gloom had held him still, and took a step forward. "He isn't going to start showing up during the jobs, Arthur, I swear."

"I don't know how comfortable I am, knowing he's in your head," Arthur admitted.

"You weren't supposed to know," Eames said, wincing when Arthur shot him a look. "That did nothing to help my case, huh?"

"Not really, no," Arthur said with reluctant amusement. The silence that fell between them then was just shy of awkward, and Arthur looked down at his shoes, putting his hands in his pockets. He startled at a fleeting touch against his cheek and his eyes flew up to meet Eames'. Eames snatched his hand back and clenched it into a fist. He cleared his throat.

"You said --" He looked away. "You weren't supposed to be back yet. Was there something you needed to talk about?"

He was changing the subject, but Arthur didn't blame him for it. Feeling almost relieved to go along with it for now himself, he said,

"I wanted to talk about the timeline for this job. The mark made a doctor's appointment we could use, but the timing doesn't work for me. It would be stupid to rush it and risk everything for a routine job like this, so we'll have to either be patient and wait for another chance, or give this one a pass. It's still early enough that we can back out without too much trouble, if it comes to that."

Eames didn't say anything for a moment.

"Time to go see the boyfriend?"

"Hale?" Arthur looked at Eames with a frown. "I wouldn't skip out on a job for something like that, and he's not my boyfriend."

"You broke up?" Eames said, his expression shifting into something Arthur couldn't decipher, but which nonetheless made his mouth dry.

"In a manner of speaking," he said, because considering how easy being with Hale had been, thinking about their relationship in conventional terms made it seem complicated.

"So," Eames said, hooking his thumbs through his belt loops. "What would this prior engagement of yours be, then?"

"James' birthday is on the twenty-third," Arthur said, shrugging. "I'm always there for their birthdays."

At least he tried to be, though work had prevented it a couple of times in the past. He'd always made up for it.

Eames looked down and ran his tongue over his bottom teeth, nodding.

"Alright," he said. "Not a big deal. We'll finish the job later."

"Okay," Arthur said, relieved -- not that he'd expected Eames to be difficult about it, but still. "Yeah. Thanks."

It wasn't until later that he realized that agreeing to doing the job later relied largely on the assumption that whatever was going on between them wouldn't end up with them going their separate ways. It was stupid and optimistic, and Arthur didn't like that his mind had gone there so easily. But he didn't voice his concerns, and he didn't say anything when Eames decided to tag along with him for James' birthday.

They'd have to talk at some point. They might as well do it with Dom and the kids around, acting as a buffer if it turned out they needed one.

And maybe they wouldn't. Maybe it'd turn out alright -- better than alright, if Eames --

Arthur cut himself off there with the ferocity of someone who'd been burned one too many times. Yet, in the back of his mind, and despite himself, he began to hope.

 


VII
The Forger's Heart


 

Their flight to Los Angeles was uneventful, as was going through airport security. They'd both gone through the same routine so often that they could have done it with their eyes closed. The downside was that it gave Arthur too much time with his thoughts. There was an undercurrent of tension running between him and Eames, a strange but not entirely unwelcome counterpoint to the somewhat impersonal work relationship they'd carved for themselves during the last few months.

Dom was waiting for them when they got through the check points, and Arthur couldn't help but smile a little when he saw him standing there, looking worn and familiar. Dom's forehead smoothed out and he took his hands out of his pockets when he saw Arthur walk through the doors with Eames trailing behind him.

"I half thought to see Phillipa and James with you," Arthur called out when they got closer. "That is, if you hadn't decided to send someone else to fetch us instead of coming yourself."

"I can function without them, you know," Dom said, his tone mild.

"Not really," Arthur said breezily, coming to a stop in front of Dom. "And if you tell me this isn't the longest you've voluntarily been away from them since you got back, I won't believe you."

Dom snorted and shook his head, but he didn't deny it.

"I don't know why I put up with you," he said, even as he stepped forward and drew Arthur into an embrace.

Arthur blinked and let go of his carry-on, feeling awkward as he returned the hug. They didn't do this, he and Dom; apart from the occasional clap on the back, their relationship had never been very physically demonstrative, not even when Mal was alive.

"I think it's the other way around, actually," Arthur managed to say when they pulled apart again.

Dom gave him a smile tinged with gratitude, and for the first time in years, Arthur felt like Dom was really seeing him.

"I know," Dom said, squeezing his shoulder before letting go entirely. He turned to Eames, saying, "Eames. Good to see you."

"Cobb," Eames said, nodding. His expression was friendly enough, but he wasn't bothering to hide that underneath there was wariness, even a hint of hostility -- he was choosing not to let it become a problem, but he hadn't forgiven Dom for putting them at risk during the Fischer job. Arthur couldn't blame him.

Dom gave Eames a rueful smile but didn't say anything, reaching out to take Arthur's luggage.

"Come on, the car's this way," he said, ignoring Arthur's protests.

-

When they arrived at the house, James was in the driveway, riding in circles with a shiny little bicycle with training wheels on.

"An early birthday present?" Arthur asked, nodding at James when Dom pulled to a stop in front of the house.

"Ah," Dom said, taking a hand off the wheel to palm the back of his head. "Yes. From Saito."

"Really," Arthur said, looking at Dom sharply. He'd known that Dom and Saito had formed a connection during the job, but he wasn't exactly happy that they were still in contact now. Dom seemed to consider Saito something of a friend, but Arthur didn't trust easily, and especially not when it came to men like Saito.

"Really," Dom said, rolling his eyes at Arthur's skeptical tone. "Now go and get my kid out of the driveway so I can park. Shoo."

Arthur smacked away the hand Dom was flapping at him and climbed out of the car, closing the door on Eames' chuckles coming from the back seat.

"Jerk," he muttered to himself, not sure which one of them he meant. "Hey, kid," he called out to James, whose head snapped up, his mouth stretching into a wide grin when he caught sight of Arthur, and Arthur felt an intense surge of fondness. He wasn't much of a kid person, but James and Phillipa had always managed to get around that; he'd given up fighting the soft spot he had for them the minute they'd been placed in his arms as babies.

"Arthur!" James said, exited. "Arthur, Arthur, look! I have a new bike!"

"I can see that," Arthur said, giving it an admiring once-over. "Very cool," he decided, and James beamed at him. "Now can I get a hug or what?"

James scrambled off the bike and Arthur squatted down just in time for James to throw his arms around his neck.

"Good to see you, buddy," Arthur said and stood up with a soft 'oof'. "You keep growing up when I look away. I thought we talked about that," he said, chiding, and James giggled an unrepentant 'sorry' into his neck. Arthur settled him on his hip and stooped down to pick up the bike with his free arm, moving both the bike and the boy away from the driveway.

-

James' birthday fell on a weekday, but the party itself was scheduled to take place on the following Saturday. Arthur stayed at the house, but Eames had opted for a hotel. Miles and Magda -- Mal's parents -- had flown in from France and taken the second guest room; Dom had offered to put Eames in the study, but Eames had declined. Arthur didn't blame him -- he had some experience with that futon, and considered it a crime that Dom hadn't yet replaced it.

When he thought to bring it up, and Dom brushed him off with vague promises, Arthur decided that Dom had gotten far too comfortable with the criminal lifestyle during his time on the run.

"If that's the worst of it, I'd say it hardly requires complaint," Eames said when the two of them were cleaning up the kitchen after a late dinner. His expression was mild, but his eyes were laughing; Arthur sniffed, turning the faucet on and filling the sink with water.

"You say that now," he said, slanting a look at Eames. "But if your back ends up getting acquainted with that thing some time in the future, don't come crying to me."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Eames said solemnly, setting a pile of dirty dishes on the counter next to the sink, and whipped up a dish towel in preparation for his drying duty. They'd been living in each others' pockets a lot lately, but that had been for work; there was a sense of domesticity here that was unfamiliar to Arthur, and to have it with Eames of all people -- well, it was unexpected, but not as unwelcome as Arthur might have thought.

"I'm just warning you," he shrugged, watching the plates get submerged into the soapy water, "I'm going to say I told you so."

"I wouldn't expect anything less from you," Eames said, leaning against the counter as he waited.

Neither of them spoke for a while, but the silence wasn't as awkward as it could have been. Arthur bit the inside of his lip, focusing on his hands as he scrubbed a plate clean.

"You know we have to talk about it at some point, right?" He eventually said, watching Eames from the corner of his eye. Eames stilled, but he wasn't tensing up, which Arthur took as a positive sign. Then again, with Eames it was hard to tell.

"I haven't gone back," Eames said, not pretending he didn't know what the topic was. "And I won't be seeing him in the future."

"Then why do it in the first place?" Arthur wanted to know, frowning as he thought of the projection of his teenage self, the easy, forward manner which Arthur himself had largely lost over the years.

Eames hesitated and then said,

"I'm not terribly accustomed to guilt. Especially not over something like this."

"So it is about that first time," Arthur said, a strange sense of disappointment gnawing at his stomach.

"In part," Eames allowed. Arthur scrubbed the plate harder.

"And," Eames said, glancing at him, "I suppose I wanted to -- talk to you."

Arthur frowned, staring down at his hands, frustration bubbling in his throat.

"What does that even mean?" He asked. "We've been seeing a lot of each other during the past few months. Why should you have to make up a projection of me when I'm right there? That's fucked up."

"That it is," Eames said, and reached out to take the plate Arthur had been washing. "I think it's clean enough, love."

Arthur relinquished his grip on the plate, plunging his hands into the dishwater to start in on the next one.

"Then why?" He finally asked. "Why couldn't you just talk to me?"

"I didn't think you wanted to hear the things I had to say," Eames said after a pause, running the kitchen towel over the rinsed plate in broad strokes.

But I do, Arthur thought, looking at Eames' hands, strong and capable and -- gentle, when no force was needed or wanted, when a touch would do. Eames, I do.

But his mouth was dry, and before he could speak, Dom came into the kitchen, breaking the moment.

"I can't get Phil to settle down, Arthur, she says you promised to read her some book, and it's no good if I do it. Could you...?"

"Yeah, of course, let me just," Arthur said, and Eames offered the towel for him to dry his hands with. "Are you --"

"Yes, yes," Dom said, shooing at him. "Go, I'll take over."

"Okay. Um." He glanced at Eames as he let Dom take his place. "Yeah," he said, giving the towel back. He didn't wait to see if Eames had anything to say about his eloquence or lack thereof, feeling his ears grow hot as he walked out of the kitchen.

"What was that about?" He heard Dom ask as he turned a corner.

"No idea, mate," was Eames' breezy reply.

-

Over the next couple of days, Arthur caught Eames looking at him on occasion, but when he raised a questioning eyebrow at him, Eames just shook his head or sent Arthur a lopsided smile that answered nothing at all. It was just as well; Dom was shameless about getting them to help with the kids' party, and staying at the house meant that Arthur had no breaks from the demands of Phillipa and James, who both had certain perfectly understandable abandonment issues and liked to monopolize Arthur's time when he was around.

James was usually shy with strangers, but he was too exited about his birthday and showing off his new bike to remember his hang-ups, and Eames made all the right, admiring noises to win him over. Phillipa, on the other hand, wasn't shy -- she was suspicious. But Eames won her over as well, telling outrageous stories and, Arthur suspected but did not care to confirm, teaching her how to pick locks when Dom's back was turned. Overall, it was a relief to have Eames around; somehow, miraculously, their unfinished business failed to make things between them stilted and awkward, and being able to rely on Eames to divert attention when all Arthur wanted was to sit down in a corner with his laptop and check up on his contacts in peace was a blessing.

The main event, come Saturday, consisted of Arthur, Eames, Dom, Miles and Magda, James and Phillipa, twelve other kids -- most of whom were James' age and a couple of whom were Phillipa's friends -- and the assorted parents and guardians, because Dom encouraged involved parenting and was, so Arthur thought, attempting to build his home network from the ground up. He was overcompensating, trying to make amends and keep too busy to think at the same time, but Arthur knew Dom wouldn't thank him for the observations, and so he kept his mouth shut; Eames had no such hang ups, but reluctantly took the hint after Arthur had 'accidentally' stepped on his foot once or twice with an impeccable sense of timing.

During the party, which largely took place in the backyard, Arthur did his best to stay out of the way, helping to keep things organized and paying more attention to the food than the kids. For all he doted on Phillipa and James, a house full of children wasn't his scene. More to the point, and despite his experience with Phillipa and James, he wasn't good with kids.

Eames, on the other hand, was. Arthur didn't think Eames was any more used to being around them than he was, thought he admitted he didn't know that for a fact. But Eames was a chameleon, slipping into different roles with ease Arthur envied at times. He didn't envy Eames now, comfortable with being on the sidelines and mostly overlooked while the kids clamored for Eames' attention. Not that he could blame them -- but that was a thought best kept to himself.

Eames indulged the kids in good humor, giving them piggy-back rides and judging their contests, playing charades they seemed to find hilarious, and spinning around with several of them hanging from his arms, screaming with delight.

It was sort of absurd, all considering, but also priceless; Arthur had rarely wanted video footage of anything quite as badly.

When the kids started to get tired and things began to calm down, what was left of the party moved inside; Arthur settled down on the back porch steps and rested his arms on his knees. The lawn was littered with toys and colorful bits of paper, and the muffled sounds that carried over from inside somehow only emphasized the quiet that had settled over the backyard.

After a good few minutes, he heard the door opening and closing behind him, but didn't turn to look. A moment later, Eames sat heavily on the step beside him, digging into his pocket for smokes.

"Man," he said, tapping out a cigarette and putting it between his lips. "Kids are exhausting."

"You're just too charming for your own good," Arthur said, looking away from Eames' mouth.

"You needn't sound so smug about it," Eames grumbled without heat. "Fag?"

Arthur shook his head, and Eames shifted his shoulders, stowing the pack away. He flicked open a lighter and lit his cigarette, closing his eyes on the first inhale.

"I agree though," Arthur said a minute or so later. "About kids, I mean. Give me a gun instead, and at least I know what to do with it."

"You do alright," Eames said, looking over the yard as he blew away the smoke from the corner of his mouth. "I've seen you with James and Phillipa, you can't fool me."

"That's just them, though," Arthur said, rubbing at his wrist absently. He felt Eames looking at him and turned to meet his eyes.

"Then that's enough," Eames said, the look in his eyes soft, unguarded. Then he smiled, a self-deprecating quirk of his lips, and turned to look over the backyard again, bringing the cigarette back to his lips.

They sat in silence for a long time, not moving until Dom came to find them.

-

After helping with the clean up at the Cobb residence, Arthur drove Eames back to his hotel. Instead of dropping him off at the front, Arthur found a parking spot and turned off the engine.

"Can I come up? To talk," he added, flushing, when Eames didn't respond immediately.

"To talk, yes." Eames said, clearing his throat. "Of course."

By mutual, unspoken agreement, neither of them spoke on the way to Eames' room. As he followed Eames into the lobby, his eyes lingering on the breadth of Eames' shoulders, Arthur had trouble remembering why he'd thought this was a good idea. In the elevator, he fiddled with his sleeves, painfully aware of how close Eames was standing. Trying to ignore the growing tension between them, he stared up at the numbers above the doors as they lighted up, one by one, until the elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open with a soft chime.

There were a million things Arthur had wanted to ask and say, but as he shut the door to Eames' room, he could think of not a single one. Being in a hotel room with Eames and a king sized bed was doing things to his head, and he almost wished he'd stayed in the car and driven back to Dom's, pushing back their talk by yet another day.

He stepped away from the door; Eames hadn't moved far into the room, and they stood there, facing each other, barely three feet between them. Arthur swallowed, his mouth dry.

"I have to admit, Arthur," Eames said, his eyes flickering to the movement of Arthur's throat, "I don't know what more to tell you about the projection."

"It's not just about that," Arthur said, his hands twitching at his sides. The projection was just a symptom, there were bigger issues here; he pressed his hands briefly against his thighs, trying to focus. "I'm -- we work together. We're -- friends, after a fashion. We should be able to talk to each other."

"We aren't friends, you and I," Eames said, the look in his eyes shadowed, unreadable.

"We could be," Arthur said, and stilled, inhaling sharply when Eames lifted a hand to cup his jaw.

"No, love," Eames said, his thumb brushing against the corner of Arthur's mouth. "We couldn't."

Arthur grabbed Eames' wrist and held his arm in place, finding himself quite abruptly at the end of his rope.

"Stop jerking me around, Eames," he said, his voice little more than a harsh whisper. "Just -- stop."

Something flared up in Eames' eyes then, dark and fierce and defiant, taking Arthur's breath away; Eames twisted his arm free and cupped Arthur's face in his hands, leaning in, his mouth hard and sure and hot against Arthur's. Arthur gasped into the kiss, his hands coming up between them, fluttering like birds against Eames' chest before turning into claws, grasping at his shirt, his shoulders -- tugging at him, pulling him in. The slide of their mouths was slick and wet, and it was too much and not enough, having Eames so close; the scrape of his stubble, the warm scent of his skin -- Arthur wanted to bury his nose against Eames' neck, chase the faint traces of cologne and cigarettes there, wanted to never come up for air that didn't make him think of Eames.

No, not like this --

Arthur pushed Eames back, tensing his arms when Eames made a bereft noise low in his throat and tried to move in again.

"Eames," he said, and winced at how wrecked he sounded already. "Eames, I mean it, don't -- don't do this if you don't mean it, if it's just --"

"It isn't," Eames said, pressing his thumb roughly against Arthur's cheekbone, his free hand coming to rest against Arthur's hip, holding on too tight. "Arthur, I swear to you."

Arthur wanted to believe him, wanted to believe they were on the same page here; he wavered, and the moment he stopped holding Eames back, Eames stepped in close and took possession of his mouth again. Arthur, conflicted and desperate, leaned into it, a surge of hope rising within him, threatening to choke him.

Eames pushed him against a wall, hard, and Arthur gasped, a flash of arousal running through his system, hyper-sensitizing his skin. He felt like a man who'd been dying of thirst and was now drowning, and yet he still wanted more. Eames was hot and solid against him, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd wanted someone this much; he didn't linger on the thought for too long.

"Come on, come on," he said, his fingers clumsy with desire as he tugged at Eames belt; Eames' mouth was on his neck, Eames' fingers impatiently tugging at his shirt, finally sacrificing a few buttons by just yanking it open. Arthur didn't have the presence of mind to care, struggling out of the shirt without complaint.

"What do you want?" Eames asked, murmuring the words against Arthur's skin, making him shiver; his fingers grazed one of Arthur's nipples, skated down over his ribs.

"You," Arthur said, granting him the truth. Arthur turned his head, letting his lips brush against Eames' jaw, drunk on the scent of his skin; he grabbed one of Eames' hands and pressed it flat against his side, dragging it down and around until Eames' fingertips were resting below his waistband.

"Wait," Eames said, sounding breathless and gruff. He extracted his hand from Arthur's hold and rooted through his pockets, coming up with a condom before Arthur could complain.

"I was a Boy Scout," Eames told him when he saw Arthur's raised eyebrow, a corner of his lips quirking up.

"A liar is what you are," Arthur said and snatched the condom from Eames' fingers, ripping the packet open with his teeth.

"You've so little faith in me," Eames mourned, his breath catching as Arthur pushed his underwear out of the way and rolled the condom on him, his fingers lingering, reacquainting himself with the feel and weight of Eames' cock -- "Stop that."

"Make me," Arthur said, and Eames narrowed his eyes, the only warning Arthur got before Eames spun him around to face the wall. Arthur shivered when Eames stepped in close and ran his calloused hands down Arthur's front. Arthur didn't usually like it like this -- against a wall, from behind -- but it was Eames, and somehow that made all the difference.

"Your wish is my command," Eames said, his mouth brushing against Arthur's ear with every syllable; it should have sounded stupid, a cliché, but Arthur didn't care, was barely able to think, his breath coming short and his skin flushing. He leaned his forearms against the wall above his head as Eames fumbled with his fly and tugged his pants and underwear down, helping by kicking them off when they puddled around his ankles.

Arthur half-closed his eyes when Eames slid his palms over his thighs and ass, when he ran his fingers up the crack between Arthur's cheeks, brushing against his entrance; Arthur ducked his head, his cheeks heating up with how much he wanted this.

"Are you sure?" Eames asked, rough and quiet, like he was half-afraid he was dreaming; it did things to Arthur's insides.

"Yes," he said, and the touch disappeared for a moment. Then Eames was pushing two thick, spit-slick fingers into him, and Arthur gasped, tilting his head back.

"Enough," he said, too soon. "Eames, enough."

"Yeah?" Eames said, but he was already slipping his fingers free.

"Yeah," Arthur said, swallowing thickly when he felt the blunt head of Eames' cock at his entrance, one of Eames' hands coming to rest on his hip again.

Eames pressed in, and Arthur bit his lip against the burn, pushing back to take more instead of shying away. Halfway in, Eames paused.

"Alright, love?" He asked, and any other time Arthur might have appreciated the strain of restraint in his voice.

"Fine, I'm fine," Arthur said, digging his nails against the wall. "Move," he commanded, and moaned as Eames did, pushing in until his whole length was buried within Arthur, uncomfortable and perfect; Arthur gasped for breath, his mouth hanging open, and Eames' grip on him tightened.

"Arthur, God," Eames said, pressing his face against Arthur's shoulder as he slowly pulled out again. Arthur shivered at the scrape of stubble against his skin, squeezing his eyes shut against the stretch of Eames' cock forcing him open, the burning slide as Eames set out to find a rhythm. Arthur leaned his head against his forearms, his breath a shuddering, unstable thing. The room was filled with their panting, groaning breaths, the unmistakable sound of flesh against flesh, the slide of sweaty skin; Eames kept repeating Arthur's name on broken intervals like it was the only word he knew, his fingers pressing bruises against Arthur's skin, and even as it hurt, it almost wasn't enough.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck me," Arthur chanted, pushing his hips back to meet Eames' thrusts, urging him to hold on tighter, fuck him harder; there was pain and desire coiling at the base of his spine, and he bit down on Eames' name, wanting, wanting --

-- and silently, in the privacy of his mind, he thought, Please.

Please.

-

Afterward -- after quick, separate showers and few meaningless words -- Arthur found himself reluctant to go back to the house, and not just because the sex hadn't really resolved anything; when Eames gave no indication of wanting Arthur to leave, Arthur sent Dom a message not to expect him back until tomorrow. He felt wrung out, emotionally more so than physically, and thought it would be better if he and Eames talked about it in the morning, when they were both rested. This thing between them, whatever it was, whatever it could become, felt horribly tentative, fragile; Arthur didn't want to take any chances with it.

When they lay in bed, contentment wrestling with apprehension in the back of Arthur's sleepy mind, he reached out and took hold of Eames' forearm, his fingernails pressing half-moon crescents against the skin there.

"If you're gone when I wake up," he said, "I'll hunt you down and kill you."

Eames took his hand and brought it up to his mouth, the soft press of his lips against Arthur's fingers like a promise. If there were words, Arthur didn't hear them; the kiss still lingered on his skin when sleep swallowed him whole.

-

It was stretching out an arm across the bed and finding nothing but an empty expanse of mattress that had Arthur sitting up and blinking at the empty room before he even realized he'd woken up.

It took him a minute to get his bearings and recognize the sound for what it was -- water being turned off -- and by then Eames had appeared in the bathroom doorway. He looked bleary, his hair was sleep tousled, and there was a pillow crease on his cheek, half-obscured by stubble; he was by far the most gorgeous thing Arthur had ever seen.

Seeing Arthur awake and sitting up, Eames began to smile; he was reaching for the bathroom light switch when something about Arthur's expression made him pause, the beginnings of his smile fading.

He turned off the light and stepped out of the doorway, his gaze flickering over Arthur, from his too-wide eyes to his hands, which were clenched against the sheets. Arthur tried to relax, to smooth out his expression, but it was too late. He could see it on Eames' face, the moment he put the pieces together.

Arthur drew his knees up and rubbed a hand over his face, feeling pathetic. What a stupid overreaction; a split second of believing Eames had walked out on him, and he was a mess.

"I really did a number on you, didn't I?" Eames said, his expression shuttered.

"It's fine," Arthur said, hoping they could just gloss over it. "I'm fine."

"Like hell you are." Eames crossed his arms, and Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Let's just -- not," he said, wanting to avoid a childish is-isn't argument. "It doesn't matter."

"I thought you wanted to talk," Eames pointed out, and Arthur shrugged, looking away.

"Not about this," he said. "Come on, enough. Come back to bed."

For a moment, Arthur thought Eames might push it, or worse, decide Arthur wasn't worth it after all; Arthur hated himself for feeling so insecure, hated that however confident he'd become in other areas of his life, Eames remained, as always, the exception. He needn't have worried; Eames uncrossed his arms and walked to the bed, climbing in and flopping down on his back next to Arthur with a huff. Arthur remained sitting but twisted around so he didn't have his back to Eames.

Eames was staring at the ceiling, and Arthur took the opportunity to look at him, tracing the lines of Eames' face and body with his eyes, his fingers itching to touch.

"What are we doing?" He asked instead of giving in to the impulse, crossing his arms loosely over his knees.

Eames glanced at him, smiling a little when their eyes met.

"I don't know," he said. "We'll figure it out."

"We will?" Arthur didn't mean to sound skeptical, but it came out that way regardless. Eames looked back at the ceiling.

"I'm not saying it'll be easy," he said, drumming his fingers against his stomach. "To be honest with you, I'm not actually sure I know how to do this."

"Do what?" Arthur asked, frowning.

"Settle down." Eames turned to look at Arthur again. "But I'll try. I'll try, for you."

Arthur swallowed and tried not to let his reaction show.

"Who said anything about settling down," he said, his tone light.

"You know what I mean," Eames said, reaching out to touch Arthur's ankle, dropping his gaze as he rubbed his thumb against the bone there. "A proper relationship, all that comes with it."

"I'm not sure I do," Arthur said, because it was true, and because he was thirsty for Eames' words, for clarity.

"I've always been a bit of a coward when it comes to relationships," Eames said, licking his lips before continuing; "Always taking off rather than taking a chance, never caring enough to put myself at risk. But you -- I don't want to not have you."

"I'm not really good with relationships either," Arthur confessed, feeling awkward. And I don't want to not have you, too, he thought, but the words got stuck in his throat, refusing to come out.

There was a momentary pause, as if Eames was weighing whether he wanted to say whatever he was thinking of saying next, and then asked,

"What about that guy in New York?"

Arthur shrugged, the touch on his ankle suddenly making him uncomfortable; he lay down on his side on the bed, Eames' hand falling away in the process.

"It was never serious. With Hale," Arthur said, shifting against the pillows. "I never wanted it to be."

"So I might've had a chance with you earlier, if I'd tried?" Eames said, looking faintly troubled. Arthur picked at the sheets, absent-minded.

"Could be," he said, because he still wasn't ready to give Eames everything.

"I thought about it," Eames said, abrupt. "About asking you out, proper like, after. But there was that picture, of you and him." The Fischer job, Arthur thought, feeling a trace of something like relief, remembering how he'd felt, thinking Eames had walked away with no second thoughts after the job. "And I figured, that was that," Eames was saying. "I wasn't going to put myself on the line when it was clear that you were finished with me, and had been for years. I hadn't any right to mess with that, especially after what I did when we first met."

Arthur tilted his head, looking at Eames profile.

"But you didn't stay away," he pointed out.

"No," Eames said, glancing at Arthur with a rueful quirk of his lips. "I've always liked you more than is good for either of us, and it turns out I'm not that different, after all, from when we first met. You've fallen in with a selfish man, my love." He turned toward Arthur, holding his gaze. "I may not be any good at this, Arthur, but I have no intention of letting you go now that I have you."

Arthur tried to bite down on a smile but failed; he could feel the corners of his eyes crinkling. Then Eames was smiling too, slow and real, and it made Arthur feel light-headed. Eames reached out, touching his fingertips against Arthur's dimples. It was a little bit embarrassing but just then, Arthur didn't care.

Eames brushed his fingers over Arthur's cheekbone, around his ear; the look in his eyes was soft, unguarded.

"I should've realized earlier that you weren't with Hale anymore, but I was avoiding the topic on purpose. You're a bit of a blind spot to me," Eames said, and Arthur's smile slowly faded into something smaller, more private.

"That's -- comforting, actually," he said, running his fingertips over Eames' forearm, back and forth. "Inconvenient, but comforting."

Eames slid his hand down Arthur's neck and to his shoulder. He pushed Arthur on his back and rose up on his elbow in one fluid movement; Arthur raised an eyebrow but didn't protest.

"I don't know about comforting," Eames said. "For someone as smart as I am, I can be distressingly, willfully unobservant at times."

"Modest too," Arthur replied. "And it was to protect yourself; that's understandable."

"Not how I would've put it, but fair enough," Eames said, sliding his hand down Arthur's chest, pausing to play with a nipple before running his fingers down the ladder of Arthur's ribs.

"I can deal with it," Arthur promised, shifting against the bed, pushing subtly into the touch. "I can deal with you."

"Now that," Eames said, wrapping his hand loosely around Arthur's half-hard cock, "I find comforting."

"As you should," Arthur said, his breath hitching as Eames tightened his hold and dragged his fist upward.

Eames ducked his head and licked a stripe up to the nipple he'd previously neglected, pulling out a strangled moan from Arthur when he bit down on it.

Under Eames' ministrations, getting fully hard was little more than an afterthought, and Arthur was left blinking at the ceiling, trying to control his breathing. He didn't want to come from just a handjob; proper motivation or not, he thought, thinking back to that first time, he wasn't seventeen anymore. He took hold of Eames' wrist and pushed his hand further down, unmistakable in its intent.

Eames lifted his head and arched an eyebrow at him, but didn't say anything, just glanced down at where his hand disappeared between Arthur's legs and licked his lips.

"This is what you want?" He asked, his fingertips brushing against Arthur's ass cheeks but not dipping down into the crack between.

"Yes," Arthur said, drawing his legs further up and canting his hips. "You don't have to keep asking."

"I want to," Eames said, bending down to nip at Arthur's jaw.

"I'm not seventeen anymore," Arthur said, beginning to tense up.

"I know." When Eames lifted his head, there was a frown marring his expression. He slid a heavy hand up the inside of Arthur's thigh, soothing. "I know that."

"Do you wish I still was?" Arthur demanded; it was irrational, but suddenly he couldn't stop thinking that maybe Eames hadn't been telling the truth about the projection after all, that maybe --

"No," Eames said, his tone leaving no room for doubt. He nudged one of Arthur's legs further up and to the side, and touched the skin behind Arthur's balls with his thumb, pressing down, making Arthur jump a little, his stomach tensing and relaxing at the touch.

"You aren't who you were when we first met, neither of us is, and that's fine," Eames was saying even as he pushed his fingers gently against Arthur's hole; Arthur shivered, oversensitive, and thought of how unfair Eames was being, using his body to distract him. "I'm not pining over some kid I met in my twenties, even if that kid was you; but the years that changed you -- I have no part in them. I know that's how it had to be, but don't just expect me to forget. Don't expect me to have no regrets."

"Eames --"

"I kept tabs on you," Eames said, talking over him, his expression intense, the touch of his fingers shallow, a tease more than anything else; "Especially after Mal. And I didn't notice it at first, but the way we never ended up working together before the Fischer job? I know you did that on purpose."

"I don't --" Arthur started to say, and broke off on a gasp when one of Eames' fingers breached him dry, making him wince; it retreated almost immediately.

"Never mind," Eames said, his fingertips brushing against the rim of Arthur's hole almost apologetically. "I don't even know what I'm trying to say. The projection --"

"I thought you didn't have anything more to say about that," Arthur said, licking his lips.

"It seems I was wrong, then," Eames said. Arthur lifted a hand to his cheek, touching the fragile skin below the eye; Eames' lashes brushed against Arthur's fingertips when he blinked. "I wouldn't want you to be seventeen again, believe me. But I can't deny that some part of me resents the years that changed you, resents having had no part in them, and I suppose -- I wanted a reminder of who you used to be."

"Who I used to be." Arthur wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. Eames bent down and pressed his lips against Arthur's, a soft, lingering pressure.

"Mine," Eames said when their lips parted, and Arthur was left staring at Eames, at the expression in his eyes; "You used to be mine, however briefly, however little I appreciated it at the time."

"You're such a fool," Arthur managed to say, his voice thick, and Eames chuckled, burying his face against Arthur's throat.

"I'm aware," he muttered against Arthur's skin. Arthur wrapped his arms around Eames' shoulders, tangling one hand in Eames' hair.

"God," Arthur said a moment later, scowling at the ceiling. "I can't believe we're having this conversation while you have your hand on my ass."

Eames' frame shook as he laughed, and Arthur rolled his eyes even though there was a smile tugging at the corner of his own mouth.

"No, you're right," Eames said when he got himself under control, extracting himself from Arthur's hold. "We should be making better use of our time."

He removed his hand from between Arthur's legs and leaned over him, reaching for the lube on the bedside table -- some things never changed.

Arthur snorted but didn't pretend he'd been wishing for any other outcome; he spread his legs for Eames, who shifted to kneel between them, and welcomed back the now slick fingers.

"We're good, right?" Eames asked, spreading the lube around the rim before slowly pushing one finger in.

"We're good," Arthur said, his voice catching in his throat. He was still sore from the night before but more than that, he felt greedy, wanton. He wanted Eames; it seemed like he always would.

By the time Eames was lining up his cock, Arthur was a shivering mess of want and frustration -- and then Eames stopped, his expression turning awkward.

"What?" Arthur rose up on his elbows, breathless and annoyed at the delay.

"Condoms," Eames said, scratching the back of his head with the hand not covered in slick. "I only had the one we used last night."

Arthur dropped back against the pillows with a groan.

"I take it you don't have any either." Eames sounded resigned.

"I came here to talk," Arthur said, feeling grumpy. He weighed his options and found them all lacking; he wished he could have been surprised that a heartbeat later, he made the sort of stupid, reckless decision he'd thought he'd grown out of.

"Are you clean?" He asked, locking his eyes with Eames'.

"Yes. But darling," Eames had the nerve to say, "You can't just take my word for it."

Arthur brushed away his irritation at Eames' condescending tone; there were more important matters at hand.

"I can, if you take mine," Arthur said with the sort of logic that should have only been used by very drunk, very desperate people, if then; "I got my test results back four months ago, and I haven't been with anyone since."

"You know better than this," Eames said, rubbing his thumb against Arthur's knee. "I know better than this."

The head of his cock nudged at Arthur's entrance, hot and sticky, and Arthur couldn't stand the thought of not having it inside of him within the next five minutes.

"Eames," Arthur said -- pleaded -- and that's all it took; Eames leaned over him and made a noise that could have been classified as a growl, pushing in.

Eames had spent far too long stretching him, his blunt, thick fingers working Arthur open, soothing away the soreness from the night before; Arthur still ached around the intrusion, but it was sweet, like summer wine.

"Arthur," Eames said when he was all the way in, his weight settling in the cradle of Arthur's hips. He was breathing hard, his eyes closed; Arthur's mouth was dry, and he pulled his knees further up, groaning at the shift of Eames' length within his body.

"It's good," he breathed, leaving lingering touches on Eames' cheeks, his throat, his shoulders. It's always good with you.

Arthur bit his lip when Eames slowly pulled out until just the head was inside, stretching his entrance, and then pressed back in, an unhurried, torturous slide that made Arthur swallow down a desperate whine.

By the fourth thrust, Arthur's thighs were trembling against Eames' flanks, and they were both slick with perspiration; Arthur could feel it pooling at the hollow of his throat, and his cock was dragging against Eames' stomach, pre-come mixing with sweat.

Eames licked at the seam of Arthur's lips, making Arthur realize he was biting his lip again; he opened his mouth with a gasp, straining a little to capture Eames' mouth into a kiss, gentle teeth and slick skin, a hundred nerve endings lighting up and begging for more.

"You're still here," Arthur murmured when their mouths parted, something a little bit like awe slipping into his voice.

"Where else would I be?" Eames said, his teeth grazing Arthur's swollen lower lip even as his hands slid up Arthur's arms and pushed them against the bed, holding them there. He was slow to pick up his pace, but Arthur didn't mind, feeling intoxicated as he closed his eyes and rocked into Eames' lazy, measured thrusts, grateful for every touch, every ache.

"You like this?" Eames sounded half-drunk himself. "Being under me; being held down, held open."

"Yes." It was the simplest truth Arthur knew, and he was years past feeling ashamed of his own desires.

Eames' hands tightened around his wrists compulsively, and Arthur's hips twitched, his legs falling open, begging for more.

"Bleeding, buggering fuck," Eames groaned. "You'll be the death of me."

Arthur opened his eyes, feeling his eyelashes separate from each other where they'd gotten clumped together, and summoned up a smirk.

"Is this your way of telling me my death threats get you off?" He inquired, and Eames' narrowed his eyes. His next thrust was sharp, ungentle, and made Arthur's toes curl against the sheets.

"I'd almost forgotten what an impertinent little brat you can be," Eames said with a nip at Arthur's collarbone.

"Ah," Arthur laughed, blinking sweat from his eyes. "Sweet-talking will get you everywhere."

"I'm already right where I want to be," Eames said.

"There goes my leverage," Arthur said, his eyes crinkling.

"You're impossible." Eames shook his head, but he sounded unbearably fond, like nothing Arthur had ever thought he'd hear.

"You're one to talk," Arthur said, wrapping his legs around Eames' hips and pulling one hand free to tug Eames down into an open mouthed kiss; he closed his eyes and let himself drown in it.

Arthur came first, making a mess between their bodies. Eames followed him shortly after, his rhythm faltering, his hips jerking as he came, spilling inside Arthur, filling him up; Arthur's cock twitched, making a valiant but doomed effort at showing its appreciation, and Arthur let out a breathless laugh that turned into a moan when Eames carefully pulled out.

"What?" Eames asked, slumping against Arthur, his face pressed against the side of Arthur's neck. "Are you already laughing at me? You shouldn't even be able to think yet, that's cheating."

"No," Arthur said, sliding his fingers through Eames' hair. "It's nothing. I'm just -- I'm happy," he said, his mirth turning into wonder; "I'm happy," he repeated, his voice soft.

Eames made an effort to rise up on his elbow and just looked at Arthur for a minute, his hand coming up to trace the bridge of Arthur's nose, the bow of his lips, the arch of his eyebrows; then he kissed Arthur, slow and sweet, taking his time.

"Hi," Arthur said, his cheeks dimpling, when Eames pulled back.

"Hi," Eames gave him another kiss, shorter this time. "I don't ever want to leave you again," he said. "Not for long; not for good."

"Okay," Arthur said, feeling sore and sticky and content. "I can live with that."

"Good," Eames said, tugging him until they were laying on their sides, facing each other; he pulled Arthur close and ran a possessive hand down his back, his fingers dipping down to where Arthur was still stretched open, Eames' come trickling out of him, smearing the sheets, the backs of his thighs.

Arthur pressed his lips briefly against Eames' chest and closed his eyes, his hand splayed against Eames' back. This thing they had, it wasn't perfect; it was better than that.

It was the closest thing to home Arthur could imagine.