It was a hot afternoon in Palermo the day Arthur met Mal. He was sitting at a cafe in the historic city centre with a dictionary, trying to figure out how to say 'ankle boots' in Italian, when a person-shaped shadow fell across his table, blocking his view of the Gesu Church.
"Arthur?" a voice asked.
Arthur glanced up to see a slim, dark-haired woman gazing down at him. She was wearing a patterned blouse and expensive jeans, and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. If she hadn't known his name, he would've thought she was just another inhabitant of the city.
"Si?" he replied, discreetly sliding his hand toward the holstered gun he had hidden under his jacket.
To his surprise, she gave him a dazzling smile and took the empty seat, placing her small handbag on the table beside his coffee. She bent forward and kissed him on both cheeks. "Parlez-vous français?"
"No," he answered, shocked. "Nǐ huì shuō Zhōngwén ma?"
"I do speak English," she pointed out. Her French accent was light but still audible.
"Oh," he said.
She looked at him. He looked at her.
"Are you gonna kill me?" Arthur asked.
"Of course not," she said, sounding offended. He tensed when she opened her purse, but all she did was pull out a business card. "I'm here to offer you a job."
Mallorie Miles, was all the card said. Arthur frowned at it. When he flipped it over, the other side was blank.
"A job," he repeated unhappily. "An email would've been less terrifying."
She waved a vague hand. "Emails are so impersonal. Also, I enjoy seeing the look on people's faces when I say their names." She pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her bag. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Uh, no," Arthur replied. "Ms Miles--"
"Mal, then. What's the job?"
"I want you to help me destroy Dom Cobb," Mal said.
"Who?" Arthur asked.
From her bag she removed a small photo, handing it to him. It was of a good-looking man with sandy-blond hair and blue eyes; he looked about ten years older than Arthur, and in the picture he was frowning, eyes fixed on something in the distance.
"He's the man who fancies himself my American equivalent," Mal explained as Arthur set the picture aside. He dug his moleskine and a pen out of his satchel. "Cobb works for your government, just as I work for mine--"
"Which government is that?" Arthur asked.
"--But sometimes he is hired by large corporations for short-term work," Mal continued. She took a long drag of her cigarette. "As am I; it pays better than government work. A prominent bank has hired Cobb and myself to perform an extraction on Luxembourg's Minister of Finance."
That sounded high profile. Arthur sat up straighter. "You need a point man."
"No," Mal said, one corner of her mouth curling upwards, "I need a partner. Cobb will betray me at the first opportunity he gets, and I'd prefer not to make an enemy of the government of Luxembourg. But I," she announced, stabbing her cigarette out with a flourish, "have a plan."
"I don't kill people," Arthur said firmly.
Mal laughed. It was a dry, husky sound. "I don't want him dead. I need you to be a distraction while I extract from him, so that I may prove what a vile man he is. Isn't that your job, to distract? Like a rodeo clown?"
"Yes," Arthur said tonelessly, "I did two tours in Afghanistan as a rodeo clown."
"Perfect!" said Mal.
This sounded like a risky job. Arthur typically tried to avoid dealing with government officials, especially American ones; he already traveled with a fake passport and changed the SIM card in his phone every time he crossed a border, and he wasn't, as far as he was aware, on anyone's most wanted lists. He Googled himself regularly to be sure. And this Cobb guy -- who knew what he would do if they were caught.
"I need to think this over," he told her.
Mal nodded. "I thought you might say that." Plucking her discarded business card off the table, she turned it over and scribbled something on the back. "Here's how much you'll be paid."
Arthur glanced down at the number.
"How soon do you need me?" he asked.
It didn't take long for Arthur to fly from Palermo to Milan to Luxembourg, and then it was a quick taxi to the hotel where Mal had said she'd reserved several rooms. When he arrived at the suite, he was surprised to see he wasn't the first one there. Mal was sitting at a desk piled high with papers and folders; a stack of empty paper coffee cups was pushed to one corner.
Cobb was too. He was taller and broader than Arthur had expected, and dressed badly in the way Arthur had come to expect from government types.
He shook Arthur's hand eagerly. "It's good to meet you, Arthur. If I'd known you were coming--" He threw Mal a sour look, but she gazed back innocently. "--I would've picked you up from the airport."
"That's okay," Arthur said. "I took a taxi."
Cobb seemed nice. For the first time in as long as he could remember, Arthur was starting to feel kind of bad about what they were going to do to him.
"Should we get started?" Arthur asked, setting his bag on a chair.
"The new guy isn't back yet," said Cobb.
Arthur looked at Mal. "What new guy?"
Mal smiled thinly in Arthur's direction. "Dom hired another team member without telling me." Her expression clearly said that anyone Dom hired was not to be trusted.
"And you hired Arthur without telling me," Cobb retorted.
"Oh," Mal said as the door to the adjoining room opened, "here he is."
"Sorry for the delay," Eames began, "just got in from the air--"
Then he saw Arthur, and his step visibly faltered.
"Airport," he finished, clearing his throat. He gave Arthur a polite smile. "You must be the fourth team member. I'm Eames."
Arthur thought fast.
"Hello, person I've never met before," he said.
Eames looked at him like he was nuts, but he extended his hand. "Pleased to meet you."
"Trust me, the pleasure's mine," Arthur replied.
Eames made the face he did when he was trying not to laugh.
"Well," said Cobb, drawing the word out. His eyebrows were creeping up his hairline. "I've asked Eames to help us on this one. He has a unique skill set." To Mal, he added excitedly, "I've seen it in person. It's amazing."
"Are Mr Eames' skills really necessary?" Arthur asked without thinking.
Cobb squinted at him. "I haven't told you yet what Eames will be bringing to the job."
"I'm a forger," Eames said, expression pinched.
"Wow, what an amazing talent," said Arthur. "I've never heard of a dream forger before."
"Dom?" Mal cut in, looking concerned. She placed a hand on her hip. "Explain this to me."
When Cobb turned to her and began describing to her what Eames could do, Eames asked, voice pitched so low Arthur almost missed it, "What are you doing?"
"I'm sorry," Arthur whispered back. "I don't know why I said that. I'm nervous."
"That's obvious!" Eames hissed. His face was eerily calm, like they were talking about the weather, but his voice was furious. "Why didn't you tell me you'd taken a job when I called you in Palermo?"
"I did," Arthur said. "You never listen to me."
"I was being shot at!"
"You get shot at every other week."
"Why don't we have Eames forge one of the ministers and ask Sergers to tell us the contents of the legislation?" Mal asked, drawing Arthur's attention away from Eames and back to the conversation at hand.
"I'd rather have Eames play a supporting role," Cobb replied, rubbing his chin. "You and I should do the extraction."
Mal's mouth curled downwards. "Why even bring Eames in if were not going to use him?"
"What would be easier," Eames interrupted, "is if we do a multi-leveled dream. On the first, I can be a minister who asks about the legislation. On the second, we can stage the vote."
"A multi-leveled extraction?" Arthur echoed flatly. "Of course you'd want to try something crazy."
When Mal and Cobb looked at him in askance, he realised what he'd said.
Arthur cleared his throat. "I mean, I agree with the handsome Mr Eames."
Eames pressed a hand to his temple like a headache was coming on.
Eames followed him back to his room after dinner.
"Subtle," Arthur said dryly, as Eames shut the door.
"How are you so rubbish at lying?" Eames demanded, his expression twisted with exasperation. "Weren't you in covert ops?"
"Eames," Arthur replied, "that was a lie I told you to get into your pants."
Eames looked dejected. "Well, shit."
"Who's the terrible liar now?" Arthur asked smugly.
"Then what did you really do in the army? Please don't say something--"
"I was an engineer."
"--Boring." Eames sighed. "Well, no man's perfect."
Arthur scowled. "What are you doing here anyway? I don't believe for a minute that a guy like Cobb jumped at the chance to work with a thief on the most-wanted lists of eight separate countries."
"It's nine now, not including Antarctica," Eames corrected. He ran a hand over his hair, making it stick up on one side. "You're right: Cobb's hired me to extract from Ms Miles during the job. He thinks she's going to give him up to the Luxembourgish government as soon as the job's finished."
Arthur frowned at that. "Mal's hired me to distract Cobb while she extracts from him. She thinks he's the one who's going to give her away."
"Jesus," said Eames. "They should just fuck and get it over with."
"Why don't we just tell them we know each other?" Arthur asked.
"Because Cobb is paying me an obscene amount of money," Eames answered, "and there's a very nice car I plan on buying with it."
Arthur thought about all those zeros on the back of Mal's business card. "Mal's paying me a lot, too."
"So we must continue to pretend we don't know each other," instructed Eames. He put his hands on Arthur's shoulders. "You need to work really hard to behave like a normal human being, sweetness."
"I can lie convincingly," Arthur snapped. "I can act like we don't know each other."
He knocked Eames' hands off his shoulders and grabbed him by his tie, steering him toward the bed. Eames chuckled as he went down; he pushed himself back until he was sitting against the headboard, watching Arthur.
All during their brainstorming session earlier, Arthur had tried to imagine what he'd see if Eames really was a stranger. Would he wonder where Eames had gotten that tie? (Christmas present.) Or why he wore his hair that way? (It made him look like his father, who he'd admired growing up.) What would it be like if Arthur didn't know Eames had tattoos hidden under his shirt, or that if he was allowed to go food shopping, all he'd buy were cookies?
There was no question he'd think Eames was hot. He'd have to be dead not to.
Arthur reached up and slowly peeled off his jacket. "Why don't we see if we can do something about this sexual tension between us, Mr Eames?"
"Oh, no," Eames laughed.
Arthur had met Eames at Bagram Air Base on his first tour in Afghanistan. He'd been in the Corps of Engineers and Eames had been some kind of consultant -- a consultant in what, Arthur, to this day, wasn't sure. He wasn't entirely sure the US government knew, either. Eames could talk anyone into anything, up to and including getting Arthur to spend the night with him. Not that he'd taken a lot of convincing; Eames had seemed so mature and worldly to a twenty-two year-old Arthur, so unlike anyone he'd ever met before. He had rolled his own cigarettes and worn a sports coat, and he'd had an accent Arthur had only ever heard in movies. He'd been the coolest person Arthur had ever met.
The first time they'd fucked. He'd been tipsy and scared, but so turned on he could barely think -- enough so that when Eames'd said, "Shall we retire to mine?" he'd immediately replied, "Yeah, okay," in the middle of the base's bar where anyone could've heard them. They'd gone back to Eames' place because his consultant status had afford him his own ensuite room, and Eames had told him, "Don't worry, darling, I'll take care of you," and sucked him off on the uncomfortable, military-grade couch.
He'd been worried he'd been too young and inexperienced to impress Eames, who'd had at least ten different currencies in his wallet and cool tattoos all over his body. But the next morning, Eames had kissed him deeply and said, "Thank you for the magical night, love." No one had ever thanked Arthur for sex before.
The next time he saw Eames, they were both in dreamsharing. On his second tour, Arthur and his team had been working on a dam when they'd been ambushed. Arthur had been legally dead for three minutes. He hadn't thought his injuries had warranted a medical discharge, but the US army had said otherwise. All Arthur had ever wanted was be in the army, and at twenty-four, he'd found his entire life turned upside down, with some mild PTSD thrown in for good measure.
When he saw Eames again years later in a bar in Rio, he felt like a different person. Eames had been thinner and had a healing scar across his eyebrow, but he had seemed exactly the same, and Arthur remembered the knowledge that Eames' clothes were out of fashion and his accent was affected, that he'd had a habit of daydreaming during team meetings and spent too much time talking about himself; he'd cracked his neck at least once an hour and picked his teeth with a toothpick. Yet Arthur had still wanted him -- worse, still liked him -- and had hated him for making him feel like a dumb kid all over again, for making his palms sweat and his stomach flutter, until one day they had been in the middle of trading barbs when suddenly they'd started making out, and Eames had asked, "Do you want to grab a coffee? With me?"
"What'd you think of me when we first met?" Arthur asked. He knelt on the bed and crawled until his knees touched Eames' thigh.
"Essentially the same thing I think now," Eames said. He ran a thumb over Arthur's brow. "That you were sweet and sexy, and let's not forget fun to rile up. I love when you get that line between your eyebrows."
"There's the one," Eames said triumphantly.
Arthur batted his hand away. "Thanks."
Eames chuckled again and gave him a quick, hard kiss. He gazed at Arthur from hooded eyes, and Arthur felt a familiar heat building in his gut, already starting to get him hard.
"Mr Eames, " Arthur said, "I hope you don't have a secret lover waiting for you at home, because I plan on biting you all over." Eames' nose wrinkled, and he tugged down the zipper of Eames' slacks. "Let's see what I suspect is your huge cock."
"Stop," said Eames, stopping him before his hand could slide into his pants. Abruptly, he sat up, cupping Arthur's face in his big hands. "You're terrible at this, love. I don't want you to pretend to be that kid who admired me."
"I never admired you," Arthur scoffed. "And that was four years ago -- don't call me a kid."
"Well, I like you better," Eames said, "now that you erroneously -- and charmingly, might I add -- believe yourself to be bitter and jaded and incapable of admiring anything. I've enough people who think I'm brilliant. I need you to keep me steady."
Arthur couldn't help but smile at that. "That's the most romantic thing anyone's ever said to me."
"Is it?" Eames asked, looking bemused. "That's depressing."
Snorting, Arthur moved back in. He nipped at Eames' plush lips until Eames opened his mouth, sliding their tongues together.
It wasn't long before they were pulling off their clothes and throwing them left and right, and then he was running his hands over Eames' familiar hairy, rough skin, wanting to feel him so much he felt feverish with it. He threw his leg over Eames' hip and ground down; sparks of pleasure shot through his body from head to toe, and he groaned into Eames' mouth.
Eames sucked in a sharp breath through his nose and gripped his thigh, pulling his leg higher until Arthur had to brace a hand on the bed to keep himself balanced. The wet head of his cock brushed against Eames'.
"Mmm," Eames murmured, dropping back down onto the pillow. "What do you want?"
Arthur pushed back into the hand cupping his ass. "There's lube in my bag," he suggested.
Eames groaned, this time with frustration. "But that's so far away."
"Christ, you lazy bastard," Arthur said, reluctantly getting up. "Stay here, I'll get it."
Lube in hand, he turned back to the bed. Eames was stretched out on the bed, his cock curving toward his hard stomach, a satisfied smirk on his lips. He was thick and strong, and just looking at him made Arthur's knees weak. He climbed back on top of him and kissed his chest, his neck, closing his teeth around the shell of his ear. Eames' palm slowly slid down the bumps of his spine. Vaguely, Arthur heard the click of the top of the bottle of lube over the rushing sound of his own heartbeat.
Eames rubbed a finger over Arthur's entrance, making goosebumps break out across his arms and legs, before finally pushing in, wet and firm.
"Cold," he muttered, and Eames replied, "Sorry," kissing the corner of his mouth.
Arthur ground down against Eames' hip and back into the finger in his ass, and then suddenly there was another pushing into him, stretching him. "This is my favourite part," Eames murmured, as Arthur rolled his hips, "getting you ready for me."
It didn't take much time before he was stretched open enough, and Eames said, "Hold up," and rolled, flipping them over. Arthur wrapped his legs around Eames' waist and flattened a palm against the cheap, wooden headboard.
But Eames sat back on his haunches and just looked at him, his grey eyes intense. It made Arthur's ears burn.
"What's taking so long?" he demanded, tightening his legs. Eames was solid muscle between his thighs, and he wanted it now.
"Eager for it, aren't we?" Eames replied. He slapped Arthur's ass with enough force to make him gasp. "Did you miss my cock?"
"Not with all the hot Italian guys I--"
With one arm curled under Arthur's waist, Eames began pushing into him, and Arthur broke off with a groan, tossing his head back.
Eames stopped when he was halfway inside. "You're still a terrible liar, darling," he said, breathing hard.
His face was slowly turning red, and sweat was beading on his temples. Arthur reached up and scratched his nails through the hair on Eames' chest; he liked the way his hand looked against Eames' tan skin.
"Okay, I missed it," he admitted, resting his hand on Eames' belly.
Eames started moving, then, pulling out and then finally, finally, pushing all the way back in, knocking the breath out of him. He was hard and blunt inside of him, and Arthur fisted his hands in the bedsheets, arching his back to take every inch of Eames' fat cock.
Suddenly, Eames was pulling a knee over his shoulder and leaning over him, bracing one hand next to Arthur's head. The change in position meant Eames' dick was hitting Arthur's prostate with every thrust, and Arthur was making all kinds of embarrassing noises, the heels of his feet banging against Eames' back. Eames squirmed his free hand between them and started stroking his cock.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," tumbled out of Arthur's mouth.
"That's right, take it," Eames groaned, pounding into him. "You're so good at taking it."
Eames' hand tightened around his dick. Arthur's orgasm hit him like a freight train, and he came all over Eames' hand and belly, his cock jerking. With a rough cry, Eames shoved in hard, and Arthur felt him pulse inside him.
"Where do you want to go after this?" Eames said later, his voice slurred. "The place in Germany?"
"You know I hate forest sex," Arthur said sleepily. "We haven't been to the house in Mombasa in a while."
"Mmm," Eames replied as he dropped into sleep. He kissed Arthur's shoulder. "Love you. I really hope this room isn't bugged."
The next morning, while Cobb and Eames were on a coffee run, Mal turned to Arthur and stated, "You're fired."
At first, Arthur thought he was hearing things. But when her stony expression didn't change, he asked, stupidly, "What?"
"Your terrible acting alerted Cobb to our plan," she exclaimed. "He thanked me for introducing him to such an 'honest young man.' Thanked me!"
Arthur was so shocked he couldn't speak. He'd never been fired from a job before. Even the army hadn't fired him, not really.
"Cobb wanted me to give you his card," she continued, handing a plain, white card to him -- one that looked like her own, actually -- with the tips of her fingers, like it would give her the plague. "He said he'll be happy to work with you any time."
He took it numbly. Dominic Cobb, the world's most skilled extractor, it said, followed by an email address.
"How does he not get arrested," Arthur said.
"Because he is a mad genius," Mal replied. Her hands curled into fists. "I hate him so much."
"There used to be a guy I hated more than anyone in the world," Arthur began. He didn't know why he was saying this, but when Mal looked at him sharply, he went on: "It turned out part of why I hated him was because it was easier than admitting to myself I had feelings for him. Also because he's annoying. But mostly because of my feelings."
Mal stared at him for a long pause. "You think I subconsciously love Cobb?" she asked in an odd voice. Arthur recognised it as the sound of horrified self-discovery; he'd had the same feeling two years ago, sitting at a Starbucks in Beijing with Eames.
"This will make it more difficult for me to crush him," she added thoughtfully. "Fine, you're rehired. But you have to promise to stop making googley eyes at Mr Eames."
Arthur frowned. "But I just gave you a whole speech about how I'm in love with him."
"You're in love with Eames?" Mal exclaimed. "You're fired."