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Counting Down to Another Day

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Two months on the lam and Cobb is getting ruthless.

This isn’t technically that big of a change, since Cobb has a talent for breaking every rule he makes, but usually that sort of thing stays confined to his dreams while the rest of his life is ordinary to the point of being almost nauseating.

Arguing with him about haggling for illegal documentation is a new kind of nauseating.

“Since when is this how you do business?” Arthur demands.

“Do you know how to make a fake visa?” Cobb demands back. “Because this guy does.”

Arthur wants to tell him it’s bullshit how easily he’s started trusting thieves, but the job’s payment is staggeringly high and Cobb’s accounts are all frozen and there’s not very much work he can take while he’s still learning how to live like this. The last job was a bust, but this new client is aware of Cobb’s reputation and predicament and says he’s willing to give him a chance to redeem himself. It’s a smart move; he obviously knows Cobb is desperate for whatever he can get and therefore bound to try his hardest to succeed. Determination is a dangerous thing when it’s in Cobb’s hands. Arthur is fully prepared to call him out on that, to ask him if he’s ever noticed as much.

“No,” he replies instead. “I never picked up that particular skill.”

It makes sense to take whatever work comes their way just now, but sometimes Arthur is half a second away from screaming in Cobb’s face, You’re a researcher. Outside of a dream, Cobb hardly knows which end of a gun to hold. He’s used to dreaming under far more regulated conditions, not hacking into minds left and right.

“I didn’t think so,” Cobb says. He doesn’t sound angry or even brusque, but hearing him this blasé about black-market networking is somehow worse. “Try and see where I’m coming from. This is could be exactly what I need.”

Arthur is seconds away from snapping at him, but he holds it together because one of them has to.

---

Later, Arthur will want to be able to say he had a gun out when he first met Eames. He’ll want to say he wasn’t fooled for an instant and reacted to the whole thing like a pro. What really happens leaves him feeling small and stupid and pissed off beyond words.

This is only the third job they’ve taken after Cobb had to leave home. Arthur is still hoping they can call in favors in military circles and do the bulk of their work that way, but Cobb doesn’t want to risk being turned in on account of misguided patriotism and seems to find more solace in going rogue instead. It’s unreliable and dangerous, but Cobb refuses to set foot on American soil no matter how high the price and Arthur can’t admit that he’s probably right to be wary.

While they’re in Brisbane and Cobb is arranging another set of new identities for them, Arthur fills his time with building. It was never his strongest suit and compared to Cobb he’s only a novice, but he knows which components he can do well. It helps to remind himself that this is only a temporary duty for him, just until they find a semi-reliable architect.

The level he’s working on is designed as an airport. He concentrates on the layout and the logistics of it, making sure everything is orderly but still circuitous enough to serve as a maze. A projection of Mal waves gaily at him from a shop, and Arthur blinks and double-checks to make sure she’s gone when he opens his eyes.

When a projection of the mark’s husband walks by, looking right at home in the place, Arthur’s pleased even though it normally frustrates him that he can’t elect to keep his projections as impersonal as possible. Of course, there’s no bridling the subconscious even with all the training in the world, Cobb will be the first to remind him of that, but it bothers him anyway.

He eventually runs into Cobb, who had planned on joining him after he finished making the transaction for their documents, and assumes these are his projections as well. Arthur knows better than to actually mention that. “What do you think?” he asks instead, and it’s not an idle question. Cobb was the builder for the last job and ever since that went terribly wrong he’s been insisting on Arthur taking over for him even though Arthur is nowhere near as good.

Cobb just holds up a hand to stay him. He’s chatting with a projection of the mark herself, which is a bit odd since normally Cobb advises against interacting with projections one on one.

“So we’re good to go?” Arthur presses when he’s done. Cobb wouldn’t be this calm if he’d run into trouble.

“That and a little more,” Cobb answers. There’s a small smile on his face, a knowing smile, and when Arthur looks again the mark isn’t standing beside him at all.

“I’d like you to meet Eames,” Cobb tells him, and at first that doesn’t compute in the slightest.

“What the fuck,” Arthur says flatly.

Eames is pleasant looking in an unusual way, maybe a hair shorter than him and a handful of years older, dressed in a smart gray suit and two-toned shoes. If Arthur saw him on the street, he doubts he’d look twice, the same way he didn’t look twice at any of the projections other than Mal.

“This is your point, is it?” he says mildly, looking at Arthur with a gaze far sharper than his voice.

Arthur doesn’t acknowledge that. “What’s he doing here? I thought you just needed passports.”

“Eames has more talent than I realized. You saw Dr. Krantz just now. Did you see Mr. Krantz before?”

Cobb sounds positively delighted. Arthur just stares.

“Sometimes you need a certain projection to act a certain way and can’t count on the mark’s subconscious to provide the right results. That’s putting all your eggs in one very shoddy basket.” Eames is talking to him like he’s doing him a favor by explaining this in layman’s terms. He has a voice that might very well make Arthur a little weak in the knees if circumstances were different, but right now that just makes him resent this intruder—and Cobb—even more.

“You don’t do this shit to one of your own, Cobb,” he says, and his voice might be shaking a little but his aim most definitely isn’t. “You don’t.”

The second word gets lost in gunfire.

---

It isn’t remotely cathartic. He wakes up practically ripping the cannula from his wrist and just wants to shoot them both all over again. It must look childish as hell when he stalks out without a word, but Arthur doesn’t trust himself to stay calm if he has to be around either of them any longer.

Naturally, he’s been gone all of two minutes before Cobb calls him.

Arthur, only human, starts giving him a piece of his mind. “I can’t believe you fucking did that. You seriously thought it was okay to bring a complete stranger into my head just to show him off? Did it not occur to you that might not go as planned?”

There’s a pause. “This is Eames,” says a voice that most assuredly isn’t Cobb’s. “I might’ve nicked his phone for a moment. Tell us where you’ve gone, will you?”

Arthur hangs up.

Fifteen minutes later, Eames finds him slouched in a Gloria Jean’s, steadfastly emptying sugar after sugar into his coffee and wishing he’d thought to take the battery out of his phone in order to make himself untraceable. The caffeine is just going to make him even more irritable, but he feels so abruptly exhausted that it’s the only way he can think of to self-medicate.

Then Eames takes a seat across from him and Arthur wants to dump his coffee into his lap even though he’s finally got the right amount of sugar in it.

“If I’m pulling this job with you,” Eames says softly, like he’s talking Arthur off a ledge, “I need to know what just happened.”

“That’s funny,” Arthur answers, “because Cobb never mentioned he was bringing another team member on at all. It didn’t seem to stop him from plugging you into my mind, though.”

“He wanted to see if I passed muster. Said you were a detail-oriented sort who’d notice anything amiss.”

“You don’t pull shit like that with someone on your team.” The longer he dwells on it, the more he’s convinced Cobb never thought this through at all. “What if you’d turned on him and started digging through my head instead? What if I wasn’t even militarized?”

Eames smiles slightly. “If you’re not militarized at this stage in the game, then you’re in well over your head and the best thing you can do for yourself is wake up.”

“Wake up,” Arthur repeats, scowling. “Really?”

Eames’s smile gets a little wider. His teeth are uneven and Arthur is spitefully glad. “In every way, yes.”

“That isn’t the fucking point and you know it.”

“It’s common practice, that’s all it is,” Eames says, after a strained silence in which Arthur practically scalds his throat so he doesn’t throw the cup into Eames’s lap after all. “Trying out a potential teammate by running them by a colleague like that.”

Arthur says nothing for a long time. “Not to us. Or I guess just me now.”

And for an even longer time, Eames only looks at him thoughtfully. Given what he knows about this man so far, Arthur isn’t making the mistake of taking anything about him at face value no matter how kind Eames sounds when he asks, “How many jobs have you seen through since Cobb got himself into this situation?”

“Two.” The first was child’s play, a favor for a former colleague of Cobb’s; the second was the horrible mess that had Cobb swearing off building afterward.

“I take it you’re a bit outside your comfort zone.”

Few things get under Arthur’s skin quite the way condescension does and right now Eames is practically treating him like he needs his hand held. “Look, I worked for the government before. You don’t need to patronize me. I know how this works.”

Eames snorts. “Really. And the U.S. government always plays by the rules, does it?”

That has nothing to do with hooking a stranger into his subconscious just to watch him work. They do this sort of thing to outsiders, not each other. He still doesn’t know if he can face Cobb without throwing a very unprofessional tantrum. Arthur sighs. “Why did you even follow me? I’m obviously not in the mood to talk.”

“Your mate needs all the help he can get and I’m keen for what he’s paying. Seems we got off on the wrong foot in there. I don’t need that screwing up the whole deal and you two could both stand to learn a bit more about what you’re in for.”

It all sounds accurate enough, Arthur grants him that much. Then Eames drops his voice a tad, locks gazes with him, and for a very frivolous split-second Arthur tries to decide whether his eyes are more gray or blue. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you act like you’re above the company you keep.”

Arthur bristles. “Whatever you say. I trust you completely now, thanks.”

Eames either misses his sarcasm by a mile or does a very convincing job of acting like he has. “Cheers. Let me get you a sandwich, yeah?”

Arthur’s been living on frustration and adrenaline lately, so it actually sounds like a good idea, but he’s not telling Eames this. “No.”

“Let’s try this again,” Eames says lightly. “I’m getting you a sandwich and if you don’t want it, then I’ll sit here and eat the entire thing in front of you and you’ll just get yourself in even more of a snit because you’ll be too proud to admit you really wanted a sandwich all along.”

“I will gut you with a plastic fork.”

“Because that’s going to help Cobb so much, isn’t it, you getting locked up for assault with disposable cutlery. I thought you paid attention to detail.”

Eames gets to his feet and Arthur stays where he is. The urge to bolt isn’t as strong as he thought it would be. And it turns out the chicken Alfredo is delicious.

---

Their job ends up going perfectly.

The next one Cobb chooses is somewhat less perfect.

The one after that, Arthur suggests bringing on Eames again.

---

It’s not that he really does trust Eames completely or anything that ridiculous. It’s just that they’ve worked together before, know each other more than peripherally, and it’s sometimes good to have a familiar face around while Cobb goes even more off the rails and off the grid. Lawyer fees are fucking unholy, in Arthur’s opinion.

So, for that matter, is Mongolia. Arthur doesn’t know much about it to begin with, but he doesn’t think anything could have prepared him for Ölgii.

It’s a Sunday when Eames flies in, which is unfortunate because it means Arthur and Cobb can’t withdraw cash. None of their credit cards are being accepted here as it is, but Eames needs to get briefed on the job and can’t crash just anywhere and Cobb just had to go and promise to take care of his accommodations, not that there are many options for them in this tiny town.

Of course, Cobb’s hotel room only has one bed. Arthur’s has two.

He and Eames end up sharing and Arthur isn’t even all that bothered by it. “Eames. Tell me you have some tögrögs on you.” He doesn’t care if they’re the real thing or of Eames’s own creation, so long as they do what they’re supposed to. Eames happens to be very reliable when it comes to planning ahead.

Eames slides him an amused look. For the umpteenth time, Arthur wants to kick himself for ever thinking he wouldn’t even merit a second glance if they met in passing. “’Course I do. What do you take me for?”

Within ten minutes, Eames has settled in and they’re ordering up some food. Arthur swears to pay him back once the banks open up, Eames waves him off, and for a little while it doesn’t feel like they’re working at all.

They’re staying in the Duman Hotel, a cinderblock of an establishment that had only one room free before Arthur took it, while Cobb is staying at the equally booked Bastau. He and Eames are on the second floor, so at least there’s no grating on the windows, but the hotel foyer is done in a pallid ice-blue that looks uncomfortably like mold. Arthur can see the Altai mountains from their room, stark and defiant above the town’s squat buildings, and the view is almost enough to make up for everything else.

They’ve agreed to lie low in Ölgii for a week or so since the politician they’re working for is arranging an extraction on a fellow member of Parliament. The primary concern for him is making sure no one even considers connecting him with it if the results don’t pan out the way they should. He really couldn’t have picked a more remote meeting spot, sequestering the team away like a contaminated little coterie unfit for the comforts of Ulan Bator, but if everything goes according to plan then it will all be worth it.

Even though the water pressure is awful and the bedspreads are pink.

“It’s got a sort of charm to it,” says Eames, already nestled underneath one of them, but Arthur is having none of it.

“There’s a fucking disco downstairs. Someone could assassinate both of us and no one would even hear the screaming.”

Eames falls asleep smiling.

---

When he wakes up and notices that Eames is gone, Arthur doesn’t think much of it. He takes a tepid shower, checks his email while trying not to be too frustrated with the connection speed, and starts getting ready for the day. It’s nothing but mundane until, of course, Eames walks in on him ironing his trousers, which means he isn’t wearing them.

Arthur clenches the handle of the iron and feels Eames’s eyes taking in the scene, taking in him— frowning there in a crisp white shirt, gray boxer-briefs, stocking feet.

“Sock suspenders,” Eames notes. He doesn’t appear to be making fun of him. “Arthur,” he says, “that is precious.”

Instead of being indignant or irritated, Arthur feels heat prickle down his spine. “I like them.” He thinks he sounds very calm considering he’s standing there with no pants on, hair still untamed and probably looking like a woodland creature perched on top of his head. Even if everything about this job has him feeling out of his depth, at least his pants will be neat.

“There’s food,” Eames adds, displaying what Arthur assumes to be spoils of the meager hotel spread. “I didn’t see any coffee, so here’s tea.” He sets down a mug and several airline-logo-emblazoned sugar packets. “I know you take it with about sixty of these, don’t you?” He’s grinning, probably amped up on something besides a good night’s sleep, some bizarre mix of punch-drunk and jet-lagged and maybe a bit of whatever compound is still in his system from the job he worked before.

Arthur turns off the iron and takes the tea.

---

He doesn’t like admitting to himself just how much trouble he has sleeping with Eames in the same room. Arthur is used to being on his own and keeping his own hours, maybe sharing a room with Cobb on occasion if he must, but that’s a non-issue since Cobb sleeps even less than he does.

The disco downstairs isn’t helping.

“Still up?" Eames asks. It’s the first time they’ve both been awake like this since jet lag had Eames out like a light the first night and Arthur stayed late at an internet café the second.

“Yeah,” he admits.

Eames smirks; Arthur doesn’t need to turn on a light to know it. “Poor dear,” he clucks, a little mocking, but not cruel. “Did you forget your security blanket?”

Arthur wants to grumble at him to shut up, but he only sighs. It’s strange trying to sleep with someone unfamiliar so close by, he knows Eames knows that. Doing it for work is one thing, but in his off hours he’s used to having his own space and guarding it fiercely. “My feet are fucking freezing, so maybe I should look into getting one.”

“I can do you one better,” Eames says then, serious. “If you like.”

Arthur does turn a lamp on, then. Eames is only partially illuminated by it and there are still shadows obscuring half his face, but Arthur can still make out the loose threads of the well-worn t-shirt he’s wearing to sleep in, the way his hair is cowlicked to hell and back. He draws back the covers and Arthur hesitates.

“This isn’t going to get weird, is it?”

“How much weirder can lives like ours possibly get?” Eames huffs, and pulls him in.

Arthur has never been a creature of habit. He knows what he prefers, but most of the time he’s willing to roll with the punches. He likes organization and being one step ahead and all his time spent in dreamsharing has made him hard to shock.

It still gives him a jolt at first, the feel of having someone there for heat and human contact. He gets so little of it these days that this should really be awkward as fuck.

But Eames’s arm is firm and warm where it’s slung over his waist and Arthur is just drowsy enough to let himself appreciate it instead of tensing up and backing out. Sleeping all the time, but always sleeping alone, it gets tragic after a time even though he’s not usually maudlin enough to ruminate on it. And even though the bed isn’t all that big and the noise from the first floor isn’t any less riotous, he drifts off before he knows it.

---

It’s early when he wakes, dawn edging over the horizon with merciless intent, just enough for him to make out the portion of Eames’s face that isn’t buried in a pillow. He still has one heavy arm around Arthur’s middle and Arthur wants to burrow in close and sleep all over again, but maybe he should slip out of bed, maybe this isn’t meant to be acknowledged.

Eames wakes up when Arthur’s trying to extricate himself, mumbles something too sleep-raspy to be intelligible, and that’s all the convincing Arthur needs.

“I was just gonna—” Arthur begins, but Eames cuts him off with a yawn and tugs lightly at a lock of his hair when Arthur sinks his head back down onto his pillow. “Precious,” he murmurs again. “You look like a painting.”

Arthur’s about to snort that this is only true if he means a painting of confusion or suspicious life choices, that just sharing a bed for the night certainly seems to turn Eames into an off-kilter romantic, but then Eames is yawning again and tucking Arthur close and going back to sleep so easily there’s nothing for Arthur to do but follow.

When the alarm goes off a couple hours later, Arthur leaps off the bed as if it’s burning.

“I get the shower, you get the iron,” Eames announces. He promptly steals the bathroom right out from under Arthur’s nose, Arthur promptly pounds on the door and curses at him like they’re in a frat house, and just like that everything is normal again.

---

The client’s very specific request dictates that they all meet somewhere out of the way. Cobb reminds Arthur of this each time he locks horns with this city—which still isn’t remotely a city, no matter what the locals call it.

“He chose well,” Eames says dryly. “Who’d expect him to stop here?”

For the next several days, this is their life: dusty roads, chilly winds, plates of buuz and khuushuur. It’s sort of like living in a frontier town, only in the western part of Mongolia instead of the U.S. There’s a beer garden nearby—next to a mosque, of all places—and there’s internet reliable enough for all three of them to start researching and making contact with the right people, and there’s an empty cinema where they dream up an office park for the mark to lose himself in. Arthur is the de facto architect once again and he chats with Eames a few times about getting in touch with an actual professional or two, just for future reference.

Their man lives in Ulan Bator, but wants absolutely nothing to do with extractors while he’s that close to home. He’s just as candid about this when he finally touches down in Ölgii to go over the specifics with them, making it very clear that he’s only stopping for a day before continuing his trip to Tokyo. The team is to complete the entire job in Ulan Bator and be gone before he returns to the country. The information itself is run-of-the-mill governmental prying: one member of Parliament wanting to extract from another to learn about their true stance on foreign policy and troop deployment. Cobb looks him dead in the eye and makes promises he can only guess at keeping. He’s lost many things over the past few months, but as far as Arthur can tell his charisma isn’t one of them.

The night before they leave for the capital, there’s vodka all around, then he and Eames end up collapsing together in Arthur’s tiny bed.

Eames is laughing at something, starting off a sentence with, “Fucking around with the government is so glamorous,” but Arthur wraps himself around Eames like one of the terrible pink bedspreads and never catches the end of it.

When they fly to Ulan Bator, they both book separate hotel rooms and end up sharing the same one anyway. Arthur, once they’ve finished sweeping the place for bugs, calls it a security measure. Eames agrees with him, opens his laptop, and they don’t say another word about it

---

The dream collapses almost too soon for them to extract anything at all, but they do pull through in the end despite having to improvise. As a team, they function well this time around, at least subconsciously.

It’s not until they’re topside that things get hazy, literally.

The Somnacin, which Cobb acquired from a third party that none of them ever met face to face, leaves Arthur feeling lethargic for hours afterward even though Cobb and Eames aren’t affected. Eames actually tells him to stop screwing around before he realizes Arthur isn’t actually lying flat on the floor of the mark’s apartment because he’s admiring the wood grain. Then Cobb starts making noise about physically carrying him if they have to and somehow or other Arthur manages to remember how to walk.

The next thing he remembers is being curled up in bed, mumbling something about needing to get changed. He’s passed out in their room, or at least he assumes he is since the sheets are the same pale yellow, and someone who had damn well better be Eames is speaking to him in hushed tones and easing him out of his shirt before easing on top of the covers beside him. Arthur reaches for him because Eames is warm and smells a little like cedar and if he absolutely has to be reduced to this state it’s best that it’s happening in front of someone who won’t laugh too hard over it.

He tries to explain this to Eames, but only gets as far as, “You smell,” before he dozes off again.

Eventually, he wakes up in his undershirt and slacks, noticing his shoes and dress shirt resting neatly on a chair across the room. His eyes are bleary, his tongue feels like cotton, and when he turns onto his side it’s like he’s moving through molasses. When he’s finished knuckling at his eyes, he notices there’s an Eames-shaped blur beside him, sitting up against the headboard with a book.

“Thanks for leaving me some dignity.” It takes a considerable amount of effort to form the words and not sound like he’s talking in slow motion. “Plenty of people wouldn’t.”

Eames frowns, also blurrily. “Maybe I feel like I need to protect your innocence.”

During the Parliament affair, Eames saw him take out a small army of projections with a flamethrower and some creatively applied bungee cord. He closes his eyes again, hearing the sound of a book being set on the night table and the creak of the mattress as Eames shifts to lie next to him. “You think I still have innocence?”

“Someone has to.” There’s a brief press of damp heat against his forehead then and he doesn’t realize until it’s gone that it was Eames kissing him there.

Arthur turns enough to nudge his head against Eames’s shoulder, too sapped to do more than think of winding his arms around him even though he’s sure it would feel nice. “That’s interesting, because I don’t think I do.”

“God, Arthur, you’re too young to be jaded. Of course you do.”

Eames pets his lips with a callused thumb and Arthur kisses it in return, unthinking.

If he had the energy for it, he might laugh. It’s strange being treated like he’s more sheltered than he is, but he can’t make himself mind it, being looked after a bit. It’s like nothing he’s ever experienced before.

“Have you ever had this sort of reaction before?” Eames’s hand is on his forehead now. If he’s trying to get an accurate estimate of Arthur’s temperature, he’s out of luck; everything always gets warmer when Eames touches him. “Have you got any preexisting conditions that might have brought it on?”

“I’m allergic to peanuts,” Arthur somberly tells him, and closes his eyes.

It’s much better the next day, even though he’d rather sleep some more than catch his flight. Eames helpfully points out that Arthur has all the social skills of a pomegranate when he’s like this, refuses to let him do any talking, and goes to Chinggis Khaan International with him even though his own flight doesn’t leave until a few hours after Arthur’s.

“You don’t have to,” he tries to tell him. “It’s an unnecessary risk,” even though he’s received no indication from any of his sources that they’ve been made.

Eames ignores him anyway. “I expect to hear from you once you’re back on the ground. Even if you just text me a smiley face from a prepaid phone you chuck right afterward.”

If he were at his best, he would never give in so easily. But Arthur is still a little woozy, still hating whatever it was about the stupid chemical blend that wasn’t quite right, still annoyed he can’t pinpoint why it disagreed with him the way it did. “Fine, whatever. Are you carrying my bags for me or what?”

If he were at his best, he’d never end up resting his head in Eames’s lap while they’re killing time in the airport’s VIP lounge, but he isn’t and he does and he doesn’t give a shit. “I’m falling the fuck apart,” he grumbles.

“You seem intact to me, and very nicely so at that,” says Eames, perfectly tranquil even though Arthur’s face is very close to his crotch, and strokes his hair until the mousse loosens its hold.

He ends up with half his hair tousled as hell, but Eames smiles in apology and Arthur lets it go by. And if he were still drugged enough to do it, maybe he’d climb into Eames’s lap entirely and let Eames’s arms come around him, let his fingers catch clumsily at Eames’s shirt collar until he’s pulled it aside just enough to mouth at the inked skin underneath.

Awake, his skin is discolored in places, evidence of tattoos received and removed, some less proficiently than others. Asleep, he’s flawless, dreaming them all away.

Noticing things is Arthur’s job, that’s all.

---

There are occasions when Cobb goes on one of his jaunts and Arthur takes a job elsewhere, since it won’t do to have his name so intertwined with Cobb’s that it irredeemably stains his own reputation. This time, Arthur is in North Carolina and doesn’t realize Eames is part of the team until they literally run into each other at the elevator. He knows he should feel embarrassed because the last time Eames saw him, he was stoned and clinging to him like a lamprey, but Eames hadn’t seemed to mind and there were far worse people Arthur could have been clinging to.

Eames greets him with a nod and turns to discuss something with their extractor.

Although every fiber of Arthur’s being is pleading with him to break down and ask Eames where he’s staying, he doesn’t. He doesn’t mention Ölgii or Brisbane or Cobb at all. Their work this time is an obstacle course of professionalism and platitudes and never laying so much as a finger on each other.

Then he goes onto the balcony of the office suite they’re renting and Eames is already there. He has a cigarette between his fingers and is sitting in, of all things, an Eames chair.

He wouldn’t say they’ve been ignoring each other, but they haven’t gone out of their way to interact without a third person present either. Is that what you want? Arthur asks. Is this the best we can do? But the words never leave his mouth.

The sun is setting, casting streaks of gold and copper across everything. Eames, seated in profile with smoke escaping his lips, would resemble a work of art even if Arthur weren’t biased beyond belief. He’s in nothing but a ribbed tank top and jeans and the breadth of his shoulders takes Arthur’s breath away. In the time they’ve known each other, he’s gotten used to the ways Eames’s skin is subtly marred from tattoo removal—only ever observed it, never commented on it—but there’s still some actual ink on him here and there and Arthur nearly never gets a good look at it. From where he’s standing now, he can clearly make out the big tribal design spiraling down Eames’s right bicep and two lines of dainty lettering, one scripted beneath the arm piece and one beneath his left collarbone.

Despite the sudden dryness in his mouth, Arthur has never felt such a primal urge to lick anything in his entire life.

“I, um, didn’t know you were still here,” he says.

Shrugging, Eames turns to look at him as if he knew he was there all along. “It helps me think sometimes.”

“Let me have some air too; you’ve probably been out here forever.”

Eames makes no move to relinquish the sole chair. Arthur sighs. “This is going to be like the time I ordered a Cobb salad for lunch and Cobb ended up eating half of it because he claimed it was his birthright. I can tell.”

“Don’t be silly, there’s plenty of room.” Eames nods to his lap.

Arthur has the script in his hand. He could turn him down and turn on his heel and turn the situation around without missing a beat. “Best offer I’ve had all day,” he says, which he shouldn’t. And he shrugs, settles, and doesn’t think of airports. He doesn’t think of how Eames’s hands would fit so nicely over his hips or easily he could press his mouth to Eames’s throat or how his whole body seems to purge itself of tension when he touches Eames again.

“Can I,” he begins, reaching for Eames’s cigarette, but Eames stubs it out and shakes his head.

“No, you may not. It’s a deplorable habit.”

Arthur snorts. “And I’ve never, ever been exposed to anything remotely deplorable.”

“I don’t let it get the best of me as often as I used to.” Eames sounds almost mournful. “My mother always said kissing a smoker was like licking an ashtray.”

Arthur looks through his legal pad, reads the same line a dozen times. “How often do you get kissed, then?”

He turns the page, not waiting for an answer. Eames’s lap is comfortable and Eames’s fingers play with the fine hairs at the nape of his neck and that isn’t so awful either, once he crushes the urge to squirm and actually forces himself to concentrate on reading. It’s a test of willpower, just like everything else about this goddamn job.

“It’s too bad you had to go and lick that ashtray,” he says once he’s finished going through his notes.

Then he pecks Eames on the cheek and goes back inside to pack up for the day.

Half an hour later, Eames texts him an address.

---

The bed puts their Mongolian accommodations to shame. For several different ulterior motives, Arthur is a little disappointed it isn’t smaller. His feet really do get cold at night and Eames makes an amazing furnace. The other ulterior motives don’t bear thinking about.

“I’m sure you’ve seen better since I saw you last, but this looks cozy enough, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Arthur agrees, and means I slept alone and thought of you every night since then and now I’m starting to think something’s wrong with me. He’s never even kissed Eames, not properly, and it’s better to not think of these things but Arthur’s had no luck with that over the past several weeks and he doesn’t see that altering now.

Eames’s face doesn’t change at all when he says, “It’s good to see you awake again,” and Arthur knows what he’s up against—Eames changes faces for fun and profit, for crying out loud—but has never resented it more.

“Same. So,” he states, forcing a smile. “I’m the guest, so that means I get the side by the air conditioner, right?”

Eames lets out a bark of laugher and Arthur feels a flare of triumph as his face becomes his own again, impeccably imperfect teeth and full lips and eyes that Arthur could stare at for ages even though he’s acutely aware by now just what color they are. God, he’s making all the wrong choices and it’s going to bite him in the ass one day. “Guest, my arse.”

“You’re really bad at this,” Arthur says sadly, and dives for the mattress.

It’s more or less inevitable that they end up wrestling for the cooler side of the bed. Arthur is quick, but Eames is bulky and ultimately ends up on top of him, catching both his wrists in one hand and pinning them above his head. Arthur’s breath shudders into his lungs, unsteady.

“Don’t,” he commands, and has to bite his tongue to leave it at that.

God, don’t do that, you’ll make me hard.

Fuck, Eames can probably read the thought right off him anyway. Arthur’s blood runs cold.

His wrists are still tangled in Eames’s hand and his ankle holster is weighing him down instead of reminding him he’s a very capable adult with very capable self-defense skills. “Eames. Don’t.”

Eames releases him, contrite. “It’s all yours, if you like.”

“Thank you,” says Arthur, and leaves to take a walk.

---

They’re based in Durham for now, thanks to an ongoing lecture series at Duke University. It’s open to the public but geared towards undergrads interested in pursuing higher education for neuroscience. Arthur, since he can actually pass for a recent college grad if he has to, lands the dubious honor of chatting up the marks’ daughter to try and get the inside scoop on what sort of ground her high-profile parents have really been covering lately.

Eames, damn him, gets to tease him about his hair and mingle with the parents themselves at the actual faculty functions. “I mean it, I can hurt you,” Arthur declares after one too many jabs about his ensemble, and Eames just giggles—actually giggles, and Arthur is the one who’s playing a kid?—like Arthur is the most adorably precocious thing.

“I’m sorry, darling, but absolutely nothing sounds intimidating coming from someone in a t-shirt about goats.”

“You’re uncultured and the Mountain Goats don’t deserve you,” says Arthur, double-checking the sidearm secured under his hoodie. Someday when they have the time, he’ll plant himself in Eames’s lap and refuse to move until he’s explained the significance of the Alpha Series to him. “Facebook says it’s her favorite band, so fuck you and good luck trying to be a grownup.”

The girl, Kassie, is easier to talk to than Arthur anticipated. She rattles on eagerly about how she wants to continue what her parents are working on and unwittingly shares a few details regarding how much she knows about their research. She invites him to go for coffee with a few of her friends at a twee little place called Scratch afterward, which is even better. Arthur uses his button cam and the crash course he gave himself in neuroscience for all they’re worth until Eames texts him to say that he’ll come by for Arthur in a few minutes unless he absolutely must have more time.

When Eames pulls up near their outdoor table and calls Arthur’s alias in a flat American accent, Kassie asks him, wide-eyed, “Is that your dad?”

“My friend,” Arthur says, very glad he doesn’t stammer or snicker or blurt out anything like uncle or husband instead. “I’ll see you around, okay?”

“Sure,” Kassie chirps. “We should totally hang out again.”

Arthur wants to high-five himself as he strides to the curb.

“Dude, how’s it going?” he exclaims, partly because Kassie’s still watching him and partly because Eames’s face is priceless.

“I feel sufficiently ancient now,” Eames grumbles, and Arthur grins at him. “Get in the bloody car already.”

Arthur still can’t stop laughing about it afterward in Eames’s hotel. He’s just finished checking over the injectors on the PASIV, something he’s grown particularly conscious of since he suspects one of them malfunctioned and delivered him that too-heavy dosage during the Parliament job, and still keeps tittering to himself even though this sort of work normally calms him down like nothing else.

“Seriously,” he bursts out while he retightens the PASIV’s fuse compartment. “She asked if you were my dad; did you hear that? What the fuck. She thinks I’m twenty-two at the absolute most, so you would’ve had to have had me when you were still in high school.” He realizes he doesn’t actually know Eames’s age, that the ones he’s seen on his IDs are all different and Eames can pass for older or younger depending on what a given job demands of him.

“I suppose everyone must look antediluvian when you’ve a baby face like that,” Eames says dryly. “And Kassie looks far closer to fifteen than twenty, so obviously she’s not a reliable source.”

Arthur wipes down the fuse cover and starts putting away his tools. “At least you’ve still got your self-respect.” He locks down the PASIV, scrubs off his hands, and goes without a word when Eames closes his notebook and holds out an arm. Eames gathers him in close, unhurried even though they need to reconvene with their extractor and architect in Raleigh, which means checking out and moving on as soon as possible.

Arthur has become accustomed to many peculiar things since he left the U.S. with Cobb. He knows that’s it’s rarely a waste of time when it comes to questioning peculiarities. But it never occurs to him to question this, whatever it is, and hasn’t since Eames drew back his covers in Mongolia and laughed at the idea of anything getting weird.

“You did good work today.” Eames’s stubble rasps against Arthur’s cheek, lips brushing the lobe of his ear. His voice is very low. “But you don’t need me to tell you that.”

Arthur hums and sinks against him a little more. “I don’t mind.” Being praised by Eames can make him feel close to bursting with unadulterated pride, like a kid winning first prize at a science fair. “You know I don’t mind.” And that’s when it happens, Eames turning his head and Arthur gripping his collar, lips against lips for the first time.

Arthur has always told himself that their arrangement is nothing more than literally sleeping together, caught close around each other in the night and breaking apart in silence in the morning. Something meant to go by unacknowledged, always. It doesn’t matter that, whenever they share their accommodations, Arthur takes his turn in the bathroom first whenever possible. He always winds up making himself come in the shower to thoughts he shouldn’t indulge but inevitably does. On the rare occasion Eames beats him to it, the bathroom ends up smelling too strongly of his cologne afterward. It always makes Arthur wonder if maybe there’s a scent of guilt underneath that, too.

Against his mouth, Eames sighs and kisses him again, carding his fingers through Arthur’s hair this time. They should be on the road by now, but Eames’s lips are warm and parted and the glide of his tongue against Arthur’s is so fucking good that Arthur doesn’t want to move even though he hasn’t been in anyone’s lap this often since he was in daycare.

“I nearly did, you know,” Eames says. “Have a kid.”

Arthur’s never asked about the tattoos, but he fed the words into Google Translate once. “I wondered.” He opens his eyes and rests his hand over Eames’s where his fingers are twitching on the arm of the chair. “What happened?” It just tumbles out of him, simple as that. When it comes to Eames, nothing seems strange anymore.

Eames’s other hand rests on his back, rubbing a bit. “We were both in sixth form. I really thought we were going to make it work, have a go at being a family even though we were just two kids who were scared stiff about it. She was a few months along and then she decided she wasn’t ready to go through with it anymore.”

Arthur doesn’t know how to react, but Eames doesn’t seem to expect him to.

“Our parents were relieved, of course, but she didn’t tell me until after and I’d already gotten these,” and he’s gesturing to the Italian script on his arm and under his clavicle and Arthur’s pretty sure he’s supposed to say something sympathetic here, something that isn’t this is the most you’ve ever said about yourself, but all that comes out is, “Fuck.”

Eames just quirks a half-smile and an eyebrow at him. “It’s not too smart to have such incriminating stuff on your body in this business, I know.”

“You said your parents were relieved.” Eames’s fingers tighten incrementally between his own. Arthur strokes a thumb over the back of his hand and finishes anyway. “Were you?”

“Of course I wasn’t.” His tone skirts the edge of curt. “I’d been telling myself I was going to be the best father in the world even though I barely knew how to make toast. Then that wasn’t in the picture anymore.”

Arthur has more questions, but Eames is kissing the top of his head, mouthing the side of his throat, twisting their fingers together, and he can’t seem to utter anything but quiet moans for a long time. Eames is almost devilish when it comes to making people talk or stop talking.

“I think you would have been a good dad,” Arthur says eventually. “You take care of people but you don’t take any shit from them. I remember my dad was like that.”

“And you grew up to be an absolute hellion,” says Eames, pressing his lips to the corner of Arthur’s mouth. “Please don’t compare me to your father again, by the way; I don’t think I can take that.”

“I didn’t mean it that way. He was a good guy.”

“Shh.” Eames pulls him closer, kisses his forehead and eyelids and mouth, kisses him for a long, long time until all the breath in Arthur’s body doesn’t feel like nearly enough and Eames’s hand is a welcoming swath of coolness against his burning cheek. He tastes like lemongrass tea and Arthur never wants it to end, especially once it does. “Let’s get to work.”

---

“Seattle,” says Arthur.

“Yes,” says Eames.

“When?” Arthur asks, though the timbre of his voice is screaming what the fuck.

“As soon as possible.” Eames doesn’t seem any more pleased with this turn of events than he is. “I’ve got a go bag and there’s a flight this evening.”

The culprit is a professor who’s moved across the country since the marks first knew him. Eames needs to get in some firsthand observation if he’s planning to accurately replicate the man once they’re under, which Arthur understands just fine but hates even more.

Lansky, the extractor, is sitting behind him. This shouldn’t be the only thing keeping him from dragging Eames into a cubicle and finishing what they started back in Durham, but it is. “We need you back in a week or so, but remember, less than that is even better,” Lansky is saying, and Arthur couldn’t agree more. “Have a safe trip.”

“I’ll try my hardest,” Eames promises.

Arthur waves dully and goes back to loading up the PASIV for another run, pretending not to hear it when Lansky says something about him being a workaholic. It’s much easier than pretending not to feel like he’s had a hole bored straight through his chest.

He’s being an idiot. It’s a double extraction, one after the other on a husband and wife, and complaining about paying extra attention to detail is just ridiculous. But Arthur sleeps alone and feels sorry for himself anyway. He doesn’t call, since Eames is someone else now and it’s understood that this means Eames should make first contact, and only if he desperately needs to.

Over the next week, Arthur practically drowns himself in his work. At least the other team members are happy.

---

Arthur has never been in the habit of picking up partners when he works, not for anything more than a night. He’s heard too many stories about that ending badly and, in this line of work especially, you can’t be too careful about who you trust. It’s smartest that way and leaves him free to focus on other things, even if it’s not exactly the most fulfilling choice.

Sex in dreams is different, and that takes the edge off in a pinch when he’s pressed for time. But even though he’s thought frequently about using a projection of Eames for everything he hasn’t gotten from the real Eames, Arthur knows he’d never be able to look at him the same way afterward.

He’s never pulled a double before either. It means twice the profiling, twice the data, and twice the follow-up. While Eames is across the country, Arthur sinks his teeth into the challenge with relish.

Aside from the follow-up. When everything is over, he’s too busy relishing having Eames all to himself again.

“Back to mine?” Eames whispers to him afterward, but Arthur is still a point man even now and there are still precautions that need to be taken. He shakes his head and hails a separate cab and hopes Eames understands.

Eames doesn’t show up at his door until hours later, which is still a ludicrously short grace period but more than enough for Arthur.

They should stay apart much longer. They should already have split up and cleared out like the other two team members did, but then Eames puts a hand on his cheek and Arthur can’t think. “I didn’t know I would have to do that. Seattle.”

“It’s fine.” He’s got a death grip on Eames’s tie. “You can’t always predict what you’ll have to do. But it’s done now.”

“Arthur…” he starts, making Arthur’s name sound like something wonderfully decadent, and Arthur wraps his hand around the tie and doesn’t stop pulling it until they’ve reached the bed and Eames is spread out beneath him.

“I really need to kiss you. Among other things.”

“Perfect.” Eames discards the tie and presses his lips to Arthur’s ear. ”Because I spent every single night wishing I could kiss you for ages.”

Do it, then, Arthur is about to say, but Eames’s mouth is already parting against his own.

He guides their lips together softly at first, easing his tongue inside, sucking lightly at the tip of Arthur’s own until Arthur squirms against him with pleasure. It’s only a kiss, but Eames is so good at it that the only doesn’t even compute. He’s devoted, learning every nook and nuance of Arthur’s mouth like it’s part of his job, taking him apart without even needing to take any clothes off.

Though it really couldn’t hurt.

Arthur grips a fistful of body-warmed fabric and tugs until it comes free of Eames’s trousers. “Get your shirt off,” he hisses, and Eames does, undoing buttons until Arthur can feel him warm against him, until he can pinch at a nipple and lightly scratch down his abdomen and make Eames moan into his mouth.

There’s kissing, always kissing, until Arthur’s cock is straining against his pants and his mouth feels raw and he still can’t stop. Eames licks and hums into him as if he’s partaking in something holy, his eyes closed and his lashes fluttering against his cheeks. Then Eames is unfastening his pants and Arthur is pleading soundlessly and pumping his hips into his cupped palm, shameless about trying to grip Eames by the wrist and guide his hand. When Eames touches him through his underwear with gentle fingers, Arthur’s head falls back and he actually whimpers. But Eames just grips him through his briefs and slowly jerks him that way, the cloth a tantalizing rub against his oversensitive flesh.

Eames keeps palming his still-covered cock and kissing him all over, his mouth and both his cheeks and down his throat. When he pushes up his shirt to press a string of kisses to Arthur’s quivering stomach, Arthur can’t stand it anymore.

“Eames,” he whines, hips shoving up against nothing, and Eames smiles at him with lips gone red and bitten.

With his mouth not otherwise occupied, he drives Arthur mad in other ways. “Does that feel good, sweetheart? Do you need more?” He thumbs across the damp tip of Arthur’s cock, smudging the fluid into the front of his briefs, and Arthur could fucking cry, he’s wanted this so badly.

“Oh, Arthur,” Eames breathes against the heat of his temple, and then and there Arthur gives up trying to answer and lets the words wash over him as Eames murmurs them into his skin.

“Can you come from that? God, I think you can, you’re so impatient. Did you think of this, did you want this? I did, wanted to ring you up every day and tell you so.” He punctuates his words with deep, filthy kisses to Arthur’s slack mouth, and Arthur parts his legs and his lips and takes everything he’s given, both hands clenched in Eames’s shirt and hair. “You’re so bloody hard for it, God, look how gorgeous you are. Knew you’d be just like this, always knew.”

Arthur is only one good stroke away from coming in his underwear just from the words and friction. Christ, as soon as he comes, he swears he’s going to tear off his clothes, pull Eames’s pants open, and suck him off until he fucking howls.

Then his phone rings.

Eames groans. Arthur muffles him with a final quick kiss and reaches for it.

Twenty seconds later, he’s on his feet and snapping the SIM card. “Eames, this is gonna have to wait.”

“Fucking hell, you can’t be serious,” Eames explodes.

“Yeah, I am. C’mon, get moving.” Arthur already has his suitcase in front of him and his concealment holster in his hand. “You remember the CSO I bought off? That was him and it wasn’t good news. We need to leave, now.”

Throwing things into suitcases doesn’t take long; neither of them ever unpack entirely for that very reason. Arthur has the PASIV in one hand and Eames is pulling on his coat, his back arching and the hard length of his cock plainly evident against the front of his trousers. This is the most unfair thing that could possibly happen.

“I want to suck your cock,” Arthur announces.

It’s the worst timing imaginable. They’re both frantically clearing the room, wild around the edges, and the last thing either of them needs to be doing is talking about sex, no matter how delectable Eames’s assets happen to be.

Eames crosses the room in three strides and grabs him anyway, pulls him close and curls his tongue deep into his mouth. “The next time I see you, I’m going to make you come,” Eames tells him, gravel in his words.

He takes his things and disappears through the door before Arthur can see straight again.

---

For the next couple months, they don’t interact at all. It’s about safety, about keeping their distance. Arthur wants to contact him and just hear his voice, but he never does.

When Cobb gets wind of a client in Beijing and mentions they could use a thief onboard for this one, Arthur can’t mention Eames fast enough.

And Cobb, who Arthur always assumed was too tangled in the remnants of his own personal life to notice much about anyone else’s, looks at him with contemplative blue eyes and says, “He is good, isn’t he?”

Arthur tracks him down that evening.

He’s got a shaved head the next time they see each other and Arthur, without thinking, makes a joke about rubbing it for luck. Eames laughs and lets him, the bristly texture of it prickling his palm, and it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump from there to imagining the scruff on Eames’s cheeks and chin leaving pink marks on the insides of his thighs.

Arthur jerks his hand back, probably blushing like a child, which just prompts Eames to gather him into a bone-crushing hug. “I missed you and your ridiculous faces.”

Arthur slips him a card with his hotel information and leaves to meet with the architect.

The place he chose is in Beijing’s embassy district. Arthur deliberately picked it for the architecture and could probably live in it quite happily. Eames points this out before the door even closes behind them.

Out of habit, they gravitate towards the bed and each other and for a while Arthur doesn’t do anything besides bury his face in the crook of Eames’s neck and let himself be held good and hard. “I,” he says at last, tilting his head enough to look Eames in the eye, “um, I might have missed you too, a little.”

“A little.” The rumble of Eames’s laugh is enough to make Arthur’s toes curl. “You’re adorable.” And that just has Arthur wrinkling his nose in disbelief, though Eames’s fingertip tracing the curve of his mouth makes up for it well enough. “You must have gotten smothered with hugs growing up.”

Arthur wrinkles his nose again. “There’s not a lot of room for cuddles in the American foster care system.”

“Really,” Eames says quietly.

“I aged out and enlisted, then let the government pay for school. It was the only way I was going to make anything of myself.” It’s the most personal thing he’s told Eames to date and it surprises him that he doesn’t immediately want to take it all back.

Eames flips them until he’s bracing himself overtop Arthur. “So we’ve really been making up for lost time, haven’t we?” He never gives Arthur a chance to say anything in response to that.

He’s right, though. Arthur hasn’t ever been the kind of person who’s needed a lot of looking after, and he’s gotten so accustomed to trying to take care of Cobb that he isn’t used to having anyone taking care of him. But when Eames is around, all Arthur wants is to be touched in any way he can. He can’t explain it to himself and has no interest in trying, especially not as long as Eames keeps dipping his head down to tease him with maddening little kisses that are almost chaste.

It’s all fun and games until he notices Eames wincing. “What’s wrong with your shoulder?”

“Nothing’s wrong, keep going.”

Arthur doesn’t. “So does that mean you’re cringing because of my face?”

“Your face is lovely,” says Eames, flopping down beside him and mapping the contours of it with one bent finger. “The shoulder is not. I might have dislocated it a few times, but normally it’s fine.”

“Did it act up on you while you were in Nairobi?”

“Possibly.” Eames looks plaintive, which is saying a lot for someone with that many muscles. “But is this really something we need to talk about right this minute?”

Arthur just slides off the bed and comes back with some baby oil he finds in the bathroom.

“I must say, this looks promising,” Eames observes as Arthur sets the bottle beside him.

“Sorry, I’m not having sex with you if there’s a chance you’re going to throw something out of joint.” He tugs Eames’s pants off since Eames has already lost the shirt. “Now lie down and think of whatever you think of when you want to relax.”

“So politically correct.” Eames rolls his eyes and Arthur pretends not to notice. “How can I possibly say no?”

But apparently having Arthur straddling his hips and kneading at him is good enough for Eames, since he doesn’t complain again. His eyes drift closed and he regularly utters low groans that could be either approval or pain, but he never tells Arthur to stop.

Arthur lets his hands roam after a little while, deliberately skirting Eames’s nipples just to feel him strain for contact. His cock is distending the front of his underwear in a very distracting way, but Arthur deliberately avoids that too, just to be a pain in the ass. “Why did you keep these?” he asks, working his thumbs in small circles below Eames’s clavicles. After a moment’s hesitation, he leans down and tongues the small line of script under the left one.

“Bloody cock-tease. If you must know, there was this one time, not one of my best.” Eames doesn’t move or open his eyes. He looks dead to the world and his voice is warm and sleepy. He sounds like he belongs on a phone sex hotline, which is not the first time Arthur has thought so. “I ended up naked and tied to a chair,” he goes on. Arthur’s rhythm falters.

“Also ended up getting beaten for fuck knows how long, and one of them noticed these,” Eames yawns and twitches his inked arm. “‘Go home to your son,’ he told me. ‘Go see your boy and think of what it would be like for him to grow up without a father.’ I wasn’t going to waste time correcting him, of course. I couldn’t even walk when they untied me, just lay there for ages before I could stand again. It could have been much worse than it was.”

“Shit,” Arthur murmurs, moving his hands in a long slow glide from shoulders to wrists. “I’m sorry.”

Eames tsks and slips a palm up under his shirt, eyes slitting open at last. “I also keep them because I think it’s wise to remember what you could have been and what you've become. Now stop looking at me like that. These things happen, but they’re not happening anymore.”

“I know,” says Arthur, and sinks down to kiss him over and over until Eames reaches for him and audibly grunts. Arthur grips his erection through his boxer-briefs and rubs his thumb up the length of it, a little payback for Eames teasing him in North Carolina. “I think you need to turn over now, Mr. Eames.”

“I think you can fuck right off,” Eames replies, but he does as he’s told.

It only takes a minute or two before he’s groaning and relaxing under Arthur’s attentions, all the fight easing out of him as Arthur works the knots from his muscles with patience, pressure, and a generous amount of oil. He’s rock-hard against the cleft of Eames’s ass and it’s amazing he can focus well enough to massage him at all when the urge to grip himself in a slippery hand is almost overpowering. Arthur has to clench his teeth to smother a whimper when he takes that thought one step further and imagines tugging Eames’s underwear down and off, working him wide and open with oiled fingers and making him come that way, prone and writhing. Eames would be so thorough and attentive, would revel in his desires so freely and make sure Arthur was never wanting for anything, and Arthur could be so good to him in return.

It helps that Eames’s ass is right there in front of him, firm and gorgeous and covered in nothing but thin blue cotton. Arthur curls his fingers under the elastic and starts to ease it down.

Then he realizes that Eames is snoring.

Arthur sighs, pats him dry with a towel, and jerks off in the bathroom. Full fucking circle.

---

In the morning, he finds Eames practically submerged in the big wooden tub. Arthur brushes his teeth and declines, as calmly as he can, to join him when Eames offers to scrub his back. “You’ve got too much water in there; we’ll flood the place.”

“Thank you, Archimedes. Come here, at least let me say good morning.”

And there in an overpriced hotel in Sanlitun, Arthur ends up dragging the towel chest a bit closer and perching on it, thinking of getting water all over the floor and having to call for room service to mop it up and realizing he wouldn’t care all that much if they did. Not with Eames reaching up between them to tuck his hair out of the way with his wet hands and kiss him, warm and slow.

“Can we try this again, maybe?” There are just enough suds swirling on the surface to obscure anything interesting Arthur might catch a glimpse of beneath it, but Eames’s bare upper half is more than enough to have him tongue-tied.

It’s impossible to answer anyway with Eames kissing him, holding him and stroking his back until he’s wound up and water-streaked. “Yes. Definitely.” Arthur finally replies, peeling off his shirt.

Eames leans in a little more, water sloshing against the sides of the tub. “Then take these off for me. Show me your pretty cock.” He curls a hand around it, squeezing Arthur lightly through his boxers, and Arthur forces back a moan and shimmies out of them.

“Such a good boy.” Eames lowers his head to suckle at him, so far beyond anything they’ve done before: all the exchanging of kisses and touches, all the discreet jerking off in hotel bathrooms. Arthur is unable to stay quiet, every noise he makes seeming to echo embarrassingly off of everything. And then Eames is swallowing around him hungrily but still caressing him so gently, pressing kisses and compliments into his thighs. “Such a beautiful boy.”

He lifts his head, mouth wet and pupils wide. He looks fucking intoxicated, Arthur thinks, and sounds it too. “Fuck, Arthur...” Eames has both hands splayed on his hips, thumbs rubbing figure eights into the flesh there. “I…I want to be inside you. Is that—I don’t mean to—”

“You w—no, yeah. Please,” Arthur stutters. “Yes, fuck, please,” and he’s supporting himself on his arms, lifting his hips, legs spread and Eames spreading them further, one thick finger pressing at him, then sinking inside, just the tip, and Arthur—oh, God—he practically wails.

“Come on then, love,” Eames whispers, rubbing gently with his finger, sinking his mouth down on his cock again, and Arthur does.

“Don’t move,” he orders, as if Arthur’s capable of that just now. Eames removes the bath stopper and replaces it once a few inches of water have drained away. “Now, then. The offer to scrub your back still stands.”

He lets himself be drawn into the tub. It’s a tight fit and the water is starting to cool, but Eames gives the most wonderful deep-chested sounds of pleasure when Arthur takes his cock in his hand. He comes with Arthur’s name on his tongue and it’s so goddamn sweet that Arthur can’t even feel smug as he rests contently against Eames’s chest.

Eames’s arms wrap around him. “Christ, this is such an odd morning.”

“I don’t care about oddness, I just want to be fucked.”

“Language,” Eames chides mildly, thumbing the corner of his mouth, and Arthur pulls him into a kiss.

“I heard you,” Eames tells him, when they part long enough for him to speak. “You got yourself off in here just the other day.”

The bathroom doesn’t offer a lot of privacy due to the lack of a proper door, it’s true, but Arthur swears under his breath anyway. He’d been so sure that Eames had been sleeping and he really thought he was quiet enough. Arthur squirms in spite of himself, but Eames tips his face back up and bites lightly at his ear until he moans.

“Don’t get shy on me. What were you thinking of?”

“Heidegger’s views of hermeneutical norms.” Arthur gives him a withering glance. “You have to ask? Fucking you. Letting you fuck me. Inappropriate uses for massage oil.” He stands and offers Eames a hand. “Come on, get up before you get pruny.”

“Actually,” Eames says as he’s drying off, “I was trying to get you to talk dirty for me, but maybe some other time.” Arthur half expects Eames to snap a towel at him, but instead he starts rummaging through a toiletry bag.

Arthur reaches for his own to grab lube and condoms, then pauses with a smirk when he notes that Eames seems to be doing the same. “Been planning on something like this?”

“For ages,” Eames answers, and hauls him back to the bed.

---

Eames kisses him absolutely everywhere.

He kisses him until time goes liquid, but it doesn’t matter because time is something they actually have for once. Arthur soaks it in with selfish audacity, lost in the clean scent of soap and the feel of skin on bare skin. He can’t get enough of him, caught up in the way Eames crushes him close and palms down his body like he wants to memorize it, and half the time Arthur literally doesn’t know where to touch next. Eames is strength and warm skin and soft hair and fierce attentiveness to anything that makes Arthur cry out.

It’s almost overwhelming, since Arthur managed to make himself believe this was something he never would have. He knows he’s done for when he actually says this.

Eames pinches his ass and calls him a cynic, then teases him for having a pouty mouth when Arthur makes a face at him. The best comeback he can think of is telling Eames that at least he doesn’t look like he just stepped off a porn set, which makes Eames laugh out loud. “That’s the worst insult I’ve ever heard, including the time in primary school I got called a bogey-brain. Incidentally, I adore your mouth. You’ve got such pretty lips, especially when you pout. You can make sulking look like something you earned a degree in.”

Arthur cuts him off by sucking a bright little bite mark into the crease of his thigh. He’s hard again by now and Eames is getting there, the head of his cock swollen and pink when Arthur rolls back his foreskin. “Condom,” he decides, and flicks the tip of his tongue into the slit of Eames’s cock.

“Have you done this before?” Eames asks, curling a hand around his nape to urge him back up.

“Yes, but will it turn you on more if I say no?” He nuzzles at Eames’s cheek and drops his voice to almost a whisper. “Please be gentle with me, Mr. Eames, no one’s ever touched me like this.”

Eames growls, his fingers digging into Arthur’s hips.

“You dirty fuck,” Arthur says affably, and passes him the lube.

The moan that races out of him when Eames’s fingers tease slickly against his hole is the stuff of pornos. And Eames just keeps placidly rubbing against that little clutch of muscle again and again until Arthur tries to grind down onto his hand. “Did you finger yourself last night?”

“No,” says Arthur. He plays it up a little, averting his eyes and letting out a high-pitched gasp when Eames sucks brutally hard right over his Adam’s apple. “Haven’t for a while, actually. I’m so tight.”

A noticeable tremor goes through Eames’s body. “God, yes, you’ll be so tight for me. I’ll take such good care of you, sweetheart, you don’t have to worry about a thing.”

“Please,” whispers Arthur. “I need it.” He doesn’t have to stretch the truth for this part.

Eames is meticulous about soothing him, petting down Arthur’s chest and belly as he stretches him slowly with one finger and then another. Arthur’s breath hitches because it really does hurt a little, this part is also true, and Eames is whispering things to him that make him moan and whine like it’s the only thing he’s capable of.

“Fucking beautiful,” Eames calls him, his mouth parted over the arch of Arthur’s ribs. “You take it so perfectly, you’ve got no clue how hot that is.”

“You’ve got no clue how many times I’ve wanted this,” Arthur shoots back, sweat-damp and grinning and vaguely perplexed at how not-ridiculous he sounds to himself. He pauses for a second. “But if you can, don’t make me come like this because I want to fuck you, too.”

“I can’t make any promises on that,” Eames admits, “but I can promise you plenty of time.”

---

He doesn’t come with Eames inside him. He comes in Eames’s mouth a second time, with his legs over his shoulders and his back bowing off the mattress and two of Eames’s clever fingers nudging his prostate until he thinks he could actually scream.

Arthur doesn’t scream during sex, but Eames gives him a run for his money.

Eames has already come a second time. After playing the virgin for a little while, Arthur had followed through on his fantasy from the previous night and fucked him slow and easy as Eames gripped at everything from the headboard to Arthur’s shoulders to the backs of his own knees before clenching tightly around the base of Arthur’s cock and spilling over his belly with a shocked little shout.

Even though he’s starving, he doesn’t want to suggest ordering breakfast or doing anything that means not having Eames there, even for a second. “Do you think maybe we could coordinate more often when this is done?” he asks, hoping it sounds casual and not like God, please, say you’ll stay with me because I don’t think I can wait for you again.

Even though he knows it’s coming, it still hits him like a steel fist when Eames sighs, cinches his arms around him, and says, “I can’t.”

“It’s okay,” Arthur reassures him quickly, but Eames isn’t done yet.

“I’ve got a schedule to keep to and you have Cobb’s.” He eases a leg over Arthur’s, entangling them even more. “But I want to, and I want to try. You always make me want to try. ”

Arthur’s face must fall because Eames is taking it in his hands and looking at him intently, brow creased. “We’re here for at least a few weeks, love, don’t be upset.”

And Arthur wants to curl his hands in the sheets until they tear, wants to curl on his side and stay that way until he forces down all the ways his entire being is trying to scream no, this isn’t enough, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. They’re dream criminals, for God’s sake. They leap through countries like children leap through backyards. They don’t get to call the shots on how things are supposed to be.

“A-are you going anywhere for the holidays?” he blurts out, and immediately has a very strong impulse to crawl under the bed and die.

“No.” Eames is kissing his back, his voice resonating between Arthur’s shoulder blades, and it makes Arthur ache to know that soon he won’t be able to have this anymore. “Are you?”

“Then maybe,” Arthur swallows, “we could stay here a little longer. The Dōngzhì Festival is coming up.”

“I thought that all the shops are closed for that. It’s not really much of a festival, is it?”

“Yeah, but they’re closed because you’re supposed to be spending time with people you care about.” He feels himself flushing and tries to keep his face stoic to make up for it. “We could just stock up on junk food and stay in. You know. Stuff like that.”

It’s all wrong. He needs to shut his mouth and save his pride. This thing between them is a thing they never discuss and therefore a thing that doesn’t exist, but not anymore. Dread, cold and sharp, clenches in his stomach.

“Really.” Eames rolls on top of him, bracketing Arthur’s face in his hands once again. “Would you like me to be your stuff, Arthur?”

“Fuck you, just shut up,” Arthur mutters, groaning when Eames takes one of his nipples into his mouth and grazes his teeth against it.

“You shut up,” Eames says brightly, and pushes him into his back when he tries to turn over. It feels better than it has any right to, having Eames holding him close always does, and if Arthur hasn’t been able to deny that since Mongolia then he might as well accept his fate like a man.

“Yes,” Arthur gasps. His throat, eyes, and chest all feel like they’re trying to clench shut forever. “Yes, okay? Maybe I do.”

And then, while they’re twined together like an Escher drawing and Arthur’s hands are cupping the back of Eames’s head, Eames kisses the fear from him and says, “Then you can be mine.”