Three days into Arthur's second job, the extractor, a scrawny man by the name of Fauvre, turned to Arthur and said,
"I don't suppose you know how to forge?"
"Forge what?" Arthur asked absentmindedly, his attention divided between balancing his chair on two legs and going over the mark's schedule for the next few weeks.
"Didn't think so," Fauvre grumbled. "We need Eames," he said to the architect, a French woman called Mal.
"Eames?" Arthur glanced up. The name didn't mean anything to him, but that wasn't exactly surprising. At twenty-two, he had been out of the military for less than a year, and while he'd been keeping tabs on the dream sharing community for longer than that, there weren't always names attached to the stories of past jobs that got told. "Wait," he said, letting the front legs of his chair drop back to the floor. "Forging as in, in a dream?"
He'd heard of it, but he'd never seen it.
"Yes, that's right," Mal said and turned to Fauvre; "I don't know why you sound so put off at the prospect. Eames is very talented, is he not?"
"I wouldn't suffer him if he weren't," Fauvre said, spitting to the side. Arthur made a face and kicked back in his chair again. It was just a warehouse floor, but they had to walk there. Was it too much to ask that people didn't splatter their bodily fluids around?
"I've only worked with him twice," Mal said, "but I thought he was quite charming."
"Sure, he can be, when he wants to be," Fauvre said, "but see how charmed you are when he runs off with half your pay."
"Oh?" Mal leaned back in her chair and put one leg over the other. "The way I heard it, he saved that job and quite possibly your lives. Perhaps he deserved whatever extra he took?"
"Is that what he's telling people?" Fauvre asked, his nostrils flaring with affront.
"Can't be too far from the truth if you're not out for his blood. But no, I heard it from someone else." Mal brought her fingers to her mouth, half-obscuring her smile. "I do not think you want to know what Eames has been telling people."
Fauvre made a sputtering sound and apropos to nothing, so it seemed to Arthur, launched into a rant about the lack of professional conduct and the general state of affairs in the dream sharing community; Mal did nothing but make the occasional, seemingly innocent comment that only fueled Fauvre's indignation. Judging by the way she kept hiding behind her hand, she was well aware of what she was doing.
Arthur thought Fauvre might have a point, somewhere in there, but he wasn't too bothered about it; he definitely wasn't getting in the middle of it. Instead, he reached over to his desk and picked up a green highlighter, choosing to tune out the argument and go back to the mark's schedule. Someone had to keep working if they wanted to have any hope of completing the job in a timely manner.
It was fall in Prague. The air was crisp with the promise of winter, and all Arthur knew of Eames was that he was a thief and a forger.
Arthur was new to the world of extraction but not to dreams. If he was honest with himself, he'd been looking forward to the focus of said dreams being on stealing information instead of killing people. He'd gotten more than his share of the latter while in the military. He wasn't naive enough to think he'd never again have to look a projection or a teammate in the eye and pull the trigger, but as long as it was just a part of the job, rather than the main course, he didn't have a problem with it.
Establishing contacts within the relatively small, loose community of mind crime had been a slow task and often frustrating. For all that the members of the community liked their secrets and generally avoided names when talking about past jobs, people usually found their way in through recommendations and word of mouth; no one had wanted to take a chance on someone who appeared seemingly out of nowhere and had little experience he was willing to speak of.
It could have been even harder for Arthur to get his foot in the door, but whatever his perceived flaws were, he had one, undeniable advantage: he had a PASIV.
"However did you get your hands on it?"
As far as Arthur could tell, there was nothing but idle curiosity in the question, but he couldn't be certain it wasn't something sharper and more dangerous, something that only masqueraded as idle curiosity. He'd never been very good at reading people, and Eames, the thief, the forger, was a master of masks.
"Got lucky," Arthur said, because lying seemed like the only safe thing to do.
"Yes," Eames said, running his eyes over Arthur in a manner that was frankly dismissive. "It would seem so."
Arthur had to consciously relax his jaw before he could speak. He knew that despite his best efforts, he still looked younger than he was -- but there was no need for Eames to be a dick about it.
"Whatever you might think," he said, the words clipped and terse, "I promise you, I can pull my weight."
"Ah," Eames said, his eyes flickering over Arthur's body again. "Perhaps. Army, yes?"
Arthur's spine straightened with surprise; he hadn't exactly planned on giving that away. What looked like genuine amusement flared up in Eames' eyes, there for a heartbeat and then gone, and Arthur's displeasure at the situation grew. Eames tapped the side of his nose and turned back to the PASIV.
"Don't get too worked up about it, darling," he told Arthur, skimming his fingers over the machine like he was feeling out a musical instrument. He had big hands; wide palms, strong fingers. Arthur wished he hadn't noticed. "Let's just hope they taught you something more useful than saying Yes, Sir."
"Sir, yes, Sir," Arthur deadpanned, and Eames, evidently taken by surprise, laughed. It made him look younger, carefree.
"I'll admit," Eames said, the corners of his eyes crinkling, "it does have its appeal when you say it like that."
Like what, Arthur wanted to ask but didn't. Eames' voice was raspy and warm, several degrees removed from the low, cool tones he'd been using up until now.
"A kid like you with a PASIV of your own." Eames ran his tongue over his bottom front teeth. "You'd better use it as a pillow and sleep with one eye open."
"Is that a warning or a threat?" Arthur asked, unimpressed.
"I haven't decided yet," Eames said. "No, you needn't glare at me like that. I'm just telling it like it is; if you don't keep an eye on it, you don't deserve to keep it, full stop."
"Don't worry, I'm keeping it," Arthur said, raising his chin. "I already broke one guy's arm over it in Tallinn."
"That was you?" Eames asked with a delighted smile. "Richardson, right? The greedy bastard had it coming."
"Yeah," Arthur said, uncomfortable with the sudden, easy rapport. Not the response he'd expected; it felt like a trap. The Tallinn job had been his first -- a clusterfuck, though not one of his doing. If someone was talking about it, it was probably the architect. Arthur doubted Richardson, the extractor -- who, in retrospect, had likely arranged the job just to get his hands on a PASIV, severely underestimating Arthur in the process -- would have been eager to share how he got his ass kicked by a newcomer who looked like he was under the legal drinking age. In Estonia.
Sadly, Arthur was only exaggerating a little about that last bit.
"He's been avoiding me since Greece," Eames said, looking contemplative. "Pity. I'd have broken more than just his arm. Always was a sorry fuck up, that one."
Arthur didn't know anything about the history between the two and didn't really care to.
"You think you could do better?" He asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, I know I could." Eames' smile was not friendly in the least. "Trust me on this, pet," he said, his voice dangerously soft; "You don't want to challenge me."
There was nothing overtly menacing about Eames' words, tone or stance, but that didn't stop tension from gathering in Arthur's muscles, like some part of his brain was expecting a fight.
What he said was, "Yeah? How about this: if you promise to never call me pet again, we won't have to find out what happens if you do."
What his instincts said was, danger; stay the fuck away from this guy.
What his body said -- well, Arthur preferred not to think about it. He must have gotten his wires crossed at some point while the military was messing with his subconscious.
"You've got balls," Eames said, and between one blink and the next, the half-realized threat of violence was gone. "I do like that in a guy."
"I mean it, Arthur," Eames said, the way he drawled Arthur's name just shy of mocking. "Prove that you have what it takes on the job, and I might even put out a good word for you."
Based on what Arthur knew of Eames so far, he had to wonder whether Eames recommending him would work in his favor or against him. It probably depended on who Eames talked to.
"And if I screw up?" Arthur asked, not out of concern, but curiosity.
"Then you'll be carted to the nearest hospital without a PASIV to burden you," Eames said, his crooked smile showing a hint of teeth. "Cheers."
At the time, Arthur just shook his head, reluctantly amused; later, he thought it was a minor miracle that he wanted anything to do with Eames after that first job. Or maybe miracle was the wrong word.
Tragedy was probably a better fit.
The job could have gone better, was the thing. All right, so having a forger on the team had been a good idea, and the tales about Eames' skills, as it turned out, had not been greatly exaggerated. Arthur was even willing to privately concede that Eames had had some good ideas when it came to putting the plan together, but there was a point where good ideas turned into elaborate ideas turned into absurd plans, and Arthur felt a little betrayed that not even Fauvre, with his vocal reservations about Eames, had noticed that they'd passed that point fairly early on; despite Arthur's best attempts, Eames had ended up with far too much creative freedom, and now --
Eames was laughing. Granted, it was sort of weak and not aimed at Arthur, but still, laughing. The bastard.
"There's nothing funny about this," Arthur said, keeping his voice low. Not that the volume made a difference; the only thing separating them from a gruesome death was a barricaded door that might or might not hold for the eight or so minutes they had left in the dream until the timer ran out.
He paced the windowless room, trying to rein in his temper. There was blood running down his arm, a steady drip of red at his fingertips. Eames was squatting with his back against the far wall, a gun held loosely in one hand.
"Arthur, Arthur," he said, shaking his head. "Cheer up. I'll be quite happy to shoot you in the head if they get through before we wake up."
"Thanks, but I brought my own bullets," Arthur said, flexing his bloodied hand. "I'm capable of putting one through my skull without your help."
"Suit yourself." Eames tapped his fingers against his gun, eyes on the door. "Do me a favor though and sit down, will you? It's giving me a tension headache just looking at you."
"Then don't look," Arthur said, but it wasn't like the pacing was helping anyone. He didn't sit, but he did take a position against one of the side walls, keeping both Eames and the door in his line of sight.
"You're very prickly sometimes," Eames told him, casual, like he was talking about the weather. "It's almost charming when it's not, you know, irritating as shit."
"Prickly," Arthur said, his tone flat. "I'm missing a chunk of my arm --"
"It's just a nick, darling," Eames interrupted a bit snidely, "and you're handling it admirably --"
"--your fault, by the way," Arthur kept talking over him, "so excuse me if I --"
"--really, no need to fling exaggerations and accusations around like that --"
A long, drawn out moan from the other side of the door brought their bickering to an abrupt halt. The door shuddered on its hinges, and Arthur tightened his grip on his gun.
"Eames," he said, using the sort of tone of voice that promised violence if not listened to. "Next time I tell you zombies are a bad fucking idea --"
"Noted," Eames said, his expression resigned as he pushed himself to his feet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, winning the argument didn't do the slightest to improve Arthur's mood.
"I wouldn't worry about it," Mal said, looking at Arthur with dark, solemn eyes.
The bar they were in was dimly lit, and in their little corner booth it felt like they were separated from everything else, existing in a place meant for just the two of them, a place where both the lights and the sounds of the bar seemed muted, unobtrusive. Or maybe that was the alcohol.
Both Eames and Fauvre had taken off after the job, but Mal had lingered, asking Arthur to accompany her for a night out. Arthur hadn't been able to think of a good enough reason to say no, which she had taken as a yes. He hadn't particularly minded; in fact, a drink or two had sounded like a really good idea at the time.
"I'm not worried," Arthur said. Then he realized he didn't know what Mal was talking about. "What are you talking about?"
"The job," Mal said, continuing to look at Arthur with dark, solemn eyes.
"It went pretty well, right?" Arthur peered into his glass, frowning. "I mean, apart from the whole," he made a vague gesture. The thing with the zombies. That blew up in our faces. Like I said it would. By the way.
So he still wasn't quite over that. Maybe after another shot or three.
Mal nodded very carefully.
"Eames, then," She said, leaning forward with her arms loosely crossed on top of the table.
"I'm worried about Eames?" Arthur frowned. No, that wasn't right. He was irritated by Eames. Yes, that was it.
"He wasn't worried about you," Mal said, not like it was a reason for concern, more like an observation. It was Arthur's turn to nod very carefully.
"We were mutually unworried," he said. "Good. Okay." Then, a bit desperately, "Mal, is this conversation making any sense to you?"
Mal dropped her head onto her arms and started giggling. The way her hair moved, Arthur thought she might be shaking her head.
"That's a no, right?"
"Yes," Mal said, her voice muffled, "It's a no." She eventually emerged, resting her chin in her hands and meeting Arthur's eyes with a mournful look. "We're so drunk."
"So drunk," Arthur agreed, saluting her with his glass before knocking back what was left in it. He put it down on the table with too much force and pushed it to the side with the others of its kind. "We should, like, make a pyramid with those. That's what you do, right?"
Mal wrinkled her nose.
"I don't think it'd work. They're not all the same size." She looked around blearily like she was scouting the place for abandoned glassware suitable for their pyramid. No, wait, that was what Arthur was doing. He scratched at the side of his nose, trying to decide if ordering another drink was such a good idea; his lips felt kind of numb.
"I'm not really an architect, you know," Mal said out of the blue.
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked. Her maze had been pretty damn good. It wasn't her fault that Arthur and Eames had gotten themselves trapped (that had been entirely on Eames. Zombies, for fuck's sake).
"Most architects in the business," Mal said, and Arthur told himself to stop thinking about the job and focus on her. "They start out in the real world and end up in dream sharing because of, I don't know, there's a demand, or the pay is better, something."
"But not you." Arthur crossed his arms on the table, mirroring her earlier pose.
"No, not me." Mal leaned forward, like she was about to tell him a secret. "I'm a chemist. I have a degree and everything."
"Oh. I didn't know," Arthur said, a bit surprised.
"And now you do," Mal said with a quick smile that faded into something pensive and faintly troubled. "There is rarely a need for a chemist out in the field, though."
"Yeah," Arthur said. "Makes sense."
"I do like being a chemist," she said. "I'm good at it. I should be happy staying in the lab, but sometimes I -- I'm not."
"So you go out and build instead," Arthur said. He could sympathize with her. Dream sharing. Extraction. It was a hard world to give up, once you were in. "You're good at that, too, so no reason you shouldn't do it, right?"
"My father would disagree. Dom, too."
"My husband," Mal said, touching a necklace she was wearing. She'd been keeping it under her shirt during the job; Arthur hadn't paid much attention to it. She didn't bother hiding it now, and he could see that instead of a pendant, there was a ring threaded on the chain.
"Huh." Another thing about her Arthur hadn't expected. "They disapprove?"
"My father, he would have a fit if he knew how I am using what he taught me." Mal waved a hand as if to brush away a philosophical debate she'd had many times before. "Because of that, I have not told him. Dom knows, but he doesn't really -- get it. So it is not that they disapprove; it is that they do not approve."
"I've had too many shots to see the difference," Arthur admitted, and Mal reached out to pat his hand.
"It's okay," she said. "I only see the difference when I've had a few. The truth is probably somewhere in between."
Arthur snorted and rubbed at his eyes.
"Definitely too drunk for this," he said, shaking his head
"Or not drunk enough?" Mal suggested, smiling.
"Could be." Arthur shrugged, dragging a finger through a ring of moisture left on the table from a glass. "So your dad's the one who taught you. He's -- an architect?"
"He and Dom both are, but yes, I learned dream sharing from my father. He's firmly on the academic side of things." Mal picked at the worn surface of the table with her nails, her mouth pulling down a little. "He wouldn't agree with what I'm doing, but I do it anyway. I just can't stand not having my way, it's terrible of me, really."
"And your husband?" Arthur asked, not interested in passing judgement on Mal's choices.
"He's -- doing legal work. Experimenting with dreams, mostly, in a research program my father founded. Sometimes militarizing people."
"You're not interested in any of that?"
"Oh, I am," Mal said, her expression keen for a moment. "Dream theory especially, it's fascinating."
"Sure," Arthur said, taking her word for it. He didn't deny there was wonder in dreaming, but he'd always been more interested in the technical aspects, himself.
"But sometimes," Mal said, looking down at her hands; "Sometimes I simply must get away, and extraction --"
"Is the furthest you can get while still dreaming," Arthur finished for her. Mal looked up at him and smiled.
"Yes, you are quite right, Arthur." Mal laughed a little, shaking her head. "Listen to me, telling you my whole life story. And you, nothing in return!"
She sounded supremely unconcerned. Arthur felt vaguely guilty, but not enough to respond in kind.
"You should come visit us some time," Mal told him; it didn't sound like she was joking. "I think you would like Dom."
"You're drunk," Arthur said, shaking his head. "Inviting near-perfect strangers to meet your husband."
"Arthur," Mal said, very nearly pouting. "I do not say things I do not mean. Come on, tell me you'll visit."
"Maybe." Arthur shrugged. "I like you," he said, because that much was true.
"Of course you do," Mal said, reaching over to pinch Arthur's cheek in a manner he probably should have taken offense to; he didn't. "I like you too. It's not just any near-perfect stranger I invite to my home."
Arthur ducked his head, smiling despite himself.
"Ask again when we're both sober, and I'll think about it," he promised, and Mal sat back, looking satisfied.
"It'll be wonderful," she said. "You'll see."
Arthur wasn't sure he believed her -- but he didn't not believe her, either.
Waking up was usually an unremarkable event. Waking up after a night out with Mal wasn't what Arthur would call remarkable, but it was definitely out of the ordinary for him, and far from a positive experience.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd had an actual, shoot-me-now hangover.
There was a pitiful moan somewhere to his left, but he didn't turn to look, busy telling himself that he wasn't actually dying, it just felt like he was. Maybe if he stayed absolutely still, the feeling would go away.
Mal blindly reached out and patted at Arthur's chest.
"We didn't have sex, did we? Still wearing clothes. That's good."
"Urgh," Arthur said by way of agreement. Mal's arm flopped down, her knuckles pressing against his side.
"Are we sober yet?" She sounded a bit queasy but was obviously expecting an answer, for which Arthur hated her a little.
"I dunno," he muttered. "Yes?"
"Yes, all right then. You're still invited, by the way," Mal told him. She slapped a hand over her mouth, her voice muffled; "Ohhh, I'm going to throw up."
She practically fell off the bed in her rush to get to the bathroom. Arthur's stomach rolled at the sound of her retching.
"Urgh," he said again.
The ceiling stared back at him, utterly unsympathetic.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Arthur took another job, just him and an extractor-architect, a no-nonsense woman who introduced herself as Victoria and regarded Arthur with skepticism right up until they were ready to part ways, at which point he got a grudging nod and a hard slap on the back.
"No offense to you or Eames," she said, "but I like to make up my own mind."
"You gave me a chance because of -- Eames?" Arthur asked, trying to make sure he'd understood correctly. Eames keeping his word wasn't something Arthur had been counting on. People broke their promises all the time, especially casual ones made to some guy they'd just met, and Arthur knew better than to trust a con-man.
"Yes." Victoria gave him a tight little smile, genuine but not warm. "He does have a few friends, still."
"That's not what I -- sorry, I just meant, he said he would, but I didn't know how serious he was about it, or if I even met his criteria."
Mildly incoherent and not necessarily much better than what she'd assumed he'd meant. Luckily, Victoria seemed amused more than anything else.
"Not everything a liar tells you is a lie," she said. There was a hint of humor in her voice, some private amusement Arthur wasn't privy to. "Be seeing you, Arthur."
He nodded and let her go without voicing any of the questions he wanted to ask; she didn't seem like the type to indulge him.
The last stretch of the year was uneventful in Arthur's life, so much so that apart from the welcome absence of Christmas songs while shopping for groceries, he barely noticed the old year making way for the new. After spending weeks in his apartment in New York, neck deep in freelance research for three different jobs, he emerged, on the fifth of January, to find one email from Mal and two job offers, one in Europe, the other stateside.
The job in Madrid paid more, but Arthur wasn't desperate enough for money for that to be a deciding factor. The stateside job was in San Francisco. Arthur noted, with some amusement, that he'd already done the preliminary research for it. The mark -- one Samuel Rowse, high up on the corporate ladder -- wasn't militarized, but he was safety-conscious, borderline paranoid, which added an edge to an otherwise straightforward extraction.
Mal's email, then, boiled down to Happy New Year with a side order of why haven't you made an appearance yet? Like Arthur was just next door, instead of on the other side of the country.
She had a point.
Arthur sent a message to one of his contacts, saying he wouldn't be taking any research jobs for a while, booked a flight to San Francisco, and wrote a short email to Mal, telling her he could drop by within the next month and a half if all went well.
Arthur included, the team for the Rowse job consisted of four people. The extractor, Josef Bastian, was a tall, dark-skinned man with an easy smile. He'd decided to tackle the mark's natural defenses by going on the offensive, so in addition to the architect, a Swedish woman called Miriam, he'd hired Arthur and a man named John Cutler to create a distraction and deal with the resulting fallout while Bastian focused on Rowse.
They were holed up in a slightly run down studio apartment, the space cluttered with desks, lawn chairs, papers and personal items. It was clear that Bastian, Cutler and Miriam all knew each other beforehand, but Arthur fit in well enough.
"It's enough for me that both Eames and Victoria spoke favorably of you," said Bastian early on, slouching down in his chair like he was used to trying to appear more inconspicuous than his height allowed.
Cutler, an American by all appearances, spoke without looking up from the dossier he was reading.
"I did do a background check on you, just so we're clear." He had a faint Southern accent. "Got nowhere fast. Not that my opinion counts for much, seeing as you're already here."
"Victoria is solid, and I don't know about you, man," Bastian said, flashing Cutler a hint of teeth, "but Eames isn't going to screw me over by vouching for a fuck up. I've not done anything to piss him off in two years and counting."
"You're keeping score?" Arthur wasn't sure whether he should be amused or take notes for future reference.
"With Eames, it pays to know which side of him you're on." Bastian shrugged, unconcerned.
"I doubt Arthur needs to worry about that," Miriam said, giving Arthur a sly look; she had an asymmetrical haircut, a single hot-pink stripe standing out among the white-blond of the rest. "Seems to me like Eames took a shine on you."
Arthur almost choked on nothing.
"You're kidding, right?" He said, half-laughing.
Cutler made a disgruntled noise.
"You think Eames is the sort to go around recommending people out of the goodness of his heart?" His tone was borderline confrontational. "He might give you his opinion on someone if you bother to ask, but he won't volunteer that information. He sure as hell wouldn't do it for me."
"Touchy, touchy," Miriam teased. "Are you still bitter about Shanghai?"
"Hell yes, I am --" Cutler snapped his mouth shut and gave her a suspicious look. "What do you know about that?"
"Just what I've heard," Miriam said, fluttering her eyelashes at him.
"Goddamn knitting circle, that's what this profession has boiled down to," Cutler said, reminding Arthur a little of Fauvre. "Which, I might add," Cutler continued, "makes it that much more suspicious that no one knows anything about Arthur here."
"I am a man of mystery and intrigue," Arthur deadpanned. "Chicks dig it," he added for flair, even though he mostly preferred guys.
"In your dreams," Miriam chortled. "And do not," she said, raising a finger, "say whatever it is you're thinking of saying right now, or in the future I'll be forced to only ever refer to you as 'that creepy guy' while talking to my many friends within the business."
"And by friends," Cutler said, "she means French Poodles."
"Hey!" Miriam leaned over to poke him in the shoulder. "They were my great aunt's, and it was only once."
"I don't want to know, do I?" Arthur asked Bastian, who shook his head ruefully.
"No, you really don't."
"Anyway," Miriam said pointedly, "I don't think there's a problem here. He's done a couple of jobs, no complaints, and I spoke with Anton a while ago, he said that Arthur was good at thinking on his feet in Tallinn. I think we're all willing to believe it was Richardson who was to blame for that job going south."
Bastian looked at Arthur contemplatively, like he hadn't known about Arthur's involvement in that particular mess, but after a moment he nodded.
Cutler shrugged grudgingly.
"I still think it's weird not even Archer has anything on this guy. No offense," he added.
"None taken," Arthur said, keeping his expression bland. When it came to buying information, Archer was the standard in the business, and had been for more than a year. Arthur had contemplated on whether to use that to his advantage, but had ultimately decided that giving suspicious people false facts was more dangerous than his real life persona being mysterious. If nothing else, Archer's reputation as a reliable source of information was in many ways very useful to him, and he didn't want to compromise that.
"You were willing to pay Archer's fees to get dirt on a teammate?" Miriam asked Cutler, a hint of laughter in her voice.
"It was just an inquiry," Cutler snapped, "and yes, I do like to cover my bases. You're going to end up in a ditch somewhere if you don't start doing the same."
He sounded more upset at the idea of Miriam ending up in a ditch than at being mocked by her. He seemed to realize it at the same time as everyone else in the room, and hunched over the papers on his desk, glowering as he picked up a pen.
After a minute, Miriam went to sit by him. Arthur ignored the resulting conversation, focusing on his work. He was willing to take the distraction and be glad for it; he'd gone to a lot of trouble to bury his past, and the less people asked about it, the better.
He'd started cultivating contacts while still in the military, building a network he could use to gather and distribute information. It had been a personal project in the beginning, but after his enlistment had come to an end, he'd turned it into a source of income. When it came to planning an extraction, a lot depended on good research. Not everyone had the skills, resources or manpower to dig for what they needed, and many were willing to pay for someone to do it for them. The exchange was anonymous; sometimes Arthur was asked to do a background check on a potential team member, but as a rule he knew more about the marks than about the people who stole their secrets.
Now, being out in the field, Arthur had been spending more time looking into the other side of the equation, finding out what he could about his colleagues; but there would always be people like Mal, like Eames, who, before appearing in his life, had never pinged on his radar. There was also the fact that knowing someone's past didn't necessarily tell Arthur anything about how they operated within the mind crime community. No one kept records of past jobs and teams, and no one was eager to open up about such things to someone they didn't know.
Despite all the information he did have at his fingertips, Arthur often felt like he was flying blind, feeling his way forward with his eyes closed. In dream sharing, trust was a dangerous game everyone was required to play, and in some ways, having no past was like a safety net, something to fall back on if things went wrong.
That Eames had been able to take one look at him and correctly guess he'd been in the army was irritating and ever so slightly alarming, but Arthur doubted anything more would come of it. Having a military background wasn't unique. Even if someone pegged Arthur as ex-military, as Eames had, they had little reason to look deeper into it unless Arthur gave them an excuse to do so.
Dmuchać na zimne, as his grandmother used to tell him; better safe than sorry. Arthur wasn't planning on getting close to anyone, Eames least of all.
Arthur had never quite figured out how to have friends. Following social cues and making acquaintances was easy enough, but being genuinely close to people wasn't something he had a lot of experience with. It was rare for him to get attached to people; when he did, he cared too much, too deeply.
He'd learned to keep his distance, knowing how much it hurt to lose people, but sometimes there was no helping it. Sometimes people simply refused to be held at arm's length, slipping through Arthur's carefully built defenses with ease that, if he stopped to think about it, was nothing short of appalling.
Such was the case with Mal and Dom Cobb.
Arthur had only thought to gain another contact, a friendly face within the dream sharing community. They'd gotten along well, he and Mal, but one enjoyable, drunken night and a few emails didn't make them friends; Arthur hadn't thought there would be any harm in visiting her once. He hadn't thought it would change anything.
It changed everything.
"How was your flight?"
Mal had been waiting for him at LAX; she looked wholesome and well rested, neither of which Arthur could currently relate to.
"Not bad," he said, following her to her car.
"And the job, not as well as expected?"
Arthur gave her a sideways look.
"In your email," she said, "you told me you weren't sure when exactly you'd be available for a visit, but knew enough to give me a vague idea of when to expect you. I've been under the impression that you usually prefer the New York area, but you flew in from San Francisco. I can read between the lines and make educated guesses." She gave him a sympathetic smile. "And I've seen that look on your face before, in the mirror, after a difficult job."
They came to a stop next to an old Ford pick up -- not at all what Arthur had pictured for her -- and Arthur smiled back at her, rueful.
"Took longer than expected," he said, throwing his duffel in the back and climbing in the passenger seat. "And it was a close call -- we almost ran out of time."
"It's easy to think you have more time than you actually have when you're under," Mal said, backing out of the parking space. She drove a little too fast, with the easy confidence of someone who'd spent a lot of time behind the wheel. "I was on a job last year that failed for that very reason."
"I'm pretty good at keeping track, but, well." When Arthur hesitated, Mal finished for him, saying, "but not everyone is, it's just a fact."
"I've been thinking," he said after a moment's reflection, not entirely sure if getting into theoretics with Mal was a good idea; on the other hand, being curious about the work Mal and her husband did, the possibility of their research having practical applications, had been part of the reason why he'd decided to come. "I've been thinking," he said again, "it might help if there was an early warning system of some sort, a reminder that there's half-an-hour, or twenty minutes, or five left in the dream."
Mal hummed a little, her eyes on the road. Arthur tapped his fingers against his knees, feeling self-conscious. He kept talking regardless.
"I thought, maybe a look-out could drop in, give a heads up, but --"
"-- there's no way to be certain of exactly where in the maze you find yourself," Mal said, catching up quickly, "or where the others are at any given moment, not to mention --"
"-- depending on the extraction, it might not be feasible for someone to just walk in and be like, hey --"
"-- exactly, yes, it would have to be something more subtle --"
"-- so I thought, music. I mean, it's worth a try, right?"
"Oh, Arthur," Mal said, her eyes sparkling as she glanced at him, "I knew bullying you into visiting us was one of my better ideas."
"Do you always get your better ideas while drunk? No, don't answer that, maybe I don't want to know."
Mal smacked his shoulder with the back of her hand.
"It could definitely work," she said, back on topic. "We already know that sounds can penetrate the sleeping mind, can influence a dream or, if the mind interprets them as dangerous, wake the dreamer."
"Then if the dreamer is lucid," Arthur said, frowning a little, "they should --"
"-- be able to recognize the sound for what it is, yes, and if it's instigated by someone in the waking world at a specific, agreed-upon time --"
"-- it'd be like, like a musical countdown."
"Elegant," Mal said. "As a theory, I like it. We'll have to test it, of course."
"Yeah. Do you think --"
"Dom will love it." Mal sounded so certain that it didn't even cross Arthur's mind to doubt her. "He'll be all over it, I promise. He's not entirely happy with my -- hobbies, you could say, but he won't be able to resist a good theory, especially one that makes it potentially safer for the team going under to perform the extraction."
"If it works, we should probably test it with someone who isn't proficient in lucid dreaming, as well," Arthur said, not really wanting to get any closer to discussing Mal's marriage. "If it disrupts the illusion of reality for the mark, it's all moot."
"Yes," Mal said, the line of her mouth soft. "Dom will definitely love you."
The drive didn't feel half as long to Arhur as it should have, given the distance between LAX and the apartment Mal shared with her husband.
Mal's father was English, her mother French; she'd grown up in France, where her father had a long-standing position as a Professor of Architecture at Ecole D'Architecture, and had met Dominick Cobb, an American, when he'd come to Paris to study.
They'd gotten married a few years later, followed by a move to U.S.
"How did you say you two met?"
It was Cobb asking the question, looking between Arthur and Mal with mild confusion. No suspicion, though; no hint of jealousy. Arthur liked that.
"The job I took last fall, in Prague," Mal said, pouring coffee in mismatched cups. "I did mention it to you. What was it, Arthur, your second job? Afterward, I thought we should celebrate, so I got him drunk."
"There was mutual drunkenness," Arthur put in, not wanting the facts to be misrepresented.
The apartment was on the small side, the kitchen bordering on claustrophobic with three adults in the room. It should have felt awkward, but Mal and Cobb were both acting so natural, like they hadn't noticed or didn't care that Arthur was still basically a stranger to them, that it didn't.
"Don't remind me," Mal said, sliding a cup of coffee in front of Arthur before falling into a chair next to Cobb. "I had the most awful hangover," she confided to him. "Like after that one night on our honeymoon, with the wine, remember?"
Cobb's forehead wrinkled even as he took Mal's hand in his.
"Mal, you know that's not safe." Earnest; it was the only word Arthur could think of to describe the look on Cobb's face. "You should always separate after a job, meet up later somewhere else if you have to."
"Listen to him, talking like he's an expert." Mal looked at Arthur like she was inviting him to share the joke, but her fingers were threaded through Cobb's. "He's technically right, of course, but I would like to point out that I'm not completely reckless -- it was a low-risk job, and it's not like we were at the mark's hotel, waiting for him to get thirsty and wander downstairs for a drink."
"It's a big city," Arthur said loyally. "Lots of bars."
The look Cobb gave him was a little bit disapproving, but mostly resigned, even fond, though that last one was clearly not directed at Arthur.
"You shouldn't enable her, you know," Cobb said. "It leads nowhere good."
"Says my biggest fan." Mal smiled at Cobb like she'd forgotten Arthur was in the room; Cobb, far from disabusing her of the notion, pressed his lips to the back of her hand.
Arthur, feeling oddly not uncomfortable around them, sipped his coffee and failed to mention that enabling people, in both good and bad, was something he'd always been good at.
He'd only meant to stay with them for a week, at the most, and he'd meant to stay at a hotel, at that; but Mal would have none of the latter, and it took three weeks for Arthur to notice that he hadn't left yet.
"Doesn't it bother you to have me around all the time?" He asked Dom one evening, when Mal was out with a friend and Dom had his nose buried in the data from some experiment or another. He had a habit of bringing work home and then forgetting it was work; Arthur could relate. "Aren't you tired of me and my stuff cluttering your space?"
"Hm?" Dom, sitting in his favorite armchair, barely glanced up. "Oh, no, you're very neat."
"Missing the point," Arthur said, setting a cup of tea at Dom's elbow and retreating to the sofa with his laptop. He'd picked up his research again; there was always someone willing to pay for it.
"The point?" Dom finally looked up, blinking owlishly. "No, no, it doesn't bother me. Or Mal. We meet new people all the time, and Mal has this habit --"
"She keeps inviting people over?" Arthur had no trouble believing it.
"Well, not that often," Dom said, "and I think you're the only one from -- she usually keeps our home life separate from her side business -- but, no, there was one girl, Berg-something, a Swedish name I think --"
"Yes. Bergström." Dom shifted in his chair. "You know her?"
"I just met her not long ago," Arthur admitted.
Dom made a thoughtful sound at the back of his throat.
"She stayed with us for a couple of weeks a while back, helped with my research on experimental dream architecture," he said, drumming his fingers against the papers on his lap. "Very proficient, clean designs and a good understanding of paradoxes. You must have gotten along well with her."
"Well enough," Arthur said. It was true that he had a fondness for dream paradoxes, partly because he figured such architectural loopholes could only make his life easier as the guy most likely to be left to deal with projections. It had been one of the first things he and Dom had talked about, but the same couldn't be said about Miriam, who'd had a clear vision for her maze and had required no input from Arthur. He wouldn't say no to working another job with the San Francisco team, as a group or as individuals, but on a personal level, he hadn't clicked with any of them. He wasn't complaining; he'd never expected or wanted anything more from them.
Dom shuffled his papers, frowning. A moment later he found what he was looking for, and his expression cleared.
"At any rate," he said, his attention already half-gone, "feel free to stay as long as you'd like. I'd probably be fine with spending all my time with Mal, but it's healthy, having other people around."
"It's odd, you mean," Arthur said, "not minding having other people in your home for weeks on end."
"Do you mind having us around?" Dom seemed honestly puzzled.
"It's not the same --" Arthur gave up. He usually told himself he liked being alone, and most of the time it was even true. He was maybe a little bothered that being around Mal and Dom had turned out to be so easy, but he didn't feel up to giving it any serious thought. "Drink your tea."
Dom squinted at him for a bit, but Arthur kept his eyes on his open laptop, pretending to work. It didn't take long for Dom to go back to his tea and his papers, and eventually Arthur got sucked into his research for real, the conversation put aside and forgotten.
They were still in the living room, still working, when Mal came home past midnight. They were both mercilessly teased for it, but even as tired as he was, Arthur couldn't bring himself to mind.
*If there are any Polish speakers here and "dmuchać na zimne" does not, in fact, mean "better safe than sorry" or is something a Polish speaker would not say in the given context, let me know and I'll change it. My headcanon for this story wouldn't let go of the idea of Arthur's grandmother having come to the US from Poland as a child, but I'm not sure how well it works within the text.
Arthur's first stay with Mal and Dom, counting the time spent in dreams, lasted nearly six weeks. At the end of it, he promised, against his better judgment, not to be a stranger.
He took a job in Germany, another in Singapore; he kept running into things that made him think, there has to be a better way to do this.
Frustrating as it was, it did make it easier for him to keep his promise to the Cobbs, leading to him setting up a secure connection so he could share his grievances with an appreciative audience. Not having the same education, and lacking their interest in the purely theoretical, Arthur couldn't quite keep up with Mal and Dom when they got too deeply into academics, but he could give them a problem and then poke and prod at them until something useful came out of it, or come up with practical solutions on his own, based on their experiments.
It wasn't a bad set up, and if Mal sometimes used it as an opportunity to pry into his personal life, well, he could live with it.
Even among people with both money and connections, dream sharing in general and extraction in particular were more rumor than reality, but there were still plenty of opportunities for those willing to take risks and believe in the impossible. Arthur, still relatively new to the business, didn't have a foolproof weeding process for jobs -- some he ended up liking less than others.
Stateside; catching one James Kenward, employed by a major corporation, on a business trip. The extraction was simple enough to be boring, Arthur found the extractor to be subpar, and while the architect -- Anton Kozlovsky, whom Arthur had first met in Tallinn -- was competent, he wasn't what Arthur would call scintillating company.
Arthur wondered if working in an office was always this uninspiring, then made a note to never find out; when Eames ended up being the single most interesting thing about the days leading up to an extraction, something had to be wrong, surely.
"If it turns out Kenward is indeed selling corporate secrets," Eames said, wearing a face that belonged to a pretty, middle-aged office worker, "I'll give up gambling."
Arthur, busy keeping up appearances by photocopying files that had absolutely no pertinent information on them, made a noncommittal sound.
"Braun can keep trying," Eames continued, referring to the extractor, "but he already struck out with Kenward, and the projections don't know a thing. We're not going to find what's not here."
"Yeah, I agree," Arthur said, glancing at the open door of the copy room to make sure no one overheard. Not that he needed to, since Eames already had it covered, surreptitiously keeping an eye on the projections outside; maybe it was just that Arthur remembered how it had ended the last time they'd gotten trapped in a room with only one exit. "The files are all innocuous, nothing to suggest he has anything to hide."
"Well, except the fact that he's cheating on his wife," Eames said. "But that's a bit beside the point, yes."
Arthur picked up the copies the machine had spit out and tapped them into a neat stack. Feeling Eames' gaze on him, he glanced at him, questioning.
"You're bored," Eames said, an observation. Arthur thought of denying it. He thought of saying, aren't you? In the end, he just shrugged.
"Admit it." Eames lowered his voice. "You miss the zombies."
"I do not," Arthur said, somewhat emphatically, because that was a step too far. "Any plan that requires the presence of the living dead is doomed for failure."
"Not the zombies specifically, then," Eames conceded, "but at least they weren't boring, you'll give them that much."
"Not everything needs to be a challenge," Arthur said.
"No, but it's rather more fun that way, wouldn't you say?" Eames sounded like he didn't expect Arthur to disagree. Like he thought he had Arthur's number. It was grating.
"Why did you agree to this one, then?" Arthur asked, because if there was one thing this job was not, it was fun -- not that he would come right out and say it. Early on, when he'd been transferred into the military dream sharing program, just the knowledge of being awake in a dream -- a shared dream, at that -- had been enough; it was almost sad, Arthur thought, that the strangest, most wonderful things could become so commonplace that a person could forget they'd ever seemed strange or wonderful to begin with.
He hadn't gotten jaded enough to feel that way about dreaming in general, but he thought that maybe it was true for some of the people in the business, and maybe that explained why so many of them seemed to be stuck repeating the same old patterns, never taking the path less traveled. Eames, to his credit, was not one of them.
"Needed money more than I needed a challenge. Gambling debts," Eames said, like it was no big deal. "I find that paying up is usually preferable to having to disappear and consequently avoid certain parts of the world for the foreseeable future. I can't be arsed with the latter right now in any case. You?"
"No reason. I guess I'm still figuring it out," Arthur said with some reluctance.
"Word for the wise, then. Avoid Braun if you can, Adams and Roubini too if you want to play it safe -- or not, as the case may be. They're adequate at best, and tend to take the easy way out."
"Why are you telling me this?" Arthur asked, remembering what he'd been told about Eames' tendency to not offer information freely. It didn't seem like Eames had ulterior motives, but then, they still barely knew each other. Eames had no reason to be helpful, and Arthur was uncomfortably aware of the fact that he might not be able to spot a lie, especially not one coming from Eames.
"Why not?" Eames asked, absently scratching the bridge of his nose. The overhead light caught on the sleeve of the silky blouse his office lady was wearing. "I've got nothing better to do at the moment, and it would be a shame if you took your lovely, top of the line PASIV and your charmingly stuck-up attitude -- I'm starting to quite like it, really -- and quit out of boredom."
"You'd miss me and my attitude terribly, I can tell," Arthur said dryly.
"The way you handle your gun, too, I assure you," Eames said, winking. "Plenty of reasons to help you find jobs that allow you to showcase your talents better than making photocopies in the mind of a man who probably hasn't stolen so much as a pack of gum in his entire life, never mind corporate secrets."
"I might still get my chance," Arthur said, "if Braun continues to harass the projections and aggravate the mark."
It wasn't an altogether happy thought. Excitement was all well and good when it was planned for, but a simple office job ending in a shootout wasn't something Arthur wanted on his resume.
"And on that note," Eames said, standing up straighter, putting on the persona of an efficient office worker, "I'd better go check up on him."
Keeping tabs on the extractor might have been more a point man's area than a forger's, but Eames had a stealthy habit of taking more control and responsibility than was necessary, given to, or expected of him; Arthur wasn't sure most people noticed.
Either way, Arthur wasn't protesting. Eames had been better at listening to him this time around, overall, though whether it was because of the easy job, or because he'd learned from the zombie incident, remained to be seen. If he wanted to be the one to deal with Braun, Arthur was of a mind to let him.
"Good luck with that," he said.
Eames tossed his forgery's hair and gave Arthur a confident smile as if to say luck wasn't needed; then he walked out of the copy room and into the office proper, kitten heels click-clicking.
Arthur found himself smiling and quickly ducked his head, schooling his expression into something more neutral as he flipped through the useless documents in his hands.
They wrapped up the job with no surprises. Braun and Kozlovsky took off soon after they'd cleared the mark's hotel. Arthur headed back to the warehouse they'd used for planning to make sure nothing there could lead back to them, and Eames tagged along to pick up his things, as he'd elected to crash there rather than pay for a hotel stay.
They were just about finished, ready to head out, when there was -- a sound? Arthur paused, listening. Nothing. He scanned the warehouse, thinking back to when he and Eames had arrived; had there been anything outside that he should have paid more attention to? Had anything inside been touched while they were gone?
Nothing seemed out of place, but the back of his neck was itching, and if there was one thing he'd learned from the gruesome games the military had paid him to play, it was to trust his instincts. Something was off.
"Eames," he said, taking out his gun and picking up the case containing the PASIV.
Eames looked up and stilled for a moment, taking in Arthur's expression, his tense body language. His gaze swept the empty span of the warehouse, lingering on the walls like he was trying to see through them, and nodded, grabbing his own gun and shouldering his duffel bag.
"Side door," he said. "Unless we're surrounded, I'd wager they'll be expecting us to come out through the front, where we left the car."
If the guess was wrong, they were screwed -- but that was a chance one took when playing the odds. If there even was a threat; Eames hadn't wasted time asking stupid questions or voicing doubts, which Arthur appreciated, but in this instance, he thought he would be equally glad to be proven wrong. Exiting or not, being ambushed by persons unknown didn't exactly fit his idea of a good time.
They made it outside without being immediately spotted. Eames was on point, and the way he moved, focused, contained, made Arthur think military; it surprised him, since Eames had shown some derision toward Arthur's own army days. Arthur didn't have long to wonder about it; when they reached the corner of the building, a bullet hit the asphalt inches from Eames' feet.
Eames ducked behind an industrial garbage bin without needing to be pushed, and Arthur threw himself down next to him, his back smacking against the metal side of the bin, the ground hard under his ass. More shots rang out, and Arthur exchanged a look with Eames.
"Which one of us do you think they're after?" Eames asked in deceptively light tones.
"I don't know," Arthur said. "How bad are your gambling debts?"
"Funny thing about owing people money," Eames said, "they tend to prefer you alive. Not necessarily in one piece, mind, but alive."
"Point." Arthur let go of the case containing the PASIV, inconveniently large considering their current situation, and shifted around. "Have you pissed anyone else off, lately?"
"Not this badly," Eames said, checking his gun. "Have you?"
"Not that I know of," Arthur said. He tried to get a location on the shooters and got nothing for his efforts but a bullet whistling past his head, way too close. "In the unlikely event that they attempt to negotiate via something other than bullets, should I be worried about you trying to bargain for your life by giving them mine?"
"More likely I'll just take off at the first opportunity and leave you to fend for yourself."
"I'm going to take that as a testament of your faith in my abilities," Arthur said, earning himself a roguish grin. "Cover me."
Eames did as told, aiming in the general direction of where the shots were coming from while Arthur stuck his head out and managed not to get his brains blown out. Dropping back down, he shook his head.
"They don't have the best angle -- they were definitely expecting us to come through the front -- and there can't be too many of them or they'd have all the exits covered, but forget getting to the car. There's no cover, except the one we're already using."
The thought of having to turn tail and try to escape on foot didn't sit well with Arthur. Eames tapped the fingers of his free hand against his knee, making a thoughtful sound at the back of his throat.
"What if we gave them something else to worry about?"
"A distraction," Arthur said. "Like what?"
In response Eames put his gun on the ground and tugged his duffel around so he could rummage through it. After a moment, there was a sound like a metal box being pried open, and he came up with --
"A grenade?" Arthur asked, feeling his eyebrows climbing up. "You're carrying around a grenade topside?"
"Two, actually," Eames said, like it was perfectly normal. "So I was thinking, they're in the next building over, right?"
"That's what it looks like, yeah. As far as I can tell, there's one on the second floor, and the rest are on the ground."
"Good, here's what we'll do. We'll toss an explosive little gift their way, duck for cover, run to the car --"
"-- throw the other one, duck behind the car, get into the car, get the hell out of here." Arthur shook his head, thinking of the distance between them and the car, the hostiles and the car, and the damage shrapnel could do to said car, their one and only getaway vehicle. "This is a terrible plan," he said. "How's your throwing arm?"
"Excellent bordering on exceptional," Eames said with a winning smile. "I'm sure you'll be able to come up with other exceedingly flattering adjectives once you've seen me in action."
Under the circumstances, Arthur could appreciate the lack of false modesty, and only rolled his eyes a little.
"Fine, okay," he said, giving in to the inevitable, because it's not like they had much choice. They were already in a bad spot, and if their assailants were even half-way competent -- not something Arthur would necessarily put money on, but expecting the worst usually served him well -- they wouldn't be staying in one place, taking potshots, for much longer; Arthur was not about to let himself get caught between hostiles. "Two things, though," he said as he grabbed the PASIV case, ready to move.
"Yes?" Eames adjusted the duffel strap across his chest. The grenades, their destructive tickets to freedom, sat innocently on the ground, waiting to be picked up and used.
"I'm on point," Arthur said, his tone inviting no arguments "and I'm driving."
"Splendid," Eames said like he'd been counting on Arthur doing just that. "Shall we?"
"Terrible plan," Arthur said again, for all the good it did either of them. His blood thrummed in his veins, adrenalin skirting along his nerves; his senses felt sharper than usual.
When Eames grinned, the corners of Arthur's mouth pulled up.
"Yeah," Arthur said. "Yeah, let's do this thing."
Arthur wasn't sure how he felt about the fact that the plan actually worked. They were alive; there was that. On the other hand, he was now sharing a banged up car with the sort of lunatic who carried around grenades just in case, or maybe because he liked explosions, or had been planning on selling them, Arthur didn't know and wasn't going to ask.
In the backseat, Eames was laughing. Objectively speaking, it was a rather pleasant laugh, throaty and full; unlike the last time they'd been in a similar situation, Arthur found himself not minding. It was probably the endorphins talking. It also probably helped that, this time, everything going to hell might not have been Eames' fault.
"How's that for excitement?" Eames sounded a little breathless, laughter lingering in his voice. A madman, Arthur reminded himself.
"Next time, I think I'll pass," he said.
Eames chuckled. Leaning forward, he filled the gap between the two front seats, resting his elbows on top of them. His forearm brushed against Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur, hyperaware of the touch, forced himself not to shift away from it. A flush spread across his skin. Endorphins, he told himself; that's all.
"I can't say that I blame you," Eames said. "That wasn't exactly what I had in mind, either."
"We still have to figure out what they were after," he said, redirecting the conversation. They needed a game plan beyond getting rid of the car.
"Hm," Eames said, agreeable. "Should we split up, or should we stick together, what do you think, Arthur?"
Split up, Arthur almost said without thinking. Splitting up was the smart thing to do, the obvious choice. Apart from everything else, why would he volunteer to spend any more time with Eames than he had to? It wasn't that Eames was bad company. It was that it was a bad idea.
Arthur curbed his first instinct and gave the matter some serious thought.
"Stick together for now," he said. Going to ground separately had its benefits, but Arthur was pragmatic enough to take advantage of resources when they were offered. "We don't know which one of us was the target, or if we both were -- we don't know anything. If we need to play divide and conquer later, that's what we'll do, but right now our chances of finding out what's going on are better together than apart."
"Keeping an eye on me until you've got everything figured out being a mere bonus," Eames said, not sounding ticked off about it in the least. Arthur shrugged, nonchalant.
"I've gotten pretty good at sleeping with one eye open."
That got an amicable snort out of Eames, so Arthur counted it as a win.
They left the car, wiped clean of their prints, on the side of the road and stole a replacement for just long enough to swing by Arthur's hotel. In addition to his calculated failure to let the team know where he was staying, Arthur had used an alias to check in and had paid in cash. Unless he'd failed to spot a tail, he doubted the location was compromised, but he was nonetheless quick and cautious as he picked up his things.
The stolen car got the same treatment as its predecessor, after which they used public transportation to get to the other side of the city; their third car was bought cheap from a used car dealer.
They rented a cabin a couple of states over and put their energies into tracking down exactly who had come after them, and why. The payment for the job had come through, and there was little reason to think either Braun or Kozlovsky had betrayed them, though it was still possible that one of them had talked about the job to someone they shouldn't have. It was also a fair assumption that their assailants had been hired by a third party. Weeding out bad information from among the good was a slow task, but not as slow as Arthur had first feared. Together, they quickly narrowed down the list of suspects, and once the pieces started falling into place, putting the picture together wasn't difficult in the least.
The cabin was small, consisting of two bedrooms with a shared bathroom, and a front room with a kitchenette in one corner. It was afternoon, and Arthur and Eames were in the main room, occupied by their respective laptops, loose notebook papers and empty mugs littering the rickety coffee table.
Arthur scratched his cheek and frowned, vaguely embarrassed when he realized he'd forgotten to shave that morning. No matter. He knew he was close, knew he would have his answers soon.
He was right; not an hour later, he sat back on the sagging sofa, scowling at his laptop.
"You've got something," Eames said. It wasn't a question. Slouched down in a faded armchair, wearing an equally faded shirt and a pair of sweats, Eames looked scruffy and tired, and Arthur felt an unexpected pang of regret, knowing that they'd soon part ways. He shifted his gaze back to his laptop, pushing the thought away.
"It's Richardson," he said, dismayed that it had taken him all week to figure out. "Looks like the son of a bitch really wants a PASIV. Mine, to be more specific."
"Ah." Eames' expression darkened. "That explains some things."
"How do we deal with this?" Arthur was willing to take suggestions. He hadn't been sleeping well, the uncertainty, the not knowing, eating away at him. He'd been so focused on the task at hand that he hadn't stopped to think what would happen once he completed it.
"We're not going to deal with it," Eames said, closing his own laptop and setting it aside. "I am."
"He came after me," Arthur pointed out.
"He came after both of us. The PASIV might've been the objective, but I don't doubt that having us both dead was a close second on his Christmas wish list."
"All the more reason for us to work together," Arthur insisted, even though he could see that Eames wasn't going to back down on this.
"No," Eames said, getting to his feet. "I'll do it alone. This isn't the first time he's tried to stab me in the back, but it will be the last."
Arthur had known there was bad blood between the two. Eames had talked about it almost flippantly, like Richardson was an annoyance -- an unreliable snake, to be sure, but not worth the energy hunting him down would require. There was nothing left of that leniency now; Eames' expression was humorless, resigned. A line had been crossed, and to a story like this, there was only one ending.
Arthur had only ever killed in dreams. He hadn't come into this business thinking he'd end up shooting people in real life, even though, on some level, he'd always known it to be a very real possibility. People came into dream sharing from all walks of life, and the intersecting circles were often violent and dark.
The people Richardson had sent after them had known the risks. Laying awake at night, restless, Arthur had wondered who they'd been, if they'd survived. Gunfire and grenades, unsubtle as they were, had surely drawn the attention of the local authorities, but the incident had been kept from the press. Arthur had resisted poking his nose into the investigation; tempting fates, as Mal would have said, rarely ended well. Not that it ever stopped her, or Dom, for that matter.
"Let me know when you're done," Arthur said, giving in. He missed, quite suddenly and with an unexpected intensity, Los Angeles and one particular, small apartment there. Right now, that apartment might as well have been on the moon; until he could be sure no violence would follow him there, he would have to stay away, as far away as he could.
Eames nodded, his gaze lingering on Arthur for a moment before he turned and disappeared into his bedroom. Arthur told himself it was fine. If, in the future, he was given different choices, so be it; he wasn't eager to have blood on his hands, but there was no guilt in doing what had to be done, and sooner people learned there were consequences for coming after him, the better.
But he could, this once, allow Eames to have his way.
Arthur set his laptop aside and went into the kitchenette to make coffee; it had been a few hours since he'd last eaten, but the idea of food didn't sit well in his stomach.
Three weeks after leaving Eames at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, Arthur received a message, short and to the point, the last he heard from Eames for more than a year:
Sweet dreams, darling.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"I told you to aim for the head," Arthur choked out, coughing up blood.
"I did." Dom protested, sounding guilty.
"Jesus," Arthur said.
"Oh for heaven's sake." Mal pointed her gun at Arthur's forehead and pulled the trigger.
Arthur opened his eyes, blinked, and closed them again. He rubbed at a spot between his eyebrows, wincing.
Arthur lowered his hand and smoothed out his expression, glancing to the side where Mal was just getting up from her chair. At her expectant look, he shrugged.
"I'll see if I can tweak the mix," Mal said, a little frown of worry marring her forehead.
While the basic formula for somnacin was always the same, there were minor differences depending on the chemist and the batch; not all versions agreed with Arthur. It wasn't a big deal, and Arthur didn't want to turn it into one by fighting over it, so he just nodded his thanks. Arguing with Mal never did him much good anyway.
Case in point, being roped into helping Mal and Dom with a militarization of a federal agent whose subconscious was fairly ferocious to begin with. The facilities for dream research on Dom's campus were secreted away in a little used wing of one of the older buildings, and Arthur, Mal and Dom had been practically living there, among the accumulated debris of Dom's research, for a full week prior to the mark -- client -- showing up. They'd successfully worked through mazes one and two, designed to teach the client's subconscious awareness and order. It was now the second day, and they were on maze number three. Down under, it was getting harder and harder to stay alive.
After losing his gun and the use of his right arm, Arthur had figured he'd be more useful making notes topside. He'd thought a bullet would be the fastest, easiest way out of the dream, but with Dom holding the gun, that had turned out to be a false assumption. Speaking of which -- "We need to work on his aim."
"We need to work on his heart, you mean," Mal said, throwing away the disposable needle from her line.
"His heart?" Frowning, Arthur took out his own line and stood up.
Mal's smile was both rueful and fond as she went to check up on Dom, taking his pulse.
"He's not a bad shot when it comes right down to it," she said. "Unfortunately, his aim suffers when he has to shoot someone he likes. He's never been able to do as much as point a gun at me."
"That's --" a liability, Arthur thought. "Okay. Or, not okay, but at least in the future I'll know to ask for his gun instead of a bullet."
He meant it as a statement, not reproach, but Mal shook her head. Her expression was pinched.
"It's only happened a couple of times," she said, "so I didn't think to warn you. I should have, I'm sorry."
"Hey, no," Arthur said, hating the unhappy twist of her mouth. "What's a little pain between friends, right?" His insides only twitched momentarily at the word 'friends', and it made a reluctant smile appear on Mal's face, so he decided could live with it. He nodded at Dom's unconscious form. "How do you think he's doing?"
Down under, Dom had been on his own for maybe half-an-hour by now. Certain hang-ups notwithstanding, Dom was pretty good, and the maze was designed to give it's creator all the advantages, but the situation hadn't been rosy down there when Arthur had died. He doubted it had gotten any better since.
Mal checked her watch, followed by a glance at the PASIV display. She pursed her lips.
"I'm going to end up doing the dishes for the rest of the week if he makes it through alive."
"You bet against your own husband?" Arthur grinned, sliding his hands into the front pockets of his slacks. "That's heart-warming."
"I hate doing the dishes," Mal said, dismissive, "and since this is the second run of the third maze, it's a safe bet he won't last for much longer."
"He might," Arthur suggested just to see if he could rile her up.
Mal tsked. "He better not. He'll be insufferable all day."
"I bet he's thinking the same of you," Arthur said, not trying to hide his amusement.
"No bet," Mal said, tapping her nose in a manner that reminded Arthur -- with sudden, sharp clarity -- of Eames.
Arthur shook his head to clear it, only for his headache to flare up. Before Mal could notice that Arthur had dropped the ball on the conversation, Dom came awake with a sharp inhale, sitting up fast enough to almost topple out of his chair.
"Ha!" Mal crowed even as she steadied him.
"Goddammit," Dom said, without much heat, yanking the line out of his arm.
There were fifty-six seconds left on the PASIV.
Arthur had done a cursory check on Eames after their first meeting, but nothing much had come up. At the time, it had been enough that no red flags of the kind that would compromise the job had jumped at him, but after working and, very briefly, living together, Arthur had allowed curiosity to get the better of him. Consequently, he'd spent far too much time digging into Eames' past. It wasn't that there was no information to be found; it was that there was too much of it.
Take Jonathan Edmund Reed. With some effort, his life could be traced all the way back to the hospital in London where he'd been born. A decent family hadn't succeeded in countering the effects of a bad neighborhood, and despite the records making it clear that Reed had been an above average student, in the eyes of the greater society he'd never amounted to anything. From around the time he turned twenty, he'd gone completely off the grid.
Jonathan Edmund Reed was also entirely fictional, but Arthur doubted most people would notice. The construct was so convincing, right down to Reed's descent into crime and, eventually, one assumed, dream sharing, that even a dedicated researcher, one with no pressing need to take a second or a third look, might have been satisfied by their findings.
Arthur had no pressing need, but he was tenacious and throughout, and once he got past Reed, he fell headfirst into the rabbit hole of Eames' false lives: his parents had been doctors, missionaries, factory workers; he'd been posh and poor and safely middle-class; he was an only child, one of two, one of many.
The aliases did not all have the same level of attention to detail, but they were, almost invariably, convincing at first glance and, Arthur was certain, useful in more ways than just as a buffer for those prying into Eames' life.
When following the tangled mess of Eames' real life forgeries lead nowhere, Arthur tried a different approach -- but it seemed that either Eames' friends and acquaintances had taken a page out of Eames' handbook, or else they'd never met the real Eames, whoever he was. For a while, Arthur thought he had a lead with Victoria, but when he was left picking apart yet another alias, he finally admitted defeat.
Until he could come up with something new or figured out a way to sort the crumbs or truth from the landmasses of lies, Eames would have to remain a riddle. As annoying, frustrating and maddening as Arthur found the whole mess, it was also a little bit genius, a little bit amazing.
By the time he was done, Arthur might have been a little bit in love.
A year after their first meeting, Arthur was sitting in Mal's kitchen, watching as, across the table, Mal picked at the remains of her dinner.
Arthur had been staying with the Cobbs since the militarization of the federal agent a few weeks ago, and for the past eleven days, Mal hadn't touched the PASIV, not once. Dom hadn't noticed.
Deciding it was time to push the issue, Arthur had asked Mal to join him on an upcoming job. It was clear what her answer was going to be.
"You're not coming," Arthur said.
Mal's hands tightened around the knife and fork she was holding before she carefully set them down. After a long moment, she met Arthur's eyes, her weak smile not reassuring in the least.
It was the last thing Arthur expected her to say. He stared at her, surprise turning his mind blank. On the wall behind him, an old clock was ticking the time away, loud in the absence of their voices.
"You, uh," Arthur said, then tried again, his tone cautious, his words less so. "You don't seem too happy about it."
Mal exhaled through her nose, turning her head to look outside.
"I'm not unhappy about it," she eventually said, tapping her fingernails against the table. Her nail polish was a dark, burgundy color, chipped and flaky; she liked her nails painted but was careless and forgetful about it, keeping the same coat of polish until there was nothing left but worn, uneven little patches of color.
"I'm not going to get rid of it," she said. "I'm glad it's Dom's."
Arthur looked up, met her eyes. "But?"
"But I'm going to be a terrible mother."
"You are not," Arthur said, no thought required. He crossed his arms, sliding down in his seat. "Why would you think that?"
"I've never wanted children," Mal said, drawing invisible circles on the table with the tip of her index finger. "I don't hate the idea; I just always figured it wasn't for me. Dom and I, we've talked about it, I think most couples do at some point -- but it was always in terms of maybe, some day. It didn't seem real."
"And now it's some day." Arthur said. "And you don't think you're ready."
"I don't know what I think, or feel," Mal said, lifting a hand as if to bite her nails, then thinking better of it. "That's the problem."
A horrible thought occurred to Arthur. "You have told Dom already, right?"
Mal didn't say anything, but her silence contained a trace of defiance. Arthur groaned, putting his elbows on the table and pressing his palms against his eyes.
"I'm not supposed to know before your husband, Mal, for God's sake."
"Supposed to, supposed to." Mal reached over the table to smack his arm with the back of her hand. "This is my crisis-slash-celebration, don't make it all about you."
"I'm not -- this is -- why me?" Arthur wanted to know, not particularly expecting an answer.
"See, there you go again," Mal said, "Really, Arthur, I'm hurt."
Arthur leaned back in his chair, lowering his hands. "I don't know why I'm friends with you."
"It would be too sad to have to tell people you don't have any friends at all?"
"That must be it." Arthur rolled his eyes. "But seriously --"
"I was going to tell him," Mal said, sobering. "I am going to tell him. I'm just waiting for the right time."
Arthur stared at her until she sighed.
"I know," she said, pushing her plate aside and crossing her arms on the table. "I know."
"For what it's worth," Arthur said, more than a little bit awkward, "I don't think Dom will share your concerns." After a moment's hesitation, he reached across the table and offered Mal his hand, palm up; hers, slotting in place, was warm and dry. "I seriously can't imagine you not being an awesome mom."
This time, Mal's smile was real. She squeezed his fingers, saying, "Well, it helps that I have Dom. And you."
Arthur laughed. "No, don't put any of this on me if you want a well adjusted kid. You'll do fine. Dom will --"
"He'll be a wonderful father," Mal said with conviction.
"He'll try really hard," Arthur agreed. Sort of agreed.
"He'll be wonderful," Mal repeated. There was a speculative gleam in her eyes that Arthur didn't like one bit. "I bet you're great with children."
"Uh, no," Arthur said, alarmed. He tried to pull his hand back, but Mal dug her nails in; Arthur suppressed a wince. He had a feeling he'd already lost the battle, but -- "I don't know anything about kids."
"Neither do I," Mal said, with a serene smile, "but I'm sure we'll all learn fast. Don't you think so?"
Like Arthur was going to say no to that after she'd opened up to him about her fears. "You're pretty evil, you know that?"
"Yes," Mal said, releasing his hand with a final pat. "And lucky: you love me anyway."
For days after Mal finally told Dom about her pregnancy, he walked around with a stupid, dazed little smile on his face. When Arthur raised his eyebrows pointedly at Mal behind Dom's back, she rolled her eyes, but it did a poor job of disguising the fact that her doubts were already fading.
A few months later, Arthur helped them move into a beautiful, architecturally interesting house that ate most of their not inconsiderable savings. Dom gestured with his hands as he showed Arthur around, almost as exited about the house, it seemed, as he was about the baby. He waxed poetic about the neighborhood as well; a good place for raising kids, he said.
Kids, plural. Mal didn't contradict him.
When Phillipa was born, Arthur was on the other side of the world, having sex with a Russian extractor.
"Sorry," Arthur said when he saw the number flashing on his cell. "I've gotta take this."
"You are not serious," said the Russian extractor.
Arthur flipped them over so that he was on top, his free hand flat against the man's chest. "Stay put, I'm not done with you yet. This shouldn't take long."
"It's a girl!" Mal's tinny voice exclaimed a nanosecond after Arthur hit 'accept'. She sounded gleefully exhausted.
"What's a -- no way!" Arthur sat up straighter, drawing a grunt from the extractor. "You weren't supposed to --"
"--until next week, I know! I guess someone was getting impatient."
Someone was, but Arthur was content to ignore that for the time being. "That's -- congratulations. You know I would've been there --"
"I know, I know, don't worry," Mal said. "You'll see her soon enough. We're naming her Phillipa."
"You are not," Arthur said on automatic. "Seriously?"
Under him, the extractor made a face, looking about ready to storm out and slam the door while he was at it. "Yes, this, seriously?"
Arthur put a hand over his mouth to keep him quiet.
"It's after Phillippe, my grandfather," Mal was saying. "Dom, Arthur doesn't approve of the name." There was indistinct muttering in the background.
"No, no, I approve," Arthur hastened to say. "I do, really. It's a lovely name."
The extractor tried to say something, but Arthur just pressed his palm down harder. He didn't quite manage to suppress the noise he made when the extractor wrapped his hand around Arthur's cock.
"Arthur?" Mal asked.
"Uh, nothing. I'm really happy for you," Arthur said, even as the extractor pushed away the hand keeping him quiet.
"Put down the phone already," he said, ignoring Arthur's glare.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and then Mal said, very calmly, "Arthur. Are you having sex with someone as we speak?"
Dom's yelp came through loud and clear. "He's what?"
"I am not -- Okay, yes, I am," Arthur said, because he'd never gotten into the habit of outright lying to Mal.
"Just so you know, I'm never going to let you forget this," Mal said. "And you've traumatized my poor Dominick."
"That's fair," Arthur said, torn between amusement and cheek-burning embarrassment. "Sorry for any lasting trauma."
"Oh, he'll get over it. Not sure Phillipa will, when she's a teenager and I tell her all about the day she was born."
Arthur laughed over Dom's muffled protests. "You would, too."
"Are you surprised? No, but I should let you get back to it, have fun. One of us should, and I'm not having any for the next ten years or so, I've decided."
"I'll give you two months," Arthur said. "Also, this conversation is going to disturbing places. I'm gonna hang up now."
"Wear a condom!"
Arthur hung up.
"Thank God, finally," said the extractor. "I was beginning to think I was stuck in a nightmare."
"That was like, two minutes," Arthur pointed out. "And what, you have nightmares about getting cockblocked by phone calls?"
"You think you're so smart," the extractor said, his fingers digging into Arthur's skin.
Arthur barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes, shrugging his shoulders instead. "So put me in my place," he said. "If you can."
The extractor did try, but alas, even the rather satisfying sex that followed wasn't enough to stop him from eventually storming out (and slamming the door while he was at it).
That was okay. Arthur had a plane to catch.
Apologies for the (super) long break between updates. Part of the reason it took me this long was because I was trying to fit another couple of thousand words into this section, and it just wasn't working. I eventually admitted defeat and did some restructuring, which resulted in a shorter-than-usual chapter. Sorry for that, too.
Arthur watched as the bartender poured him a shot of whiskey, his second for the evening. He gave her a smile in thanks and took a sip before setting the glass down.
Dublin had welcomed him with clear skies but now, a few hours after his arrival, it was raining. His overcoat had protected him from the worst of it during the short trip from his hotel to the pub, but even with alcohol in his blood, he was still feeling the chill.
He'd come to Dublin to meet a potential client, but that had been a bust, and now he wished he hadn't bothered. He could be in Los Angeles right now. Somewhere not surrounded by strangers. He took another mouthful of whiskey, closing his eyes briefly as he swallowed.
Someone fell against the bar, jostling Arthur's shoulder even though there was room enough on either side of him to avoid contact. When Arthur glanced up, recognition rushed through him; he took a slow, measured breath, and didn't speak.
Leaning against the bar top, Eames called out an order before looking at Arthur.
"All right there?" Eames asked, an Irish accent rounding his words. "Didn't spill your drink?"
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "No, but thanks for asking."
"I'm a bit scuttered, you see." Eames leaned closer. "Sorry about that."
"It's fine," Arthur said. He hadn't seen Eames since the whole mess with Richardson, and to run into him here, now, in Dublin -- it was a bit too much of a coincidence.
"Here on business, then?" Eames shifted where he stood, restless bordering on impatient.
"Something like that," Arthur said. "You?"
Eames flashed a smile at him. "We'll see."
Then the bartender was back, and Eames threw a few crumbled bills on the bar before gathering up his order, judging by which he had company waiting for him.
"Thanks, love," he told the bartender. A few feet away, he half-turned, almost colliding with another customer. "You have a nice stay, now," he called out to Arthur
Arthur held up two fingers in acknowledgement before turning his back to Eames, ignoring the burst of noise as Eames got back to his table. Arthur finished his drink without hurry, not checking his pockets until he'd gathered his things and was on his way out.
The note was a blank business card with a time and a place written on it in small, neat letters. On the flip side, in a messy scrawl, Eames had written: Fancy meeting you here.
At noon the following day, Arthur was standing in a hotel hallway. He took Eames' card from his pocket and needlessly double-checked the room number before knocking.
He didn't have to wait for long before the door swung open. Eames, wearing ratty jeans and a green sweater, crossed his arms and leaned against the frame, giving Arthur a long, thoughtful look. "Well, aren't you looking fancy."
"Hello to you too, Jonathan," Arthur said, raising his eyebrows fractionally. "Or should I say Ian? No, let me guess -- Douglas?"
"Someone's been busy." Eames gave Arthur another once-over, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "But no, plain Eames will do. Well, come on in, then."
"I'm not the one blocking the way," Arthur pointed out.
"I've missed your sensible ways," Eames said, stepping aside so Arthur could pass.
"The same way I've missed how you can deliver a compliment so that it sounds like mockery," Arthur said, shrugging out of his coat once inside.
"Since you're rather good at that yourself, I think we're having a bit of a pot-kettle situation here, wouldn't you say?"
Arthur snorted but didn't reply. He walked past Eames into the sitting room and draped his coat over the back of a chair before sitting on the couch. It was a nice hotel and a nice set of rooms; Eames wasn't hurting for money.
"Mind telling me why I'm here?" Arthur asked, leaning back against the cushions.
"No small-talk?" Eames dug out a bottle of water from a bag by the windows and tossed it to Arthur. "Let's not be uncivilized. What have you been up to, lately?"
Eames sat down in one of the chairs opposite to the couch, and Arthur stalled for a moment. He imagined saying, oh, you know. A job here and there. Babysitting. Having a fling with Ivan Rozhkov -- do you know him? and thought better of it. "The usual," he said, shrugging a little.
Eames made a noncommittal sound. "I heard you're in bed with the Russians now."
Arthur looked down at the bottle in his hands, checking for signs of tampering before twisting the cap open. "Just one," he said, taking a sip. He kept his voice light, because there was no reason to think Eames had meant what he'd said to be taken literally. "It's an informal arrangement."
"So he wouldn't mind if I borrowed you for a job?" Eames asked, tilting his head a little.
"You already have an extractor?" Arthur asked instead of answering, because Ivan was the sort who probably would mind, but that was his problem, not Arthur's.
Arthur rolled the water bottle between his palms. "I can think about it, but I'm here to meet someone --"
"Your meeting was yesterday, before I ran into you," Eames said.
"Okay," Arthur said slowly, "but I'm --"
"Between jobs," Eames interrupted again, carelessly confident. "No pressing engagements in sight."
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "I don't know if anyone's told you this before, but stalking is not attractive."
"Funny," Eames said, "coming from you."
"It's called research," Arthur said with dignity.
"Well, there you go." Eames was mirroring Arthur's slouch, a smile pulling at his mouth. "You have your contacts, I have mine. Fair's fair."
Arthur shook his head but conceded the point. "There are other ways of getting a hold of me, you know. You didn't need to hunt me down."
"I prefer doing business face to face," Eames said, shrugging.
"And staging a chance meeting? Was that necessary?"
"Can't be too careful."
Arthur, sipping his water, didn't argue.
The job was high paying but not particularly complex. The people Eames had chosen to work with were good, if a little too ambitious in ways Arthur wasn't sure he approved of.
"There's research," said Hogan, the extractor, looking stubborn. "It's possible."
Arthur nodded, well aware of the research. "Of course it's possible. In theory anything's possible. I'm saying that a job like this doesn't need two dream levels. Making things more complicated than they need to be rarely ends well."
"Oh, is that what you think? You think we can't do it?" Hogan crossed his arms, his mouth a tight line. He reminded Arthur a little of Dom just then.
From the corner of his eye, Arthur could see Eames leaning against a desk, but carefully did not look his way. Off to the side, Diego, their architect, was examining his nails like he didn't have the slightest interest in the outcome of the conversation.
Arthur sighed. "Look, I have no idea if you can do it. All I'm saying is, for this job, it's a bad idea."
"Trust me, mate," Eames put in, "when Arthur insists something's a bad idea, it's best we let it drop."
Arthur tried not to let his surprise show, keeping his expression impassive as he waited for Hogan's response. Arthur was a troubleshooter, not a decision maker; all he could do was point out the problems as best he could, and if his team refused to listen, either work with what he was given or walk away.
After a tense moment, Hogan's shoulders relaxed and he snorted at Eames. "Speaking from experience?"
"It was a difficult lesson to learn, but learn I did." Eames said, his tone flippant. The look he slanted at Arthur was amused.
Diego let out a soft laugh. "You must be some teacher, Arthur. You know what they say, of old dogs and new tricks..."
Hogan laughed over Eames' gamely protests, and Arthur just shook his head. Eames had plenty of tricks up his sleeves, and was always looking to learn more. Despite the joking remarks, Arthur had a feeling everyone in the room was already well aware of that, and as wary of it as they were amused.
The job was over and done with within three weeks. Two days later, Arthur was in Spain, following Eames down a narrow set of steps into a basement where Eames had set up a workshop of the questionable kind.
Tools and documents and cutting edge tech covered most of the available surfaces. Arthur looked around with idle interest while Eames went to fiddle with a camera attached to a tripod; one corner of the room had a studio set up.
Arthur had no need for the kind of maze of aliases Eames had amassed; the ones Arthur had were easy to create and burn through, good enough for traveling but nothing to build a life on. Nothing that would hold up under scrutiny. While he'd been careful to keep his original identity clean, he'd come to the decision that having another, comprehensive identity to fall back on would be something worth investing in, and when the opportunity presented itself in the form of Eames, whose skills Arthur had fist-hand knowledge of, well. He hadn't hesitated to hand over his share from the last job to Eames, nor set aside a cut from his savings to complete the payment upon receiving the papers for his new identity.
"This is what you've been doing?" Arthur asked, running the backs of his fingers along the edge of a table.
"Among other things," Eames said. "Be a dear and come here. Sit. Do try to look ordinary."
Arthur raised an eyebrow but did as told, taking the indicated seat.
Eames snapped a picture. "Ordinary, I said. Pretend you're an accountant. I bet that was a childhood dream of yours."
Arthur surprised himself by laughing. Eames snapped another useless picture, and Arthur shook his head.
"Not even close," he said. "But feel free to keep guessing."
Eames hummed thoughtfully. "No accounting for Arthur. Tell me again what you've been up to, lately?"
"I thought you wanted me to think boring thoughts."
Eames snorted, and for a while, there was nothing but the click-click-click of a shutter as Eames took one picture after another.
"That should do it," Eames finally said, straightening. "I'll try to pick one that looks suitably awkward for the official documents."
"Thanks," Arthur said, his tone dry. "I appreciate it."
"And I know exactly how much." Eames said. "I wouldn't expect a discount just because we know each other, by the way."
Arthur stood up and stretched. "Do you have gambling debts again or something?"
"You think so little of me, Arthur. It's quite hurtful."
"That's not an actual answer, you realize," Arthur said, and -- "Stop pouting, you look ridiculous."
"I was going for 'tragically wounded', but I can see there's just no pleasing some people," Eames said as he unhooked the camera from the tripod.
Arthur pressed his lips together, unable to fully suppress his smile. "Sure." He hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his slacks and looked around the basement again. "Have you dreamed at all over the past, how long has it been? A year? Longer."
Eames shrugged. "A couple of times. Not having a PASIV of my very own, my access to one has been limited. That'll change now that I've started taking jobs again, of course."
"Yeah." Arthur blinked and looked away when he realized his gaze had been lingering on Eames' shoulders.
"What about you?" Eames looked at Arthur with a speculative look in his eyes. "Planning on taking your new alias and walking away?"
"No," Arthur said, surprised. "I just like the idea of having something solid to fall back on in case I need it. My back-up plans needed an update."
Eames hummed, noncommittal. "Sensible. But then, you usually are."
Arthur didn't feel sensible, some four months later, drunk on wine and beer and vodka and already regretting all three.
"We are the architects of the future," said Boris, a sturdy man in his fifties, possibly somehow related to Ivan, though Arthur was still hazy on the details. "We are changing it, one mind at the time."
They were in someone's home. The apartment was cramped full of people, and it was perfectly possible, as far as Arthur could tell, that all of them were somehow related to Ivan. Interest in dream sharing (and various other less than legal activities) ran in the family. Still, Arthur wasn't sure most of them even knew what they were celebrating. Not that it mattered, though completing a job that had not only benefited from but successfully utilized two dream layers (even if it had, in the end, been more luck than skill that had seen the team through) was certainly something to celebrate.
"We have more choice than most pawns," Arthur told Boris, trying to ignore the way his head was swimming, "but we're still just pawns, being paid to do someone else's dirty work. It's a corporate game."
"Not in Russia." Boris argued. "Not in many places, I think."
Arthur shook his head. "I don't do politics."
"Not with me he doesn't," Arthur said, throwing back the rest of his drink.
"He is your partner," Boris said, his tone somewhere between disapproving and imploring. "You go where he goes; you are a wolf, yes, but not a lone one."
"I'm a lone wolf when it suits me," Arthur said, pretending the conversation made sense. "Politics? They don't suit me."
"A stubborn wolf." Boris' shoulders shook with good humor. He poured Arthur another shot of vodka. "Very well, no politics for Arthur. Perhaps I should feel relieved, yes? I was beginning to think you had no flaws, and a man without flaws is a dangerous man. Unnatural."
Arthur barked a laugh. "Oh, don't worry, I have plenty of flaws. Ivan can make a list."
Boris' eyes cut to the side, his brows lowering when he found Ivan in the crowd. "That boy. Sometimes I don't know what goes on in his head."
"I'll drink to that," Arthur said, amused.
It didn't seem as amusing the next day, when on top of the hangover from hell, he had a fight with Ivan about something so inconsequential that by the end of it, he couldn't remember what had started it. It didn't help that they were heading for dinner at Ivan's mother's house.
Arthur had been there once before, because while he generally tried to steer clear of Ivan's tangle of relatives, they were often impossible to avoid. They weren't the sort to take no for an answer.
Not that all of them were bad. Talking with Boris, for example, Arthur had enjoyed well enough. Ivan's mother was another story. American, she'd said when they'd been introduced, her tone making it clear she disapproved. For the rest of his visit, she'd spoken nothing but Russian even when she'd been addressing him directly.
If not for his hangover and the icy silence from Ivan, Arthur might have found the energy to be more annoyed. He was certain Ivan's mother didn't want him around, yet apparently, she would be greatly insulted should he not show up. It was a mess.
A horribly domestic mess, Arthur thought with sudden spike of nausea; he'd never intended family dinners to be part of this thing he had with Ivan.
He didn't have a whole lot of time to think it over, especially once they were in the house. Dinners were never a small affair in the Rozhkov household, it seemed; the house was half-full of people, more like another party than a family gathering -- but then, Arthur had never had a family like this.
"Ivan," Boris called out when they entered the living room, and then, when he caught sight of Arthur, "Ivan and the wolf!"
"Not so loud, old man," Arthur said, trying to keep the tension running through him from showing in his voice and posture.
There was scattered laughter, Boris' loudest of all. "How do you say -- lightweight? The wolf can't hold his drink."
"I'm better off than Ivan," Arthur said, and there was more laughter. Ivan stalked across the room toward kitchen without looking at Arthur, and people called after him with what Arthur assumed were insults.
Arthur sighed and found himself a corner to hopefully be overlooked in. Once this was over with, he was going to get himself a plane ticket to Los Angeles and spend a week doing nothing but eating, sleeping, and maybe taking bad photographs of Phillipa for Mal to pin on the fridge.
Sometimes, Arthur wondered about his life.
"Sartorialist," Ivan had said once, fingering the lapels of Arthur's suit jacket.
"I don't know what that means," Arthur had said, putting his hands in his pockets.
"Elegant. Well tailored. Sexy."
"You're making that up."
"Maybe that last one isn't part of the official definition," Ivan had admitted. "But it should be."
It was one of Arthur's better memories of his time with Ivan. All the fighting aside, they'd worked well enough together, and the sex had always been great; it was the way things eventually ended that soured every good thing that had ever existed between them.
Arthur's ribs ached. He probably should have listened to Mal when she'd insisted he should take a good, long vacation instead of another job -- it wasn't the smartest idea he'd ever had, going back to work less than two weeks after the sort of bad break up that had left him with bruises -- but he'd been going stir crazy, sick of marinating in his own thoughts. When Josef Bastian had contacted him about a job, Arthur hadn't hesitated to say yes.
"So I can't change your mind," Mal said. She was standing in the doorway, watching with narrowed eyes as Arthur packed his suitcase. "Do they have an architect?"
"It's Bastian," Arthur said, almost shrugging before he thought better of it, "so he probably has Miriam on call."
"Do they need a chemist? Never mind, I'll find out for myself."
"What --" Arthur turned, but Mal was already in the hall, out of sight. Arthur cursed under his breath, tossing a half-folded shirt on the bed and going after her.
"Mal," he said when he reached the doorway of the study she'd disappeared into. "I don't need a fucking -- there's only one person under this roof who needs a babysitter, and that person is an actual baby."
"I'm not sure what you're trying to say," Mal said, booting up her laptop. "I've been cooped up in this house for months; it's past time for me to get out for a while. You wouldn't deny a friend a small thing like this, would you, Arthur?"
Cooped up in the house. Yeah, right.
Mal hadn't taken any jobs since Phillipa's birth, true, but she had friends, hobbies. She'd hardly been trapped in the house, and she'd been -- happy. Settled. And while she hadn't been with Phillipa every hour of every day, there was no way she was okay with going weeks without seeing her.
"C'mon," Arthur said, feeling the weight of all his aches and sleepless nights. "You're not seriously suggesting leaving Phillipa and Dom alone for however long it takes to complete this job."
"You said this would be a quick one, didn't you? And I know how you like to poke fun at Dom, but be serious now, yourself. We both know they'll be fine."
"A quick job usually just means it'll be more risky," Arthur argued. "And yeah, okay, but you know what else will be fine? Me, going by myself. If you're really that worried, you can supply the somnacin so we can both be reassured I won't get a migraine on top of everything else."
"I think I will indeed supply the somnacin," Mal said as she began typing. "I will also take this opportunity to go in the field, if you don't mind. It's really been too long since the last time, and as it happens, Miriam owes me a favor."
"It's fucking impossible to argue with you," Arthur said, for all the good it did him.
"And that is two for the swear jar," Mal said, unruffled.
Arthur ran a hand through his hair before trying again, this time without cursing. "I don't need a babysitter."
For a moment, Mal didn't say anything, her eyes fixed on the screen. When she spoke, her voice was quiet but no less certain for it. "You do need a friend right now, and I'm not sure you have any, where you're going."
Arthur swallowed past the lump in his throat. Mal was -- fucking infuriating, but -- there was a reason Arthur kept coming back here, to this house, to these people. He didn't need anyone to hold his hand while he got over a break up, of all things, but if it had to be someone -- if it made her feel better -- it might as well be Mal.
"Fine," Arthur said with lingering ill grace. "You get to tell Dom."
The smile crinkling the corners of Mal's eyes almost made Arthur forgive her for the rest of it.
Dom wasn't thrilled, but didn't protest too much. He knew as well as Arthur did that once Mal made up her mind, it was near-impossible to make her change it. Watching the way she kept checking the rear view mirror as they left for the airport, Dom and Phillipa getting smaller and smaller in the distance before vanishing from sight as Mal took a right turn, Arthur wished he'd tried harder to convince her to stay.
"You could just drop me off," Arthur said, aiming for casual and hitting tentative instead.
Mal gave a little huff and turned the radio on. "You'll have to try harder than that if you want to be rid of me."
"I don't -- I'm just saying."
Mal said nothing for a few beats, tapping her fingers against the steering wheel. "I'll see them again soon enough. Now shush. I like this song."
The job was in Munich. Through his contacts, Arthur had made short work of finding a vacant loft they could use during the planning stages, and after swinging by their hotel, Arthur and Mal headed there. They were the first to arrive; Arthur set up the whiteboards and chairs and unpacked the PASIV while Mal went through the lab equipment she'd brought with her.
The fourth member of the team Josef Bastian had put together walked through the door a few hours later; Eames looked slightly jet-lagged, but his expression brightened when he saw Mal.
"Mallorie," he said, coming forward to take her hand and brush his lips against the back of it. "Josef told me you were coming, but I could scarcely believe it. I'd thought you'd moved on from these particular shores of wonder."
"Hello, Eames." Mal said, clearly amused. "It's been a long time. Arthur tells me you haven't lost your touch."
"Is that what Arthur tells you," Eames said, his eyes glinting with good humor that dimmed a little when he got a good look at Arthur. His gaze lingered on the barely noticeable discoloration around Arthur's left eye, but before he could comment on that, he caught sight of Arthur's left hand.
"That's a lovely ring you're wearing. Are congratulations in order?"
Arthur's hand twitched without his consent, and he glanced down at it, at the simple golden band on his ring finger.
"Right, yeah," he said, gesturing at Mal. "We're married now, apparently."
"Engaged, Arthur; engaged," Mal scolded. For Eames' benefit, she added, "we didn't have time to make our aliases match."
"Or, we could have just gone without the whole charade," Arthur said, because being 'engaged' to Mal was plain weird. "We're here on business, so I don't see why we couldn't go with that if anyone asks."
Mal, bastion of maturity that she was, stuck out her tongue at him. "Don't be a stick in the mud, Arthur. I haven't been out in the field for a long time. Adventure, intrigue, secret identities! Do not deny me these things."
Eames was laughing. "I'm afraid it'll be difficult for you to convince me Arthur here doesn't make for a terrible fiancé. Next time, you should ask me; I know how to treat a lovely lady such as yourself."
"I'm sure you do," Mal said with a wistful little sigh, "and you are right, he is quite dreadful. But the heart wants what it wants."
Arthur rolled his eyes, ignoring the twinge of pain from the nearly healed bruise. "Let me know when the two of you are done, yeah?"
"We are quite done," Mal said, her tone not particularly convincing. "Eames?"
"Quite done," Eames agreed, amiable, but his eyes flickered to the left side of Arthur's face like he couldn't quite help himself.
Mal followed his gaze.
"If anyone asks," she said, "he got the black eye while defending my honor."
Arthur snorted. "You'd give me a black eye if I tried."
"Unlike some people," Mal said a little stiffly, "I don't resort to violence when words will do."
Eames picked at his lower lip absently before speaking. "A job gone bad?"
Arthur hesitated, and Eames let out a snort. "No, it's more personal than that, I'd wager. Mal has a lovely poker face, but I can tell she's practically seething over it."
"I fell down the stairs," Arthur said, meeting Eames' skeptical expression with a challenging one of his own. It was true, technically speaking.
Of course, Mal had to add, "He had help."
"Fine, I had help," Arthur said, because there was little else he could do. "It's none of your business, so could we start focusing on, like, business."
"A nasty falling out with that sometimes-partner of yours, then," said Eames, the obnoxious bastard. "Rozhkov, was it?"
Arthur pressed his lips together in a thin line and went to stand next to the PASIV, needlessly checking it over. Eames was looking at him like he was still expecting an answer, and after a minute, Arthur's irritation made him snap. "What? You have it all figured out. He punched me, I fell down the stairs, we decided to part ways."
That was the sanitized version, anyway. It had been after Arthur had told Ivan they should break it off that things had taken an ugly turn; there had been accusations and shouting, and even after giving Arthur a black eye and bruised ribs, Ivan had descended those stairs intent on doing more damage. That fucker. Arthur rested one hand on the PASIV and the other against his ribs, and forced himself to take a deep, even breath.
"Rotten way for a partnership to fall apart, but I've seen worse." The twist of Eames' mouth made it clear he was well aware of how fucked up that was. "I do hope you gave as good as you got."
Mal flicked her fingers against Arthur's arm like she wanted to make sure he knew she was there. Her voice, when she spoke, was subdued -- a little sad, a little fond.
"Arthur always does."
Once Bastian arrived, everyone focused on the job, for which Arthur was grateful.
"Two layers." Mal glanced at Arthur before looking back at Bastian. "Have you ever done it before?"
Bastian grimaced, spreading the fingers of one hand in the smallest gesture of surrender. "Once; it didn't work. But we all know it can be done, and we could use the extra time on this one."
He looked at Arthur; so did Eames. Arthur exchanged a look with Mal -- a slight questioning tilt of his eyebrows getting a barely there nod from her in return.
They were, the four of them, sitting in a loose circle in the middle of the loft. It was early stages yet; apart from a single photo of the mark -- Erica Anderson, private sector, working in the field of cybernetics -- the whiteboards were empty and waiting.
"I don't disagree," Arthur said, leaning his elbows on his knees. "But everyone here also knows how risky it is. Why didn't it work out for you, the last time you tried it?"
Bastian was a good extractor, but he often had a direct, aggressive approach to executing the jobs. It was effective, in most cases, but Arthur wasn't sure explosions would get them far this time.
"Perhaps we didn't plan it well enough." Bastian lifted one shoulder. "We definitely didn't have the right mix of somnacin. We believed we'd be able to keep it together long enough to get what we came for, regardless, but once we went in and the mark became part of the equation, well."
"The dream collapsed," Arthur said, and Bastian nodded.
In the early days of dream sharing, creating a stable dream environment had been a challenge. These days, a little experience and the right mix of somnacin, easily purchased if you knew your way around the black market, meant that a stable dream could be achieved with very little effort. Start messing with that basic structure, though, and things could go downhill fast. Multi-layered dreaming had all the pitfalls of regular dreaming, made ten times more risky by the increased likelihood of the whole thing falling down like a house of cards.
"What's the verdict, then?" Eames asked, raising a lazy eyebrow, like he wasn't at all invested in what said verdict would be. "Is it worth the risk this time?"
Eames sounded a little like he was mocking Arthur, but that was nothing unusual. By now, Arthur was ninety per cent sure that Eames held a certain amount of genuine respect for Arthur's opinions, which made his baiting easier to ignore.
Arthur glanced at the lonely photo on the whiteboard. They were on a tight schedule. The window of opportunity here was short. Having more time overall, and being able to fall back on plan B should the first attempt fail, was nothing to sneer at. They had a good team, and with Mal there, an access to a modified somnacin mix that should reinforce the fabric of the dream enough to keep it from collapsing at the first sign of trouble.
"Yeah," Arthur said. "Let's do it."
A week into the planning, with the deadline fast approaching, Arthur was monitoring Mal and Eames while they were testing the mazes down under. So far, the somnacin Mal had cooked up for her experiments with Dom had worked well.
Not that Arthur had had doubts about that -- he'd already field tested this particular mix with Ivan on the job where they'd successfully utilized two dream layers. Still, every job was different, and Arthur was hoping this one would succeed a little less because of luck, and a little more because of the skill of the people involved.
Bastian came in, having made a quick trip down the street for take out Chinese. After setting the food down on one of the tables, he came to stand next to where Arthur was sitting.
"A few more minutes," Arthur said, nodding at Mal and Eames. "You remembered the spring rolls, right? Mal likes those."
"It's like you really are married," said Bastian, who'd been as quick as Eames to notice the rings, and about as amused.
Arthur snorted. Instead of gracing the comment with an actual reply, he gestured at the food Bastian had brought in. "If you have nothing better to do, you can give me one of those. Anything with chicken is fine."
Bastian gave him an unimpressed look but complied nonetheless. That alone made Arthur pause before he snapped apart the cheap chopsticks Bastian handed to him along with the food.
"Thanks," he said, digging in. He made a point of ignoring the fact that Bastian was still standing next to him, making no move to get his own food.
"It's good that Mal came with you," Bastian said after a few increasingly awkward moments. He gave Arthur a brief, hard to read look, as if unsure of whether he should elaborate.
"Yeah?" Arthur said, keeping his tone noncommittal.
"Yes, it's -- blast it." Bastian sat down in one of the unoccupied chairs, visibly agitated by something. "It's Miriam. She's been distracted of late."
"Cutler," Arthur said. It was a shot in the dark, but earned him a surprised look that quickly turned rueful.
"Cutler," Bastian confirmed. "Not like you think, though. I mean, they do have a thing -- of some sort, I've told them never to give me details -- but it's --" he hesitated before trying again. "We've been working together on a semi-regular basis for a long time now. We were all on that failed job, where the dream came down around our ears. Nobody wanted that to happen again, so we've been trying to figure it out, practice, you know?"
He seemed to expect some sort of response, so Arthur nodded, half-distracted by his food. He wasn't too bad with the chopsticks, but used them rarely enough that it always took him a minute before he got the hang of it again.
"A few weeks ago," Bastian was saying, "something went wrong. I'm not sure..."
He trailed off, and Arthur looked up, frowning. "What happened?"
"I'm not sure," Bastian repeated, looking down at his hands. "Everything seemed fine. Everything is fine, except sometimes, Cutler -- he keeps spacing out. Gets this confused, grumpy look on his face."
"So business as usual," Arthur said, but it sounded forced even to his own ears. His chopsticks rested between his fingers, unmoving.
"He says -- we've asked him, and he says --" Bastian broke off. For a moment, he just sat there with his head bent, his hands tangled together like in prayer.
When he raised his head, there was something tired in his eyes, lost, and Arthur felt a chill down his spine even before Bastian finished his sentence.
"He keeps waiting for the music to come."
So apparently Cutler couldn't quite tell the reality from dreams anymore. A part of Arthur wished Bastian hadn't told him, the same part that couldn't help worrying about what it meant in the greater scheme of things, or wondering if Bastian was as distracted by it as Miriam would have been. But he imagined he knew why Bastian had felt the need to share.
Dream sharing was still, in many ways, a new frontier, with hidden dangers and unseen potential, and mapping out the ever-shifting landscape of it wasn't a job for any one person. Arthur couldn't fault Bastian for hoping that the dream sharing community at large might come to think of a solution that hadn't yet occurred to him. In the end, it was probably all Arthur could do -- spread the word so that people with more knowledge in such matters might come up with an idea to fix it.
Right now -- Arthur felt callous, but he was too used to seeing information as something to be gathered, dissected and sorted to treat this new development any different. It was easy enough for him to compartmentalize the matter and set it aside, to be examined at a later date. He didn't have time to dwell on it. There was work to do.
Sometimes, it didn't matter how well you planned, or how good your players were; sometimes, the game was rigged from the start.
By the time Erica Anderson's flight landed in Munich airport, they had everything ready. That evening, at Anderson's hotel, Mal was the one to bring Anderson her room service order. After enough time had passed for the drugs to kick in, the team let themselves into her room.
After some debate, Mal had volunteered to stay topside to monitor them and put on the music when the time came; Bastian didn't trust outsiders, even well-paid outsiders.
The first ten minutes in the dream, everything was normal. Arthur found Eames, and together they located Bastian. Finding the mark turned out to be harder, but that wasn't uncommon.
Eleven minutes into the dream, the projections started losing their facial features.
"Well, this is ... delightfully creepy, wouldn't you say?" Eames was looking around with a troubled expression.
Arthur wondered how the projections, especially with their faces smoothed out, would react to the sight of a gun. He was fairly certain he'd feel better with a gun in his hand. Somehow, the fact that the projections were acting like nothing was wrong only made them more disturbing. "We should abort."
Bastian, standing a little to the side, shook his head. "No, we're at least going to find the mark first. The projections aren't presenting an immediate danger. We should give it a little more time."
"Something's obviously wrong," Arthur said, not willing to let this go. "Even if it's just that the mark's subconscious is seriously messed up -- that's not something we're prepared to deal with. And if the mark sees them the way we're seeing them, then we've already lost any chance we had of convincing her this is real."
"We don't know that," Bastian said. "Eames --"
Before he could finish, there was a ripple of sound rolling across the clear, cloudless sky. Some of the projections turned their blank faces up, like they were expecting rain.
Arthur had his gun out and pressed against his temple before he had time to so much as blink. The last thing he saw before he squeezed the trigger was Bastian's startled expression, and Eames' grim one as he reached for his own gun.
Arthur came awake to a dark-clad figure standing over him, the barrel of a gun pointed at his head. It was reflex more than anything that saved him, got him past that half a second of confusion after coming out of a dream; he slammed the heel of his hand against the gun, sending it skittering to the floor, kicked the guy in the ribs, and rolled to his feet.
His own ribs were screaming at him, but he had no time to care about that. A quick glance told him there were total of two hostiles in the room. The other one was up against Mal -- Mal, who was alive and fighting, not bleeding on the floor like Arthur had feared after realizing the sound reverberating through the dream had been a gunshot. As far as Arthur could tell, Mal was holding her own, but he was still glad to see Eames awake and getting up from his chair.
The guy Arthur had disarmed took advantage of Arthur's brief moment of distraction and slammed his shoulder into his side. Arthur went down under the guy's weight, hitting the floor hard; his body was slow to obey him -- he barely managed to block a punch.
Then the guy was practically lifted off him, and Arthur could do nothing but watch as Eames slammed the guy's head against the wall until he crumbled to the floor. On the other side of the room, Mal and Bastian had already taken care of the other assailant.
Arthur let out a wheezing cough, trying to push himself to his feet. He didn't protest when Eames gripped his upper arm and hauled him up, but his ribs did; he had to close his eyes for a moment to get rid of the black spots dancing on the edges of his vision.
When he could stand without swaying, he took stock of the situation. Two unconscious hostiles on the floor. The mark --
"The mark --"
"I'll make sure she stays under," Eames interrupted, letting go of Arthur's arm.
"Mal --" Starting to move toward her, Arthur realized that she was pressing a hand against her side, blood seeping out from between her fingers. He staggered to a halt, feeling like someone had sucked all the oxygen from the room.
"It's a graze," Mal was saying. "It's nothing but a graze."
And then she was standing in front of him, her hand gripping his, and he forced himself to take a shuddering breath, then another, deeper, more painful.
"Okay," he said. "Okay, fine." He tugged his hand free of Mal's hold and yanked at his tie until it came loose, folding it and pressing it into her hands. "Keep pressure on it."
She gave him a brief glare, which oddly made him feel better -- she didn't need him to tell her what to do, of course she didn't. Nonetheless, she placed the folded cloth against the wound.
"We need to go," Bastian was saying, and fuck, how had everything gotten so fucked up.
The assailants' guns had suppressors, but that didn't make them silent -- and even if someone hadn't recognized the gunshot for what it was, they were bound to have heard the sounds of fighting.
Somewhere in the room, there was a bullet with Mal's blood on it, and they had no time to linger, to clean up.
"It's fine," Mal said, like she was reading his mind. "We'll be fine."
Arthur couldn't make his throat work well enough to form words. He went to pack up the PASIV, but Eames beat him to it; Arthur didn't have the energy to argue, so he didn't.
They left the room less than fifteen minutes after entering it, each of them a little worse for wear.
"Someone tipped her off," Bastian said. "The mark, someone tipped her off."
They were in the loft, making sure no trace of them was left behind. There was tension in the air, prickling at Arthur's skin.
"In light of that, it makes sense, in a twisted, unsubtle sort of way," Eames said. "The projections, I mean."
"Never mind the projections," Mal said, short tempered. Her wound had been cleaned and bandaged; she'd been right about it being little more than a graze. "What are we going to do? I know none of us sabotaged the job. I know it."
"It wasn't me, that's for sure," Bastian said. "And I've definitely not pissed anyone off lately, not bad enough to merit this sort of trouble."
Eames looked at Arthur with narrowed eyes. "What about you, Arthur? Have you pissed anyone off lately?"
Arthur bristled. "Don't ask questions you know the answer to."
"That's our best bet, then," Eames said.
Bastian slammed a folder shut and grabbed his bag. "I'm out of here," he said. "I'll have enough trouble explaining this to our employer -- I want nothing to do with this mess. Don't expect to hear from me any time soon, Arthur," he added. "The next time we work together, if there is a next time, you better make sure your six is clear, or I'll put you down myself."
"Acknowledged," Arthur told to Bastian's retreating back. There was a slow-burning anger coiling at the bottom of his stomach, but it wasn't directed at anyone in the room.
"So," Eames said once it was just the three of them. "Rozhkov."
"Unless there's something you haven't told me, yes, he's our best bet," Arthur said, half-wishing Eames had left with Bastian. "I'll have to find out more first, but all considering --" Arthur paused, swallowing. Ivan had a temper, but it was hard for Arthur to accept he'd resort to this kind of retaliation. But then, he hadn't thought Ivan would kick him down the stairs, either. "It's probably him."
Eames nodded, the look in his eyes unreadable. "You have to take care of this."
"I know. I will," Arthur said. "He won't be a problem."
"Do you need a gun?"
"No." Arthur glanced at Mal, whose face was as unreadable as Eames'. "I'm not going to kill him."
Eames scoffed. "Look, I don't like it any more than you do, but it's got to be done. It's a bad idea to leave a live enemy at your back. Look at what happened with Richardson."
"I know," Arthur repeated. "It's -- I know Rozhkov. He's petty, but he won't keep it up. I'll make sure he won't keep it up. I'll lie low for a while, contact some people. I'll take care of it."
"He was willing to kill you," Mal said, her voice cold.
"Not in person. And -- he knows me. Sending two thugs after me when I have a team of four? He wasn't trying that hard."
"That's a shitty excuse," Eames said.
Mal nodded, disapproving. "You're injured, and you weren't supposed to wake up in time to defend yourself."
"I get it, okay?" Arthur snapped. "I get it, but it's not that simple. If he turns up dead, then I guarantee you, there will be trouble. So just -- let me contact some people. Figure a way to get out of this so no one else gets hurt."
Mal let out a breath, her shoulders slumping. "Fine. It's -- fine. I do not like feeling this blood-thirsty."
Arthur looked at the bruise blossoming on her cheek, thought about the wound covered up by her shirt and a layer of bandages, and didn't tell her he knew exactly how she felt.
"All right, then," Eames said. "No skin off my nose, I suppose. Don't contact me until you've taken care of it, yeah? I'm afraid I have to agree with Josef on that much. I do like you, you understand, just not quite enough to risk my neck on another job like this."
"Yeah." Arthur rested his palm against his ribs. "I get it." Turning to Mal, he said, "I don't think it's a good idea for me to go back to L.A. -- or for us to go anywhere together right now. Sorry."
"Don't be sorry," Mal said, coming forward to cup his face in her hands. "Be safe."
He dredged up a smile for her. "Sure."
She narrowed her eyes threateningly, and Arthur's smile became a tiny bit more genuine. "I promise," he said, taking her hands into his and lowering them.
"Very well," Mal said, squeezing his fingers. "I'll hold you to that."
"This is all very sweet," Eames said, interrupting, "but we should probably be on our way to someplace not here." He winked at Mal. "I can accompany you, if you'd like. We've already established that I'm better marriage material."
"Better at pretending, maybe," Arthur said with a glare. For some reason, Eames flirting -- and with Mal in particular -- put his teeth on edge. Apart from that, well, he wasn't sure he trusted Eames to accompany Mal or -- anyone, really.
"But of course," Eames said, careless and easy, like the whole disaster of a day was already over and done with. Like there was nothing left to worry about. "Do contact me when you've got this Rozhkov mess sorted out, darling. I have every faith in you."
"Thanks," Arthur said. "That means a lot."
"As it should." Eames gave him a gracious nod.
Mal was hiding a smile behind her hand. Arthur gave her an unimpressed look before deciding that she and Eames deserved each other, and neither would receive any further encouragement from Arthur.
He needed better friends; the thought was a fleeting, weightless lie, and for a moment -- in spite of his uncertain future and all his aches and sleepless nights -- Arthur felt content.
Moscow Domodedovo Airport was familiar to Arthur, but after everything that had happened, there was no comfort to be found in said familiarity. Arthur's fingers twitched with restless energy, and a persistent itch at the back of his neck kept reminding him that he was on hostile territory.
His breakup with Ivan Rozhkov was more than a month in the past. Physically speaking, Arthur had made a full recovery. Immediately after the disastrous job with Mal, Eames and Bastian, Arthur had still held on to a faint hope that it hadn't been Ivan behind the set-up, but once he'd started digging deeper, that hope quickly dissipated.
As a general rule, Arthur was quick to forgive and slow to forget, not holding on to grudges so much as learning from mistakes, be they his own or other people's. This time, however, he was having a hard time finding room in his heart for forgiveness.
Do you need a gun, Eames had asked, and no, Arthur didn't need a gun, even if some small, ugly part of him wanted it; Ivan had put Arthur's whole team at risk for petty revenge, and that wasn't something Arthur could just let go. A gun, a bullet, a lover turned enemy -- on paper, it was a simple equation, as clean and neat as anything involving blood ever could be. In reality, killing Ivan would be neither clean nor neat, and would only end up bringing more problems to Arthur's doorstep. He couldn't retaliate in kind; he couldn't even teach Ivan a lesson, not without drawing the kind of attention he wanted to avoid. With his hands tied and his mind conflicted, Arthur could only do what he'd promised Eames and Mal he would do, and that was to make sure Ivan wouldn't cause any further trouble.
The cold truth of it was that if he wanted to be smart about it and avoid taking drastic measures that might keep him in hiding and out of dream sharing for a long time to come, there was really only one viable course of action available for him.
Thus, Moscow. Whether the gamble was actually worth it, well. He'd soon find out.
Once he'd decided on what to do about the situation with Ivan, there had been several people Arthur had contacted. Boris had been third on the list.
He was waiting for Arthur outside the passenger terminal and, after a subdued greeting, led him to his car. Arthur, traveling light, kept his bag with him when he got in on the passenger side, putting it down between his feet.
Once they were on the highway, Boris seemed to gain back a little of his usual countenance, glancing at Arthur and shaking his head a little.
"I want you to know," he said, "whatever happens, I appreciate this, you coming to us. I appreciate wanting to talk it out." Boris took one hand off the wheel make a vaguely apologetic gesture. "Vanya, Ivan, he is not so good sometimes, impulsive, yes? But he is family. You understand. And I still like you, even if Ivan does not. I want everyone to be okay. Yes?"
"Yeah, I want that too," Arthur said. It was true enough. "And thank you again, for arranging this meeting."
"No thanking," Boris protested. "At least, not until it's over and no one has shot anyone. Then, we find a bar and you buy the first round."
Arthur snorted, half amused, half apologetic. "I don't think that'll happen any time soon. Even if everything turns out okay, I don't intend to push my luck by lingering around here once everything's sorted."
"I understand," Boris said, easily enough. "I understand. But one day, when we are friends again, you still owe me the first round."
"Fair enough." It took less effort than Arthur would have thought, to give Boris a smile and make it look genuine.
Galina Rozhkova had inherited her position as the head of the family from her father and from her husband, and had held on to it by being more ruthless than the two of them combined. These days, she liked to pretend she'd retired, but everyone knew the truth; in practice, she hadn't given up an ounce of the power she'd fought to keep.
At least, that's what Ivan had said of his mother, once upon a time. Arthur's research backed it up, which was why he was here, in Galina Rozhkova's kitchen.
The house was quiet, the rooms empty of the people who had occupied them on Arthur's previous visits. Boris stood just inside the kitchen doorway; on the other side of it, just out of sight, stood another man whose face was vaguely familiar but whose name Arthur could not recall. Mrs. Rozhkova was sitting at the table, across from Arthur, and leaning against the counter behind her was her eldest daughter, Petrovna; she was about as fond of Arthur as her mother, which was to say, not at all.
"Would you like a drink?" Mrs. Rozhkova asked after they'd exchanged polite greetings and Arthur had taken his seat. "Coffee? Tea?"
Her English was accented but otherwise impeccable.
"No," Arthur said. "Thank you for the offer."
There was a long moment where Mrs. Rozhkova regarded him in silence. She was small of stature, and there were long streaks of grey in her dark hair. At a glance, she didn't look dangerous, but her eyes were hard, and the way she held herself was enough to tell Arthur she hadn't needed to bow to anyone, not for a long, long time. "Arthur," she finally said, her mouth twisting as if she disliked the taste of his name in her mouth. "I do not like you."
"The feeling is mutual," Arthur said, and it was true enough. It was very difficult to like someone who had made their dislike of you so clear, and there were some aspects of her business that were, at best, distasteful; regardless, Arthur did have a certain amount of respect for her, and under other circumstances, he thought he might have liked her.
"And so, why should I listen to anything you have to say?"
"I can be useful," Arthur said, keeping it straightforward, "or I can be dangerous. You wouldn't have agreed to meet me if you didn't already know that."
Mrs. Rozhkova narrowed her eyes, her nails tapping against the surface of the table once, twice. "You are threatening my son."
"I didn't start this," Arthur reminded her. "Your son did. I'm here to give you a chance to put an end to it."
"You are here," she said, making a small gesture that encompassed her daughter, Boris, and the man in the doorway. "You are alone. I could, like you say, put an end to it, and worry no more."
Arthur kept his breathing even, his shoulders relaxed, and didn't take his eyes off her. "If you think I haven't made arrangements in case I disappear or turn up dead, then you're not as smart as I think you are. Killing me won't keep your son safe. Get him off my back, on the other hand, and everyone lives. I'll even owe you one."
Mrs. Rozhkova scoffed. "Why should I want favor from you? You are small and alone; you are no one."
"Sometimes, a single pawn can win you a game," Arthur said, flattening his hand against the surface of the table. "A pawn doesn't need to be liked, it just needs to move when you tell it to."
"And will you move, Arthur? When I tell you to?"
"One game," Arthur replied. "One move."
After a tense moment, Mrs. Rozhkova leaned back in her chair, her eyes hooded. Arthur thought he detected a faint, odd sort of amusement in her expression.
"Vanya won't like that you came to me."
"He'll still do as told," Arthur said, something within him relaxing, very slightly, for what felt like the first time in weeks. "That's all I care about."
After his business was concluded, Arthur left Moscow not by a plane, but a train to Helsinki. From Helsinki he flew to London, from London to Shanghai; he had little reason to think Mrs. Rozhkova wouldn't keep her word, but he still took his time getting back to L.A., wanting to make sure no ill will followed him there.
He'd traveled a lot because of his job, but had rarely played tourist unless the job demanded it. He tried to think of this detour as a holiday, but the concept sat upon his shoulders like an ill-fitting suit. Despite his initial intentions, he found himself spending most of his time in hotel rooms with his laptop for company, doing research and keeping an ear out for trouble.
He did take a day here and there to wander the streets of whatever city he was in, aimless and drifting, as if at sea. Over the years, he'd memorized the maps of dozens of cities all over the world, the lines and colors twisting in his mind like a modern art installation; an extractor would have wept trying to make sense of it, but it only took a thought from Arthur for the relevant street layout to unfold and rise to the surface of his mind, the mental map and the concrete streets under his feet aligning and clicking into place.
There was little comfort to be found in it. He might not have been lost, but he was adrift, feeling disconnected from his surroundings, from the people he passed by. Slipping into the role of Archer helped, but he couldn't immerse himself in the research as fully as he could in his apartment in New York, or in L.A. with Mal and Dom. As far as distractions went, it wasn't a match for his current mood.
He'd long ago learned to live with fear, with insecurity and uncertainty. Had learned to keep busy. It was no use, dwelling on the past, thinking about things he could do nothing to change, wondering if one day something he'd left behind and forgotten, worse than Richardson, worse than Ivan, would catch up with him.
Useless; having so little to do made him feel useless, and without a purpose to anchor him, all these cities, with their strange-familiar streets and shifting masses of people, were making him feel like he could disappear into a crack in the asphalt on an anonymous street corner, and no one would notice, and no one would miss him. Some part of Arthur thought he should be above such nonsensical notions, that he was too rational to give into fanciful thinking. Keeping track of reality was enough of a task without adding existential crisis into the mix.
It was because he did posses a practical mind that he was eventually able to see that enough was enough, and that stretching his so called holiday any further would do him no good. Everything had been quiet since he'd left Moscow. No red flags, no indication that anyone was looking into him or the team he'd been with on that last job. No money being transferred from any of the accounts Arthur had privately flagged, no rumors or murmurs on his network of contacts.
It wasn't a guarantee, none of it, but in this line of work, it was as good as it would get, and Arthur was tired; he wanted to go home.
He booked a flight to Los Angeles that evening, but it wasn't until two days later, speeding away from LAX in Mal's old Ford pick up, that Arthur felt the last of the stress he'd carried over the past weeks and months drain out of him. He closed his eyes; the sun was warm on his face, and beside him, Mal was telling him about a friend's art project, her voice soothing and familiar.
A few nights after his arrival, Arthur, Mal and Dom were wasting the evening away in their living room. Phillipa had been put to bed hours ago, and there was an empty wine bottle on the coffee table. Some wine still remained in the long-stemmed glasses, and it wasn't quite time to retire for the night yet. There was something in the air, like Mal and Dom were both waiting for something. When Mal gave Arthur a thoughtful look and then glanced at Dom, Arthur knew he wouldn't have to wait for much longer to find out what that was about.
Mal reached into her pocket and took out something small. She held it up for a moment, letting Arthur take a good look at it, before setting it on the coffee table in front of her.
"Can you guess what this is?"
It was a spinning top, small and dark, smooth and metallic; but if the obvious answer was the right answer, Mal wouldn't have posed the question. Frowning, Arthur reached across the table to pick it up, only to be stopped by Dom catching Arthur's hand in his, his grip almost painfully tight for a second before he pushed Arthur gently back and released his hand.
"Sorry," Dom said, but didn't fully relax until Arthur was leaning back in his seat. "It's complicated. We should have started with an explanation instead of guessing games."
Mal waved off the mild reproach in Dom's tone and picked up the spinning top, rolling it between her fingers as if to feel out its shape.
"I've had this since I was very young," she said. "I've always liked it as an object. The surprising weight of it, the smoothness, and how it spins and spins, sometimes for so long I'll start to think, maybe it will never fall. But of course it will, always does, sooner or later." She looked up at Arthur with a smile. "This is the real world, after all. Everything falls, in the end."
Arthur took a sip of his wine, narrowing his eyes at Mal. She would get to the point eventually, whether Arthur played along or not, but she'd take the long way around just to see if he'd get there before she did. Arthur had enough patience to wait her out, but more often than not, he ended up playing along. He'd gotten into the habit of humoring her, and no amount of huffing from Dom -- the hypocrite, Arthur thought fondly -- had been able to break him out of it.
The real world, Mal had said, and Arthur could already see where this was headed. All roads led to Rome, and in this house, most conversations led to dream sharing.
"In a dream," Arthur said, fairly sure he was on the right track, "you could make it spin for hours. I don't know why you'd want to, though, except maybe for the novelty of it."
"It's strange, is it not?" Mal's eyes went a little distant, her fingers restless. "Years go by and suddenly you have all these things, filling up all the nooks and crannies you don't remember exist half the time. All those little things that make you think, I don't want to lose this, or I might need this later, and so you put it aside, and forget about it until you come across it again while looking for something else."
Arthur shrugged; he'd never been particularly sentimental about physical objects, and he didn't have packrat tendencies to speak of. Growing up, he'd had neither the money or the space for many possessions, and being in the military had only enforced the habit of not being held down by what he owned. He had an apartment in New York, these days, but there was really nothing there that would be missed or couldn't be replaced. There were a couple of bespoke suits he'd be sad to lose, sure, but he could always get new ones, and that wasn't the sort of clutter Mal was talking about, anyway.
"I was going through some drawers a couple of weeks ago, looking for god knows what, and I came across this." Mal briefly held up the spinning top again. "And I thought about the house I grew up in, and how I used to watch this spin on the wide windowsill in my room, and those moments when it almost seemed like it would never fall. And I thought about how I could do that now, dream up my old bedroom and make this little remnant of my childhood spin and spin and never fall. And then," Mal said, meeting Arthur's gaze, her eyes bright and keen, "I thought of that man you told me about. Bastian's friend."
"Cutler," Arthur said, carefully setting his wineglass down.
Mal nodded. "This probably isn't any kind of a solution for his situation, and I'm not sure whatever went wrong could have been prevented by this, but if we consider the greater implications --"
"Recognizing the line between dream and reality," Dom put in, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. "It's always been a concern. The leaps we've made with somnacin and the structure of the dreams, the sharp clarity we can now achieve --"
"Right," Arthur said, mirroring Dom's pose. "The better we get, the harder it will be for the mind to separate the two, especially if we're recycling reality, using elements from our own lives. And in our line of work, the chances are someone might target that weak spot on purpose."
"There's always the old 'how did I get here' trick," Dom said, "but --"
"Like the saying goes, one trick ponies rarely get very far," Mal finished for him.
Dom blinked and turned to look at her. "We're ponies now, in this metaphor?"
"All I know is, I'm not sure I want to follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion," Arthur said, picking up his wineglass again, the building intensity of the conversation briefly dispelled.
"Logical conclusion," Dom repeated, blinking at Arthur.
"Sausage factory," Arthur and Mal said in unison, and Dom made a little 'ah' sound, looking pained.
"The point being," Mal said, setting her spinning top down on the coffee table in exchange for her neglected glass of wine, "there should be more than one way to tell whether we are dreaming or awake; a way to check if we're in someone else's dream. Considering the risks we face, it's only prudent."
Arthur flexed the hand Dom had grabbed, staring at the tiny, innocuous looking object laying on its side on the table. "Let me see if I'm getting this right. You've had this for a long time. It's something pretty much only you know the weight and feel of, and you can make it behave differently in a dream than it does in the real world. Even if someone knew about it, then as long as they don't get their hands on it, they can't make an exact replica of it. So if they pull you into a dream, no matter how good the construct, you'd know something was wrong."
"I think of it as a totem of sorts," Mal said. The corners of her eyes crinkled, like they always did when she was pleased. "A physical representation of reality, if you will, an item only I hold deep familiarity with. It is, of course, not a solution without its flaws, and as the situation with Cutler shows, the risks of delving into dreams are anything but predictable."
"It's clever, though," Arthur said, because it really was.
"It rather is, yes." Mal had never been one for false modesty; it was something Arthur had always liked about her. "I do believe it has the potential to be very useful."
"We were thinking you should get one for yourself," Dom said. "Something small you can carry with you."
"I'll think of something," Arthur promised before raising an eyebrow at Dom. "What about you? Do I get to know what your totem is, or is it a secret?"
Dom rolled his eyes and dug into his pocket, taking out a small object Arthur identified as a compass even before Dom flipped open the protective cover to let Arthur have a brief look at the display inside.
"I found it at a yard sale," Dom said.
"It has a weird flaw, here, see?" Mal took hold of Dom's wrist and angled it so the compass display was visible to Arthur. "The letters for East and West have swapped places."
"You picked a flawed compass to keep you from losing your way?" Arthur asked Dom even as he leaned in for a closer look, amused.
Dom twisted out of Mal's hold, flipped the compass shut and put it back in his pocket. "Do you want me to make fun of your totem when you get one?" He asked without heat. "Because I can do that."
"You can try," Arthur said with a smile before finishing what was left of his wine, already thinking of suitable totems. "Yeah, you can try."
Arthur stayed in Los Angeles for six weeks before he started looking for the next job. During that time, Arthur mostly worked as Archer and assisted Dom and Mal with their experiments and their grocery shopping and Phillipa-watching. His sleep was undisturbed, his body seemed to have forgotten its old aches, and his mind was calm; it was nothing like a holiday.
Getting back to work as a point man held some minor challenges. His reputation had taken a hit, and while it was far from unsalvageable, he still needed to tread carefully. People who knew him only by reputation, or had worked with him but didn't know him well enough to take him at his word, were wary of him. To their credit, only time would tell if Arthur's plan had truly worked, or if there was another double-cross waiting for him in the future. By all evidence, it was unlikely that he'd have more trouble from the Rozhkov family any time soon, but he couldn't blame anyone for withholding their judgement. To take up with the sort of people who wouldn't be wary of him -- the new, the unconnected, the sloppy -- would be an invitation to a different sort of fuck up. Not inevitably, of course, but the risk was there, and the last thing Arthur needed right now was another mark against him.
He tried not to wonder what it said about his situation that, at the end of the day, his best option was Eames.
Like it or not -- and many people did not -- Eames was an established member of the dream sharing community, one whose skill set was highly sought-after. Even those who disliked him as a person were usually willing and able to put aside that dislike in exchange for his level of expertise. In some ways, Arthur thought it would be easier if he could dislike Eames, who was as aggravating and mercurial as he was talented and charming. Alas, and regardless of certain parts of their mutual history, Arthur had never quite managed dislike. The opposite of dislike, however, had been easy enough.
Since it probably it said more about how messed up his head was than it did about Eames as such, Arthur didn't usually give it much thought. The positive side of things was that he had, in turn, gained a measure of good will in his professional dealings with Eames. If Arthur said his six was clear, Eames would likely do him the professional courtesy of giving Arthur a chance to prove it. Of course, if it turned out he was wrong, Eames would probably take a page from Bastian's guide book and shoot Arthur himself. Perversely, that was another reason -- perhaps the main reason -- Arthur felt comfortable contacting Eames; he could be trusted to take care of himself.
As predicted, Eames was willing to hear him out and, for the second time in the time they'd known each other, Eames talked Victoria into giving Arthur a chance.
It was the three of them on a job that wasn't the most difficult extraction Arthur had ever been part of, but wasn't a milk run either. The first hiccup was caused by the weather; the second by Arthur's own stupidity.
By the time Arthur arrived at the ski resort that was to play the main stage in the extraction, the wind was picking up and the first snowflakes were falling from the darkening evening sky. Eames was already there, but less than two hours later they received a message from Victoria saying she was delayed and couldn't make it until the next day, weather permitting. It didn't make a big dent in their time table and thus was of little concern. All it meant was an evening spent indoors with Eames, a lit fireplace, and as it turned out, too much wine.
Outside, the night had fallen and the snow was still coming down, the wind pushing against the windows. They were sitting on a couch in front of the fire; the conversation was amiable, the wine warmed Arthur from the inside out, and the rough, round edges of Eames' voice made him want --
Eames could have stopped him. He could have tensed at Arthur's hand on his thigh; could have shaken his head when Arthur turned a little, enough for his knee to knock against Eames'; could have pushed Arthur away or said no when Arthur leaned in, too close, close enough for their breaths to mingle.
Eames did none of these things. He was warm and solid where Arthur was pressed against him, and leaned, ever so slightly, into the touch when Arthur pressed his fingers gently against his stubbled cheek. When Arthur closed the last inch separating them, Eames' mouth fit against his, soft and lush, and Eames --
Eames wasn't kissing him back.
The realization cut through Arthur, sharp and sudden like a bucket of cold water. Shit, he thought, growing still and pulling back. His skin felt hot and tight, and rejection burned in his throat, made it hard to swallow. He hadn't thought -- no, that wasn't true. He'd been thinking: why not? Eames was attractive and here, and even if he turned Arthur down, so what?
It didn't feel so simple now that he had been rejected; he hadn't expected it to hurt as much as it did.
"Sorry," Arthur muttered, putting a little more space between their bodies and reaching for more wine. "Miscalculation on my part."
"Look," Eames said after a pause Arthur could have lived without. "You're well fit, I don't need to tell you that. Generally speaking I'm not terribly opposed to casual sex, but I get the feeling you're looking for a quick rebound, and I don't do those."
Arthur wasn't sure what showed on his face, but it made Eames snort.
"So you were indeed in bed with the Russians," he said before Arthur could find his words. "Literally. I thought so."
"Just one," Arthur managed to get out; he almost sounded normal to his own ears. There was an odd tightness in his chest, ebbing a little with each exhale, only to surge back when he took the next breath.
Eames gave him a half-hearted smirk and they lapsed into silence -- an impossible mix of painfully awkward and strangely comfortable. Arthur couldn't pretend to stand it for long, soon making his excuses and retiring for the night. He went to bed that night alone, and he got up in the morning alone, and in between, he stared at the ceiling of his room and listened to the storm outside, trying to ignore the tightness that still lingered in his chest. In between his fingers, he held a red, weighted die, which he refused to roll.
He might wish it was all a dream, but he didn't need a totem to tell him it was not; he wasn't that lucky.
The only person to suffer from Arthur's foolish late night bravado was Arthur himself. Eames acted like nothing had happened; Victoria, when she arrived, didn't seem to notice anything amiss; and despite the fact that Eames' nonchalance was somehow worse than if he'd been weird about Arthur's advances, Arthur finished the job with them like a goddamn professional.
Afterward, the only concession he made, to give himself time to get over this ridiculous thing, was to make sure he wouldn't end up on the same team as Eames any time soon, which was called strategic planning, not avoidance.
The two separate people Arthur slept with when he got back to L.A. were also part of the plan. Maybe he hadn't been thinking of it as a rebound when he'd kissed Eames, but that didn't mean Eames was wrong. Arthur needed to get it out of his system. It, Ivan, Eames. All of it.
By the end of the year, it did seem like things were looking up, for Arthur as well as the Cobbs. People in the dream sharing community were willing to work with Arthur again, Archer was more in demand than ever, Phillipa had started testing out words, and Mal was pregnant again. Arthur had nothing to complain about, not when Mal, Dom and Phillipa were safe and happy, and his life was back on track.
If he still thought about Eames more often than he should have, no one needed to know.