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Eames, and how it was then:

Arthur, a phantom who had tracked him for years before they'd actually met and worked together, and Eames discovering on their meeting that he quite liked this sly young man with the dark eyes. Not what he'd expected from his ghostly dream business rival. He'd expected someone who actually looked like the muscle he packed, some roughened military man maybe, and not a whip-thin, almost snobby boy with soft hair and hard eyes.

It didn't take them long to end up groping each other back then, and then Eames liked him even better: Arthur reaching into Eames's trousers one night, drunk with beer and lack of sleep, and the way he'd looked down to what his hand was doing and then slowly up into Eames's eyes, carefully gauging his reaction. That languorous, sweeping look and unwavering gaze that Eames thought he'd take to his grave. And the crinkles around his eyes when he smiled sincerely.

They'd had a sparring sort of friendship, peppered with various tussles of the verbal, playfully violent and adult-rated types on and off for years. Grinding against a brick wall in Berlin; hands and mouths slow and warm in Dubai; a frantic, half-clothed handjob in a Paris hotel.

Stay in the dreamscape long enough, and most people looked into bisexuality as an option of normalcy. Nothing leveled the sexual playing field the way the subconscious did.

Arthur was loyal to the Cobbs, not a lapdog but a valued associate, and Eames usually remained on the fringe, though he liked them and he liked their team well enough. The Cobbs were stunningly beautiful: Dominic with his vivid blue eyes and beach-blond hair, the all-American beauty, and Mal, dark and luxurious, her hand resting on his arm while she talked to him.

After Dom, she loved Arthur the most and made no secret of the fact. And Eames saw without having to be told that Arthur was devoted to her in a way beyond lovers, beyond family.

"Like a knight to his queen," Eames had suggested once, just before the dawn.

Arthur had shrugged. "Something like."

Arthur snapped at everyone else when he was feeling irritable, but Mal he treated as something precious. She got his soft eyes and genuine laugh more than anyone.

This mystified even Dom, (Eames was always the best reader of people,) but he never seemed bothered by it. Perhaps rather relieved that someone so competent was on his wife's side, when he couldn't be there.

When the dream-jobs called them together, Eames made a big show of trying to unravel Arthur in front of everyone. As if by getting under his skin publicly, he could show some vague form of possession: I can make him react like none other. And often he could.

They made a good team, he and Arthur back then, working efficiently off of each other, rarely having to stop to ask questions or check in. Each had it under control, on and off the field and they ran together like old gears. A glance to indicate the next move, a minute shake of the head to indicate "plan b," an easy read of the other's body language.

Came to a point where, if the four of them worked a job together, business miracles occurred.

And post-job, it was him making fun of Arthur's taste in music, Arthur teasing him about not being quick enough in the boxing ring when they sparred. Jabs and roundhouses, verbal arrows, who was better, quicker, smarter. The eventual shedding of clothing. The parting of ways. Until the next adrenaline-driven job. Arthur loved it more than anything, lived for the things he could do in dreams. Enjoyed the controlled danger.

Always so difficult and complex, his Arthur.

And then Mal had jumped.

Eames had tried to call, but by then Arthur and Cobb were on the run, and became almost impossible to reach. He could have, if he thought he needed to, but he knew the risk he'd be putting all of them in if their contacts were ever traced. Best leave it up to Arthur, who, he assumed, had at least the running and hiding parts under control.

It had taken seeing Arthur three times since then to realize that his joy had swan-dived with Mal.

Arthur would not tell him the details and Eames was glad; it was enough to know that beautiful Mal had shattered herself on the pavement from ten stories up, and Eames's imagination was vivid enough, even when he didn't want it to be.

Mal, driven to suicide through her insanity - Dom was wrecked, a different man than Eames remembered, and Arthur's lights were out, the shutters drawn on some terrible knowledge. Their Camelot had fallen. Arthur, he suspected, seemed somehow to include him in his bitterness. Eames didn't know why, and he had never chased anyone before and wasn't going to start now.

And then, one night in the sticky, early morning heat of Africa, a year after Fischer, Eames's cell phone rang.

It was Arthur, his voice clipped, saying he had a job and needed a forger once again, and would Mr. Eames be interested? If not, he could easily look somewhere else.

"Fine," Eames said, and thought, Let's get it over with, then.

** ** **

Eames, and how it is now:

Arthur, still all clean lines and devastating grace, and Eames, cocky London charm, smoke and mirrors, pull off a fantastic job. Like the old days, only without the secret smiles.

During clean-up, Eames snarks at Arthur, and Arthur, all fucking business these days, takes it seriously and huffs at him in annoyance.

Arthur later condescends to compliment Eames on a job well done, and Eames sort of wants to slap him: he doesn't need to be reminded that he's not an idiot. And if Eames snaps back at him, and if he sees maybe a little surprised hurt in Arthur's eyes, well maybe he's finally got it coming for treating him like some two-bit mercenary, someone Arthur deigns to work with.

But there's time before they have to go their separate ways, and Eames loves the adrenaline of making an escape and a job well done – Arthur, bless him, never fails to love it, too. And for the first time in years, Dom is not around to weigh them down with grief and guilt.

They end up at Eames's hotel, for once in ages with a proper, actual bed, and they subtly fight for control of each other. Four years ago this would have been a playful tussle over dominance. Today, it's the refusal to make any sort of concession.

Arthur has already pulled the heavy drapes closed, ever vigilant, before stripping efficiently. Eames stares at him in surprise, thinking, Really? He doesn't let Eames undress him. His face is blank; Eames has seen more enthusiasm from whores who had tried vainly to pick him up. Eames strips off too, angrily throwing his clothes, and pulls Arthur onto the bed. They don't look at each other.

But still: It's Arthur. It's Arthur and it's Eames and here they are on the bed, wordlessly fighting over who does what to whom and Eames is sick of it. Arthur is steel-cabled under smooth skin and he can crush a man's sternum in and outside of dreams with ease. He's all physics and the laws of motion. But when Eames takes him by the upper arms, turns him around and lays him down on his back, splayed out, and Arthur allows this, Eames can only wonder what he's going to have to sacrifice for this surrender later.

But for now, he's got Arthur naked and still beneath him.

Staring at the closed drapes, Arthur retrieves a packet of lube from the pocket of his folded vest and negligently tosses it on the bed. Eames is shocked beyond belief. Apparently Arthur had planned for this.

He doesn't look at Arthur's averted eyes, and instead he concentrates on the flush across his cheeks, his hair tousled into curls again, damp from rain, a spattering of freckles, the fact that Arthur had brought the necessities along, and the almost burning heat of him as he pushes inside, slowly, so slowly.

Arthur's body is a garrotte, deadly and wrapped around him, and Eames can't breathe, he thinks perhaps a lesser man would swoon with the lack of air. But he's waited too long for this joyless coupling and he's determined to get something out of it.

Arthur tenses beneath him, sucking in a breath, and he looks somewhat defeated, maybe shamed as he presses his lips together to bite back a cry.

"Sorry," Eames whispers against his jaw.

"I'm not made of glass," Arthur grits out.

Eames tries for a smile. "Good thing," is all he manages, though he's not sure he believes it. Arthur is made of glass, in so many ways, and at the moment is equally transparent. Eames wonders if he should have just given up and let Arthur fuck him instead – but the fight isn't about that kind of dominance. It becomes clear to him that it doesn't matter who is inside of whom.

Arthur hikes his leg up higher around Eames's hip, and oh jesus god, the friction. Eames lets his breath escape, a helpless sound, a concession: You've got me, you've won.

Arthur still won't look at him. He's rock hard and slick, his breath comes up short in his throat and his chest flutters like he can't help it. But his lips stay closed, his hands are braced on the headboard instead of touching Eames, his face is turned away, and Eames knows, he knows, that the part of Arthur he wants, the man he wants beneath him, is splattered on the ground outside of some swank hotel and has not been pieced back together in years.

But, it's not Eames's job to put Arthur back together, after all.

He rocks forward, again, slow. If he can't have Arthur, he can at least drag this out – drag something out of him, too. He's not sure what. Something.

He doesn't love him, not in the way that lovers fall in love, with picket fences and baking and cuddled up movie nights – that is not the sort of life they lead and it's not what he wants of him. And he doesn't love him in the tragic way that Dom and Mal loved each other. But he does feel something for the man beneath him: respect, yes, fondness, and a strange sort of doting that he always wished would last them forever, on and off at least. Not love, but something like.

"Ah," Arthur says, breathless, finally opening his mouth when Eames pushes into him again.

"Good?" Eames asks, nuzzling under his chin, his neck, dropping a wet kiss onto his shoulder.

"Yes," Arthur answers, "yes."

Well maybe he does love him in some odd way, a strangely platonic love layered over the lust he feels for him. Arthur certainly returns the lust, if his state of arousal is to be trusted – obviously – but it seems to end there. The fondness is gone.

Arthur's eyes are wide open, looking somewhere to the side with an expression of deep concentration, or as if he is somewhere else. There's some sadness that Eames can easily place, and something else that he can't. Guilt, maybe. All he can do is make it good. He angles his hips, leaning on one palm, and using the other to push Arthur's thigh down to the bed and god, god what a difference that makes.

"Mmm," Arthur says, a half-tone higher than before, and it's a sound that he keeps repeating on every movement.

Eames leans forward, pressing down and rubbing against him, and it earns him a choked breath, cut off mid-gasp. He wants the mouth that sound came from, wants to drink Arthur dry of all thoughts. The power is amazing, that he can unravel him like this, and he wonders if anyone else could.

Still leaning on him, he bends his head down and seeks Arthur's lips with his. He knows what he's capable of, and back in the day, Arthur lived for the things that Eames's mouth could do to him.

But when he pushes forward again, Arthur's head rolls back onto the pillow, exposing the long line of his neck. Eames settles for the next best thing and kisses along the artery, long and slow, like the strokes of his body. Arthur's hand flutters down to his side and falls onto the bed. Eames thinks maybe he will touch him, finally, but he doesn't. He reaches down, between their bodies.

"No, no," Eames says against his throat. "Let me, Arthur, let me."

Finally squeezing his eyes shut, Arthur answers with a half articulated noise and nods frantically, bottom lip caught between his teeth.

But first you must look at me, Eames doesn't say. He's keeping it slow for a reason: Because he's got to make this last long enough to come away with something of worth. A wet spot of sticky come on some random hotel bed and then no contact until the next job isn't what he wants.

But he won't ask for it, either. He has never begged.

He reaches up and uses his thumb to pry Arthur's lip free of his teeth, and then makes damn sure to kiss Arthur soundly on the mouth. Arthur responds with violence, eyes still closed. And he takes Eames's hand and starts to shove it between their bodies.

"Wait," Eames breathes against his mouth.

"Fuck," Arthur says. "Come on."

"Arthur."

"Fuck."

"Arthur."

Then Arthur's eyes snap open, and he finally looks at Eames: concern first, then consternation, annoyance. "What?"

Eames watches him, watches his slatted eyes, holds him there, as he pushes down on him again, slower than before. The angle this time is nothing short of perfect, and Arthur goes limp; his head rocks to the side and he looks away.

"What?" Arthur breathes again, when he's able. "What do you want?"

In answer, Eames slides his free hand under Arthur's neck, threads his fingers into his hair, and turns his face toward him. The angle tilts his chin up, exposes his neck, but he gets the idea and he looks at Eames, stares at him. He lifts his chin even higher, lips pressed together, his eyes defiant. As if he's the one looking down.

He's never in his life had a hard time reading people, and Arthur is a mostly easy read right now, on the surface: Keep out. Out of what, Eames has no earthly clue; he's fucking him after all. Something aside from defiance and lust lurks in Arthur's dark eyes, though – horrors that his tongue dare not name. Why are they here now? Eames can almost taste them on his lips. Always so complicated, his Arthur. Such strange affection it rouses in him.

Still, he doesn't take no for an answer and he doesn't like fucking a block of ice. He keeps his hold on Arthur's hair and keeps his face turned toward him.

Eames works his hips slowly, deep, every forward motion in perfect control of Arthur's body. He waits, watching, to see if he'll give up that defiance. And hopes he can hold out long enough until he does. When he moves a little faster, Arthur opens his lips again and Eames takes advantage, kissing him, but keeps his eyes open, watching. Watching Arthur's face as he allows him to; as he remembers what he needs from him, what he wants.

Your mouth, god, your mouth, Arthur used to say, back when they were friends.

For a moment, Arthur's almost let it all return. Then his back goes rigid again.

"Arthur, shhh," Eames says. "You're wound so tightly." He drops his voice to the low, gravelly murmur that Arthur used to love. "I can touch you, if you want." He kisses Arthur's slack mouth again, a slow drag in time with his movement inside of him. "Shall I?"

"Yes, god damn it."

He moves Arthur's arm out of his way and shifts his forearm to line up with his spine, keeping hold of the back of his head. With his weight braced on his elbow, his free hand reaches down between them.

"Yes," Arthur says, breathless and shaking. "Ah, ah," he breathes, in time with the thrusts of his hips and the motion of his hand.

"That's it," Eames says, looking down into his eyes, watching his carefully constructed control shatter. These defenses are not for breaking through forcefully; they're for stripping slowly. Arthur jerks in his arms. His hand comes up and grips Eames's shoulder as if he's falling and needs something to hang on to; the look on his face is something like anguish.

"I've got you," Eames says. I won't ever let you jump. He can't say it, but he curls his fingers into Arthur's hair, curves his back and leans down to kiss the center of his chest, where his heart is beating frantically like it wants out. He presses his lips there, feeling the life inside of him. "I've got you, Arthur. Come for me."

Arthur's hand comes up to cup the back of his head and Eames looks up, startled. Arthur looks a little startled himself, perhaps at his own loss of control, and Eames goes at him a little harder, with his hips and his hand, as if he can press the tension out of him with his body. He needs it like this, now.

"I'm...I'm..." Arthur begins, but Eames doesn't let him continue. Arthur comes with a smothered cry, his eyes wide, stunned. It pulls his body taut, his spine arches, and Eames watches the whole slow, beautiful thing. He's never seen Arthur come like this before during any of their little games. It's as if everything bleeds out of him.

The sight of Arthur, the feel of him writhing and clenching, snaps something free and propels Eames to the other side; in a moment he's coming, too, just as startled and broadsided as Arthur was.

He drops his head to Arthur's neck, vaguely surprised that Arthur's hand is still on the back of his head, his fingers spasming gently. Then they still, as Arthur winds down.

And then, as Eames feels himself grow heavy and drained, those slender fingers brush gently, but surely over his hair. He wants to jerk his head up and look at Arthur, try to read the look on his face, but he's too exhausted and he doesn't want to break the spell. He's almost afraid to move.

Arthur continues to quietly pet him, catching his breath.

Finally he does move, nuzzling up the side of Arthur's neck again, slowly so as not to disturb those petting fingers. He wonders what is going on in that fiercely intelligent, somewhat destroyed brain of Arthur's, under the mess of dark curls and stern, perpetually solemn face.

Their previous rolls in the hay used to end quickly, with Arthur's dimpled smirk as he buckled his pants, and Eames's eyes following his every move; playful rivalry, quick dressing, back to business. Arthur has never quite coddled him like this before. Cuddled, even.

Greatly daring, he again turns Arthur's face to him, tilts his head down, and kisses him fully, long and slow the same way they'd just fucked. Arthur tightens his thighs against his hips and Eames breaks the kiss, hisses his breath in, too sensitive for the stimulation yet.

"Your mouth, god," Arthur says. "Fuck."

Eames slides out of him but stays over him, searching for what just happened.

"I miss..." Arthur begins, but doesn't finish. He looks away.

Working with you? Fucking around with you? Being young with you? Mal? Dom?

"We should..." Eames says, but can't think of what he wants to say, either.

Work together more? Fuck more? Try to make it like it was when we were rogue dreamers together? Go on a road trip?

"We should break the law again," Arthur says. "Start our own team and just, fucking..."

"I would hijack the queen's brain if it meant working with you Arthur, you must know that. Not because of this, either, but because you're the best there is. Yes, we should start a team."

Arthur smiles wanly, as if it has just occurred to him that this is the afterglow talking, and no such thing will happen.

"We can, you know," Eames says.

"Mm-hmm. God, I need to go in the shower."

"Yeah, me too," Eames says. "Care to save water? Protect the environment and all?"

Arthur laughs quietly. "Give me a few minutes though, okay?"

It's not a no, and Eames will take it. "Anything you need."

Arthur drags himself out of the bed and scoops up his clothes. Eames can see his hand reach into the pocket sewn into his vest before he even gets to the bathroom door, searching for his totem.

It only makes sense. Eames reaches for his, too.

** ** **

Arthur, and how it was back then:

It was so flattering to Arthur, back then, that the guy everyone stared at with unabashed lust was trying to get into his pants. Even Mal had commented about "that mouth on Mr. Eames, my goodness, isn't he lush." Arthur let him into his pants, easily, because they were sharing needles and knew they were both clean; because they were sharing dreams and subconsciousness, and so what was a little spit and skin between co-workers? Everyone was sexual in dreams, so it tended to cross over into the waking world. He didn't have to put up with the flamboyant creature outside of work, after all. Or, much, anyway.

He liked him, in small doses: Eames slinking around like a London stray cat, outdoing Arthur in dreams, undoing him occasionally in real life. It wasn't so bad, his attitude, because Arthur regularly out-did him, too, and anyway Eames pushed him to work harder, to be better.

A pretty good team, even when mouthing off to each other.

Eames could fight, too; though he wasn't as broad and muscular back then as he would later be, he still knew something of the physical arts. Arthur did, also, and they had a lot of physical fun. Full-body throws, arm-locks, tapping out.

The struggle for dominance rarely carried over to their extra-curricular activities in any sincere way, where they thought themselves equal. A cavalier handjob in an elevator one time in Kyoto, dry-humping in the back of a stolen van in Dublin, a private boxing-match turned into a messy blowjob in Queens. Arthur felt comfortable with Eames's gimlet eyes on him as he yanked his pants back up, because he knew by now that Eames liked what he saw.

Arthur liked what he saw, too. Eames with his utterly male body, but ridiculously long eyelashes and filthy, feminine mouth

And then Mal had jumped, and Arthur had forgotten all about Mr. Eames, because there was no space left in his mind or in his life for anything but grief and horror. James and Phillipa crying, Dom falling apart, running away. Arthur trying to clear him, hacking through criminal records, threatening lawyers, buying airline tickets, trying to get him out of the country. He just hadn't had the power to actually help him. Mal had made sure of that.

Sweet Mal, so far gone she had set Dom up to die or be put away for ever. Yet she had not implicated Arthur, because in her mind, Arthur had only been a projection. She had come to believe that he didn't exist in her dream world, that the real him was waiting for her and Dom. The last time he'd seen her alive, she'd gripped his hair in her long fingers and sobbed that she knew she'd made him up, that the real Arthur was "up above" waiting for them with everyone else.

But I'm real, I'm real, how can you not know me? How can you deny me?

After her death, when he'd finally thought to call Mr. Eames, he realized how fucking angry he was that Eames had not called him. He must have known what had happened. Or was he just too afraid to get involved, now that Dom was wanted?

Eames had the nerve to say, "Christ Arthur, I thought you'd never call, what the fuck is happening?"

As if he didn't know. Of course Arthur had to change his number and get rid of all his old phones, with contacts to Dom, but Eames could have found that out if he'd really wanted to.

It occurred to him that the price on Dom's head was considerably higher than any sort of money they'd seen, and Eames could easily have sold him out at any time, but never did.

Still. He hadn't called, either.

And then the Fischer job had come along, and strangely, Dom seemed to hold no bitterness towards Eames. Maybe he just hadn't expected that much of him.

If Eames seemed surprised at Arthur immediately shooting him down, if he seemed a little hurt, and if eventually he got fed up and started snapping back at Arthur, well that was too fucking bad for him. They had a job to do, they were together on it, and he'd put up with him for as long as he had to.

And besides, every time Arthur did try to be civil to him, Eames shot him down, too. So fuck him.

Anyway, then Ariadne had come along with her innocence and joy. While Arthur missed the flat-out sticky fun he'd had with Eames--and the understanding that it was okay for friends to have a little tumble once in a while and that gender was nothing more than a physical thing--she was cute and smart. He could get to like her. Maybe one day she'd understand too, if she stuck around.

Also, she hadn't been there when Mal had died. She was part of a fresher world.

He had kissed her for the hell of it, the way Eames had kissed him the first time. He'd learned a lot from Eames. And he'd kept in touch with her after Fischer, happy that she was doing well, glad to help her do better. She was a good kid.

Then Dom retired, and Arthur could not. It wasn't in him to quit. He loved it too much.

So when a job came up that promised a little danger—danger that he did not want to put Ariadne in--there was only one man for him to call.

** ** **

Arthur, and how it is now:

The job isn't hard enough to be too taxing, but not easy enough to be boring, either. They had to make a quick getaway in a stolen car; at least he can count on Eames to still be a thief. And they do it fantastically; he can't deny it. No guilt-bearing shades, no one screaming at his fuck-ups (he hadn't made any, and never will again if he can help it,) no getting shot in the knee, no militarized subconscious. Just him and Eames and a simple extraction, Eames this time forging someone's grandma. The numbers to a literal safe, where a bitter husband has hidden his ex-wife's grandmother's engagement ring and won't return it.

"You missed a spot, pigeon," Eames says, as Arthur wipes down for fingerprints.

Arthur rolls his eyes and sighs.

In the car Arthur says, "Nice work back there."

Instead of thanking him, Eames says, "That's because you always expect so much less of me, Arthur."

He actually doesn't, but he lets that one go – let him think that if he wants then, fuck him anyway. His ego could use some cutting down, maybe.

They get to the hotel and here, at least, Arthur expects Eames to be grinning and watching him with lazy grey eyes. But he isn't. His eyes are kind of intent, but something's missing. He used to like the way Eames looked at him, but tonight it just seems intrusive.

Arthur pulls the drapes closed and doesn't assume that they're going to fuck. He's come prepared for it, actually, but he's also prepared for them to separate. Either way.

Eames throws his jacket off, and Arthur takes his off too, waiting to see what's happening next. He doesn't want to keep going and act like an idiot, if Eames just wants him the fuck out of here.

And what nerve, if he does. After he didn't even bother to call, to help clean up after the mess that Mal made.

Eames starts unbuttoning his shirt and Arthur thinks, Okay then and takes his off, too. He's quicker at getting undressed than Eames is, more efficient. The look on Eames's face is something like surprise when Arthur doesn't stop at his shirt, but Arthur keeps going until he's fully naked. Because he's not afraid of this. Not intimidated by that stare, and in fact he could not care less what Eames thinks of him at this point.

Wordlessly, Eames grips him by the arms and positions him the way he wants him on the bed. So this is about dominance then. Arthur's too worn thin to fight for it, and besides, it's been a long time since anyone's touched him. It might be nice. He just hopes Eames is quick about it. He reaches to the bedside table where his clothes are, into his pocket, and tosses the packet onto the bed next to them.

Now Eames looks surprised; Arthur flicks his gaze away. Let him think whatever he wants. He's not going to watch Eames gloat over this minor victory.

He'll never be totally ready for this, keyed up the way he is, no matter how considerate Eames is with his foreplay. It's really been a hell of a long time. He chokes back a cry with everything he has when Eames finally eases in.

"Sorry," Eames says.

"I'm not made of glass," Arthur says, annoyed because would he just hurry the fuck up and stop with the fake concern? He's been shot in real life for Christsakes, this is nothing. And Eames needs to stop flattering himself.

Eames murmurs something against his ear that he can't quite make out, and then he starts moving slowly. It still aches a little, and Arthur pulls his leg up higher. Eames moans a little in his ear, like he liked the movement, and it's a sound that shoots through Arthur's entire body, the way that Eames sounds a little wrecked. Something flares inside of Arthur's chest; he's not sure what it is or if he should even acknowledge it.

Apparently Eames wants him still and out of the way, so he presses his hands against the headboard and tries not to move too much.

And then it starts to feel good. The way Eames is moving hits that switch inside of him that others had only ever found before with their fingers, and it hotwires his entire nervous system.

And then the tide of guilt sweeps him, the same one that's kept him away from every sort of personal pleasure he can imagine in the last few years.

How can he feel such pleasure, after such loss? Dom will never love again. Mal is dead. Her image punishes him, even as Eames moves forward, leans on him, makes him ache with need.

"I didn't see her land, Arthur," Dom says, shaking, his knees curled up to his chest, his eyes wild and unblinking. "I didn't see her land, I turned away but I heard, I heard, I heard, Jesus Christ I heard..."

But Arthur had seen, because he'd rushed to the hotel after Dom's frantic, incoherent call, ("Mal's hurt," Dom had said, his initial refusal to believe in what had happened,) and Arthur had seen, had seen, had seen.

And here he is now, on Eames's bed, getting fucked, and it feels good. He keeps his eyes open because when he closes them, he sees Mal's dark head broken on the concrete and he remembers

the lights flashing, the crowd pushing to get a better view of her even as they're screaming, crying, god they are going to have to scrape her up, her hips are one way and her back is the other, that fleck of white a few feet away is one of her teeth

and then he's stumbling to the alley, gagging

this is no dream, she is really gone on this night of nights, she's actually done it and no one's been able to fucking stop her, Mal is a smear on the ground

Dom will never love again

the kids have lost their Mom

and Arthur is sick, violently so until it feels like all of his body cavities are hollow and burning, and he sobs into the sleeve of his jacket, legs unable to hold him up

and then he takes it all and puts it away. Leaves the alley to go and find Dom.

To start running.

How is he allowed to feel any pleasure?

But then Eames does something with his legs, with the angle of his hips and every movement he makes presses every spot that needs pressing, and Arthur can't stop the breathless hum from his closed lips.

Eames tries to kiss him and Arthur feigns not knowing this, and tilts his head back. He can't share this, not with what's going on in his traitorous head. The sooner this is over with, the better.

He reaches his hand down to get himself off quickly.

"No, no," Eames says, his voice deep and rasping against Arthur's' throat. "Let me, Arthur, let me."

Yes, do it fast, get it done. Arthur nods. He can't say it, doesn't want to make a sound, so he bites his lip.

Eames pries his lip free, which feels way too intrusive, and kisses him. Arthur answers the kiss, finally, to get it over with, to give him what he wants. This is not how he imagined it, something like gentleness, being kissed like a lover, the way Dom would maybe kiss Mal- and this last thought disgusts him, as if he's intruding on them after all these years.

He tries to shove Eames's hand down between them, to make this a little more debasing maybe, and to finish it up.

But Eames tells him to wait.

"Fuck, come on," Arthur says. He's so hard anyway, it wouldn't take too long.

"Arthur."

"Fuck." What now?

"Arthur!" More urgent this time.

"What?" Arthur asks, concerned. Has he done something wrong? Is Eames seriously somehow displeased with him this way?

When he finally does look at him, Eames has got that look of intent in his eyes, the one he gets when he is unshakable, and determined to have his way. He's seen it at work. It's almost as if Eames doesn't need to blink. He wants something, but Arthur doesn't know what, or how to give it. It frustrates him beyond belief; how can he be failing at this, too?

Then Eames slides his hand under Arthur's neck and gently grabs his hair, keeping that trained focus on him, like he wants to look into his brain without the PASIV.

No you fucking don't, Arthur thinks, lifting his chin, gritting his teeth. You weren't even there then and you sure as hell can't be there now.

But Eames keeps moving in him, over him, and finally Arthur has to open his lips to gasp in some air; he realizes he's been holding his breath. Eames kisses him, his ridiculously talented mouth soft and insistent, but he doesn't stop watching for Arthur's reaction to this. They've made out before, in the past, but never so intently or with such purpose. It's weird and although it feels good, Arthur can't stop imagining that someone else should be feeling it, someone aside from him. Every muscle coils tight; he can't let go.

Eames shushes him and tells him he's wound too tightly. Well fucking yes he is, and now he's doing that wrong, too?

"I can touch you, if you want," Eames says. "Shall I?"

"Yes, god damn it." The fucking tease. What more does he want? If he's going to jerk him off, maybe he'll take his goddamn hand away from the back of Arthur's head so that he can stop all of this staring.

And then Eames does some clever shifting, so that he can keep holding lightly onto Arthur's hair, keep his face where he wants it, and uses his free hand to stroke him off.

But, god, it feels so fucking good, it's been so long and he's trapped between the rocking of Eames's hips, and his hand. It's too much, it's too good and he knows he won't hold out much longer. He's thankful. He can't stop the breathless "yes" from escaping his lips, nor the vocalized breaths that follow it.

"That's it," Eames says, and Arthur feels himself falling, he can't hold onto his control anymore.

If this is a dream, then the kick is on its way and he doesn't want it. He wants this to be over, but doesn't want it to not have been real. He reaches up, helpless to grab onto something to anchor him, and grips Eames's arm tightly. He feels like Mal, fluttering to the ground, waiting for impact.

"I've got you, I've got you," Eames says, his voice like a promise and Arthur is ashamed at how much he needs it. Then he leans down (god, the angle of his hips,) and kisses the center of Arthur's chest, as if waiting for a response from the recalcitrant organ beneath his ribs.

"Come for me," Eames says, and the feeling builds slowly, like a tidal wave.

Arthur tries to let him know, but words fail him and he reaches up to grip Eames's hair. His orgasm snaps him tight like a thrumming wire, and Eames drinks all of his breaths as he rides it out.

Eames isn't far behind and there is the strange sensation of him coming inside of him, but Arthur is too exhausted to be surprised. He does open his eyes though, does watch Eames like Eames had watched him, and for a few seconds he revels in that broken look, the half sob that he can't hold back. Eames had never sounded like that before.

He sounded almost like he'd needed it as badly as Arthur had, and Arthur feels something like a strange sort of protectiveness that he's never felt for him before. He thinks maybe he missed something that he should have caught on to, but doesn't know what it is, so he keeps running his fingers through Eames's hair. He notices for the first time that it's long again, like it was the second time he'd met him.

Eames rubs his face on him like a sated cat, mouthing over his neck with warm lips, and it's that gesture that finally makes Arthur go weak. He gives up. He doesn't know what Eames wants from him, but he can probably have it.

What Eames wants right now, apparently, is to be looking at him again, because he turns Arthur's face toward him, his eyes questioning. And then kisses him, long and slow. Arthur licks across his upper lip. He clenches his legs tighter around him; Eames hisses at the movement. Arthur watches his mouth.

"Your mouth, god. Fuck." He doesn't have any other words for it.

When Eames slides out of him, he's sticky and achy, and Eames has that questioning look again.

I miss how this used to be so easy, how there were no questions, how we just kind of enjoyed it, he thinks, and begins to tell him this, but stops. It's too much to say.

"We should..." Eames begins.

Arthur thinks he's going to say, Leave now, clean up, get moving, go home.

"We should break the law again," Arthur says, before Eames can finish his thought. "Start our own team and just, fucking..."

Eames chuckles. "I would hijack the queen's brain if it meant working with you, Arthur. Not because of this, either, but because you're the best there is. Yes, we should start a team."

Ah, so Eames has taken his offer as a business proposal. 'Not because of this.' But because he's the best in the business. Arthur does some quick mental work and hides what might have shown on his face.

"We can, you know," Eames says.

"Mm-hmm." Sure. You need work, I need work, the money's good. "God, I need to go in the shower."

"Yeah, me too. Care to save water? Protect the environment and all?" He's smiling now, casual and flirtatious as he always is. Arthur is definitely not ready for round two, and is not sure what he'd make of any further complications if they're just work partners.

Also, he wants to wash everything off and would like to do it alone. "Give me a few minutes though, okay?"

"Anything you need," Eames says.

Arthur grabs his clothes and as soon as he's alone, he pulls out his red die and rolls it once, twice, three times to make sure he's not deep in some fucked up dream.

** ** **

By the time Eames thinks it's okay to go into the bathroom, Arthur's already turning off the water and wrapping a towel around his hips as he steps out.

"All yours," he says, gaze cast down towards the floor.

Ah, regrets, Eames thinks.

He gets into the shower (Arthur's left him some hot water at least, even though the room is billowing with steam – he's not surprised; Arthur is ectothermic.) Eames half expects him to leave the bathroom, maybe even leave the hotel and go home without another word.

Then, through the curtain, he sees him sit down on the closed toilet seat and just stare ahead. This looks like a cause for concern, but he doesn't want to piss Arthur off further, if indeed that's the case.

"Everything all right?" he asks, as he lathers his hair. God this shit is long; he's got to cut it soon, it's distracting.

Arthur doesn't answer. He seems to think it over. Eames watches his silhouette through the curtain, his concern growing.

Finally: "Yeah. Everything's fine."

"You don't sound too sure."

Another pause. Then Arthur drags in a deep breath and Eames thinks, Christ, here it comes; he thinks this is our biggest mistake yet.

Instead, Arthur shocks him.

"Eames? Do you even still like me?"

Of all things he could have expected, this was not among them. Whipping back the shower curtain, he pokes his head out and stares. Arthur isn't even looking at him.

"Did I not just fuck you silly?" Eames asks.

A half-hearted shrug is his answer.

"Seriously, Arthur?"

"Just answer the question, please?" Arthur's voice is sharp.

"I'm not the sort of man who enjoys even sharing a room with someone I don't like, Arthur. I certainly wouldn't take someone to bed … Do you really think that's who I am? Fucking everyone indiscriminately? Christ."

Now he's annoyed, because he'd thought at least his team would think better of him. Just because he tolerates a lot for his job doesn't mean he enjoys everyone who comes along.

"No, I..." Arthur begins.

Snapping the curtain shut again, Eames cuts him off. "Because here's a secret for you, pigeon: I haven't, in fact, had miles and miles of cock, and I'm not neck-deep in cunt, either, and, surprise, it's not for lack of offers. I have standards."

Chastised—Eames guesses—Arthur remains quiet for the moment.

"I know," he says finally, so quiet Eames almost doesn't hear him. "I just... I wanted to make sure. It seemed like you maybe weren't, I don't know. Like you felt somehow..."

"God, with the trailing off, Arthur." He draws the shower curtain back again to look at him. This time, Arthur looks up at him. He looks ridiculously young and naked, even with the towel around his hips.

"I guess I thought you were upset about something or displeased, and that you didn't want to keep meeting like this or maybe just wanted to keep it a work thing." He holds his hand out, a soft gesture, before Eames can cut him off. "Which would be fine, Mr. Eames, because like I said, I'm not made of glass and I accept it if things have to change. God knows they've changed enough already since..."

Since Mal, he doesn't say, but he doesn't need to. Eames hears it anyway.

"I just wanted to make sure it was nothing I did. I don't like being wrong, in case you haven't noticed." He offers a tiny smile like a peace offering.

Eames looks at him, finally really looks. No one in the world can read a person like he can; he mastered body language and unspoken words before he even knew there were names for them, and now he wonders why he hasn't actually looked at Arthur yet tonight. He's fucked him with about everything he has, but until now hasn't really looked. He chalks it up to the adrenaline of the job, and, if he's honest with himself, maybe even a fear to know the truth.

But Arthur sits half naked, one hand rested on his knee, palm up (asking, open, invitation, trust) and the other over his heart ("...make sure it was nothing I did...")

No one speaks with his hands as much as Arthur does. Eames remembers that about him now.

"Arthur..."

"Forget I said anything, this is stupid." He curls his hand, closing it, and stands up to leave.

Eames shuts off the water and gets out, dripping wet. Arthur tries to turn away, but Eames gets him by the wrist and Arthur backs up, leaning against the sink basin.

"How could you possibly end up with the notion that I dislike you?" Eames says. "I've been after you for fucking years; you're not that obtuse, Arthur. You're bloody-minded and irritating and ridiculously condescending, and much of the time I think you really do believe you know everything, but you quite possibly do know everything. Of course sometimes I'd like to punch you in the mouth, but that urge is always followed by one to kiss your stupid face."

Arthur scowls at him, gloriously.

"Idiot," Eames says, and drops to his knees.

 

** ** **

After having waited in the shower for Eames to show up and at least talk to him, Arthur had gotten bored, pissed off, and didn't want to waste any more water.

And now there Eames stands, dressing him down because he'd dared to ask if he liked him at all.

"Because here's a secret for you, pigeon: I haven't, in fact, had miles and miles of cock, and I'm not neck-deep in cunt, either, and, surprise, it's not for lack of offers. I have standards."

Unable to get a word in while Eames is talking, Arthur finds he's got none when he's finished. God, it's not like he meant to be insulting, but Eames takes everything that comes out of his mouth so fucking personally, like it's an attack on him. Nice job Eames is so often answered with a fuck you, in so many words.

What more can Eames possibly want from him? He's just about through being nice, if Eames is going to continue to be a—what was it Eames had called Cobb once, a stroppy fucking cow?--then he's really ready to give up.

But, "I know," is all that Arthur's exhausted brain can come up with. "I just... I wanted to make sure. It seemed like you maybe weren't, I don't know. Like you felt somehow..."

Disappointed, like every other person who wants and wants and takes and takes and anything I have is never enough, it wasn't enough to save Mal, it wasn't enough to clear Dom, it wasn't enough to save their asses during the Fischer job, it wasn't enough to put the pieces back together, and now it's not enough for Eames either.

"God, with the trailing off, Arthur." He draws the shower curtain open and looks at him again. Seems to consider retreating back into the water, and then looks harder. That intrusive staring again.

Arthur decides to just keep talking, and maybe Eames will look somewhere else aside from into the back of his skull, as only he seems able to do.

"I guess I thought you were upset about something or displeased, and that you didn't want to keep meeting like this or maybe just wanted to keep it a work thing." Eames looks like he's about to interrupt. "Which would be fine, Mr. Eames, because like I said, I'm not made of glass and I accept it if things have to change. God knows they've changed enough already since..."

Since Mal. Since she shattered her beautiful dark head against the pavement and it probably took months to wash all of her away. Since I lost my shit in the alley after seeing her, and haven't got it back yet.

"Arthur," Eames says, somewhere between stern and some weird concern that Arthur doesn't like the sound of.

"Forget I said anything, this is stupid." And he turns to leave.

Practically leaping out of the shower, Eames suddenly has him by the wrist. Arthur starts back, because this is going to be another "let's get into Arthur's head" session and he hates those more than anything. Hates being held in one place. It's intolerable.

"How could you possibly end up with the notion that I dislike you?" Eames grips his wrist in his wet hand. "I've been after you for fucking years; you're not that obtuse, Arthur." He shakes his head a little, dripping water onto the tiles. The steam blows the shower curtain and he can feel the water start to run cold from where he's standing. He shivers. "You're fucking bloody-minded and irritating and ridiculously condescending," Eames goes on, unrelenting in his stream of insults, "and much of the time I think you really do believe you know everything, but you quite possibly do know everything. Of course sometimes I'd like to punch you in the mouth, but that urge is always followed by one to kiss your stupid face."

Arthur considers asking him if he's quite through, and then Eames calls him an idiot and drops to his knees.

Then he's staring up at him with those unreadable, unblinking eyes - and they're somehow always too wide, Arthur notes, not for the first time, which makes him look either dazed or predatory, depending on what he's doing. And that strange, almost colorless dark grey. Eames, he notices for the first time since they began the job, is totally clean-shaven these days. He looks suddenly very youthful, and an old, familiar desire begins to warm in Arthur.

"Arthur, how can someone so deadly, so brutal and brilliant as yourself, be afraid of some common London alley cat?"

He'd been just about to argue that he was completely unafraid of Eames, and what a ridiculous assumption, but stops short: He's always thought of Eames in nearly that exact metaphor.

Then I'm dreaming. Or we're dreaming. Fuck.

"Totem," Arthur says, breathless.

"Huh? Why?"

"Because you just pulled something out of my head."

"That you're afr--"

"No, asshole, the alley cat thing, it's – it's a way I have of picturing you, okay? But it's my thing and you just pulled it out of my head."

"Fool," Eames says, strangely fond, "that's what you called me the first time we messed around."

Arthur stops. Thinks. He can remember the first time pretty easily (hand job in Berlin,) but doesn't remember a lot of talking.

"We had just switched to Somnicin and it made us a little wacked out. You shoved your hand down my pants. We talked afterwards at a bar. You said I was like some London alley cat and that you liked my eyes. You asked me how I'd become a forger and I told you--"

"That forgers were born and not made," Arthur says. The images begin to seep back into his memory: Low-lit bar, German techno, Eames wearing the hat that Arthur had been wearing earlier. Schiner Bock, and Arthur can't stop staring at Eames's mouth as he drinks out of the bottle. "I told you you were full of shit, but you insisted. You said you had the ability to soak up the feelings of the people around you. I said..."

"That I was an emotional tampon, yes. Arthur, you've always had the utmost respect for my work."

"I do have respect for your work, Eames. I keep trying to tell you that. You keep shooting me down."

"It's hard to tell when you mean something," Eames says.

"So now you think I'm the kind of man who would get fucked silly by someone he doesn't like?"

Eames drops his wet head against Arthur's thighs. "Oh dear lord." His breath tickles, and the water from his hair drips down Arthur's legs. "We can go on with this all night, the two of us, unless you agree that we've got better things to do. How about this." He looks up at Arthur again. "I like you, always have. You like me, yes? We used to have a good time before our lives sort of went to shit. I did try to call you, Arthur, but you had changed your number. I forged a passport to get Cobb out of the country, but it did him little good in the end because he couldn't return with it. Cobb is retired and Mal is gone. But we can still have fun. It's allowed."

Arthur is thinking over everything Eames is telling him, half-distracted by their positions but trying to be reasonable, nodding his head slightly. Then he stops and holds up a hand. "Wait, what? You forged Dom's passport?"

"Yes, of course I did. How else could he leave, hello?"

A dull ache begins to throb behind Arthur's eyes. He presses the heel of his palm against his head and takes a few deep breaths. They help. Apparently, Eames had been of even more use to Dom than he had been.

"I didn't know that, Mr. Eames. Thank you."

"Yes, my pleasure. Listen, Arthur, my knees are starting to hurt on this tile. Am I blowing you or should I get up?"

Arthur's hand drops from his forehead and he stares down at Eames, shocked. And suddenly aware of the hands on this thighs and Eames's proximity. He knows then that he's got to learn to get out of his own head sometimes. Now might be a good time to start.

"I didn't realize you wanted to at the moment," he mumbles. "I'm—I wouldn't say no."

"That's encouraging."

"I didn't mean it like that, I meant, I don't want you to do anything you don't feel like doing, but we already established that you don't anyway..." Eames's hands are already slowly pulling the towel from around his hips and Arthur's physical response is immediate. He stops to suck his breath in through his teeth. "So yes, I'm always interested in you blowing me. Why would I not be?"

"Arthur, shut up."

Arthur does, and Eames does too, his mouth now busy. Arthur watches because he can't drag his eyes away, and through a haze of sudden lust he studies the man on his knees before him: the dark crescents of long, girl-eyelashes against his cheeks, the gentle slope of his nose, and god, his lips. Eames looks up at him, again directly into his eyes as he slides his talented mouth up and down, stops to use only his lips for a moment, gauging Arthur's reaction. Arthur's only method of approval is to tighten his hands on the sink and allow the stuttered sound from his own mouth.

"Mmm," Eames hums, as if he's enjoying it just as much. He slides his hand under Arthur's thigh, pulls it over his shoulder, and sinks forward.

"Ah, fuck," Arthur cries out, his voice wet and shaking.

Without trying to seem too insistent, he slides his fingers through Eames's wet hair—so much longer than the last time he'd seen him—and down to the back of his neck, gently.

In response, Eames cups his own hand around Arthur's, holding it there. More than permission to control: encouragement.

It doesn't take long before he's coming apart under that talented mouth, gasping out half-hearted warnings that he already knows Eames doesn't require; and when he feels his legs shake and the one he's standing on come unsteady, Eames's large hands come up to grip under his thighs, holding him still.

Arthur's never sure about post-blowjob etiquette, such as offering a 'Wow, you're good at that,' so he says nothing and hopes that his body's reaction is proof enough. His legs feel watery and suddenly he's exhausted beyond measure. He hadn't really thought of much of anything with Eames's efficient mouth between his legs, and it's the first time in a long time he could say that.

"My headache's gone," he says, half unaware that he's spoken it aloud.

"Glad to be of service," Eames says, wiping his lips on a towel. He looks up at Arthur and sits back on his heels, bemused.

Arthur smiles; it feels natural, or something like.

"I've missed you, you twat," Eames says.

"I've missed you too."

The smile Eames gives him is genuine, one he hasn't seen in a while. Eames nudges him out of the way of the sink and washes his face. Arthur shifts to turn the water off in the shower, then turns and stares at Eames in the mirror. He wonders if it's weird for him, seeing his own face and not being able to change it while he's awake. He's never asked before.

"Hey..." he begins, but Eames turns around to him quickly enough to cut him off.

"Hey Arthur," he says. "Oh. I'm sorry. You were saying?"

"No, nothing, I just. What?"

"I'm sorry." Eames is using his serious voice.

"Huh?"

"I'm sorry that you lost Mal."

It hits Arthur like a steel bat to the chest. "Don't."

"Arthur."

He'd long since cried all his tears for her, and anything after that had dried up by necessity. Still, his eyes ache. Again Arthur presses the heel of his hand to his forehead, squeezes his eyes shut. No one has ever said "I'm sorry" to him about Mal. She had been Dom's to mourn, and her children's, and her parents'. Never Arthur's to mourn. At least as far as anyone else was concerned.

Eames slips his hand around the back of Arthur's neck, moves his hand away from his face and presses their foreheads together. "I'm sorry that you lost your friend."

Arthur nods, and swallows hard. "Thank you."

And finally, breathes again.

** ** **

Three months later, Arthur is shopping for groceries in NYC when he receives a text from Eames that reads:

I've you fowarded an email I rec'd re a job offer, read it but DO NOT RESPOND TO IT, call me back as soon as you've read it. XO E.

He checks his email and finds the forwarded message from a server that tries and fails to be anonymous. Eames has not deigned to give his thoughts along with it. The email from the prospective client reads:

Hope I got the right contact for this, please respond at once if so. Searching for the gender-switching forger and his team INCLUDING (very important) the gangster point man of legend. Have an important job, money = NO OBJECT, I mean this.

Arthur frowns, re-reading the email a few times. Finally, he can't control the smirk. Seriously, is that how they're known?

He pays for his groceries (some frozen organic pizzas, vegetable juices and other low-maintenance goods,) and goes outside into the biting November air. Knotting his scarf with one hand, he taps Eames's number into his phone, and maybe he's a little giddy, because maybe this sounds like an interesting offer.

"Arthur, oh my god," Eames says by way of greeting.

"Eames, hello. What is this email all about?"

"If it isn't the gangster point man of legend. That's seriously how I will think of you from now on. Oh, it's noisy where you are. The city?""

"And you'll always be the gender-switching forger. Yes, I'm in the city, New York to be exact. What is this?"

"A sincere job offer, apparently. But one we're not taking."

"Don't I get a say?"

"Oh, wait till you hear. I've already answered the email. The gentleman wants to know if inception is possible."

Arthur claps his hand over his forehead. "You're right, we're not taking it."

"It gets better. Or worse, really."

"Do tell."

"This gentleman wants us to incept his adolescent son..."

"Yes?" Arthur can practically hear the drumroll in Eames's voice.

"Into heterosexuality."

Arthur stops walking. The man behind him crashes into him, brushes him out of the way, and keeps going. Arthur ducks under the awning of an old apartment building, out of the path of the pedestrians, and shifts his earth-friendly canvas bag onto his shoulder. For a second he almost laughs. But: "That's... Well, I'm not one to talk about morality after the jobs we've done, but it's..."

"It's cruel, is what it is," Eames says.

"Yeah. So you told him no."

"And that is where it gets interesting, Arthur." He says the name like he always does, as if he relishes saying it. "The gentleman doesn't take kindly to being told no."

"Oh, wow. You mean like, in the movies? Like, either our signature or our brains will be on the contract? That kind of thing?"

"That kind of thing," Eames says. "So, we actually do have work to do, though it is unpaid work, unfortunately. I know how patiently you respond to threats, so I wondered if you'd be interested in dealing with them along with me."

"Well," Arthur says, unable to hold back a smile, "it's not safe to let something like that go on. I feel my personal security has been compromised. We need to take measures."

"Yes, measures," Eames says. "The gentleman is on the east coast. I suppose I have to get myself up there anyway. So Arthur, have you a day or so to get ready?"

"I think I can manage it."

"Good. I'll get over there and get us a car. I'll send you all correspondence so you can start tracking. I can be there in, oh, thirty hours?"

"I'll be waiting."

"Excellent. See you then, Arthur."

** ** **

Arthur and Eames, parked outside a mini-mart in a stolen car on the I95 heading north, a case of bottled water in the backseat, two separate iPods switched back and forth into the jack, Arthur's brown leather jacket slung over the driver's seat and Eames's winter coat stuffed into the back, covering a silver briefcase, and two guns in the glove-box.

Happiness, or something like.

Turning the ignition, Arthur looks at Eames. "You ready?"