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I set a fire (just to see what it kills)

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+

Eames (who is not yet called Eames) slips through the bar’s late evening crowd with the ease of someone who spends too much time in places like these, scanning the place for dangers and a familiar face alike.

A certain familiar face, in this case.

Three hours ago, he and a bunch other guys cobbled together from military all over the globe rewrote the laws of the world. They didn’t just break into someone else’s dream, no, that’s been done before, but they changed it. And they stole from it.

It was only an experiment, this thing called ‘extraction’, this idea that was nothing more than theory until today and it took them over six hours in real time, but they did it. They stole a secret right out of someone else’s head and that…

Most of the soldiers that make up Project Somnacin were solemn when they came back up. Heavy with knowledge and doubt. Heavy with disgust and distrust. As of today, there is nothing sacred in this world anymore. Not even a person’s darkest secrets. Wrong, they said, vile.

(“God didn’t mean for this to happen,” someone whispered into the silence after waking.)

Eames has no such qualms. He knows the world, knows the dirty parts of it, knows that things that ‘God didn’t mean to happen’ happen all the time, everywhere, to everyone and at least in dreams nothing lasts and nothing is permanent. Dreams never leave scars you can see. (He’s only twenty-four, but some might call him a cynic.)

So sod his bloody conscience.

Today he changed the world and he’s going to celebrate with the only other person on the team who seems to share his point of view. Arthur (who is not yet called Arthur) is a scrappy kid who doesn’t look old enough to need to shave, but Eames has known there’s something kindred about the boy since he first laid eyes on him. In a room full of hardened soldiers, it was skinny Arthur who stood out, who seemed like someone you don’t turn your back on.

Not because he will stab you, but because he might. He could.

When Eames asked who was up for a hard night of drinking, everyone declined, silent, mournful, wide-eyed with shock and surprise, with being alive after they’d been killed, ripped to shreds or shot. Everyone but Arthur, who came out of the dream laughing like a bloody lunatic while Eames still had the image of his bloody corpse burned into his retinas. He felt like someone had pulled the bottom out of his stomach, felt like he was freefalling. Possibly upwards. It was the feeling of success after months of work, the feeling of having done something terrible and come out of it alive, of having pulled off an impossible heist, stolen an impossible diamond. The feeling of living.

Eames has always felt most alive when doing illegal things and today… today there was someone right there along with him, laughing. (Keeping up.) How could he resist?

So here he is, looking for Arthur in a bar the kid suggested in order to celebrate the fact that they just crossed one of the last lines mankind still had.

(Nothing’s sacred anymore now. Nothing.

Eames kind of likes it.)

+

He barely recognizes Arthur when he finally finds him. He’s out of uniform, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, casual as can be except for his buzz-cut, so short Eames can only guess at his actual hair colour. He’s nursing a beer he’s not old enough to have by this country’s backwards laws and Eames is struck, not for the first time, by how sodding pretty Arthur is.

He’s all angles and dark eyes, face like a baby but so much more behind it, skinny but scrappy. He saved Eames’s life, back in the dream, by shooting a projection point blank in the face, no hesitation, no flinching. Blood spattered on his face and he wiped it away, smearing it, not seeming to care.

(The first time they dreamed together, Arthur put a gun of solid, heavy, cold steel to Eames’s head and pulled the trigger just as an explosion bloomed on the horizon behind him. Eames fell in love instantly.)

And again today, Arthur with his smoking gun in hand, blood on his face, looking down at him with one sardonically raised eyebrow.

“Sleeping on the job?” he asked and the cheek alone made Eames laugh because, technically, he outranks the kid by a mile or two. But the only concession to rank Arthur ever makes with him is a sly ‘sir’ tagged onto the end of his clever insults.

(Arthur’s cleverness is one of the things Eames will never, ever get bored of.)

He steps up to the table, grins down at Arthur, “Starting without me, darling?” he asks.

“You’re late,” is the simple reply he gets, followed by, “Darling?”

It’s the first time Eames has called him anything but his last name. (It won’t be the last.)

“Well,” he drawls, slipping into the booth next to Arthur, not bothering with the chair across from him. “I don’t think you look like a ‘sweetheart’, do you, darling? And we’re not in uniform tonight.”

They are also at a bar almost fifty miles from their little secret base and Eames doesn’t think Arthur picked the place for its interior design. Arthur looks amused and doesn’t protest, so Eames flags down a waitress and orders a scotch, none of that American swill for him, thanks a lot.

+

His scotch comes with a smile and he downs it in one go. The second one comes with a flirtatious hand on his shoulder. He figures three will get him a number and just tells her to bring the bottle instead. And another glass because he is teaching Arthur how to really drink, and fuck the law. (Eames has always thought that there is something wrong with a country that lets you die in its name before it lets you get drunk enough to deal with it.)

But Arthur doesn’t look like he needs much teaching, downing his scotch without ever losing Eames’s gaze.

On drink number five Eames feels loose enough to ask the question that’s been burning in his stomach, on his tongue, ever since he first saw deadly, little Arthur.

“So tell me, darling, how does a pretty boy like you end up in the army?”

Arthur’s eyes narrow at ‘pretty boy’. (Just like Eames knew they would and he rises to the bait, just like Eames hoped he would.)

“It was either that or jail,” Arthur tells him, faux-casual. Like he expects shit from Eames, who only throws his head back and laughs because he knew it, he bloody knew it. (Criminals always find each other.)

He could see the violence in Arthur from the moment they met, the potential for blood and screams that lives inside that skinny frame, straining to break through pale skin and into the world. Arthur’s like a star - a fairy-light from afar and a fucking supernova up close, burning like all hell - and Eames can tell, just from the stone cast of Arthur’s eyes, that people got burned before.

Arthur frowns. “What’s so funny?”

Eames shakes his head, tries to breathe through his laughter. “Nothing,” he apologizes half-heartedly. “Nothing at all, darling.”

Arthur raises one eyebrow, perfectly arched and perfectly disdainful, giving Eames a few seconds to revise his statement. When he doesn’t, Arthur stands and makes to leave without another word and that just won’t do because Eames is still riding the high he got off the successful mission and he’s not going to let it go to waste. He wants loud tonight, and bright and beautiful and dangerous because he’s fucking immortal when he’s like this.

(They always are, he and Arthur, immortal until the day they die, immortal, even as Arthur holds a gun on Eames and pulls.)

So he grabs Arthur’s wrist as he passes, tugging the kid to a standstill and staring up at him, waiting, saying, “Not so fast, now.”

And Arthur stares right back, looking at his wrist in Eames’s bigger hand, then up at his face, back at their hands. “Are you going to make that move then?” he asks.

“Do you want me to?” The question is redundant, the answer clear. (Eames has no doubt that Arthur could use that tight and dangerous little body of his to put Eames into the floor if he so pleased. But he hasn’t yet and that, in itself, is sign enough.)

“Yes.” There’s no hesitation in Arthur’s voice, no doubt or fear of DADT raining down on his head. Eames doubts that Arthur has ever been unsure of anything in his life. (He seems like that kind of person.)

Eames isn’t like that, but when he knows what he wants, he usually goes for it, no matter how unattainable, illegal, or otherwise barred from him it may be. So he yanks on Arthur’s arm, not gently, and when the kid comes tumbling down, he grabs at the back of his head and feels Arthur stiffen, tensing for a fight that won’t come.

Eames kisses him, hard and wet and sloppy, smirking into Arthur’s mouth, giddy on the inside and not trying very hard to not let it show.

He pulls back as soon as Arthur starts to respond and says, “Consider my move made.”

Arthur licks his lips, looking slightly dazed and almost young enough to make Eames feel guilty. But youth and innocence have nothing to do with each other and while Arthur has plenty of the first, he generally seems to have misplaced most of the second years ago.

Jaded little thing, he is.

“Considered,” he breathes into Eames’s ear.

+

The door falls closed behind them and Eames takes a second to fumble for a light switch because this is a hotel room, not some familiar place, and breaking his neck while falling over unexpected furniture is not high on his list of things to do. Not with Arthur licking into his mouth and his own hands inside the kid’s jeans, tugging at the waistband. He doesn’t find a switch and gives up when Arthur’s kisses become more insistent.

He walks them backward toward the bed he spied over Arthur’s shoulder, just barely, in the mostly-dark. Before they get there, Arthur starts tugging on Eames’s shirt demandingly. Eames obliges and pulls it off without fanfare. Arthur follows smoothly, dropping the t-shirt carelessly, followed by his shoes and jeans.

He’s naked, slim and pretty, pale skin and red flush, angles and shadows. He smirks, all challenge, all fire, and Eames wants him like he hasn’t wanted anything in a while. He shucks his own clothes and steps up to Arthur, skin to skin from knee to neck and they both breathe in sharply as he rests his hands on Arthur’s hips and pulls him in even closer, pressure and contact. “Darling,” he says and it sounds like breathless laughter.

Arthur responds by digging nimble fingers into his hair and pulling his head back, baring his throat for licking and chewing on, going down, down, down, passing collarbones and nipples, trailing down his sternum and playing at his navel and, Good Lord, that is one gifted mouth. He breathes hard, forcing himself still and looks down at the top of Arthur’s head and the naked skin making up his back.

Only it’s not naked skin at all because there is something dark and sleek licking down his spine, a shadow that isn’t a shadow on his left side. Eames can’t recognize either in the not-light of the moon and the streetlamps outside, but he trails one hand over Arthur’s buzz cut and down to the knobs of his spine, pressing into each black symbol there, as far down as he can reach.

Arthur arches into the touch, hissing, squirming, obviously turned on like all hell. Eames makes a mental note to inspect those markings in proper lighting.

(Later.)

For now, he tugs the kid back up to his level and kisses him, open-mouthed and warm, before tumbling them both onto the bed and getting down to business.

+

Later, loose and blissed-out on the best sex he’s had in ages, Eames lies next to Arthur, who is flat on his stomach, baring his back for inspection.

They’re numbers. The indistinct tattoos down Arthur’s back are simple Arabic numbers, climbing down his spine from just below his neck to the dip above his ass and Eames kisses each of them lazily, tasting sweat and sex and himself on Arthur’s skin, dirty, warm, wonderful.

(One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four, fifty-five, eighty-nine, one hundred and forty-four.)

“Fibonacci sequence,” he tells Arthur’s ass when he reaches the last number. He bites the taut flesh in front of his nose once, teasingly. Arthur hums in agreement, looking down the length of his side to meet Eames gaze. “That’s an unusual tattoo, darling.”

“Yours aren’t,” Arthur shoots back, a bit cruel, a bit insulting, but mostly deflecting. Eames grins as he flops up on the bed so they’re level again. He raises one arm to inspect his own ink, shoulders and upper arms. Nothing special about those. Some stupid tribal designs on one shoulder he got while drunk, a few broad strips of ink on one upper arm, covering up names and dates better forgotten. They mean nothing at all to him. Just decoration. If he could take them back, he would. But he gets the impression Arthur’s are more thought-out, carefully designed and planned.

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” he offers.

Another hum but no verbal answer. Eames didn’t expect one. These tattoos of Arthur’s are personal and they don’t know each other, really. They have been working next to each other for the past month and shagged once.

(Permission to touch skin is not permission to get under it.)

Arthur rolls onto his side and scoots closer, putting a hand on Eames’s side, tonguing the tribal design on his shoulder, steering them both back to more comfortable activities.

+

There’s a star, plain and indigo coloured, on Arthur’s right hipbone, five-pointed, two inches across. The design is painfully simple, the lines a bit clumsy and thick, but it’s beautifully shaded. Eames frames it with his thumb and forefinger while he goes down on Arthur and concentrates really hard on making the kid lose all his higher brain functions.

+

The biggest, the one Eames really wants to ask about is the one on Arthur’s left side, across his ribs under his arm. It’s a gun, black and grey, sleek and deadly, angled so the barrel is pointed straight at his heart.

(Eames has the urge to put his fingers along the barrel, to mime pulling that trigger, maybe say bam. He doesn’t.)

All he does, all he dares, is trace the outline of it with a single digit. Arthur snags his hand away almost immediately, says, “We should get moving.”

“Why? D’you have something better to do?” He tries to hold onto that slim body with its tattoos and stories and secrets, but Arthur twists and is gone, sitting at the edge of the bed, fishing for his jeans on the floor.

“Nothing but a fifty mile drive back to base,” he throws over his shoulder as he stands, offering Eames a tantalizing view and then only denim. Arthur picks up his shirt and turns as he pulls it on. The gun looks almost real as he stretches and the star peeks past his waistband. Eames thinks he probably shouldn’t be this fascinated by some ink on a random boy’s skin, but he is.

Then the shirt is on and the star is gone. “Do you need a ride, sir?”

And just like that, five hours of steamy sex in a cheap hotel are wiped away and it’s back to business. (Eames decides this might be harder than he thought it would be.)

+

On Monday, it’s as if nothing happened. They’re back on base, all in their nice and clean cut uniforms and whether what they do makes them sick or not, they are all doing their jobs again, going under for an hour at a time to try and find out a secret their designated ‘mark’ has hidden. Last week, when this ‘extraction’ thing was still only theory, they got six hours; long enough to go mad in a dream. Now that they know it’s possible, it’s all about building speed and skill.

It’s one of the Frenchmen’s turn to be the mark this time and his subconscious is obviously displeased to have them there. Ames and Parry, two of the American lads, get gunned down within the first few minutes and while Eames has gotten very used to people dying around him, he still dislikes having to watch anyone bleed out slowly.

Arthur gets there before he does, pulling the Glock he dreamed up for himself, killing both men with headshots.

They scatter after that, running from the projections in pairs with the goal of finding the secret the frog hid from them. Naturally, Eames picks Arthur to run after and, as he catches up with him, states conversationally, “You’re awfully good at that.”

Arthur looks at him blandly. “At what, sir?”

“Shooting people in the head.”

“I was only waking them up,” is the prim response he gets.

“By shooting them in the head.”

Arthur’s expression is one of annoyance as he slants a look at Eames and states, very decisively, “I compartmentalize very well, sir. Now could we focus on getting Dupont’s secret before we wake up?”

Before they wake up, Eames thinks. Everyone else would say ‘before we die’. But not Arthur, oh no. Arthur doesn’t die. Arthur wakes up.

(There might be some fundamental truth in there somewhere, if he weren’t stone cold sober right now.)

They take a sharp left around a street corner in the city Dupont dreamed up and Eames pulls Arthur roughly against a wall just in time to avoid being run over by a car.

“Bloody hell,” he grouses, “What are those idiots doing to have the projections so riled up?”

Arthur shoves Eames’s hand away from him and hides his gun against his leg as well as he can, not putting it up, but not waving it around either. “Dupont doesn’t like dreaming,” he supplies.

Dupont doesn’t just not like dreaming, he utterly loathes it. He’s the one that thinks what they’re doing is unnatural, a crime against God or some such shite. Apparently, his subconscious is as fanatically religious as the rest of him and they’re all going to die a very, very bloody death, Eames thinks cheerfully. (He’s never really understood those religious types. Him, he just takes what he wants instead of praying for divine intervention to give it to him.)

“Obviously,” he snorts just as the projections that were, until now, glaring balefully at the two of them, all jerk to the left, like bloodhounds catching a scent. Obviously, someone else is making bigger waves than the two of them are.

Then the projections start running, pouring out of shops and houses like an eerie, silent mob, all going in the direction of the disturbance they are sensing.

“Fucking hell,” Arthur curses and Eames has to grab him again to avoid a homicidal mother with a pram, pulling him into a narrow alleyway between two houses. They duck low and wait.

“We should dream ourselves civilian clothes,” Arthur finally suggests as the mob on the street finally thins out. He doesn’t wait for Eames’s approval, simply starts changing his clothes. There is a flash of skin as his BDUs get replaced with jeans and a t-shirt and Eames has time to count one, one, three, five before Arthur is dressed again.

He closes his eyes and concentrates on putting himself in street clothes, too, asking, “So why Fibonacci?”

Arthur glares over his shoulder briefly. “This is neither the time nor the place,” he snaps.

“I thought you compartmentalize very well, darling?”

Arthur growls. “We should get moving, sir.”

Eames, who is just bastard enough to pull rank to get his answer, says, “Only if you tell me why those numbers.”

The glare he gets is rather impressive, especially from someone with such a smooth, sweet face. (Eames suspects the existence of dimples, honestly, but he hasn’t yet had time to test his theory.)

Then Arthur straightens from his crouch and simply starts walking, not waiting for Eames, who curses and jogs after him.

“Come on now,” he cajoles as they hurry through mostly deserted streets without any idea where they’re going. “I’m not asking about the others, just that one. Why?”

The only reason he’s not asking about the star or the gun, he doesn’t say, is that he is sure he’d get a fist to the face before he got an answer about those. But the Fibonacci sequence doesn’t seem too much to ask and Eames is a curious man by nature.

(All the more curious about Arthur.)

Arthur stops suddenly, squinting at rooftops in the distance. “Is this Paris?”

“What?”

“Is this Paris, sir?” From his pretty mouth, the title becomes an insult. (Eames likes it.) He looks around, studies signs and buildings, comes to the conclusion that yes, actually, this is Paris.

“Why those numbers?” he repeats his earlier question.

Arthur’s expression is stony as he rounds on him. “Seriously?” he demands, voice level and all the more threatening for it. “You are withholding information that could be vital for this mission because you want to know some irrelevant detail of my private life?”

Since that covers it very well, Eames simply nods. “Yes.”

The Glock actually twitches in his direction. “Order,” Arthur hisses. “I like order. Now answer the fucking question. Sir.”

Eames smiles brightly in the face of the kid’s fury. “I’m thinking, darling,” he says, just to tease, “That you’re a bit too good at this compartmentalizing thing. Don’t you ever mix business with pleasure?” And then, because he can tell he’s a second away from getting shot in the face, he adds, “And yes, this is Paris. Why?”

Of course, Arthur doesn’t answer. He takes a furtive look around the empty street before putting up his gun, shoving it down the back of his trousers. The move turns Eames on more than is probably healthy. Then he jogs across the street where a phone booth stands and flips open the massive phone book there.

Eames follows, keeping one eye on their surroundings. “What are you doing?”

“Dupont grew up in Paris,” Arthur supplies, most of the anger gone from his voice already. “I’m looking for his address.”

“Why?”

“Because he might have hidden his secret someplace he feels safe.”

Eames sweeps out an arm to encompass the dream world, “This is his subconscious. Everything here feels safe to him.”

Arthur looks at him like he’s an idiot. “The subject generally doesn’t know he’s dreaming, sir. He thinks this is real. Ergo, he’d not leave his secrets lying around on the street, would he?”

To prove his point, Arthur holds up the phone book he was flipping through. It’s open on the letter ‘D’ and there is a single entry on the entire page. Dupont.

Well, there’s a compelling argument. Eames waves with his gun. “Lead the way.”

+

They come up gasping and spluttering from being drowned in the Seine by a bunch of homicidal projections and for a moment there, Arthur looks like he really, really wants to puke up a lungful of river-water that he never actually inhaled.

The rest of the team is standing at the other end of the room, obviously long since awake, watching them closely for reasons Eames doesn’t care to decipher. Dupont is still asleep between them and will be for another minute or so, until the clock ticks down to zero.

Then the General asks, “Did you get it?”

Eames gives him his best shit-eating grin and confirms, “We’ve got it.”

Then he rolls onto his side and vomits imaginary river water into the trash can someone thoughtfully placed there. Through the sound of his retching, he hears Arthur following suit.

+

They are the best, him and Arthur. Arthur and him. Whichever way you like. The other participants in Project Somnacin are there for their prowess in battle, for their strategic thinking. One because he’s an architect.

Eames is there because he’s brilliantly different from anyone else, because he doesn’t fit in any boxes and someone high up is as annoyed by that as they are pleased. He’s in the project because when his former CO asked him, “What do you think about dreams, soldier?” he answered, “Anything goes, yeah?”

Even after almost three years in the military, Eames doesn’t think like a soldier. He thinks like the thief he is, like the forger, the crook, the gloriously free and rule-breaking rebel. Without Project Somnacin, he’s pretty sure he’d be back to being all that, too, by now. He only joined the army in the first place because it seemed like a good place to hide from some very pissed off people at the time. And then, just when he was ready to disappear, they came and offered him dreams.

How could he resist dreams?

But Arthur.

Eames has no idea why Arthur is here. Oh, he has no doubt that he told the truth when he said it was either this or jail. People generally tend to underestimate Arthur, but Eames knew better even before he stripped him naked and found a gun inked on his chest. Arthur is fully capable of being utterly ruthless, of doing something that would send a juvenile delinquent to jail.

No, the question is why he is here, dreaming alongside Eames, building worlds that stun the coldest of men, coming up with tricks and shortcuts all the time and, Eames suspects, not sharing half of his discoveries. They pulled him right out of basic and threw him at the dreamsharing project without so much as a by-your-leave. They didn’t even give him any training beforehand, or at least none that Eames’s clever fingers can find in the records.

Yet Arthur knows how to dream, possibly better than any of them.

And then today, that thing with Dupont’s childhood home. Hiding something where he felt it was safe. On Friday, they spent days upon days hunting through the dreamscape of Meyer, one of the Germans, and more or less only found his secret by accident.

The question they were supposed to answer was, What’s his favourite food?

They found the answer because the plate of lasagne lying half-buried in the sand of a random, windy beach was very obvious. They had also been helped by the fact that Meyer had been told what they would look for before they went under, so he’d had it at the forefront of his mind.

Dupont’s secret (Name of the first girl he kissed.) would have been impossible to find in his dreamed up Paris, if Arthur hadn’t come up with the safe place. She was there, sitting in the middle of his childhood bedroom in Paris, smiling at them and telling them, in French, who she was. Before they’d gone to get hunted by projections and ultimately drowned by them, Arthur had thanked her.

(In perfect, Parisian French. It’s another thing about him that makes no sense.)

It fascinates Eames, this mysterious acquaintance with dreams, these strokes of genius, all those layers Arthur seems to be made of. Eames thought that stripping the kid of his clothes would strip him of his layers but, oh, he was wrong. So very, very wrong. If anything, naked Arthur added a whole new layer of mystery.

(Permission to touch skin is not permission to get under it.)

And really, Eames has never been known to stop poking at things before they fall apart.

+

They work pretty much around the clock for the next few weeks, until waking and sleeping, dreaming and reality, become so tangled up that Dupont actually pulls his gun on one of the doctors keeping vigil over them and one of the Germans tries to kill himself after getting a call to tell him his wife was in a serious accident. Because he thinks he’s dreaming. Because he thinks he’s having a nightmare and if you kill yourself, you wake up.

(Nothing’s sacred anymore.)

His wife is paralyzed for life and he tries to shoot himself in the head so he’ll wake up and that’s when the General gives them all a week of furlough to try and get their heads screwed on straight.

By noon, everyone’s buggered off to their families or the nearest holiday resort to try and get drunk enough to forget both reality and dream. Eames tries to catch Arthur in the exodus but misses him and, on a hunch, drives out to the bar they met in last time.

It’s practically empty when he gets there, just opened, and Arthur is sitting in a booth at the very back, nursing another beer. Eames takes a moment to marvel at that because, okay, last time it was crowded and dark, but in the daylight Arthur has the face of someone Eames wouldn’t give coke to, much less anything with alcohol in it. He looks like he should be drinking milk. Maybe orange juice.

Not beer.

(And doesn’t that make Eames feel like a dirty old man?)

Arthur looks up at him with an utter lack of surprise when he slides into the booth. “Been waiting for me, darling?”

He doesn’t respond and Eames decides to take that as a confession.

He steals Arthur’s beer and takes a sip before grimacing. American swill. “Not going anywhere?”

A headshake. Eames wishes, ridiculously, that Arthur had more hair. “A friend of mine is coming down from Harvard on Sunday,” he states and then looks like he’s not sure why he just said that.

“A friend, huh?”

That gets him a slanted look and a raised eyebrow that asks, wordlessly and perfectly, really?

Yes, really. Arthur sighs and apparently decides in for a penny, in for a pound, because he answers, “She’s working on her doctorate in chemistry. She’s too busy for a longer visit.”

(Female. Older. Smart.)

“D’you fancy her?”

Arthur snorts, as if the idea is utterly ridiculous. “No.”

Silence. Eames finishes Arthur’s beer. “You got a room then, darling?”

“Yes.”

+

Arthur is on his knees in the middle of the bed, sheets tangled around his hands, sweat making him glisten like some ancient statue of debauchery and Eames takes a moment to just stare, spellbound and paralyzed, until Arthur looks back over his shoulder, gaze hot, expression cold.

“Well?” he demands.

“Pushy bottom,” Eames mutters to himself as he presses in close, dropping a kiss on thirteen, making Arthur squirm away and glare again.

Lube, condom, fingers, sticky, sweaty, slick and Arthur bites out a noise that makes Eames go cross-eyed, just a bit and then he pushes in, groans and considers maybe dying, right here, right now.

Arthur, being the impatient little prick he is, jerks backwards and mutters something about old men past their prime and Eames starts moving because he’s pretty sure if he doesn’t, he’s going to have a naked riot on his hands and Arthur shuts up.

Mostly.

Until.

“Come on, you fucking asshole,” he gripes, sounding way too coherent, pushing back hard enough to make Eames bite his lip, goddamn. On reflex, he grabs onto Arthur’s sides and the younger man stiffens like someone’s electrocuted him and when Eames looks down, his left palm is covering almost the entirety of the gun.

It feels strange, like he should be able to feel it, which is bullshit, because it’s a tattoo, for cripe’s sake, but there it is. He starts moving again and after a moment, Arthur unfreezes, pushes again, harder, harder, faster, so demanding, like he wants Eames to blow him right out of his body and into space, an edge of desperation to every single one of his groans.

(Every single one of his actions, too, but Eames doesn’t understand that yet.)

“Come on, come on, come on, fuck, move…” Hotter and hotter, squirming, and Eames’s hands still rest on his flanks, left still covering the ink and Arthur pushes into it like he wants Eames to reach through it.

Eames curls his ring and pinkie finger into his palm, making a play-gun with his hand (bang bang) and places it against the ink, like he’s wanted to for weeks and then he bends and stretches until he’s breathing into Arthur’s ear and says, “Bam.”

Arthur comes so hard, Eames is sure he actually blacks out.

+

Later, many, many angrybitterhot (breathtaking) orgasms later, Eames is lying on his side, sleeping in that way people sometimes get when they’re too wired for proper sleep and too tired to stay awake. He drifts between waking and sleeping, a place that’s mostly entirely lost to chemicals and headshots these days.

Arthur is on the other side of the wet spot and if he’s not asleep, he’s faking it very well. His arms are flung wide, his legs sprawled carelessly, his eyes closed and shadowed. Eames, who was a respectable artist before he became a damn good forger, feels his fingers itch for paper and a pencil and wastes half a thought on not good before a whiff of Arthur’s scent, sweat, sex, soap, man, carries him away.

That’s when something starts ringing. Eames opens his eyes enough to see Arthur wake, the transition between asleep and not instant, and roll out of bed. He sits up, rubs at his eyes as he bends down to pick through his jeans, pulling out a chunky mobile.

He answers after a look at the screen, murmurs, “Un moment,” and walks naked into the bathroom without a backwards glance.

Eames rolls onto his back, closes his eyes again and concentrates on the kid’s voice (deep enough to surprise him still, sometimes), eavesdropping shamelessly. “Mal,” Arthur says, “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“I’m awake because you woke me up,” follows a second later. Then, “Yes. May as well. What’s up? Aside from the two of us at… fuck, Mal, it’s two am.”

Eames smiles into the dark, wonders if this Mal is the girl Arthur is meeting on Sunday.

“Isn’t that the guy you said you were never, ever going to date? The one that dresses like an old man, doesn’t speak French and has a horrible taste in music? What changed your mind?”

Okay. So maybe he really doesn’t have a crush on her. The whole conversation smacks more of siblings bickering than anything else.

“Tickets for your favourite band. That’d do the trick,” Arthur laughs lowly. “No. So when are you going?”

“Why not? You said you changed your mind.”

Silence and Eames almost thinks he can hear a female voice chattering away, which is impossible.

“Fuck off, Mal. You love that band and you want to go. Forget about me. I can entertain myself some other way and I’m due some scheduled leave in a month anyway. I’ll come up and visit you and you can introduce me to the guy with elbow-patches. Assuming he makes it that long. Hey… what? You are high maintenance, don’t deny it.”

He sounds light, amused, happy, if a bit regretful since it seems like his Sunday date with the hot older woman just got cancelled. He sounds like someone Eames has never met and it irks him because, bloody hell, how can one teenager be so complicated and hard to understand?

If Eames could just figure him out, he could leave Arthur alone and they could both go back to their lives.

(Eames lies very well, even to himself. It’s what thieves do.)

“Yes.” Laughter, quiet and easy. “Maybe I am with someone. Since you just dumped me, I don’t think it’s any of your business. No, I will not give them a kiss from you. Of course. I will. Good night, Mal.”

He hangs up and Eames waits for the longest time for the door to open and Arthur to slip back into bed. When he finally does, Eames cracks one eye open. “I take it you have nowhere to be until Tuesday morning?”

Arthur, who doesn’t look all that surprised to find him awake, shrugs. “No.”

+

Room service and endless shagging are pretty much all it takes to fuck over Eames’s sense of time completely. The microcosmos hotel room makes him feel like the world outside went away and since his sleeping pattern is all blown to hell thanks to his job, he really, really has no idea what day it is when they come up for air.

He thinks Friday, but it might be Saturday. He should probably keep track, but he trusts (foolishly, perhaps) in Arthur to know such mundane things as time and place and date and name.

He thinks he might have forgotten his name. Christ, but he doesn’t think he’s ever had a sex marathon that lasted quite this long, or was this intense. Arthur gives Eames nothing but his body and occasionally his scorn, but of those two, he gives all Eames knows to ask for.

So when the kid says, “I want real food,” Eames doesn’t complain. He even lets Arthur take his shower alone, lets him put on clothes and armour himself against the world.

He lets him pick a generic Italian restaurant for dinner, lets him do the flirting with the waitress. Lets him.

It’s only seven (on a Friday), so the place is packed and because they look like two soldiers on leave and nothing else (they aren’t anything else and Eames learned long ago that you can’t actually see shagging on other people), they land at a tiny table close to the kitchen, squished together into a booth, touching shoulder to knee.

Eames grins at Arthur, dirty and full of innuendo. He gets a tired eye-roll in return. Old man, his British arse. They order and sip their drinks in silence for a few minutes before Eames decides he’s ‘let’ Arthur for long enough and really, the question’s been burning under his nails, on his tongue, in his spine, for entirely too long.

If Eames were an animal, he would be a cat. A dead cat.

And because he likes Arthur best off balance, he raises his left hand, shapes a gun, puts it against Arthur’s temple and says, “Bam.”

Arthur jerks, jumps and then tenses like a spring. Eames grins into his glass, entirely too pleased with himself. “Tell me about that one,” he demands.

“That one what?” is shot back at him, tight and angry.

He leers at Arthur, gaze heavy with shared memories of the last time he said ‘bam’. “You know perfectly fine what, darling. Answer the question.”

“Why should I?”

Eames considers the question. “Quid pro quo, then?”

The eyebrow that gets him is razor sharp and pointed enough to kill a man. “What gave you the idea that you have anything I might want?”

He says nothing, just watches the younger man, eyes clear and expression open. In the end, Arthur reaches behind him, digging two digits into his shoulder blade, close to his ribs. Right on top of a scar that’s not big at all. It’s mostly visible because it bisects one of the tendrils of the tribal design on his shoulder. An inch long, no broader than a coin is thick. It might just be from a deep scratch.

But it’s not.

He looks at Arthur again, really looks, and considers lying because, bloody hell, what is he doing here anyway? Shagging a teenage boy with tattoos and issues you can see from bloody space, who snarls and snaps and bites and doesn’t give an inch but is so fucking brilliant he gives Eames the shivers, so bright and beautiful and damaged.

(It’s a particular combination that he’s never been able to resist. It’s why he’s here, playing this game.)

Truth then.

Only truth means trust and that…

“Got a knife in the back, darling, on a job gone south.”

He sees Arthur take note of the word ‘job’ instead of ‘mission’, his brow wrinkling minutely. Thinking with that big brain of his, working out all the clues he has. He’s silent for a long time and Eames keeps expecting more questions, but they never come.

In the end, they eat dinner in almost complete silence before Arthur says, “It’s a warning. To myself. One bullet is all it takes.”

“Not always.” Eames is thinking of the Glock in Arthur’s hand and the blood on his face, cold and precise, like a surgeon, removing danger from a dream. Removing himself, if the task calls for it. (Metal on Eames’s temple and the horizon blooming red.)

“Always,” Arthur repeats. “Up here.”

And see here, that sounds almost like Arthur got that tattoo when he was already dreaming, but he’s only been dreaming for a bit over two months and that tattoo is older than that, much older. So it can’t be what he means at all.

(Can it?)

+

They walked from the hotel and they are walking now, but without aim, meandering through the small town that’s mostly filled with tourists. Their dog tags make them stand out and blend in all at the same time, invisibly visible, as Eames follows Arthur who follows something he probably can’t explain even to himself.

Eames is content, belly full, slightly tipsy, sated in more visceral ways. He walks behind his companion, enjoying the view of that arse, that back, sleek legs and arms. Arthur is, in a word, art. Lines and angles, a study of shadows and light, even when fully illuminated by the too bright streetlamps, standing at attention up and down the main road.

He’s not short, only an inch less than Eames and he’s not truly skinny, but he’s lithe, wiry. Quick and dirty, Eames knows. Still he somehow manages to barely take up space, blending into every corner like a piece of nondescript furniture. There’s something very ordinary about him, at first glance.

And then you look again, like the college girls stumbling from and into bars, and suddenly he’s there, hitting you right between the eyes, like a bullet, sleek and deadly.

Beautiful.

He moves or speaks or just looks, arrogant and all-knowing. Unfurls, filling up all the space he didn’t take up before, filling all the nooks and crannies.

He’s the born criminal, in so many ways. Beautiful. Smart. Ruthless. Unassuming and imposing.

Eames thinks that, if Arthur applied himself, he could be anything, anyone. Or rather, his body could be. Eames doesn’t think anyone has ever touched this boy’s mind at all, despite all they do when they are asleep.

(And impenetrable fortress of bleeding solitude, Arthur’s mind is.)

Ahead, he speeds up his steps, heading for something specific suddenly. He throws a look over his shoulder, knowing and amused, puts a sway into his step with casual cruelty that makes Eames groan.

No. No-one touches Arthur’s mind. But he gives his body freely and really, what more could Eames want?

(A lot.)

+

The first thing Arthur does when they get back to work, it shoot Eames in the head at point blank rage. It puts things back into perspective nicely.

“Isn’t anything sacred anymore?” he asks as he wakes with the taste of cordite in his mouth.

Arthur’s lips quirk, almost imperceptibly.

“No,” he says.

+

They have dream weeks and waking weeks, at least in theory. It’s so the Somnacin in their systems doesn’t turn them into glowing cockroaches, or something similarly charming.

(It will get better, in a few years, when the formula has passed through a hundred criminal genius minds and hands, but for now it’s a heavy drug that purposely fucks with your perception of the waking, as well as the sleeping world.)

Better not to give it time to build up.

Thus, their week of Hide and Seek is followed by a week of writing reports and since Meyer flirted with his gun, they stick with it, too. Mostly.

Eames is bored out of his mind.

Just as he is about to give up on paperwork and go in search of tea (always in vain), Arthur appears in the doorway, asking, “Do you want to go under with me?”

Eames waggles his eyebrows. “Is that an offer, darling?”

Arthur’s expression promises a swift death for calling him that where anyone else might hear and he tries to make up for it with a smile that comes off as a pleased smirk.

“I want to test if I can reproduce what we did in Dupont’s dream,” Arthur rebuffs, very sternly. Eames might suspect the kid of having a stick up his ass, if he didn’t know better from personal experience.

He doesn’t even pretend to consider his answer. “Lead the way,” he says, already on his feet.

+

Arthur’s left arm is a beautiful mess of bruises and collapsed veins that Eames spent an hour of the last weekend kissing. Arthur stares at it for a moment now, then rolls the sleeve back down, picking the other arm.

He swabs the crook of his elbow and picks up the IV, clean needle already attached. He takes a deep breath and on the exhale, plunges it into his arm. Then he sits down and looks expectantly at Eames, who stands like an idiot, IV halfway to his arm, watching Arthur watch him.

“Well?” Arthur demands as Eames hooks himself up and sits down on his own chair, already reclined.

Eames throws him a cheeky look and reaches out with his left, hitting the plunger on the PASIV before Arthur can say anything else.

Down, down, down, they’re standing in a field. The sky overhead is a shade of blue usually only found in Monets, the grass below their feet a vivid, glowing green, ripe and lush. There are trees in the distance, bowing in some invisible wind and Eames knows with the logic of dreams that he could walk all day and not reach them, not get an inch closer to them.

There is no sun in the sky, but there’s light all the same, heavy and full, a weight on his skin, a warmth.

Funny. He expected Arthur to dream sleek cityscapes and skyscrapers, precise corners and perfect angles. Not this, not a field of endless, flowing movement.

“Interesting,” he drawls, looking down at the dreamer in question, sitting cross-legged in the knee-high grass. He’s still in his uniform, picking a blade of grass apart with deft fingers. “Where are we?” Eames wants to know as he sinks down beside him.

“Free zone,” Arthur says with a shrug. “It’s a closed loop, endlessly turning into itself. There are no projections here, so we can plan in peace.”

Interesting,” Eames repeats. (Looping dreams? Closed circuits? A projection free dream? Free zone? Oh Arthur, he thinks, you’ve been holding out on the rest of us.)

“I want to see if the idea of finding secrets in memories holds up,” Arthur says. Always business. He’s in one of the most beautiful, surreal places Eames has ever seen, and he talks about work.

Maybe Eames needs to rethink that stick theory.

“So what shall we do? Toss your childhood bedroom for skinny mags?”

(It would have to be Arthur’s childhood bedroom, because none of this is refined enough yet to differentiate between dreamer and subject. The term ‘subject’ is not even invented yet, not in this context. It’s all crude and brutal and dreamer and mark being one and the same means they die in even worse ways. All the time. Maybe that is why Eames finds it reassuring that Arthur hesitates before plunging a needle into his flesh.)

Arthur almost smiles and then the field around them falls away, replaced by the slate grey skies of New England, spanning a residential street in a random small town Eames has never been to.

“Find something,” Arthur says, sure of himself, commanding someone he should defer to. Eames sighs. Shagging always does blur the lines. But then, Arthur never had any respect for him before they fucked, either. Or at least, no respect for his title. Arthur makes people work for everything. It’s not a bad thing. Just… mildly annoying.

“Where are we?”

As if in answer to his question, a lankier, younger version of Arthur comes running out of one of the houses. There’s a girl hot on his heels, brunette and roughly his real-world age. Eames is pretty sure this is the mysterious and well loved Mal. She yells something in French and young Arthur spins around, still running, and flips her off. She shrieks with indignation and laughter, struggling to catch up.

Arthur speeds up.

“Cretin!”

“Crazy bitch!”

“Sweet child, weren’t you?” Eames asks with a sideways look at the current (his-not-his) Arthur, who squints into the dreary afternoon and makes the projections disappear like smoke.

Silence.

Eames looks around again, trying to pin Arthur to any one house and failing. Does he seem more like he grew up in a place with rose beds out front, or in one with gardenias? Blue trim or green? It’s all very boring and precise. He settles for inspecting mail boxes until he finds the right one. Arthur trails behind him, silent and watchful, a constant reminder that this is an experiment and not an amusement ride for Eames’s personal pleasure.

He makes his way through the tiny front yard and up the white porch steps. Beside him, Arthur artfully steps over the middle stair, which creaks ominously when Eames puts weight on it. The door is unlocked and the hallway behind it is narrow but light. There are frames on the walls, but the pictures in them are grainy and unfocused, blurs of motion and memory. Imperfections in Arthur’s mental picture of his home.

From somewhere, a telly sounds, interrupted by a woman’s voice, “Leftovers are in the fridge!”

No hello, no how-are-you, no where-were-you. Arthur’s projection of his mother seems a cold woman. Arthur laughs quietly, shakes his head, seeming unconcerned with the tone. (Used to it.)

Eames leads the way upstairs.

+

Arthur’s room stuns Eames enough to freeze in the doorway for a whole moment, then two, then three. Out of all the things he expected, this is… it’s not even on the list of things he expected.

The Arthur he knows is all clear lines and a cool head. His anger is tightly packed away under his skin (inside his ink) and what he lets other people see is smooth and languid. Liquid and easy to bend. Arthur is the perfect soldier.

His room is the perfect mess.

The walls are dark blue, plastered over with artsy posters and newspaper clippings, sketches, drawings, famous prints. There are at least three Eschers that Eames can see, all of them in stark focus, their lines brilliant, unlike those of the photographs downstairs. The papers taped, tacked and stapled to the walls are not neat and orderly but a tilted mess, over and under and right on top of each other. It’s psychedelic.

It looks, Eames thinks, like the inside of a rubbish bin, all discarded paper and lost art. (It looks like Eames thinks the inside of Arthur’s head might look like. Actually is, come to think of it.)

There is a bed to his left, dominating the room, unmade and messy. Stacks of books hide a desk and a bedside table. Notebooks and school work are spread willy-nilly all over the bed and the floor is covered in clothes, clean and worn.

It’s chaos. Complete, utter chaos and Eames is sure he could spend hours in this room, studying every detail, taking in every poster, clipping, drawing. He thinks that Arthur hides inside this room, somewhere, and if Eames learns the room, he might just learn Arthur.

“You were not a neat child, were you, darling?” he asks, mostly to say something. Arthur grunts his response and elbows past Eames into the room, flinging himself on the bed in a reckless sprawl, unconcerned with the chemistry book that has to dig into his spine.

“I got better,” he eventually answers, when Eames makes no move to enter the room.

“Did it take a lot of work?” Needling now, mouth running on its own because Eames is pretty sure that once Arthur realizes Eames is actually reading what’s written on his walls, he’ll find a way to make it all illegible. Distraction is the game of the hour.

“Yes,” Arthur snaps, and there’s something brutal and ugly on his face. Anger.

(The same kind of anger that makes him bite Eames until he draws blood, that makes him look at people like they’re the dirt under his shoes, that makes his words into weapons and his tongue into a blade sharp enough to kill.)

Eames cocks his head to one side and asks, as casually as he can. “Tell me, darling, what is it that made you so angry?”

Arthur’s expression settles into ice cold rage and Eames knows he’s about to have a bullet put into his brain. But then something flickers at the edge of his perception and he whips around, finds a mirror, half buried under architectural sketches of stairs and hallways. (Penrose steps. Because that’s how old that one is.)

There is a man in the mirror, hair graying at the temples, with sleek glasses and a soft, apologetic expression. Arthur grunts and the man fades, replaced by a blonde woman, dressed expensively, looking annoyed. She fades faster than the man, replaced by a girl, maybe fifteen, smiling gently, waving. She looks like death warmed over but she opens her mouth to say something, draws a breath and –

Arthur screams, the mirror breaks, the girl shatters into a million pieces and Eames feels the world tilt under his feet, sees the walls crack and crumble under the weight of Arthur’s emotions (rage, anger, grief, despair) and then the dream explodes just like the mirror did and they rise from it, back into the real world.

Eames opens his eyes with the feeling of slick blood and a million tiny cuts on his skin and doesn’t say a word as Arthur rips the needle from his arm and storms from the room like a vengeful god.

He just sits there and relearns to breathe and wonders what the fuck is going on because at that very last moment, with the world cracking apart, the dream bursting at the seams, there was an instant when the floor went out from under them and Eames saw something shiny and rectangular falling out from under Arthur’s bed.

Shiny and rectangular and heavy, he knew without ever having touched it. Heavy with the weight of the machines, chemicals and dreams it contained.

There was a PASIV in Arthur’s childhood bedroom.

+

After that, silence. Arthur doesn’t speak to Eames unless it’s in an official capacity, and even then, his quick, snapped responses border on insubordination. Once, a week after the aborted dream, Eames manages to steal a moment alone with Arthur and says, “You know, you asked me to find a secret. I did. What’s got your knickers all bunched up?”

“Nothing, sir.” Sharp and biting, as always. He storms out again and Eames decides to let him go. He’s got to cool off eventually, doesn’t he?

(Find something.

I did. What now, darling?)

+

On a random day that is Arthur’s twentieth birthday (Eames knows that only because he looked it up), the kid comes jogging up to him on the way to the labs and asks, “Do you have plans tonight?”

His gaze is fixed straight ahead, his shoulders tense like he’s expecting to be shot and there’s still anger in every line of his body, tightly coiled and ready to strike. But then he always is and Eames is learning to ignore everything he knows about reading people when it comes to Arthur. Everyone else, you read the body and ignore the words. But Arthur’s body always tells him to runrunrun and be afraid of a bullet in his back, a blade against his neck.

Arthur’s body speaks only one language and that is violence. But he contains it, controls it. If Eames listens to his words instead, he doesn’t have to watch his back all the time. (It might kill him one day, but it makes for easier living at any rate.)

“Depends. Are you taking me somewhere?” He bites off the ‘darling’, but it’s a close thing. Arthur looks at him like he knows, dark eyes sharp.

“A tattoo parlour off base,” he says.

“New ink?” (For your birthday, Eames wants to ask, to remember something? To commemorate the passing of time, the coming of a new age, the first glimpse of a new dawn? What? – Wants to. But he knows better.)

“Yes.”

“It’s a date,” he says, and puts enough innuendo into his voice, into the waggle of his eyebrows to seem over the top and joking to anyone who might be listening. Only Arthur knows that he’s telling the absolute truth and he rolls his eyes, heaves a put-upon sigh and walks away without another word.

+

He needles Arthur the entire way to the parlour, guessing places and designs, growing more and more outrageous in his ideas as time progresses. They have dinner first and Arthur looks like he regrets that before their food is on the table because Eames pokes and teases and just won’t stop.

For some completely fucked up reason, he’s nervous. Like he’s the one getting inked. Like it’s his first time and he’s never felt a needle and the nervous energy is almost bursting out his ears. What the bloody hell?

He stuffs it down, out of sight, and grabs a napkin, pulling a pencil stub out of a random pocket. He starts sketching without anything in particular in mind, a random tribal design that he intends to suggest to Arthur but then doesn’t. He flips the napkin, lets his hand do what it will, ends up with an outline, a cheekbone, a nose, a hint of a Cupid’s bow, the shell of an ear.

And, eventually, Arthur’s face is staring back at him from a cheap, white restaurant napkin.

“This is good,” Arthur says, in a tone that makes Eames think he’s talking about his spaghetti at first, but then he looks up and finds the kid staring at himself in pencil lines.

“Thanks,” Eames accepts with a shrug. He doesn’t say, “You should see my version of some of DaVinci’s sketches,” but it’s a close thing.

+

Turns out Arthur is as tear-inducingly boring as Eames was starting to think he wasn’t. He’s getting rings. Two decades to mark, two rings on his upper arm, black and solid, one a bit thicker than the other. No imagination, no mind for symbolism. Two rings, two decades. Like a bloody tree.

Eames says so with a roll of his eyes.

Arthur flashes teeth and Eames sits next to the artist and watches as the outline becomes solid, becomes a bar of black skin, swollen and puffy red around the edges. Arthur lies back the whole time, hand resting on his stomach. His palms a sweaty, but that is an involuntary reaction to pain. Other than that, he doesn’t make a sound.

When it’s done they pay and get out of there, foregoing the usual five minute spiel on proper tattoo care. The artist saw Eames’s under the edge of his sleeves, saw Arthur’s star as his shirt slipped up and apparently didn’t care beyond that. They walk quietly down the street, vaguely aiming for the car, when Arthur suddenly stumbles and starts giggling and, okay. Needle high. It makes the kid seem more human than he’s ever been before, more even, maybe, than he was naked and sweat-slick on rumpled hotel sheets.

He bites his lip immediately, trying to stifle the sound, but Eames hooks an arm around his neck, reels him in and says, “Ride it out, darling. Just ride it out.”

Arthur eyeballs him, their minimal height difference suddenly bigger than usual and scowls. It looks adorable. “Are you planning to take advantage of my endorphin high, sir?”

“Absolutely,” Eames assures him, curls his fingers at Arthur’s temple and pulls an imaginary trigger. “Bam,” he adds. Arthur shudders down to his toes.

+

The tattoo is barely healed when someone takes the next logical step in dreaming. They can steal ideas from a dream. So why not put them into a dream?

(They’ll call it inception, almost ten years in the future, and Arthur will say it can’t be done and Eames will say he almost did it once, looking wistful. The idea just didn’t take, he’ll say. They’ll both be lying.)

Arthur freezes as soon as the subject is brought up and shakes his head. “Absolutely not,” he says, forgoing all rank and order. Eames is listening, but the others aren’t, not really.

So Arthur shakes his head and says, “This is madness. Most of the time, we get slaughtered within minutes of going under, and that’s just while we’re stealing something. What do you think is going to happen if we shove something in there?”

He gets ignored.

He gets ignored and someone picks up the idea of this new thing, this inception, and runs with it and soon everyone is all aflame.

(Nothing’s sacred anymore.)

Everyone is all aflame and the Brass decides, against all advice from shrinks and base personnel, to make Meyer the test subject. He gets to be the one to have an idea implanted in him.

They pick the same bloody man who almost blew his head off once already to mind rape, saying that his mind is most like the enemy minds they will most likely encounter in the field. (They don’t actually say hostile and fractured, but everyone hears it anyway.)

How bloody, sodding daft can you be?

(Jesus Christ, Eames thinks, Jesus fucking Christ.)

Arthur keeps writing on the walls and, while the grunts all get shifty-eyed, no-one who matters will listen to him. Eames finds him, one night in May or June, asks, “How do you know so much about this?”

They’re in Arthur’s room, a small, cramped space, but it’s his alone. The one comfort they all get, their own rooms. A place to go and stare at the bare walls when they can’t sleep anymore. Arthur sits on the edge of his neat desk like he’s waiting to make a quick exit, all tense and taut.

Fight or flight. (Bam. As if Arthur would ever run.)

Eames eyes him, eyes his narrow bunk, eyes him again. Arthur rolls his eyes and doesn’t buy the distraction for a moment. “Common sense?” he suggests, snidely.

They spent twelve hours of dreamtime rooting around the head of Willis, a ‘Nam vet, today, dead babies and raped women everywhere. His secret was hidden away in a shallow grave in the middle of the jungle. Unsurprisingly, it was Arthur who dug it up. They’re both a bit on edge. Maybe Eames should have picked a better time.

But what better time is there than when Arthur is off his game?

“Hardly,” he drawls, leaning too close as he pulls the single chair out from under the desk. He sits down inside the kid’s personal space, grins up at him, wide and easy. It’s a conman’s grin, promising everything. “You manipulate dreams. You know short-cuts. You’re dead against this little experiment the scientists are cooking up for us now. In short, my darling, you know too much.”

If he thought Arthur might go pale and shivery and confess everything, he’s sorely disappointed. (It’s funny how he’s getting used to that feeling.)

All Arthur does, after a moment of sitting very still, is get up from his perch, make his way over to the door. He doesn’t touch it, just leans against the wall next to it. “Tell me, sir,” he starts and this time the title is definitely anything but that. It burns like acid. “What did you do before you joined the military?”

For one brilliant, heart-stopping moment Eames considers telling the truth.

(I was a conman, darling, and a forger and sometimes a junkie and occasionally a whore and it was glorious, oh, glorious. Art and sex and drugs and I still have some of it hidden away, in secret places, a DaVinci sketch, one of Degas’s ballet dancers. I stole them and forged them and I could forge you too, if you’d let me, forge you and steal you and draw on your skin in black ink, ink that washes off every morning so I can start again in the evening. I was a criminal and I was good at it, good enough to never get caught. Not ever.)

But Arthur doesn’t want the truth. It’s not about facts. It’s not even about how Eames almost wants to tell him. It’s about secrets. It’s about how they all had lives before they were paid to fuck each other’s minds and how they don’t owe each other shit.

(Permission to touch skin is not permission to get under it.)

“Touché,” Eames says as he rises from the chair, pushes it back into its place. Arthur opens the door for him and he walks out silently.

Touché.

+

They almost manage. They almost get through. They go down into another dream (dream within a dream), where they’ve only been twice before, and they dig right into Meyer’s most secret hide-away. It’s a bloody tree house, one he played in as a child and there is a box and they unlock that box and they put an idea inside.

It’s a small idea, so very small. You don’t like peanuts.

The box is a lunchbox with a lock it’s not supposed to have and they crack it and put a bag of rotten peanuts inside. Plant the seed. Let the idea grow. (The theory is sound, even if nothing else is.)

Someone cracks a joke about there being rotten nuts in Meyer’s subconscious now. Eames smacks the bloody arse and they relock the box, withdrawing as quietly as they can. They try not to change anything, cautious because this place… it’s holy, in a way that even the most pig-headed bastard understands.

The thief in Eames is giddy with the thought of breaking into something that should be beyond another human’s touch. The rest of him can’t help but mirror the gloomy expression of impending doom on Arthur’s face.

He leaves the tree house last. The furniture was moved, the dust disturbed. The box, unlocked and relocked, is returned to its hiding place. Maybe it won’t matter that they changed things. This is only a dream, after all.

Maybe it’ll change everything.

Outside, gunshots sound, bang, bang, bang and people start dying. The projections have finally found them.

Eames jumps down to the soft grass, ignoring the ladder completely. There is a wet, sucking sound as he lands. He looks down, finds red instead of green.

A woman in a yellow summer dress is standing in the door of the main house, submachine gun in her delicate hands and a grotesque grimace on her face. Eames has time to wonder whether she’s Meyer’s mother or wife before a spray of bullets catches him square in the chest.

+

He comes to with a gasp, rolling onto his side with lightning speed and throwing up until there’s nothing left in his stomach. Or anywhere else in his body.

He went to sleep in a nicely furnished hotel room and wakes in a forest. Not good. He rolls onto his back again, breathes hard, tries not to gag. Above him, the canopy of the forest is dark and heavy and looks like it’s about to fall on him, to choke him.

The dreamscape has changed.

Far off, he hears a scream. It echoes oddly, warps between the trees until it’s barely recognizable. The sharp report of a gun that follows is clear as day and impossible to misunderstand.

Eames checks his watch, considers his surroundings, his options.

In the end, it’s easiest just to draw his own sidearm and blow out his brains.

Bam.

It’s more fun when Arthur does it.

+

When Meyer wakes, they offer him a bowl full of peanuts.

He blinks at them owlishly, looking distant, confused. Then he mutters something in German and stands, walks past them all and into his room. He locks the door behind him and the MPs need to bust it down so the doctors can take a look at him.

That’s around noon.

By evening, Meyer is declared stable.

By dinner time, the experiment is declared inconclusive.

The sun’s just rising above the chain link fence when Meyer kisses his gun and swallows a bullet. (No-one but the people in charge is actually surprised.)

That sounds almost poetic and certainly prettier than the sight of a man’s brains all over the wall. Arthur is the one who reaches him first, since their rooms are right next to each other. By the time Eames has jumped into some clothes and run down three hallways, Arthur is leaning against a nearby wall, his expression cut from stone.

(There’s blood on his hands and an I told you so in his eyes.)

+

Arthur, being the dramatic, unimaginative fucker that he is, blows off Meyer’s send-off to his family to get more ink.

Eames isn’t there with him this time, but he finds Arthur in a bar afterwards, already half-drunk and with a queer look in his eyes that might be madness. He drags him out the door with a few jokes in the direction of the quietly drinking soldiers in their best uniforms. Says he’ll put the cherry to bed before he tosses his cookies.

They laugh weakly at the Americanism and he nods at them, grave and polite.

He fucks Arthur in a motel down the street, one with dirty sheets and hourly rates. There’s a bandage along the line of his left collarbone and Eames mouths at it for a while, harder than he probably should.

Arthur goes pliant and open under him, though, so he can’t quite make himself stop.

Afterwards, when Arthur takes off the bandage to check Eames hasn’t caused the fresh tattoo to bleed out, Eames stands behind him and reads the words written on skin in the dirty bathroom mirror.

It says, in neat, black font, almost like calligraphy, was alles erblühte, verblich.

Of course the pretentious, over-educated little fuck would get Benn inked into his skin in memory of a fucked-up German he didn’t even like.

All that bloomed, faded, Eames translates, vaguely. (It sounds prettier in the original, he thinks.)

“Dramatic sod,” he drawls and watches Arthur cover it back up.

+

It’s sort of expected, after everything, that someone high up panics and finally pulls the plug. They’ve been fucking around in each other’s heads for almost a year with no results to show except a dead soldier.

They’ve all got nightmares when they do manage to sleep, and that’s far and in between. They can enter each other’s minds and they have all felt a hundred different deaths. They’re screwed up and bled out and dreamsharing is declared unstable.

There are whispers about plans to turn it into a practice program for soldiers. Death under gruesome circumstances is apparently someone’s idea of an ideal training ground. But the espionage portion of the project, the infiltration parts, are abandoned. Officially, there aren’t enough results to justify the expense.

Unofficially, the Brass is scared that they’re growing psychopaths in their own backyard.

(Eames can’t say he faults them.)

+

The military, like any other institution, is run by bureaucracy, though, so it takes months to shut them down. Months during which they suddenly find themselves with nothing to do but write up reports that will most likely get burned and waste time.

Arthur and Eames spend a lot of their sudden free time shagging.

One night, lying in filthy sheets and smoking in almost companionable silence, Eames finds himself asking, “What are we doing, darling?”

“In this instance, in this universe, or generally speaking?” Arthur wants to know. He gets cheeky when he’s all fucked out.

“Generally speaking,” Eames growls.

Arthur shrugs and he almost doesn’t expect an answer at all. “We fuck.”

“Is that all we’re doing?” Because he doesn’t think so. They spend far too much time poking and prodding at each other for this to only be about sex. (Eames can still feel the phantom steel of an inked gun under his fingers, can still hear Arthur cussing him out but not pushing his hand away. That means something.)

Arthur smiles around his cigarette and Eames fight the urge to roll onto his side to watch, because that mouth is sin. “I don’t know. Is it?”

Eames pouts prettily into the dark. “I asked first.”

A snort. “I believe that only counts until you’re twelve.”

“You are twelve.”

“Never took you for a paedophile.”

This could go on all night. Eames pushes his cigarette between his lips, holds it there and levers himself up and on top of Arthur, who stays motionless, allowing it. “Do you trust me?” he hears himself ask. (He’s pretty sure that’s not what he meant to say.)

Arthur blinks and blows smoke in his face. “You haven’t given me a reason to.”

“I haven’t given you a reason not to, either.”

Arthur grunts in reply, says nothing. Ash from Eames’s cigarette rains down onto his naked chest and Eames pushes his thumb into it, draws swirling patterns in dark grey across Arthur’s impossibly white skin.

(Part of him wishes he had a needle to make the abstract patterns permanent. To leave a mark on this boy, this man, this riddle. Funny. He’s never before felt the need for permanency of any kind.)

+

Arthur takes a week’s worth of furlough, goes to visit his lady friend in Harvard.

He texts Eames late one night, probably drunk. I hate watching couples in love, he writes and Eames takes that to mean the mysterious Mal has kept the lad with the elbow-patches after all.

Half an hour later another text arrives and Eames starts to wonder if Arthur has any friends at all, aside from him and Mal. Mal says I have no imagination.

That is sort of ridiculous, Eames decides, having seen the cathedrals Arthur builds inside his mind. He will still tease the kid mercilessly about it.

She says I dream too small.

Finally, Eames texts back. So dream a little bigger, darling.

(He receives no reply, takes that to mean that Arthur is either sulking because Eames called him by his petname in writing, or otherwise occupied. He tells himself he doesn’t care.)

+

Arthur comes marching into Eames’s room, shuts the door behind himself and sits down at the edge of the bed without invitation. “They’re doing it wrong,” he says without preamble.

(Eames, who was about to crack a joke about Arthur having missed him more than appropriate, tries to keep his face blank.)

“Who is doing what wrong and why?” he asks instead, managing to sound condescending despite his confusion. It’s a handy skill to have.

“Dreaming,” Arthur says, and he sounds incredibly frustrated.

Eames moves until he’s leaning with his back against the wall (lovely metaphor, that), and confesses, “I’m afraid I still have no idea what you’re on about.”

Arthur slams a tightly curled fist into the bedding, hard enough for the metal frame to protest, a sudden and brutal movement that makes Eames jump, much to his embarrassment. Arthur is always angry, but he never actually acts on it. Usually.

(‘Usual’ is pretty fucking relative, these days.)

“Dreaming,” the kid repeats, a snarl, spitting and angry. “They’re dreaming wrong. Anything is possible in dreams, but what we’re doing here is…”

“Artless?” Eames suggests, when nothing more seems to be forthcoming.

Instead of a verbal answer he gets a hiss of agreement.

“Then why don’t you teach us peasants how to do it right?” He still has no idea why Arthur knows so much about dreaming, but that’s not what matters right now.

He expects Arthur to blow up in his face for mocking him, but Arthur, darling, of course does the opposite. He calms right down, a wry smile on his face as he repeats, “Anything is possible in dreams, sir.”

“Incredibly helpful, that,” Eames points out.

Arthur nods, raises one hand, palm up. A gun appears, flat and black and Arthur grips it tight, cocks it and pulls the trigger, right in Eames’s face.

In one surreal second, Eames sees the bullet coming for him and adrenaline surges uselessly in his veins before –

The bullet turns into a crow, another, a whole murder of them, all bursting around Eames and up, skywards. He follows their flight with his eyes, meets blue sky, endless and open. When he looks back down, Arthur is sitting cross legged on a picnic blanket, leaning back on his hands.

In the middle distance, trees sway endlessly in the wind and Eames feels himself swaying, too, in their rhythm.

“We’re asleep.”

Arthur nods, expression solemn. “Yes. And you never even knew.”

He reaches out one hand, pats the silver case sitting next to him. It opens itself and he grabs two of the lines, pulling them out. He hands one to Eames, keeps another to himself.

“I can show you,” he finally says. (Show you how to dream. How to do it right.)

Eames accepts the line, plunges the needle into his arm and sinks into the grass and through it, into a busy cityscape. He bumps into an elderly woman who turns and glares at him.

Somewhere, a shot fires.

He spins on his heel, finds Arthur with a gun in his hand, shooting the sky. Around them, the projections surge and grow angry and dense. Arthur shoots again and they get loud, start pulling at Eames’s clothes. Arthur smirks as he drops the gun and beside him, like a snake rising from the deep, a staircase rips from the concrete ground. It grows in endless spirals and they start running, up and up and up. Behind them, the stairs fall into nothing. They run for an age until, a hundred stories below, the projections screech and howl, utterly impotent. Arthur dreams a door into the sky and opens it, steps through and into Eames’s London flat, sun-flooded and dust-plagued.

Paints and ashtrays litter the ground, empty take-out boxes are stacked against the wall and the futon Eames sleeps on, rolled up and stuffed into a corner, safe from stray paint.

Arthur steps up to one of many easels while Eames still reels, traces his fingers along the jawline of the Mona Lisa. “Impressive,” he says, staring the painting dead in the eye, waiting for it to blink.

“What…” Eames asks, mouth dry. “What the bloody fuck?”

Arthur looks at him, almost disinterestedly, smiling sweetly. “We’re dreaming. I am showing you how it’s done.”

“Don’t be redundant, darling,” Eames snaps, regaining his equilibrium. He sinks into one of the off-white kitchen chairs he used to stack all kinds of things on and glares.

Arthur goes back to studying the easels, one and all filled with famous paintings. (Eames’s versions of them, at least. Some of those made him a mint.)

“I kept you from being shot, took you into the free zone, showed you a way to escape the projections and then got you to lead me right to the place where you feel safest – the one where all your secrets hide. That, sir, is how you dream.”

Eames stares. (The bullet should have killed him, blown him out of the dream. The free zone should not exist. The projections should have got them. Arthur should not be controlling Eames’s dream. Arthur never should have found this place, with Eames’s secrets on exhibit like they’re in a museum. And yet here they are.)

“Amazing,” he breathes, sounding too awed, too hungry. Then, “No wonder you’ve been bored out of your pretty little head, playing with the amateurs.”

Arthur smiles.

He steps slowly forward, weaving between easels, until his legs are bracketed by Eames’s thighs, until he’s looking down at him. “I’ll tell you another secret,” he whispers, almost seductively, almost lovingly.

“What would that be?” Eames breathes, looking up into dark eyes.

“It’s addictive,” Arthur says, leaning down, almost kissing.

“We knew the Somnacin – “

“Not the drug. The dreaming. You can’t stop. Once you’re in this deep, you can’t ever stop. Reality blurs, your dreams start waking and you go mad. Some manage to pull away, but they’re never entirely sane again. This is addictive.”

(Somewhere, deep down, beyond this wooden floor, Eames already knew that. Dreams, real dreams, the way Arthur dreams them, are utterly intoxicating.)

“I take it,” he somehow manages to murmur, “that you take offense to the pending end of the project then.”

Arthur hums and Eames can feel it in his teeth. “The others won’t make it. A few years, two, maybe five, and they’ll all blow a gun. And this,” he spreads his arms wide (dreamtime messiah), “will all be wasted. I don’t plan to let that happen. And I don’t plan to die.”

The last word, the last whisper, he lays against Eames’s lips, a kiss and a promise and a curse and Eames is utterly entranced, utterly transfixed by this boy, this child, this man, who is so beyond anything he has ever seen before.

He reaches up, buries his fingers in Arthur’s hair and twists brutally, pulling black gaze and hot lips down, toward and into himself. He turns sideways, lets himself fall with a thrill of excitement and fear.

He lands on his back on the futon (previously rolled up across the room), Arthur on top of him, laughing in his mouth, palming him through his uniform trousers, fingers curling into his waistband, tugging down, down, down, raking blunt nails along skin and biting in the wake of pale pink welts. Eames arches into the touch without ever letting go of Arthur’s hair, longer here than in meatspace. Enough to grab onto. Enough to pull Arthur back up for a biting kiss while his free hand wanders lowers, finds what it’s looking for and twists wickedly. Arthur groans, low and filthy, and dreams them naked. Then it’s all spit-slick and sweat-sticky and Eames loses track of time and space and reality, lets Arthur bend them all around him, into a cocoon.

(A cocoon of madness.)

+

“I’m running,” Arthur says in the aftermath, staring at the cracked ceiling, his voice rough and used.

Eames laughs, somewhat hollowly. “I figured.”

“I need a second man to make it with a PASIV.”

“And naturally, you’re asking me to be that man.”

Arthur hums again, props himself up on his elbow and rolls on top of Eames. He nuzzles into his neck, hides his face and tells the skin there, “You’re a thief.”

(How he knows is anyone’s guess, but then Eames hasn’t been exactly careful with himself around Arthur.)

He exhales, his only confirmation. Arthur licks a long strip from his collarbone to his ear, swirling his tongue over ink and demands, “So steal your dreams. Steal me.”

(He probably doesn’t mean it the way it sounds, but there it is. Arthur and dreams. Arthur in dreams. Dreams of Arthur.)

As if Eames could ever say no.

+

(Find something, Arthur says.

Steal something, Arthur says.

Steal me, Arthur says.

He does it all.)

+

Arthur commits their flight to skin with Escher’s Courtyard on his right shoulder blade, massive and rectangular and convoluted, just like Arthur.

Eames sits next to the artist on a table, feet dangling as he watches the man work, watches Arthur bite his lip and say nothing. They’re in Canada, laying low for a while, waiting until Eames can figure out real papers for them both.

Procrastinating, honestly.

The outline is almost done, black on pale skin, red welts framing the whole thing. The Fibonacci numbers graze the image on one side, cutting off the left-most quarter, a ladder of numbers leading out of the impossible maze.

That’s a metaphor. The whole bloody thing is a metaphor, really, symbolism as shallow as a stealing man’s grave. Eames finds security and the guards of the compound in the high walls, finds Arthur’s desire for more in the floor that is the sky, finds himself in the vines sneaking upwards, which is also down.

It’s all very neat. Far neater than their great escape actually was. They spent a week getting their essentials off base and preparing their getaway. Car. Papers. Civilian clothes. False trails laid by airline tickets that were never used and reservations they never arrived for.

Simple things. Arthur and Eames went in a dozen different directions with a dozen different names, apart and together. In truth Eames switched two PASIV cases for two empty briefcases and walked straight out of the compound while Arthur took care of the electronic security and created a tiny little diversion (boom went the supply room) and slipped out an hour after Eames.

It was almost too simple, but Arthur is a genius and Eames is a pretty good criminal and they made it work. Besides, Eames thinks (taking a drag of his cigarette and tracing the lines growing on Arthur’s back with one finger in the air) escape is always only step one.

The art of theft is not escape. The art of theft is getting away with it.

Stay low, stay moving, leave false trails, don’t make waves, don’t ever do what’s expected of you.

Mexico was closer, which is why they went to Canada and splitting up was easier, which is why they stick together. Flying would have been faster, which is why they drive everywhere, buying tickets every time they burn another ID. Yesterday, Tom Watson and Jimmy Donald bought train tickets all the way to Alaska.

Today, Jonathan Crews and Daniel Ambrose are road-tripping their way to Vancouver.

Eames lives in constant fear of discovery, of being caught and thrown into a dank, dark cell for committing treason. It’s exhilarating and beautiful and vibrant, made more so by Arthur, who meanders through city centres without a care in the world, who is dangerous and sexy and entirely unconcerned with what might happen.

Arthur is the born criminal Eames always suspected him to be, suave and smooth and utterly unshakable.

Eames, who lives on high thrills and deep holes, envies him.

Eames, who cannot get enough of skin and ink and anger under skin and ink, hates him.

“You sure you want to do this today, man?” the artist asks as he puts aside his needle, wipes blood and ink from Arthur’s back. The outlines are done.

“Yes,” Arthur says, not even looking up from where he’s staring at the floor, waiting.

The artist looks sceptical and Eames leans forward on his hands, drawls, “Are you sure, darling? We wouldn’t want you to get a case of the vapours from the pain.”

Arthur turns his head, giving Eames one sharp, sardonic eyebrow. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he chides.

Eames laughs.

(Apart from the fact that they’re fugitives, nothing’s really changed.)

+

“Having fun, darling?” he asks, hands behind his back, as Arthur rises and falls like the tide above him, eyes at half-mast, lashes fanning along his cheekbones, mouth open.

The writing on his collarbone is a smudge of coal on white skin, the rest of him cast into shadow. He twists his hips viciously in response to Eames’s taunt, his own hands clenching on his thighs.

“Marginally,” he finally decides, sounding clinical and perfectly dismissive even now, riding Eames like he plans to get somewhere.

Eames clutches his chest dramatically. “You wound me, truly.”

Abruptly, Arthur stills, lets himself fall forward onto his elbows, their noses almost touching. “I could,” he says and means it.

Eames squirms, brushes down along Arthur’s belly, tries to distract him and finally just admits, “Yes.”

+

There is one concession they both make to their new status, one thing neither of them dares do. They don’t dream.

They have two PASIVs, one for each of them (parting ways eventually seems an inevitability), but they do not use them. Dreaming makes you vulnerable. Dreaming makes you open. Dreaming makes you weak.

They pretend they’re nothing but tourists, most of the time, in public and in private, going from place to place, changing their names once a week, careful to never follow any sort of pattern. (That, too, is a pattern, Eames doesn’t say.)

They eat, they drink, they drive and they fuck and they sleep and once or twice, Arthur sneaks out to call his lady friend and Eames pretends he doesn’t know, doesn’t follow him the first time, or the second, or the third.

Being a fugitive is boring, really. They pick regular bar fights just for something to do.

But they don’t dare dream and Arthur was right (he always is), damn him. Dreaming is addictive.

It’s addictive and they’re both going cold turkey, clawing their way out of their skin before Arthur’s ink is entirely healed, snapping at each other like hungry animals, always going for the throat, always vicious, always ripping at the tender places. All the while, the dark circles under their eyes grow and their shoulders slump further and their teeth get sharper.

Eames wants to dream more badly than he wants to breathe, stares at the PASIV cases for hours when Arthur is gone into the city to walk off another sleepless night. They have no Somnacin and that is their saving grace. If they had it, they would have folded days, possibly weeks ago and just gone under, leaving themselves vulnerable as babes.

But they haven’t because they can’t and they won’t and so it’s alright. (Eames wants to claw his face off every time he looks in the mirror, but it’s alright.) Really.

Arthur comes back at four in the morning, stands between Eames and the cases, says, “Fuck me.”

He strips quickly and efficiently and they fuck until they can’t move anymore. There is a red, messy bite at the juncture of Eames’s shoulder and neck, put there by Arthur and there are neat red lines, fingernail scratches, framing the goddamn Escher on Arthur’s back, put there by Eames and someone must have bled because there’s blood on the sheets.

But they sleep.

+

“I think it’s time to split up for a while,” Arthur says the next morning, not looking up from the newspaper.

“Yes,” Eames says, rubbing fingers over the bite, wincing as it stings. He goes out after breakfast, makes arrangements to get to Africa. There’s this guy he knows, from his London days, who is an excellent pharmacist and mixes drugs like nothing Eames has ever tasted. (Had. Before the Somnacin and cathedrals in the sky.)

If anyone can figure out how to make Somnacin for Eames, it’s Yusuf. And if anything can keep Eames from running after Arthur like a lobotomized school girl, it’s dreaming.

+

Six months later Arthur has a new scar on his left bicep, mostly covered by a line of Arabic writing that swirls beautifully and utterly foreign across his skin.

Eames has a small, padded case full of little vials filled with liquid dreams. He holds it out to show Arthur, whose hair has grown out past his ears, making him look all of fifteen. (Making Eames feel more like a pervert than usual.)

“You promised to teach me how to do it right, darling,” he drawls, eyebrows raised for maximum innuendo.

Arthur does.

+

Arthur spins in a close circle, his arms spread, a conductor of destruction, buildings collapsing all around them.

A splinter of shrapnel hits Eames in the ribs, shattering them. He collapses, wheezing as he laughs.

Arthur kneels beside him and he doesn’t apologize (never would), but he conjures a gun, stark and black and cool against Eames’s temple.

“Wake up, Mr. Eames,” he orders, punctuated by a bullet.

+

“You know,” Eames muses, lying on his back in an endless field of grass, sky above them stretching to infinity, the colour of embers, burnt orange. “I’ve been wondering.”

Arthur grunts, doesn’t move. “If you can change anything in dreams, why not yourself?”

“Because your looks in dreams are the visible representation of how you define yourself?”

It would explain why Arthur rarely wore his uniform in dreams.

“What if you could change your definition of self?” Eames goes on, mostly just to continue the thought.

But Arthur sits up, leans over him, asks, “You’d be essentially changing yourself. Remember, this is your subconscious you’re playing with. That’s dangerous.”

But there is a glint of anticipation in his eyes he can’t quite hide and the birds in the trees at the edge of the field grow restless. Excitement. Eames tucks one hand behind his head, closes his eyes, turns the problem over under Arthur’s watchful gaze.

Slowly, realization dawns. “Not changing,” he corrects. “You’d be forging. Something like the original, but not exactly. An intentional mistake in the forge.”

He sits up to look at Arthur. Arthur looks back.

(An intentional mistake. Strive not for perfection in the forge, but for imperfection. Change the brush stroke, change the colour composition. Change yourself. Forge yourself, your body, your personality, your gestures and expressions. Make the flaw a new person.

Forge a living being.)

“Anything is possible in dreams,” Arthur concedes with a shrug.

+

They dream for eight hours and at the end of it, Arthur looks like he always has.

Eames doesn’t.

+

Slowly but surely, dreaming trickles out into the world. Some governments never quite give up on the technology, some private contractors take home enough to make their own versions of the PASIVs. People like Yusuf suddenly find themselves in high demand.

Whispers start. You want a secret? Get a dream agent. You want to know if someone’s trustworthy? Get a dream agent. Words pop up within Eames’s hearing, slang, a language unto itself. There are extractors and levels and projections and suggestions to the subconscious. There’s dreamtime and sleeptime and there are closed loops and then there’s him.

The first job he works outside meatspace is a simple extraction. It’s easier than it ever was while he still wore the uniform and at the same time, harder. The dreamer and the subject are different people now, the drugs are better. But the people he works with are all new to dreaming, amateurs and civilians.

The woman – who calls herself an architect and sneers at Eames – starts crying when the projections start coming for them. She cowers in a corner and Eames, killing their way to the mark, wishes fiercely for Arthur at his back.

He can’t shoot the stupid cow out of the dream because it’s her dream, but he loses his patience quickly, dragging her along through corridors that are shaking with her distress. They meet their third at the agreed hotel and he doesn’t look much better.

“Christ,” Eames says, “haven’t you lot ever dreamed before?”

Christian, their extractor scowls. “Of course we have. The practice runs…”

Eames cuts him off with a sharp gesture, shoots a projection away from the window and dreams himself up a clip to replace the empty one in his gun. “Bloody fuck,” he snarls. “Practice runs. Bleedin’ practice runs.”

He tucks his gun into his waistband, secures the door and turns to the architect. “Can you pull it off?” he asks, none too kindly.

The mark likes bragging to pretty women and she was meant to get his secrets out of him in the suggestive dream state he’s in. (Apparently, someone introduced pop psychology to the business while Eames wasn’t looking.)

To her credit, she tries to pull herself together, straightening and brushing her skirt down. It almost works, until she realizes her once pristine blouse is splattered with blood from her projections. She shakes her head wildly and Christian tugs her into a hug, white as a sheet himself.

(Eames swears, there and then, to never work with unqualified people ever again.)

He closes his eyes, muttering an endless string of curses to himself and concentrates. He holds the image in his mind, a girl, dark haired, fragile on the outside, full of ice and fire. She has Arthur’s eyes, dark as the pit, and his lips and his cheekbones and she gestures like him but doesn’t walk like him. Eames pulls her together from scraps of people he knows, overlays her with ArthurArthurArthur and prays to God this works, because he’s never actually done this before, has never done more than played with this and then –

He opens his eyes again to numb stares. Christian asks, dumbly, “How did you do that?”

Eames flashes a bright smile, says nothing and brushes his skirt down the same way the architect did a moment ago. He winks as he saunters out of the room, toward the hotel bar where the mark is waiting, hopefully appropriately soused at this point.

+

The head of a lion, roaring, dangerous, wild, adorns Arthur’s free shoulder the next time they meet. Eames tongues its outline with a wicked smirk on his face. Arthur watches, not entirely dispassionately, and finally says, “So. They call you the Forger.”

Eames rolls his eyes upwards until he can sort of look at Arthur’s face, and flashes a smirk. “That they do, darling.”

Then, seeing the serious mood Arthur’s in, he sits up and says, “Don’t figure I’ll get to keep the definite article for long, but I think I like being famous. What about you?”

(Where do you go? What do you do? Have you killed anyone? Have you fucked anyone? Who is the lion? What does the Arabic mean? Did someone hold your hand while you had them carved into your skin?)

Arthur shrugs and misunderstands intentionally. Answers, “I like obscurity just fine.”

Then he draws Eames down into a kiss. Sweat-slick, hungry, open, Arthur tangled in pale sheets, a study of contrast and greed. Eames takes it all, curves himself along Arthur’s back, along long lines of skin and flesh and bone, moves to a rhythm like a war drum and doesn’t stop until he’s shagged the coherency right out of Arthur.

And that’s that.

(It’s not. It never is. Eames never tells Arthur that, though, and he doesn’t think the other man knows.)

+

“I’m Dom,” the man says, all corn-fed-American pretty. “Dom Cobb. And that’s my… erm… girlfriend, Mal Miles.”

“Fiancée,” the laughing woman with the warm eyes corrects, giving Eames her hand to shake. He kisses it instead and Dom makes a face like he wants to protest.

They don’t look like much, and certainly not like criminals, but they want a forger and Eames is the best. (Not the only one anymore, though.) Corporate espionage, they tell him over dinner in their quaint little apartment in New York.

“It’s not actually illegal,” Mal laughs, a glass of red wine in her fine-boned hand. (The artist in Eames is a bit in love with her.) “There are no laws yet that cover dreaming.”

Eames doesn’t point out that there are laws against espionage, against kidnapping, against drugging someone against their will. They look too nice for him to bring them down and, it turns out, they really are.

(They’re the best dreamers Eames ever works with, though, so he can forgive them for being a couple of strange, dream-obsessed goody-two-shoes with no idea how the real world works. They get by, up above, and dreaming, well, dreaming isn’t the real world, is it?)

+

Eames receives the text message at three in the morning, all in caps, which is a surefire sign that Arthur is drunk. It reads, MY MOTHER IS DEAD.

Eames finds himself surprised that Arthur even has (had) a mother. Somewhere. He always assumed Arthur sprang fully formed from the forehead of some great, twisted mastermind.

(He’s not nearly as surprised that it’s him Arthur tells the news to in the middle of the night. He should be, because that’s not what they are, but he knows Arthur by now and, well, they keep coming back to each other, don’t they?

It’s been three years, almost, since Eames stole Arthur, and they still keep finding each other.)

Where are you? he texts back.

Russia, comes the prompt and bland reply. Still. Arthur has been in Russia for almost three months, lost to the world for most of it. Eames doesn’t have the heart to ask how old the news of his mother is. Then another text comes. I’m flying into New York.

It’s not a question, not a plea, not a demand.

Eames writes back anyway: I’ll meet you there.

(Arthur doesn’t protest, which is as good as a thank you.)

+

Returning home turns Arthur’s shoulders stiff, makes the anger burn bright enough in him for Eames to almost see the flames licking at his haunches, driving him, always. (He’s scared to touch, scared he’ll burn.)

His mother has been dead and buried for two months. Arthur found out by accident, trolling the internet.

Eames watches him like one would watch a bomb with the timer set, right up until Arthur turns the rental car onto a residential street somewhere in New England and Eames is hit by a strange sense of vertigo. He’s been here before, in dreams.

(Arthur running, laughing at a dark-haired girl, cursed him out in French. Her face is blurry but her voice is lovely. Arthur in his room, which is the inside of his head. A PASIV among high school textbooks. A woman’s voice, bland, uncaring.)

Eames knows which house they’ll stop at long before they do.

+

Arthur’s father is a tall, pale man with wire rim glasses and a mop of salt and pepper hair that curls above the collar of his cardigan. Something of Arthur’s indomitable fury glints in his eyes (or so Eames like to think) but it’s offset by warmth and careworn age. His face was in Arthur’s mirror, so long ago, in the dream.

His back it straight, his facial structure a copy of his son’s. He doesn’t look like a new widower. He doesn’t look like a man who hasn’t seen his son in years and years. His arms twitch, as he opens the door, like he wants to hug Arthur, but he doesn’t.

Arthur introduces Eames, asks if they can come in, polite and succinct as always. He’s wearing one of those horrible, uptight suits he’s discovered recently.

(They make him look sharper than he is, harder, colder, and like the world’s most expensive rent boy. Eames has always told him that he’d pay the price and he would. Those waistcoats, they do things to him.)

The man allows Arthur to slip past, holds out a hand for Eames to shake. “Mr. Eames,” he says, because that’s how Arthur introduced him, because that’s what his latest (and longest lasting, so far) passport says.

“Just Eames,” he answers, and follows Arthur inside with a belated, “My condolences.”

Something like realization dawns on the man as he closes the door, says, “You found out about your mother.”

Arthur nods. “By accident.”

He doesn’t look like someone who’s grieving either.

“I would have called but… they tell me you are a criminal now.”

Arthur tilts his head, fire rising in him. (Eames knows the signs. He has long since made it his job to know all of Arthur’s signs. This is Arthur, aiming for furious and getting there fast. Why?) “Are you going to call the police on me?”

Mr. Arthur - (That’s not his name, but that’s how Eames thinks about him henceforth, because Arthur has just recently decided to become Arthur and the name slotted into place like it was always meant to be his. There is a sword running down the length of his breastbone to prove the point. Arthur is Arthur and his father can only be a continuation of that, a footnote.) – Mr. Arthur shakes his head. “I never have,” like that explains everything.

To Eames it only means that Arthur was a criminal before the military and he thinks what? why? how?, Arthur, little Arthur, a bad boy? He tries to feign surprise and fails. Instead he smirks at Arthur over his father’s shoulder, gets an annoyed look in return, says nothing.

“Would you like… would you like to visit the grave?”

Arthur, kindly, does not say that is what we’re here for. What he says is, “Yes.”

+

They hang back as Arthur goes to stand at the foot of his mother’s grave, staring blankly at the simple, new tombstone. Eames smokes, offers Mr. Arthur a cigarette and gets turned down with a smile.

They lean against the car. Silence.

“Have you known my son long, Mr. Eames?”

“We go back,” he admits without admitting anything. Conman at heart, never give anything up for free. He flicks ash into the wind, hooks his thumb awkwardly at Arthur’s still, black form (like a carrion crow, waiting to feast on the bodies of the newly dead.), “He doesn’t seem very… desolate.”

The hand over his face, that’s a gesture Arthur sometimes makes, when he’s not paying attention to his body language. Mr. Arthur sighs with it, heavy and tired. “I never meant to marry Judy,” he confesses after a moment of nothing, deliberation perhaps. “She was a fling, nothing more, but then she got pregnant… I was trying to do the right thing. I thought… I thought a child needs both parents to turn out right.”

He shakes his head. His hair flops in his face. Arthur in his movements again. Arthur in every part of him. (Or him in Arthur. Genesis in reverse.) “Judy had no interest in her son, never paid much attention to him. She chafed at being a mother, a wife. I should have let her go. I should just have let her go, but instead I made her stay. For our son’s sake. I think I did more harm than good.”

Eames wants to say something make the old man look less drawn. Something meaningful and surprisingly, startlingly true. (It’s not your fault. He was born like this, angry and cold. He turned out okay. You’re too much alike. Your son is brilliant and beautiful and deadly and I love him like I love knives and stealing things. I stole him. I won’t give him back.)

Before he can settle on any one thing, Arthur turns, coat flapping (wings spreading) and comes toward them.

“You’ll stay the night, won’t you?” his father asks.

He is kind enough to not say no. Eames drops his fag, steps on the cherry, opens the car door with a flourish and waves Arthur inside. (Doesn’t call him darling, though.)

+

After the strangest dinner he has ever had, Eames flees onto the porch, where silence reigns.

(A different kind of silence than the one inside, where both Arthur and his father want to speak but don’t dare, where years and years hang between them and they’re perfectly cordial and polite anyway.)

Arthur says goodnight half an hour later. Eames has already been shown to the guest room. He plans on messing up the bed and then fucking Arthur on his childhood quilt, among the things that must have once meant something to him.

Mr. Arthur finds Eames fifteen minutes after that, two tumblers of amber liquid in hand and a look like a confession on his face. He holds one glass out for Eames, who accepts it, and the conversation with it.

“He’s dreaming again, isn’t he?”

It’s only the fact that he’s suspected for a long time that keeps Eames from dropping the expensive scotch and ruining both their shoes. He nods but says nothing, watches the older man take a long sip and post himself against the porch rail, facing the quiet neighbourhood.

“The people who came here after he deserted didn’t tell me anything. Just said some tech had disappeared. I know enough to read between the lines. I helped develop the technology, has he told you that?”

“No.”

“His best friend, Mal, she’s the daughter of another man who worked on the project. They used to live next door, while we were working at the base. Contractors for the military. Miles is an architect, I’m an engineer.” He shakes his head while Eames thinks Mal and Miles and of course (bloody fucking hell). “We thought we were inventing something great. Something brilliant.”

The man turns around, looks at Eames with eyes that belong to Arthur. “My son was fourteen, Mal just barely eighteen when I caught them using my prototype in my study. I was… I slipped into their dream. I wanted to see.”

A hand over his face and that is Arthur again, a man seen through an Arthur-shaped lens. (Distortion is a kind of art.) “The things they dreamed were more brilliant and amazing than anything we’d ever managed.”

Eames knows. He understands. He sees, every time they go under. Arthur builds cathedrals in the sky, never a hint of vertigo on his face. (He wonders, quietly, how long Arthur and his Mal, two wild children, must have been dreaming to become so good.)

“I took it away from them. I had to. It was a breach of security and I can only imagine what the military would have done to them, had they realized what they could do. I tried to save my son, Mr. Eames. The dreaming… you can’t… you can’t ever really stop. It’s an addiction. I think, by taking it away from him, I drove him mad.”

(He didn’t. Some people are born with fire under their skin and Arthur burns brightest of all Eames has ever met.)

“He started slipping. Looking for the danger and thrill he found in dreams up here, in the real world. He tried to dream while he was awake.”

“The gun,” Eames realizes out loud, earning himself a nod.

“You should have heard his mother when she saw the tattoo. She thought it was a gang mark, but he just said, ‘one shot is all it takes’, and I knew what it meant. I knew. I quit the project the next day, but it was too late. He got in too deep. Beat a kid half to death. It was either jail or the military. He picked the army and the rest, I guess, is history. Someone must have connected him to me, must have referred him to the right people. In the end, he willingly walked into the arms of the people I tried to protect him from, because he hated me so much for taking away his dreams.”

(How long have you carried that with you, old man? How long have you waited for someone to tell your sins to, someone who knows your son and his dreams? How long have you spent on your knees, asking for forgiveness for something Arthur did on his own, only on his own? No-one makes Arthur do anything. Not ever.)

“The star,” Eames asks instead of a thousand other things he could say. “What does the star stand for?”

A shrug and a chuckle and a long sip from a mostly empty glass. “There was a girl. I think her name was Julie. Janie? I can’t remember? They were… I think they were in love. She got pregnant by another boy, had an abortion in some backroom clinic. She bled to death in her own bed and the boy…”

The boy was the one Arthur almost beat to death before getting a tattoo of a star on his hip, a dead girl immortalized in cheap ink on creamy skin. A memory.

(Bam.

One shot is all it takes.)

Eames knows more about Arthur now, after a ten minute conversation, than he did after years sleeping next to him, years of tracing ink on skin and guessing at meanings.

(Permission to touch skin is not permission to get under it.)

Suddenly Mr. Arthur stands right in front of Eames and his eyes are sharp and dark, the way Arthur’s are. There’s fire left in the old man, something that survived a screwed-up marriage and a son with dreams too big and deadly to contain. “Promise me you will look after my son, Mr. Eames. Promise me you won’t let him get lost.”

As if Eames could budge Arthur even an inch. As if they aren’t both in too deep already. He remembers the fever hot, slick-dirty months after they ran, the months without dreams, without Somnacin. He knows he’ll never go there again. Knows he’ll never stop dreaming.

(And Arthur, darling Arthur, is so much deeper, so much longer in this game already.)

The only promise Eames can make is that, when Arthur finally goes down (in a hail of bullets or into the rabbit hole to madness), he will be right there with him, gun in hand.

But he’s a liar and a thief and so he says, “Yes,” as easy as breathing.

+.

Arthur’s mother becomes a sparrow him his other hipbone, black and grey, feathers soft enough to almost touch, almost feel. It’s a stark contrast to the blotchy, thick star on his other side, but it fits in a way Eames can’t quite put into words.

He asks, later, why the bird. Arthur shrugs into the dark. “She always wanted to fly away.”

(It’s grief, in its own way.)

Eames frames the bird with one hand while he goes down on Arthur. The next morning the spot beside him is cold and Arthur gone.

+

Silence.

+

Eames finds a pretty little blonde to shag, kisses her for an entire weekend, until her lips look like strawberries left in the sun, (hot slick red rotting), drops her at her workplace on Monday and forgets her name by Tuesday.

(She’s not the first he’s taken to his to bed in absence of Arthur, but somehow she marks a change anyway. She feels final. Eames is old and sentimental and ridiculous. Bloody hell.)

Months later, halfway across the globe, he picks up a school boy, sugary sweet eighteen, fucks him in the dark and afterwards trails a finger down his bare spine, says, “You should get ink.”

The boy blinks up at him, sleepy and defiant, the mixture that drew Eames in the first place. “Are you offering or something? You do tats?”

“No.”

+

He does another job with the Cobbs, late one spring. It’s the semi-legal kind of work they both adore, especially now that Mal is slowly rounding, pregnancy barely visible but the glow of it reaching wide and far. There’s no way, no angle from which to look at her, and miss that she’s with child.

(Eames draws her and never quite catches her radiance.)

Dom does the necessary research himself, Mal is their architect, Eames the forger. No chemist required, the standard drugs will do. Eames feels it all goes a bit too smoothly, but the job really is that simple.

There’s time enough for Mal to drag them out for a picnic in a nearby park, chequered blanket, basket, wine, the whole nine yards. Dom looks like an idiot the whole time, smiling hard enough to make Eames’s face hurt.

(He doesn’t miss Arthur. That would be ridiculous.)

After they’ve eaten, Mal demands a dance but Dom has not two but three left feet and possibly two left hands, as well, and he refuses steadfastly, claiming he’ll manage to break his pregnant wife’s ankle without meaning to. So Mal sets her sights on Eames, who gives in gracefully and twirls her around a perfectly Disney field of grass and little pink flowers he can’t identify.

Mal laughs and laughs and laughs, sparkling like diamonds in the sun, alive and loud and brilliant, speaking about crime and love and beauty like she knows it all.

“I can see why he loves you so much,” Eames finally blurts, and his own face might hurt, too, from smiling. (It’ll hurt more, later, when she’s gone and the memory of how alive she was will be brutal and brilliant, still.)

“Dom?” she asks, twirling under his arm, forward, back, around.

“Arthur,” he corrects. She blinks big eyes at him, momentarily confused, but he can see the pieces slot into place in her mind, just like they eventually slotted into place in his.

(This Mal is Arthur’s Mal. This Eames is Arthur’s Eames. He feels the need to say hello to her, like they’ve just been introduced.)

“Oh,” Mal finally breathes and laughs, long and hard. And then, “Would you like me to tell you embarrassing childhood stories about him, Mr. Eames?”

Of course he says yes.

Three days later, when the job is done and all their transactions finished, Mal bends herself around Eames’s back to whisper in his ear, “Should I tell our darling Arthur something for you?”

(At this point, Eames hasn’t had a life sign from Arthur in thirteen months and at least two new tattoos.)

“Tell him I said hello, will you, love?”

+

Philippa’s birth announcement comes from Arthur, including all her measurements, a time and a date. And then a second text. They made me godfather.

(Even in writing, it sounds mildly stunned.)

Closely followed by, Mal says you’re invited to the baptism. Don’t wear paisley.

+

Phillipa’s great day brings a harried looking Dom and a radiant Mal. Eames pecks her on the cheek and admires her daughter dutifully before wandering off. Dom catches him half an hour later and drags him aside, introduces him to ‘a friend of his by the name of Arthur’ and then hurries off again before they can correct him.

For shits and giggles, they mime not knowing each other all day and Eames thinks they’re being ridiculous, thinks this is ridiculous, because they haven’t seen each other in almost two years and here they are, taking the piss.

(Eames thinks the word ‘ridiculous’ pops up too often in his life. He blames Arthur.)

Long after midnight he sneaks into Arthur’s room and after Arthur’s half-arsed attempts at kicking him out, they shag very quietly and very hurriedly. He sends Eames back to his room afterwards, like a naughty schoolboy.

Morning finds them both sitting in the kitchen, looking half-dead. Eames pours them both coffee while Mal coos over her darling baby and Arthur watches, allowing himself to show his exhaustion for once. Dom comes stumbling in and Eames can’t quite shut up, asks, “Still black, darling?”

And Arthur, true to form, snaps, “Don’t fucking call me that, Eames.”

Dom catches on with a slow blink. “You two know each other.”

“Project Somnacin,” they chorus dutifully. Dom scowls all day.

+

A butterfly right below the gun, detailed and delicate. Philippa.

Sanskrit poetry down the outside of one hip and Arthur doesn’t say a word about it.

A pair of masks – Comedy and Tragedy – on his biceps, sculpted artfully to the muscle and Arthur provides a laconic, “Don’t believe what you see.”

(Eames is smart enough not to ask if the gun shot scar under the ink has anything to do with that lesson.)

Two Norse runes on his chest, just below the shoulder joints. It takes Eames two days of research to find their meaning. Mannaz, stands for the self, individual or collective. Eames finds it appropriate, in this business of losing oneself. Kenaz translates, quite simply, as ‘beacon’ or ‘fire’. Eames has nothing to add to that.

(One day, Arthur will set the world aflame and Eames will be the only one who isn’t surprised.)

+

For hours, Eames traces dark lines with deft fingers while above them, the sky purples and then shatters, stars falling like glittering rain. Afterward, Arthur shoots him out of the dream with a smirk and Eames wonders how anyone, anywhere, could ever even think of giving this up.

+

There’s more poetry in a foreign language running along Arthur’s waistband and it’s in the itchy, healing stage when Eames first sees it, on the second night of the Cobbs’ first post-baby job.

The next day Arthur keeps twitching his jaw like he wants to rub himself against his chair and moan in bliss. No-one else notices, but then no-one else has made a study of the man for as long as Eames has.

They take a break and Eames whisks Arthur away into an empty room, holds out his hands for the little tube of Bepanthen he knows Arthur will carry and applies it to the crumbling black scab carefully.

“You could just leave your shirt untucked, darling. It would probably chafe less.”

“No,” Arthur answers and that’s the first time Eames realizes that the expensive, beautiful suits Arthur wears buttoned up perfectly aren’t just a way to make him look older, to make people take him seriously. They’re also there to hide the ink, because the ink is a secret and Eames honestly, absolutely, did not realize it until this moment.

Arthur’s gallery of successes and failures is a secret.

(Eames feels humbled and dumb and hates both with a resigned sigh.)

+

“We could stick together, for a while,” Eames mutters into Arthur’s pale, perfect skin, half asleep.

It’s bloody stupid and he leaves before morning.

+

Eames keeps up with Arthur through Mal and the rumour mill, wonders if Arthur does the same and never asks.

He works with the Cobbs and with rank amateurs, with professionals who whisper about Arthur like he will appear if called three times.

They fear him, admire him, hate him, want him. But all of them respect him, for his skills and his ruthlessness, his coldness. Eames smiles at all of them, builds up his own reputation, gets rich fast and loses his fortunes faster.

(Eames wonders if his reputation matches Arthur’s when he’s out of earshot. Somehow he doubts it. Even at his most spectacular, Eames lacks the sharpness, the vicious brilliance Arthur exudes with every breath. Arthur speaks seven languages, but his first will always be murder.)

The criminal lifestyle with its ups and downs lulls him like the ocean. He fucks colleagues, fucks strangers, gets more ink on his shoulders and back, tattoos that mean absolutely nothing.

(That’s not spite.)

Arthur pulls a job in Shanghai that has the entire dreamsharing world going a bit nuts. Three levels. Three. No-one’s ever done more than two.

Eames forges women, children, animals. He lies and steals and dabbles in his old passion, meatspace forgery.

He makes money, he loses it.

Arthur barely makes it out of Romania in one piece.

Mal is pregnant again.

Eames screws a job in Sri Lanka and runs for his life.

James is born and Arthur walks away from a clusterfuck in South America, leaving twenty odd bodies on the ground, on both sides.

A second, smaller butterfly joins the first, siblings united under the stark black of a gun aimed at a heart. That’s Arthur for you, Eames thinks, trailing his tongue along the trigger and muzzle, biting right above the heart until he tastes copper and Arthur fists his hair to pull him away.

The Cobbs try to stop dreaming and return to it within six months. They look hollowed out and hunted when Eames welcomes them back.

Addiction.

(You can never stop dreaming. He wonders if any of them ever planned for this. Did they plan to walk away one day? To raise their children without dreams? Did they think the magic of chemicals and hallucination would release them?)

Arthur tours Europe, six jobs in seven months and Eames runs into him four times, quick, dirty nights in expensive hotels before they return to their separate jobs and lives.

Mal deteriorates.

Eames works a few corporate espionage jobs that amuse him to no end, with rank amateurs that drive him up the wall. He sends a text off to Arthur, begging him for permission to shoot the bloody idiots.

Arthur replies instantly, but not with anything Eames expects.

Mal is dead.

+

Mal is dead, Mal is gone, Mal is a suicide, bright, brilliant Mal.

(Eames remembers her in sunlight, pregnant and so alive it hurt to look at her and he gets drunk, far, far too drunk.)

Mal is a body in a coffin, Mal is six feet under, Mal isn’t a mother anymore, has left her children behind. Mal is nothing.

Mal is a grey scale image of the ocean, endless and calm, of a pale beach, of crying seagulls.

Mal loved the sea and Mal is the sea, below Arthur’s navel, gently sloping upwards on his side, toward the butterflies, toward her children, toward the gun that means one shot is all it takes here, above, in meatspace.

Eames wonders how he could ever find Arthur’s symbolism shallow and digs blunt nails into new ink until it hurts them both.

(Bam.

Nothing’s sacred anymore.)

+

A year later they only meet on jobs because Arthur is busy keeping Dom alive and the last shreds of his sanity intact and Eames is loitering around California a lot, keeping an eye on Phillippa and James, watching them grow.

(He’s their favourite uncle, long after they’ve both forgotten Daddy as more than a voice on the phone.)

One night Eames is woken by his phone chirping and an envelope spinning dizzily across the screen. Text message from Abby, which is what Arthur is saved as at the moment.

I just killed a man for you.

Eames stares. (How do you respond to this? Are there cards for the occasion?)

Ukrainian. Asked about you. Sunflower, I think.

Sunflower is a code word. Sunflower means get your shit together and get the fuck out because someone’s coming for you.

The last text he receives is, I ruined my fucking suit for you.

He thumbs a quick thank you, because he has no idea what else to say and sends it off before dumping the phone, in several pieces, along the way to the airport.
Mombasa, he thinks. Yussuf probably has a bloody couch for him, at least.

+

Arthur gets a red dice tattooed just above the crook of his left elbow. It’s the only colour on his monochromatic body, the only splash of life.

It’s a perfect copy of the die he keeps in his pocket, his totem, his anchor to reality. He plays with the real die occasionally, but keeps it close, secret. Away from others.

After Mal, that seems important.

It takes Eames the entirety of a two-week job to realize he’s the only one aware that the real die is a fake totem, and the fake die the real one.

In dreams, there is no red die on Arthur’s arm. Eames has no idea how Arthur does it, how he changes his self-image to reflect his waking self perfectly, minus that one detail.

(And he’s supposed to be the bloody forger here, damn it.)

But there it is.

Arthur’s real totem is a quick check under his rolled up sleeve, a graze of fingers against skin that’s just the slightest bit raised. (He probably made the poor artist add something to the ink to make sure it turned out this way.)

Eames is the only one who knows. Everyone else looks at the die in Arthur’s hands and falls for the ruse.

(He has no idea what it means, this trust, this truth, him knowing and everyone else only thinking they do. It means something but damn if he understands it.)

He does the only sensible thing: he flees back to Mombasa and gets so drunk he thinks he’s gone blind.

+

“Inception,” Dom says.

(A man blowing his head off with his military issued gun, Arthur’s eyes like bullet holes when he finds him, peanuts in a tree house. Bam.)

Arthur says it’s impossible. Eames says it’s possible. Both are right. Surprisingly, Arthur’s version is the one that’ll leave less bodies on the ground.

So he says yes (because he was never going to say no) and lets Saito and Dom drag him to Paris, of all bloody places. He still remembers dying in the Seine, even if he never did. Another bit about dreamsharing they never spell out for you: It taints everything, sometimes with magic, sometimes with horror but always, always, with a high you think you can never come down from.

Lovely, that. He snorts and squares his shoulder, marches into the warehouse like he owns it, winks at Arthur and flirts with Ariadne because she’s cute as a button, tiny and shiny and red.

Arthur glowers and snaps and Eames snaps back. It’s darling-this, don’t-call-me-that, pulling each other’s pigtails the way they have been doing for… god, has it really been this long?

Almost ten years.

Ten years of Eames and Arthur orbiting each other, colliding and bouncing off the other. Ten years of tattoos on Arthur’s skin and bodies on the ground, of war stories and funerals.

Eames is on the wrong side of thirty and older than he’s ever been. He watches their little sprite of an architect flit around the warehouse, flirting with Arthur, pushing Dom places no-one wants him to go. Was he ever that young? Was Arthur?

He doesn’t notice that he’s reached around Arthur from where’s he’s standing behind him in front of the whiteboard and started tracing the outline of the star through multiple layers of cloth. Not until Arthur elbows him in the gut anyway and steps away, smooth as all get out and snarls, “Personal space, Mr. Eames. I suggest you investigate the concept.”

Eames cocks his hip, thumbs in his belt loops and smirks. “Of course, darling. Would you like to help?”

Arthur’s expression goes flat. “I am sure you can handle the daunting task on your own.”

(He says it in the exact same tone of voice he once said, steal me. Challenge and sex and derision, exquisitely crafted to make Eames feel seven feet tall and absolutely insignificant in same breath.)

“Guys,” Ariadne interrupts from where she’s puttering around her models. “Do you have to fight all the time? Some of us are trying to work.”

Eames looks at her, startled and suspecting it shows. But he doesn’t say anything, so she huffs and stomps away.

Behind Eames, Arthur quietly starts laughing so Eames raises his hand, cocks an imaginary gun and says, “Bam.”

Arthur still jumps, just the tiniest bit. Satisfaction rolls in Eames’s gut.

+

One night in Sydney, after following the mark around all day, Eames calculates the number of all the people he’s killed. Calculates also, the number of projections he slew since he first stepped into a dream, a newborn god. Approximations only. There were machine guns and bombs and grenades and once, memorably, a tank.

Eames has seen worlds crumble under the blinding blast of atomic bombs and died with the satisfaction of knowing that he was the one that pushed the button.

He calculates the times he’s died in a dream, blood on his lips and holes in his gut and also the times Arthur was the one to finish him off, a bullet to the skull, the sleekest, most elegant of gifts. Wine, dinner, bullets.

He adds up all the times he’s kissed Arthur while he was bleeding, the times they’ve fought, back to back, gun in each hand and the times he’s looked at Arthur and seen only fire and murder and wondered how, in god’s name, this world hasn’t burned to the ground around them by now.

(How he hasn’t completely cut himself up on Arthur’s gleaming edges by now.)

The numbers are enormous, large and fearsome, and Eames tries to recoil a bit in horror, at seeing it all spelled out like this. Tries to scrounge up regret for what he’s done to this world.

But he’s a thief. Taking is what he does.

He gropes blindly for his phone, dials Arthur’s number from memory and asks, even as he hears the racket of a restaurant on Arthur’s end, Ariadne’s voice asking who’s calling, “Would you care for me if I were a simple accountant, darling?”

“Are you high?” Arthur asks and then becomes tinny as he makes excuses, finds a quieter place to talk.

“No. Unfortunately. A tragedy, really. Would you?”

Arthur must be tipsy, at the very least, to let Eames get away with this. “Redundant, Mr. Eames. I never would have met you.”

(Eames likes to imagine that he’d somehow, someway, always collide with Arthur, no matter what world they lived in, but he’s not sodding romantic enough to say that out loud.)

Instead he hums, says, “Too right.”

And hangs up.

+

Ariadne is about to stomp off yet again when Eames rolls his eyes, blocks her path and says, “Love, we’re not fighting.”

(I’ve been in love with Arthur for ten years and this is how I say, ‘I love you’, and he puts bullets in my brain in return. Somehow, he doesn’t think she would understand that quite right.)

She gives him one sardonic eyebrow, too adorable for words. “Could have fooled me.”

“Arthur and me, we simply know each other too well.”

Her expression says she doesn’t believe him, still, because they’re too vicious for it to be just flirting. Sweet, innocent girl. He smiles. “There’s just nothing sacred anymore, these days, pet, is there?”

Arthur’s hand twitches toward his hip, where even the sleek cut of his jacket can’t hide the bulge of a gun. Eames bows, mockingly, and goes on a coffee run.

+

“Do I ever get my own?” Eames asks, languid and fucked out, less than twenty-four hours after inception, raw and tired and exhilarated. Half-grieving for Mal anew and angry with Cobb and proud. So bloody proud, it’s ridiculous.

(There’s that word again.)

Arthur, lying next to him, smoking, raises his head limply, curiously. His chest and arms are a dark tangle of skin and ink and scars, a network, a hatch work, a patchwork, a forest to get lost in. (Tracing Arthur’s life in black lines, Eames knows how Alice must have felt.)

Eames remembers when all that skin was almost bare, nothing but a few numbers, a gun and a dead girl. Now Arthur is a puzzle of his loves and losses, his torso almost filled. He’s not even thirty yet and he’s running out of space.

(Eames suspects they’re living wrong, but remembers the feeling of him and Arthur, dreaming the impossible time and again. They’re immortal until the day they die.)

“What?” Arthur asks. His eyes are red from all the crying he didn’t do for Mal, for how she didn’t kill herself. Cobb murdered her, put the madness in her head and left it there to fester.

Eames doesn’t think he’ll work with Dom again. Not anytime soon. Doesn’t think he can, not with the memory of Mal, sun-bright, pregnant and vibrant, still wedged somewhere in his skull, the memory of her teenage self running from a runty Arthur, laughing so hard she could barely breathe. (Out of all the deaths he’s witnessed, only Mal’s seems like a sin.)

He puts a palm flat over the gun and the butterflies, trails along the beach, finger walks along the scattered lines of poetry in a dozen different languages.

“Ink,” he tells Arthur’s navel, framed by a star and a sparrow, the tip of a sword almost, but not quite, touching it.

“No,” the answer comes, instantly, coldly. Arthur’s hand sinks into Eames’s hair, faintly trailing heat and smoke from the cigarette still between his fingers. Eames reaches around his head, snatches it and takes a long drag.

He rolls onto his back, away. (He expected this answer, knew it, understood it. He thinks he would have preferred a gun to his forehead, Arthur’s beautiful hands clenching and pulling the trigger. A bullet as a gift.

Permission to touch skin is not permission to get under it.)

“Why ever not, darling?” He pulls one knee up, smokes in silence until Arthur rolls after him, onto his stomach, on top of Eames and into him, pushing him down, shoving him away. Smothering him with weight and heat.

Arthur’s body always tells of rage and murder and locked doors and Eames has long since learned to listen only to his words, not the line of his shoulders, always poised for a fight.

(Arthur could say something like, I took you to meet my father, could say I let you see me. Could say, I let you steal me.)

What he does say is, “You’re always here.”

+

They dream together, months after inception, in a rundown hut somewhere in South America, dream of a clean, modern hotel with five hundred identical rooms.

They have the mark, they have the safe, they have the information and they have fifteen minutes until the kick.

Eames is bleeding from a steak knife to the gut and Arthur is bent over him, kisses him with hot lips, kisses him as he presses a cold barrel to his temple.

“Darling,” Eames says into the kiss, tasting blood. “You’re so very good at shooting people in the head.”

“I’m only waking them up,” Arthur answers, dimpling a bit. Eames does so love those dimples, all the more because they show so seldom.

And because Arthur’ll never say it, bloody wanker that he is, Eames says it for him.

Says, “You let me steal you.”

(They’re immortal until the day they die and Eames hopes he’ll die like this.)

Arthur smiles as he pulls the trigger.

+

Fin

+