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Robber Barons

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Arthur has been trained for this, in many more ways than the average bank manager. The protocols are simple and straightforward, and he’d like to think he has a very good grasp of concepts like unnecessary risks and collateral damage. This is not a dream: if anyone gets shot they will, likely, die. So he opens the vault for the robbers, just like the corporate manual instructs. He doesn’t try to fight them, like he might if this were one of the countless training scenarios he ran while he was in the Army. He lets them take the money because it’s inked, and because it isn’t his. He doesn’t try to be sneaky and set off the alarm for fear of getting anyone hurt. He doesn’t try to play the hero.

Except someone must have called the cops, because there are sirens blasting and flashes of red and blue lighting up the bank lobby like a Fourth of July disco. The robbers panic and start cursing at him and Diana, the assistant manager, and the tone of their voices sets his teeth on edge — he can tell they’re serious. They’ll start shooting their way out if they have to, and when one of them grabs Diana and Arthur watches the muzzle of a gun get intimate with the dyed blond hair at her temple, he can’t fight his instincts any more. “Take me,” he says. “I’m the manager. Let her go, and I’ll show you the way out the back.”

No sooner does he register the look of relief-guilt-terror on her face — he doesn’t even hear her say his name, though he’s relatively sure that’s the word her lips are forming — when the other robber has Arthur’s arms behind his back and is growling in a harsh, gravelly accent (North Africa somewhere, Arthur thinks). “Lead the way, then, and make it quick.”

From there it’s something of a blur, because Arthur’s never been in a situation quite like this. Maybe his reactions aren’t the most appropriate, but the adrenaline is cruising fast in his veins and all he knows is he doesn’t want to go out like this. When they slam out the fire door that opens into the parking garage, the thief who’s holding him barks at the other to hotwire the nearest car. “Wait,” Arthur says, out of nowhere. “The blue one’s mine, keys are in my pocket.”

He’s still a little stunned at himself for saying it when he feels a huge hand running rough over his pockets — first his jacket, then his trousers, grazing close to his dick and, embarrassingly, making him gasp. Then the hand has his car keys, and for a flash he thinks this is it, they’ll let him go and steal his car to get away and sure, he’ll have to deal with a shit ton of paperwork for the next month, but at least but nobody got shot and at the end of the day that’s a pretty good accomplishment when armed robbers come banging down your door. When his captor shoves him in the back seat and climbs in behind him, he’s so surprised he barely gets his wits together to protest before they’re peeling out of the garage and weaving their way through the maze of city streets with the wail of sirens fading behind them.

“What do you want with me?” he manages to ask as they make their way cross-town, and it doesn’t take a detective to figure out they’re heading for the Lincoln Tunnel. Both the robbers have pushed their ski masks up to uncover their mouths, and when he glances sidelong, the man next to him gives him a crooked smile that borders on a leer. The thief licks his lips — Arthur can’t help but watch the deliberate, slick movement of tongue over that plush mouth — but before he can say anything the getaway driver is barking, “Eames, shut him up.”

The crook beside Arthur — Eames is his name, Arthur files that away for the police report he’ll surely have to fill out when all this is over, provided he lives that long — grimaces, and waves the gun he’s had trained on Arthur a little wildly. “Thank you, Yusuf. Why don’t we just give him our fingerprint records and tell him where our mums live?” Arthur has to hold back a smile, because these guys broke into a very secure bank in midtown Manhattan like it was child’s play not five minutes ago, and now they’re bickering like two of the Three Stooges. They are also, Arthur notes, speaking with different accents than the ones they used inside the bank. He wonders if they’re actually British, or if these are fake too.

“Taking a hostage wasn’t bloody well in the plan, now was it?” the driver — Yusuf — retorts. “So what exactly do you intend to do with him?”

Arthur turns to see Eames appraising him closely; something about the scrutiny makes the heat rise in Arthur’s face. “I don’t quite know yet, do I? I thought he might be useful.” Eames’ eyes, crackling like a sea storm, meet Arthur’s own. “Let’s start with you taking that tie off and giving it here.” Eames makes a tiny but very pointed gesture with the barrel of his pistol, which reminds Arthur he’s in no place to protest, so he loosens the Windsor around his neck and slides the striped silk free of his collar. Eames binds Arthur’s hands — quite tightly; this guy knows what he’s doing — and then leans in to snap the handkerchief out of the breast pocket of Arthur’s suit jacket. Arthur opens his mouth to say something — what, he doesn’t know, but something — and Eames promptly stuffs the piece of cloth in to gag him. Instead of words, all Arthur can generate are muffled sounds of protest. Then, suddenly, Eames is right there, lips a millimeter from Arthur’s ear, and Arthur freezes. “Believe me, darling, I’ve got other things I’d rather stuff into that pretty mouth of yours.”

By now they’re heading down the ramp into the tunnel, and as the daylight disappears Yusuf says, “It would be useful, Eames, if he doesn’t know where we’re going.”

Arthur thinks he knows what Yusuf means by that, but before he can turn fully to look to Eames for confirmation there’s a sudden blunt impact to the side of his jaw and then, tunnel aside, everything goes black.

Arthur wakes feeling like he’s been kicked in the head by an animal of the hooved persuasion. As soon as he remembers why he feels so battered he sits bolt upright, which isn’t the wisest move. “Fuck!” he curses; the handkerchief is gone from mouth, but when he tries to bring his hands up to cradle his head he only half-succeeds because they’re still bound by his tie. The movement also brings to his attention the fact that his ankles are restrained as well.

“Ah, you’re awake,” comes a voice, and when Arthur turns toward it — slowly — he sees a person-shaped figure with dark skin and a poof of black hair. He blinks the fuzziness from his vision as the man approaches, holding something in his hands. A glass of water, and two pills.

“Are you trying to poison me?” Arthur croaks, then coughs with how dry his throat is.

“If I wanted to poison you, I would have done it while you were unconscious,” the man remarks with a very unsettling grin. “I'm a chemist, you know. But if we haven’t killed you yet, there’s no real point to it now. Look, you can see where it says ‘Tylenol’ right on the pill.”

The effort of squinting to read the tiny print on the capsule redoubles the pounding in Arthur’s head, and he’s got to admit the guy has a point. The crooks got the money and, apparently, got away. Adding a murder charge at this point would be a bad move. “Thanks,” he says, grudgingly. It takes him a minute to get the pills and the water down with his hands restrained, but he manages and then settles back on what seems to be a bed in a motel room. “Where am I?”

“Ah, can’t tell you that, now can I? It would defeat the purpose of knocking you out, anyway, and you don’t want to have gone through that for nothing.”

“Fine. Will you at least tell me what you want with me? Or what you’re going to do with me?” Arthur closes his eyes and tries to remember the details of the robbery. “What happened to the other guy — Eames, right? And you’re Yusuf.”

“Hmm,” Yusuf agrees, though there’s disgruntlement there. “How fabulous that you remember our names. Alright, here’s the deal. I need you to tell me about the dye packs in the money. If you help, we’ll let you go.”

The water is helping Arthur’s head clear, and he can nearly focus on what Yusuf is asking. “Didn’t they go off already? They’re supposed to go off once you get out of the bank. The timer is only 15 seconds.”

“Oh yes, they went off. I’d apologize for the trunk of your car being coated in methylamino anthraquinone, but considering we dumped it in a ravine, that’s really the least of your worries.”

“Awesome,” Arthur says, and at least he’s getting the hang of rubbing his face despite his bound wrists. It’s helping with the headache, some. “So if the dye packs already went off, what do you need from me?”

“Manufacturer,” Yusuf answers. “There are six different manufacturers of these devices, and the chemical components are all slightly different. If I know who made these, I know what’s in the dye, and that makes my job far, far easier.”

Arthur looks up at Yusuf, perplexed. “Huh?”

“I told you, I’m a chemist,” Yusuf replies. “If I know what’s in the dye I can neutralize it. It’s like dry cleaning, if you will. With the right solution, I can basically make the dye disappear, and the money is, to the casual observer anyway, good as new.”

“Oh.” It’s news to Arthur that there are criminals capable of getting the dye out. He wonders, with more than a little anxiety, who the hell these guys are. He weighs his options and decides quickly that telling Yusuf what he wants to know is the best course of action. Arthur’s still tightly bound, Yusuf has a pistol in a shoulder holster, and Eames is an unaccounted-for piece of the equation. “They’re Proclus dye packs. I don’t know if there’s a specific type. Does that help?”

Arthur sighs at the broad smile that breaks out across Yusuf’s face. “Oh, yes, quite! That saves me potential days’ worth of work, or from ruining some of the money entirely. Eames was right, kidnapping you wasn’t such a bad idea.”

“Where is Eames?”

“He’s out covering our tracks, so to speak. He should be back any minute. Once he is, he can take care of escorting you back to safety.”

Arthur is debating whether it’s a smart move to entreat Yusuf to take him. There’s something about Eames that makes Arthur very nervous, and he doesn’t know why but he’s sure Eames is the more dangerous of the two. He can tell it’d be a waste of breath to ask, though, so he just leans his head back and closes his eyes. He should probably study Yusuf’s face so he can give the police an accurate description. But keeping his eyes shut significantly reduces the ache in his head, so he enjoys the relief for a few minutes. Actually, he might doze off for a little while. He’s in the middle of wondering if he has a concussion when he’s interrupted by a very boisterous Eames. “Sleeping beauty! How good to see you awake! Feeling alright?”

Arthur nods tentatively. He’d be better if he were, oh, anywhere but here, but he’s close to getting out of this mess and he doesn’t want to botch it now by running his mouth. “He gave me the manufacturer,” says Yusuf. “I’ll have the money clean by morning.”

The grin Eames turns on Arthur is overwhelming, to say the least. “Splendid!” Eames says, rubbing his hands together and coming toward Arthur. “I knew you were worth it.”

Arthur can’t understand why that gives him a little flutter of pleasure.

“Get rid of him,” Yusuf says matter-of-factly. “I’ll get to work on the money. The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”

A few minutes later, Arthur has a pillowcase over his head and he’s being manhandled — carried, mostly — out of the motel and into a car. Arthur wonders where they are that Eames and Yusuf can carry a hooded, bound man to a car and no one will see. Or, if they do, they won’t call the cops. After he’s in the car, they untie his feet, but it doesn’t help much — he can’t see anything and his hands are still bound. He’d bet money that one or both of them have a gun pointed at him, so he keeps still. Then the doors slam, the engine starts and Arthur can feel the car begin to move.

“Alone at last,” Eames says, with that lecherousness that makes Arthur nervous. “Tell me about yourself, Arthur Roland.”

Forget nervous; Arthur is terrified. “How do you know my name?”

“Being the thorough criminal that I am, I had to go through your wallet, didn’t I?” Eames says like it’s Sunday brunch conversation. “28 years old. Six-foot-one. Brown eyes, brown hair. Upper East side.”

Fear brings out the defensiveness in Arthur. “Well, that’s me. Nothing else to tell, really.”

“Oh, I beg to differ,” says Eames, sly, even a bit of threat in his tone, and Arthur desperately wishes he didn’t have this damn hood on. At least being able to see would make him feel less helpless, less trapped. “So, were you police or military?”

“What makes you think that?” Arthur decides he should try to deflect. Hopefully they’ll get to wherever Eames is taking him quickly; the idea of Eames knowing all this about him makes his whole body tighten up.

“You remained remarkably calm for someone being taken hostage at gunpoint during a robbery,” Eames says coolly. “You didn’t panic. You didn’t try to fight back. The only heroic move you made was to offer yourself up instead of that pretty girlfriend of yours.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Arthur says, mostly by gut reaction. “Diana is a very nice woman. She has a husband and two kids at home. I couldn’t let you take her.”

“Isn’t there anyone at home worrying about you?” There’s amusement in Eames’ tone, and it rankles Arthur. He’s got the same annoyed tenseness in his shoulders he gets when his mother asks him whether he’s seeing any pretty young ladies.

“Just my cat,” Arthur replies tersely.

“So you’re a handsome, single, young, ex-military bank manager?” Eames teases. Arthur doesn’t know what made Eames decide he’d been in the military, but rather than ask he decides it’s better to leave it alone. “Too bad we didn’t meet under other circumstances, Arthur. You’re quite the catch.”

Arthur is suddenly glad for the hood so that Eames can’t see him blushing furiously. He’s desperate to change the subject. “So why didn’t you knock me out this time, if it’s so important to not know where your hideout is?”

Eames laughs. “Sorry about that, I didn’t want to do it. But Yusuf is a paranoid wanker, for all his more redeeming characteristics. Have you ever seen that movie Sneakers? They kidnap Robert Redford and toss him in the trunk, and later he finds the bad guys based on the road sounds he heard. Yusuf’s seen that movie about a hundred times.”

Even Arthur has to admit it’s kind of funny. It would be funnier if he didn’t have a headache and what’ll probably be a huge bruise on his jaw. “So you’re sure it can’t be done?”

“Well, I’m mostly sure,” Eames says, and then his voice changes and whatever semblance of camaraderie had crept in between them is instantly gone. “But I’m very sure you won’t tell anyone, even if you knew exactly where we were. So the point is moot.”

Arthur doesn’t need to ask why Eames is so certain, but Eames tells him anyway. “I know your name. I know where you live. You don’t care if we get away with the money, so long as no one gets hurt. You seem to be a very smart, very reasonable man, Arthur. If you tell them anything, you have very little to gain and a great deal to lose.”

There’s silence after that, for what feels like hours until the car finally comes to a stop and Eames kills the engine. He pulls the hood from Arthur’s head and after wincing at the sudden brightness, Arthur sees they’re at a bus station. “Here we are. You can take a bus back to your posh little life. I’d have hired you a limo, but it would’ve drawn too much attention.”

“My life is not posh,” Arthur says, because he’s getting a little cranky from this whole ordeal. “And how am I supposed to buy a bus ticket if you took my wallet?”

Eames laughs again, and Arthur is starting to feel like he’s the butt of the joke. “Darling, I didn’t take your wallet. We did just steal over a million dollars. No, I like to know things about my hostages, that’s all. Business cards for gay bars, dry cleaning receipts, membership card for the shooting range, that sort of thing. You’re an interesting man, Arthur.”

Arthur turns, as angry as he is frightened now, but before he can say anything — yell or curse or demand to know who Eames thinks he is — Eames is out of the car and circling to the passenger side. He opens Arthur’s door with a gesture that’s a sad parody of chivalry, and Arthur clambers out, ungracefully since his hands are still tied. The cool night air feels good on his face, and he decides to keep his mouth shut when freedom is so near. He settles for glaring as Eames shuts the door and then steps in close, too close, and takes Arthur’s hands in his. “Do you know why I put you in the back of that car instead of leaving you at the bank?” Eames asks, all roughness gone from his voice, as he fingers the silk that restrains Arthur’s wrists. He flicks his eyes up to meet Arthur’s and Arthur stops breathing — Eames is looking at him… almost apologetically, and as sharp as his eyes were before, they are soft now, and deep and open. He’s handsome, Arthur realizes, with his rugged jaw and plush lips and broad, broad shoulders.

“Why?” Arthur asks, and the word breaks a little. He’d be blushing, but his face is still hot from the hood.

Eames’ mouth quirks into a rueful smile. “Because you’re gorgeous. When you asked us to take you instead of the girl, I just… I couldn’t resist.”

There’s a gun tucked into the back of Eames’ pants, but they’re close enough to the bright lights of the station that people would see if he pulled it out. Arthur could run — should run, right now — and Eames would let him go. Arthur could get the tie off his wrists himself, could have the cops here in minutes and give a description of Eames and the car he’s driving, and they could very possibly catch Eames and Yusuf and get the money back. But that’s not how Arthur wants this to end; in fact, suddenly, he doesn’t want this to end at all. For a crazy half-second he thinks about asking Eames to take him back to the hideout, about telling Eames he could help them, that he has useful skills and he’d only take a small cut. It’s been years since he felt so unsure, so on his toes, so caught up in the moment. So alive.

“I hope you forgive me for this, darling,” Eames says, and kisses him.

Arthur can’t remember the last time his heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest like this. It’s amazing.

He melts into the kiss, his lips pulling into a smile when Eames makes a pleased little noise against his mouth. Eames’ hand comes up to cup his jaw and his skin tingles like the air is charged with electricity. He nips at Eames’ lower lip, and Eames drops his other hand to Arthur’s hip to pull their bodies together. Right now he’d beg Eames to take him with him, but that would mean breaking the kiss and Arthur would sooner kick a puppy. And then some asshole drives by and taps the horn and Eames pulls away, clearing his throat, embarrassed.

“Eames…” Arthur starts, but he trips over what he wants to say next because the idea that Eames might say no — probably will say no — suddenly occurs to him and that might be more than he can handle right now.

“Right,” Eames says, not meeting Arthur’s eyes as he unties Arthur’s hands. “There you go.”

“Right,” Arthur parrots. “Here I go.”

“Take care of yourself, Arthur.” Eames is still fixated on the tie, now in his hands, winding it around one palm like a nervous schoolboy.

“Thanks,” Arthur says, feeling completely at a loss. “You too.”

They both hesitate there for a second, both watching the silk wrap and unwrap around the thick, rough skin of Eames’ hand. Finally, Arthur forces himself to take a step toward the bus terminal, and then another and another. When he’s almost at the ticket counter, he looks back to see Eames’ car pulling away. He tells himself the sinking in his chest is irrational, then turns and asks for a one-way fare to Manhattan.

When Arthur gets off the bus at the Port Authority, he finds the nearest police officer and immediately regrets it. It’s nearly morning by the time he’s finished answering the same questions for ten different people, signing statements and, mostly, sitting in cold, overly bright rooms drinking shitty coffee. He doesn’t tell them Eames or Yusuf’s names. He doesn’t tell them anything he doesn’t have to, and somehow the guilt of lying to the police, of aiding and abetting criminals, is completely assuaged by the knowledge that Eames would be grateful.

It’s daylight again by the time he finally gets back to his own apartment and crawls into bed. He’s exhausted, but the blood is still pounding too heavily in his veins for sleep. He closes his eyes against the ambient daylight that manages to illuminate the room despite his thick curtains, and thinks about Eames kissing him.

***

Arthur did not give up dreamshare because he wanted to. He remembers as if it were yesterday his commanding officer walking into the room, after calling an emergency meeting of the roughly two dozen men assigned to Project PASIV, and announcing that the higher-ups had decided to pull the plug: too expensive, too risky, too many variables and too few tangible results. Arthur had to fight the urge to jump to his feet and argue how insanely short-sighted it was to simply give up, especially now when they were just beginning to figure out what was possible. They’d barely begun to understand the nature of projections, that they were essentially pieces of one’s subconscious and could reveal information. Dreams were an unexplored frontier, one that could have such potential it was mind-boggling if you let yourself think about it for too long.

But arguing was pointless, of course, so Arthur kept his mouth shut; the officers running this project were as passionate about it — well, nearly as passionate about it — as Arthur, and wouldn’t have given up without a fight. The decision, he was certain, was more about politics and budget cuts than anything else, and as such, beyond the realm of reasonable discussion.

Arthur had been nearing the end of his four years in the Army, and until that day he’d had every intention of staying on, but without dreamshare the prospect of a military career held no interest for him. They offered him two options: transfer to an administrative position at Central Command, or an honorable discharge. He couldn’t stand the idea of sitting in his uniform, staring at some monitor and dreaming of dreaming, so he took the discharge and moved back home a little depressed, a lot disappointed and completely clueless as to what he was going to do. When his uncle, an executive at Wells Fargo, mentioned they were opening their management training program and giving preference to veterans, Arthur took the opportunity, not with relish but with no other prospects to speak of and a definite need to do something, lest his inactivity and his need for excitement drive him to make some bad decisions.

It wasn’t easy, training for a job that was full of protocols and processes when he’d been so used to creating and to thinking on his feet. But the learning curve was at least distracting and he enjoyed problem-solving and working with people. Not to mention, a job that had real-world applications, that facilitated people’s daily lives, was rewarding in a way that the theoretical nature of dreamshare never was. He did “dangerous” things, sure, like buying a motorcycle and bungee jumping and taking his Glock for regular target practice, to get that little spike of adrenaline he’d been missing, but as the months and then years passed, the itching under his skin faded and he slowly began to forget what it was like to dreamwalk.

So, three years after he left the Army, when he got a phone call from a woman named Mal Cobb claiming she and her husband had started a research-based dreamshare initiative at CalTech, Arthur politely declined her offer to participate. It was tempting, most certainly, but he’d just been given a position at one of Wells Fargo’s Manhattan branches, and he found himself looking forward to the challenge of running one of the nation’s largest banks’ busiest locations. He did not know what a private-sector, “research-based” dreamshare program would entail, but he guessed it would involve too many hours of stuffy, boring research and not nearly enough time in dreams. He wasn’t even sure how these people had gotten their hands on a PASIV, which had, at least as far as he knew, been proprietary military technology. He took Mrs. Cobb’s number — “in case you change your mind,” she’d said, and he promised her he wouldn't — hung up the phone, and started packing for his move to New York.

That had been the end of that, until the bank robbery. Until Eames.

***

The craving for adrenaline is like any addiction, really, both the ones we admit we have and the ones we don’t: a given amount of stimulus, over time, produces diminishing returns, and so we attempt to increase our exposure to the stimulus. Working in the military’s dreamshare program set Arthur’s threshold quite high — creating impossible skyscrapers and then jumping off them; mowing down platoons of projected soldiers with rocket launchers; dying on a near-daily basis. He’s done his best, over the last five years as a civilian, to wean himself off the rush that comes when the norepinephrine starts pinging through his neurons, lighting him up like he’s hit the multiball on a pinball machine. But the last two days — tied up with a gun pointed at him countless times by two armed and, in his opinion, quite dangerous criminals — have as good as erased all that weaning he’s tried to do. It’s like he quit cigarettes and then suddenly smoked an entire pack. The initial rush of it left him nearly sick, but now his hands are twitching and he can’t sit still and he needs it again.

He fights the urge for nearly two weeks. At first, it’s easy; the cops, the FBI and the forensic specialists at the bank are all over him every minute of the day, asking the same questions like broken records, demanding signatures on statements and waivers. He laughably spends the better part of an entire day in a psychologist’s office being tested for any adverse stress reactions to the experience. But after it all winds down, that itching under his skin is still there and so he pulls out the little black book where he’d scribbled down Mal Cobb’s number two years ago. He tells himself it will likely be out of service by now, and it is, but it surprises him how strong the sinking feeling of disappointment in his stomach is when he hears the automated message telling him the number is unreachable.
That night he goes out alone, gets mind-numbingly drunk, and wakes in the morning in a strange bed with a guy whose name he doesn’t remember. Arthur’s never been one for self-loathing, so when it hits him solidly in the gut as he pulls on his clothes and sneaks quietly out the door, he decides to walk the 30 blocks back to his apartment to burn off the frustration and anger simmering in him. He's not sure he can stand sitting in the back of a cab, watching the world slip past him. He stops for a cup of coffee, scowling when the barista gives him a knowing look, but by the time he gets home the caffeine and fresh air have cleared his head and he's made himself a plan.

He knows more than a few ways to hunt Mal down through relatively illegal means, but he’s not sure that’s the best way to get in touch with someone you want to ask for a job. He opts instead for dozens of phone calls to every department at CalTech that might even remotely be the type to house a dreamshare program, and it takes the better part of a week until he comes home to a cryptic message on his answering machine from a Professor Miles, assistant dean of CalTech’s school of architecture.

Dr. Miles takes some convincing; Arthur probably reveals more about his military experience than he should, but once he explains he was on the Army’s dreamshare team up until the project was cancelled, the good professor admits that he is, in fact, Mrs. Cobb’s father, and agrees to pass Arthur’s information along.

While Arthur waits, he packs a suitcase with clothes for a cool, rainy Western European autumn, going by the accents of Dr. Miles and his daughter. After a few days with no word from Mal, Arthur packs another suitcase with warm-weather clothes. If he doesn’t hear from her in two weeks, he’s taking a trip anyway, somewhere tropical, because the walls are starting to close in on him and after five years of trying to be content with this successfully average life of his, it’s beginning to occur to him that all he’s doing is calcifying. He’s got to get away and he's got to figure out where to go from here, because now that he’s realized he can’t keep doing this, every day he does he feels like he rots a little more inside and it’s maddening. He lies awake at nights and resents Eames for setting this whole thing in motion, for literally invading his life and reminding him of all the things he’s been missing.

Two days later, as he sits at his computer weighing the merits of Cabo versus the Caymans, Arthur’s phone rings. He books the next flight to Paris and leaves his beach clothes behind.

***

Much like the military’s dreamshare program, the Cobbs’ little project at CalTech had gotten its plug pulled over funding. “Most of our grant money came through government channels anyway,” said Mr. Cobb — Dom — ruefully. “But we,” he adds, shooting a quick look at Mal, his wife, “just couldn’t give it up.”

Arthur nods. He knows the feeling. “So how did you get to keep the PASIV?”

“The Army said they intended to renew funding for the project as soon as it was feasible,” Mal chimed in. “They told us to keep it at the university. Since we were housed under my father’s department, he can alert us if someone comes looking for it.”

Once he learned they were no longer operating at CalTech, Arthur had guessed that whatever the Cobbs were doing wasn’t, strictly speaking, legal; but leaving the PASIV to collect dust in some closet in a university would be tragic, in Arthur’s opinion. He couldn’t blame the Cobbs for taking advantage of the situation. “Where do you get your chemicals, then?”

Dom’s eyes shift to the floor. “Well, the government stopped supplying us when they cut our funding,” he says, obviously hedging. “So we’ve had to use… outside sources.”

“Outside?” Arthur asks, and this is where it will get interesting, he can tell. The U.S. hadn’t been the only government playing with dreamshare. It was inevitable that enough information would leak to spawn private endeavors.

“Black market,” Mal confirms indecorously. She’s watching Arthur like she knows this is the point where he’ll balk if he’s going to.

“That can’t be cheap,” Arthur says, meeting her eyes.

“These same sources,” Dom says, with less confidence than his wife, “connect us with clients willing to pay for our services.”

“And what kind of services would those be?” Arthur has been scanning the room, and his eyes at that moment pick out a silver ballistic case sitting atop a small table in the corner. Just the sight of it makes his pulse quicken.

“Our clients generally request one of two things,” Mal says. “Some want us to go into their own dreams and help them with something — perhaps something important they’ve forgotten, or more often some oppressive guilt they want to work through.”

“Psychology?” Arthur asks, a bit confused. This isn’t what he was expecting.

“At CalTech I chaired the psychology department,” Dom says. “Our project was supposed to test the limits of the believability of dreams. Mal built, everything from the college campus to fantasy worlds. My job was to study the effects on the stability of the dream. I’d monitor us both with EEG up top, but the most interesting data came from interrogating the projections.”

“Interrogating them?” Arthur suddenly and very acutely regrets turning down Mal’s offer when she called two years ago. These two were exploring things the military had barely begun to consider.

Dom nods. “That’s how we learned that the subject’s projections are basically manifestations of the subconscious. Mal’s projections would tell me things — her dog’s name when she was a girl, for example — and when we’d come out of the dream, Mal would confirm that they were true, even though she didn’t remember telling me.”

“That,” Mal interjects, “is the basis of our services. We get your subconscious to tell us what it’s holding back. Or, more commonly, clients ask us to go into someone else’s subconscious and obtain information.”

Arthur blinks. “Espionage?”

Mal hums in agreement, still watching Arthur like a hawk. Dom looks more uncomfortable than ever. Arthur can’t imagine that the subjects are aware of what’s happening when the Cobbs put them under to steal their secrets. He’s never been in a dream where the subject doesn’t know he’s dreaming. “Do you ever encounter any complications during these…” Arthur pauses, searching for the right way to phrase it.

“Extractions,” Dom supplies. “The service we provide is extraction of information. And to answer your question, yes. We have, on occasion, encountered some… hostility from subjects’ projections.”

“It has, once or twice, forced us to abort a job,” Mal admits, and for the first time she seems unsettled.

Arthur can sympathize. He’d been shot out of dreams plenty of times in the combat training scenarios he helped develop; he’d also mowed down scores of projections wielding anything from rocket launchers to broken bottles. He sits back a little and lets his smile slide easy across his face. “If you’re interested,” he says, “I think I can help.”

Over a second bottle of wine in a dimly lit Parisian café that evening, they discuss the terms of Arthur’s participation in their project. Jobs come up every couple of months, and pay enough to keep them supplied with dream chemicals, not to mention well-appointed apartments and ample living stipends. Between jobs Arthur assists them with their research. The Cobbs have been toying with layered dreaming, but with only two of them, they’ve been hesitant to go too deep.

Best of all, Arthur has access to the PASIV. The first chance he gets, he goes under. Mal offers to accompany him, but he declines; it’s been five years since he’s dreamwalked, and he wants to enjoy this uninhibited.

From the moment he opens his eyes in the dream, Arthur feels like a part of him that’s been missing is restored. Or rather, a part that’s been stuffed deep down under coping mechanisms and a hefty dose of denial is allowed out to play again, and it’s glorious. He builds a city and then lets it crumble to dust. He erects a bombed-out village he developed for training scenarios and picks off projections with a sniper rifle from a rooftop. Finally, because he only gave himself a couple of hours and there’s not much time left on the clock, he creates a white sand beach curling around a lagoon teeming with colorful fish that streak by under the crystal clear water. They dart away when he strips off his shoes and socks and walks in the lapping surf, peaceful and content in this little paradise he’s made for himself. He lets the sun warm him and the tension, the years of missing this, flow away with the water as the current drags it back out into the sea.

His calm is shattered when he hears his name close behind him. He whirls, Glock in hand, to find Eames. He lowers the gun slowly, and his surprise leaves him so short of breath he sounds winded when he says, “What are you doing here?”

Eames grins just the way Arthur remembers, with crooked teeth and a glint in his eyes. “It’s your dream, isn’t it?” He steps into the water and rests his hands on Arthur’s hips, casual like he’s done it a million times before. “Did you miss me, darling?”

Suddenly everything burns out to black, and Arthur blinks awake with his heart racing nearly as fast as if he’d been shot out of the dream. Mal is leaning over him, sliding out the cannula. “Was it everything you remembered it to be?” she asks, smiling at him like she knows, somehow, what he was doing.

“I really have missed it,” he says, getting up and slipping past her toward the door. He wants a minute to let it sink in, this feeling he’s missed so long. He slips outside and lights up a cigarette, taking a long drag of tobacco into his lungs. Even Eames showing up, while it caught him completely off guard, sent a thrill through him. He can’t fathom going back to the bank after this; he vows, as he stubs out the cigarette, to do what it takes to ensure Mal and Dom see him as indispensable.

The first job they take goes remarkably smoothly. Arthur poses as Dom’s assistant in the dream, on the lookout for anything suspicious, any projections that may decide to go rogue and ruin the operation. He sits outside Mal’s replica of the mark’s office and listens on his earpiece as Dom talks to the mark, an executive of a minor Japanese carmaker who is getting ready to launch a new kind of hybrid into the Japanese market. A rival automotive company is paying the Cobbs an obscene amount of money to find out as many details as they can about the launch. Dom tells the mark he’s an old boarding school acquaintance, one who is now an executive at a top New York advertising firm. The mark, who worries that this launch will make or break his company, is only too happy to take Dom into his confidence for the sake of reassurance about his strategy.

After just one foray, it’s clear to Arthur that private-sector dreamshare is far more Machiavellian than anything the military ever set its sights on. It’s both terrifying and invigorating, as is the growing suspicion that they’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible when you’re digging around inside someone else’s mind.

The next two jobs take more effort; both call into play Arthur’s skills, both at tracking people down and at neutralizing rogue projections. One mark is a top financial officer whose Fortune 500 employer suspects him of embezzling; when Arthur pulls up the man’s hidden overseas accounts listed under several aliases, it gives Dom enough ammunition to frighten the mark into confessing in the dream. The other is a former CIA agent with hostile, black-suited projections that give Arthur a run for his money. He winds up getting shot out of the dream, but he buys enough time for Mal and Dom to finish the extraction. By the time both jobs are wrapped up and they have two very hefty deposits in their accounts, he knows he’s won the Cobbs over fully.

Between jobs, they dream. With Arthur’s help, they build dreams within dreams, running experiments on what increases stability or triggers collapse. Dom studies whether projections behave differently two levels deep. Mal pushes how much architecture she can change before she takes the dream down with her. Arthur helps record data and when he can, he goes under alone and runs through his old training scenarios. Now that security is the most important aspect of his role on their team — point man, Dom calls him — Arthur wants to sharpen the skills he learned in the Army that have since grown rusty with disuse. If there’s one thing he knows about dreamshare, and which the last few months with the Cobbs have only served to reinforce, it’s that anything can happen, and it’s best to be as ready for it as you can.

This maxim plays out with swift and severe accuracy in their next job. Phillip Cabot, the founding president of a multinational beverage company, has fallen victim to very rapid-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The board has relieved him of his duties, but one, rather major, complication prevents a smooth transition at the company’s headquarters. Cabot keeps the recipe for the company’s flagship drink, which he invented nearly 40 years ago, locked in a safe in his office and will not give it up. No one else knows the recipe, and no one else knows the combination to the safe. The combination is in Cabot’s will, but with the man still alive his lawyers refuse to unseal the document. The board is afraid attempting to break open the safe could destroy its contents. They look at extraction as their easiest, cleanest way to get what they need.

“What are we going to find in the subconscious of a man with advanced Alzheimer’s?” Arthur asks cautiously as Dom briefs them after his meeting with the company’s representative. This falls into uncharted territory for all three of them, entering the subconscious of a person with a diagnosed cognitive disease.

Dom shakes his head. “I’m hoping I can find a part of his subconscious that’s still intact; if I can, it shouldn’t be difficult to explain myself. He should want to give me the combination.”

Instead, they get beaten, stabbed and suffocated out of the dream in minutes. Their second attempt fares just as badly.

Dom goes to meet with the representative who gave them the job, and comes back with a black eye and a split lip. “Dom!” Mal shrieks when he walks into their office with small but poignant bloodstains on his shirt. “What happened?”

“Apparently they aren’t happy that we didn’t get their information,” Dom says, and Arthur can pick up a little wheezing in his breath that means he probably took a few shots to the ribs, too. “They said we have one more chance, or else.”

“Or else what?” Arthur demands, even though he knows. His research had shown that the company had connections with organized crime, particularly in Southeast Asia, but Arthur hadn’t even for a moment considered they’d use those connections on them. “Can’t we just give them their money back and call it even?”

“I tried that,” Dom says, wincing as he tries to shake his head. “That’s how I got this.” He reaches up to his eye but jerks his hand away with a choked off whimper when his fingers graze the bruised skin around it.

“What do we do?” Mal asks, panic already creeping at the edges of her voice. “We could take him under a hundred times and we’ll never make it more than five minutes before he ferrets us out and kills us.”

“We should run,” Dom says as he tries to comfort Mal. “Hide out somewhere for a while.”

“You don’t think they’ll find us?” Arthur asks, sounding more shrill than he’d like. “We’re talking about a crime syndicate here. They’re not just going to forget about us if we run off.”

“Damn it, I wish we could just try and break open the safe ourselves,” Dom grumbles. “We wouldn’t even need to do this in the dream.”

The idea hits Arthur so squarely he laughs out loud. Mal and Dom both frown at him. “I might know someone who can help,” Arthur says. It’s a long shot, but given their current circumstances and lack of other options, it’s the best idea any of them have.

 

Two days later Arthur steps off a plane in Kenya. With the help of a translator and the judicious dispensation of bribes, he finds what he’s looking for — or so he hopes — by early evening. The apartment building is upper class by Kenyan standards but it’s still a dump by Arthur’s; the place looks held together with fishing line and rivets, and the cockroaches don’t bother to scurry from underfoot. He stands in front of apartment 202 — he’s heartened that he’s in the right place by the four different locks on the door — and knocks, quick like he’s ripping off a band-aid because now that he’s here he’s suddenly ridiculously nervous.

The locks click open — only three of them, Arthur notes — and the door swings in to reveal Eames, in a half-unbuttoned shirt and linen pants that sit low on his hips. His skin looks golden-warm, like he’s spent plenty of time out in the hot Kenyan sun, and there are tattoos scrawled across his exposed chest. Arthur pulls his gaze up to meet Eames’ eyes, which flicker with something that looks mostly suspicious, but a little bit amused. “Arthur?” Eames asks, tipping sideways to butt his shoulder against the doorframe. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“My colleagues and I are in need of someone with your skill set,” Arthur says, not wanting to reveal any more out here in the hallway.

“And here I was, thinking banks wanted to keep blokes like me away,” Eames says, not moving an inch. He’s smiling but Arthur can see the tight set of apprehension in his shoulders, and his eyes flick back and forth to scan the corridor.

“I quit the bank,” Arthur says. “This is a much… different line of work.”

Eames’ eyebrow shoots up, and he pushes off from the door and takes a step back. “Is that so? Well, why don’t you come in for a cup of tea and you can tell me about it.”

The air inside Eames’ apartment is heavy with heat and humidity and the crackle of tension, because neither of them trusts the other, and because Arthur remembers the cold steel of a car at his back and the warm press of Eames’ tongue in his mouth. Arthur lets himself look as he follows Eames inside, at the thick cords of muscle in his arms and the broad span of his back and the firm curve of his ass.

Eames motions to a retro-looking three-piece dinette set in the kitchen and Arthur sits, eyeing up the place while Eames puts on the kettle. It’s shabby but well-kept and sparsely furnished, and Arthur knows from his research that Eames has other little hideouts like this one scattered across the globe. There’s something thrilling about that in a Bonnie and Clyde sort of way, just one more thing about Eames that makes Arthur’s pulse speed. “So,” Eames says, turning back toward Arthur and leaning against the counter with his arms crossed. “How did you find me?”

Arthur grins; Eames has obviously been itching to ask. “I’ve dabbled with programming for a while, and when I first got into the Army I was in information security,” he explains. “And working at the bank taught me that you can learn a lot about a person from their account information.”

Eames looks almost pleased. “I knew there was more underneath that well-dressed bank manager exterior.” Arthur can’t help but flush, and he drops his eyes shyly as Eames hands him a mug of tea. “Now, which of my skills, exactly, do you require?”

That only makes Arthur’s face warmer, but he clears his throat and attempts to explain. “The president of a multinational company keeps an important corporate secret in the safe in his office. He has dementia, and won’t give anyone the combination to the safe. We’ve tried our methods,” Arthur says, dropping his voice a little, “but we’ve had zero success. So we want you to try to break into the safe.”

“Safecracking?” Eames says, sitting back in his chair. “Is that all?”

“Yes,” Arthur pauses, reluctant, but if he expects Eames to take this job, he has to tell him. “But if we don’t get our client the information, they’ve made it clear they will not be happy.”

The spot between Eames’ eyebrows crinkles. “So this job would be dangerous? I’m not sure I’m looking to put my arse on the line, even for a pretty face like yours.”

Arthur reaches into his pocket and pulls out the slip of paper he had tucked away for exactly this moment. “Here’s what we’re willing to pay you, plus expenses, if you can do it.” Dom and Mal had been all too happy to agree to give Eames half the fee for the job, provided he can crack the safe.

Eames unfolds the note, and Arthur watches for his reaction but it seems Eames can be unreadable when he wants to be. He takes a long sip of tea and sets down his mug carefully before speaking. “You say you’ve already unsuccessfully attempted to obtain the information. How?”

Arthur takes a breath. This is the part he’s nervous to talk about, more so than the death threats, though he’s not sure why. “Have you heard,” he says, forming each word carefully, “of dreamsharing?”

The frown is back on Eames’ face. “I have not,” he says, and it’s clear that Eames is the kind of person who doesn’t like not knowing things. “Please, enlighten me.”

Arthur gives what he used to call his “PASIV 101” speech when he’d introduce new military personnel to the project back in the Army. “What the Cobbs and I do now,” he adds, phrasing it as delicately as he can, “is use that technology to obtain information from a subject’s subconscious.”

“You’re mind thieves,” Eames says, looking impressed.

“We call it extraction,” Arthur corrects, even as he nods in agreement. He’d had a very similar reaction, after all.

“If you can break into somebody’s brain, what do you need me for? You couldn’t do it with this bloke?”

“Like I said, he has dementia. His subconscious tore us to shreds before we even got our feet on the ground.”

Eames asks a few more questions, which Arthur answers as best he can. His instinct is to play things close to the chest with Eames, and he’s not sure whether it’s because the Army drilled it into him that dreamshare is top secret, or because it seems like Eames can already see more about him than he’s comfortable revealing. When Eames is done with his inquiries, he finishes his tea and stands up; Arthur mirrors the movement. “This is a lot to digest,” Eames says. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give you my answer.”

Arthur nods; he hadn’t been sure of Eames’ reaction, but he’d prepared himself to be satisfied with any answer that wasn’t a flat-out no. “Fair enough,” he says. But minutes later, when he’s standing back out in Eames’ hallway, listening as all four locks snap closed behind him, Arthur wonders whether coming here wasn’t a terrible idea. He’s been daydreaming about seeing Eames again for months — since the moment Eames left him at the bus station, really — and this encounter wasn’t quite what he’d been hoping for.

Arthur finds a hotel, lets himself sleep for a couple of hours, changes into clean clothes and goes in search of dinner; by late evening he’s enjoying a scotch, neat, in the hotel bar when someone slides onto the barstool next to him. “I’ll do it, but,” comes Eames’ voice, hushed and close, “there’s one other thing I want.”

Arthur’s breath goes out of him; for the briefest of instants he lets himself believe Eames is going to say something terribly sexy and whisk him off for a torrid liaison. He sips his whiskey and the burn of it kills the fantasy. “And what might that be?” he asks, hoping he sounds put out by Eames showing up here and making demands. At the very least he hopes his voice stays steady.

The whiskey glass is loose in Arthur’s hand; Eames slips his fingers below Arthur’s and when he tugs, Arthur relinquishes his grip. He watches as Eames takes a sizable swallow and licks his lips. Arthur hates this damn country for its lack of air conditioning. “I want to try it,” Eames says. “This dreamshare thing you do.”

“I don’t think — ” Arthur starts, but Eames cuts him off.

“Or I don’t take the job.” Eames slides the glass back toward Arthur. “Those are my terms.”

It’s not that Arthur doesn’t want to, in the simplest sense. He can’t help feeling Eames thinks he’s cute, like a little kid playing dress up. There’s no way Eames wouldn’t be impressed by dreamshare, and the idea of impressing Eames is undeniably appealing. But that whole “dreamshare is top secret” mantra is running through the back of his mind, and his is not the only ass on the line here. “Let me ask my colleagues,” Arthur says. “I’ll go back to my room and make the call.”

Eames smiles and stands. “Lead the way, darling.”

“This is a bad idea,” Dom says, voice crackling over the connection, after Arthur explains the situation. Eames is looking out the window at the chaos of the Mombasa streets below, but he’s listening to every word, Arthur is sure.

“Probably,” Arthur says equivocally, “but it’s the only way he’ll do it. I don’t think we have much choice.”

There’s a long pause, and Arthur guesses Dom is running all this past Mal. Finally he comes back on the line. “Alright,” Dom says with a sigh. “Just get your asses back here.”

“Well?” Eames asks when Arthur hangs up.

“You’re in,” Arthur says. “We’ll fly to Paris tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Eames says, turning from the window with a sly grin on his face. “That gives us some time to kill, doesn’t it?” The hotel room isn’t big, so it only takes a second for Eames to close the distance between them, stopping when there are only inches left, and Arthur feels like he’s being drawn in by Eames’ gravitational pull. Eames lifts his hand and with two gentle fingers tips Arthur’s chin up. “I should have mentioned earlier,” Eames murmurs, and as he leans in Arthur can’t help but do the same, “but it’s lovely to see you again.”

As soon as their lips meet it sets Arthur’s skin on fire and his lungs lock up. He doesn’t need to breathe, though, he just needs Eames’ mouth on his, and this is what he’s been wanting, this is what he imagined when he thought of seeing Eames again. He clutches at Eames’ shoulders to steady himself, to pull Eames closer, and when Eames’ hands come to rest on his hips, Arthur just melts against his body. “It’s good,” Arthur gasps, as Eames’ mouth moves lower and his teeth sink into the tender skin of Arthur’s neck, “to see you too.”

He whimpers and arches against Eames as Eames bites harder, and the deep rumbling noise Eames makes in response drives Arthur to slide his hands up under Eames’ shirt. It’s hot — it’s Kenya, for Christ’s sake — and Eames’ skin is sticky, making Arthur’s fingers catch and stutter over every ridge of muscle. They peel each other’s shirts away with eager, fumbling hands and their bodies meet again with the nearly unpleasant drag of sweat-damp flesh.

Eames pushes Arthur back onto the bed and crawls over him, ducking his head to suck kisses against Arthur’s chest. The air is hot; Eames’ mouth is hot; the scotch is making Arthur even more flushed and when Eames makes his way down to Arthur’s stomach and starts unbuckling his belt, Arthur is only too happy to help. Eames sits back to wrestle Arthur’s trousers off, and once they’re tossed aside he takes a long moment to rake his eyes over Arthur’s body from where he’s kneeling between Arthur’s legs. “I’ve thought about you like this for months,” he says as he runs a hand up one thigh and wraps it around Arthur’s cock. “I can’t believe you just showed up on my doorstep.”

Arthur pushes up on one elbow and grabs at Eames, because Eames’ hand on his cock feels amazing but Eames is too far away and Arthur needs to touch him. “I can’t believe you told me to leave and come back tomorrow after I came all the way to fucking Africa,” Arthur manages to say as he cranes his neck up for another kiss.

“Obviously an error on my part,” Eames amends before obliging Arthur with a long, slow meeting of lips and tongues. He’s still stroking Arthur’s cock, slowly but enough that it’s knocking all these little hitches into Arthur’s breath until he can’t kiss back anymore. Eames just grins at him and works his cock faster. “As you can see, I couldn’t keep myself away.”

That puts a smug smile on Arthur’s lips, but only for a moment because Eames brings his other hand up and cups Arthur’s balls, and all Arthur can do is moan and let his legs fall wider apart. When Eames moves lower, sliding a finger down to brush over his hole, Arthur falls back against the bed and grips at the sheets. “There’s lube and condoms in my bag,” Arthur says, panting over the words, as he squirms against the teasing press of Eames’ finger.

“Is there, now?” Eames asks, and it’s sarcastic but his voice is strained. “And here I thought you came all this way to make me a job offer.”

“I did,” Arthur says, trying to twist away from Eames, embarrassed now. “I just like to be prepared.”

Eames doesn’t let him get far, grabs him by the hips to hold him still. “What a good little Boy Scout,” he grins and leans in to kiss Arthur. “Let’s have it, then.”

Eames’ fingers feel rough and solid and perfect when they slide inside, and Arthur shudders with the tight, raw pleasure of it. “That’s it, darling,” Eames’ murmurs, and his eyes are glued to where he’s pushing into Arthur. “Open up for me. You’re going to feel so good on my cock.”

“Yeah,” Arthur growls, not even caring if he sounds desperate. He bears down, driving Eames’ fingers deeper, and it’s too much but it’s not enough. “Fuck me, Eames, come on.” He should be ashamed at how eager — slutty, really — he sounds but when he looks up, Eames’ eyes are lust-dark and burning right into him and he’s sure he’d say just about anything right now to get Eames’ dick inside him. Eames pulls his fingers away and Arthur writhes at the unpleasant emptiness, but then Eames is up, stripping off his trousers and Arthur can’t take his eyes off Eames’ cock, hard and thick and glistening at the tip, as Eames rips open a condom and rolls it on.

“If I’d known you wanted it this badly, I would’ve invited you to Mombasa months ago,” Eames jokes, but his laugh is shaky and his hands grip Arthur’s thighs almost too tightly as he settles back onto the bed and presses Arthur’s legs apart. “Hell, I would’ve mailed you a plane ticket.”

“Eames — ” Arthur is about to tell him to shut up, but then Eames lines himself up and pushes in, strangling Arthur’s words into a low groan, until even that dies away and he arches up, his mouth still open but silent. Eames is slow but relentless as he fucks into Arthur, not stopping until he’s worked himself in to the hilt, until Arthur feels so full he can barely breathe, like there’s no room left in him for air. Arthur gives a little roll of his hips to ease the stretch and he can’t help but smile when Eames gasps and clutches at his waist.

“Christ, Arthur,” Eames moans, squeezing his eyes shut and holding Arthur still, like it would be too much for him if Arthur started to move. It makes Arthur think about shoving Eames on his back and riding his cock, about cuffing Eames’ hands behind his back and sucking him off. He wants to make Eames come, wants him to be helpless for it, to be unable to stop himself if he tried. He wrests Eames’ hands off his hips and rocks up again, and the noise it draws out of Eames is deliciously obscene. Eames slumps forward, bracing himself on either side of Arthur’s chest, folding Arthur nearly in half in the process. It only serves to drive him deeper, and this time Arthur is the one who has to hold on, grabbing at Eames’ biceps only to find his fingers barely half-circle the diameter of Eames’ muscles.

Eames starts pounding into him, fierce and fast, and in no time they’re both breathing hard and dripping sweat. The drag of Eames’ cock inside him is maddening, and Arthur needs friction, needs pressure on his aching, leaking dick. He slides a hand between them but before he can touch himself Eames smacks him away and wraps a fist around Arthur himself. “Fuck,” Arthur coughs out as every muscle in him goes tight at the sensation. Eames is fucking him and jerking him off with a wild look in his eyes and a low, throbbing growl that seems to hover just under his quick, rasping breath. Arthur can only take so much before he’s digging his fingers into Eames’ shoulders and coming hard all over his stomach as Eames drips sweat down on him. He’s still riding the throbbing pleasure of it when Eames buries himself deep inside Arthur and groans with his own release.

It takes a few minutes until they both catch their breath and pry themselves apart. Arthur has never felt so sticky and disgusting and well-fucked in his life, and he sprawls on the bed for a few minutes to bask in it while Eames staggers to the bathroom and starts the shower running. Eventually Arthur hauls himself up and weasels his way under the running water, sighing gratuitously at feeling clean again. “I’ll admit,” he says, almost shyly, as he soaps himself up, “I don’t usually bring lube on business trips.”

Eames just chuckles and leans in to kiss Arthur under the shower spray. “I don’t usually follow new co-workers back to their hotel rooms for sex,” he says, wiping the water from his eyes. “But something about you compels me to make an exception.”

Later, after they’ve dried and dressed and Eames has taken his leave to go pack his things for Paris, Arthur crawls back into bed — the very edge of the mattress, where the sheets aren’t damp from sweat and lube — and falls asleep too fast to worry whether sex was a good idea when he’s relying on Eames to get him and the Cobbs out of this mess they’re in.

***

The ground starts to shake when Eames realizes they are dreaming, but the dream doesn’t collapse. After escorting dozens of recruits through their first time going under, Arthur knows this is a rarity. But then military men tend to be rigid, while Eames, at least as far as Arthur has seen, is very adaptable. With his fake passport and accent, he had their flight attendant, Nathan from Dallas, convinced he was a fellow Texan. He spent half the flight flirting with the woman across the aisle and the other half trying to feel Arthur up. He was consummately professional when he met the Cobbs, then took Arthur back to his hotel room and fucked him nearly through the mattress.

It takes a few minutes, but Eames settles enough for the tremors to stop. “This is amazing,” he says, properly awed as he takes in the Parisian streets around them. Cobb has dreamt them up a small urban park; the Eiffel Tower is in the distance, and Arthur can smell coffee and croissants from the street vendor across the way. They show Eames the basics without being flashy: small changes like shifting the leaves of the trees blue, or conjuring a parasol to block the heat of the sun. The air gets a little heavy and unstable toward the end, but the timer runs out well before the dream is on the verge of crashing in on them — also a rarity, that a first-time dreamer doesn’t bring the dream down with him. Topside, Arthur slides the cannula from his arm and moves to help Eames with his. “Can I try it again?” Eames asks, and there’s a bright wonder in his eyes that Arthur knows all too well. Arthur wants to say yes — it seems Eames brings out his willingness to oblige — but Dom interjects.

“How about this,” Dom says, already on his feet and winding up the lines on the PASIV. “You pull off this job and we take you under again. Just to give you a little added incentive.”

A flicker of what Arthur interprets as annoyance crosses Eames’ face but he masks it quickly. “Fair enough,” Eames says as he stands and smooths his trousers. They were only under for 10 minutes, but straightening your clothes as though you’ve just slept for hours is an instinctual reaction that even experienced dreamwalkers have trouble suppressing. “Let’s get to work, then, shall we?”

They brief Eames on every bit of information they’ve dug up that they think might be relevant — all the details about the safe, the office, the building, security measures and staff schedules, to start — and to his credit, he sits and listens attentively, takes notes and asks plenty of questions. “So what do you think?” Dom asks when they’ve wrapped up the briefing.

Eames looks up from the schematics in his hands. “This is one of the most advanced personal safes on the market,” he says with a frown.

Mal uncharacteristically chimes in right away. “Does that mean you can’t do it?”

The smile Eames shoots her is a masterpiece of soothing charm with just a hint of ego. “Of course I can do it,” he says firmly. “It’ll just be bloody difficult.”

Arthur lets Dom micromanage Eames, if only because he knows he can’t stop him. For his part Arthur tries to be helpful, searching out the answers to Eames’ questions and generally trying to distract himself from being insanely nervous about the whole situation. He still hasn’t explained to Dom and Mal exactly how he knows Eames, and he certainly hasn’t told them he and Eames are… well, fucking at least. The former, if anything, ought to reassure them of Eames’ abilities, while the latter should be just as irrelevant as the fact that Dom and Mal are married. Yet Arthur would rather keep both tidbits under wraps for the time being, so he keeps his mouth shut, and Eames does too, just as he promised.

By the end of the evening, after they’ve gotten Thai takeaway and reviewed the more detailed set of safe schematics Arthur was able to find, Mal at least seems to be warming up to Eames, which Arthur is happy to see. Dom even eases up a little, though Arthur is relatively certain that Dom will not relax until this job is over and there’s no Asian crime syndicate waiting to break their kneecaps. When they finally go back to their hotel, Arthur gets off the elevator on his own floor, bidding Eames and the Cobbs goodnight, but it’s only a matter of minutes before Eames is knocking on his door.

“That was harder than I thought,” Eames says instead of any kind of hello, then proceeds to grab Arthur and kiss him thoroughly.

“What was?” Arthur manages to ask some time later when he’s finally pried himself out of Eames’ grip; for the record, he wasn’t trying very hard.

“Keeping my hands off you.” Eames smirks and claims Arthur’s mouth again.

“I thought you were talking about the job.” Arthur tries to sound sardonic, but mostly he’s occupied with trying to unbutton Eames’ shirt.

“Let’s not talk about work, darling,” Eames says, and Arthur has to laugh at what a parody of an office romance this is. “Unless you want to talk about dreaming. That’s almost as fascinating as your pert little arse.”

“We could talk about dreaming,” Arthur says, a bit breathless at this point because Eames is tugging his belt open and fumbling with the button on his trousers. “What do you want to know?”

“I want to know” — Eames pauses here as he tugs down the waistband of Arthur’s briefs and gets a hand on his cock — “whether Cobb’s word is law, or whether I can convince you to take me under.”

Arthur knows this is a bad idea, to let Eames and his firm hands and wicked mouth try to talk him into something Dom wouldn’t approve of, but Arthur doesn’t see why it’s a big deal to let Eames dream again. There are so many more things to show Eames, and frankly Arthur would very much like to be the one to do it. And then Eames kneels down to take Arthur’s cock in his mouth, and Arthur forgets all about safes and dreams and things Dom says not to do until he’s coming down Eames’ throat with a cry. When Eames sits back, licking his fat pink lips and sporting a ridiculously self-satisfied grin, Arthur blurts out his concession. “Tomorrow, after we’re done. We’ll wait till Dom and Mal leave and I’ll take you back under.”

The next day Arthur is glad for his five years on one of the Army’s most classified projects, especially since Eames keeps throwing him eager glances from across the warehouse. “You’re going to make them suspicious,” Arthur chastises in a whisper while he’s giving Eames some new printouts detailing the electronic locks on the mark’s office door.

“We’ll just tell them we’re shagging,” Eames says, nonplussed.

“If you don’t knock it off, we won’t be shagging,” Arthur snaps, but he knows before the words even come out of his mouth it’s an idle threat. Eames must know it too because he slides his hand up the outside of Arthur’s thigh before letting it rest casually on his hip. Arthur steps out of the touch quickly, even though he doesn’t want to, darting his eyes to the other side of the warehouse to see if the Cobbs are watching, cringing when Eames laughs too loud.

“Whatever you say, darling,” Eames says in that patronizing tone of his, before turning back to his computer screen. Arthur wants the last word, but he’d much rather have Dom and Mal remain ignorant of their plan and their relationship, so he pivots on his heel and walks to his desk. He can feel Eames’ eyes on him the whole way.

That night, after the Cobbs leave with no indication of suspicion, Arthur sets up the PASIV. “Ten minutes,” he says firmly. “That’s two hours in the dream. I don't want to push my luck with how much somnacin we're swiping to do this.”

He puts them into one of the urban combat environments he crafted for the Army. It’s one he’s particularly proud of, full of rubble and hostile graffiti and bars on most of the street-level doors and windows. As Eames takes in the concrete and asphalt and ice blue sky, Arthur explains further the work he did as a military dreamer, and how he could customize the topography to meet specific expectations. “If the soldiers are going into a city that’s already been under siege for quite some time, I can ratchet up the damage level,” he says offhandedly. “Usually I would do it topside in the design, but I can do it on the fly if need be.” With that, the walls of the deli just up the block start to crumble and spill an avalanche of debris onto the sidewalk.

Eames stares until the cloud of dust has nearly dissipated before turning to Arthur with bright eyes. “So what else can you change in the dream?”

“Just about anything, really,” Arthur says, all too pleased that Eames is so interested. “Actually, one of the things Mal and I have been playing with is changing our clothes. Watch.” Eames’ eyes go wide as Arthur wills his dress trousers to turn into jeans. “We haven’t taken it very far yet,” he adds hastily, not wanting to give Eames unrealistic expectations. “Dom thinks we could even change, say, our hair color, but we haven’t been able to do it yet.”

“Why?” Eames asks as he reaches out to touch the denim now covering Arthur’s legs.

“To be honest, we’re really not sure. So much of conscious dreaming is still a function of what the mind is willing to accept. That’s what a lot of Dom’s research has been about, testing the limits of the mind in dreams. Even with clothing, as soon as you stop concentrating on it, it will revert back to what your mind sees as a default.”

“Well, your default is certainly trousers that fit snugly over your arse,” Eames chuckles. Arthur smacks at him and sets off down the street. After a few steps, he feels the fabric of his pants revert. He also realizes that Eames is not following. When he turns to look back, he can’t believe what he’s seeing.

Eames isn’t there. Instead, standing exactly where Eames had been is someone who looks just like Arthur. He’s wearing the exact same clothing, sporting the exact same haircut, standing with the exact same good-postured nonchalance Arthur usually affects. Only the other Arthur is grinning like a madman.

“Who are you?” Arthur demands, so suddenly unsettled that the dream wavers slightly. There shouldn’t be any projections here. He set himself as both the subject and the dreamer, and he’s had plenty of experience controlling the presence of his projections in the dreamscape. And when he tries to dream this one away, nothing happens. “Where is Eames?”

“Right here, darling,” replies the other Arthur; the voice is unmistakably Eames’.

“How — ” Arthur doesn’t bother to finish, just walks up to his doppelganger and runs a hand over the smooth starched front of his shirt. It’s crisper than Arthur’s own, and when he looks up it isn’t his own brown eyes but Eames’ smoky blue ones watching him with a spark of pleased amusement. “You’ve still got your own eyes,” Arthur says, frowning, because seeing himself — well, almost himself — like this is rather disconcerting.

“So many details,” Eames mutters, and as Arthur watches, mesmerized, Eames’ eyes morph from blue to green to brown. “A mirror would help. Is that better?”

Arthur simply nods. And then Eames slides an arm around his waist and leans in like he’s going to kiss Arthur, and Arthur has to jump back in horror. “Fuck, Eames! That’s… creepy, alright? I don’t want to kiss myself.”

Eames bursts into laughter, and as he does some of his edges go soft, like he’s turned to dough or clay. “That is soundly your loss. Snogging you is delightful, you know.” But Arthur can’t even feign annoyance, because Eames is turning back into Eames again. It’s most definitely the weirdest and most fascinating thing Arthur has ever watched, the way he slides back into his own body, his own clothes, his own self, when he’d looked just like Arthur not five seconds before.

“You must be impressed if I’ve rendered you speechless,” Eames smirks, with that overly-pleased-with-himself look Arthur has already seen more times than he can count. “I take it that’s not something you lot have tried before?”

“No,” Arthur says. Not only have they not tried it before, they’ve never even thought of it before. “Fuck,” he says, when he realizes more fully just what it is Eames has done here — what Eames might be able to do. “Fuck, we have to call Dom. He has to see this.”

“How much longer do we have on the clock?” Eames asks naively.

Dying out of a dream isn’t something Arthur’s explained yet, so he opts for the crash course instead. “Hold still, this’ll only hurt for a second,” he says as he conjures a gun and shoots them both back to reality.

Half an hour later a squintier-than-usual Dom and a bemused Mal are standing, hands on respective hips, in the warehouse, waiting for the big reveal. “So let me get this straight,” Dom is saying, running a hand through his hair like Arthur can’t already tell he’s exasperated. “You took him under without telling us? I said we’d do it when the job is over. What the fuck, Arthur?”

Arthur had been expecting the attitude, and he couldn’t care less. He learned in the military you can get away with bending a few rules when you have something impressive to show for it. “Trust me, you’ll thank me when you see what he can do.”

When they appear in the dream, back in Dom’s same Parisian park, Arthur looks to his left and sees not Eames but Mal. “Honey?” Dom says, stepping in close. “I thought you were staying topside?”

“I did not want to miss this big surprise,” she says, and even Arthur has to double-take at that, because she sounds almost exactly like herself. When Dom takes her hand Mal chuckles, but the laugh, which starts out musical and exotic and feminine, twists belly-deep and brash. “Why Dominic,” Mal says, but in Eames’ voice, “I didn’t know you felt that way about me.”

Dom jerks his hand back, and as Arthur fights his own laughter Mal slips away. Her hair shrinks upward and brightens to Eames’ dirty blond; her shoulders spread outward into Eames’ square, solid form; her dress climbs down around her legs to become Eames’ slightly-too-big trousers. In the span of a few moments Mal has become Eames, and Arthur can’t get over how unreasonably proud he feels as Dom stares, completely flabbergasted, at the man who was, just a blink ago, his wife.

“I think,” Arthur says, and he must be spending too much time with Eames because he sounds just as smug, “we have a new approach to this job.”

***

Cabot’s son, Elliot, abandoned the beverage business at 24 after a major falling out with his father over not wanting to inherit the company. Cabot still keeps photos of his son in his office, even though they haven’t spoken in nearly two decades. Elliot is now a hotel manager at a small but exclusive resort on the Riviera. Eames leaves the next day and spends most of a week posing as a rather rich and eccentric business executive on vacation. Arthur has little doubt Eames will be able to charm the man into telling at least a few choice stories and secrets about his father — enough, coupled with Eames’ ability to look like Elliot, to convince the elder Cabot’s mind to at least not kill him on the spot. Dom meets with his contact from the beverage company; he must have faith in Eames, and have communicated that convincingly, because he returns unharmed with a deadline of ten days to get the job done.

In the end, it only takes them eight. Eames comes back from the Riviera triumphant, having successfully befriended Elliot — he even has photos from the day cruise they took together. Arthur’s been able to dig up plenty of background information on the younger Cabot, and Mal’s been working on building a replica of Cabot’s mansion. The plan is simple — Eames-as-Elliot will simply knock on the door and tell his father he wants back into the family business. Mal will handle the architecture, Arthur will still run point in case things go awry, and Dom will stay topside.

The night before they’re about to try it, Arthur lays in bed, panting and sticky, stretching out his legs after Eames had them pinned nearly over his head for the last twenty minutes. Eames comes back from the bathroom with a warm towel and wipes away the mess on Arthur’s stomach, then climbs under the sheets and pulls Arthur against him.

Arthur plants a kiss on Eames’ shoulder and then asks something that had been nagging at him while Eames was gone. It had been, Arthur had to admit to himself halfway through Eames’ absence, rather difficult to keep his mind off Eames. “How,” Arthur starts, tentative, “did you come to be doing this, anyway? I don’t mean to pry, but how does someone wind up with a skill set like yours?”

Eames sighs heavily and pulls his arms from around Arthur, sliding them instead behind his head and staring up at the ceiling. “The way I grew up, if you didn’t take things, you had nothing at all. Taking things was how we ate, how we kept clothes on our backs. Taking things was how we kept from getting evicted when that asshole mum dated put her out of work with a broken arm.” Arthur wants to say something, but he has no idea what, so he leans over and kisses Eames’ chest, firm so he can feel the unyielding bones of Eames’ ribs under the skin, then rests his face there.

“I kept taking things because I never got caught,” Eames goes on after a while, and Arthur closes his eyes to better feel the rumble of Eames’ words in his lungs. “But then when I was about seventeen, mum finally met a man, Jeremy, who could take care of her well enough that I didn’t have to take things anymore. Except I didn’t want to stop. And maybe I got a little too big for my britches, because one day I tried to steal a car and I got arrested.”

Arthur has to chuckle. “You broke into one of the most secure banks in Manhattan and stole over a million dollars, but you couldn’t get away with grand theft auto?”

“Fuck off,” Eames grouses and brings one arm down to put Arthur in a mock headlock. “It was an MP’s Aston Martin.” Arthur has to concede, and struggles free while Eames continues. “I wound up in jail for a few months for that little caper, and when I got out, mum kicked me out of the house. She and Jeremy were going to get married, and I couldn’t let myself ruin that for her, so I went without a fight. The problem was, I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I wound up back at having to take things to get by.”

“Since when does stealing over a million dollars constitute ‘taking things to get by’?” Arthur prods. He’s expecting another headlock or similar, but Eames gets sort of still and serious.

“Do you know how I broke into your bank? I found out which company installed all your security, posed as a bank executive, and had them explain to me all the security measures they installed for you because I told them I wanted the exact same thing. That’s what I learned when I was on my own — how to take people. How to convince them to tell you what you want to know. Information tends to be a lot more valuable than a few hundred quid out of someone’s wallet or a car you’ve got to strip down and sell for parts. Once I figured that out, there was no more ‘getting by’ for me.”

“And you never got caught again?”

Eames almost seems sad when he shakes his head. “I did try to go straight for a while. Mum got really sick so I tried, for her. Got a job as a car salesman, and I hated it. I hated wearing a tie to work, I hated the people, I hated all of it. And then mum died, and there wasn’t any goddamn reason to keep doing it. So I went back to taking. I’m wanted for a whole host of crimes in a handful of countries, but no one’s managed to catch me yet.”

Eames falls quiet, and Arthur doesn’t know what to say. He wants to tell Eames he’s sorry, not just about his mother but about all of it, because Eames is brilliant and probably could have done quite well for himself if he’d been afforded the opportunity. But Arthur’s willing to bet Eames knows that, and he’s also willing to bet Eames isn’t one for platitudes, especially ones that sound like pity. Eames’ admission, nonetheless, makes him feel like talking. “This — dreamsharing — used to be what I did all the time,” Arthur says eventually. “I loved it. But then there was funding bullshit and political bullshit and the Army shut down the program. I ended up as a bank manager because I didn’t know what else to do.”

“You missed dreaming, didn’t you?” Eames asks.

“Like crazy,” Arthur admits. “But I didn’t have much of a choice. Eventually I got used to, well, normal life with a normal job. A couple of years ago, Mal called me and asked me to join her research team when they were still at CalTech. But I thought… I thought I’d gotten dreaming out of my system. And I had a good thing going at the bank. So I said no.”

“What changed your mind?”

Arthur sits up and stares at the blank TV screen on the far wall, because if he can’t see Eames it somehow makes it easier to say this. “You did. You came along and kidnapped me and it all came crashing back, how much I missed the thrill of it. Do you know that day, when you left me at the bus station, I almost asked you to take me with you?”

“Really?”

“Would you have?” asks Arthur.

Eames laughs. “I’m not sure, pet. But considering where we are now, I think it worked out for the best.”

“I suppose you’re right,” says Arthur. It stings more than he’s willing to admit, that Eames might’ve said no. At least Eames isn’t the type to lie just to spare his feelings. He respects that.

Eames sits up then and rests his hand on Arthur’s shoulder, squeezing hard enough to make Arthur realize he’s gotten tense. He takes a breath to make himself relax and turns to flash a smile — mostly genuine — at Eames. “So what happens when we’re done here?” Eames asks. “Do you lot have another job lined up?”

“Well, if you can pull this off” — Arthur waves off Eames’ look of indignation — “we’re going to need to get some more somnacin. What we’ve got left isn’t going to be enough for another job.”

“What is it, anyway?” Eames asks, and it strikes Arthur as, well, not so much funny as worrisome, that Eames is only just now asking about the stuff they’ve been injecting into his veins. “Where does it come from?”

“It’s a proprietary chemical compound,” Arthur says. “The Army invented it, along with the PASIV. Even when the Cobbs ran their research out of CalTech with military funding, they got it from the Army. Since we’ve gone a bit rogue, we’ve had to find, well, black market suppliers, basically. That’s how we wound up with this clusterfuck of a job, it was a favor to one of our suppliers.”

“You know, I could give Yusuf a crack at it,” Eames pipes up, sitting up straight now the way he seems to when he’s following the thread of an idea he thinks might be good. “He’s got quite a set up back in Mombasa. I could take him a sample and see what he can do. If he thinks there’s money in it, he’ll do it, and you could still probably pay him half what I’ll wager you’re paying these black market blokes, but without all the fuss.”

“That’s a fantastic idea.” Arthur is sure he can talk the Cobbs into parting with a small sample of somnacin if it could result in a cheaper, hassle-free supply. And then, because the opportunity is there: “Does that mean you’re heading back to Mombasa when the job’s done?”

Eames eyes him for a moment before answering. “I’ll wind up back there eventually. I was thinking of taking a bit of a vacation first. Somewhere tropical maybe. I’ve never been to Fiji.”

“Neither have I,” Arthur says, hedging. “I hear it’s beautiful.”

“Well, I haven’t made any plans yet,” Eames says, pressing in closer and running a hand down Arthur’s bare arm. “Let’s see how tomorrow goes first, yeah? And before that, let’s see how the rest of tonight goes.” And then he’s pushing Arthur down on the mattress and kissing him as though they hadn’t just fucked half an hour ago.

It’s just shy of six when Arthur wakes to rustling in the room. Eames is sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling on his shoes. He gives a half-smile over his shoulder when Arthur reaches to run a hand down his back. “Didn’t mean to wake you,” Eames whispers. “I was just going to go back to my room to shower. Take a little time to clear my head before the job.”

Arthur nods as he pushes up onto his elbows. “Sure. I’ll see you in a little while.”

“Oh, I have something for you,” Eames says when he grabs his jacket. He pulls a small yellow envelope from the inside pocket and hands it over. Arthur flicks on the bedside lamp and pulls out a passport. He frowns up at Eames, but when he opens the booklet, he gets it right away. The photo inside is his own, but the passport belongs to one Jacob Meyers.

“You got me a fake passport?” Arthur says, examining it closer. The work is quite good.

“Not exactly,” Eames says. “I made you a fake passport. Just in case something goes wrong.”

“You made this?” Arthur asks, stunned. He knows Eames has a fake passport, but he never realized it was Eames’ own handiwork.

“Just a skill I picked up,” Eames says. “I would’ve made them for the Cobbs as well, but I really only had time to make one. No offense to Dom and Mal, but yours is the arse I’m most interested in keeping in one piece.”

“Eames — ” Arthur starts, but he doesn’t really know what else to say, because this is possibly the nicest thing anyone — especially someone he’s only really known for a couple of weeks — has ever done for him. He gets up, stark naked, and wraps himself around Eames. “Thanks.”

Eames kisses him and then pries himself away. “You’re welcome,” he says, voice a little breathy, and then turns to leave. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”

Arthur watches the door close behind Eames. He could sleep for another hour or so, but when his eyes go to the bed, they land on the passport that lies there, a square of deep blue against the white linens. He picks it up, studies it more closely. He wonders where Eames got the photo. He wonders what Eames was thinking about while he made this; it must have taken hours, Arthur guesses. He pulls out his own, legitimate passport and holds the two next to one another. Eames’ is an impeccable copy. He flips the pages on both; on his real passport there are stamps from his travels, while the new one is blank. That’s when it hits him — if they can pull off this extraction, the job will be over. Even if they can’t, they only have two more days until the client is going to send mercenaries after them. Eames will probably go home, since they’ve kept his identity from the client; Arthur will either stay here in Paris if he can, or take off with his new fake identity and hide out for a while. Either way, it seems as though the intersection of their paths is about to come to an end.

He pulls on a pair of sweats and sits down at his laptop. He’s got travel arrangements to make.

Later that morning, at 9:30 a.m., they begin the job. Eames goes in alone at first, and two minutes later Mal and Arthur follow. By the time they find Eames and Cabot, Eames already has the combination. By 9:40 they’re winding up the PASIV lines, and the nurse they’ve paid off escorts them out of the building.

On the ride to the warehouse, Dom and Mal shower Eames with praise. Arthur stays quiet until they get back, when they can talk privately. Mal is busy cleaning up her models and Dom is on the phone with the client when Arthur walks over to where Eames is packing up the few things on his desk. “You did an impressive job today, Mr. Eames,” he says. “You really saved our asses.”

“That’s what you brought me here for, isn’t it?” Eames asks, leaning in close and dragging a finger along the line of Arthur’s forearm. “Well, one of the reasons, anyhow.”

Arthur checks over his shoulder to make sure the Cobbs are still distracted. “Yes, well, I’ll concede you’ve excelled at everything we’ve asked of you.” Eames starts to laugh, but his eyes sharpen when Arthur reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket. “To show my appreciation, I wanted to give you this.” He hands Eames the envelope and watches with bated breath as Eames pulls out the documents inside. He looks at them closely, then shifts that same heavy stare to Arthur.

“Two tickets to Fiji?”

Arthur’s smile falters, but he forces the words out nonetheless. “Take me with you?”

Eames drops the tickets on the desk and pulls Arthur in, kissing him soundly, and Arthur lets him. When they break apart, Arthur glances around to find Dom and Mal both gaping at them, but Eames takes him by the chin and turns his face so their eyes meet. “Of course, darling,” Eames says, and his smile is so wide it makes Arthur’s heart pound. “Taking what I want is something of a speciality for me.”