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The Waking Years

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JACKSON FROM ITTOQQORTOORMIIT MAKES THEM DO IT

"You know," comes Eames's voice, "there's no need for subterfuge."

Arthur raises his head, fork dipping into a corner of his terrine. Eames must see himself shine off of Arthur's sunglasses, and he makes a show of peering closer to check his reflection, patting fastidiously at the part of his hair.

"I mean," says Eames, "you're not wanted here. Are you?"

"No," says Arthur, and lowers his head again. "Why, are you? Do you have an arrest record here?"

"You know I've only been arrested once," says Eames. "Besides, that was in Czechoslovakia, back when it was Czechoslovakia-- how does my hair look?"

"Like hair," says Arthur. "Either sit down or leave me to my brunch, Eames. You're making me feel inhospitable."

Eames drags up a chair from the next table. It's a fine Sunday in the foreign quarter of Seoul, and the morning light is bright where it pools around them on the cafe terrace. Arthur divvies up his terrine into even segments like he's planning to put it back together later, and Eames watches him, slouched against his backrest.

"Honestly, though," says Eames. "You'd look a lot less suspicious without the sunglasses. What's it for? Is there an ex stalking you somewhere hereabouts, is that it? Are you running from a jilted lover?"

"It's not-- I'm not--" says Arthur, and crosses his legs. "Look, I'm using sunglasses the way they were meant to be used -- to shield my eyes from the sun -- is that so unfashionable?"

"I knew it," says Eames, pointing a finger at Arthur. "It's your hotel! You slept terribly because you didn't like your hotel room!"

"Well," says Arthur, reluctantly, "I suppose there have been better."

"I'm in a better," says Eames. "Ask me about my hotel."

"I'm not asking you about your hotel," says Arthur. "Are you going to order anything?"

"It's wonderful, by the way," says Eames. "Ask me how wonderful it is."

"Eames," says Arthur, "I'm not asking you--"

"It's so wonderful," says Eames, "that the room is called the Wonderful Room. I was looking through their brochure, there's this one that they call the Fabulous Room, it's all white and grey, it might as well have a sign over the door that says For Arthur, the most exacting of all ponces--"

"Sorry," calls Arthur into the cafe, "could we have the menu again, please?"

"It's your own fault for being so stubborn," says Eames. "You knew perfectly well that there were about a million better hotels all over the city, but no, you said we needed to work from the foreign quarter."

"We do," says Arthur. "That's how I always--"

"You could have just booked this one to work out of," says Eames, "and got a better one to sleep in-- but no, you didn't want the commute. Half an hour by cab, Arthur. That's all it takes to get me here from my wonderful, wonderful room."

"Never mind the menu," calls Arthur. "He'll be having the endive salad."

"What's wrong with the endive salad?" asks Eames.

"Nothing," says Arthur. "Can you stop it with the questions? Jesus Christ, I know what I'm doing, Cobb never asked--"

"Yes, well, Cobb may never have," Eames says, light. "But you're working point for me right now, aren't you?"

He hooks an elbow onto the back of his chair, lets his fingers hang down, drumming them against the wood. Arthur flicks his eyes to Eames's face and back, behind the cover of his sunglasses.

"Terrible life choices," mutters Arthur. "I should have said no."

And they both know, that's as far from the truth as anything can be. That Arthur was flattered when Eames offered him the job, flattered in his own silent, peevish way. They know it well enough to take what Arthur says as an admission of defeat, or at least an acquiescence to a truce. Eames shifts in his seat, pulls free a rolled-up magazine from where he's been sitting on it.

"Oh, god," says Arthur when he sees it. "Please don't tell me Teagan is still printing that thing. What is this, the third issue already?"

"Don't you begrudge a person their hobby," says Eames. "She isn't going to get any recon done with that broken leg, so would you really prefer that she spend her time on her hospital bed staring up at the ceiling and thinking about all the work she's missing out on? Shame on you, Arthur, you heartless bastard."

"It's just," says Arthur, "the title--"

"I happen to think that Sweet Dreams is a lovely title," says Eames. "And I'll have you know that the magazine is an immensely effective way to maintain a finger on the pulse of the dreamshare community--"

"It's not the pulse of anything," protests Arthur. "It's gossip! There are entire articles devoted to which regularly used forge has the best-looking legs!"

"That's not fair," says Eames. "You only mentioned that because you know I'm still bitter about it."

"You're the winner where it counts," says Arthur. "In your own bloated ego."

"Keep being a twat and I won't let you have the mail-order forms," says Eames. "I know you want those reinforced vial storage extensions."

"Now who's being unfair," says Arthur, and breaks off a piece of bread for the last of his terrine.

Eames reads with excruciatingly affected slowness, letting the gloss of the page rustle in his hand as he turns it. He pores over every word like he can't tear himself away, even though Arthur can see that the actual column has something to do with how to use isotopes to tweak the sensation of smells within dreams. It ought to bore both of them out of their mind. But Arthur has run out of food to distract himself with, and although he's got his chin in the cradle of one hand in a cultivated display of nonchalance, Eames probably notices that he's leaning in a bit on his elbow, trying to make out the words of the article. I'm being baited, thinks Arthur, but there's nothing better to do than take it--

Then Eames flips the page, and for a moment, neither of them knows what to say.

Arthur's arm shoots out, but Eames is closer. He snatches the magazine out of Arthur's reach, and holds it to his face as he scans it, like proximity would help assuage his disbelief. Arthur's chair crashes to the floor as he jumps up and lunges forward.

"Let me--" starts Arthur as he grapples against the edge of the table, sunglasses nearly slipping off his nose, "no, I must have-- I misread it, didn't I?"

Eames turns the magazine over, lets Arthur mouth the words of the title text.

Poll of the month, it says in bright blue letters. Teagan asks: which two members of the dreamshare community should totally hook up?

"72% of voters," reads Arthur, "say Arthur and Eames."

"We beat out Nadira and Ellie B," says Eames.

"How did we beat-- Nadira and Ellie B hooked up seven years ago and haven't stopped since," says Arthur in dismay. "They have a house in Perth, for fuck's sake."

Everything about this is ridiculous, thinks Arthur. The existence of Teagan's magazine, the fact that she runs polls about potential hook-ups, that people vote in them, that people vote in them for him and Eames. The startled arch of Eames's eyebrows lowering into something amused.

"What's the reasoning," asks Arthur, heavy with the inevitability of the question. "The voters, the ones that were quoted, why do they think we should--"

"Well, if you asked Jackson from Itto-- Ittoq-- what the fuck is this word?" asks Eames, outraged. "Ittoqqortoormiit? Is that even a real place? Anyway, if you found this Jackson bloke wherever he actually lives and asked him, he would tell you that Arthur and Eames are a natural match. Arthur, being a Virgo, may come across as someone who would be a cold fish in bed. This is a common stereotype about Virgos, but certainly an erroneous one; with the right partner to ignite them, Virgos will prove to be passionate and insatiable. Since Eames is a Cancer-- hold on, now, how does he know my sign? I've not told anyone, most definitely not Jackson from where the fuck."

"How does he know I'm a Virgo?" demands Arthur. "Wait, no, before that, why is he fantasizing about--"

"Look, Arthur," says Eames, "of course everyone knows you're a Virgo. No one could miss that. I've heard it said that scientifically, the stick up your arse is visible from low Earth orbit--"

"What is that supposed to mean?" Arthur yanks the magazine out of Eames's hands. "Since Eames is a Cancer, his expansive nature is well-suited to soothing away Arthur's reservations. In return, Arthur will unveil a surprisingly depraved side of hims-- Eames, I am going to find this Jackson asshole and I am going to snap his spine like peppermint candy-- Virgo and Cancer will be a union of opposites who find that they share more similarities than they initially thought. Where there is friction, there are sparks; the physical attraction is undeniable."

He drops the magazine down onto the table. The lids of his eyes feel raw in the light, and he pinches the bridge of his nose, rubs over where his sunglasses dug in. He crosses his arms and looks at Eames, at the stretch of his shirt across his chest, the smile around his mouth patient and knowing. Eames is waiting for him to act, just waiting to laugh at him, but that crook of his lips--

Arthur remembers Eames in Ankara. His hair cropped short. The sinews of his neck taut as he snarled, Who the fuck are you? and the volley of bullets before Arthur could answer, because Eames was a rougher man then, sharper. They both were. But the tendril of a tattoo curls out over Eames's collar just the way it did back then, and Arthur thinks, The physical attraction.

Eames asks, "How does this Jackson know so much about pop astrology, anyway," and it's just something to fill the air with.

He must be expecting Arthur to shake his head and turn away. It's what Arthur has been doing all this while, since the beginning, all the way since Ankara. He's noticed the occasional weight in Eames's eyes, the unspoken intent, and he knows that Eames's answer to any offer would be yes. But Eames is a sardonic son of a bitch who would be half in it only to laugh at him the morning after, and Arthur isn't so desperate that he'd put up with that just to get a fuck out of it.

It's not dislike, thinks Arthur. Not really. But there must be some part of Eames that thinks Arthur is a dull, dismissive prick who tastes like sawdust, who would need to be wheedled and wrangled to a lukewarm orgasm. As present as the physical attraction is, they must share some instinctual assumption that any sex between them could very well be terrible.

Arthur never felt it would be worthwhile to convince Eames otherwise; until now, because Jackson from Ittoqqortoormiit says natural match, and Arthur catches himself listening. I've lost it, he thinks. I'm about to possibly have the worst sex of my life because I took the advice of some asshole who lives in a made-up city.

Arthur looks at Eames, sees the sun lighting flecks of copper through his hair. He folds his sunglasses carefully closed and tucks them into the throat of his shirt.

"Well, on second thought-- there's no need to flip our shit over this," he says, smooth, maybe a little too studied in his insouciance as he sinks back into his chair. "I guess we must have been amazed that a full 72% of Teagan's readership appear to have actual taste in men."

"Why, Arthur," says Eames, "I'm intrigued with where this appears to be going."

"Obviously you've thought about--" Arthur makes a vague gesture at himself, an impatient flourish. "I'm attractive, you're attractive, our hours are long, we work out of hotel rooms, and besides, we've been prancing through each other's minds for far too long to keep this up."

"Keep what up?" asks Eames. "I admit, it's no secret I've thought we might make a good shag out of this simmering tension between us, but you have always met my insinuations with--"

Arthur levels him a long, even look, the way he does when something is much too obvious to explain or refute. Eames knows when he's been seen through, so he lowers his chin and grins, devious in the face of a welcome challenge.

"I hope this isn't just your wildly cocked-up sense of humor," he says. "Which, let me be the first to assure you that it is wildly cocked-up-- but it would be cruel to lead a man on with something like this, if you don't mean to make good on it."

"Please try to contain your excitement," says Arthur. "You ought to know I don't approach people without intent, I'm not that sort. I'm always willing to follow through."

"Need I remind you of the time you were chatting up Svensson," says Eames. "And Mrs. Navarro. Do you mean to say you--"

"Svensson, that was for the job!" says Arthur. "And Mrs. Navarro was-- I wasn't flirting with her! She was eighty-seven and her daughter had sent her banana bread, god, Eames, are you serious?"

"Are you serious?" asks Eames, and just like that, they've got their guns trained on each other again. The murmur of Seoul around them like a whiff of Ankara, that first time with the singe of powder in the air, Eames's brow knitted hard. They're holding their breath, waiting for a move.

Arthur makes it.

"Yes," he says, and raises his chin, defiant. That's the way he meets a challenge. "So there it is, Mr. Eames-- are we going to fuck or not?"

Eames looks at him and he says, "Cancel my salad."


SO IT TURNS OUT I MIGHT WRITE HOME ABOUT IT AFTER ALL

Eames has never put much faith in living by the signs of the Zodiac, but Arthur pushes him up against the door of the second-rate hotel room as soon as they're inside, and just for that, he's willing to brave a little superstition. He's not expecting the kiss; but Arthur comes in for it, a touch of warm lips that part and nudge his open. Arthur's eyes are shut, lids flickering in concentration. Intent in it as in all things. Eames is flooded with a sneaking urge to nettle him, so he chances it and slips his tongue into the heat of Arthur's mouth, running it along the ridges of Arthur's teeth, the roof of his mouth where it makes him flinch, body pressed up tight against his own. Arthur makes a small noise of surprise, but then the quick lick of his own tongue taps softly against Eames's. He tastes a little bitter from the terrine, a little like the trace of nuts.



"Shit," says Arthur when they pull apart, touching his fingers to his lips. "You're not bad."

"Thank you, Arthur," says Eames. "You're a rather pleasant surprise yourself."

He pulls his hips back, nudging his knee against the front of Arthur's trousers. The weight there is solid, half-heavy with the hint of arousal, and Arthur's eyes flutter closed as he drops his forehead to Eames's shoulder.

He's thought about Arthur before, of course, entertained some idle notions regarding the way his fancy trousers clung to his fancy arse. But Arthur always seemed the type to fight all the way to climax, irritable and demanding, distracted with trying to come up with some scathing criticism of Eames's performance he would offer in place of an afterglow. It never seemed worth the effort.

But Arthur asks, "So this is how you want it?" and leans into Eames, straddling his bent thigh, lodging a leg in between his. There's an edge of an adrenaline smirk playing across his mouth, and he's eager, this Arthur. A pleasant surprise. Arthur braces his hands on the door on either side of Eames, caging him in, and then he rolls his hips forward, grinding the two of them together into each other.

"Fuck," chokes Eames, blown with the drag of Arthur's thigh against his cock. His head thunks back against the wood. "Jesus, alright--"

"Yeah?" asks Arthur, breathless. "Is that good?"

He pulls Eames's head in, licking at his open lips with the tip of his tongue. It's a light touch, teasing, even as they rub themselves onto each other's legs, thirsting for that extra edge of friction. Eames splays his hand out over the small of Arthur's back, resting his palm in the dip just above his arse. The motion of Arthur's waist is shameless filth beneath his fingers. He can feel the shift of the muscles in Arthur's back, and he rocks into Arthur's hips, searching for the growing heat against his thigh.

"God, yes," sighs Arthur, shaky against his jaw, "fuck, oh, Eames--"

It's just the way Eames likes to fuck, long and close. Who knew he had it in him, Eames thinks indistinctly, and Ought to thank Jackson from the middle of bloody nowhere, as he hisses at the curl of pleasure in his stomach.

"Just like--" he says, "like that-- Arthur, fuck, Jesus."

"Eames," says Arthur, their words running into each other, "fuck, come on--"

The tempo turns erratic as Eames feels the fire coil inside him, a restless tingle along his back. Arthur grits his teeth against the uneven strokes, pushing himself against Eames, the hard line of his erection. They're rutting like animals, ungraceful and unconcerned, and Eames lets the climax build all the way from the tips of his toes, lighting him up. Fuck, but it's fantastic, and Arthur's breath comes in wet gasps against the side of his neck.

"Yes," says Arthur, "oh, god--"

Eames clenches his eyes shut, sparks starting to run through the damp heft of his cock, shivering all the way through him. He needs the heat of their bodies closer together, and he tangles his fingers in the back of Arthur's hair, tucking him into the crook of his shoulder like something fierce and hungry, as his balls draw tight and he shoves himself up against Arthur.

"Arthur," he says, "Arthur, fuck--"

He groans and comes in a mess inside his trousers, constellations behind his lids. Oh, fuck, it's one of those orgasms like the world is being torn down, shaking apart inside and outside him, lurching and shattering into a million bright pieces. Arthur lets out a muffled keen as he brings himself to finish, his nails digging into Eames's arms, leaving reddened half-moon circles in his skin. Even that twinge of pain is something pleasant in the aftershocks, and Eames lets his hand fall to his side, trailing past the beads of sweat at Arthur's collar.

"Jesus," says Arthur, "wow."

"What," says Eames, astonished, the breath rushing back to his lungs, "what the fuck was that?"

They sink to the floor, unsteady, in a tangle of limbs and sticky fabric. Arthur swipes the back of his hand across his crotch, face a strange blend of distaste and complete satisfaction.

"We waited this long," says Arthur, "you'd think we'd be able to make it to the bed."

"Fuck your bed," says Eames. His head is still fuzzy. "Seriously, I don't know what that was, but it was--"

"Tell me it was the best fuck you ever had," says Arthur.

"Your bed probably can't even fit-- sorry, what?" asks Eames. "Was it the best fuck I ever had?"

Arthur looks at him through hooded eyes and falls back onto the carpet, stains all across the front of his trousers. Bits of gravel scatter from the soles of his shoes. Yeah, one of the better, Eames would say, and probably the best I've had without taking my bloody trousers off. But he's not about to concede that compliment, not after just the one shag.

"Since it made me feel like I was back in sixth form with no control over my own erection," Eames tells him instead, "I'd say it was alright. Does that answer appease your delicate pride?"

"Yeah, I'll take that," says Arthur. "Is sex with you always like this?"

"Who's asking?" Eames feels the mellow fatigue start to seep into his bones, and he slumps against the wall. It's Arthur's way of angling for more, and in light of what they've just managed, Eames is perfectly happy to play along. "What, once wasn't enough? You think there might be something to this astrology rot?"

"Consider it-- we're going to be on this job for about a month," says Arthur. "It's too long to go without, but too short to get to know the city properly. Of the team we'll be working with, since Kang is steady with his girlfriend, and Leah mostly likes girls--"

"--or skinny boys named Dragomir who smell like clove cigarettes," says Eames. "I must say, I'm well chuffed, Arthur. You chose me through a painstakingly precise process of elimination."

"Didn't hurt that the orgasm felt like a traffic collision," says Arthur, his smile small and lazy.

Eames contemplates him, the open sprawl of his legs, strands of his hair coming loose. The wiry insistence of Arthur's body against his own. Arthur, willing and available-- and an unexpectedly satisfying lay. It's what I've wanted since Ankara, isn't it? Eames licks at his lower lip and knows that Arthur is watching.

"You're right," says Eames, "we could do a lot worse."

"Isn't that the truth," says Arthur.


FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, HAVE YOU NO SHAME

Leah throws her duffel bag next to the bed and immediately starts sniffing at the air.

"It's not musty, exactly," she says, "but there's a certain--"

"Don't mind her," Kang tells Arthur, "she's been saying that about my car all the way from the airport."

"That was different," says Leah, "that was just your car being old and you not airing it out enough."

"So ungrateful," says Kang, but picks up her bag and sets it on a chair anyway. "Maybe this room hasn't been aired out enough, either."

"Oh," says Eames, shoving his hands into his pockets, "I'm sure that's not the case. I'm sure Arthur was smart enough to leave the windows open yesterday, to let out any lingering odors, whatever they might have been-- isn't that right, Arthur?"

Of course it is. The question is vaguely insulting. Arthur handed Eames a wad of tissues and a spare pair of sweatpants, sent him off on his way with his underwear and slacks rolled up discreetly into a dark plastic bag. Don't I get a wash, said Eames, and Arthur told him, You've gone on enough about that wonderful room of yours, why don't you go get one there, but there was no bite to it in his exhaustion. Eames laughed when he heard it.

Then he opened the window, the room hot with the smell of sex, took a long shower and thought of Eames's voice in his ear, Arthur, Arthur, fuck. He yanked the water to cold just in time and barely managed to save himself the indignity of jerking off to it. All in all, though, he considered the day a great success, now that he had someone else's hand to borrow for at least the next month.

"Unfortunately it started getting a little chilly during the night," he tells Eames. "But I'm sure that any suspicious smells caused by the bodily fluids of unexpected intruders would have dissipated long before then."

"Is it intrusion if the homeowner invites the culprit in with his tongue down his throat?" asks Eames.

"You two, seriously," says Leah, turning to glare. "The way you go on, it's no wonder people assume-- have you read the latest Sweet Dreams? Wait, what am I saying, why would you read that trash, Teagan needs to get off her ass and get back to work--"

"Well," says Kang, picking up the magazine from where it's fallen under the bed, "someone has read it, at any rate."

Leah stares at the magazine, up at Kang, then at Eames, at Arthur, and back at the magazine.

"Ew, what, come on!" she yells, slapping the magazine out of Kang's hand. "Don't touch that, Kang, there's probably dried semen all over it-- so that's what that smell is, you guys, you're the absolute worst!"

"Why would there--" Arthur gesticulates in consternation. "What, you think we jerked each other off to the thought of people thinking we'd be hot together? You think we're the sort of-- isn't that offensive?"

"You're exactly that sort, you dicks," says Leah. "Can you swear in all honesty that no ejaculation happened in this room yesterday?"

"That really depends," says Eames, "on whether the confines of trousers constitute a separate physical space--"

"I'm a little uneasy with the explicit nature of this conversation," says Kang.

"Did you stay the night?" demands Leah, whirling on Eames.

"No, I've got this wonderful room about half an hour from here," says Eames. "You should ask me how wonderful it--"

"Shut it," says Leah. "Arthur, please follow Eames back to his hotel tonight, and book a room for yourself wherever it is that he's staying. I really don't want to work out of some sort of seedy semen-stained sex den where-- can I collapse on this bed, or should I worry?"

"It's fine," says Arthur, "we didn't exactly manage to--"

"Stop, I get it," she says. "Kang, I need you to introduce me to a hotel that is at least as swanky as Eames's and also considerably far away from it."

"As long as you don't complain about my car on the way there," says Kang.

"So now that you two are fucking," says Leah, "is that going to let out some of that infamous steam? Am I going to have a good time on this job? I took it for the payout, but I was fully prepared to regret my decision."

"We promise to behave," says Arthur, solemnly.

"Except at night," says Eames.

"By yourselves," says Leah.

"If you insist," says Eames. "Speaking of which, hey, are you still--"

"Mention Dragomir," says Leah, "and I will wait until we are on the job, then I will shoot you in all the places that will hurt you the most."

"Are all of you points like this?" Eames asks Arthur. "Aggressive and vindictive?"

"Oh, don't worry," says Arthur, "Leah is far more trigger-happy than I am. It's why I wanted her for the job."

"Also because you're shit at voice surveillance," says Leah.

"Excuse me," says Arthur, offended, "I am not shit at--"

"And receipts and purchasing patterns, you don't have a clue what to do with those," says Leah. "It's all right, Arthur. Together we will conquer the world."

"If we're going to start talking about the job," says Kang, "can we do it over dinner? I'm starving and there's a Taco Bell right across the street."

"Taco Bell?" asks Leah. "Really?"

"I have very fond memories of Taco Bell," says Kang. "Look, here's a story-- when I was seven years old in Wisconsin, young and impressionable, living with my elderly aunt who had moved there to join her husband in his--"

"I think I've heard this one before," says Arthur. "It ends with you stranded in the middle of an ocean of playpen balls, too afraid to move because you thought you would drown, and then some little girl with eyes like velvet led you by the hand to safety."

"She was beautiful," says Kang. "I wonder where she is now."

"This is all very touching," says Eames, "but as much as I'd enjoy continuing to doss around, we do want to complete the initial briefing before the day is out. You know I hate to be the grown-up here, but seeing as how I expect Leah will succumb to jet lag in a matter of hours--"

"How about I bring a couple things back from the Taco Bell?" asks Arthur. "Since you've already given me the general run-down on the job, and you could get everyone else up to speed while I'm getting us food."

"Excellent," says Eames. "Out come the dossiers. We'll have so much fun while you're away, but try not to be jealous."

"Could you get me a huge thing of coffee," says Leah. "I'm going to make it to midnight if I have to die doing it."

"Your dedication is heart-wrenching," says Arthur, and shuts the door behind him. Through the crack of it just before it closes, he sees Eames glance over his shoulder, giving him an honest-to-god wink.

Arthur is horrified that he is now apparently sleeping with a kitschy relic that the twenty-first century ought to have left behind, but then he thinks, Co-conspirators in fucking, and it's really funnier than it should be.


THE CLIENT WITH THE UNFORTUNATE INITIALS

"Our client," says Eames, "the magnificent Van Dorsten."

"He looks like a manatee," says Kang.

"This manatee," says Eames, "is the CEO of Van Dorsten Industries, one of the world's leading large-scale wireless network providers. He's set to attend the upcoming Business Summit here, which is when we'll make the information drop and complete the job. That allows us a timeframe of a little over a month, which should be more than enough for a relatively simple extraction."

"Do they call his company VD Industries for short?" asks Leah. "Because that would be hilarious."

"Van Dorsten intends to lay out a massive grid over Southeast Asia within the next decade," says Eames. "There's no clear competitor for the project, and they can look forward to the financial and legislative support of the governments involved. No issues there. However -- as is so often the case in these modern times -- trouble comes from within."

"I like your briefing style," says Leah. "It's very exciting."

"Industrial espionage?" asks Kang. "Is he looking for a mole?"

"No, it's more that his own ambition is creating problems for him," says Eames. "Meet Samuel Weston, our mark."

He opens up a second dossier, where a photograph of a man with a tragic hairline is paper-clipped to the stack of documents inside. Leah rubs her thumb over his forehead pityingly.

"Weston is the Head Engineer at the Division of Planning and Strategy for Elucorp," says Eames. "The impenetrable ambiguity of corporate titles aside, Weston is in charge of approving technological advancements for a company that is the leading manufacturer of IT hardware. Naturally, it would be in Van Dorsten's interests to work with Elucorp in the Southeast Asian development deal; but that's not good enough for our client. What Van Dorsten wants is to complete the entire project in-house."

"He wants to make his own hardware?" asks Kang. "Does he have the infra for that?"

"About a year or two back, they acquired a subsidiary who basically does what Elucorp does," says Eames. "Only, of course, they can't do it quite as well. Van Dorsten has hired us to extract some proprietary information from Weston, and they'll hand that over to their subsidiary, who will implement the new technology. That'll allow Van Dorsten to exercise control over the hardware aspect of the project as well."

"Where's Elucorp based?" asks Leah. "I'm guessing not in Korea, so I was wondering why we chose Seoul to work out of."

"We're here for location scouting," says Eames. "Elucorp has its headquarters in New York, but due to the heavily tech-oriented nature of the company, Weston will be attending the business summit as part of the CEO's entourage. Van Dorsten is leaving straight from the Summit to his contract tour of Southeast Asia, where he'll have to finalize the decisions regarding his project-- so unfortunately, we won't have time for a do-over if we muck it up."

"We'll just have to be extra careful then," says Leah. "But using the Summit to get the client, the mark, and the team in the same geographical locale over a two-day period, that sounds great. The lag time between the job and the drop is going to be incredibly short. We won't have that awkward window of liability where we have to transport the information to the client while staying under the mark's radar."

"And the mark is away from home ground," says Eames, "so what physical evidence we might accidentally leave behind--"

"Won't be immediately accessible to the mark," says Leah. "I'm liking this, Eames."

"On top of which," says Kang, "any effort to trace things back to us will be confounded by the population turnover of the hotel where he'll be staying. Too many different fingerprints and stray hairs to be considered evidence. That is, if we work the job from his hotel room."

"I think we will," says Eames. "We can survey the locations whenever we like, since we're in town already. Ultimately it depends on what Arthur and Leah find out about Weston's schedule and personal habits, but the hotel room sedation is a classic for a reason."

"About Arthur," begins Leah.

Eames blinks and sees Arthur struggle for breath, the thin press of his lips swollen open. Oh, god, his voice a wreck, Eames. The heavy heat of Arthur's cock against his thigh.

"He's not really shit at analyzing purchasing patterns," says Leah. "Or any of that other stuff. I was just joking. I mean, I might be better at a couple things-- but overall, I know he's still-- Eames?"

"Yes?" asks Eames. "Sorry, what?"

"Arthur's a good point man," she says. "I'm glad that Cobb is letting him work with you."

"Cobb's retired," says Eames, and knows that he sounds short. "Besides, it's not as though he was keeping Arthur from taking on other jobs, nor would Arthur have ever let him be that presumptuous."

"Well, if he's retired," says Leah. "But you do know that the entire time Cobb was in the business, Arthur never worked with any other extractor?"

"Because Cobb was bloody brilliant at what he did, that's why," says Eames. "And it's always easier to work with someone you've fallen into a pattern with."

"I took a job with them in Cairo once," says Kang. "I don't think they ever stopped arguing for long enough to breathe. And then that projection, you know the one, Cobb's wife-- she got to Arthur at a bank where he'd been running interference, and she made us watch while she--"

"Look, sprogs," says Eames, "perhaps you ought to take this up with Arthur when he gets back. I think we've better things to do than hypothesize about his choice of extractors. I recognize that he's an excellent point, and I am optimistic about his contributions to this job, full stop."

"Did he tell you why he wanted me on board?" asks Leah. "I'm very thankful for the opportunity, et cetera, et cetera, but my skill set overlaps quite a bit with his."

"The second- and third-largest problems we encountered on our previous job," says Eames, "had to do with hostile projections and a lack of intel. My guess is that he's erring on the side of caution this time, bringing you in as a hired gun and an analyst."

Arthur frowned when Eames fell into step beside him at LAX, when he cleared his throat and said, I've got this job lined up. Arthur frowned like he was about to ask, Why would you want me to work it? Didn't you see me almost fuck this one up? And Eames felt the acrid burn of anger flare inside him, because he wanted to work with Arthur, wanted to work with the best, and Arthur couldn't be the best if he was busy doubting himself. He wasn't allowed to balk his way into mediocrity, not when he'd only just become someone Eames could finally hire.

But then Arthur leaned against the baggage claim carousel and said, Let's hire a second point, demanded it, and that wasn't him trying to run away; that was him trying to fix things. And that was the Arthur he wanted, cocksure but never self-important. That was part of what made him the best. Sure thing, said Eames. Whoever you want.

"What was the largest problem on your previous job?" asks Leah.

"Cobb," says Eames.


YOU CAN SHUT UP ABOUT THAT ROOM NOW

It's dark out when they've finished eating, but not late enough to call it a day. They stroll outside into the neighborhood, inside a themed bar that Kang's girlfriend recommended. They take off their shoes and walk into white sand.

"What does Mandy do again?" asks Arthur. "She's a teacher, right?"

"Middle school English," says Kang. "I don't know how she does it. Middle schoolers, day in and day out-- it's terrifying."

"Does alcohol have a positive impact on jet lag, or a negative one?" asks Leah.

"You'll have to order something anyway," says Kang. "Get something that'll put you to sleep."

"So brandy and Nyquil with melatonin pills on the side," says Leah.

"Something you'll wake up from," says Arthur, and slouches back into his chair, stretching his legs out beneath the table.

He feels something catch against his foot and sees Eames twitch where he's sitting across from him. Eames is waiting for the touch to pass, like most accidental brushes do, waiting for Arthur to jerk away like withdrawing from a burn. Arthur is about to, it's only polite; but then he thinks, Where does politeness come into it, we've already fucked, and he inches his toes a little closer.

Eames flinches, the unspoken What are you playing at, and he shifts his foot, pressing the blade of it against Arthur's sole.

"Of course not," Arthur says to something Leah asks him. "You wouldn't even need the alcohol, with Ambien."

He slides his foot over Eames's, nudging at his leg with his toes, the sand whispering between them. Traces an idle loop around Eames's ankle, the edge of his toenail scraping across his skin. Tawdry, perhaps, but Eames has no right to complain. He's the one that winks at people.

"But if I died," Leah is saying, "you'd have to hire a new point. What a hassle that would be."

Arthur gestures and talks into his Long Island Iced Tea and pats a mound of sand over Eames's foot, swirling patterns into it as he drinks. At last Eames manages to catch his eye, half his face cast in the shadow of the bar, and Arthur looks at him steady over the rim of his glass. What's a little touching, anyway. We'll have all our clothes off in a matter of hours. Eames doesn't look away, his eyes dark and thoughtful.

+


"My room is," Eames says later, as he stumbles into a cab, "it's going to blow your mind."

"That's what's going to blow my mind?" asks Arthur, and pours himself in after Eames. "I'm going to be impressed with your room?"

"It's a very nice room," says Eames. "Walkerhill Hotel, please."

"Don't be late tomorrow," Arthur shouts out of the window. "Hangover, jet lag, neither will be an acceptable excuse."

Eames drags him back inside by his tie, and rolls the window up as Leah and Kang wave goodbye. The kiss is all teeth and tongue, flavored with alcohol, and Eames's hand wanders up Arthur's leg all the way to his belt.

"Someone's impatient," says Arthur. "Did I get you worked up?"

"In all my life," Eames tells him, "never did I think I would play barefoot footsie with you."

He's slurring a little, and Arthur's feeling light-headed himself, so he just shrugs and says, "If that's what you want to call it."

"Arthur," says Eames, "you're an odd one."

In light of Eames's previous opinions of him, this isn't entirely displeasing. Arthur tells him so and lets him nip at a bit of skin under his jaw, turning his head up so that Eames can get at it better. Arthur shivers and leans his head against the window, watching the streetlights outside blur orange, feeling the inertia build up in him, pitching him forward.

He ends up on his knees, naked on Eames's hotel bed, watching the poppy-red sheets swim in and out of focus as Eames crooks two fingers inside him. It sends a jolt shooting through him and he gasps, tasting salt at the corners of his lips.

"You fuck like," hisses Arthur, "like some sort of pervert--"

"That's going to need an explanation, isn't it," says Eames, and adds a third finger.

Arthur tenses when he feels it, clenching in around Eames's hand, and he digs his nails into the mattress. The lube trickles down the insides of his thighs, and the sheet stretches taut between his knees when he spreads them a little wider.

"I mean," says Arthur, "you're very persistent-- god, oh."

"I'm a considerate lay," says Eames, and gives his fingers a slow twist inside Arthur. "Besides, if I put you out of commission today, how would we fuck tomorrow?"

"Doesn't mean it should-- Jesus," says Arthur, "it shouldn't take you all night to get me ready."

"Fuck, but you're tight," says Eames. "It's been a while for you, hasn't it?"

"Mister, I hardly know you." Arthur laughs, a choked quiver. "Let's save the dirty talk for our seven-year itch."

Eames leans in closer, thrusts his fingers in a little deeper. Arthur whines and pushes back, taking him in, and the back of his thigh presses up against Eames's cock. The hard, hot curve of flesh there makes Arthur shudder for it, and Eames bites off a groan that's not all protest.

"I assume," says Eames, "you'd want me to use a condom?"

"Roll one on," says Arthur. "Fuck me, already."

His elbows quiver and give out when Eames pushes into him, and he arches up, panting for air, ass raised high and stretched open around Eames. Fuck, fuck, the heat is unrelenting. Arthur feels him all around his insides, the thick solid length of Eames's cock filling him up, and Eames strokes the dip of Arthur's back with his thumb, tracing up the notches of his spine.

"Eames," says Arthur, breathless, "move, you son of a--"

"Honestly, you can relax," Eames tells him, voice unsteady. "I know you're no virgin, darling--"

Eames pulls back out just the slightest bit, tilts himself back inside, over and over again, shallow like coaxing him looser, and Arthur shakes beneath him, Eames's hands firm on his hipbones. With the steady simmer of friction Arthur's hands uncurl, falling slack onto the sheets, and bit by bit he feels himself open up, inviting Eames into him. His ass a slick, silky grip, loosening warm for Eames's cock.

"Yes," says Arthur, "god, god, like that, please."

Eames lengthens his strokes, holding himself there when he's in hilt-deep, and Arthur feels like he's being overtaken. Like he's being wrenched away from his own body, all the air pushed out of him when Eames moves, his throat dry and raw. Eames drives himself in at a slightly different angle, propping himself up higher on his knees and aiming for that tangle of nerves. The head of his cock scrapes against it, and Arthur feels himself go so unbearably tight around Eames, trembling all the way down to his fingertips, and he moans out loud before he can swallow it down.

"Fuck, Eames," he says, frantic with want, "fuck, there, right there, again--"

"You like that I'm persistent," says Eames, "don't you?"

"This is--" says Arthur, "oh, god, so fucking good--"

Eames draws in a sharp breath behind him, and grinds harder into him, sending blazes shooting up into the back of Arthur's head. He's crawling out of his skin, filled to the brim with buzzing. It's all Arthur can do to rock back and meet Eames when he thrusts in, clenching around him, and god, it's exactly the rhythm he wants, exactly what he craves.

"How the fuck," groans Eames, "have we not done this before?"

"I think," says Arthur, "I think I'm going to-- fuck--"

Arthur's hand stutters over his cock, and he comes with a gasp in a stark streak across the sheets, body tensing like a drawn bow, taut as a skin stretched over a drum. It wrings the climax from Eames, and he finishes with a strangled curse just as Arthur goes lax, sinking onto the bed with his cock still pulsing inside him.

"Oh, fuck," wheezes Arthur, trying to blink his vision back, "There's stuff all over the bed, goddammit."

"I'll try to wipe some of it off," says Eames, "and ask for-- ask to have it--"

He trails off indistinctly, thumb rubbing absent circles into Arthur's shoulders. Not laughing at me after all, thinks Arthur. On the contrary, there's something very earnest about Eames like this-- something almost dependable. Like he's a good person to want to lean on, as though you could trust him with more than schemes and gambits.

"Eames," he says, "we can't do this every day. It would kill us."

"Maybe," begins Eames, "but oh--"

"If you say what a way to go," warns Arthur, "I will knife you as soon as I can move."

A considerate lay, thinks Arthur. Or just a persistent fucking pervert. Either way, Eames is warm and solid against his back.


HEY, IF IT DOESN'T BOTHER YOU

Eames wakes to the sound of his cell phone, sprawled out alone in his bed. The knotted balloon of the condom still buried in a heap of crumpled tissue. The trace of a stain on red sheets.

"What," he answers his phone, blearily.

"Are you still not up?" asks Arthur. "Go put something on, come get breakfast."

"What time is it?" asks Eames. "What-- why are you awake?"

"I had to go book my room, of course," says Arthur. "I've been converted. Anyway, I'm giving you fifteen minutes. Any longer and you'd be late for work, besides. That would be a terrible example to set."

The floor of the shower is still wet when Eames ambles in, the burn of a good fuck still twinging through his muscles. Unexpected, thinks Eames, all of it. From the cool unflinching proposition out on the cafe terrace, to the hungry press of Arthur's mouth on his own. The nudge of his foot in the sand. Falling into rhythm against each other was much easier than he thought it would be. Felt better. Every bend in this road was a hairpin.

Distantly Eames always knew that Arthur was human, that he had sex in ways that weren't absurdly clinical, that didn't involve neat holes cut into freshly-laundered linen. But he considered Arthur the sort of person who slipped through your fingers; someone you couldn't leave your mark on, who checked twice to make sure he wasn't leaving any on you.

He thinks of the pale spill of Arthur's skin beneath him. Well-- he was wrong. Arthur doesn't play punctilious in bed, doesn't care for the furtive guilt of sex, the dissembling or the making excuses or the tiptoeing around, all that etiquette on how to avoid each other with propriety. It's a refreshing kind of candor. Eames finds that he doesn't mind.

"It's odd, isn't it," he says at breakfast, squinting at the sunlight flooding in behind Arthur. "Why is this not awkward?"

"Should it be?" asks Arthur.

"You stayed the night," says Eames. "And now we're having breakfast. Maybe I'm just out of practice with this whole casual fuck scene, but really, does that happen very often?"

"I wasn't really in any shape to leave last night," says Arthur. "I used your shower, by the way."

"I know," says Eames. "And my spare toothbrush, and my spare razor, and your spunk is still all over my bed."

"Did you run out as fast as you could to escape the cleaning staff?" asks Arthur.

"Honestly," says Eames," why are the sheets so fucking colorful?"

Arthur laughs a bit, but not unkindly. He's pressed and scrubbed clean, but for the faint creases in yesterday's shirt.

"Look," he says, "it doesn't have to be awkward if you don't want it to be. We're not mortal enemies of anything, or at least, we haven't been since Ankara. This isn't some sort of star-crossed fuck."

"Right?" asks Eames. "Though I admit, if you'd tried to chat me up back in Ankara, I'm not sure that I would have had the fortitude to say no."

"Funny," says Arthur, "I was thinking of it, but I thought it might get messy. What with the fact that we were shooting at each other at the time."

"You could have asked me after," Eames points out. "When we'd sorted everything out."

Arthur makes a noncommittal sound in his throat, dissecting his pineapple into slivers.

"Do you always do that?" asks Eames. "Eat like you're conducting an autopsy?"

"You're never seen me conduct an autopsy," says Arthur. "It gets pretty hectic, I should tell you, mostly I just use my teeth and my nails--"

+


It's a peaceful sort of routine they fall into. Arthur and Leah set out to cast their web in earnest, calling in favors, scrolling through their contacts list. On the second day, they get their hands on Samuel Weston's itinerary. By the fourth day, they have bugs in Weston's office, taps on his office phone, his business cell phone, his private cell phone, his secretary's phone, and his home phone.

Eames helps them with the transcription, when he isn't discussing the details of the architectural plan with Kang. Preliminary research shows that Weston enjoys quaint New England towns in the autumn, based on a number of public interviews and his ownership of at least two homes in the region.

"The initial section of the maze leads the way out of the village," says Kang. "That's more or less a standard urban labyrinth, albeit textured with small-town trappings."

"This spiral staircase in the endpoint-- it seems like a lighthouse," says Eames. "But what's between it and the village?"

"Yeah, it's a lighthouse," says Kang. "The village opens up to a dock, lined with New England rushes, all that picturesque detail that Weston is so fond of. Then what you have to do is, you need to get on a boat to reach the lighthouse, because the land route to it is designed to loop back on itself."

"If there's no road," says Eames, "then where's this second half of the maze going to be?"

"Okay, this is pretty cool," says Kang. "The second half of the maze consists of the currents of the ocean. The water forms a series of panels with a hinge mechanism that can flap open when something passes through them for the first time, but then locks closed behind it with the force of the backswing."

"The water forms--" begins Eames, "sorry, what does that mean now?"

"The walls of the maze are strong-flowing currents that repel the forward motion of the boat," says Kang. "When the panels lock behind the boat, that's what they turn into. All the rest of it is a large, looped body of slower ocean water."

"Is that possible?" asks Arthur, from where he's paused the wiretap recordings, headphones down around his neck. "Using water as a building block?"

"Absolutely," says Kang. "Alternative dreamshare material sciences is going to be the new big thing. There's a team working on it in Paris, this professor called Stephen Miles and his prodigy--"

"Ariadne," says Arthur.

"And her crowd of admirers," says Eames.

"You just wait for conferences a couple months from now," says Kang. "Everyone's going to be presenting on wind tunnels and force fields."

"Force fields," exclaims Leah. "Can you really make mazes out of force fields?"

"Go back to work, Leah," says Arthur, and clamps his headphones back on before she can protest.

Sometimes they drink, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes Arthur stays behind with Leah to finish typing up the day's research, and sometimes Eames stays behind with them. Sometimes Arthur leaves while Eames is walking through Kang's maze, wading through the rushes to the sound of seagulls in the sunset.

Eames catches Arthur back at the hotel bar, or he doesn't. Sometimes they stumble back up to either of their rooms, shedding their shirts at the foot of the bed, and sometimes they just say good night and meet sober in the morning at breakfast. Most of the time, they fuck, and sometimes they don't-- but any which way, it works. A warm body, a plush bed, a piss-easy job.

Give it enough time, thinks Eames, this is going to be the good old days.


TWO'S A TANGO, THREE'S A TANGLE

"We have a buzzword," says Leah.

"Finally," says Arthur, moving to her side of the desk. "What's the hit?"

"Van Dorsten," says Leah. "Hold on, I'm rewinding--"

She unplugs her headphones and Arthur turns the volume up higher. Eames and Kang join them, the scale models left forgotten for the moment.

"--know that Van Dorsten is hauling off right after the Summit," Weston is saying, voice pitched high and furious. "What the hell do they think they've got on us? There's nothing! Look, Otsuji can take it or leave it, because he knows he has nowhere better to go than us. It's take it or leave it, you tell him that--"

"Otsuji," says Eames. "Who is Otsuji?"

"So far, we only know as much as this call can tell us," says Leah. "It seems to be someone involved in some sort of deal with Elucorp, someone working on behalf of a group, and probably nothing illicit-- but with a competitive edge of some sort that they're using to frustrate the deal between Elucorp and Van Dorsten."

"What time was this call?" asks Arthur.

"Seven past ten in the morning," says Leah. "Outgoing from Weston's business cell."

"Motherload," says Arthur. "We should be especially thorough with his calls from that timestamp on-- there's something related to Van Dorsten that's become an issue for him. Most likely, it'll prove relevant to our job."

"The things we want to know are," says Eames, dashing off a numbered list on the whiteboard, "who is Otsuji? Who is he working for? What is that group's relationship with Elucorp, and how does Van Dorsten come into play?"

+


By the evening, after a full day's work, their ears are buzzing with the static and they've jotted down answers to most of the questions. Leah rubs at her temples and leans her forehead against the desk, groaning.

"Is my voice too loud right now?" she asks. "I can't tell. It's like my head is swimming in white noise."

"Come on, boss," says Kang. "We've gone through all the calls we have. Give us the wrap-up for the day and let us go home, I have a dinner date with Mandy."

"You're lucky, you know, not all careers are flexible enough to take your love life into consideration," says Eames. "Alright, then-- item one, Otsuji Saburo. Forty-seven years of age, Overseas Representative at Minerva Systems."

"He's been the point of contact between Minerva Systems and Elucorp," says Arthur. "Minerva Systems--"

"--hereafter Minesys--" says Eames.

"--Minesys is the Tokyo-based company where Elucorp has outsourced their R&D," says Arthur. "This isn't necessarily a typical move on their part; we need to look at it closer, but so far, it seems like Elucorp has made a temporary exception for this international project."

"And the bargaining chip that Minesys has over Elucorp?" prompts Eames.

"They've just gotten back the results of a major market test of some sort," says Arthur. "Elucorp needs those results to proceed with technical development on the IT hardware front, but Minesys is holding out for a better deal. Which is driving Weston up the wall."

"In summary, Elucorp wants information from Minerva Systems," says Eames. "Elucorp intends to use that to broker a deal with Van Dorsten, but Van Dorsten wants us to steal it instead. But as of now, there is nothing to steal, because Elucorp is trying to negotiate with Minesys. Until Minesys reaches an agreement with Elucorp, we have nothing to give Van Dorsten."

"There are three players involved in this now," says Arthur. "Van Dorsten of Van Dorsten Industries, Weston of Elucorp, and now Otsuji of Minerva Systems. It's complicating the simpler format of the two-person confrontation between the mark and the client."

"We can't wait for Elucorp to make that deal with Minesys," says Leah. "It's too many variables up in the air to plan for, and besides, Minesys is going to wait until the last possible moment."

"That'll probably be the Business Summit," says Kang. "Seeing as how Minesys is in attendance as well, they're going to hold out until the very last moment that Van Dorsten -- and by extension, Elucorp -- needs the information."

"But if Elucorp confronts Van Dorsten at the Summit before we get the info to him," says Leah, "then Van Dorsten has no choice but to accept working with them on the Southeast Asian project, because he won't know whether we've succeeded at our job or not. So what we have to do is--"

"Somehow we have to get our hands on the Elucorp information before Elucorp themselves," says Kang. "I think I'm going to vomit. Any ideas?"

"We're not going to forfeit, Kang, so don't look that devastated," says Arthur. "I don't want Van Dorsten after us, either-- we're going to finish this job, get him off our backs, and make a clean end of it somehow."

"Well," says Eames, "there's really only one way to do it."

He looks at Arthur, that old familiar duck of his chin. Spoiling for a fight. And Arthur knows that what Eames wants to do is the only thing that can be done. He knows because it's what he wants to do.

"What is it?" asks Leah. "What are you thinking of?"

"We're going to steal everything from everyone," says Arthur, and doesn't add, Even if we don't have a fucking clue how to do it.

"Thieves will be thieves," says Eames.


DALI USED A BOWL AND A SPOON, BUT SEX WILL DO IN A PINCH

"I'm going to borrow your bathtub," says Arthur, as they step out of their cab.

"What's wrong with yours?" asks Eames. "I rather like your room, do you want to switch? Are you not a monochrome color scheme person? No, that's preposterous, look at you, of course you're a--"

"I'm not switching rooms," says Arthur. "But the monochrome gets me a little too relaxed, I'll end up falling asleep in the bath or something. I need to think."

"You do not need to think," Eames tells him. "For fuck's sake, Arthur, I'd have thought you were the type to know how to separate work and play. This is time for play, just to be clear. Stop at the bar or something."

"Separating work and play is functionally impossible," says Arthur. "At least that's what I've found. Another fun fact is that if you don't set a rule for something, you won't be upset about it when it's broken. Now are you going to let me mix work and play in your bathtub, or do I have to break in?"

"Please don't break in," says Eames. "I can't look the cleaning staff in the face as it is. I bet they've been finding stains I've missed everywhere."

Arthur slides out of his suit on the way to the bathroom from Eames's door, draping clothes over all the surfaces within reach, coming to stand over the bath in his boxers. Eames sinks onto his bed and kicks off his shoes, watching Arthur's back as he runs the warming water under his hands. There are still marks on his skin from where Eames has dragged his fingers across it.

"Ideally," says Arthur, testing the temperature with a foot, "we would steal from Otsuji first, much before the Business Summit even begins. We don't want to hurry the Weston job, so giving ourselves as much time as possible between the two would be helpful."

"You're assuming that we can prime Weston with the information we get from Otsuji," says Eames. "You want to go into Weston's head and supply him with the results of the Otsuji job, and then you expect Weston's subconscious will react to the info and form the secret that we'll steal for Van Dorsten."

"It's reasonable, isn't it?" asks Arthur. "Priming the mark is already a step we have to go through, when we induce them to store the right secret in the endpoint."

"But you want to construct an if-then scenario," says Eames. "You want Weston's subconscious to interact with a piece of factual information from the outside, and then to respond to it coherently, producing the desired output. If it weren't factual information, sure, it would be just the same as the priming that we do. But facts--"

"You think because it isn't generated in that dream," says Arthur, "Weston's subconscious won't react the way we want it to?"

"It won't know what to make of the info," says Eames. "Weston's not a lucid dreamer, so he'll accept the dream level as reality. When his subconscious encounters something that's actually from reality, it'll be like trying to bring a four-dimensional object into a three-dimensional world-- he won't be able to comprehend it well enough to interact with it."

"So we'll have to generate the information within that dream," says Arthur. "Which means that we'll have to extract from Otsuji while we're in Weston's subconscious. Which is kind of like saying that I want to see the Colosseum from the Empire State Building. One's in one place and the other is in the other."

Arthur tips his head back, resting it on the edge of the bath. The steam curls out past the open doorway, a pleasant dampness in the air.

"Unless," says Arthur slowly, eyes fixed on the ceiling, "you can figure out a way to build both of them in the same city."

"Is the metaphor really necessary?" asks Eames. "What you mean is--"

"If we can populate a dream with Otsuji's subconscious," says Arthur, "and Weston's subconscious-- but how? There's not nearly enough room for that in a single dream, they'll become uneasy and tear each other apart before we can do anything--"

"Arthur," says Eames, "are you enjoying the bath?"

"What?" asks Arthur. "I'm-- sure, I guess-- why not?"

"You're not letting yourself relax," says Eames. "What's the point of trying to think in a bath if you've forgotten that you're in one? Look, we don't have to figure out right now how to do this. Recharge a little, or you'll be useless tomorrow."

"It's like," says Arthur, "there's a racetrack in my head, and all the things that we can't do are circling around it-- we can't code the factual information into dream-logic, we can't graft Otsuji's subconscious onto Weston's subconscious, we can't--"

He digs the heel of his hand into his temple, sinking a little lower into the bath. His leg hooks over the edge of it, draping along its side, and Eames watches the water snake down the smooth length of Arthur's calf. He gets so wound up, thinks Eames, Arthur and his racetrack brain, cataloguing his frustrations.

"Would you let me try something?" he asks.

"Try what?" asks Arthur. "You mean, with this double-extraction problem?"

"No," says Eames. "With you."

Arthur turns his head to look at him, questioning but not suspicious. At last he nods, and Eames slips off his bed, kneels at the side of the bath.

"Forget the job," says Eames, rolling up his sleeves. "Just-- stop thinking about it, for a little bit."

He wraps one hand over Arthur's knee, hanging over the lip of the bathtub, and reaches into the hot depth of the water. Arthur flinches when Eames brushes his fingers over his hole, twisting himself out of reach.

"This is what you wanted to try?" asks Arthur. "I'm-- Eames, now is really not--"

"Trust me, now is exactly when you need it," says Eames. "Lie back and open up for me, come on."

Arthur swallows, a bob of his damp throat. His eyes waver but he settles his head back onto the tub, parting his legs wider. He's pliant from the heat, and Eames sinks a finger in straight to the knuckle, smooth and easy.

"It's-- it feels," says Arthur, "like the water's getting in--"

"Don't you worry," says Eames, and pats down the tremble in Arthur's thigh. Arthur closes his eyes and turns his head away when Eames adds a second finger, and the flush creeps across his chest, pooling at the tips of his ears.

Eames crooks his fingers inside Arthur, gently searching him out. He moves down lower, working through the satin grip of him, nudges against where it makes Arthur jerk -- the whole glorious naked length of his body -- and the water sloshes over the front of Eames's shirt, out onto the floor.

"Let go, please," says Eames, tracing the tight lock of Arthur's jaw with his thumb. "I promise it'll be good."

"It better be," says Arthur, and offers a shaky smile.

Eames angles for it, and this time, Arthur shudders and moans, the sound ringing off the bathroom walls. His arse closes in around Eames's hand, and Arthur pushes back, fucking himself lazily onto it. He slides down deeper into the water, submerged to the chin, his hair wet against his forehead.

"Just relax," murmurs Eames, like a mantra, "relax, don't think of anything."

Arthur makes a small, helpless noise, and Eames feels it run through him like a thrill. It's not like he's breaking Arthur or defeating him-- it's like Arthur is beckoning him nearer, letting him closer to a secret. Drawing Eames inside his body, inside the mass of contradictions that he is.

"Fuck, ah--" Arthur stammers, his eyes drifting open, dark and unfocused. "Eames, god, fuck--"

The line of Arthur's cock is hard against his stomach, through the haze of the water. Eames feels his own erection push at the front of his trousers, and it awes him to see Arthur stripped so bare, so open for him to finger and touch and mark at will.

"Arthur," says Eames, and his own voice sounds strangled in his ears, "do you think-- could you come, just like this? If I--"

"I think--" gasps Arthur, "right there, touch me, please, I need-- Eames--"

It's a choice sort of vulnerability, thinks Eames. This isn't an Arthur that just anyone is allowed to see. As though when Eames says, Trust me, Arthur really does trust him-- but god, why would he? There's a danger in that, isn't there? To surrender yourself so fully to someone, just because you know they'll show you a good time.

Who am I to be trusted with you? Eames would ask, and What makes you think I want that responsibility, but then Arthur grabs Eames's collar, yanking him down, sighing hot into the kiss.

Arthur comes, like that, with Eames's fingers in his arse and his tongue in his mouth. And when Arthur looks at him and says, still with that pretty flush staining his cheeks, So what we need is a chemist, Eames is glad, honestly.


AT THE EDGE OF A CANYON, DEAF TO THE ECHOES

With the specifics of the job hinging so heavily on the double-extraction issue, Kang and Eames are forced to abandon work on the New England dream. Kang sighs with the long-suffering compliance of a martyr, rolling up his blueprints into pencil-thin scrolls.

"Did I tell you," he says, "I used to be a studio art major? I only mention this to let you know that I'm used to broken dreams."

"Chin up," says Leah. "We might use it yet."

"Not if it's going to be a two-person dream," says Kang. "Which, Arthur, how is that coming along? Weren't you thinking of bringing a chemist in?"

"Yeah, that--" begins Arthur, tapping his foot against the leg of the desk. "After what you said about needing to fly someone in from overseas, I've been getting in touch with some of the ones I've worked with in the past."

"Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with the local chemists," says Kang, "but if you're looking for an experimental compound, something beyond the normal scope of a steady, two-level, single-subconscious dream, then you're going to have to look somewhere else."

"The problem is, most chemists are interested in going deeper," says Arthur. "But what we need to do is go wider, or whatever the analogy might be-- we need a compound that can hold with multiple marks, not multiple layers."

"What about Huiqing?" asks Eames. "Don't you know her, Leah? Isn't she part of that chemists' collective that does freelance work?"

"Disbanded after the sanctions last year," says Leah. "And their expertise was in deep dreamshare as well, which would have been an issue with the timeframe we have on this job. We need someone with experience in this area, in order to meet the mid-November deadline."

"Arthur," says Eames, "didn't you say you were going to visit Cobb, for his daughter's birthday? Can you find someone before you leave?"

"I'm trying, aren't I," snaps Arthur. "It's not like I'd abandon the job just to go see Phillipa, so lay off, all right? I know what my priorities are."

"Jesus," says Eames, raising his hands, "what's got into you?"

"Nothing, sorry," says Arthur, and lets out a long shaky breath. "It's just-- not the easiest thing, trying to find the right chemist. I'm also working on some alternatives to a double-mark extraction, so I'll have something, anyway. I won't go to L.A. unless I've planned out a viable strategy."

"And I will make it my personal goal to send you to that birthday party," says Leah. "It's okay, Eames-- Arthur and I've got this. We're working on it."

"I know you are," says Eames, and rubs at the back of his neck. "I was only asking."

"Well," says Kang, "Eames and I need to go see a man about a hotel and the surveillance cam layout. We'll be back before dinner, but don't wait up."

Eames glances at Arthur again before he leaves, quick over his shoulder, a frown etched into his forehead. Arthur keeps his eyes on the dossier in his hands, but he allows himself to sag in his chair as soon as the door closes.

The same name keeps coming up. The same chemist. Over and over again, no matter who he asks, and it's all he can do to convince Leah to look elsewhere. To concentrate on research into Weston's family background instead of helping him, lest she catch him at his prevarication. God, it's like there's no other chemist even working anymore, he thinks. Always Yusuf, Yusuf, Yusuf.

So it's Yusuf. He should have known. Yusuf has that dream den below his shop, and chemists who run dream dens obviously do know the most about mass dreamshare. And there's really no fault to find with his skills -- Yusuf knows what he's doing and he's great at it -- but Arthur doesn't want to hire Yusuf. Arthur doesn't want--

He thinks of Yusuf and he remembers the cold gnashing of limbo at his heels, the tightrope act of the Fischer job. The blood seeping through Saito's shirt, the wild desperation sparking through Cobb's eyes. Yusuf, who knew about the sedative. It's over, he tells himself, we did it, but he thinks of Yusuf and the panic takes him. He doesn't trust Yusuf, or he doesn't trust himself to work well with Yusuf, or something, but something.

He grasps at all the options he has. They could carry out the Otsuji extraction as planned, and give the information to Weston as a real-world anonymous tip. With any luck, Weston will let slip what they need on any number of the phone lines they've tapped, and they'll get the results to Van Dorsten before the Summit. But the planning process for the Otsuji job would have to be extremely rushed, and too much of the success would depend on what Weston does-- or they could infiltrate Elucorp, Eames could fly over to New York and-- well, then again, if it's not enough time to plan a regular extraction, it's definitely not enough time for a real-world plant--

The racetrack of his brain starts to smell like burnt rubber. Arthur groans and drapes the dossier over his face. Leah gives his shoulder a squeeze, and it's like a vice grip around his heart.

+


He knows he's made a mess of it when Eames comes to work one morning, hauls him up, and drags him outside by his arm. Leah protests, shouts Come on, Arthur's been doing his best, but Eames tells her that It'll only be a minute and yanks the door closed.

"Look," says Arthur, "when I considered all the factors--"

"Did you?" asks Eames, his face clouded over. "Is that what you did? So tell me, after considering all the factors, when were you going to inform the rest of us that you knew there's a chemist for this job -- a good chemist, one you've worked with successfully -- but you didn't want us to hire him because of some piddly fucking personal shit that you can't be professional enough to--"

"Professional!" yells Arthur, "this is professional shit, Eames, don't you fucking accuse me of making this personal when you have no fucking idea--"

"You have no good reason for refusing to hire Yusuf," shouts Eames. "Yes, of course I called him, he runs a bloody dream den-- of course he's the right chemist! But for some indubitably ridiculous reason, you--"

"I based my decision on his conduct during our previous job," says Arthur. "He showed himself to be mercenary, willing to disregard the safety of the other members of the team, quick to flout regulations when the prospect of a monetary reward--"

"Arthur," says Eames, and his voice goes quiet, tight with something barely suppressed, "do you know who the mercenary one was, on the Fischer job? Do you remember who was willing to disregard our safety? Because as I recall, it wasn't Yusuf."

Oh, god, it hits Arthur low in the gut. All his vision flashes dark for an instant, and he nearly staggers at the weight of it, sliding down against the wall. And he thinks of the apprehension on Yusuf's face as he said, His whole share, but whose share, Arthur? Whose freight train was it, charging down the rain-slick streets?

"No," spits Arthur, only because he needs to fight, "you know he had to, he--"

"It's not Yusuf you can't work with," says Eames. "It's Cobb."

"Fuck you, Eames," says Arthur, "he's not even here right now, don't you dare--"

"But that's exactly the problem, isn't it," says Eames. "If he were here, you wouldn't think twice about telling him so, that he was the reckless one, that he very nearly damned all of us to limbo. You'd tell him he was wrong. But he's not here, and when he's not here, you think you're still his point man. Just because you spent two years watching his back, you think it's still your job. But Arthur, the thing is-- Cobb went home."

Eames crouches down next to him, and says, "Where does that leave you?"

Where but behind, still defending Cobb like a reflex, like muscle memory. Like a bad habit he can't break. Two years he ran with Cobb, and when it's all over, Arthur finds himself building memories out of lies. He tells himself that Cobb was worth the bullets, the scar tissue, was someone worth risking his neck for. That it was two years spent in a noble quest to right the wrongs, and Arthur places the blame everywhere -- on himself, on Yusuf, on the American fucking judicial system -- anywhere but on Cobb, because Cobb has to be worth every shoddy stitch, every drop of blood. Because Cobb has to be spotless, otherwise why would Arthur have done it all for him? How could Cobb, in his absence, be anything short of a saint?

"Two years," says Arthur. "Of course he was worth dying for. He had to be."

"Arthur," says Eames. "Go see Cobb."

"No, but the job," says Arthur, "we'll have to scrap the level now, start over from scratch--"

"Yusuf and Kang will build it," says Eames. "We'll fly Yusuf in, and Kang will design something that fits with Yusuf's solution to the double-extraction problem. You'll be back early enough to familiarize yourself with the layout, and we're going to pull this off, all of us, so-- go see Cobb, the way you meant to."

"Eames, what am I doing?" asks Arthur, a numb echo of the ringing in his head. "I nearly fucked this up, like I didn't just come off a job where I-- god, how did I let all of this personal bullshit--"

He lets the rest of it disappear into the churning nausea overtaking him. Eames is still there, close enough to touch. Arthur feels the welcome heat of his body, so close, close enough for him to lean against and sink into. But god, no, he can't. Not when Eames looks more pained than angry, when Arthur can't shake the feeling of what a disappointment he's become, a tangle of knots with his hang-ups and stupid fucking mistakes.

He's about to stand up, to get back to the work inside, when Eames wraps a hand around his head and pulls him in. Tugged off balance, Arthur ends up in an awkward sprawl, legs folded under him, his head on Eames's shoulder.

"Hey," says Eames. "Don't go just yet."

"But I need to--" begins Arthur.

"Spare a couple minutes," says Eames.

His hand winds through Arthur's hair, and Arthur is startled by the tenderness of it. He would protest, Eames, what are we doing, we're only fucking, you can't touch me like this-- but it seems such a petty objection to raise, when Eames is so steady against him. When the clotted frustration in him starts to melt away, with the whisper of Eames's fingers through his hair.

"The thing is," says Arthur, "it wasn't like Cobb was forcing me to-- it wasn't that I was coerced into running with him. I always meant to do it. But I just don't know why I-- if so much of it was so terrible, if I spent so much of those two years disagreeing with him, fighting with him, yelling at him--"

"Arthur, it's over," says Eames. "And maybe that's something you need to answer before you can leave those two years behind, the way Cobb left them behind. But right now, for now, just please shut up and stay like this a little. I think I'd like you to."

"Okay," says Arthur, and he adds, "I wanted to, anyway."

And wouldn't it be something warm to hold inside, if he knew that he could do it whenever he wanted to? If Eames were there to put him back together, whenever he asked. But who do I think I am, thinking I can pin him down? What do I think this is?

Not enough, is the answer he swallows back into his throat. Not nearly enough. Arthur leans on Eames's shoulder and breathes him in.


WE WHO NEVER LEARNED HOW TO SEE BY TOUCH

Yusuf accepts the job with enthusiasm, his laugh crackling in on speaker, through the static of the phone call.

"The compound allows for up to three people to function as the subconscious components of the dream," says Yusuf. "Three people, two of which need to be Otsuji and Weston."

"What about the third spot?" asks Eames. "Do we leave that one empty?"

"Yes and no," says Yusuf. "It can fit three people, but only two of those can be functionally occupied. That third spot is the one that comes between the other two-- it's the one that keeps Otsuji and Weston from coming into contact with each other and becoming antagonistic."

"A buffer," says Leah. "How do we ensure that the marks don't encroach upon it?"

"We fill it with a completely empty subconscious," says Yusuf. "If the dreamer is able to suppress his own projections and influences, to keep the disturbances in their subconscious at a negligible amount, then they can provide the impenetrable vacuum that separates the marks. It's very important that this third spot be taken by a dreamer who is at minimal physical risk during the events of the extraction, since the concentration required to keep the subconscious clear may be broken by sensations of pain."

"That leaves me and Arthur out, then," says Leah. "Wait, that's not to say that I'm necessarily expecting sensations of pain on this job, obviously it would be better if we could make it through unhurt, but-- to play it safe--"

"I'll be on watch outside the dream," says Kang, "since I don't do field work."

"And based on my previous experiences with the compound," says Yusuf, "it seems that I would need more practice before I can suppress my own subconscious to a satisfactory degree."

"So I'll take the spot, no problem," says Eames. "But you don't do field work either, do you, Yusuf? Wouldn't you be on watch with Kang anyway?"

"That was before I knew what field work could be like," says Yusuf, airy and fearless as a hero.

+


By the day before Arthur's flight for L.A., Yusuf has been consulting with them for long enough that Kang is making good progress on the new dreamscape.

"It's really a pity that I'll have to settle for an office building," says Kang. "I have such ambition, but I swear, every single time it just ends up being an office building or a hotel or a major metropolitan area. Which is all very interesting, but you do get tired of all this urban work after a while. Did you hear about the plans I had before? The New England town?"

"Yes, Kang, it sounded magnificent," says Yusuf. "I'm very sorry that it died a silent death."

"Well, maybe this office building isn't so bad after all," says Kang. "At least there's a metaphorical aspect to it. How many stories do you think it ought to be in total?"

"Something nicely divisible in three, perhaps," says Yusuf. "The details of the maze, you should probably discuss with Eames-- but yes, I think thirty stories or so should give each subconscious plenty of room."

"It's really amazing that we found you in time," says Leah. "I don't know what we would have done otherwise. None of the other chemists had any previous experience in this field."

"You've got just the right person," he said. "Excuse me if my appreciation comes across as provincial, but the payout from our previous job went a long way. Eames will remember what my downstairs area looked like, but I've completely renovated it since then-- and had plenty left over to start work in mass dreamshare, which is exactly what you want me for."

"So is that where you've been using Cobb's cut?" asked Eames.

"To be sure," said Yusuf. "You have him to thank for the progress I've made."

"Don't listen to him," says Arthur. "If it weren't someone of Yusuf's caliber, all that investment would have just been money down the drain."

"Oh, now," says Yusuf, "you're making it difficult for me to maintain my pretense of modesty."

"Arthur, are you okay?" asks Leah. "Are you running a fever?"

Making amends like the High Holy Days have come around again, thinks Eames, and smiles. Arthur ducks away from Leah's hand, as she tries to clamp it down on his forehead, and the phone clatters to the floor in the scuffle. It's the day before Arthur's flight.

+


By the evening, most of the details have been ironed out. The setting is an office building thirty stories high; Arthur is the dreamer, since he's quick with architectural details, and good at maintaining level stability. The first ten floors are for hosting Otsuji's subconscious, then the next ten for Eames's, then the top ten for Weston's. Each successive floor is designed to build up the ladder of corporate structure, so that Otsuji's subconscious -- primed on the first floor to think of the Minesys market test -- delivers the secret into a locked file cabinet on the tenth.

"So I'll extract the information from the tenth floor," says Eames, "bypass the next ten floors of my empty subconscious through a jaunty elevator ride, and hand the file to Weston's receptionist on the twenty-first floor."

"Weston's subconscious will react and respond to the information," says Arthur. "The proprietary information that Van Dorsten wants will be waiting for you, when you make it to the thirtieth floor through the emergency stairwell. Sorry about the climb, but it's the safest route for you, since the marks need that processing time."

"I'll be running interference on Otsuji's floors," says Leah, "one through ten. I'm going to be distracting the projections and providing Eames with cover, should he need it. But try not to, please."

"That would be ideal," says Eames. "I'll stay out of trouble, if I can."

"I'll take over from the twenty-first floor," says Arthur, "until Eames gets up to the thirtieth."

"While I keep watch on the outside," says Kang. "And Yusuf will oversee the operation from a saferoom, checking your progress through the security camera feeds. You'll all have transceivers, so he'll be directing your movements through those."

Yusuf's arrival gets taken care of. The lack of raw materials in Korea means that Yusuf would have to fly with his own equipment, a bulky, suspicious, highly conspicuous load. To bypass airport security, Eames forges an formal invitation from one of the nation's top universities, appointing Yusuf as a guest lecturer for the upcoming semester. With Kang's help, they call the psychology department at the university, urging them to cooperate with the new and wildly innovative sleep studies lecturer that the medical school has managed to hire; then they call the medical school and encourage them to welcome the lecturer that the psychology department has secured.

It's a foolproof little lie, hardly a con, relying on the ambiguity of sleep studies as a field and the tension between the psychology department and the medical school in trying to determine whose purview it falls under. Airport security, no matter who it calls to verify Yusuf's appointment, is going to get an affirmative answer with no real details. Simple and sweet. Yusuf is scheduled to arrive a day after Arthur's departure.

Arthur's departure, thinks Eames, and the waver of Arthur's voice as he said, I wanted to, anyway.

He doesn't know what possessed him then, what made him run his hand through Arthur's hair, like he could offer Arthur more than something to push against in the night. They've fucked and licked and tasted each other all over, and still it felt like crossing a line, that hand in his hair, too intimate a touch for the open air.

But then Eames felt the hesitant weight of Arthur's head on his shoulder, and in that moment he knew, it was the right thing to do. That was where he wanted to be. That was where he wanted Arthur to be, and he needed them to stay there, out in the hallway with the drone of vacuum cleaners down the corridor. He wanted to tuck Arthur into his side and hold him still, to keep him from shaking apart, to quiet the lurch in his eyes. As though he could.

He's startled by a knock on his door, and he gathers himself off of the bed, mashing his shoes beneath his heels.

"Who is it," he asks, and well-- there's no one else that would knock on his door at a quarter to midnight, no one else that would knock on his door at all. Arthur edges in past him and pushes the door closed.

"Eames," says Arthur, and kisses him.

Eames is frozen still in surprise, at the sudden press of Arthur's lips, moving against his own like there's something Arthur needs to say. Eames opens his mouth and Arthur opens into him, the touch of his tongue a thousand different things, frantic and uncertain, wondering, searching, and then he pulls himself away and drops to his knees.

"What--" begins Eames, "why are you-- Arthur, can't we do this on the--"

"Shut up," says Arthur, and "listen," as he rocks back on his heels, his hands paused at Eames's belt. But he doesn't say anything after all, just goes back to tearing at the belt buckle, palming Eames briefly before he yanks his trousers down, his pants, swallowing him down without another word.

"Fucking-- Arthur," chokes Eames, "my god, what--"

He clutches to the dresser behind him, Arthur's lips pulled back around his cock, licking at the head of it. It's so messy that he can hardly fathom what's going on, only that it's wet and desperate and warm, so warm, and when Eames rests a hand in Arthur's hair, Arthur flinches, his eyes darting up to Eames's.

What am I listening to? thinks Eames. What do you want to tell me?

"Is it-- are you apologizing?" he asks. "Is that what this is?"

Arthur only draws back for long enough to mutter, "It's not an apology," and wraps his lips around him again.

"Because--" Eames breathes in a sharp rush of air. "God, fuck, Arthur-- because I wanted to say-- I'm sorry."

Arthur makes an impatient noise like he doesn't want to hear it, but Eames looks down at Arthur kneeling there, and it's something he has to say. It's what comes tumbling out of him.

"I know you wouldn't have fucked up the job," he says, "I know you'd-- you'd have thought of something, even if you didn't want to call Yusuf-- and it's good that you did, it's good that you could, but even if you hadn't-- you'd have come up with something, something that worked, or you'd have cut some stupid, ill-advised deal with Van Dorsten where you sold yourself into slavery just to get him off our backs, I don't know, but something, because that's what you do--"

He curls his fingers into Arthur's hair and feels something seize him up, thinks of Arthur's head on his shoulder, leaning against him, trusting him. And Arthur under his hands in his bath, all the while as Eames wondered, What makes you think I want your trust?

"Because that's part of what makes you the best," says Eames. "Because you're dependable like that, and in the end, I know I can trust you. I always have."

Arthur's eyebrows knit together like he's irritated, like he's short of breath, or like he's about to cry. But he doesn't say a thing-- just screws his eyes shut as he takes Eames down his throat, nose inching against his trail of hair.

And I want him to trust me, thinks Eames. I want that responsibility after all. I want that weight on my shoulder, I want--

"When I called you unprofessional," says Eames, "I was wrong. I was being a massive tit. Because what does that even mean, unprofessional-- as if it's unprofessional to base your decisions on trust, when trust is all we have. As though trust were something you could measure out with scales and rulers, as though trust could ever be anything but personal-- like we could cleave the personal and the professional side of ourselves neatly apart like oil and water, when it comes to something like trust, when it comes to something like dreamshare, when all we have to work with is trust. As though--"

Arthur groans around him like he wants to drown him out, like he wants Eames to listen instead, but What am I listening to? Eames wants to ask. What do you need to say so badly, that you can't find the words for it?

"I'm sorry," says Eames, "and I wanted to say, I trust you-- professionally, personally, in all the bloody ways there are, and please don't be upset since you've got my prick in your mouth at the moment, but-- I do want you to trust me, because you're very dependable, Arthur, and I think it's not a bad thing for you to have someone you could-- whenever you need someone to-- are you listening, Arthur? I want to be--"

He comes with a strangled gasp, Arthur's fingers brushing against his balls, and Arthur's eyes fly open before he swallows, lapping up every last bit.

"How is this not an apology," says Eames.

"It's not, Eames," says Arthur. "I'd think I would know."

"You've-- you've got a little," says Eames, swiping at the corner of Arthur's swollen mouth, and leaves behind a quick kiss, on second thought.

Arthur doesn't turn toward it, only lets his eyes flutter for a little longer than a blink. He smooths down the knees of his trousers.

"You really can't shut up," he says. "Even when I'm sucking you off."

The smile he gives Eames is so immeasurably fond, that Eames feels for a moment like he can do no wrong. He's too staggered by the permission in the curve of Arthur's lips, and he can't clear his head in time, too late when he looks up and sees Arthur halfway out the door.

"Arthur," he says, "wait, I--"

"You're too damn chatty," says Arthur.

Eames sees him leave like a series of snapshot photographs, like the rapid stutter of a body caught dancing under strobe lights. Hears his voice in fragments like a skipping record, like a stone across a stream.

And Arthur says, "Too damn chatty, but you're not bad."

And says, "Wouldn't it be easier if you were?"

And says, "Well, I've always expected too much of you."

And says, "The phrase you're looking for, Eames, it's have a safe trip. Can you repeat that? Before I go?"


THE PACIFIC LIKE A PUDDLE OF RAINWATER YOU COULD STEP OVER

Ten PM in Los Angeles works out to three in the afternoon in Seoul. Arthur lets the images sweep by him on the hotel television screen, the flash photography, the sea of microphones. Saito smiles a smile that doesn't reach his eyes, polite but curt, and wades past the crowd into the back of his car.

Saito is in Tokyo, thinks Arthur. Ariadne is in Paris, Yusuf and Eames in Seoul. And it might be that he's growing old, too cold now without someone's body in the bed next to him, but he feels like he's been spun in the air on the end of a slingshot, left to go hurtling uncontrollably through the air, left to land half a world away from all the other pebbles he's known. Maybe he's growing old, or maybe it's the odd closeness he's stumbled into, on this job. It's only been a month that he's had Eames within reach, but it feels like it's been years. All the way since Ankara.

Cobb is in Los Angeles, he thinks, but working with Cobb was a lot like working alone, and if it's Cobb that was the mercenary one, if it's Cobb that pushed him into train tracks and busy streets and into the line of fire, shouldn't he be angry when he thinks of Cobb? Shouldn't he resent Cobb?

Nothing like it, though. Arthur can't seem to summon anything like anger. His hand wanders to his cell phone on the bedside table, and he watches the pundits argue over a backdrop of Robert Fischer, a freeze-frame grab of his press conference, and he calls Eames.

"Arthur," answers Eames, and it's like a rush of warm blood through his veins.

For a moment Arthur can't think of anything to say, can't think to say anything, just grips the phone and sinks into the bed. This isn't right, is it, he asks himself. Eames's voice like the chinook, melting him down.

"Are you there?" Eames is asking. "Arthur?"

"Yeah," says Arthur, "I was watching the news, saw that Saito was on. They were trying to get quotes from him on the Fischer-Morrow dissolution."

"Oh, I saw that," says Eames. "They were playing it this morning-- wonder what they expect him to say, anyway. They'll never get anything out of him. You wanted to talk to me about that?"

"No, well-- I guess not," says Arthur, and he feels his heart thudding in his ribcage, racing like a rabbit, running, running, running. He curls his hand into a fist, tries to focus on his nails biting into his palm, and he says, "So-- what are you wearing?

The light lilt of Eames's laughter trickles into his ear. God, how it tears at him.

"Hold on, I'm in the-- let me-- excuse me," says Eames, and there's Yusuf's voice in the background asking, What's so private, Leah telling him, Oh, in case you haven't heard--, and they grow fainter in the distance until there's the click of a door locking closed.

"You're in the bathroom, aren't you," says Arthur.

"There's honestly no privacy here at all," says Eames. "I wasn't about to pull out my pecker right there on top of the scale models, was I? Now, if I recall correctly, you were in the middle of asking me a question."

"Tell me what you're wearing," says Arthur. "Tell me what we'll do when I get back."

"You're in luck," says Eames. "I know how much you like to get my clothes off me, piece by piece-- don't think I haven't noticed. You'd have plenty to work with, if you were here. I'm wearing that chartreuse button-down with those brown wool trousers, and the mustard corduroy jacket that you particularly despise--"

"Eames," says Arthur, "stop, you're ruining it. That's not-- none of that is even remotely-- what's the look you're going for, regurgitated split pea soup?"

"All the better to rip it off me, then," says Eames. "Is it offending you? Should I stop?"

"No," says Arthur, hushed. "Keep talking, please."

Eames is quiet for a long beat, and Arthur wonders if he's reaching down inside his pants, taking himself in hand-- and he snakes his own hand down, palming light over the front of his boxers. He thinks of the touch of Eames's palm, the knots of his knuckles, and he makes a soft, hungry sound into the phone.

"Jesus, Arthur," says Eames. "Are you--"

"Please," says Arthur. "Keep talking."

"I've been thinking," says Eames, "I'd like to return the favor, when you get back. I'm going to push you up against a dresser and suck you off. Only I'll be a damn tease about it-- I'm going to lick at you until you can't stand still, Arthur."

"Yes," breathes Arthur, thumb rubbing over the growing heat, "until I--"

"Until you start fucking my mouth and begging me to get you off," says Eames. "I'm going to blow you the fuck away. You're going to need me so bad I'll have you shaking for it, and when I finally let you come, I'm going to turn you over and finger you open right up against--"

There's a sudden pounding on his end of the call. Eames curses under his breath and yells, "I'm a little busy at the moment."

Yusuf yells back, muffled through the door, "By no means are you allowed a wank break in the middle of the workday, Eames."

"Oh, come on," says Eames, "out of basic human decency--"

"It's long-distance anyway," comes Leah's voice. "Save yourselves some money. Just keep it in your pants for a couple more days, seriously."

"I'm going to open this door," says Yusuf. "I expect the lock can't be anything too complicated--"

"All right, all right," barks Eames, and then into the phone again, "sorry, Arthur, you probably heard-- there's an entire army of useless nosy-parkers that have taken up residence in your hotel room, I've been trying to fumigate the place, but they seem to have grown fond of it--"

"They're right, you should go work," Arthur tells him, and in spite of himself, he can't help laughing. "I'll be back soon enough."

"Can't wait," says Eames.

"Yeah," says Arthur. The word catches in his throat a little, but he can't help the pang running through him, either. "Yeah. I can't wait."

He lets the phone drop onto the sheets, and he slides his head down onto the pillows, as the murmur of the television comes back to him.

How naive we were, he thinks, how selfish.

How silly we were to think we could plunge ourselves into this, throw ourselves into it headlong, to think we could stop and leave at any time. As though we could have anything we wanted and skirted everything we didn't, easy as reading the signs at a crossroads. Letting ourselves get closer, crawling in under each other's skins, in as deep as god knows where, all the while telling ourselves that it would be okay. That it's only just to let out the steam.

Like we could ever separate work and play-- like we could ever keep this from getting out of hand, from becoming more than a game. Like we ever had that power.

We, he thinks, no, don't bring Eames into this.

Eames was only too kind, only too enveloping. Before Arthur knew it, he was falling-- crushing Eames beneath him, choking the life from him.

Get out, he tells himself. Keep it quiet and get the fuck out. Let him get out, let him catch the first flight out, happy and none the wiser.

But wasn't it Eames's fault, just a little bit, for having shoulders like that? For being someone Arthur could--

Keep it quiet. Arthur turns to the television, raises the volume until the noise is a roar. Leave him be.


WHAT YOU HURTLE TOWARD

There's something Eames can't quite put his finger on. The Arthur who came back from Los Angeles isn't quite the Arthur who left for it, and Eames thinks he might almost figure it out, almost, but not quite.

The Arthur who came back from Los Angeles is ephemeral as a ghost. Well, maybe ephemeral isn't the right word, because Arthur looks good, maybe better than Eames has ever seen him. Calmer, more relaxed, with an easier set to his back. But it's that peace Eames can't get used to; because it's the peace of a man who's resigned himself to something, let go of something important, and he has never known Arthur to be the type to give up. Zen as fucking anything, thinks Eames. Unattached.

The day that Arthur returns, Kang and Eames pick him up at the airport. Arthur nods when he sees them, and asks about the job.

"The dream's built, Yusuf's finalized the compound, we've scouted out all the locations," says Kang. "All you need to do is get acquainted with the details of the layout."

"Better drop me off at work, then," says Arthur. "I'll start catching up."

"You could just start tomorrow," says Kang. "There's enough time."

"It's a hotel room, Kang, it's not like I'll be sleeping on a warehouse floor," says Arthur, stretching against the back of his seat. "That's where I meant to stay, anyway-- it's fine."

"I could help you unpack," says Eames.

Arthur looks him over, but not like he's appraising him. Like he's studying him, instead -- like he's memorizing him -- and there's something so quiet in the slow deliberation of it that Eames is frightened, feeling like his heart is about to be broken any moment.

"Yeah," says Arthur, at last. "I could use some help."

They fuck on Arthur's bed with the windows thrown open, the headboard creaking against the wall. It's not bad, it's never bad. Arthur arches up into him when Eames takes him into his mouth, and comes apart under him as beautifully as ever.

But there's something ephemeral about him, something translucent, something distant, even as he tenses and comes, the taste of him warm and bitter on Eames's tongue. Eames runs his fingers over Arthur, goosebumps in the November wind.

"Are you all right?" he asks. "Did something happen?"

"I'm great," says Arthur. "Never been better."

That doesn't make Eames hate it any less. If this is you at your best, he thinks, I'd rather see you worse. This Arthur is a strange, perfectly formed thing, complete in himself. He takes what Eames gives and gives what Eames asks for, but there's no aching hunger in him. Eames realizes with a start that if he offered Arthur his shoulder now, Arthur would feel no need to lean on it.

+


Arthur moves back into his old hotel. The days pass by in a flurry, most of it spent in practice runs, gathering last-minute intel on the marks' schedules, Yusuf fine-tuning the compound to adjust for clarity.

"Should I die in the near future," he says, "this is what I want to be remembered for. My pièce de résistance."

Eames doesn't even know if Arthur has checked out of his new room or not. He doesn't ask because he doesn't want to know the answer. But then it's down to the day before the job and Eames jolts awake in the morning unable to concentrate, unable to keep his mind on anything but the fact that he hasn't touched Arthur since he's come back from L.A.. Hasn't had a single moment alone with him.

"Have you had breakfast?" asks Eames.

"What?" Arthur's voice is fuzzy with sleep. "It's not even seven yet, Eames, why would I--"

"Let's have brunch," says Eames. "At that cafe near your hotel."

And at ten they're sitting out on the terrace, listening to the city shake itself to life. Arthur looks awake, hair brushed back, scarf loose beneath his coat. Eames can't look away from the bobbing of his Adam's apple, the shadows at the collar of his shirt, and it takes him a while before he notices that Arthur keeps darting quizzical glances at his face.

"Have I got something on myself?" he asks, and reaches up, his fingers brushing across his glasses.

"Those," says Arthur. "I didn't know you wore glasses."

"Ah, my glasses," says Eames, and takes them off to examine them. "It's only for fine print in the mornings, I thought I'd look through the paper on the way here."

"I wouldn't have thought you were the bookish sort," says Arthur. "How'd your eyes get so bad?"

Eames shrugs and says, "Masturbation."

It's a throwaway remark, just something to say in place of an I don't know, but it seems to catch Arthur by surprise. He stares at Eames for a stunned moment and then he starts laughing -- a chuckle at first, just a quirk of his lips -- then laughing, really laughing, like he can't stop himself. Warm and bright as gold, his eyes dark slivers, the dimples deep in his cheeks, all of him shaking with the helpless laughing, laughing, laughing, like champagne, like a wind chime, like a sea breeze in June, god, oh, god.

Please don't stop, thinks Eames. Please let me always watch you laugh.

God, he wants it so badly. He wants to give Arthur things he's never even asked for, wants more of Arthur than he has ever offered to give. Greedy like he can't drink in enough of him, and he catches himself with a start, because shit, what is he doing? Just because Arthur let Eames between his legs, made a little space on the bed next to him, doesn't mean Arthur wants anything closer, anything more. Just because Arthur trusts him doesn't mean--

It must show on his face, because Arthur's laugh slides into silence. No, no, don't stop, thinks Eames, desperate, and his insides twist into knots.

I'm in trouble, aren't I, he thinks.

+


There's nothing particularly difficult about the set-up of the job, especially since the geographical circumstances are aligned in their favor; Otsuji and Weston are staying at the same hotel that the opening banquet is held. They slip into the hotel under the commotion of the party, the air abuzz with wine and conversation and self-importance.

Eames sidles up to the staff at the check-in desk, all weary old-world charm, magician patter through the wry twist of his mouth as he leans one elbow on the counter. Terribly sorry, but I seem to have misplaced our Head Engineer-- a Mr. Samuel Weston from Elucorp-- room 717, I believe. Lawrence Yardley-- a flash of the name card around his neck-- personal assistant to Mr. Ehrenbaum-- oh, I'm sorry, the CEO-- a video conference call that Mr. Weston is scheduled to make in about a quarter hour-- been looking for Mr. Weston and his card key, but you've seen inside the main ballroom, the state of the crowd in there-- massively helpful if you might just let me pop into his room, five minutes at the most-- identification? Of course I've got identification, oh, no, I wouldn't dream of--

Syringe, sedative, lace the bottle of water and leave it unopened on the table. Disable the automatic lock mechanism on the door, and Eames is out in three minutes. Leah slithers through the banquet hall, two flutes hanging from her fingers, and tucks one into Otsuji's hand. Sofia Orellana-- my husband, he would be so thrilled to meet you-- just appointed ambassador here, only this year-- Bolivia-- keep talking and the other person will drink just to do something-- we heard about your work with the Colombian national re-branding campaign, and we were so impressed with the quality of-- my husband, he would be so thrilled, only something's disagreeing with him and he's excused himself for a-- I'll have to bring him back here, please don't disappear, he'll be so thrilled--

Otsuji starts getting nauseous just as she ducks out of the ballroom, and Kang, dressed as a member of the wait staff, is on hand to escort him toward fresh air. The sedative hits around when they stumble into a corridor, where Yusuf and Arthur drag Otsuji back to his room.

Kang knocks at Weston's door in half an hour, sees Weston out on the bed, the water bottle half empty on the table. Weston is a go, says Kang, and he's reactivating the automatic lock when Leah arrives in a staff uniform of her own. Bit young for an ambassador's wife, aren't you, he says. It's a new era, you fuddy-duddy, she says, and helps him stuff Weston under the room service cart. They roll him all the way to Otsuji's room.

"Down we go, then," says Eames, and offers his wrist to the cool dab of the alcohol swab. Arthur's fingers rest against his skin and Jesus, thinks Eames, hold yourself together.

"Fifteen minutes on the clock," says Kang, "three hours dream-time. Yusuf, you know what to do if we need to terminate, or if it ends ahead of schedule."

"I give Eames the all-clear, he shoots himself out, and you kick the rest of us up," says Yusuf, and props himself up against the side of the bed. "All right then, I'm set."

"Under in three," says Kang.

Arthur tips his chair onto its hind legs, the backrest catching on the windowsill. He tilts his head back, and the sunlight glances off the length of his neck, the IV line against his bare forearm.

Keep it together, thinks Eames. It's a minefield where you're going.

"Two," says Kang, "one--"

+


"Sir," she says, "can I help you?"

Eames blinks himself asleep. He's standing at the front desk, the first floor, as the receptionist for Minerva Systems waits for him to answer. Sweet-faced as a school nurse. There are half a dozen potential weapons within her reach, and two armed security guards by the front door to the building. Nothing as vicious or well-heeled as militarized, but projections of security guards are usually armed, whether the mark is trained or not.

"Oh, I need," says Eames, and shakes a manila envelope into his hand. "Here, this is about the market test we've been doing for Elucorp-- I need it approved at the fourth floor, the fifth floor, the seventh floor, and Mr. Otsuji."

"I see," she says, making quick work of a request form that she tapes onto the envelope. "Would you like to wait in the lobby, or would you prefer to be notified when someone at the tenth floor is available to help you with the pick-up?"

"Actually, as it happens, I've got some business on the twenty-first floor," says Eames. "I'll be back right down after I get that out of the way, how's that? Would that be enough time?"

"Certainly, sir," she says. "I'll send it up right away."

She makes a phone call in soft, quick Japanese. Eames nods and turns toward the emergency stairwell. The security guards still have their back to him, not yet alert to the intrusion.

"The psychic paper is heading up toward Otsuji," says Eames into his transceiver, as soon as the door clicks closed behind him. "Is everyone in position? Yusuf?"

"Yes, I'm in the surveillance room," says Yusuf. "By the way, you really need to stop calling it psychic paper, there's a proper term for--"

"Leah, are you ready for the diversion?" asks Eames. "Yusuf is in one of his insufferable scientist moods again. Please make something explode and distract him."

"Let's hope things don't necessarily have to get that violent," says Leah. "I'm on the third floor, everything's a go-- ready to cause a scene and embarrass myself at the signal. Arthur?"

"In position on the twenty-first floor," says Arthur. "You've got the cameras on us, Yusuf?"

"I'm a go," says Yusuf. "I can see and hear all three of you, loud and clear. Start climbing, Eames-- and that's your cue, Leah."

Through the transceiver, Eames hears the distant sound of Leah slamming a door open. Listen well, lost souls, she declares to the third floor, I speak to you today as your sister in Christ, here to give you the gift of the word of our savior; for it is written that if any man should hear the voice of the Lord and open the door, He will come in to him, and will sup with him--

"What's she playing?" asks Yusuf, as Leah switches her handset off and the line goes dead. "A Bible salesperson or an evangelist?"

"She's playing a nutter, that's what she's playing," says Eames. "How's it going on her end?"

"It seems like they're trying to get her to quiet down," says Yusuf. "Two or three people so far. She's possibly just started miming the burning of the Earth, her gesticulating would imply."

"Good old Leah," says Eames, and rounds another staircase.

What he wants is to talk to Arthur, Arthur, are you there, Arthur on the twenty-first floor, because the job will end and they'll part ways and what happens then? Who do they become? Does Eames try to hire Arthur for his next job, or does he delete Arthur from his contacts list, forget about him, forget the salt taste of his skin, his laugh, his laugh?

Can't know him without wanting him, thinks Eames.

"Oddly enough, it seems like she's gained some followers," says Yusuf. "No, wait, they're just trying to throw her out."

"Try not to get into any trouble, Eames," says Arthur. "Don't make a lady pull her gun out for you."

"Don't you fret, darling," says Eames. "The only gun I want to pull is yours."

"You sound pretty winded there," says Arthur. "Too many stairs?"

"Maybe," says Eames. Or not enough of you.

He thinks of catching up to Arthur on the twenty-first floor, muffling their transceivers with his palms as he leans into Arthur's ear, whispers-- but what does he whisper? I'd like for us to see each other out of bed, or Tonight, just for a change, would you like to have dinner together before we fuck?

A month ago, the Arthur of his own invention would have shot him down straight out of the sky, just to see him crash and burn. Called him names, pulled his neck apart, then spat in his face as he walked away. But now, all Eames can picture is Arthur going perfectly still, going deathly silent before he says, soft, Eames, you know we'd make a mess of it.

It'll hurt more than anything not because Arthur will turn him down, but because he'll know that Arthur is right. Of course they'd make a mess of it. Somehow they fell into bed together and found that sex was the easy part, but anything else, god, Eames shudders to imagine it. The misunderstandings, the anger, their egos and their insecurities and the little irreconcilable differences between them heaped like a mountain of rubble.

We wouldn't be able to stand each other by the end of the week, thinks Eames. And Arthur will brush against his arm as he says, Sorry, and Eames will mutter something that a million people have muttered before him, You're right, it's probably for the best. Maybe Arthur will let him have a final fuck just for old time's sake, and he'll probably make a mess of that too, trying to hold Arthur down like it would make any difference, until Arthur pries his fingers off his wrists and says, Eames, you idiot, get a hold of yourself.

Well, if that isn't fucking depressing, thinks Eames. So there's no choice to make, really. The way things are, it's still better than nothing. Maybe once in a while he'll drown the banality of his sorrows in a finger of Scotch, but at the end of it Arthur will still be somewhere near. A phone call, just a plane trip away, ready for a quick fuck and goodbye in the morning.

I've become some horrid sort of romantic, thinks Eames. I never planned on that.

"Eames, how far are you?" asks Yusuf. "Things are getting slightly tense on the third floor, there's a bit of push and shove-- and it looks like some of the projections from the other floors have come to watch."

"As planned, then," says Eames. "Ninth floor-- I'll be at the endpoint soon. How are things on the twenty-first floor, Arthur?"

"Dull," says Arthur. "Your buffer is keeping Weston's subconscious well apart from Otsuji's, so the disturbance hasn't reached the upper levels yet. I might sneak into the break room and get myself some coffee."

"That would be unwise," says Yusuf, "seeing as how we didn't put any surveillance cams in the break room. Stay put where I can see you, please."

Eames pushes open the door to the tenth floor, gasping for breath. His shirt is beginning to stick to his back.

"I'm at the archives," he wheezes. "Jesus, I'll be glad to get on the elevator after this."

"And then ten more flights of stairs," says Yusuf.

"Don't you remind me," says Eames, and begins to fiddle with the combination locks on the filing cabinets. The lack of a need for a locator makes things considerably easier, since in the absence of a real anticipation of a break-in, any locks in the dreamscape are flimsy, more for show than for any real function. It clicks open with a few easy twists, and Eames reaches into the drawer, coming up with his manila envelope, now stamped four times with approval. He checks inside; the results of the market test are there, neatly held together with a paper clip.

"How's the info?" asks Yusuf.

"Solid," says Eames. "Time for that elevator ride. Do you suppose that if I put myself under while I was in it, I could make it last twelve times as--"

"Arthur," says Yusuf, "please tell him how stupid that is."

"That's stupid, Eames," says Arthur.

How could I want to ruin this? thinks Eames. How could I think to trade this in for a war carried out in silence, or for the pity in Arthur's eyes as he tells me that he understands, each cliched step on the way to a broken heart?

He steps into the elevator and presses the button marked 21. The doors close and the easy hum of music pipes in.

You'd make a sorry Werther, Eames tells himself. You'll be all right. One day, you'll be able to say his name without coming up short of breath. Isn't that what you do? Don't you make a living out of becoming whoever you need to be? And if you need to be a hoarder of some precious secret, don't you know how to take it with you to the grave? Don't unsettle this balance, don't be greedy, don't ask for the things you know will hurt you--

The elevator lurches to a stop on the sixteenth floor.

Eames frowns, presses the button for the twenty-first floor again. It flickers under his finger, and then with a sudden shudder, all the lights in the elevator blink out.

"What the fuck is--" he says, then into the transceiver, "Yusuf, what's going on? The lights died in here."

"Is that what happened?" asks Yusuf. "The screen went blank so I thought maybe it was a camera malfunction--"

"No, the elevator's stopped," says Eames. "What's going on? Is it the projections?"

"Not as far as I can tell," says Yusuf. "Things on the third floor aren't that dire yet. It's not sabotage-- I don't know what the glitch is, it could be anything, really, in a dream this intricate--"

"Eames," says Arthur, sharp, "what floor are you on?"

"Stuck on the sixteenth," says Eames. "Can I pry the doors open?"

"Only if you're sure you're not between floors," says Arthur. "Is there light coming in?"

As if on cue, a glimmer seeps through the crack of the elevator doors. Then a faint strain of music, like brass horns, and a rushing of children's feet, the indistinct chatter of their voices raised in excitement.

"Well," says Eames, uncertainly, "yes--"

"Try opening the doors then," says Arthur. "Forge a weightlifter if you have to. The sixteenth floor is still within the boundaries of your own subconscious, so whatever the problem is, you'll be able to make your way to the staircase without being attacked."

"It's a better solution than going for the emergency bell," says Yusuf. "That'll just bring projection security running. It's probably worth a shot, Eames. We don't have cameras between the eleventh and the twentieth floors, so keep your transceiver on, just in case."

"Got it," says Eames, and drops the transceiver into his pocket.

He braces his hands on either side of the door, and pulls it open. It's heavy work, and his fingers ache where they dig into the metal, but it yields, inch by inch. He grits his teeth and wrenches the door apart, and only really looks up when it's wide enough to squeeze through.

Jesus Christ, he thinks when he sees the sixteenth floor before him. Where am I?

There isn't even supposed to be anything here, just ten levels of empty space keeping the marks separated, but his subconscious has turned the sixteenth floor into a circus. An old circus, the walls lined with lightbulbs, draped in midnight-dark satin spangled with stars and smiling moons. A handful of poodles dressed in scraps of clothing tumble past his feet.

Eames looks around, half wary, half in fascination. Acrobats flit back and forth across the floor on stocking feet, and an elephant's trunk sways into sight around the edge of a corner. Horses rearing, a flock of cockatoos winging by, and the bark of a seal echoing through. The air smells like caramel popcorn.

There's a tap on his shoulder. He turns around to a florid, portly man in a tight riding habit and a top hat. No one I recognize, thinks Eames. Doesn't rule it out, but projections are the easiest form of influence to suppress-- he's probably a stock figure, part of the scenery, like the acrobats.

"Are you enjoying yourself?" asks the man.

"Yes, thank you," says Eames. "Sorry-- it's just, I've never been here before-- could you tell me in which direction the stairwell might be?"

"Leaving already?" asks the man, frowning through his moustache. "Without seeing our most anticipated attraction?"

"Maybe next time," says Eames, but the ringmaster is already tugging him forward by his elbow.

They wade through the crowd and the brass-band music, children with sticky fingers and bear cubs on unicycles. There's a raised stage in the distance where they're heading, high as his waist, with a cage on top that's covered with miles of velvet.

"Very dangerous," says the ringmaster. "Can tear a man apart from limb to limb, I've heard. You ought to be thankful, this is a special glimpse you're getting. No one else has set eyes on the exhibit yet."

"That's really terribly nice of you," says Eames, "but I need to get to--"

The words die away in his throat as he notices that he's standing alone, in front of the raised stage, with the ringmaster nowhere to be seen. Even the crowd is far behind him, a haze of color in the distance like he's looking at it through water. Their noise a murmur.

The staircase must be on the other side of the stage. Eames is about to walk around it, to leave the phenomenon of the sixteenth floor behind him, but then there's a rustle and a scrape from inside the cage.

Very dangerous, thinks Eames, and reaches for a corner of the velvet covering. Think, where are you? What's under here? If the sixteenth floor is my subconscious, and if this cage is where they keep the main attraction of the circus, the exhibit that no one has been allowed to see before-- then this is my--

The velvet pools to the floor of the stage, and Eames is frozen where he stands, still clutching the fabric in his fist. Looking in past the bars, into the shadow of the cage. Looking at-- he's looking at Arthur.

"Eames," says Arthur. "Are you really surprised?"



There's a tremor through the skeleton of the building, a brief shiver like something threatening to break free. The transceiver in his pocket buzzes to life, a chorus of voices exploding all at once, but Eames is still rooted to the spot. Arthur is curled up on his back like a lazy, vicious wildcat, knees folded to his chest, head propped up.

"If you're my secret," says Eames, "then what was my question? What is it about you that I'm trying to hide away?"

"The real secret is what you don't want to tell yourself," says Arthur. "You just need to hear me say it."

And he slides to his knees, bringing his face down closer to Eames's, his hands wrapping around the iron bars.

"The heart is just a muscle," says Arthur. "You tear it and you let it mend."

The whisper of his breath tickles at Eames's nose, a smell like rain, sharp as lightning.

"It's not a crystal box you can shatter," says Arthur. "What is it about the heart that makes it mythical to us-- would we be as precious with any other part of ourselves? I saw the barrel of your gun before I saw your face, and you knew what it was like to die by my hand before you knew what I tasted like. Is there really anything here that won't put itself back together again?"

Arthur's lips linger just out of touch, so close Eames can feel the air between them.

"You're a grown-up now, Eames," says Arthur. "You're not playing with things that break anymore."

Eames doesn't realize he's closed his eyes until the sound of gunshots through his transceiver cuts through the dark. And then a scream--

Arthur, he thinks.

He starts, snapping his eyes open, and the cage is empty before him. Only the phantom tingle of anticipation left on his lips. He can see the stairwell on the other side of the stage, visible now through the bars-- and he runs.

"Did someone open fire?" he asks, jumping two steps at a time, skidding on each landing. "What's going on, Yusuf? Arthur-- are you okay-- is Arthur okay?"

"Where the bloody hell have you been?" Yusuf is shouting. "We were trying to reach you for-- are you safe? Where are you?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," says Eames, "I'm on the seventeenth floor now, I'm-- where's Arthur? I thought I heard--"

"Arthur's down," says Yusuf. "The dream's going to fall apart, we have to--"

"No, I'm here," comes Arthur's voice, strained. "Keep going, we can still--"

He's interrupted by a burst of wet, rattling coughs, and then a shaky rush of air that could be Arthur inhaling, or Arthur gasping, Fuck.

"Shouldn't talk much," says Arthur, "but Yusuf-- don't abort, Yusuf-- don't--"

"Fucking-- fine, all right," groans Yusuf. "Listen, Eames-- Leah blew out a wall on the seventh floor and drew attention there, she's left the hostile projections on that level and took the elevator."

"I'll be with Arthur any minute now," says Leah. "It's only the security guards on alert so far, not all the projections, so technically we can continue with the job, but-- shit, Eames, we don't know what happened, there was a-- the whole building shook all of a sudden, and both Otsuji and Weston went berserk. It was like something destabilized, like something disturbed the balance."

"Eames," says Yusuf, "was there anything on the sixteenth floor? Did you see anything?"

The shaking, thinks Eames, when I saw Arthur in the cage--

His foot snags on a step and his hands shoot out, clutching to the railing just before his skull smashes into the floor. It was my subconscious, thinks Eames, sick to his stomach. The buffer came unsettled, disrupting the subconscious states on either side of it, alerting the projections-- and Arthur, on the same floor as the security guards, the instant they turned on him--

"Oh, fuck, Arthur," says Leah, the elevator chiming closed in the background. "Jesus, oh, god."

Eames bursts through the door on the twenty-first floor just then. He's standing opposite Leah, so he sees her first, with the submachine gun in her hand, the assault rifle slung over her shoulder, as she bends over Arthur.

Arthur, who's propped himself halfway up against the wall, blood everywhere, fucking everywhere, cold and livid above the blood-drenched mess of his shirt, all of him a wreck, and still the dream around them holds perfectly steady.

"You two," says Arthur, and he sounds nothing like a person should, hushed and damp, coughing and choking on every word. "Like you've never seen anyone shot before."

Eames looks at him, at the blood frothing at the corners of his mouth, the dove-grey planes of his suit stained and riddled full of holes.

Right then, Arthur is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.

"Arthur," he begins, and he means for it to be worth the listening to, something brave and important, I love you, I love you, I love you, but he opens his mouth and the love spills out of him in a helpless stream of words, and he says, "if I were to tell you-- if I told you right now that I think I'm in love with you-- and if I made it abundantly clear that there's nothing I expect you to say, just that I had to tell you, just because it's the truth-- and because maybe now I know that there's something in the mere saying of it, that the truth is what I owe you more than anything, more than sparing your feelings, more than sparing my own feelings-- and if I said it, if I told you that-- then, I wonder, if I did it-- not hypothetically, because I'm actually doing it-- or I've already done it-- but anyway, my question is, would you react very badly-- I wonder?"

By the time he finishes, Leah has turned her head away, her shoulders shaking in embarrassment or in laughter. Arthur's eyes are wide, and Eames wants to blow his own brains out.

"Eames," says Arthur, "you idiot."

"What?" stammers Eames. "But-- wait, you can't-- what does that mean? You can't just--"

Arthur smiles at him, his lips pale.

"Go," he says. "Do your fucking job."

But what does that mean, he thinks, what does it mean, as he throws the manila envelope at the receptionist and sprints up the staircase to the thirtieth floor, the sweat soaking him clean through, as Leah stands guard over Arthur and Arthur bleeds, his dream so perfectly steady as Eames barrels through it-- Arthur bleeding and holding it together, his body torn to shreds.

Is it a no? thinks Eames. Is it a yes?

What am I listening for?

+


The cleanup for the job is a tornado frenzy of activity. With the go-ahead from Yusuf, Eames shoots himself out to the sound of gunfire from the twenty-first floor.

"How'd it go?" asks Kang, rushing over to unhook him. "Did you get it?"

"Yes, everything," says Eames. "Give them the kick, we're done-- and don't let Arthur leave right away, check to make sure there's been no long-lasting neurological damage--"

He contacts Van Dorsten as he leaves Otsuji's room. Cleanup, he knows, is best when done briskly. The info drop is quick, a few terse words exchanged in the unceremonious privacy of the men's bathroom. Van Dorsten grins with his walrus face.

With the rendezvous and the job complete, Eames should walk out of the hotel, back to his own, where he might catch a few winks before the first flight out in the morning. But in some misguided hope, grasping at straws, he goes back up to Otsuji's room where he gives the door a few furtive knocks.

There's no answer from inside-- the rest of the team has moved out as scheduled, Kang and Leah wheeling Weston back to his bed, Yusuf and Arthur sweeping the room clean of any evidence. All the financial details have been exchanged in advance, and the moment that the extractor reaches the endpoint, the only thing left for the team to do is scatter.

So they've scattered, thinks Eames, out in the hallway beside Otsuji's door. So we're finished here.

There's no contact from Kang or anyone else, and Eames assumes that's good news regarding Arthur, that there's nothing really to worry about there. Eames, you idiot, Arthur's voice rings through him, go do your fucking job. All the way back to his hotel Eames hears it.

He falls onto his bed, poppy-red, shoes and all. He wonders again if Arthur checked out of his room after his trip to L.A.-- he probably has, he hasn't been back since then. Arthur is probably packing in his room in the foreign quarter, drab olive carpeting all around him, disassembling the scale models, shredding the dossiers, dividing the waste into plastic bags he'll dump in a dozen different rubbish bins.

Do I go to him? thinks Eames. Half an hour by cab. Do I go see him?

What did it mean when Arthur said, Go do your fucking job-- he smiled, didn't he, but it could have just as well been a baring of his teeth, the courtesy a lion might show you before its jaws came down. It could have been pity, an apology, distant sympathy.

But god, the things that Arthur told him on the sixteenth floor. The things he told himself. The crackle smell of lightning between them real enough to burn him, You're not playing with things that break anymore. And isn't that the truth? What does it matter, pity, apology, or sympathy, if his heart isn't something to be kept under lock and key, bred in a bubble for nothing more than what's safe for him to want?

Maybe he'll break my heart, thinks Eames, and maybe we'll ruin each other.

But they are neither of them strangers to the rough-and-tumble life, and if they've been through worse in war, then what's a few scrapes in love?

Running is losing.

Eames calls Arthur.

"Hey," says Arthur when he picks up, "I--"

"No, listen," Eames tells him, "I wouldn't have had to call you if you'd just given me a straight answer, you beautiful, brilliant piece of shit. If you'd just told me when I'd told you, if you could have just said it, Eames, are you out of your goddamn mind, then I wouldn't be losing any sleep over this now, would I? No, I'd be sound asleep, in deep and dreamless bliss, and I'd be well-rested for whatever unholy flight I'll have to pack myself onto tomorrow, god only knows where I'll be going--"

Arthur makes a noise like he's about to interrupt, but Eames is having precisely none of it.

"--and I'm only going to ask you twice, Arthur, this being the second time," says Eames, "so I want you to answer me, please, whatever answer you have to give. It doesn't matter what it is, because it's all right if you think I'm a sentimental wretch, that I'm making something clumsy and unwieldy out of a series of casual encounters that we both enjoyed greatly, if I'm not wrong for saying so, which I'm not--"

Is there any other way to live life but where it's the thickest?

"--and it's all right if you tell me it's never going to work," he plunges on, "because somewhere inside, I think I already know it, I think I already see us at the end of our miserable time together, you throwing me out of the flat as I nurse my split lip, and why is it that in my fantasies, you're always physically abusive toward me-- so maybe I've also given you a few nice bruises to remember me by, just to be fair about this, but look, Arthur, my point is-- it's that I'm in love with you, and if it doesn't bother you too terribly to hear it, I just wanted to say it, and ask you what you thought of that, your general and unbiased opinion on the whole matter, that is--"

There's a knock on his door.

"Eames," says Arthur, "let me in."


THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS IN LOS ANGELES

"No, I'm not even kidding," says Cobb. "Little domino castles made entirely out of Jenga blocks."

"Are you absolutely sure you're not putting any pressure on her?" asks Arthur. "She's only six, Cobb, you can let her harbor more glamorous dreams than becoming an architect."

"I swear, I don't even know where she gets it," says Cobb. "I don't bring work home from the university, usually-- do you think it really might be genetics? Are some people genetically inclined to become architects?"

"Cobb, Cobb, and Cobb," says Arthur, dipping the fork into his slice of cake. "A family firm."

"You never know," says Cobb. "Hey, speaking of which, I saw on the news-- about Fischer-Morrow."

"I saw," says Arthur. "Seems like that worked out."

"Yeah," says Cobb. "It did."

From across the lawn, a girl in a bright party hat breaks free of the crowd of guests. Trailing a string of balloon animals behind her, she comes running, arms outstretched.

"Daddy," she says, "I made James stop eating cake."

"That's my girl," says Cobb, scooping her up. "Phillipa, do you remember who this is? It's Uncle Arthur-- do you remember him?"

"Not really," says Phillipa. "Kind of. Yeah, I remember him."

"I hardly recognize you," says Arthur, "you've grown so much."

"Yeah," says Phillipa. "I'm six today."

"As a six-year-old," says Arthur, "what do you think of your father's clown makeup?"

"Hey," says Cobb, "it was a budgetary concern, the cost of hiring a professional clown--"

Phillipa twists on Cobb's lap to look up at his face, scrunching up her nose as she examines him.

"I don't like it," she tells Arthur. "And it's kind of scaring everybody. Grace says her sister made her watch this movie once where there was a clown, and she says you look kind of like--"

"So guess what present Uncle Arthur got you," says Cobb. "Jenga blocks-- your favorite."

"Yes," hisses Phillipa, throwing her arms around Cobb's neck, carefully leaning her face away from the powder on his. "Jenga blocks, I love Jenga blocks."

"What do you say?" prompts Cobb. "Say Uncle Arthur--"

Phillipa tumbles off of him, and peers at Arthur for a moment before extending her hand. Arthur takes it, and she gives him a firm shake, two curt pumps before she lets go.

"Thank you very much," she says, turns, and runs back to the crowd.

"That's some handshake," says Arthur, and laughs. "I wonder where she learned it."

He turns to Cobb, but Cobb is still watching Phillipa, the tripping gait of his six-year-old daughter running back to her friends. He's smiling-- Cobb is smiling, and Arthur thought he'd forgotten how to, at least in that particular way, that softens the corners of his eyes and the stubborn set of his jaw. Cobb watches his daughter in the late afternoon California sun, looking ridiculous in his clown makeup, Kool-Aid powder on the front of his shirt, and Arthur thinks-- Cobb looks, thinks Arthur, he looks happy.

Two years they spent on the run. Arthur remembers that first phone call, Cobb's voice on the other end, Arthur, something's happened. How they were in Vladivostok for James's third birthday, and Cobb kept repeating, I can't forget it, like a mantra, I can't forget it, until he lost track of the time difference and forgot it. Cobb drank until he stumbled to the bathroom and threw up for hours, James's present trampled underfoot, and Arthur remembers trying to coax the box back into shape before mailing it to Paris for Miles.

Arthur remembers Cobb on the phone with his mother-in-law, shouting It's her birthday, can't I tell her happy birthday, I'm her father. He remembers Cobb on that first anniversary, and Arthur thought that Cobb had forgotten, that he was keeping himself too busy to keep the dates straight, until he called him and Cobb wouldn't pick up, falling into one bar after another for sixteen hours, until Arthur found him huddled in an alleyway behind a restaurant, holding his hand up to the streetlight, watching the glow of his wedding ring.

And Arthur remembers when she showed up for the first time, when Mal appeared in Cobb's dreams, and they woke up gasping for breath, trying to keep the mark under for long enough for them to make an escape. Arthur asked, What the fuck was that, Cobb, what was she doing there, and didn't let him put the keys in the ignition until he answered, and Cobb looked at him and said, That was Mal-- god, Mal was there, I thought I'd never see her again-- and Arthur was disgusted by the excitement in Cobb's eyes, the thrill of hope, and he punched him hard enough for his head to crack against the window of the driver's seat.

After all of that, thinks Arthur, after two fucking years, Cobb looks happy.

And that's exactly it. That's what he's been waiting to learn how to say aloud. That after two years on the run, after losing someone like Mal, after fighting the whole world on your own-- you could still have something left to smile about. That a life in pieces is still something to come back to, still something to build a home out of.

Why he couldn't regret the two years he spent mopping up after Cobb, why after all those broken bones and red-eye flights, he still found himself defending him. It's not a sense of duty, he thinks, nothing to do with being his point.

It's because Arthur had known -- without knowing, in the instinctual and familiar way that you gravitate toward the truth without ever learning how to put it into words, building yourself around it like a grapevine winding around a trellis -- he had known that perfection was never what he expected from the choices he made. It didn't matter that Cobb was no saint, was miles and miles from it, because Arthur had run with him around the world believing that he would still be worth it, asshole that he was, human that he was.

All those shattered kneecaps in exchange for Phillipa, six years old, tilting her face toward Cobb like a sunflower. It doesn't feel a bit like martyrdom.

And so what if Eames says no? thinks Arthur. So what if we fuck it up?

He knows what to do. Eames's answer doesn't matter, because it was never what he was waiting for. It was never the prospect of reciprocity that he fell in love with; he never loved and meant to make a profit from it.

I'll tell him, thinks Arthur. I'll tell him, and maybe I'll let him go.

He drags his hand across his plate, until his palm fills with a frothy mound of cake frosting. Then gently, lovingly, he reaches out and smears it into Cobb's face.

"Hey--" splutters Cobb, "Arthur, what--"

"Take the makeup off, Dom," says Arthur. "You heard the birthday girl."

Nothing matters but the saying of it, he thinks. A perfect ending isn't the only one worth aiming for.


LIFE IN THE HANDS OF THE LIVING

"And that's where we were wrong, Eames," says Arthur where he straddles Eames on the bed, his coat flaring out around them. In between trailing hungry kisses down Eames's jaw, his mouth, his neck, Arthur says, "how could we have thought that perfect people are the only ones worth loving or fighting for? That perfect stories are the only ones worth telling, and that a perfect love is the only one worth risking yourself for?"

"In the dream, on the job," says Eames, "when I told you--"

"Can you say it again?" says Arthur. "I want to hear it again."

"What, the whole thing?" asks Eames. "If you recall, it got a bit long."

"Just the important part," says Arthur. "I bet it sounds even better when I'm not bleeding out."

"I'm in love with you," says Eames.

Arthur smiles, at that. And Eames realizes, it's the same smile that Arthur gave him in the dream; it was never pity, apology, or sympathy. Nothing but a quiet, gentle happiness, soaking into Arthur, out of Arthur, all the way into Eames, tingling him to the tips of his fingers, making him feel like he's made of light.

"I was going to tell you, you know," says Arthur. "Only, I meant to do it after the job-- you couldn't even wait that long, you asshole. Had to steal my thunder."

"Well, to be precise about it," says Eames, "you haven't said it yet."

Arthur laughs. Oh, god, thinks Eames, please, don't ever stop, and he feels like he could walk on water. He traces Arthur's dimples with something like awe, like reverence, and Arthur watches him like they've never really seen each other before.

"Did you hear, Teagan's back in action," says Arthur. "No more gossip magazines."

"If you think about it," says Eames, "if she hadn't had that bloody poll--"

"And if whoever the hell was it from wherever the hell was it," says Arthur, "had just kept their mouth shut instead of displaying their mastery of pop astrology--"

"What a terrible way to begin it all," says Eames. "On the advice of some wanker who lives in a city that doesn't exist."

"And yet," says Arthur, "isn't it as good a beginning as any?"

"God, Arthur," says Eames, "I want to do so much with you, everything we could have been doing since Ankara. I want to buy you so many things you don't need, like fast cars with personalized registration plates, or cufflinks you think are in terrible taste. I want to take you down to my sodding ancestral home and feed you things from my hand. I want--"

"We'll do it," says Arthur. "Before we have that huge fight where I throw a toaster at you and you change your phone number and run off to another continent, we'll get to do all of that. I promise."

"Try to miss, with the toaster," says Eames. "And don't forget to water the aspidistras I leave behind."

"Right now, though," says Arthur, "all I want to do is go somewhere with you. Let's take a holiday, Eames. Let's get up late every morning and take the batteries out of our phones. It's winter-- let's go somewhere warm."

"Now? Tomorrow?" asks Eames. "Don't we have to split up for a while?"

"Fuck the way we used to do things," says Arthur, and there's something so unbearably tender in the way that he says it, that Eames feels his heartbeat start to quicken.

"You don't even like warm places," he says, "you complain about the heat and the mosquitoes and the humidity and the air conditioning being too strong or not strong enough, you always--"

"Yeah," says Arthur. "Let's do it. Let's go somewhere warm."

"Fair enough," says Eames. "I have to warn you, though, before you decide to set out on the rest of our lives together--"

"What?" asks Arthur.

"I'm not really a Cancer," says Eames.

"Oh," says Arthur, "actually, I'm not really a Virgo, either. I'm--"

Eames pushes himself up off the bed, taking Arthur's face in his hands, and kisses him. Arthur's eyes go wide before they slide closed, and the dark sweep of his lashes flickers against his cheeks. Eames thinks, he thinks it would be all right to lose his way, just like that-- that they could stay there forever on that bed, warm and lazy, curled up around each other like a pair of animals at the mouth of a long winter.

"I-- okay, I can tell we're going to fuck now," says Arthur when they part for air, "except I think I'm still kind of sore from the shooting in the dream, because I stayed in a little too long, and now I guess my brain still needs more time to realize that the bullets weren't real-- so I probably won't be able to, you know, bend or move very well at all--"

"Arthur," says Eames, "I don't care."

"I love you," says Arthur.

In the distance, their toaster crashes through the window of their living room, scattering shards of glass across the carpet. But with a heavy enough heel and your jaw set to it, you can always grind it down to a handful of grains in the sun, catching the light like confetti.

And maybe that's all broken glass ever is. Confetti in the waiting.

I could do it, they think. I could walk on broken glass for him.