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Eames is about to turn in for the night when there's a quiet but persistent knock at the door of his London flat. It's too late to mean anything other than trouble, so Eames takes his Browning and his combat blade, moving stealthily toward the entrance. He really needs to install a security system with a camera.

The thing is nobody knocks on his door. Everyone—from delivery men to random religious nuts—seems to take great (if unconscious) pleasure in ringing Eames' bell, which sounds like a cross between a fire alarm and an old-time school bell. It's loud and clangy, and goes straight to the place in his brain where headaches are born. He's even tried to disconnect the damn thing, but like an evil sentient computer, it always comes back to life. Knocking at his door does nothing but make him more paranoid than usual.

“Who is it?” Eames asks, making sure he's well-clear if someone decides to blast through the door.

“Arthur,” comes the reply. The now open the fucking door is heavily implied in the tone.

Eames unlocks and opens the door, tucking the Browning in the waist of his trousers. Leaning heavily against the frame is Arthur who is roughly the shade of year-old gum scraped off the bottom of a shoe. Eames reaches for him to check for injuries, but Arthur lifts his head and glares.

“No touching,” he says, shuffling past Eames into the flat as if all of this is perfectly usual. Which it isn't.

“What the ever-loving fuck, Arthur?”

Eames watches him move into the room with all the grace and speed of an octogenarian zombie and settle on Eames' sofa, which is the nearest piece of furniture to the door. Eames can only imagine if it had been a lamp or a small table, Arthur would be draped over it, trying to look as if everything's normal.

The door closes with a metallic click as Eames throws the lock and assesses his options. He's angry—undeniably so—about being intruded upon like this, especially by Arthur, who makes it bloody clear that the people he works with are nothing more than that. Yet when Eames watches Arthur lie awkwardly on the sofa, not so much lying down as tipping over, Eames feels a degree of sympathy for the guy that runs deeper than his usual “better you than me” philosophy. Arthur can't be much older than twenty-three or so. Eames sighs and walks over to the sofa, squatting beside it so Arthur doesn't have to turn his head to look at him. He's almost certain from the stunning amount of information Arthur's already provided that asking him what happened is a futile question.

“How badly are you hurt?”

Arthur still manages to scowl at him, which shouldn't be possible to do from a face that's bruised and swollen down one side, and Eames resists the urge to reach out and touch when Arthur makes a faintly disapproving sound.

“No touching. I got it, mate,” Eames says, holding his hands up in surrender. “Anything broken? Any chance of internal bleeding?”

“No.”

His instincts are telling him to fuck what Arthur says and get a look at him anyway, but Eames has never had terribly good instincts when it's come to Arthur. They usually end up with him getting his arse handed to him by a kid who doesn't look like he should be able to stand up in a strong wind, let alone incapacitate someone who outweighs him by two stone. Eames has learned not to push some things with Arthur, and he suspects this “no touching” rule is one of those things. He doesn't fancy a broken wrist.

“Do you want—”

“No,” Arthur barks, and Eames stands up in frustration.

“Fine. Don't fucking die on my sofa.”

It's late and he's tired. He honestly isn't keen to row before turning in, so he decides to let Arthur have it his way. The danger's obviously passed since Arthur wouldn't have involved him if it wasn't. Arthur might be relatively new to dream-share, but he isn't someone who likes to drag other people into his business, so the fact he's here at all is an indicator of how desperate he was.

Eames turns out the lights as he goes, but leaves the bathroom lit with the door partway open. If Arthur needs to get up it will be enough to see by. Because he isn't the heartless bastard people want him to be, Eames gets a glass of water and a bottle of Tylenol, and leaves them within easy reach of the sofa. He doesn't say anything, nor does Arthur, and Eames falls asleep wondering if he'll ever understand the way Arthur thinks.

In the morning, the sofa's empty, the Tylenol's gone, and so is Arthur. Eames can't say he's surprised.

*

When he's not working, Eames splits his time between Mombasa and London. He likes his London flat with its hardwood floor and crown-moulded ceilings. He can always find good tea, good theatre, and good books to occupy himself. He spends more time alone than he does in Mombasa, but it's good to do so. Sometimes he gets tired of living with all the people he's expected to be.

There's a knock at the door. No one's knocked at the door since Arthur's sudden appearance and equally swift disappearance a few months ago, and Eames tells himself it could be anyone.

It's Arthur.

“You look like shite,” Eames tells him, taking in the torn sleeve of his trench coat, the way Arthur's not quite staggering, but not walking steady either. His left arm is hanging slack at his side.

Eames steps aside to let him in, and Arthur goes straight to the bathroom. Eames follows behind him, wondering when he stopped having some control in his own home.

Arthur seems torn between stepping straight into the shower, clothes and all, or trying to shake off his heavy trench. It's not easy with what looks like a dislocated shoulder, and Eames braces himself for the sound and the scream when Arthur rams his shoulder hard against the wall. It's obviously something he's done before, and Arthur stays on his feet, but barely. He looks exhausted, and his face is grey with pain. The bruises under his eyes could either be fading black eyes, or the product of too little sleep. Eames isn't sure which would be better. He knows Arthur works hard, and that he works almost exclusively with Dom and Mal. Eames doesn't begin to pretend he understands that relationship, or Arthur's loyalty to them.

Eames watches Arthur struggle with his clothes for a few moments before he gives in and steps forward. He turns the shower on as hot as he thinks Arthur can stand it, then as clinically as possible, moves to help him undress. It's clear from the look on Arthur's face that humour will not be appreciated, and Eames does his best to uncouple the shell buttons on Arthur's shirt. His fingers feel too large for such a delicate task.

“Are you going to tell me what's going on this time?”

“Is it necessary?

“I'm not going to kick you out, if that's what you're asking,” Eames sighs. “But considering you're in my shower, a word of explanation wouldn't be amiss.”

Arthur's raised eyebrow says everything Eames is already thinking. Arthur's known for many things—his skill with information retrieval, his lethal aim, his suits—but politeness isn't one of them. Eames finishes unbuttoning Arthur's shirt, eases it off his shoulders, and gets his first good look at Arthur's chest, which looks like a study in purple by some abstract painter.

“Jesus Christ, Arthur.” The words flow out on the tide of a shaky exhale.

“It's not as bad as it looks.”

It's the first mildly conciliatory thing Arthur's said since he walked through the door, and Eames can't help the laugh that bursts out, skittish and too high, because it looks like someone decided to use Arthur as a punching bag. For days. There are bruises layered upon bruises in shades ranging from ripe plum to near black.

“Well, I'm certainly glad it's not as bad as it looks,” Eames allows before his anger takes over, “because it looks fucking awful! What the hell happened?”

He's already at work on Arthur's trousers, efficiently stripping away the belt, unbuttoning, unzipping, and the lightweight fabric puddles on the floor around Arthur's bare feet. Eames does his best to ignore the lack of underwear.

The bruising isn't limited to Arthur's chest. Arthur steps unsteadily out of the pool of fabric, ignoring Eames' repeated mutters of “fuck, fuck, fuck.” He grabs the shower's hand bar and holds on when he steps beneath the stream of hot water. An involuntary hiss escapes as the first droplets hit his battered flesh, but then Arthur drops his head and seems to relax fractionally.

Eames can't look at him without wanting to hit something and there's apparently been far too much of that going on already, so Eames does the only thing he can since it's clear Arthur's not going to be answering any of his questions. He picks up Arthur's clothes and folds them neatly. He pulls out a couple of fluffy bath towels and lays the bathmat by the tub. There's nothing of Eames' that will fit Arthur well, but he grabs a pair of old track pants he's been meaning to give away; he's bulked up since he bought them and they're a somewhat indecent fit now, but they'll be more than adequate on Arthur's slim frame. Eames adds an Oxford sweatshirt to the pile, a pair of sport socks; there's not much he can do about underwear, and he doesn't think Arthur would appreciate an offer to share, so Eames doesn't bother. Probably the fewer things Arthur has to drag over his skin, the better. He piles everything on the bathroom counter.

Arthur's bruises look livid against his heated, pink skin, and Eames wants to take someone apart. He's been in fights, sure, and he's even been knocked about a fair bit when jobs go pear-shaped and a hasty exit is required, but he's never been systematically beaten the way Arthur's been. It hurts to look at him.

“You're staring.”

“You're naked in my shower.” Eames aims for flirtatious, but it comes out sounding weary. He pushes on. “Towels are here, and some clothes. They'll be a tad big, but—”

“Thank you.”

Arthur says it so firmly, without a trace of sarcasm or tease, that Eames loses his carefully neutral words, and finds himself asking, “Why?”

And Eames can see that Arthur, being Arthur, knows the real question isn't why are you thanking me (because the answer to that's obvious), and it isn't why did you let someone do this?” (because Arthur might be an emotional masochist at times, but he's not insane); no, the real question is why did you come here? Arthur gives a small smile and says, with as much honesty as Eames has ever heard from him, “I didn't have anywhere else to go.”

Eames shakes his head. “You need better friends.”

“I do okay,” Arthur says, voice quiet, and Eames leaves before he can say something stupid or sentimental and ruin the moment.

He doesn't tend to think of the people he works with as “friends.” They're more easily divided into categories like “allies” and “enemies,” or “competent” and “incompetent,” but that doesn't mean Eames hasn't sometimes wished there were more people he felt he could trust. He wouldn't mind someone to go for a drink with occasionally or just to ring up when things get hairy or downright boring. It seems both strange and fitting that person might be Arthur.

The water turns off with a mighty whinge of pipes, and Eames busies himself making a pot of tea, wondering if a package of broken Arrowroot biscuits and a tub of store-bought icing counts as something one can serve a guest. (It's better than nothing, he decides, although his mother would be appalled.) He keeps one ear out for Arthur's voice, or alternately, the sound of Arthur hitting the floor, since Eames is well-acquainted with Arthur's reluctance to actually ask for help, but there's nothing. When Eames sticks his head around the kitchen cupboards he sees it's because Arthur's stealthily made it to the sofa and either passed out or fallen asleep.

Eames fixes two cups of tea and a plate of icing-laden biscuits (just in case), stationing himself on the two-seater across from Arthur's prone form. He remembers what happened last time—Arthur disappearing without a word—and Eames knows he might not get any answers to his questions, but he'd rather have Arthur where he can at least keep an eye on him and his many bruises. At least until Arthur gets properly back on his feet.

Apparently Arthur's feet are working just fine because when Eames wakes up stiff and annoyed from sleeping on the loveseat, the sofa is empty of everything but its cushions and a faint echo of body heat. This time Arthur's made off with Eames' clothes and a banana, the skin of which is neatly splayed on top of the dustbin like a spent daffodil. He's returned the bottle of Tylenol he took last time, but when Eames picks it up, it's empty.

Eames laughs. Only Arthur. He makes a note to buy more, and slaps it on the refrigerator door with a plastic magnet of a London bobby. He goes to take a shower.

*

It's surprising how often Arthur ends up hurt and in London, specifically teetering at the door of Eames' flat.

“Remember when I said you needed new friends?” Eames says, watching Arthur try to pretend he doesn't need the wall to hold him up.

“I'm only interested in your couch.”

“I sincerely hope that's a euphemism, Arthur.”

“Couch.”

“With charm like that, darling, I can't imagine why you continue to end up on the wrong end of people's fists.” Eames stands aside and waves Arthur through, noting spitefully that he only lets go of the wall when he's got the door frame under his hand, and then he ceases to move at all.

“Wasn't the couch closer to the door last time?”

“It was, actually,” Eames confirms. “I thought I'd try the furniture a new way 'round. What do you think?”

“I think I liked it closer to the door.”

Arthur sounds distressed, and Eames can see he's holding his side and his breathing is shallow. Bruised ribs, probably, and that's a best case scenario.

“We can move it back.”

“Maybe not tonight.”

Still clutching his side, Arthur manoeuvres across the room carefully, using various pieces of furniture to keep himself mostly upright. When he finally reaches the sofa, he lies down on it with an audible sigh of relief, pulling a cushion under his head. He looks exhausted.

“You should really let me wrap those ribs,” Eames offers. He knows what it's like when every breath is a stabbing pain, and you can't breathe deep enough to find any comfort.

“That would mean sitting up again.” Arthur sounds less than enthusiastic about the idea, and Eames can't really blame him.

“I could probably do it with you lying down, but it'll be quicker and easier if you can manage to sit up straight for a few minutes.”

Arthur appears to be considering the pros and cons of the options, but eventually Eames hears a resigned, “Fine,” from near the pillow. He goes to grab the compression bandage and his brand-new bottle of Tylenol.

“Let's get you up,” Eames says. “Come on, put your arms around my neck and try to relax.”

Arthur's eyes are big and dark, but he obediently wraps his arms around the back of Eames' neck and clasps his hands together. Their faces are close enough, Eames can hear every laboured breath. He gets his hands under Arthur's torso and pulls him as smoothly as possible into a sitting position. Arthur downs the coated Tylenol dry.

“Do you have something against doing anything the easy way?” Eames says, grimacing in distaste. He's never liked taking pills dry, even when it's an absolute necessity. “I've got running water, you know. It's not like the backwoods of Kentucky or wherever you've been hanging about.”

“If you're going to chit-chat just give me the bandage and I'll do it myself.”

“Jesus Christ, you're a pain in the arse.”

For once Arthur's wearing a plain dark t-shirt, and Eames removes it with as little fuss as possible. Arthur sits quietly while Eames binds the ribs with the compression wrap and secures it with a metal fastener.

“Comfortable?”

“Not even remotely,” Arthur says, but he's breathing a little easier with the ribs being supported. “Thanks.”

“I thought you were in Berlin.”

Eames tries to sound matter-of-fact and not like a stalker of some kind. He keeps an ear out for who's taking what jobs and where, that's all it is. People in dream-share like to talk—Arthur and the Cobbs have been a topic of discussion for months—and Eames makes an excellent listener.

Arthur looks like he's trying to decide if it's worth the effort to put his t-shirt back on, and maybe that's what distracts him enough to give up information without torture. “I was. Kielkopf and I had a disagreement about dividing up the client's money.”

“Ah, I see,” Eames says, understanding dawning. He's had a few run-ins with the man himself. “I'm not good at maths, but even I know his arithmetic's always been rather self-serving.”

Arthur snorts, then instantly seems to regret it. Eames lays a steadying hand on his shoulder and squeezes, watching Arthur's face as he tamps down the pain.

“Kielkopf doesn't generally like fair fights, Arthur. I take it the Cobbs were already on their way home, and you stuck around by yourself to settle accounts?”

“You think I'm an idiot, right?”

Arthur's looking away, engrossed in some spot on the far side of the room. Eames recognizes the tactic from a childhood and adolescence spent never being able to measure up to his father's expectations. He gently turns Arthur's face to look at him.

“I think you're an honourable man, and you expect the same from other people.” Eames' lips quirk upwards into a self-effacing smile. “Unfortunately, we're not all as honourable as you.”

“And you're not nearly as disreputable as you like people to think,” Arthur counters, a knowing look in his eyes. Their faces are only inches apart, eyes locked on one another, and Eames thinks it would be so very easy to lean in and kiss Arthur. He has no idea whether it would be welcome or not, and it isn't the right time anyway. Bruised ribs tend to make everything more difficult. Breathing, for example.

“Are you going to be okay on the sofa?” Eames asks, breaking the moment, and Arthur swallows self-consciously before nodding. He's obviously given up on the t-shirt, but he manages to leverage himself down gently onto the sofa without too much apparent trauma.

“I'll be fine.”

Eames tugs the afghan over Arthur's bare shoulders and sets about shutting things down for the night. When he's ready to head for bed himself, he stops in the living room to take one more look at Arthur.

“You're worse than my mother,” Arthur complains, but he doesn't sound unhappy about it. “Just go to bed already. The couch and I would like to be alone.”

“Oh, really? Well, remember you're in England now, pet, and that's a sofa you're cozying up to.”

“My apologies. Your sofa and I would like to be alone.”

Eames laughs. He's not sure he'll ever properly understand Americans. He's about to turn in when something else occurs to him.

“Arthur?”

“Hm?”

“You don't have to scarper in the middle of the night, you know. I'm quite sure my reputation can handle having you stay over.”

“I'm not sure mine can, but I'll bear that in mind, Mr. Eames.”

It's only after Eames is in bed that he realizes he still has no idea why Arthur travelled to London with his injuries instead of seeking help in Berlin. Surely he has some contacts there who would've helped him. When morning comes, Eames is so surprised to see Arthur asleep on his sofa, he completely forgets what he wanted to ask him, and by the time he remembers, Arthur's already in the wind.

*

“Let me guess,” Eames says, no longer surprised when Arthur appears unannounced at his door. “You couldn't bear to stay away from my sofa for one more day.”

“It's a very nice sofa.”

This time Arthur's sporting a taped nose and a split lip. He still looks rather miserable, but he's walking completely under his own steam, and Eames thinks Arthur seems more annoyed than hurt.

Eames surveys the damages. “Did it ever occur to you maybe my sofa has other plans for this evening?”

Arthur looks unapologetic. “Maybe it should break those plans.”

“I'm not sure it should considering you have a tendency to bleed on my furniture.”

“I'll owe you for a cleaning.”

“At this rate, you'll owe me for a whole new sofa. I'd suggest you keep your bodily fluids to yourself, but that seems rather unlikely at this point.”

“I honestly didn't think you'd have a problem with having my bodily fluids on your couch,” Arthur says, smirking until his dimples are showing, and Eames can't help but roll his eyes.

“Really, Arthur? Now?” Eames shakes his head. He's used to flirting that goes nowhere, and he suspects Arthur already knows what he's about to say. “I'm on a five o'clock flight to Singapore, and I'm not packed yet.”

Arthur starts to fidget, and Eames can't stand it. “Oh, for God's sakes, just come in. You can keep me company, we'll have a drink, and you can make me jealous of my goddamn sofa, alright?”

The grin he gets in return is entirely worth arriving in Singapore the next day, sleep-deprived and slightly hungover.

*

The next time Arthur darkens Eames' door, he's not alone. Cobb has one of Arthur's arms slung heavily over his shoulders, and there's blood on Arthur's normally white dress shirt. It's already soaked through into his dove grey suit, and Eames didn't even know Arthur and the Cobbs were in London, but he feels as if he should have.

Eames says, “What the hell happened?” even as he's taking some of Arthur's weight on himself, and helping the barely conscious point man to the sofa. He gets him situated in the middle, mostly sitting up. He starts undoing Arthur's buttons, looking for the source of the blood.

“He got shot,” Cobb offers, and Eames throws him a glance that spells out exactly how unhelpful that information is. Arthur's pale and sweating—never a good combination. Eames' fingers are slippery with blood, and why does Arthur wear clothes with the most miniscule buttons in the universe?

“Fuck this,” Eames says. He tucks his fingers into the spaces between the front buttons, curls them under the silky fabric, and pulls in opposite directions. White buttons scatter like popcorn, and Eames ignores Cobb's soft-voiced protest (no doubt on Arthur's behalf) because now that Eames has got Arthur's shirt open, he can see where the bullet tore him open along his left side. It's a flesh wound, a messy one, but there's no bullet to extract and Eames knows it could've been considerably worse.

“Cobb, don't just stand there,” Eames orders. “There's a med kit in the bathroom under the sink. Also, clean towels and I need a basin of water. Go.”

Carefully as he can, Eames strips off Arthur's jacket, unfastens his shoulder holster—Eames has no idea where the gun's gone to—and gets his shirt out of the way. By that time, Cobb's made himself moderately useful. Eames dunks a clean towel in the bowl of warm water and does his best to clean up the excess blood so he can get a read on how much Arthur's still bleeding. It's not nearly as bad as he'd initially thought, although Arthur's lost a fair amount of blood.

“Is he going to be okay?” Cobb asks anxiously, and Eames finally notices how fidgety Cobb is. How he keeps darting glances at the door.

“You weren't followed, were you?” Eames asks, although it's too late if they were. His Browning's in the bedroom and God only knows where Arthur's Glock has gone. He wonders if Cobb knows how to handle a gun.

“No, no! It's just that Mal—”

“Is she alright?”

“Yeah, she's at the hotel. She wasn't with us, but I need to let her know what's going on.”

“What happened, anyway?”

Cobb's shaking his head. “I wish I knew. We were doing a routine militarization for a CEO—everything above board—and then Arthur was just gone, like something had yanked him out of the dream, forcibly. What is—what are you giving him?”

“Localized anaesthetic,” Eames replies, withdrawing the syringe. “Like the dentist uses. It'll dull the pain while I stitch this up.

Eames is already breaking out a new sterilized needle and suture thread. Cobb is staring with a kind of fascinated horror, and Eames remembers this is all new to Cobb, who fought his way through the trenches of academia while Eames cut his teeth in Afghanistan.

“He'll be fine,” Eames adds, “but it's going to knock him off his feet for the next while.”

“He'll hate that,” Cobb says so soberly, Eames can't help but laugh.

“Yeah, I'm sure he will.” Eames looks up at Cobb from where he's kneeling beside the couch, considering the best route to the fewest stitches. “Why don't you ring Mal while I do this? Then you can finish filling me in.”

Cobb seems grateful for an excuse to leave, and Eames works steadily, disinfecting and sewing up the wound, covering it with layers of light gauze taped to Arthur's side. He's putting his tools away when Arthur shifts sluggishly on the couch.

“Cobb?” It's barely audible, but Eames chooses to interpret it as a question about Cobb's well-being rather than a case of mistaken identity.

“He's in the other room. He's fine. You're the one who's shot.”

Arthur winces as he tries to sit up straighter. Eames puts a hand against his bare chest and leaves it there. He can feel Arthur's heart racing under his palm.

“Stay put,” Eames says, his voice gentle. “You lost a lot of blood, and I only just got the leak plugged. If you tear out those stitches, I won't use anaesthetic next time.”

Surprisingly, Arthur manages a small smile. “That's why I'm numb. I thought maybe I was dying.”

Eames pushes the thought far away. “No dying in the arms of my sofa, Arthur. I thought I made that clear.”

“Right.”

“Do you think you can take a couple of pills if I get you some water? They'll help cut the pain and the risk of infection.”

Arthur nods, or at least it's enough of an up-and-down gesture Eames is going to count it as a nod. He's as quick as can be getting the pills and water because he knows what Arthur's like. Entirely too sneaky for his own good. But miraculously Arthur hasn't moved and he manages to get the meds down without any trouble before he lapses back into unconsciousness. Eames eases him flat on the sofa, covering him with a light throw. Right now the best thing they can do for Arthur is let him rest.

Cobb's back, looking much less twitchy, and Eames can only assume Mal is safe and sound.

“He woke up long enough for me to get some antibiotics and pain killers into him,” Eames reports. “I think he's going to be fine.”

“Thank God,” Cobb says, dropping onto the opposite loveseat. “I honestly don't know what went wrong.”

“You said Arthur got pulled out of the dream?”

Cobb nods. “He was there, and then he wasn't. That's never happened before. I mean, if you die, the body stays there, but this was instantaneous.”

“Did Arthur give you the kick?”

“He must've because I woke up on the floor, and he was trading shots with these other guys.”

“The mark?”

“No, but I'm sure we were introduced to the one guy at some point. Arthur would know. Head of security maybe.”

Eames considers what that might mean. “Could be the mark decided he didn't want to pay your fee, or maybe didn't like the idea there were people out there who might know how to get around his head. You might never know, but I'd guess Arthur got yanked out either because they pulled the line out,” Eames lifts the edge of the throw and sure enough there's a quarter-sized bruise blossoming on Arthur's wrist, “or from pain, although if they wanted him dead, they should've shot him before he woke up.”

Dom swallows, his face gone pale, and Eames looks at him carefully. “Two man job?” he asks.

“It seemed straight forward. Simple militarization.”

Eames shakes his head. “If it's a two man job, use three if you can. Leave one person topside. It's safer that way.”

“I needed Arthur for the militarization. Mal's so close to term, we didn't want to risk—”

Eames gets it—he does—but it doesn't change the fact Arthur's lying unconscious on his sofa from a bullet wound, and it could've been much worse than that.

“Then next time, call me,” Eames says, trying not to sound patronizing. He's been around longer than the Cobbs. He's already made these mistakes. “Or someone else you trust, someone who can handle themselves in a fight if necessary.”

Dom nods, rubbing a hand over his eyes. He looks worn down like an old eraser, and Eames decides to take pity on him.

“Go back to Mal. Arthur's not going to be doing much except sleeping for the next while.”

“We're supposed to fly out tomorrow—”

“No reason you shouldn't. You've got a wee one waiting on you at home, and another on the way.”

“But Arthur—”

“Can stay here,” Eames says, surprising himself a little. He doesn't really like people in his space, and the few times Arthur's been here before, he's been less than stellar company for the most part. Being shot can't possibly improve Arthur's disposition, but Eames knows Arthur's going to need to stay put and recuperate whether he wants to or not. If someone doesn't sit on him—quite possibly literally—he'll be on the first flight he can finagle.

Dom actually smiles, and Eames isn't sure what that means. He doesn't know the Cobbs all that well; hell, he doesn't know Arthur all that well, although maybe that will change after Arthur's been stuck with Eames nurse-maiding him for the next little while.

“You know, I wasn't sure at first, but I'm glad you and Arthur are friends,” Dom says, clapping Eames on the shoulder.

Friends?, Eames thinks, but keeps it to himself. He trails Cobb to the door, wondering what exactly he's signed up for, and if he should be booking himself an appointment with a mental health professional.

“Hey,” Eames asks, “out of curiosity, how did you know where I live?”

“Arthur rattled off your address before he passed out.” Dom turns to go, casting one last look at Arthur's sleeping form. “Wouldn't consider a hospital, or anywhere but here. It's good—sometimes I forget Arthur's still so damn young. Sometimes heforgets it too. You're good for him, Eames.” He pats Eames on the shoulder again. “Take care of him.”

Eames closes the door and goes back to the living room. Arthur appears to be resting comfortably. There's very little blood showing through when Eames checks the bandage, which is a positive sign. As long as there's no infection, Arthur should be back on his feet again sooner rather than later.

Not that Eames is in a hurry to get rid of his unexpected house-guest now that he's got one. If he thinks about it, Eames isn't sure he's ever had a proper house-guest here, and Yusuf doesn't count because all they do is use the place as a way station between pubs when Yusuf's in town. Eames can send over to the hotel tomorrow for Arthur's things, and then it's just a matter of making sure Arthur has time to recover.

“Oh, darling, what have you gotten us into?” Eames asks the silent apartment. He goes to make himself a cup of tea and gets side-tracked putting together a list of things they'll need from the shops, but Arthur's soft moan has Eames back in the living room faster than he knew he could move.

“Eames?”

“Right here, mate.” Eames kneels beside the couch so Arthur doesn't have to strain to see him.

“Safe?”

It doesn't take a genius to realize Arthur's asking about the Cobbs, and Eames gives him a disbelieving smile. “Yeah, the Cobbs are safe as houses. You're the one who got perforated. Not your best strategy that. Letting the bad guys use you for target practice.”

Arthur's brows knit into a scowl, and Eames has to fight not to smile. “Three against one.”

Eames fails to look impressed. “Those are some incredible odds, Arthur. How ever did you manage?”

“Better than you would,” Arthur mumbles, but he's mostly drifting again, and Eames lets him. As long as Arthur can sleep, the pain won't seem as bad. Eames knows the local's going to be wearing off soon enough and then they're going to need something stronger than Tylenol. Yusuf's in Mombasa, but he's got the best connections bar none; Eames digs out his phone to make the call, but doesn't stray far from Arthur's side.

Just in case.

*

Less than a week later, Eames is standing firmly in front of his flat door, arms crossed over his chest, staring down a determined Arthur.

“Get out of my way, Eames.”

“No.”

“I didn't realize I'd signed my life over when Dom abandoned me on your couch!”

“You didn't?” Eames asks sweetly. “It's too late now. The adoption's final, and I'm the proud owner of one slightly damaged Arthur, so would you please go back and lie down? You're making me tired just looking at you.”

“I'm fine, and I want to fucking go home. Is that too much to ask?”

“You're the colour of wet cement. No self-respecting airline is going to let you board an international flight unless you're travelling by coffin.”

“I'll fly American. They believe customers can make their own travel decisions!”

“Well, they obviously don't know you!” Eames shouts back, wondering what his neighbours must think.

Up until Arthur's arrival, he'd been a model tenant. Quiet, pleasant, rent paid like Swiss clockwork. This week, though, he's already been caught cleaning up a blood trail in the hall, exchanging cash for a no doubt suspicious-looking brown paper bag of various bottles of pills, and now a shouting match with an angry American. Eames is considering how much easier his life would be if at least one of the sedatives came in syringe form, and if the look on Arthur's face is anything to go by, he's got a pretty good idea what Eames is thinking.

Arthur's leaning heavily against the wall, a thin sheen of sweat on his face. It's not helping his case at all. “This is ridiculous, Eames! You can't keep me here.”

“Actually, I can. All it would take is one phone call to Interpol, or even your Homeland Security chaps, and you'd never make it on the plane.”

“You wouldn't dare.”

“You want to try me?” Eames says, deadly serious.

Arthur looks like he's a half-second away from collapsing in a sweaty grey heap on Eames' hardwood floor, and all Eames wants to do is put him back on the sofa with a blanket and bring him a cup of tea. Is that too much to fucking ask? Arthur is the worst patient Eames has ever met, and he's including himself on that list, along with his great-uncle Hortense who had the amazing ability to regurgitate any medication given by mouth and liked to swan about the house wearing nothing but a smile.

“Secondly, I've got your passport,” Eames says, holding the document in question out of reach. Close enough Arthur can verify it's the real deal, but too far away to make a grab. Eames isn't stupid.

“You fucking—”

“Arthur, please.”

Eames softens his voice even as he makes the passport disappear from sight. Arthur's not in top form, but he's still got sharper eyes than most, and Eames can't afford to lose his best piece of collateral. (There's no way he'd ever turn Arthur over to Interpol or anyone else, and Arthur would know this if he was thinking straight, which he clearly isn't.) Of course, if Arthur wants his passport that badly, he's going to have to put his hands down Eames' trousers, and Eames is willing to bet their relationship has not yet reached that point, and very likely never will after this week.

“I hate you. I fucking hate you,” Arthur says venomously, turning and walking more-or-less straight into the bathroom and slamming the door behind him. It rattles the pictures on the walls, and Eames feels a stab of genuine hurt. This is why he doesn't make friends or have house-guests. Even doing the right thing makes you feel like crap.

Eames does what he always does when he feels like shite. He makes a pot of tea. He's got three different types of tea in the pantry now because he wasn't sure what Arthur would like, if he even drank tea, and although Eames thinks herbal teas are generally awful, he'll endure a pot of peppermint leaves in the evening because it seems to help Arthur sleep.

He can hear muffled conversation coming from the loo, and Eames guesses Arthur's rung Cobb to rail against his captivity. If he was in Arthur's shoes, maybe he'd be doing the same thing—probably, Eames thinks—but Arthur's barely mobile, weak as a kitten, and Eames can't think of anything good that can come of letting Arthur drag himself onto an eleven hour flight to Los Angeles.

Eames carries the tea to the living room on a wooden tray. There are two cups, as there have been all week, and Eames hates that he's so quickly become used to having Arthur here. He pushes the throw aside and digs the remote for the telly out from behind a cushion, eventually settling on one of the Lethal Weapon films. At least he won't be required to think.

When Arthur finally emerges from the loo, Eames is halfway through his cup of peppermint tea. He's surprised to find he's anxious, and suddenly Danny Glover and Mel Gibson are the most fascinating men on television. Arthur shifts the pillows and settles a comfortable distance from Eames, leaving Eames to weigh his chances of being forgiven against the chances of being knocked unconscious and relieved of Arthur's passport. It's about sixty-forty in favour of an assault on his person, Eames figures, so he calmly pours a second cup of tea and sets it in front of Arthur. As preemptive strikes go, it's tragically English, but Eames has never been uncomfortable being a cliché.

Arthur picks up his teacup and sips at the pale green liquid. In the background, Mel Gibson violates someone's civil rights for a just cause.

“Apparently, I owe you an apology,” Arthur starts.

He's talking into his teacup, so softly that Eames isn't sure he's heard him right until he glances over and sees the tips of Arthur's ears are flushed red. Eames guesses he should be feeling triumphant, vindicated because Cobb's obviously sided with him, but all he knows is the overwhelming flood of relief that pours through him knowing Arthur's not about to shamble out of Eames' flat and collapse somewhere Eames won't be able to help put him right. It makes him feel magnanimous.

“Forget about it,” Eames says, and he's surprised to realize he mostly means it. He knows Arthur's just frustrated. Men like them aren't used to being cooped up inside—it feels too much like prison, and Eames would do a lot to avoid ending up in a cell of any kind, so it shouldn't really be a surprise that Arthur feels the same way.

“No, I was acting like a dick, and I'm sorry.” Arthur sounds resigned to his fate, like a bird that knows its wings have been clipped, and Eames isn't any happier with Arthur's capitulation than he was with his defiance.

“Look, Arthur,” Eames says, and he turns sideways on the sofa so he can face Arthur, even though Arthur seems to be far more interested in his tea than in Eames. “I know you're half-mad being stuck here. I know, and I'm not trying to be an arsehole, I swear. But it's been less than a week since you got shot—you can't blame us for wanting to make sure you're at least upright before we throw you back in the ring, can you?”

“No, I suppose not,” Arthur concedes.

They sip their tea in silence—relative silence, as Riggs and Murtough shoot up L.A.—and Eames doesn't miss the signs that Arthur's painkillers are wearing off. Wordlessly, he gets up and brings him a pair of capsules, which Arthur swallows down eagerly with a mouthful of peppermint tea.

“Give it another week,” Eames says at last. “If you've stopped looking like an extra from Night of the Living Dead, I'll put you on a plane myself.”

“That bad?” Arthur risks a glance at Eames, and Eames nods.

“Let's put it this way: I'm not keeping you around because you brighten up the decor.”

That gets a laugh from Arthur, and Eames feels the warm glow of victory. It should be at least a few days before Arthur gets stir-crazy enough to want to leave again, and by then he might even be well enough to travel without Eames worrying he's going to pass out along the way. Eames isn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“More tea?” he asks, and is unreasonably pleased when Arthur says, “Sure. This peppermint stuff's actually not bad.”

*

After that, the Cobbs and Arthur are semi-regular visitors at Eames' London flat. Even when no one's been shot or otherwise incapacitated. It's good in a strange way. Eames has been a free agent for so long he's almost forgotten what it feels like to be part of something else, and there are days he still gets itchy feet and takes other jobs with other people simply because he can. They're not exactly a team. He's definitely the odd-man out, but he and Arthur tend to temper the Cobbs' enthusiasm with a shot of realism, and Eames knows Arthur appreciates having someone to back him up when the Cobbs are determined to do something more insane than usual.

Of course, they don't always agree on things either.

“I told you so,” Eames says, unable to contain himself any longer. His head is throbbing from where he blocked a punch with his face, and he can taste blood, which is still preferable to the mouthful of the Thames he swallowed when they were forced to ditch the boat they'd stolen. Arthur's limping along beside him, dripping wet, reloading his Glock. Water seeps out when Arthur pushes the clip in, and Eames knows that's not a particularly good sign.

Arthur would be glaring if one of his eyes wasn't swollen shut. That much is obvious. “Fine. You were right about the client being a double-crossing sell-out. Happy?”

“Yes!” Eames says, even though he isn't any such thing and Arthur knows it. Eames liked the guy, too; he just didn't trust him—with good reason, it turns out—but he wasn't able to convince Arthur of that, and where Arthur goes so do the Cobbs.

“You think Dom and Mal made it out okay?”

“Why don't you ring—” Eames starts to say, then grimaces when Arthur holds up a dripping mobile. It's his third in as many months. “You can ring them when we get back to the flat.”

“No taxi's going to take us anywhere looking like this.”

“This is London.” Eames wrings water out of his filthy, bloodied shirt tails. “A little damp isn't going to dissuade a cabbie from taking a fare.”

An hour later they're still walking.

“You were saying?” Arthur says, his teeth chattering loud enough Eames feels as if he's walking with a jack-hammer, and Eames has had to stop twice to throw up. He's pretty sure he has a concussion.

“We're almost there.”

They support each other up the stairs to the flat, and it takes everything Eames has not to black out the minute they cross the threshold.

“Just as far as the toilet, yeah?” Eames murmurs, not letting go of Arthur, who's still shivering like someone stuck him in a freezer overnight. The two of them end up mostly in the tub, fully-clothed, with warm water pouring down on them. It's a hundred times better than being cold.

“Hey! Eames, hey! I think you've got a concussion.”

There's a snap of fingers in front of his face, and Eames realizes Arthur's been trying to get his attention. And he's naked. How he missed Arthur getting undressed in front of him, he honestly doesn't know, but it seems to support the concussion theory. He looks at Arthur blearily, pulling away as Arthur tries to get a shaky hand on his chin to look him over.

“Definitely a concussion,” Arthur says, frowning, and Eames starts to laugh because this isn't the first time he's been in this shower with a naked Arthur, but so far neither time has been any fun at all. It's very unfair.

The next time Eames wakes up he's in his own bed, or at least on it with the duvet sort of set on top of him, and he's decidedly more naked than he remembers being the last time he was awake.

“Oh, good, you're awake,” Arthur says from the doorway, and his silhouette seems to be three times larger than normal. When he comes closer, it's clear he's wearing at least two pairs of track pants and no fewer than three sweaters, all of them Eames', including one with a hood. He has brightly patterned socks Eames recognizes as a gift from his aunt pulled up over the bottoms of the track pants. At least he's not shivering.

“You seem to have taken all the clothes and left me with none,” Eames points out.

Arthur shrugs, or at least Eames thinks he does; there's a slight movement of the bulky material currently making Arthur look like an American football player. It's disconcerting.

“You didn't seem to be cold, just concussed.” Arthur flashes a penlight in Eames' eyes and seems satisfied with what he sees. “Name?”

“Eames.”

“First name?”

“Ah, I should've known it was a ploy to extort information from me,” Eames says. “I'll never tell.”

“Do you know where we are?”

“London, England, my bed, my flat. Still naked.” Eames can see the swelling around Arthur's eye has gone down a bit—he's probably had time to ice it. “How's your eye?”

“Sore, but I've had worse.” Arthur lays a hand on Eames' forehead. It feels wonderfully cool against his skin. “Do you have a fever, or are you always this hot?”

Eames chuckles, and Arthur manages a slightly embarrassed grin. “I've been told I give off roughly the heat of a small sun, so probably not a fever.”

“I guess I should've crawled in with you instead of raiding your wardrobe.”

“Could have done,” Eames says quietly, and suddenly the room feels smaller than it did a moment ago.

It's not as if it's the first time he's thought about Arthur that way, but it's definitely the first time he's let Arthur know without it being a tease. Arthur's silent for long enough, Eames wonders if he should blame the head injury for loosening his tongue. The last thing he wants is to make Arthur uncomfortable.

Then Eames hears a sweater hitting the floor, followed by a pair of track pants hitting Eames in the chest.

“Put those on,” Arthur orders, “and move over.”

Eames complies automatically. He's used to following Arthur's lead in the dreamscape when it doesn't have to do with forging, so it seems perfectly reasonable to pull on the jogging bottoms as instructed and make room for Arthur.

Arthur ditches everything except his own jogging bottoms and the socks, and Eames has no idea what to do with his arms as Arthur squirms in and attaches himself to Eames from behind like some sort of lamprey eel.

“Oh my God, you're warm,” Arthur sighs, sticking his cold face against Eames' shoulders and wrapping his skinny icicle arms around Eames' chest. “How is this your normal body temperature?”

Eames ignores Arthur's babble and concentrates on rubbing some warmth into his arms. He's tired and warm, and his head is throbbing in a steady rhythm. Eames lets himself drift until a block of ice shoved between his calves jerks him awake.

“Jesus Christ, are those your feet?” Eames asks as the blocks of ice wiggle against his skin. The truly astounding thing is that Arthur is still wearing wool socks. “How can your feet be this cold? Peruvian alpacas gave up their very ample coats to make those socks!”

“Heat sources aren't required to talk,” Arthur says, his face squashed against Eames' back. Even his breath feels cool on Eames' skin.

Eames shifts forward slightly, pushing Arthur's arms up and out of the way, ignoring the unhappy mew Arthur makes. It only takes a moment for Eames to turn himself so he's facing Arthur, and before Arthur can roll away, Eames has gathered him close against the length of his body, tucking arms and hands in between their chests. The icy feet find their way between Eames' calves again, Arthur's cold nose tucked in close to Eames' neck.

“You're like a human Popsicle. Clearly, growing up in California doesn't equip you to survive anywhere else in the world. I'm going to be buying you scarves and mittens and woollen underthings for the foreseeable future. Do Cobb and Mal know you're secretly Mr. Freeze?”

Eames rambles nervously, acutely aware that this is how lines get crossed, how friendships end. He can feel his own heart racing in his chest, and knows Arthur has to be able to hear it too, but he doesn't say anything. Eventually, Eames realizes the even breathing means Arthur's fallen asleep, and Eames resists the urge to laugh at himself even as he delivers the barest brush of lips to Arthur's forehead.

He always falls for the wrong people.

In the morning, Eames wakes to an alarm he doesn't remember setting—Arthur's work, no doubt, obviously still concerned about concussions. His bed is empty save for himself, and a survey of the apartment confirms Eames is alone. He isn't surprised, but somehow that doesn't make it better.

Back in the bedroom, he notices the clothes Arthur borrowed are folded, although the socks seem to have disappeared, and Eames wonders if Arthur has some place he stashes the things he nicks from Eames. The socks, at least, he hopes Arthur uses. The man has the coldest feet Eames has ever encountered.

A flutter of paper catches Eames' eye. It's tucked under a two-pills-away-from-empty bottle of Tylenol and a half a glass of water. Eames head hasn't really stopped aching, so he finishes the Tylenol and the water both before he takes up the note.

There's no reason to be anxious. There's nothing to get his hopes up about. Arthur was dangerously cold and Eames warmed him up. It's as much as he would've done for any mate—but he likely wouldn't have enjoyed it as much, or found himself wishing it didn't have to end.

Arthur's neat printing cuts across the page in a ruler-straight line.

Early flight to LA. Didn't want Cobbs to worry. Think you're up for the Barnes job? Next month after Cobbs' anniversary. Will text with details/new number. A. PS – IOU a bottle of Tylenol.

The “th” in “think” looks heavier than the rest, as if Arthur had paused in the writing. Eames supposes it could be coincidence, but he'd like to hope Arthur was originally planning to write “thanks” and reconsidered for some reason. Maybe he didn't like the way “thank you for last night” sounded. Maybe “thought you needed the sleep” seemed patronizing. Maybe Eames is looking for something that isn't there.

He doesn't have a clue, but he's got about a month to figure it out and to decide if he wants to do anything about it.

*

The Barnes job is in London.

Eames has put off as long as possible looking at the information Arthur emailed him about the mark and his associates, but given that Arthur and the Cobbs are expected within a week, Eames figures he'd better get down to work. He's part way through the first set of documents when there's a frantic banging on the door.

“Eames? Eames, are you home?” It's Arthur's voice, and Eames dumps the folder on the coffee table and unlocks the door.

“Arthur,” he says, unable to hide his surprise. “You're early. I wasn't expecting you for another week.”

“It was meant to be a surprise,” he says, and there's something off in his tone. A slight slurring someone who didn't know him probably wouldn't even notice.

“Did you come straight from the airport? Where's your suitcase?”

“It's in a locker. It's fine.”

For the first time since Arthur's arrival, Eames takes a good look at him. Arthur looks haggard, like he's flown a million miles, and had nothing of sustenance except a couple of glasses of whiskey and some crappy cookies. He's in trousers and a blue-grey button-down with a charcoal sweater over top. His hair looks as though he's been running his hands through it nervously.

“Arthur, what's—”

Eames never gets to finish his question because Arthur's reaching for him. He grabs two fistfuls of Eames' t-shirt and drags him forward so suddenly Eames practically falls into him, brought up short when Arthur's back hits the solid plane of the door.

He's been thinking about this for a month, longer if he's honest, and it's easy to let it happen, let Arthur draw him in and kiss him like he's been desperate for it. Arthur feels as right in his arms as he did the night he used Eames as a human heater.

“Eames. God, Eames, I want—”

“You can have whatever you want, darling,” Eames promises, getting his hands under Arthur's shirt and tugging its tails loose. Arthur's skin is smooth and cool, perfect under Eames' broad hands, and when he feels Arthur's tongue prodding his lips, Eames lets Arthur inside.

Arthur tastes of whisky and water, but Eames has seen him drunk and this isn't it. A bit of liquid courage perhaps. He chases Arthur's tongue, sucks it into his mouth and is pleased with the groan Arthur lets out. He wants nothing more than to make him do that again and again.

“Eames.”

Arthur's breathless and his mouth looks wanton against his pale skin. Eames cups his face in his hands, kisses the planes of his cheeks, the corners of his lips, then takes his mouth and kisses him greedily. He thinks he could kiss him all night and still find a hundred different ways to taste his mouth. A nip at his lower lip sends Eames nuzzling down the rough edge of Arthur's jaw, planting a row of kisses on the soft skin of his neck. Eames tugs open Arthur's collar, sucks hard enough to bruise, and Arthur's response is immediate, back arching and hands grabbing Eames' arse to bring him closer.

Eames is hard and he can feel the heady tingle of pleasure rippling out from wherever Arthur touches him. Fingers knead his back, a hand cups his groin, and Eames pushes into Arthur's hand and it feels amazingly good. Arthur's touch is firm, not at all tentative.

Any doubts Eames has lingering in the corners of his mind have disappeared in a lustful haze, and it's a matter of what now and what next and a fucking tidal wave of want sweeping everything else aside. It makes Eames bold enough to grab Arthur's hips and lift, feeling the strong clasp of Arthur's legs around his waist, and someday he's going to fuck Arthur like this, bare and open against a wall with Arthur's legs tight around him and his head thrown back with unrestrained pleasure.

But for tonight he settles for kissing him deep, deep as he can get, their tongues sliding together the way their bodies want to be, and Eames carries Arthur's weight as if it's nothing at all, walking them down the hall to the bedroom, lowering Arthur to the duvet, and watching his legs fall open in tacit permission, zipper half-undone and leaking cock peaking out.

Eames strips him eagerly, so different from the times he's undressed Arthur to tend to his injuries, and he loves the look and feel of Arthur's pale skin, unblemished, every curve and angle firm and perfect.

“You're staring,” Arthur says, sounding out of breath, and Eames stops in the middle of pulling off his own clothes to let his gaze take in the man in front of him.

“You're naked in my bed,” Eames says. “Have you any idea how long I've wanted to see you like this without having to bandage anything, without having to be careful of fucking bruises?”

“Eames, come here.”

Arthur looks on the edge of breaking apart, and Eames can't have that, can't have this be anything other than fantastic for both of them. He steps out of his remaining clothes and crawls up the bed until Arthur's spread beneath him, permission implicit in every look and touch. He kisses him until it's not enough for either of them, and then he turns his attention elsewhere.

Eames rubs his face over the mound of musky hair, the damp cock, and licks, fucking licks his way up Arthur's thighs as he spreads him wide, and keeps licking until Arthur's panting, desperate wordless puffs of sound. The planes of his belly are slick with sweat, his thighs ever-so-faintly reddened by Eames' stubble, and then he's aware Arthur's got a hand on himself, tight as a vice, trying to stave off the inevitable. Eames gives him a long, filthy lick from arse to cock, over Arthur's fingers, meeting Arthur's eyes with a lewd grin, and Arthur's eyes roll back, jaw tight, as he says, “Jesus, Eames, I'm going to—fuck, I want you in me. I want to feel you in me—”

Arthur's wet enough and loose enough Eames' two fingers slide in easily, and three's a nice snug fit. Condom, lube, Arthur's legs bent to his chest and spread, nipples peaked and rosy beneath Eames' thumbs, his rough tongue, and then Eames is easing in. One long satisfying glide sees him buried deep, Arthur's muscles clenching around him like eager fingers beckoning, move, move, move.

Eames draws back and in, wants to take his time, wants to make it sweet, but first times always seem a bit ragged and desperate, and this one maybe more so. Arthur is making the most delicious sounds, his tongue constantly slicking his own lips and Eames thinks it's one of the sexiest things he's ever seen until Arthur leans up only enough to spread himself wider.

“Jesus, Arthur,” Eames murmurs, blinking sweat out of his eyes, and his cock is straining with need, like an itch that has to be scratched. Eames braces himself, finds the angle he wants and drives in, knowing he's hit the right spot when Arthur bites his tongue and swears, back arching off the bed and his cock bouncing hard against Eames' belly. It's easy then to set a pace, steadily increasing, every push like coming home, and Arthur's given up on anything other than riding the crest of sensation, his moans and pants clearly signalling yeah, like this ... there ... again until there's warmth spilling against Eames' skin. Eames gets lost in it, chasing down the building tension until he comes with a hard thrust and “Arthur” the only word he seems to be able to remember, every muscle in his body a pleasant ache.

And Arthur's there with him, hair damp with sweat, red-faced and bright-eyed, looking well-fucked and worn out and something a little lost that Eames doesn't understand. It's hard to leave him then, even to clean up and rinse his mouth, grab a flannel to wipe Arthur clean, but then Eames can crawl back in to bed in a room gone dark, and wrap both arms around him, drawing him close. Arthur doesn't resist.

“You're fucking amazing,” Eames says, suddenly gripped with the urge to keep Arthur near, and they kiss, lazy and slow until the warmth and the afterglow drag them down into sleep. Eames fights it, knowing somehow he'll regret letting Arthur out of his sight, but Arthur's there, close enough to touch and breathe in. Eames holds him and tells him to “stay. Stay with me, Arthur.”

They drift together, and Arthur's voice is a sad song in Eames' head, a lullaby he knows he won't remember in the morning. He thinks he feels Arthur trembling in the night, his face sweat-damp against Eames' chest and he gathers him closer, murmurs his name in the language of sleep. The night is a collection of half-awake dreams, words he can't remember, touches that soothe and coax him to sleep, and when morning breaks, Eames doesn't have to open his eyes to know Arthur's not there.

*

Eames lets himself wake up slowly. He feels pleasantly warm and his muscles are touched with a barely there ache—enough to let him know he gave them a good work out, but not enough to have been a strain. No, having sex with Arthur is definitely not a strain. It was amazing. Better than Eames remembers it being with anyone else.

He opens his eyes, confirming what he already knows. Arthur's gone, but Eames is surprisingly okay with that. He knows Arthur's an early riser, especially with work looming. Arthur will have booked a hotel, a base for the upcoming job. He's probably setting up their new workspace, laying the foundations for the rest of them to build on, putting together intel he hasn't had a chance to look over yet since he'd come straight from the airport last night.

Which, now that Eames has a moment to think about it, brewing his first pot of English Breakfast, is strange and not like Arthur at all. Not really. Eames has seen him worn out and frantic, but only when something's gone wrong. Only after a major screw-up. Arthur keeps his cool under the worst of circumstances; it's what makes him so damn good at his job, and Eames imagines that very few people have ever seen Arthur anything other than completely in control. Eames likes that he's been allowed past the barriers.

But even his ego can't quite convince him Arthur was so desperate to get into Eames' pants that he hopped an international flight and left the airport without taking his luggage. Arthur had to know Eames would be willing, eager even. He isn't one to turn his nose up at the occasional passionate gesture, but reconciling it with Arthur is proving to be a sticking point.

He dials Arthur's mobile and receives the standard message saying it's been disconnected. Not necessarily the best sign, Eames knows, but given their business, not unheard of. There are a lot of reasons to change phones, many of them perfectly innocuous.

He looks up the number for Cobb's mobile and tries him. The time difference is eight hours, so it's coming up on midnight in California. Late to be calling a couple with two kids, he knows, but Dom and Mal both seem to be night owls—a common side-effect of dream-sharing—and Eames has never known them to ignore a call. The phone's been disconnected.

“Okay,” Eames says to himself. “They're in trouble.”

He looks at the third number on the top of his list and dials that. It's ringing at least, and Eames lets it ring. Seven, eight. It's a man's voice that answers, but it doesn't sound like Cobb, and Eames is immediately on guard. Best not to tip his hand. He puts on his standard Australian accent.

“G'day. I'm trying to reach Mallorie Cobb. This is her number, isn't it?”

“Yes, sir,” the man says, and alarm bells start going off in Eames' brain. No one calls anyone “sir” these days unless they're military or law enforcement or medical personnel, none of which bodes well.

“Well, can I speak with her? I'm a friend from college.”

There's a pause in which Eames can hear voices conferring in the background. He wonders how long someone needs to trace an overseas call between mobile phones. When the man comes back on, Eames has already pulled out his go-bag and started to assemble things on the bed. His gun. Passports. Cash in various currencies.

“Sir? I'm sorry to have to tell you this, especially over the phone, but Mrs. Cobb is dead.”

Eames doesn't have to fake the hitch in his voice.

“What happened?” he asks, slipping back into his usual accent, knowing most Americans can't tell the difference anyway, so he figures it doesn't matter. Mal's dead. He's not sure anything matters right now.

“We're investigating an apparent suicide—”

Which Eames is willing to bet means the police think it's anything but suicide.

“—but we need to talk to Mr. Cobb in light of some new information. Do you happen to know where he is, sir?”

“No, I'm sorry,” Eames says earnestly, putting pieces together. Mal's dead, Cobb's gone, Arthur's gone. “Is someone with the children? Are the kids alright?”

“They're with their grandparents, sir. If you could leave me your name and number—”

Eames has heard enough. He disconnects the call and trashes the sim card. Never hurts to be paranoid. Of course, he's now guaranteed Arthur can't get a hold of him either, but Eames thinks maybe that's better. At least this way he doesn't have to face confirmation that Arthur knew about Mal and wasn't planning to tell him.

It's been a long time since Eames has felt he's come out on the wrong end of a one-night stand. He's old enough that it's not the thrill it once was, and he's smart enough to pick partners he can have fun with and that's about all. Arthur was something else entirely, and for the first time in a long time, Eames had been thinking about the possibility of something more than a quick fling.

He really hates when he's wrong about someone.

Go-bag in hand, he closes up the flat and catches a cab to Heathrow. He hasn't been back to his tiny flat in Mombasa in ages. It seems like as good a time as any to shake London off his back. He thinks the change will be good.

*

Eames runs into Arthur once on a job in Johannesburg. He's been careful to vet all his jobs and has avoided taking anything likely to attract Cobb or Arthur. He knows the kind of work they like and which countries don't have extradition to the U.S., and so he feels fairly safe taking a forging job in Jo-burg.

Which means Eames is completely blind-sided when he rounds the corner to the hotel suite they'll be using as a base and literally walks into Arthur. There's an infinite moment where they simply stare at one another, and even the bags under his eyes can't stop Arthur from looking like a fashion designer's wet dream.

Then Eames whirls around and heads back the way he came, Arthur's hand grabbing at his arm with surprising force.

“Eames, wait. Eames, will you just—”

Eames turns around and meets the solid wall of Arthur's chest. He shoves, knocking him three steps backwards and into the suite's partially open door with a thud. It's enough to get the attention of the others, who are suddenly crowding into the narrow hall with shock on their faces.

“Do you two know each other?” Sylva, the new chemist on the block, asks while the others who've probably heard all the rumours stand back and watch, hoping for fireworks. Eames can see it in their eyes, like hounds closing on the fox.

“No,” Eames says at the same time Arthur manages, “Yes,” and Eames can practically hear the hands rubbing together in anticipation of good gossip. It's been almost a year since he left London. He doesn't want to hear what Arthur has to say, and certainly not in front of people he has to work with. Eames starts to back away.

“You can find yourselves another forger, John Henry,” he says to the extractor, a tall heavy-set man with greying temples. “I'm out.”

“Eames, will you let me explain?” Arthur says, and Eames can't help the bitter laugh that escapes.

“You never have before, darling, so why start now?”

For a moment, Arthur looks hurt, but it passes so quickly Eames thinks he must have been mistaken. John Henry takes advantage of the momentary pause to get things under control.

“Arthur's not even on this job. He's only here picking up Somnacin from Sylva, and he's leaving now.” The extractor is looking daggers at Arthur. “We need a forger on this job, Mr. Eames. We'd like it to be you, as agreed.”

Eames wants to turn around and keep walking until Arthur's nothing but a distant memory, but he likes to work and this is a good job: interesting forge, good payout. Arthur showing up is only fate jerking his chain, and he knows it was bound to happen sometime. He's actually surprised it hasn't happened until now.

“Fine,” Eames says. “I'll be here tomorrow morning, and we can start then.” He spares a glance for Arthur. “But if he's here, I'm walking, and you can find yourself someone else.”

“Understood.”

“Eames,” Arthur tries again, and Eames can feel everyone's eyes on his back. It sounds like someone's doing their best to get Arthur to shut up, but he's having none of it.

“I'm sorry, Eames!” he shouts, and Eames doubles his pace when he knows he's around the corner and out of sight. He doesn't want to deal with this now. Or ever.

“Eames, do you hear me? I'm sorry!”

Even the steel door at the end of the hall that leads to the stairs isn't enough to completely block out Arthur's voice, his words echoing in Eames' head as he runs the six flights to his hotel room.

*

Eames should've known Arthur couldn't leave it alone, but the contents of the mini-bar combined with the flask in Eames' suitcase may have dulled his reasoning a little. At least this is what Eames tells himself when he wakes up to find Arthur sitting in a chair across from his bed. Eames reaches for his Browning, but Arthur's helpfully removed the clip, and Eames sets it back down with a glare.

“Get out,” he says.

“I need you to listen to me.”

The earlier hint of emotion is gone from Arthur's voice; he's back to being Mr. Calm and In Control. Eames, whose bloodstream is still nicely polluted with several kinds of alcohol, hates him a little.

“What makes you think I give a rat's arse what you've got to say, Arthur?”

Eames can't read Arthur's face in the dark, and he's not sure it would help him anyway. Arthur's always managed to confound him.

“I—I'm sure you don't, Eames, but this—this isn't about us.”

“There's no 'us'; there never was. One shag a year ago really doesn't—”

“Jesus, would you just shut up and listen to me for a minute?”

Eames is surprised enough, he keeps silent.

“There's something ... off about the job you're here for.”

Eames sits up a bit straighter and tries to shake some of the whiskey-infused cobwebs loose.

Arthur's up and pacing in front of the window now, his slim frame casting thin shadows on the bed. “I don't know what it is. I can't put my finger on it, but something's off. John Henry just about had a melt-down when I showed up to talk to Sylva—”

“You and Cobb aren't exactly popular these days.”

“I'm aware. But it's not that. Sylva's also acting nervous. She dropped a bottle of Somnacin. What chemist do you know that would let a $1000/dose drug hit the floor?”

Arthur has a point. Even drunk and stoned out of his mind, Yusuf has been known to hurl himself across a room to save a falling bottle of the stuff.

“Do you have anything concrete?” Eames says. He has no reason to think Arthur would lie to him, but then again, it's been a long time since they've moved in the same circles. He doesn't honestly know what goes on in Arthur's head these days; he's not sure he ever did.

“Nothing I can pin down.” Arthur sounds frustrated. He drops back into the chair beside the bed. “I know you think you've got no reason to trust me, Eames, but you're walking into trouble.”

“Let's assume you're right.” Eames thinks he hears Arthur's jaw drop. Good. He likes being unpredictable too. “What would you have me do?”

“Walk away,” Arthur says automatically, as if he's already given it considerable thought. “Just walk away from this one.”

Eames leans his head back against the headboard, and rubs a hand over his face. He doubts he'll be able to get back to sleep after this, anyway.

“Fine.”

“Look, I know you're—wait, did you say 'fine'?”

“Fine,” Eames repeats, enunciating for Arthur's benefit. “I've got nothing invested in this job yet. They've already got reason to believe I'm keen to walk since you showed up and threw a spanner in the works. So, fine. I'll clear out in the morning.”

Arthur comes around the bed, then, and sits on the edge, close enough to touch. He's pale in the moonlight, and his always youthful face has taken on harder angles in the last year. It makes something in Eames ache for what Arthur's lost, what they've both given up. But Eames has always been the consummate poker player and he refuses to tip his hand. Even as Arthur's eyes search his face, Eames maintains a pleasantly bland expression. It's much harder than he expects it to be.

“Eames, this isn't a joke. I can't tell if you're humouring me or if you're serious.” Arthur's face is lined with genuine worry. “You have no idea how sorry I am about—”

Eames' headache reappears instantly. “Arthur, can we please not do this? I heard what you said, and I appreciate the heads-up. I do. Now will you please get the fuck out of my room so I can have another hour of sleep before I have to get on a plane back to Mombasa?”

Arthur manages a half-smile before he slips out. “Take care of yourself.”

Eames never sees him do it, but the clip's back where it belongs and there are two Tylenol beside a glass of water on the nightstand when Eames blinks awake at dawn. He didn't think he'd fallen back asleep—mostly he's been turning things over in his mind: Arthur, the job, Arthur, what he should do, Arthur. It's been a year, but seeing him brings everything back, and Eames is forced to realize he may have buried his feelings, but they certainly didn't go away. Arthur can still make him feel weak in the knees, still turns him inside-out.

He takes the Tylenol, chasing them down with water, and goes to grab a shower. He can already tell it's going to be that kind of day.

*

“You stupid, fucking asshole!”

Eames really thinks he should have a response to that, but the blood welling up in his mouth is making it impossible.

*

Eames doesn't remember much from that morning.

Walking into the empty suite. A fist to the face. He hadn't gone down without a fight, but the odds were against him from the start, and a bullet trumps a punch any day of the week.

Friedman wants to watch him bleed out slowly, the same way his family company had died in the end.

“I got you the information you paid for,” Eames says, already leaking from one round through the shoulder, and the worst part is knowing there isn't anything he can do or say to change what's happening.

It wasn't his fault the information from the extraction proved to be no help, the company failing not because of embezzlement or conspiracy or jealousy in the ranks, but simply because of bad management. The finger of blame had pointed squarely at Friedman himself, although he wouldn't accept it as truth, and Eames had finally walked away, washed his hands of the whole mess. He hadn't even demanded the agreed upon fee, settled for the already paid deposit and chalked it up to Experience 101.

Eames had figured Friedman was a bit barmy back then, but the decline and fall of his company hasn't done him any favours.

“Look, Mr. Friedman,” Eames tries. “I understand—”

“You really, really don't, son.”

And just like that Eames has a hole in his leg. It feels like his whole body is one massive nerve, everything bright with pain, and the worst of it is, he knows it's not a dream and no one's coming to the rescue. His team gave him up for a payout, no doubt about it, and Friedman had enough wits left to bring hired help on his mission of revenge.

Obviously whatever he's paid the two guys with the guns is enough to buy both suppressors and silence because Eames is neatly zip-tied to a chair with a tarp underneath—and Jesus, it's never good when someone actually thinks to bring a tarp—and everyone seems perfectly content to wait him out. Plus, Thug One and Thug Two have surprisingly accurate aim. Under other circumstances, Eames would be trying to buy them a round of drinks; it never hurts to have a few decent mercenaries on speed-dial.

There doesn't seem to be room for repartee, for bargaining, even for remorse—not that Eames has any to offer considering what happened to Friedman's company had nothing to do with him. Friedman seems content to sit and watch, just as he'd said, as if it's a lazy afternoon on his back porch and he's waiting for the sun to set.

Eames remembers enough from his military training to know he maybe has an hour or so before he goes into shock, slightly longer before death depending on whether they've nicked any arteries or not. Well, and if they decide to shoot him anywhere else. Eames isn't sure Friedman's done with him. He expects the inherent entertainment factor of watching someone bleed out will likely wane after a bit. There's really not much to watch, and once you've seen blood on a tarp, that's pretty much the whole show. Bleeding out is pretty much a one-trick pony.

“Is there anyone back home waiting for you?” Friedman asks after a while.

Eames blinks, not sure if he understands the question. He's lost a fair amount of blood from what he can tell, his dress shirt soaked through, his linen slacks a hopeless red. He's more numb than anything, and he's starting to feel chilled.

“You got family? Wife? Kids? Parents?”

“No.” Eames shakes his head, regretting it almost instantly. His vision swims.

“Nobody at all?” Friedman sounds almost sorry for him, and Eames laughs, a little hysterically, he can admit, and he thinks of what he could've had with Arthur, what he wanted and what he'd hoped for before Mal Cobb jumped off a building and dragged them all down with her.

“What did he say?”

Eames can hear them talking from what seems like far away, and he's having trouble breathing now, trouble keeping his head from dropping to his chest.

“Arthur, is that it? That what you said? He your boyfriend or something?”

“Or something.”

Eames laughs at himself. If he'd only listened to Arthur ... instead he's going to be a cautionary tale told to new extractors and would-be forgers. In the future when someone hesitates to take the word of their point man, they'll mention his name in hushed whispers.

There's a low hum of voices and Eames thinks the thugs are talking with the old man, trying to move things along. It would be a mercy really. All that's left now is unconsciousness and the slow shutting down of his heart. The show's over even if the curtain hasn't quite fallen. Everyone knows how it ends.

Eames hears a round being chambered, imagines it will be one to the head or the heart. Quick. Merciful. He likes dealing with professionals.

He takes a last deep breath, steadies himself, and thinks of Arthur.

He thinks he loves him.

What a fucking stupid time to figure that out.

The distinctive pop of a suppressed Glock is the last sound he hears.

*

Heaven sounds a hell of a lot like a trauma unit, Eames thinks. People are yelling about blood and fluids, and everyone who isn't yelling seems to be either shining a light in his eyes or poking him somewhere. Someone's strapped an oxygen mask to his face. He doesn't think it's helping him breathe, but it's uncomfortable as anything. Like having one of those alien huggers attached to your face.

There's a weight on his abdomen like someone's dropped a medicine ball on him, and he pushes weakly at it, trying to get it off.

“You stupid, fucking asshole!” the weight says unexpectedly.

Eames' vision coalesces for a moment, brings into view Arthur, straddling him, blood on his face and his hands still pressing hard on Eames' chest. Nothing makes sense and then they're moving fast, the overhead lights flashing in his eyes, and Eames can't form words around the taste of blood in his mouth. Everyone is wearing masks, except Arthur who's wearing nothing but a look of—fear, maybe? Terror? Eames hasn't ever seen it before, not on Arthur. He wants to tell him it's okay, it isn't his fault. Eames should've listened to him.

“We'll take it from here, sir,” someone's saying, and the weight is gone suddenly.

Arthur looms beside him for an instant.

“Don't you fucking die on me, Eames,” he hears, but he's already fading into black.

*

Dealing with hospitals is always a nightmare, Eames thinks, and that's before you factor in fake identities and fraudulent insurance plans, phony passports and manufactured next-of-kin, not to mention the inconvenience of being involved in a shooting that made actual headlines. In spite of all that, they seem to have managed to remove the bits of bullet that didn't belong and replace the pints of blood that did. He's been told he's personally responsible for a shortage of AB negative blood for which Eames has apologized profusely.

“You should consider doing something nice for me,” Eames suggests to Arthur after two weeks of hospitalization. He's considering proposing they plan an escape, if for no other reason than to give Eames something to do that doesn't involve giving blood or changing bandages.

“I saved your goddamn life, you ingrate,” Arthur replies, his tone teasing in spite of the words, not looking up from his paper.

“I don't really remember that part.”

“That's because you were already playing at being clinically dead.”

Eames sighs dramatically. “I remember you yelling at me a lot. I mean, a lot. I don't think the nurses were impressed with your foul mouth.”

“The ones who've since been assigned to look after you understand completely.”

Arthur turns another page. Eames is almost positive Arthur isn't even reading the damn thing. It's in Afrikaans.

“You know, Arthur, I took care of you at home when you got shot that time in London.”

“You mean the time you threatened to turn me in to Homeland Security if I tried to leave your flat? That time?”

Eames scowls. Trust Arthur to remember the bad parts rather than the good.

“What about if I—”

“Jesus, Eames, will you give it a rest?” Arthur says, laying the paper down with a snap. “I'm sorry if the bed isn't to your liking and the ambiance is shit and the nurses are straight and also wise to your tricks, but I'm not taking you out of this hospital one minute before your doctors sign off on it. I suggest we both make the best of it because there are a hell of a lot of things I'd rather be doing than sitting here listening to you complain.”

“Then go, Arthur,” Eames snaps back. “No one's keeping you here. You can run along back to Cobb—”

The door swings open and Arthur's out in a blink and a cascade of newsprint, ducking past the nurse that's bringing Eames his pain meds. He reaches for them eagerly.

“Is your husband coming back?”

Eames swallows awkwardly, the pills getting stuck in his throat, and it takes two cups of water and some gentle back-pounding to get him sorted.

“What?” Eames croaks when he can breathe again.

“Your husband. Mr. Arthur? Everyone's talking about the two of you.”

“What—what are they saying?” Eames asks.

“Oh, just how much like American television it was. Getting shot. Him saving your life. That poor crazy man who lost his company.”

“You know about that?”

“Of course,” the nurse says, pressing a thermometer into his ear. “It was in all the papers. It's not everyday we have handsome American government agents running around with guns.”

“No, I guess not,” Eames agrees.

“Rest. You look much better, but still, you should rest.” She turns to leave. “Your husband worries very much.”

“Wait—” Eames is stuck on the fact that apparently he and Arthur are married. “Could you ask someone to bring me the newspaper?”

The nurse gathers up the pages of Arthur's left-behind copy and offers it to him, but he shakes his head.

“English, please. From when I was shot? Anything that talks about us—me, or Mr. Arthur?” Eames knows Arthur isn't a surname, but he'd made that American passport for him as a joke once upon a time, and clearly, Arthur had kept it. Eames isn't sure what that means, if it means anything at all. Arthur's resourceful in a crisis—perhaps that's all it is.

The nurse looks sceptical. “I'm not sure we still have the paper, but I'll look.”

Eames flashes her his best smile. “It would mean a lot.”

*

Arthur doesn't come back.

Well, the nurses seem to think he's been there, but Eames hasn't seen any signs. Of course, he's starting to think the entire city of Johannesburg and every nurse in the hospital, male or female, gay or straight, has a crush on Arthur. Eames isn't sure how to feel about that.

*

The one person Eames doesn't expect to walk through his hospital door is Dominic Cobb. Eames hasn't seen the man in more than a year, and the time has been less kind to him than it's been to Arthur. Cobb seems to have aged ten years, carrying the weight of a life on the run in the lines of his face.

“Did Arthur send you?”

“How've you been, Eames?”

Eames lets out a huff of breath and narrows his eyes. “Dead, most recently, or so I hear. Are you really going to hold me to pleasantries, Cobb?”

“Arthur said you were melodramatic when you've been shot. I guess he was right.” Cobb takes a seat in the room's only chair. Eames has come to think of it as Arthur's chair, and he's not overly impressed to have it occupied by Cobb.

“Look, I don't know what Arthur's told you—”

“Point of fact, he hasn't told me much of anything. About this,” Dom gestures to the hospital room, “or what happened between you two.”

“Arthur's not one for sharing, I suppose,” Eames says, and there's enough bitterness in his tone, Dom tosses him a curious look. He can hardly be surprised, though, Eames thinks; he started this conversation, after all. “Why are you here, Cobb?”

“Arthur and I've got a job coming up, and I'm going to need him to have his eye on the ball.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Eames leans back and crosses his arms over his chest. If he doesn't, he thinks he might be tempted to reach across and wrap his hands around Dom's neck.

“Because he's not thinking about anything except you right now, and that's how people get killed in this business.”

Eames laughed. “Do you see him here? I hardly think—”

“And that's your problem, Eames. You don't think. You've got him so tied up in knots he doesn't know whether he's coming or going, and you don't even see it.” Dom stands up suddenly, and leans toward the bed. He's taller than Eames and not quite as broad in the shoulders, but he can loom with the best of them. “He watched you die. They lost you a half-dozen times on the way to the OR. Didn't you wonder how your ribs got broken?”

“They said it was from the CPR.”

“It was from Arthur sitting on your goddamn chest and refusing to give up.”

Eames flashes back to Arthur straddling him on a gurney being wheeled down a bright hall, yelling at him, an interminable weight on his chest. He can see how it would've seemed like American television drama.

“He'd hoped you were smart enough to listen to him, Eames, but when you weren't at the airport, he went back for you. Your 'team' had bailed by then, they'd moved you to a different room. He tracked you down only to watch you die in front of him. Do you have any idea what that's like?”

Dom's face was flushed, his eyes looking at something beyond Eames. He'd been there when Mal had jumped, the reports had said. He'd tried to revive her, although there was no chance. She'd been killed instantly. Eames wonders how many people it took to drag Dom away from her body, how long he insisted he could save her in spite of the evidence in front of him.

“Arthur shot three people—”

“I read the papers.” Eames knows he sounds terse, but he doesn't care. He knows Arthur killed for him just as surely as he knows Arthur brought him back to life. The shape of Arthur's hands is all over his chest in fading patches of purple.

“And what about what's not in the papers, Eames? You're a forger. You know how hard it is to fabricate cover stories at a moment's notice. Did you think about what he went through to even be allowed to see you?”

“I assume you're talking about our o'er-hasty marriage?”

“You're damn lucky South Africa actually recognizes same-sex marriages, otherwise you would've had some doctor deciding you weren't worth the trouble to resuscitate instead of Arthur fighting for you every step.”

“How did he—?”

“He lied, Eames, and luckily they were more concerned about saving your life than verifying whatever he slapped down on the paperwork. I don't think gay marriage is the number one thing patients lie to their doctors about. They took him at his word.”

Eames concedes the point. He's combed through a stack of newspaper articles the staff has brought to him, and though the incident is mentioned in several places, they're not identified beyond the descriptor of “two American government agents.” Eames isn't sure how he got to be an American all of a sudden, or what vague agency the two of them are supposed to work for, but no one else seems to care he's obviously not American and he's using a British passport. He can roll with it.

“What about the police?” Eames asks. “There had to be questions.”

Dom scrubs a hand through his dark blond hair. “Honestly, I think the police here were so happy it didn't involve race, politics, South African citizens, drugs or arms dealing, they were willing to be convinced it was an isolated incident.”

Eames nods. He's lived in Mombasa long enough to know there are ways around the system if you're willing to lay out a few bribes. He owes Arthur—for his life and for a hundred other things. He isn't sure how to thank him for that, and he isn't sure how to feel about him in light of everything else.

“Eames.” Dom comes closer and lays a hand on his arm. They were never friends exactly and the gesture seems out of place, but Eames thinks maybe they're all flailing about in unfamiliar territory these days. “You and Arthur are grown men. Work it out or don't, but don't think any of this has been easy on him. I couldn't have survived without him, but I know he never wanted to be there. He's loyal.”

“And you used that.”

“Yeah, I did,” Cobb says honestly. “I'm not proud of that, but I need him. I need him until I can find a way back to my kids.”

“You don't deserve him.”

“Neither do you.” Cobb backs away from the bed, towards the door. “Arthur's in love with you, you know; he's always been in love with you. You do get that, right? He thinks you'll never forgive him, but life's too short to be at war with somebody you love, Eames. Trust me on that.”

The door slides to a quiet close behind him, and Eames stares at it long after Cobb leaves. He has a lot to think about.

*

Eames hears the clatter of the plastic pitcher falling to the floor and wakes up.

“What the hell, Eames?” Arthur says in a frantic whisper. “You booby-trapped your room? Who the hell were you expecting?”

“One can never be too careful.” Eames sits up and checks the digital clock. It's after three—typical. Arthur clearly had ambitions to be a second story man at some point in his life. “They'll let just about anyone in here, you know. My last visitor was Dom Cobb.”

Arthur freezes in the process of setting the pitcher on the bedside table. “He didn't say anything to me.”

“No, I don't imagine he would,” Eames agrees. “But he had quite a lot to say to me.”

Arthur's staying close to the door, as if he's getting ready to make a break for it. Eames supposes he can't stop him if he wants to leave, but maybe it's time they talked. Like adults.

Arthur's tone pretends nonchalance, but Eames knows him better than that, and it's almost a relief to realize it. He can see the tension in the set of Arthur's shoulders; he's grating his back teeth.

“What did Dom tell you?”

“He said you're in love with me.”

Arthur laughs, but it's short and sharp. “He did, did he? Remind me to shoot him when I get back to the hotel.”

“You're not denying it.”

Arthur lets out a sigh and sits down in his regular chair. “What's the point, Eames? If you haven't figured it out from the last few weeks of insanity, you're not as bright as I think you are, which would be kind of a disappointment. Although, you did walk right into the mess I warned you about, so maybe I've been giving you too much credit all along.”

“Hey,” Eames says, trying not to look too happy that Arthur apparently loves him. “I—I was trying to be a professional.”

“Yeah, and it almost got you killed.” Arthur's looking at him. “No, actually, it did get you killed. You died, Eames. In my arms.”

“Arthur.”

“Just shut up, will you?” Arthur's voice is raw, and Eames wants to reach out and touch him, but he's too far away, and Eames isn't certain he'd allow it anyhow. “You got shot three times, and lost almost a third of the blood in your body. I cracked two of your ribs trying to get your heart beating again, and you still fucking died right in front of me. More than once. Like I didn't even exist. So you can damn well cut me a little slack, alright?”

“Alright.”

Arthur opens his mouth to keep going, then seems to register what Eames has said. He lets out a breath.

“The next time I tell you to walk away from something, are you going to listen to me?”

Eames nods solemnly. He's not joking, and he needs to make sure Arthur knows it. “I will walk, run, drive, fly, hop a goat cart, or anything else you ask me to do. And I'm sorry you had to go through that. All of it.”

Neither of them says anything for a while. Eames is starting to wish for something to dull the pain when suddenly Arthur's at his side with two pills and a glass of water.

“I'm starting to think you secretly work for Tylenol,” Eames says, but takes the painkillers. He's avoided anything stronger when he's had a choice; he doesn't need a prescription drug addiction on top of everything else.

“I still owe you a bottle or two,” Arthur says, and Eames rolls his eyes.

“You don't owe me anything, Arthur, and even if you did, I think saving my life has kind of tipped the scales the other direction, don't you?”

Arthur shrugs. He's nearer now, right beside the bed, and Eames risks letting his hand fall lightly on Arthur's arm. He's wearing a jacket, soft black leather, but he doesn't shake Eames off, and that's a start.

“You're leaving, aren't you?” Eames says, realization setting in. Their paths crossing has been a mere fortuitous coincidence.

“Cobb and I were here to do a job.”

“And it's done now?”

Arthur clears his throat. “It didn't quite go as planned, but they're giving us another shot at it down the road. I'll be better prepared next time.”

“Who?” Eames asks, although he knows he doesn't have any right to.

“Cobol.”

“They're not known for being forgiving, Arthur.”

“Well, Cobb can be pretty convincing when he needs to be. He's sure he can find a way back to his kids, and he thinks Cobol's the ticket.”

“Be careful.”

“Always.”

Arthur starts to drift away then, and Eames tightens his grip. If he lets Arthur go he's going to lose him again, for God knows how long. Possibly forever, and right now the thought of that is more than Eames can bear after a year of trying to forget Arthur and failing miserably.

“Eames, I have to go.”

“No,” he says stubbornly.

“I can't stay. Don't you think I would if I—”

“No, I don't have a clue what you'd do if you weren't shackled to Cobb, Arthur!”

Arthur's face looks angry and then stricken all in the space of a moment, and Eames' grip on his arm involuntarily tightens until Arthur shifts forward, not away, and there are long-fingered graceful hands coming up to frame the edges of Eames' face, holding him still while Arthur leans in and kisses him.

It's a bit like getting the wind knocked out of him—this sudden and unexpected kiss—and Eames feels his eyes fall closed and his own hands reaching to gather a handful of Arthur's shirt and hang on. The kiss is fierce, determined, as if Arthur expects to be thrust away at any moment, and if Eames wasn't recovering from massive trauma, he'd be giving back as good he gets. He tries to bring Arthur closer, letting him open up Eames' mouth and have what he wants, whatever he wants, and he's drawn right back to that night so long ago, each of them desperate for the other, and Eames thinks he would still give Arthur anything, if only he would ask.

A slant of light from the dimly lit hallway streaks across them as the door opens, the night nurse on her rounds, and Arthur is pulling back while Eames is determined not to let him slip away.

“Oh—I'm so sorry. I didn't realize.” Her voice is quiet, regretful, and Arthur's murmuring that he should be going, when Eames butts in with, “Everything's fine. Could you give me and my husband a few minutes?”

“Take all the time you need, sirs.” The nurse is already backing out, closing the door silently. Arthur looks caught, his cheeks slightly flushed. The bed isn't terribly wide, but Eames manages to shift enough to make the invitation obvious, and when Arthur doesn't move, Eames gives him a tug, and says, “Please don't go yet. It's the least you can do for someone you fake married.”

“Just so you know, there really haven't been any benefits. No one will flirt with me, and everyone wants to know how 'my husband' is doing.”

Eames can't help but crack a smile. He's missed Arthur, more than he's ever been willing to admit to himself or anyone else. He's missed this back and forth, his sense of humour, the ridiculous loyalty that's had him traipsing after Cobb for a year, and which probably saved Eames' life. No one else would've come back for him. Eames is certain there isn't anyone else in the world who would've willingly claimed to be his husband.

“I know I probably should've realized right from the beginning that your modus operandus was to drift in and out of my life in the middle of the night,” Eames begins, “but you can't just kiss me and leave. Not again.”

Moving with inherent grace, Arthur lies down beside him, heads tipped together against the starched white pillow. Arthur's eyes close and when he speaks his voice is a soft whisper. “You have no idea how hard it was to leave you that morning.”

“Why didn't you tell me about Mal?” It's the question Eames has wanted to ask for a year. “She was my friend, too; I deserved to know, Arthur.”

“I know that, but I—” His voice falters.

“What?”

“I was a mess, and I—I didn't think I could bear to have you say no—”

Eames can feel his eyebrows lifting in shock. “What on earth made you think I would've said no to you?”

“Because you're a decent guy, Eames. All the times I showed up at your door, you never pushed, you never took advantage, and I figured if you knew about Mal, you'd think I was acting out of grief and nothing else, and you'd want to stop me from doing something I might regret.”

Eames looks at him, and runs a hand through Arthur's faintly messy hair. It's longer than it was before.

“I'm an alright bloke, but I'm no saint, and possibility of regret or not, I'm not sure I could've turned you away even if I'd wanted to. If you'd told me the truth, if you'd asked me to take you to bed, darling, I would've happily taken you to bed.”

“I never wanted to hurt you, and I'm sorry—”

Eames hushes him and lays a kiss lightly on his lips. They've both spent too much time living with hurt and regret since that night, and Eames is tired down to his bones.

“It's recently been made abundantly clear to me that life is much too short for regret. I've already lost a year trying to forget you, and I don't fancy losing another.”

“So, what do you want?”

“You.” Eames smooths a thumb over Arthur's lovely bottom lip, follows it up with a kiss. “But I expect that isn't a possibility.”

Arthur shakes his head, apologetic. “Not yet. Cobb—”

“Could be running for the rest of his life, Arthur. Are you content to put your life on hold for him?”

“Not indefinitely, but he and Mal were like family to me. I can't just abandon him. I'll follow-through on this thing with Cobol, and then maybe ...” Arthur shakes his head as if he doesn't believe it himself. “I'm not in a position to make any promises, Eames. I'm sorry. I don't know what's going to happen and I don't want you to feel bound by something that—”

“I'm not asking for anything.” Eames tucks an arm over Arthur's hip, settles his broad hand against the small of Arthur's back, closing the space between them on the narrow bed. “I've missed you, not to mention how I've missed my track pants, and my Peruvian alpaca socks.”

“They've kept me warm more than once,” Arthur says with a boyish grin.

“My aunt who gave me those—you'd like her, I think—was fond of that saying about 'if you love something, set it free'—”

Eames' words are cut off by an armful of Arthur pressed against him, mouth catching his firmly in a sloppy kiss, but Eames can't bring himself to care. He has Arthur, at least for this moment, and he honestly never thought he would again.

“I'll come back to you, Eames. I will,” Arthur says. “I promise.”

*

Epilogue

 

It's months before Arthur makes good on his promise, but at least the time in-between is made more bearable by phone calls and texts, and even the occasional face-to-face. It's not nearly enough, but it's more than either of them thought possible, so they take what they can get and are grateful for it.

Cobol doesn't prove to be the out Cobb's looking for, and although it nearly ends up getting them killed, it does lead them to Saito. (Which after all is said and done, Eames likes to point out, also nearly ends up getting them killed, but it does achieve that seemingly unattainable goal of getting Cobb back to his kids and setting Arthur free to lead his own life.)

They bicker their way through months of planning for the Fischer job, both of them too on edge to be much comfort to one another. Arthur never believes inception is possible and Eames can't believe otherwise, and they're equally terrified of success and failure. Arthur can't bear to get his hopes up; Eames can't bear to consider their separation could go on, so they trade insults and looks and occasional frantic hand-jobs at their hotel, and they walk through each other's dreams again the way they did in what seems like a different lifetime.

It's morning in Los Angeles when they find themselves at the LAX baggage claim, pretending not to know one another, pretending they haven't pulled off the biggest coup in dream-sharing ever. Eames knows Arthur won't be convinced of the situation until he sees Cobb settled at home with Phillipa and James, so Eames checks into a hotel and takes a long hot shower to slough off the jet-lag and pours a scotch to settle his nerves.

He laughs at himself because he's known Arthur for years and having a bout of anxiety at this point is patently ridiculous.

There's a knock at the door, and Eames checks the peephole out of habit, but it's Arthur. Eames' palm feels slick on the knob when he opens the door.

“Hello, darling,” he says, and Arthur moves into his open arms, kicking the door shut behind him, and doesn't do anything but breathe for a few minutes. Eames holds him, his hands lightly kneading the knotted muscles in Arthur's back, and lets him have the time he needs to put himself back together gracefully. Finally, Arthur disentangles himself with a soft kiss to Eames' mouth, and heads for a shower of his own. His fluffy white robe is a twin to Eames' when he emerges from the bathroom amidst a cloud of steam, and Eames hands him a scotch.

They share the details of the parts of the dreams they weren't present for, and Arthur's glowing with pride when he talks about Cobb's kids being there to welcome their dad home. They drink a toast to Mal's memory, but the ten hour flight and the seventeen hour time difference is playing havoc with their systems, and before they know it they're catching one another nodding off.

“Bed,” Arthur says, ditching his robe and crawling naked under the covers. Eames does the same, and they curl into each other, comfortable and tired, exchange a few lazy kisses that aren't leading anywhere, and finally, sleep.

The room is dark when Eames awakes, and the first thing he does is reach for Arthur.

“I'm still here,” Arthur murmurs. It's going to be a while before Eames can believe that particular truth. Eames wraps his arms around Arthur and holds him, although he knows Arthur well enough to know if he wants to disappear, he will. There's something oddly comforting in that, though, because the reverse is also true—if Arthur stays, it's because he wants to, and no other reason.

“Good morning,” Eames says when it's starting to get light again, and he feels like a different person. Arthur rolls over and burrows against him with scarecrow hair and morning breath and a needy erection that Eames is only too happy to do something about, especially when Arthur reciprocates in kind.

“This is why you always disappeared on me, hm?” Eames says, happy and relaxed, trading languid kisses with Arthur.

“What? Why?”

“Because if I'd known how bloody gorgeous you are in the morning, I never would've let you out of the flat.”

“Speaking of the flat ...”

“Yes?”

“I know you haven't been back there since—since Mal died,” Arthur says. Since we slept together and then you ran away, Eames thinks, but he's forgiven Arthur that sin a long time ago. It's true, though, that he hasn't been back to the flat since then.

“No, I haven't.” Eames suspects it's clear to Arthur why Eames left and didn't return to London, but things are changing. “Why?”

“I'd like to go back to London with you,” Arthur admits. “When I think about us, I think about your flat there.”

Eames considers the implications. “You're still pining for my sofa, aren't you? Or perhaps you want to nick a few more of my clothes, stand in my shower with bruises and not allow me to touch you? Just like old times?”

Arthur rolls on top of Eames and lets his weight hold Eames down. “Yes, that's exactly what I'm after, idiot.”

“I'm definitely smarter than you give me credit for, Arthur,” Eames says, wrapping Arthur in his arms.

“Let me be perfectly clear, Mr. Eames. I want you to take me home, and I will be terribly disappointed if you make me sleep on the couch.”

“Sofa.”

“Whatever,” Arthur says. “Take me home, Eames.”

Arthur gives him a smile brighter than the California sun, and Eames isn't sure how they've managed to get this back, but he's grateful.

“Well, it so happens I may have booked two tickets for a late afternoon flight to Heathrow. Is there anything else your heart desires, love?”

“When we get home—”

The word sounds perfect coming from Arthur, and Eames can admit to a sense of giddiness about returning to London with Arthur at his side. Arthur's grinning at him like a loon, and Eames thinks it's the loveliest thing in the world.

“Yes?” Eames prompts.

“'Take me to bed or lose me forever!'” Arthur says, laughing, and Eames rolls his eyes in a long-suffering way.

“Did you honestly just quote Top Gun at me, you nutter?”

“You know it.”

Arthur steals a kiss, and he looks younger like this, more relaxed. Arthur's sharp and deadly and hopelessly pedantic about certain things, but he's also funny and brave and the fucking love of Eames' life. Eames wouldn't want him any other way.

“Now do your line, Mr. Eames. I know you know this one.” Arthur's tapping his fingers expectantly against Eames' chest, and Eames grabs his hand and kisses it, then kisses Arthur because he can. He can do this now and maybe for the rest of their lives.

“Line?” Arthur persists, breathless and lovely, his naked body a perfect fit on top of Eames. He rolls them both over so that Arthur's beneath him, flushed, hair in his eyes, and a look that's meant for no one but Eames. Eames falls in love all over again.

“'Show me the way home, honey.'”

 

THE END