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Higher Emotions Are Out to Get Us (and we soldier on, together)

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Higher Emotions Are Out To Get Us

And we soldier on, together

 

Later, Arthur would be able to remember it all. He would be able to retrace his steps to West Point and from West Point to Project Somnacin and then each that came after. He would remember being twenty and a little afraid under his complete—and stupid—confidence in himself. He would remember how the PASIV wasn't as sleek as it would become and the chemicals not nearly as refined. He would be able to recall how going under was like being hit with a sledgehammer and coming up was like getting shot in the face, even without getting shot in the face first. He'd be able to touch the scar on his wrists, so many years later, and recall when the needles were too large and the electrical pulse too high and how the leads were too tight. He would remember those first dreams and how the stability was terrible, the architecture slipshod, and the entire experience wasn't at all preferable to waking up in a puddle of one's own vomit after a hellacious Vegas bender.

More, however, Arthur would remember how much he had loved dreaming for all that it was or that it could become. He would remember his love for his ability to control it, direct it, and discover it. He would remember the thrill of putting together all the pieces to go into a dream and do a job and do it right. Do it well. Being stabbed, being shot, being run over by a tank was worth the price when he got to go under and do anything. Anything.

He would remember how one particular dream dumped him out with a blinding headache and phantom pains and a researcher with a penlight aimed directly in his eyes. He'd remember desperately dragging air into his lungs, having been waterboarded into waking. He would remember hearing the voices of the project director and the one-star general that oversaw them; he would remember them telling him that he was going to have a partner in dream sharing, one of the new international soldiers, a gesture of goodwill.

Arthur would remember the emerald-grey beret with the Excalibur cap badge, the one that would later become the emblem of the SRR, when the SRR wasn't a secret any longer. He would better remember the quick smile on that mouth and the blue-grey eyes that had met his and winked. He would remember the shocked rush of seeing that face, hearing that voice, for the first time as he was introduced to Reconnaissance Operator Eames. Many years later he would be able to remember thinking at that moment that he was still dreaming, not caring if he was.

But mostly he would only remember being breathless and Eames being there, would remember Eames and himself and being together.

 

Don't ask, don't tell, do NOT eyefuck Eames, became Arthur's motto. It didn't help much because Eames was charismatic and drew his eye like a magnet drew iron. It didn't help when Eames was good-looking with a mouth that had been designed with six kinds of sin in mind. It didn't help that Arthur was with Eames day in and day out in all sorts of situations both real and imagined. It didn't help at all that Eames was always close, always right at his back, right in his face, right on the edges of Arthur's every thought.

What did help was the fact that Eames was annoying.

"Ah, Arthur!" Eames said enthusiastically. "Tell me I'm wonderful!"

Arthur opened his eyes and glared at the ceiling. "Don't even," he replied warningly.

Eames beamed at him; he couldn't see it but he could feel it. "Come on now, admit that it was brilliant. You know it was. It was brilliant. I was brilliant."

"Spiders, Eames," Arthur could still feel them on his skin. "As big as my goddamned face."

"Yes indeed they were. I am quite clever."

He could still feel them, the hairy legs and sharp fangs and he could still hear the hissing shrieks of them, of spiders as big as his face as they dropped on him like a terrible rain. "Your subconscious was full of spiders. You killed me with fucking spiders."

"Again, I am a clever, clever boy. Say I am, Arthur."

"You're a dick."

 

But it only helped a little bit because, as annoying as Eames was—as he almost always was—he was also a little bit of a genius.

"No, Arthur, don't find me yet, don't look yet," Eames said, his voice seeming to come from everywhere. "Please."

Because he'd asked nicely Arthur kept his eyes closed. "You know, I could have been the dreamer if you'd wanted. Your spiders are fucked up but it's not like I can't handle them."

"No, no, I—you'll see. I'm in plain sight if you open your eyes."

Arthur waited a beat. Then. "Wait, open them now?"

"Yes."

Eames sounded so close but when Arthur opened his eyes he couldn't see him at all. He turned, looking. His subconscious had populated the space with people. Eames had told him it was a city street and so it was an even mixture of young and old and busy and playful. Just people and no Eames in any place he set his eyes. "I thought you said you were in plain sight?" Arthur asked, looking around more closely. "Are you being a dick again?" Only one projection was paying him any mind, a non-descript man in a generic sort of suit. Arthur shrugged and looked at the bit of his subconscious observing him. "Seen Eames?" he asked himself genially.

The projection blinked and suddenly Arthur was looking right at Eames. He was grinning, all but glowing. "Good, yeah? You couldn't tell?"

"What on—" Arthur stared and then it occurred to him what Eames had just done. Who Eames had just been. "Eames, that's—it's—"

"Right now I'm calling it forging," Eames said.

"Do it again." It was like falling into his first dream all over again, the kind of excitement that was rushing in his veins. This was what the dream-share technology was meant for. "Can you do it again?"

Eames did, changing in the blink of an eye. Now that Arthur knew who he was looking at he could see bits of Eames in the stranger in front of him. "It's not easy. Not yet, at least," said the man in what was unmistakably Eames' voice. "I think I can change every thing if I try hard enough. Or don't. It's a bit of both, trying and not."

"How long can you hold it?"

"Dunno yet," Eames said cheerfully, back to himself. "But I'm willing to wager I'll be able to hold it as long as you'd like, given time to figure it out." His eyes took on a serious cast. "Don't tell, Arthur. I don't want anybody working on this but us. Just between you and me. At least until it's a bit more along." Eames' hand was warm on his arm even in the dream. It was against the rules, this sort of secret keeping, this off-record sort of project. "Don't tell anybody else."

Arthur nodded, turning his arm so that his hand was laid out on Eames' forearm. "I won't. It's our secret." It was too amazing to share just yet, he rationalized.

 

That was the real problem with Eames: he was amazing and he knew it and that made him obnoxious.

"Have you any idea how very much I adore Twelfth Night? The play, mind you, not the holiday."

Arthur froze for a fraction of a fraction of a second and then resumed reassembling his gun. "Really."

"Oh, really," Eames was practically cooing. He was also leaning in close to Arthur, smelling like gun oil and sharp metal and a good, healthy sweat from the summer heat. "I adore it."

Sometimes Arthur purely wanted to hit Eames until he was unconscious and bleeding and hopefully on his way to being very dead. Instead he kept snapping his gun together and checking the smoothness of the firing pin before pulling it apart again. "Took you long enough," he said shortly. He was under no illusions. Eames wasn't subtle at all and was very obviously trying to tell Arthur that he'd figured out his real name, if not more than that.

Joining Project Somnacin had meant leaving everything behind—family and military record and name all burned to ashes. His new dog tags had only the name he'd chosen on them, a name that he felt fit him better than the one he'd been given as an infant. Supposedly any files remaining on his original identity were eyes only and impossible to get to.

Supposedly. Arthur had managed to get to them with very little difficulty and zero detection. He realized in the face of Eames' pleased smirk that he had underestimated him. He should have done something about that earlier, his records and his perception both.

"Oh, Arthur, don't be upset. I'll tell you how I did it, you know I will."

Arthur rubbed down the removed pin with a bit of steel wool, smoothing it, and bit back a sigh. "Captain," he said. He tested the pin against his thumb before cleaning it with an oiled cloth. "You've actually been promoted into and demoted out of that rank several times. Once for misconduct towards a superior, though it was reversed when your commanding officer was court-martialed for misconduct during—and obstruction of—an operation. The SAS has charged you with disobeying lawful commands, with contravening standing orders, conduct prejudicial, entering false records, damage to public property, damage to service property, fighting, and looting."

There had been a few other charges, but nothing else that would have earned him a demotion or a trial of his own. "Charges always dropped and rank reinstated due to higher-ranking interventions, which points to either the SAS's need for your talents or to these actions being a part of your necessary duties to a secret body—the fabled SRR." Nobody admitted it, yet, that it was real but Arthur had found more than enough documentation on it to satisfy himself. Eames was watching him and so Arthur set aside the cloth and flipped the pin through his fingers. "As a civilian you had quite the history of forgery, truancy, pickpocketing, larceny both petit and grand…though you never served any time for any of those offenses. In fact, the military fixed all charges against you and buried your records once you enlisted."

He put the pin back in place. "Your enlistment was questioned as was your acceptances into the SAS but those lines were dropped within a relatively short time period…whether that's your family history in play or your own abilities is a matter that's up for debate. Given your recommendation to this project I'm guessing it's the latter. Which means, Reconnaissance Operator Eames, that you should by now be aware that I don't need you to tell me how it's done."

Cocky bastard.

Eames beamed at him. "You've taken the time to get to know me, Arthur! I'm touched. I am truly, truly touched. I should have you 'round to the castle for tea."

Arthur snapped his firearm together and aimed it at Eames' head. "Should I explain to your father why you're using the name Eames?" he asked.

"Given time you'll be a better R.O. than I am," Eames said winningly. "According to sources you only began looking into me after I started picking after you. I do keep tabs, Arthur, just the same as you." He leaned close, ignoring the muzzle of the gun pressing against his forehead. "But I like you so I'll tell you that I was, in fact, at her majesty's pleasure, I was—oh, let's call it 'recruited', shall we?—out of prison due to my very special talents and I picked the name for the marvelous chairs. The affair with the aide is entirely made up as is the vast majority of my mother's later life. But I do appreciate knowing that you took the time to climb the family tree. Your own mum is lovely, by the way."

Eames patted him on the shoulder and left. It took a moment for Arthur to relax and set his gun down. He nearly set it on a piece of kugel wrapped in cling film. When he unwrapped it he could smell his mother's homemade apricot jam.

Sometimes Arthur absolutely hated Eames.

 

Hating him would have been so much easier if Eames hadn't been such a good…something…to Arthur. Co-worker, co-conspirator, friend. Something. Somebody.

Somebody woke him up in the middle of the night and Arthur was halfway to taking that somebody down when it registered on him that it was Eames hovering over him in the dark. Heavy and hot and smelling like regulation laundry soap and long faded aftershave and iodine swabs and something that was sweetly, irritatingly Eames.

"You are a scary bastard, Arthur," Eames said softly, laughing quietly in the shadows of the night-dark dorm.

"What are you doing in here?" Arthur asked, letting go and sliding his knife away. He couldn't come up with a good reason for Eames to be in his room in the middle of the night—not when they'd see each other at breakfast in just a few hours.

Eames smiled, a flash of brightness as the dim light caught on his lips and teeth. "It's your birthday."

Arthur blinked. It was his actual birthday, his real one. The other had passed months ago. "…and?"

"And I've come to take you out for it. It's not every day your young man turns legal."

Young man. Eames wasn't more than four years older than Arthur. "Fuck off."

"That's a nice thank-you," Eames said cheerfully. His hand when he patted Arthur's chest was incredibly warm through the blankets. "Come on, up you get. In my pocket are some freshly liberated and very nicely signed documents that let us both off base for a few days of holiday to someplace very special."

Arthur had no doubt that it was the work of those 'very special' skills of his that had freshly liberated and very nicely signed the leaves. "Is it Vegas?"

"It's a surprise! Also, we're going to put on some nice civilian clothes while we're at this. You do own nice civvies, don't you?"

"No. So, Vegas?"

"We're going to have to go shopping, then. I'll get you something lovely. Why don't you own nice things?"

"I don't need them. It's Las Vegas, isn't it?"

"I said 'a surprise'. This means that it is a surprise."

It really wasn't because it really was Vegas. And it was honestly because Eames seemed to think that Las Vegas was a magical place.

"Full of, like, unicorns and kittens and hookers and—" Arthur could hear himself rambling, he just couldn't care very much.

"Gaming tables," Eames was laughing, loud and hearty and Arthur smiled at him even as the world tilted around them. "Unicorns and kittens and hookers you can get on your own, but having a good go at the tables—that requires more than just you and I."

"Having a good…" Arthur frowned at the green felt table and the pretty red dice scattering down it. "Wait, aren't we losing?"

"Fantastically," Eames said, grinning at him and hauling him upright. Eames was very solid, very stable despite the way the world tipped and turned. "But we were about to get in to it if you kept counting cards so we've changed avenues."

Vaguely Arthur remembered somebody yelling at them about their winning streak and Arthur's luck—which was really just being able to know numbers and probabilities. "Well that—wait, I'm drunk. Why am I drunk?"

"Because I have been very lovingly pouring alcohol into you since we arrived?" Eames guessed pleasantly. He was very handsy, pushing him around and propping him up and holding him still. "I think, actually, that it's just catching up to you. Stop trying to shoot, Arthur, we're losing. You're crap at this game."

"Crap at craps?" Arthur glared at Eames, feeling bleary and irritated and affectionate. "You're an idiot. And the dice are loaded or something. I'm not—Eames, I am not even joking."

"You so rarely do." Eames was so very…just warm.

Arthur couldn't be mad at him. "The dice are loaded against us, Eames." He leaned close, closer, right against Eames so he could whisper to him. "We should cheat, too."

Eames patted him, setting him back. "You're very loud, Arthur, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same. Also, the dice aren't loaded. They're clear acrylic; the effort of altering them would be ridiculous. You're drunk and you can't shoot for sweet fuck all. Let's get you another drink and then find you a bed, yeah?"

Bed. Yes. He scratched his chin and felt an appreciable amount stubble; how many days had he been awake? "If you try—Eames, if you touch me I will not be held responsible for my actions," Arthur warned him, words precise and crisp and so very loaded with alcohol soaked sincerity. "No matter what they are." He was entirely responsible for grabbing the dice off the table and pocketing them. He was going to figure out how they were loaded. After he went to bed. After Eames found him a bed. After Eames. "I promise."

"I shall bear that in mind."

He more than half expected to wake up naked with a naked Eames. He was almost certain they'd be sore and sticky and tangled up together. He wasn't going to admit to looking forward to that even though he was sure that Eames would make it worthwhile because Eames was…well, he was Eames.

 

Being Eames, of course, explained why Arthur woke up desperately hating him. Desperately hating him and his flighty ways and his devil-may-care brilliance and his absent sense of decorum and the fact that he'd let Arthur lie in what was undeniably a pool of his own vomit.

"What the actual fuck?" he croaked. His new three-piece suit—Eames had called it his birthday suit—was probably ruined. "Eames?"

"It was spectacular. There are pictures," Eames said, patting his shoulder. "I'd let you keep sleeping this off as is only right and fair but we've got to get back before somebody notices that we're not actually where we might be rumored to be."

Arthur couldn't follow what he was saying but that was because he was very hungover, still a little drunk, totally filthy, and lacking a solid way to murder Eames for being a fucking jerk.

"…hate you," he managed to mumble as he crawled toward the bathroom.

"Bite your tongue!" Eames called after him. "Not many people get to throw up at the Bellagio! Properly!"

Which was probably true, but Arthur knew for a fact that Eames was using ill-gotten funds to pay for that propriety and so he didn't have any hang ups about throwing up again on Eames' shoes as he went past them.

 

Still—still!—for all that Eames was capable of half-assing his way through things…he didn't. Not where Arthur was concerned. And when he did, when he did it especially where Arthur was concerned, it was for a reason. Because Eames thought shit through even when it seemed like he didn't.

"Don't," Eames said softly, laying heavy over him. "Don't."

"Seriously, Eames?" Arthur snapped quietly before kneeing him in the stomach and sending him tumbling.

Eames sprawled on the mat and put his hands behind his head. "Completely," he said easily. "You've got to stop being so lovely at being the best at whatever it is that you're doing; it's idiotic and I expect better of you."

Arthur looked around the room, at the other pairs that were practicing throws and punches and other close quarter techniques. "I could have been partnered with anybody else," he muttered, looking back at Eames. "Let me explain something to you very slowly, Eames. Very, very slowly," he started before landing on his ass, hard.

"Don't be condescending," Eames said, much closer now that he'd toppled Arthur unexpectedly and Arthur was glad that he had because it made it so much easier to stay focused even as Eames flipped him and got his arms pinned hard behind his back. "You don't want them marking you too closely, Arthur. You shouldn't let them know all that they've got in you."

Going still, Arthur twisted his head to look sideways at him. "Why?" Because Eames meant it and Arthur could feel it, could half-sense it. A truth he didn't really want to believe in but would if Eames told him to, if Eames explained it to him, because he trusted Eames even when he didn't want to and possibly even when he shouldn't have.

"Because then they'll keep you." It was whispered in his ear, nearly inaudible, Eames' accent like a sigh on his skin. "Don't let them have you."

Then Eames was off of him, clapping his hands and crouching down. "Oh, let's go again! It's all very homoerotic. And everybody said you lot were against it. Against it most certainly."

"You are an irritating fuck," Arthur told him, rolling up and taking Eames down in under twelve seconds. He could have done it in six.

 

Eames was and wasn't a lot of things. He made Arthur feel a hundred different, conflicting ways about him. He should have been able to pick something, to file Eames away into the appropriate corner of his brain, but he couldn't. Eames was too immediate, too present, too close to be objectively dismantled and stored in anything but a temporary way. Even when he was gone he was there, a piece of Arthur's subconscious tucked away in the back of his mind.

The closest Arthur came to sorting him out was that no matter what Eames was—awful or stunning, annoying or insightful—he was Arthur's and, like it or not, Arthur wasn't about to let him go even if Eames didn't know it or wouldn't like it if he did. Arthur might or might not have been out of his mind, but he was certain either way.

 

Arthur liked certainties, like to plan, to know without doubt, to have things in hand. He'd joined the military for the order, the structure, the infrastructure, for what it could give him.

He'd never thought—really—about what it meant becoming and what it meant giving up. He started at his face in the mirror. He was twenty-two and a ghost. A shadow of who he'd been when he'd come to the Project. Just a trick of the light and fading fast into nighttime darkness.

His options were limited—if he wanted the freedom to do what he wanted to do he had to bury himself, hide his true talents. But in shifting the attentive military eyes away from him he lost the leverage to get what he needed to do what he wanted. If he called attention to himself, he got loaded with projects he didn't want. If he didn't, he got loaded with other projects he didn't want—the chimp simple stuff that he just couldn't force himself to do anymore.

Getting shit assignments was great for doing small, private experiments and keeping them utterly secret but Arthur wasn't about to get killed every day for small potatoes. If he was going to break every bone in his body, he wanted it to be worth it.

If he was being honest, he also wanted to be able to come and go as he liked, wanted to be able to see what else could be done with a dream rather than using it to get soldiers used to pain and fear. He wanted dreaming to be worth loving again and he wanted to have more than just what he was given.

"All right?" Eames' voice broke the wall of solid thoughts around Arthur's head. He looked up and caught Eames' eyes in the mirror.

"Yes?" Ever since their trip to Vegas Eames had been in and out of Arthur's life, flitting in and out of his dreams, often without any warning. Every handful of weeks he was there and then gone again. Arthur tracked him and knew that he was mostly off on SRR missions but sometimes he was on leave and sometimes he wasn't where he was rumored to be. But he was back now, back and looking at Arthur and asking if he…. "Was there something in particular you wanted, Eames?"

"They're ready for us to try the second interrogation sequence again. Deimos and Rochester are trying to figure out if they're awake or not. They're leaning towards still dreaming so they're not cleared for another run. That leaves us to work while they cry in a corner somewhere." He smiled and Arthur smiled back without feeling it. The way Eames said it, so cheerfully flip, it was probably true. Going into a dream interrogation had left two soldiers in doubt about reality and crying in a corner, probably in a padded room.

Arthur wished he cared more. Or even at all. "Sounds like fun."

Eames studied him and Arthur wanted to not care about the way it pricked against his skin but he couldn't. He could only care desperately about that. "All right, then?" asked Eames again, light voice but serious eyes and Arthur...

"You know it."

"Do you know, I never wanted to say this to you but you're the most contentious, prickly, annoying bastard I've ever known. I don't know why I—" Eames broke off with a good-natured huff. "I don't know why."

He looked at Eames, turned away from the mirror and looked and looked until he wasn't sure he was even seeing him anymore, seeing any more of him than the unfaltering, confusing, constant presence that never left him even when Eames was gone. As though Eames were some sort of touchstone, something Arthur could rely on. "Let's just get to work." Time. He needed time to think. He could live like this until he had a plan, had something more than Eames and his half-finished sentences and unknown reasons behind them. Things were bad enough without either of them adding to the mess. "Can we do that? Our jobs?"

"My pleasure," Eames said and Arthur brushed past him, walking away.

He could live like this but not with Eames there, not with Eames right there.

 

Arthur was, by nature and by nurture, a person who planned. Who thought and reasoned and worked things out in his head before committing himself to something. When he did something, it was because he knew he'd get it done.

When he decided to leave Project Somnacin, he did it with the goal in mind of walking out the front door with no bridges burned behind him. He was going to leave with the full approval and blessing of the United States armed forces and the United States government bestowed upon him. They weren't going to like it but that was just the way it was going to be. Arthur had decided. He knew that they would try to hold him, try to keep him but while the army was good, Arthur was better. He was much, much better and they didn't even know it.

He spent months unearthing secrets large and small, tracking rumors around the world and then around it once more. He searched out and caught every silent sideways glance exchanged between politicians and generals. Eyes-only files fluttered open for Arthur; ears-only orders whispered themselves for him. He climbed into the beds of CEOs and crawled out of back alleys with ambassadors. Paper trails and emotional ties and pulled strings and underhanded, under-the-table deals wrapped themselves up in pretty packages under his questing fingers. Dreams unfurled out of him and into others and when they curled back into him, they brought him treasures.

In short: Arthur ruled the world with nobody any the wiser to what he was up to.

 

He deliberately waited for Eames to be away on his own mission, in a whole other country, to start acting on his plans. Eames knew him too well and Eames was too much of a distraction. Arthur needed his plan to be as clear and concise and efficient as he was when Eames wasn't around.

Which wasn't to say that he didn't have backup plans. He had several. One of them even involved running away, fighting his way free. But he'd never done a dry run, hadn't researched who would be on guard duty, hadn't looked up their run times or their firing range scores or bothered to find anything out about them at all.

It was a mistake he wasn't ever going to repeat, he vowed to himself as paused to reload his M11.

 

He'd gone in too sure of himself. He had walked in and nodded coolly to the stone-faced men waiting for him. "General, Senator," he'd greeted as he'd laid out the many, many files he'd amassed. "I think you know what this is," he'd said, flipping them all open with the most incriminating photos showing at the very top. "This is my honorable discharge."

"No, son," the General had said. "This is your funeral."

Arthur had always been quick on his feet, ready to react when he sensed danger. He had upset the table and bolted before the guard in the room had squeezed off the first shot.

 

Still, where the military was good, Arthur was even better and they were damn well going to find that out the hard way. They'd underestimated him even more than he'd suspected. Arthur wasn't actually running away; he was simply taking another route out. He twisted around a corner and flatted himself to the wall, waiting, grabbing a breath while he could. It wasn't going to be easy but it was going to be done. He looked up at the CCTV camera in the hallway. "I wanted to do this the easy way," he said to the people he knew were watching. The camera wasn't actually recording, none of them anywhere on the base was, but he was the only one who knew that. If they were planning to use today against him they'd never get the chance. "We can still do it that way: just rescind the orders."

The chatter of semi-automatic rounds burst over the clattering of running footfalls. The other soldiers had caught up to him.

"Assholes," Arthur muttered to the camera.

He slid the PASIV case down the hall behind him and swung his arm up, firing automatically as the first soldier rounded the corner. He'd served with Leopold for two years and shot him in the shoulder without blinking. He didn't have time to offer anybody the chance to back him on his bid for freedom. He felled the next man, Scrim, with a shot to the calf. "I could kill them," he said, looking to the camera while the others took a split second to regroup. "I am very deliberately not killing them."

It was mostly true.

Arthur was a good shot at close range and with a small caliber. Give him distance and a harder kick and he ran into problems. It was why he'd led the chase to this spot: it bottlenecked them and gave him the distance he needed while allowing him room to keep running. If things went wrong—even more wrong—he wouldn't be able to afford anybody the courtesy of a flesh wound. The next man that came around got a shot in at Arthur but Arthur had already moved silently, had crept closer. Shooting at Arthur just meant that he overshot and let Arthur break arm at the elbow. The gun fell and so did the soldier. "Sorry," he said, pushing him screaming onto the others behind him.

Running, Arthur snagged the case on his way and instead of keeping down the hallway he ducked into a room and threw the lock. He realized belatedly that he should have actually looked at the Somnacin before he'd made his move. Nothing was mixed; there were racks of chemicals that made the drug but almost nothing already made. "Really?" he muttered before flipping the PASIV open and tossing bottles in, grabbing a few of everything while he heard orders being relayed in the hall.

"Soldier, you are surrounded," the General's voice boomed from outside the door. "There are no windows in that room and no other doors."

"I know that," Arthur called back calmly, slipping a detonator out of his pocket and thumbing the switch. "I'm on it." The wall on his left crumbled in a cloud of rubble and Semtex. So, too, did the wall on the far side of that room, and the one after that— bringing about the collapse of a load-bearing wall and the shattering of the windows in the room beyond that. Arthur tossed a grenade at the wall on his right and when the concrete shattered he threw another through the hole before ducking out to his left. Let them figure out which way he'd gone.

He needed them to take a moment to figure out which way he'd gone: he was weighted down with the device and the chemicals, several more grenades, another block of Semtex, one extra pistol and a lot more ammunition. It weighed a ton in comparison to stuff the other guys weren't carrying.

Dropping his shoulder Arthur let a bottle drop and fall and break. The spark from the wiring in the ruined wall took care of lighting it on fire, the heat sudden on his back as he kept moving. He didn't go through the series of walls he'd opened up. Instead he slipped out the door, in to the smoke and dust and confusion, and then he took off down another hallway. He was going to walk out the front door, just like he'd planned.

Arthur tossed a bit of tear gas at the guard at the door and then stopped and looked up at the camera in the corner. "Everything I laid out for you? I have copies of all of it. I have them stashed in several places. I have enough of it memorized to make life hell for you. When you want to discuss my terms, well…" He smiled feeling generally pleased despite the minor shitshow it had been. "I'll let you know when I want you to bow to my terms."

And fuck but he was going to have to remember not to showboat. That bullet had come closer than any others. He lobbed a flash grenade over his shoulder and scrambled out the door into the motor pool. He stopped dead, heart dropping like a stone. The lot was empty. Somebody had thought ahead, planned despite the chaos, and cleared the vehicles out—all of them and not just the jeep that Arthur had set up for himself. "Shit," he breathed, stunned. It was a long run across the base to the civilian lot and there was only a slim chance that there would be anything waiting for him there.

"Get in here and drive this bloody thing!" A familiar voice jolted him. Arthur looked up to see a gorgeous low slung sports car whip to a purring stop in front of him, Eames in the driver's seat. "It's lovely but I can't drive it for shit."

"Eames?" Arthur said stupidly. It wasn't possible. Or, rather, it was perfectly possible but it being real was beyond comprehension. Eames was in even more trouble than Arthur was, as far as Arthur knew.

"Not kidding, Arthur! Everything is on the wrong side and nobody drives in the right lanes!"

"You—?" Arthur ran to the car and threw his gear into the back, hoping that the custom cushioning for the PASIV would keep it, and the chemicals, safe. "Eames?"

"Eames, yes," said Eames. "But can it wait? They're shooting at us and if we don't leave we'll die because bullets hurt a lot and are lethal and if I drive we'll die because this entire bloody country is backwards."

"Move over, Captain Eames."

"Not to nitpick, but a moment such as this needs a bigger send-up," Eames critiqued as he moved aside and Arthur climbed behind the wheel. "More imagination."

"Right," Arthur said, shoving the car into gear and flooring the pedal. "I—" he stopped talking as the ground beneath them trembled. "Eames? What was that?"

"That, Arthur, was a bigger send up and a lot more imagination," Eames said mildly as a fireball bloomed in the review mirror and smoke plumed toward the sky. "It should—should—also keep them off our backs for the time being."

"I was pretty sure replacing the gasoline with diesel fuel was going to take care of that after a few miles," Arthur said. He already had the gas pedal to the floor but Arthur pushed down harder even still.

He hardly realized that he was grinning wildly, that they both were, as they left the base in the dust.

They were together, they were free, and for the moment they were unstoppable.

 

Possibly, given everything, once the reality of the moment sank in it should have been silent and focused in the car. Or silent and oppressive. Perhaps silent and comfortable. Even silent and profound but certainly silent.

Arthur kept his hands furiously tight on the steering wheel and yelled at Eames instead. "What the fucking fuck?" he demanded. Again. He'd come down from the elated high of getting away alive and intact and was firmly into gritty reality of being a wanted fugitive without having prepared for it as well as he'd have liked. He was annoyed with himself for that. And Eames was there which did and didn't make it better, as having Eames there always did and didn't do. "What the fucking hell were you doing out there? Are you somehow unaware that you are wanted for fucking treason?"

"Swearing is a sign of a weak vocabulary and an uncreative mind. Also, that is in England," Eames said companionably. "This is America."

Oh, god, he wanted to kill him. Eames was too stupid to live. "America would be more than happy to extradite you, Eames!" He was doing his best to calm down and speak rationally because Eames wasn't going to care very much if he shouted and one of them had to be thinking, planning, doing. Eames made that harder than it should have been. "Because we take treason extremely seriously in this country. Extremely. Fucking. Seriously."

"Condescension noted, Arthur, thank you."

Seriously, Eames made Arthur want to stab him even though they weren't in a dream. "Just tell me what the fuck you were thinking. Just tell me that."

Tipping his head, Eames said, "I knew you were getting out and I thought that I should pick you up."

"You—no, you didn't know. You couldn't know." Arthur hadn't written down any plans anywhere, no notes anywhere but in his own head, all his files safely stored in a place nobody could reach until he'd brought them out. "Can't you be serious for once in—"

"I am serious," Eames said. And he sounded it. "I knew—don't make that face at me, then—I know people. I watch people. I understand people. This includes you, Arthur, and I had a very deep and extremely specific hunch that you were going to make your move. Very distractingly," Eames mused, "it came to me right in the middle of my own business. Nearly made a hash of it like that. But I finished and I came for you."

"Yeah, well, I didn't need you there." It was only mostly untrue.

"You expected me to be there."

"That's absurd." He'd been shocked. He was still shocked. He'd expected Eames to be on his way to someplace safe. Safer than America. He hadn't expected anything at all from him.

"Is it?" Eames asked mildly. "Perhaps I should rather say that you wanted me to be there."

It was said so matter-of-factly that Arthur drew a breath, about to go back to yelling at Eames but Eames spoke again, talking over him. "I was on my way here within an hour of committing treason. It's not been even a full day, Arthur. It's barely been even half a day but you knew. You knew before you gave it your own shot. And you knew I'd come to collect you because how the hell else would they have got your getaway car from you if you hadn't."

Silence fell, finally. Arthur wouldn't speak when he didn't know what he would say, or could. Arthur kept his foot heavy on the gas pedal and his eyes straight ahead. The silence was worse than the shouting, than the talking. There was too much whispering voicelessly around them, too many things Arthur didn't want to think about that wouldn't leave him alone. Eames might have been right. It was possible that Arthur's subconscious had counted on Eames being there despite his conscious mind knowing better. Eames was a dangerous idea and a much more dangerous reality. It had always been that way, even from their very first dream together.

Eventually Eames snapped on the radio as the sun in the west turned gold-tinted red. The sky went pink and dusky grey at the edges and purple-blue overhead in a place they couldn't see from where they were.

It was fully dark when Eames broke the echoing silence, the radio nothing but static as they crossed the miles. "Pull over."

The car jerked and gravel crunched under the tires as Arthur pulled to the side. He didn't speak, didn't move, didn't look at anything but the landscape dark and bare and bleached in the white light of the lopsided moon.

"What?" he gritted out when Eames said nothing. His throat felt tight from all the things he wasn't saying.

But Eames didn't speak until Arthur gave up and looked over at him. "Do you even know where you're headed?" Eames asked and Arthur had the distinct impression that whatever the reason Eames had had for making him pull over, asking that question was not it.

"Yeah," Arthur answered it anyway. "There's a civilian group doing dream research in California." And now that he was a fugitive he was going to have to put that off. God damn it. "I'm going to find a place to lay low for a while and wait until the government comes to its senses."

Eames smiled at him, a full blown grin. "Marvelous. I know a place in Mexico that is full of people with which neither of our governments wants us to meet. We can go off and make them think we're meeting with them while we have ourselves a nice holiday, yeah?"

Holiday. Arthur snorted. "If I wake up in a puddle of vomit, I'll shoot you."

"I knew you missed me," Eames said agreeably.

Arthur maneuvered the car back onto the road. He had, but he didn't say it. They probably should have talked, should have discussed splitting up because staying together wasn't smart or safe or in any way planned so that nobody's subconscious could get in the way. But Arthur felt that the only thing that really needed to be said was: "Shut up."

 

Naked in a Mexican whorehouse was not the condition or the place for a goodbye to a relationship that had spanned years, stretched a connection between countries and continents, that had built itself in dreams and yet Arthur could not have found any more fitting for himself and Eames if he tried. He knew that. He knew it. He stopped trying to put on his pants and blinked slowly at him. "Really?" he said dryly. "Here? This is how we're going to do this?"

Eames shrugged. "Running afoul of the law with you this past year has been a lark but I have a job set to go off and you're all tidied up to go back to your country a free and respectable man."

"So are you," Arthur pointed out, going back to changing his clothes. Blackmail was such a useful tool. "And I hardly think helping you run away from stealing a drug lord's money is a lark. I hate doing this shit." He'd had enough of being chased by gun-wielding men. Getting shot hurt like hell and it wasn't like he could wake up from reality when it happened. "I really do."

"I know. It's why I'm not offering to bring you along," Eames pointed out reasonably. "You're good in a pinch and ace at the details but you haven't got the flair we're going to need on this one."

Arthur rolled his eyes. "I don't want to have the 'flair' for it, Eames."

"Good, because you haven't got it. You're a bit of a stick-in-the-mud if we're being honest."

"Yet my rap sheet is clean enough that I can travel to any country in the world under my own assumed name." At his last count Eames had seven different aliases and five of them were wanted somewhere for something. One of them was actively taunting Interpol.

Eames grinned at him and Arthur was glad he was leaving, glad they were both going. It had been a while since he and Eames had last lived in each other's back pockets for more than a week or two at a time and now the many months of side-by-side had done a number on Arthur's brain. The days where he wanted to kill Eames were only slightly less in number than the days he felt like keeping Eames alive and in easy reach. Their governments regretted putting them together; Arthur didn't want either of them to regret staying that way. The more time that passed the more Arthur was sure that one of them was going to make a serious mistake, a mistake that could—and would—cost more than Arthur was willing to risk.

"Keep in touch, Arthur, do," Eames said. Something in his face said that he also felt the untenable balance they were keeping, the cost of losing it.

Arthur offered him a slight smile. "I'd rather not." He wanted to, but he'd rather not.

He wasn't surprised when Eames leaned close and kissed him, simple and sure on the mouth. It was the first time and probably the last. Arthur kissed him back, solid and steady. Definitely the last. "Then keep tabs," Eames said against his lips "and try not to miss me too much."

"Go away."

 

They both went away.

 

Eames went to work his mysterious job (a jewel heist, from what Arthur had been able to uncover) and Arthur went, finally, to California to meet the researches he'd discovered in his note-taking before his honorable discharge. He tolerated most of them but he actually liked Dominic Cobb and Stephen and Mallorie Miles.

Still, he'd learned from his time with the Project and his time with Eames. He allowed himself to like them but not to give them everything, not to tie himself to them in a way that left him bound in knots. He helped with their research, he went looking for answers for them, went under with them, and dreamed for them.

He also took jobs on the side. He tried, at first, to keep it legal and above board. He worked for COOs trying to figure out if their CEOs were selling them out. He helped the super-rich sleep at night. It was boring and it was small and it wasn't what he wanted to do so he stopped doing it.

Instead he found chemists who could identify the building blocks of Somnacin by smell and taste and color alone, architects who built masterfully realistic places in which to hide all manner of truths, he found people who loved to unearth secrets as much as he did. Extractors.

Mind-heist, they called it. Extraction. It was illegal and it wasn't safe and Arthur loved it. It was a lot like Las Vegas and, when he took point on those jobs, Arthur had all the cards and all the chips and he could shoot for sweet fuck all every time he went to the tables. He thought of Eames and knew that he must love it absolutely. He told Mal and Dom and Stephen that it was a civilian off-shoot of a military procedure.

Only Stephen seemed to know or care that it wasn't. "I know what you're up to," he said one day. "I'm not so old or caught up in my buildings that I don't see the way you study mazes you don't need to know. You're taking them away and using them for something you oughtn't."

"I'm not your daughter or your student, sir," he said politely, winding new lines into his PASIV. He'd upgraded it, slimming it down so that it weighed less, could take a smaller tube and a lower gauge needle. "Though I appreciate the fact that you care."

"I don't want you getting them mixed in with this."

Arthur actually startled a bit at that. "I wouldn't," he protested automatically. Then, because he did care, because Stephen deserved more than any general ever had: "Even if I wanted to, they'd never do it. They love dreaming, they love exploring it for what it is. It's enough for them." They weren't like him, he thought, not like himself or Eames.

As much as he loved it, loved exploring, it wasn't enough for him unless he had a goal, a target, a mark, something on the line. It was probably a bit of a dangerous place to be but Arthur always had a backup plan. He didn't have a getaway driver but he'd never really needed one.

"My boy," Stephen said, studying him, "you don't have to do this. You're better than this. You've got a place here, you know, a family."

"Thank you, sir," he repeated, clicking the case closed. "Again, I appreciate that."

He wasn't a better man and he didn't particularly want to be. He didn't particularly want a place or a family.

 

But

Sometimes he might have thought of it and maybe he'd feel a little regretful. "Married, huh?" he asked, looking at Mal's ring. "Congratulations."

"I'm so happy," Mal said jubilantly, hugging him around the neck. "We're so happy. But pretend I didn't tell you. Dom wants to tell you and be as proud as a peacock at you."

"I am literally two steps behind you, Mal," Dom said.

"Since when does this matter?" Mal wanted to know while Arthur laughed and opened the bottle of champagne he'd bought when Mal's father had told him about it earlier in the day.

 

And

"Take her back, Cobb, I've never held a baby before in my life."

"I haven't slept in four days, Arthur. You're holding her. I will make you her godfather if I have to. I don't care if you're Jewish."

Dom thrust the baby at him and there was no other option but to take her. He held the baby, a soft weight that smelled like lotion and milk and warmth and watched Dom shuffle away to bed like a hopeful zombie on the trail of fresh brains. "Philippa? Your dad is a shit."

 

Or

"We reached a second level," Mal said, sounding rapturous. "My father, he won't hear of it, but we think there is a third. It would be incredibly unstable, like you would not believe, Arthur, but it would be incredible."

"Your father won't hear of it because he's your father," Arthur told her.

"He's not willing to push the boundaries," Dom said. He grinned at him, eyes bright. "You're up for a challenge, right, Arthur?"

Arthur thought about it, about the first time he'd gone under. He wondered if going down another level was the same. If a third would be compounded. "Yeah."

 

But mostly, he didn't want a place.

Mostly he worked the jobs he chose and followed the traces he'd set on people: the General, several ambassadors, a few congressional leaders, anybody he had serious dirt on. And Eames. He read articles in foreign newspapers that never mentioned Eames by name but couldn't stop talking about him.

Usually it made Arthur roll his eyes. Sometimes it made him smile. The rest of the time it reminded him of why he didn't really want a 'place'. There was too much fun in the chase, too much danger in staying still. Eames and his almost perfectly executed misadventures made him remember both of those things.

Only very rarely did it make his heart twist in his chest with a feeling that was close to wistfulness but vastly more complicated and probably much more unpleasant. He wasn't sure what to call it.

 

"How about forgery, Arthur? Have you ever heard about changing into somebody else in a dream? Being another person, somebody other than yourself?"

Arthur didn't startle, just kept his finger sliding down the margin of Dom's copious notes regarding his new theory on a three level dream. "The military never looked into that while I was there," he said calmly. Inside he thought Eames.

"Mal met a guy in Paris when she was visiting her father," Dom went on. "At a bar, of all the places. I mean, she's married and a mother and meeting men in bars and—"

"Is this you needing marriage counseling, Cobb?" Arthur interrupted to ask, still eyeing the words but not really taking them in anymore. He looked up. "Because I don't do that."

Dom grinned at him and took a sip of beer. "Anyhow, she met this guy who said he could do that, change himself completely, and she brought him back with her." Distantly the front door opened. "That would be them now."

Arthur turned and there was Eames, carrying Mal's bag, one arm around her waist and laughing with her. "—and I said, 'but darling, I stole something really nice for you!'"

Mal laughed, head tipped back and curls bouncing. "She was a horrible bitch and you are grateful she is gone now." Then she spotted her husband and fell into his arms. "Lover!"

In the moment of the Cobbs' utter preoccupation with each other, Arthur looked at Eames and found Eames looking back. Eames looked the same as he had the last time Arthur had seen him, years ago. A little older, his hair a little longer, his shoulders a little broader but otherwise he was still the same Eames. Blue-grey eyes and a devilish smile, lightening quick hands. He thought I am not hugging him as his heart did something deeply disturbing in his chest before climbing into his throat. He got to his feet entirely without meaning to do so. He'd honestly thought he would never see Eames again, despite the business they were in.

Yet Eames was in front of him with a smile on the verge of a laugh and a considering look in his eye. "Oh, I am jealous. Where's my hug? You! Hug me!" And he wrapped his arms around Arthur, crushing him to his chest in a hold that Arthur could have broke easily but…didn't. He knew it was a ruse, for whatever Eames-ian purpose, and he didn't mind as much as he could have. Not even though Eames smelled like stale, recycled air and cheap laundry soap and Mal's perfume and faded cologne and that stupid sweetness that Arthur remembered from days on end in Eames' close company. One hand was warm and brief on the back of his neck for a moment, a strange second of intimacy.

"Get off me," he said, tightening his arms around him for a bare moment, his hands hard against the long muscles of his back before patting him in a manly fashion and pushing at him.

Mal looked at them both as Eames drew back and Arthur allowed the rest of the room to regain the majority of his attention. "But you know each other already!" she said, surprised.

"Oh this? It's only that I'm an incredible pervert," Eames disclaimed, pulling a bashful look as he turned Arthur loose. "Emphasis on incredible, please."

Arthur sat down again and rolled his eyes, knowing what Eames was up to with the not-quite denial. "I was there when Eames pioneered forging." Dom and Mal were sharper than Eames was giving them credit for. Unless Eames was testing him to see how much he was willing to give away to them. "When I left the military he took me to a whorehouse in Mexico and left me there, naked."

Dom and Mal both choked, faces swinging between disbelief and curiosity, heads swiveling between Arthur and Eames.

Arthur sipped his beer, going back to Dom's notes.

"I am a pervert," Eames repeated. "And also, that was very innocent. Arthur is maligning me. He was putting on pants and trousers anyhow so he wasn't entirely without clothes."

"Naked. In a Mexican whorehouse," Arthur repeated, picking up a pen and making a note in the margin. "You dick," he added dryly.

Mal threw back her head and laughed, Dom clapped Eames on the shoulder, and Arthur left two weeks later. He had a job in Brussels.

He tried not to think of how he went back to California when he was finished, how he went back after almost every job, went back to visiting Mal and Dom and Philippa and seeing Eames whenever Eames rolled through town. He tried not to think about watching Eames and Mal get into mischief together and he tried not to think about helping Dom on his mazes.

He did his best to not think about working with Eames again, going dreaming with him again, debriefing each other about talent in the field or picking up stray jobs that the Cobbs didn't know about together. He tried not to think about doing crazy shit like trying an inception with him.

He'd forgot how much fun it was to work with Eames and he'd forgot how much of a pain in the ass Eames was and he'd forgot how after a while they sort of started living under each other's skin all contentious comfort and easy irritation. It made them good at what they were doing, whatever they were doing, but it also pushed Arthur into doing things he should have thought better of before it landed them in a Mexican whorehouse, paying off the madam and wearing pilfered clothing because they couldn't go back to their own shady base of operations. Eames made him forget too much, remember too much.

Eames made him want things and Eames was a variable he couldn't control, made himself a variable he couldn't really control very well either.

So Arthur took jobs on his own, building a reputation in the underworld of dream sharing. He stayed away from Dom and Mal and Eames more and tried not to keep too much in touch. If he sometimes called Dom or Mal with a hypothetical question or asking for a hypothetical suggestion it was all in the name of business, in being thorough. If sometimes Eames showed up unexpectedly halfway through a job, it was simply good timing. It wasn't as though Arthur was looking over his work and discovering that there had been an Eames-shaped space in the plans all along. It was simply that Eames was adaptable, changeable.

People asked, sometimes.

He worked alone, Arthur said, but sometimes he wondered if he actually did, if he really was. Sometimes he wondered if that was what he really wanted.

 

He quit wondering eventually but he didn't come by his answer the way he wanted to. It was more like the military blindside of his early days of leaving. And for once his certainty didn't come with any backup plan at all.

Mal was somebody who touched a lot by nature. She put her arm around Eames' waist, she hugged Arthur when he showed up after time spent away. She carried Philippa and James as often as they'd let her scoop them up. She leaned into Dom's every touch, her hands almost constantly on him somewhere when his weren't on her.

Arthur was gone for nearly six months and when he came back from a job in Adana, Mal didn't hug him at the door. "Arthur," she said, smiling slightly. "I was wondering when you would come."

She seemed distant, sad in a way Arthur couldn't place. "I didn't know I'd been gone for so long," he said lightly, thrown off "that you'd wondered."

Head tipped just slightly to the side, Mal smiled. "It's nice to see you, Arthur," she said. "This is always how it is. Even in a dream, you are welcomed."

Arthur shifted and wondered why he was still on the doorstep instead of inside, with Dom offering him a beer and Mal needling him about where he'd been and the kids asleep down the hall. "I—" he said, about to ask to go inside, something he hadn't done since the first time he'd shown up.

"You'd hate to see my projection of you," Dom said. His voice, too, was strange. Strained and determined. "You're even worse down there than up here; you dress alphabetically by color from the top down and the inside out." He put his hand on the nape of Mal's neck, stroking. "Come in, Arthur. What are you still doing out on the porch?"

Going inside things were normal, mostly. Mal leaned into Dom and stroked her fingers over his when his hand moved to her shoulder. They drank wine and talked but Arthur noticed things that were not really normal at all, things that were missing. Mal never talked about the kids, only Dom did. Mal didn't ask about Eames even though she knew he'd worked with him briefly (in between two of Arthur's own less-than-legal jobs and a long con Eames was running) in Damascus. Dom didn't mention dreaming.

Dom walked him to the door. "It's nothing, Arthur," he said when Arthur very obviously hesitated. "Just…just a problem with a dream we were working on," he said. "Don't worry about it. We'll work it out."

He trusted Dom and Mal. He did trust them, probably as much as he trusted Eames. He trusted them and if Dom said not to worry, he wouldn't.

Except that Arthur's job was to worry about things and so he did. But only a little. He called Eames, pulling to the side of the road a few miles from his apartment. It was the first time he'd phoned him in their entire history together though they'd always had each other's numbers.

Eames must have been aware of that because the first words out of his mouth were: "Who's died?"

"Nobody. Jesus." And Arthur had thought that he was paranoid.

"We already knew that, Arthur; bloody Sunday school kids know that," Eames said, sounding much more cheerful.

Arthur mentally gave him the finger, all but hearing the way Eames was smiling down the wire. "Really, Eames? That old chestnut?" He felt his own smile pulling at him.

"Why have we rung me up, then?" Eames asked and Arthur felt his smile vanish.

It was something he didn't know how to phrase, nothing he could put his finger on. "Nothing," he said, shaking his head even though he knew Eames couldn't see him. He let out a short breath. "Something." There was silence from the other end of the line and Arthur felt a little stupid for calling Eames with something he couldn't put to words, a jangling, discordant feeling. "A feeling."

"Serious thing, that," Eames said. He sounded thoughtful, serious, no longer teasing. Eames had known him for long enough to know him.

Arthur pictured him and the way he slouched and straightened with his moods. "It's Mal. And Cobb. I wouldn't mind your thoughts."

"Should I come back to Los Angeles?"

Yes. No. For crying out loud, Arthur thought, he needed to get a grip. The Cobbs were celebrating their anniversary soon. There were plans being made, schedules to keep. "There's no rush," he said. "It's just a niggling little thing."

"I'll give you a niggling thing if you'd like," Eames said, fondness in his tone, "but it won't be little."

Arthur closed his eyes and laughed. It was ridiculous how Eames' ridiculousness made him feel better, more on top of things. "I'm hanging up on you now."

"You aren't. Arthur, you know you aren't."

"Goodbye, Eames."

 

Four days later the cops were at his door, telling him that there had been an incident.

Telling him that Mal was dead.

Telling him they had questions about Dom.

Catching him flatfooted and unaware, so woefully unprepared for what they were saying. He had always hated surprises as much as he'd loved thinking on his feet. He let them in for lack of any better idea.

He gave a statement in his living room and agreed to be available if they had any further questions. He walked them out and shut the door, unflinchingly polite. He stared at the phone on the wall until it stopped being a shape and became something that meant something to him. He called Eames.

"Don't," he said when Eames answered, before Eames could say a word. It couldn't start with Eames' voice, with Eames not knowing and sounding happier than he should be. "Just. Mal." Arthur held his breath for a moment. Eames was a wild clash of sound in comparison—shifting cotton and breathing and jangling change and street-side chatter all around him, long distance static between them. Arthur let out the bit of air he'd held on to. "Mal's dead. She—I think the cops think Dom. But. She—"

"Arthur?" Eames asked. His voice was so soft that Arthur had to strain to hear it.

Get here, Arthur thought. Come now. "Mal committed suicide earlier tonight. The funeral is…nothing is decided yet. Soon, though. Once the medical examiner finishes." Arthur told him. The words didn't shake, didn't crack, weren't anything but steady. He was horrified at himself for the way they didn't. He was horrified by the way he was more concerned with getting Eames a flight in that allowed time for the jet-lag to wear off before the funeral. He was horrified at how much it all mattered. How shattered he felt inside. "Eames."

The phone line went dead.

Arthur went online, traced the signal to Gaziantep, hacked their street cameras, and watched the phone call happen. He watched Eames destroy his phone, lift a pack of cigarettes from a passerby and then smoke three of them in a row, one off the other off the last before disappearing into the crowd in a way that Arthur couldn't track. Arthur closed his laptop and went to work, planning for a job he didn't want to do.

 

Eames was there the day before the funeral. Arthur was waiting for him at the airport, slumped against the baggage carousel. Eames was wearing his watch chain, carrying his totem. Arthur had only ever seen him do that when they were about to go two levels into a dream. Only when Eames thought he could possibly doubt his reality. Arthur didn't take his bags, simply led the way out to the car.

He had thought about taking Eames to his apartment but he'd booked him a hotel instead. He watched Eames disappear up the stairs, wordlessly, and he impulsively booked himself into the room next door. He leaned against the closed and locked connecting door between the room he was in and the one that had Eames in it, listening to the jagged, discordant sounds beyond him.

He fell asleep for the first time in three days. He dreamed of Mexico, of a kiss, of going with instead of away.

 

"It's fucked up," Arthur whispered to Eames as the priest spoke on and on about a person that could have been Mal if Mal had been some average, everyday woman.

"Yeah," Eames said softly.

The backs of their hands brushed and then stayed pressed together, the only point of contact between them, the only thing Arthur could handle when too much was already pressing in on him.

 

After the funeral the kids went with their grandmother and Stephen went home and Arthur and Eames and Dom went to Dom's house to drink and talk and, apparently, let the shit hit the fan in a way Arthur didn't anticipate. Mainly because Arthur started it and he really hadn't realized he was going to or wanted to or would.

"What did you do?" he asked, setting down his glass with a final sounding clink that should have been a warning of what was to come.

"Arthur," said Eames. And that should have been more than enough warning, that tone. That tone in front of Dom.

"What are you getting at?" Dom didn't look at him. Dom spun Mal's top over and over and over.

"Don't fuck with me, Cobb," Arthur said. He wasn't even sure why he was so angry so suddenly. "What did you do?"

"Arthur."

"What did you do to her?"

"Are you trying to ask if I killed my wife?"

"Yes." Arthur hadn't meant to say that. Not like that, vicious and low. It was too late to pull his punches. He wasn't sure he wanted to anyway. "You had to have done something for her to go through all that fucking effort to set you up. You told me to trust you and I fucking trusted you." Shit, he thought. There it was. He was a selfish bastard. "I trusted you, you son of a bitch!"

Eames was there, in his face, in his space, tugging at him. "Up you come, Arthur, up you come now. You're drunk." Eames' breath smelled like whiskey. "Let's find you a bed, all right?" His voice was hushed and hard worn. "Sleep this off, yeah?" Eames was drunk as well and trying to get Arthur to behave. Like he thought Arthur was going to regret whatever he might say.

Arthur felt frayed, flayed, and the slap of that from Eames hit him so coldly that he froze for a moment. "Fuck off," he managed tightly.

"Get him out of here, Eames," Dom said. "He's—"

What he was, Dom didn't say because Eames cut him off furiously. "I said he's drunk, Cobb, I didn't say he was wrong."

"You too? Today? Both of you. Jesus. Jesus Christ!" Dom shouted.

"He called me a week ago because something was wrong and he's a right fuck for doing this now, you're not wrong either, but now is a good time to get it done. So you might as well say if you did so Arthur can gloat or that you didn't so we can both stop thinking you might have, yeah?"

"Fuck you!" Both Dom and Arthur said it at once, Dom shouting and Arthur quiet and murderous.

Shoving Eames out of the way, Arthur leaned close to Dom. "Fuck you, you answer me: Did. You. Kill. Mal."

"No." Dom broke, folding in on himself, crumpling. "I tried to save her. I tried so hard to save her. She was waiting and I tried. I tried. I tried."

Arthur realized that Dom was sobbing and he stood over him, confused. "You—" he said. And then: "You." He was stuck in a loop of confusion and fury, an ouroboros trapped between the venomous bite and the pain. "Fuck. You can't do this. You can't. Fuck you if you do."

"Sit down, Arthur, for god's sake," Eames said, shoving him back to his seat. "On your feet, Cobb, off to bed with you. The Cobblets will need you in the morning." Arthur watched for a moment as Eames hauled Dom up and pushed him down the hall towards the master bedroom. He watched Eames being gentle and steadfast, things Arthur was not and could not be.

He didn't stay where Eames had put him. Fuck him. He could leave if he wanted to, he didn't have to stay. He went outside and called a cab—he was drunk and fuck his car too. Let Eames drive it and kill himself if he wanted. Arthur didn't realize he was going to shoot out both of his front tires until he did so.

"Oh, Arthur," Eames said sadly from behind him as he tried to put a bullet in the engine block. "Now what will you do?"

Arthur shoved him against the door. "You're not driving it. You can't even fucking drive in this country. You stupid shit."

Eames touched his face. "Are you worried about me?"

Arthur slapped his hand away. "Don't be an asshole." I can't handle you right now, he thought. "Maybe I'm worried about you killing a bunch of innocent people."

"Don't be insulting," Eames growled. "There are lines even if you are drunk." His eyes softened seconds later. "He didn't kill her, Arthur."

"I fucking know that," Arthur snarled. He noticed how close he was still standing and pushed away, moving with furious grace. "I looked at the security footage. I looked at the goddamn traffic cameras, didn't I? I know she jumped. I know she set the scene. I know that. He was alone. He didn't kill her; Mal killed herself."

"He feels like he did. Whatever he did do, he mortally wounded her. He wounded them both." Eames' hands went into his pockets, the watch chain swaying gold and bright in the quickening gloom. "I won't stay."

He knew that. Arthur sighed and holstered his gun, fumbling until he closed his eyes and relied on muscle memory. "I called a cab." He didn't want to be here, where there was broken trust and uncertain ground. "For you." He didn't want to leave because it would be running and he didn't want to be that guy, that coward. He didn't want to burn a bridge he couldn't rebuild. "To pick you up."

When the car pulled up he wanted Eames to drag him with, to tell him to get in the bloody car because staying here hurt a lot and "Arthur, you're a stick in the mud, but—"

Arthur wanted to let him finish, wanted to go, but he also knew that it could only make things worse in the long run. The bitter regret on Eames' face told him that they both knew it. "Shut up, Eames, and get out of here."

"Why are you always such a condescending ass when I try to be nice to you?" Eames asked, standing in the open door of the cab.

Because we can't risk the alternative, Arthur thought. "That's me being nice to you, asshole," he said quietly.

Eames smiled at him. "Did you know that you are the only person who can get me with a phone call? Everybody else has to come to me personally in a place of my choosing."

"Felon," Arthur said softly. No matter what Eames was. Like it or not. "Quit making people want to kill you. I have dibs."

The car door shut, the cab left, and Arthur went back inside. He was drunk and he was angry and he was hurt and he was as unhappy as hell but Mal was dead so he might as well get on with cleaning up the living room and figuring out why the cops were trying to build a case when the only evidence of the crime was in the mind.

Mal was dead and Arthur picked up the empty bottles and the empty glasses with careful, careful hands. Careful between the moments that cost him.

 

Arthur was a realist, however, and reality didn't always leave room for care to be taken. When Dom made the run, Arthur was waiting to meet his plane in Cadiz.

Dom's first words to him were: "I have to get home, Arthur. I have to get back to my children."

"Yeah, well, it's not happening, Cobb." He stuffed him into a car and pointed the car towards the Portugal border. "The cops want you bad."

"What? No, Arthur, they know—one of the federal marshals said—"

"Oh, I know that. And he told your lawyer. You were told you'd be met here by an ex-pat, a scholar, a researcher like you. He's actually an extractor and he was supposed to take you under." The government was good, but Arthur was always, always better. "In about four hours they're going to notice that he's not calling them. In the meantime I'm getting you to Lisbon and on a flight; Eames is going to pick you up in Kuala Lumpur and ship you back to me in Amsterdam."

"Why?"

Arthur glanced at him. "Extradition laws."

"I mean why are they doing this? The cops. The—the government."

The truth was often inconvenient and usually awful. "Stephen was one of the original architects brought in to Project Somnacin. It was top secret, everything, but he taught Mal all of it and then she stole the PASIV technology. They knew immediately, of course, but the project needed him so they couldn't do anything about it. They used it against him, though, keeping him while Mal went dreaming. They made him use her. It's why his wife left him. It's how I knew to find you all those years ago. It's why Eames let Mal bring him home with her. A lot of the people who came through to investigate your research weren't who they said they were, they were people in mind heist or who wanted to be. Stephen ran most of them off. Mal wasn't…she wasn't in it for that. Neither of you ever were but they can use you, if you need what they can give you."

"You were trying to fix things," Dom said slowly. "The lawyers you were always talking to weren't lawyers, were they? You were trying to fix this."

He was trying to be a better man than he was.

"Unfortunately we need a bigger stick. Or at least a lot more money."

Dom shifted against his seatbelt. "Then I'm going to get it. I'm not going to run away." When Arthur looked over Dom was staring at him, eyes piercing. "I don't care how illegal it is. I don't care how morally questionable it might get. My children…"

Arthur looked back at the road and pulled a sharp turn. "You're going to have to prove yourself to people. You're a researcher. They're going to have to know that you're in this."

"I don't have much to lose, Arthur, and I'll risk anything to keep what I've got. How's that for proof?"

 

It was better than gold, was what it was. Arthur had been known in the right circles for years and Dom had been known of in those same circles. Dom turning up to work was like a rock star taking the stage. Everybody knew he was up for anything as long as the money was good. Everybody knew he was a genius and innovative and desperate.

Desperation was as alluring as pricy perfume in the right circles.

The jobs were far flung, well financed, and high profile. They were illegal and risky. They had their pick of dangerous jobs and they picked a lot. Arthur had never minded danger or back to back jobs before.

Not before.

But they failed a lot, messed up extractions that should have gone smoothly. Dom was always trying something, always searching for something that would get him enough to go home on. Arthur was along for the ride and it never ended and he didn't like it anymore. It aged him inside in a way days and days of dreaming never did. It made him call Eames at odd hours of the night or day. It made him e-mail and text and reach for him because Eames was somehow something immutable. Somebody to be certain of.

He took jobs on his own, sometimes, left Dom in other countries while he went away. He was hoping to clear his head but the jobs just made him feel run down, like he was chasing something else for a moment instead of Dom. He felt like an old man, a failing fighter, going to Eames, tracking him down to some Belfast pub just to talk. He felt like an idiot when Eames was waiting for him with two pints and a handful of darts.

"Honeymoon over already, Arthur?" Eames asked, handing him a drink.

From the smell of the liquid in the glass it was poteen and Arthur wrinkled his nose. "What the hell do you know?" It was a legitimate question. Eames undoubtedly knew something. Probably a lot.

"Drink up and I'll let you know once you've finished spilling."

 

During their third game of darts and after at least four rounds of drinks and possibly some food, Eames asked. "Why don't you just tell me the main bit and we'll skip all the other stuff as always, yeah?"

Arthur threw another dart and hit just off center of the board. He cursed in Gaelic just to check how drunk he was. "He's too intense. I get that he needs this, that he wants nothing more than to go home. He needs the work but there's no time to actually enjoy the job. Jobs. We're too busy running from people to sit back and like any of it. The thrill of being chased wears off after the first handful of bullets."

"Mm, well, you're certainly making names for yourselves, I'll give you that. Lots of people looking to chase you down these days."

"I want more than that," Arthur snapped as Eames' dart landed next to his own. They were evenly matched. Playing was almost pointless. "If I wanted to do stupid shit and get myself killed I'd have stuck with you after Mexico."

"No you wouldn't have done. I didn't want you to, remember?"

He set his darts down. "I didn't want to go with you. Do you remember? I was—" He'd been driven by the want of something more than reality. He'd needed to stretch and explore and take what he found and use it well. He'd needed the freedom and the thrill of the challenge, the chase. He'd been happy—or if not happy, at least content—with the Cobbs and the balance between working and going to a place where he could have a place if he wanted. At the very least content to see and work with Eames again, to remember once more why they'd went their own ways.

He sat down heavily at the bar. "It doesn't matter. We'd have killed each other before too long. We didn't. We get along all right now except for when you're being an asshole."

"So condescending. You're not exactly a day feeding ducks at the park yourself. We might certainly have tried to off each other, I suppose you're right there," Eames agreed easily. "But we'd have always got on all through it and again out the other side. We always have and that's a fact. You're on the brink of hating Cobb, aren't you?"

Oh, he was. "He's a good friend."

"That's why you hate him for what he's done."

He was ruining the best thing Arthur had, grinding away at it with his hopelessness, his misery, and his inability to just let go. "He's not going to get what he wants this way. Even with the reputation he's building. I know it and he knows it. It's been almost a goddamned year. He's going to burn out. He's burning me out and I—" he was the only thing keeping them from getting killed some days "—it's not going to work, no matter how many extractions he does."

Eames' hand was in his hair, scrunching up the pomade and making a mess of it. "Then find a different way with him. Or leave."

"I can't leave," Arthur admitted. Eames' hand was heavy on his head and the warmth of it eased the near-constant headache behind his eyes.

Eames was watching him when he looked up. Arthur watched his muscles flex as he took his hand back and he remembered sharply don't ask, don't tell, do not—. "Of course you can, Arthur."

Arthur snorted and drained the last of his last pint. "No, I really can't." He looked right back at Eames, eyes hard. He couldn't leave. It wasn't leaving if you carried somebody around in your head like an inverse of a totem. If you couldn't forget how much you wanted to remember. He could never leave. "You know that I can't."

Eames stared back at him, something like anger in his eyes. "Arthur…"

"Your flight to Kenya leaves in an hour. You might want to get yourself to the airport, Eames. If I recall correctly you owe several favors and a lot of money to some people there."

Like a spell had been broken Eames surged into motion, throwing money at the bartender and grabbing for his suit coat. "Fuck me but I have to—I meant to—damn it, Arthur." Eames paused for only a second. "Dream bigger, yeah?"

Stupidly it made Arthur laugh. "Thanks for being specific."

"Oh, piss off," Eames said and was gone.

Arthur went back to dreaming and wanting more than he had and wondering when it would finally be what he wanted or if it would finally just end.

He dreamed and dreamed and wanted more.

 

When it came, it was not how Arthur thought it would end. Not with this sweeping change. Not with a powerful Japanese business man who wanted—of all things—a level playing field and a leap of faith. Not with the goal of leaving the seed of an idea rather than taking the fruit ripe on the branch. Not with inception. Eames, he thought, would be pleased as punch with the whole thing. Eames was going to give him so much shit when he showed up. Eames.

"So, who is this Eames guy?" Ariadne asked.

Arthur paused briefly as he was wrapping the PASIV cuff around her wrist. He went back to making sure the needle wasn't jostling as he fastened it tight. Ariadne knew that Dom had gone recruiting. If she'd heard the name it was because they were on their way back. "Eames is a forger. Thief. Con-artist." He shrugged and attached the tubing and the electrical lead to the cuff on Ariadne's wrist and then on his own. "Call it acting if you like. He's the best at what he does." He pushed the button even as he stretched out in the lawn chair.

"But you don't trust him," Ariadne said as he joined her in the dream. It was a nice office building, tastefully done in cream and beige and taupe and earth. There were touches of glamour to it, though, with live plants and real artwork on the walls. It was pretty much perfect with the spikes of chrome surfaces and plate glass windows. Arthur was impressed.

"Nice," he said. "Now, let's see if I can find your paradox."

"But you don't trust him," Ariadne said again as they walked.

Well, he wouldn't think she was competent if she wasn't persistent. He smiled, felt his lips twitch against his will. They owed Stephen for her. "No, I trust him." He tipped his head. They were on her paradox, a hallway with an ugly potted plant. "Lose the plant. It's a nice touch but obvious. The projections might be sort of dumb but the subjects won't be. Fischer won't be."

"Right."

Ariadne didn't sound like she was talking about the plant and Arthur walked her paradox again. "I trust Eames," he repeated, "but he's…"

"I'm simply lovely," Eames said. He was leaning against the wall in the place the plant had been. He was beaming at them, scruffy and effusive and broad. "I'm a lamb."

"Jesus, really?" Arthur sighed.

Eames looked down at himself. "Am I Jesus, then?" He smiled delightedly at Arthur. "I knew you liked me," he said charmingly. He turned to Ariadne and was even more charming. "He likes me, really he does."

Ariadne laughed and stepped toward Eames, hand coming up for a shake. "I'm—"

"He's a projection," Arthur interrupted even as Eames took her hand and kissed the back of it.

"I'm hurt," Eames said with a mild sort of pout.

"A projection?" Ariadne asked. "Yours?"

Arthur very carefully didn't roll his eyes and shot Eames in the face with the gun he always carried on him in dreams. It was, as always, satisfying to watch him fall down and then step over his body. "Yes, one of mine," he said though he could see that she was already wrinkling her nose a little at herself. "He's fairly accurate." He thought of Dom and the new Mal that clawed in his subconscious, treacherous and cruel under the weight of all Dom's inexpressible guilt on her. He thought of Eames who never let anybody know what they really had in him. "Don't base your opinion of him off of it; never let anybody else tell you what to think," he told Ariadne.

She smiled and tapped the side of her head, telling him that she would remember that. "You don't like him."

There was always somebody who thought that. Somebody who saw the distance kept and couldn't fathom how it was both true in and of itself as well as a minor mirror image, a reversed reflection. "It's not that. It's just…." There aren't words, Arthur thought.

There was no way to explain the world of himself and Eames in a way that made any real sense. Eames was the first person to ever kill Arthur in a dream out of mercy. Eames was the first person to ever get Arthur riotously drunk and the last person to let him sleep in his own vomit. Eames had spent hours shooting with him, even more hours going over hand-to-hand combat with him. Eames had visited his mother and had taken him shopping for his first suit because, he'd said, he felt like he'd kidnapped a child and not a decorated soldier of the American military and a suit made him look an adult. How did he explain that Eames was the only person to ever get Arthur arrested and the first person who'd ever tended to Arthur's gunshot wounds—namely because Arthur had stepped between the bullet and Eames.

How did he tell Ariadne, still innocent and still in school, that Eames had attended a funeral with him, had been his getaway driver the one time he'd needed it, was his sounding board and his imagination. How could she be made to understand that Eames got into his head and he got into Eames' and they couldn't be in the same space for long without acting like dicks to each other and they never worked with anybody so well as they did each other. How could anybody understand the divide between them that pulsed like a heartbeat neither of them wanted?

It was never that he didn't like Eames it was only that…

"…he's Eames," Arthur said. It was out loud because they had already woken up. Arthur would have been surprised at how long it actually took him to find the only words that worked but honestly he couldn't be. It was Eames.

"You always make that sound like such a bad thing," Eames said, kicking the lawn chair lightly. "And after I brought you a pressie, too." He dropped a manila folder on Arthur's chest. It pressed on the weight of the die in his pocket and he knew it was real. Or at the very least, reality.

Arthur barely spared Eames a glance. "It'd be a nicer present if you quit pissing off the mungiki. I had to pull some strings to get you out of Mombasa. Saito had to pull strings." He flipped open the folder. A handful of papers about—and photos of—Peter Browning and Robert Fischer spilled out, a bit of history in silver-salts and type written text. Eames had notes crammed between the spaces left over, sloppy and rude. "What do you need me to do here?"

Eames gestured, not nearly as expansively as it seemed he should. Arthur always remembered that part wrong and he knew it. "Kick over a hornet's nest for me; I'm going to be a paralegal."

"Legal work. This is funny on two levels," Arthur said, already lining up what needed to happen to get Eames in. "They've got nothing here that would bring them in if pushed. Nothing in England, off the top of my head. Maybe Australia. Give me a day."

"Given," Eames said. But it was distracted. "Who is this lovely creature and why am I not supposed to fall utterly for her. Somebody, please, do break the suspense."

Arthur knew that Eames was sizing things up, figuring it out. He arched an eyebrow at him instead. "No."

Ariadne laughed. "I'm your architect. Ariadne. You must be Eames."

"I am captivated," Eames assured her.

Arthur swung out his legs and stood up, the PASIV lines coming undone with absentminded ease. "If this were any sort of legal job you'd be sexually harassing her."

"You'd be sexually harassing me but you don't see me being uptight about it." Eames beamed at him from far, far too close.

It figured, Arthur thought, that Eames wouldn't have the good graces to step back when he stood up. He never had before, after all. "Brush up your résumé, Eames, I don't actually need the full day." He put a hand on his chest and lightly pushed him back a step, letting his hand linger for just a moment.

"I never said that you did," Eames said, his hand coming up to cover Arthur's, cupping warmly over it for a second before Eames pushed it away, as Arthur was already pulling it away.

Hello, Arthur thought. I won't say I've missed you.

Dom came in with their new chemist at that moment, Saito right behind them. There was a round of introductions to which Arthur paid strict attention despite that he'd already looked into Yusuf far more than Dom had done.

Gathering a team was the easy part of the job. Learning to work together…that would be the harder part. That was the fun part, though. And Arthur could feel it, the beginning of that fun, that rush. He hadn't felt it in a long time, with Dom. It felt like waking up, like living.

 

"Do you trust him—Yusuf?" Ariadne asked him later.

Arthur didn't look up from his laptop screen. "He's already in so it's a bit late to not. But—" As much as possible in this business, he thought but this was her first job and probably her last. "Yeah. Eames vouched for him. He's good at people."

"Thank you for that," Eames said, leaning hip-cocked against the back of Arthur's chair, appearing as though from out of nowhere. There was a mirror set up half way across the open space in front of Arthur's desk—Arthur had set it up for Eames specifically—and Arthur watched Eames in it. Eames smiled at Ariadne. "Ariadne, you are so very shiny that you all but squeak. It's time for me to rub that off."

"Ew," said Ariadne. Arthur was proud of her. When Eames had first said it to him he'd gone along with it and got himself killed by trapdoor spiders.

"Cobb's already killed her," he interrupted mildly.

He didn't have to be looking to see Eames' eyebrows raise just a smidgen. He could picture it clearly, an ineffaceable tell. "Really? That must have been lovely. So which was it? Top or tail?"

Arthur snorted and Ariadne looked confused. "Which…?"

"I threw up," Yusuf volunteered, shaking a vial and coming over to stand. Arthur thought idly about moving his work table out of the center of the room. "Thankfully I had the sense to not eat before going under but even tea doesn't make a very good companion coming up."

"Arthur here," Eames said magnanimously, "shit himself."

"I did not," Arthur sighed. He had only nearly done and it was only in his files at all because he'd still been green enough to tell the full truth to the people in charge when they'd asked for everything.

"Only because of that stick rammed so far up your—"

"Really, Eames? That's what you're going to go with?"

"It's reflexive, Arthur, no need to be embarrassed," Eames spread his hands innocently.

"I'm not because I didn't." Arthur folded his arms, "And it's all because of a little something called 'having a working sphincter'. You should know what that is because you're an asshole."

"You're a bad man," Eames said sweetly.

"Wait, what? Before you two devolved into children you said—" Ariadne broke in and then off to take a deep breath. "I just…I just yelled at Cobb."

That made Eames whistle. Arthur had thought it would. "You were killed by a—" he paused to look to Arthur for the answer.

"Knife to the gut." He mimed it quickly and nodded at the impressed look Eames shared with him before switching it completely over to Ariadne.

"—and you went right to reaming out Cobb?"

"She stopped to ask a few questions while he woke up," Arthur put in.

"I'm in love," Eames declared. "Come away with me and be my queen."

Yusuf laughed. "On your own time, Eames. I need to do a test dose on her as she's been under only rarely. And a blood draw. Just a vial or two, with my apologies," he gave the slightest of bows to Ariadne, who was already turning back her shirt sleeve.

Arthur watched her walk off with Yusuf and his waiting liver-panel before going back to toppling legal dominos.

"This is a good team," Eames said quietly. "This will work."

Arthur stopped typing. "It could. Even if it doesn't, it will end things."

"Will it?" Eames asked mildly as he picked up Arthur's discarded newspaper. "End things?"

End. Arthur watched Eames shuffling the newspaper back into order and thought about that. He'd be back to working on his own. Back to loving what he did. Back to what he'd been once. Or as close to it as he could get given the emotional ricochet of working with Dom. "Change, then, but yeah. End."

"You shouldn't conflate changing with ending, Arthur."

"You shouldn't be a pain in the ass when I'm booking your flight to Sydney. I'd hate to send you away when you've only just arrived."

Eames laughed, low and liquid and delighted. "I do believe you would."

Arthur couldn't deal with it. "Whoops, looks like your plane leaves in an hour."

Eames laughed again, louder and brighter, and this could work Arthur thought.

 

There was background research to be done while Eames was away, mazes to build, to memorize, and a plan of action to broach to Dom. He still waited until Eames was back to bring up teaching Yusuf and Ariadne and Saito how to fight or, at the very least, to shoot. He also made a mental note to make Yusuf their level-one dreamer to give them a steady place to fall back to if needed. Arthur was seesawing between emotions and the dream wasn't stable because of it. It wasn't really very noticeable but Arthur's job was in the details.

"It's necessary."

Dom wasn't happy about it; his body set like his spine was made of concrete. "They don't—I told you, I've got this. Trust me," he verbally swiped at Arthur as the dream trembled around them.

"I do." He always had. Even if he hadn't or didn't now, it had been too many months of too many things with Dom for the words to have any impact anymore. The world shook a little bit more noticeably. "But if they're going down, they're going armed. I don't care if it's a churchyard in his head."

"I once cold-cocked a nun," Eames said reminiscently. The dream was crumbling around the edges from tension rising in Arthur. "In a—oh, what's the word?"

"Abbey?" Ariadne offered helpfully.

"Church?" Yusuf tried.

"Nun factory!" Eames said decisively. "The mark literally had them stamping out nuns in his subconscious. And I went bare knuckle with one of them! Isn't that right, Arthur? You do remember, don't you?"

He did remember. He remembered the way they'd laughed in the dream and out of it, remembered shadow-boxing on the street after. The dream steadied. "Yes, we're all very proud of your blasphemy," he said like an indulgent pat on the head as the clock ran them up and awake. "Now go forge us some papers so we can arm the innocents." He let Dom have an arched look.

Dom squinted at him. "I liked it better when you two were against each other, not me."

"We're always against each other," said Eames, sprawling more firmly in his chair. "We are perpendiculars, Arthur and I."

"Guns, Eames, focus."

"I have other things to do," Eames said loftily. "Besides, I already did those papers."

Dom squinted at Eames but Arthur nodded. Eames was good at what he did and part of what he did was giving Arthur what he needed to do his own job.

"Why real guns?" Ariadne asked.

"Because as Arthur has apparently not explained to you in the midst of your maze building," Eames said, getting up and going to the mirror, practicing some motion over and over again "you're actually limited in the dream world. When you build it, when you fill it, you have to know what's there and what you're carrying. You must know because if you have to think something up on the spot you're going to call attention to yourself and the rest of us and then we all die horribly."

It wasn't as though Arthur had been neglecting that but damn it, he'd been busy. "You have to know what you're handling if you want it to work and you have to actually be able to hit a target to do it in a dream," he explained. "You might be able to learn in a dream but that doesn't translate to muscle memory in real life and the same holds true in reverse: you can't give yourself a skill set you don't already have."

"Bullshit," Ariadne said. "Don't tell me you've never flown a rocket to Mars in your dreams or been a mermaid or…or…it's a dream."

"Those are natural dreams. In something like this… It's more to concentrate on," Dom said quietly. "It lets too much of your subconscious loose. You bring in more than you'd think, when you think."

Arthur let it go. He and Dom had history together. He had to let it go. "Eames once tried to forge himself into a dragon and all of his projections turned into his mother. Naked."

"Piss right off, there's a good lad."

 

The hard part was working together, taking down the walls. Being together, letting somebody else in to the place where you thought and felt and got confused and wondered if you were lonely.

 

Arthur had a lot of late nights but he wasn't the only one. He could always hear somebody rustling around in the corners of the building—Arthur was still the hub since all the information came to him in the end, no point in not being central—and it had been long enough that he could always tell who it was just by listening closely.

Any time it took him more than a minute to place who it was, he knew it was time to take a breather. When it took him a full two minutes to realize that it was Ariadne, working on her mazes, he took an actual break, getting up and going outside for a cup of coffee.

"Shit, already?" he muttered. Paris was dark with shops closed for the night. If he wanted caffeine he'd have to spend almost nine Euros just to get a coke from the machine on the corner.

Or pick the lock and free one. He got one for Ariadne while he was at it.

"—know her?" Ariadne was asking as he made to open the building door.

Arthur froze, inside and out. "Yes." Eames said. There was a pause, a soft rustle of movement, a beat. "Yes, I knew her."

He couldn't see them but he knew that they had to be by his work table. He could picture the way Ariadne's arm had hugged tight to her stomach all those days ago. The awkward, ugly angle of holding herself together. "Arthur said she was lovely."

"Lovely." He couldn't see them but he knew Eames well. He thought that Eames was probably giving nothing away, giving Ariadne only what she wanted to see. He was probably looking like he was wide open when he was actually as closed off as a windowless room with no door. "She was that. She was opinionated and fun. She liked to have a laugh. A darling sense of whimsy to her."

"Oh." Then, "I guess you knew her pretty well."

"As well as I could in this business of ours. Better than most," Eames said. His voice was soft but his expression must have been very final because Ariadne didn't say anything else.

Arthur missed Mal dreadfully for the space of one heavy heartbeat. He missed the way she'd laughed and been silly and so curious and smart. He missed the way she'd always been so delighted with him, so much Eames' partner-in-crime down in the dreams, so in love with Dom and their children and her life and her work. He missed that life. He missed what should have been between that time and this, if it hadn't come crashing down.

He stepped back and ran straight into Dom. Shit. Shit and fuck. Dom took his arm and led him away from the workshop, ambling away into the night even though Arthur had a metric fuck-ton of work to do. "Get some sleep," Dom said. Arthur nearly rolled his eyes because he knew that Dom wouldn't take his own advice. Monkey see, Monkey do as you're told.

"You too," he said anyway, half habit and half hope.

"Good night, Arthur," Dom said softly as they parted at the corner. Dom had the other coke in his hand as he waved slightly, walking towards his hotel. Arthur went home. Or, rather, to the flat he kept in Paris as one of his houses he kept in case he needed to go to ground—a place he never went unless he was hiding.

It was an older building, a bit shabby, but with lovely windows that he opened wide to chase out the stale air and let in the lavender darkness. He leaned out just a little, feeling the breeze against his face. He was never here unless he was hiding. Out of all the people that he knew he was pretty sure that only Eames knew about this place.

And that he had followed him there. "Your neighbor's cat is prowling around out front. In heat," he said. "Be sure to kick it publicly so you're not offered kittens."

"Come in, Eames," Arthur muttered dryly, turning to see him framed in the doorway. "Make yourself at home." He didn't mind the way he should have, but that was always the way things were with Eames.

"Don't get in a strop," Eames said primly but he did come in and he did sit down on Arthur's white sofa, dark against the fabric. He looked like a down and out diplomat in his slightly out-of-date style of suit, with its wide lapels and fairly boxy cut. He looked familiar and like a stranger both at the same time. Sometimes Arthur could almost still see the SRR soldier in him and at times he couldn't picture it at all despite the memories. He wondered if Eames had the same problem.

"What do you want?" he sighed. He found a bottle of wine in the cupboard and two glasses that he had to blow the dust off of before going to sit with Eames.

"Honesty, what else?" Eames said. "If not that, then a clearer picture." His face creased. "What's Cobb hiding? You know I won't work in the dark, Arthur. I'll walk away despite the Cobblets."

It said a lot. Not so much about Eames but about the type of danger they were walking into. He wasn't going to like it. Arthur pushed the wine at him "You won't like it," he warned.

He didn't, not one little bit. "Wonderful," he bit out when Arthur finished his summary of everything from the debacle of extracting Saito to just why Ariadne knew about Mal. Eames threw an arm over his eyes. "Why are you in this?" he asked. "This is pushed far beyond even your limits. And before you start, I know you want to say it isn't but I know you better so don't bother."

Arthur didn't answer. It was almost shameful how many times he'd run through all the ways he could cut ties without consequences. He could be out easily. It was shameful but he couldn't even feel it anymore. Eames' knee pressed against his own, warm and immediate. Arthur blinked. "Because otherwise I'm a heartless shit and I like to have some illusions about myself." He drank his wine and smiled into it, not that he meant it. "Because I like a challenge. Because I actually care. Because I'm sorry." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Pick your poison, Eames." He rolled the stem of his glass between his hands.

"You're not sorry. You've got more than dreams." Eames put a hand on his shoulder. "No matter what Cobb's lost or gained, you shouldn't be sorry for what you have."

"I'm not apologizing."

They drank quietly together. The night stretched around them, sleepy and slow like a yawn until it was as dark as the city ever got. Three a.m. in a light-smudged sky. Eames got to his feet like it was some sort of cue. "Chin up, Arthur. And close your windows; there are cats breeding out there in the night."

Arthur nodded but didn't move. He left the windows open and fell asleep on his couch.

In the morning, Maurice Fischer was dead and it was time to move. To move on. To start and to finish. They had to go.

 

At the airport he ended up in a lounge with Eames. "I don't," Eames began suddenly after hours of silence, "actually give a toss how this job goes off." Technically they weren't supposed to be talking to each other but then again, they weren't supposed to be in the same airport lounge or on the same flight to Sydney either. Unexpected maintenance. It made Arthur a little paranoid but, at the same time, being on the same flight as Eames felt safe.

"Hm?" he asked, surfacing from double-checking the manner of maintenance that had forced the shared flight.

Eames was flipping a poker chip through his fingers. "This job. I want it to work but if it doesn't I don't really…I'm not going to live or die on this. Do y'know what I mean?"

"What the hell, Eames?"

"Do you still dream, Arthur?" Eames asked instead of answering.

Arthur picked up his takeaway cup of coffee. "Sometimes I think you're insane, you know that, right?" He looked at the dark depths of it, the near oil-slick shine of the surface. "But no. Too much time under."

"Miss it?"

"Yeah. Sometimes, I guess." Sometimes it felt like missing a warm bed, soft blankets, deep sleep, a body beside him. "A little."

"Right." Eames said.

He couldn't tell what it meant. What it meant to Eames. He looked over at Eames, sprawled out in the molded chair, He looked at him and looked and looked until Eames was the only thing he could see. "Do you? Dream?"

Eames laughed, bitter and dry like French vermouth. "All the bloody time; it's a thing with forgers, you know. I can't stop dreaming, you lucky bastard."

Arthur was suddenly, unutterably glad that Eames was there. This inception had the potential to be a complete shitshow. It had the potential to be the biggest thing he'd ever done. He couldn't imagine doing it without Eames, couldn't imagine how it might happen without this moment. "Right," he returned.

"It's messed up," Eames said. "This thing with Saito and Fischer and Cobb. All this rubbish they're going through. Saito wants to build an empire on Fischer Senior's bones and doesn't seem to see that he could be Fischer at the rate he's going. When this works, when Cobb goes home he'll still bring Mal with him and what will she do to the Cobblets if they only ever see her in his eyes? Have you thought of that?"

He had. It wasn't entirely pleasant but he couldn't help thinking that at least the kids stood the chance of keeping Dom steady, could do what Arthur couldn't any longer.

"And if you think of that, Arthur, then you'll see how it leads right to Fischer Junior. Saito and Cobb and the want of his father all equals out to him getting his head fucked with. Because his father was always willing to sacrifice him to his bloody company and Saito and Cobb are perfectly willing to sacrifice him to their own ends. In trying to make their own way, they fall right into the footsteps they're wiping out."

It wasn't the most comfortable of thoughts but, at the same time, it was the price you paid when you sat at the table for high rollers. "Look on the bright side," Arthur offered. "At least we've brought Yusuf out of his den and brought Ariadne into the field."

"Ahh, Yusuf and Ariadne. They're brilliant, aren't they? But they're just fodder for the fight. Doesn't matter who they are, does it? They're like something you can kind of shop around for if you need new. An architect, a chemist."

"Morbid," Arthur said. "Probably true but still morbid. It also applies to us, you're aware. We shop around for people, we're replaceable too. A forger, a thief, a point man. Are you having doubts about doing this? Because I will shoot you if you try to back out."

"I'm not backing out and I'm not having doubts. Weren't you listening? I don't give a toss about this job beyond thinking it's a grand adventure and a lovely bit of head fuckery that I find fascinating. I wouldn't mind it working out but I'm in this because I like what I do and I do what I like and you confuse me so very much, Arthur."

"You're confusing me right now," Arthur told him sincerely. "Are you trying to say we're bad people because we're not more personally invested in this and we know it? I think I already knew that about both of us. We're pretty much mercenaries with a side of Mafioso. I am at peace with this."

"What was your last dream?" Eames asked after a moment.

"I—" He wanted to say that he didn't remember but he did and Eames would know if he lied because he was Eames and it was what he did. He was Eames and he lived in the back of Arthur's head all the time. He was Eames and Arthur didn't really want to lie to him anyhow. "I dreamed about Mexico. That last time."

Eames raised his eyebrows. "Fancy a shag, then?" he asked. "Something quick before we go? The toilets are right over there. I can have you off in three minutes."

Arthur flipped him off in answer. "I am so fucking glad you're here for this, Eames, really." It was sad how much he meant that, the irritation and the words both.

"This is probably the biggest job I've ever done. My point…" Eames' poker chip disappeared and his pocket watch came out. Burnished gold in his hands and Arthur wasn't sure how it worked—if it told the time, if it had stopped, if there wasn't a watch face at all. Eames stared at it and then put it away again. "My point is that it changes a lot of things, works or not. And it changes nothing, works or not. I should care but I'd rather hear about your last dream than about Cobb going home. I should care about this because of the interesting things its going to do to the world power structure but mostly I just…I don't know. I don't. This is the biggest thing I've ever done. With you." Eames met his eyes. "Here I am with you. Again."

"I know," said Arthur. They were going to do something wonderful and terrible and who knew what sort of war it would kick off or if it would buy peace for anybody and the one thing he cared about most? The fact that Eames was there and in their simple state of being together they were simple compared to everything else. It wasn't anything. It wasn't even an important part of what they were doing. But it was the thought that had come to define it for him, to define the idea of inception: being there with Eames beside him in a quiet moment, the last quiet moment.

"I know," he said again "and I'm glad you're here."

 

His eyes snapped open and it was almost like waking up in the first days of Somnacin sleep—like being shot in the face except this time it was emotional and Arthur hated it more than he hated getting shot in the face. What a waste, he thought.

"You're up—can you get the others?" Yusuf demanded. "I've got to toilet right bloody now."

Arthur nodded. Of course the flight attendant wasn't here—they were hours early in waking and her job, at this point in the schedule, was to keep anybody else out. He disconnected the tubing and lead and pulled out the needle, sliding off the cuff and ditching it. He and Yusuf were up first because they were the first two dreamers. Eames would be next.

In the past, Arthur would have gone right to Dom, to make sure he was rousing, or to Ariadne or Saito because they were still new despite the months of practice. After that he'd have gone to Fischer who was going to be under a bit longer but not by very much because a kick was a kick. Instead he went to straight to Eames and stopped him before he could pull his needle. "Let—" he said and he had to clear the fog of sleep and stupidity from his throat. "Let me." He knelt beside Eames' seat and reached for him.

"We've done it," Eames said, stopping his hands. "If they never know it, Cobb and Saito, we've still done it, us." He smiled. "We can charge Fischer for fixing things with his father, yeah? You can still get into the bank records, can't you?"

What a fucking waste, Arthur thought again, shaking his hands free and easing the cuff off of Eames' wrist. All of that, all for a chance, for going home, for feeling wanted. He hated how feeling made him feel. He hooked a hand around the back of Eames' neck and kissed him the way he hadn't in Mexico: urgent and hot and gilded with yearning. He pulled back. "Get Cobb and Fischer unhooked. I'll get Ariadne and Saito."

Eames gaped at him before getting to his feet and asking, bemusedly, "Yusuf having a leak?"

Arthur dealt with Ariadne's cuff as she showed the fist signs of stirring. "Yeah. Don't leave the airport without me. I've got a place in Venice Beach."

"I know you have; I bought the flat next door." Eames still sounded bemused. "We've been neighbors for going on four years."

"I know that. One of my aliases is on the building committee. I gave the final okay on your application. I'm saying don't go anywhere. Come back with me, all right? Eames?"

Eames rolled down Fischer's sleeve, fastening the cuff link, before saying, "All right."

 

They were supposed to take two separate cabs to the apartment building but Arthur decided in the airport that it was stupid despite it being his own rule. Anybody who knew about mind-heist and dream sharing would either know or be able to find out very quickly that Arthur and Eames were both in the business and worked together semi-frequently. Being on the same plane together was pretty much a giveaway that they were, or had been, working on something.

"Look at you, breaking the rules," Eames chuckled as Arthur climbed in beside him

"You're a bad influence," Arthur told him.

"True, that," said Eames cheerily.

Arthur looked out the window and listened to their driver argue in Albanian with his girlfriend on his cell. Off of the plane, out of the airport, away from the others, he was having…not doubts but something. A feeling.

Eames leaned forward against the back of the front passenger seat. "I would not call my girlfriend's mother that if I had hopes of ever getting into her knickers again," he said in passable Albanian.

Arthur snorted, suddenly amused. "Don't take his advice," he said, well aware that his accent was too heavily Kosovo, "he's been in precisely zero relationships."

"I've been in exactly one, thank you all the same, Arthur. And just how many relationships have you had, then?"

"Several." But only if he counted Eames and Dom and Mal. "And yet I'm not offering advice, am I?"

"Mal and Cobb don't count," Eames told him, settling back. "Telling him not to listen to me is the same as advising, it's counter-advising, and that's wrong. Especially if he wants to get laid again. You do want to get laid again, right—" Eames leaned forward, checking his information "—Bashkim?"

The driver ignored them the rest of the way to the building and right through getting paid. Eames lapsed into silence but Arthur wished he'd keep talking. He hated silent car rides with Eames. They very rarely ended up sitting comfortably in Arthur's head.

"Second thoughts?" Eames asked as they dragged their bags to Arthur's door, just one door down from Eames' own. Eames hadn't even paused at his door, had walked right by it without a glance.

Arthur, keys set in the lock, stopped for a moment. "I don't do this," he said at last. He didn't mean the sex and he knew Eames would know. They kept track of each other, they always had. He knew about Eames' hook-ups and Eames knew about his one-night stands. No, he knew Eames would know what he meant. He didn't do this. He turned the key but didn't open the door. "Nothing has to happen," he offered.

"The bloody fuck it doesn't," Eames said, reaching around him and pushing his door open. "I'm having you and the neighbors will think we're killing each other in here by the end of the night."

He laughed even as he had to blink—eyes stinging suddenly and unreasonably. He pulled off his tie in quick moves, stuffing it in his pants pocket. "Asshole. I had this place soundproofed when I bought it." He dropped his bag, listened to Eames drop his. He shrugged out of his suit coat and unfastened his braces.

Eames' arms came around him and his fingers were deft on the buttons of his shirt. "I had done as well. Pity or I'd suggest mine."

Arthur let his head loll back against Eames' shoulder. "I did have the connecting wall between our bedrooms thinned so that we could break through it in case an emergency evacuation became necessary; if you're really that into listening I suppose you could go home and I could stay here."

"Prick," Eames said, so much naked fondness in his voice that it set off sparks in Arthur's bones. He felt one hand leave his buttons and slide up the bared skin of his chest, palming warm over his neck before settling against his cheek and pushing him to turn his head and take the kiss Eames was offering. He moaned softly in the back of his throat, opening to it.

The kiss was gentle, not the clash of teeth and tongues that Arthur might have been expecting of this moment, the moment he never really let himself think about. It was gently parted lips, soft and quiet breath and the soothing swipe of Eames' thumb against his cheek. It was delicate touches of tongue and the way one of Arthur's hands fell to cover Eames', which had reach his waistcoat and was working those buttons. It was the way he lifted the other, the way he let it drift up to mirror Eames' touch on his face, stubble rasping under his palm. He didn't do this.

He didn't stop. He sighed and twisted for a better angle and the only sounds he could hear were their lips moving together, their clothing moving against each other, their breaths coming in counterpoint. "Eames," he didn't mean to say it and had nothing to say after but thought that perhaps his hands moving to undo the buttons on Eames' shirt said enough.

"Eager, aren't we," Eames murmured against his mouth and that fondness was there laced through with amusement.

Briefly he debated pinching him but instead took his hands off of him. It was a bit of a struggle—Eames was warm and solid under his touch and it had been a long time since Arthur had had anybody and an even longer time since he'd had Eames in any way at all. "Sorry," he said, breaking the kiss and stepping back.

Eames laughed at him. "Bastard. Come back here; I liked it. You know I like it."

He made a picture, pressed back against Arthur's door with their suitcases around him and his shirt half open and laughing. It took Arthur's breath away and he never did this. Not with anybody and certainly not with Eames. Oh god, he thought. He grasped the open edges of his shirt and tugged. "I don't. Why don't you tell me how much you like it?"

"Christ," Eames breathed, moving as though Arthur's gentle pull on him was as strong as the moon on the tide. "I really like it."

"Specificity," Arthur requested. He could feel his lips curve into a smile even as Eames' mouth found his again.

"You've got dimples," Eames told him. Arthur pulled away, dodging Eames' attempt at another kiss in order to give him a half-meant glare. "I already knew you had dimples; this is not a surprise," Eames offered. "It's only that I rarely see them and I like them a lot. They're cute. Still makes me feel like a fugitive from NAMBLA, though."

Oh, god he didn't do this, he thought even as he laughed a little helplessly, falling into a kiss he didn't intend to give. "Come to bed with me," he whispered into it. "Eames, come to bed with me." Inside he felt desperate and helpless and afraid, but only in the corners of himself, in the cracks and vulnerable places. Outwardly he sounded confident and calm and soul-destroyingly tender.

"Lead the way."

"You need a map?" Arthur blinked at him. Their apartments had the same layout, only reversed.

Eames pinched him. "Be a good host now, Arthur, and give us the tour." His lips were wet and his shirt was half open and so was Arthur's and he was raising his eyebrows expectantly. "Are there scheduled times, then? Am I early? Shall I wait for the rest of the group to arrive?"

Arthur couldn't help the bark of laughter. Jesus, Eames was a jerk. "You're such a jerk." He put his hands on Eames' broad shoulders, turned him, and stripped his jacket off before pushing him in the direction of his bedroom. "Eames, this is my apartment," he said matter-of-factly. "This is the bedroom." He shoved him inside.

"Lovely," Eames said enthusiastically. He was looking around and seemed pleased. "You didn't make your bed. You left your blankets all in a mess." He beamed at Arthur. "I know for a fact you've not been here in months. The sheets are going to smell like must and dust and pillow mites."

"Boo-hoo," Arthur said, undoing his cuff links. "Call the Hilton if you don't like it."

Eames grabbed the hem of Arthur's half-buttoned shirt and yanked up, pulling it off over Arthur's head along with the waistcoat. "I never stay at the Hilton," he said seriously, dropping Arthur's inside-out clothes on the floor in a heap. "Have you never heard of the daughter? No, thank you, I shall stay somewhere more upscale than the Hilton."

He didn't understand how Eames could make him laugh and lust at the same time. Arthur shook his head. "Guess you'll just have to deal with the dust and must and mites."

"With pleasure," Eames said, distracted as his hands slid over Arthur's skin, so warm that they made gooseflesh ripple in their wake. "I know you won't like me doing this—" he started to say.

Arthur shivered and began flicking open the remaining buttons on Eames' shirt. "I rarely like anything you do," he mumbled, jerking the tails from where they were tucked in, pushing Eames' shirt off his shoulders. "I rarely like you. But go on."

"You like me," Eames argued. His hands were tight against Arthur's back, burning hot. "But you won't like this," he went on before Arthur could argue just for the sake of arguing. Eames pressed in close, let Arthur pull him closer. His mouth skimmed over Arthur's neck. "You won't like it but I am going to raise the most glorious love bite the world has ever seen."

Arthur helpfully tipped his head back, giving Eames more skin to work with. He dug the fingers of one hand into the heft of Eames' shoulder, the others he twisted in his hair, holding him in place as his mouth sucked at him. He hated hickeys. He sort of hoped Eames marked him in ways he couldn't hide. The rush of his blood to the surface was sharp and stinging, undeniable. "You're such a dick," he gasped breathlessly, shivering in want.

"This is my limbo," Eames' words were chill on his overheated skin, the tender place that had been under his teeth and tongue, "an endless stretch of your lovely skin waiting for me to come along and mark it all up."

"Narcissist," Arthur said, dragging his hand through Eames' hair, mussing it more. "I'd never let you."

Eames kissed the mark he'd made and lifted his head, smiling at Arthur. "Yet you just did." His eyes were blue-grey, sky and storms and sunshine. He wasn't looking at him deeply but Arthur felt pierced nonetheless. "What could possibly have let you succumb to that, hmm?" There was a smile in his eyes again and his hands were roaming Arthur's back, grasping his hips.

Arthur shivered again but it wasn't with pleasure even though Eames was pressed so closely against him. "I don't do this," Arthur said. "I don't do anything like this. I—"

"Do you think I don't know that?" Eames interrupted. "After all this time, do you really believe that I don't know this about you?"

Arthur had given too much away, laid himself open and he wasn't even naked. "Eames."

"Really, your level of condescension knows know bounds." Eames said it conversationally and then cupped his face. "I'll be careful, Arthur."

It made Arthur's heart race. "I know," he said. Not a whisper, not a shout, just the creak and crack of letting the door open and the armor fall. "Stop talking now." With a sudden burst of energy he pushed Eames, hooking an ankle as he did so, so that Eames fell gracelessly backward onto the bed. He followed him. "Kiss me again," he instructed as he reached for Eames's belt buckle.

"Point man even in bed," Eames hummed into his mouth. "I'm shocked."

"I'm serious," Arthur muttered. "Shut up now."

He didn't.

Of course he didn't.

"I've thought of you in bed," Eames said, voice low and filthy. "Thought about spreading you out beneath me and fucking you open. Thought of how to make you writhe and scream and beg. Thought of how you'd make me beg for it. Your mouth, your hands, your lovely cock."

Arthur felt his heart skip a beat, lust clogging up his veins and stopping it momentarily at the images that invoked. "Fuck," he breathed. His fingers fumbled at Eames' fly, trembled on the button, the zipper.

"But we're neither of us the sort who begs, are we?" Eames kissed him, wet and just as dirty as his voice. "I think you could make me. I think I would, for you."

"Fuck, please," Arthur heard himself say hoarsely.

"Ask me nicely," Eames instructed but there was more in his tone than just the desire, the want—there was amusement and affection and Arthur could hear nearly ten years of history and closeness.

For a moment everything dropped into a dizzying freefall, a lurching lunge into nothingness, like an elevator ride with no gravity—he didn't do this, oh god he really didn't do this kind of thing he really—and then his back hit the bed and Eames came rolling down on top of him, all skin and muscle and sharp angles and heat and weight. "Please," he said again, entirely without meaning to.

"Yes," Eames breathed, kissing him hard. "Fucking hell, yes."

It had been years since Arthur had been in close-quarter-combat with Eames but he still knew how to get him where he wanted him. "I hope you aren't expecting finesse," Arthur said into his mouth. He flung one arm around his neck, threw a leg over his hip, and, in a move that wouldn't have been countenanced on the practice floor, shoved a hand down his pants. Eames was hard and silky hot in his hand and Arthur wasn't sure but he thought he might have gasped at the contact.

If he made a noise, however, it was overwhelmed entirely by Eames' rumbling groan. "Oh, sweet fucking hell, yes please."

Arthur arched up against him. "God damn it, Eames, get your hand in my pants before I flip you."

"Don't think that I haven't missed that," Eames told him, biting into another kiss, "but christ I need to get my hands on your cock."

Despite how much he wanted Eames to touch him he still snarled when Eames' yanking at his zip disrupted the rhythm he was building. "Asshole," he growled, tearing his mouth away.

"Next time," Eames said, mouthing messily at Arthur's cheek, his jaw. "I promise you, next time. For now just let me—"

The first touch of Eames' hand to his dick made him throw his head back and keen, made him curl forward again with a short cry, a mewling sort of whimper. "I have to—" he said, his hand going tighter around the length of Eames in his hand. There was a clawing desperation in him, a ferocious need to make Eames come, to make himself come. It was too dry and almost painful but it was also too good, too much. He stroked faster, harder, his knuckles dragging over taut muscles and crisp, wiry hair. He could smell sweat and musk, himself and Eames. "I've got to—"

"I wanted to do everything to you," Eames whispered against him, biting at the place where his mark was throbbing under Arthur's skin. "I wanted you on your hands and knees, behind me, above me, up against the wall. In my mouth, on my cock, fucking my tongue, riding my fingers, all of it. I wanted to take my time and touch you everywhere, wanted to taste you all over, fuck, Arthur, I wanted to take ages with you but I can't. 's too much. You're too—"

He knew what Eames meant, had his own tearing greed for more fighting with the urgent need for now. His hand moved faster, keeping time with the tight, frantic pull on his own cock. Eames' hand, Eames' pace. God the things he wanted. Eames. "Eames, fuck. Fucking shut up." Eames was wrecking him from the inside out.

"Arthur," Eames' voice was nothing more than a rasping scrape, the twist of his wrist and the possessive grip of his fingers given sound. "God, Arthur."

"Please." Fuck. Fuck, he didn't do this. He didn't do—"I want…" he panted, scrabbling for thoughts and phrases "I need…" He opened his eyes and met Eames'. It was somehow almost unexpected to see Eames right there looking back at him. Almost shocking. To say 'need' and open his eyes to find—"You", the thought came artlessly, like a dream collapsing. He didn't have to find a train of thought or any words. It was all right there.

He fell silent, save the sob of his breath in his lungs and arched under Eames, body bowing like a bridge. He stroked faster, harder, swiping his thumb over the head of Eames' cock. He could feel the slick glide of precome and his mouth watered with the idea of pulling his hand up in order to lick it away, tasting Eames on his skin. He moaned, could feel his throat working, but it was soundless.

Eames' mouth moved in a wordless whisper, silent things that Arthur could hear anyhow. His name, over and over, want again and again. He clutched at Eames, pulling him down desperately because it was now, it had to be now.

When he came he was silent, staring into Eames' eyes. Eames followed a moment later, just as quietly and just as wide-eyed.

For a moment they were a paradox: they were shaking and they were still at the same time, separate but with the spill of sticky, wet heat connecting them. A Penrose tableau formed between the curve of stomach and the swell of mouths.

Then Eames shifted his head, Arthur moving in response without a thought. Their lips brushed, becoming a kiss. Arthur could feel the way Eames pressed himself into it. "Again," he whispered. "Please. More."

"Yes."

Yes.

 

Regret, or something very much like it, hit him in the morning. The sky was just barely pink when he woke up and he woke up to Eames sprawled on his stomach next to him, face turned away, toward the door. Eames' arm was flung across Arthur's chest, heavy and overly warm.

Arthur had slept beside Eames before, and not just Somnacin-induced stuff but real sleep as well. He knew Eames slept like that. He knew that if he fell asleep with Eames that he'd wake up with an arm over him and that he'd be too hot even with that small amount of contact, knew that Eames would be watching the door in his sleep. None of that was new and the knowledge crashed through him like a car accident, a train wreck.

"There you go," Eames said softly.

It took a moment to gather enough moisture to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. "You're awake?"

"You went tense," Eames said by way of explanation.

Eames spent his time between extractions taking jobs in the real world, cons and thefts and risky dealings that kept him sleeping lightly. Arthur shouldn't have expected anything other than Eames waking up when he did. He usually did, when it happened that they fell asleep together.

Usually it wasn't naked.

"There you go again," Eames said and he turned his head to face him. Arthur watched his eyes flicker and shutter, something slamming shut in them. He rolled onto his back. "What, already?"

Arthur didn't even bother to pretend. "This shouldn't have happened. Not—" like this "—at all. This was a mistake." The words were tight in his throat, bitter in his mouth like ashes and chains.

"Oh, really?"

"You know it was." He didn't want to look at him, didn't want to see him. He looked anyway.

"I really don't. Please enlighten me," Eames snapped, naked and supine and Arthur had known this was coming. He'd walked away from Eames, had watched Eames walk away, because he'd known.

"Nine years we've known each other, Eames, and this has never happened before," he said unable to keep the ragged edge of guilt out of his voice. "There's a reason it didn't and we both know it." His job was in making the smart call, the right call. He'd failed at it, again. Inception was a terrible idea.

Eames glared at him. "You're right: it didn't and yes, we do. It started out with a good one—the one with the military and then where we were going in two different directions job-wise. But the rest of them were because you were scared and I was scared and we were both cowards for a while and then there was grief and Cobb and several many brushes with the law sprinkled around in there and none of those is any good reason for why now was a mistake. So what did I miss, hm? Which reason out there is convincing you to be a complete and utter shit at balls o'clock in the morning?"

He'd always known that Eames was smart and sharp and lethal. Arthur closed his eyes. "This one," he said. "The one where we wake up and we do this."

The bed jerked with the force of Eames sitting up. "Let's see if I follow. You're saying that the reason we can't get on with this is because we wake up and we fight about how we can't get on with this? Because all the times that we have never woken up together and never had a row about how we have a row when we wake up together has convinced you that we will always wake up together and start an argument first thing? Are you fucking mental, Arthur?"

Arthur swallowed down a sigh and opened his eyes. Eames was gorgeous and striking and darkly furious and Arthur sat up, too, sheet pooled in his lap. "Eames," he said, guilt and a kind of grief forming a sticky lump in his chest, where his heart should have been. "This is my fault. I shouldn't have. I never wanted—" He stopped himself from saying it because he shouldn't have but he'd always wanted. He'd always known he could have it and he'd always stopped himself because as much as he had wanted this there was so much more that was worth having. "I'm sorry."

"I don't believe I want to hear that."

"We've been this for so long, Eames," he said. "We work well together, we always have and this? Having sex? Sleeping together? It's not worth ruining that."

"We work well together," Eames repeated flatly.

It sounded so much worse when Eames said it. "And we're friends."

"You are a proper twat," Eames said, getting out of bed. He stood beside it bristling and naked and blunt. "Did you rehearsal all that rubbish? Just in case we ever ended up together like this despite your best intentions and you needed to run away?"

"I'm not running," Arthur said. He felt heavy and tired, pressed down and short of breath.

"Spare me," Eames growled. "The one thing we've always been is honest with each other—even when all else was lies and classified.

Arthur took a hard breath. "Fine. Yeah, I've thought of it before." It was the only part he'd really let himself dwell on. "There's always been the edge of this…thing…between us. But if you look at it objectively, all of it together from start to finish, even you can see the way it's all been manufactured. The artificiality." The military had put them together; the dreams had sunk them into each other, the small pool of talent in their field kept them close.

"Artificiality." Eames was still, watchful. "Artificiality, Arthur?"

"It won't work. I'm not going to let you pull me into that, Eames." Not the bantering, not the bickering, not now. Now was the time to clean up the loose ends of the night, of inception. They could go back to normal when they were both dressed, the hours sticking between their skins washed away. "I won't."

"Well I'm not for putting up with your bullshit," Eames said tersely. "Do you even listen to yourself, Arthur? Do you actually convince yourself of these things? Have you fallen so far down the rabbit hole of paranoia that you believe anything you've just said?"

"Eames," he started, feeling fed up and reasonable, "quit being an asshole."

That made Eames close his eyes. "Not to be a child but: no, you stop."

"Eames."

"For nine years we've built mazes around this. We walked around in each other's heads but never tread on this. One of us was always walking off, getting out of it, and I didn't mind that. I never did because it wasn't going to work and we both knew it. Even though I missed you when you were gone, Arthur, and I know that you missed me. Don't even try to say you didn't because I know better. I know you."

"Of course you do." Of course he did.

"Could you shut up for two seconds? Save the condescension for later. I'm saying that when we started we couldn't get on well enough to make a go of it but it's different now."

Arthur couldn't speak, could only look at him. And look and look and not know what the hell he was seeing anymore. "What?" he managed after a moment. "What the hell are you talking about? Nothing has changed."

He could see the moment Eames' tension snapped. "Sorry to disappoint but it has. I am not afraid of having something with you, to figure out being with you because right now it's harder to not. I'm not afraid of you, you wanker." Arthur wanted to ignore the way Eames' voice strained on the last word but he couldn't. He simply couldn't. "You can say all you'd like about what could go wrong or will go wrong but I don't care. It will go wrong, all of this, maybe, but I'm sick of the distance and I'm sick of the caution and fuck it all sideways but I'm sick of not having you. I don't particularly like feeling this way, Arthur, not in the slightest. But here we are, then. Not having you is worse than standing here and fighting with you about something that—as it stands right now—is a proper fuck up of not actually existing."

Arthur wanted to tell him to get out but he couldn't seem to pull in a deep enough breath for it and by the time he finally could Eames was already storming out of the bedroom.

Moments later he heard his apartment door slam open and closed and then, more distantly, the door of next door. He buried his face in his hands and spared one moment to laugh at Eames stalking out naked where all the neighbors could see before he closed his eyes and gave himself one more moment to do his best to not congratulate himself on being right.

When it was over he lifted his head and opened his eyes. Nothing had changed. Not really. The room around him was just the same as it had always been, if he ignored the smell of sex and Eames. They'd pulled off inception but that was somebody else's head, somebody else's life. Nothing had changed no matter what Eames said. Arthur wasn't wrong. Things had happened just as he'd known they would. He was prepared for this. Nothing had changed and there wasn't any point in sitting in bed all day. Especially not sitting there covered in the remnants of the night. Arthur swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood.

Then he sat back down.

He was wrong; Eames was right.

Things had changed. Not being together was going to be harder work than being together. There had always been relief in walking away from Eames before, always a sense of it being necessary and it wasn't there now. Whatever he'd gain from not being with Eames wasn't worth what Eames had left with moments ago. He'd told Eames that this wasn't worth what they already had but that was no longer true. He didn't like unnecessary risks, but this one wasn't. Not anymore. Now it was vital and he was going to have to roll the die, loaded or not.

Arthur had precisely no experience with serious, lasting relationships. His longest relationship was with Eames. His most serious relationship was with Eames. The only person he could think to talk to about this new development in his life—not that he'd ever, ever want to talk about it—was Eames.

The one person he couldn't talk to? Was Eames.

The realization was a lot like looking at Eames' face for the first time, hearing his voice, and knowing viscerally that his life had been changed in a way that was irreversible. Eames had become a part of his life, as insidious as an idea, deep as a dream, more permanent than a thousand tattoos. He needed Eames but more than that, more, he wanted him.

He wanted him around, being insufferable and exasperating and so much fun. He wanted him around not caring if Arthur wasn't a good person and willing to indulge the bad habits and vices. He wanted to be able to send him to Sydney when he was too much to deal with, wanted to leave him in Mexico when he was too close to handle. He wanted him there when he turned around, with the getaway car and the darts and a kick.

Yet he couldn't tell him that. He had bad luck with words where Eames was concerned. He either said too much or too little. He shouted or he silenced. Talking to Eames led to Eames talking back and he could never predict Eames very well, the things he'd say or what he'd do. He couldn't plan around Eames.

But Arthur had found a way to blackmail two different governments—one of them twice—and he'd been able to drop people in zero gravity. He was creative when it counted and if anybody would understand the importance of a gesture, it was Eames.

Arthur scrubbed a hand through his hair. The problem with a gesture, of course, was in finding the right one. Arthur, being who and what he was, gripped his hair and thought of all the options possible, mind-mapping them out in his head like a whiteboard at a planning session.

Naturally the first thought he had was the most obvious choice; candles and wine and roses. The cliché of it nearly choked him and he could all but hear the withering stare that Eames would direct at him and the dry 'no imagination' that would come with it. Eames wouldn't believe it if he tried it, wouldn't think he was serious at all.

He needed to be creative to give his words weight, he thought. He supposed there was always skywriting, which Eames would get a kick out of it, he was sure. But he didn't want his words out there for everybody and that went double for his name and Eames'. He wasn't even sure what he wanted to say and he doubted his ability to condense it down enough for a pilot to spell out. Arthur wasn't great with words that conveyed anything more than his sense of irate displeasure. He sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair. No, skywriting wasn't a workable plan.

Which left open the possibility for the words of somebody else to speak for him, of course. Except that wasn't…it wasn't right. This was between himself and Eames and not himself and Eames and dead poets. Reciting poetry was one step a way from a lovely card and being laughed at anyhow. And it lacked creativity and that meant a lack of sincerity at this point.

Strip-o-grams, which he was sure Eames would absolutely revel in, was probably the most creative thing he was going to come up with, Eames, he was certain, would be both impressed and proud but—again—all of this was between himself and Eames and not themselves and other people. Especially other naked people. Hell no. Arthur folded his arms and glared at the wall.

Possibly the most serious option was the one in which he started taking only jobs that featured Eames. But it would take too long to establish the fact that it was purposeful and permanent and there was no telling when, or even if, Eames would notice. Besides which, Arthur was already certain that he couldn't stand having steady co-workers for every job no matter how competent they might be. It would work but Arthur wasn't going to like it if it did. And shooting Eames because he was continuously there and Arthur was continually irritated wasn't going to end well for either of them.

Dragging Eames back into bed had more merit than anything else but using sex to forget about an argument about sex probably wasn't going to work either. Not without backfiring spectacularly at any rate.

"I can hear you thinking from here, Arthur," Eames' voice drifted into the room. "How bloody thin are these walls?"

He had no choice but to cheat, Arthur realized. He was going to have to go with the simplest, most basic version of what he wanted to get across: I want you here. It meant repurposing an idea he'd used before but it had worked then and what he needed more than anything at the moment was something that worked. Eames would know it was sincere. Eames had known then, had come for him without Arthur asking. He'd know. He reached under the bed and pulled out the sledgehammer that he kept there. "Thin enough that you want to take a step back," he said. He put a hand on the wall for a moment before bracing himself, hefting the hammer and bringing it down.

"What the hell?" Eames yelped.

Arthur pulled the sledge free and swung again. "I don't have any C4," he said calmly. The wall was opening up nicely and he could see Eames staring at him.

"You are a crazy bastard," Eames said admiringly.

"Old news." Squinting at the wall, Arthur didn't answer Eames and instead brought the hammer crashing down again and again once more before deciding enough opening up had been done for Eames to get through easily. He set aside the sledgehammer and folded his arms. "It's too early to be awake. Come back to bed, Eames."

"Delighted you asked," Eames said, pushing aside drywall and stepping through.

 

Waking up again was accompanied by a split-second jolt of panic-laced 'we are so fucked' feelings. Arthur tensed.

"You're not a restful soul to wake beside," Eames said from somewhere to his left.

Arthur felt something settle in his stomach, something warm-edged and soothing. "Don't tell me you're surprised."

"Of course not," Eames said mildly.

Eames flexed the hand resting on Arthur's stomach and Arthur gave up and looked at him. "I'm not ticklish, Eames." He lips twitched. "You can stop trying."

"Maybe you are and you don't want me to find out," Eames told him, voice rich in amusement. "Until the risks outweigh the possible payoff, I'll continue on as is, thanks very much." His hand moved down, scratching through the hair low on Arthur's abdomen. "Who knows? Maybe I'll find something useful."

His hand cupped warm over Arthur's burgeoning erection and Arthur arched into it. "Other avenues of inquiry are greatly appreciated," Arthur said mindlessly around small gasps of air.

"So many words," Eames murmured. "I'm doing something wrong."

"If you'd—" Arthur struggled to get a decent breath as Eames' hand cupped his balls, tugging on them lightly. "If—oh, hell." He rolled to his side, up on to his elbow so that he could get at Eames' mouth but stopped even as he dipped to kiss him.

It wasn't that he'd forgot about the hole in the wall it was more that he hadn't really confronted it. There was a very, very large hole in his wall. He could see Eames' apartment through it. Arthur shook it off and bent to lick at Eames' lips, drawing back teasingly. Rather, he meant it to be teasing but the hole caught his attention again.

Eames shifted and nipped at his chin. "I am doing something wrong. What's so—oh. That's a right large hole, isn't it?"

Arthur nodded even as he ran a hand over the hard muscles of Eames' chest. "Yeah."

"It's like it's looking at us." Eames said. His hand came up and covered Arthur's where it had stilled as they both looked at the hole.

"Holes can't look at people," Arthur said but he didn't disagree.

"It's gaping at us," Eames said and Arthur could feel the faint catch of a laugh under his hand. "I think it might be sentient." He pressed his lips together, making a hard line with his mouth. "I refuse to be with you intimately while there is a gaping wound of a hole in the wall."

"Very subtle, Eames." Arthur appreciated the sentiment, though. Besides which, and more than anything else, having a large and unpredictable exit—even if it only went next door—was something that skittered on the edge of Arthur's senses. It was incredibly distracting. "But I agree. Get up. Let's fix this."

 

After everything—the morning, the previous night, inception, his life—somehow going to Lowes with Eames in tow was one of the more surreal things Arthur had ever done.

Eames seemed intent on exploring the entire store, looking at shelves and switch-plates and garden gloves while Arthur trawled Google on his phone, looking up ways to fix the damage done. "That's quite ornate," Eames said, picking up a towel bar. "It'd never work unless you had the world's most pretentious bath. Or maybe if it was just fantastically out of place, that might do."

"I'm not putting it in the bedroom," Arthur said, glancing at it briefly before tapping a likely link. "And I'm not redoing the bathroom."

"I didn't say you were," Eames said cheerfully. "But if you ever wanted to, this would be lovely. And I think it's heavy enough to kill a man if you can wrench it free and hit him."

"You can kill a man with a sharpened, well-aimed paperclip if you have the right motivation," Arthur said, looking up from the phone screen. "I need mesh tape and 'hot mud', and—what the hell is all of that?" He frowned at the shopping cart that Eames was pushing. There was a lot more than the drywall knife and the receipt paper for the piece of drywall in there.

"Joint compound, paper drywall tape, a mud knife and a sanding sponge," Eames said. "You might as well fix it properly. Paint sample?" He offered out a fistful of strips of paint.

Arthur looked from the paints to the cart to Eames' face. "According to the internet this way—" takes days "—is more difficult. I don't want to hire somebody to fix my fix."

Eames feathered out the paint samples, waving them a bit. "I know how to do up a wall, Arthur," he said. "My grand-uncle is a builder. He taught me a few things, yeah? We can handle this."

Shopping with Eames felt domestic and strange. Hearing him talk about his great uncle (who actually did exist and who really had been in construction) was somehow more personal than Arthur was strictly comfortable with. But he let Eames put needles under his skin and pour chemicals into his veins. He let him walk around inside his subconscious regularly, and he'd already had sex with him. He'd demolished a wall to get through to him. Sharing a DIY project wasn't really such a big step, no matter how much it felt that way.

"Okay."

 

"This doesn't fix things," Arthur told him later, feeling distressingly domestic.

Eames wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist. "I'm assuming you mean this morning and not the new bit of wall we're putting up. So, yes, no, it doesn't and I know that."

They'd been in and out of each other's minds so often, in each other's lives for what sometimes felt like forever; Eames knew him, could follow his thoughts. He could follow Eames'. They didn't have to talk about it. Arthur could let it lie, if he wanted. Which he did but this was also one of those things that needed some certainty. "This isn't a declaration, Eames."

"Again, I know that."

"Will you shut up and listen? I don't love you."

"Ouch."

"Eames. I don't and I don't want you to start reading everything I do as some sort of…gesture." Eames raised a hand as though in a classroom. "This morning counts as a gesture," Arthur hazarded. He huffed out a quiet laugh at Eames' mollified expression. "But I'm not in love with you." Maybe he wanted him. Maybe he even needed him a little. But neither of those was love.

"That's this, then," Eames said, patting the wall and seeming to ignore Arthur's statement. "We'll have to wait for it to dry to sand it down. But for now, it's patched. Let's see how it holds." Eames looked up at him. "I'm not in love with you either, just so you're aware."

Arthur let out a sigh, feeling tension seep out of his shoulders. He knew what it sounded like when Eames lied and that wasn't it. "Thank god. It'd be weird if you were, if we were. This whole day has been messed up. That sounds worse than I thought it would," he said in afterthought, an almost verbal wince. "I'm not saying—" He wasn't sure what he was or wasn't saying anymore, actually "—never," he decided.

"Lesson I learned from Fischer: Sometimes thinking it might be there is good enough and sometimes thinking that it's good enough is good enough," Eames said philosophically.

"We told Fischer those things," Arthur reminded him.

Eames smiled at him, perfectly serene.

"You're not funny, Eames."

Humming, Eames stood and there was drywall mud everywhere but Eames was kissing him, slow and thoughtfully. "You like me anyhow."

Arthur pushed him away with a smile. "I'm considering liking you." A lot.

 

It was strange, having something with Eames, but even stranger still was how very normal it all was. After inception, after that night, after that next day and the one after, things went back to normal. Arthur came back to the apartment in California after some jobs, saw Dom and the kids, saw Eames when he was in town. After other jobs he dropped in on other people he knew in other places and sometimes saw Eames if he was around. He worked, he went back to his own places, he went on vacation to places where he was pretty sure nobody had a price on his head.

The only thing that had really changed was that Eames was there more, planned on and deliberately there more, on more of his jobs, at some of his vacation destinations, in so many of his places. And when he wasn't there, he was somehow still present. More present. Sometimes Eames stole things and left them for Arthur to find: pieces of art or forged documents or weapons, tangible things that Arthur could put his hands on. They lingered on intangibly in his mind and Arthur found himself leaving bits of himself around for Eames. He pulled strings for Eames even in jobs they didn't share or he upgraded Eames' rental cars into low-slung, high powered sports cars. Sometimes he sent Eames a bottle of wine and two glasses.

Perhaps the biggest change, that still seemed so very strangely normal, was that they had sex. A lot. There had been entire days together where they'd barely managed to get out of whichever bed they had found themselves in. Arthur, after nearly nine months, was still sort of drunk on all of the sex.

He was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something to go wrong, for himself or for Eames to remember that they were a terrible idea and an even worse reality. He was sure from the cagey way Eames watched him at times that Eames was waiting too.

It—whatever they were or weren't calling what they had together—didn't interfere with working together the way Arthur had once thought it might, even as wary as they both were. It didn't make it any easier, either. It did, however, mean procuring one less emergency-exit-strategy vehicle when necessary. Whether or not it sometimes had a hand in making it necessary was occasionally a relevant, hotly debated point of concern.

Arthur tipped a look at where Eames sat in the passenger seat, watching the Italian countryside rolling by. They'd given up arguing and had lapsed into an accepting silence miles and miles ago. "Thanks for the assist back there."

"You do so hate being shot at," Eames said, and Arthur could see the slight smile on his face from the corner of his eye. He opened his mouth to say something, possibly to remind Eames that when they were together for too long he did stupid things and took stupid chances, when Eames suddenly straightened out of his slouch. "What's that, then?" Arthur knew Eames wasn't talking to him, something confirmed when he said, "Take a right, when you're able, Arthur."

"Hm? Sure." They were safe, well away from Turkey, and Eames hadn't reached for the gun in the glove compartment yet so Arthur didn't mind indulging him, following his on-the-fly directions until they stopped in the middle of nowhere, miles from anything but a derelict church. There was no rectory house, no graveyard, just the exposed-stone building with moss heavy on the roof and panes of intact stained glass here and there in the windows. "Eames?"

Eames was already out of the car, pulling at the solid doors with their wrought iron handles. "I've seen your builds, Arthur," he called, shouldering his way into the church. "I know how much you like buildings and this one you will love." His voice echoed just slightly, round and rich

Arthur followed him in, unable to help himself because Eames was right—he did love buildings, not just the sleek and modern but this, too, this church with the high ceilings and vaulted arches and the iron staircase that spiraled tightly up to a wide, open choir loft. "She is lovely in her bones," Arthur said softly, looking around. There were holes in the ceiling and the stone floor was damp, the woodwork warped in places where the weather had crept in. The facings on the bricks was chipped off, rubbed away, the curtains of the confessional torn to mildewed rags. But it was a beautiful space.

Eames was smiling at him, happy and surprised. "I'd put up paintings in the main here," he said. "Wild abstracts done in oils. Big, bold things in fussy ornate frames that think they can contain it all. I'd put a kitchen in the sacristy, the dining in the apse. Would have to have the bath in the baptismal—where I would do absolutely horrible things to you—and I think I'd like to have in that towel bar, as well. The pretentious one that can kill a man. Should there be two? One just for towels and one for self defense? Something to think on." His smile deepened and Arthur felt his own form in response. "A fireplace in the confessional, maybe, put 'round with great deep chairs and a monster of a sofa, yeah? A place to stretch out." He was back to looking around the forgotten church around them, so incomprehensibly Eames in his views.

It was something that Eames did, on occasion. Like looking at people and figuring out how they worked, sometimes Eames looked at a place and thought of how it could be worked, forged into something other than just what it was. Arthur, in the abandoned little church and listening to Eames' well-meaning plans to defile it, could have said something about Eames and his irreverence or about himself and his not-so-very-religious Jewish upbringing but he was charmed. He felt his heartbeat go soft in his chest for a moment as he watched Eames dream a little, wide-awake and unashamed.

"And I'd have a bed in the loft. The light would be lovely, all burnished up gold with dust motes in the slants." Eames finished peacefully, contentment in his tone. Then he asked, "What about you, Arthur? I know you've got some little bit of imagination to you. Come along, what would you have?"

You, in the tall grass and wind poppies, stretched out naked under me in the sunshine, with a breeze that smells like pink heather and wild rosemary. I'd have you, Arthur thought as he looked at him making love to me outside before doing it again in the bedroom loft. He didn't say it, though. Eames didn't mean anything in his dreamy planning and Arthur wasn't sure if he did himself. He shook his head slightly and crossed the floor to Eames. He pushed his hands into his pockets before leaning into him, ghosting a kiss over his mouth as the first flakes of a Tuscan snow began to drift down around them. "C'mon," he said as he stepped back. "It's cold in here."

"Wait," Eames caught his arm, catching him back. "One more," he said and Arthur went willing into the kiss, stayed despite the sigh of the wind as the kiss slid deeper and deeper, delicate and true. This was why people dreamed, natural or Somnacin induced, he knew this was why.

I couldn't dream this, he thought, eyes fluttering open as the kiss ended and Eames' eyes met his, holding him, holding on to him. He kissed him again, helplessly. Nobody could dream this.

 

He almost wondered if that was why the disaster of himself and Eames being himself-and-Eames had yet to materialize. Maybe it never would, not to the extent that he had always feared. Maybe it had never been a real thing at all. Maybe…

"I've been cock-blocking myself for years," Arthur mused into his beer.

Dom nearly spit his own beer across the table. "Jesus, Arthur."

"You and Mal once had sex in the kitchen while I was in the dining room," Arthur reminded him archly. "Where, I remind you, I was setting the table for lunch."

"Oh, yeah," Dom grinned for a moment, for a moment he was the carefree guy he'd been years ago, before it faded into something softer, older, sadder, wiser. "I don't want to say that you grew up but..."

"Please don't."

"You grew up, Arthur. Both of you did. You can handle things now. It's the difference between the Danielson job and incepting Fischer."

It was too simple to be true. Arthur gave him a dark look and then shrugged. "Maybe." Maybe he over thought things. Maybe he was too worried with pulling in all the details to make a bigger picture, maybe it was like having too many bits of information and not knowing which were useful and which weren't. Maybe— "Cobb!" he jolted as his chair tipped precariously.

Dom huffed out a laugh as Arthur settled his chair back down on all four legs. "Which job is he on, anyhow?"

"Eames?" Arthur blinked. "The Wisniewski-Rey out in Syria but he'll be home in a few days. They're making the grab late tonight." He frowned at Dom, who was smiling warmly at him. "What?" Dom kept smiling at him. "Seriously, what?"

Dom didn't say and Arthur got distracted by the kids until it was that golden time of night, tuck-in time, story time, and the whole world was mid-summer dusk with the sky stained watermelon pink in the place where the sun had gone. He left to let Dom wallow in his children and his home and the minutiae of his everyday life.

He figured it out, though, when he got back to his apartment and found Eames in it, halfway to sleeping. "Hey," he said, shutting the door softly behind him. Eames smiled at him from the couch, drowsy and sweet. "You're home early," said Arthur and then stopped.

Because that was it.

"We had the opportunity for the grab and we took it."

Home. He'd said 'home' and he'd said it twice and he'd said it without a thought.

Worse yet, Arthur realized, he didn't particularly mean this apartment, the one that had Eames installed next door. He didn't care for the apartment in Venice Beach any more than he did for the twenties house in East Sheen or the flat in Paris, or the sprawl of his place outside of Rio, or his bungalow in Singapore.

"Not the sort of mischief you'd get up to, taking an early drop," Eames was saying, still sleepy and smiling quietly, unconscionably honest. "But I did want to get home to you."

To you and that was what Arthur had meant when he'd said 'home'. He'd meant Eames was going to be with him, he was going to be with Eames, and that was home. It was horrible and wonderful. It was a riot inside of him.

It must have showed.

"Arthur? Are you angry?" Eames looked bewildered. "Because if you are I would like to take this time to say that I stole something for you: a very ugly painting of some sordid-looking geezer who will creep you out in the middle of the night when you're up to have a piss."

Eames knew Arthur had secret love for the strangest things, things that were 'very un-Arthur' as Mal had once said. Things like portraits that made his skin crawl. Just like Arthur knew Eames delighted in theft for the sheer joy of getting away with something. Just like he knew that Eames would bring him military secrets from any country he was in any time he could get them, as a souvenir. He knew. And Arthur had gone and bought the church in Maremma simply because Eames had dreamt there and kissed him in the midst of it. He hadn't told him about that yet. He hadn't because—

"Fuck me," Arthur sighed.

"I'm a bit tired," said Eames. "Can we have a lie down first?"

Arthur shook his head and finally left the door. He stood over Eames for a second before he gave up and straddled his lap, sinking down against him. "Do you remember the first time we slept at your place?" he asked as Eames' arms came up around him.

Eames' hands wandered over his back, gentle and sure, touching for the sake of touching. "I'd ask which you meant but I don't really need the specifics as it was just next door. We'd gone a few rounds here and couldn't be arsed to change your sheets. I didn't want to sleep in the mess so we changed venues."

"Do you remember that night we were so drunk that we couldn't remember having sex?

"Vaguely," Eames said and Arthur could hear the smile in his voice. He pinched him and Eames pinched back. It was more like a tickle. "I remember waking up sore and filthy and you were in the bathtub and there was a chandelier in the bed." He yawned, head turned to the side, jaw cracking before he looked back. "Was there something you were after with this? In particular?"

Arthur felt like he was lost, like he was found. He could live like this, he thought, with Eames this close to him, with Eames right there, with their arms around each other. He could live in moments like the one building itself around them. He could love Eames. He could love him so much. "I bought your church," he said. "I was going to give it to you for your birthday."

"My birthday is seven months on so if you're thinking it counts as an early present, you're wrong. I'll be expecting something on the day itself."

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Arthur demanded, drawing back to look at Eames' face. And he might have been cursing but his arms were around Eames' neck and his knees were firmly planted on either side of Eames' hips and he might have been glaring but he'd been more annoyed by Eames in the past for ruining lesser moments.

Eames cupped his face. "There you are," he murmured, "I've found you." Arthur felt his glower deepen, his irritation ratchet up. Eames smiled. "My Arthur," he said authoritatively, "is a grumpy bastard who wishes he didn't like me as much as he does. So he makes cranky faces at me and that's when he's most lovely. You're more beautiful than you have a right to be, Arthur." There was a catch to his voice, like a secret. "I don't know how you're even possible."

Inside his chest, Arthur's heart did something that was almost skipping a beat, almost falling, almost twisting, almost bursting, almost stopping, almost racing, almost helpless, almost overflowing, almost a little bit of everything but mostly it was. It was…

Home.

Love.

Eames.

Yes, he thought and Arthur closed his eyes and leaned into the touch of Eames on his skin. Inarticulate, inelegant, as off-balance and real as a totem, he thought, this.

He kissed the heel of Eames' hand and then the inside of his wrist before opening his eyes. Eames was watching him with dark eyes. He met him halfway when he leaned into a proper kiss. It was languid with a blurry edge of tenderness, the sort of kiss that Arthur had tried not to give out too often because he had never known what it meant and he had never known what he'd wanted Eames to think it meant.

Now he knew. Now he couldn't stop. He melted into it with a sigh. When Eames pulled back, Arthur followed, chasing his mouth into another kiss.

When Eames finally managed to break away by turning his head, Arthur nestled his face against Eames' neck, nosing into the soft space behind his ear, smudging the corner of his jaw with kisses soft as a whisper. "I was serious about that lie down," Eames said breathlessly.

Arthur bit him. "Why are you such a douche?"

"Hours and hours of wakefulness combined with air travel," Eames said. "What's your excuse?"

Shifting his weight, Arthur sat up and considered him. "I'm in love with you," he said finally.

"You win."

Arthur leaned back, gaining perspective. "Seriously?" he asked. "That's it? That's all you're going to say to that?"

Eames surged to his feet, hands hard on Arthur's ass to support his weight. "I can't believe I am this tired and still I must take you to bed."

"Put me down," Arthur said even as he wrapped his arms and legs around Eames, taking on some of his own weight as Eames staggered. "We're practically the same size, jackass. And I didn't say anything about having sex with you!" Not that he'd say no, not now, not anymore.

Nuzzling at his cheek, Eames braced him against the doorjamb for a minute, catching his breath. "You were pouting. You'd gone and made your romantic declaration and when I didn't swoon you pouted."

Arthur deliberately dropped his full weight against Eames' chest, sending them crashing into the room and onto the bed. "Fuck you," he pleasantly.

Eames rolled them over, holding him down. "I've already said I'm tired," he said plaintively. But Arthur could see the filthy, dark promises he knew so well. He could see contentment, warmth, and the way Eames genuinely liked him. He could see feelings he couldn't name and one that he could but wouldn't because it was Eames' job to name that one, to tell him that one.

Mostly, though, what he could see was a bone-deep exhaustion clouding over all the other things. Arthur slid his hands into short strands of Eames' hair and brought their foreheads together. "I know. Go to sleep."

"I love you, all right?" Eames said, his eyes searching and serious. "This is terrible timing, for which I will blame you later, but I love you. I just need a few hours of sleep and then we can be ridiculous about it."

Arthur hummed quietly. "Go ahead and sleep." He brushed a kiss over his mouth. "I'll be here when you wake up."

"I really want to be ridiculous with you," Eames said, eyes already closing. "Just a few hours, I promise."

"It doesn't matter how long," Arthur admitted softly, easing them to their sides, shifting them up the bed. "Take all night. I'll be here." He took a breath, a chance. "Forever."

The look in Eames' eyes broke his heart, but beautifully. "Forever?"

"Yes." He looked away and then reached over Eames, pulling at the edge of his quilt. It was too much work to wrestle a sleep-heavy Eames under the sheets, something he'd known for years and years.

"Did you just say 'forever'?"

"Yes." He managed to drag the quilt over Eames' bulk, smiling hopelessly at the way Eames snuggled himself into it.

"Are you really Arthur? Oh, shit, am I still in bloody Syria? Did you actually say—"

"Shut up and go to sleep." Arthur groped behind him and pulled the other half of the quilt over himself, their edges overlapping. "You're ruining it."

Eames touched his cheek, eyes nearly closed. "Will you say it again?"

"Forever."

 

Arthur woke up alone, the blankets beside him cool but for the warmth of the sunlight puddled on them. He'd fallen asleep with Eames on top of the blankets and had, apparently, sleep cleanly through until morning. Yawning he rolled out of bed, idly scratching at his stomach as he went in search of Eames, breakfast, or coffee.

He found none of those things and mumbled to himself under his breath as he put the kettle on. As he measured coffee grounds into the press pot he thought about how un-awkward he felt, the lack of remorse, the absence of delayed mortification. He thought about the night before, the things he'd said, and felt perfectly content. There was no need to rethink things, to go over them and look for mistakes, missteps. There was nothing he'd change.

The kettle whistled and he whisked it off the burner and poured. He sat down and put his chin on his arms as he watched the coffee steep. He'd told Eames that he loved him and Eames had said the same and the world had changed overnight but in the most unnoticeable way possible. He smiled.

"Watching it won't make it ready any sooner," Eames said from the kitchen door.

Arthur didn't startle. He always knew when Eames walked in to a room. The air changed, charged, settled on his skin like a lover's touch. It had always, always been that way with himself and Eames. "You never know," he said, eyes unblinking on the coffee. He did blink when Eames' hands settled on his shoulders, Eames himself a solid warmth at his back. "Yes?"

"I was expecting you to be in knots," Eames confessed. "Thought for sure I'd have to shag you half stupid to get you this loose."

Deciding the coffee was done, Arthur shrugged him off. "Nope."

Eames gave him a friendly leer, leaning against the center island. "I wouldn't have minded, just so you're aware."

Arthur drank coffee and made a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat. He lowered the cup and half-asked, "You were up early."

"Internal clock is cocked up. I've no idea what time it is inside." He seemed to be carefully considering his next words before just dropping them. "Yesterday you said forever to me, Arthur. I thought we might actually talk about that."

There was no panicking sense of having to avoid it, of worrying about what would come after. Arthur smiled slowly around his mug. "I also said that I'm in love with you. Are you asking for a planning session here?"

Eames made a mild face. "I suppose so, yes. What does this mean? Shared homes? Joint checking accounts? Christmas letters to family? Is this a to do with jewelry? Because if that's the case then you should know that I just so happen to like shiny things and I'd never deny you the chance to accessorize."

"You thought about rings?" Arthur stared at him, hearing his coffee cup thunk down on the table.

"There's that condescension I love so well," Eames said fondly. "And yes, I did think about rings. If it's something that you want, it's something that I'm all right with having."

"I have to suck your dick right now," Arthur said with complete sincerity. "Right here."

"We eat here!" Eames balked. "And I'm being serious for once. What—" he fidgeted in tiny ways, honest ways, ways Arthur had learned in all the moments of being at Eames' side, on his point, at his back. "What do you want? What do you want me to give you?"

Just you, Arthur thought. And then he said so. "Honestly? Just this." He made a circling gesture to take in them, the apartment, the world. "We do what we do now only now we both know. Maybe we consolidate some stuff—why keep both of these apartments or separate places in Brazil?—and maybe when you go on a job and I'm not busy, I go with you. You come with me when I'm in something, at least until you get a good offer of your own. We quit waiting for one of us to do something wrong, for things to get fucked up. We don't leave." He poured himself more coffee. "There can be rings. There can be telling people. That's not something that matters to me. The other stuff does."

Eames was silent, still fidgeting. Arthur waited. "All right then, that's doable," he said at last. "All of it." He looked up, eyes so deadly serious that Arthur had to set his coffee down and push it away. "There's a make-or-break for me, though. One thing."

"One thing," Arthur repeated. I don't care what it is, he thought it's one thing. "Enlighten me." I'll do it.

"This." Eames said and then hesitated before pulling something out of his pocket. It looked like a wad of fabric.

Arthur looked at him as he reached for it, slow and cautious waiting for something to happen. Nothing did and so he took it—broadcloth cotton, black, with lemons. Arthur stood to shake it out and then stared. "It's an apron," he said looking back at Eames.

The smile on Eames' face was everywhere, his eyes, his cheeks, his lips, and so wide and bright it almost hurt. "It certainly is. I have decided that if we're going to be together, forever, there has to be an apron. The matching oven mitts and kitchen towels and tea cosy are up for spirited debate but the apron is a must."

"It's a cocktail apron."

Patterned with bright, fat lemons.

"Very good, Arthur," Eames was smiling, shining, and Arthur couldn't look away. "I spent some time thinking about how we might set up together when we could, between working as you've said, and I thought: if the two of us are really going to be actually and truly domestic together there should be a moment when the roast is cooking and the wine is breathing and there is an apron being worn. And then the door opens and a dulcet voice is calling out 'darling, I'm home' and—"

"I am not wearing an apron for you to perv on," Arthur said flatly. He couldn't keep his lips from twitching, though, knew his dimples were starting to emerge. He didn't care. "No."

"Of course not! I'll be wearing it and you'll come in and call me darling and loosen your tie and I'll tear off my clothes—excepting the apron of course—and we'll burn up dinner and possibly burn the whole house down while we go at it like animals. That's the only way this will work."

Arthur stood up, chair clattering over. This was ridiculous. "This is so stupid," he choked out, planting his hands on the table. "It's so stupid and fuck I am so turned on right now."

"Me too," Eames breathed. "The vulgar things I am going to do to you, I swear…" He stopped and planted his own hands on the table. "But this is my sticking point, Arthur, these stupid bits, this ridiculous side to you that likes hideous things and watches your coffee brew and reads the newspaper all out of order and tells me that you love me at the worst possible time—"

"There are worse times," Arthur interjected, fighting a smile and his hard on and the overwhelming idea that Eames was going to throw that in his face for years and years to come.

"—that's my sticking point," Eames narrowed his eyes, focused. "And I'm not going to let you sway me with your pretty dimples or your gorgeous erection or your supernatural abilities at nasty sexual acts or anything else. The apron or nothing, do you hear me?"

"You're insane," Arthur informed him. "Grab your apron, darling, and I'll stick your point in the bedroom."

"But there isn't any roast!" Eames mock protested, grinning wildly at him and tying the apron around his waist. He looked ludicrous.

Arthur thought fuck the bedroom and took him down hard on the kitchen floor. "I agreed to the apron, not the roast," he said, biting at a nipple through his shirt. "Take this off and I might be willing to negotiate."

"My god, this is a brilliant plan," Eames said, dragging off his shirt and reaching for Arthur's. "We're brilliant together."

"We are good at what we do."

This will work, he thought.

 

Whenever possible, Arthur flew out of the largest airport available. He told Dom, and anybody else who asked, that it made it easier to use his frequent flier miles. He didn't say, but was sure they knew, that it was also easier to use fake documents and hide extra bags.

Plus, there was a good chance of losing your tail if you were being chased. Arthur had seen enough chases in his life to recognize one in progress. "Excuse me, Cui," he said in Mandarin, bowing slightly to the architect he was with. "There's something I have to do." He turned left and then looked back. "You might want to get yourself out of here," he added.

She grinned at him and flashed him the okay sign.

Duty to his team done, he started down the concourse, slipping his carry-on bag off his shoulder.

Eames darted past him, breathing hard and murmuring, "Please do excuse me."

"You are excused," Arthur said before swinging his bag out wide and hitting the obviously hired-gun who was chasing Eames square in the groin. "Not you," he said to man as he began to drop. He slipped a needle out of his pocket, flicked off the cap and jabbed it in the man's thigh. "Sweet dreams, asshole." It took less than a second but Arthur made a mental note to collect the CCTV footage as soon as possible.

People were starting to look but not enough that anybody was really noticing or taking note. Arthur took his time walking away, resettling his bag on his shoulder, and ducking into a men's room blocked by a cleaning cart. "The PASIV device," he said informatively "can, in an emergency situation, be used in place of a tactical defensive weapon as well as a strategic insertion device."

"That wasn't in any of the booklets I was given when I signed on," Eames said, coming out of a stall and washing his hands. "Hello, Arthur," he said, shaking the water off and grabbing a paper towel. "Thanks very much for the timely intervention."

Arthur checked his pockets and then opened his bag. "I didn't buy you much time; I only took out the closest guy. I used the green stuff Yusuf sent, so who knows what's going to happen when he comes up from it." He found a syringe and held it up. The amber liquid was a bit cloudy and had the faintest of rose tints to it. "I have no clue what this is, either." He handed it to Eames. "Don't stab yourself. Rumor has it that Ariadne still can't do a build without a penis somewhere in it thanks to an accident with Yusuf's work."

"She's always been pervy," Eames said. "So's Yusuf." His hands settled on Arthur's hips and tugged him closer. "Did you and Cui find a better extractor for the Seung job?"

"Mm," Arthur hummed, half agreement and half simple pleasure. "Maybe Lysson. We're going to have a look at him now. I have twenty minutes to catch my flight out." He slid his hands up Eames' arms and onto his chest, curling his fingers in the lapels of his linen jacket. "So I—"

"IN THERE!"

"Private moment, you knobs!" Eames cursed, his hands dropping so that he could grab the first man in to the bathroom. He used the man's momentum to slam him headfirst into the door of a bathroom stall.

Arthur grabbed the next through the door and kicked his knee into bending the wrong way. He muffled the screams with his hand before giving up and wadding his pocket square into the man's open mouth. "Son of a bitch," he muttered "that was brand new. Eames?"

"Busy," Eames replied, flipping a third man over his back and onto the row of sinks. Several of the automatic faucets activated, the spray bouncing off of him before Eames injected him with Yusuf's cocktail. The man twitched and then went unconscious. "Now, what was it you wanted?"

"Just a sec," Arthur told him, catching the fourth guy in a choke hold. "Down!" He grunted as the gun came up. Eames dodged the first bullet and Arthur gave up enough control of the hold to grab the gun hand, aim it down, and fire the rest of the shots harmlessly into the grubby, industrial tile. "At least it was silenced," he said as Eames punched the man in the face. Arthur dropped him.

"Small favors," Eames said as he went riffling through the pockets of the men they'd downed. "Ah, here we are! Phones!" He flipped them on and then off as Arthur watched. "Clean. Arthur, do you want a burner?" He offered them up with one hand, already back to looting.

Arthur held out a hand. "He shot at you," he said. He frowned as he tucked the phone into his pocket. "In the airport."

"Legitimate legal tender! Couldn't use any yuan for the duty free, could you?" Eames asked as he continued to gleefully scavenge the fallen. "Credit card, identification, useless, useless, ah, massage coupon—now that's nice! I'm keeping that."

"Eames," Arthur narrowed his eyes. "They were willing to shoot at you in a large, international airport full of people. What did you do?"

He watched Eames finish up and heave a regretful sigh. "I was hoping for a few sets of keys. You know how I like keys."

Arthur did know but he didn't rise to it, merely kept his eyes pinned to Eames. "Who did you piss off, Eames?"

"Nobody you need worry about. Don't fret, Arthur. I'm not a child; I can avoid assassins on my own perfectly well."

"You should avoid having to avoid assassins to begin with. I hate it when you get shot," Arthur reminded him. "Do you remember what happened the last time you got shot?"

Eames put his hands on his hips. "Who could forget? You worried yourself sick for a day, fretted after me for a week, and spent two weeks being very angry with me," he recited. "Then you spent three days being flat out mean, the end of the last day you spent over an hour in riding my ass about the stupidity of getting shot. Directly on from that there were four straight days of you riding the rest of me in the most inventive positions possible. I wouldn't mind doing that last bit again," he finished with a thoughtful look.

He was impossible, infuriating, essential "Don't" please, just don't "count on it happening again if you do something dumb."

"I won't," Eames said and Arthur knew that he'd heard what he hadn't said. "I know better, don't I? I know how you work." Eames was good at that. "Speaking of work: have we got time for a quickie in here?"

"You're disgusting," Arthur told him, dusting his mouth with a too-brief kiss. "And regretfully, no. I have a plane to catch and you have a job to do."

Eames tapped the platinum band wrapped around Arthur's finger. "Didn't we agree when we got these that sex in airport toilets was part of the deal?"

"Only when time permits. Which it doesn't."

"Spoilsport." Eames drew him in flush against him, half hard and all eyes and hands. "Give us a proper kiss, yeah?"

Arthur kissed him deeply, his mouth slow and attentive. "I don't know why I put up with you," he said against Eames' wet lips as he batted a sly hand away from the button on his trousers.

"For the same reasons I put up with you," Eames said cheerfully, giving Arthur's zipper a friendly pat goodbye. "Against all better judgment, you love me."

And it was so very true, the truest thing Arthur knew, an emotional totem he'd never have chosen for himself but that worked anyway. He could recount his steps, each and every one.

"Yeah," he agreed even as he took a step back. There wasn't time and they were both working. There would be time later, plenty of it. "I'll see you at home," he said. "For now…" He tugged Eames close to kiss him fast and dirty, because he wanted to and because he could. He nipped his lower lip teasingly before shoving him back and briskly straightening out his waistcoat. "I believe I have some business to attend to."

Eames shrugged his own jacket back into line. "As it's not me you're attending, I believe I'll take my leave of you."

They left the men's room at each other's sides and split up at the junction between terminals five and six. "Eames…" Sometimes he couldn't wait to get away from him, sometimes he could hardly take leaving him. "Good luck."

"To you as well," Eames returned. Arthur nodded and turned, walking away. "Oh, and darling?" Eames' voice stopped him. "Do have a roast on when I get home, won't you?"

He smiled and flipped Eames off without looking behind him, like blowing him a kiss. "Go to work, Mister Eames."