Chapter 1: how the saint whistled and spat in the flames
Arthur is a point man.
There are certain things a point man, any good point man, has to be. One of these includes being observant, being able to look at a man and know his character, his quirks, his flaws with a single glance.
Arthur is the best point man in the dreamsharing business. This is not a boast; it is no more bragging than someone perfunctorily announcing that the sky is blue, that grass is green, that Arthur is the best there is out there. It is a fact.
So when Eames kisses him as they both come down from a post-coital high in a hotel room in Reykjavik, hot and wet and open-mouthed as he pulls out and leaves the bed to dispose of the used condom before bending down to reach for his hastily discarded pants, Arthur is not surprised.
He tells himself that this was what he expected all along, nodding and wishing Eames well as the forger smirks and blows a kiss at him when he leaves. He tells himself that he never hoped for anything else, because that would be stupid, and Arthur is anything but that.
The key to being Eames’s lover, Arthur knows, is not to love him.
The dreamsharing industry runs on rumours and lies. One of these rumours, as Arthur hears in passing in a cafe in Marseille, is that before Cobb, before the best extractor-point man team burst violently, painfully into existence, there was Arthur and Eames.
For once, the rumours are right.
The first time Arthur meets Eames, he is with Spec Ops and Eames is with the SAS. Dreamshare, Arthur’s CO tells him. This is going to change everything.
The PASIV was only a prototype then, fresh and untested, straight from the bowels of some hush-hush government science facility. Arthur surfaces from his first dream, gasping and exhilarated, half-hard in his Army cargos. His neck still throbs faintly, a phantom pain from where it had been broken by Eames in the dream. He yanks the needle from his arm, and his eyes skitter across the room to the members of the British team on the opposite end.
When they meet Eames’s, they find him smirking, eyes dancing with the same giddy thrill and hands flexing, clenching and unclenching. Arthur can still feel them wrapped around his neck.
The first time Arthur meets Eames is also the first time they fuck.
That part comes later in the day, in a filthy alley behind the pub just outside the military base, with the both of them panting into each other’s mouth, lips hard and bruising, teeth nipping and biting.
Eames’s calloused hand is shoved into Arthur’s pants, tight and unforgiving and mercilessly wonderful, only limited by the constraints of the fabric. Arthur’s own hands are trapped between them, and he has to squirm to get sufficient room between them to stroke Eames through his jeans, earning a muffled Jesus Christ and a bruise sucked onto the nape of his neck.
Arthur fumbles unsteadily with the fly of Eames’s jeans when Eames’s thumb drifts across the slit of his cock, nail lightly scraping and pushing in. His breath is coming in spurts, blood pounding in his ears, and it is an eternity before he manages to wrangle Eames’s jeans out of the way, wrapping his fingers around the impressive length of his blood-filled shaft. Fuck, darling, you’re a bloody health hazard, Eames groans in his ear. He fists Eames clumsily, a small part of his brain hissing in embarrassment at his sloppy technique, but Eames’s hand is around Arthur’s cock, and his fingers are trailing down, down, and his index finger finds Arthur’s hole and slips in -
Arthur comes so hard that his vision whites out. When he can see again, he notices that his hand has fallen away from Eames’s cock, and Eames is jerking himself off. Arthur feels mortified for being so inconsiderate, and nudges Eames’s hands away, dropping to his knees to take his cock into his mouth.
When Eames spurts down his throat, Arthur swallows all of it, giving the head a quick kittenish lick as he lets Eames’s cock fall from his lips, smiling up through his lashes.
Oh my God, Eames manages to breath out, chest still rising and falling in rapid succession from all the exertion. Arthur is surprised when Eames pulls him in for a kiss, harsh and perfect.
In retrospect, Arthur should have realised that the best way to begin a relationship was not after sex in an alleyway, with the both of them horny as fuck after killing each other over and over during the day.
This is what Arthur knows about forgers: every job is where they play a role, slipping on the skin of a different person, reveling in their personalities and mannerisms and eccentricities. It is highly intimate job, digging your way into someone’s mind, so much so that you become them.
He supposes this is why Eames is so reserved with everyone else, intensely private in his understanding that individuality is not so individual after all. Eames’s distance is so carefully camouflaged, so artfully concealed that he tricks you into thinking that he is open, revealing, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
Yusuf asks, what do you even do in your downtime, and Eames laughs, rich and throaty, hand thrown dramatically over his heart; me, darling, I’m a man of adventure and daredevil exploits, and Arthur quietly admires the way he speaks and says nothing at all. Ariadne questions, where do you stay?, and Eames points at the newspaper article on EU integration that he is reading, eyes mock-serious; global citizens, Ariadne, we’re all global citizens here, and Arthur watches the way truth is spun into untruth and half-truth.
There are precious few things that Arthur knows about Eames, for all of his supposed legendary skill at being able to unearth Jesus’s birth records himself if he wanted to.
He knows that Eames was born into money; old, blue-blooded money, and stands to inherit a title. He knows that Eames likes whiskey more than scotch, Macallan over Glenfidditch, neat over on the rocks. He knows that Eames likes heat, likes the oppressive humidity of places like Mombasa and Singapore and Dubai, probably the result of living one too many years in bone-chilling England. He knows that Eames prefers white over wheat bread, Lapsung Souchong over Earl Grey tea. He knows that Eames likes his eggs done easy, his pancakes drenched in maple syrup.
He knows that Eames will break off whatever it is they have between them if he realises that Arthur has fallen a little bit in love with him.
And Arthur - well, he’s always been a little too selfish, and he’s never understood what it meant anyway, to love someone enough to let them go.
Organisation is every point man’s best friend. Lists, therefore, are one of the few things that make Arthur’s neatly-ordered life go smoothly.
In a world where dream and reality are pulled so tightly together that one bleeds into the other like a dying man with a gut shot, certainty is tenuous and all-important. There are things one needs to know, to be more than absolutely certain of, to be able to snap your fingers in the blink of an eye and say, entirely sure, that you are this or you are that, but never that or that.
So Arthur keeps a list of things he is completely sure of close to his chest, things he knows like the back of his hand, like the crisp bite of morning air, like the sound of a gun being fired, like the shadowed plane of Eames’s hipbone.
- He was born on the fifth of June in the middle of a sweltering New York summer, to Amelia Louise Wolfsheim and Mark Levine.
- He is twenty-eight years old, and he has three houses; one in Paris, another in LA, and the other in Mombasa.
- His totem is a red die from the Venetian in Vegas, and he painstakingly worked on it so that it will unfailingly read three, three, three on every throw.
- When he was twelve, he underwent the same battery of tests that every boy had to go through, and the results were clear: he was not one of those males that could get pregnant.
These are facts he knows, as sure as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, as sure as how a minute is sixty seconds in reality, as sure as the way Eames always smells a little like paint thinner and musk.
When they disembark from the plane following the successful completion of the Fischer job, Arthur is flush with adrenaline and arousal, burning with euphoria; he locks eyes with Eames, and it is like they are back in the military, drunk off the success of another barrier, another frontier smashed to bits in their blaze of collective brilliance.
He is fully expecting the knock on the door of his suite at the Hilton, just as he is fully expecting the way Eames’s mouth crashes into his the minute he swings the door open, the kiss desperate and hot and pushing him from half to rock-hard in seconds.
The door slams shut behind them, and he lets Eames push and guide them towards the bedroom, hands and lips never remaining apart for long, clothes stripped off and messily thrown like the necessary casualties of a violent war.
Darling, darling, Eames is moaning into his ear, the words meaning nothing and everything, and then they are naked, divested of coverings and bare to the eye, and Arthur can find symbolism in this, he is sure he can -
And then Eames is pushing him down onto the mattress, lube dripping from his slick fingers, hand dipping to nudge at Arthur’s hole, pushing in and scissoring and the burn is so, so good -
Fuck, fuck, I don’t have condoms, Arthur, please tell me you -
Arthur whines, high and needy, something he is sure he would be mortified about, were he coherent or cogent enough to be mortified. Fine, just - I need - I’m clean, I promise, I’m clean - just need your cock, Eames, fucking come on.
Eames groans, burying his face in the hollow of Arthur’s throat, you’re going to be the death of me, pet, he says, and then he lines himself up and pushes in, and that is the end of intelligible thought for Arthur for a long, long time.
The first time that Arthur sees Eames after they bareback is just under two months later, in Mombasa.
Arthur tells himself that their post-inception victory fuck was nothing special, nothing to be hurt about, and gives himself hell for thinking that night would have been any different from the others.
He is working on compiling research on their mark (Owen Harding, thirty-four, wanted for insider trading) when Eames strolls into their warehouse. Their extractor, Dave, is a relatively established name in the business, and so greets Eames warmly and like an old friend when the forger arrives.
Arthur nods at Eames; this is his standard greeting. He resolutely ignores the way Eames smells the same as always, the way Eames has lost weight, like he has been running from something.
He absolutely does not think about how he woke up that morning in the Hilton to cold sheets and a fading scent, discarded suit folded neatly on the desk, Do Not Disturb sign still hanging from the door handle, lover vanished into the ether.
He does not think about how he sat up in a bed two sizes too big, dried come between his legs, and knew, with bone-deep, unshakeable certainty, that Eames was gone, and for the first time since they began this arrangement, Arthur found himself thinking: this cannot last.
Dave clocks off at six, announcing his departure with a stifled yawn. Arthur still has Harding’s October financial transaction records to look through, so he nods and waves the extractor away, concentration on the task at hand.
It is nearing nine when a warm hand drops onto his shoulder, breaking his train of thought. He looks up from his research to find Eames gazing down, eyes unreadable with an emotion Arthur can’t place, before flickering to his usual teasing condescension.
“God forbid anyone calls you a workaholic,” Eames says, smile forming at the corners of his lips. Arthur nods absently in reply, shuffling the papers on his desk into some semblance of order, pulling up a folder to slot the research into. Eames reaches down to deftly pluck it from his fingers.
“There’s no need to be so serious all the time, darling,” Eames continues. “But if you must, I can give you something else to be serious about,” he smirks, eyes darting down to where he is already hard in his garishly green pants.
Arthur knows where this is going. He is up for it, just as he is sure he will always want Eames, but tonight, he wants to go into this knowing that there will be something more tomorrow.
Instead, he lets a slow smile climb onto his face, and lets Eames lead him back to his flat where they have fucked before, lifetimes ago, and lets Eames splay him open on his 800 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, moaning and gasping.
When he slides back into consciousness the next morning, he keeps his eyes closed for several long seconds, pretending that he is not alone in his apartment.
The first time Arthur attempts to go under after they bareback is in Yusuf’s dream den in Mombasa, two nights after Eames arrives for the Harding job.
Two minutes into the dream, his own projections turn on him, vicious and murderous. He is literally ripped apart and wakes, heart pounding, to the sight of Yusuf, concerned, bending over him, hands carefully sliding the needle out from Arthur’s wrist.
“What was that,” Arthur manages to say after his heart rate slows to normal and his hands can stop shaking, words more a statement than a question.
Yusuf frowns, eyes level and curious on Arthur’s. “It’s the standard Somnacin blend.”
“I’ve never had my projections murder me before,” Arthur protests. “It must be something in the compound.”
“Ah,” Yusuf says, gaze still searching and probing, single syllable tinged with knowing. “Are you - Could you be, you know - ” He waves his hands in a vaguely circling motion.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur snaps, annoyance rising as the adrenaline wore off. “I don’t speak in inflection. ‘Could I be’ what?”
“Well, uh - pregnant. Could you be pregnant? This effect has been known to occur in pregnant individuals. The mind somehow detects a foreign consciousness in the body and turns on the dreamer.”
“No,” Arthur responds immediately, completely certain.
Arthur goes for the test anyway, Yusuf tagging along out of scientific curiosity.
The doctor at the clinic is a great deal less professional that Arthur would like, but Yusuf points out that getting a pregnancy test is hardly rocket science, and professionalism or no, just about any doctor can get it done.
As a result, Arthur is told that he is seven weeks pregnant by a doctor who is too busy chewing gum and tapping something on her iPhone to look at him while she announces it.
“But I can’t be,” he sputters, “I took the standard tests and everything, I can’t bear children.”
“Mmm,” she responds disinterestedly, lips rounding to blow a bubble. “Tough, they must have gotten your test wrong, it happens.”
She recommends a gynecologist, and Yusuf pats him in manful sympathy as they walk towards where Yusuf’s beat-up Honda Civic is parked.
Yusuf makes a few attempts at conversation, things like you know who the father is, right, and I’m sure everything will work out fine, and all Arthur can do to keep from jumping out the car and bolting for the airport is to clench his fists in his lap and think: this is it, you knew it wouldn’t last, now it’s over, and how the fuck am I going to tell Eames?
Arthur forces himself to follow this through logically. “I’ll have to pull out of this job,” he tells Yusuf, mind already darting ahead to the excuse he is going to have to come up with to sufficiently convince Dave. His mind jumps and skitters to the explanation he is going to have to conjure to convince Eames.
“It’s three days to the job,” Yusuf points out, frowning as he maneuvers his way through the serpentine traffic. “If you pull out now, your reputation’s going to take a hard beating.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Arthur hisses, slamming an irate fist against the dashboard. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Yusuf eye him warily, the way one would a rabid animal.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur concedes after a long moment of silence. “It’s just been a very trying day.”
Yusuf nods, before shooting him a hesitant glance, teeth biting his bottom lip. “Are you...well. I mean, you - Are you going to keep it? The baby, I mean.”
Arthur turns away to stare out the window, gazing unseeingly at the shockingly blue sky, the sun-weathered stone walls of surrounding buildings, the darkened faces of the locals, the yellow sand of the roads.
Beside him, Yusuf shifts uncomfortably in his seat, the Kenyan’s inhale harsh in the car before he continues to speak. “Can you - I don’t know, maybe you should talk to the other father about it? He deserves to know.”
“No, he - he won’t want it. He’ll hate me for it. He’ll stay for the baby, and maybe he’ll be fine with it for a while, but he’s born to travel, and there’s no place for a child in our business. Sooner or later, he’ll hate me - or worse, hate the baby - for tying him down, and no child deserves to be damned for the mistakes of his or her parents.”
Yusuf falls silent, mouth pursed in a line, fingers tapping lightly on the wheel. “It’s Eames’s, isn’t it,” he asks-says.
Arthur startles, head shooting up from the dashboard to swivel and face Yusuf, words of denial on the tip of his tongue.
“I’ve known that you two’ve been involved for quite some time,” Yusuf resumes, eyes dark on his. “Eames sometimes mentions that he’s shacked up with someone in the business, but that the two of you don’t see each other very frequently. And whenever the both of you run a job together - and don’t think I don’t notice how he always accepts jobs from you - he always seems to be in a better mood. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”
Arthur opens his mouth to explain, no, it isn’t Eames’s, this is from a one-night stand, I don’t know who the father is, but Yusuf is quick to shut him down.
“I don’t know you very well, but you’re not the type to fuck around with others when you’re with someone, so don’t tell me the baby is the unfortunate outcome of a drunken hook-up.”
Arthur has run out of words to say, suddenly so very, very tired. He just nods slowly, eyes drifting to gaze back out of the window, heart aching and mind meandering to easier thoughts; the way Eames flashes him a sly smile when he thinks no one was looking, the way Eames presses soft kisses to the nape of his neck, the way Eames likes to trace meaningless patterns on the canvas of his back when he is warm and pliant in Eames’s arms.
“Eames seems to like you a lot,” Yusuf probes, and Arthur wants to snort in derision. “Are you sure he will be so against it?”
The sky outside is blue, brilliant and bright and painful.
“We’re not lovers,” Arthur says.
“This is my lover, Andrew Gray,” their mark introduces. Richard Lambert-Chang made his fortune in the stock market, and has gathered an even larger sum to invest in choice shares. Their client wants to know which shares Lambert-Chang are eyeing and why.
“Delighted,” Eames purrs, eyes hooded and flirtatious as he accepts Gray’s handshake.
Lambert-Chang smiles at the ease with which his lover and new friend seem to be taking to each other, turning to Arthur to continue the conversation. “Is this your...” he trails off, head tilted in Gray’s direction before he surreptitiously gestures at Eames.
The Peninsula’s ballroom is packed shoulder-to-shoulder, so Arthur feels Eames’s body tense at the implication of Lambert-Chang’s words, even as he smoothly conducts a conversation with Gray. Arthur stifles the flash of hurt that lances through his chest, getting the less-than-subtle hint from Eames.
“No, no,” he tells Lambert-Chang, smiling as genially as possible. “We’re just colleagues.”
“Oh?” comes the curious response, eyes darting from Arthur to Eames and back. “I apologise, then. I thought I saw something between the two of you.”
“You’re not the first one to make that mistake, darling,” Eames laughs, rejoining their conversation as the one he has with Gray peters out. “Really, though - God forbid the two of us ever become lovers. We’d be at each other’s throats all the time.”
Eames bumps his shoulder against Arthur’s in a show of friendly affection, and Arthur has to muster up more strength than he thought he would need to send Eames a weak smile in answer. His poor performance does little to fool Eames, and inwardly, Arthur swears, because he really should be better at this, he should know that this is how it is between them. Eames’s eyes are searching and speculative on his for a brief second, before darting back to Lambert-Chang’s as he throws his head back to laugh, deep and full, at something the man says.
Later, as they exit the hotel in a stolen Maserati, Eames turns to face Arthur from behind the wheel, eyes hidden in the dark shadows of the Hong Kong night. “Just to clarify, pet - we’re not lovers, are we?”
Arthur’s hand freezes from where he was rifling through his notes on his lap. “Is that how you would describe us?” he hedges, hand resuming movement with a barely perceptible jerk. He is sure that Eames spots it anyway, that fucking observant bastard.
“No,” Eames tells him. “Let’s not make this into something it’s not.”
Some part of this feels like a subconscious test, like a hoop Eames is making him jump through to prove that whatever it is between them hasn’t gotten too complicated for Eames’s liking. This part makes Arthur want to punch Eames, to yell at him and spit out everything he’s been wanting to say, things like I’m sorry you don’t want me to love you, but I can’t help it, and do you think that maybe, just maybe, you can love me back too?
Another part of this, a smaller and infinitely scarier part, makes Arthur feel like this is a subconscious test on something he doesn’t yet know, one that he has just failed abysmally.
Lack of love for him aside, Arthur knows that Eames will never be content to settle down.
Eames is and will be eternally twenty-nine, eternally vivacious and brilliant and so-bright-it-hurts. Eames is larger than life, flitting his way across the continents, charming and conning and breaking hearts, forever content with his nomadic existence, the world too small for one man. Eames is like summer sunlight in the palm of your hand, warm and heady and flirting heat, untamable and uncatchable, doomed to die a fiery death, blazes of glory that stories will be spun from.
Once upon a time, Arthur believed that he could keep up with Eames, could maintain the breathless counterpoint that came with the forger’s flight across the world, hopping onto planes and jauntily traipsing onto boats. He thought he could do it; could move fast enough, run far enough, to keep abreast enough to dance in Eames’s periphery, tantalising enough to keep him coming back for more.
That was when Arthur was twenty-three. Now, Arthur is twenty-eight, and five years is a long time to keep running after someone who never slows down, never looks over his shoulder to see if he’s lost you.
Five years, and Arthur isn’t sure he can do this anymore.
Serendipitously, the Harding job doesn’t require the point man to go under with the rest of the team. It isn’t an angle Arthur thinks about exploiting until now, and Dave didn’t press the issue, having worked with Arthur before and used to the point man’s preference to being under with the team when the extraction is being performed.
Arthur speaks to Dave, spinning a story about lingering after-effects from one of Yusuf’s experimental Somnacin compounds, and hey, maybe it’s better for the job if Arthur stays topside this time. Dave is mildly surprised but agrees easily; the extraction is straightforward enough that the presence of a point man in the dream is superfluous.
Eames, however, is much harder to convince.
“Somnacin side-effects,” Eames states, eyebrows raised in disbelief.
Arthur nods, molars grinding down hard against each other. “Did you miss the memo? It’s from experimental compounds.”
Eames levels a probing stare at him, eyes searching. “Arthur, I’ve known you for, what, five years now, and the only time you didn’t come under with us while on a job was because you had two gut shots, a fractured knee, and were unconscious. I’m honestly offended, darling, that you think I’d believe you’re not coming under because of lingering after-effects of an experimental Somnacin compound.”
The warehouse that they are working out of is empty save for the two of them, Yusuf and Dave having clocked out hours before, Dave to work on the architecture of the dream in his hotel room and Yusuf to meet up with a shady chemical supplier.
Arthur has never been very good at lying. He can pass muster when it comes to meeting clients and slipping into new aliases, but he generally leaves the deception and long-cons to the professionals. He mentally curses Eames for being able, for always being able to read him like a book, while Eames himself remains shrouded in mystery, for all of Arthur’s digging.
He runs a tired hand down his face, the first concession of the day that he makes towards the entire clusterfuck of a situation. “I don’t care if you believe me, Eames. That’s just how it is. I’m not coming under with you and Dave.”
Eames stares at him for several more seconds, the gaze weighty and considering. “Okay,” he replies. “If that’s how you want to play it, then okay. But you’ll - ” Eames trails off abruptly, and this catches Arthur’s full attention, because the Eames he knows is never unsure, never anything less than certain. “You’ll let me know if something’s up, won’t you?”
“Nothing that will bother you, I promise,” Arthur rejoins, cracking a smile that he knows is just shy of brittle.
This seems enough to placate Eames, who nods once before turning to saunter out of the warehouse, leaving Arthur standing alone in the shadowed cavern, lit by the sombre light of his laptop.
Eames, Arthur notes, never once looks back.
Their next job together is a month after the Harding one, this time in Tokyo.
Arthur is now eleven weeks along, quietly refusing jobs that require him to go under with them and only picking those that allow him to stay indoors to do the bulk of research. Before this job, Arthur barely even left his flat in Paris, doing his research from home and sending it to the extractors he worked with.
It is a combination of restlessness and a stupid, burning desire to see Eames that has Arthur hopping on the plane to Narita International Airport. The flight is gruelling, long hours that cramp his back and make his neck ache.
He lands in Tokyo at nine in the morning while the air is crisp and bracing, a light tap of cold to the lungs. The extractor, Felicia, a Singaporean that he’s worked with before, calls to inform him that they’ve set up shop in an abandoned office building in Harajuku. He is the second to arrive after her, and they chat companionably over coffee, catching up with each other.
Felicia informs him that she’s brought Ariadne and Eames onto this job, and he learns, through some artfully placed questions, that Eames will be arriving the next day. The conversation eventually rounds back to shop talk, and they discuss the pertinent details of the mark (Hideki Mameha, forty-one, a lawyer; their client wants to know what dirt Mameha plans to use against him in court).
The second day on the slated two-week job sees Ariadne bounce into the office unit at eleven in the morning, bright-eyed and freshly-showered. She mauls Arthur with an enthusiastic hug, punching him on the shoulder for taking so long to get back in touch with her post-inception. He offers her a rare genuine smile, taking in her youthful brilliance and optimism, and wishes he could share some of her idealism and unquenchable verve for life. She wanders off to chat with Felicia about the requirements of the first dream level, and Arthur darts a quick glance to the clock he hung on the wall, with its hands slowly inching closer and closer to three, which is when Felicia informed him Eames is expected to come in.
Eames strolls into the office at three twenty-six, clad in a garish orange and purple ensemble, complete with tweed jacket and alligator loafers. Arthur finds himself having to force his concentration back to the open Word document on his laptop to prevent himself from shoving Eames back out the door and onto the nearest hotel bed. The brief thought that he hopes their kid won’t inherit Eames’s inability to colour-coordinate is sobering, and the sharp pain of his fingernails digging into his palm is a good reminder that Eames -
Well, Eames won’t be his anymore, once Arthur breaks it off.
This is something that he decided on the plane, a conclusion he had no choice but to arrive at. Arthur knows this: he loves Eames. Eames doesn’t want any romantic entanglements. Arthur is pregnant. Eames’s life isn’t made for settling down. Eames isn’t made for settling down. A baby requires a fixed location to grow and develop well in.
Ergo: Arthur has to let Eames go if he wants to keep the baby, which he does. A week after discovering his pregnancy, Arthur was hit with the sudden realisation that keeping their baby was a foregone conclusion. Arthur will do anything to make sure their child grows up safe and loved.
As he enters his suite at ten that night, Arthur isn’t surprised to find that Eames has broken in and is lounging on his king-sized bed. Arthur is hit with a rush of longing to crawl into bed next to Eames, to demand that Eames stay with him, to tie Eames down and sink down on his cock and fuck him until he promises to stop running, to just be content to stay with him. He wants to lock Eames in the room, to keep him there until he loves him enough not to want to leave, to hold a gun to Eames’s temple and demand that he just be still, just for this little while.
Arthur wants many things, none of which he can actually have.
“You look tired, love,” Eames drawls from his position on the bed, smirk creeping its way up onto his sinner’s lips. “Maybe you should come to bed, so I can help you with that.” His smirk is full-blown now, promising pleasure and sticky sin.
Arthur wants to laugh at how fucked-up their situation is. Arthur is pregnant, and he wants, oh how he wants, to go to Eames and make him fulfill all the promises he utters with that lush mouth. Arthur is pregnant, and he hasn’t even told Eames yet, and he still wants to fuck Eames into the mattress, and this is so many kinds of fucked-up that Arthur doesn’t even know what to do anymore.
He slides out of his Zegna jacket, draping it over the back of a nearby chair as he approaches Eames, who tracks his every move with half-lidded, faintly predatory eyes. He lets Eames pull him into a hard kiss that tastes like desperation and searing want at the edges, but nudges Eames’s roaming hands away from the buttons of his shirt. In the dim light of the room, he catches the flicker of Eames’s confusion.
Arthur wants to curl up into a ball, bury himself in the sheets and escape from the world, even if only for scant hours. Instead, he perches himself on the edge of the bed, side kept to Eames, eyes staring resolutely out the bay windows into the deep calm of the night. He feels Eames tense, shifting beside him to lean up against the headboard, facing Arthur full-on, head cocked slightly.
“I can’t,” Arthur says, and the two words are heavy in the darkness, sinking like stones into the already-widening gulf between them.
He hears Eames’s snort, just as he feels the painful licks of Eames’s derision. “You can’t, or you won’t? A world of difference between those two, darling.”
Arthur licks his lips to moisten them, taking the moment to search for courage. “Both, I suppose.”
Eames’s answer is quick and rapier-sharp. “You suppose? The Arthur I know never supposes. Who are you and what have you done to him?”
“I - ” Arthur begins, before cutting himself off as words fail to materialise. I’m pregnant, but please, stay with me anyway. I’m pregnant, but can you find it in you just to stay for a little bit? I’m pregnant, but I don’t expect anything from you, can we remain friends?
He dismisses them all. He won’t beg. It’s a promise he made to himself, alongside the decision he came to on the plane to keep their baby. Arthur will do almost anything for Eames, will give him anything he wants, but Eames gives him so little in return, so surely Arthur is allowed to keep his dignity.
“I’m pregnant,” he eventually says, and the words hang between them for six seconds before Eames gets over his shock enough to respond.
“What the fuck, Arthur - ”
He can hear the anger in Eames’s voice, and he was prepared for this, he really was, but it doesn’t stop it from being a punch to his gut all the same. Arthur knew it would play out this way, but a small part of him still couldn’t help but hope otherwise, and he really should have known better.
Arthur fists his hands on his lap as he continues to speak, determined to follow his plan through to the end even if kills him. “Don’t worry,” he says, harsh bark of laughter accompanying the statement. “It isn’t yours.”
He feels Eames freeze beside him, a jerk to his movements that no one else would notice. Arthur does, of course. He knows Eames’s body as well as his own; the planes and hollows of the geography of the canvas of his skin a conquered land he knows he never had any real claim to, but was content to pretend otherwise.
“It’s not - it’s not mine,” Eames responds, the statement more a repetition of Arthur’s words than a question.
“No,” he answers, and as a grand, shattering, suicidal finale, the perverse twist of the metaphorical knife, he adds, “I’m sorry.”
“Wonderful,” Eames says, and doesn’t look at Arthur as he leaves.
The sound of fading footsteps, Arthur thinks, is the loneliest sound of all.
The day before the Hideki job goes down, Eames vanishes. Arthur is a great deal less worried than Felicia and Ariadne, confident that Eames can handle himself and used to his disappearing acts.
“He gets like that sometimes,” he tries to explain to Ariadne, who ignores his comment and goes on to ask him if any of his less savoury contacts will know Eames’s whereabouts.
In the end, to placate Felicia and Ariadne and to escape the stifling office, he agrees to track Eames down.
The past two weeks have been terse between the two of them, with Eames avoiding any sort of one-to-one interaction, getting Ariadne to run interference. Where Eames would typically accost Arthur throughout the day to discuss the details of his forge, there was nothing but radio silence, with Eames flickering in and and out of the office like a ghost.
Even Felicia wasn’t immune to the strange tension that bubbled between the two of them. Six days into the job, she cornered Arthur during their lunch break. “Look,” she said, “I’ve heard the rumours, and I don’t care why the two of you are behaving like schoolchildren. This thing between you and Eames, is it going to affect the job?”
“Of course not,” Arthur rejoined immediately. “We’re professionals.”
Felicia’s answering stare was hard. “I hope you are,” she sighed eventually, equal parts resigned and slightly annoyed, nodding before wandering off.
This strange distance between Eames and him has Arthur constantly on the knife-edge, exhausted and tired and run entirely ragged. He’s lucky, he supposes, that he can still dream and sleep naturally with ease, but when his alarm blares and he rolls out of bed at six every morning, it feels less like he’s had a full night’s sleep and more like he’s completed a mental marathon. There are dark bags under his eyes, purpling bruises of fatigue that refuse to fade, and he has to buckle his belt at a tighter notch now.
He finds Eames at a bar in Ginza, halfway through his third shot of what looks to be whiskey. He slides into the booth next to him, checking the urge to press a light kiss to Eames’s temple.
“Arthur, darling,” Eames beams when he notices him.
The words hit Arthur like a particularly nasty sucker punch, knocking the breath out of him. It’s been a long time (thirteen days, his mind traitorously informs him) since Eames deigned to smile at him, and Arthur misses his easy grin more than he has any right to.
He knows the exact moment that Eames recalls that they aren’t on good terms anymore, watching the smile slide off his face, like a pebble slipping away into an endless ocean, ripples churning and petering out. He feels the loss like an ache in his gut, a festering wound that he knows will never fully heal.
“Eames,” he greets, at a loss for words. He’d prepared an entire spiel on the drive over, the lines lost and tangled now, meaningless and useless.
“What are you doing here?” Eames asks, brittle and hollow. Arthur swallows hard, taking in the way the dim light of the bar shades and highlights the planes of Eames’s face, Arthur’s personal chiaroscuro for this brief window in time.
“You disappeared,” he says. “Ariadne and Felicia were worried.”
Eames downs the double shot of whiskey in his glass in a single mouthful. “And you?” he asks, smile and voice serrated at the edges. “Were you worried about me too?”
“Of course,” Arthur replies, wincing at the plain honesty and creeping desperation he hears in his voice. He clears his throat. “You’re my colleague, and the job is tomorrow - of course I’m worried about you.”
“Of course,” Eames mimics, snorting into his empty glass as he gestures to the waitress for a refill. They sit in silence, Arthur awkward and Eames uncaring, as she brings a new glass of whiskey over to their booth.
Eames nods as she sets the glass down in front of him, clearing his empty one. It is then that Arthur notes the smattering of water marks ringing the wooden surface of the table. He frowns. “How many shots have you had?”
Eames ignores him, instead raising his new glass at Arthur. “A toast to you, pet. You’re a real piece of work.”
Arthur falls silent, unsure of how to proceed. The quiet music of the bar fills the gulf that separates them across the fifteen inches of space between their bodies. If our hearts are never broken, then there’s no joy in the mending, some young hippie band that Arthur has never heard of sings over the tinny speakers. There’s so much this hurt can teach us both. He wants to laugh and cry.
They sit in silence, neither wanting to break this fragile bubble of pretense that they are isolated from the problems of the world, castaways from reality in their tiny booth in a seedy little bar. They are no more than two men happening to share a moment of silence, one with a drink in hand and the other without, two not-strangers and not-quite-friends, stuck in a limbo of their own foolish making.
“Did you love him?” Eames asks, and the illusion is shattered.
Arthur startles, feeling lost. “What?” he sputters, clueless.
“Your - ” Eames waves a hand in the direction of Arthur’s midriff, and understanding dawns in a cold wash of vicious heartache.
“Oh,” Arthur says dumbly, the single syllable falling from his lips like a careless tumble on the sheets, a solitary act of unthinking. “I did,” he answers, because the least he can do is to be honest in this. “I - I do,” he corrects, and everything in him shouts coward, you filthy coward, you can’t even tell Eames that you love him without fucking it up.
Eames knocks the shot back, setting the glass back down on the table with a decisive click. He signals for a refill. When he turns back to face Arthur, there is a ghost of a smile on his lips, derisive and hard-like-diamonds. “Nice to know,” he murmurs over the low chatter of the bar. “What happened, then? Where’s this Prince Charming of yours?”
Arthur finds himself thinking that this is probably the most honest they’ve ever been to each other, and forces himself to continue in the line of this bare truth.
“He didn’t love me,” Arthur says, voice steady and chest hurting. “That’s all there is to it.”
“How fucking fascinating,” Eames replies dryly.
Arthur’s heart is lodged in his throat now, and there is a mortifying burn behind his eyes. “Tell me one thing,” he asks, tone suddenly fervent and urgent. “One thing, and I promise I’ll leave you alone. I won’t look for you for any more jobs, I won’t come aboard any jobs with you already on it. Just - just one thing.” This is as close to all-out begging as he will allow himself to go.
“If I agree to your thing, you won’t try to contact me?” Eames clarifies. “You won’t ever look me up again? You won’t come near me, or try to track me down?”
Biting down on his lip, almost hard enough to draw blood, Arthur nods. “I swear,” he answers, voice pitched low and quiet.
He thought his heart was beyond the point of breaking, and is wearily surprised to discover that it can shatter even further when Eames agrees with little hesitation.
“Your name,” Arthur says. “I want - I want to know your first name. I couldn’t find it when I searched, it isn’t anywhere, not every in death records, and it’s just, I’ve looked for - ”
“Charles,” Eames cuts him off, standing and throwing down several notes onto the table. Arthur watches him, reeling, staring up at Eames’s face, completely obscured by the shadows, and he wants, he needs to -
“Goodbye, Arthur,” he says.
Eames is gone, blindingly yellow shirt and purple corduroys disappearing out the door and into the dark of the Tokyo night. The last glimpse Arthur catches of him is of his face, his beautiful, sinful face tilted up to the inky sky, the red neon signs of seedy establishments lighting his features like a bloody caress, more fleeting and lasting than Arthur’s mark on him ever was.
Chapter 2: Sugar, We're Going Down
Chapter title from the song by the same name from Fall Out Boy.
I'm sorry this took so long - this ran away from me, plus I got an eye infection halfway through, which slowed me down quite a bit.
“Darling,” Eames tells him sometime after the fifth or sixth time they fuck, “this isn’t a relationship.”
“It isn’t,” Arthur agrees, contrary just because Eames looks at him with this vaguely defiant stare, like he expects Arthur to reject his statement.
“Good,” Eames rejoins, and Arthur shuts him up by dropping to his knees and taking Eames into his mouth, taking his cock deep until it hits the back of his throat, swallowing every last drop that is offered.
There is a pattern of some sort after this, a kind of bizarre game that only Eames could ever come up with.
After they fuck (or before, or not at all, or if Eames is being a bastard, during), Eames will tell him, “This isn’t a relationship.”
Depending on Arthur’s mood, he will respond, “It isn’t,” or “If you don’t move, it certainly isn’t sex either,” or “Go back to work, Eames,” or “I know, you don’t have to keep telling me, Jesus Christ.”
So, well - yeah. Arthur knows what they have between them is many things, but a relationship isn’t one of them.
He plays the game, this convoluted, twisted game that only Eames could invent, and before he fell in love with that bastard, didn’t care if he won or lost.
Now, though, he’s fairly sure he’s just thrown the whole thing entirely.
After the Hideki job is completed, Arthur keeps his promise to Eames and steers himself to the opposite end of the world from where the forger is, renting a place in Sydney. He resigns himself to the fact that he will have to do this alone, and tracks down the best gynecologist in the area, calling and setting up his first appointment for the following Monday.
Arthur is pleasantly surprised when Saito calls him up to invite him out to dinner. Saito, Arthur is informed, is in town for takeover discussions between Proclus Global and the Australian arm of the Fischer-Morrow conglomerate. A congratulatory-celebratory dinner, Saito blandly informs him over the phone, seems to be in order. Arthur concurs.
A sleek black Bentley rolls up to the entrance of Arthur’s apartment at precisely seven in the evening, a uniformed chauffeur stepping out to hold the door open for him. Arthur is driven to a quietly expensive seafood restaurant, where Saito and him politely discuss how the rest of the team is doing - fine, everyone’s doing well, thank you - and what the global economy forecast is like following the financial crisis - horrible, the Euro will be in serious trouble, what a shame.
He declines Saito’s offer to drive him back to his apartment, the two of them bidding their goodbyes at the restaurant as Arthur decides to take a slow walk back. He wanders along sedate streets, exchanging clean pavements and brighter lighting for the seedier areas by force of habit.
When he finally stops to gain his bearings, he is somewhere in the middle of a red-light district, surrounded by disreputable pubs and bars. It is the sort of establishment, he finds himself thinking, that Eames would love to disappear into. He pulls his mobile out to snap a picture of his surroundings to send to Eames, his finger hovering over the send button before he remembers a desperate promise made in a faraway bar a not-so-long time ago, and he trashes the message entirely.
And because Arthur’s always had a perverse sense of humour, he walks into the nearest seedy pub he can find, internally wincing when the bartender shoots him a strange look for ordering a Pepsi. He tucks himself into a booth in the corner, watching the mass of patrons ebb and flow unseeingly, counting the bubbles that fizzle and die in his glass.
Several men and women attempt to sit down and chat him up, but he declines them all coolly, a touch disdainful and carelessly bored. He doesn’t know how long he stays, simply soaking the atmosphere and breathing the muggy air, stale and thick and familiar like second skin.
Occasionally, he glances at the bar, taking stock of the patrons, women in too-tight clothes and men reclining with the ennui of the comfortable middle-class. There are hipsters with garish tattoos, desperate whores failing to be subtle in their soliciting, barely-legal youths tentatively sipping their first pint. He swills his now-flat Pepsi, wondering what Eames is doing on the far side of the world.
Sometime past midnight, he looks up at the bar to find a distinct silhouette, sculpted and beautiful and one he knows better than his own. He nearly chokes on his drink, the liquid violently jerked from his lungs in coughs as it slips down his windpipe like a love gone awry. When he looks back up, the figure - Eames, he thinks, but then: no, it can’t be. Eames isn’t here, and even if he were, what is it to you? - is chatting up a gorgeous man, dark and slim-hipped and boyish in the right light. The seafood he had for dinner with Saito nearly finds a new home on the floor of the bar.
He forces himself to turn away, lurching out of the booth, through the exit, and into the chilly Australian night.
Time heals all wounds, he remembers reading somewhere once. Yeah, he thinks about this wise advice, thanks for being no fucking help at all.
Monday finds Arthur stumbling out of bed at ten in the morning, dishevelled and groggy. His alarm had been set to ring at eight, a full three hours before his appointment at eleven. He briefly recalls sleepily mumbled curses and a roaming hand smashing the clock against the bedside table, and swears low under his breath.
Arthur makes it to the clinic five minutes before eleven, crisp and composed under his bespoke Balenciaga three-piece suit, heart pounding wildly in his chest. The receptionist at the desk hands him a sheaf of forms to fill and a cheap plastic ballpoint pen, gum bubble popping as she disinterestedly waves him off to the waiting chairs.
Forms he can deal with easily enough, having made a friend out of paperwork in his profession. He pens in his (real) name, age, height, weight, ethnicity, medical history and as much information on his parents as he can remember. When he flips to the next section, he stops short, pen hovering over the mocking blankness of the page.
(Other) Father’s Name, it reads, and Arthur skips over that blank box. He enters what he knows (twenty-nine, Caucasian, British, 5 foot 7), and omits what he doesn’t (Medical History, Family Health Background), dashing little flat lines like still hearts across the boxes.
When he’s filled out and dashed out all that he can, and can put it off no longer, he hovers his pen over the white space next to where it demands the (Other) Father’s Name.
Charles Eames, he slowly writes in, hand exerting far more pressure than is needed on the thin carbon paper. Reading it over, Arthur flinches involuntarily.
Under the sterile white lights of the clinic, the truth is a heartbreaking thing.
Now that Eames is no longer his (not that he ever was before, not really, his mind traitorously supplies), Arthur finds himself recalling more specifics of their time together, as if his brain is desperate for something to cling to.
Rather than simply remembering overall details; we were in Prague in October, it was cold, the extractor was an idiot, he knows the way Eames’s eyes danced in the low light of the streets, just after dinner at the Degustacion Bohema. They ended up in Malá Strana for Czech beer, sitting companionably silent, shoulder to shoulder on a low-slung bench amid the rowdy tourist groups. They took the Prague Metro back to their hotel, laughing over jokes Arthur can’t quite recall now, only that he knows it was dirty, filthy, and wouldn’t be half as funny if someone other than Eames had told it.
This is what he remembers of Beijing in June of another year: sweltering, sticky heat, and their architect had gotten food poisoning from eating some less-than-sanitary food from a roadside stall. It had been a good year for them, he thinks now, with clients that were semi-legitimate and five jobs Eames and him had taken together.
They completed the job three days early, extracting and delivering the information to a hotel tycoon who was so delighted with their work, he gave them a week of comped rooms in any of his hotels.
It had been a good year for them, but Arthur remembers the way he had lived in fear, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Eames to wisen up and leave him, for the rumours to be true. A jealous new forger, Simpkins-or-something, had been viciously upset when Eames coolly turned his advances down; Arthur knew for a fact that the rumours of Eames sleeping with others had been started by him.
Deep down, Arthur had been terrified; not of Eames’s supposed infidelity (were they even in an exclusive relationship? did he have a right to ask for this?), but of his own inadequacies.
He recalls one night, when they were hot and sticky between the sheets, panting open-mouthed, sloppy kisses into each other’s mouth; hands dipping and trailing over sweaty skin like honeyed, congealed sin. Arthur had Eames’s cock in his hand, hard and smooth and beautiful, fingers tracing every expanse of it, rubbing his slit and slipping slightly under his foreskin.
Eames - Eames had groaned, throaty and deep, and had managed to moan, “Darling, Arthur, wait, ah, just hold up, pet - ”
Arthur had paused, hand stilling but not leaving the heady weight of Eames’s cock, head tilting slightly to the side in question.
He had seen the way Eames’s eyes had taken on a unfathomable sheen, seen the way his expression had coalesced into something infinitely frightening, and Arthur knew.
“I, Arthur, well - we - I think I - ”
Terrified of what was to come next (he’s breaking up with you, you knew he would, you knew this was coming), he’d desperately slanted his lips over Eames’s, swallowing his words and trying, just trying so hard to take what he was going to say away. When they drew apart, Arthur pressed his index finger lightly to Eames’s lips.
“Shhh,” he murmured, and with Eames’s cock still in hand, rolled a condom on, lined it up with his hole and sunk down on it, still loose and wet from before.
When they were done, Arthur spent and wrung out, draped across Eames’s chest, and Eames’s sated and still buried inside his body, Arthur had congratulated himself, somewhat bitterly, on a crisis averted.
And if Eames’s face had been unreadable and shuttered when he gathered his clothes and left the room, well - it was a small thing to be heartbroken about in the grand scheme of things.
For that, Arthur told himself, he should be happy.
Arthur is twenty weeks along when he is shot in the shoulder while on a job in Hungary.
The extraction is complete, information and data safely written down and sequestered away in a locked suitcase in the hand of their extractor who is hightailing it out of the mark’s bedroom, shooting badly-aimed bullets over his shoulder. Their chemist has long fled the scene, leaving Arthur and their inexperienced architect to fight their way out of this shitfest.
“Get down,” he hisses through his teeth to the wide-eyed newcomer, and whirls around the corner, Glock in hand, taking down two of their pursuers with two well-placed shots.
There are six men on their tail; he has taken two out thus far. He glances to the window - yeah, that shrub is a sniper. Tossing the smaller Beretta from his ankle holster to the terrified architect, he mentally rolls his eyes when the man-boy startles and fumbles with the new weight in his unsteady hands.
“Shoot,” he orders, craning his neck around the corner to locate the other three men out in the hallway. The architect nods frantically, palms slipping on the grip of the gun before he inhales and stumbles out from behind his cover, shooting at and completely missing the three gunmen.
Arthur subconsciously spots the sniper’s red dot before his mind registers it, the little red light hovering over the architect’s heart.
“Move - ” his lips begin to form, and he throws himself onto the youth, taking the bullet to his left shoulder.
“Fu#k, fuck - ” he slips around the corner, and takes the three gunmen out with the remaining bullets in his cartridge, breath heavy with exertion, blood blossoming on the pristine whiteness of his Boss dress shirt like a sick flower, growing in death.
Percy, he recalls now, the architect’s name is Percy. He nearly snorts in derision. As much as it is possible to do so single-handedly, Arthur places pressure on the wound on his shoulder, staining his hand a virulent red.
“Pack the PASIV,” he curtly instructs Percy, “and get the fuck out of town. Your payment will be wired to you when all this blows over.”
Percy nods, eyeing Arthur’s blood-stained shirt warily. “Will you be alright?” he wastes precious time asking, pausing in the coiling of the IV tubing.
Pain has Arthur almost biting the architect’s head off for asking such a needless question, but when he instinctively pulls his hand away from the bullet site to check, he notes that the blood flow is too excessive for a cut-and-dried enter-and-exit wound.
“The fuckers must have laced the - ”
The last thing Arthur sees before he slumps onto the floor is Percy, mouth forming words he can’t hear, lips shaping phrases like what’s wrong, oh my god, are you okay.
This is the wrong time to rest, he thinks, before the darkness swallows him whole, like a sinner into the belly of the beast.
“You should really be my emergency contact, darling,” Eames tells him languidly one hot summer in Florida, the forger positively roasting beneath the scratchy hospital-issue blankets.
“Oh?” Arthur replies blandly, looking up from the Business section of the local paper. “And what should I list under the relation to patient section? Colleague? Point man? Baking buddy? Knitting partner?”
Eames snorts, and Arthur inwardly chafes, annoyed that he finds what should be an entirely inelegant and unrefined noise still attractive when it comes from Eames.
“You’re the best point man in the business, pet,” Eames bluntly states, “I’m sure you can circumvent that bit somehow.”
Arthur detects a note of something in Eames’s tone, and he frowns a little, precisely folding and setting the paper aside to turn and face him fully. “Alright,” he acquiesces, head tilting slightly. “Say I do become your emergency contact. What then?”
There is a trace of amusement and another emotion Arthur can’t quite place lurking behind Eames’s jaunty smile. “I should have thought that part was obvious. Then,” Eames continues, “you come running to lavish love and undying affection upon my poor, battered body whenever I am horrendously injured in service of Queen and Country.”
Arthur gives a half-choked laugh, equal parts mockery and mirth. “You’ve never loyally served Queen and Country a single day in your sad, highly illegal life,” he rejoins.
“Darling,” Eames remarks as he pouts pointedly, “you do love to wound me so. Quite cruel of you, seeing as I’m already mangled and bruised.”
“It was one gut shot, you baby,” Arthur replies loftily, snark masking the terror and guilt that still lay too close to the surface for comfort. He had looked away for one second, just one, and when he had glanced back, gun in hand and still smoking hot from the bullets he had discharged in rapid-fire bursts, Eames had been hunched over, hand clutched to his stomach, lips curved into that wry smile of his that never boded well.
“One?” Eames squawks from the bed, indignant. “I could have died!”
Arthur scoffs at this. “You’ve suffered more gunshot wounds to parts of your anatomy all at once and survived before. I should think you’ll live through just one.”
Recalling the incident fondly, Eames smiles. “Oh, I do remember that. Afghanistan, wasn’t it? Outside Kandahar.” His eyes narrow. “You called me an idiot for getting shot.”
“You were. I was just making sure you knew.” Arthur shrugs, unrepentant. He glances at the Patek Phillipe resting on his wrist, noting that visiting hours are almost up. Reluctantly, he concedes that Eames may have a point.
“I’ll see what I can do about the emergency contacts,” he allows, resolutely looking away from the beam that spreads across Eames’s bruised face.
“Brilliant,” Eames grins.
Three days later, all the paperwork is in place, listing one Arthur (surname redacted) as the emergency contact point for (forename redacted) Eames. He files two sets of paperwork that day; one for Eames and the other for himself.
Arthur figures that if he has to be Eames’s emergency contact, then Eames had goddamned better be willing to be his.
Arthur is floating.
There are noises around him; sounds that roll and mesh and may even be words. He hears raised voices, shouts and swears and threats to throw people out of hospital rooms, but for all he knows, it might all equally be the roar of vehicles swooping by.
He is vaguely aware of bright lights above him, white and glaring, and he groans a little, trying to communicate his displeasure. There is a warm pressure on his hand as something settles into his palm, snug and solid, but it feels far away.
The noises grow louder, furious voices pitched low but growing in volume.
I’m his partner - he hears, the sounds distant. I’m sorry, sir, but all it says is that you’re his emergency contact. The syllables garble together, twisted and sharp before unravelling again, and Arthur can make them out. Just look at his fucking medical documents, why don’t you. See that, the father’s name? That’s me, I’m Charles Eames.
Sound fades, and Arthur faintly registers the snap of a door closing. The warm weight in his palm readjusts itself, enfolding his hand in a tighter grip. He hears an exhaled sigh, loud and long, and is blearily cognizant of a light whisper of a touch being traced and feathered across his eyelids and cheek.
“What the bloody hell, Arthur,” he hears, before he slips away from the noise and light.
Arthur is floating, and the world is peaceful.
The minute his eyes snap open, there are three things that leap to the fore of Arthur’s mind and nearly send him scrambling for his Glock.
First: he is in an unfamiliar, undisclosed location, and there are no windows in the room he is kept in. Single exit, likely monitored, possibly underground medical or torture facility, his mind immediately supplies.
Second: His medical records - his real medical records, including his gynecologist’s spidery handwritten notes - are hanging off the edge of the bed he is on, attached to the clipboard that loops over the edge of the rust-flaking rail.
The third, eclipsing and nullifying the other two, is the single most terrifying thing Arthur has ever experienced: Eames is sitting in a stiff-backed visitor’s chair adjacent to the bed, eyes hard and trained on Arthur, unforgiving and harsh.
“Sleeping Beauty’s finally awake,” Eames drawls, posture relaxed and calm, inasmuch as a tiger is before it strikes. He pushes himself up from the creaking chair, tilting his head to crack the bones in his neck. Arthur’s breathing is shallow now, little staccatos that pepper the still air of the room.
“It’s nice to know,” Eames continues, “that you had enough fucking decency to list me as the other father, since you clearly weren’t going to tell me.”
“I - ” Arthur manages to vocalise, explanations and justifications dying on his breath at the look of absolute contempt that Eames throws at him.
"No," Eames bites out, single syllable cutting and sharp. "No. You don't get to talk, alright? You don't get to talk. I mean - Fuck, Arthur, I didn't think you were such a cold bastard, but you always love to prove me wrong, don't you?"
Arthur opens his mouth to try again, to say something, anything to make this better. Eames sends him a look of pure fury, teeth gritted and bare in tightly reigned-in anger.
“I thought that - ” Eames starts, making a jerky, abrupt motion with his hands before he takes a deep breath and starts again. “Were you ever going to tell me?”
Arthur refuses to meet his gaze, the action answer enough in itself. “I never thought you’d want a kid,” he says instead, leaving out the with me that he’d almost given voice to.
“And you didn’t think to ask me? Didn’t I get a say in any of your fucking decisions? Didn’t I factor in, even a little, in the equations and calculations and fuck else that goes through your mind? Didn’t we - ” Eames breaks off, breathing hard, anger palpable in the worn room.
“I need to get some air,” he says at length, turning away from Arthur.
Quietly, noiselessly, oh-so-loudly, the door slips shut behind Eames’s retreating form, like the snap on the lid of a coffin, silent and screaming.
Arthur clenches his hands into fists, crushing the threadbare wool of his blanket under the relentless pressure of his fingers. The ends of the cloth are fraying, splintering threads that feel sickly apt. He can pick them apart if he tries, separating the escaping threads under unsteady fingers. But they cling so desperately to one another, almost brokenly grasping after a union that has already been long lost, and only fools will continue.
Maybe Arthur has always been too fond of metaphors and analogies, afraid to voice literal truth in the face of a bare, uncaring world. Maybe Arthur loves Eames a little (a lot) more than he should, too stubborn to do otherwise.
What Arthur does know for certain, like he knows the callouses on Eames's hand, the scars on his torso, the tiny mole on Eames's hip, is that he's always been a fool, and even more so when it comes to Eames.
Not many people know this, and one of the two who do know besides Eames and himself is dead: Arthur was always Eames’s point man first.
It was an arrangement borne out of necessity and pragmatism; they were wanted by their respective governments and violently forced on the run. It was by no means exclusive, with Eames dabbling in real-world forgeries for months on end, and Arthur taking up satellite research projects on odd weeks.
Not many people know this; Cobb is no longer in the business, and Mal is dead: Eames was the one who introduced the Cobbs to Arthur.
The Cobbs were only researchers then, intrigued and endlessly fascinated by the possibilities of dreamshare, pushing and testing boundaries only set by the limits of their imagination. They heard of forging, and absolutely had to meet the man who practically created it.
Arthur and Eames were both running a job in Milan when a phone call came, the voice on the other end male and slightly unsure, enquiring after a Mr. Stephen White. Eames darted a glance to Arthur, replying an affirmative to what was just one of his numerous aliases.
The Cobbs had offered him a substantial amount to simply show them forging in a dream. Arthur checked them out before they met, of course, but couldn’t help the glaze of suspicion that settled over his first meeting with the two individuals that would be juggernauts in his life. Their initial meeting went smoothly, cautious smiles and careful handshakes accompanying the amazement the Cobbs had unabashedly exhibited in the face of Eames’s forgeries.
Mal had been lovely, beautiful in the way that all inevitably tragic and painful things are. Eames had seen it, and so had Arthur - seen the way she always lingered a little too long after resurfacing, the needle in her wrist her only tether to reality. Dom had been blind to it, only choosing to see what he wanted, so sure that love was enough in the face of endless, God-like creation.
They'd all been under once, Eames and Dom elsewhere in the dream, the forger trying to teach the art of lying to a man too adamant on his identity to wreathe himself in the falsehood essential to forgery.
Mal had stood next to Arthur on a sedate cobblestone street, for once still and content. “Do you know what Dom asked me when he proposed?” she asked, entirely Parisian and whimsically apropos of nothing.
Arthur inclined his head towards her, shaking it. He smoothed the frown he could feel on his face, forcing his body under his absolute control; Eames is taking too long, he should have been back seven minutes ago.
“A leap of faith,” she continued. “Dom asked me to take a leap of faith.”
The romantic that he was beneath his Dior Homme suits and bespoke Dunhills, a slight smile found it way onto Arthur’s lips. “And so you did,” he said.
“And so I did,” Mal echoed, lips curving as she rewarded him with a full smile, bright and vivid. “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
The kick starting playing then, the clear warbling notes of Edith Piaf wafting through the dream. Mal threw her head back in laughter, the sound a lovely accompaniment to the music.
Just before the dream ended, she turned to Arthur, eyes speculative and knowing. “You should too, you know,” she said, gaze flickering off to the distance where Eames had disappeared with Dom.
“Oh?” he had questioned, eyebrow raised. “What is it that I should do?”
Mal’s eyes had danced then, silently and gaily chastising Arthur for feigning ignorance. “Take a leap of faith,” she told him.
“I - ” he began to answer, unsure of what he was about to say.
Around them, the dream collapsed.
Arthur is discharged on a balmy morning, stepping out onto the autumn leaf-ridden pavement. The hospital valet brings Eames’s Lotus Elise around, the tension in Eames’s shoulder abating slightly when Arthur slides into the passenger seat wordlessly.
He doesn’t ask where they are going, or what Eames plans to do now. Arthur is so, so tired, tired of things that break, and of what-might-have-beens. He chances a glance out of the corner of his eye at Eames, finding him stiff-backed and stonily silent, miles away from the loquacious and jovial mask he presents to the world at large.
He misses Eames. He misses the way Eames would casually, unthinkingly lope an arm over his shoulder if they were sitting sit by side; misses the way Eames would curl his lip in disgust whenever Arthur drank his coffee black; misses the way Eames’s eyes would sometimes find his whenever they delighted in a private joke.
This stranger beside him isn’t Eames, not really. The Eames he knows rages when he is angry, temper flaring in virulent crescendoes and glorying in all-consuming destruction. The Eames he knows punches walls, kicks chairs and gets into fights. This stranger is silent, and Arthur doesn’t know how to deal with him.
He can deal with the raging and shouting, Arthur thinks. He can weather out the wrath of Eames’s fury, calmly projecting a semblance of disaffection in the face of Eames’s complete anger, as Arthur has done many times before. He can deal with that.
But silence - silence is Arthur’s weapon, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it when it is turned against him.
Silence makes Arthur awkward, and causes him to grapple for something to break it.
“We’re in London,” he says dumbly, wondering for the first time since he woke up to a coldly silent Eames how he came to be here.
All Eames does in reply is send him a raised eyebrow, faintly mocking in the rearview mirror, not even meeting Arthur’s eyes properly. Arthur gets the hint, and falls back into quelled quiet. The Elise purrs through the muted early morning streets of London, cutting elegantly through traffic and curving corners with deadly ease, speed nothing but an afterthought.
They pull up in front of a townhouse in Westminster, near St. James’s Park. Once, Arthur might have counted it as a small victory, learning where Eames stayed in his downtime. Now, he is too weary of people that don't love him back, and of battles won but wars lost. Eames slides the car into the parking lot, and Arthur steps out, into a brave new world that needs more out of him than he has to offer.
The townhouse decor is everything he imagined Eames's house would be and wouldn't, wooden African masks filling one wall and original Degas and Draper on the other. Arthur doesn't expect the professional kitchen, nor does he expect the delicate Ming vases that decorate one sideboard. Paintbrushes and half-complete canvasses litter the living room, paint palettes and thinner bottles strewn over most surfaces.
Arthur thinks these are little insights to Eames's world, small treasures he will greedily covet now that that world is lost to him.
Eames directs him into a large bedroom, airy and bright. Floor-length windows run along an entire side of the room, and a massive watercolour of the Thames fills another, the colours dark and moody, interspersed with occasional lighter daubs. The painting, Arthur realises, is Eames’s original work, the bold scrawl at the corner drawing his eye like a moth to a flame.
“This is your room,” Arthur points out, gut-wrenched and heart-sore, reluctant to cede this tiny piece that Eames has revealed to him but sure that Eames has brought him to the wrong place.
Eames merely huffs in reply. “Excellent deduction, darling.” His sarcasm is biting, so very unlike the punches-pulled variety he saves for everyone else. Arthur bitterly wonders if he should be happy that Eames has singled him out, unadulterated sarcasm saved especially for one Arthur Levine. Cynically, he thinks that this is probably the most special he’s ever been to Eames.
“So where are you going to sleep?” Arthur can’t help the irritation that creeps into his tone, increasingly annoyed at the non-answers that Eames keeps providing.
Eames turns slowly, eyebrows raised in exaggeration. “Oh, Arthur, what an astute question, really. Maybe, you know - the bed?”
Gritting his teeth, Arthur forces himself to ignore the blatant mocking in Eames’s voice. “Well, I certainly can’t take the floor with my bad shoulder and I’m sure you’ve got a spare bedroom lying around somewhere, so do you think you could kindly show me to it?”
Arthur knows the answer before Eames even opens his mouth to respond, the gradual tensing of the muscles of his back a resounding no. “You’re sleeping here,” Eames enunciates slowly, speaking over Arthur’s scathing eye roll.
“I don’t see why - ”
“You’re pregnant,” Eames says incredulously. “I don’t know what that means to you, pet, but get this: you’re now at risk, and I’ll be arsed if something happens to our baby because you thought it was too inconvenient to share a room.”
That isn’t his point at all, and Arthur opens his mouth to correct Eames’s assumption. Shaking his head, Eames turns away to rummage around in his closet.
“I need a shower,” the forger mutters darkly. “Do whatever you want, I don’t give a fuck.”
Eames stalks out of the bedroom, Arthur watching his retreating back. I wish, Arthur finds himself thinking, I wish you did.
Just because you’re in the military Project Dreamshare doesn’t mean they don’t still send you out into the field.
Fact-gathering for the dream, their superiors say. For greater authenticity.
Yeah. Utter bullshit. Once you see one dead body, you never forget the way it smells, the way it looks, sprawled and doll-like, glassy eyes unseeing. Once you face the blood-soaked sands of Kandahar and Kabul and Helmand, you never stop dreaming about it, the flatlands a stark background to all your worst nightmares.
The American Spec Ops team and British SAS forces are just outside Kandahar, conducting a daytime patrol that their COs promised would be nothing more than routine. Eames is next to him, gait sure and confident as they exchange the casual banter that comes with being stuck with one another for months, words playfully thrown without thought. The rest of their teams mill about, friendly ribbing and jests occasionally breaking the desert silence.
Arthur feels the ambush before he sees it, body tensing with muscle memory as gunfire rains down on them, the crack, crack of machine guns snapping and whipping the sand at their feet.
“Get down!” he yells at his men. “Hostiles at two o’clock!”
They respond with deadly efficiency, Spec Ops and SAS combined into a mercenary, unstoppable force. Corporal Pearson reports sighting four hostiles, and Lieutenant Faulkner downs two within the minute.
The entire altercation is over in just under ten minutes, the men breathing hard and harsh, adrenaline coursing through their systems. A signal from Arthur has his team abandoning cover, and he is vaguely aware of the British force doing the same. He steps out from behind some felled awning, something about the quiet that descends on them after the rattle of gunfire unsettling him, making his soldier’s instincts run circles in his mind.
Eames comes up behind him, hand never leaving his assault rifle, eyes sweeping their surroundings. “Something isn’t - ”
Arthur sees the red blossom and stain the green-brown of Eames’s fatigues before his mind can compute what has happened, the harsh crack of a double sniper’s shot ringing out. Behind him, the two teams leap into motion, sighting and firing retaliatory shots at the lone gunman.
“Eames,” he breathes, dropping onto the ground to apply pressure on the two gut shots. “God, Eames, you idiot,” he seethes.
“Not my choice to get shot, darling,” Eames retorts shakily, breaths hitching and jerky as he tries for a smile that ends up being more of a pained grimace.
“Don’t talk,” Arthur snaps, hands drenched and dripping with Eames’s blood. The wounds are still bleeding, the blood pouring forth much too fast for Eames to make it back to base in time. He can hear Corporal Sanders calling for a medic in the background.
“We need to get the bullets out,” he says, stating the obvious in a bid to calm himself, to settle the raging emotions of fear and worry and terror that threatens to overwhelm him. He peers at the bullet sites, flesh torn and gaping. “I think they used barbed rounds.”
“Fuck,” Eames swears, biting back a small cry as the motion of speech aggravates the pain.
Arthur thinks he must look especially dishevelled, or there must be a look of something in his eyes, because a flash of emotion he can’t catch flashes in Eames’s gaze. “Hey, hey. Darling, it’s alright. I’m going to be alright.”
Arthur makes a noise at the back of his throat, a non-reply that can be interpreted to mean anything. “Don’t. Talk,” he reiterates, hands shaky. They’re sending a chopper, Sanders tells them, and Arthur can only nod.
“I’ll be okay,” Eames tells him again, nearly whimpering with the effort. Arthur can only allow a slight nod when Pearson spots the chopper in the distance.
I love you, he’d wanted to say that day, the words clogged in his throat like the muddy, gritty sands of Afghanistan when it rains.
Arthur remembers that day well, because it was the closest he’d ever come to voicing those three little words that would have been the end of everything. He never said it, those three little words.
There was always this look in Eames’s eyes, like a cornered rabbit, and Arthur knew that if he did, Eames would run, and he’d never come back, and Arthur loved him too much to set him free.
While Eames is in the shower, Arthur takes advantage of his solitude to figure out his next step.
He has to decline all current job offers, he decides first, and pads over to the far end of the room to see if he can find a laptop to borrow. He wanders into what appears to be a second walk-in closet that leads off from the bedroom, flicking the light switch on as he enters before stopping short.
Arthur’s dozens of Zegna, Balenciaga, Dior, Prada, Burberry Prorsum, Dunhill, McQueen and Boateng suits hang in pristine rows on the racks the line one end of the closet. Along the far end, across from where Arthur stands, mouth agape, are his Ferragamo loafers and belts, all neatly placed and hung. The final wall has his more casual wear, True Religion jeans and battered everyday tees stacked side by side. In a slot next to his shoes, Arthur finds his Samsonite luggage just below his Glocks and Berettas, and that is when he snaps.
Eames levels an unimpressed look at him when he slams into the bathroom, shoving the shower curtain aside in a broad move.
"You moved my things here," he accuses, voice rising in volume and echoing off the tiled bathroom walls. "You broke into my house."
"Which one?" Eames sneers, "Paris? LA? Or the one in Mombasa?"
"You had no fucking right," Arthur shouts, uncaring of neighbours or walls-with-ears or his shot-to-hell image. "You can't just - just break into my houses and clear them out without asking me. Fuck, Eames, couldn't you have just asked me first?"
"I don't know, Arthur, you can't just leave me in the lurch and forget to tell me about my child either, but you don't see me bitching about it, do you?"
"Don't make this into some sort of petty revenge. It's not the same. I won't let my kid live a lie where his parents pretend to love each other, and I won't have it think it's the reason we're miserable together."
Something changes in Eames's expression then, a subtle flicker that hardens and smoothens into stony granite.
"Pretend to love each other," Eames echoes, and his harsh bark of laughter is jarring and disconcerting. "Well, Arthur, tough luck, then. I won't have our kid grow up without both of its parents, wondering if it was its fault that they didn't stay together."
They are both breathing hard now, anger and hard emotions making the ample bathroom small. Arthur is gradually aware of Eames's state of undress in growing increments, fury and resentment combined not enough to dampen his hyperactive, hormone-ridden libido.
Arthur involuntarily backs away, the self-preserving side of his subconscious overriding the baser part that wants nothing more than Eames’s cock inside him. A brief flash of an emotion Arthur can’t name flits across Eames’s face, gone before he can be sure it was there in the first place.
“You should leave the bathroom,” Eames tells him, voice quiet now, and if Arthur knew Eames better (and god, god, how he wishes he did), he’d say it was hurt and confusion colouring his tone.
But Arthur doesn’t, doesn’t know Eames as well as he’d like, doesn’t know how Eames looks in the mornings, how Eames likes his steak done, or which brand of laundry detergent Eames uses. Arthur doesn’t know a lot of things.
Arthur doesn’t know Eames because Eames won’t let him, holding back parts of himself, tucking them away in dark corners of his heart, out of Arthur’s grasp. Arthur keeps parts of himself away too, adamant in the notion of equivalent exchange. Maybe that’s been their problem all along - they are both too stubborn to make the first move, afraid of consequences beyond their imagination.
But that, Arthur thinks, would have to mean that Eames saw him as more than just a casual hole to stick his dick into, and he forces his foolish hopes away, locking them in untouchable places, far out of his own reach.
The fight goes out of Arthur almost visibly, ire tangibly slipping away. “Yeah,” he murmurs, casting his eyes towards the wall, deliberately looking anywhere but at Eames. “Yeah, I’ll just - ” he gestures vaguely in the direction of the bedroom.
He tells himself he isn’t hoping that Eames will stop him as he leaves, and tells himself he isn’t a little more heartbroken when Eames doesn’t.
If he tells himself these things enough, he may even come to believe them one day.
Arthur is twenty-five, and Eames is twenty-six, and they are both young and brilliant, both high on youth and verve and oh-so-sure that life is an endless cruise of the same.
They fuck all over the globe, pulling off jobs that rake in more cash than most people make in years, and nothing, they are sure, nothing will ever change, because life and everything that it has to offer is theirs for the taking, they who are rich and young and glamourous.
An easy extraction in Seychelles ends early, and the cash is wired to their Swiss bank accounts without a hitch. They are young, both with more money than they know what to do with, so Arthur readily agrees when Eames suggests they take the remainder of the time off to rent a yacht and sail from island to island.
Eames finds them a sleek twenty-five foot beauty, mahogany-panelled and gleaming, and Arthur quietly delights in another tidbit discovered when Eames turns out to have a captain’s license.
Eames drunk is a philosophical creature, prone to lengthy rhapsodising. Three bottles of Veuve Clicquot lie empty between the two of them on the yacht sun deck, the sea calm and tranquil. Arthur is almost certain he's dreaming, but then his hand closes around the die in his chinos (it is a vacation, after all), and he is firmly reminded that this is, indeed, reality, and the Gods must be smiling down on him.
It's approaching six in the evening, the sun a red ball hanging low in the sky, gulls screeching and diving for the last swell of fish. They've spent all day speaking, low murmurs of conversation about everything and nothing punctuated by husky, rumbling laughter.
Eames flops down from where he had kept himself propped up on the elbows, smile on his lips as he takes a lungful of crisp sea air. “Do you think,” he begins, using his wine glass to gesture at their surroundings in a general sweeping move, “Do you think all this’ll stay the same?”
Arthur chuckles, amusement on his breath. “You’re drunk, Eames,” he says, and moves to take the wine glass from him.
Throwing a melodramatic hand over his eyes, Eames shakes his head at him as he holds the glass out of Arthur’s reach. “No, no, Arthur, really. This. Do things ever change? Will they? Can they?”
Sensing something more than a drunk rambling here, Arthur pauses. “I suppose things do,” he replies at length. “But I guess it depends on the context, and on the time, and on what it is you’re referring to.”
Eames’s hand slides away from where it was shielding his eyes from the sun, suddenly intense and focused on Arthur. “What if it hasn’t changed for years? Do you think it’ll still change then?”
Frustrated with his lack of any contextual knowledge, Arthur tries to reply the best he can. “Maybe,” he concedes. “Maybe not. But nothing stays the same forever - ” Arthur knows this, knows this with terrifying certainty, “ - and everyone just keeps moving on.”
Arthur holds a hand up to the sky, filtering the sun through the gaps between his fingers. The shadows cast play across his face, lines of dark-light-dark, and he closes his eyes briefly as he fists his hand, drawing it back down to his side, palm empty.
“So we have to move on too,” he finishes, turning back to look at Eames next to him.
Somehow, Arthur is unsurprised to find Eames dozing on the deck chair, face tilted towards Arthur, cheeks flushed with sun and alcohol. Tentatively reaching out, afraid to break the moment, Arthur traces a light finger down Eames’s nose, journeying to map his lips, ending along his cheekbone.
Arthur isn’t stupid. He knew what he was getting into when they started out, and if he stumbled and happened to fall in love with Eames along the way, that was no one’s fault but his own.
The cartography of Eames complete for the moment, Arthur allows himself to breathe, out on a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean, birds calling in the distance, staring out into the creeping unquiet dark.
Eames and Arthur get their totems at the same time, and depending on which version of the story you listen to, from a seedy gambling den in Hong Kong, a one-legged prostitute in Namibia, or an illegal gambling bust in Cairo.
Either way, the fact of the matter is that Eames and Arthur get their totems from the same place.
They are twenty-five and twenty-four, fresh-faced from the dreamshare programme and high on the prospect of months of paid leave. Their teams rent suites in the Venetian, carelessly spending and able to do so because of the fat checks their governments pay to keep them quiet.
Arthur isn’t much for gambling, too distrustful to place any faith in circumstances he can’t fully control. Eames, however, takes to it like a duck to water.
They spend time on the slot machines, on roulette and blackjack, but it is only when Arthur sees the way Eames slides his cards across the table in a poker game, hands sure and steady on his chips, that he knows Eames has done this many times before, in some part of the past he guards closely.
Arthur watches Eames burn through his chips like paper, losing ten grand in a single hand and winning thirty back with another. In a window of rest between games, Eames sidles up next to him, scotch in hand, whispering too close to his ear - “You should learn to live a little, darling.”
He elbows Eames as surreptitiously as he can, unwilling to draw too much attention to themselves. “I do,” he snipes, “I just spend my time on more worthwhile pursuits.”
“Such a stick in the mud,” Eames chuckles, and Arthur can feel the low rumbles of his laughter from where Eames is pressed against his side. “Oh, Arthur, if you’re going to be that way, I’m just going to have to live enough for both of us.”
Arthur sniffs at Eames, and for the life of him, can’t stop acting like a petulant child. “I’d like to see you try.”
Eames peers at him from his perch, expression surprised and delighted. “Christ, Arthur,” he purrs, eyes hooded, “you’re positively lethal.” With that, he saunters away, sliding back into a poker game as if he never left it.
That night, Eames slips into Arthur’s room in the suite they share with their team mates, his footsteps as silent as the dead of night.
“Darling,” he says, and Arthur will swear Eames is absolutely preening, like a cat presenting a dead animal, “look what I nicked for you.”
Arthur blearily blinks sleep away, noting with mild annoyance that the clock reads two fifty-six in the morning. “It’s a die,” he deadpans, wondering if all the intense hours of dreamsharing the army puts them through has finally broken Eames.
“Of course it is,” Eames assures, beaming.
“Okay,” Arthur tries again, sure that he is missing a few pages of the book Eames is on. “And why, Eames, would you get me a die? And at three in the fucking morning?”
Eames eyes him incredulously, complete with an exaggerated look of surprise. “It’s a souvenir, Arthur. Surely you’ve heard of them? You know, those little knick-knacks you get on lovely holidays as beautiful reminders of the smashing company that - ”
Arthur stifles Eames’s words with a hand over his mouth, frowning in disgust as Eames’s tongue meets his palm in a filthy lick. “You’re disgusting,” he says.
“But you like it,” Eames rejoins, wiggling his eyebrows lasciviously.
“Only as much as I like having a fungus on my foot.”
“A devilishly sexy fungus?”
Arthur half-heartedly elbows Eames, missing his solar plexus completely and connecting with his side. Eames smiles, grin cheshire-like in the dim lighting, dipping his head to press a kiss to Arthur’s cheek before slipping back out of the room.
“Bastard,” Arthur mutters drowsily, no heat behind the words. Bizarre episode with Eames over, he rolls back over to sleep, too tired to analyse whatever the hell just happened.
The next morning, Arthur walks out of his room, die in his slacks, to find Eames lounging on a sofa, casually flipping a poker chip in his hand.
They live like strangers sharing a living space, two foreign entities forced into shared confines. Arthur cancels all of his upcoming jobs and rejects all prospective ones, and Eames, Arthur is curtly told, is surprisingly free from any obligations for the next seven months.
Arthur hates this.
Though loathe to use the word, eventually Arthur is forced to concede that they are both tiptoeing around each other, and isn’t that ridiculous, given how much time Eames’s cock has spent in him before?
They go to appointments with Arthur’s gynecologist together, sitting stiffly side-by-side in waiting rooms and looking everywhere but at each other once the ultrasound starts. Dr. Evans senses the tension between them, and tactfully skirts around the issue.
“It’s a boy,” he tells them one Tuesday, pointing at what must be some identifying feature on the ultrasound screen. Arthur nods, and Eames makes a noise of assent, each ignoring the other. Arthur doesn’t have any preference regarding the gender of their kid - he’s just happy that his baby is healthy and growing on target. Eames’s lack of response, though, is a punch straight to the gut.
Eames heads out first, giving Arthur privacy to clean up and dress. Once Eames vacates the room, Dr. Evans turns to Arthur, concern evident on his face. “I’ve seen couples like you two,” he begins awkwardly, obviously well-meaning but not really knowing how to do his. “The childhood years are crucial to a child’s development. I’m not - ”
Dr. Evans clears his throat. “Well, that is to say, I think you should actively reconsider if this is the healthiest environment for your son to be raised in.”
Arthur gives some sort of non-committal reply, heartsore and emotionally drained. He wanders out of the room to meet Eames at the reception, and they drive back to the townhouse in silence.
Over dinner, Arthur broaches the topic with weary resignation. He’s tired of trying to start conversations that Eames shoots down or snarks back to in reply, and his hormones are rampaging around his system and making him exhausted and emotional. The last time Eames had derisively responded, Arthur had been horrified to find tears welling up, and had to run to the bathroom to wait it out.
“So, it’s a boy,” he begins over warm wonton soup and beef lo mien.
Eames snorts. “Thank you for stating the obvious, pet. I was there, you know. You may have noticed me, standing in the - ”
“We need to think of a name,” Arthur cuts in, too sick of this hostility between them to continue playing his part.
Eames quiets, clearly sensing that something is wrong. “Julian,” he answers softly after a moment. “My grandfather’s name was Julian.”
“I like that name,” Arthur agrees, nodding.
“Julian, then,” Eames echoes, and sends Arthur a small smile, just a slight quirk of the lips but more genuine than any other expression Eames has sent his way in a long, long while.
Dinner is finished in relatively companionable silence, the clinking of cutlery and scraping of plates the only sounds in their kitchen. Arthur wishes everyday could be like that, comfortably quiet without being coldly silent.
He tries to drag this pocket of peace between them out as long as he can, answering Eames’s smile with a small one of his own. When all the dishes have been put away, he comes up next to Eames, close enough to touch, though it feels like they’ve never been further apart.
“Thanks,” Arthur murmurs, and his hand comes up to cup Eames’s elbow lightly in the sort of casual gesture of thanks one would give to a friend.
He isn’t prepared for the intensity of Eames’s reaction. Eames jerks away, his face immediately shuttering and closing off, eyes flashing with an emotion Arthur can’t quite catch before walling off into his usual blankness.
Some of his hurt must register on his face, because Eames’s expression softens slightly, his eyes warming to an apologetic glaze, lips parting to most likely mumble trite words of apology that Arthur doesn’t want to hear, because why should Eames apologise if he doesn’t want Arthur like he used to anymore?
Arthur abruptly turns away to the exit. “I’m going to bed,” he informs over his shoulder, shrugging off the hand that comes up to rest on his arm.
He feigns sleep when Eames quietly slides into the bed and under the sheets next to him, shifting to turn the bedside lamp off. Eames used to be very tactile, petting little strokes and pats all over Arthur, turning him into a quivering mess.
Now, Eames turns to face the other side, fifteen inches of space between their bodies. It’s a cold night, and Arthur suppresses a shiver.
And if Arthur can’t halt the silent tears track down his face and onto his pillow as Eames sleeps on next to him, a whole gulf between them - that’s no one’s business but his own.
After all, Arthur made his bed, so he’ll sleep in it.
After three more weeks of wary cohabitation, Arthur breaks, and he takes a job. He’s showing now, a little bump that borders on being unable to be passed off as a food gut. He figures that he should get out while he still can, before he goes crazy or Eames and him kill each other, whichever scenario happens first.
It’s not a dangerous job, at least not by the standards Arthur would use to measure his old mind heists. It’s a simple extraction, a two-man job that doesn’t even require the point man to go under. The research is straightforward and tedious, open-and-shut financial records and surveillance tapes and phone taps - hardly backbreaking.
He thinks about telling Eames, but dismisses the thought the instant it forms. It’s not about irresponsibility or pettiness; the job is simple, and Arthur is pregnant, not incapable of defending himself. The job is in London, and it won’t even take a day. Arthur sees no reason to start an argument with Eames over it.
By the time the day of the job rolls around, Arthur has the entire financial records for the past two years, surveillance tapes stretching back six months, and taped phone conversations for the past one year of one Christopher Trulane, 27. The extractor is a respected name in the business - Seth Miller - and one that Arthur’s worked with a couple of times before.
He hacks into and overrides the security systems in Eames’s house, disarming the alarms in his cars before borrowing his Aston Martin DB8. Eames’s beloved Lotus Elise isn’t in the garage, anyway. Eames always leaves the house during the day.
Arthur doesn’t know why.
See, Arthur doesn’t think he’s insecure. It’s not about him, or about any childhood issues he has. But certain patterns, once established, are hard to break, both for the person making them and the person expecting it.
Eames always leaves. Arthur’s stopped expecting him to return, only Eames always does now, and that fucking throws things for a loop. Despite the number of times Eames’s returned back home, some part of Arthur is waiting for the other shoe to drop; for the day Eames just doesn’t come back at all, slipping off into the London fog in search of his next great heist.
Arthur doesn’t think he can be blamed for arriving at that conclusion.
He’s spent years waking up in cold hotel beds, shared fluids staining the sheets around his lonely singular body. He’s spent years watching Eames flirt with anyone and everyone, same smiles-jokes-pet names gracing his lips with little discrimination. He’s spent years watching Eames’s retreating back, form growing smaller in the distance, miles and oceans and plane journeys between them whenever Eames arbitrarily ups and runs.
Just because someone returns after they keep running away doesn’t mean that they’re yours.
He splays his hand across the growing swell of his abdomen, taking a moment in the silence of the car just to breath. “I know things have been rough lately, kid,” he says, voice pitched low. “But that’s just between your dad and I. Don’t ever think you’re not wanted, okay? Both of us love you very much.”
At least, Arthur hopes that’s true. He can’t speak for Eames, unsure if his strange mix of protectiveness and distant politeness is out of obligation or love for their unborn child. Whatever it is, Arthur will do all he can to make sure his kid knows it is loved; if Eames is doing all of this out of misplaced notions of responsibility and shit, then Arthur is damned well going to spare his kid the brunt of that.
No child should grow up feeling like an obligation.
Arthur sighs, giving the swell an affectionate pat before sliding the car out of the basement garage, up into the brisk London morning.
Their warehouse is located in Brixton, and four wailing police cars scream past the Aston Martin before he gets to his location. Brixton is not a friendly neighbourhood; Arthur feels the stares that the Aston Martin attracts like moths to a flame, and curses Eames for not having less flashy cars.
He tries to park as inconspicuously as possible, maneuvering the car into a corner lot. Miller’s already in the warehouse when he walks in, and Arthur nods in greeting, research files tucked under a Prada-suited arm.
Miller signals him over to the three lawn chairs already spread out across the warehouse floor, PASIV set up to one side. Trulane will be brought into the warehouse for this job - they’ve discussed it, and agreed that it’s best if Miller sedates Trulane at his Lambeth residence and drive him over.
“I’m heading on out now,” Miller tells him. “Christ, Arthur, you’ve put on a bit, eh?”
Arthur grimaces in reply, and wills his hand from coming up to cup the curve of his stomach just in time. “British food,” he answers wryly, “it’s too good for me to pass up.”
Miller guffaws. “Fuck you, you uncivilised American. At least we Brits are willing to admit our food’s shite.”
Chuckling as he nods, Arthur turns to unload and ready the PASIV. “Before you go, I’ve got some issues with the dream architecture,” he calls over his shoulder.
When he fails to get a response, Arthur cranes his neck to catch a glimpse of Miller even as his hand slides under his blazer for his gun. “Miller, what the fuck - ”
The syringe is fully depressed into the side of Arthur’s neck before he can even grasp his gun properly or finish his sentence. “Sorry, mate, I really hate this, but they’ve got me girl.”
Who’s they briefly flashes through Arthur’s mind before he slumps against Miller’s shoulder, knocked out cold. The last thought that he manages before the darkness wraps him in its consuming embrace is: this was supposed to be an easy job.
His die comes up two, then five, then one.
The surroundings around him are vaguely reminiscent of Helmand; miles and miles of sand dotted by low mud-brick houses, awnings fluttering in the gritty, biting wind. His hands are cuffed behind his back, the metals chafing the insides of his wrists like early salt on a not-yet-wound.
The barrel of a gun nudges him in the back, right between the shoulder blades; Arthur complies with the implicit command and begins to walk. His captor, black-suited and in sunglasses, steers him towards the biggest of the outcropping of buildings.
“You shouldn’t have put me under,” Arthur says, and he isn’t saying it as a threat, because it isn’t when it’s true. He is jerked roughly in response.
“I would apologise for your impending painful death, but I’m not sorry,” he continues, and the butt of the gun coming down hard on the side of his head is a brutal pain, but not a blow strong enough to knock him unconscious.
They draw close to the sandy structure, and Arthur looks up at the blue, pristine sky, watching clouds that aren’t real hang low overhead. In the distance, thunder rolls and rumbles.
Arthur smiles. “You’ll be torn apart.”
In the dreamsharing business, it is well-known that Eames practically invented forgery, just as Arthur practically invented subconscious security.
The bottom line is this: if Eames doesn’t want you to find him in a dream, you won’t. And if Arthur doesn’t want you in his mind - well, then, you’re basically fucked.
The left hook catches Arthur square in the jaw, and he lurches in the chair they tied him to, lip already split and bleeding. He doesn’t recognise his captors, and he doesn’t know what they want.
“Let’s try again,” sneers the man he was brought to see. “Talk.”
His military training is too ingrained for him to reply any differently - that is, not at all. Arthur knows that they will kill him once they discover he doesn’t have the information they want. His silence is the only thing keeping him alive.
“You know,” he grits out behind blood-stained teeth, “there’s this saying about the value of what isn’t freely given.” He grins sharply at his interrogator, his bruised jaw aching as he takes in the way his face reddens in anger at Arthur’s non-compliance. “Nothing at all.”
His interrogator nods at the black-suited guard that brought him in, and Arthur barely manages to stifle his shout of pain when the butt of a gun comes down hard, a glancing blow across the smattering of others from before.
“Come now, Arthur,” the man says, crouching down before Arthur and gripping his chin hard, fingers pressing down where his bruises are. “There’s no need for such hostility.” Arthur grinds his molars down against the throbbing pain.
The man stands, reaching for the rag that the guard offers, wiping his hands free of Arthur’s blood. “If you cooperate, I promise we’ll only damage you a little.” He makes a sweeping gesture. “Surely you aren’t stupid enough to think we came into this unprepared. Look around you. You’re in a desert. Your subconscious won’t populate a desert. The few projections there were - don’t you think we would have shot them already?”
Spec Ops taught Arthur one core skill - gather information, stay alive, and keep your captors talking. “Who are you?” Arthur asks, the words wet and iron-tinged on his tongue.
“Arthur, Arthur, Arthur,” the man sighs, picking up a Sig-Sauer with one hand, tapping it against his palm as he mock-contemplates Arthur’s question in disappointment. “I think we may have overestimated your importance, seeing as you don’t know who I am.”
Russian or Ukrainian, Arthur discerns, the barest hint of the guttural, rolling vowels rounding off an otherwise flawless American accent. Military background, from the way he handles the firearm. Wealthy, from his bespoke suit.
“My name is Petrov,” his captor concedes, Sig-Sauer still carelessly held in one hand. “And you, friend Arthur, are not being very helpful. I must admit, I’m quite disappointed. Everyone we, ah, spoke to made you out to be some sort of legend.”
Petrov points to the barren desert landscape outside the window, gesturing with his gun. “Look at that! Not a soul in sight. And they said your security was the best.”
Every mind has a response time to foreign presences, some much faster than others. In the end, no matter how placid the invaders, a mind will always eventually detect and expel them, given enough time. Arthur knows that his mind will respond within a maximum of forty dream minutes, and he gauges that twenty have passed.
He quirks the ends of his lips up into a semblance of a smile. “Maybe the party just hasn’t started yet.”
Petrov throws his head back and laughs, harsh barks that echo off the mud-bricks around them. “I don’t think you understand the situation you are in. Those in the dreamshare business, I find, tend to be blind to its weaknesses.” He glances at his watch. “We have a bit of time left. I want to savour this.”
He snaps a command at the guard behind Arthur in Russian, and the guard leaves the room. “Now, you see here, Arthur,” Petrov begins, talking in a sing-song voice, as if to a little child. “The dreamer creates the dream, and the subject fills the dream with his projections, yes? But think about it: what if the dreamer brought the subject to a location where they wouldn’t be any projections at all, because it wouldn’t be logical for there to be any? A place like the Arctic? Or the desert?”
Arthur’s head wound is dripping blood across his eye, and he can feel his bruised jaw begin to swell. Twelve minutes to go.
“And yes, I know, deserts have people, there could be soldiers.” Petrov waves the gun dismissively, a macabre conversational emphasis to his speech. “But you’ve never seen active duty, have you? A lowly peon in the Army, a paper-pusher.”
Arthur flicks a glance at Petrov. “You have my file,” he says. Arthur planted false information in different databases across the world, each one unique to help him pinpoint his captors or pursuers in the event they uncovered one.
Petrov mistakes Arthur’s glance for apprehension and fear. “Of course we do,” he crows. “Arthur’s not even your real name, now, is it? Carl Powers, born in Chicago, an Army clerk.”
“What do you want with me, then?”
Petrov wrinkles his nose, and proceeds to ignore Arthur. “I don’t know what he sees in you, really. Such a waste of one favour.” Looking down at Arthur, Petrov sends him a look of pure contempt. “Stalingrad, May ’07.”
Arthur stiffens. “How do you know about that?”
“Who do you think got you out?”
Eames, Arthur wants to reply. Eames got me out. He came back for me.
“Your boyfriend,” Petrov sneers, “he came to me, called in a favour and asked me to get you out of there. You think he did it all by himself? Killed all those ex-KGB men single-handedly, paid off the bureaucrats at the border, got you a chartered plane? Don’t make me laugh.”
He’s not my boyfriend, Arthur wants to say, mind fuzzy from blood loss and injury. Six minutes, he thinks next.
“So I agreed, I did what he asked. And what does he do in return? He sells me out to Brewski a month later. I lost everything. My company. My wife, mistress and connections, gone with the money.”
Arthur remembers the Brewski job. He remembers all the jobs he’s even run, facts and figures all neatly filed away in his ordered mind. The Brewski job, though - it sticks more, the details vivid and sharp, primary colours against a backdrop of grey and black.
The Brewski job was the first job he took after Stalingrad. Standard corporate espionage, really, concerning one David Brewski and a new drug formula that his boss was convinced he was leaking. The icing on the cake was that David Brewski’s boss was also his father, the decidedly unpleasant Isaac Brewski, CEO of Brewski Pharmaceuticals and well-connected to the Russian mafiya.
The job paid well, as far as run-of-the-mill jobs like it went. Arthur called in Eames to double as extractor and forger, forging David Brewski’s wife. It was supposed to be a simple job.
If it’s one thing Arthur’s learnt, though, it’s that simple jobs never turn out that way.
None of David Brewski’s medical records told of his paranoid schizophrenia, a fact that Arthur and Eames discovered when they were two levels under and attacked and eaten by cannibals, bumped one level up and then ravaged by carnivorous scarab beetles.
The Brewski job stands out so much because it’s one of the few jobs that Arthur can remember being unable to complete successfully, underscored even more considering that both Eames and him were on it. For him to fail independently is one thing - for the both of them to do so is almost unbelievable.
It’d been a slump for Arthur; two clusterfucks of jobs in a row. He recalls cursing a blue streak as they’d hightailed it out of Brewski’s hotel room, armed with the knowledge that Isaac Brewski was not a forgiving man. Failure on that job meant death.
They’d had to split up, Arthur to Warsaw and Eames to Budapest. Arthur had resigned himself to months lying low, seething in his slump-caused incompetence and watching over his shoulder every minute of the day for assassins sent after him.
He’d been tired, sick of running and just plain exhausted, driven to the edge of his limits by demons of his own making. The series of missteps and mistakes he’d kept making set his teeth on edge, made him feel like he’d wanted to crawl out of his own skin; to shed Arthur Levine and wake up someone else, even if only for a day.
Arthur thinks that Eames might have sensed it then, before they went on their separate ways with vague promises to rendezvous at a later point. It’d made things even worse - Arthur hates failure, and one thing he hates even more is having Eames see him fail.
According to Arthur’s logic, if Eames isn’t willing to stay with him, well, Arthur just has to make sure he doesn’t have any reason to leave. Failure, on Arthur’s list, is a pretty damn good reason for someone to leave him.
Eames turning up on his rental apartment doorstep in Warsaw a month later had been surprising, to say the least. Arthur had set aside his Glock once he realised it was Eames, letting the forger in even as he took in his four-day-old beard and travel-rumpled attire.
“What are you - ” he’d began, only to be cut off by Eames.
“I’ve sorted it out, love. Isaac Brewski’s not an issue any longer.”
Looking back, Arthur realised he should have dug a little deeper, run some checks on his own. It wasn’t that he doubted Eames’s competency, but Arthur should still have made sure that Eames hadn’t stepped on too many toes. That was Arthur’s job.
He curses this belated revelation, blood dripping steadily into his eyes and blurring his vision. His jaw has swollen to the point that talking is difficult, and when he tongues at it, he can feel that some teeth have been loosened.
Two minutes, he thinks, and a secret smile creeps onto his face.
Something roars in the distance, the ground trembling in answer. Petrov startles, and barks a series of orders into a walkie-talkie that appears in his hand. A reply squawks over, the voice tinny and thin before a slight screech cuts it off mid-sentence, dropping the room back into silence, save for Petrov’s heavy breathing and Arthur’s blood dripping.
Miller bursts into the room, panting like he’s run a marathon. “They’re coming,” he gasps out between heaves of breath, eyes wild and fixed on Arthur.
“You should have known better,” Arthur tells him, and though it comes out garbled, the meaning is clear: you fucked with me, so now I’ll fuck with you.
“What is the meaning of this?” Petrov yells, spittle spraying Miller full on the face, his features purpled in livid fury. “You built this dream! What do you mean they’re coming?”
“His projections,” Miller murmurs, voice tremulous. “They’re on their way.”
Petrov turns to stare disbelievingly at Arthur. “And they’re very, very angry,” Arthur says. “You were disappointed, I remember you mentioning. Well, Petrov, you want to be impressed? This is for you.”
Petrov rounds on Miller. “You said the sedative would keep his subconscious down!”
Miller nods, frantic. “I did, and it should, I don’t know why - ”
A blast sounds somewhere to the right of their building, and dust trickles down from the ceiling as the ground rumbles. No one talks for the moment, eyes fixed in the direction of the blast.
Arthur tilts his head back and laughs, the sound mirthless and hollow. “Gentlemen,” he tells them, vengeance a dark light in his gaze, “welcome to my mind.”
A sniper round slams into Miller’s neck, killing the extractor instantly.
“You never saw the frontlines,” Petrov accuses, seething.
Another explosion, closer this time, rocks the foundations of their building.
“And that,” Arthur says, “is where you’d be wrong.”
Around them, the building goes up in flames.
When Arthur wakes, pain is an afterthought, a barely-registered blip in his consciousness.
His hands come up immediately to cup at the curve of his stomach, and the bile that rises at the back of his throat subsides when he finds the soft bump still there, firm and warm to the touch, entirely unharmed.
The next thing he notices is the blood. His heart hammers twice, loud and in dread, before he realises that it isn’t his.
The room is drenched in blood. Spatters mark the furniture where bullets have ripped upholstery and frames apart, and pools gather where his assailants were gunned down. The smell is overpowering, and Arthur has to shut his eyes and clench his fists while nausea abates. A PASIV lies next to him on the ground, six used cannulae littering the floor, wires haphazardly scattered.
He gingerly picks a Sig-Sauer up from the ground as he stands, checking the magazine to ensure it is still loaded. Arthur can hear sounds coming from the next room, hoarse yells and pleas in the same voice.
Torture, his mind supplies. Torture always sounds the same, regardless of the person. It’s one thing Arthur learnt, both as interrogator and victim.
He flicks the safety on his newly-acquired gun off, edging towards the doorway leading to the next room, pausing frequently to catch his breath. The sedatives and cocktail of drugs they must have pumped into his system are still present, making his movements sluggish and his mind unresponsive.
That is why he only notices the execution style used on all of his assailants just as he comes up on the doorway. It’s brutal and fast, sweeping shots that grotesquely deface his captors across all of their heads. The bullet holes are in diagonals across their faces, five or six gunshots per single man’s head.
It’s the style of assassination taught in the Royal Marines, and one that the SAS sometimes uses.
He slips into the view of the doorway just as that thought occurs to him, Sig-Sauer planted firmly in his grip as he turns into the room. Eames is standing over Miller, dripping hunting knife in one hand, Browning L9A1 in the other and pointed towards Arthur.
“Eames,” Arthur breathes, lowering his Sig-Sauer. He instinctively steps closer towards Eames, and only stops short at the look in his eyes, cold and unforgiving.
I’m sorry, Arthur wants to say, but the words are pitifully inadequate and stuck in his throat anyway.
Eames turns back to Miller, cocking his head to one side, as if in deliberation. The hunting knife in his hand gleams as he toys with it absentmindedly. Nodding, as if arriving at a decision, Eames sheathes the knife as he raises his Browning, placing the barrel of the gun square against Miller’s temple.
Arthur cuts of the stream of incoherent pleas that fall from Miller’s lips, feeling strangely numb and hollow. He vaguely notes that he must be going into shock. “Don’t,” he tells Eames, his voice sounding distant to his ears. “Let’s just go home.”
He sees Eames’s mouth move, but for the life of him, can’t seem to hear the words. Arthur blinks to clear his head and his swimming vision, his eyelids heavy and dragging. I’ll close my eyes, he thinks, just for a little while.
Distantly, he registers slumping down, something warm and solid catching him, and he turns his face into it, the smell reminiscent of paint and thinner and a spicy, unique musk, a little like the wild smell of the air just before a raging, thundering storm.
“I love you,” Eames tells him when Arthur drifts back to consciousness again.
Still under, Arthur thinks, the words vicious stabs to his already-tattered heart.
“You’re not under, love. This is real. Look at me.”
Briefly, it occurs to Arthur that he must have spoken aloud, and he complies, noting that he is back in their townhouse (and when did he begin referring to it as theirs, his brain wonders). Eames hovers over where he is sprawled on the sofa, expression unreadable as he leans over Arthur.
He fumbles for his die, and it comes up three, three, three.
“Not dreaming,” he whispers.
“No,” Eames agrees.
Arthur sits up on the sofa, resting his neck back against the rest and staring up at the ceiling. His head is pounding, a raging headache coming on fast. He sighs.
“You love me,” he echoes, numb and empty.
“I do. I know, I’m sorry, I didn’t - ”
“Stop playing games with me, Eames,” he says, his voice pitched low and soft. He’s been waiting for years, hoping and dreaming and wishing with every fibre of his being that he’d hear those words from Eames one day, but for Eames to play with him like this is just cruel.
Eames audibly startles. “I’m not.”
“You are,” Arthur tells him, swallowing hard against the tightness of his throat. “I know you, Eames. Drop it. Stop it.”
Eames’s reaction is explosive. “Fuck you, Arthur,” he says, voice trembling with fury and a dozen emotions Arthur can’t name, “I’m bloody sick of this. I’m sorry, alright, I am in love with you, have been for bleeding forever. I know you don’t want this, I’ll apologise again, I can’t help it, it’s called being human.”
Arthur gapes openly at him. “And don’t, just don’t - don’t say anything yet,” Eames continues, holding a hand up. “Fuck, I don’t know how to make you understand. You have to - to stop being so reckless. I can’t believe you took a risk like that, and look how that job turned out, tits up and everything.” Eames runs a frustrated hand down his face.
“I’m fucking furious, why can’t you - ” Eames cuts himself off, and strangled noises start and die in his throat before he collects himself and resumes. “What I’m trying to say is that I know you’re unhappy, and I know you don’t want this with me, and I know Julian is a wrench in the works for you, but can you just - I mean, I care about you, alright, shit, I’m arse over tits in love with you, and can you just consider that for a second?”
Arthur is furious. “Fuck you too, okay, don’t tell me you love me when you’ve been running for years - ” He almost slaps himself for letting such brutal honesty slip out, and it occurs to him that having this conversation just off the high of sedatives and a whole bunch of drugs may be a bad idea.
“I leave because you don’t want me to stay!” Eames yells, his voice a thunderclap in the silent house.
Arthur doesn’t know how to respond to that, his mind whirring and failing to catch up.
“I can’t do this anymore, Arthur,” Eames whispers after painful moments pass between them. “I get that you don’t want commitment or a relationship, but you’re - you’re fucking breaking my heart, pet.”
Arthur wants to shout, to rage and scream and tear down this sham of whatever they had in the first place, to rebuild it and make it new. Years of words unspoken and misunderstandings-on-loop steal the breath from his lungs, and it hurts to breathe.
“How do you think it feels,” he says, voice small, “to wake up in an empty bed, over and over again, all over the world? How do you think it feels, to look and find nothing?”
Eames makes a sound of distress, a sound that dies when Arthur forges on.
“You don’t love me,” he murmurs, shaking his head when Eames opens his mouth to protest. “You think you do,” Arthur continues. “Or maybe you really do, but just not - not with me. You love the Arthur that chases you all over the world, the jet-setting point man that dances across the globe with you. And I’m tired, Eames. I’m so fucking tired, do you know that? I thought I could do it, and I have for years, but I’m done with wanting things I can’t have, alright?”
“Maybe you’re in love,” Arthur says, staring out the bay windows where early morning raindrops streak the panes. “But you love Arthur the point man, Eames. You don’t love me.”
The rain falls harder, the patter of raindrops ringing louder. “And you’re wrong, okay, I want commitment and a family and Julian and a relationship and you, and maybe that makes me a greedy bastard for wanting it all, but dream a little bigger, right?” He smiles wryly at Eames, blinking away the hot burn that builds up behind his eyes.
“Eames,” Arthur breathes, and his shoulder slump. “You’re made for the road. You’ll get bored in one place, and I - I don’t want you to stay out of obligation, I think that’d be worse than you leaving in the end. I love you too, alright, but it’s not enough and - ”
“Maybe you should stop telling me how I feel,” Eames butts in, body tensed in a way that isn’t familiar to Arthur. “I love you, I do, and I don’t know why you won’t believe me. Christ, Arthur, I’m pathetic, you don’t know - I draw you, all the time. I have this sketchbook, I sketch you while you sleep sometimes, and it broke my heart to leave but I didn’t - I didn’t know you wanted me to stay. And you’ve just been so unhappy. God, I mean, don’t you think I notice that you cry at night when you think I’m asleep?”
“It’s the hormones,” Arthur argues, but Eames quells him with a look. “We’ve just been so - so unbelievably stupid,” Eames ends.
“I don’t - ” Arthur starts, his words abruptly muffled by Eames mouth, hard and desperate and wanting on his. He throws himself into the kiss as much as he can, touch-starved after months without Eames.
Eames pulls away, hand splayed across Arthur’s stomach and eyes searching on his. He must have found what he was looking for, because he nods once before his expression evolves into something, unyielding and unshakable.
“Stay here,” he orders, and Arthur figures it a testament to how shell-shocked he is that he doesn’t even protest at the command. Eames goes off in the direction of his study, a territory that Arthur has avoided entirely.
When Eames comes back, there are documents under his arm and pens in his hand. He spreads them on the table in front of Arthur. Arthur glances at them, and almost falls off the sofa when he spots the words civil partnership in bold.
“You love me,” Eames says, and Arthur can only nod. “Newsflash, darling, I love you too. I don’t see why this has to be so complicated.”
Dumbstruck and gaping, Arthur vocalises a strangled noise.
“Just - just sign here,” Eames tells him, and nudges a pen into his hand. When Arthur fails to move, Eames sighs. “It’s not a forgery, pet - I wouldn’t do that to our marriage cert. I just called in a few favours to go around the bureaucracy and witnesses bit. The perks of being an heir to a Dukedom and all that.”
“And of course, we’ll have the ceremony and all that brouhaha if you want, we’ll even call Cobb and the whole inception team, do the whole shebang - ”
Eames is nervous. Arthur can tell.
It’s a funny thing, really. Arthur’s seen Eames face down teams of Afghani insurgents, seen him prepping a forgery before high-stakes jobs, seen him bet twenty grand on the roll of a dice, and he’d done all of that without breaking a sweat.
He prints his name clearly onto the license, and signs off on the line with a flourish, and a blooming sense of -
Well, Arthur’s inclined to say happiness, but he’s never had that before, and the cynic in him that he tries to stifle argues that it may just be disbelief.
Eames tangibly relaxes beside him before mirroring Arthur’s actions and signing off on the sheet.
“I’m still in shock,” Arthur tells him after a long minute passes.
“I know,” Eames answers immediately.
“You're taking advantage of me,” Arthur accuses.
“Nope,” comes the response, the p popping towards the end. “Full informed consent and all that.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur can see Eames discreetly flip his poker chip, his fingers running along its serrated edges.
This is reality.
“Julian,” Arthur picks up after a pause. “Julian Levine-Eames.”
“Eames-Levine,” is the immediate answer.
“Not on your life.”
A little over two months later, Julian Levine-Eames is born at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London at four forty-six in the morning, weighing in at 5.6 pounds, a little underweight but giggly and happy nonetheless.
“He’s perfect,” Eames coos, waving a forefinger in front of Julian, watching the way his tiny eyes track the movement. “He looks like me, I think.”
“You egotistical bastard,” Arthur calls half-heartedly from the bed, wrung-out and exhausted from eight hours of labour. He feels sticky and sweaty and absolutely filthy, and he’s still sore and aching. “But you’re right, though. He’s perfect.”
“As if the legendary Arthur Levine’s baby would be any less,” Eames rejoins, stroking the tawny tuft of dark brown hair on Julian’s head.
“Our baby,” Arthur absentmindedly corrects, stretching his arms out towards Eames. “Give him over,” he orders.
Eames carefully transfers a smiling Julian to Arthur’s waiting arms, tucking the blankets more tightly around the both of them.
“We’ll have to let the others in soon,” he informs Arthur. “I can practically hear Ariadne’s pacing in the hallway.”
Arthur tugs him down for a kiss, slow and soft and sweet, careful of Julian between them. Both of them are smiling when they pull away.
“They can wait a little longer,” Arthur says. “We waited for six years.”