The morning after the Fischer job, Eames wakes up flat on his back on top of the covers. His trousers are down round his ankles, his shirt’s hanging off one wrist, and his totem is sandwiched between the sweaty side of his cheek and his pillow. The poker chip sticks stubbornly to his face as he lifts his head and surveys the damage.
Eames has had far worse awakenings. He can’t, for example, feel the itching burn of a fresh black-out tattoo, nor the cold gut-twisting press of a gun muzzle to his temple. As far as he can tell he’s not even hung over, just jet-lagged from several weeks hopping round the globe chased by ten hours on a PASIV tethered to the threat of insanity. He feels a bit like Mal’s rogue freight train may have bested him overnight, but he imagines it’s nothing that can’t be cured by a cup of coffee and a greasy fry-up for breakfast. Happily he’s in America, where both grease and coffee flow freely.
Weary but relieved, Eames sinks back onto the pillow and thumbs the poker chip off his face. He rolls his head over to see the bedside alarm clock: nine, not bad at all. He turns his head the other way, stretching, preparing to force himself out of bed, and—
“Motherfucker,” Eames says, with great feeling. In one motion he snatches the pillow out from under his head and swings it in an arc; it whumps down, heavy and briefly satisfying, onto Arthur’s stupid horrible attractive sleeping face.
“Ow?” Arthur says, voice muffled by the pillow. His hands come up and paw the pillow away, and now he’s squinting balefully at Eames. “Time’s it?”
Eames doesn’t answer, too busy doing the habitual rewind to remember how he’s wound up in bed with Arthur again. Retracing his footsteps, making sure he isn’t dreaming still — still mired in the mess of Cobb’s mind and drooling away up in the first class cabin, now doomed for a life as a comatose vegetable while his mind loops him round and round in limbo, hopelessly lost, trapped for what would seem an eternity.
God, he hopes he’s still dreaming.
But no, it only takes a second before the memories come flooding back: arriving at LAX, queuing through border control, hopping in a cab and heading for a bland corporate downtown hotel with visions of heavy drinking to come. Making it only so far as this very bed before collapsing into an exhausted slumber. Waking sometime after midnight to an insistent rapping at his door.
“How did you even know where I was staying?” Eames asks now, scrubbing a hand over his face.
“I’m a point man,” Arthur says, stretching and kicking at the covers. He made it under the sheets, the utter knob. He also, apparently, made it out of his clothes more completely than Eames, because as the covers inch down they’re baring more and more of his skin: shoulders, chest, stomach, hipbones. Eames tears his gaze away when the sheets slip down over dark neatly groomed hair. Jesus fucking christ. “S’my job to know everything.”
“When we’re working, yes,” Eames insists, sitting up against the headboard, kicking out of his trousers and getting to work on his shirt cuff so he can divest himself of that last scrap of dignity. Might as well, might as well. “When we’re on a heist, that’s absolutely your job. But the moment we walk away and get our pay-out, such diligence undergoes a very important sea change, Arthur, and becomes stalking.”
“Oh my god,” says Arthur, exasperated. He closes a fist round the pillow Eames had flung at him and picks it up, swings it back at Eames. “Do we have to do this every single fucking time, Eames?”
“Yes!” Eames snaps, wide-eyed. “Arthur! We’ve split up. We are not together. Which makes this”— and here he gestures wildly between them, from his own pants-only state to Arthur’s utterly bare-arsed (and unfairly appealing) body — “a terrible mistake! Which we’ve solemnly vowed never to repeat!”
Arthur’s eyebrows wriggle around and his mouth slants, like he’s politely pretending to consider Eames’ opinion but not-so-secretly dismissing it as complete twaddle. “You solemnly vowed,” he says, dropping the pillow off the far side of the bed. He kicks the sheets the rest of the way down, bare as the morning light, lovely and pale and slender, the horrid fucker that he is. “You know my feelings on the subject.”
Eames groans and sinks back against the headboard, covers his face with his hands in a gesture halfway between despair and the need to keep from staring at Arthur. “I brought special clothes,” he says. “All the things you hate.”
Arthur is stretching again, by the sounds he’s making, little soft grunts and sighs. “Oh, is that what you were doing?” he asks. “Here I thought you were down on your luck, maybe, and living out of the charity bin.”
“I put on a stone of muscle,” Eames tells the comforting dark underside of his hands. “Because you told me once that you were turned off by beefy guys.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says pensively, the frown audible in his voice, “I usually am, that’s true. But you were sort of skinnier, down in the dream yesterday — and actually it kind of suits you, the extra muscle.” Then Arthur’s fingers close round Eames’ forearm, tugging his hand down gently but firmly. Eames looks over at Arthur in spite of himself. “Besides,” Arthur goes on, dimpling just a little, “you’ve gotta admit it was fun, me pinning you down and fucking the daylights out of you with you looking all buff and toppy.” His thumb glides over the tender pulse point of Eames’ wrist, and his smile deepens. “God, you were fantastic, that round ass just taking it so easy and smooth, you were blushing from the neck down, thought you were going to bite right through the pillow.”
Eames is objectively horrified; but even as his mouth drops open in disgust, his cock stirs at the memory Arthur’s evoked. If he thinks about it, if he allows himself, Eames can’t help but be aware of the souvenirs his body is offering up: the stiff deep ache of his inner thigh muscles, the sweet dull burn inside, the sore patch between his shoulder blades where Arthur kept Eames down with the heel of his hand, where Eames kept pushing back because it felt so fantastic to be shoved down into the pillow again and held there while Arthur drove into him. “No,” Eames says, shaking his head, twisting his wrist free of Arthur’s touch. “No,” he repeats, and half-tumbles to his feet, backs away from the bed. “This was a terrible mistake. We’re done here.”
Arthur sighs but doesn’t offer any further protest, just folds his hands over his stomach and tracks Eames’ movements idly as Eames moves round the room, digs for fresh clothes in his suitcase. He ignores the folded thrifted polyester shirts; if they had a purpose to serve, they’ve failed, and Eames is tired of going round smelling like 1970s cologne anyway. He instead takes up a dress shirt that Arthur binned (successfully, he’d thought) when they were giving it a go living together in Santorini. Arthur hated the shirt, even though it was quite a fetching shade of blue and fit Eames perfectly, because it had been given to Eames by an ex. It’s perfect for this occasion, Eames supposes. He holds it up and makes sure Arthur sees it, and then takes it along with his pants, trousers, and socks with him into the bathroom. He won’t risk emerging naked or in nothing but a towel, not with Arthur right there.
“Feel free to be gone by the time I’m out of the loo,” Eames says, daring to look over one last time. He won’t see Arthur naked again, god willing.
Arthur lifts a hand in acknowledgement but that’s all.
Eames showers, shaves, dresses, fixes his hair — not slicked back now, the way Arthur hates it, but loose and comfortable the way Eames usually likes. The blue shirt is a little tight over his chest. He probably needs a vest on, underneath, the way his nipples are visible. He leaves the top button open, then shifts his hand down to push the next button back out of its buttonhole; reconsiders, and pops the third button open too. In the foggy mirror, Eames can see that this reveals a bit of his ink. It’s probably an error in judgement, he supposes; Arthur might not be fond of muscles (recent evidence notwithstanding) and he might loathe the very sight of this shirt, but Arthur’s never failed to come over all faint and flushed at the sight of Eames’ tattoos peeking out from under his clothing. It’s the very reason Eames covered them up so assiduously the last few weeks. He was minimising the risk.
And now, here he is, about to go out into the hotel room with a curl of ink peeping out from behind the despised blue shirt. If Eames were to be honest about it, he’d have to admit that he’s all but asking Arthur to tear his clothes off.
He opens the door anyway, emerges into the air-conditioned cool of the hotel room. He’s already trying to recall where they flung the lube last night in their ungodly hurry.
But the bed is empty. Arthur is gone.
Everyone’s got an ex they can’t seem to help fucking. It’s just Eames’ shitty-arsed luck that his happens to be Arthur.
Best forger in the business, best point man: they get thrown together on all the top jobs, the sexy thrilling mad jobs with the sinful pay-outs. Eames tries, he really does. He lives in the arse-end of nowhere, he sticks to simpler thievery, art forgery, workaday pickpocketing and rackets and con jobs. Eames does community theatre, sometimes, for christ’s sake. Eames buys terrible clothes and pumps weights until his deltoids slope up into his neck. Eames does his level best to steer clear of Arthur’s circles. Arthur’s won dreamshare in the split; fine, fair enough.
Inception, Cobb said, and Eames nibbled at the salty bar snacks and thought, well, fuck.
Isn’t that just Eames’ luck?
He was doing so well, too. One hundred and seventeen days, no slip-ups, not once since Istanbul.
Eames packs his suitcase now, tugs the sheets up the bed because he can see the outline of where Arthur was lying, or imagines he can. He checks out, sits down in the bland hotel restaurant and orders the massive three-egg four-rasher three-sausages Rancher’s Breakfast, drinks several cups of scalding black coffee. He feels depleted, shaky. He knows he can’t fairly blame Cobb and his shitshow of a heist, because this feeling is an Arthur hangover, through and through.
Istanbul, four months earlier
Turkey’s hot, blistering, humid. Eames adores the heat, especially in combination with sweet thick Turkish coffee. He’s not made for it, sweating through his shirts within thirty minutes of getting dressed in the mornings, spending half the day downing water to offset the perspiration running freely down his nose, the back of his neck. Yet, it’s still glorious, like being baked in God’s own oven. Eames especially loves Muslim countries in the heat, the way everyone is still buttoned up when it’s well over thirty, the crackle of the calls to worship carried through the too-blue sky. The Mediterranean spices, the tiny precarious balconies. The flowers, the stray cats.
The working area right next to the fucking swimming pool in a fucking mango grove.
“Let’s take a few hours,” Cobb decides, checking his watch and then squinting up at the sun at its zenith. “Sleep, hydrate, whatever. We’ll pick this up again when it’s starting to cool down.”
Arthur gives a terse businesslike nod and closes his moleskine, sets it down on the table and lays his pen atop it, just so. “Sounds good,” he says. For all he gripes about the heat, for all he shoves his sleeves up his forearms (lovely) and fans himself with folded paper, Arthur’s got some hidden Mediterranean ancestry in his veins because he’s not pink and shiny with sweat like Eames and Cobb and Nash. Arthur looks absolutely normal, his usual self, barring the slightest hints of damp at his hairline, the divot under his nose. “Anyone else for a swim?” he asks, standing up.
“Not me,” says Nash, “I have an appointment with the AC in my room.”
“I’ve got to make a call,” Cobb says distractedly, rising too and shuffling his chair back towards the table.
Arthur looks at Eames, lifts an eyebrow. “Come on, you’re not going to pussy out on me too, are you?”
Eames caps his water bottle. He’ll go back into the house, probably. It’s air conditioned, dim and cool, and there are some kebabs still in the fridge from last night’s dinner. It’s safer than being out here in the sun with the mangos and the blue water and Arthur —
Arthur thumbs his shirt open one-handed, pop-pop-pop, the fabric lacking its usual starched precision after wilting in the heat all morning. “Came prepared,” he says, shrugging out of his shirt, tugging up on his undershirt, opening his belt and then his fly. After all that efficiency of motion, he still sits down to untie his shoelaces and wriggle out of shoes and socks, leaving them lined up as neatly as his pen sits on his notebook. When he rises, he shimmies out of his trousers to reveal that he’s been sat here all morning, cool and professional as anything, whilst wearing the world’s smallest bathing suit underneath his clothes.
Eames is in such a hurry to get out of his own trousers that he loses his footing and makes an unscheduled early dive into the pool. It hardly matters, because moments later he and Arthur are snogging in the cool blue water, their oasis in the shimmering heat. Then Arthur tugs Eames by the hand, leads him into the little poolside shelter, lets Eames roll Arthur’s indecent swimsuit off his long legs. Eames fucks Arthur face to face up against the plaster wall and then they lie tangled on the blue-tiled floor and eat sticky overripe mango with their fingers. They get juice everywhere; Arthur’s taut naked belly is a sticky warzone, come and mango juice and sweat and dried chlorine, and Eames bows his head and licks, tastes it all.
The sick feeling doesn’t settle in until later, when Arthur keeps throwing tiny smirks Eames’ way under Cobb’s never-ending exposition. Clothed again, showered and with his hair sleek and neat, Arthur looks like himself, like the Arthur Eames knows all too well. The pit in his stomach grows; Eames rigorously avoids Arthur’s looks. He can’t believe he was so stupid. They’ve still got days left on the job, and here Arthur is giving him that knowing look, like he can tell that Eames is going to come to him tonight.
Eames does, too, and feels worse yet the next day.
They shag every spare minute until Eames can’t stand it anymore, until the sick feeling finally starts to overwhelm the helpless lust. “I’ve been thinking,” Eames says, the night before the heist, tugging his socks up as he sits on the edge of the bed, “this was probably a bad idea.”
“I know,” says Arthur, still reclining behind him, “I’m definitely going to be limping tomorrow, we shouldn’t have tried that thing with my leg up on your shoulder. Fucking marble floors.”
“No, I mean,” Eames says, squaring his shoulders, tucking his chin in just a little. Bracing himself.
Arthur sighs quietly. “I know what you mean.” His fingers trace the skin in the gap between Eames’ waistband and the bottom hem of his vest. “I still think”—
—“Let’s not,” Eames breaks in. “I’m very tired of that particular conversation, to be honest. This is it, I mean it. We can’t keep bloody doing this.”
“Right,” says Arthur, and pulls his hand away. “This is it. We’re done, now.”
Eames is already on the plane out of Istanbul the next day before he realises that these are the exact same words they spoke when they last parted, back in New York.
New York, three months before Istanbul
Eames has got himself into a bit of hot water, just a bit, and so he loses himself in the crowded belly of lower Manhattan. The upper east side git he’s crossed would never be clever enough to suspect Eames hasn’t fled the country, let alone the city; he seems to believe, besides, that the city drops off into the ocean just below 34th Street.
But Eames has forgotten the cardinal rule of New York: in a city of eight million people, you will somehow bump into the last person you expect to see at the moment you least expect it.
Arthur’s got a scarf tucked round his neck and he’s carrying a white paper sack of bagels in one fist, a Starbucks cup in the other. His nose is a bit pink from the February chill. He doesn’t spot Eames, busy hastening up the pavement with his native New Yorker attitude of self-absorption, that special skill set that allows him to step over drunken transients and around dog droppings whilst still seeming killingly stylish and chic.
His hair is longer than the last time Eames saw him.
Eames could duck into the Korean deli just ahead and probably avoid Arthur noticing him altogether.
“Oi,” he says instead, because he could actually use a place to go to ground and Arthur’s got a flat in the East Village, he thinks. “Buy you a coffee, darling?”
Arthur blinks, sees Eames, and then looks pointedly down at his Starbucks cup.
“Because I’m requisitioning this one,” Eames adds brightly, and takes it, pops out the splash stick, sips at it. It’s some poncy concoction, pumpkin gingerbread froth with an espresso undertone, but it’s hot and sweet and it gives Eames something to do other than stare at Arthur while Arthur stares at him.
“How did you find me?” Arthur asks with flattering faith in Eames’ abilities.
“Trade secret,” Eames says, not willing to disillusion him. “Mustn’t tell.”
“Bumped into me randomly, hmm?” Arthur says, too clever. He gives Eames a narrow look, takes in the start of a beard (itchy), the expensive tailored wool coat (stolen), and the lack of any kind of luggage (too hasty a departure for that.) “You look”— and he hesitates, revises midstream —“I like the, ah, the coat.”
“Cheers,” says Eames. “Oh, look! A Starbucks! They’re rare as hen’s teeth in this city, aren’t they?”
Arthur smiles obligingly and follows Eames up the block to the next Starbucks. It’s good to see him, thinks Eames; it’s been a long while. It’s been long enough that Eames doesn’t think they’re in any danger here, actually. He can admire Arthur from a distance, but he doesn’t feel that same urgent desire to touch him, kiss him. The old feelings have finally died down. Perhaps they can at last be proper friends instead of awkward nostalgic exes.
“It’s a bit small,” Arthur says some twenty minutes later, hanging up his scarf, setting down his coffee cup. “I can make up the couch. It’s not the greatest, though. Or”— and he pauses while his nose regains its pink colour, not from cold this time. “I’ll make up the couch,” he decides aloud.
“Don’t trouble yourself,” Eames says hurriedly, and smiles. “Come on now, we spent enough nights sleeping in the same bed without fucking, back in Santorini. It’ll be like old times.”
Arthur rolls his eyes, but acquiesces. They go out for dinner, trade all the latest dreamshare gossip, go back to Arthur’s and eat ice cream out of the carton perched on either side of Arthur’s little galley kitchen counter. When they finally go to sleep, Eames stays very carefully on his side of the bed and faces out. Arthur mirrors him on the other edge of the mattress.
Eames scarcely sleeps a wink, and judging by the tossing and turning, neither does Arthur. But morning comes eventually. Eames grins as he tips coffee into Arthur’s expensive espresso machine. They did it, they managed a whole night in the same bed without so much as a cuddle. He’s right, after all; they’ve finally truly moved on.
“The hot water only lasts about ten minutes at a time in this building,” Arthur says, blowing across the surface of his coffee, messy-haired and sleepy and pretty in a sort of objective, distant way. “You go first, I’ll suffer the cold if I have to.”
“No sense in that,” says Eames magnanimously, “we had enough cold showers in Santorini, didn’t we? We can share. It’s nothing we haven’t done before.”
“No, you’re right,” Arthur says, smiling, pulling at the collar of his t-shirt. “Yeah, why not?”
They last about thirty seconds into the shower before Arthur has Eames pressed up against cool tile, working his cock fast and wet and slick in the streaming water. The shower runs cold before Eames is done blowing Arthur; they stagger out half-tangled in the curtain and Eames finishes Arthur off with Arthur sitting on the counter, holding the tap for balance.
“Bugger, we weren’t going to do this,” Eames says as he comes up to his feet. He sees his reflection in the half-clouded mirror, dripping wet and red-mouthed, looming over Arthur’s bare slick shoulder. He can already make out fingertip bruises on Arthur’s skin. They were rough, desperate with it.
“Right, because conserving hot water was really your top concern,” Arthur says, hooking an ankle around Eames’ calf. He reaches up and thumbs the corner of Eames’ mouth. “God, I like how lean you are right now. Do you think I could fold you in half? I bet I could fold you in half.”
Two days later, Eames stands on Arthur’s balcony with Arthur wrapped around him, holding him. Arthur drops an idle kiss behind Eames’ right ear and sighs with contentment.
“We can’t bloody keep doing this,” Eames says, unable to say anything else.
Arthur squeezes him hard, almost a punishment, and drops his arms, leaves Eames suddenly cold in the night air. “So we’re done now?” he half-asks, resigned, not angry.
“It was better as it was,” Eames says, half-apologetically. “I’ll go back to — keeping my distance. Set up house somewhere far off, maybe, stick to other work for a while. I’ve a friend in Mombasa, I’ll ring him.”
Arthur nods, sighs very quietly, and goes back inside.
Vancouver, two months before New York
Eames gingerly unsticks his skin from Arthur’s, peeling himself away from the dried sweat and lube and come, creeping to the edge of the mattress before hastening to the bathroom. Arthur doesn’t even budge, he’s that fucked out.
The sex should have stopped being fantastic long ago, Eames thinks while he brushes his teeth, packs his bag. If it had any sense of decency (which it doesn’t, being sex) it would have curled up and died along with so many other things between them in that miserable yeasty flat over a bakery in Santorini. The only thing they’ve ever agreed on since Santorini is that they still really enjoy making each other come, as often and as hard as possible.
Eames comes round the bed and ruffles Arthur’s hair to rouse him. “Going,” he says. “My flight’s in a few hours.”
“Mm, okay,” says Arthur easily. “Did Cobb talk to you about the job in Berlin next month?”
“He did,” Eames says. “But I’ll give it a miss, I think.”
Arthur plucks at the fabric of Eames’ trousers, just idly enjoying the texture of the wool. “Other plans?”
“Yeah,” says Eames, and closes his hand round Arthur’s fingers, stilling them. “Arthur, this has got to stop. It’s mad.”
“Stop?” Arthur repeats, more amused than insulted. “Right. See you in Berlin.”
“I’m dead serious,” Eames says, stroppy.
“And don’t forget to bring your brand of lube, they don’t sell it in the EU,” Arthur adds, like Eames is being cute.
“You know, I won’t miss your sodding condescending tone,” Eames tells him, and gives his cheek a playful slap, bends down and chases it with a kiss. “See you around, sometime.”
“Berlin. Bring lube,” says Arthur.
(Eames isn’t in Berlin. He doesn’t know what happens there. He doesn’t see Arthur again until he’s passing a Korean deli in downtown Manhattan, sporting two days’ worth of patchy beard and a stolen coat, wondering where he’ll kip down that night.)
Estonia, or maybe Latvia. Eames isn’t sure when, actually. Before Vancouver, at any rate.
Arthur watches the man with the tattoo needle — Eames would not lavish the term ‘artist’ on him — with almost freakish focus and dedication. It’s interesting, seeing Arthur’s pupils blown wide and dark as the ink goes into Eames’ skin. Eames, like most people who collect tattoos, has a bit of a thing for the pain of it, the burn, but he’s still never spent such a long half hour straddling a vinyl padded chair back, nursing half an erection, trying to focus on the sting instead of on Arthur’s dazed look.
“You too, want the tattoo?” asks the tattoo guy when he’s done with Eames. Apparently, even he’s noticed the way Arthur’s been watching.
“God, no,” Arthur says, huffy, dignified.
They get as far as the next alleyway before Eames drags Arthur up against the brick and rides his thigh, comes in his pants like a kid. Arthur grabs the hair at the nape of Eames’ neck, pulls hard, and asks with all seriousness, “Do you think I could do that to you, sometime?” Eames shudders through a surprised late aftershock and mumbles yes, yes, yes into Arthur’s open mouth, grinds him into the wall and makes him come.
They never do get to try it out. It’s okay; the fantasy of it is more than enough, keeps Eames warm almost every night between Estonia (or maybe Latvia) and the next job with Arthur, which can’t come soon enough.
Hong Kong, before whichever Baltic country it was, the one with the tattoo parlour.
Eames forges the blue shirt as his costume for the dream, but he does it absentmindedly; he’s honestly forgotten. It’s not until he sees Arthur’s face darken that Eames remembers, and by then it’s too late to change it. The mark’s seen him, the heist is underway.
It’s part of the plan to have Arthur shoot him out of the dream early, to shock the mark into babbling his secrets. Eames sits up in the dentist’s office, pulling the needle out of his arm, and glances over at Arthur, who is still frowning even in PASIV-generated sleep. He seemed happy enough pulling the trigger, Eames thinks, smiling to himself. He sets about cleaning the room, getting ready for their getaway in five minutes.
“You don’t really still have that shirt?” Arthur asks when he’s awake too, spooling the lines up into the PASIV case and checking to make sure Eames has done a passable job of the clean-up.
“You binned it,” Eames says, “in Santorini. Don’t you remember? God, what a row.”
“I remember,” Arthur affirms grimly, and Cobb divides a wary look between the pair of them. But they’re professionals, after all; Eames does his job, leaves the scene of the crime first as per the plan.
That night Arthur fucks Eames up against a plate glass window, thirty stories up in their hotel, shoves Eames into the shivering shaking window hard enough and steady enough that Eames half-expects to burst through it when he comes. And really, to die like that – coming and falling and laughing his damned head off —what a fucking way to go.
Eames comes on the glass instead, smeary and wet, and then he tumbles Arthur to the floor and rides him slow as he can while Arthur makes wonderful angry noises and leaves little pinching bruises over Eames’ belly, his hips, his chest. The sex is fantastic; always is.
Cambridge (the one in England), Portland (the one in Oregon), London (the one in Canada), and Cambridge again (but Massachusetts this time), all during the year leading up to Hong Kong
Eames runs every morning, no matter where in the world he wakes up. He likes how it feels, the thumping of his heart, the rush of air, the slap of pavement under his trainers. He likes how it makes him look, too, carved and spare and lithe. Arthur was bloody right, it’s a better way to keep his weight in check than cigarettes, though Eames will be damned if he ever admits as much.
He gets on with his life, mostly. Finds jobs to fill the time, works on building new teams, making new connections. He’d hate to admit aloud that he leaps to attention when Cobb rings, but he fucking does. It starts to feel a bit like swimming fast, pushing through the water long as he can manage before he absolutely must surface, gasp in a lungful of hair before he dives down again.
Cobb’s always got the best jobs, the most interesting clients, the biggest pay-outs; it’s just a bonus that he comes in a team with Arthur, the best point man, and far and away the best shag Eames has ever had.
They wait until after the job, and there’s always a sort of dance of excuses like they really are just trying to keep things friendly, casual; but it always always ends with one of them arse-up and face-down, getting pounded.
“We should reconsider this whole breaking up thing,” Arthur usually says, shortly after he comes his brains out, when he’s still dopey enough to say stupid things.
“Right,” says Eames, invariably, deadpan, “I was just thinking how I was far too happy, these days.”
“I hate going weeks without fucking you,” Arthur will answer, and if he’s come particularly hard he’ll often pout slightly. “Don’t you think it could be different if we tried again?”
And Eames will lean over Arthur, kiss the tip of his nose, and say, “No, I don’t, I really truly don’t.”
Cairo, before Portland, London, or either Cambridge
Eames adores hot places, particularly hot places in the Arab world. There is so much that’s forbidden by religious custom – albeit, not Eames’ custom — and Eames has always been a bit helplessly drawn to the forbidden, the taboo. It seasons things, makes them mysteriously more delicious, more delightful.
“Lemme count, here,” says Arthur when he ambles up to Eames’ table at the bar. “You’ve got wine, you’re eating a plate of bacon, and you’re smoking up?”
Eames looks up at him and exhales smoke. “Sit on my lap and we’ll make it four sins instead of three,” he offers, uncrossing his legs and making room. He was expecting Cobb; Cobb was the one who talked Eames into meeting to begin with. But there’s been some to-do lately with Cobb, something secretive about him and his wife. Whatever it is must be fairly bad if Cobb’s sending Arthur to meet with Eames in his stead. Everyone in dreamshare knows about them, about things ending between them. They haven’t so much as spoken over email since they parted ways.
Arthur plucks the joint from between Eames’ fingers and takes a hit, holds his breath, goes noticeably less edgy as he exhales. “Thanks,” he says, half-coughing, “I’ll pass.” He pulls the other chair out from the table and sits, tall and neat and direct. “We need you for a job,” he says.
“Don’t beat round the bush, Arthur, out with it,” Eames says, but it comes out a little meaner than he’d intended. He smiles, trying to soften it into a joke.
“It’s urgent,” says Arthur, not to be deterred anyway. “Cobb’s in a bit of a legal bind.” He takes another hit and hands the joint back to Eames, still holding his breath.
“How urgent?” Eames asks, and rubs his fingertips together, arching one eyebrow.
Arthur sighs out another cloud of smoke. “Name it,” he says. “Eames. I’ll bow out of it if I have to, just — he needs your help.” He hesitates, then adds, “He needs the money.”
Eames sets the joint down on the edge of the ashtray and tosses back the rest of his wine. Licks his lips. Looks at Arthur and tries to feel something other than the vague grating irritation that’s dogged him since he left Arthur in the Cyclades three months past. Arthur’s perfectly put together, as ever. He looks completely at ease sitting opposite Eames, even though Eames knows for a fact that Arthur’s never been to Cairo before. The noise doesn’t seem to trouble him in the least, nor the stifling heat, nor the looks they’re both getting, the two white blokes sitting conspicuously in the local bar.
“You don’t have to bow out,” Eames says gruffly. He pushes the plate of bacon towards Arthur. “I’ll fucking do it.”
Arthur nods simply, like he couldn’t give a fuck, like he wasn’t just all but begging in his dour Arthurian way. “We can be professional about all this,” he says. “It’ll get easier with time.”
Arthur’s an infuriating, horrible, contrary tosser, and Eames has made a terrible mistake agreeing to do this fucking job for him and Cobb. All he does is contradict Eames’ every idea, usually without providing a whiff of his own creativity. Eames is well shot of him. After this dreadful job ends he’ll be delighted to avoid Arthur for the rest of their natural lives. If he didn’t think Cobb would start weeping again, he’d bloody well walk now, before the job even begins.
“Holy shit, we did it,” says Arthur, glowing, pulling the IV out of his arm.
Eames forgets for a minute where they are (stood next to the still unconscious mark) and what they’re meant to be doing (making a clean getaway) and who they’re with (Cobb, but he’s still under for another minute). Eames pulls Arthur up to his feet, takes his lovely lean face between his palms, and kisses him, hard and fast and adoring.
“We can’t,” says Arthur, breaking away, spots of colour erupting high up on his cheekbones. “Eames. This is a terrible idea.”
“It really is,” Eames agrees, and leans back in for another kiss, slower this time. Arthur gives in now, with a soft breathy noise, his arms come up and circle Eames’ neck; it’s like coming home, except their home used to be utter shite and this is amazing.
Cobb stirs and they break apart hastily, go about their business.
But that night Eames goes to Arthur’s room and knocks on the door. Arthur lets him in without hesitation. Not even five minutes pass before they’ve both come, gasping into each other’s mouths, stroking each other off.
After, Arthur peels Eames out of his shirt and says, “Getting a little thick through the middle, hmm?”
Eames gapes indignantly. “I’ll have you know this is the natural state of a man who recently gave up fags.”
“Also of a man who’s gone on a bacon binge,” Arthur points out, “with a side of pot and wine.” He pushes Eames’ pants down over his arse and squeezes. “You know, there are better ways to treat your body.”
“Oh yes?” Eames half-asks, busy divesting Arthur of his clothes in turn. It seems like they’re going to keep on for another round; might as well be prepared.
“You could try running, maybe,” Arthur says.
“I was thinking more of callisthenics,” Eames suggests, rolling his hips. “Some vigorous shagging, maybe.” And then he’s lost in kissing Arthur again, lost in Arthur’s breathless laughter and Arthur’s thigh coming up and wrapping round Eames’ leg, knocking them both off balance and down to the floor.
Eames does a fair enough job fucking Arthur for a bloke who’s not in his top form, if Arthur’s shouts are anything to judge by.
“This was just a one-time thing,” says Arthur afterwards, when they’ve finally made it to the bed and collapsed there. Eames is eating room service pastries; diet starts tomorrow. Maybe he’ll even look for some trainers. “I want to make that clear.”
“Got it,” says Eames. “One last fuck. As per the post-break-up regulations.”
“It was a good last fuck, though,” Arthur says, dimpling, rolling over onto his back like a purring kitten. “Sort of made up for the rest of the week.”
“We did it, though,” Eames points out. “We were professional, we got the job done. So — we can still work together.”
“Yeah,” says Arthur, looking over at Eames. “I guess so.”
Eames’ stupid helpless smile won’t go away, so he covers for it by seizing a pillow and beating Arthur round the face and chest with it. Arthur laughs fitfully and does a piss poor job of trying to fend Eames off.
“If you stay the night,” he says, gasping for air when Eames at last lets up, “we can probably squeeze in one final last time in the morning.”
“Yeah, okay,” Eames says, aware that he’s still grinning stupidly, unable to stop.
Santorini, three months before Cairo
He doesn’t like to think about Santorini. It’s all well and good, retracing your steps and trying to work out how you got to where you are, but there are some paths you shouldn’t tread again — not even in the safety of your own mind. Cobb’s proof enough, isn’t he?
But, if he absolutely must think about Santorini:
Things Eames hated about Santorini:
- Living over a bakery (he’d taken up smoking just to deaden his sense of smell)
- Greek fags (horrible but worth it)
- The bloody shrieking gulls
- Listening to Arthur complain about the heat
- Rowing with Arthur every waking moment
- How Arthur nearly always won the row
- Losing his long-held enthusiasm for make-up sex (“Just, come on my face,” Arthur had said, like he wanted it over with)
- Doing laundry
- Doing the washing up
- Cleaning the loo
- Perpetually cold showers courtesy of the crap water geyser
- The stupid nonsensical Greek alphabet (if you mean ‘R’ don’t use a sodding ‘P’)
- Running out of his favourite brand of lube only to discover it’s not sold in the EU
- Not needing lube much anyway because they hardly ever shagged after the first few months
- Goats everywhere you went
- Waking up every morning for the last two weeks, seeing Arthur there, and thinking oh no, it’s you again
Things Eames didn’t hate about Santorini:
- Living over a bakery (for the first three days)
- The sound of the ocean
- Fucking Arthur every waking moment (only the first three days, again)
- How Arthur nearly always came twice a shag
- Watching Arthur do the washing up or peg out the laundry or scrub the tiled floor in nothing but his pants
- Ouzo (until that night they overdid it, a few weeks in)
- Halvah (until Eames couldn’t button his favourite trousers)
- Waking up every morning for the first two weeks, seeing Arthur there, and thinking oh, yes, it’s you, it’s you
Eames will never forget his sense of relief when Arthur was the one to break, when he said, “Don’t you think we should end this before we actually hate each other?” and Eames gasped, “Christ, yes, please,” giddy and grinning and mentally halfway round the world already.
Athens, just before Santorini
“Missed that airport shuttle, too,” Eames says, checking his watch.
Arthur smirks, shrugs, and reaches across the table to refill Eames’ wineglass. It’s a warm summer evening, eating out on the patio of the local taverna. They finished the job three days ago; the rest of the team is long gone. But like teenage sweethearts lingering at the end of a phone call, neither Arthur nor Eames seems able or willing to be the first to go. There’s no hurry; neither of them has a job booked at the moment, and they netted enough on this last heist to see them through the rest of the year at least.
“Should we get another?” Arthur asks, holding the bottle up so Eames can see that they’ve drained it, too — the second one tonight.
“I’ve got a better idea,” says Eames impulsively. “Have you ever been to the Cyclades?”
Somewhere over the Atlantic midway between Los Angeles and London, the day after the Fischer job
Eames fiddles with the window shade and wonders if maybe they should have kept things going in Santorini until the hate had really settled in. That might have prevented this little recidivism problem they keep having now. Maybe love is like a stubborn weed: it’ll keep growing up through the cracks in the pavement of Eames’ heart unless he can pull it up by the roots somehow.
He slides the shade closed and sits back in his seat again.
Probably the real mistake was letting Arthur ever take root in him in the first place.
All patriotic sentiment aside, Eames bloody hates London. He hates the cold drizzly grey, the dirty crowded streets, the chilly faux-polite posh people, the vulgar noisy poverty-bound youths. He loathes the bland overpriced food, the beery laddish pub culture, the sensationalist tabloids, the pissy stench of the tube, and the shocking lack of rubbish bins anywhere you might need one. London is dreadful, dismal, horrid.
It quite suits his mood, of late.
Eames should, by all rights, be riding high on their success from the Fischer job — but there’s too narrow a line between notoriety and notoriousness in the criminal world. A rare skill set commands high prices, yes, but it also draws high bounties on his head. Eames has now combined an uncommon talent for forgery with a heretofore unknown success as part of an inception unit. He’s all but painted a target on his own back.
Thus: London, the last place anyone who knows Eames would think to look for him.
“Has Werther rung you about this corporate mess in Dubai yet?” Eames tilts his head to trap the mobile between his shoulder and his ear; he needs both hands free to flatten the piece of letterhead onto his lightbox. The watermark is large and uncomplicated, nothing at all to reproduce. But Eames isn’t good at being idle. A job’s a job.
“Yeah, it sounds,” says Arthur, and trails off meaningfully. “I don’t know. I told him I’d think about it.”
“Think hard,” Eames advises, leaning in close to get a better look at the serifs on the letterhead font. Nothing he recognizes from any standard font — custom work, no doubt. “I told him to go piss up a rope, myself.”
“So you won’t be there,” Arthur surmises. “Hmm.”
“I’m staying clear of dreamshare for the time being,” Eames tells him, leaning back and putting his hand up to the phone again so he can stretch his shoulders, roll his back muscles. He’s been bent over his drafting table all day. His spine feels like a claw. “Thought it better, all things considered.”
“You’re the one who called me, Eames,” Arthur says, but it’s clear from the tone of his voice that he’s amused.
“Only because I hadn’t heard from you in a fortnight!” Eames exclaims, annoyed. “Thought it was only right to check in with you. Whatever’s gone on between us, I hope we’re still — I mean, I still give a rat’s arse if you live or die. Obviously.”
“Hey now, smooth operator,” Arthur says, laughing outright now. “Careful there, you’re charming the pants right off me.”
“Shut up,” Eames says, irritated now. He’s not used to being teased by Arthur, but even he has to admit he’s made it all too easy: ringing Arthur up, all anxious to make sure he’s alright, he’s alive and well. “It’s this maudlin miserable city, it’s fogging up my brain.”
“Maybe you should take Dubai after all,” Arthur says. “You always perk right up in the sun. Be good for you, I bet.”
“I will if you will,” Eames says, unthinking, distracted suddenly by the exacting work of plucking a stray bit of lint off the wet ink of his rough draft without smearing the fresh lettering. He leans in close with his tweezers and squints, then clocks what he’s just said, and the silence that’s been his answer for the space of two or three seconds.
“We could probably whip the team into shape,” Arthur says now, and his tone is utterly different, no longer flippant and wry, but eager and thoughtful. “I think Lovatt is the architect, he’s decent if you can just get him to make a little effort. You push, I’ll pull.”
Eames’ hand jitters; it never jitters. The ink smudges. Eames curses quietly under his breath, drops the tweezers on the ruined document, sits up tall again. Exhales hard. “We’d only end up where we always do,” he says, heart thumping. He doesn’t even know what he’s feeling: sadness, loneliness, resignation? It’s a low feeling, a heavy sensation in his chest.
There’s another stretch of silence on the other end. When Arthur speaks, though, it’s not to reply to Eames’ gloomy prediction. “Do you remember Nice?” he says, a little wistfully.
“Hmm, a little,” Eames says. “Long time ago, that.”
“I still have that leather bracelet you got me,” Arthur says, “somewhere.”
Eames laughs, surprised into it by the memory. “God, did I have you wrong.” He can still see it: the homely braided brown leather string tied round Arthur’s narrow bony wrist, peeking out unevenly around the edge of his immaculate French cuff as he worked over at his desk. Eames sat at his own desk and stared at it, only pretending to work, mesmerised by the loveliness. “I’d have done far better getting you a nice Yves St-Laurent pocket square,” he says now. “You wore that bloody bracelet all week, though — I still can’t quite believe it.”
“Mm,” Arthur agrees, chuckling. “It was sweet. Like when the cutest boy in second grade gives you his macaroni art.”
“Little did you know how eager I was,” Eames grins. “You could’ve thrown that ugly thing back in my face, saved yourself the agony of pretending to like it, and still had me bent over that dresser anytime you asked.”
“You’ve always been an easy lay,” Arthur agrees amiably. “I only wish”— but he clamps down on the rest, clears his throat. “So — is that yes for Dubai, or no? I mean, I really won’t do it if you’re not there.”
Eames turns his head over his shoulder and looks around his crowded flat as though something nearby might provide him with some hasty and spot-on advice in the matter. “Yeah,” he says, and presses his lips together tight, too late to stop the word that he’s already uttered. “Erm — I mean, yes, cheers, see you there.”
“Thanks for calling to make sure I’m not dead,” Arthur says, jumping easily enough back to his former light tone. “I’m touched.”
“Well,” says Eames, and cannot for the life of him come up with a snappy response. “Thanks for — for being. Alive.”
Arthur hangs up first, without a proper farewell. Eames half-drops the phone onto the drafting table and drags his hand down over his face, probably smudging his face as badly as he mucked up the paper. Bugger.
He’s going to fuck Arthur again, he just knows it.
“I’m trying to see about getting a train to Frankfurt but it’s a clusterfuck,” says Arthur, hastening through the airport, judging by his clipped tone and the ambient noise almost drowning out his voice. “So if you want to bail, let’s bail.”
Eames turns his head to look out the window at the palm trees, the sapphire sky, the buttoned-up businessmen in the baking heat. “Yeah, bit late for that, darling. I’m already at the rendez-vous point.”
“You — you’re actually on time for a meet-up?” Arthur says, incredulous. Whatever he says next is obscured by a French PA announcement, thanking patrons of Charles de Gaulle for their patience whilst not sounding apologetic in the least.
“Sorry, say again?” Eames prompts. As he looks round the lobby of the hotel, he still doesn’t see Werther or Lovatt. He just might make a clean break for it if he’s stealthy enough. He really doesn’t want to do this fucking job without Arthur. Even given Arthur’s spectacular talent for navigating international travel at breakneck speed, there’s no speedy way of working round any kind of labour strike in France. It simply can’t be done, not even by Arthur.
“I said, what’s the occasion?” Arthur half-shouts. “Oh, fuck, hang on, I’ve —“ and there’s a spate of louder sounds chased by an eruption of lovely quiet. “Members only lounge,” he says, coming back on the line.
“I’m surprised it’s not heaving with angry Americans,” Eames says.
“Ha,” says Arthur. “Not that kind of membership. This is a bit more — exclusive.” There’s no sound at all, now; god knows what Arthur means, where he is — back door of some off-limits highly secure area of the airport, probably, accessed with one of Arthur’s palmtop electronic hacking devices — or maybe it really is an executive lounge for incredibly well-dressed point men, and Arthur’s settling into a leather wingback and being offered a selection of cufflinks on a silver platter, or a line of cocaine off a twink’s washboard abs. “So?”
Eames blinks away visions of Arthur sitting round a coffee table with four or five other immaculate gentlemanly criminals, remembers that Arthur did ask him a question. “Right, well, I thought there would be some shagging to be had,” he says, scratching the bridge of his nose. Coast is still clear. Eames hesitates, then makes for the main entrance of the hotel; Werther’s a paranoid git, the type to slink in a side door. Lovatt’s less sly but spends most of his life in that dim dreamy haze that so many architects enjoy, probably would walk right past Eames and not see him.
Arthur’s been quiet for a while now.
“With you, I mean,” Eames clarifies, perhaps too late.
“No, I figured,” Arthur says, a little distractedly. “Eames.”
“Mm?” says Eames politely, scanning the crowds round the hotel, picking the direction of travel with the most people.
“I really hate doing the dishes,” Arthur says, “and I can’t stand hot climates.”
“I’d never have guessed,” Eames says, grinning like he means it even as his heart thumps worriedly, unsure of where Arthur’s headed.
“I hate paying bills every month, and having people know me at the corner store,” Arthur continues. “I hate caring about where you left your socks. I — I don’t want to give a shit about that stuff.”
Eames flags down a taxi and hops into the back seat, directs the cabbie to the airport. He’s not really fussed where he’s headed from here. The important thing is the direction of travel: away from Dubai. “Sorry,” he says, after the car’s underway. “I think I’ve just given them the slip, thank christ. You were — complaining about chores?”
“No,” says Arthur, impatient now. “Eames.”
Eames swallows and settles back into the seat. He knows very well that Arthur isn’t really talking about paying bills and picking up Eames’ socks and hating hot places. “Arthur,” he says, amazed himself by how calm his voice sounds. His heart is still pounding far faster than it should be, now his escape is secured and he’s at rest for the moment.
“Meet me in Frankfurt,” Arthur says. “Please.”
“Is there a job going?” Eames asks.
“Frankfurt,” says Arthur again. “Just — I don’t want to do this over the phone. Please.”
“Frankfurt,” echoes Eames, and hangs up. He watches the shiny expensive cars threading round them as they approach the airport.
It’s a funny sensation, knowing that Arthur’s finally cashing in his chips in this game they can’t stop playing. Eames has always thought Arthur would go all-in to the last, if it came to that.
God knows what Arthur’s been through to get here in a timely fashion, for all he had far less distance to cover than Eames. But there he is, up ahead at the midpoint of the footbridge, neat and collected as ever. He catches sight of Eames almost right away, acknowledges him with a quick upward tick of his chin, and then turns again to wait, leaning on the railing overlooking the Main like it’s his job to keep an eye on the river traffic below.
Eames picks up the pace a little and closes the fifty feet or so still separating them quickly as he can without losing the appearance of a normal busy stroll.
Elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder. Eames leans forward to watch a boat disappear under their feet, the vessel packed with sightseers and casting off indecipherable tourist guide nonsense in a language Eames doesn’t speak. Eames shifts his gaze a little in spite of himself, taking in the sight of his own bare hairy forearm alongside Arthur’s white striped shirtsleeve, pushed up as Arthur’s sleeves usually are, outside of dreams.
It takes Eames a moment to recognize what’s amiss, but then he’s reaching out to pick at the knot that’s keeping Arthur’s ugly leather bracelet tied round his wrist. Arthur watches, surprised but unresisting, as Eames frees the bracelet and unceremoniously drops it over the side of the bridge.
“Hey,” says Arthur, after it goes. “My bracelet.”
Eames can’t hold in the laughter after that, and Arthur joins him easily, leaning into his side, companionable and cheerful and worlds away from the tense grouchy Arthur who’d planned the Fischer job back in Paris. “I might be very slow to learn,” Eames tells him, feeling fond suddenly, “but I’ve finally worked out that it does me no good, trying to pen you in and mark you as mine.”
“If you love something, set it free,” Arthur says grandly with feigned sentiment. He turns his head and dimples at Eames. “If you hate something, fling it off a bridge.”
“Don’t even try it, I’ve got a very firm grip on this rail,” Eames warns him, grinning back. But his grin falters a second later, helplessly, because Arthur’s not his to collar and keep — of course not — but he’s still Arthur. It’s dreadful to think of giving him up for real this time, for certain, because Arthur’s finally going along with it.
Arthur noses in close and kisses Eames’ mouth like it’s a test, pulls back and frowns at him. “What is it?” he asks. “What’s wrong?”
“I just,” Eames says, pausing to kiss Arthur back, gentle and chaste. “I think I’ll rather miss our little trysts, for all I protest about them afterwards.”
Arthur’s brown eyes flicker over Eames’ face, quick and curious, and then his brows come together. “Are you breaking up with me again?” he asks, sounding royally pissed off. “Eames!”
“You’re breaking up with me!” Eames counters, stung. He blinks. “Aren’t you?”
“No!” Arthur says, and lifts one hand from the railing in order to thump Eames in the shoulder with his closed fist, hard enough to hurt. “God, you’re such an asshole.” He steadies himself with a sigh and then looks back over at Eames. “I came here to try and convince you that our mistake, before, was trying to lock this thing down. That disaster in Santorini wasn’t about us, Eames, it was about us trying to — to catch lightning in a bottle. We both suck at permanency, I don’t know what possessed us, thinking we would suddenly like it just because we were together.”
“Because,” Eames says, struggling to catch up, “because we’re in love, innit?”
Arthur laughs ruefully and turns to face Eames, straightening up from the railing now. “That’s just it,” he says, tone somewhere between exasperation and relief. “Even after what we’ve put ourselves through, all these places, all these times we can’t help but — and then walking away, over and over. But we’re still — still in love.” He looks up from Eames’ shoes, which he’s been addressing for most of this speech. “Don’t you think it’s time we stopped trying to pin it down? Let’s just — be in love, wherever we are. Together or apart, whatever makes us happy that day.”
Eames’ heart is in his throat, now — from terror or joy or giddiness, he can hardly tell. He stands up and faces Arthur, shaky with want, with gratitude that Arthur is so clever, always two steps ahead, best point man in the world. “Yeah, okay,” Eames says, casual as he can make it, which he fears is not very. “Should we start right away?”
Arthur laughs and reaches for Eames’ hand. “That’s the point,” he says, “we never managed to stop.”
Eames cracks an eye open long enough to reassure himself of Arthur’s presence, Arthur sprawled out over the bed next to Eames, naked and pale and sated. Later, maybe, they’ll have sex again, take their time with it, or go fast and hard like they did earlier; maybe Arthur will get a call about a job, or Eames will, and maybe they’ll go their own ways. Maybe they’ll travel someplace together, instead.
Maybe, much later, they’ll find somewhere not too hot or too cold, their neverland Goldilocks flat in an unknown city, where the man at the corner store has short term memory loss and never looks twice at Arthur, where they have a proper dishwasher and Eames learns to put his socks in the hamper and they’re far, far, from goats and halvah and rows over which of them is the better getaway driver (answer: Eames, obviously).
Or maybe they won’t, and maybe they’ll go on like this as long as they can, happy and roaming the globe and working fantastic jobs, coming together to fuck and to laugh and to drink and gossip — over and over, as long as the love lasts between them.
Eames reaches out and circles Arthur’s wrist with his thumb and middle finger. It’s more than enough: it’s perfect.