The din of the club is a steady hum around him, idle chatter, peals of laughter and the occasional raucous bellow of a drunk calling for another round of drinks. As Arthur stands on stage breathing deeply, his muscles warm and his skin flushed, the music begins to play. It's low and slow, but crescendos as the lights fade on. The spotlight finds its place on him and he starts to circle his hips, gyrating them slowly as the beat of music builds and builds. He sings low, the beginning of his song, purposefully dropping the register of his voice to something deep and sultry.
♫"Lay back for me. You are just exactly what I need. In this cold town. Lay back for me. The three of us in circus and in liberty. It's been so long."♫
As Arthur tilts his head up, he can see the entire floor. The club is full, which is not unusual; vice draws a crowd and Saito runs the best brothel in town. He pinpoints Ariadne easily as she glides her way through the aisles, past the new gambling tables with her drink tray while dodging the many obstacles in her way: grabbing hands, pushed out chairs, carelessly placed arms and legs. Arthur does a smooth spin, kicking his foot out and swinging it in close to his other ankle to pivot. He turns his head, singing over his shoulder. ♫"The alternative to real world, is just time for me and a fantasy. Be blind to myself, to idolize."♫
As he brings his arms up above his head and pops his hip, he can see Mal is in the corner. Her head is thrown back and she's laughing: the forced one that he knows is too high, though he can't hear it from here. She thinks it's like a tinkling bell, something sweet and melodic, but it's grating. Her mark doesn't seem to mind.
Spinning again, Arthur's eyes hunt for Eames. He steps towards the single chair on stage, unbuttoning his vest slowly while giving the crowd a sultry pout. Then he kicks his leg high, letting it land on the other side of the chair so he can straddle the seat and lean along the back of it, reaching out towards the audience. He points his toes and pops the chair onto one leg, spinning it around as he swings in front of it, sitting in it sideways where he leans back, arching as he reaches towards the floor, his vest falling to his arms to expose his chest. He croons, ♫"You work so deep. Astonished and in rapture, I can barely speak. These are hard times."♫
The crowd cheers as he flexes his back, thrusting his hips atop the chair and forcing the arch of his spine farther. Arthur pulls himself upright and stands again. He sheds his vest completely, tossing it to the side carelessly as he circles the stage, coming towards the front so the patrons seated there can feel like they could simply reach out and touch him.
He drops to his knees, sliding a hand down the side of his neck, over his chest and towards his pants. His fingertips dip below the waistband as he circles his hips again. A brazen patron stands, reaches farther out to stroke a clumsy hand across his thigh and Arthur leans forward on his free arm to pull the man towards him by the neck. Arthur tilts his head seductively, lowering his lashes and licking his lipstick-stained lips before he continues his song, singing it sweetly, hovering close to the man's lips. ♫"Hormones in key: a slow, whispered, wet confession from our body heat. There's no return."♫
The man leers and the crowd cheers louder as Arthur pulls away, as he crawls backwards across the stage in a cat-like slink, dragging his palms along the wood floor before pushing himself up again. As he rises, he circles his head on his shoulders, still petting a hand down his own sweat-slick body.
When he opens his eyes, Arthur smiles coyly, practiced. He spots Eames at a booth. Eames is leaning against someone Arthur hasn't seen before, which piques his interest. He likes to have information on every patron with enough money to keep Eames interested.
Eames is tracing his hand down the man's arm. Ducking his head in to whisper a secret and licking his lips when he pulls back. The man looks delighted and predatory. It ignites something ugly in the pit of Arthur's' stomach. He hasn't been able to suppress the jealous streak, not in the three years he's been with Eames.
Eames plays his part, ducking his head submissively, all but batting his eyelashes at the man as he forces his posture into something that makes him seem smaller, meeker … weak. Eames gives the man his undivided attention and the flame of jealousy burns brighter in Arthur's stomach because every eye in the club is on him right now, even Eames' current target, but Eames isn't paying attention at all.
He tries to snuff out that line of thought before it shows on his face, before the entire night is ruined. Eames has seen him perform countless times. Besides, it's not his job to watch Arthur, it's his job to earn money, to pleasure the guests. Arthur glances away and unbuttons his fly, lowering the zipper teasingly slow. There are whoops and whistles but he doesn't register any of it. Instead, he turns his back, slowly lowers his pants inch by inch, pulling the fabric along the curve of his ass as he shifts his weight and sings, ♫"The alternative to real world is just time for me and a fantasy. I'm blind to myself and idolize."♫
The song is wrapping up, and the dance is only a peek, a mere glimpse at what can be had for a little more money, for rest of the evening, for the whole night if one has the funds. His pants don't lower past his hipbone, the barest amount of the swell of his cheeks showing. The song fades out and Arthur turns, pubic hair visible from his open fly and he blows a flirty kiss to the crowd.
As Arthur exits, he grabs his discarded vest and drops his pants, changing into skin-tight hot-shorts and stockings instead. It's raunchy, but still enough to tease. It only takes fifteen minutes (a quick wipe down, re-application of lipstick, eyeliner, and downing a full glass of water) before he's out on the floor, floating from table to table to find a patron or two for the night. He doesn't allow himself to feel anything when he notices that Eames and his mark are nowhere to be seen. He has a long night ahead of him, and thinking of Eames will only make him short-tempered. He needs to focus on the task at hand.
By the time the evening is ready to wrap up, Mal has made her way through four tables (with two short trips to the back rooms) before a man decides to take her back to his hotel for the night. Ariadne is clearing abandoned tables and one of the house singers is swaying on stage to a slow, melancholy tune. Arthur is sipping on a cocktail, Yusuf's special for the night, when a middle-aged man in a well-tailored suit approaches him. Arthur smiles, the man leans in, Arthur downs the rest of his drink and then drags the man to the private rooms for a good time.
It's the easiest thing giving this man what he wants. He wants a pretty boy with skills. He wants to lose himself in sensation, escape from his life for the night with one, blissful orgasm. He wants to feel wanted and Arthur understands that, so he drapes himself over this man's body, undoes the buttons of his waistcoat slowly, lingeringly, and he gives this man everything that's he's paid for because it takes his mind off the fact that Eames is doing the exact same thing right now.
This man wants someone to control him, and that suits Arthur just fine, so he lays the man bare and tells him exactly what he's going to do: where he's going to put his mouth, and what he expects the man to do in return. His demand is for the man to not remove his hands from the sheets as he wraps his lips around the man's prick.
Arthur never wanted to be here. He never wanted it to come to this. But times are hard and he does what he must, to survive. Every single person in this club is a survivor. Most of them, like Arthur, don't have family to fall back on. Some of them are providing for the family they have.
When Arthur lost his previous job as an architectural assistant he tried to find other work. After finding no luck in service or clerical industries, or any industry that wasn't labor, he tried to get work at the docks. Hard labor jobs are competitive in a crippled economy and Arthur struggled to get chosen for work among the crowd of unemployed men with his small build and lack of experience. After weeks of starving, of racking up debt, unable to pay his rent and bills, he was cast out into the cold. There was only one guaranteed way to make money and a few tricks turned on the street at least fed him. A few more gave him enough to rent a shared room for the week.
Only by chance did he end up working at Saito's, and he's never been more grateful for nearly dying, for begging for his life, saying he'd work—that he'd do anything—through bloody teeth and spit lips, desperately pleading and waiting for the blow that would kill him. He hadn't even known he was encroaching on Saito's territory, hadn't known the politics of sex-work, and was too new and naive and trying to sell on any corner that would earn him a meal. He was lucky Saito's goon didn't kill him, lucky that the man brought him to Saito at all, and even luckier that Saito took pity on him, saying that he might be pretty again if his face healed correctly, and that he could work off the business he'd stolen in the brothel.
Ariadne hadn't been at the club then. She came months later. Mal had taken care of him initially, bandaging him, icing his swollen skin. But Eames took him under his wing. He had shown Arthur the ropes, explained the rules, and taught him how to dance, though he said that Arthur was a natural at that. Eames taught Arthur how to spot a mark and then how to win a reluctant one over. Eames had helped Arthur find his place in the club quickly.
Then one night, Eames stumbled into their room—they weren't yet sharing a bed—nearly knocking a side table over as he collapsed onto the ground. His face was swollen and it looked like someone had taken a whip to him, angry red welts striped across his back. Arthur scrambled to Eames' side, fussing him into bed. Arthur cleaned Eames' wounds that night, and didn't leave him until morning.
Arthur felt an obligation to care for Eames as Eames had for him. He and Eames had been growing closer, and Arthur's heart nearly shattered watching Eames suffer. He pressed kisses to Eames' head and murmured calming nonsense whenever Eames stirred.
It took Eames nearly a week to recover enough to be back on the floor.
Arthur swallows his patron's cock down expertly using the technique Eames taught him, opening his throat and convulsing the muscles as he bottoms out. The man groans, deep and long and dazed. Arthur opens his eyes and can see the man white-knuckling the sheets, can see the man's stomach muscles flexing through the open gap of his shirt. This part makes Arthur feel good. He enjoys giving pleasure, that his work is appreciated. He's vain enough to like the attention, the eyes on him when he's on stage in the spotlight. And when the guys don't want to get too rough, when it can be quick and hot and solely about giving and receiving pleasure, Arthur can enjoy the rest. He's long since worked off his initial debt to Saito, but times are still hard with no end in sight, and Arthur can deal with this.
Not every encounter is a bad one. Arthur likes having good friends that work alongside him, and that he really only has to work six hours a day to earn enough to live on. He likes that he can earn money at all when so many people are suffering. But there is always the potential for a trick to go wrong and there's always a chance, with the way the political forces are warring, that the club could get shut down at anytime.
Arthur's attention is drawn away from his thoughts as his patron makes a series of unintelligible huffs meant to be words. Arthur is familiar with the signs, the way the man's balls draw up, the hitch of his diaphragm. He knows that the man is close and he pumps the man's cock with his fist while licking at the head of it. He pulls his face away when the man starts to come, continuing to glide his hand along the man's shaft as semen trickles over his knuckles.
Arthur sends the man home pleased and dopey and with whispered the reminder to come back again, any time. Repeat business is good business, and so long as this guy doesn't ever get too rough, Arthur is happy to add another regular to his list.
Arthur goes to his and Eames' room to grab a towel. He makes his way to the shared bath to shower and brush his teeth. Ariadne is there at the sink with a toothbrush sticking out of her mouth as she brushes her hair. It's winter now, and she can't afford heating for her room on her meager wages, so she sleeps with Mal in her quarters. Sometimes Arthur thinks she should move in permanently, save the money she spends on rent, but he understands the need to escape the environment, to have a home. She gives Arthur a quick nod as he strips off his underwear and starts the hot water for his shower.
It takes a few minutes for it to heat up, but when it does, he steps inside and it's like heaven: a hot, wet, relaxing oasis where his world is pared down to the three tile walls, a curtain and the soothing fall of water over his shoulders. Arthur wishes that he could spend more time here, but the brothel's hot water is limited and he's not enough of a dick to deny the dozen other workers a comfortable rinse, to get all the sweat, the perfume, the spit, the glitter, the come, and the smell of other people's bodies off of them after a hard night's work.
When Arthur opens the curtain, Ariadne is no longer in the room and he has the mirror to himself. It's fogged over at the edges, but Arthur can still see himself, can see how the line of his shoulders sags as he leans on the sink brushing his teeth, wondering if Eames will return tonight, if he'll return at all.
Arthur sits up when the door opens, the silk drapery fluttering as Eames enters. Arthur hasn't been able to sleep. His patron had left before midnight, and he's been toiling away the hours trying distract himself by mending his costumes or reading, finally forcing himself to lay down and stare at the ceiling in the dark, willing himself into unconsciousness.
It hadn't worked. When Arthur looks over at the clock, it reads three in the morning.
Eames stands at their dresser, hands splayed across the surface and, even in the dark, Arthur can tell that he is tense. Eames hasn't stripped off his clothes and flopped beside him, so Arthur knows that the night must not have gone well.
Pushing himself off their bed, Arthur comes to stand behind Eames, wrapping his arms around Eames' middle and tucking his chin on top of Eames shoulder. His ear rests against Eames' head. He wants to hold Eames, to make him forget, to pull him back into their own little world where he's safe and nothing outside this room exists.
When Arthur breathes in, he can smell cologne that is too light and crisp to be Eames' own. It clings to Eames, to his shirt and his skin, and Arthur grimaces as he tamps down on his anger, because this is not Eames' fault. They all do what they have to.
Arthur slowly spins Eames around, his hands cupping Eames face and Eames won't look him in the eye. His eyelashes are a dark, mascara-covered fan across the tops of his cheeks and his eyeliner is smudged below them. Arthur kisses at Eames' jawline, dragging his hands down Eames' neck, over his shoulder until he can start to open Eames' shirt, one button at a time, freeing him from the odorous fabric. Pushing the shirt from Eames' shoulder, Arthur starts to bite down his neck. Eames lets him, holding his hands on Arthur's hips lightly.
Eames is probably tired and he probably wants nothing more than to quickly shower and crawl into bed and forget the night ever happened. But he lets Arthur stake his claim. He lets Arthur suck on his skin, just shy of harsh enough to leave marks. Arthur tosses the shirt to the corner, with the laundry. He won't let Eames wear it again until the scent has been washed out.
Arthur wants to know what happened, but he won't ask. Eames won't tell him, has never told him. Anything Arthur had ever found out about Eames' bad encounters came from gossip, or the bragging mouths of the abuser themselves. It takes all of Arthur's self control to not snap men's necks when they tell him of the horror they've inflicted upon his friends—his family.
Arthur is just happy that Eames is back, and he showers kisses everywhere he can, hugging Eames to his body. Eames sighs into Arthur's neck as Arthur's fingers press into the muscles of his back, working his own frustration out by worrying at the knots beside Eames' spine. Arthur feels Eames' hands slide to his lower back as Eames' pulls him closer, until their hearts beat against each other's chest and their embrace feels so tight that they could crush the breath from their lungs, pull themselves into each other's body, a nesting doll of their souls as one.
Sometimes Arthur wishes that Eames would not play along with these men. Half the ones that hurt him do it thinking it's what Eames wants, that he enjoys submitting to them, enjoys their gift of pain. Eames plays the game. He puts on the mask and becomes what client desires. He lets them get what they need. If they could see what it does to Eames, they would stop. Or Arthur would hope they would stop. But that's just it: Eames is the best chameleon in the club; he'll give and give and give, and one day it's going to kill him.
Arthur dips in for a kiss that Eames returns with fervor. He sucks at Arthur's tongue and Arthur moves them across the floor, walking backwards. Eames follows, still in his shoes, finding their way without stepping on Arthur's toes. He lets Arthur turn them when they get to the bed. He can feel Eames relaxing as they kiss, as the night drowns under Arthur's onslaught, as he forces it out of Eames' mind. His hands move to Eames' waist and he undoes Eames' pants, shoves them down Eames' hips as his fingers press along the strong planes of Eames' thighs.
He kisses Eames deeply, pouring all of his desires into it, his hope, his love, his dreams. They talk about the future sometimes. They talk about a time when they can be together, just the two of them. He tries to create that feeling now, to push away the world.
Arthur hovers over Eames, all his weight pressed along Eames body. When Arthur pulls away Eames lifts off the bed, seeking to follow kiss up but Arthur pushes him back down, a hand on his chest that then moves up to cup the Eames' jaw, then up more to sweep through his hair. Arthur bends down to press a light peck to Eames' lips then trails more down his jaw and throat and collarbones. He shifts his weight back to kiss down Eames' body. He kisses Eames' sternum, his ribs, and his stomach, which sucks in with a ticklish reaction.
Waiting for permission, a sign to continue, Arthur nuzzles his face to Eames' abdomen. He can feel the rise and fall of Eames' lungs. They could lie here all night, Eames wrapped in his arms, but Eames urges him on with a roll of his hips and a hand gently pushing his head lower.
Arthur kisses Eames anywhere he can, taking his time. Arthur kisses Eames' calves and his knees and his thighs. He kisses the crease of Eames' leg, pressing his face against Eames' balls until Eames whines, until Eames is breathing heavy and pressing his hips up more frantically to meet Arthur's touch.
Arthur takes pity on him, sucks one of Eames' testicles into his mouth. He rolls it over his tongue and licks along the skin, and then he switches to the other. He very quickly licks up Eames' cock, enough to wet it, then works his way back down, spreading Eames' thighs wider.
Arthur dips his head down and tongues at Eames' perineum, pressing firmly before moving lower. Eames lifts his feet off the bed, rolling his hips back to give Arthur more room. Arthur spreads Eames' cheeks with his hands and swipes his tongue along Eames' asshole.
He loses himself for a minute, tonguing Eames, drawing out low grunts of pleasures that break into moans. He wills Eames to open up for him, to relax. Eames does, in increments. It takes time, but little by little Eames gives in to Arthur's attention. His muscles flutter, opening and closing slightly, pressing in and out as Arthur swirls his tongue over the ring.
Arthur loves taking Eames apart like this. The first time Eames had been surprised, as if no one had bothered to care about his pleasure first. Arthur has never found out exactly how long Eames has been at the brothel. None of the staff he's ever talked to had arrived before Eames. Eames had abandoned himself to this kind of pleasure, and it had been the first time Arthur had seen him look honest.
Eames becomes sloppy wet with Arthur's spit, and he's moaning more steadily every time Arthur's tongue dips in farther. Arthur moves his thumb up to toy along the ridge of muscle and Eames' encourages him with a short, pleasured exhale. Arthur presses with his thumb, forcing the muscle to give, but he doesn't dip in all the way. He backs off, then presses again, then again, then again: each time sinking in farther until the tip of his thumb disappears inside of Eames' body. Then Arthur has an idea and he pulls his thumb away.
"Over," Arthur says, tapping Eames' inner thigh. Eames frowns, but turns. Arthur draws him up onto his knees and grabs the lube from the table. He spreads Eames' cheeks again and licks at Eames' entrance. Slicking his fingers, Arthur presses in again, with two this time. He pumps them in and out and curls them every three or so times to drag along Eames' prostate. And he continues to lick around his fingers, letting his tongue trace around the stretch of Eames' skin where Arthur's fingers are inserted.
Eames hips circle, his body searching for more friction involuntarily. When Arthur sits back on his heels, he can see that the foreskin of Eames' cock is pulled back, revealing the dripping head of it. Arthur wants to taste it, but Eames is too far-gone and Arthur is getting there quickly as well. Instead, Arthur grabs a condom and tears it open with his teeth. He quickly slides it on and slicks himself up and pushes into Eames. He's hurried, but careful. Eames is ready, Arthur knows, but he wants to make this the best for Eames, which means ignoring his desire to snap his hips and drive Eames into the mattress.
Arthur goes slowly, controlled. He pulls Eames' hips back to him when he pushes forward then draws away. He keeps pace until Eames complains, "Arthur, I need more. Please."
Then and only then does Arthur pick up his pace. He pumps his hips back and forth with intent, with speed, and when he can feel his orgasm building, threatening to release too soon, he reaches around and takes Eames' cock in hand. Eames foreskin makes it easy to fist Eames' cock without extra lube. He rolls the skin back and forth, careful not to pull too hard, but picking up his pace with his thrusts.
Eames comes moments later. He spills onto the sheets with a choked wail of pleasure and falls, arms giving out, shoulders down onto the mattress. Arthur pulls out, letting Eames' hips rest against the bed. Then, when Eames is spread out flat, Arthur pushes back inside. It's shallow this way, Eames' asscheeks are slightly in the way, but Arthur is so close it doesn't matter. He curves his back down to kiss along Eames spine, pressing his chest to Eames shoulders as his cock slides into the wet clench of Eames' ass. He drives in erratically, trying to keep his pace but failing as his orgasm builds, until it breaks through and he stills and his climax floods out.
Arthur collapses onto Eames' back and Eames grunts under the weight. Arthur shakily pushes himself up enough to allow Eames to breathe. Eventually he will have to dispose of the condom and clean up. He'll have to sleep in a wet spot tonight. But for now, he lets his breathing slow, falling into sync with Eames' breathing. He remains inside Eames as he presses his lips to Eames' nape over and over again, memorizing Eames' hairline and the way his skin feels beneath his lips. If Arthur could kiss Eames a million times, it wouldn't be enough. He wants to brand Eames with his lips, sear the pattern of his own skin onto every inch of Eames' body.
"Arthur, darling! Do come here. I want to introduce you to Mr. Albion." Eames grabs Arthur's wrist as he passes, pulling him to the table. Arthur's scowl is brief. He knows better than to throw attitude in front of a new customer.
"Mr. Albion said he'd been eyeing you since he walked in." Eames sits down in his chair again, backwards with his legs spread over the seat. He smiles at Albion wickedly. "I told Mr. Albion that I could snag you for him, that you would be very interested in the conversation we were having."
Arthur takes a good look at Albion who is leaning back in the booth, seeming comfortable and almost lazy, spread out with an air of ownership as he eyes Arthur from head to toe appraisingly. Arthur smirks. "And what might that conversation be about?" he asks.
Eames' voice is low and conspiratorial with his answer. "It seems Mr. Albion here is very interested in getting to know you. Though, he said that he didn't want to ignore me as well, that I've been very entertaining so far tonight. I told him that we'd be happy to entertain him together.
Arthur freezes for the barest of moments because they've never done this before. Their time together has always been untainted by the job: something personal and private; something Arthur never thought he would have to share with anyone else. For a split second he thinks about walking away. Then Arthur thinks about the money, the price he and Eames could fetch together, and he can tell by the sharpness of Albion's suit and the quality of his accessories that Albion can afford the both of them and more.
Eames picks up on his trepidation and reaches back for Arthur's hand, bringing it to his shoulder to play with his fingers in a way that can be interpreted as flirtatious to an outside viewer, one who doesn't see how Eames does the same exact thing at night as they lay pressed together on the bed. Arthur squeezes Eames' hand then shifts to raise his leg. He rests his heel on Eames' strong thigh, throwing his leg open and draping himself down Eames' body, his hand rubbing a path down Eames' bare arms.
"That sounds intriguing. I am impressed that Eames offered, that he didn't keep you all to himself."
Eames laughs, "Oh, he is quite condescending. I think you'd love him, Mr. Albion. You do like boys with fight, no?" Arthur's grip on Eames' arm tightens in warning, but Eames' face doesn't flinch at all, though it must hurt a little.
Albion sets his drink down and twists the glass on the table, leaving a ring of condensation on the wood. He licks his lips and asks, "How much?"
Arthur looks down to Eames. He can just barely see the color of his eyelids, green with blue on the outside, glitter reflecting the candlelight in tiny winking starburst as Eames blinks. His lashes are long, painted black and Eames smiles as he tilts his head back to look up, catching Arthur's gaze. Even in shadow, Eames' blue-gray eyes are bright and sharp.
"We can work that out when the time is right."
Arthur realizes that Eames is giving him an out, an excuse for after Eames performs on stage. Arthur could say he has an obligation, a prior appointment he'd forgotten about. His throat goes tight at the thought of Eames protecting him.
Eames looks back down and pulls Arthur around the chair to wrap an arm around his hips. "We have to whole evening ahead of us and I wouldn't want you to miss the performances." Eames says.
Ariadne stops by when Eames waves at her and orders three drinks for them, Yusuf's special concoction for the night since Albion is paying. Mal is just taking the stage. She's dressed in a full-length, silvery-cream gown. It sparkles underneath the lights, setting her alight from her breasts down, arms to her fingertips, the decoration tapering out at the shoulders to make them look nearly bare. The dress makes her seem as if she is bathed in crystal. Nobody, not a single person in the room, would imagine she had sewn each bead of that dress on herself. Nobody who hadn't seen her rip apart and salvage every single sequin from discarded costumes that were beyond repair would ever think the dress wasn't anything but designer: possibly a gift from a lover; something they wanted to have or to have given to her themselves.
Mal's hair falls in loose waves about her jawline. She looked soft, every part of her a curve instead of an angle. It's her first song of the night, the only one she gets any real say on, so she sings something slow and moody. Her accent curls around the words. ♫"I wanted love, I needed love, most of all, most of all."♫
Her hips sway and her fingers curl around the stem of the microphone stand. Her nails are painted and her lips are stained blood red. She looks radiant, so beautiful under the lights, and Arthur wishes that she were allowed to perform this way later in the evening, when more people were there to see it. He thinks they could appreciate the way her lips tremble over the words. ♫"Someone said true love was dead, And I'm bound to fall, bound to fall … for you. What can I do?"♫
Ariadne brings them their drinks. Tonight's special is made with grapefruit, some combination of bitters and mint and soda water or tonic. The fruit is fresh enough that Arthur knows the drink must cost an arm and a leg. Arthur isn't complaining because it tastes amazing. If he's going to do this with Eames tonight, he's going to need to be good and drunk.
Mal's song winds down and Eames politely excuses himself to prepare for his act. He leaves Arthur to tend to Albion alone as the band plays an upbeat tune. Filling Eames' vacant space, Arthur presses himself to Albion's side, sipping on his drink for lack of conversation. Arthur is more direct than Eames is. He can't make a night of flirting and schmoozing. Usually he finds the men that are ready to go, the ones that are jumping at the opportunity to get their cocks sucked or get fucked. He doesn't trade polite conversation. He has no patience for drawing things out, for trying to get to know someone before sleeping with them, before taking their money. Quite frankly, he doesn't care about anyone else but Eames, and it bothers him that he knows as much about Eames as any of his marks.
Eames is a master at playing things close to his chest. He can go an entire night without saying a true thing about himself. He directs conversation away or answers in half-truths. He lavishes attention on everyone one else, and when you are the target it feels like you are the only person in the room—the only person in the world. Arthur has lived with Eames and he still doesn't know much about Eames' past or his family. He only gets snippets dropped in quick comments of, "When I was a child," or "When I lived in ..." Arthur aches to crack into Eames' mind, into his heart. He wants to know what truly makes Eames tick.
"You're not like your friend," Albion says. Arthur turns his head, trying to read the question, approaching it like a pitfall. Albion is placid. Arthur can't find anger, only observation in his tone and scrutinizing gaze.
"No," he replies. "Does that bother you?"
Albion laughs, drains the rest of his drink and signals Ariadne for another as she drops by. Arthur will never know how she times herself so perfectly. "You seem like a person who doesn't dance around what he wants," Albion says. "You don't play the game. I like that. How is it working out for you?"
Arthur gives a reticent smile. "Well enough," he says. He's not sure how he feels about Albion's observation. He wonders what it indicates for the rest of the night's events.
Their conversation is put on hold when the lights dim and the music dies out. The club quiets, awaiting the next act. Ariadne slips by and deposits their drinks without a word. Arthur takes a sip in anticipation, licking his lips of the condensation deposited from touching the glass.
A spotlight flicks on shining a blinding circle of light onto the curtains. The band lets out a bassy wail that abruptly stops. In silence the curtains part, a black cavern of darkness behind them broken by a single figure: posture rigid, shoulders squared, body facing forward but face turned to the side. Eames' eyes are locked onto the floor but they are unseeing, gazing into a non-existent distance. The music lets out another wallop of sound, a single beat before silence falls again and Eames' face snaps forward in time. His gaze is still far off, above the crowd, above the world.
Another staccato note of music sounds and Eames throws his head back as if he's been slapped. His chest heaves and his palms are turned forward in supplication. Three quick beats more and Eames had turned his back to the audience with his arm raised out to the side. It looks as if he's reaching for something or someone. He pauses and there is a long drag of silence. The entire room is waiting for his next move.
Arthur might be a natural dancer, but Eames is a master. Everything that Eames taught Arthur came from Eames' natural ability to perform. He can weave a story into striptease with such subtlety.
The music starts again, quietly building, bass lines thrumming a tango beat as dark figures dart onto stage. They pause, hovering just out of the light as the music swells and violins play. Eames, with his arm still outstretched, slowly backs out from behind the curtains. Step by sweeping step, he takes his place in the center. The spotlight follows him and the dark figures loom inward, crowding around him.
He spins, allowing his body to fall, snapped back upright at the last minute by a figure's hold. Finally the other dancers invade the spotlight's territory and the rest of the stage lights begin to fade up, revealing body after body vying for Eames' attention. Eames is spun into an embrace, his body pressed against a dark-clad man, his leg sweeping up the man's leg to wrap around the thigh before kicking away and stepping back. He turns to run and is caught by another figure, another man that pulls Eames' arms into the classic Tango embrace. The man's hands sweep over Eames' body, down his side before pressing to his lower back. The dancer forces Eames' backwards. Their legs stretch in dramatic, slow steps that are perfectly timed. The dancer leans in to kiss at Eames' throat and Eames pulls away, darting downstage, only to be caught by another dancer and forced into his embrace.
Eames tries and fails to escape: turning to find himself trapped again and again by other bodies, forced to dance as possessive hands tear at his clothes. They rip the buttons off his shirt, yank at his collar. By the time the dance has reached a fever pitch, the music swelling with violins screaming, Eames is shirtless. His pants are opened and his hair in complete disarray. Eames' skin is red where he has failed to avoid the clutch of hands, the greedy demand of his flesh.
Arthur shifts uncomfortably at the sight. He watches Eames' torment as the dancers overpower him, as Eames weakens with every change of partner. This performance is brazen showmanship, lacking the playful tease typical of the club's usual burlesque. But the raw sexuality of it sucks the crowd in making every heartbeat in the room fall in sync.
Just as the music hits another crescendo, a new figure dressed in red takes stage. He pushes through the sea of dark bodies, taking them, spinning them, tossing them into the distance. He is a guardian angel, or a devil—Arthur can't tell— but the dancer fights his way in, wrapping his arms around Eames' waist to pull him away. He turns Eames' to face him. Their chests press together and the dancer holds Eames steady. The music goes soft. It's a tender moment as the dancer's hand reaches to sweep lovingly over Eames' face. Eames' eyes fall closed in relief and he tilts his head back, trusting the man in red to hold him.
Then the other figures rally. As one they attack, swarming the man in red, breaking his spell of protection over Eames. The music crescendos again, hitting its peak as they toss the man in red backward, catching him in a cage of arms that pull him to the floor. Blow after simulated blow beats him down as Eames looks on helplessly, too tired to fight.
Once the struggle is over and the lifeless man is dragged away, the dancers surround Eames again. He faces forward, chest heaving erratically as their hands slide over his body. His eyes slip closed as he resigns himself to his fate, letting the men possess him, letting them take everything, claim him, use him. The music pounds out its final notes, trumpets sounding in a battle call until they cease crisply and the lights go black.
Cheers immediately erupt from the crowd. The atmosphere is electric, buzzing with desire. Arthur can't breathe. He can't make his hands move, to clap along. The dance was superb, yes, a work of art even, but it was the darkest thing he's ever seen on this stage before. None of Mal's melancholy love ballads could match the raw emotion Eames just displayed. Arthur has never felt so violated before, for himself, for Eames. It's as if their life has been ripped open, entrails thrown to the ground to be consumed by a ravenous pack of wolves.
"Amazing," Albion says next to him. Arthur nods. His eyes are locked onto the drink in his hands. Not for the first time he wonders if the money is worth all this.
Eames slides right back into the booth like they were never interrupted. Albion compliments him for the dance and Eames ducks his head sheepishly, humbly, as if he didn't realize exactly the effect it would have on this type of crowd. Arthur's shoulders are a block of ice: solid, frozen in fury as Eames' leans into him. His grip on his glass is white knuckled. Arthur thinks he could shatter it if he held on long enough.
Eames places his hand on Arthur's stomach. It feels warm and heavy and Arthur's stiff posture melts a fraction at the familiarity of it. Eames leans in to nuzzle at his neck. It looks like coy flirting to Albion, probably, but Eames whispers a reassurance.
"It was just a dance, Arthur."
Arthur lets his anger slowly drain away as Eames drapes himself across Arthur's body. After a few more drinks, Albion starts negotiation. Eames has been unsubtly caressing Arthur every chance he can get. He's putting on a show, but Arthur doesn't mind. It's not often he can spend an entire night with Eames, pressed against his body. Their time is usually stolen, hurried flutterings of affection and snippets of tenderness before being pulled into sleep.
With the drinks, Arthur's extremities and face are feeling warm and his head is starting to float pleasantly on his shoulders. Eames starts nuzzling more enthusiastically at Arthur's neck. He twists himself around in the booth so that he's practically on top of Arthur; hand placed on his shoulder as his other pulls at Arthur's neck, bringing him forward for a kiss. Eames makes it filthy, all tongue and working lips. It's wet, hot, and spiced with mint and citrus. Arthur presses up into the kiss and Eames rubs his chest against Arthur's ribs as he slides his hand into the gap of Arthur's vest, teasing at his nipples underneath.
Arthur is lost in sensation and time is indefinite. Somehow, Eames has wiggled his way onto Arthur's lap. Arthur has no idea how Eames managed to fit himself there with the table behind him, and he really couldn't care to find out. Eames is grinding against him, licking his way into Arthur's mouth, and never ceasing his wandering hands from their determined path over the entirety of Arthur's torso.
When Eames breaks away, Arthur is panting. His eyes are glazed and his head feels heavy yet hollow at the same time. His body is buzzing with arousal. There's yet another drink on the table; Ariadne is a ninja, he swears. Though, to be honest, he probably wouldn't have noticed if the building was burning down around them during that kiss.
Eames is still on his lap, but he's turned, twisting his body to lean and kiss Albion. With every tilt of his head to angle for a better kiss, Eames' body grinds down on Arthur. Arthur reaches for his glass, sitting back to drink and watch the show happening on top of him.
When Eames breaks the kiss with Albion to bend down towards Arthur again, Arthur is eager for it. He can taste Albion on Eames' lips and he doesn't care because Eames' touch is electric where he is touching Arthur's skin. Arthur's already getting hard, and he agreed to this, so why shouldn't he enjoy it?
His hands trace over Eames' bowed back, curving up along his shoulder blades then back down again. Eames' unbuttons Arthur's vest to expose his chest and stomach fully. A hand tucks in behind his head, and it's not the right angle to be Eames' hand, which is all the warning Arthur gets before Eames' pulls back and his lips are replaced by Albion's.
Albion smells of expensive cologne. His lips are not nearly as plush and his technique not as polished as Eames, but he tastes good, his tongue is playful, and Arthur doesn't mind this, not right now. He can feel Eames' hips roll forward, feel Eames' cock rub at his own through their pants. Eames thumbs one of Arthur's nipples and he moans into Albion's mouth, helpless against holding it back as Eames teases him.
"I think we should move this elsewhere," Eames says, the voice of reason as his fingers curve along Arthur's ribs. Albion breaks their kiss with a nod.
"Yes. Yes, we could, I could..." Albion stutters, his higher thought processes muddled.
"There's a bed in the back," Eames says helpfully.
The Brothel has several communal boudoirs for use in order to pleasure guests. That is the one bonus about working at Saito's: your room is actually your room, a sanctuary that you don't have to conduct work out of, if you don't want to. There are small stalls for quick escapades, but the larger, shared rooms have beds and are outfitted in more luxury. They seem exotic enough without feeling fake, and homey enough without feeling like an intrusion.
Eames directs Arthur onto the bed and urges Albion towards him while pulling off Albion's coat from behind. Arthur stretches out and his vest falls to his sides. Albion looks at him greedily and he undoes his cuffs, pocketing the links in his trousers.
Eames is pressed against Albion's back and he reaches around Albion's body to unbutton the top buttons of his shirt. Albion undoes the rest. Arthur, anxious, expectant, presses a hand against his erection through his trousers and he hears Eames murmur, "Beautiful, isn't he?" into Albion's ear. Albion's response is a wicked grin. Arthur bites his lip, body responding to the predatory look in Albion's eyes. Eames strips off the rest of Albion's clothing and pulls him onto the bed next to Arthur.
Eames' next move is apparently to pull Arthur up onto his knees and into a deep kiss. They lean across Albion's body, balancing each other's weight. Eames pulls Arthur's vest off and undoes Arthur's fly. Arthur follows suit, pushing the suspenders from Eames' shoulders and reaching for the button of Eames' trousers as well. The kiss doesn't last long enough, in Arthur's opinion, before Eames pulls back and his heavy hand on Arthur's neck urges him down towards Albion's cock.
Albion is hot in his hand; just barely wet enough to slick Arthur's thumb when he swipes it over the head of Albion's cock. Eames' hand pushes gently on Arthur's neck and Arthur bends down to suck Albion into his mouth. He takes Albion deep, until he can feel Albion hit the back of his throat. He enjoys the throaty moan Albion makes because of it.
Arthur alternates between sucking and licking up Albion's shaft. Eames sucks a path of kisses down Albion's body, leaving little red marks over Albion's ribs and stomach until he's face to face with Arthur, biting at the juncture of Albion's hip and thigh. Then Eames forces Arthur to share. As a team they take a swipe up Albion's cock. Their tongues both swirl around his cockhead, teasing at each other until they come together for a licking kiss. Then Eames licks back down, Arthur following soon after.
"God, that's beautiful," Albion gasps when they do it again.
Arthur can feel Eames' smile as their tongues dance together. Eames tastes like salt and skin, but there's still a hint of citrus lingering underneath it all. "I want to watch him fuck you," Albion says. He's speaking to Arthur "I want you to ride him."
Eames moves to grab the lube, but he spares a glance that Arthur reads as a question. This isn't what they do. Eames has always been the bottom between them. Not that it was a thing, really, it was just what they'd fallen into.
Arthur nods subtly. Eames grabs a condom as well and he lies back on the bed. Arthur crawls over Eames body until both of his knees rest beside Eames' hips. He lowers himself and kisses Eames slowly. It's less frantic than before, unhurried and sensual and sexy. Arthur can ignore that Albion is watching them and focus instead on how Eames' hands reach between their bodies, around Arthur's balls to press at Arthur's ass. Arthur spreads his legs and leans forward more.
Eames' fingers toy around his entrance. They press but don't enter, not yet. He's letting Arthur get used to it, which Arthur doesn't need; he fucks plenty of men. But they haven't done this before, so Arthur doesn't say anything. He lets Eames take his time, happy to suck at Eames' neck, lick up the tendon in his throat in the meantime.
"Ready?" Eames quietly asks.
Arthur pulls back enough to see Eames' face, his eyes glittering with blue and green eye shadow, the lashes long and painted black. Arthur smiles and says "Yeah," but it comes out as little more than a gasp. Eames kisses along the column of Arthur's throat as his fingers push inside. Arthur groans with it.
It's just one finger at first, but Eames quickly adds two. They don't have time to draw this out longer, the way Arthur does when he fingers Eames. Albion wants them to fuck and that's what they are aiming to do. Arthur tilts his hips for a better angle when Eames' adds a third finger. It's a little too shallow from this position to do more than just stretch him, but it still feels good.
With three fingers in, Eames begins to spread his fingers apart, slowly stretching Arthur open. "I'm ready," Arthur says after a minute. Eames pulls his fingers free, which makes Arthur wince and sigh out unintentionally. He's surprised when he feels the fingers replaced. Albion apparently had changed position and Arthur hadn't noticed. At least his fingers are slick, and Arthur no longer feels empty.
Eames tears open a condom packet and slides the rubber over his cock with two hands. He slicks himself up as Albion continues to thrust his fingers in and out of Arthur's body. Arthur can feel sweat starting to dampen his temples. He can feel it gathering along his spine. He's burning with desire, with the effort of holding himself still over Eames' body as Albion toys with him.
Finally Eames is drawing Arthur forward, lining his hips up to meet Eames' cock. Albion pulls his fingers out and Arthur is only empty for the split second it takes for Eames to slide in. Arthur sinks down on Eames' cock, feeling the size of it stretch him even more than fingers could. He feels wonderfully full, just shy of too much. He's lucky that Eames cares, that Eames used so much lube, that there isn't a burning, like with some of his careless customers. It feels right; it feels good and Arthur lets all of his weight down until his ass is flush with Eames' hips and their skin touches.
Rocking back experimentally, Arthur twists his hips. He rolls them forward, feeling out the way Eames' cock moves inside him. He searches for the perfect pressure and finds it when he sits up on his knees. The head of Eames' cock glances off of Arthur's prostate and he sinks down again, rolling his hips forward when he bottoms out. Then he does it again, and again, and faster.
Arthur's head is floating again, from alcohol or sex-haze. He feels high, and oversensitive and so fucking exhilarated. His cock bounces off of Eames' abdomen every time he drops himself down and a small pool of his precum beads on Eames' skin. It's probably the best time he's ever been fucked, the only time it has seemed right. It feels natural, riding Eames cock, working himself on it, taking his pleasure from Eames and giving it back with a clench of muscle and a snap of his hips.
And then Albion interrupts his reverie by wrapping a hand around his cock. It's unexpected enough to stutter Arthur's rhythm, but Eames grabs onto his hips and thrusts up off of the bed to force it back. Albion strokes along Arthur's cock, Eames fucks up into him, and all Arthur can do is come, long white streams of semen over Eames' chest and Albion's fingers. His breath chokes and he gasps and shudders until there is nothing left inside of him, until his stomach clenches and he has to pull Albion's hand away.
Eames takes Albion's hand and draws it to his mouth. He licks Arthur's seed away. After a minute, Arthur pushes off of Eames, feeling empty again as Eames slips out of him. He lies on the bed, exhausted.
"I want to fuck you," Albion says to Eames.
Without waiting, Albion moves back and then pushes a finger inside of Eames. Eames grunts, not objecting. Arthur can see the concentration on Eames' face as he forces himself to relax. Arthur sits up at that and pulls Albion's hand from Eames' body. Albion is about to protest before Arthur shoves him forward, forcing him to straddle Eames' ribcage. Eames grabs Albion's hips, pulling him forward until Albion's hard cock rests against his lips.
Eames sucks Albion down and Arthur moves in behind Albion, slicking his fingers with lube and slowly teasing Eames open. He takes his time, scissoring Eames with two fingers for minutes before adding another. He curls his fingers up, searching for Eames' prostate and when he finds it, Eames moans around Albion's cock, which causes Albion to moan as well.
"Enough," Albion doesn't quite hiss—he's too fucked out to be commanding. He shimmies back unsteadily. Arthur hands Albion a condom, which he's already opened. Albion puts it on and Arthur pours a generous amount of lube over Albion's cock before fisting it to spread it. Then he lets Albion line himself up and enter Eames, who tilts his head back and groans.
Eames exhales in huffs and can't keep the moans from escaping his throat as Albion fucks him. Arthur bends down to steal some of Eames' sounds. He kisses Eames softly scratching through Eames' hair as his other hand continues to pet over Eames' body.
Albion's thrusts grow harder, faster, and Arthur knows that he getting close. He sits up and turns, bending over Eames' stomach to take Eames' cock into his mouth. Albion's hips move against his head. He sucks Eames just how he knows Eames' likes it as Albion fucks him. And when Eames comes, Arthur swallows.
Two weeks after their encounter with Albion, Arthur is proud of himself for not getting angry or jealous. He was never meant to be a prostitute. He knows it's their job to sleep with people, but the possessiveness he feels over someone he loves isn't something he can help. Most of the time he can block it out. His rational mind prevails. But sometimes, especially in new situations, his instinct wins out.
Arthur thought that the encounter would set it off, that he would regret allowing their love life to become indistinct from the job. But he can't regret coming on Eames' cock, finding out how perfect it felt to have Eames inside him, how Eames' face looked below him. Even with Albion right next to them, it was different. That moment was Eames' and his own.
The experience actually makes work easier. He's less angry when Eames leaves with other men, knowing that what they have can't be corrupted by simply by adding another person into the mix. The relief of that stress has bled over into Arthur's interactions. Ariadne has asked, more than once, if he's feeling all right. Mal, after demanding to know what had made him so disarmingly happy, simply commented with, "Finally. You two are meant for each other. I don't know why you worry so," as she patted his face and gave him a peck on the cheek.
Still riding the high of relief, Arthur stretches, preparing to take the stage. He presses his face to his knee, one leg stretched far behind him in the splits. Then he alternates, muscles relaxed and ready.
Arthur dances, feeling invigorated and he works his ass off trying to rile up the crowd with the help of a few other performers. He improvises, pulls a few of the dancers into a slow, full body grind, makes his way to the front of the stage to flirt with the crowd. When he spots Eames on the floor, Eames is in a booth again, pressed up against some young thing Arthur has never seen before.
Eames' mark is pretty, very pretty. He's all cut glass: shining, crystal eyes and sharp cheekbones. He's thin and well dressed. Arthur finishes his routine, changes quickly, and hopes that Eames didn't leave in the meantime. He finds that Eames is still in the booth, his arm wrapped around the man's shoulders as he smiles, his fingers tracing along the sleeve of the man's upper arm.
Ariadne steps up beside him, her eyes following his gaze towards Eames' booth. "Can I get you a drink?" she asks, turning her eyes towards him. He ignores her and demands, "Who is he?"
Arthur knows that Ariadne knows who the man is. She knows each regular's favorite drink by heart, that Mr. Thorne is supposed to be on vacation but is only staying in a hotel up the road, and that Mr. Douglas has a baby on the way. She makes it her job to learn something about everyone who steps through the door and she's shares what she knows freely. Any advantage or insight to a mark means more money. The workers tip her out for her efforts.
"That is Robert Fisher," she says. Arthur snaps his head around with a disbelieving look. Ariadne turns her face up towards his, her eyes wide and earnest. "Honest, to God, that is the Robert Fisher."
"What is he doing here?" Arthur asks. It's a rhetorical question so Ariadne doesn't answer. "I'm going to go talk to Saito," he says. "Let Oliver know I'll be delayed, but to keep a drink waiting for me." Ariadne nods and slips away, presumably to speak to Arthur's regular. Arthur stares at Eames and Robert for a moment longer before tearing himself away to seek out Saito.
Arthur finds him upstairs, having a drink with a few of the high rollers. The gambling tables are a new but welcome attraction to the brothel. They draw in more than the lonely men. They draw in the wealthy as well as the stupid. Saito's business is suffering. The government is cracking down on all things vice, as talks of revolution and protest become more than just idle chatter. The government targets anywhere where people gather and Saito has only managed to remain open through strategic alliances and threats.
Saito is deceivingly relaxed as he laughs along at the men's jokes. Saito always carries himself with a sense of superiority, a sense of power; even those in a position to ruin him defer to his strong presence. It helps that Saito has a ruthless reputation. Being feared will get you many things in life. But in keeping his business afloat, he has dented his outward appearance with friendliness and leniency, however fake that might be. It doesn't suit him well.
Arthur waits patiently on the periphery until Saito stands, excusing himself with a small gesture of his hand before turning briskly and walking away. As he approaches Arthur, Saito's look is dark. "Arthur," he greets. "May I help you?"
"Robert Fisher," is all Arthur says. Saito pauses briefly at the top of the stairs, gaging Arthur's tone. Arthur swallows nervously, but continues. "Did you send Eames to him?"
"I have many engagements to uphold, Arthur. This is wasting my time."
With that, Saito descends the stairs. Arthur glares at the wall before taking the stairs as well. His first stop is Yusuf. He orders a shot of bourbon—straight up—and downs it without tasting. His eyes are already on Eames and Robert and his hands clutch the glass a little too tightly.
"What do you know?" he asks when he gives the glass back. Yusuf shrugs and tilts his head to the side without answering. Yusuf knows as much as Ariadne does. Arthur glares as Yusuf mixes a drink for another table.
"Friend, you do not want to get involved in this," Yusuf says as he leans on the bar. They both look at Robert and Eames across the room.
"Maurice Fischer runs the biggest casino in town, so why is his son even here?" Arthur turns to Yusuf, putting the view of Eames and Robert to his back. He knows what comes next after that move. Yusuf gives him a sympathetic look.
"Arthur, there is nothing good to come of you worrying over this." He sets out two drinks on the counter and rinses his tumbler. "Let Eames handle it. If you get involved and if things go pear-shaped, Saito will not be pleased. He has leverage if Robert is here of his own will. He will need to keep Robert close if he's not."
"So we don't know why he's here?" Arthur turns back to the booth. Ariadne swings by, picking up the two drinks and setting them on her tray. Arthur doesn't see the look she shares with Yusuf. He's too busy watching Eames kiss the son of Saito's rival, wondering how much trouble Eames is getting himself into.
Eames doesn't come back to the room that night. Arthur can't sleep and the emptiness is overwhelming. He wanders the hall to Mal's room, hoping that maybe she is still awake, that he can listen to her through the door, hear her tell Ariadne stories of love and escape. He could listen to her voice for hours, low and gentle as she recites from memory or makes things up. He wishes the stories were true, but that's not how the world works.
If Arthur had a way to take him and Eames away, he would. He'd get them out of this life, away from the city even. It would be just the two of them, in a cottage somewhere, with green, rolling hills and a forest a few miles beyond. There would be only one road in, and they would be the only ones to use it. No one would demand their time, demand their bodies. They could live in peace, together, for the rest of their lives.
When he gets to Mal's room, the door is cracked. The light is on and Arthur can hear Mal humming. It's low, barely audible, the melody of some lullaby, a half-forgotten chorus of comforting sound. He sneaks a peek in and can see Mal sitting on her bed, Ariadne's hair is in her lap and she seems to be sleeping. Mal looks up suddenly, catching sight of him in the doorway. Arthur holds stock-still but Mal gives him a small, sad smile while she continues humming. She gestures for him to enter.
Arthur opens the door and walks slowly over to the bed, sitting down on the edge with care, as to not wake Ariadne. He watches Mal's fingers sweep through Ariadne's hair, the silky strands of it wrapping around her fingers. Mal starts to sing.
♫ "There once was a time when I was a girl, that darkness hung in my sky. I was old before I learned to be young, stone cold till I learned how to cry." ♫
Arthur sighs and lies down, curling his body around Ariadne's, his head at her shoulder, right next to Mal's knee. He lets Mal's voice wash over him, blocking his thoughts out. It's a sad song, like so many are, but it comforts him nonetheless.
♫ "And the weeds in the ground have grew up through my skin. It's taking a lonesome girl's heart. I will go where the stolen roses grow, to forget that I have fell apart." ♫
Ariadne stirs when Arthur shifts to a more comfortable position. He pulls himself to her, wrapping an arm over her hips. Mal's other hand weaves into his hair, soothing. This is the closest Arthur has had to a family in many years. She strokes the two of them as they drift into sleep. Arthur's isn't easy. He twitches when his thoughts wander, afraid of letting himself down into the dark abyss of his subconscious. He doesn't know what time he finally sleeps, finally finds something deep and dreamless. All he knows is Mal's words, sorrowful and yearning.
♫ "The thorns on the roses cut through my skin. The vultures flew down and then pecked. What lay on the surface was a tiny crack and below was a gigantic wreck. So I held my head down and I dealt with the blows, in hope that I'd soon be free, to go where the stolen roses grow, to forget all the bad memories." ♫
Robert starts to come every Monday, as if the brothel—as if Eames— is the only thing that steels him for the week ahead. After month of empty Monday nights spent in Mal's room, Arthur decides to suggest a plan to Eames. It's Sunday, and Robert should come in tomorrow. He wants to suggest something like they had with Albion, where Eames introduces Arthur as another player in the game. He gets a few sentences into his proposal, his hand moving in soothing circles over the muscles of Eames back, before Eames shuts him down.
"He's not here for that," Eames says simply. Arthur swallows the rest of his words and they lay silently on the bed.
Eames turns over, facing Arthur and wraps an arm around Arthur's waist. "Let me take care of him, yeah?" he says, and he kisses Arthur's jaw. Arthur looks at the clock, watching as the hands tick by the seconds, the minutes, as Eames' breathing evens out to the deep, sucking breaths of sleep.
The next night Arthur busies himself with clients. If he can remain distracted for the entire night, involved with whoever is paying, he can ignore Eames and Robert as they flirt in the corner. He can ignore the way Eames' foot trails a path up Robert's shin and the way his body molds to fit Robert's perfectly.
He takes a man to the back room for a quickie. Then, when he's back on the floor, he gets a rare surprise when Christina Ruiz, wife of Hernando Ruiz, heir to Ruiz Firearms and Ammunition Manufacturing, snags him as he passes her booth.
"Arthur, love, long time no see," She says as she pulls him into a kiss. Her dark hair is pulled back in loose curls and her dress plunges low, revealing the pale skin of her chest and the small swells of her breasts.
"Christina," he laughs when they break apart. "Hernando must be in trouble."
She pouts prettily but it falters into a smile quickly. "You know me too well," she says.
"So what is it this time?" Arthur turns his voice conspiratorial. Christina tosses her head back with a laugh.
"Hernando is off to the tropics for two weeks and left me behind, the bastard. I'm all alone in my big house, with no one to hold me. Or to fuck me senseless."
"I don't believe you are all alone for a second, Christina. I hope that your bodyguard is trustworthy? I do not want to end up in a ditch somewhere."
"Arthur, you know very well I wouldn't be here if I did not trust Aurelio there," she nods to the corner where a stern looking enforcer in a suit stares distractedly at the dancers on stage. "He's happy to be here as well," Christina continues, "If I get to play, he gets to play too." She strokes a finger down Arthur's neck.
"How much playing are you in the mood for? Shall we get a few drinks?" He asks, though he knows what her answer will be. Christina is always direct. She knows exactly what she wants.
"Mmmm. I've had a few, waiting for you. I think we could move this on, or have you missed me? Do we need to get re-acquainted? Are you going to ask me about the business?" She smiles and recites a mock conversation, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "You say, 'Oh Christina, how are you fairing in this downturn?' I laugh and say 'I'm doing well. I guess there's nothing like a possible revolution on the horizon to revitalize business in arms and ammunition.' You ask me how my husband has been and I say, 'Very busy; It's good to have him out of the house.' Insert some polite laughter, etcetera, etcetera."
She rolls her eyes and Arthur shakes his head and chuckles. He takes her hand, kissing her knuckles before she slides her legs off the booth to stand. Escorting her with a palm to her lower back across the floor, Arthur doesn't spare a glance for Eames or Robert as he goes.
He's lucky that the nicest suite is open. Christina is direct, but that doesn't mean she'll settle for one of the quickie stalls. She had once said to him, "I don't fuck unless there is a bed in the room. You can do me up against the wall, for all I care, but I want to have the option of laying down after." He had taken that to heart.
As they enter the room, Christina pulls her hair up higher and taps her shoulder, signaling for Arthur to remove her dress. Arthur slides up behind her to unzip it, planting soft kisses to her shoulders and neck as the fabric slides off of her shoulders. She steps out of it gracefully and Arthur is pleased to find that though she isn't wearing a bra, she's wearing stockings and a garter. His hands rest on her hips, barely touching the lace of her panties. She smells like vanilla, jasmine and sandalwood. Arthur kisses the side of her neck, brushing the hair away from her ear before pressing a kiss the skin directly behind it. He can feel her skin break out into gooseflesh as his breath ghosts over her sensitive spots. Cocking her head to the side, she speaks to him over her shoulder.
"You have far too much clothing on, Arthur."
Arthur smiles against her neck. "Care to help me with that?" he whispers.
"Oh no," She says as she turns around. "I want to watch."
Arthur steps back, undoing his tie—he always does well on nights when he wears a suit, something about it drawing people in—and tossing it onto a chair. He slips his jacket off and folds it neatly over the arm of the chair; he doesn't have the money to get it pressed properly. Then he undoes his modest cufflinks and the buttons of his waistcoat. Christina sits gracefully on the bed, watching him the entire time.
After slipping the vest off, he starts on his shirt buttons and Christina speaks up, though quietly. "Let me." Her posture is perfect as she balances on the edge of the bed, quickly freeing every button from its hole as Arthur bends over her. She pulls the tails of it from his trousers and he removes it from his shoulders as she tilts her head up for a kiss.
She tastes like lipstick and like liquorice from her drink, Absinthe, or Sambuca maybe. With his arms freed, Arthur reaches out to cup a breast in his hand, letting his palm warm her skin, his thumb just shy of swiping over her nipple. Christina lets out a small stunned sigh but rallies with a bite to his lower lip. She tips back onto the bed, pulling Arthur with her. Arthur kisses her fiercely, deeply, and she fights him with her tongue and teeth. It's a struggle for control he knows he'll lose, but enjoys anyway.
A tight hand to the back of his neck is all the warning he gets before she hooks a leg over his calf, pops her hip and rolls him over. "Still wearing too much clothing," She says with a wicked smile as she sits on his thighs. Her hands find his fly and she opens it quickly, rising up on her knees to pull them down. He lifts his hips to help and she takes his briefs with them in return. As she pulls the fabric from his feet, he stretches in the bed, pulling air into his lungs and arching his back.
"Tease," Christina laughs and Arthur grins. She's back on top of him in quickly, straddling his hips and grinding her lace panties over his cock. "You don't get to come until I do," she says.
"When is that ever not the case, Christina?" he asks, "Any more rules tonight?"
"I'm feeling lenient, for once. Just make me come, Arthur. I have missed it."
Arthur tips her over on the bed, kissing her neck and her collarbones, stroking his fingers over her exposed skin to raise the hair with chills. He bends down to suck her nipple into his mouth, pulling the nub of it between his teeth for pressure, but without biting. He licks around it and sucks on it again. His other hand slides up to thumb over her other nipple, getting it to peak under his fingertips.
He gets up on his knees and trails kisses down her body, sliding down the bed until he crawls over her thigh to spread her legs and sit between them. His hands smooth over the skin of her stomach, her hips, her thighs, then back up, all the way up until he cupping both breasts again. She settles into the bed more, wiggling her hips a little to get more comfortable. Arthur's hands circle over her body, warming trails across her skin. He feels where the swell of her breasts meets the top of her ribs. He feels her heartbeat underneath her sternum, the steady breathing of her lungs. He feels the flex of her stomach. She smiles and hums as he touches her.
After relaxing her into the bed with his massage, he deftly unhooks her garters. His fingers make their way up her hip inner thigh to pet her wet heat through her panties. They're slightly damp where he presses in, and he kneads her through them. Then he snags the top of them and pulls them down, sliding them over her thighs when she lifts her hips and then over her ankles. He leaves the garter on, but pushes it out of the way, bending down to kiss her thigh then to lick his way in.
He uses the flat of his tongue to wet the entirety of her vulva, to glide over her clit. She hums her pleasure and he does it again. Circling his tongue around her entrance, then up again over her clit. He licks and licks until she's writhing, trying to grind harder onto his mouth. Then he wets two fingers and slides them inside her, his face still pressed against her mound. He sucks at her, takes her labia into his mouth, sucks on the hood around her sensitive nub.
Arthur circles his finger inside of her, pressing up, undulating them while barely withdrawing. He stimulates her with pressure, give and take, up and down and around and never pulling out more than a centimeter. His free hand continues to slide over her skin, over her torso, up as far as he can reach to cover her breast. He squeezes her nipple between his index and middle finger as he swirls his tongue over her and curls his fingers inside. Christina gasps with it and her legs shake. She rolls her hips, trying to push his fingers deeper, but they are already fully inside.
He doesn't stop, not until she's whimpering and stuttering. "Fuck, Arthur, it's not. It's not enough," she whines. He scrambles for a condom. His dick is achingly hard. There's a wet spot on the sheets from where he'd been absently grinding into the bed.
Christina grabs the condom from him so that he doesn't have to remove his fingers from inside her. He keeps them going, never stopping them moving as she rips the packet open. Only when she holds the rubber out does he stop, pulling his fingers free. They are wet with her. He rolls the condom on and grabs the lube, slicking himself quickly before he moves to align his hips with hers. He pushes in until he's fully seated and she moans, her hands grabbing at his thighs as he holds her legs. He stays deep inside of her for a moment before withdrawing a little then pumping back in. He circles his hips, keeping himself seated and she pants out a few pleased breaths. He does this until she's moaning on every upsweep, until she asks him to move dammit. And then he does, still slowly, sliding in and out of her.
He sits back and steadies himself on his knees, placing a hand to her pubis, feeling her hair beneath his fingers. His thumb slides lower, putting pressure on her clit and he circles it slowly, in time to his thrusts. Her panting changes to high ohs and she bites her lip in concentration, coming up on her elbows to watch him. Soon she's shaking again and whining, and her brow is furrowed and she looks angry and happy at the same time.
Arthur's grip on her hip tightens and he makes his thrusts just a little deeper, rubs her clit a hair harder and she falls back to the bad with a cry. Her muscles contract around him as she comes and he slows, still fucking her but letting her come down from her orgasm. She whimpers when he moves and she shakes a few times.
When she opens her eyes, Arthur bends to kiss her, and she breathes against his mouth, trying but failing to seal their lips together. "Ready?" he asks after a moment. She nods and he picks up his pace again. He starts deep, circling his hips until she's close again. Then he ramps up the pace, feeling his orgasm waiting to burst forth and hoping that she'll come before he loses control. She doesn't. He can't hold back any longer and he comes, filling the condom inside her, crying out with the force of it. But he knows that she's so close. He fucks through it, oversensitive and gasping, almost to the point that it's painful, until she falls over the edge again.
He very nearly collapses on top of her but catches himself on an elbow and breathes into her neck. They lay for a while until they can both think again, sweat-slick skin sliding together as they breathe. Arthur sits up and kisses Christina again, then rolls to the side.
Christina laughs, sated and pleased and her voice is like a bell when she says, "Fuck, Arthur, you're my favorite."
They fall into a fit of laughter until Christina rolls over, her dark hair falling over her shoulders as she looks at him. "We could do so much damage together," she says.
Arthur smiles. It's the same thing she always says, because it's harmless. They both know that they aren't meant for this. Arthur loves Eames, Christina does actually love her husband, and she's far more maintenance than he has any patience for, which she readily admits to. Not to mention that her husband would murder them both. She sighs, and her lips turn into a pout for the briefest moment, a rare moment of genuine self-pity.
"He'll be back soon," Arthur says. She half smiles at him.
"I know," she says. Then she sits up and stretches her arms over her head. Arthur takes in the view, her glistening skin, and the flush of red still running down her neck. "Help me dress?"
Arthur helps secure the backs of her garters after she pulls her panties on. Then when she slips into her dress, he zips it up. She re-applies her lipstick in a small mirror on the wall as he dons his pants and shirt. "You look damn good in a suit," she says, looking at him through the mirror.
"I know," he replies. He doesn't put his tie or his vest and coat on.
After she's done he leads her back to the floor where her bodyguard sits at a table. His collar is rumpled and he looks far less uptight than before and Christina smiles at him knowingly. "Thank you, Arthur," she says with a kiss to his cheek. "Until next time?"
"Always," Arthur says and he watches her go. He spares a glance to the clock and is a little surprised to see the late hour. The club is near empty and Ariadne appears to be changing out her tips while waiting for the last of her tables to clear.
Arthur decides that he's done for the night, no reason to pull back a straggler for little money, especially since he can't see Eames on the floor anymore and his goal of distraction was successfully accomplished. He turns to return to the back, to clean up the room and collect his coat before turning in.
When Arthur steps into the back, he heads for the suite but pauses outside of another when he hears the distinct, deep timber of Eames' voice coming from inside. Then he hears laughter, Eames' and another, then a muffled moan.
Arthur's heart stops in his chest and his hand is on the door handle before he even realizes what he's doing. He has the door cracked, and fuck, he hopes he was quiet because he doesn't know what he'll say if they catch him. He has no excuse. With his hand still clutching the knob, Arthur listens. He holds his breath, waiting for someone to ask, "Who's there?"
It seems unnaturally silent for a brief second, but then Arthur hears a soft moan—not Eames, he knows every sound that Eames makes—and his heart hammers back to life in his chest. There is a gasp, followed by desperate, inarticulate sounds, then Arthur hears Eames quietly grumble, "Bloody beautiful," and he can't keep standing there listening, he needs to see.
He shifts so that he can peek into the door and catches sight of Robert sprawled facedown on the bed. His pale skin is bright against the plum-colored blankets. Eames is kneeling beside him, one hand stroking over the curve of Robert's ass as the other slowly fingers him open. They're at a perfect angle for Arthur to see the way Eames bends down to kiss Robert's spine.
Arthur closes his eyes and breathes. It hurts, everything in his chest hurts. It's worse, knowing how gentle Eames is with Robert. Arthur would never wish pain on Eames, ever, but right now he wishes that Robert was one of the regular assholes, abusive and uncaring so that Arthur would know that he didn't have to worry about being left behind. And maybe it's worse seeing Eames work Robert open, knowing not what it feels like to have Eames inside him, wondering if Eames has always been a top and Arthur had simply never noticed. He's wondering if Eames has found someone better.
He knows that it's unfair. It's Eames' job. Arthur was just with Christina, which is the same, but when Arthur opens his eyes, his vision is blurry with unshed tears. He hadn't realized they'd been building up. Eames and Robert have changed positions, Robert is up on his knees and Eames is holding him against his body. They're kissing, slowly, lazily, with eyes closed, as if they have all the time in the world. They do, they have so much more time than Eames and Arthur can have. They don't have to steal it. They don't have to fight the lifestyle to eek out something better.
The feeling of hollowness, of dread and cold spreads over Arthur's body. It feels like his heart is being torn out and his nerves have been exposed, and he'll collapse onto the floor and simply cease to live. But it's worse than that, because he knows he not dying, and the pain won't go away.
Eames pushes Robert back down onto the bed and somewhere between Arthur's life shattering before his eyes and reality slamming back to him full force, Eames has grabbed a condom and he has pushed himself between Robert's thighs, and Arthur can't watch anymore.
Arthur doesn't bother closing the door when he turns away. He runs away. He dashes down the hall and into the bathroom and he's on his knees in his suit, in the bathroom that twenty people share and he's dry heaving into the toilet. He's shaking and coughing and nothing is in his stomach. The taste of bile makes him dry heave more.
When he can't vomit anymore he slumps against the wall. His pants are wrinkled, his shirt creased. He's glad he didn't put his tie back on. Arthur sits, with the cool tiles at his back and his hands in his hair as he stares at floor. All he can think is fuck.
"Fuck you, you fucking whore! My money is just as good as these other prick's!"
Arthur's wrist twists in pain; he can feel the bones about to snap. He drops his weight, pulling the man off balance and he twists out of the grip. Before Arthur can rally with an elbow, the man is being pulled away. He's fighting and screaming against someone and Arthur only sees a long arm wrapped around the man's shoulders, blonde hair and a red face.
"Hey, hey, hey!" Arthur's defender yells. "Back off!" The brothel's bouncers swoop in and grab the asshole that didn't like the word no, taking him out of Arthur's defender's hold. The guy sweeps a palm through his hair, and then he turns back to Arthur and offers him a hand to stand up. "You all right?"
"Yeah, that fucking dick … thank you," Arthur says. He draws the, "you," out, not knowing the guy's name. He's new.
"Cobb," the man says. He places his hands on his hips and shifts his weight in an agitated manner.
"Well thanks, Cobb." Arthur swirls his wrist around, feeling for any lingering pain, checking for a fracture. It hurts, but it's not broken. He gives a nod and Cobb nods back, before adjusting his jacket to return to his table. There are drinks spilled on the floor and Ariadne is already making her way over with towels.
"You want security to take care of that guy?" She asks as she kneels and sweeps ice into the rag.
"No. No, I'll go talk to them," Arthur says. He heads for the door. The guy is an asshole, but the guards will fucking kill him if Arthur lets them.
When he returns, the floor is cleaned up. Mal is on stage in a bustier, some frilly panties and thigh highs. She struts around the stage, showing off her legs, shimmying and bending and teasing. Ariadne is back to serving drinks. Cobb is nowhere in sight. He looks around the bar before Yusuf points to the stairs.
Arthur finds Cobb at a poker table, holding his own against some of the more experienced gamblers as he drinks from a tumbler of amber liquid. Arthur approaches and the other players completely ignore him, but Cobb looks up from his hand.
"I'd like to buy you a drink, when you're ready for your next round," Arthur says as he nods his chin to Cobb's glass. One of the other gamblers smirks at the two of them.
"You know, I'll take you up on that, or you could save the drink and introduce me to her." Cobb looks over the railing to Mal, who is down to her panties and a couple pasties on stage. It's one of her more classic routines, a basic burlesque, but it never fails to please. Her skin glimmers with sweat and glitter and her smile is bright. She's cheeky about her tease, flirting with the audience, playing coy. There are cheers when she pops her hips to the side as she struts. Arthur can see why Cobb is interested. She's every straight man's fantasy, a vixen and girl, innocent and wicked, serious and playful.
"Finish your game," Arthur replies. "She'll be on the floor in about fifteen minutes." He heads downstairs and to the back, to give Mal ample warning when she comes off stage.
"You let someone else fight for you?" Mal asks, mockingly as she circles her lipstick onto her lips. She purses them, releasing with a pop sound and turns from the mirror with her arms crossed. "Is he at least attractive? Please tell me your hero was at least dashing."
Arthur scowls. "He's attractive," he says curtly. "I would have just bought him the drink if I didn't think you'd like him."
"Oh, Arthur, did you find me my prince charming?" Her tone is sarcastic, but the glint in her eye is playful, eager. Arthur doesn't say anything. "So what should I wear, you think? Does he seem like he wants a sexpot, or something more elegant?"
"Elegant?" Arthur hedges. Mal pulls a long, purple dress from her rack.
"How about a little of both?" She says, as she slips into the clinging fabric. It's low cut and hugs her body like a glove, but it's long sleeved and classy and she looks absolutely stunning. Arthur nods his approval and offers her his elbow as she slips her heels on. He escorts her out to the floor, leading her up the stairs to where Cobb is just finishing his hand of poker.
"Cobb, this is Mal," Arthur says, presenting Mal. Cobb stands to greet her.
Mal, sly Mal, plays up her accent when she returns Cobb's greeting. "Bonsior, Monsieur Cobb. I hear you saved Arthur from a very nasty black eye or two." She extends her hand and Cobb takes it in his own, brushing it with a kiss.
"Seems to me that Arthur could handle himself. I was merely saving him some bloody knuckles."
"You are new here, no?" Mal asks as Cobb leads her to a booth. Arthur doesn't listen in on their conversation any longer. He makes his way downstairs to find Ariadne and send her up with two drinks. If Cobb turns out to be less pleasant than first appearances, he'll owe Mal for the next week anyway.
Arthur's glad that Eames isn't here tonight. Robert called him out two days ago and he hasn't been back. As horrid as that makes him feel, Arthur's glad that Eames didn't witness the fight. They've been walking on eggshells for the last week, arguing over nothing, and that's probably mostly Arthur's fault. He heads to the back, to take a moment before getting back on the floor and runs into Saito.
"Arthur, I heard you had a confrontation earlier. Is everything taken care of?" Saito's tone is cool and businesslike.
"Yes, everything is fine," Arthur replies. His words are clipped. Saito couldn't care if Arthur was injured, so long as he could still work, so long as there wasn't damage to property or damage to the business' reputation.
"Good. I expect to see you on the stage then?"
Arthur nods, gritting his teeth. Saito retreats to his office, his two personal guards following behind him.
The rain hasn't stopped for six days. The entire city is drenched and muddy but the constant stench of piss and shit and rotting garbage has washed away. There's a bucket in the middle of the room catching water from the leaking ceiling that Arthur has to empty every few hours or it will overflow onto the floor.
The entire mood of the club is depressed. The entire city is downtrodden, people fighting their way through flooding streets. Everything is littered with trash. There are soggy fliers for the resistance mixing with disintegrating propaganda from the government. All of it gathering into sopping wet piles of muck at the mouths of the sewer drains. The government is desperate to suppress opposition, to regain control of the city. Vice squads have been cracking down viciously. Two bars—friends of Saito's,—have been raided in the last week. The police are not delicate when invade, leaving broken windows and destroyed furniture in their wake.
Stupidly, Arthur thinks, the government has banned alcohol, trying to enforce strict morality. Saito is suddenly feeling more of a strain on his business. He is well connected with the black market, so his alcohol supply isn't completely cut off, but he has to pay high prices to stay afloat and he has to hire a runner for deliveries. Arthur instantly dislikes Nash.
Yusuf has moved his bar to the hidden basement below the club, formerly used for storage, and has set up a nice den of sorts. Nothing but water and juice is allowed on the main floor, but patrons can step downstairs for the real stuff. The performers write more intermissions into their acts, paying the band a little more to vamp, making it easier for guests to enjoy themselves without missing the show. The club runs tight security at the door.
But even with those changes, the brothel is still feeling the hit. Nobody turns away the customers they would in the past. Eames roots out some of his old contacts, the ones he'd vowed never to see again. Some nights he comes back with bruises and Arthur can't kiss them away. They fade from black to purple to green, only to be replaced by more later.
Arthur's gaze is fixated on Eames' wrists as he sits at a table, trying to proposition some reluctant patrons. He's looking at the faint pattern of fingertips left on Eames' skin, covered by concealer, but still there. He's mildly startled when Ariadne thumps him on the shoulder with the heel of her hand.
"Hey," she says. "Snap out of it." He shakes his head, clearing away his distraction and focuses on her. "Saito needs to see you in his office," she says, her eyes narrowed as if she's trying to figure him out. He pats a hand on her shoulder as he walks past her.
"Arthur, please come in." Saito says when Arthur steps into the office. He sets his fork down, wiping his lips in a napkin as he chews a bit of his dinner. He gestures once and his two guards exit, closing the door behind them. Arthur stands near the door, uncertain.
"Please sit," Saito says. "I wish to talk to you about a problem I seem to be having."
Arthur sits uncomfortably, glancing around the office before he turns his attention to Saito.
"Information is leaving this club. Too much information." Saito levels a piercing gaze at Arthur. Arthur refuses to squirm in his seat. He keeps his expression blank if not expectant, waiting for Saito to continue.
"I need you to find this leak, if it is someone on the floor, a patron or an employee. We will not survive if people talk about our business. Everyone here has much at stake."
"Any idea on where I should be directing my focus?" Arthur asks.
Saito shakes his head. "If I knew that, I would not need your assistance," he says. Arthur nods. "That will be all, Arthur. Thank you."
Arthur leaves, mentally listing everyone he can think who is stupid enough, or suicidal enough to open their mouths. He's good at this, though, has always been good at narrowing the field, finding information out. Arthur might not be the most personable, not like Eames is, but he still has his connections, favors he can call in, people who trust him. And Arthur can flirt when he has to. He lays on some extra charm, and works his way through the club methodically.
The brothel fronts as a cabaret—striptease only—but it's an open secret that there is sex to be had. That secret is quickly becoming more closed. In a week Arthur has managed to narrow down the likely mole to a few people. There are only so many connections that lead either to the police, or to a rival business wanting to take Saito down. It could be one of the new patrons, arriving around the time the raids started. There are the delivery personnel, possibly selling clients out for police protection or rewards. And there's Robert.
Robert's father would directly benefit from shutting Saito down. Every single one of Saito's customers wouldn't hesitate to change venues to keep drinking and gambling. But if it's Robert, and if the information is more detailed than the surface operations of the business, then that means Eames is behind it.
Arthur doesn't think Eames would do that to them, all of them. He might not have a problem selling Saito out, but he would never leave Mal and Ariadne out on the street. Arthur hopes that Eames wouldn't abandon him either. But the closer that Eames gets to Robert, the more time he spends away, Arthur can't help but wonder if he matters to Eames at all.
And since he doesn't want to believe that Eames would do that, he focuses first on Cobb, who conveniently came into the picture just before the police started their citywide crackdown.
"What is it?" Arthur says as he writes in his notebook. The only light in the room is from the lamp beside the bed. Ariadne stands just outside the door, peering through the crack cautiously.
"You need to talk to Mal," Ariadne says. Arthur looks up, marking his place in the book with the tassel. Ariadne continues, "I know Saito has you looking for a mole. And you need to know that Mal and Cobb are getting close. I just, I don't want her hurt. I don't want it to be him using her. She deserves better."
"You think Cobb is the leak?"
Ariadne shakes her head. "I don't know," she says.
"You think Mal would tell him anything?" Arthur asks. He mentally goes over what kind of details Mal might have over their shipping schedules or Saito's business partners.
Ariadne looks down the hall and her face falls. "I think Mal would do anything for love. And I can't get through to her. You've always been the most rational one." She looks back to Arthur, worry etched into the fine details of her young face. "She can't keep doing this. Saito will …" She cuts off, choking on the end of her sentence. "You know she doesn't have anywhere else to go if he cuts her loose."
"I'll take care of it," he says. Ariadne nods, then nervously sweeps her hair back from her shoulders. She gives him a small half smile, her fingers tapping on the doorframe before she turns to leave.
When Arthur finally gets a chance to talk to Mal, it's days later. He's observed Cobb a little more, just to be sure. Cobb has been a busy boy since he came to the club. He started nowhere and is now playing at the high roller's tables. He's good friends with a few of Saito's very important customers and he's in the club more than four times a week. That's a lot for one man.
He could have a gambling addiction, but the way that Cobb seems to have specifically inserted himself into the higher social circles, and the fact that he plays conservatively, makes that seem very unlikely. Arthur's knows Cobb is slick. He's seen him interact with dancers, with patrons, with the staff. He's likeable, trustworthy, exactly the type of man you need to run either a con or an investigation. And either of those things is dangerous for Mal.
Arthur heads to her room after a long evening only to be met by Cobb coming out the door. Cobb kisses Mal, deeply, his hands drawing her body to his. She fits perfectly against him and her smile is radiant when he pulls away.
"You know where to find me," she says, and her green eyes sparkle.
"I know where I belong," Cobb answers. He turns, lingering until it the last possible second, when his body has physically moved too far away for them to touch. He gives Arthur a quick nod as he passes. Mal is leaning against the doorframe, her bottom lip pulled up with her teeth, her joy plain as day. It makes Arthur hate what he has to do.
"Mal," Arthur says. Her smile fades when she looks at him. "We need to talk."
"What can I do for you, Arthur?" she asks. Her voice takes lofty note, as if she knows exactly what he's going to say and already doesn't approve of it.
"Mal," Arthur pleads. Mal turns away, entering her room and Arthur follows. She sits on her bed, tucking her knees up and idly toying with a stray thread on her pillow. "You need to be careful. Cobb may not be what he says he is," Arthur urges.
Mal laughs sarcastically. "Oh, Arthur. I am not stupid. No man is what he says he is."
"Have you told him anything?"
Mal glares as if offended. "Non. I have nothing to tell. I am not Saito's little lapdog. What do I know?"
Arthur sighs, his fingers running over his brow in frustration. "I mean it, Mal. Cobb could be dangerous. I'm just saying, you need to protect yourself."
"I'm fine, Arthur." Mal says. She lays down rolls over, turning her back to him.
Arthur wants to fight her, but he knows how useless that will be if she's made up her mind. With a heavy sigh, he leaves her room, to return to his own empty one.
"May I have a volunteer from the audience?" Arthur calls. He spreads his arms in a beckoning gesture. The position highlights his narrow, cinched waist. He is wearing a white dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves and a narrow black tie tucked underneath a black leather waist corset. His bottom half is clad only a snug pair of briefs, a pair of socks held with garters and his shined, leather boots. Behind him dancers dressed in swirling skirts and Spanish trimmed jackets take the stage.
He smiles at the raised, eager hands and the men calling, "Me!" from the crowd. Pacing the edge of the stage a few times, Arthur arbitrarily chooses someone and pulls him onstage. One of the backup dancers brings forth a chair, another a strip of red silk. The music changes into a flamenco beat, the clapping sound of hands and castanets. Arthur walks the volunteer backwards until his knees hit the chair and he's forced to sit. Arthur takes the silk from his dancer and presents it, silently asking permission. The volunteer grins and Arthur moves to tie the man's hands behind his back and to the chair.
The rest of the dancers clap and assume striking, exaggerated poses, sometimes blowing kisses to the crowd. Arthur has the man's hands tied by the time the strings kick in and he raises his arms again slowly until his hands are above his head as he sticks his chest outs. His body strains against the corset. He snaps his fingers and taps the toe of his foot to the beat as the music plays, stepping one foot forward and back, then the other. Arthur's arms rise slowly and their angle is sharp and controlled. His hips turn as his feet cross over each other until he strikes a pose on a clap.
He dances around the seated man, tapping his feet to embellish the music, hitting the short notes as he edges closer only to back away again. He spins, clapping his hands low and bringing them higher, his speed increasing as he goes.
Arthur comes in close again, his hip popping as his knee bends and his boot slaps down. The bound man strains to touch him. Arthur pulls away with a dramatic spin, sailing nearly across the entire stage on tapping feet only to stop at the edge with his head and arms thrown back. He lifts his head, fiercely targeting the seated patron and his hips dip, his knees bend and straighten dramatically as he shuffles his way back. The snap of his fingers and hard clap of his boots make a beat that carries him forward.
Arthur reaches the man and kicks his leg out dramatically behind him. It drops him down to his knee. He's right in front of the man, his head suggestively close to the man's lap and the crowd hoots raunchy appraisal. Arthur draws up slowly, hands reaching above his head and his toes pointed until his body is like a tightly pulled string.
One hand snaps to his front, hovering over his heart as the other goes to his back and he takes an elongated step back, spinning at the terminus of the move to face the crowd. He shimmies and taps his feet, switching his arms and snapping his fingers. Sweat glistens on his thighs, soaks his shirt through. They cheer for him, his intensity, his sharp sexy, power. They long to be the man in the chair, and are thankful that they aren't in the same hollering breath.
His feet carry him back, tapping along until he is near the volunteer again. Arthur reaches out, his face dipping close to the volunteer's face, his hand finding purchase on the back of the chair. Arthur pushes, tips the seat back slowly, forcing the man's feet from the floor. The man's eyes grow wider as he leans more, as is center of balance grows smaller and smaller, propped precariously at the mercy of Arthur's will and the two legs of the chair left on the floor.
Arthur smiles wickedly and leans down, taking the man's mouth with his own. Instantly, the man relaxes. Arthur can feel it in the weight of the chair as he holds it. He smiles against the man's lips and marvels at how a simple kiss could make the man forget that if Arthur lets go, his hands will be crushed underneath him, that his head will slam to the ground. He has all the power in the world over his guest and the man gives in so quickly, gives over so easily.
Arthur pulls away, dropping the chair back down on its legs. The volunteer gasps loudly at the impact, surprised by it. His expression is bereft as Arthur dances away again, as he circles the stage, displaying his body for the crowd to consume. Every gesture of this dance is tightly controlled, and it's no wonder that he chose it for the night. It's the only thing Arthur has been able to control in a very long time.
Near the end of the song a dancer helps to untie the volunteer from the chair and Arthur pulls him up. He forces the man into a simple dance, throwing his weight to urge the man to move. He wraps himself to the man's body and steps back. He spins the man by swinging his arm, then circles around wrap him up in an embrace.
The bewildered volunteer lets Arthur lead until he seems dizzy and unsteady and the music is winding down. Arthur throws the man out for one last spin before snapping him back, pulling them close together. Arthur's hand creates a frame around the man's body, not touching and holding the pose as the strings quiet into the cheering of the crowd.
After a pause Arthur moves, he presents the man to the crowd for cheers, calling out his thank you's and helping the man off stage. He exits himself to change, slipping into a clean, dry version of his same outfit before heading to the floor.
The very first thing he does is head to the poker room to look for Cobb. He finds Cobb there, a drink and a stack of chips in front of him on the table. Cobb is laughing, as are the other patrons at the table and the mood is light. Seeing one of his regulars at the table, Arthur snatches his opportunity to learn more. He takes an open seat, sitting up straight as an arrow due to the corset while flirting with Mr. Ingles, to insinuate himself into the conversation. He asks a few casual questions to several of the other guests before turning his attention to Cobb.
"So Cobb, I never had the chance to get to know you, since you let me thank you for saving me from a fight by bringing you a girl." The other players snort and grin. One of them slaps Cobb on the back in approval. "What is it that you do, Mr. Cobb?"
Cobb smiles nervously, as if he's slightly embarrassed before he asks, "You ever heard of extraction?" Arthur shakes his head no and Cobb continues.
"It's a type of processing, to get exactly what you need from one product to make another, more desirable one. Like vanilla flavoring. It comes from the bean. You have to use a solution, break the beans down until only the taste comes out." Cobb smiles and Arthur instantly knows that Cobb lying, or at least not telling the whole truth, but he can't put a finger on why. He laces his next question with the barest hint of sarcasm. Not enough to put the others off, but hopefully enough that Cobb picks up on it.
"And you do this extraction thing?" Cobb's lips barely flatten from his smile, but Arthur notices the way Cobb's eyes flash with something dangerous.
"I used to have a business, but we didn't do enough of the high end products to stay open with the crash. The rich, they love their perks, right guys?" The other patrons laugh and nod in agreement. "So if you are doing the rare extracts, you always have business. But if you are doing the types of products the regular folks are using, and then they stop buying, well …" he shrugs. "Now I just try to get by on taking money from these gentlemen here."
"And he does a fine job of it!" one of the men laughs. Cobb laughs, but Arthur can hear the hollow note of it.
"Fascinating," Arthur says. He tilts his head until it's resting on Ingles' shoulder and he looks up pleadingly, playing every bit the needy concubine he knows the man enjoys. "Care to let me extract something from you, love?" he asks, his voice dripping with sex.
"My money," Ingles answers sarcastically with a smile, his hand finds a place on Arthur's thigh, though, rubbing slow circles with his thumb.
Arthur grins. "It looks like Mr. Cobb is doing that anyway. At least I give you something in return for it."
"Can't argue with that," Ingles says and he folds his hand. "I will see you gentlemen later." Ingles excuses himself and Arthur throws glance over his shoulder as they leave. Cobb is staring at him, a dark expression marring his angelic features. Arthur returns it with a smile.
Arthur focuses his investigation on Cobb. His gut is screaming that something is off, but most of his inquiries come back with nothing. He finds titles to a now abandoned factory and a declaration of bankruptcy on file at the land clerk's office. But something about Cobb's story isn't adding up. He asks around about Cobb, if he has friends, if anyone really knows him. Nobody had even seen him before he showed up at the club.
The city isn't small, but with the diversity at the club, all of Arthur's connections, somebody had to have heard of Cobb or the company before, and Arthur is coming up with nothing but paperwork. His instincts scream that Cobb is a cop, or a fed: someone that can get the proper paperwork forged, would have a reason to insert himself into the daily business of a business that thrives on illegal activity. But he can't prove anything and it's infuriating.
Then Nash approaches him one night. He slides up as Arthur is standing at the makeshift, basement bar, waiting for a drink from Yusuf. "So, I hear you are looking for a mole," Nash says casually but direct. He has a sense of arrogant pride about him that raises Arthur's hackles. It's careless and dangerous.
Arthur turns to him, giving him an expectant gaze. Nash's arrogance erodes and he clears his throat nervously. "I might have something for you," he says, rubbing at the back of his neck.
Arthur nods, narrowing his eyes threateningly. Nash fumbles to continue as if he thinks he's now wasting Arthur's time and is desperate to hold his attention. "I deliver for Maurice Fischer too," he says.
Arthur's brows quirk up at that. He gestures to Yusuf, waiving his drink off and says, "Alright, follow me." He leads Nash upstairs, across the floor and to the back rooms. He chooses one of the quickie stalls in the back, checking for feet underneath the other doors before closing them inside.
"Spill," he whispers.
"I heard," Nash starts and Arthur claps a hand over his mouth.
"Quietly," Arthur hisses. He pulls his hand away after Nash nods his understanding. At a whisper, Nash starts again.
"I heard something about Robert Fisher, you know his son?" Arthur nods. "Well, seems like Robert wasn't looking to take over his dad's business, right? But recently, recently he's been getting involved. He's been monitoring shipments, going over the records, the finances. He's, he's, you know, getting interested."
"And one of my friends, he's a dealer there—poker. He tells me that Robert's been asking about the gambling specifically, asking how much business his father is losing to Saito and all. But then my friend says that Robert mentioned something he shouldn't have known about Saito. He didn't tell me what."
The only way Robert could know anything is if Eames told him. The sinking, acidic feeling in his stomach returns with a vengeance. "What do you want," he asks. "If you can get me more information, what do you want in return?"
Arthur is staring at the wood behind Nash, the cracks in the paint, the pattern of the grain. His mind is racing, trying to remember everything that Eames did this week, how many times he went out to see Robert, how many times Robert came in. More than usual, he knows. Eames has barely had time for Arthur at all.
He wants to scream, smash his fist into Nash's face, into the wall, into anything at all. His fingernails dig into the skin of his palms as his curls his hands into fists at his sides. Nash just grins at him, apparently unaware of Arthur's murderous mood and taking Arthur's question at face value.
"I want whoever I want, anytime I give you information, free. You cover the cost."
Arthur snaps, he grabs Nash's shirt and shoves him against the wall, spitting with anger he hisses in Nash's face. "Fine, but it has to be useful information. You give me bullshit and I will rip your dick off."
Nash nods frantically. "Yeah man, yeah," he says. Arthur takes a few calming breaths before releasing his hold on Nash.
"Fuck off," Arthur says. Nash squirms from the stall quickly, disappearing into the front room. A solid mass of despair sits like a lead weight in Arthur's chest.
Two days later Saito finds Arthur as he's coordinating music with the house band. "I need to speak to you about something. Join me in my office." Saito doesn't ask, he demands.
A sinking feeling washes over Arthur's body. He swallows and nods, and follows in-step behind Saito. Saito ushers him into the room and gestures to a chair. After closing the door, Saito unbuttons his suit jacket and takes a seat behind his desk. He sighs, eyebrows drawn in apparent annoyance. Arthur waits as Saito sits silently thinking. He wants to tap his foot, or lean the chair back, anything to relieve the tension until Saito speaks.
"I am concerned," Saito starts and he sits back in his cushioned chair, folding his hands in his lap. "About Mr. Fischer."
Arthur keeps his expression carefully blank as he waits for Saito to continue. "Mr. Fischer, as you know, is my main competitor. He was very unhappy about our gambling tables when we installed them. He has tried to persuade me to remove them: negotiating with me, threatening me, and now, I believe, he has sent someone to spy on me."
"Robert," Arthur concludes.
"Yes, and Mr. Eames was doing a decent job reporting back to me."
Arthur's heart flutters with hope that Eames was playing Robert the entire time. Eames had been Saito's tool, infiltrating at the closest level. Eames had been in the Fischer home; he'd been by Robert's side every week. Of course he would be gleaning any kind of information from Robert, anything he said, anything Fischer's staff might mention.
"But Eames hasn't been giving me information for nearly a week now," Saito continues. Arthur's hope shatters. "This is bad for my business. This is not behavior I can tolerate from my employees. I value discretion, but I also value loyalty. You are loyal, are you not?" Saito tilts his head to the side. The question seems rhetorical and Arthur chooses not to answer. "If you have any information, now is the time to share."
Arthur's skin feels tight over his bones. A thread of anxiety worms its way through his veins. He listens for guards outside the door. His eyes dart from the window (too small) to any sort of object he can use as a weapon within his reach. But even he knows that it is futile. Those guards will not take kindly to their source of income being injured or killed. Arthur won't make it out of this room alive if they don't want him to.
"Eames and I have not been …" Arthur starts. "I know less than you do, it would seem."
Saito's shoulders shift, the only reaction he gives until he sighs, looking to the door, then back to Arthur. Arthur's body tenses in anticipation of an attack. But Saito doesn't call for the guards. Instead he says, "See to it that that changes."
Arthur swallows. Saito flicks his hand dismissively and Arthur leaves as quickly as his feet will carry him out the door. The two men stationed outside give him cool looks of disinterest. His stomach turns over in his body, twisted and aching with fear and dread. Arthur doesn't bother working the floor at all.
Ariadne finds him later that night. He's sitting in the shower, letting lukewarm water run over his shoulders. It started hot and will soon be cold and he doesn't care tonight, about anyone else's hot water, he just wants the world to wash away.
Ariadne pulls the curtain open and looks down at him. He turns his head, resting his cheek on his knee to look at her. Water drips from his hair onto his face.
"Out," she says. She holds his towel up wide between her arms. He reluctantly stands, letting her wrap him in it. She pulls it over his head, hands rubbing frantically and messing up his wet hair. When she lets him drop the towel back down, she leans him up against the sink. "Talk to me," she says.
Arthur doesn't know where to start, so he doesn't say anything. Ariadne waits, but her patience runs out. "All right, don't. But at least do something for me then."
Arthur looks up. "I need you to talk to Mal again. She's not taking clients anymore. The only person she sees is Cobb. She hasn't even been on stage in days. I've tried, but she all she did was snidely ask me if I knew what it was like to be a lover. She won't listen."
Arthur sucks in a breath and releases it, his shoulders sagging more. He takes a minute to answer and Ariadne taps her foot nervously while she waits for his answer.
"Okay," he says. "I don't think she'll listen to me either."
"She might," Ariadne says.
Arthur dries himself and dresses in a loose pair of sleep pants. He wanders down the hall to Mal's room and knocks on the door. It takes her a minute to open it, but when she does she invites him inside.
"What do you want, Arthur? Or are you here to tell me to stay away from Cobb again?" Her eyes are like diamonds: hard and cutting.
"You need to work," he says. His throat feels raw, and he knows it breaks as he speaks. Mal's expression softens, but she doesn't give in.
"How can I sleep with other men when I am in love?" she asks.
"Saito will kick you out. What will you do then?"
"I will make do."
"How? You know that the police have all but shut down the street workers. You will not be able to make enough on your own to eat, let alone rent a room, not right now. Mal, you have to work. If Cobb loves you, he will understand."
"Cobb does understand, Arthur. You do not. I cannot sleep with other men when I am in love. I won't."
"You have to. Mal, you have to. Where will you go?"
"I will go with Dom. We will be together, Arthur. Are you not happy for me? You found love. You should understand."
That comment pains him more than she can realize. It's as if she punches him in the throat and he chokes on his words. "Love doesn't mean he won't hurt you," he says. She looks at him sadly.
"Oh, Arthur," Mal says quietly as she reaches out instinctively. He flinches from her but she draws him in anyway. Her arms wrap around his body and he's stiff in her embrace until he can't be anymore. It's too much effort and she feels warm and safe against him. He deflates, body relaxing against her and he rests his head on her shoulder, breathing into her neck.
"You can stay with me tonight," Mal whispers, her hand combing softly through his hair. "We will be lonely together."
He nods and lets her move him to the bed. She sings until he drifts off. He sleeps curled around her for, wishing it wasn't her small body next to him, but needing her all the same.
Tailing Eames is difficult. Eames is one of the most observant people Arthur knows, and though he knows many of Eames' habits and tricks, Arthur doesn't know them all. He knows that he can only spy so long before he is caught.
Eames still won't talk to him when they are alone. Arthur hadn't expected him to, he didn't before Robert, why start now? So Arthur tries to get information on his own. He taps his usual sources. He interrogates the hard gamblers that stop in, the wastes of space that spend every penny on booze, getting themselves kicked out of Fisher's before they come here. They will tell him everything they know for a free suck-job. When he has time, he goes through files of Fischer's history, anything he can scrounge up on the business.
What he learns from Nash is that Maurice Fischer is dying, bedridden. He finds out that, though it's a family business, it looks as if Browning (Maurice's right hand man) is in position to take over instead of Fischer Jr.
Nash says that people think Robert is incapable. According to him, the phrase, Not ruthless enough, came up several times. Arthur wonders what Robert is playing at and what Eames is doing to help him. If Eames is helping him after all. If Robert wasn't going to take over in his father's absence, then why was he at Saito's club? And if he was, why did he wait so long to make his intention known?
Arthur hits a block; he doesn't find anything more than that. He won't, not without Eames' help. He returns to Saito's office, trepidation constricting his lungs so that he has to force himself to breathe calmly.
Magnanimously Saito gestures him in, though it's clear that Arthur is interrupting work. Saito has ledgers strewn across the desk, files and finance sheets. Arthur sits and doesn't delay with his information, as pathetically little as he has.
"I need more time," Arthur says. Saito reads over a document and raises his eyebrows as if Arthur is a huge inconvenience to him.
"No," Saito answers. "We need a more drastic approach. I will arrange something."
Arthur sucks in a deep breath then exhales in preparation. It's his only chance. If he fucks this up, he won't get another opportunity. Eames is out of the building. Saito sent him on a special liaison, a personal request. It's Monday and Robert is in his usual booth. Arthur is in a pair of tight dress slacks with only suspenders. He's taking a page from Eames' book, hoping that Robert will latch on, or at the very least not be put off by it. His eyes feel heavy with glitter and his hands feel restless at his sides. He makes his way through the tables, giving out a few polite hellos as he passes guests on his way to Robert's booth.
"I'm sorry to inform you that Eames is unavailable tonight," he says when Robert takes notice of his presence. Robert's face draws tight for a brief moment, in confusion or disappointment, but he gathers himself quickly.
"Thank you," Robert says politely, as he holds his drink between two fingers. The ice in his glass shakes.
"May I be of service to you?" Arthur asks.
Robert stares at him blankly, dismissively. "No, no thank you."
"At least let me buy you a drink. Keep me away from this lot for a while," Arthur indicates the rest of the floor with a sarcastic smile. "Besides, Saito sent me to entertain you in Eames' absence. He does not wish for your evening to be ruined on his account."
"Yes, Saito had to employ Eames for a personal favor. He apologizes and promises to have Eames back next week."
Robert's face turns to stone, his throat working up and down to swallow. His voice is unsteady when he speaks again. "No … I. No thank you."
When he steps out of the booth, Arthur moves to the side to make room and watches as Robert adjusts his jacket nervously, walking away stiffly. Arthur wonders what that reaction was all about.
"Yusuf, have you seen Nash?" Arthurs swings by the basement during the afternoon. Yusuf is preparing his bar, stocking, doing inventory and checking his fresh ingredients. "I haven't seen him this week."
Yusuf's face goes slack in surprise. "You haven't heard?" Arthur shakes his head and Yusuf sets down the glass he was stacking on top of the others and leans over the bar. "Nash was double selling product, dividing it between businesses and charging the full amount. Cobol caught on, came to Saito to confirm. Saito let two guys from Cobol take him away."
"Shit," Arthur says.
"That's not the worst part," Yusuf continues. He lowers his voice and Arthur leans in to hear more clearly. "Apparently, as they were taking him away, Nash yelled about a mole in the club, that he knew there was a Fed undercover here."
"You think Nash is telling the truth?"
Yusuf shrugs and starts to stack more of his glasses. "He would have said anything and Saito knows that. If there is a Fed, you can be sure that Saito will find him, and anyone who helped him." Arthur stands straighter and drums his fingers on the bar nervously.
"You know something," Yusuf whispers and narrows his eyes.
"No. But I have a hunch. Listen, don't tell Saito I said that. I need to be sure first."
"I am not withholding information from Saito, Arthur."
"That's why I haven't given you any. Just give me a few days, Yusuf. That's all I'm asking. I don't want anyone to get hurt if I'm wrong."
Yusuf grimaces but nods. Arthur pats the bar and turns to go. "Thanks," he says. Yusuf throws up a hand in a half wave of dismissal.
Watching Cobb and Mal is like watching a pair of binary stars. Mal leans away and Cobb leans with her. Cobb goes to get them drinks and Mal looks utterly lost without him, the other half of her gravitational pull gone, leaving her floating in space.
They talk and talk, or they sit and gaze into each other's eyes, or they simply look out onto the floor watching the show as their fingers knit together on the tabletop. They are inseparable. So Arthur observes from afar. He watches as Mal follows Cobb to the poker tables, sits with him and chats as he plays hand after hand. Saito hasn't yet noticed that Mal hasn't pulled nearly half of her usual money.
Cobb is in the club nearly every night, it seems, but he doesn't earn enough at the tables to buy all of Mal's time, and yet Mal is there by his side. Only when Cobb goes home for the night is Mal ever separated from him. Arthur asked her, that night after his conversation with Yusuf, what exactly Cobb and her talk about all the time. What she said wasn't helpful, and he wonders if she was purposefully obscuring the truth.
"We talk about where we want to go, what our children's names would be," she had said. "We would go to Paris," she said. "I want to go back someday. I want to show him."
The direct approach yielded nothing, so Arthur watches them. He listens. He purposefully takes his patrons to the tables next to Cobb and Mal and he has his ears open to the conversation as he entertains his guests.
Cobb corners him one night when he's on his way to get a drink. "You've been watching me," he says. His arms are crossed over his chest and he leans against the bar. He smiles as if it's a joke, but his eyes are hard and assessing.
"I don't know what you are talking about," Arthur answers.
Cobb's posture shifts, he stands more upright, using his height to lean over Arthur, as if he could threaten Arthur. His voice takes a lower pitch when he speaks next. "We need to talk."
Arthur is flippant with his reply. "I don't talk for free," he says.
Cobb's eyes narrow. "Fine," he says, and that does startle Arthur. His face hardens shrewdly, but Cobb presses on. "A half hour, in the back."
Arthur's voice is cold and testing. "What about Mal?"
"What about Mal?" Cobb parrots back to him. It makes Arthur angry, the dismissal, but Cobb's eyes are lying; he really does care. So Arthur shrugs and leads the way. Cobb surprises him and doesn't stop, simply tells Mal to, "Stay here," as they pass her. He follows Arthur straight to the back where they enter the same booth Arthur dragged Nash to.
"I can help you," Cobb says once they've checked that the other spaces are empty and have closed their door.
Arthur sneers at him. "What would I need your help with?"
"You don't strike me as the type to work here the rest of your life. You want out, don't you Arthur? I can do that for you."
Arthur's jaw tightens and a purses his lips to keep from speaking too soon. He knows how to hook a person so he waits for the sell.
"I can get you out of here," Cobb says.
Arthur actually laughs at that.
"I can get myself out, Cobb. It's what I would do after that is the problem. Unless you can magically produce a job for me, which seems a little unlikely seeing as how your company shut down. He says the last bit on a hiss of breath, making it obvious his disbelief of Cobb's story.
Cobb goes silent and seems to weigh what he is going to say next. "I can get you a job."
Arthur stares for a moment, then says, "Fuck you," and reaches for the handle to the stall.
Cobb pushes him away, up against the wall and Arthur only resists breaking both of Cobb's wrists when Cobb says, "I can get Eames out too."
Arthur's goes silent and Cobb pulls his hands away slowly, raising them up in a placating gesture. "If you help me, I can get you and Eames out of here. You won't have do this anymore." Cobb takes a second to gauge Arthur's receptivity then he goes on. "The people I work for have the means to set you up with a job. I've seen you work, I know how good you are at weeding out information."
Arthur scowls, unaware that he'd been being watched as well. Though, he shouldn't be surprised since it is very clear that Cobb is in fact an agent, even if he hasn't said it outright. He would be aware of people who might become wary of him.
"What would you need?" Arthur asks.
"Everything," Cobb says but then quickly clarifies. "We want to put Saito out of business. With me here, I know there is booze, but there's never enough stocked in the bar that we could do more than fine him and confiscate it. We need to know when the full shipment comes in, where he stores it and who his dealer is. And if we can catch them during an event, when he's bound to have ordered more, we could take everyone down. The suppliers, the runners, everyone."
Arthur can think of a few reasons for Saito to set up an event. He could arrange a party, convince Saito to put on a special to draw more people in. He could find out when the booze is set to be delivered and he can get in with the delivery guys, he already has in order to find out information about Cobb, the Fed.
"If I do this, I would need a guarantee," Arthur says. "How do I know you can deliver?"
"Because I can," Cobb says.
"Not good enough, Arthur says.
"You don't have any other choice," Cobb says, and Arthur knows he's right. The city is crumbling. It's only a matter of time before the club is shut down anyway. This might be his only opportunity to get out with more than nothing. Eames has Robert, Robert who has money even if his father's business shuts down.
Cobb takes his silence as a sign and adds, "And because you want it."
Arthur worries his lip and stares at a spot past' Cobb's shoulder. "I can arrange something," Arthur finally says.
Cobb doesn't smile, but his eyes are alight with pleasure and he nods his head up and down. When Cobb leaves, Arthur sinks back against the wall, his head thumping on the wood as he looks at ceiling.
Mal doesn't speak to him all week. Arthur's sure that Cobb told her nothing happened, but forgiveness is a fickle thing with her. He's glad that Cobb really does love her, because Arthur couldn't go through with it if it meant leaving Mal with nowhere to go. He's promised himself he'll take care of Ariadne too. He'll help her, however he can.
He's managed to find out—through a young, arrogant errand boy who runs his mouth too much when he's hip deep in Arthur's ass—who Saito's supplier is. It's an organization that goes by Proclus. Not a family name, Arthur learns. He hears that it is a ruthless company that's not afraid to take out the competition, and that didn't seem to mind losing a runner like Nash who was creating problems with their buyers. Seems nobody misses Nash. Arthur is not surprised.
Arthur is just about casually drop the idea for a large party to Saito when Cobb suddenly disappears. It takes three days to notice. Mal is used to Cobb not coming for a day, maybe two, but after three she starts to visibly worry. After day four, Ariadne tells him that Mal has been asking everyone that Cobb might know if they have seen him.
"Has anybody?" Arthur asks and Ariadne shakes her head. She knows just as much as he does what that fact likely means. Arthur feels like he might throw up. He can feel his future slipping from his grasp, like sand held in a fist, pouring out around his fingers into the wind.
Mal is a mess. At first she holds on to desperate hope that Cobb will return. But days pass and hope dwindles, and Mal pulls into herself like a hermit crab into its shell. She recedes from the world, walks as a ghost amongst the clients, as a shadow amongst her friends. Ariadne stays with her every night, but says that Mal won't speak to her except to ask why Saito would kill him, that she cries silently into her pillow and barely sleeps. It shouldn't be a surprise, what happens, but it is.
Mal disappears a few hours before the brothel opens for the night. Ariadne searches out Arthur, and with a hunted desperation asks him if he's seen Mal.
"No," he says, and her visible panic increases.
"She can't be alone, Arthur," Ariadne hisses. "I don't know what she'll do if she's alone."
They search for her, everywhere. Arthur checks the basement, the back rooms. He checks the storage lockers and bathrooms and the poker tables upstairs. He and Ariadne search the hiding spots behind stage, under the stage, everywhere. It takes them two hours before it even dawns on Arthur to check the roof.
The only access is from the fire escape so he opens the back door and heads down the small alley to the back of the building.
He finds her body sprawled across the alley. There's blood flowing away from her body, tacky-dry on the concrete but pooled against the wall. Arthur turns away from the sight and gasps, "Mal, no, Jesus Christ!"
It smells sweet and coppery. He folds over and vomits, smearing his shoes with his sick. When he recovers enough he goes to her side. Her face isn't the right shape, crushed with the impact of the fall. The building is three stories high, tall enough.
He slips his arms from his jacket. There are tears running down his face. He doesn't bother holding them in as he drapes the fabric over her. Standing becomes an impossible task so he squats next to her and presses his eyes to his knees. He doesn't know how long he stays there for, only that his feet go numb and his knees scream in pain when he finally finds the will to stand.
Arthur can't bear to touch her. He doesn't want to leave her here, alone, but he can't touch her and she needs to be moved. He has to tell someone. He has to get help. So he turns, stiffly, and his hands shake when he turns the door handle. He doesn't know who he tells, but suddenly the room erupts into a flurry of movement. Ariadne is holding him by the arms and trying to catch his eyes, but he doesn't see her. All he can think is, she won't even get a headstone.
Arthur doesn't come back to the world for two days. He's not even sure he eats during that time. He's vaguely aware of Eames holding him, as he clings to him at night to fight the nightmares away. After, he's not even sure that was real or just a manifestation of his desire, a hallucination to keep his sanity when the lights turned off at night.
Being cognizant of the world again means he's very aware of Mal's absence. How she's not on stage, and not at a table. How he doesn't hear her voice at night, singing sad lullabies to Ariadne. How her laugh doesn't break above the din of the crowd and how her smile doesn't light up the room. The performances go on. Saito lets him have some time, but he unsubtly urges Arthur back into work after a few days.
Ariadne left sometime during his haze. He learns that she has family after all. A cousin somewhere that she never wanted to rely on, but he can't blame her for trying now. Arthur feels so alone.
Two weeks go by, and every day is like treading water, trying to stay afloat in the endless sea of sorrow. He goes through the motions, years of practice allowing him to please clients while his brain is elsewhere. Slowly, painfully, he returns to himself and anger blooms inside him. A small coal of rage smoldering in his chest.
He's at a table, smiling and flirting as he hovers on the edge of smashing his mark's face into the table just for existing, when Cobb walks through the door.
It feels like someone drop kicked Arthur into a dream, like time slows down to a crawl and he can tell the moment Cobb realizes that something is wrong by the way his eyes narrow ever so slightly and his jaw tenses. Cobb's eyes lock with Arthurs and Arthur cannot contain his grief. He can't put on an impassive face. Even he's not that stoic. He thinks of Mal, beautiful Mal, her body broken on the concrete and he would let the anger flood him, if he weren't so helplessly sad. He can't hide it and Cobb knows. Arthur can see that he knows.
Cobb drags Arthur from his table, leaving a shocked guest calling after them. He drags Arthur into the back rooms and he shoves him up against a wall. They breathe each other's air, Cobb sucking in gulps of it, panicked. Arthur is desperately trying to control himself, so that he doesn't fall apart again. The burning fire is growing inside of him like kindling; waiting for one breath of oxygen to ignite into flame, overwhelm him in fury, in violence.
"Mal," Cobb whispers, and Arthur can't tell if it is a question of a statement.
"You left," Arthur says. "You left. You left. Why the fuck did you leave?"
Arthur chokes on a sob, and Cobb backs away. He back up until he's across the room, his knees hit a stool and he topples to the floor, landing hard. Arthur anger finally crests and lunges forward on top of Cobb. He grabs Cobb by the shirt and slams his shoulders into the ground. He gets in one good punch across Cobb's nose before his arms give out and he rolls over, shaking on the floor.
"I'll kill him," Cobb says, and it sounds wet. Arthur turns over and he can see blood streaming from Cobb's nose, into his mouth, making his teeth red.
"He didn't do it."
Cobb turns his head, his blue eyes bright in contrast to red smeared across his face. "She jumped," Arthur says.
Cobb looks startled, heartbroken and confused. He looks shattered. He doesn't say it, but Cobb mouths the word why?
"She thought Saito had you killed. She knew who you were and when you disappeared …" Arthur closes his eyes as the memory of Mal's broken form pops into his head and he wills it away.
"He would do that, wouldn't he?" Cobb asks. "He would kill me. He would never tell her and let her go on because she'd earn him more after she got over it. He's just as much to blame for this as …" Cobb doesn't say it, like it physically hurts him to admit that it was his fault, his lack of communication that gave Mal the wrong idea, the worst idea.
"I'll kill him," Cobb repeats.
"Where were you?" Arthur says. He feels exhausted, all the way to his bones, as if lifting his arms would be too much effort. He's staring at the ceiling again and the light, though dimmed, is too bright, too present.
"I was arranging our deal," Cobb says.
Through all his heartache, through the stupor of pain, regret, sorrow, something rational in Arthur takes hold. If he lets Cobb kill Saito, then his future is gone. He can't let that happen. "Killing Saito isn't the best way to hurt him," he says.
"You're too obvious," Eames says from the doorway. Arthur looks up to see him leaning, shoulder pressed to the door. He's only dressed in trousers, but his hair and skin are wet as if he's just been in the shower.
"What is too obvious?" Arthur asks. He stops writing tasks and plans in his notebook and sets it aside. Eames might be the only one who can read it anyway, smart enough to crack the cipher, if he hasn't already. But Arthur is doing all of this for him—for them—so if Eames wants to sell him out to Saito, then it's better knowing now.
Eames' eyes flick to the side and his lips pull into a brief frown. "You and Cobb," he says as he looks around the room.
"What about me and Cobb?" Arthur asks, irritation lacing his words. Eames has no right to be jealous. Cobb has consistently bought Arthur for an hour or so whenever he's in the club. They use the time to talk, to coordinate. And Eames has Robert.
Eames laughs bitterly and his eyes fix on Arthur cold as ice. "You and your cop friend are spending too much time together," he says. "Don't think I'm the only one that's noticed, Arthur."
"Thank you for your contribution, Eames," Arthur scoffs, though he is a little taken aback at Eames' bluntness, how he called Cobb out without hesitation. Eames pushes away from the door quickly and has Arthur pressed to the bed before Arthur quite knows what is happening.
"You are going to get yourself killed," Eames hisses. He's heavy, solid above Arthur and his anger is palpable. Arthur can feel it in the way Eames' muscles tense, in the heat emanating from his body, in the way Eames is gripping his wrists, leaving bruises as he pins them to the bed beside Arthur's head.
"So help me," Arthur challenges.
Eames looks Arthur straight in the eyes, searching for something, Arthur doesn't know what. Eames' body relaxes and he sinks most of his weight on top of Arthur's body, pressing his chest to Arthur's, and he kisses him. He kisses Arthur so deep that Arthur's mind goes fuzzy, dimming with lack of oxygen, with want, with need. It has been weeks since Eames kissed him like this, since he's felt more from Eames than casual comfort.
Eames kisses with a fierce determination that is only disrupted by the sheer emotion that Eames projects into it. He bites at Arthur's bottom lip, searches Arthur's mouth with his tongue. He doesn't let Arthur breathe, barely breathes himself until they both are left gasping. And then he plants tiny kisses over Arthur's cheeks and chin, as if not kissing Arthur while he's paused for air is physically impossible.
Arthur thinks that this, this is what he's fighting for. This is the dream he has. This kiss and more like it. He wants to have Eames with nothing holding them back, nothing in the way. No more nights erasing bad customers. No more nights alone, the other off keeping someone else's bed warm. This is what he wants, Eames, only Eames, and he clings to it with desperation.
Slowly Eames' hard edges melt. He releases his grip on Arthur's wrists to cup Arthur's face gently. Arthur can feel Eames fingers wrap around his neck, perfectly placed at the base of his skull. They don't speak as Eames undresses him slowly. He wasn't wearing much, a shirt which Eames slips over his head, and a pair of pants which Eames pulls from his hips. Eames lays him bare and caresses him, his entire body from head to toe, as if he's memorizing him.
Arthur thinks back to the night—it seems so long ago now—when he was kissing Eames' body, when he wanted to map every stretch of Eames' skin. He remembers how Eames wouldn't look him in the eye, and here he is now, staring Arthur down like he thinks that if he blinks, Arthur will disappear.
Arthur pulls Eames back up for another kiss and his hands wander low on Eames' waists, tugging at his pants. Eames fumbles with his fly and wiggles out of them. Eames grabs a condom from the table and the lube and in no time at all he has slipped it over Arthur's cock and slicked him up. He crawls up Arthur's body again and seizes another kiss, hand reaching back to guide Arthur inside of him.
He sinks down with a muffled gasp that Arthur feels against his lips. Arthur's fingertips go white as he presses them into Eames' skin. Eames rides him fast, hips grinding down, rolling back and forth as Arthur is helpless, barely able to thrust up as Eames pins him to the bed.
Arthur can't block his thoughts out, though. His mind is a cacophony of doubts, of potential failure and regrets. He grasps at the last thread of hope, his hope that he can pull this off, and the idea that this could be the last time he has Eames, Saito will kill him or that Robert will take Eames away. He comes, with tears tracking down his cheeks and Eames relentless above him and his heart thundering in his chest.
As their sweat cools, Eames hand traces slow circles over Arthur's chest. He whispers, "You don't have to do it."
Arthur lifts his head up just enough to look down at Eames face, which is resting on his shoulder. "I do have to. I have to try. I'm doing this so that we can get out of here. So we can have a life."
"What if I told you there is another way?" Arthur sits up on his elbows, forcing Eames to prop himself up as well.
"I've been working on a deal with Fischer," Eames starts and Arthur sighs heavily through his nose. "No, hear me out," Eames goes on. "I'm trying to get Fischer to take over his father's business and he's going to hire me on afterward. It's enough that we can get out."
"And you will be with him? Become his personal concubine?"
"No. I'm getting us out, period. I don't want to do this for the rest of my life. I don't want to do it for another day if I don't have to. I have a shot at a permanent solution to this."
Eames pushes himself up until he's sitting. Arthur does the same. "Robert knows about us," Eames says. "I would be his right hand man, nothing more. It's a safer solution."
"You think Saito won't kill you for helping his biggest competitor? That's as likely as him not killing me for dealing with the Feds."
Eames hums agreement. "Quite the situation we've woven ourselves into," he jokes, but it falls flat. "My deal benefits Saito as well. It's safer, Arthur. Please, give me more time."
Arthur sighs and collapses back onto the bed. "I don't have more time. If I don't do this now, Cobb will kill Saito, and then we're both fucked."
Eames lies back down beside Arthur and they wrap themselves around each other again. At some point they drift to sleep, but for a long time they lay there silently, wondering what the future holds for them.
The shipment arrives on time, but not without complications. It's a large order, large enough to turn some heads high up in Proclus and they send one of their senior personnel down to monitor the club. Cobb views it as a great opportunity to verify the hierarchy of the organization, for use in prosecution. Arthur views it as another set of eyes, keenly looking for traitors such as himself.
Saito has become stricter under the scrutiny. Yusuf barely speaks to Arthur after Saito demands inventory of every last drop of alcohol that gets served. "You brought this hell upon me, my friend. Don't expect me to do you any favors," he says as he digs around a box of discarded junk for his old alcohol dispensers, the ones that time shot pours. He hasn't used them in years and doesn't appreciate having to now.
"Drinks are like cooking," he explains. "A dash of this, a little of that. This itemized method doesn't allow for any artistry."
Arthur withdraws from Cobb, limiting their interactions as much as possible. The meet once a week, Arthur's "new regular," calling him out for hotel service. For his part Cobb disappears from the club almost completely.
It's not just a good cover, after Mal. Cobb can barely handle being at the club at all. It works for them. It would be odd if he didn't shy away. Some of the other employees still hate him a little. Everyone misses her.
A week before the party, as they are lying in bed together, Eames tells Arthur to have Cobb come gamble at Robert's for a while. "Tell him to lose big and get himself thrown out," he explains. "Cobb needs a reason to come back to the club, and pure desperation is the only excuse that will be believable."
When Cobb does come back to the club he looks haggard and desperate, like the only thing allows him to get through the door is the need for money, the addiction to the game. Arthur's wonders if it is just an act or if Cobb really is falling apart at the seams. He can't get a level read on him anymore. Cobb always seems one moment away from snapping, hunched shoulders and a haunted look in his eyes.
Arthur still keeps up the pretense of searching for the mole, asking around with pointed enough questions without seeming like he's seeking out unnecessary information. Saito knows what he's supposed to be looking for, but this new person from Proclus doesn't. Arthur doesn't want him connecting any dots.
The afternoon of the big event, Arthur slides Yusuf a wad of money and tells him to go shopping for some bar supplies that Yusuf forgot. Yusuf gives him a searing look: anger, betrayal, and skepticism all rolled into one. Arthur grabs Yusuf's shoulder giving it a comforting pat. After a second, Yusuf tilts his head in disbelieving acceptance. He grabs a few of his personal items from the basement bar and then steps out without a goodbye. Arthur goes to make sure entry points to the building are unlocked and everything is ready.
Just before evening, Arthur rehearses his new choreography on stage. He won't get to the performance tonight, but he has to keep up the charade. He's right in the middle of the act when three of Saito's henchmen storm the stage, pulling him from between the other dancers and dragging him to the basement. They rush him past the empty bar, to the back where there is a room. He lands an elbow to one of the guy's bodies before he's thrown across the dirty floor, scraping his hand raw as he catches himself. Before he can get up, the door slams closed.
After—by his estimation—two hours locked in, Arthur has paced the small room fifty times looking for weapons. The piping is bolted in tight and there's only dirt and rocks on the floor. The hours do give him time to think, time to plan. He sits patiently beside the seam of the door, ready to attack the second someone opens it.
He stands when he hears people coming down the stairs. They're loud and it's clear they are bringing someone else down with them: gruff commands of, "Hold him," and "Get him in the room."
Arthur is waiting and when the door swings open he pounces, landing a hard blow to one of the guard's jaw, just below his ear. He lands another to the man's solar plexus and the guard doubles over in pain. Arthur tries to fight his way out of the door but he stalls when he sees that one of the men is holding Eames, arm wrapped around his throat, a gun pressed to Eames' temple.
The third guard punches Arthur in the face, glancing his blow off of Arthur's cheek and smashing into his nose. Blood immediately starts pouring down his face and he staggers back in pain. Another blow to his ribs has him dropping to the floor.
The guard he attacked recovers and the two of them pull Arthur back into the room, tossing him up against the wall. They exit as the one holding Eames enters. He doesn't drop his weapon from pointing at Eames' head. He stands waiting as the other two shuffle around and return with two chairs and a few cuts of rope. Arthur lets them secure him to one of the chairs, and he watches as they do the same to Eames after.
Now that Arthur has calmed down a little, he sees that Eames is bleeding. There's a gash on his head, right at his hairline. It's slowly trickling blood down next to Eames' ear, over his jaw and neck. The skin around the wound is swollen.
"You alright?" Arthur asks him. His words sound nasal and wet as his bleeding nose drains into his throat. Eames nods once, staring forward, not looking at Arthur at all. He seems distant and Arthur wonders if he has a concussion.
Arthur tongues the roof of his mouth, blocking off the soft pallet to stop blood from seeping into his mouth as he tilts his head back. Eventually his nose stops bleeding and his endorphins dissipate, allowing pain to spread across his face.
He keeps glancing over at Eames, but Eames doesn't move. Eames stares forward as if he's in some sort of trance, jaw set with anger. The guards stand silently outside the door. Arthur can smell when one lights a cigarette. He can hear when the man drops it to the floor and smudges it out with the ball of his foot. Arthur's left eye starts to swell shut.
Something like an hour passes as Arthur struggles to breathe correctly and tests the rope binding him to the chair, gaining raw wrists for his trouble. If three hours have passed, then the club should be opening soon. The raid is set for early in the night, to ensure maximum alcohol levels are left and avoiding collateral damage. If they can wait this out for just another hour …
His hope diminishes when he hears light, even footsteps coming down the stairs. He hears the clicking of the lock as the door is opened. Saito enters the room, hands held behind his back as two of the guards flank him.
"Loyalty," Saito says. He pauses. "I expected more from you, Arthur." Arthur meets Saito's glare without flinching, though every muscle in his body is tense, anticipating the inevitable, panicking.
"I am very disappointed," Saito continues, "To be losing my most talented employees."
The plural lights anger inside of Arthur. "Fuck you," he hisses.
Saito darts forward, wrapping his hand around Arthur's throat and pushing him back into the chair. "I should have let you bleed out in the streets."
He releases Arthur, who coughs and gasps, and slowly backs away, composing himself by adjusting his cuffs and straightening the lapels of his jacket. "Tell me who the spy is," Saito demands. "Tell me what they know, what you've told them."
Arthur's breathing regulates and he stares defiantly, saying nothing. Saito nods and one of his guards steps forward. He punches Arthur is the stomach. Arthur's lungs seize up with the blow. The guard hits him again.
Giving Arthur time to recover, Saito demands again calmly, "Tell me who it is." Arthur keeps his mouth shut, waiting for another blow. It lands on his cheek; blazing pain rushes through his swollen eye. His nose starts bleeding again, tangy, coppery fluid flooding his mouth.
Eames doesn't move. He doesn't look at Arthur at all. He keeps staring at the wall in front of him. Arthur can't tell if he even flinches when a punch lands. He's too busy fighting through the pain.
The guard backs off and Saito demands again, his voice sounding soft and tired, "Tell me what you know, Arthur."
Arthur spits blood onto the ground. Some of it sprays across his lap, soaking into the dark fabric of his pants. He's sure he looks a mess, a trail of red flowing down his bare, sweaty chest. He shakes his head, leaned forward with his weight held by his bound arms, looking up through his lashes. "I don't know what you are talking about," he sneers.
An impatient look crosses Saito's face. He gestures with his fingers and one of the guards pulls out his gun, leveling it at Arthur's chest. "Tell me who the Fed is," Saito says again.
Arthur's lungs are heaving; his heart is hammering in his chest. His world is pain, pain and the barrel of a gun. If they kill him now, they may let Eames live. If they kill him now, he won't have to watch Eames die. Just forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes and this can be over, if he can keep them alive.
"I don't know what you are talking about," Arthur repeats.
Saito digs something out of his pockets, two earplugs that he slips into his ears. Arthur's heart feels as if it's going to burst from his chest. He can feel his pulse in his neck, in his wrists. Saito nods and the guard lowers his gun. Pain like a punch hits Arthur's lower leg. It's followed by a burning, a whirlwind of fire wrapping around his leg. His own screams sound quiet for the ringing in his ears.
"I'm going to give you a few moments to think your answer over," Saito says. Arthur's eyes are bleary with tears. He sees the shapes of the men exit the room, the door clicking shut behind them. Warm wetness flows down his shin, soaking into the rope at his feet. He sucks in air, gasping, hitching breaths.
The room is silent except for him, his short, agonized moans escaping from gritted teeth. He looks to his side again and Eames is still staring at the wall, though he seems paler than before. Arthur doesn't know how much time passes. He wonders if Saito will let him bleed to death in this chair.
He's not bleeding badly enough, it seems. He doesn't even pass out before Saito re-enters the room. Arthur's leg is throbbing. The guard with the gun steps forward and presses the muzzle to Arthur's forehead. Arthur's instinct is to pull away.
"I will find out who the mole is, with or without your help. This is your last chance," Saito says. Arthur remains silent. Saito nods once and Arthur's heart stops in his chest. He waits for the shot to fire and only breathes when the guard swings his gun around and shoots Eames.
Eames' scream will haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life. Even if the rest of his life is only a few minutes. His ears are already ringing and the reverberation of Eames' strangled voice settles into his body like a knife.
"Fuck!" Arthur shouts. He doesn't know what else to do. "You asshole! You son of a bitch!"
Saito gives him an un-amused look. "The next one will be in his head."
Eames' shoulder is bleeding, red staining his white tank-top. The guard takes aim at Eames head. The words are leaving his throat before he can think about stalling anymore. But before he can get them out, Eames is interrupting.
"It's me," he says.
Saito's expression grows sharper. "I do not for one minute believe you are working with the authorities, Mr. Eames. You are only here for leverage."
Eames laughs. It's raw sounding, but amused. "I know," he replies. "That's what I wanted."
Arthur's nearly too stunned at Eames' false admission to do more than gape. Eames is admitting to Saito a lie that guarantees his death. "He's lying," Arthur says.
Eames' smile is pitying. "Who do you think sent the Fed to you?" he asks.
"Nobody sent him to me," Arthur replies. "I found him. I hunted him out."
Arthur doesn't know what Eames is doing, what he hopes to accomplish by lying. Arthur was ready to take the fall, but now they are both implicated with helping the Cobb infiltrate the club. Then there is a crash from above them: loud thudding feet on wooden floor and glasses crashing to the ground.
"Shoot them!" Saito orders. Arthur scrambles, his tied legs pushing off the floor as hard as he can, toppling him, still strapped to the chair, against the guard's body. It makes the man shoot wildly into the room. He lands awkwardly on his arm and feels the jarring pop of his shoulder dislocating.
There is chaos in the room. It's deafening loud as Eames is shouting. Arthur is trying to pin down the guard without the use of his arms, fighting through the pain. There's movement all around him, and if the other guard or Saito figure out what they are doing they can kill both him and Eames in a second.
But the din gets louder and Arthur is only aware that the noise is caused by more bodies flooding the room when several hands pull him from the floor, sitting his chair upright. Saito is pinned up against a wall with his hands folded behind his head and his legs spread wide. Two men are untying Eames and another is calling "We need a medic!" towards the hallway.
Untying Arthur's arms and legs, one of the men checks over his bleeding leg. Through the door enters a paramedic and Cobb.
"Shit," Cobb says when he sees the state of the room. Both Arthur and Eames are covered in blood.
The medic goes to Eames first but Eames shrugs him off. "Him first," he says. "He's lost more blood." The medic looks over to Arthur and shrugs, grabbing his kit and squatting by Arthur's side. He looks at Arthur's leg, and then his shoulder.
"We should set that now," the medic says. "It will hurt less later." Arthur doesn't even know if it matters. The medic moves Arthur to the ground, shoving a wadded up jacket into his armpit and pressing his foot to it when he sits. He grabs Arthur's wrist and leans back, bodyweight pulling Arthur's arm until the ball of humorous snaps back into place. Arthur moans and shakes through the pain, his muscles spasming. He hisses when the medic wraps his leg and then lies on the floor, not knowing what to do when the medic moves on to treat Eames.
Cobb kneels next to him. "Sorry I was late," he says.
"You were early, actually," Arthur replies. His eyes slipping closed as his body convulses in shock.
"No. Eames moved the raid up."
Arthur blinks his eyes open. "What?"
But Cobb has moved off, coordinating with his men who are confiscating crates filled with liquor. They've hauled Saito and his guards out already and soon the medic collects Arthur and Eames, having helpers haul Arthur up the stairs.
"Aren't you supposed to put us on boards or something?" Arthur asks.
"Technically, yes," the medic replies with a sardonic smile. "But I don't want to carry either of you, and it didn't look like you had broken necks. Plus, those stairs are treacherous."
Arthur likes this man. He may be becoming a little delirious from blood loss and pain. The two men who lifted Arthur into the ambulance guide Eames in as well and he slumps down on a bench as Arthur leans back on the stretcher.
"Cobb said you moved the raid up to earlier," Arthur says.
"I did," Eames confirms.
Arthur ponders over Eames' admission earlier. "You said that you sent him to me."
"Yes," Eames says. He doesn't elaborate so Arthur presses on.
"Cobb didn't know you were watching him. You are in fact a decent spy. I told him. He confronted you."
"You set that up. Why didn't you just act as Cobb's contact in the first place?"
Eames runs a finger along his lower lip, looking at Arthur amusedly. "I was until you started investigating Cobb on your own. We decided that bringing you in would let me focus on Fischer. And then Mal …" Eames pauses, his tone changing to something more serious. "After Mal, Cobb only wanted Saito. He was lost; you know this. So I started focusing on if the raid fell through. I would have brokered a deal between Fischer and Saito, for our future."
Arthur tilts his head back onto the thin cushion of the stretcher. His mind lingers on how Eames said our future. He reaches his good arm out to Eames and Eames takes his hand.
Then Arthur is waking up as the doors to the ambulance are being opened and he can see the entrance to the hospital. Eames' hand his still clasped in his own and Eames only releases it when Arthur makes eye contact with him. As they transfer the two of them into the hospital, Arthur has the fleeting hope that the feds will be footing their medical bills.
Arthur blinks his eyes open. The sun is barely cresting above the horizon, pink and orange sunrise filtering in through the gauzy curtains. He stretches and his arm brushes along a warm body. Turning over shifts the blankets and exposes Eames' shoulder so Arthur bends down to press a kiss to it. The bullet wound is a shiny scar on Eames' skin.
Months of physical therapy followed their ordeal. Arthur still limps, though he's glad to be rid of the cane that he used for nearly a year. Sometimes he misses the way he used to be able to move more freely, but most days he's just glad to be alive.
Crawling from bed, Arthur stumbles to the bathroom, flicking the light on and starting a shower. He stays under the water for nearly half an hour, savoring the heat and steam rising around him. After drying off and dressing, he makes himself a press of coffee and heads out the door.
The office is nearly empty when he arrives, though there are a few men still in the room, likely there all night. He sits at his desk and pulls out the files he needs. Arthur loses himself to research: checking and rechecking facts, referencing known data against what he's been able to dig up on his own.
He's startles when a breath ghosts across his neck and Eames questions, "Why didn't you wake me up this morning?" quietly into Arthur's ear.
"You need the sleep," Arthur replies. "And I had to get this research done before you go in tomorrow."
There are notes and files stacked neatly on Arthur's desk, all detailing the theorized social and business structure of a large family of drug runners that Eames is set to meet with for an exchange. Arthur gets nervous anytime Eames is sent in undercover. It's been two years since Cobb made good on his promise to secure them both work, and Arthur knows that Eames is good at what he does, but he still worries.
Eames doesn't bother to reprimand Arthur for overworking; instead he tries a distraction. "Look who's in the headlines this morning," he says, tossing a newspaper onto Arthur's desk. Arthur turns his chair and unfolds the paper. Saito is on the cover, looking dashing as ever, but anger clearly written on his face as he's escorted out of the courtroom. The headline reads, "Infamous alcohol-baron Saito denied appeal!"
Arthur sets the paper down as he catches Cobb approaching from the entrance. Cobb has pulled himself together in the two years since Mal's death. When Cobb catches the headline on the paper, his expression goes wounded for the briefest of moments before he looks up.
"How are we doing on the Bissiri case?" He asks.
"We're on schedule. Everything is checking out," Arthur says. Cobb nods and walks away to his desk.
"You did remember to give Yusuf a heads up?" Eames says, once Cobb is out of earshot.
Arthur nods. "Yeah, he's out of there, looking for his next employment opportunity, likely."
"Pity he doesn't come work with us," Eames says, though they both know that the job wouldn't suit Yusuf at all. At least they could give their old friend a heads up before he got hauled in with everyone else they're looking to take down.
Eames' hand finds its place on the back of Arthur's neck. He massages the tense muscles near Arthur's spine a little before using his other hand to tilt Arthur's head back, capturing Arthur's mouth in a kiss. Arthur's eyes fall closed before he remembers where they are. It's a struggle to break the kiss.
"Not in the office," he says when Eames pulls back. Eames smiles at him.
"We used to do a lot worse at work," Eames says wickedly. Arthur slaps a hand across his Eames stomach lightly.
"Help me finish this," Arthur says. Eames pulls up a chair and Arthur divvies out half the stack of papers he still has to read through. When he looks at Eames, already engrossed in work, Arthur's chest feels too full, as if his lungs have pulled in all the air they possibly can, and his heart is thudding in his chest.
They don't have a small cottage somewhere away from everyone. But he and Eames have each other and an apartment of their own. They have steady work, relative safety, and a future together. It's all Arthur needs.