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“That,” Arthur says, collapsing into the leather club chair next to the one that Eames is sitting in, “was just about the shittiest job I’ve worked since…” He trails off, and raises a hand at the waiter, who double-times over. “Bourbon, please.”

Eames, sunk in his own chair with his own glass in his hand, stares wordlessly at the fire. His throat is still parched. His ears are still ringing. There are people in the bar, making conversation. A general buzz. But in Eames’s ears, it’s still the rattle of automatic weapons, the stink of dirt and cordite. He puts his glass up to his face and inhales the whiskey, to break the illusion.

“If you want to talk about it,” he says after another moment.

“I don’t,” Arthur says.

The man brings Arthur’s bourbon, and takes his room number.

They sit in silence, staring through the glass grate at the gas-jet fire. It’s empty, a small hand-lettered sign on the glass telling them that it’s out of order. Funny detail, Eames thinks. It reminds him of his mother, who always hated an empty hearth.

“Okay,” Arthur says. He takes a long swig from his glass, sets it on the table beside him, and leans forward with his elbows on his knees, poised to go. “I guess we’re done.”

“Sure,” Eames says. It was late autumn in the mark’s head. Autumn of 1995, in Sarajevo. The sky a weltering low dome, bombs whistling down. The streets broken to pieces, all the buildings shelled out. Boys running through the ruins, carrying rifles. It was astonishing, the level of detail. Astonishing how relentlessly it played out.

“I’ll call Revere,” Arthur said. “Tell him it was a bust.” His eyes are puffy and shadowed. He’d
pushed the dream too hard, and the mark’s projections riddled him with bullets in a broken stairwell. It didn’t kill him right away. Eames, crouched behind a pile of broken stone and concrete with only a pistol, wasn’t much help.

“Are you all right?” he asks now.

“Fine,” Arthur says. Of course. Then, instead of getting up and walking out, he seems somehow to deflate. His shoulders drop and he turns his head away. “I could do without a job like this for a while, though. Seems like I keep pulling the nightmare fuel.”

“Psych jobs are always rough. Corporate’s cleaner.”

“So why do you do psych jobs?”

“Sometimes I like things messy.”

Arthur looks at him. Eames sits back and lets him do it.

“It’s pro bono,” Arthur says after a minute. “You’re doing it out of principle, or something.”

“I assure you, I get paid.”

“Not as much as you would for other jobs.”

“Not every job needs a forge. I go where I’m needed.”

“Sure.” Arthur sits back, his hands dangling loose over the chair’s arms. A slight, disbelieving smile on his lips. “You surprise me, Eames.”

“I don’t see why. Stealing data is boring. Pulling a good man out of a coma is much more fulfilling.”

“How about not managing to pull him out?” Arthur asks. He sounds a little bitter. “How fulfilling is that, exactly?”

“Not very,” Eames says. He leans over in his chair, toward Arthur. “Tell you a secret.”

Arthur quirks an eyebrow, then leans in. Eames gets his hand quickly over the gap between them and grabs Arthur’s shirtfront. In the same movement, he pulls the Glock from his shoulder holster and presses it to Arthur’s temple. Arthur’s eyes widen, his body stiffens. That’s all he gets a chance to do before Eames pulls the trigger.

 

 

The ocean is cat’s-eye green, choppy with white breakers. The sand is grey and silky-soft. Eames sits with his trousers rolled to his knees, his shirt unbuttoned, his socks stuffed in his pocket. Beside him, Arthur sits running his fingers through the sand, watching it trickle out in a thin stream.

“This is getting tiresome,” Eames tells him. Arthur glances at him, frowning.

“They’ll be back soon.”

Eames sighs and lies back on the sand, staring up at the blue, blue sky. Somewhere behind him, a city slides down its own face and disintegrates. Mal and Cobb are up there, working things out in their marital honeycomb. So far, there haven’t been any gunshots.

“You ever considered psych work?” Eames asks, mostly to pass the time.

“No.”

“It’s interesting stuff.” Eames puts his hands behind his head, his fingers interlaced. The sun is warm, and there’s a breeze. “Take comas, for instance.”

He leaves a pause. After a minute, Arthur sighs and says, “What about them?”

“Well, they’re like dreams, aren’t they? When the brain’s still working, that is. But the dreamer’s trapped, he can’t wake up.”

“Comas aren’t dreams.”

“Like dreams, I said. That’s all.” Eames adjusts himself on the sand, getting more comfortable. “There are similarities. Anyway, there’s a school of thought that says—“

“If you’re going to spin some bullshit about using a PASIV to pipe into someone’s coma—“

“I am, in fact.”

“Well, save it. It doesn’t work.” Arthur twists and looks over his shoulder, up at the city looming above. “I should go up there.”

“No, you shouldn’t. How do you know it doesn’t work?”

“Because a PASIV isn’t a therapeutic device, and a coma isn’t a fucking nap.” Arthur gets up and brushes the sand off his trousers. He’s barefoot, but still in his shirt and trousers and a neat brown waistcoat. His hair is still slicked back. It takes a lot to muss Arthur up. “I’m going up there.”

“Don’t.” Eames sits up and squints up at Arthur. “Honestly, I don’t want to have to chase you up there again.”

“What do you mean, again?”

“Nothing.”

Arthur plucks at his cuffs, looking irritated. “How much time do we have left?”

Eames checks his watch. “Couple of minutes.”

“So stay here until the kick. I’m going up to check on Cobb.”

“The theory,” Eames says, “is that you can use the PASIV to get into a man’s mind, just like in a dream. But a regular kick doesn’t work, because a coma’s so much deeper than ordinary sleep. You need a bigger kick. A bigger shock to the system.”

“Yeah,” Arthur says. “You let me know when you figure out what’s a bigger shock than getting shot in the head.”

“Believe me,” says Eames. “You’ll be the first to know.”

Arthur gives him a bemused, annoyed look, and turns to walk up the beach. Eames stands up, brushes the sand off his trousers, then searches around until he finds a suitable rock. Not too heavy to lift, with a good sharp edge on it.

“Arthur,” he calls, starting to jog. “Wait a minute, will you?”

Arthur turns and waits, scowling. When Eames gets close, his gaze drops to the rock. “What’s that for?”

“I’m really sorry about this,” says Eames, raising his arm for the swing.

 

Faintly, from far away across the fields, comes the sound of bells.

“What’s that?” Arthur asks.

“Goats,” says Eames.

“Goats.”

“I think.”

“Eames, where the hell—“ Arthur turns in a slow circle, studying the gentle green swells of the hills, the dark verdant hedgerows, the neat stone walls built by hand. “This isn’t the Radiant boardroom.”

“I know,” Eames says. He closes his eyes briefly, and inhales the smell of spring grass. The bells jangle. “Sorry, I just needed a bit of a break.”

“You needed--?” Arthur looks troubled now, suspicious and worried. It’s not good to disorient him like this, it’s the kind of thing that can drive him deeper down. Better to let him set the scene. But Eames is tired.

“Just a quick break,” he murmurs, lying back into the grass. “No guns, no rocks. No fucking saws or claw hammers, nothing with an edge.” He opens an eye and finds Arthur looking at him, stiff-faced. “You’re impenetrable, did you know that?”

Arthur says nothing.

“Exactly.” Eames closes his eye again, then puts his hands over his face. “I’m going to be the one in a coma by the time we’re through.”

“Eames. What the hell are you talking about?”

Eames doesn’t reply. He lets himself drift a little, something not quite like sleep. Nothing he’s tried is working. It’s horrible, worse than he expected even. Shooting a man cleanly is one thing, especially when you both know it’s a dream. Murdering him again and again, messily and violently, when he doesn’t know what’s going on… It’s something else.

It’s not working. He has to find another way.

“Arthur,” he says, opening his eyes. Arthur’s still standing, watching him. Eames sits up. “Arthur, listen to me. This isn’t a dream. We’re not working. There’s no Radiant boardroom. None of that is real, it’s just set dressing. You’re in a bed in Yusuf’s lab and you’ve been there three days now. You’re in a coma, he says. It was something in the mix—“

Arthur’s face has gone tight, his lips pinching together and his eyes going hard. “Fuck you,” he says.

“No, honestly—“

“If I’m in a coma, what are you doing here?”

“We’re both on the PASIV. I’m trying to wake you up. Honestly, I’ve been trying for—“ Eames checks his watch. “An hour, or a few days, or whatever. Depends on how you’re keeping track.”

Arthur’s started to back away. He’s breathing hard, sweating a little. It’s worse like this, Eames sees. Yusuf warned him, but he had to try it. Tell a man he’s in a coma and he doesn’t wake up, he panics. He loses even more of his control, falls deeper in. But nothing else is working, and Arthur’s not ordinary, Arthur’s the most rational, controlled man Eames has ever known.

“I keep trying to shock you,” he says, unable to stop himself. “Putting you in traumatic scenes, mostly. And killing you. I’m trying to give you the kick, to get you out. But it isn’t working and I’m running out of ways to do you in.”

Arthur’s backed ten meters away now. He’s holding his ground there, though. Standing stock-still with his whole rigid and trembling, his breath going in and out like a bellows. His face furious, his nostrils flared. His hands in fists at his side.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to do,” he says slowly. “But it’s not going to work.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Arthur shakes his head. “You aren’t even Eames, are you?”

Eames closes his eyes. He takes a deep breath.

“Okay,” he says, getting slowly up. “You’re right, I’m sorry. Bad taste. I was just having a bit of fun, that’s all.”

Arthur watches carefully as Eames starts toward him. Eames holds out his hands to show that he’s unarmed.

“Come on,” he says. “Cobb will have a fit if we’re not in the boardroom in the next five minutes.”

“Stop,” Arthur says. Eames keeps walking.

“Sorry about the coma thing. Just wanted to see if you’d believe—“ He’s close enough now, and he swings a fist at the side of Arthur’s head. He’ll drop him and break his neck. Wake up somewhere else and try again.

Except it doesn’t go that way. Instead, Arthur pulls his Beretta cleanly from the back of his trousers and shoots Eames in the face.

 

“I’m making some progress,” Yusuf says, setting a cup of tea down beside Eames’s elbow. Eames glances at it and nods thanks.

“How much is some?”

Yusuf sits down with his own cup, and makes a side-to-side motion with his head. “Some.”

“Not much, then.”

“Something in his bloodstream reacted badly with the base drug,” Yusuf says. “Probably a remnant from another job. If he didn’t wait long enough for his system to clear it, there could be complications.”

“But that’s not the problem now.” Eames glances at the work table next to Yusuf’s sink, where the centrifuge and microscope sit side by side. “He’s not still drugged, it’s been three days.”

Yusuf nods. “But his body doesn’t know that. As far as it knows, it’s still on the job.”

“That’s fucking ridiculous.”

Yusuf nods again, and sips his tea. “You’d be surprised how many ridiculous things the body does, every day.”

Eames accepts that in silence, and drinks his tea. It’s sweet and spiced, the way Yusuf always makes it. When he’s half finished with it he stands and takes it through to the other room, where Arthur lies in state on his cot. He’s lost weight, just in the few days he’s been gone. His beard is coming in. There’s an IV in one arm, which Yusuf set up to keep him from dehydrating, or starving to death. The PASIV needle is still in the other one, although the machine is turned off. They’ve left it there, to allow another try.

Eames stands drinking his tea, listening to Yusuf clear up in the room behind him. It’s six o’clock, or nearer to seven. The ceiling fans beat the hot air around in lazy circles.

“It isn’t your fault,” Yusuf says. He’s leaning in the doorway behind Eames, his sleeves rolled up and a dish towel in one hand. “It’s the chemicals. We all know the risks.”

Eames nods.

“I’ll have some more tests back from the lab tomorrow,” Yusuf says. “You should go back to the hotel and get some sleep.”

 

Eames goes back to his hotel and gets some sleep.

 

“Today is the day,” Yusuf says, inspecting the point of the needle while his fingers hold Eames’s vein on the surface. “I can feel it.”

“I thought you were man of science.” Eames watches the needle go in, then glances over at Arthur’s profile. Still sleeping. “You’re not superstitious, are you, Yusuf?”

“Nothing will make you more superstitious than final medical exams at Harvard. I have whole closets of good luck charms.”

“Now might be a good time to brush them off.” Eames adjusts his arm so the needle doesn’t pull, then reaches over and moves Arthur’s slightly as well. He can see that the skin around the cannula is reddened, probably sore.

“Ready?” Yusuf is waiting, his finger over the button.

“Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” Yusuf says fervently, and pushes.

 

 

They’re in the warehouse, studying Robert Fischer’s daily schedule. Arthur, in trim brown trousers and white shirt, stands at the board making notes with a felt marker. Eames sits beside a clutch of folders, photos spilling out. It’s strange, redoing a job he’s already done. It feels like deja vu that never ends, that just goes on for hours, days. Not his favorite feeling.

“We need a lot of time,” Arthur says. “Even with the delays, each level down, we still need a lot of time.” He turns and looks at Eames, frowning. “When does a man like Fischer have that much time to spare?”

“Intercontinental flight,” Eames says. “Where’s Cobb?”

“Getting lunch,” Arthur says, frowning. He looks back at the board, uncaps the marker, and puts the tip against Fischer’s start of day.

“Ariadne?”

“Model supplies.” Arthur turns back to his own pile of papers and starts rifling through them. “Intercontinental flight? What are you talking about?”

“Sydney to Los Angeles, one of the longest in the world.” Eames can’t be bothered to sound like he’s really thinking this up now, on the spot. “Where’s Yusuf?”

Arthur looks up at him sharply. “He needed chemicals.” He stands up, his hands braced on the table. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Humor me. Saito?”

Arthur studies him for a moment. “He’s coming at four.”

“Ah.” Eames nods. “Just us, then.”

Arthur gives him a raised eyebrow, then goes back to his pages. “Sydney to Los Angeles,” he mutters. “That’s... at least ten hours.”

“At least,” Eames agrees. “Why are we alone?” When Arthur looks at him again, he shrugs and gestures at the wide empty space of the warehouse. “There are four other people on this job. Why just us, in here?”

“Are you feeling all right?” Arthur sounds cautious now.

“I’m all right,” Eames says. “Sorry, ignore me.” He pretends to study his photos, and after a moment or two he feels Arthur’s gaze drop away. In the other dreams, when Arthur’s controlled the dream, there’s usually been someone else around. If they were alone it was because Eames made it happen, or because someone walked offstage as part of the script. But this dream is almost a memory, a near-precise recreation of the warehouse they’d worked in on that job. Except no one else is there.

Why would Arthur dream about being alone in the warehouse with Eames?

“It won’t work,” Arthur says. “There’s no way we can put everyone under in the middle of a commercial airplane.”

“Ask Saito about it,” Eames says absently. “When he gets here.”

“What’s Saito going to do?” Arthur asks, sounding pissed off. “Buy the airline?”

Eames leans back in his chair and rubs his lips, his eyes fixed on Arthur.

It’s very quick, no more than a flicker. Faster than in real life, even. But he sees it, because he’s watching. Arthur’s gaze drops to Eames’s lips. Then he looks away, back at his pile of nonsense. His cheeks are flat and taut.

Ah, Eames thinks. And then: Well, there’s that, still. He’s not sure whether it means anything, down here. Whether it matters. But it’s something.

 

The back window of the taxi explodes, showering glass over the back of Eames’s head. Up front, Arthur slams the car into reverse and they jolt backward, rubber screaming. They’re boxed in. Bullets tear into the metal frame, whine off the pavement. Eames manages to send a few shots back, then ducks again.

Arthur rams the car in front, then the one behind again. His face, when Eames looks up from the footwell and catches a glimpse, is furious. A bullet goes through the windshield, missing his head by what must be a few inches. He doesn’t flinch. The engine shrieks, the car shudders. Outside, it’s pouring rain and men are shouting.

Eames gets up into the back windshield and fires rapidly, thinking now would be a good time for something automatic or at least large-bore, but he doesn’t want to risk upsetting the dream. If he knows Arthur they’ll be out in a few seconds anyway.

The taxi lurches forward, crashes into something and then grinds past it with a scream of metal as Arthur floors the gas. They scrape along the car in front, and in a moment they’re flying through the rain-flooded streets.

“Are you okay?” Arthur shouts, fumbling with something in the front. He holds his hand back over the seat, his gun in it. Eames, still huddled low in the seat, reaches up to take it. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Eames says, risking a last look through the blasted back windshield. The gouged and battered cars, the men and their guns, are already almost out of sight. He sits up straight and brushes bits safety glass off his shoulders. “I’m all right, I’m fine.”

“We need to get to the warehouse,” Arthur says. “We’ll change over to the van there.”

Eames nods. He’s alone in the taxi with Arthur, and he can’t quite remember how this came about. Fischer should be there with them. Cobb should be there, and Yusuf. Ariadne. But somehow, this time, the plan has changed so that Eames and Arthur are alone, driving a hijacked taxi to the warehouse where the passenger van waits.

He sits staring at Arthur’s gun, cool and heavy in the palm of his hand. If there’s a greater sign of trust than that--giving another man your gun in a firefight--he’s not sure what it is.

“Eames? You okay?” Arthur’s tone is different now--he’s not asking about gunshots. His eyes, in the rear view mirror, are narrow and concerned, trained on Eames’s face. Eames pulls himself straight and nods.

“Fine.” It’s safer not to say too much, he thinks. Instead he sits and gazes at the back of Arthur’s neck, at the thin band of vulnerable skin between his hair and collar.

 

Not surprisingly, there’s no one waiting at the warehouse. There’s the passenger van, but that’s it. This is Yusuf’s level, he’s supposed to drive. Eames waits to see what Arthur will do.

What he does is walk without hesitation around the back of the van, open it with a key Eames doesn’t see him produce, and reach inside. He brings out the flat silver PASIV case.

He carries it to a long, grubby table surrounded by derelict chairs, and starts to set it up. Eames trails after him.

“Cobb?” he asks, watching Arthur pull the lines off the spools. Arthur glances at him.

“What about him?”

Eames looks around. “Not here?”

Arthur’s fingers don’t slow. “He’s already down there. We need to catch up.”

“Ah.”

“Maybe if you paid attention in briefings.”

“I really should.”

“You really should.” Arthur hands him his line, then starts rolling up his own sleeve. “When this is over I’m going into psych work, I swear to God. It’s cleaner.”

Eames looks up, but Arthur’s face is turned away, checking the PASIV. Eames puts Arthur’s gun on the table between them, and starts his own line. Then he pauses. He switches hands, and rolls up his right sleeve. When Arthur turns, he holds out the line. “Do mine, will you?”

Arthur takes the line without hesitation. It’s a little surprising--Eames has already got his excuse ready, a lie about having used his left arm too much lately, and his left hand’s no good with the cannula, and so on. He doesn’t have to say a word of it. He just has to stand there while Arthur pushes his sleeve up past his inner elbow, then bends over and inspects it.

“Make a fist.” Arthur lays two fingers on Eames’s skin, stroking lightly. He presses his thumb upstream on Eames’s vein and waits. Eames waits with him. He can feel the cool of Arthur’s fingertips, the light pressure he’s applying. They’re standing close together; he can see the dark spots that the rain has left on Arthur’s jacket. He can see the fine hairs on Arthur’s hands and neck, the faint blush of color in his cheek. He studies the color, wondering what to make of it.

The moment goes on until he realizes he’s aware of Arthur’s breathing, and that they’re standing so still that Arthur must hear his too. Then it’s a moment held in suspension, the whole world gone vague around them. The world, which has reduced itself to Arthur’s cool fingertips laid lightly on Eames’s inner forearm, and the almost inaudible sounds of their breath, in tandem.

Then there’s the glitter of light on metal, and a small stinging pain, and Arthur steps away.

“Next level’s the hotel,” he says, taking one of the rickety chairs. “Ready?” His hand is poised over the PASIV’s button. Is he hurrying? Embarrassed, unbalanced? Eames can’t quite tell.

“Ready,” he says. Arthur doesn’t move.

After a moment he says dryly, “You might want to sit down.”

Eames takes the chair across from him, and arranges himself with elaborate, obvious care. “Ready,” he says again.

Arthur gives him a last look, strangely searching--then pushes the button.

 

They’re in the hotel room, the one where Fischer and Browning and Cobb and all the rest of them should be wired up and put to sleep. There’s nobody there but Arthur and Eames. Arthur’s wearing a brown suit, but no jacket, just his waistcoat. He’s losing layers, Eames thinks. First his gun, then his jacket. But below this is the snow--what will that do to him? Or maybe they won’t go there, since Arthur never went to that level in the real job. Maybe the hotel is the last level, the last chance to find something more shocking than a bullet in the head.

He looks to Arthur, waiting for his cue. As usual, Arthur doesn’t hesitate. He goes to the hotel room safe, punches in a code, and pulls out the PASIV. Then he takes it to the bed and opens it, starts pulling out the lines.

“Cobb?” Eames asks, wondering if Arthur will remember the warehouse level. Arthur glances up at him, his brow furrowed.

“What?”

“Just wondering where Cobb is.”

Arthur stands up, his hands still sorting the lines but slower now. He’s frowning, looking concerned. “Are you okay?”

“Fine.” Eames sits in the armchair and crosses his legs. “Briefings were never my strong suit.”

“Because you’re starting to piss me off.”

Eames holds up his hands in mock surrender. Arthur stares at him a moment, then lets the lines fall. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing. Sorry.”

“Do you really not know what’s going on? Are you really that lax?”

“Lax?” Eames puts a little emphasis on it, and Arthur’s jaw tightens.

“Lax.” He goes back to pulling the lines out of the case, harder and faster now. “I don’t know about you, but I’d like to get out of this job without getting dropped into a coma.”

Eames watches him pull two sterile needles from the compartment and punch them from their pouches. He feels suddenly sure about something--Arthur knows what’s going on. On some level, he’s heard what Eames said in the last dream, and managed to retain it. He knows he’s in a coma, he knows Eames is trying to get him out. He just doesn’t know he knows it.

“If you were in a coma,” Eames says carefully, “how would you get yourself out?”

Arthur, frowning over the chemical loads, doesn’t answer. Eames leans forward, his elbows on his knees. “Arthur,” he says. Arthur looks at him, distracted and irritated. “If you were in a coma--”

“How would I get myself out?” Arthur repeats, his tone caustic. “I don’t know. If I were in a coma I probably wouldn’t be able to do much about it. Because I’d be in a coma.”

Eames sits back, watching Arthur carefully. “All right, say I was in a coma. How would you get me out?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Pretend you care.”

“I don’t.” Arthur taps the load dials, studies them, then looks up. “Look, if you--or Cobb, or anybody else--were in a coma, I’d figure something out. We don’t have time for this right now.”

“Pretend we do.”

“I’m sorry, did you miss the part where we’re doing a job?”

“Time’s relative. You can give this a few seconds, down here. Up there it won’t even register.” Eames sits back, his palms on his knees. “Pretend I’m in a coma, and you have to get me out of it.”

Arthur stares at him, his mouth flat and his face livid. “Shock the system,” he says at last.

“How?”

“Violence.” Arthur pushes his sleeve up and makes a fist, probing for his vein. “It’s the most reliable way.”

“But not the only one. Say it didn’t work.”

“Escalate it.”

“Say the subject is used to violence. Especially in dreams. Say that you can’t figure out anything violent enough to kick him.”

“Then he’s toast,” Arthur says flatly. “Catch.” His own needle is in his arm; he tosses the second line across the carpet to Eames.

“There’s got to be another way. You’re the problem-solver.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Arthur’s stare is murderous. “You want me to problem-solve a fictional coma mystery in the middle of a real job?”

“No,” Eames says, but doesn’t elaborate. He rolls up his sleeve, finds his vein, and holds the needle over it. “Just tell me what you’d do next.”

“For fuck’s sake.” Arthur takes a deep breath, and thinks about it. “I guess,” he says after a minute, “go psychological. Get into his head, figure out if he’s still even in there.”

“Say he is.”

“Then, inception. Build him a way to get out on his own.”

They sit staring at each other. Eames sinks back into his chair, rubbing his palm over his trouser leg. Of course Arthur would say that. Solitary, impenetrable, buttoned-down Arthur. Of course he’d expect to do it on his own. And it also explains why they’re revisiting this job in so much detail.

“Are you coming down?” Arthur asks, nodding at Eames’s loose line, the needle still poised above the skin. “Or do you want to sit around here and think up bullshit coma scenarios some more?”

“I’m coming down,” Eames says. He slips the needle into the vein, hardly feeling the pinch. “Thanks very much, by the way. That was helpful.”

Arthur hesitates, studying Eames narrowly. Eames smiles peaceably back. Arthur pushes the button.

 

Eames is alone on a snowy mountainside, bundled in white parka and boots, blinded by glare. His breath clouds around his face as he turns a slow circle, his boots crunching. No sign of Arthur anywhere. Around him, the snow is untracked.

He feels a profound sinking feeling, together with a deep weariness. He’d been sure he was getting somewhere, this time. All those comments about psych work and comas. The moments in which Arthur had seemed to look at him differently, as if he were just on the verge of realizing something.

But what was he expecting, really? To wake up down here and find Arthur stripped naked, ready and eager to take a short ride to the surface? Arthur isn’t that simple. Arthur will never be that simple.

Or maybe Arthur is already awake. Maybe Eames really is alone down here. Maybe he’s about to see the snow on the far mountains start to tumble in a slow sheet, the roar taking moments to reach him and fill his hears before the avalanche of the kick knocks him flat.

Then he looks at the base of the mountain, beneath the deadly white overhang, and sees the fortress. Dull grey brutalist concrete, hardly inviting. And he knows already what kind of hell it’s going to be to fight his way inside.

He’s on skis, he realizes. He wipes ice crystals off his face, shuffles his feet in the bindings, and sighs. He could shove himself off the nearest cliff face, and go have a cup of Yusuf’s sweet spiced tea. Or he could do what he came down here to do.

Fucking Arthur, he thinks, and pushes out through the crisp, unmarked snow toward the fortress.

 

It’s not as bad as he’d thought it would be--there are no projections shooting at him. No snowmobile engines roaring, no one shouting garbled orders to kill him. He skis peacefully across the valley, right up to the front door of the place, and doesn’t see another soul.

Maybe this is Arthur’s last layer, he thinks. Gun, waistcoast, assassins. He’s dropped all three. Maybe they really are getting somewhere.

On the other hand, he’s standing outside a giant concrete fortress in the Alps.

Eames props his skis neatly against the wall by one of the service entrances, then bends to examine the lock. To his further surprise, the handle turns easily in his hand. Inside is a long concrete corridor, lit with caged safety bulbs.

Eames pauses on the threshold, listening. Quiet, inside. Something drips.

He turns and looks back out at the blinding snow field outside. It’s beautiful and barren. Nothing has changed. He goes inside, leaving the door standing open behind him.

It’s been a while since the Fischer job, but he remembers the general route. He finds his way up from the basement levels, through the dorms and mess halls and the quartermaster’s rooms, the target ranges and the armaments storage, until he’s outside the control room. It has a view, he knows, out over the valley he just skiied through. If he were inside he could look down on his own tracks, two parallel lines drawn directly through the snow field like arrows shot to a target.

The control room’s door is ajar. He puts out his hand and pushes it gently open.

Arthur’s sitting at a long battered table, studying a PASIV. It takes Eames a moment to recognize the table as the one from the warehouse. The chairs, too. Arthur sits on the edge of one, his weight tipped forward over the machine, his neck curved, his attention fierce. He’s wearing the same clothes he wore in the hotel. White dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, narrow trousers. Waistcoat, no jacket. He doesn’t seem to feel the cold, although his breath shows in the air.

Eames walks quietly into the room and takes the chair opposite Arthur’s. Arthur doesn’t look up. Eames takes off his hat, his gloves. He folds them and lays them on the table.

“So,” he says.

Arthur says nothing. He’s prying at something in the PASIV, his mouth pressed tight with frustration, the muscles in his forearms standing out. Eames leans forward to look, but it’s something deep in the guts, between the spools--he can’t make it out.

After another minute, Arthur gives up and sits back in his chair, raising his hands in irritated surrender. “Fuck it.”

“What are you doing?”

“It’s stuck. The release mechanism.” Arthur flexes his fingers. “It won’t let go.”

“Want me to try?”

“You wouldn’t know what to do.”

“I could try.”

Arthur gives him a skeptical look. “Be my guest.” He shoves the PASIV a few inches across the table. Eames gets up and looks closer into it, but he can’t see anything in the space between the spools. It’s just dark. He puts his finger in and feels nothing. He sits down again, and Arthur gives him a sour look.

“Sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Arthur sounds tired, and down here he looks it. His skin has taken on a greyish cast. There are circles beneath his eyes. He drags his hands over his face, then up over his head, clutching his skull. “I can’t do it either.”

“Try it again.”

“I’ve been down here trying again for months now. Years, maybe.” Arthur drops his hands into his lap, his shoulders slumped. “I’ve gotten exactly nowhere.”

“It hasn’t been that long. Not really.”

“Yeah, well.” Arthur stares at the PASIV with something like hate. “I can’t fix it. I can’t even figure out what’s wrong with it.”

Eames leans back in his own chair, considering. Arthur’s turned combative again, surly and hostile. Maybe it’s because they’re getting close to the heart of the matter, but it feels like a step back. The fortress feels oppressive, deadening. For just a moment he wonders what it would be like to be stuck down here for months or years, as Arthur claims to have been. It’s not a pleasant thought.

“Well,” he says. “you haven’t tried it with me here.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Arthur stares at him. “What, this thing’s going to magically fix itself because you’re sitting across the table from it?”

“You never know.”

“That’s not how it works.”

“Probably not. But it’s worth a try.”

A series of emotions pass over Arthur’s face--incredulity, frustration, exhaustion. For all his privacy, he’s often very easy to read.

“I’m tired of trying,” he says. “If you’ve got some great idea you’re not telling me about, let’s have it. Otherwise...” He opens his hands, indicating the empty room. “You might as well get going.”

“No great idea, no.” Eames looks at the PASIV and thinks how neat it is, how well-designed and economical. It hides its depths well. It’s a good metaphor, he thinks. An easy one for Arthur to land on, and cling to.

He gets up and walks across the room to one of the windows. There’s warped glass in a heavy metal frame. He winches it open with a creak, and leans out into the cold air. Below him is a sheer drop of a hundred feet or more, landing on a rocky slope.

Still looking out the window, he asks, “What was your first job?” Arthur doesn’t answer. Eames turns, his elbows still propped on the window ledge. “Your first dream job, I mean. When did you start?”

Arthur’s sitting sideways on the chair to watch him. His expression is flat. “What?”

“Not that hard a question, is it?”

“Why are you asking?”

“Because I’m curious.”

Arthur looks at him for a moment. “Curious,” he repeats, giving it a touch of emphasis. It makes Eames smile.

“Curious,” he says, confirming. “It was Cobb, wasn’t it?”

Arthur lets the pause draw out another few seconds. Then: “Yeah. Cobb brought me in.”

“How’d you meet?”

“He was doing research. In Chicago.”

“University?”

Arthur shrugs, halfway. “I don’t see how this gets us anywhere.”

“Were you an architecture student?”

“No.” Arthur pauses, then says in a tight voice, “He was looking for test subjects. I tried out, but he didn’t hire me. Not for that, at least.” He smiles slightly. “He brought me in on the back end, instead.”

Eames shifts so he can lean against the wall and look at Arthur more steadily. “What does that mean?”

“He ran me through the psych tests, and thought I’d make a better coworker than lab monkey.”

“Pretty high compliment.”

Arthur inclines his head slightly, and says nothing.

“Cobb’s always had an eye for talent,” Eames says. “Look at Ariadne. Plucked from the Ecole nationale before she even had a chance to finish her studio projects. Look at me.”

Arthur’s eyes narrow. “Cobb told me he met you in a casino in Macau.”

“Yes, that’s true. But he saw my potential.”

“And that you were arrested for card-counting.”

“Right, but what I’m saying is--”

“And that he posted eight thousand dollars to get you out, and you skipped town without paying him back.”

“He caught me up in Singapore.”

Arthur’s amused now. “He also told me that you had a reputation for financial...creativity.”

“There you go.”

“I don’t think he meant it as a compliment.”

Eames looks out the window, rubbing his lips. “Cobb’s a bit of a twit.”

Arthur laughs slightly, really just an exhalation. “What are you doing, Eames?” When Eames turns back, he’s got his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped loosely between. “Why are you down here?”

“To gaze upon your lovely face, of course.”

“Uh-huh.”

“The question is, why are you here?” Eames looks around the barren room. “I can guarantee you, there’s more fun to be had elsewhere. If you liked fun.”

“Elsewhere where?”

Eames points straight up, at the ceiling. “You know.”

“It’s not that easy. I can’t just get up and leave.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“I really would.” Arthur looks pained. “I told you, I’ve been trying. But it won’t let go.” He looks back at the PASIV, his face tight with dislike. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Eames looks out the window again. Wind pulls a sheet of snow off a distant mountain peak, the crystals sparkling against the blue sky.

“What were you doing as a test subject?” he asks. Silence behind him. “Making money, I suppose.”

“Better than washing dishes.”

“I washed dishes for a bit. Not voluntarily, I got caught pinching from a kebab shop and the owner put me in the kitchen to teach me a lesson. What I learned was, don’t get caught.”

“I’m surprised you were.”

“I was twelve.” Eames runs his finger over the warped window glass. “You didn’t go to university?”

“I took some classes.” Pause. “It wasn’t worth it, so I dropped out.”

“Before or after you started working with Cobb?”

“After. When I had money, but no time.”

“Whereas before, you had time but no money.” Eames says it lightly, aware that he’s treading on dangerous ground. He hears Arthur’s chair creak, the sound of Arthur settling back. Retrenching, probably. Whatever this is, he thinks, whatever they’re doing--it’s going to take a while. “Did you like the work?”

“Sure.”

“That’s all?” He looks back--Arthur’s staring at him bleakly. “Seems like you’ve taken to it pretty well now.”

“I like dreams, sure. I like what I can do in them.”

“It is fun, isn’t it?” Eames makes sure Arthur’s watching, and slips into the blonde tart’s skin. Arthur watches without a change in expression as he walks across to the control terminals and starts examining important-looking dials and switches. “I love it.”

“That’s pretty obvious.”

“Is it? Well, good.”

“You walk around with that smirk on your face all the time.” Arthur’s smiling again, very faintly. “You like it because it’s a license to push people’s buttons. You like fucking with people.”

Eames, still in the womans’ skin, gazes at Arthur and very deliberately, very obviously, presses a button on the control terminal. Nothing happens.

“Quit forging, would you? It’s weird.”

“Your wish is my command.” He drops the skin and smiles. “Better?”

“I just don’t need the cognitive dissonance right now.”

Eames continues around the control panel, studying its lights and switches. “Why do you think Cobb hired you?”

“I know why he hired me. Because my psych tests were off-the-chart logical, detail-oriented, and organized.”

“Making you an excellent point man.”

“Yeah.”

“But there’s always a downside.”

“Meaning?”

Eames studies Arthur, frowning like a painter judging perspective. “For you, it’s overcommitment. You get too wrapped up in the job, you invest too much in it. That’s a problem when things go wrong.”

Arthur stiffens slightly. “I think you know I can handle the unexpected.”

“Yes, you can solve all kinds of tricky problems. You’re very good at it. I’m not talking about that.”

“So what are you talking about?”

Eames meets Arthur’s eyes for a moment, then walks across the room toward him. Arthur holds himself straighter, as if he’s expecting some kind of confrontation. Instead, Eames walks around the table and takes hold of the other chair. He drags it over to stand beside Arthur’s, then takes a seat in it, facing him. Their knees are just a few inches apart and Arthur glances at them, but doesn’t move.

“What would you do if you couldn’t do dream work?” Eames asks. Arthur blinks.

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s a simple question.”

“Eames, I really don’t get what--”

“Don’t think about it. Just answer.”

He watches Arthur’s face steadily, looking for any dissimulation, any quick mental retractions or substitutions. Arthur looks blank for a moment, then shakes his head.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Hm.”

“If you’re trying to say I’m some kind of soulless workbot, I’m offended.”

“I’m not. I’m saying Cobb’s an excellent talent scout. He’s very good at finding people who will do what he needs them to do.”

“So this is about Cobb?” Arthur’s expression, which had turned momentarily uncertain, settles. Squabbling over Cobb is familiar territory. “I don’t think he’s so good at getting you to do what he wants. Especially since you still owe him at least eight thousand dollars.”

“No, I’m an anomaly. He works with me because forges are rare. And great forges are very rare.”

“Right.”

“He’s not particularly good at getting me to do things that aren’t to my advantage, no. Which might explain why I’m just visiting, and you’re stuck down here.”

A gust of wind blow through the window, banging the frame. Arthur looks momentarily distraught. It only lasts a second--then he visibly regathers himself. His jaw tightens, and the tendons in his neck cord.

“You can go anytime,” he says.

“But you can’t,” Eames says.

Arthur stares at him, his eyes flat. A few seconds tick past.

“Sorry,” Eames says. “Low blow.” He lets his legs fall open, so that his knee almost brushes Arthur’s. “I came down here for you, you know. You might be grateful.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” He looks around the room. “You couldn’t have dreamed up a tropical island?”

“It’s really not in my hands.”

Eames looks back at Arthur. “You’re out of control, down here.”

Arthur hesitates, then gives a reluctant sideways nod. It’s the kind of nod he gives when Cobb describes something nearly impossible and probably painful, and asks him if he can do it.

“Hm,” Eames says. He’s thinking of the hotel, the taxi, all the different dreams they’ve inhabited over the last few days, the jobs they’ve done. In each one of them, Arthur’s seemed purposeful and focused.

“If I knew what I was doing, would I be down here?” There’s a rawness in Arthur’s voice. “I already told you, I don’t know how to fix this thing. I can’t even get hold of the mechanism.”

“The release mechanism.”

“Right, I can just about feel it but when I try to get it, it just--” Arthur holds up his hands in frustration, the fingers tensed. “It keeps slipping away.”

“Maybe you’re going at it wrong.”

“So enlighten me.”

Eames looks over his own shoulder at the PASIV, sitting squat and square in the middle of the table. The light from the overhead bulb gleams on its silver casing. He purses his lips, then reaches over and carefully, precisely, closes the lid.

“Okay,” Arthur says in a dry tone. “I guess I hadn’t thought of that.”

“You wouldn’t,” Eames says, but he smiles to take the sting out of it. He stands up and clicks the locks on the case. Then he lifts it, hefts the weight experimentally, and starts toward the window.

“Eames,” Arthur says.

“Just a minute,” Eames says. He makes his walk purposeful, confident. It’s important that he look like he knows what he’s doing. In dreams, the look of things is what matters. Or--the look is what gets you to the things that really matter.

“Eames,” Arthur says, with alarm.

Eames chucks the PASIV out the window, in a high silver arc. The case catches the sun, seems to hang for just a moment at the height of the toss. Then it plummets, and bursts into a hail of metal fragments on the snowy rocks below.

Arthur makes it across the room in the few seconds it takes the PASIV to fall. He shoves Eames aside and stands against the window ledge, staring down at the wreckage.

When he turns, his face is drained of color. His eyes are wide. “You broke it.”

“You don’t need it.”

“You--” Arthur turns and looks out the window again. He puts his hand over his mouth, almost as if he’s nauseated. He’s started to shiver.

“It’s a trick,” Eames says. “You’re playing it on yourself. There’s no release mechanism in there. You were never going to get out that way.”

“That was the PASIV, Eames. You just threw my one chance out the window.”

“Here.” Eames unzips his parka and pulls it off. He holds it out but Arthur doesn’t respond. “Take it.”

Arthur’s staring blankly out the window, probably trying to decide whether he can fix the thing if he goes down and collects the bits. Eames pushes him aside and pulls the window closed. He slings the coat around Arthur’s shoulders. “You’re cold, right? I think that’s a good sign.”

“How?” Arthur turns to look at him, his face pale and stiff. “How is it a good sign that I’m cold, Eames?”

“Because it’s fucking cold down here, and you finally noticed.” He smiles and rubs his hands together briskly. “You’ve wrapped yourself up in that thing so tightly you don’t even realize what’s going on around you.”

“I realize,” Arthur says. “Eames, seriously--” He stops, as if he’s heard something. And for a moment Eames thinks he hears something too, or feels it--some slight movement from the building’s foundations. Arthur shakes his head, dismisisng it. “When’s your kick?”

“Why?”

Arthur just pulls the coat on slowly, one sleeve then the other. He’s still shivering.

“Not for a while,” Eames says. “Do you remember me telling you about the coma?”

Arthur gives a faint shrug, as if this is minor information that he doesn’t care much about.

“You’re in one,” Eames says bluntly. “That’s why you’re down here. Yusuf thinks it’s psychosomatic.”

“Really.”

“You’re not on the drip anymore, at least not the bad one. But you’re still down here, while the world turns up there.”

Arthur slowly zips the coat, his eyes on Eames’s face. “How long?”

“Three days now. You’re not looking too fresh, I have to say.”

It’s hard to tell whether this is truly new information for Arthur. His gaze is pensive, inward-looking.

“So,” he says after a moment. “What do I do?” He’s shivering harder now, even with the coat on. His teeth start to chatter.

“I don’t know,” Eames says. “Get away from the window for one thing, you’re freezing.”

“It’s the fucking Alps,” Arthur says, by way of explanation--but he starts back toward the table. Partway there he stumbles and catches himself awkwardly, as if his legs have momentarily stopped working. Eames, following, grabs him by the arm. He can feel the rigid, shivering muscle of Arthur’s bicep beneath the fabric.

“What’s going on?” Arthur’s teeth are chattering almost too much for him to speak. Eames hauls him over to a chair and eases him into it.

“I don’t know.” He crouches down and takes one of Arthur’s hands in his. The skin’s frigid. He chafes it, then pushes the sleeve back and feels for Arthur’s wrist pulse. It’s hard to find it, it’s so faint.

Arthur’s body is having some kind of crisis topside, maybe. Or maybe tossing the PASIV out the window was too much of a shock. Maybe Arthur can’t function without it--maybe he really is stuck down here, for good. Maybe the machine was the only thing keeping him stable, tethered to his body.

“You have to wake up,” Eames says. “I know I’ve said this before, but honestly, Arthur, you have to wake up. You’re too good a point man to die over a stupid mistake in the mix.”

“People die from stupid shit all the time,” Arthur says, but he’s trembling so hard he’s having trouble staying in the chair. There’s new fear in his eyes. Eames takes Arthur’s other hand too, pressing them between his own. “I can’t just--I don’t know how--”

“We’ll do it together,” Eames says, keeping his voice calm. “Just ride the kick, it’s simple.”

Behind him, there’s a sudden snapping sound. They both look--a pane of glass in the windows has split. As they’re looking, another one goes. Then white spiderweb cracks start to spead across all the rest of the windows. Somewhere in the bowels of the fortress, there’s a grinding, settling shift.

“Feels like the kick is coming,” Arthur says, with a small grim smile.

“Good,” Eames says. “You’re done down here. Time to wake up.”

“For you, maybe. I don’t think--”

“Fuck that, we’ll go up together.” He shifts his grip to Arthur’s wrists and holds them tightly. The windows start to fall from the panes, glass shattering on the concrete floor. “You’ve done it a thousand times.”

“It’s not the same--”

“Figure it out,” Eames says, jerking on Arthur’s wrists to hold his attention. “Fucking figure something out. You’re the point man, it’s your job.”

Arthur’s face is bloodless. His breath is coming short. Staring at him, feeling the foundations of the fortress start to pulverize themselves, Eames wonders if this is the last time he’ll see Arthur awake. If the only thing left of him will be his flatlined body, wasting away in Yusuf’s cot.

“It’s not the PASIV,” he says. Something collapses in another wing, a tremendous crash and a series of deep, thumping concussions. He yanks Arthur close, so that their faces are only inches apart. “It’s not the machine, it’s you. You’re the problem. That’s what you’ve got to work with. Figure. Something. Out.”

Arthur stares at him, his eyes wide and fixed as if he’s memorizing Eames’s face. Outside the metal door of the control room, there’s a horrible wrenching sound, of steel-reinforced concrete tearing apart. Arthur’s lips are turning blue. His hands are freezing cold.

“I don’t--” he starts to say.

Then the ceiling caves in and after a moment or two of darkness and crushing pain and suffocation, there’s nothing.

 

Eames wakes up on the cot in Yusuf’s flat, staring up at the slowly spinning blades of the ceiling fan. The light through the shaded window is the same as when he went under. Almost no time has passed, he thinks. So many layers down, he could have lived weeks in minutes.

He doesn’t feel dry-mouthed or logy, the way he usually does when he wakes up from the mix. He feels...good. Rested and comfortable, his body loose and warm. The room is quiet. When he lifts his arm, he doesn’t feel a painful tug from the cannula. He glances down to see if the needle’s slipped out. There’s no needle, no line.

It takes a moment to register. He raises his head, and realizes he’s not alone. Arthur’s cot is just a few inches from his. Arthur’s lying in it, looking at him.

“What?” Eames says, not intelligently. He raises his arm to show the bare skin where the needle should have been. Then, in a sudden belated rush, he remembers the fortress shaking itself to pieces around them. The obliterating crush of falling stone. “What did you do?”

Arthur smiles slightly. “Figured it out,” he says. Then he adds, “Well, maybe.”

Eames sits up. There’s no one else in the room. Yusuf should be there, watching over the mix. The ladder-back chair against the wall is empty.

“We’re not awake,” Eames says, turning back to Arthur.

“No.”

“It’s another dream?”

Arthur’s gaze turns introspective. “I think...sort of.”

“Sort of.”

Arthur doesn’t say anything. He’s wearing the T-shirt and dark trousers he’s in, topside. There’s a few days’ worth of beard on his cheeks and jaw, and he’s lost a few pounds. It’s eerie, how right he’s got it. On some level, he must still be keeping tabs on his body, on everything that’s happening to it.

He lies watching Eames, half-smiling. His eyes are dark, intense.

“You’re not cold anymore,” Eames says, testing. Arthur shakes his head. “You don’t have a PASIV.”

“I’m in a coma,” Arthur says, and laughs a little. “I think I can take a day off.”

Feeling strangely lighthearted, Eames lies back on his cot and looks around the room. “It’s nice.”

“Yeah.”

“Restful.”

“Mm.”

Eames can feel Arthur watching him. It’s a surprisingly pleasant feeling. He turns his head and looks back.

Arthur, still lying in his cot, unfolds one arm and extends it across the gap between them. He holds his hand palm-up, as if asking for something. Eames considers it for a moment, then puts his own out, his fingers lying crosswise against Arthur’s. They both look at their hands.

“Psychosomatic,” Arthur says, with a half-smile. “Everything’s fucking psychosomatic.”

“True,” Eames says. “Maybe some things more than others, though.”

Arthur’s fingers close around Eames’s, gently but firmly. His hand is warm. He tugs.

“Really,” Eames says.

Arthur tugs again. His smile is quirking up at the corner, a dimple starting in his cheek.

“Really,” he says.

“I don’t think that will hold us both,” Eames says, but he swings his legs down into the space between their cots, then shifts over to lie beside Arthur. There’s just barely room. They lie face to face, their bodies pressed together. Eames can feel Arthur’s breath rising and falling against his own chest.

It feels bizarrely natural to tip his head forward and kiss Arthur. Natural and thrilling at the same time. Arthur’s lips are soft, his breath warm. His beard rasps Eames’s chin.

Eames brings a hand up and cups the back of Arthur’s head, then starts to roll on top of him. Arthur breaks the kiss.

“I don’t think,” he says.

“Sorry,” Eames says, retrieving his leg from its new location on top of Arthur’s.

“I don’t think I can right now,” Arthur says. He’s frowning slightly, as if weighing some internal evidence.

“You’re in a coma,” Eames agrees. “Probably not the best time.”

“And I don’t think--” Arthur hesitates. “I don’t think it’s about that.”

Eames pulls back enough to give him an inquiring look.

“No PASIV,” Arthur says. “Just me. And you.”

“Sorry, I--”

“You couldn’t shock me awake. The kicks weren’t working. And the PASIV was just dragging me down.”

“Right.”

“So the only thing left is you.” Arthur’s gaze is somber. “Pretty soon you’re going to get your kick, and you’re going all the way up. I want to go with you.”

Eames shifts. “And so this is you using me?”

“No. Or yes. I’m not sure.”

“Should I ask how?”

“I think...” Arthur frowns, and for a moment he looks almost pained. “I think, if I’m connected to you somehow. Substantially. Then when the kick happens, it should be automatic. We’ll both go.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Neither do I.” Arthur smiles ruefully. “But it’s worth a shot.”

“All right.” Eames pauses. “What do I do in this?”

“Just,” Arthur says. He puts his palm against Eames’s chest. It feels warm and solid, intimate. Arthur’s eyes close. He takes a breath, then leans in and fits his lips to the underside of Eames’s jaw, kissing softly down his throat.

Ah, Eames thinks. He has a quick visual flash: the way Arthur has often glanced at his mouth, the flush of color that’s come into his cheeks a few times while they’ve talked. All this time, they’ve pretended it wasn’t there. But now Arthur’s depending on it.

He runs his hand up Arthur’s side, feeling the ribs beneath, and around his back. Arthur’s lean and narrow, but solid. His muscles are firm beneath the thin T-shirt. Eames wraps his hand around the back of Arthur’s neck, feeling the tiny razored hairs at his nape. Arthur relaxes, his weight heavier against Eames’s side, and Eames feels a moment of ridiculous pleasure. He laughs.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He smiles at Arthur’s narrow look, and rubs his thumb over the bone behind Arthur’s ear. “It would have been a lot less work to do this in the beginning.”

“Well, you got to shoot me,” Arthur says. “Many times.” He runs his hand down Eames’s side and holds his hip. “That’s something.”

“Honestly,” Eames says, “not as appealing.” He pulls Arthur in and kisses him again. Arthur’s hand tightens on Eames’s hip, then moves around and slides up his back. He makes a soft sound. The ceiling fan beats lazy circles above them.

Some time later Eames pulls back and clears his throat. His face feels warm; he knows he’s flushed. He’s having to stop himself from pushing his hips forward, rubbing himself against Arthur’s thigh and stomach. “I should...”

“Okay.” Arthur moves back to allow some space between them. Eames rolls to lie awkwardly on his back, his shoulder half off the cot and one hand dangling into space. With his other hand, he adjusts the front of his trousers.

Arthur props himself on an elbow and looks down on him. “What’s the kick?”

It takes Eames a moment to remember--it feels like forever since he watched Yusuf push the button. “My funny valentine.”

Arthur raises an eyebrow.

“Yusuf thought a mild one might work better this time,” Eames said, tucking a hand behind his head. He could get used to lying in bed with Arthur, he thinks. “Since shooting you hasn’t worked.”

“Fair enough.” Arthur puts his hand flat on Eames’s stomach and lies watching it rise and fall. It’s a harmless, familiar gesture, and doesn’t seem to call for any response. Eames closes his eyes and lets himself ponder the strangeness of the situation. If anyone had asked him what were his chances of spooning Arthur back to consciousness, he would have said, very low.

“Are you going to kill me when we wake up?” he asks after a bit. “Should I be preparing my will?”

Arthur doesn’t say anything. Eames opens one eye. Arthur’s asleep, his head cushioned on his bent arm. His hand still rests on Eames’s stomach. He looks young and thin and worn.

And right then, the first slow notes of the trumpet start to drift down through the ceiling, mysterious and mild. The light in the room dims, then starts to brighten. Arthur doesn’t move.

“Arthur,” Eames says. “Wake up.”

Arthur doesn’t move. His eyelids don’t flutter. The music builds, languid but demanding. “Arthur,” Eames says again. He puts his hand on Arthur’s shoulder, shakes him.

At last, when the trumpet is filling his head and he can feel the dream starting to dissolve, Eames turns to Arthur and wraps him in a firm embrace. It’s ridiculous, he knows, to think that he can hold onto Arthur that way. But it’s the only thing left to try.

 

“Welcome back,” Yusuf says. He’s sitting in the ladderback chair, one finger poised over the dial on his ancient cassette player. He’s turned the volume down low, but the trumpet still plays. The ceiling fan spins lazily overhead.

Eames blinks. His mouth is dry, his head hurts. He has to piss. There’s a familiar chalky aftertaste in the back of his mouth, a side effect of the mix. He’s awake.

It takes him a moment to realize that Yusuf wasn’t speaking to him, or not only to him. On the cot beside him, Arthur is slowly, cautiously opening and closing his hands.

“That’s a relief,” Yusuf says, turning the music all the way off and stopping the tape. “I’d hate to lose anyone on a mix I made up, much less someone as valuable as you.”

Arthur tries to say something, but his throat is too dry. It comes out as a croak. Yusuf gets up for the water jug.

Eames busies himself getting the needle out of his arm. When he sits up he does it away from Arthur’s cot, to give himself a moment of space. His shoes are unlaced, the top button of his trousers undone for comfort. He fixes himself, touches his hair. When he stands up he feels about a hundred years old.

“So what worked?” Yusuf asks. Eames turns. Arthur is propped on one elbow, shakily drinking a glass of water. Yusuf stands beside him, the tips of his fingers resting on Arthur’s shoulder as if he’s afraid Arthur might just lie back down and relapse.

“Not sure,” Eames says. Then, to Arthur: “You all right?”

Arthur looks up over the rim of his glass, and nods.

“Incredible,” Yusuf says. “And if you ever do two jobs so close together again, without telling your chemist, you deserve whatever you get.”

Arthur clears his throat. “Yeah,” he says. His voice is weak. “Okay.”

Eames makes a vague gesture to say he’s going out. In the toilet he runs cold water over his hands and splashes his face, then stares at himself in the mirror. It’s always strange, coming out of dreams. Trading one reality for another in the space of a few seconds can be exhausting.

He fingers his poker chip, and wonders if he’ll ever work with Arthur again. If it had just been a matter of shooting the man in the head or pushing him off a cliff, that would have been fine. That would have been easy. That’s what he thought he was signing up for.

He can still feel the ghost of a warm weight on his belly. He puts his own hand on the spot and stares at himself in the mirror, feeling himself breathe.

 

Four days later, Arthur’s number shows on Eames’s mobile screen.

“Hi,” Arthur says. “We should talk compensation.”

“All right,” Eames says. He’s in KLM’s first-class lounge at Schiphol, drinking a gin and tonic and pretending to read the Herald. En route to Singapore, a favorite fallback position. “Compensation for what?”

Arthur pauses, then says, “Really?”

“If you’re talking about the Mombasa job, no compensation necessary. I like to think you’d have done the same thing for me.”

“I am talking about the Mombasa job, yeah. And while I appreciate the sentiment, what you did was above and beyond. I’d like to recognize that.”

Eames folds the paper and smooths it across his knee. “Far be it from me to refuse to take your money, Arthur. But in this case, I’ll make an exception.”

“Just give me your routing numbers.”

“No.” Eames says it mildly, but he’s getting irritated. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, hope to see you again soon.”

“Eames, Jesus--” Arthur’s annoyed too. Of course he is, he’s trying to turn this into a simple business transaction, to sterilize it of any whiff of emotion. “You spent four additional days on that job, beyond what you were paid for. I’m trying to do the right thing, here.”

“No you’re not. You’re trying to save yourself some trouble.”

“What?”

Eames sighs. “If you’re worried about me holding any of it against you, you can stop. And if it makes you feel any better, I think what you did was both clever and brave.”

There’s silence on the line.

“I didn’t think of it,” Eames says. “And I’m the one who’s supposed to know how to use people’s emotions in dreamspace. And I’m finished telling you how wonderful you are now. I’ll carry on insulting you from here.”

After a pause, Arthur says, “I’m trying to find some way to thank you.”

“Then say thank you,” Eames says. “And stop trying to pay me off like a prostitue.”

That’s a bit harsh, but after another short pause Arthur says quietly, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Eames takes a sip of his drink. “Was there anything else?”

“No.”

There’s a pause.

“Then?” Eames prompts.

“Nothing,” Arthur says. “Good-bye.”

 

Three months after that, he gets an email from Arthur, asking if he’s interested in a corporate grab in Luxembourg. There’s a phone number to call if he wants in. He calls it.

“Luxembourg,” he says, when Arthur picks up. “Where they keep the money. Sounds interesting.”

“Profitable, you mean,” Arthur says. “And yeah, it should be. If you’re in you have to get here yesterday.”

“I’ll tell the butler to bring the car around.”

When he walks out of the airport late that evening, someone immediately falls into step beside him. He knows who it is without looking, but he looks anyway. Arthur’s wearing dark trousers, a dark trenchcoat. It’s cold and drizzly.

“You look like an FBI agent,” Eames says, although in fact Arthur looks lean and brown and highly desirable.

“You look like business class.”

“The coffers are low,” Eames admits. “Your timing is excellent.”

Arthur smiles and leads the way to a BMW in short-term parking. Eames raises an eyebrow as he drops his bag in the trunk. “Your fortunes seem to be doing all right.”

“Rental,” Arthur says, slipping into the driver’s seat. “But yeah, I’m doing okay.”

“Bully for you.” Eames lets Arthur pay the extortionate parking fee.

“So,” he says, when they’re on the motorway. “Inform me.”

Arthur takes the opportunity to do so, briefing him on the job all the way to the mid-city neighborhood of tall, narrow row houses where they’ve set up shop. It’s not a complex job, but Arthur makes it last. Eames lets him do it. He’s tired, and it’s nice not to have to make conversation.

“That’s the house,” Arthur says at last, pointing, as they’re creeping down a street so narrow that the side mirrors come within inches of the parked cars. “The parking’s around back.” He seems more anxious now, or maybe just more tightly wound now that he’s back to the job site. His grip on the steering wheel has tightened, and he’s slowed down even more, until they’re hardly crawling.

“Fine.” Eames sits back, thinking of how it will be inside, the rest of the team already assembled, their work spaces staked out, their habits established. It’s never fun being the last one to arrive, and he knows the chemist on this one, a man named Milo, a bit of a prick--

“So,” Arthur says, “I wanted a chance to talk to you, before we get back into the group.” His eyes are fixed on the road in front of the car.

“All right,” Eames says. He pulls himself up a bit straighter, and pulls his eyes open.

“Just--” Arthur reaches for the turn signal, and Eames notices that his hand is shaking slightly. “It’s about the Mombasa job. After the job, I mean. I wanted to apologize for being kind of a dick about that.”

“No apology necessary,” Eames says.

“And I also wanted to say,” Arthur says, “that I’m sorry if I overstepped. In the dream, I mean. When we were--” He pulls the BMW’s nose into the alley behind the houses. “In the last level, before the kick.”

“Really,” Eames says. “I’ve already told you, it was fine. A good piece of dreamwork, really. No need to keep apologizing.” And if he’s had a few daydreams, here and there, about a warm hand lying flat on his belly, a soft mouth kissing his throat--what about it? He’s human, that’s all.

“Okay,” Arthur says, more quietly. He steers the car through the impossibly narrow alley, then turns down a dark, vertiginous ramp beneath the row houses.

“Why did you bring Milo on--” Eames starts to say, just as Arthur says something else, in an even quieter, halting voice. Eames stops. “Sorry, what?”

The BMW’s headlights flash over a line of parked cars, a motor scooter, a few empty spots. Arthur pulls into one of the spots. He kills the engine, but leaves the headlights on. They fill the car with low, reflected light.

“I just wanted to say,” Arthur says, “that I’ve been thinking about that a lot. The last level. I’ve been thinking--” He turns his head and looks at Eames, his eyes searching. “I’ve been thinking about it,” he says at last. “I thought I should tell you that, before the job. To get it out of the way.”

They sit in silence for a long moment. Then, incredibly, Arthur pulls the key from the ignition and starts to open his door.

“Fucking hold on,” Eames says. Arthur turns back, his expression hunted. He almost looks as if he expects Eames to throw a punch.

Eames sits back against his own door, and wipes his hand over his face. “Just,” he says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Just listen.” Then he doesn’t know what else to say. When he looks at Arthur, he can see that Arthur doesn’t either. “Fuck. What are you saying, exactly?”

Arthur firms his shoulders, and his face tightens. It’s his dead-set look, one Eames knows all too well. The one that says his back is to the wall but he’ll be fucked if he’s giving up.

“I’m saying I still think about it.”

“About what, exactly?”

Arthur swallows. It makes a dry click. “About you,” he says. “About you, and about being...with you. Jesus, I’m trying to leave us both some dignity here.”

“What the fuck does dignity have to do with anything?”

“I’m telling you this so it doesn’t hang over everything we do for the next five days, okay? And because I think it’s the kind of thing you should tell someone.” Arthur’s angry now, his cheeks are getting pink. “You can’t just go around dreaming up fucking high school fantasies about someone you work with, and expect it not to matter. It’s the kind of thing you have to tell someone.”

“High school fantasies?”

“I think about you, Eames. I think about you a lot. And not just since Mombasa. Since forever. Since I first fucking met you, almost.”

“Wait,” Eames says. “Wait, hold on.”

“No,” Arthur says. “There’s nothing to hold on for, that’s it. I thought you should know, so I told you.” He pops his door handle, and the dome light comes on. “It won’t affect the job.”

“It won’t affect the--” Eames realizes Arthur’s halfway out the door, and lunges to grab his arm. There’s a brief tussle, then Arthur lets himself be drawn back into the driver’s seat. He looks flushed and furious.

“Close that door,” Eames says. “That light’s horrible.”

Arthur squints at the dome, then closes the door. The light fades out.

“All right,” Eames says. “First of all, you may find this piece of information absolutely devastating, but I already knew you had impure thoughts about me. A blind man could see it.”

“I’m not talking about impure thoughts,” Arthur says. Then: “Not just impure thoughts.”

“We’ll get to that. The point is, I know. Second, there’s nothing wrong with having an emotion now and then. It happens to all of us.”

Arthur waits in silence.

“And third,” Eames says, “here’s a piece of free advice: when you’re trying to tell someone that you’re in love with them, or whatever it is you’re telling me, it’s bad manners to storm out of the room without giving them a chance to respond.”

There’s a pause. “Car,” Arthur says finally. And: “Sorry.”

“Apology accepted. Now, are you at all interested in my thoughts on this?”

Arthur takes a deep breath. “Yes. Of course I--yes. I’m sorry.”

“Already accepted, stop saying it.” Eames stretches his arm down the length of the window and rolls his neck. “Christ, I need a shower.”

“That’s your thought on this?”

“No.” Eames tries to focus his thoughts. “Are you in love with me, is that what you’re saying?”

There’s a long silence. Then Arthur says, “I don’t know.”

“Have you been in love with a bloke before?”

Arthur shifts. “Jesus, I--”

“It’s a fair question. Since we’re talking.”

“Yeah,” Arthur says. “No. I don’t know. Not like this.”

“Because if you’re playing queer for curiosity’s sake, you can do it somewhere else.”

“I’m not ‘playing queer.’ Jesus, do you even remember what that dream was like?”

“I do, yeah.”

“Did that feel like I was playing?”

Eames sucks his lip. “No.”

“I dragged myself out of a coma on the strength of that dream,” Arthur says. “I was not fucking playing.”

“All right. I’m allowed to ask.”

“It’s not that you’re a guy,” Arthur says. “That’s not why this is so...problematic. It’s that you’re you. And I work with you. And people work with us. Both of us.”

“You’re worried about your reputation. People thinking you’re soft.”

“Not like that. But would you want to work with somebody who was...crushing on someone else on the team? It’s not exactly professional.”

“You worked with Mal and Cobb.”

“That was different. And anyway, look how that ended.”

“I think you worry too much,” Eames says. “And about the wrong things.”

“Well, what should I be worried about?”

“I still haven’t told you my thoughts on this.”

Arthur slumps back in his seat, his head tipped against the window frame. “Please, Mr. Eames,” he says, in a weary voice. “Share your thoughts.”

Eames takes a moment to consider. Then he says, slowly, “In that dream, I was a bit surprised. I already knew you liked to flirt with me. I thought you might even have a go, if I caught you at the right moment. With your professional conscience down, so to speak.” He glances at Arthur, who hasn’t moved. “But I didn’t think there was any more to it than that. Being in that dream with you was...” He pauses, not sure what word to put to it. “Altering.”

“Altering.” Arthur’s tone is flat.

“Altering.” Eames nods. “A bit. It changed how I thought about you, is what I’m saying.”

Arthur’s posture has loosened a little. He looks pensive, rather than weary.

“It added a layer,” Eames says, “that was missing. And I liked it. That layer.”

Arthur’s watching him very closely now, his chin raised.

“I liked it,” Eames says again, simply. “That’s what I think about all this. If you want to know.”

There’s a pause.

“So,” Arthur says at last. “I don’t know--I’m not sure--”

“We work the job,” Eames says, “and after it’s done, assuming we’re both alive and not in prison, we go somewhere.”

There’s a faint smile starting at the corner of Arthur’s mouth. “Go where?”

“Somewhere that’s not a job. Somewhere we don’t know anyone.”

“Okay.”

“And we see.”

“Okay.”

“And in the meantime.”

“Yeah?”

Eames reaches over, takes firm, deliberate hold of the front of Arthur’s coat, and pulls him forward. Arthur comes willingly, if a little shakily. With Eames’s free hand holding Arthur’s jaw, they kiss. It’s a little awkward at first, Arthur’s so stiff--but then something in him lets go and he melts forward, his lips parting, a small sound escaping his throat. Eames feels a deep, almost painful surge of wanting, a need to haul Arthur over the gearshift and into the back seat, and start taking him to pieces.

They kiss for a while, the leather seats creaking. Little sounds: breath, encouragement. Arthur bites Eames’s lip, and Eames’s brain fires off a fierce imperative to his groin, like lightning hitting a tree. He clamps his hand around the back of Arthur’s neck, and Arthur lets out a stifled groan.

Finally Arthur pulls back, takes a deep breath, and checks his watch. “We’re late,” he says, frantically finger-combing his hair. “We should go up.”

“You look like shit,” Eames says. “Like you’ve been mauled by a pack of stewardesses.”

“You look the same as you always do,” Arthur says.

“Thank you.”

They get out, spend a minute or two in mutual silence while they arrange their trousers, then meet at the trunk for Eames’s bag. Arthur looks almost himself again.

“Portugal?” he says, handing Eames his bag. “I’ve never worked in Lisbon.”

“Bad blood, sorry.”

Walking toward the stairway, Eames says, “Hungary?”

“No. Definitely not.”

“Hm.”

Standing outside the door, watching Arthur flip through his keys, Eames says, “Argentina?”

Arthur frowns. “A little out of the way, isn’t it?”

“Not for Argentinians, you racist. And anyway, I thought that was the point.”

Arthur turns the key in the lock, and the door swings open on a small foyer. A small woman with bleached-blonde hair, wearing an oversized rugby shirt, sits on the floor with her back to the wall, a laptop propped inches from her face, clamshells over her ears.

“Margot,” Arthur says, “this is Eames. Eames, Margot.”

Margot raises a hand without looking up. “Milo’s on the rampage,” she says. “Cover your nuts.”

“Thanks,” Arthur says, and leads the way into the house.

 

Several hours later, well past jetlagged and into ludicrously wide awake, Eames is sitting on the kitchen counter next to a dozen half-empty Chinese takeaway boxes. Margot is on the counter opposite, still absorbed in her elevations. Milo is standing in the middle of the kitchen shouting about not being able to get restricted chemical compounds through customs. Philip, the extractor, is standing next to him being shouted at.

There’s a vibration in Eames’s pocket. He fishes out his phone and checks the message. It’s a link, which leads to a web page for a small waterfront hotel in Buenos Aires. The photographs are of brilliant blue water and cool white walls.

He looks up, across the room to the kitchen table, where Arthur leans over one of his endless piles of plans. He’s wearing a pale blue shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. A single strand of his hair has come unfixed, and dangles down beside his cheek.

looks fair, Eames texts back.

As he watches, Arthur checks his phone, which is lying beside him on the table. It only takes him a second to read the screen--then, without any reaction, he pushes the phone aside, burying it under papers.

Eames smiles and puts his own phone away. There’s a hint of beard burn on his lips, a warmth he can still feel. He studies the lean line of Arthur’s body, his narrow hips and broader shoulders. Five days, he thinks. And they’ll see.