“ – and here’s Arthur, just in time,” Jones says, nodding toward the man walking in the door, and those are the last words Eames can make out over the rush of blood in his ears.
Wake up, he orders himself, as though thinking the words might make it so. Wake up, wake up – He tries to shift, to forge, and can’t. Christ, what’s he got himself into? How could he lose track of himself like this? Focus. He came here directly from the airport, and before that – did he sleep on the plane? He can’t remember.
The man comes toward them. He’s wearing a suit, a close-fitting and beautifully tailored suit – Simon Spurr, Eames thinks numbly, because he can’t stop himself noticing these details even whilst his heart is hammering fit to burst in his chest. The cut of that suit would be hideously unflattering on almost any other man in the world, but it looks devastating on this one, with his narrow hips and straight shoulders. He wears it naturally, in the way of a man who has traded one uniform for another.
It’s a brilliant forge; even Eames has to admit that. All the more reason to destroy whoever is behind this.
“Mr. Eames,” says the man, lingering with deliberate irony on the name, as though is a private joke to which he does not intend to share the punchline. His eyes are as sharp as the rest of him, dark and bright. Magnetic. “Your reputation precedes you.”
He extends a hand, and Eames takes it, helplessly. Their bones slide together; Eames’s fingertips graze the cool, delicate skin of the other man’s wrist, and just like that, he knows.
He’s got no idea what the bloody fucking hell is going on, but he is awake, and this man, this Arthur, is real.
He clears his throat and forces out the best smile he can manage, given the circumstances. “Yours doesn’t.”
Arthur’s eyes gleam; Eames's chest seizes; and Jones claps his hands together, oblivious. “Well, Mr. Eames, now that Arthur’s here, what do you say you come down with me and show me what you’ve got?”
It’s nearly impossible to focus properly, but Eames forces himself to pay attention. He needs this job – for the money, and for the man who’s watching over his unconscious body at this precise moment – and Jones is the one he’s got to impress to get it. He chooses his forges carefully: a young boy; his favorite saucy blonde; the turnip-shaped, rosary-fondling grandmother of his most recent mark; Jones himself, a bit fragmentary and unfinished but serviceable enough to make his point.
On a whim, he throws in a lanky, blue-eyed man in dusty fatigues, ruddy with sunburn and speaking in an indecipherable Geordie accent. Jones nods thoughtfully, as he has done at each successive forge. Eames can’t help but wonder how Arthur would have reacted, if his mouth would have twitched with recognition or amusement or disapproval. If he ever smiles at all, or if his face is stuck that way, blank and unreadable.
It’s a mistake, letting himself get distracted. His concentration falters, and all at once there’s sand beneath his fingernails, dust clinging to his eyelashes – blood in his throat –
He covers the slip as best he can, by shifting quickly into Arthur. He’s careful to mimic the details he absorbed in the few minutes before he and Jones plugged in: the crisp shirt cuffs, the clean line of his jaw, the quiet confidence in the set of his shoulders.
“Very impressive,” Jones says, evidently satisfied. If he’s noticed anything amiss, he’s choosing not to mention it.
Eames adjusts the tidy knot of Arthur’s tie. His hands don’t shake at all. “You see, sir,” he says, in Arthur’s measured, professional voice, “I can be anyone you need me to be.”
Jones’s mobile rings whilst Arthur is retracting the IV lines. Jones fishes it out of his pocket as he’s getting to his feet, glances at the screen and then looks at Arthur. “It’s the client. You can take it from here?” It’s barely a question, but Arthur nods anyway. Jones rewards him with a friendly clap on the shoulder before turning to shake Eames’s hand one last time, smiling his crooked white smile. “I look forward to working with you, Mr. Eames.”
“Likewise,” Eames says, with a carefully calibrated smile of his own, and then Jones slips out the door and it’s just the two of them left in the office.
Just Arthur and Eames.
Arthur is still occupied with the PASIV, making sure everything is squared away in its proper place. They’ve changed a lot, those machines, since the first time Eames laid eyes on one. They’re sleeker, more aesthetically pleasing, as well as light-years more intuitive to operate – and, naturally, far more transportable.
The Device isn’t the only thing that’s changed. Arthur’s hair is on the longer side of professional, slicked back neat and severe; it adds five years to the face Eames remembers, ten when coupled with the stern expression. He is paler than he used to be, a bit leaner about the jaw and cheekbones. And he’s sleeker, as well, like the PASIV – flaws smoothed away, weak points concealed. A watertight disguise.
Eames considers and discards a hundred opening statements, before finally his throat loosens enough to let him say: “You’re looking quite smart for a dead man.”
Arthur glances at him, meeting his eyes for the briefest moment before turning back to his work. “I wish I could say the same for you,” he replies, plucking out one of the half-empty vials of Somnacin and holding it up to the light for inspection. “Did you sleep in those clothes?”
Arthur knows damn well that Eames has just got off a plane from bloody Copenhagen, a grueling eleven-hour preview of Hell’s lower circles. But there’s a spark in his voice now, a hint of playfulness at odds with the staid professional demeanor he’s got wrapped round himself like that eight-button waistcoat, restricting and rigid.
There, Eames thinks, there you are, you bastard. The numb shock is starting to fade; it prickles and stings, like sensation seeping back into a deadened limb. He should go, now, before – but he can’t. Of course he can’t.
“How did you find me?” There are a thousand other questions bubbling up inside him, but this is the simplest, and perhaps the one likeliest to get him a straight answer.
Arthur smiles, finally: a wry lopsided little thing, fine lines sketching out from the corners of his eyes. Eames feels it like a knife.
“I’m very good at my job, Mr. Eames,” he says. He tucks the vial away and closes the PASIV’s case with a soft click, long fingers smoothing over the clasps, and Eames doesn’t know how he’ll feel tomorrow or next week or in half an hour, but this is now and Arthur is here with him and he’s glad, he’s so fucking glad.
This is what the man known as Eames knows about the man calling himself Arthur:
His shoe size. The number of seconds it takes him to reload a bolt-action sniper rifle. The sensitive spot under his ear. The name he inherited from his father. His preferred method of execution. The shape of his mouth when he’s angry. The shape of his vowels in Urdu. His blood type. The line of his profile in the dark.
The glint of the sun in his eyes that last morning, before he left on the mission he’d never return from, vanishing forever into the frozen, hostile depths of the Hindu Kush.
Things move quickly after that. The extraction is scheduled to go down at the end of June, whilst their mark is in Bangkok on business. Less risk that way; the Thai secret police keep somewhat looser track of foreign visitors than do their counterparts in Vietnam.
Most of their work can be done from a distance, but Eames needs time and opportunity to observe Harrison’s mistress if he’s to forge her properly. As soon as he and Jones have hammered out a plan, he gets a haircut, picks up a few t-shirts on Khaosan Road, and heads to Hanoi on his Australian passport.
Fortuitously, he’s seated near a handful of tanned, wholesome-looking German backpackers on the plane. They take to him immediately, in the open, credulous way of young travelers, and by the time they land, they’ve all agreed to find a hostel together. They move through customs as a boisterous, good-humored pack, and the customs officer gives Eames’s hastily forged visa the same bored, cursory inspection as the rest.
He’s allotted himself a week in the city. A good part of that time is spent maintaining his cover as a tourist, with the help of his obliging new friends. The rest he spends trailing the mistress, Uyen, whose days seem to fall into a predictable pattern: drifting through the shops with her friends, dinner at her sister’s house, and then on to the flat where she meets Harrison. Harrison himself only turns up two nights out of six, and leaves both times after less than an hour. Eames isn’t entirely certain whether Uyen is happy with this arrangement or not; he supposes it depends whether she’s with Harrison for love or money.
The week passes quickly. His days are busy, and truth be told, he’s grateful to have something to focus on. He studies Uyen’s walk, her laugh, the way she tucks her hair behind her ear, internalizing the rhythm of her movements. He practices her facial expressions whilst brushing his teeth at night, pursing his lips and raising his eyebrows in the dingy mirror. He gives himself Uyen’s dainty little wiggled-finger wave good night, and then he goes and lies down on his narrow, creaky bed, serenaded by the drunken snores of his roommates, and tries very hard to think of nothing at all.
Back in Bangkok, the job is starting to come together. It’s a good team Jones has assembled, better than many Eames has worked with. Jones himself is a pleasant old-school sort of criminal, one of the last of a dying breed. He’d kill you if that’s what it came down to, but he’d offer you a last drink for the road before he pulled the trigger.
Nok, the architect, is a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed young Thai woman with a fondness for mansard roofs and those revolting cheese-filled hot dogs from 7-Eleven. Eames likes her very much. He butters her up with fried fish cakes from a nearby vendor, and she rewards him with every last rumor she’s heard about their fellow team members.
(“Military,” she says quietly, observing Arthur from across the room. “That is why he’s such a tight-ass.” She blows smoke from the side of her mouth and offers Eames a meaningful little smirk. “Handsome, though, na?”)
And then, of course, there’s Arthur.
Arthur is, in fact, very good at his job, which surprises Eames not at all. In many ways, he’s much the same man he was in the military. Better dressed, perhaps, and answering to a different chain of command, but still recognizable as the perennially unimpressed bastard Eames met three and a half years ago, the crack shot with stick-out ears and a tragic inability to color outside the lines. He’s still got an obsessive eye for detail, redirected now toward bank statements and medical records, and he still handles all manner of weaponry in a way that suggests he may have dragged an assault rifle with him out of the womb.
He is different, though – harder in some ways, more relaxed in others. More jaded, certainly, or at least playing up that image, but there are little touches of humanity that Eames can’t recall ever having seen before. He rolls up the sleeves of his expensive shirts and likes to tilt his chair back on two legs whilst studying his notes. He frequently pours himself a coffee and proceeds to forget about it until it’s gone stone-cold, at which point he dumps it down the sink and starts over. He drums his fingers incessantly and seems to have developed an odd tic of sucking at the inside of his lower lip; Eames can’t work that one out until he realizes he hasn’t seen Arthur join Nok for a single cigarette break this entire time.
It’s torture, of course, working with him every day. It’s bloody masochistic is what it is, and yet Eames can’t help taking some strange measure of comfort from Arthur’s presence. Not in that way – he’s not completely daft. It’s just that it’s not often he encounters anyone else so intimately familiar with the unlovely early days of dreamshare, who has done what he’s done, who knows what it’s like to slit a man’s throat ten times in an day and go on patrol with him that night, imagining you can still smell the wet metal scent of his blood on your hands.
There’s a quiet violence in Arthur, a certain self-awareness of what he’s capable of. He can polish his rougher edges all he likes, disguise himself with immaculately pressed trousers and a tidy haircut, but he’s a fighter at heart, a combat pragmatist – a killer, when necessary. He knows, as few men do, exactly which lines he is willing to cross. Eames likes that about him. Always has done.
And anyway, say what you will about him – and Eames has said quite a bit – he’s a good man to have about in a pinch.
“You will notice,” Uyen says, slightly out of breath, “I’m not saying I told you so.”
“I admire your restraint,” Arthur says, scanning the half dozen motorbikes haphazardly parked on the pavement in front of them. He makes for a bright yellow Honda Wave and eases it out of the line, then swings a leg over – miraculously unhindered by the frankly obscene cut of his trousers – and kicks the engine alive. He shoots Uyen an expectant look over his shoulder. “Well?”
Uyen scowls at him. “If you think I’m being relegated to pillion – “
“You’re wearing spike heels,” Arthur says.
“And whose fault is that?” Uyen retorts, abandoning her earlier magnanimous stance. “You may recall that I argued for the assistant, but no, it had to be the bloody girlfriend…“ She would press the point further, but the customers at a nearby pho stall are all staring at them with an ominously white-knuckled grip on their utensils, and Uyen does not relish the thought of death by chopstick. She climbs on behind Arthur, skirt riding scandalously high up her thighs, and adds, somewhat petulantly, “I’ll have you know that I am an excellent driver regardless of footwear.”
“Not in Hanoi, you’re not,” Arthur says, and peels out into the rush of frenzied traffic.
It’s not actually Hanoi, of course. The architecture is a touch too Spanish, the pagodas more Shinto than Buddhist, and Uyen is fairly certain she spots a Duane Reade tucked in amongst the ubiquitous guest houses. Still, Nok’s dreamscape is a relatively faithful approximation of the narrow, crowded Old Quarter streets where Harrison keeps his secret flat, and he has obligingly peopled them with pavement vendors, camera-wielding tourists, and swarms of what must surely rank as some of the most criminally insane drivers on earth.
Naturally, Arthur fits right in.
Uyen dreams up a Beretta, a comforting weight in her hands, only to fumble it as Arthur zigzags between several scooters loaded with uniformed schoolgirls. She hastily adjusts her grip on the gun and calls, “How long have we got?”
“Twenty till the kick, less if Jones gets the file.” Arthur veers sharply onto a side-street, weaving with hyper-intent precision through the throng of motorbikes and cyclos. More and more projections are taking notice of them, heads whipping round to stare at them as they pass, like hounds that have caught a scent. A determined few have started chasing after them, trying to track them through the crowd. “Think you can keep us alive that long?”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” Uyen says, and knee-caps an agitated-looking old man brandishing a massive ring spanner. Harrison evidently hasn’t got much experience with firearms: the Beretta’s suppressor dulls the sound of the shot to a Hollywood-level muffled pop, as good as lost in the clamor of traffic.
The old man does howl, though, as he goes down, which seems to add a certain liveliness to the step of the projections on their tail. They’re coming for the dreamer, for Arthur; if he kicks out, the dream will collapse around them. They just need to give Jones enough time to get to the damn file.
Traffic abruptly slows to a crawl, and a nearby shoe vendor takes the opportunity to dart into the road, headed straight for them. They’re stuck, trapped in the gridlock of bikes, and the woman manages to fist a handful of Arthur’s sleeve before Uyen pistol-whips her fingers, darkly satisfied with the crunch of bone under the grip of her gun.
Arthur downshifts, click clack click clack, twists the throttle, and they rocket through a narrow gap in the traffic that seems to appear out of nowhere, closing just as suddenly behind them as the thwarted projection screams in outrage.
“You’re too far back,” Arthur calls over his shoulder. “Move up, it’ll help me balance.”
“I’ll bet you say that to all the girls,” Uyen says. She inches closer, wincing at the sticky catch of leather on her bare skin, until she can feel the warmth of Arthur’s arse and hips in the open vee of her thighs. She hooks her spindly heels round the back of the passenger footrests and squeezes the bike between her legs, knees digging into the tops of Arthur’s thighs. The position gives her enough leverage that she can spare both hands for her gun, even taking into account Arthur’s somewhat capricious driving, and she readily takes out a policeman and a pair of backpackers in quick succession.
She’s feeling quite optimistic about their chances, actually, until the moment another bike leaps out in front of them, steered by a stony-faced young boy in an incongruously festive Ben 10 shirt. Arthur curses and swerves, clutching instinctively at the hand brake. The tires lock for a moment, long enough for Uyen to consider how her borrowed face will look smeared across the road – but then they’re careening round another corner, leaning hard into the turn.
“You were just nearly out-maneuvered by a twelve-year-old,” Uyen observes, a bit lightheaded from the near miss. “Losing our touch, are we?”
“Less talking, more shooting,” Arthur suggests tightly.
Projections are zeroing in on them from all sides now, wild-eyed with mindless fury; it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold them all off. Uyen conjures up an M16 – in for a penny, and all – only to find that it’s massive and unwieldy in her fine-boned hands. Really, she should have dropped the forge ages ago, but the girlfriend is a tiny thing, and an extra seven stone on the back of a motorbike is nothing to laugh off.
“All right, Arthur, brace yourself,” she warns, shouting to be heard over the wind whipping past –
– and then he’s Eames again, and the motorbike is wobbling dangerously under them, unbalanced by the new weight.
“Jesus,” Arthur says, “what the hell, Eames,” forcibly wrenching the bike back under control. They’re pressed even closer now, slotted together so tightly that Eames can feel the shift of Arthur’s shoulder blades through his suit jacket, the tension in his thighs as they swerve round a pushcart.
“Needs must, darling,” Eames says cheerfully, scooting back a bit and twisting at the waist to knock off a few belligerent cyclists, “though I suspect – ”
“What did you just call me?” asks Arthur.
They do crash eventually, of course; even Arthur hasn’t got the skill to recover from being sideswiped by a lorry. Arthur’s thrown clear, the lucky bastard, whilst Eames ends up tangled with the bike, leg trapped under the weight of it, the heat of the exhaust pipe searing through his trousers and eating into his calf. It’s not real, he knows it’s not real, but the pain is horrific, and he jerks against it, struggling to free himself. The smell of scorched flesh makes him want to be sick.
There are hands on him, yanking at him – projections’ hands, brutal and clumsy. A gun goes off, twice, three times, and the hands are gone. There’s sound everywhere: projections shouting, horns blaring, a mobile ringing, and some pathetic bastard is saying, “Arthur, Arthur,” in the most appallingly desperate voice. Eames has got a terrible suspicion that last one may be him, but then the mobile cuts off and Arthur’s low steady voice is saying, “Got it, he’s got it,” and his hand is cool and careful on Eames’s jaw, turning him toward the gun.
Eames is thrumming with adrenaline afterward, as they slip out of Harrison’s darkened hotel room. His body is still on high alert, hyperaware, and everything seems magnified: the lights in the corridor, the smell of his own sweat, the quick confident sound of Arthur’s footsteps behind him on the stairs.
Nok has already gone, taking off as soon as the three dreamers were safely awake, and Jones vanished soon after, presumably off to deliver the information to the client. Eames fully intends to follow their example as quickly as possible. If Arthur’s done his job properly, there should be no evidence, nothing to arouse suspicion, much less lead back to them. Still, it’s safer for everyone if they all disappear.
Arthur ought to know this better than anyone, but that doesn’t stop him from following Eames out of the hotel, across the car park and out to the road. Eames means to turn left, walk a few minutes and then flag down a taxi, and yet, before he quite realizes what’s happening, Arthur’s managed to steer him to the right, toward the BTS station.
After a brief moment of indecision, Eames allows himself to be led.
It’s stiflingly muggy outside, in spite of the late hour. The heat itches under Eames’s skin, makes him want to strip out of his damp clothes and make any number of poor decisions. He tugs at his collar and slants a glance over at Arthur, who’s not said a word since they left the hotel. He’d never have expected Arthur to be the one flouting security protocol, yet here he is, strolling down Ratchadamri Road with his suit jacket tossed casually over his shoulder, cool as you please. His body language is far more relaxed than it was an hour ago, loose and fluid, at odds with the fact that he’s been quite obviously half-hard in his tight little trousers since the moment they woke up in Harrison’s hotel room.
Eames can’t believe he forgot what a bloody lunatic Arthur used to be. Perhaps he’s gone madder in the intervening years. Either way, the self-satisfied twist of his lips is making Eames’s blood run hot.
“Care to tell me where we’re going?” Eames inquires, as casually as he can manage.
Arthur’s smirking mouth tugs to the side. “We’re having a drink, Mr. Eames,” he says, with exaggerated nonchalance, and oh, Christ, Eames doesn’t generally fuck people he works with, but he already knows he’s going to make an exception for Arthur. Mad, dangerous, arrogant, beautiful Arthur. Eames’s mother must be rolling in her grave.
It’s just a drink, Eames tells himself, a drink and a decent fuck, and tomorrow he’ll be half a world away. It doesn’t mean anything – not to Arthur, and not to him.
He could walk away from this if he wanted to, he tells himself, but he doesn’t.
They end up in a grungy little dive tucked away in some forgotten soi, blessedly free of rowdy tourists, who are likely all off in Patpong watching prostitutes launch ping-pong balls from improbable places. Arthur sits with his back to the wall, gaze wandering with detached curiosity over the other patrons, and lets Eames pour for both of them from the bottle sweating between them on the table.
“I think Chang’s the one with formaldehyde in,” Eames says speculatively, swirling the lager in his glass. “Reckon it does wonders for the liver.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Arthur says, though Eames notes with some satisfaction that he grimaces on his next sip. He sets his glass down and drums his fingers lightly against the side, sucks at his lip the way Eames caught him doing so many times at the office.
“When did you quit?” Eames asks. It’s strange – he still looks at Arthur sometimes and expects to see him with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
“Couple months ago.” Arthur offers him a small, self-deprecating smile. “And last year. And at the end of my first tour.”
“There are worse vices.”
Arthur snorts. “You would know.”
Eames hums in wordless agreement, allowing just a trace of suggestion to creep in, and is pleased to see that the very tips of those ridiculous ears still turn just as pink as they used to do.
They have their drink, and then another, sipping their mediocre beer and drifting along on a leisurely, uncomplicated stream of conversation. It’s surprisingly easy, in a way their interactions on the job never were. Eames feels more relaxed than he has done in ages, despite the heat still burning low in his belly.
And Arthur – oh, Arthur is lovely like this, sweat gleaming on his forehead, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, all his stark lines softened by alcohol and poor lighting. He looks – he looks like –
Eames drinks the thought away.
Two bottles later, Arthur still seems perfectly composed. He’s betrayed only by his restless hands: tapping an arrhythmic beat on the table, fiddling with his glass, worrying a scrap of pink serviette. They’re good hands, elegant, capable. If Eames squints, he can make out the scar on the right thumb, just below the knuckle, a raised white mark that’s always more pronounced in the dreamscape. He’s never asked after its origin, though he wondered, sometimes, tracing the shape of it with his tongue, tasting dust and tobacco and salty skin –
Eames licks his lips, unthinking. He doesn’t intend anything by it, but he also doesn’t miss the way Arthur falters mid-sentence, or the way he drops his gaze down to Eames’s mouth before quickly glancing away, playing at indifference.
Ah. Right, then.
He wets his lips again, deliberately this time, inviting Arthur to have a good long look. He knows very well what he looks like, the sort of thoughts that have got Arthur’s eyes going dark and his face warming, and he’s just about to suggest taking this elsewhere for a thorough demonstration when Arthur suddenly looks over to the bar and signals for another bottle.
Eames frowns at him. “Just for that, the offer’s rescinded.”
Arthur tops up their glasses. “No, it’s not,” he says – and he’s right, of course, the arsehole. He meets Eames’s eyes again and smirks, so bloody sure of himself, whilst under the table, the pointed toe of his shoe draws a slow, teasing line up Eames’s calf.
The world is swimming pleasantly in and out of focus by the time they stumble out of the bar. They’re both hungry, so they make for a nearby noodle cart, trying not to knock into anyone as they weave down the narrow strip of pavement.
Arthur makes a valiant attempt to order them drunken noodles, but his accent is atrocious, and he ends up asking for cat shit instead. Eames laughs so hard he nearly pisses himself, and it’s all right because Arthur’s laughing too, leaning into him, with one lovely strong hand cuffed tightly round Eames’s wrist as though to keep track of him.
Tomorrow, Eames won’t remember the food at all, but he’ll remember the color of Arthur’s mouth, flushed and swollen from too many chili flakes, and the burn of his tongue on Eames’s lips. He won’t know how they get to his hotel, but he’ll remember the way Arthur shoves him up against the closing room door, the sandpaper scrape of his stubble, the shiver of wet skin in the arctic chill of the air conditioning. He’ll remember Arthur’s body, lean and pliant and gorgeous, and his hands, Christ, and that red wanting mouth. He’ll remember someone saying, “This is a fucking – fucking terrible – ah, God,” but he won’t remember who.
It won’t matter, anyway, because he’ll wake up alone on the bathroom floor in the morning, stark naked and ferociously hungover, and he won’t see Arthur again for four months.