In the beginning, Eames meets Arthur and wants him instantly.
Everything about Arthur—his professionalism, his dedication, his cool head in a crisis, that certainty that he can pull off whatever’s necessary, so absolute that it almost borders on smug—all of it seems perfectly tailored to get inside Eames’s head and drive him completely batshit crazy. Arthur is always relentlessly in control, of himself, of the situation, of everything. He’s smooth and collected and perfectly composed, and Eames wants nothing more than to get under that flawless skin of his and dirty him up.
He wants to get his hands underneath Arthur’s perfectly pressed suits and learn all of Arthur’s secret spots, the spots that make him jerk and shudder and fly apart. He wants to see what noises he can pull out of him, and how long Arthur will try to bite them back. He wants to know what Arthur looks like with his hair a mess and his suit wrinkled and creased, his mouth swollen, awash with color.
That’s how it starts, and no matter at what point he finds himself along the way later, Eames can always, always, remember how he got to where he is.
Eames very quickly learns to school himself around Cobb as well as Arthur. The architects, he’s not so careful around (they never last long anyway) but Cobb—Cobb’s different. He seems to have a special interest in Arthur, and if he weren’t so clearly damaged, Eames would almost say that Cobb fancies himself Arthur’s friend, or at the very least his guardian. In any case, it only takes one instance of Cobb noticing Eames hungrily ogling Arthur’s ass in those thousand dollar trousers of his for Eames to play up his tendency to eye up everything that moves. He throws some of his fixation on Arthur in there, because every con-man worth his salt knows that the best way to win over a mark is to mix a little truth in with the lie, and before he knows it, Arthur-baiting has become his favorite extracurricular activity. It takes patience, but four months and six complete jobs later, the suspicion leaves Cobb’s eyes and as an added bonus, Eames gets to act pretty much however the fuck he wants around Arthur—from blatant and lecherous to cool and irritating.
Arthur gives as good as he gets, though, and Eames starts to look forward to Arthur’s retaliations almost as much as he looks forward to provoking him in the first place. Eames goads Arthur about anything and everything, and ever-prepared-Arthur’s always got an arsenal of scathing retorts at the ready, usually regarding Eames’s social graces, his intelligence, or his sexual performance. Eames gleefully snaps Arthur’s suspenders whenever he walks by. Arthur waits until Eames is under and swaps out his watch (which is awesome, not flashy or tacky, excuse you, Arthur) for one from a cereal box that has a plastic blue pelican of some kind on it. Eames moves random things around the office when Arthur isn’t looking—his coffee cup, his pocket watch, his briefcase—and watches with bated breath for the moment Arthur notices they’re gone, for the scowl and the glance in Eames’s direction that says I know it was you, asshole. Arthur hotwires Eames’s car and parks it atop the roof of the warehouse. He goes out of his way to design the most ridiculously complicated labyrinths, paradox after endless paradox. Eames comes in with a rocket launcher and blows right through them, smirking at Arthur’s scandalized expression as he does. Eames grows an actual moustache once, not just the scruff, and for the next two months, whenever they’re in Arthur’s dream, Eames has a new style. When he finds himself at an upper crust black tie gala in Italy with a Mario and Luigi, even doom-and-gloom Cobb can’t suppress a chuckle.
All of this puts a kind of low burn under Eames’s skin, an itch in his fingertips. He’s not entirely unfamiliar with himself—he knows the way Arthur never backs down from their constant game of one-upmanship is responsible. The fact that Arthur turns out to have much more imagination that Eames had originally given him credit for does nothing to allay Eames’s desire to fuck his brains out, Eames isn’t dead, after all, but this—the buildup, the anticipation, seeing Arthur’s wicked grin from across the room, challenge hanging heavy in the air between them—it’s not sex, but it’s definitely something Eames is into.
It occurs to him that what he and Arthur are doing is flirting. This is rather amazing in and of itself. It’s not that Eames is unaware of the concept, just that it’s been so long since someone has managed to a) resist his considerable charms, and b) keep his interest piqued while doing so.
Arthur is special, rare, and that’s why it’ll be so incredible when Eames finally breaks him.
They’re in Berlin, which has quite a good scene for that type of thing, and one night, after he spends the entire afternoon getting felt up by a call-girl so Cobb can sneak into her flat and steal her appointment book, he puts on his best blazer, the one he knows makes his shoulders look awesome, and heads out. Generally, he does his business there, in a darkened corner or a back room, preferring for his one night stands to know as little about him as possible, but occasionally, circumstances conspire such that they wind up back at his hotel. This night is just such an occasion, and while it’s not his first choice, the location does afford him the luxury of certain acts that even he won’t perform in public.
Eames saunters into the warehouse the next morning, smug and loose-limbed and fucked-out. There’s an ache between his shoulders, sore from holding up the weight of another person for too long, but it’s a good ache, he likes it, same as he likes the lassitude that’s settled in his bones no matter how much coffee he drinks. He lounges in his chair during the morning briefing, knees splayed and one arm draped over the back, half listening to Arthur drone on about the mark’s routine and half thinking about what it would be like to truss Arthur up with his own tie.
Arthur notices him not paying attention and gives him a dirty look.
Eames returns it with his toothiest smile.
After the briefing, he puts the finishing touches on a file Arthur needs and brings it over. Arthur is hunched over his desk, frown firmly in place.
“Jesus, Eames,” Arthur mutters, wrinkling his nose. He swivels around in his chair, a disgusted look on his face. “They’re called showers. Ever hear of them?”
“I have,” he replies smoothly. “The one in my hotel room is enormous, big enough for company with plenty of room to spare.”
Arthur’s jaw tightens and his eyes narrow and Eames drops the file neatly into his lap, smirking as he turns away and giving himself another point on the mental scoreboard he keeps.
Arthur is particularly prickly the entire rest of the day, and Eames takes it upon himself to make sure he’s in Arthur’s space as often as possible. He reaches for a pen and is practically on top of Arthur by the time he finally reaches it. He bumps into him constantly, apologizing in a low, velvety voice, hands wide and insincere on Arthur’s shoulders. He straddles the deck lounger Arthur is settling into (“Get your junk out of my face, Eames, or the next kick you get won’t be in a dream.”) on his way across the room, stepping over it instead of going around it.
Arthur’s irritation is like a living thing, palpable and infectious. It’s only a matter of time before it affects the others, and when Vesna, their chemist, throws down her pencil with a “Jesus Christ, you two, get a fucking room already!”, Eames does a little happy dance in his mind.
It goes on like this until he knocks Arthur’s hip while he’s constructing a maze and Arthur just loses his shit, demanding to know what exactly Eames’s fucking problem is, is he incapable of walking in a straight line, or is this Eames’s pathetic, plebian attempt at an ill-conceived seduction, because if so, he can rest assured that Arthur is neither interested nor flattered.
“Okay,” Cobb says, breaking the silence that falls following Arthur’s outburst. “That’s a day. Everybody, see you tomorrow.”
“Well, thank goodness,” says Eames. “I’m exhausted.”
Arthur’s face screws up tight, and there’s a large, angry looking vein on his forehead that makes Eames wonder if his head is about to explode. He takes a breath like he’s about to let loose another tirade, but Cobb puts his hand on Arthur’s elbow and although Arthur’s mouth snaps shut, his eyes still speak volumes about the type of death he would like Eames to die, bloody and violent.
“Don’t push it, Eames,” Cobb warns.
Eames leaves the warehouse feeling on top of the world. He sticks his hands in his pockets and whistles a jaunty tune the whole way back to his hotel.
Arthur yelled. He made Arthur yell.
Arthur never yells.
Eames should pull more often.
He wonders sometimes, but he never wonders for very long. Either way sounds dreadfully dull compared to reality, and Eames has enough alternate worlds to deal with without inventing private, boring ones that go nowhere.
The latest job has just finished and Eames is sharing a companionable post-coital cigarette with the latest in a long line of architects who are on their last legs with the team. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with this one, just as there hasn’t been with most previous to her. She’s just not the best, and Cobb is nothing if not ruthless in his pursuit of the best. Still, she’s a nice enough girl—exceptionally limber—and she doesn’t get all clingy and upset when Eames mentions his upcoming trip to Reykjavik.
“Solo?” she asks, taking a long, deep drag before passing the cigarette back to Eames.
“Indeed. Arthur knows how to get in touch with me should another job come up, but in the meantime, I imagine I’ll quite enjoy rappelling into a volcano.” He’s already bought the equipment and everything.
“Arthur, huh?” She props her chin in one hand and bends her knees, ankles crossed in the air behind her. “What’s the deal with you two?” she asks interestedly.
“Well, it’s like a dance, you see,” he starts.
“Yeah, a mating dance,” she teases, and he tilts his head to concede her point.
“We both fancy ourselves the leader and as a result, at any given time, we are both simultaneously the leader and the lead.” He pauses, thoughtful. “Arthur is adept at a great many things, but extricating himself from a paradox of his own making is not his strong suit.”
“Let’s hope that for the good of the team, he figures it out sooner rather than later,” she says. “The two of you bicker more than an old married couple.” She accepts the cigarette and puffs on it, considering. “You know, it’s too bad you can’t just make him love you. The way he looks at you, it’s obvious there’s something there.”
And that’s it. It’s like a floodlight has been switched on in a room he didn’t even know was dark.
Make him love you.
He doesn’t know why it never occurred to him before. There are considerable risks, of course. Arthur being in the line of work that he is means his subconscious will definitely be militarized, probably trained by Cobb himself, and if Arthur’s conscious self is any indication, his subconscious will more likely than not be a fucking slaughterhouse. And Eames’s work life could get very messy if he gets caught. But Eames is the best forger in the world. He’s confident he could drum up a suit that Arthur won’t recognize or be able to trace back to him. Plus, Eames has an added advantage, something considerably more valuable than a bottomless bag of disguises. He knows Arthur, knows how he works, knows what makes him tick.
“Too bad,” Eames echoes.
It would undoubtedly be a challenge. Perhaps an impossible challenge, but it wouldn’t be a challenge if it were a sure thing, and in this case, the payoff would be astronomical. If Arthur were in love with him, fuck, Eames could do anything to him. Besides, Eames thieves for a living. Stealing Arthur’s heart should be old hat.
Instead he goes as far underground as he can go. He puts some feelers out, gets his contacts’ contacts to contact their contacts, and gets a sense of the type of people he has available to him. He has to be careful about who he chooses. It can’t be anyone whose work Arthur would recognize, or who is good enough that it could get back to Cobb, who has both the moral ambiguity to help Arthur kill him and the skills to make sure no one would ever find his body. The dip in quality is by far the most discouraging hurdle, but Eames persists, and eventually, with determination and the promise of hefty compensation, he assembles himself a rag-tag team that he believes has a half a shot of making it work.
He keeps it small—an architect, a chemist and himself. The architect isn’t the best Eames has ever worked with, not by far, but he’s got an actual military background that will no doubt come in handy when Eames heads down to the second level alone. The chemist is for up top, a keeper more than anything, and really doesn’t need to do anything except mix up some compounds and monitor their sedation levels.
Eames himself has the lion’s share of the work. He vets the levels the architect designs, changing what he knows right off won’t work, and adding in a few special touches to appeal to Arthur’s sense of reality. He does his background research, learns that Arthur hates to cook, that he doesn’t even buy groceries beyond the occasional croissant, and that he has a standing reservation at a local café for lunch. It’s perfect—a slow-acting sedative in his Caesar dressing and from there, it’s only a matter of breaking into his hotel room.
The plan is to do two levels, a dream within a dream. Ideally, Eames would like to go even deeper, but the resources and the people he’s got prevent it. Two levels should be enough, though. Arthur already feels something for him, that much Eames knows, and if it’s enough that others have noticed it, so much the better. It shouldn’t be too much of a nudge to tip Arthur’s interest in Eames over into an interest in Eames.
The night before the operation, Eames doesn’t sleep three hours, he’s so keyed up. He imagines Arthur hanging on his every word, glowing adoration in his eyes, every bit of that boundless, untamable spark that makes Arthur so remarkable, so immeasurably interesting, focused on him. Arthur is a wildcat in the sack, Eames would bet his life on it, and he can’t wait to watch all that propriety and correctness and restraint melt away under his touch, to have Arthur needy, responsive, his.
When he finally falls asleep, the last thought in Eames’s mind is a giddy Holy shit, this could actually work.
The grab goes fine. Arthur has parmesan encrusted trout and a Caesar salad at the café like he does every Monday, and an hour later, he’s back at his hotel, napping soundly on the couch, feet crossed at the ankles, hands folded primly over his stomach. His shirt is perfectly ironed and Eames feels a tug low in his belly at the thought of crumpling it up.
That’s where their luck ends, though.
They get in, and it’s a mess. Arthur’s projections descend on them almost instantly. It’s nothing but sheer dumb luck that they manage to find Arthur in the bedlam at all. When they do, he’s already suspicious, already asking questions, searching for the holes that will indicate whether or not this is a dream. He reaches in his pocket for his totem and Eames thanks his lucky stars that he’d chosen a giant for this level’s suit, because one punch is all it takes to knock Arthur momentarily off his game enough for Eames to get his arms around him.
Arthur is like a rabid animal, wriggling and spitting, and he kicks Eames in the shin so hard Eames hears the bone snap before he feels it. He hangs on, half-blind with pain, and the architect plunges a needle into the meat of Arthur’s shoulder, missing getting his thumb bitten off by literally the skin of Arthur’s teeth. Arthur goes limp as a rag doll, a hundred and forty pounds of dead weight in Eames’s arms, and they have to move. The projections are already swarming, and there’s no time to lose, no time to win, just no time.
Eames’s architect turns out to be a fucking godsend. They’re in suburbia, identical houses with identical yards and identical nuclear fallout shelters in every backyard. Even so, they only just make it down the steps and into the bunker before the projections catch up, hammering and banging on the door with frightening tenacity.
“Be quick about it,” the architect tells Eames once he and Arthur are hooked up. “I’m not getting tortured to death just so you can get your dick wet.”
Down below is quieter, at least at first. Eames’s leg doesn’t hurt so much, thank Christ, but he’s got a limp he can’t shake and he can’t find Arthur anywhere. He forces himself to slow down, take a deep breath. They’re in a library, a ridiculous, opulent, massive library. He needs to think. Where would Arthur be?
He puts his money on the stuffiest thing he can think of—Victorian Literature—and takes off running (well, hobbling). He can’t hear any projections coming, but he knows they’ll be here soon enough, and when he glances out a window to get the lay of the land, he sees that the building is on a cliff face overlooking the ocean. More than that, he sees Arthur, out on a terrace one floor down, one leg crossed daintily over the other, cup of tea in hand.
Son of a bitch.
Eames takes time he doesn’t have and makes his way down to the terrace, cursing himself for not preparing better, cursing Arthur for being such a psychopath on the inside, cursing everything. He hears a sound, far away, but getting closer, like a wave breaking, only without the expected ebb and surge. It’s the projections. They’re coming. He steps out onto the terrace and locks the door, not that it’ll do any good.
“What are you doing out here?” he asks.
Arthur turns in his chair, gives him a polite smile. Eames is wearing an old lady, a librarian. He picked her knowing that Arthur has a healthy but entirely undeserved respect for the patina of age, not to mention the fact that he’s far too much of a gentleman to commit an act of violence against a woman.
“Reading,” he answers, holding up a book. Pride and Prejudice, Eames fucking knew it. “Join me, please.”
He stands up and actually pulls a chair out for Eames, and Eames, baffled by how someone with a subconscious as vicious as Arthur’s could be such a dandy, goes on autopilot.
“I’ve always loved the ocean,” Arthur continues inanely once Eames has sat down, and Eames does absolutely not have time for this drivel.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” he says.
There’s a thud from far away. Arthur’s teacup rattles in its saucer and a huge slab of rock detaches from the cliff, landing with a deafening crash in the surf below. Arthur doesn’t even notice, which means it’s got to be from the level above.
“My apologies,” Arthur says, surprised. “The terrace door was open, so I just assumed—“
“That’s not what I mean,” Eames interrupts. “There’s somewhere else you’re supposed to be right now. Someone else you’re supposed to be with. Someone you’d like to be spending more time with, a lot more time.”
Arthur looks confused. “I’m sorry. I don’t follow you.”
The floor rumbles beneath their feet, the sound of ten thousand footsteps on a murderous rampage, and Eames can’t wait anymore.
“You’re in love with Eames,” he blurts and wants to smack himself in the face as soon as he does. Subtle, Eames, jolly well done.
“Eames. Like—” Arthur pulls a douchebag expression, makes two fingerguns, and mimics shooting them wildly. “—Eames?” Arthur laughs, and what the fuck does that mean? “No, I’m not.”
“Yes, yes, you are, you—You just don’t know it yet.” He’s floundering. “Sonny,” he adds.
Fuuuuccck, is Eames fucking brain dead? What is the matter with him? This is his plan being ruined, this, right now. He can feel his victory slipping through his fingers and he can’t do a damn thing to stop it.
There’s a tinkle of breaking glass and the projections flood out onto the terrace, and Eames is up and on his feet and over the ledge without another word. The water rushes up toward him and as he falls, he lets loose a string of expletives. Everything he’d thought of, everything he’d planned for—it was completely useless, completely off. Motherfuck.
Well, maybe not everything. He wakes up in the bomb shelter to pandemonium, to the smell of blood thick in his nose, and turns his head just in time to see a mob of projections tear the architect limb from limb, until he’s just a torso, head still attached, screaming himself raw as blood and sinew spills out of him, like pasta covered in marinara sauce. As a projection of Cobb runs him through with the business end of a garden spade, Eames has just enough time to note begrudgingly that slaughterhouse is definitely an accurate description of Arthur’s subconscious.
He wakes up in Arthur’s hotel room and snatches the line from his wrist immediately.
“Did it work?” asks the chemist.
“Not even a bit. Let’s go,” Eames says. He gathers up the PASIV and is knocked aside when the architect grabs him by his shirt and railroads him into a wall.
“What the fuck was that?” he seethes.
“Nothing compared to what he’ll do to you if he wakes up and we’re still here,” Eames snaps, “so let’s go.”
They make it out of the room before Arthur wakes, but just barely, and Eames lets them know that it’s a no-win situation if anyone feels like ratting anyone else out. He maybe embellishes Arthur’s propensity for vengeance a wee bit, but honestly, given what’s buried under that perfectly coiffed hair of his, Eames has no trouble whatsoever believing Arthur capable of a revenge spree.
Eames pays them their money, then gets on a plane to Brussels, where he promptly hits up a liquor store, buys enough gin to knock out a small elephant, and spends the next five days in a hotel room, drinking his way through the worst case of occupational blue balls he’s ever had.
Arthur tells him that there’s a job, a genetic engineering firm wanting some insight on specific site plasmid integration. They need a bargaining chip, something the mark can’t bear to lose, and that’s where Eames comes in.
“He’s got a nine-year old daughter,” Arthur says, pushing a folded piece of paper across the table with two fingers. “This is the address of her school. I trust you can stumble your way over there and do some recon without being noticed?”
“I’m sure I can manage,” Eames assures him, rolling his eyes.
“Make sure you do,” Arthur replies coldly. He gives him a look like Eames is something nasty that needs to be scraped off the bottom of his shoe. “And for God’s sake, try and find something a little less pedophile-chic. The last thing I need is to find another forger because you went and got yourself picked up by the PAP.”
He rattles off the address of the warehouse, tells Eames not to be late, and is up and gone before Eames can say another word. He sticks Eames with the tab, but it’s only tea, and considering his head is still firmly attached to his shoulders, Eames counts himself lucky, chalks Arthur’s pissy attitude up to a rough day and possibly the need to get laid.
But it continues like that, the whole job. It isn’t that Arthur wants nothing to do with Eames, per se. It’s just that the only thing he wants to do with Eames is work. Work, work, work, all the time, that’s Arthur’s motto. He doesn’t rise to any of Eames’s barbs, doesn’t let Eames bait him into anything, and outright ignores everything Eames says that isn’t directly related to the job. Arthur treats him with at best thinly veiled condescension and at worst, outright scorn. Eames would love to think it’s because the inception took after all, and that this is Arthur’s emotionally stunted way of reconciling his newfound feelings for Eames, but he knows the attempt was far too clumsy, far too brutish for that to be the case. Arthur is buttoned up tighter than ever, defenses impenetrable, and if Eames didn’t know any better, he’d almost say that Arthur hated him.
(Later, much later, Eames will be talking with an acquaintance in London, and he’ll find out that inception is a lot like trying to introduce a foreign body into someone’s mind. The mind’s defenses are either lowered enough that the idea grows naturally, thereby developing a sort of protective coat of musings and experiences that enables it to take hold, or they aren’t and the mind expels it, often violently, leaving behind the sense memory of resilience, an increased immunity to the idea.)
It’s the most unsatisfying job Eames has ever worked.
When it’s over, he takes his share to Las Vegas, gambles away everything except what he needs for a plane ticket, and winds up in Santiago, working a string of mundane real world scams on unsuspecting tourists.
He works jobs that are uneventful with people that are unimaginative. He loses at games he doesn’t see the thrill in. He eats food that doesn’t satisfy him and fucks people he doesn’t remember in the morning, and is bored all the time.
When Cobb catches up with him in Mombasa, Eames doesn’t even try to pretend he’s not interested.
It’s different than how it used to be. There’s an undercurrent of hostility still in every interaction he and Arthur have, none of the puckish spark that used to weave in and out of their day to day dealings, but Eames has a thicker skin these days it seems, because for every snotty, sneering remark Arthur throws his way, Eames has an equally catty response. He knocks Arthur’s chair to illustrate the kick to Ariadne and meets Arthur’s scowl with a shit-eating look, then the two of them sit back and snicker like schoolgirls into their hands while Yusuf tips Arthur over and over again to test out compounds.
It’s nice, actually. Eames is surprised at how nice it is, being with these new people, being back with Cobb. With Arthur. He feels like he belongs here, in this empty warehouse with the best of the best, and resolves then and there never to work with a dime a dozen crew ever again.
During the actual job, things get pretty hairy. Arthur messes up the background info and Fischer’s projections come after them with a vengeance. Cobb arranges for the entire team to be sedated, even though it means a death in the dream is a drop down into Limbo, and graciously declines to volunteer that information until it’s too late. Saito gets shot in the chest within the first ten minutes. Yusuf gives the kick too soon and they all miss it the first time round. Mal kills Fischer at the eleventh hour and Ariadne, crazier than even Eames had given her credit for, convinces Cobb to journey down into fuck-knows-what with her to find him and bring him back.
The whole thing is reckless and foolish and completely mad, and it’s the most fun Eames has ever had in his life.
Arthur is like a ghost. One second he’s at baggage claim, pulling an attaché from the luggage belt with practiced ease, and the next, he’s gone, as though he never was.
He bums around the States as long as he can, but he only lasts five weeks before he’s going stir crazy. He hops a plane to Tokyo and makes an appointment to see Saito, wears a suit and everything.
Saito is nothing if not a gracious host. He clasps Eames’s hand vigorously in both of his, offers him sake in the garden atop the roof of his company’s headquarters. He defers the toast to Eames, who toasts to strategies well executed and prosperity well realized.
“How’s business?” Eames asks, holding his square sake cup with both hands.
“Very well, thank you.” He doesn’t elaborate, and the omission doesn’t go unnoticed by Eames. “And you? How is your whirlwind life of intrigue?”
“Intriguing,” Eames replies. “I’ve been thinking about getting the band back together.”
Saito’s cup pauses on the way to his mouth. “Oh?”
“But I’m having a little trouble locating the original members.”
“With enough money and determination,” Saito says slowly, “I should think anyone could be found.”
“I quite agree. I have to tell you though,” Eames says, leaning forward, “there’ll be no room for groupies in this band.”
“Are you taking this metaphor somewhere, Mr. Eames?” Saito asks.
Eames grins. He’s always liked Saito. “I’m just saying, you’ve got some chops on you, old man. I’ve never seen a groupie stick his neck out like that. And with Cobb out of the game, there is an opening. You know,” he says casually, sitting back in his chair. “If you’re interested.”
Saito is silent for a long moment, his eyes searching as if to puzzle out Eames’s true intentions. He leans forward and tops up Eames’s cup, then his own, and raises his drink.
“To new records,” he says, his face breaking out into a smile.
Eames’ll drink to that.
Ariadne graduates within the week, and three days later, she arrives in Tokyo. Saito puts her up in the penthouse suite of one of his nicer hotels, and it’s clear that she’s still got a student mentality when she answers Eames’s call with, “I have a pool on my balcony? Are you kidding me?”
They find Yusuf back in Mombasa, testing compounds on the dreamers in the dream-den like the Fischer job never happened.
“Will I have to go into the field?” he asks when Eames lays out his proposal. “Really, I hate the field.”
“I think you can probably be a housecat from now on,” Eames answers, and he almost regrets it when Yusuf makes him help pack up all of his notes, which, seriously, are everywhere.
The most difficult nut to crack, as always, is Arthur.
Eames finds him at a concert hall in Venice. He looks impeccable, not a hair out of place, not a seam unpressed. Eames wonders if he poked Arthur’s hair, if it would be revealed to be made of plastic, immovable by any force of God or man. He fidgets and tugs on the lapels of his new suit, which he definitely already hates. It’s terribly restrictive. Arthur must be some sort of masochist to willingly put himself through this every day.
“You clean up nice,” Eames says, flopping gracelessly down into the seat beside him.
Arthur looks at him, aghast, then gives him a once over. “Wish I could say the same for you. What is that, off the rack?”
Eames rolls his eyes. “Alright, that’s enough with the pleasantries. Want to team up? Work some jobs together?” He pulls a plane ticket from his suit jacket and waves it invitingly.
Arthur barks a laugh. “Why would I want to work with you?”
“Because I’m the best,” he says, shrugging matter-of-factly. “And I’ve got all the best, except for you. So unless you’ve already resigned yourself to a lifetime of mediocrity, I suggest you remove the stick from your ass and take the ticket.” He smiles beatifically, then looks down at the stage. “What are they playing, anyway? The Rolling Stones?”
Arthur gawks at him, appalled. “We’re in Venice. They’re playing Vivaldi.”
“Oh. Wish they were playing The Rolling Stones.”
Arthur closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “You are a classless boor. Now shut up. It’ll be starting soon.”
“Oh, who cares?” Eames moans. “Besides, Saito’s bought out the entire loge. Answer my question.” He flaps the ticket right up in Arthur’s face, humming Sympathy for the Devil.
Arthur snatches it out of his hand, glaring as the lights dim. “God, you’re irritating. Who else do you have?”
“You know, the old gang. Yusuf, Ariadne, Saito.”
“No, Cobb’s out.”
Eames can’t be sure, it is dark after all, but he thinks for a second that he sees Arthur’s shoulders slump, just a little bit. It’s gone as soon as it appears, though, if indeed it was ever there at all, and when Arthur speaks next, his voice is completely level.
“Do you have a job lined up yet?”
“A client base?”
“So let me get this straight. You have a team, a ghastly suit, and nothing.” He raises an eyebrow and Eames beams at him.
“That, my dear Arthur, is where you come in.”
Ariadne is a master, no doubt about it. The levels she designs keep the marks occupied for hours beyond what’s necessary, and architecturally speaking, they’re something else. Arthur has a flat-out adorable crush on her brain that he thinks is a secret, and when she shows them a new level she’s been working on just for fun, cathedrals spun entirely out of salts of every color, every speck of light reflecting, so that even one match is enough to illuminate an entire room, he lets out a quiet, “Wow”, and Eames is standing close enough to her that he catches her reaction, a tinge of color in her cheeks and a pleased smile.
Saito picks up the laws and nuances of the dream world like it’s nothing, just another nation in which to do business. He’s got an in-charge feel about him—people listen when he speaks—and more than once, Saito’s expert handling gets them out a jam that could have turned ugly in less time than it takes to draw a weapon. He’s not a bad shot with a handgun, and while he’s not the swiftest in a chase, he’s got an understanding of the marks—businessmen usually, and richer than some countries—how they view losses and wins, forfeitures and rewards, which proves invaluable.
Yusuf cooks up more concoctions than Eames even knew existed. Every day it seems he’s got a new project on the go, and everyone gets a turn being guinea pig. Eames’s is something Yusuf calls an “enantiomerically-gated sedative” that drops him where he stands when he gets a whiff of the lemonade Yusuf is drinking and leaves him clear-headed and coherent when he wakes up to Yusuf’s triumphant grin and a half an orange shoved in his face.
Arthur falls into his role like he was born for it. He sniffs out jobs that look interesting, sets up the meets, and takes care of the details, the how and the where and the when. He does the background checks and learns the marks’ routines and arranges contingency plans for his contingency plans. He seems to know when the projections are about to turn even before they do. Occasionally it’s just before, but it’s always with enough time for the team to hightail it out of there, to grab whatever secrets they’re there to grab and to get out, and if it sometimes gets a little messy, well, if ever there were someone Eames would want covering him in a shoot-out, Arthur would definitely be at the top of his list.
Eames takes care of all the forgeries, both in the real world and in the dreams. Passports, permits, parents, partners, Eames does it all. As far as Eames is concerned, it’s easily the most fun, and it leaves him with quite a bit of spare time compared to the others, which he uses to people-watch. It’s how he discovers Ariadne’s fondness for trendy, low-budget films, Yusuf’s distaste for mayonnaise. It’s how he knows Arthur prefers stripes over solids when choosing his ties, and how he learns that Saito’s nephew, while not yet amazing, is learning the ropes of the company faster than most (including Saito) had expected.
It’s also how he notices that somewhere along the way, in between impossible landscapes and criminally long hours, psychotropic drug cocktails and take away swimming in grease, the five of them are becoming something more than just a team, something that if Eames were all by himself and nearing the bottom of a bottle, he’d almost say felt like a family.
They get the information and get out, and when they come up, Arthur apologizes, vehement and profuse (“Fuck. Fuck, I’m sorry. I should’ve seen them, should’ve said. I’m sorry.”), and Ariadne, shaken but a trooper to the end, waves him off (“It’s alright, I’m alright. Ten fingers, ten toes. Even both eyes. Really, I’m alright.”)
But Arthur clearly has no interest in being let off the hook that easily, and his face goes wooden and hard. He doesn’t storm out, far too reserved for something so dramatic, but he gets up and grabs his jacket and is out the door without another word to anyone.
“Bad dream?” asks Yusuf.
Ariadne blows out a deep breath all at once, her cheeks puffing out. “Yeah, little bit.” She shakes her head to clear it, shivering a little despite the day’s warmth, and Saito wordlessly drapes her sweater over her shoulders. She lets out a jittery, self-deprecating laugh. “Thanks.”
Saito bows his head, cool as a cucumber.
“Okay,” she says. She claps her hands together, cracks her knuckles. “I’m going back to my hotel, getting drunk on girl beers, and watching The Princess Bride. Anyone who would like to join me is welcome.”
“Which ones are girl beers again?” asks Yusuf, already gathering his things. “The diet beers or the fruity ones?”
“The fruity ones. You can drink whatever you want. I don’t care. Saito?”
“I enjoy pomegranate,” Saito says after a moment.
“Aces. Let’s get out of here.”
Eames hangs back. “I’m going to go find Arthur.”
Ariadne nods. “Would you tell him it’s not his fault?”
“Easier said than done, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah,” she agrees, and rolls her eyes, exasperated. “Hey, Eames?” she calls.
Eames turns, eyebrows raised in question.
“Thanks,” she says with an awkward, self-conscious shrug.
Eames throws her a smile. It was nice not to have to watch her get her eye cut out. “Don’t mention it,” he says, and means it.
It takes a little while for him to find Arthur. He’s not at any of the places Eames knows that are suitably snooty, but his car is where it was all day, so he can’t be far, and soon enough, Eames finds him at a hotel bar that, by Arthur’s standards, is practically a hovel.
“Well, this is unlike you,” he says, leaning against the bar beside Arthur, surveying the crowd.
“Did it occur to you that maybe I came here to be left alone?” Arthur grumps. “How did you find me, anyway?”
“I put a new GPS tracker in your suit pocket every morning,” he says offhandedly. “So. You kind of lost your shit in there.”
“I’ve got it under control.”
“Because screwing up is one thing, but handling the screw up is an important—“
“I said I’ve got it.”
“That Fischer thing kind of fucked you up, huh?”
Arthur knocks back a shot, glaring. “I’m really not in the mood, Eames.”
“It’s alright, you know. Ariadne’s fine, job was a success. Everyone slips sometimes. It isn’t the end of the world.”
“Not me,” Arthur snaps. “I’m the best. I don’t slip.”
Eames makes a tutting sound and Arthur turns to look at him, indignant shock on his face.
“Arthur, darling. Everyone slips. Being perfect all the time isn’t what makes a person the best. It’s how you handle yourself in the aftermath, the bottom line. And I know a smart lad like you knows the bottom line on the Fischer job,” he says, clapping Arthur on the shoulder.
Arthur says nothing, just turns and studies Eames’s hand on his shoulder, and Eames heaves a put-upon sigh.
“Alright, maybe not so smart then. Let me enlighten you: Job completed, payment received, zero casualties,” he says, ticking them off on his fingers. “You dropped us while we were in free fall. That takes skill, even I have to admit. People still hire us based solely on that job, you know that. So have a drink,” he says, waving over the bartender on a whim and motioning for two shots. “But know that it’s a celebratory drink, and not at all a commiseration drink.”
Arthur watches him with hawk eyes, but he follows Eames’s lead when Eames picks up his shot, and he lets Eames clink their glasses together, even if he doesn’t slam it the way Eames does.
“What? You think you’re the only one with a bag full of five-syllable words?” Eames drawls. “Do your shot.”
“Why are you being so nice to me?” he asks, eyes narrowed.
Eames gives up. “Oh, Arthur!” he snaps, frustrated. “You know, just once in your ridiculous, colorless, Spartan life, I dare you to take something at face value. God.” He slaps a tenner down on the bar and has every intention of leaving Arthur here to wallow in his suspicion and his self-pity.
“Alright,” he hears, and when he turns back, Arthur is giving him a look like Eames hasn’t seen in years, like Arthur would rather slit his own throat than let Eames have the last word.
“Alright, do over.”
Eames watches as Arthur waves the bartender back over and accepts the shot Arthur slides over to him.
“To slipping,” Eames says, raising his shot. He raises his eyebrows too, daring Arthur to pussy out on this.
Arthur raises his glass. “To skill enough to come back from it,” he allows, and throws his shot back before Eames can say anything.
It’s a start.
Eames rounds a corner, almost kicks a rat in the face, and just about breaks a tooth trying not to let out—not a scream, exactly, more of a manly bellow. In any case, it only cements Eames’s hatred of the place, and when he comes across Arthur fixing himself up in the reflection of a dusty mirror, he just can’t resist.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Eames asks.
“Straightening my tie?”
“Being so finicky about it. You know what they call a man here who pays as much attention to his clothes as you do, yeah?”
“A grown-up,” answers Arthur without even missing a beat in his Windsor. “Something you’d do well to remember,” he adds, meeting Eames’s eyes in the mirror and looking him up and down. “You look like a drifter.”
Eames glares, then changes his mind and smirks. “I saw a rat taking a nap in there,” he says as Arthur shrugs into his jacket, and the look on Arthur’s face, eyes bugged out and mouth contorted in revulsion, puts a smile in his heart.
They’re at a business dinner, some showy affair that has the true purpose of intimidating the competition, chumming the waters so that panic and frenzy will work to the host’s advantage. They’re there to steal the host’s money trail info. They’re also in Arthur’s dream, so naturally, Eames is dressed like a complete clown, wearing no less than eleven separate items of clothing.
“You should be thanking me,” Arthur replies, scanning the crowd for the mark. “You look sharp. For a change.”
“I have a top hat and cane, Arthur,” he hisses. “I do not look sharp, I look like Mr. Monopoly.” He fiddles with his sleeves and his, Jesus, cufflinks, and boy, is he ever going to kill Arthur for this later. “What, run out of monocle architecture?”
Arthur gives him a blank look then taps his chest twice.
Eames’s hand goes to his own chest without thinking and oh, this is the fucking limit. He gives Arthur his absolute best withering look, and Arthur, that asshole, just smiles that pseudo half smile of his, like it doesn’t count if he only uses one side of his mouth, before introducing Eames to the next person to walk by, and that is how Eames runs out the clock as the very rich and important Mr. Pennybags, squinting to keep his monocle in and plotting Arthur’s untimely and tragic death.
“Let’s take a trip,” says Ariadne.
Eames raises an eyebrow. “You’ve burned through four passports in under a year. Are you saying we don’t take you anywhere?”
“Not a work trip. A fun trip. A vacation. Come on, all of us, let’s go.”
“I have missed both my May and September holidays,” Saito muses.
“We could go somewhere where they bring you little umbrellas in your drinks,” says Yusuf.
“I love little umbrellas in my drinks,” says Eames, and he and Yusuf high five.
“I don’t know,” says Arthur. “We have a lot of options. There are a lot of people interested in our services.”
“They’ll be interested still when we get back,” says Ariadne. “Come on, Arthur.”
“Yeah, don’t be such a wet blanket,” says Yusuf.
Somehow Arthur glares at Eames for this, which, hey.
“Fine. Where are we going? I’ll make the arrangements.”
They rent a villa in Bali for two weeks. It’s amazing. There’s a private beach and a sundeck overlooking the bay and a shed full of equipment for activities that Eames is pretty sure no one should be attempting underwater, activities like breathing. There’s a hot tub and an Infiniti pool and a sauna, and balconies with incredible views, treetops and clear blue water and jagged coastline stretching out as far as the eye can see. There’s also a sailboat with their account number on it in the wharf, and they spend an entire day sailing around, Ariadne at the wheel like an old sea captain, hair blowing all around her face in the wind.
Most of the time, they just lounge around on the beach. The first morning, Eames is playing a pick up beach volleyball game with Ariadne, Yusuf, and Saito (he’s pretty spry for an old guy) when he notices Arthur in the shade of some exotic looking trees, and he doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything quite like Arthur standing there, looking precious and uncomfortable in a pair of black swim trunks.
“What’s with the book?” Eames asks, as he ambles over to steal Arthur’s water.
“It’s for reading,” Arthur replies with false sincerity. “You look at the words and it makes a story appear.”
“So charming when you’ve lost the tie and the three-piece.” He plucks Arthur’s glass off the table and drinks it right in front of him.
Arthur scowls. “No, no, go right ahead,” he says, when Eames tips the glass end up, finishing the whole thing. “It’s not like that was for me or anything.”
Eames wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, letting out an exaggerated ahh. “You’re a peach,” he grins.
Arthur smirks. “What’s with the tattoos?”
“Products of a misspent youth.”
“Prison souvenirs?” He raises an eyebrow in cool amusement.
“Give me a little credit. I’ve rarely been caught, and I’ve definitely never been kept long enough to be marked.”
“Why am I not surprised?” he asks, and when he says it, it almost sounds fond. Eames means to rib him about it, but just then, Ariadne comes over.
“Hey, sorry,” she says, lifting her sunglasses in the shade. “Are you coming back or what? There’s too much running with only three.”
“Why do you always do that?” Eames asks. “Apologize, I mean.”
She shrugs. “I’m Canadian. It’s how we roll. Now get back out there. Saito’s killing me and Yusuf.”
The rest of the vacation passes in a blur of sunny days and restful nights. They tan and swim and drink and try to get Arthur to agree to be buried in the sand (“In your very figurative dreams,” he scoffs). Eames, Ariadne, and Saito go on a tour in one of those glass-bottomed boats, Yusuf opting out because he doesn’t trust the boat’s structural integrity and Arthur staying behind to read a book like a buzz kill. When the three of them get back, Arthur is asleep in a lounger on the beach, book open and face down on his chest, and Eames sticks an umbrella into the sand behind him so he doesn’t get a sunburn. They go out to a casino one night, and Eames gambles with real money for the first time in he doesn’t even know how long. Arthur and Ariadne watch bad karaoke. Saito actually sings bad karaoke. Yusuf disappears halfway into the night with a hot New Zealand girl, and they don’t see him again until the morning, back at the villa, where he’s saying goodbye. Eames knocks him in the shoulder to get his attention and gives him an impressed nod, and then Yusuf makes them all pancakes.
On the second last day they’re there, Eames bows out of a dunking match he and Yusuf and Ariadne are having when they gang up on him, swimming underneath him and yanking him down by the ankles. He cries uncle and Yusuf and Ariadne do a sloppy but victorious double high-five in the water, and Eames climbs out to where their stuff is, clothes and towels and bottles of water. Arthur is also there, in a sunhat that makes him look faintly ridiculous, again with a book, and Eames will never understand the compulsion Arthur has to read as many things as possible on vacation.
“So?” Eames asks, sitting beside Arthur. “You having fun, despite all your best efforts?”
“It is really nice,” Arthur admits. “I’m glad we came. It was a good idea. Fun.”
Eames puts the back of his drippy hand on Arthur’s forehead. “You don’t feel warm.”
Arthur bats his hand away and wipes his face. “Witty,” he drawls, and turns to look out over the water. “I don’t know. I like it here. I’ve always loved the ocean.”
For a moment, Eames’s heart thuds to a halt inside his chest. His blood congeals in his veins, and he can hear Cobb’s voice of all people. Pay attention to the strangeness of the dream. Eames is in a wicker lounger on a beach in Bali, talking to Arthur like… well, like they’re friends. Arthur’s drink has a chunk of pineapple in it for fuck’s sake. It doesn’t get much stranger than that, but he knows how he got here, remembers Ariadne bringing up a trip, remembers the flight and sailing and coming down the stairs for breakfast this morning to find Arthur already awake and outside reading. Arthur’s got the same book with him now, and Eames checks the title and even though it’s not Pride and Prejudice, it’s all a little too close for comfort, and he fishes around in his pocket until his fingers close over his poker chip.
“What?” Arthur asks when Eames catches the chip in the palm of his hand.
Eames shakes his head. “Just déjà vu.”
It’s the first time Eames sees Arthur smile, really smile, not smirk or sneer or simply bare his teeth in someone’s direction. It’s just a smile, just because he’s happy, and it doesn’t look out of place or wrong like Eames would have thought. It looks natural, comfortable, like it belongs on his face, and Eames decides in that moment to make it his mission to see it there as often as possible.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I must have been so busy thinking up an actual plausible plan that I missed your flood of brilliant non-plans. Please. Enlighten us.”
“It’s not plausible, it’s suicide. This isn’t a Nash equilibrium situation, and we are not dealing with a tit for tat mark here. We’ve got a grim trigger and our finger is on it and if we pull it, we’re fucked.”
Eames blinks. He has no idea what Arthur is talking about.
Arthur notices this and it seems to infuriate him. “Game theory?”
Eames gives him a blank look. He looks around at the others, hoping for an explanation that makes sense, but they look as confused as he feels. “Is that… math?” he guesses.
Arthur huffs and actually sits back in his chair in disbelief. He looks shocked, offended even. “Imbecile,” he says, and then tacks on, “Read a book.”
All of these reasons and more are why he’s astonished to find, one day in Versailles, that sometime, without his knowledge or consent, Arthur—boring, glowering, by-the-book, stuffed shirt Arthur—has somehow managed to trick Eames into actually liking him.
Every time they turn around there’s a new problem. Arthur can’t get a hold of the mark’s records without the proper documentation, and Eames can’t get a solid line on what type of ink the Swedes are using these days, all of his contacts humming and hawing for ages before they finally get back to him, only to have nothing useful to report. Yusuf’s equipment gets lost somewhere in transit, and he and Saito get jerked around for an entire day just trying to find new glassware. Even Ariadne can only do so much before she hits a wall and has to wait for them to catch up. There’s a lot of down time. What was supposed to be a simple in and out job is taking forever, and the employer is getting impatient.
Eames starts drinking at three, figuring that if he’s not being productive, he might as well be plastered. It does make the day go faster, and Eames amuses himself by doodling stick figure drawings of Arthur is various states of suit-related distress. He’s snickering to himself, putting the finishing touches on one where Arthur’s tie gets stuck in the lift doors, when he suddenly looks up and Arthur is standing right there.
“What are you laughing at?”
Eames says nothing, and Arthur’s eyes narrow. He leans in close and sniffs.
“Are you drunk?” Arthur demands.
Eames tilts his hand back and forth. He’s not that drunk.
“Give it to me,” Arthur orders, holding out his hand.
Eames rolls his eyes and hands it over, wondering why he even puts up with a killjoy like Arthur in the first place, and Arthur surprises him by unscrewing the cap and taking a giant pull.
“Arthur, you saucy minx,” Eames exclaims, and okay, maybe he’s a little drunker than he thought.
“Ugh,” Arthur winces after he swallows. “That is vile. You’re richer than some major cities. Why would you drink that?”
“I like to stay grounded,” Eames shrugs. “Remember where I came from.”
Arthur kicks over a chair and sinks into it. “Is where you came from the bottom of a sewer?”
Arthur takes another drink and passes the bottle back to Eames. “This is the fucking worst,” he complains, hunching forward, his elbows on his knees. He’s lost the suit jacket sometime in the last twenty minutes, since Eames started his latest drawing, and his sleeves are rolled up to the elbow. It’s very distracting. “I hate sitting around.”
Eames watches Arthur stew, and okay, maybe Eames has some kind of stupid crush or infatuation or whatever with Arthur right now, but that’s no reason to blow tiny nothings all out of proportion, and if he thinks the whisky suddenly tastes different, that’s only because Eames is two hours ahead of Arthur, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Arthur’s mouth was on the bottle only seconds ago, not at all.
An hour passes and between the two of them, they finish the entire bottle. Eames would never say so, but he’s impressed at Arthur’s ability to hold his liquor. He keeps a relentlessly even keel, consonants crisp and syllables distinct, and save for a bit of a flush in his cheeks, he’s no different at all from a completely sober Arthur.
That is, until he tries to stand and fails miserably. He way overbalances, and his knees kind of just buckle under his weight. He falls back gracelessly into his chair, surprised, and gives both his legs and the ground a comically betrayed look.
Eames can’t help but snicker.
“Alright, lightweight, you’re cut off,” he says. “I need to leave anyway. I’m definitely hammered and I need to eat.”
Arthur looks at Eames with this look on his face, like he’s just gotten the answer to a problem that been plaguing him for days. “Eat,” he says, in a how-could-I-be-so-stupid tone of voice. “Right.”
Eames raises an eyebrow. “Right?” he repeats. “As in oh, right, that’s what humans do? As in you haven’t eaten all day? Since yesterday?”
“I meant to,” Arthur insists. “I just… got distracted.”
“From the biological need to consume food to stay alive.” Eames leans back in his chair, craning his neck to look at the back of Arthur’s head.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m checking to see where the push button is to switch you on in the mornings, since you are clearly some sort of robot-android, and honestly, Arthur, this is the sort of thing the team should know about you.” He picks up Arthur’s hand by the wrist, checks his forearm and the crease of his elbow. “What if we need to reboot you on a job? Boy, will our faces be red.”
Two things happen next that Eames just can’t believe. The first is that when Eames picks up Arthur’s hand to check for switches and wires and whatnot, Arthur lets him. The second is that Arthur’s face breaks open, his smile so wide it cuts deep indents into the side of his cheeks, dimples showing up out of nowhere, and he makes a noise that Eames never in all his life thought he’d hear Arthur make.
“You—You giggled.” Eames knows his mouth is open, knows he probably looks like a fool, gobsmacked within an inch of his life, but come on. It’s Arthur. Giggling. That sort of thing just does not happen. He stares for a long moment, and it’s only when he reaches into his pocket to flip his poker chip that Arthur snorts (honestly, what is happening here?) and takes his hand back to shove Eames, shove him, lightly, playfully, in the shoulder.
“Shut up,” he grins, even though Eames hasn’t said anything.
Eames calls himself a taxi, makes Arthur promise to do the same, and takes a piss before they leave. He takes the time alone to flip his poker chip, and lets out an interested “Huh,” when it lands flush. Not dreaming, then. He looks at the door, looks in Arthur’s direction, even though he can’t see him, obviously, and looks at the chip again, running his thumb around the outside, checking the grooves, which are also all in the right spots. He shrugs. Stranger things than Arthur having a good time have happened, he guesses. Somewhere. Probably.
When he comes back, Arthur is gone. The white glow of headlights spills in through the windows of the warehouse, and Eames locks up before climbing into the backseat, only to find Arthur already inside.
“This is my taxi,” he says.
“No, it’s not,” Arthur objects. “I’m in it.”
“Where to, sirs?” asks the driver.
Eames gives up and rattles off the address of his hotel first. Eames’s hotel isn’t far from Arthur’s, still in the same district, and Arthur can just take the same car from there. They drive through Stockholm, the city going a dusty blue in the twilight, and Eames thinks that he could learn to like this place, with its quiet sophisticated beauty, if only the job would start going right.
They pull up to Eames’s hotel, but when Eames looks over at Arthur to get him to give the driver the address, Arthur is slumped over a little, head on his shoulder, eyes closed.
Eames claps his hand down on Arthur’s knee, gives it a shake. “Arthur,” he says again a little louder.
“Are you falling asleep?”
“Open your eyes, then.”
“They are open. Go away.”
Eames meets the driver’s eyes in the rearview. “Best we both get out here, I think.”
Getting Arthur up to his room is a chore of Herculean proportions. Despite his uncanny ability to retain his clear speech, he’s pretty much unconscious in the cab, which means Eames has to haul him out, and Arthur is not someone who just allows himself to be manhandled, black-out drunk or no. He’s got three left feet, even with Eames’s arm wrapped around his waist and his arm over Eames’s shoulders, and he almost sends them both tumbling to the ground with every step. In the lift, he pushes seven wrong buttons before Eames manages to grab a hold of his hand to stop him.
If Eames weren’t a fucking saint, he’d leave him in a stairwell and be done with him.
Finally, they get to Eames’s room, where Eames lugs an unbelievably heavy Arthur over to the bed and dumps him there as nicely as he can, considering he’s not exactly sober himself. Arthur’s tie somehow gets caught underneath his shoulder, and when he tries to turn onto his side, the little half-asleep choking sound he makes is so pathetic that Eames takes pity on him, rolling him back over onto his back so Eames can get him out of his suit jacket. It takes a long time—Arthur’s shirtsleeves are still rolled up from earlier and the arms of his jacket get caught where the fabric bunches. Eames picks at the knot of Arthur’s tie (the last thing he needs is for Arthur to choke himself out in the middle of the night because he’s too drunk to notice he’s suffocating) and when his fingers, clumsy with alcohol, brush against the warm skin of Arthur’s throat, Arthur hums, low and pleased. Eames looks up, startled by the sound, and becomes aware of just how close their faces are, his bent low to work on Arthur’s tie and Arthur’s propped up by the pillow underneath his head.
Eames freezes, and the moment seems to hang in the air, endless, Arthur’s tie gripped between Eames’s fingers and their faces so close Eames can smell liquor, spicy-sweet, on Arthur’s breath. Arthur could wake up, thinks Eames wildly, he could wake up right now and if he did, Eames has no fucking idea what would happen, whether Arthur would startle and jerk back or whether he would strain forward, lift his heavy head just enough to press his warm, whiskyed mouth to Eames’s.
Eventually, the moment ends and Arthur doesn’t wake up and Eames realizes that he’s been kneeling there staring at Arthur’s mouth for the last who knows how long. He gives his head a shake to clear it and finishes undoing Arthur’s tie, stuffing it in the pocket of his jacket. He hangs the whole thing over the back of a chair so Arthur doesn’t bitch about the wrinkles in the morning, and slips Arthur’s shoes off, too, tucking them under the bedside table on Arthur’s side so no one trips over them and break his neck in a drunken stupor.
Eames forces himself to brush his teeth, a key part of any hangover reduction strategy, and drinks a huge glass of water before collapsing into bed beside Arthur. It’s a big suite, with a sitting area and a couch, but fuck if Eames is sleeping on a couch in his own bleeding hotel room.
Arthur is sound asleep. He’s lying on his side, facing Eames, head tucked in toward his chest just a little bit. His breathing is quick, like he’s running, but his face is smooth and untroubled, and his eyelids flutter sporadically, lashes dancing against the paper-thin skin beneath his eyes. He looks open and unguarded, so unlike the Arthur that Eames sees during the day.
It’s not how he’d imagined getting Arthur into bed would be, not by a long shot, but when Arthur sighs and snuffles into his pillow, it puts a funny feeling in Eames’s chest, wistful and tinged with something like regret around the edges.
He emerges fifteen minutes later feeling much more like a proper human, a towel wrapped around his hips and another one rubbing at his hair, only to have Arthur step out from around a corner, where he’s clearly been lurking, and stick a gun in his face.
“Oh, thank fuck it’s you,” Arthur breathes, lowering the gun.
“Who else would it be?”
“I don’t know. I’m not in the habit of waking up in strange hotel rooms with no idea of how I got there.”
Eames smirks. “Maybe you should be. You were a lot of fun last night.”
Arthur’s eyes widen, just the slightest amount, but just then there’s a knock at the door, and up goes the gun again.
“Calm down, it’s just breakfast,” Eames tells him. “Be a dear and get the door while I put some clothes on, yeah?”
Eames gets dressed in the first things he grabs out of his bag. Even he can tell they’re an awful combination of patterns, but he sticks with them, already perversely pleased at Arthur’s inevitable reaction. He comes back into the little dining area, where Arthur is eyeing their meals with ill-concealed mistrust. There’s a red die on the table next to the teapot, but still he looks unconvinced.
“How did I get here?” he asks, eyes darting around the room.
“Well, let’s see. You drank my whisky, stole my taxi, and then fell asleep in my bed.”
There’s a beat of silence. “That doesn’t sound like me,” he says.
Eames smiles. “No, it doesn’t,” he agrees. He lifts the lids off of both his and Arthur’s breakfasts, and tucks in right away. He’s so hungry he thinks he could eat his own arm, but only the one so he’d still be able to eat other things.
Arthur stays standing, still looking around suspiciously. “Poached eggs?” he asks, nodding toward the table.
“That’s how you take them, isn’t it?” The words are a little garbled by the entire piece of toast Eames has just shoved into his mouth.
Arthur nods. “Yeah,” he says, and sinks uncertainly into the chair opposite Eames. He watches Eames eat for a minute. He’s acting really weird, and Eames wants to ask him about it, but he wants to inhale this meal (and possibly another two just like it) a lot more.
“I fell asleep here,” Arthur says dubiously.
Eames nods as he blows on his tea. It’s still way too hot to drink, and he abandons it to concentrate on his eggs, which are perfectly fried, the yolks still soft, custard-y but not runny.
“Where did you sleep?”
“In the bed. Where else would I sleep?”
“With me?” Arthur’s eyes are enormous.
“And it was horrible, I’ll have you know,” Eames continues. “You’re a blanket hog, and you kick.” Neither of these things are true. Eames just likes to wind Arthur up.
“A gentleman would have taken the couch,” says Arthur archly.
“A cad would have left you in the taxi to find your own way home rather than bring you up to his very posh and luxurious hotel suite to sleep it off,” returns Eames, and goes back to mashing his eggs into a paste, spreading them over his remaining toast.
“So I spent the entire night here,” Arthur says.
Arthur’s hair is sticking up at the side, a wayward clump locked in place by the remains of whatever product he uses, and he looks ridiculous, but so serious at the same time that Eames can’t help his indulgent smile when he answers. “You did.”
“And we shared a bed.”
“And nothing, uh—“ He looks down at himself, takes in his rumpled shirt and open collar. “I mean, we didn’t…” He trails off, makes a back and forth hand gesture between the two of them and Eames snorts a laugh.
“No, darling, I assure you, your virtue remains unsullied,” he drawls.
It’s the wrong thing to say.
Arthur flushes, his face hardening instantly. “You don’t need to worry one bit about my virtue,” he snaps, and storms out of the room, snatching his suit jacket on the way out before he slams the door hard enough to make the teapot rattle on its tray.
Eames blinks, looking from the door to Arthur’s now empty spot across the table and back again.
Eames means to go and find out what his problem is, but he gets waylaid by Yusuf telling him that an old friend of his has gotten him the formula for the necessary inks and Eames can start working on the documents now. Eames hesitates, but it’s kind of a lengthy process, and this job has already taken long enough as it is.
He works until his back aches from being hunched over the table for too long and his eyes go fuzzy and crossed. His shoulders pop in their sockets as he leans back and he figures now is as good a time as any to go and try and smooth things over with Arthur.
“I wouldn’t,” Saito says, catching his elbow on his way over to Arthur’s desk and shaking his head. “He’s in an exceptionally foul mood.”
Eames glances over at Arthur. He does still look particularly stony, but there’s also lots of work to be done, the job finally going somewhere, and Eames is certain that will soften him up.
“It’ll be okay,” says Eames, holding up a plastic bag. “I have a gift.”
Saito puts his hands up, and Eames recognizes the meaning. Your funeral. It doesn’t bode well, Saito being wary of a person, but Eames is pretty sure that Arthur’s tyrannical reign is somehow his fault, so he’s also pretty sure that fixing it is somehow his responsibility.
“You’re in my light,” Arthur mutters when Eames comes to stand by his desk. He doesn’t look up from his files. “What do you want?”
“To return something that belongs to you.” He pulls Arthur’s shoes out of the bag and sets them neatly on the corner of the table, out of the way of Arthur’s work.
Arthur’s eyes track the movement, but he says nothing
“Apologies, about before,” he says, not really sure why he’s saying it at all, considering it was Arthur who’d flown completely off the handle, not him. “It was just a laugh. I’d sully your virtue any day.”
Arthur does look up at that, one impeccable eyebrow raised skeptically.
Eames gives Arthur his best leer and is rewarded with a snort and what could generously be called a “mouth twitch”.
“Forget it,” he mumbles, and Eames knows Arthur well enough by now to know that it’s as close as he’ll be getting to an apology of his own. “Thanks,” he adds, almost an afterthought. “For bringing them back, I mean. A good cordwainer is hard to find these days.”
“What did you wear back to your hotel?” Eames asks, reasonably confident Arthur won’t take his head off now, especially since he’s going to let that cordwainer thing go.
“Oh, I—I just bought a new pair of shoes at the gift shop downstairs,” he says, waving it away. He looks flustered.
Eames sits on the corner of Arthur’s desk, interested. “What kind?” he presses.
“…Reeboks,” he mumbles, and Eames has to laugh at the thought of pathologically co-ordinated Arthur ambling down the street in a five thousand dollar suit, a six hundred dollar tie, and thirty dollar sneakers.
“Don’t laugh! They were atrocious,” Arthur informs him.
“I burned them as soon as I got to my hotel,” Arthur says, which only makes Eames laugh more, and soon, Arthur is chuckling too, ducking his head in a way that is not adorable in the slightest.
“Go away now, I have work to do,” Arthur says, elbowing Eames in the side.
“Reeboks.” Eames slides off the table, shaking his head and grinning to himself. “Total classic.”
Arthur ignores him but Eames isn’t concerned, knows by now that the scorn and derision, they’re just Arthur’s way, and he wanders over to bother Saito, whistling a nonsense tune as he goes.
Arthur bustles in, trench coat spattered with rain, carrying two paper coffee cups, one balanced on top of the other. “I brought you—“ he starts to say, and then shuts up when everyone in the room shushes him. Saito pauses to glare in Arthur’s direction for a moment before continuing to yell even louder and faster into his phone.
Arthur holds the top cup out to Eames, but Eames already has one, and he holds it up apologetically.
For a second, Arthur’s brow furrows, just a little bit at the corners, and his mouth tightens, but then it’s gone. He holds the cup out to Yusuf, but Yusuf holds up a cup, too. And Ariadne. Even Saito raises one, not pausing in his rant for a moment.
Arthur shoulders slump a little more with every person who turns him down, all of them raising their identical blue paper cups with rueful smiles, and Eames was just trying to do a nice thing, bringing coffee to Arthur in the morning, but he couldn’t just bring Arthur coffee, it had to be stealthy, and that’s why everyone has one and Arthur has two too many drinks now. Arthur scowls at the cups he’s brought, beige, both of them, one in each hand, and if Eames didn’t know any better, he’d say Arthur looked angry with himself. Or at least the Arthur version of angry: annoyed. He turns to go to his desk, frown firmly in place, and Saito finishes his call, snaps the phone shut.
Arthur looks over his shoulder to where Eames is holding his hand out and gives him the cup warily. Eames takes a sip, watches Arthur while he does. It’s Orange Pekoe. Eames hates Orange Pekoe.
“It’s lovely, thank you,” he says, smiling at Arthur over the rim of the cup.
Arthur looks dazed for a second, like he isn’t sure what’s just happened, and then nods, smiling.
Eames drinks the Orange Pekoe, all morning until it’s gone, and it’s completely worth the fuzzy, filmy feeling it leaves on his teeth because every time he looks over at Arthur, Arthur’s got a little quirk in his mouth. It’s not quite a smile, but Eames can tell there’s one in there, and that it’s just bursting to get through, because every once in a while when he looks over, Eames sees Arthur’s control slip, sees him beam down at his paperwork like it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him, before he composes himself again, and only the quirk remains.
Eames looks down at himself. It’s just a suit, albeit a fancy one, made by some poncy designer that Eames had never heard of before he picked it out, but there’s nothing wrong with it. He’s dressed just like every other person in this dream, the real ones and the projections both, and try as he may, he can’t figure out what it is about his attire that would make Arthur ask him that.
“What’s wrong with it?”
Arthur sounds stupefied, amazed, and Eames really shouldn’t take this as a compliment, should clamp down hard on the swell of pride that’s rising up in him like the tide, straightening his spine and making his hands twitch. He shouldn’t let the way Arthur can’t believe he can dress himself make him feel like this, hot and special and infinitely valuable. But he does feel that way, and the way Arthur’s looking at him, eyes wide and drinking in every line like he’s committing every detail to memory—it makes Eames’s mouth water, and he just can’t bring himself to work up even a scrap of righteous indignation at the way Arthur can’t take his eyes off of him.
“Don’t look so smug,” Arthur says after what feels like forever, but really could only have been seconds at most. His voice, Eames notices with a kind of heady, insane thrill, is just a touch rougher than usual. “You’ve managed to dress yourself in an outfit that doesn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out. Once. Mazel tov.”
He smirks, but his words lack their characteristic bite, and Eames feels a grin he didn’t know he was wearing stretch even wider on his face.
“Arthur,” Ariadne says sweetly. “You’re an important person in my life and I love you, but if I don’t get something to eat, I will stab you in the throat.”
“I’ll help,” volunteers Saito, giving Arthur a dark look.
They order Chinese, and make Arthur go and pick it up, since it’s his robot fault it’s almost ten o’clock at night and none of them have eaten a thing since lunch. He comes back and all four of them descend on him like locusts, snatching the bags out of his hands, and passing around containers of food.
“I can’t believe you need to be reminded about meal times,” Ariadne says, taking a bite of her egg roll and closing her eyes as she chews. “You’re the worst. Are you almost thirty years old?”
“You can’t trust Arthur to remember things like that,” Eames tells her across the table. “His ways are not our human ways.”
Arthur kicks him under the table, and Eames kicks him back, grinning.
Arthur rolls his eyes, and gets pulled into a pretentious conversation with Ariadne about Finnish architecture, but not before kicking Eames again, refusing to be outdone.
Eames doesn’t kick him again—let Arthur have his little victory. He’s concentrating wholly on his food, half-listening to Yusuf explain something called “many-worlds theory” to Saito, when he feels Arthur’s foot brush against his, hesitant, and he’s so surprised he stops mid-chew and looks across the table to where Arthur is really obviously not looking at him. In a rare moment of foresight, Eames makes himself swallow his food before he nudges his foot experimentally against Arthur’s and if he weren’t watching for it, he’s sure he’d never see it, never see the barest hint of a blush that colors Arthur’s cheeks, never see the way his chest puffs up, almost non-existent.
Arthur presses his foot into Eames’s again, surer this time, so that their feet are flush against each other, heel to toe, and when he finally does look at Eames, it’s only for a second, and then he’s ducking his head, shooting Eames a shy smile every time he manages to tear his attention away from his plate. His smile is contagious, and Eames feels it spread across his own face like a grassfire, unstoppable no matter what he tries.
They leave their feet pressed together like that for the entire meal. Saito, Yusuf, and Ariadne talk shop around them, their chatter filling the air with a homey sort of background noise, the clink of cutlery against plates and the low buzz of animated conversation. Arthur’s eyes are bright and happy, and there’s a warmth in Eames’s belly that has nothing to do with Szechuan peppercorns.
“So you and Eames are looking pretty snuggly these days,” Eames hears Ariadne say as she turns off the engine. “Is there canoodling going on that I should know about?”
Arthur laughs, sharp and perfect. “There’s no noodling of any kind.”
“But you want there to be.”
“A gentleman never asks and a lady never tells,” he says.
“Are you supposed to be the lady in this metaphor?”
Arthur glares. “Nothing’s going on.”
Ariadne searches his face for a moment. “You liar,” she beams. “You totally like him.”
“Of course I like him,” Arthur says. “He’s part of the team.”
“Yeah, but you want him to be part of your team,” she says. “The special I love Arthur and want to marry him team.”
“Is this what all Canadians are like? Living vicariously through imagined relationships? Is it because you come from such a barren and sparsely populated wasteland?”
Ariadne just grins, shaking her head. “I’ve got your number, buddy boy,” she says knowingly.
They both go inside then, and Eames is left in the shadows with his cigarette slowly turning to ash, wishing Ariadne would let him know what exactly that number is.
He wants Arthur, wants all of him, not just once, not just as a trophy fuck, but for real. He wants to know Arthur’s secrets just to know them. He wants to see what Arthur’s hair looks like in the morning, before he puts any of that shit in there, soft and fluffy from his shower. He wants to be able to make Arthur laugh and roll his eyes and blush when he gives him a sex look over the lawn chairs. He wants Arthur any way he can have him, every way he can have him, wants every scrap Arthur will give him. He wants to be someone Arthur can depend on. He wants to be someone Arthur could like.
This is not good.
“I have a guy,” Arthur says.
“A guy for what?”
“For suit emergencies. Come on.”
“Oh, no worries, darling. I have a suit.”
Arthur’s face gets a pinched look on it, like he pities Eames so much it’s actually painful. “Oh, Eames,” he says. “I don’t think so.”
Eames would protest further, but the entire team gangs up on him, intervention style, and eventually he throws up his hands and just does whatever they tell him to. It’s better than having to see the vindicated look on Arthur’s face as Saito lists the various ways in which Eames’s color palette offends him, although he reconsiders this value judgment as he spends the next hour and a half in the dim back room of a cigar shop getting measured and fitted by a decrepit old man with gnarled hands that smell like tobacco. The light grey suit he winds up getting isn’t made for him (they don’t have that kind of time), but it’s made for someone built an awful lot like him, and even though it’s a little dull for his tastes, when Eames jostles his limbs in the fabric, he has to admit that he does feel pretty sharp in it.
He finishes with less time to spare than he’d have liked, but it’s still long enough for him to swing by the warehouse and pick up whatever research Arthur has cobbled together that he’ll need to seal the deal.
“Hello, nurse,” Ariadne leers when he comes in.
“That is, really, much better,” Saito says, and even Yusuf—who’s currently wearing what looks like a painter’s smock—gives him an impressed nod, shrugging.
Arthur is leaning in a doorway, arms crossed over his chest as he looks Eames up and down, and Eames feels a tiny flicker of something lick up his spine at Arthur’s appraisal.
“Where’s your handkerchief?” Saito asks.
“They’re unsanitary. I took a pass.”
Arthur huffs from the doorway. “You’re a child.”
“You need one,” explains Saito. “It’s part of the dress code.”
“Here, he can use mine,” Arthur says, and just like that, he’s out of the doorway, up close and crowded in and looping his tie under Eames’s shirt collar before Eames even knows what hits him.
Eames is so stunned he can’t even speak, can’t even breathe. The fabric rasps against his collarbones through the flimsy barrier of his dress shirt. Arthur makes the folds and adjusts the width, chattering on about the tie needing to match the handkerchief and don’t worry, both sets are from good tailors, the same tailor actually, why does Eames think he’s Arthur’s guy, but Eames can’t listen, can’t pay attention to anything except the warm brush of Arthur’s fingers on his chest and the soft, insistent tug on his neck as Arthur fiddles. Arthur slides the knot up to Eames’s throat, and something in Eames’s chest gets tight-tight. He flips Eames’s collar back down, smoothes his hands over Eames’s shoulders, and Eames has got to be either dreaming or dead, because the Arthur in reality would never touch him like this, like Eames is something to be cared for, not in front of everybody.
Arthur reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out his own pocket square. It’s blue. He refolds it, says something about being sorry it’s not a more ostentatious color, and tucks it into Eames’s jacket pocket. Arthur smiles a soft, secret smile and gives Eames’s pocket a little pat with the flat of his hand and when he finally looks up at Eames, he leaves his hand there, against Eames’s chest, and Eames can feel the heat from his palm like a brand.
It’s simultaneously the hottest and sweetest thing anyone has ever done to Eames in his life.
Eames has no idea what sort of look he must have on his face, but whatever it is, Arthur doesn’t last an instant. His smile vanishes, face blanching immediately. He looks horrified. Eames still can’t believe what just happened, can’t believe how turned on he is, fucking fuck, and puts up absolutely no resistance, none at all, when Arthur sidesteps him, his hand falling away from Eames’s chest, and leaves the warehouse without a word.
Eames gapes at the door Arthur just left from, then at the team, all of whom are staring at him with various expressions of disbelief. Saito actually looks the least surprised. He gives himself another second, takes his first breath in what has to be several minutes, then heads out.
He feels like he’s falling headfirst into something, like every moment is another in an escalating series of kicks, and he never hits the ground, always hurtling into some new, previously unimagined level. His stomach is in knots, twisting and flipping over constantly, and his chest feels tight, but somehow like it’s never full, no matter what he puts in there or how much. He feels reckless, exhilarated, but he’s sure, sure of Arthur, and anyway, by now, Eames knows the score.
Arthur pushes and Eames pushes back.
He calls Arthur, tells him that something’s come up with the job, something he needs to see right away, and that he’ll be in front of his hotel in five minutes, and then hangs up without letting Arthur get a word in edgewise. To the surprise of precisely no one, Arthur is waiting on the street when Eames pulls up in front of his hotel.
“What is it? What happened?” Arthur asks as soon as he’s in the passenger seat.
“You have to see it to believe it,” is Eames’s reply.
Arthur’s quiet after that, all business apparently, perfectly content to ignore the elephant in the backseat. No one makes Arthur do anything he doesn’t want to do, full stop, and Eames feels a warm rush of affection for Arthur and what a ridiculous nutter he really is under that unflappable exterior. He says nothing when Eames pulls up to the hotel and rides silently beside Eames in the lift, all the way to Eames’s room, where Eames busies himself puttering around in the suite’s tiny kitchenette.
“What am I looking at?” he asks, when Eames explains nothing.
“Oh. Nothing, I just said that to get you to come with me.”
Eames holds up a bottle of wine and wags it enticingly.
“That’s why you brought me here,” Arthur says, incredulous. “To drink wine.”
Eames shrugs, smiles his most charming smile, and it even works, because Arthur gives in incredibly quickly.
“Alright,” he says, shrugging.
They sit in deck chairs out on the balcony. Istanbul is a very pretty city to watch at sunset, all orange light and dusty, rolling views, spectacular and hazy. Eames’s room is on the fifth floor, putting them above most other buildings, and the people down below scurry around like ants. In the distance, cruise ships make their way down the Bosphorus, their tiny lights winking on like fireflies as the daylight starts to fade. The wine is so dry it’s practically communion wine, but Arthur laughs off the comparison, and Eames is just happy to have something to occupy his hands, which are crawling with the itch to touch.
Arthur looks like everything Eames could ever want. His eyes crinkle in the setting sun and his cheeks are pinking, from the heat or the alcohol or maybe even Eames himself. Eames feels an absurd flutter in his belly at the thought. Arthur is still tie-less, collar open, flapping just a little in the light breeze, and Eames wants to put his mouth on the hollow of Arthur’s throat, right where the nubs of his collarbones come together.
He must get a little distracted, must look a little too long, because he notices dimly that the easy stream of chatter has died away, and when he tears his gaze from Arthur’s throat, Arthur’s watching him, too, eyes dark, expression unreadable.
“Sorry,” Eames says, knowing full well he sounds nothing of the kind. “You were saying?”
“I—” Arthur coughs, clears his throat, and Eames can see him collecting himself. “How did the meet go?”
“The blue was okay?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, it was perfect. Apparently blue is a good luck color here.”
“Really.” Eames can hear the part of Arthur’s brain that’s always working file the information away.
“Really.” He leans forward, scooting to the edge of his chair and planting his feet. “Anyway, thanks,” he says in a low voice, dipping into his pocket and passing both the tie and the handkerchief, both folded into neat squares, to Arthur. “I was glad to have them.”
Arthur’s fingers brush against Eames’s when he takes them. “You’re welcome,” he says softly.
“It took forever to get it undone,” Eames continues. “You tie a mean knot.”
Arthur laughs and swirls his wine around. “Watch it or I’m going to start to think you’ve got an ulterior motive bringing me here,” he says, taking a sip.
“I do,” Eames admits. “I’m seducing you.”
Arthur spits his entire mouthful of wine back into his glass. He stares at Eames with huge eyes and licks wine off his lips, and Eames smiles. He takes the wine glass out of Arthur’s hand, telegraphing his intent, and slides his hand over Arthur’s jaw, taking his face in his hand and kissing him like he’s been waiting for it his whole life.
There’s a half beat of nothing, just the sun on his face and the wind in his hair and Arthur’s warm, soft mouth against his, and then Arthur is climbing out of his chair, getting up without getting out of the kiss. Eames’s hand moves to the back of Arthur’s head and into his hair, softer than Eames would have thought with all that gunk in there, and he can taste wine in Arthur’s mouth, tart on his tongue. Arthur crowds into Eames’s space, herding him backwards, and Eames goes easily, knocked off his balance a little by Arthur’s sudden movement and a lot by his response, and when there’s nowhere left to go, and his back hits the stuccoed wall of the hotel, he groans a little at the press of Arthur’s solid weight all along his front.
“Eames, God.” Arthur’s voice is a hot mess, rough and desperate, like he’s been swallowing ground glass for the last hour, and Eames fucking loves it, loves the way he can feel Arthur’s voice reverberating in his bones. “What are you doing to me?”
Eames lets out a breathy little moan against Arthur’s mouth in response, tightens his fingers in Arthur’s waist coat. He tugs him close, kisses him hard, and then spins them both around to guide Arthur backwards through the door without breaking the kiss.
“I can’t believe the way you look in this,” Arthur growls against Eames’s mouth as he pushes his hands inside Eames’s suit jacket, palms hot and searching.
“I can’t believe you put that tie on me today in front of everybody.”
Arthur laughs, breathless, as Eames presses a sucking kiss into his jaw, high up on his neck, just under his ear. “Me neither.”
Eames lifts his mouth off of Arthur’s neck and draws his teeth slowly over the mark left there, pulling a shiver and a quiet moan out of Arthur. “I liked it,” he breathes, and can’t help feeling a little smug when Arthur’s hips stutter, head falling forward with a strangled “Fuck”.
They leave a trail of outrageously expensive clothes scattered behind them, and they both almost die when an ottoman comes out of nowhere, but eventually they both manage to get all the way naked and all the way to the bed, both things that Eames is very into. Arthur is all pale skin and hard lines, and Eames wants to mark him up everywhere, wants to turn Arthur’s skin red with beard burn and purple with mouth-shaped bruises.
Eames knows he has a nice mouth. Everyone says so. But he wants Arthur to say so, wants Arthur to reach down and cup his cheek while he’s got his dick in there. He wants to make Arthur forget where he is, forget his own name, forget everything except the feeling of Eames’s lips around him and the way Eames’s name feels in his mouth.
Or at least, he does want that, until Arthur puts a hand flat on Eames chest and shoves him backwards onto the bed. He drapes himself over top of Eames, grinding into him a little before he slides his palms along the backs of Eames’s hands, lifting them above his head, and they’re pressed together everywhere, ankles to elbows, and Eames just can’t kiss Arthur enough. Arthur rolls his hips against Eames’s and Eames moans, loud and broken, right into Arthur’s open mouth. Arthur kisses him again and squeezes his hands tight, their fingers laced together, then closes Eames’s fingers gently over the rail above their heads.
“Don’t you dare let go,” he warns, and Eames nods, yes, yes, fuck, anything Arthur asks him, anything Arthur wants, Eames’s answer is yes.
Arthur lets go of his hands, kissing him one last time before he drags his hands down Eames’s arms, down his sides and over the swell of his ribcage. He takes his time, noses at Eames’s nipple a couple of times like some sort of extra dirty Eskimo kiss before flicking his tongue over it, and Eames pulls on the rail so hard the cast iron creaks. Every nerve ending he has is on fire, and Arthur is all hot skin, all over him, and when Eames says Arthur’s name, his voice is ruined, raspy and hoarse and completely fucked out.
“Arthur, Arthur, Jesus fuck—“
Arthur’s wandering fingers leave criss-crossing trails of heat all over Eames’s body. Everywhere he touches, Eames feels the hot drag of his fingertips through slick sweat, and it’s too much, he can’t help it, and he bucks his hips, shoving his cock into what may or may not be Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur huffs out a breathless, wondering laugh, his breath damp against Eames’s skin, and Eames feels the muscles in his stomach jump at the almost chaste press of Arthur’s lips.
Arthur nuzzles his face into the crook of Eames’s hip and Eames makes a mewling sound he doesn’t even notice, he’s so far gone. Arthur sure notices though, and he drags his teeth down over the ridge of bone, over the thin skin there, and fuck, Eames is going to come before Arthur even fucking gets his mouth on him. There’s a ringing in Eames’s ears, everything too hot, too intense, too much, and his fingers ache from holding on too tight, and his cock fucking aches from holding on too long, and then Arthur is licking a hot stripe up the underside of his dick, closing his mouth around him, and Eames can’t feel anything except that, hot and soft and wet.
Eames comes what would be embarrassingly quickly if he gave even half a fuck about anything beyond the way Arthur’s mouth feels around him and the way his hands are splayed wide over Eames’s hips, thumbs pressing into the hollows, pushing him down hard into the mattress.
Arthur gives Eames’s hip one last bite, and Eames squirms under Arthur’s teeth, and then he’s back up the length of Eames’s body. Eames opens his mouth under Arthur’s, whimpering when he tastes salt and fuck, come in Arthur’s mouth, and he only winces a little when he unclenches his fingers from the rail and buries them in Arthur’s hair so he can’t get away.
“I never said you could let go,” Arthur points out, and Eames scoffs into his mouth.
“You’re not the boss of me,” he mutters, biting Arthur’s lip for good measure. “Besides, if you think you’re just going to hijack my seduction, you’re wrong.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s right,” Eames says. He ruts up against Arthur even though his cock is still almost painfully sensitive, but it’s worth it for the way Arthur shudders above him, for the way his elbows give out and he collapses with his face buried in Eames’s neck, his breath hot against Eames’s skin. Arthur rocks back into him, and Eames lets him, lets him get complacent, and then gets one leg up over Arthur’s hip and flips them both over so that he’s sitting in Arthur’s lap.
“Yeah, no, that completely doesn’t count,” he says, in the few and far between moments that his mouth isn’t otherwise occupied against Arthur’s.
“No. Do over.”
Arthur laughs, throaty and pleased, and looks up at Eames with one raised eyebrow. “You want me to blow you again?”
Eames smiles. His mouth feels electrified, tingly with the taste of Arthur, of himself and Arthur, together. He licks his bottom lip and then catches it between his teeth, grinning even wider at the way Arthur’s eyes track the movement, and shakes his head.
He picks up Arthur’s hand and sucks one finger into his mouth, right to the web, getting it all wet and then nipping at the tip. Arthur’s mouth falls open in a little gasp and his eyes are dark as he watches him. He shifts underneath Eames and Eames feels Arthur’s dick nudge against his ass, hot and hard, and he shifts back, rewarded with a soft groan. Eames pulls Arthur’s hand from his mouth and moves it back behind him, down to his hole.
“Oh,” says Arthur, in a soft, small voice.
He pushes in slow, just up to the first knuckle, and Eames bears down on him, loose and relaxed from coming once already. He feels boneless, liquid everywhere that isn’t his dick, which is getting more and more into this with every stroke Arthur makes. Arthur slips his finger out and comes back with two, and Eames gasps through the stretch, exhaling a broken stream of air against the hot, damp skin of Arthur’s throat when Arthur’s fingers drag over his prostate.
“Okay?” Arthur breathes into his ear.
Eames doesn’t miss the wrecked edge in Arthur’s voice, like he’s barely hanging on. Eames knows the feeling. He nods frantically, urging his hips back to get even more of Arthur’s fingers in him, and Arthur obliges with a third, working them in and out of him until he’s babbling curses and endearments and everything in between into the skin of Arthur’s face, his jaw, everywhere he can reach.
“Condom. In my wallet,” Arthur says desperately, and Eames snaps himself back to attention, to a world where he isn’t just getting fingered within an inch of his life, but where Arthur will actually fuck him.
Eames surges forward to kiss Arthur, and when his ass clenches around Arthur’s fingers still in him, he doesn’t know who’s swallowing whose moans. He gets a little distracted by Arthur fucking his tongue into his mouth, fingers tangled in his hair and dick rubbing against Arthur’s stomach, but the impatient crook of Arthur’s fingers in him is enough to refocus him, and he reaches blindly in the drawer of the nightstand for lube and a condom.
“Someone’s a sure thing,” Arthur says. He pulls his fingers out and Eames would like for Arthur to always be looking at him like that, wanting and haughty and like he’s about to fuck Eames apart.
“Like I said,” Eames says breathlessly, tearing open the packet with shaking hands. “It’s my picture show.”
He rolls the condom onto Arthur, running his thumb over the head as he slicks him up to hear the way Arthur chokes, his breathing gone ragged, Eames’s name falling from his lips so easily Eames wonders if he even knows he’s saying it. He scoots up to Arthur’s hips, bats his hand away when he reaches for Eames’s dick. Arthur’s eyes dart up and in the low light, Eames can see how black they are, pupils blown wide, only the barest ring of brown around the outside.
“Hands to yourself, grabby,” he says in a gravelly voice that sounds nothing like his own, rough and dark.
He slides down onto Arthur and keeps his eyes open as he does, watches Arthur’s kiss-swollen mouth fall all the way open and his eyes roll back in his head. He makes himself stay where he is and concentrates on breathing, something he’s pretty sure he used to be really good at, only it seems he’s not so great at it when he’s got Arthur in him and under him and making these abortive little movements, twitching really, trying so hard to keep still.
“Eames.” Arthur straight up whines his name and all of Eames’s hard earned breath leaves his body with a groan. “Eames, God, you’re—fuck, you’re killing me.” Arthur’s tongue wets his lips, and Eames gives a tiny, reflexive roll of his hips at the sight. Arthur makes a sharp noise, something Eames thinks would be a wail if he didn’t clamp down on it so fast, and sinks his teeth into his bottom lip so hard it turns white.
“Move,” grits out Arthur. “Come on. Come on, Eames, just—Move, please, fuck—”
Eames moves, lifting up until only the head of Arthur’s cock is in him. He waits until Arthur’s looking right at him before he slides back down again, shivering at the hot drag of Arthur inside him, the way he moans and strains to try and fuck back into Eames faster than Eames will allow.
Arthur’s hands slide up Eames’s thighs to curl at his hips, and Eames considers giving them a slap (he did say hands to yourself), but it does feel really fucking good (seriously, goddamn his stupid hip thing), and now Arthur’s pulling on them on every downstroke, just a little bit, not enough to actually change Eames’s rhythm, but enough so that Eames knows he’s there. He takes his own cock in his hand in retaliation and strokes himself, fucking forward into his fist and backward onto Arthur.
Arthur bucks up hard and pulls Eames down onto him at the same time, and Eames tips his head back, gasping at the how good the new angle is. He twists his hips viciously, thinking somehow for a second that it would be an awesome little fuck you to Arthur, but instead, Arthur’s neck arches all the way back and he makes a noise like nothing Eames has ever heard before, high and desperate and out of control. His nails scrape welts into Eames’s skin, and that plus the angle and the noise Arthur makes, like he’s falling apart, it’s enough to make Eames feel like he’s falling apart as well.
Eames grits his teeth and makes himself let go of his dick. He wants Arthur to come first, wants to see it while he’s still got this itch under his skin, in his toes and behind his eyeballs and everywhere in between. He needs something to do with his hands though, or he’ll never last, and he reaches out and strokes the fever-hot skin of Arthur’s stomach.
Arthur writhes beneath him, debauched, shaking and red-mouthed and gorgeous. He looks like he was made for this, like he’s never been or done or wanted anything else, and Eames’s name falls from his lips like it’s the only thing he knows.
Eames has never seen any fucking thing like it in his entire life.
“You have no idea what you look like, Arthur, just—“
Arthur’s face is shiny with sweat, his cheeks rosy and flushed. His hair is a mess, plastered to his forehead, tufts and strands everywhere, nothing like the Arthur Eames sees every day, and something about it feels so privileged, so intimate and secret that Eames is overcome by a wave of unexpected tenderness, thrumming hotly under the want already burning in his blood. He leans forward, skin stretched too tight over his entire body, and tucks a wayward tuft back where it belongs.
“—fuck, incredible,” he breathes.
Arthur makes a strangled noise at the movement and is sitting up in a flash, not all the way, not enough to dislodge Eames from his lap, but enough that they’re kissing when they both come a moment later, Arthur’s hand splayed wide over the small of Eames’s back, keeping him in place, and Eames grinding down hard in Arthur’s lap.
Eames has no idea how long they sit there like that, long enough for the kiss to degrade into mostly just sloppy panting into each other’s mouths, in any case. Eventually, Eames decides he would be much better off if he were lying down, and the mere thought of being horizontal is enough to persuade him to force his limbs to work again. He gives Arthur a little push, and Arthur goes without any fight at all, flopping onto his back, arms stretched out at his sides, Eames collapsing beside him a second later.
“That one definitely counts,” Arthur says weakly.
Eames half-chuckles, half-pants a laugh into Arthur’s shoulder, and then—because he’s a total gentleman, and because Arthur is fucking covered in come from sternum to groin—makes himself get up and do all the cleanup right away.
Well, right after he finishes kissing him.
Needed some things. See you at the office.
Eames scowls, then smiles, then scrubs at his face with the heel of his hand and gets up.
He spots Arthur way in the back, digging for something in an ancient cupboard, and swears that eventually, soon even, he’s going to stop being so lame, with the smiles and the butterflies and the song he hears in his head every time he thinks of Arthur, which is every minute.
Soon. But not today.
Today Eames gets to do whatever he wants.
He gives the rest of the team a quick glance. They’re all utterly absorbed in what they’re doing, and Eames figures when in Rome, and lets himself get lost in the line of Arthur’s back, the neat, orderly way his hair is put together, all the while remembering the way Arthur looked last night, spread out over Eames’s sheets with his lips bitten raw from trying (and failing) to keep quiet.
“Morning,” he drawls in a low voice, stepping in close behind Arthur and resting his chin on his shoulder.
Arthur takes a deep breath and then lets it out slowly, shivering. Eames can tell from the sound of his exhale that he’s smiling. “Hi.”
“You look… amazing,” Eames whispers appreciatively into Arthur’s ear.
“Of course I do. This is a Dunhill.” Arthur turns around, and Eames is close, so close he can see the tired lines around his eyes, crinkly and flawless. He ducks his head for a second, smiling bashfully, and then looks Eames dead in the eye. “I wore it for you.”
Eames literally feels himself choke on his tongue. Something hot and possessive rockets through him, and he pushes Arthur back just a little to get a good look at him, lets his eyes rake down over Arthur’s body, covered in a dark, charcoal grey fabric. Maybe a Dunhill means something to Arthur, but all it means to Eames is that Arthur is a fucking hotass and he knows it and he’s using his power for evil, coming in and telling Eames he’s fucking dressing up for him now, and being all right in front of him in what Eames supposes is a very nice suit.
Eames hauls his gaze back up to Arthur’s face, and when he does, his breathing is fast.
“S’nice,” he says hoarsely, and at the sound of his voice, Arthur sucks in a deep, quiet breath, sinking his teeth into his bottom lip.
“Thanks,” he breathes, smiling at Eames for a long moment.
He turns around, grabs a ball of copper wire and an acetylene torch out of the cupboard, and pushes past Eames easily, reaching out to stroke his thumb down the ridge of Eames’s hip as he goes, and it takes everything Eames has in him not to slam Arthur back against the cupboard and snog him silly, the rest of the team be damned.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Self denial has never been his forte, and even if it were, it’s like Arthur knows, knows Eames is trying to be appropriate for once, an adult, and he just picks and picks.
“So a hip thing, huh?” Arthur asks.
Eames can tell he’s smirking even though he’s not looking at him, carefully positioned behind a wall of books and files he’s constructed atop his desk for this very purpose. He briefly considers lying about it, but decides that it would be counterproductive to his cause.
“Yes, a hip thing. You have a weird thing, too, you know, and don’t think I won’t find it,” he warns. He looks up at the end to really drive home the threat, and Arthur’s smirk turns predatory, all teeth.
“Oh, I’m counting on it,” is Arthur’s reply.
Eames’s mouth goes just a little dry.
In this particular warehouse, there’s an old freight lift at the south end of the building. The warehouse is big, and has lot of floors, way more than they could ever need for a job. Eames waits in a strategic spot for Arthur to pass by and he ambushes him at the first opportunity, shoves him into the lift and hits a button, any button, and crowds him back into the far corner before the doors even slide shut.
“Yes?” Arthur’s voice is smug, but Eames can’t care about that, too busy sliding his hands inside Arthur’s suit jacket.
His knee knocks against Arthur’s and he feels a thrill go all the way through him when Arthur spreads his legs to let him closer. “Did you really wear this suit for me?” he asks, kissing under Arthur’s ear.
Arthur shudders, but answers anyway. “I really did.”
Eames makes a whimpering noise against Arthur’s jaw. “I love it,” he whispers.
He doesn’t really think about it too much, how it feels to say the word love to Arthur, how it feels in his mouth and sits in his chest, but it doesn’t feel like the wrong word to use, and when Arthur licks into Eames’s mouth, hot and sweet and so particular that Eames feels Arthur in every cell of his body, he’s sure it was the right choice.
His mouth feels tender, all swollen and bruised, and it’s good. He hopes it shows forever, hopes everyone can see, and that Arthur looks the same, and that everyone knows that Eames is the one that did that to him, made him that way.
Across the room, Arthur absently lifts his fingers to his lips, and then looks up, vaguely self-conscious, as if he can hear every dirty, horrible thing Eames is thinking of doing to him.
Eames licks his lips again. He can’t help it.
Arthur does, too.
Eames turns from where he’s busily watching out the window as Yusuf sets up. Why Yusuf is developing his own plastic explosive is still something of a mystery to Eames, but to each his own, and anyway, it’s not like Eames is getting any work done today, so he might as well be Yusuf’s spotter, take notes on things like plume height and smoke density and whatever else Yusuf’s interested in.
“I have to leave. I need to get some work done and I can’t with you, you know—” He flaps his hand in Eames’s general direction. “—here.”
“Okay. I’ll just wait here for you. For when your work is done.” Eames licks his bottom lip, completely on purpose, catches it between his teeth, and feels his smile stretch into a shark grin when Arthur’s eyes drop immediately to his mouth. “Come pick me up,” he says, and wow, did not mean for it to come out like that, low and filthy and practically a purr for Christ’s sake.
For a second, Eames thinks that Arthur might pick him up right now, might step in close and hot and crowd him back into a broom cupboard or something to have his wicked way with him. For the record, Eames is totally into it (and if the way Arthur’s mouth has fallen open just a little bit is any indication, his eyes dark and glittery, flush spreading up from his throat, Eames isn’t the only one), but Arthur straightens up, closes his mouth, and swallows hard.
“Six o’clock,” he says, voice roughened in a way that makes a little spark zip up Eames’s spine.
Eames doesn’t bother with a reply, just watches hungrily while Arthur walks away and thinks about how great it’ll be when he gets to bite the back of Arthur’s thigh later.
Personally, Eames is hoping for nefarious plan.
At ten after five, Yusuf declares his experiment “a simply roaring success”, and wanders out of the warehouse muttering lists of chemicals that all sound like gibberish to Eames. Ariadne and Saito have already left, too, their parts already long done. Tomorrow they’ll have Ariadne start teaching them the levels, three for this particular job, but it’s different than the Fischer job, mostly in that they all know all the risks this time. The mark hasn’t been specially trained, there isn’t any indication of mental instability, and he’s not on any behavior modifying drugs. He’s just a man with something valuable, and they’re going to take it from him. There isn’t really anything Eames needs to do to prepare, but there’s still forty-seven minutes until Arthur is due to come back, and he needs to do something with himself, with the eagerness he can feel throbbing in his veins, so he starts setting up, hauling out lawn chairs and side tables, IV lines and pads of paper for them to make notes on as soon as they wake up, when the details are still fresh.
He’s in the middle of this when Arthur comes back.
“Hey,” Eames smiles. “You’re back early.”
He can feel his heart speed up at the way Arthur’s walking toward him, single-minded, purposeful, and Eames locks the legs on the chair he’s setting up, straightening up to properly appreciate Arthur’s, well, everything. He figures he’ll start at the bottom, be unconventional, and besides, he does really like how long Arthur’s legs look in those trousers.
That’s when Arthur punches him, hard, in the face.
Eames is totally unprepared for the blow (and for how much it would hurt, motherfucker) and he goes down like a ton of bricks, sprawling to the side and catching his jaw on the arm of the chair he’d just finished with.
“Was it easy?” Arthur demands. “Was it easy for you to get in? Stir your fingers around and fucking put whatever you wanted in there?”
Eames blinks, widens his eyes, and shakes his head all in the same movement. “What?”
“Is that why Cobb wanted you for the job? Did he know?”
The pain is starting to set in in earnest now and Eames cups his cheek gingerly, heat blooming on his cheekbone from Arthur’s punch and on his jaw from the fall. “Cobb? Arthur, what—“
“Know what, Jesus—“
“I know what you tried to do to me,” Arthur hisses.
Eames opens his mouth to ask Arthur to maybe please clarify what exactly he thinks it is Eames has done, but that’s as far as he gets before the answer wells up and cracks him in the face. He can feel himself lose control over the muscles in his face, the flesh going slack in what he can only assume is horror, because there can’t be any other name for this plummeting feeling in his stomach, like he’s falling, too fast, like a kick, only not, because he’s not waking up, nothing’s changing, and there’s a bottom here, coming up at Eames like a freight train, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
“Don’t,” Arthur snaps. His mouth is a thin line. He practically crackles with rage. “Don’t.”
“I—It didn’t work.” It’s quite possibly the absolute worst thing Eames could have said, but it’s important. It’s important and it’s true and Arthur needs to know, needs to know that his mind is still his, that there’s no one pulling Arthur’s strings except Arthur.
Eames needs him to know.
Arthur glowers down at him, and this time, he’s not messing around. That’s hate in his face—real, genuine hate, the kind that has his cheeks turning white with fury, no pithy irritation or incensed exasperation—and the sensation very nearly makes Eames get sick all over himself. Arthur’s hands curl into tight fists at his sides, the glare of bone showing through the skin, and his jaw is clenched shut. His breathing is loud in the otherwise silent warehouse.
Eames doesn’t know what he’s waiting for, for Arthur to say something or for him to just start swinging, but it’s not for Arthur to spin on his heel and storm away.
He doesn’t know what to say, what to do to make this better, but he gets unsteadily to his feet.
Arthur doesn’t even slow down.
“Arthur, wait!” he calls desperately. A drum beat thumps in the entire left side of his face, but he barely notices it. There’s blood in his mouth, the tang of copper sharp on his tongue.
“It—I was a different man then.” He has no idea what he’s doing.
And then Arthur is right back again, back in a flash, his hands fisted tight in the lapels of Eames’s coat, face bent close and this close, Eames can feel the tremors of anger in Arthur’s entire body, the hot slap of his breath against Eames’s face.
“And what sort of man are you now?” Arthur grits out.
Something’s wrong with Eames’s breathing. He keeps inhaling, short, desperate pulls, but try as he may, he can’t get the oxygen he needs to form words. His brain is broken, fried to nothing in the face of Arthur’s rage, and if Arthur weren’t basically holding him up right now, Eames doubts whether he’d even be standing on his own two feet.
Arthur’s lip curls in disgust and the next thing Eames knows, he’s stumbling backward, arms windmilling like crazy just to stay upright. The backs of his knees hit the bar of the lawn chair and he collapses into it, and the long line of Arthur’s back growing steadily smaller is all he can see.
“Arthur,” he calls feebly, and for some unfathomable reason, Arthur actually stops. “I’m s—I’m sorry,” he says to Arthur’s back, and this, this apology, here, now, it’s the most real thing Eames has ever said to anyone in his entire life.
Arthur doesn’t even turn around. His back stays ramrod straight. His hands are loose and relaxed. Nothing about him falters and when he speaks, his voice has regained its old hard edge, devoid of any emotion whatsoever.
“I don’t care.”
He’s at and out the door before Eames can blink and Eames frantically dips his hand into his coat pocket, clumsy fingers searching desperately for the poker chip he knows is in there. He runs his thumb all over it, flips it and flips it and flips it again, but no matter what he does, the grooves are where they’re supposed to be and it always lands flush, never on its side, ever.
No matter what he does, this is real and Arthur is gone.
He’s not moving, just standing there, but he has no idea where there is. A woman with three young children knocks into him and offers up a harried apology in a language he doesn’t recognize. He doesn’t say anything back to her, and when she leaves, he sees that the building he’s in front of is his hotel.
He doesn’t remember leaving the warehouse. He doesn’t remember being on the tram or walking from the platform. He doesn’t remember it getting dark. There’s just nothing there. He doesn’t remember any of it. For a wild moment, Eames feels unbridled relief surge through him. He doesn’t remember. He knows what not remembering how you got somewhere means, and he claps his hand over his mouth, trying to stay calm, to keep his shit together.
There’s a twinge when he does, though, in his cheekbone and his jaw. His face feels puffy and tight, sore, and when he rubs tentatively at his jaw, his fingers come away flaked with rust. He’s already shaking his head when he reaches for his totem, even though he’s starting to remember now, not how he got to his hotel, that’s still blank, but everything before that, and the relief is quickly being replaced with something cold and empty.
He stands in the middle of the busy city sidewalk and flips his poker chip, and when it lands flush, he closes his fingers around it, shutting his eyes so he can concentrate on getting a handle on the prickling feeling in them.
He’s awake. Today was real. The kisses were real and the punch was real and the crushing, hollow ache he feels in his chest is real. He still doesn’t remember how he got to his hotel, but the gap brings him no solace now, because he remembers everything else—the architect who gave him the idea, the library, the way Arthur laughed when Eames tried to convince him he could be in love with him. The Fischer job. Venice. Bali. Stockholm. Arthur kicking him under the table while they ate Kung Pao chicken. Arthur underneath him with his neck arched and his fingers digging bruises into Eames’s hips. The way he’d dressed up special for Eames. The way he’d looked at Eames after, no recognition in his face whatsoever, like Eames was an imposter. Like he hated him.
Eames can’t go back up there. He can’t go back up to the room where just one day ago, Arthur and he were on the brink of something, something important. Eames refuses maid service everywhere he stays as a matter of prudence, and he knows that everything up there will be like it was, ottoman knocked over, wine glasses out on the balcony, Arthur’s smell still on the pillow and his sweat still on the sheets.
He pulls his coat tighter around himself and takes slow, careful breaths through his mouth, ill at just the thought of going up there again, and hurries off down the street without having any real idea of where he’s going, without any real plan beyond putting one foot in front of the other.
Tires crunch on the gravel outside. Eames gets to his feet and when Arthur comes in, well, it’s hard to describe. He looks great, put together even more than usual, all the stops pulled out (and honestly, after the night he’s had, Eames doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything better in his life), but he moves like he’s ninety, his movements weighted, heavy like Eames has never seen them. His arms hang listless at his sides and his face looks pinched and tired. His feet shuffle. Eames doesn’t think he’s ever seen Arthur shuffle anywhere, and something about the soft hush of his shoes as they drag over the linoleum floor makes him seem so young, and so painfully vulnerable, that for a moment, Eames can barely breathe around the regret that sticks like a knife in his ribs.
Arthur notices him then, standing there in the middle of the chairs and tables Eames had set up last night, and he tenses up immediately. His shoulders square and his jaw tightens, like he’s bracing himself, and Eames knows that this, right now, this is his chance, his only chance, but when he tries to speak, all of his apologies and appeals just wither in his mouth.
“Oh my God.”
Ariadne is standing just a little bit behind Arthur, her mouth open in shock as she takes in Eames’s purpling face and the blood dried down his neck. He supposes he should clean himself up, eventually.
“What happened to you?” she asks, coming over to him and staring at him, her eyes big and horrified.
Arthur takes Ariadne’s arrival as his opportunity to exit stage left. Eames watches as he goes. He’s careful not to touch Eames at all as he passes him, visibly relaxing once he’s out of Eames’s reach. It’s like—It’s almost like Arthur is afraid of him, and Eames’s stomach churns violently at the thought. His throat burns as he swallows down a wave of acid.
Eames feels Ariadne’s tiny hand cup his undamaged cheek and he’s so shell shocked, so lost that he lets her turn his face so he’s looking at her instead of at Arthur’s retreating back.
“What happened?” she asks again. Her voice is soft, gentle, and full of misplaced, undeserved care.
Eames wants to throw up.
“Oh, you know me,” he says, voice gravelly. He steps back out of her reach with a shrug and a smile that feels as phony as it does feeble. “Always sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong.”
The tension in the warehouse is stifling. Everyone is affected. Silent conversations and worried glances abound, but Eames can’t think about that. He needs to concentrate, focus, take things one step at a time, one moment at a time. He needs to get used to this, to the ache behind his ribs and the awful ashamed feeling he gets whenever he hears how flat and lifeless Arthur’s voice is. He needs to settle in for what he’s starting to think is shaping up to be a very long haul, clawing his way back into Arthur’s good books, but Arthur is worth it, worth the wait and the heartache. Eames is determined to do things right this time, and that means doing things Arthur’s way, Arthur’s speed.
He can fix this.
He won’t fuck up again.
It’s not a blessing at all though, when he falls asleep in a chair at the train station and dreams of being himself in a giant’s body, of feeling Arthur’s body buckle from the force of his blow and of holding onto him while he bucks and kicks and tries to get away, like he’s fighting for his life. In the dream, Eames feels fantastic, so alive his blood sizzles and sings in his veins, and he runs his teeth over the skin of Arthur’s neck to feel his struggles reach a fever pitch, heat pooling low in his belly, loving how violently Arthur resists and how little it matters.
Eames is jolted out of the dream by a hand on his shoulder. It’s some guy, a kid really, can’t be more than fifteen, with a battered old backpack and floppy, sandy colored hair.
“Hey,” the kid says. His eyes are concerned behind his big, round glasses. “Are you okay, man?”
Eames is exceptionally not okay. It’s Istanbul in July and he’s covered in icy sweat, his heart hammering against his ribs so hard he feels it in the soles of his feet. He’s shaking all over and there’s a sweeping, rolling sort of panic in his chest, mushrooming out of control.
He shoves past the kid, and lurches off to the restroom, where he splashes cold water on his face and gives himself a slap right at the edge of the bruise, where the skin is mottled and yellowing around the edges. It hurts, but the pain keeps him sharp, lets him focus on something, anything other than the sick roil in his gut and the memory of the way he’d felt in the dream while Arthur thrashed about, terrified, in his arms.
Jesus Christ. His fucking dick is hard. What the hell is the matter with him?
He presses hard into the bruise when he dries his face, the pain lingering this time, duller but deeper, and bites the inside of his cheek so hard he tastes blood.
He doesn’t check his totem because he knows that even if this is a dream, he deserves every fucked up moment he spends here, penance for his crimes.
Eames blinks himself out of a dazed stupor to find a huge orange splotch ruining the document he’s spent the last five hours on, ink rushing out of the tip of the pen he’s been using. Fuck.
Yusuf is sitting beside him in a rolling chair. Eames has no idea how long he’s been there.
“Are you alright?”
Yusuf makes a face. “Eames, come on. That was just me being polite. What’s going on with you?”
Eames is so tired he can feel it in his hair. His fingers have been slow and clumsy all day, and his eyelids feel like they’re covered in peach fuzz, soft and weighted. He thinks it’s time to start taking his coffees black.
Across the room, Arthur is working at his desk, head down, every line of him a warning to back off, leave him alone.
“Nothing. Nothing, no, it’s fine. I’m fine,” Eames says, and way down in the depths of his mind, he has the wherewithal to wish that it didn’t sound quite so much like he was trying to convince himself.
It’s gotten him out of more hopeless cock ups than he cares to remember, and he clings to this track record like a life raft in a vast and stormy sea. He has to believe this will work out, that Arthur will see that Eames is a good person, he is, even though he didn’t used to be, wasn’t back when he tried to fuck with Arthur’s mind, when he stalked him and drugged him and crept into his hotel room to brainwash him into doing whatever the fuck he wanted.
It’s no excuse, not at all, but when Eames thinks about himself then, it’s like he’s thinking of somebody else, a mirror Eames, the same but unrecognizable for how different he is from the Eames that exists now. He’d changed, changed for Arthur, or because of Arthur, or maybe it wasn’t Eames who did the changing at all, maybe it was Arthur who changed him, but the bottom line is that Eames is a different person now, a better person, and he’s sorry, he’s so, so sorry, and he has to believe that one day, Arthur will look at him and see that.
Arthur’s a good person. He isn’t blind and he’s not heartless, and sooner or later, Arthur will see how sorry Eames is, how much he regrets what he’s certain is the most staggeringly huge mistake of his life.
It’ll work out. People can change. Eames did.
They aren’t in for more than five minutes before the projections catch up to them, and when they do, Eames suffers through what may very well be the most physically excruciating twenty minutes he’s ever known. The projections hold nothing back, except for the rest of the team, who are stuck weaponless and watching while Eames methodically gets the ever loving shit beaten out of him, and it isn’t until he spits out a mouthful of teeth, a river of blood dribbling down his chin, that Saito manages to elbow the closest projection in the nose, steal her gun, and put Eames out of his misery.
Eames wakes up so suddenly that he falls out of his chair, and he doesn’t even take the line out of his wrist before he’s stumbling out of the warehouse, pulling the PASIV off the table and sending it clattering to the floor. He barely makes it outside in time, ignoring Yusuf’s concerned queries about the cocktail being wrong, and spends the next ten minutes on his knees in a trash-filled alley, alternating between running his tongue over his teeth (which are still firmly rooted in his jaw, thank fuck) and trying not to choke on his own vomit. Black coffee, he decides, is even worse the second time around, sour and foamy, and no matter how many times he sucks the taste of bile from his mercifully intact and unpulpy cheeks, it’s always there. He feels dizzy, shaky, and his heartbeat thuds off-time in his breath, racing one minute and then sluggish the next.
“The others are worried about you.”
Eames lifts his head from where it’s resting against the rough sandstone wall to find Arthur, looming above him at the door. His arms are crossed over his chest. It’s probably because Eames is on the ground, but Arthur seems absurdly, incredibly tall, like he’s towering above Eames, even though Eames is a good ten meters from him. His mouth is turned down in a scowl. He looks the same as he always looks these days—disgusted, angry, betrayed. Let down. Exhausted.
No one had ever told Eames it was possible to feel this way about a person, like every time they looked at you, they were completely dismantling you, taking apart all your pieces and picking them over to do with them whatever they see fit. He feels like there’s a giant hole in him, like he spends every minute now trying desperately to keep a hold of what he has left, but it’s just clutching at straws, and he leaves bits of himself scattered everywhere he goes. He hadn’t known you could feel a loss like this, so absolute that Eames sometimes thinks he can feel an empty whistle howling around inside of him, mocking him for all the space Arthur used to take up, all the places he used to be and isn’t anymore.
Fuck. Eames fucking misses him so much.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Arthur snarls, and Eames shuts his eyes immediately, flinching like Arthur’s cracked him across the face.
God, what the fuck is wrong with him? First rule of a failed inception: don’t ogle the mark. Which in this case is Arthur. Jesus Christ.
“Pull yourself together.” Arthur’s voice is cold and Eames is glad he’s got his eyes closed, doesn’t need to be watching to imagine the expression on Arthur’s face, like he’d like to light Eames on fire but he’s not worth the petrol to bother. “You’re a fucking fall down mess.”
Eames keeps his eyes shut, like a coward, until he hears the door swing shut. When he opens them, Arthur is gone, and it’s just Eames, alone, trying to figure out if that lump that sticks in his throat is because of the horrid Turkish coffee he’s been mainlining or because of something else.
“—in no condition for—“
“There must be something—“
“Arthur, be reasonable. This isn’t the sort of arrangement we can just back out of and you know it.”
“Listen to me. We cannot go in there fixed the way we are. Three levels down, the mark’s projections will be rabid from the get go. We can’t have our own projections kicking our teeth in, too. It’s suicide.”
“Well then, what’s your brilliant suggestion?”
“Give it up as a bad job. We should bow out.”
“No, we should do it.”
Everyone turns to Eames, and he realizes belatedly that it’s because he’s the one who’s speaking.
“Your projections are out of control,” Arthur says bluntly. “You’re a liability.”
Eames swallows. “I’m all we’ve got,” he counters. “And anyway, I did the meet, remember? It has to be me down in the third level.”
“And when the dream collapses after your projections finish curb stomping you?”
“It—“ Jesus, he can’t believe he’s suggesting this. He’s absolutely going to hell. “It doesn’t have to be mine. It could be yours.” He cracks a humorless smile, and it’s such a foreign sensation that he feels like his entire face is cracking apart. “Then it doesn’t matter when they curb stomp me.”
Arthur, shocker, is vehemently against this idea. Eames isn’t surprised Arthur doesn’t want him mucking around in his head, but facts are facts. Eames’s subconscious can’t be trusted, but it needs to be him down in the third level and Arthur is the only other one properly trained for the level of fight projections that deep will bring. Yusuf mentions that if Eames won’t be sustaining anything down there, there are drugs that will limit his ability to create without compromising his brain function. It won’t keep the projections out altogether, but it’ll keep him from say, bringing in a freight train.
They decide to go with Eames’s plan, such as it is, but Arthur catches his elbow on the way out, his fingers digging sharply into the pressure point. Eames’s entire arm goes numb. He knows Arthur is doing it on purpose, but to be honest, Eames is so shocked Arthur is touching him at all that he doesn’t think he’d care if Arthur chopped his entire arm right off. He misses the first part of what Arthur says, the words distorted and dragged out in his ears, but the second part comes through crystal clear.
“What do you think my projections will do to you?”
Eames says nothing, but he expects that whatever they do, it’ll be nothing more than he deserves.
He doesn’t go anywhere, just goes and sits and watches lists of destinations cycle through on the screens above his head. It’s… not nice, exactly, but it’s fitting, which is as close as he can be expected to get, he thinks, considering. He sits in dirty chairs and drinks endless cups of coffee and lets the white noise of people traveling wash over him, the din of chatter, of far off announcements and the clack-clack-clack of wheeled luggage over tiled floor.
He never sits in arrivals, too many outbursts. There are never any excited whoops in departures, no giddy laughter or passionate reunions. Occasionally, there’s a tearful embrace, but these are just water off Eames’s back, not registering any more than the snap of high heels or the janitor coughing as he pushes his cart by Eames for the fourth time in one night.
He should leave. He should close his eyes and pick a flight and get on a plane and never look back. But he can’t. What if Arthur will eventually forgive him? What if Arthur does forgive him and that’s the day Eames decides to throw in the towel and leave?
What if Arthur never forgives him?
He doesn’t know what will happen once the job is over. Arthur hasn’t told the team, hasn’t told anyone, and Eames doesn’t know what that means. He doesn’t know if he can keep doing this, working the jobs and living the life and having Arthur hate him, but he remembers the two years he was on his own, remembers how repetitive and unalive and nothing they were, and he doesn’t think he can go back to that purgatory either.
He wants Arthur to forgive him, but the more he thinks about it, the harder it is to think of a reason he should.
It isn’t long before the others trickle in, the standard pre-job anticipatory hum luring them in early. They go over the plan again and again, and Eames tries hard to pay attention to his new role. Just because it won’t be his dream down in the third level doesn’t mean that Eames can just coast along. He’ll have a job to do like everybody else, will have to hold the mark’s projections off while he does, plus watch Arthur’s back, plus outlast his own projections. Limbo’s a possibility. It won’t be like the last time, with Cobb, where he’d dry fucked the lot of them by not telling them what they were getting into, but it’s a risk, and they’ve adjusted for it accordingly, weapons caches and safehouses with strong rooms built in everywhere.
At ten o’clock, they head out to pick up the mark from his knee surgery and twenty-five minutes later, they’re back at the warehouse. It’s not ideal, but given the last minute changes and the severity of the consequences should they fuck up, Yusuf wants a lab close by, just in case. It’s an all day sort of thing, will easily take eight hours, and they don’t waste any time.
Eames fumbles his IV line. Twice. He hears Arthur mutter a quietly irritated “Try not to get us all killed,” from the chair beside him, and then Yusuf is bidding them sweet dreams, and Eames takes his next breath inside a hall bustling with people.
The crush of people makes him a little nervous, but confidence has always been easy for Eames to fake, and it’s no trouble at all to charm his way into a bank of offices, and from there, locate the mark. They pose as hall security, feed him some line about a terrorist threat, and are on their way down to the second level before Saito’s even finished screwing the silencer onto his gun.
It’s almost embarrassing how easy it is. No surprises, no hiccups.
The next level is not easy.
As soon as they get there, it’s clear something is off. Eames has never been to Montreal, but he’s pretty sure there aren’t generally tanks in the streets.
“This isn’t right,” insists Ariadne, ducking behind a low concrete wall when gunfire sounds. “This is a war zone. I didn’t design this.”
“It’s the mark,” says Arthur. “That terrorist bullshit we told him. It’s influencing the dreamscape.”
“He can change things down here?”
A fire ball flares behind an old Victorian-style walk up, and Eames peeks over the wall, gun in hand and watching for projections. He’d like not to give their position away, but they’re sitting ducks out in the open like this, and they won’t stay hidden for long.
“It’s still Montreal,” Arthur continues. “It’s still your design under the surface changes.”
“We should wrap this up,” Eames warns, and it’s not a moment too soon, a hail of gunfire peppering the ground on the other side of the wall, concrete chips flying everywhere.
“There’s a safe house two blocks west of here,” Ariadne shouts over the noise. “If we can make it upstairs, we should be able to hole up there long enough for you to do the third level.”
They make it to the safe house, but just barely. Arthur catches a bottle in the side of the head, green glass exploding all around him, bright red pouring down his neck. Eames sees it happen, sees him stumble and fall, and it’s only Arthur’s iron grip on his gun and his instant scramble back up again that keeps Eames from turning around and doing something stupid that would probably wind up getting them all killed, gunfire and explosions and Limbo be damned. They bar the door and pound up the stairs to where the windows are for a more defensible position.
“How are we supposed to find our guy in all this?” Ariadne asks as she squeezes the trigger and drops a pair of projections in full riot gear.
“One thing at a time,” Arthur answers, covering the north window. Blood soaks into his shirt front, but his aim is flawless, and the projections fall as fast as they appear, a blockade of bodies accumulating in the street.
There’s a lull in the action, a sudden peace that makes the hair on the back of Eames’s neck stand up, but the three of them wait and nothing happens, just the muffled pops of far-off fighting, the acrid smell of smoke and fuel in the air.
“Where would he be?” Arthur asks, abandoning his post at the window and unrolling a huge map on the floor in the center of the room. “Think about the level you designed. What are the most likely places?”
“I have no idea,” Ariadne says, still scanning the streets for projections. “He could be in any of the other safe houses, I guess, but he could be out in the streets or somewhere he made up or somewhere else entirely. He could be anywhere. He could be dead for all we know.”
“He’s not dead, otherwise his projections wouldn’t be here still. It’s your design. He can influence things, but he’s still bound by it. He’ll be in the most likely spot, the one closest to where you intended. Give me a list.”
Ariadne rattles off a list of places and Arthur checks them against the map, assesses their likelihood and narrows things down, and for a second there, it almost looks like they’ll make it through this, onwards and downwards.
And that’s when the grenade comes.
It sails in through Arthur’s unprotected window, wobbling a little bit as it flies, and time seems to get stuck on itself, hanging in front of Eames like he’s watching it in slow motion. It’s a concussion grenade. Not a huge kill radius, but big enough for this room by far. There’s no time, seconds at most, but he takes it anyway, looks over at Arthur, still bent over the map. The grenade hits the floor with a skittering noise, and Arthur jerks his head up at the sound. His eyes land on Eames’s, and something must show in his face because Arthur immediately stops what he’s doing, standing up with a warning look, and he only takes one step before Eames is pulling out his weapon and he’s shooting Arthur in the leg, sending him crumpling to the ground while Eames turns and hightails it to where the grenade has landed.
Eames slides into the corner, the shell of the grenade hard against his belly, and does his best to shut out the sound of Arthur’s scream, but to still keep Arthur’s face in his mind. He thinks about Arthur that night they got together, about the lines around his eyes as he squinted into the low-hanging sun, and the way Eames felt warm all the way down to his toes every time he made Arthur laugh. He thinks of Stockholm, of Arthur’s drunken, dimpled smile, cheery and uncomplicated. He thinks of Arthur’s endless routines and his stupid cufflinks and the way he tucked a handkerchief into Eames’s pocket that one time, his weakness for shellfish even though the mess gets everywhere and the way his voice lobs a bit over his aw sounds when he’s tired and his—
It’s daylight, and that means it’s hot, an unbearable, relentless, desiccating heat. He squints against the harsh sun, wishes he had a hat.
He doesn’t get one.
It doesn’t matter anyway. He’s in Limbo. Having a hat won’t matter here because here isn’t here. He’s in his own subconscious. As long as he remembers that, he’ll eventually get the hang of how things work here, and then he’ll just build himself a city. With an entire block of shops that sell nothing but hats. It’ll take time, but fortunately, Eames has literally got all the time in the world here.
So he walks.
He walks and walks, for so long he loses track of how much time has passed. The sun always stays high in the sky, never setting, never even moving. He can’t tell how far he’s gone; there are no landmarks and whenever he looks behind him, there’s a line of footprints being erased before his eyes. They aren’t being blown away—there’s no wind here, only scorched, dead air that shimmers when he looks ahead. It’s more like they’re simply being rubbed out, an invisible hand of God. After a while, he stops looking back for them. He trudges on through the endless expanse of sand and thinks about Arthur instead.
He hopes he’s okay.
The sun doesn’t set and the landscape doesn’t change and Eames doesn’t get anywhere, no matter how long he walks.
It’s not just desert. He doesn’t know how far he’s walked, but it’s mostly because he doesn’t know how long he’s been here. He used to know, used to keep track by picking up a new stone every day, first thing when he woke up, but eventually he ran out of pocket room, and really, four pockets full of stones do get terribly heavy after… well who knows? Anyway, it turns out there are things down here other than desert after all. Eames has passed a farm house once, a dog twice, and the ocean eight times.
This ocean’s not like home, where it’s harsh and rocky and dramatic pretty much everywhere, the cliffs of Dover gleaming white and imposing for miles and the cramped shores alive with the hum of traffic and the crush of people. It’s not like Bali, either—no lagoons with tranquil turquoise waters, no palms swaying in a gentle breeze. It’s more like New England. The coast is quiet, subdued with a kind of sad beauty. A grey damp hangs in the sky for the most part, the water dark, unwelcoming, but every now and then there’s a crack where the sunlight manages to wrestle through, and then everything changes—light glimmers off the water, a rich vibrant blue, and the sand goes from a lackluster mushroom-y color to a soft, understated taupe, muted and timeless. It’s an old place.
It’s the kind of place he thinks Arthur would approve of.
Every time Eames comes to this ocean, he stops. He takes the day and he stops. He sinks his fingers into cool sand and he smells the salt in the air and he watches the waves come in and rush out, over and over and over again. Sometimes he thinks about Arthur, but mostly he thinks about himself.
The last time he sees it, he stops. He takes off his shoes and his socks, and rolls up both pant legs to the knee and stands ankle deep in the ocean, Arthur’s ocean, and thinks about Arthur. About the way he walks, chin up, shoulders back, like he owns every room he enters. About his forehead ridges, and how they stick out whenever he’s puzzling about something, and the way his mouth turns down into a frown. About how Eames tried to change him, change who he was. About how Eames tried to take something that didn’t belong to him.
He comes out of the water and makes the decision then and there to put the ocean away. It doesn’t belong to him. It belongs to Arthur, and Eames has no business traipsing about in it. He gathers it all up, every wave and every crab, and puts it somewhere safe, but before he does, he flicks his poker chip in, where it disappears beneath the surface with barely a plip.
When it’s done, he puts his socks and shoes back on, and keeps walking. His shoes slosh through the wet sand at first, but it dries soon enough in the sun, the heat blazing in, leaving nothing behind.
He’s looking for something. The ocean. He can’t remember how he knows this, but he can feel it more and more clearly with every step. He needs to find the ocean. It’s important. It’s his only way of getting back, of getting out of here, if there even is an out of here. It’s his way back… somewhere. It used to be here, he’s sure of it, but something happened, and he hid it, tucked it away somewhere for safekeeping, only now he’s forgotten where.
He’s walking through a field, but not a field of grass, of shells, conch shells—big pink ones and tiny grey ones and ones with stripes and smooth ones, knobby ones, every kind imaginable. He passes through these fields every so often, huge, sprawling fields of shells, thousands, millions of shells across. He passes through them and imagines that he can feel salt spray on his face, hear the cry of gulls and the crash of waves and Arthur’s voice (I’ve always loved the ocean), and vows to keep searching until he finds it again.
Sometimes there are stairs, steps made out of sand that he doesn’t notice until he’s already climbing them. They’re always Penrose Steps. He always forgets until he remembers, and the gap between the levels yawns lofty and huge, but all he ever has to do is step forward and he’s on the dunes again. Sometimes he climbs them for years before he remembers, one foot hovering above the empty air.
Occasionally, he sees Arthur. The first time, he’d thought it was a miracle, Arthur, here, in this place. But something about him was off, not right, and once Eames noticed it, it just kept growing, becoming more and more obvious, until the wrongness was all Eames could see, and he couldn’t even look at him, had to crouch into a ball with his eyes shut tight until he went away.
Not-Arthur. The worst is when he laughs. It always starts out normal, Arthur’s throaty chuckle warm and welcome even in the sweltering heat, but it quickly turns sour, manic, until it’s carnival-esque, a high-pitched shriek that Eames can’t drown out no matter how hard he claps his hands over his ears, teeth multiplying in a gaping mouth that grows and grows until it takes over his entire face and he disappears with a pop.
Eames doesn’t know how, but he knows this not-Arthur is his fault, just as surely as he knows the ocean is important, maybe even the way back to the real Arthur.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been walking for. A long time. Sometimes he thinks about another place, a different place, very strange, but he can never quite recall the details and the whole exercise leaves him feeling frustrated. He tries not to think about that place, tries to keep his head down and focus on what’s in front of him, on what’s real.
He gets to the top of a dune and pauses, surveying his course, and he feels the bottom drop out of his stomach when he sees a lone figure in the trough. For a moment, he considers hiding, falling back behind the crest of the dune or burying himself in the sand, maybe, but it wouldn’t help anything. Not-Arthur always finds him eventually, and sure enough, the figure whirls around as soon as he thinks it, almost like Eames had called out to him.
Eames takes a breath and makes his way down the dune at an angle. Maybe if he gives not-Arthur a wide enough berth, Eames will luck out and he’ll leave him alone. He doesn’t, and Eames can’t even say he’s surprised. Not-Arthur never leaves him alone. Not without coming to say hello first.
“He’s not real,” Eames whispers to himself. He doesn’t know how much not-Arthur knows, but he doesn’t want to give away what he’s come to think of as his only weapon against him, the knowledge that whatever else he is, not-Arthur is not real. Real people don’t just appear and disappear at random. Real people don’t look like that. “He’s not real. He’s not real. He’s not real.”
Real or not, not-Arthur eventually catches up with him, as he always does, and as he always does, Eames does his best to ignore him.
Not-Arthur says his name like it’s something miraculous, something long fought for and hard won, and Eames doesn’t, but if he ever did need a sign, a reminder that this Arthur is a fake, well, that’s it right there.
“Eames?” he says again. “Eames, it’s me.”
It isn’t. Eames keeps walking. This isn’t his first rodeo. He doesn’t look at not-Arthur. He knows what he is, what he really is, and he doesn’t want to see all the things that don’t belong in his face.
“I’m not listening to you,” Eames says, and then shuts his eyes tight. Fuck. It was a mistake to talk to him, to engage. He can feel panic starting to billow in his chest, but it’ll be okay. Not-Arthur’ll go away, he always does. Eames just needs to keep walking, keep searching.
“Yeah, well, you never do, why start now?” not-Arthur mutters.
He grabs at Eames’s elbow and the contact is such a surprise that Eames jerks away, panic progressing to full blown terror. Not-Arthur’s never touched him before, and the implications of this new development kind of make Eames want to die a little.
A second not-Arthur shows up, trailing a bit behind them. They’ve never shown up two at a time before, either, and Eames just manages to swallow down a whimper. There’s a sick, slippery dread slithering around in his gut. His legs feel rubbery and weak, unsteady in the soft sand, but he needs to keep walking, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep breathing and eventually they’ll go away, they always go away, and maybe this time Eames will find what he’s looking for before they come back.
The first one notices the other, and he pauses in his endless repetition of Eames’s name, his face gone slack with a kind of sick horror. In the periphery of his vision, Eames sees him look from the second not-Arthur back to Eames, then back to the second one again.
“Jesus Christ,” Eames hears him whisper, barely audible over the thud of Eames’s own thunderous heartbeat in his ears.
Then the laughing starts.
It begins the way it always does, easy and familiar, a fondly exasperated “Eames” falling out of his mouth and a warm smile in his tone. Eames knows what’s coming though, can’t pretend that he doesn’t, and it happens just like he knew it would, the sound changing, distorting until it’s all wrong, unrecognizable as a human laugh, much less Arthur’s.
He tries to keep going. That’s what he does, how it works. Not-Arthur shows up, he laughs, and then he goes away and Eames keeps searching. He tries, but there have never been two of them at once before and the first one blocks his path, long fingers digging into the meat of his upper arms, and Eames makes a pathetic, feeble whine low in his throat.
“Go away,” he begs. He squeezes his eyes shut, but he can still hear the laughing, and he can still feel the heat of not-Arthur’s hands on him, horribly, sickeningly familiar to the feel of real hands, but he knows what he’ll see if he opens his eyes, knows it’ll be that thing, and not really Arthur.
“Leave me alone.”
“You’re not real!” he shouts desperately in not-Arthur’s face, secret weapons be damned.
Not-Arthur tightens his hands on Eames’s arms and shakes him so hard Eames’s eyes fly open.
“I’m real!” he barks in Eames’s face. “I’m real, but that thing—” The second not-Arthur’s laugh just keeps getting higher and higher, louder and louder, and Eames can’t block him out, can’t think. “He’s not. He’s just a projection.”
Eames’s entire world slows down to a crawl. That word. He hasn’t thought about that word for a long time. A lifetime.
“A projection. He’s not real. None of this is. You’re in a dream.”
Eames looks from the first not-Arthur to the second not-Arthur and back again.
“I’m real, Eames,” he says again, and when Eames looks over at the second not-Arthur again, there’s nothing there.
The next ten seconds that Eames spends looking at the remaining Arthur are the longest ten seconds of his life. He braces himself as best he can and looks at his face, not just skimming the surface, but really looking, searching for the first flaw, the sense that the pieces are put together out of order, that wrongness. Only it doesn’t come. Not for an instant, and then two, and then another, until time for Eames is just this cascading ladder of instants, each one a tiny burst of energy, building on the one before that and the one before that, a chain reaction, and all that energy is starting to feel dangerously like hope, crackling and swirling and building in Eames’s chest like a nuclear explosion, and Eames can’t contain it, can’t keep it from breaking out of him.
“Arthur,” he breathes, his voice ragged with awe.
Eames lets his eyes slide down from Arthur’s face, takes in the curve of his jaw and the line of his throat, the breadth of his shoulders and his red, red tie. His suit, a soft, understated taupe. Muted. Timeless. When he looks up again, he half expects it to all be a horrible new development in the not-Arthur situation, but there’s nothing wrong with this Arthur’s face, not one thing. The toe of his shoe is against Arthur’s instep, and Eames can feel the fluttering tension in Arthur’s hands, still tight around his arms.
“You’re here?” He means for it to come out as a statement, you’re here, but there’s something squeezing his throat, and his voice comes out frail, threadbare thin.
“Yeah. I’m here.” Arthur’s voice is frail, too, but with something else, something that pinches at the eyes and puts a tremor at the mouth.
“What… What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for you. To bring you back.”
“Back where?” Eames can’t remember a time when he knew anything but this, sand and grit and the heat, but he remembers Arthur, remembers things about him that he has no way of knowing, details of another life, superimposed over top of this one, muddling everything.
Arthur’s face, if possible, gets even more pinched. “Back where you belong.”
Eames lets out a shaky exhale. Where he belongs. He wonders if where he belongs is that place, the one he can’t really remember, or if it’s another place entirely, one he’s completely forgotten. He wonders if he’ll remember it when he gets there, or if he’ll always keep this place in his mind, if he’ll feel nostalgic for the dunes and the sun, homesick for what feels like the only place he’s ever known.
He wonders if where he belongs is the same place as where Arthur belongs, but he doesn’t know how to ask.
“Do you remember?” Arthur asks gently, letting go of Eames’s shoulders. “Do you remember how it works down here?”
Eames doesn’t understand the question, so no, he guesses he doesn’t, and he shakes his head.
“We’re in a dream. We’re actually in the warehouse right now. But to wake up there, we have to die here. I know it’s a lot,” he says, “but I promise, you will wake up.” He searches Eames’s face. “Do you trust me?”
Maybe Eames shouldn’t, maybe he shouldn’t trust this Arthur who just sprung into existence in the middle of the desert, the same as the other Arthurs, the more obviously wrong ones. Maybe he shouldn’t trust this Arthur, who talks to Eames in a soft voice, like Eames is made of glass, who knows things he can’t possibly know, things about dreams and projections and waking up. Maybe he shouldn’t. But he does, knows it in every single thought he has, and if this Arthur turns out to be wrong, after all this, Eames knows he’ll trust the next one who appears, too.
God, he hopes he’s not wrong.
“I trust you,” he says.
“Do you have a gun?” Arthur asks.
Eames shakes his head.
“Knife? Rope? A rock?”
Eames shakes his head again.
“Well, fuck. I’d really like it if neither of us had to beat anyone to death.” He looks all the way around him, but there’s only sand in all directions, and he paces a wide circle around Eames as he thinks out loud. “It wouldn’t work anyway. One of us would still have to kill themselves, and I don’t think it’s even possible to beat yourself to death. I guess we could cave in a hole or something, but that’s awful. What else is down here?”
Arthur stops pacing and looks at Eames, confused. “What do you mean nothing?”
“It’s just me. And this.”
For a moment, it looks like Arthur might reach out and touch Eames, but he keeps his hands to himself.
“You’ve been down here,” Arthur says slowly, “in the desert this entire time, all alone.”
“Well, there’s—him.” He feels like a baby a little bit, but he doesn’t want to say not-Arthur’s name, not to this Arthur, the real Arthur. “Sometimes.”
There’s something going on with Arthur’s face that Eames can’t understand. It keeps starting to crumple and then regaining its original shape, like a sheet of foil being balled up and then springing open again. It looks painful. It looks like grief, but for the life of him, Eames can’t figure out what he said or did that would make Arthur look like that.
“How do you live?” Arthur asks. His voice cracks on the first word. “Even in a dream you still need things. What do you eat? Drink? What do you do when your clothes wear out? Where do you sleep?”
Eames doesn’t know the answers to these questions, doesn’t know how to make this better. “It’s just always like this,” he says, shrugging uselessly. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“What do you do down here?”
“Walk,” he answers. “I’m looking for something. Something important.”
“What is it?”
“I thought you said there was nothing else down here.”
“There’s not. But there used to be, I—” Eames can feel the details slipping away like sand through his fingers. “I put it somewhere. To keep it safe.”
“You hid it?”
“But you don’t remember where.”
He shakes his head.
“So now you search for it. Search for an ocean in an endless desert.” Arthur sits down hard on the sand and rests his forehead on his knees. Eames can see where sand is falling into his shoes, grains clinging to the fibers of his socks. “Jesus Christ, Eames. What did you do?”
Eames doesn’t know the answer to that question either.
“I have to find it,” he says. “It’s important.”
Arthur looks up at him, face chalk-white. One hand is on his forehead, mussing up his hair. It looks wrong, but not wrong wrong, familiar wrong, and something about it niggles at the back of Eames’s mind, but he just can’t remember.
“Okay,” says Arthur finally. “Okay, let’s go look for it.”
They make their way across the dunes. Arthur stays close, but he doesn’t touch Eames, and he doesn’t talk to him, and Eames thinks hard about where the ocean might be, tries to remember so that Arthur will lose the haunted, anguished look he’s had ever since Eames told him he’d lost it. He doesn’t want this Arthur to go away again, and if the ocean’s the way to keep him, then Eames needs to find it, pronto.
After only a few dunes, they reach one of the shell fields. Eames hasn’t crossed one in quite some time, but they’re all the same, and he leads Arthur through it with no trouble.
“Do you hear that?” Arthur asks, lagging behind Eames as he stops to listen. “Like a rushing noise?”
“Yeah. It’s always like that when you go through one of these. It’s nothing.” He kicks aside a particularly large shell, and the sound gets louder. “See?”
He keeps going, but when he turns around, he finds Arthur standing stock still, with a shell held up to his ear. He listens to it for a few moments, and then jerks it away to stare at it in his hand, mouth falling open.
“There’s a bird in here,” he says. He looks around him, at the shells littering the desert floor and at the shell in his hand and at Eames, and starts to laugh. It’s a jittery sound, just this side of hysterical, wrong, and all Eames can think is not this, not again.
“No, no, no, wait,” Arthur says, holding up a hand when Eames takes an involuntary step backwards. “Wait. Sorry. It’s alright.” He stifles a few stray giggles with the back of his hand, and Eames relaxes the barest amount. Stifling is something not-Arthur has never done.
“Sorry, it’s just—” Arthur smiles at him, but it’s a watery, fragile kind of smile, and Eames can’t tell whether it’s happy or sad. “Only you would hide the ocean right in the shell. Right in plain sight.” He huffs out another laugh, but it’s just a little one, an exhalation more than anything, nothing like not-Arthur’s laugh. “You really are a thief through and through, aren’t you?”
Eames has no idea what Arthur is talking about, but he doesn’t even get a denial out before Arthur is already steamrolling ahead, stepping in close and holding the shell in his hand out for Eames to listen to, and sure enough, when Eames lowers his ear to it, he hears the scream of seabirds and the far-off roar of rushing water. Something cold and wet hits the side of his face and he jerks up, wiping saltwater off his cheek.
“You found it,” he says, gaping at Arthur. He listens to it again, just to be sure. “How do we get it out?”
“I don’t know. Um.” Arthur looks around, starts pacing again, turning the shell over in his hand again and again. “Okay. It’s your dream. These are your constructs. You put it in here, you must be able to get it out. Have you ever touched one? A shell, I mean.”
“Okay.” Arthur thinks for a minute. “Okay, I think this’ll work. It’s your dream. And you know it’s a dream. And you know the ocean’s in here, in all of these,” he says, sweeping his arm around at the shells. “You control this place. If you pick one up, and you want the water to come out, it should. It will.” He blinks and shakes his head as he looks around. “Lucid dreaming, even down here. Unbelievable.”
“What’ll happen if I do?”
“We’ll drown,” Arthur says matter-of-factly. “We’ll wake up.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” he nods. “I’m sure.” He walks back over to where Eames is standing and gives him a long look.
“Time to wake up, Mr. Eames,” Arthur says softly.
“Will you be there?” Eames asks. “Will you be there when I do?”
A dozen emotions cross Arthur’s face, too fast for Eames to identify any more than the first (surprise) and the last (sadness).
“Yes, of course,” he says, and takes Eames’s hand, threading his fingers in with Eames’s like a promise.
Eames looks down at their joined hands and then back up at Arthur, who nods encouragingly. Eames gives a slow nod of his own and when Arthur picks up the closest conch shell, holding it out between them, he hesitates for a second, but Arthur tightens his grip on Eames’s hand and Eames answers it with a redoubling of his own. He presses the pads of his fingers to the shell’s rough surface, and then there’s water pouring from the shell, pouring from every shell, a hundred billion tiny fire hoses in all directions.
For an instant, there’s a rushing sound, thunderous, deafening, and then the water is over Eames’s head. He kicks his feet, survival mode kicking in despite himself, but the water is too strong, his clothes too heavy. Currents swirl impossibly fast around him, pulling him every which way, disorienting him. He doesn’t know which way is up, but Arthur is still there, holding on tight, and Eames abandons his struggle to the surface for Arthur’s other hand. Water slides down his throat and into his lungs, brutal and unrelenting, and his vision darkens as the distance to the surface becomes greater and greater, and there’s nothing—only pain and pressure and fear and Arthur
“It’s alright. It’s alright, Eames,” says the weight, and when Eames’s darting eyes settle and focus, he sees that the weight is Arthur, close and concerned and that’s wrong, this can’t be real, isn’t real, Jesus Christ, where the fuck is he—
“Totem,” says Arthur. “Front pocket, come on. Flip it.”
Eames reaches into his front pocket and just like Arthur said it would be, there it is, a poker chip, no, his poker chip, the grooves around the edge worn and distantly familiar, something from another life, and he doesn’t flip it so much as drop it, but it lands flush, just like it’s supposed to. Eames stares at it for a long moment, and then reaches down and flips it again, properly, just to be sure.
It lands right.
“Arthur,” he croaks out. His throat is bone dry, parched like he’s been in a desert for years. He feels like crying, and doesn’t know why.
“Arthur?” another voice asks from behind him. Ariadne, Eames’s mind supplies immediately, although the only other thing that comes with it is the image of a scarf.
“Give us a minute,” Arthur instructs, not taking his eyes off Eames for one second.
Eames can hear the footsteps of several people, and information starts to flood back into his brain. Yusuf. Saito. The warehouse. Limbo. Arthur.
“Eames. Are you okay?” Arthur’s hands curl in the fabric of his shirt, just above his heart.
“You—“ He stops, swallows, tries to get the croak out of his voice, but it’s no use. “You saved me.”
Relief blooms bright on Arthur’s face and he nods. “Yes. Yes, that’s right, I did. You’re safe.”
“I’m sorry, Arthur.”
Arthur blinks. His mouth opens, then closes, then opens again. “I know,” he says gently. “I believe you.”
“I love you,” Eames whispers.
It’s defeated, completely inadequate, and not at all like he’d thought it would be, but after everything he’s done, everything he’s ruined, he at least owes Arthur the truth, and the truth is that Eames is so fucking in love with Arthur that he aches with it.
Arthur’s throat bobs as he swallows, his mouth a thin line. He looks heartbroken and Eames would do anything, would gladly die a thousand gruesome deaths and then turn around and do them all over again, to take it away.
“Come on,” Arthur says softly. “Let’s get you up.” He helps Eames to his feet, puts a glass of water in his hand, and calls the rest of the team back in.
Eames doesn’t want to see them, doesn’t want to see anybody. Limbo is still fresh in his mind, bright and razor sharp, but the longer he’s back here, back in the real world, the more data resurfaces in his brain. Memories rush back at an impossible speed, and fuck, he feels like his fucking head is about to explode, full up with real memories and false memories and a hundred million feelings that he can’t control, and everything is complicated by the fact that while his head may be full to bursting, the rest of him feels cavernously empty, hollow and scraped clean. But Eames has made his living out of being a liar, has been doing it for so long that it’s second nature for his mind to check out, leaving his body to go through the motions.
It almost works. He makes it through Saito clapping him on the back, squeezing his shoulder and giving him a long, thoughtful look, like all of Eames’s secrets are on display. He makes it through Yusuf’s scattered mumbling, something about side effects from the amphetamine (whatever that means), and the flustered way he moves, like he’s put off at himself and what to do with his hands, as he pushes a vial of something into Eames’s coat pocket. But when Ariadne hugs him, his plan backfires and he fucks up.
“This I could get used to,” he says, shooting his mouth off entirely on autopilot. “Back from the brink of death to have some hot young thing pressed up against me—“
“You shut your fucking mouth,” she snarls, and Eames is yanked back into himself so fast his head spins.
Ariadne’s got a lot of things, but a sailor mouth isn’t one of them, so he does what she says and stays quiet. Her arms are scrawny, but surprisingly tenacious in their grip, and when she doesn’t let go, he clues in that a hug is generally a two-way street and brings his own arms around her awkwardly. She only lets him hug her back for a second though, and then she’s pulling away to punch him in the shoulder, knuckles out, angry tears sparkling in the corners of her eyes.
Arthur stands apart from them, from all of them, and watches with an unreadable look on his face. It makes Eames’s empty chest hurt when he looks at him, though, so he guesses that must mean there’s something still in there, and he doesn’t know whether he’s grateful for that or not.
He plans to get a room at the first dump that he stumbles across, but he’s turned away when he tries to pay with a credit card that isn’t his and signs his real name, a mistake he hasn’t made in decades. He prepares better for the next attempt, thinks about how M. Vandenberg’s signature should look and how much swagger a man like that would have, and checks into a hotel that is far too extravagant for soaked, bedraggled Englishmen who haven’t shaved in a week, but is apparently just right for soaked, bedraggled Englishmen who request “the best room in the house, my dear, and hang the expense”.
Eames doesn’t give a flying fuck where he stays. As long as he can get some real sleep there, it doesn’t matter.
It’s not like sharing dreams, real sleep. Real sleep is downtime and dreamtime together, and the dreams are like hundred hour days spent entirely on speed, everything amped up and accelerated and on all the time. For Eames’s mind, it really hasn’t been that long since he’s slept, however long he’d walk for before stopping someplace in the sand and passing out before blinking his eyes open to do it all over again. In actuality though, for his brain, Eames hasn’t slept in six days, and he’s certain that scrabbling feeling behind his eyes is his brain pickling in its own dopamine.
He collapses onto an enormous bed, soft and white and with covers that poof up around him when he sinks into them. All of his waterlogged clothes are still on, his shoes wet and probably tracking dirty water all over the duvet, but he can’t be bothered to care even a little bit. He doesn’t even crawl under the sheets, just shuts his eyes and exhales and lets himself get sucked down into nothingness.
As he hurtles into a sleep that is dark and deep and empty, his last conscious thought it that this is what he hopes dying is like, like falling down someplace and letting go of everything, and having everything let go of you, forever.
Only it’s not the desert. Or, well, it is, but that’s not all it is. It’s also a warehouse, a warehouse made of sand, with stairwells that go on forever, infinite despite there being only two floors. He’s running. He’s not sure what he’s running from, but he’s definitely running from something. Terror and adrenaline pound through him, but it’s not enough, and he feels a presence at his back as he bolts across the warehouse floor and into the stairwell. The laughing starts, instantly wrong, no buildup whatsoever this time, deafening. Eames crashes through a heavy fire door and barely gets it shut again before a weight slams into the other side, the impact so strong Eames’s shoes slide forward in the sand. He tries desperately to hold it closed, but the thing on the other side is relentless, and it jars the door again and again, the sound mingling with the sound of the laughing, steady and regular and almost like knocking—
Eames jerks awake, scrambling up and out of bed so fast he falls over, sprawling on a lush carpet he has no memory of.
In the next room, a rapid staccato of knocks sounds in time with Eames’s racing heart. His mouth goes dry and he grabs the first thing he touches for a weapon before slowly making his way over to investigate. It isn’t until he reaches the door that he realizes his weapon of choice is a lamp, but beggars can’t be choosers, and he turns the lock as quietly as he can with how badly his hands are shaking before throwing open the door, lamp held high.
It’s by the narrowest of margins that Eames avoids the very unpleasant task of cleaning Saito’s brains out of the silk shade, if it even is Saito.
“Mr. Eames.” If this Saito is bothered by Eames nearly bludgeoning him to death in a hotel hallway, he doesn’t show it, just bows his head ever so slightly, a very accurate Saito gesture, deferential and wary at the same time. “Good evening.”
Eames doesn’t return the greeting. He keeps his grip tight on the lamp, examining the Saito at the door for any indication that he might be from there. That Eames is actually still there, and that everything he’d thought was real, Arthur and drowning and waking up, was all just in his head. His breathing is harsh, loud in the otherwise quiet hallway.
“Do you need a moment to collect yourself?”
“Your totem, Mr. Eames.”
“Oh.” Eames doesn’t know why he keeps forgetting. The chip has been his totem since he was nineteen, ever since he’d first fallen into the business, but that’s twice now since he’s been back (if he’s back at all) that he’s forgotten about it. It’s troubling to say the least. “I—I have to look for it,” he says, when he pats his pockets and finds them empty.
The Saito nods politely. “I’ll wait out here.”
Eames finds the chip in the rumpled folds of the duvet, and when it lands flush in his palm, the relief he feels is so intense that he leaves Saito in the hall for a few minutes while he sits on the side of the bed and takes careful, measured breaths through his mouth.
“Sorry about that,” he mumbles, opening the door and stepping aside to let Saito in.
“It’s quite alright.”
He comes in and after a few searching glances around the suite, gets right down to business. He doesn’t mention the state of Eames’s clothes, filthy and smelling of damp hobo, or the lack of any personal belongings, all abandoned in a hotel room that feels like a million years ago.
Eames appreciates his tact.
“How are you doing?” Saito asks.
The smile on Eames’s face is instinctive, involuntary, and completely insincere. “Any better and I couldn’t stand it.”
Saito doesn’t even blink at his bullshit. “I’m not here for witticisms. You forget that I too know what it is to be lost down there. To come back with the weight of many years. To be between worlds.”
Eames feels the fake smile freeze on his face and melt away. Even if he could think of something to say to that, which he can’t, his throat is suddenly so tight he thinks he’d tear something if he tried to force words through it.
“I’m telling you this,” Saito goes on, “because it’s important that you know that this, what you’re feeling right now, it doesn’t last forever. Like any dream, the specifics fade with time. It will get easier. But I thought perhaps you would appreciate the benefit of my experience.”
He pauses, looking at Eames like he’s waiting for something, a go-ahead maybe, but Eames stays mute, his brain caught on the specifics fade with time, and Saito must take his silence for affirmation because he nods before continuing.
“After inception,” he says slowly, “it took me quite a while to get my bearings back. As you know, I hadn’t then the luxury of a totem, but I found that living in the world helped enormously. A great deal more than my initial solo attempts, which amounted to nothing less than the near ruin of my company and everything I held dear.”
“Living in the world,” Eames repeats, and he doesn’t mean for it to come out like that, rough and thick and dripping with skepticism, with disappointment, but it does all the same.
“You would be amazed.”
“What convinced you?” Eames asks. “To try it.”
“A very good friend came to see me, offered me a proposition.” Saito smiles softly. “A spot in a band.”
Eames checks the time and finds that he’s only been asleep for a grand total of four hours, but as exhausted as he is, the thought closing his eyes and being back there puts a cold, trembly dread in his chest. He shivers, his clothes cold and clingy in the air conditioned room, and decides to take a shower instead, turns the water on as hot as he can handle and stands under the spray until his hands and feet are pin-prickling with warmth.
Live in the world.
He doesn’t think he can do it. It’s too big, too hard. He thinks about going back to work, about leaving this room and interacting with people all day, every day, and the idea seems impossible, absurd. He couldn’t even answer the door like a real person, for fuck’s sake, how the fuck is he supposed to just slip back into his life like nothing happened? How could he ever forget anything about that place, tied up with Arthur as it is and with Arthur in him so deep that he was the only thing that Eames’s trapped mind could conjure up down there?
Eames doesn’t think he’ll ever forget. He doesn’t really think he deserves to, to be honest, and thinks that after an entire life spent shirking the consequences of his bad decisions, maybe it’s only fitting that he’s finally landed himself with one he can’t outrun, no matter how far or how fast he flees, no matter where he hides.
He’s just finishing up when he hears a knock at his door, and he feels a momentary flash of panic before he forces himself to calm down, to stop being so pathetic and just breathe for Christ’s sake, and when he looks out through the peep hole, Ariadne’s slouchy frame is fishbowled on the other side.
“You’re not going to hit me again, are you?” he asks when he opens the door. He’s got a bruise purpling on his shoulder. It goes nicely with the one yellowing on his cheek.
“You’re right on the edge,” she says, no preamble whatsoever. “What’s going on with you and Arthur?”
Eames blinks. “Nothing.”
“Yeah, okay, why don’t you take that line and tell it to an idiot who’ll actually believe it? What. Is going. On.”
Eames wonders if anyone has ever told Ariadne how nosy she is. “I did something I shouldn’t have,” he says.
“It’s not that simple.”
“Make it that simple.”
“He doesn’t want my apology! He doesn’t want—“ He stops himself before he says me and loses every shred of dignity he’s got left, but Ariadne’s a bright girl, and Eames is sure she can figure him out. He clenches his jaw and squeezes the doorframe so tight it creaks beneath his fingers, and still he feels like he’s falling apart right in front of her.
Ariadne shakes her head, her expression somber. “You’re wrong,” she insists. “You didn’t see him down there, like…” She trails off, her mouth tightening.
“Like he wasn’t Arthur.”
Eames closes his eyes, stays quiet for a long minute. He feels wrung out, used up, and when he tries to process this new information, it tears into him like shrapnel, mows him down and cuts him to ribbons.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says, more softly than he’d like. “Some things you can’t make right again.”
It was good of Arthur not to tell them, better than Eames deserves, far better, but this team, his place in it, this life—they aren’t for him anymore. He shouldn’t be here, in Arthur’s face all the time, hurting him all the time.
He couldn’t do it before. He’d had too much hope to just up and take off, too much faith that whatever else they were, he and Arthur were meant for something. He couldn’t just leave, not while there was still a chance. He’d wanted Arthur too much, been too naïve for that.
But it’s different now. Now Eames has had enough time to think, to reflect properly. He sees now that all those things—his hope, his faith, his desperate belief that all he’d need to do was convince Arthur, to hang in there long enough for Arthur to see—they were just helping him at Arthur’s expense. They’re just another way for Eames to take from Arthur, and Eames is so fucking sick of himself that the need to get away is overwhelming.
Eames will never be the kind of man Arthur is, fierce and brave and proper, but he can do what he always does—run away—and hope that his absence at least affords Arthur some peace.
It’s his turn to try and be good.
“Are you here for a pep talk, too?” Eames asks nastily. He doesn’t ask Yusuf in.
“Um.” Yusuf blinks at him, gives him a deer in the headlights look. “No. No, I just uh, I came to bring you this.” He holds out a small paper bag, the kind you get from the druggist’s. “It’s a monoamine inhibitor,” he says, when Eames doesn’t take it. “In case you’re having trouble sleeping… you know, after. No dreams.”
Eames doesn’t really want it, doesn’t think he’ll ever sleep again, thanks, but Yusuf is still standing there, holding out the bag like a kid bringing home a macaroni painting, and Eames does kind of feel like a twat for answering the door the way he did. He thinks about how this is the last time he’ll probably ever see Yusuf, and he tries to memorize the soft lilt of his voice, the roundness of his cheeks, tries to compress years worth of interactions into a single wad he can cram into the hole he can already feel tearing its way through his chest.
“Cheers, mate,” he says faintly, taking the bag.
Yusuf smiles a relieved smile and nods. “Okay. That’s all.”
He turns to leave, makes it a step or two away, and then spins on his heel.
“I’m really glad you made it back, Eames,” he says seriously, and makes his exit before Eames can say anything.
It doesn’t matter. That’s over now. He might as well get used to it.
A knock sounds at the door. Taxi must be here. Eames must take too long, or maybe the desk staff here just hates to fetch guests for taxis, because there’s only a moment’s pause and then the knocking becomes banging, loud and pushy, almost frantic.
“Alright, alright,” Eames mutters, but when he opens the door, it isn’t a member of the desk staff at all.
In fact, it’s pretty much the last person on Earth Eames expects to see.
Arthur is in his doorway, pale-faced and breathing hard through his nose and visibly upset.
“Arthur.” Apart from Arthur’s name, Eames’s grasp of the English language seems to have failed him, and he has more than a couple garbled false starts before he finally manages to get out, “What are you doing here?”
Arthur doesn’t say anything, just searches Eames’s face for a long moment, so intense that Eames starts to think that Arthur is looking right through him, into him, rifling through Eames like he’s a magazine. He takes a step forward and Eames steps back, but Arthur just follows him into the room, takes another step, then another, then another, until he’s right in Eames’s space, their bodies aligned, nearly-but-not-quite-touching, and Eames just stands there, frozen. He’s so close Eames can smell the beeswax in his pomade, see the barely-there tremble in the set of his shoulders. Arthur’s gaze falls down to Eames’s mouth, and Eames’s brain practically short circuits when he sees Arthur lick his lips, leaving them shiny and parted.
He drags his eyes back up Eames’s face and the want in them is so blatant, so obvious, that Eames feels his breath catch, and when Arthur finally, finally, slants his mouth over Eames’s, Eames has such a sensory overload that he doesn’t even kiss back, just stands there like a stone fool, Arthur pressed up against him, kissing every thought Eames has ever had in his entire life right out of his head.
“Eames,” Arthur pleads into his mouth and Eames’s brain snaps back online, and he pulls in a long, harsh gasp like he’s just waking up. His arms snake around Arthur’s waist, one hand at the small of his back tugging him closer, and the other between his shoulder blades keeping him there, and he kisses Arthur like he’s dying for it.
Maybe he is.
Arthur kisses like a man possessed, like he’d like to crawl inside Eames’s mouth and stay there forever. His hands come up to tangle in the hair at the back of Eames’s head, and the pull from when Arthur grips it tight makes Eames whine an entirely undignified whine that Arthur echoes right back at him when Eames nips Arthur’s lip, just lightly, the way he knows Arthur likes. Arthur steals all the air from Eames’s lungs, and it makes Eames dizzy, lightheaded, but fuck if he’s going to stop kissing Arthur over a paltry thing like breathing, and just when Eames can feel his knees start to wobble, Arthur exhales hard into his mouth, breathing life right back into him, and the sensation is so intense that Eames has to break the kiss or collapse entirely.
He leans his forehead against Arthur’s and tries to catch his breath. He can feel Arthur doing the same, his breath hot and shaky as it puffs out over Eames’s chin. Eames has the fleeting thought that perhaps this isn’t real, that maybe he’s dreaming right now, and Arthur isn’t here at all, but if he is, and Arthur’s not, then honestly, Eames would rather not know.
If it is real, then Eames has no idea what the fuck he’s doing, or what the fuck Arthur is doing, but he’s been in pieces for so long that he just doesn’t have it in him to stop this, to pull away and ask Arthur what this is, too afraid of the answer to do anything but bury his head in the sand, to be anything other than what he is at his core—selfish and weak and greedy.
“Don’t make me regret coming here, Eames,” Arthur says. His voice is low and the words rumble against Eames’s hyper-sensitive mouth. “If you ever try anything like that again—“
“I won’t,” Eames cuts in.
Arthur’s mouth is so close Eames can feel the heat of it soaking into his own. It makes Eames’s thoughts skip and stutter, and they pick back up again somewhere other than where they left off, confusing everything, but he doesn’t need to be thinking clearly to make this promise to Arthur, not anymore, and maybe it’s because that’s somewhere in his core now, too. Arthur deserves more than just a knee-jerk promise though, deserves to know that Eames means it completely, that he’d rather be locked in a room with a thousand not-Arthurs than break his word on this one, and even though there’s nothing Eames wants more in the world than for Arthur to be kissing him again, this is important, this matters.
Real or dream, it matters.
He opens his eyes and straightens up. Arthur’s eyes flutter open at the movement, and the sight of him, pupils blown, mouth bitten and red, looking debauched and wanton and dangerous, all from just a kiss, fuck. For a moment, Eames falters, helpless in the face of this temptation, and he can’t think of anything other than his very strong desire to take Arthur to bed and never let him out again, but then Arthur’s hands slide out of his hair, thumbs stroking the skin at the back of Eames’s neck, and all Eames can think is that it would kill him to lose this, lose Arthur, again.
“I won’t,” he says again. It feels weighted, heavy with promise, with sincerity, and it’s good, because Eames doesn’t think he’s ever meant anything more in his entire life.
“Good,” Arthur says, pulling Eames close again. “I’ll cut your heart out if you do,” he mumbles.
“Noted,” is Eames’s answering reply, and then, because he wants to and Arthur is here and he’ll let him and Eames is weak, Eames kisses him, fingertips fanned out over Arthur’s jaw, Arthur’s mouth opening under his, as easy as breathing.
Eames has no idea how long they stand there in the front foyer, kissing and holding onto each other and touching everywhere, as many points of contact as possible, but it’s long enough that Eames’s lips go numb, the rest of him buzzing everywhere with an insane hum that simultaneously makes his blood simmer and soothes him, like he’s anchored in his own body better the more Arthur touches him. He’s so wrapped up in the feeling that he doesn’t even notice when he starts to list to one side, and the only reason he doesn’t fall over completely is because Arthur is there to catch him.
“Hey,” Arthur says. His voice is sex-rough and concerned, two things that shouldn’t go together, but do when they’re coming from Arthur. “Hey, are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay,” Eames nods. He gives his head a shake, but it just makes everything spinny and Arthur’s grip tightens as he sways. He rubs at his face with his knuckles. “Just a little woozy.”
“Well, come on, let’s go lie down.” Arthur gives Eames a sly little smile and Eames feels his heart give an extra hard beat, just for him. “We don’t have to be standing for this, you know.”
But it seems they kind of do have to be standing for this, because as soon as they tumble into bed, Eames can feel himself fading, swept away on a tide of exhaustion that won’t be denied, lulled into sleep by the softness of the pillows and the warm weight of Arthur’s body, the steady thump thump of his heart.
“Don’t want to go,” he hears himself mumble. The words feel big in his mouth, and they sound far away. “Want to stay here with you.” He curls his fingers in Arthur’s shirt, like maybe if he just holds on to some part of him, he can stay, or at least bring Arthur with him.
“Tell you what,” comes Arthur’s voice, soft and perfect as always. Eames feels fingers card through his hair and warm lips at his temple. “You go, and I’ll stay here with you. That way we’ll still be together.”
Eames thinks he smiles, but he’s too far gone to be sure. “Par’dox.”
He falls asleep with Arthur’s warm chuckle in his ear, the scratch of Arthur’s stubble against the side of his face, and Arthur’s hand rubbing slow, broad circles between his shoulder blades.
He flies awake to Arthur looking right at him. His face is close, eye level but on his own pillow. His hand is warm through Eames’s shirt.
“Hi,” says Arthur.
Eames tries to think of something to say, but his brain is still muzzy with sleep, and his thoughts are just one big jumbled mess, so he gives up and parrots a sleep-rough, “Hi,” back at Arthur.
“How are you feeling?”
Eames can’t even begin to know how to answer that. He feels his face contort and a sound that might have maybe once been a kind of laugh forces its way out of his mouth before he even knows it’s coming. He clamps down on it as fast as he can, but it’s not soon enough, and Arthur’s face breaks apart a little, sorrow showing through the cracks.
“Yeah,” he says, nodding. “Me too.”
Eames can’t think about Arthur feeling even a tenth of what he’s feeling, whatever that is, not when he knows that bone-deep weariness in Arthur’s voice is his fault. “What time is it?” he asks instead.
“Just before eight. Nighttime. Same day.”
“Were you here all day?”
“I said I’d stay, didn’t I?”
Eames feels bad. “You hate sitting around.”
Arthur’s brow furrows. “It’s fine, Eames.” His mouth is turned down into a tiny frown. It doesn’t look fine. “I slept for a while. Haven’t been sleeping so good myself lately.”
Eames doesn’t know what else to say, so keeps his eyes down, not looking at Arthur, and says nothing.
“Want some breakfast?” Arthur asks. “Or dinner, whatever.”
He doesn’t, but he’s glad for the distraction of a meal, and Arthur’s probably hungry if he’s been stuck here babysitting Eames all day long, so he says sure, and when Arthur asks him what he wants, he just shrugs and says he’ll have whatever Arthur is having. He figures it’ll be something fancy and time-consuming, and he’s surprised when a porter brings up two grilled cheese sandwiches ten minutes later.
It must show on his face because Arthur ducks his head, smiling a little like he’s embarrassed, and says, “My dad used to make these when I was sick.”
Eames thinks about pointing out the folly of giving a sick child a belly full of grease and dairy, or that neither of them are sick, but it’s not really his place to critique Arthur’s childhood, and he supposes that he, at least, is pretty obviously not well, so he guesses it’s kind of the same thing.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Arthur asks, when Eames just pushes his food around.
Eames shakes his head. “Not really.”
“Eat it anyway.” Arthur pauses, and then adds, “You feel thin.”
“No, I’m the same.”
Eames knows that’s not really true, in more ways than one, and despite Arthur’s silence, he thinks he might know it, too.
He does what Arthur says anyway, picks up a triangle of sandwich and takes a bite. It’s like hot tar in his mouth. The cheese sticks to his teeth like melted plastic, gooey and clingy, and the bread feels rough against his gums. It seems to make Arthur happy, though, and Eames eats about half of it before he realizes that if he takes one more bite, he’s going to throw up, unused to anything other than coffee and cigarettes.
Arthur doesn’t push the sandwich thing. Instead, he talks about a job, says that he and Saito have already met with the employer and squared things. The mark doesn’t remember anything, and even if he did, it would all be chalked up to the surgery drugs, anyway. He says the retry is set for two weeks from tomorrow, and Eames spends this entire part of the conversation completely in the dark until the very end when he finally clues in that Arthur is talking about the last job, the one they never finished because Eames went and got himself blown up.
He thinks about the danger they’re in, all of them, because of him. He knows full well that the sort of people who are willing to hire extractors to obtain the information they’re interested in are not the sort who tolerate failure, who give second chances. It’s like Eames just keeps waiting to hit his limit on how bad he can feel, but every time he thinks he sees that bottom coming up at him, something else happens and the bottom is further down, and Eames just keeps falling.
Like yesterday, this morning, whatever, with Arthur, Christ. What did Eames think he was doing, letting Arthur in and letting him kiss him like that? What was he thinking kissing him back? Eames is disappointed in himself, in the way all Arthur had had to do was touch him—not even that, had just had to look at him—for all of his newfound noble intentions to go up in a puff of smoke and for the old selfish Eames to return.
“What’s in Warsaw?” Arthur asks, yanking Eames out of his own thoughts.
“How do you—“
“Eames. Come on. It’s my job to know things.”
Of course Arthur would know. Probably traced his credit card. Probably found the room the same way. It’s a rookie mistake. Eames should really cook himself up a new identity if he’s serious about disappearing.
“So?” Arthur prompts.
Eames tries for a second to think of a lie, can’t, and just decides fuck it and goes with the truth. “It isn’t what’s there. It’s what’s here.”
There’s a long pause, and then, “Me.” He sounds winded, like Eames has punched him in the gut.
“I think—that it would be better for you if I wasn’t around.”
“It wouldn’t be.”
Eames looks down at his now cold sandwich, at the crumbs coated in shiny grease. They look like little blackened grains of sand and his stomach churns at the sight.
“I mean it, Eames.” Arthur has this look on his face, like he’s trying to be forceful, compelling, but his eyes are too wide to come off as anything but scared. “Don’t—Don’t do anything stupid.”
Eames smiles a miserable smile. “I think we can all agree it’s a little late for that.”
“Enough,” Arthur says. “Just—just enough, okay? It happened, it was a long time ago, and you’re sorry.” He nods firmly. “I’m over it. You’re off the hook.”
“You can’t just forgive me,” Eames says tiredly. A headache is starting behind his right eye. He wants to go back to bed.
“Everyone slips, Eames,” Arthur says. “Being perfect all the time isn’t what makes a person the best. It’s how you handle yourself in the aftermath. Remember?”
Eames gapes at him in disbelief. “You just—You’re just going to throw that back in my face like it was nothing?”
“It wasn’t nothing. But it’s not the end of the world.”
“Stop doing that.”
“I’ll do whatever I want,” Arthur counters.
Eames doesn’t know what to say to that. He doesn’t know what parallel universe he’s stepped into that he’s become the one who has to convince Arthur that he’s a bad bet, and for a long moment, they both stare at each other in stubborn silence, heels dug in.
“Alright, look,” Arthur finally says, his face softening. “I don’t really know what I’m doing here. But I’d really like to figure it out. Can we try that? You and me?”
Eames knows he should say no, knows he should say something scathing and hurtful that will raise Arthur’s hackles, get his walls up so he’s protected since he clearly has no interest in protecting himself, but in that moment, with Arthur looking at him across the table, all big eyes and soft pleading voice and wide open face, Eames knows he’ll do anything Arthur asks, even if it’s bound to wind up the ruin of them both.
Eames doesn’t really have anything to do, but it’s fine. No matter how much he sleeps these days, he’s always tired and when he isn’t stretched out on one of the lawn chairs, he’s at his desk or on the stairs, watching the rest of them work, watching them live their lives, trying to see how they do it and if he can copy it.
He feels like a ghost. He knows he’s here, in the real world now, and that this is all real, really happening, that when Yusuf drops a test tube and it shatters, no amount of concentrating will put the shards back together, but it’s like it’s happening all out of phase with him. He’s in this world, this life, but not of it. He doesn’t fit here, doesn’t belong.
He’s starting to wonder if he’ll ever belong anywhere ever again
The only place the sense of unbelonging is lessened is around Arthur, but it makes Eames sick with guilt to be around him, which is unfortunate, because when Arthur looks at him sometimes across the funeral-quiet warehouse, he’ll have this crooked smile on his face, fragile and sort of fluttery, that makes something pull in Eames’s chest, and if it didn’t feel so much like something Eames didn’t deserve, he almost thinks it would be happiness.
Arthur appears out of nowhere, closing his fingers around Eames’s wrist in a vice-tight grip and snatching his hand away.
“No goddamn way,” he snaps, and the bones in Eames’s wrist grate together.
Arthur sits down beside him heavily. He loosens his grip on Eames’s wrist, but he doesn’t let go. His fingers aren’t quite long enough to circle all the way around, and he moves them around so he can rub the pad of his thumb against the underside of Eames’s wrist, where the skin is thin and the veins are close. He doesn’t look at Eames.
“When—When you were down there, what did you think was happening to you?”
Eames shrugs. “Guess I didn’t really.”
It’s not exactly a lie. While he was there, Eames didn’t really think anything of being in Limbo. He was just there. He’d always been there, never known anything else.
Now though, now whenever he thinks about that place—the heat and the isolation and the way not-Arthur’s laugh would ring in his ears for days, months, years, the sound echoing throughout the dunes, always with him no matter where he went or how fast he went there—now he thinks Hell might be just a place that’s conjured up as people die, synapses freaking out and firing on all cylinders, and the way time slows there, down to a crawl and then slower still, he thinks that might be all eternity is, a time dilation between this world and one that exists only in the mind.
“I don’t have any other ones.” He washes them every day though, so it’s not like before, which was gross and something he still can’t believe nobody called him on.
Arthur gives him a confused look.
“It’s a long story,” Eames says. It’s not. He just doesn’t have the energy to tell it.
“Let’s go get some new ones,” Arthur says. “They can handle it without us for the rest of the day.”
Arthur’s always saying stuff like that. We. Us. Our. It makes Eames’s heart hurt.
“I could help you pick out something not horrible,” he points out with a gently teasing smile, clearly trying to muster up some enthusiasm for something, anything, in Eames.
“I don’t know,” Eames says. He’s suddenly exhausted, the prospect of this chore looming huge and indomitable before him, so many choices, so many people. “I’m pretty tired. I think I’m just going to go back to my hotel. Just pick whatever you think is best.”
When Arthur shows up at his hotel hours later, it’s under a leaning tower of clothes that involve so many colors it looks like a box of crayons threw up all over him. There are paisleys and plaids and tweeds of all colors, khakis and sweat pants and slacks and a suit that is so against Arthur’s grain that Eames is surprised he can touch it without bursting into flames. Somewhere underneath it all there must be food too, because Eames can smell spiced lamb and tomatoes.
“I went a little overboard, maybe,” Arthur says, dumping everything on the bed and looking around him at the mess.
“Maybe,” Eames repeats. He picks up a particularly lively number, salmon-orange and riddled with what looks like tiny pyramids. “This doesn’t fall under your definition of horrible?” he asks.
“Well, obviously, but—“ Arthur fidgets a little, rubs the back of his neck with one hand and shrugs. “I don’t know. It just seemed you.”
The downside to all of this is that this new clarity of mind ratchets his guilt up by about a million points. He wakes up only a few hours after falling into an exhausted sleep with that carnival laugh ringing in his ears, with the sense memory of Arthur trapped in his arms and doing everything in his power to get away, and spends the rest of the night trying to stay awake long enough for it to be morning, for it to be time to go to the warehouse, where he can sleep without the nightmares which never seem to come when Arthur is there. He watches Arthur sometimes when he’s not looking, bent over a file or fiddling with a gun, and looks down when he gets caught staring. He doesn’t return any of Arthur’s soft smiles.
He still thinks sticking around is a bad idea.
It’s not perfect, but it’s easier, except for all the ways it isn’t, all the ways Eames still takes from Arthur, and all the ways Arthur just lets him.
They either talk or they don’t, depending on how the day went, but more often than not, it’s a quiet, uneventful journey. They take the same route every time. Sometimes Arthur holds his hand. Sometimes Eames wants to yank it out of his grasp, but he never does.
“Do you want me to come up?”
Arthur always asks, and in his mind, Eames’s answer is always yes, yes, a thousand times yes, but in reality, his answer is always no.
Arthur never protests, just nods and squeezes his hand and kisses him goodnight, soft and sweet and chaste.
Eames always thinks it feels like an apology, but more likely it’s just him projecting. Arthur has nothing to apologize for, and Eames can never apologize enough.
“How’s he doing?” Ariadne asks.
They’re sitting at an old work table, chairs side by side. Her head is bent close to Arthur’s and Eames tries not to pay attention, tries not to strain to hear, but he knows they’re talking about him, and it’s impossible.
“Honestly, I—I don’t know.”
“How are you doing?”
The pause after this question is so long that Eames thinks that either Arthur is ignoring her or he must have been too quiet for Eames to hear, but neither of those things are true, and when Arthur finally does answer, his voice is so thick and broken that it’s barely recognizable.
“I wish Cobb was here,” he says, and then, to Eames’s horror, he starts to cry. His shoulders jerk and Ariadne has her arms wrapped around him in a flash, her small hand cupped at the back of his head and her soft voice whispering a steady stream of hushed sounds into his ear as she rocks him back and forth.
But every now and then, Arthur will kick an extra chair over to Eames’s desk and plop himself down or he’ll just briefly rest his hand on the back of Eames’s neck as he walks by, and Eames will close his eyes and concentrate on the steady warmth of Arthur’s presence and pretend, just to himself, just for a moment, that from the very beginning they did everything right, that they’re together and they’re happy.
“Do you want to go somewhere?” he asks. “With me?”
Eames is so taken aback by this deviation from the norm that he agrees. “Okay.”
The corners of Arthur’s mouth twitch, just once. “Okay,” he repeats, and in the second before he wrestles his face back into submission, he looks pleased and surprised, and Eames actually feels like he’s done something right.
Where Arthur takes him turns out to be his hotel. Eames recognizes it from the last time he was here, when he picked Arthur up for wine and sex, and he tries not to think about it.
“I want to show you something,” Arthur says. “It’s upstairs.”
When they get upstairs, Arthur herds Eames out onto the balcony overlooking the city. It’s just past dusk, the sun tucked behind the horizon already and the city going bluer every minute.
“What am I looking at?”
Nothing happens for about five minutes, and Eames is starting to wonder if Arthur has anything to show him at all or if he’s brought him here for something else. Maybe he’s finally realized that whatever it is they’re trying to do is ridiculous and he’s brought Eames up here to break up with him. As if what they’re doing could even be called “dating”. He’s just thinking about how Arthur is probably sick to death of all of Eames’s needy bullshit and what a train wreck of a human being he is when suddenly a building flicks on. Not just the lights in the building, the entire building, like it’s being lit up from the inside, walls and spires aglow with a warm amber light.
“That’s the Hagia Sophia. It’s over 1600 years old.” Arthur is standing beside Eames, his forearms braced on the high sandstone ledge. It’s cool with the sun down and the heat from Arthur’s body seeps into Eames’s side. “Not bad, huh?”
“Not bad,” Eames agrees. He’s not quite the architecture geek Arthur is, but even he can see it’s kind of amazing.
“It’s not the original. It’s a rebuild. This is version three.”
“What happened to the others?”
“Fire. Earthquake. Uprising. You know.” Eames feels him shrug beside him. “Life. But look, they saved all these pieces and carry-overs and stuff along the way, to use in the new ones. It’s kind of hard to see from here, but—“
He moves to stand behind Eames, leans forward until his face is over Eames’s shoulder, so they have the same viewpoint, and stretches his arm out to point. The movement cages Eames in a bit. He sort of likes it, and doesn’t, at the same time.
“See that big tree over there, on the left? That’s the garden. It used to be where the front entrance to the second one was and there are all these marble blocks everywhere—broken archways and columns and reliefs all over the place, like a sculpture garden, kind of. And the big dome in the center? It’s a pendentive dome. It means the dome’s circular, but it sits on a square base without any columns or anything holding it up. And do you see that ring of windows around the bottom? Even though the dome must weigh ten tons, the windows don’t break. It just kind of floats there on top of them. That’s how strong it is.”
Arthur’s voice is soft in Eames’s ear, steady and sure but respectful, like he can’t help but give the place its due. It’s impressive, Eames will give it that, and he likes knowing these details, but mostly he likes hearing Arthur talk about it in what Eames privately thinks of as Arthur’s professor voice, likes the wondering admiration it puts in his voice. It’s a good sound to hear coming from Arthur.
“When it was converted from a church into a mosque,” he continues quietly, “they plastered over a lot of the mosaics inside.” His tone turns almost solemn and something about it raises a red flag in Eames’s mind. “They weren’t gone, you know, they were just… hidden. Buried. But there’s a lot of restoration work being done these days. A little patience, a little elbow grease, and all that history, all that art—It’s all coming out again, even though for a long time, people thought it was lost forever.”
“How long has this version been around?” Eames asks, trying to steer the conversation back towards cold, hard facts, dates and physics and things that don’t make warnings ping in his brain.
“1500 years, give or take.”
“First two didn’t last very long.”
“Not compared to the third, no.” Arthur hesitantly puts his hand over top of Eames’s. “I guess by the third time around, they knew what they were doing.”
Eames knows a metaphor when he’s being beaten over the head with one, and all of a sudden, he’s really uncomfortable. He feels boxed in and on the spot, and he rolls his shoulders, shrugging Arthur off to go back inside, away from the view and away from whatever it is Arthur wants from him.
“Why are you doing this?” he asks, when Arthur follows him inside.
Arthur frowns. “Because. You’re not hearing me any of the other ways I say it. You’re important to me, Eames. I want to help you.”
“I don’t need help.”
Arthur’s frown deepens, and Eames feels an irrational irritation well up in him, hot and sour.
“Look, Arthur, whatever debt you feel you’ve incurred, believe me, it’s paid. In full. I don’t need your charity.”
“It’s not charity,” Arthur snaps.
“No? The clothes, the dinners, the constant hand-holding—“
“Are you serious? We have more money than God. Pay me back if it’s that important, I don’t care.” He pauses, and then, like he can’t help himself, tacks on, “And I hold your hand because I want to.”
Eames rolls his eyes. “I don’t mean literal hand-holding.”
“Well then what the fuck do you mean?”
“I mean all of it! Sitting at my desk, bringing me lunch, walking me home, saving me—“
“You saved me, too!”
“And I’m saying the debt’s been repaid. You’ve done enough, okay? We’re even. It’s not your job to fix me, too, on top of everything.”
“God, you always do this. You never listen.” He scowls at Eames. “I hate that.”
Eames pointedly says nothing, and Arthur sighs, rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
“What you did to me, I’m in charge of that. It’s my thing to forgive. Not yours. You don’t get to pick.”
“You’re making a mistake,” Eames insists.
“Then it’s mine to make.”
“I’m not a good person.”
“Debatable, but for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right.” He shrugs. “I don’t care.”
“Well, you should care,” Eames snaps. “Jesus, Arthur, this isn’t a skinned knee we’re talking about. You fucking need to take better care of yourself.”
Arthur blinks. “I need to take better care of myself?” he repeats in a shrill voice. “What about you? You don’t eat on your own, you don’t sleep on your own, you never initiate any kind of interaction with anyone at work, never mind regular people—Christ, I spend half my fucking day scared to death that you’re going to slit your wrists in a supply cupboard somewhere!”
“No, fuck you. How dare you even think that what I’m doing with you is charity. How dare you imply that all of this is just because I feel guilty.” Arthur’s eyes flash angrily. “Is that what this is for you? Something you’re only doing because you feel like you owe me, like you’re obligated?”
“I do owe you!”
“You owe me the right to make my own goddamn decisions! I’m a fucking grown-up, Eames, it’s not that hard, and if you’d known that before, we wouldn’t even be in this mess!”
The ring from when Eames slams the door as he storms out is so loud he feels the reverb in the long bones of his arms and legs all the way down the hall, down the stairs, and out into the street.
“Fuck,” he whispers, holding his head in his hands. He wonders if Arthur will pitch him for good this time, and if it wouldn’t be the best thing that Eames could have ever done for him.
He tries to sleep, but he can’t, his head too full up with regret and replaying the fight over and over, and at 2:38 in the morning, there’s a knock at the door.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur says as soon as Eames opens it. He looks awful, sad and small and worn out. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you, and I definitely shouldn’t have thrown it back in your face like that.”
Of all the things Eames wasn’t expecting, Arthur apologizing to him is right at the top of the list, and it takes him a second to process the words.
“It’s alright. It was fair.” It’s not like what Arthur said isn’t true.
But Arthur’s having none of it. “No,” he says. “It wasn’t. I’m sorry.”
Eames doesn’t know what else to do, so he just nods.
It seems to be enough for Arthur, and he keeps talking, a pained look on his face. “You were right,” he says. His voice is low, reluctant.
Eames knew, he did, he did, and because he knew, his heart absolutely does not sink. “Charity,” he says, nodding. His throat feels like there’s glass in it.
“Wha—No.” Arthur glares at him for a second, and then turns the glare on his own feet. “No,” he says again, softer. “Can I come in?”
For a while, he just paces around, running his hand through his hair and taking a lot of deep breaths, eyes fixed on the floor. He stops finally, and just stands around saying nothing, doing nothing. Eames is just about to tell him that it’s okay, he gets it, and Arthur doesn’t have to feel bad, it’s not his fault things didn’t work out, but Arthur chooses that moment to open his mouth and blurt, “I got lost.”
Eames is confused. “On the way over here?”
“In the dream. The stairwells. I panicked and I got lost.” He looks up at Eames like he’s expecting to have his head taken off, but Eames is still drawing a blank.
“Don’t you get it? That level was my responsibility. I should have known it.” Arthur’s face is screwed up in anger, and he drops his gaze back to the floor for what he says next. His hands are tight fists at his sides.
“You shouldn’t have been down there for so long,” he says, his voice thick through his gritted teeth. “It was a stupid, unnecessary waste, and it was my fault.”
“You—“ Eames doesn’t know what to say. “You did the best you could.”
Arthur scoffs bitterly. It’s an ugly sound, completely at odds with the rest of him, lovely even in grief.
“I had to start over three times, Eames. It took me an hour. How long do you think an hour is all the way down there? Ten years? Thirty? Think about all the horrible things that happened to you while I dicked around in those fucking stairwells, while I left you down there, and tell me it’s fine that I did the best I could.”
Eames opens his mouth to tell Arthur exactly that, that that’s crazy, that Arthur didn’t leave him down there at all, here he is, but there’s a blockage in his brain or something, because no words come, and Arthur’s eyes fall shut like that means something, like Eames blames him.
“So yeah, you were right,” he says. His mouth twists into a thin, gnarled line. “I do feel guilty. Because I’m a mess. And after I let you down, now I need your help.”
“Arthur.” Eames feels like he’s been kicked in the stomach, nauseous and weak and helpless. “I can’t help you. I can’t help anybody.”
He sees Arthur squeeze his eyes shut even tighter and he wants to sink into the floor he’s so ashamed. When Arthur’s eyes open again, they’re shiny and sad, but dry, no wetness on his lashes or his cheeks, and Eames thanks Christ for small miracles, because he thinks if he’d had to see Arthur cry again, he might have had to put a gun in his mouth and be done with it.
“Remember in Stockholm,” Arthur says, coming in close to stand in Eames’s space, “when we drank that entire bottle of prison liquor? I fell asleep in the cab and you put me to bed and then made breakfast in the morning?”
Eames remembers it differently. “I remember I made fun of you and ruined it.”
Arthur smiles sadly at the memory. “You didn’t ruin it,” he says softly, shaking his head. “Remember when I put that tie on you and ran away? I was—“ He huffs out a mean laugh, an embarrassed flush coloring his cheeks. “—God, mortified. But then you came and got me, and you already knew all the things to do and say, and even before the sex I didn’t feel like that anymore, you know, I felt…” He trails off and huffs out another laugh, but incredulous this time. “I felt amazing.”
“Did you feel amazing the next day?”
“Till the end of it, yeah,” Arthur says with the same sad smile. “Do you remember two weeks ago, when you fell on a grenade to keep me safe?”
Eames pulls in a breath. “Arthur…”
“Are you sorry for what you did to me?”
Eames winces, wonders if there’ll ever be a time when Arthur doesn’t have to ask that, when Eames being sorry about it will ever be enough. “Yes.”
“Well, I’m sorry for what I didn’t do for you. Eames,” he says, and the look on his face, it’s unbearable, sad and guilty and a hundred other things that Arthur shouldn’t have to feel. “I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner. I’m sorry it took me so long to find you.”
“Arthur, you—“ Eames’s voice is so quiet he can barely hear it himself, and he swallows hard against a lump in his throat. “I’d still be in there if it wasn’t for you. You got me out.”
Arthur shakes his head like he disagrees. “Not soon enough.”
Eames is afraid that if he opens his mouth, he’ll start to cry, so he says nothing.
“So the way I see it,” Arthur continues, “we’re both sorry. And we’re both not okay. So you can let me take care of you. Any way you look at it, it’s my turn. You can let me take care of you, and that’s how you can take care of me. And we’ll take care of each other, and then someday, we’ll both be okay again.”
It sounds wonderful, amazing. It sounds like something Eames has no business having for himself, wanting for himself, but he does, he does want it, so much so that it takes his breath away.
“Eames,” Arthur says quietly. “We can’t keep doing this. I can’t. But I can’t fix us without you. Please?” He takes both of Eames’s hands in both of his and holds them together at chest height like they’re praying. Arthur’s fingers fit into the grooves between Eames’s knuckles like they belong there, like it’s where they’re meant to be. “Please let me help you.”
Eames looks back up at Arthur then, and Arthur looks just like he always does—beautiful and brave and perfect. Eames doesn’t know what it is that keeps Arthur tied so tightly to him, what it is that overrides every self-preservation instinct Arthur must have and makes him keep trying and picking himself up and refusing to take no for an answer. But in that moment, with Arthur close and holding onto his hands and looking at him with so much care that Eames feels his heart break a little bit, like an ice cold glass filled with hot water, Eames decides that he’s tired of telling Arthur no, tired of pushing him away and keeping himself closed off when all it does is leave both of them battered and achy.
“I could never love you enough,” Eames says, and it’s true, but if Arthur will let him, Eames will spend the rest of his life trying anyway.
Arthur smiles a rueful smile and presses his forehead against Eames’s, sinking one hand into his hair and squeezing gently.
“You do just fine,” Arthur whispers sincerely, and maybe he’s onto something with this whole taking care lark, because for the first time since he’d looked up at Arthur from the floor of the warehouse, with his cheek smarting from Arthur’s fist and his past nipping at his heels, Eames thinks he can see a time in the future when he really is okay again, when Arthur is okay, too, and when the two of them can be in each other’s lives, holding each other up instead of dragging each other down.
He’s trying to do something good, something useful while everyone else is scrambling around trying to get ready for the job, trying to clean up his mess, and he’s trying not to throw a temper tantrum, but he’s been fiddling around with this hot plate of Yusuf’s for the last hour and a half, and no matter what he does, the damn thing will not heat up. He can get the flea to spin, so he knows there’s electricity flowing through it, but the heating coils stay maddeningly cool even though he’s changed them twice. Yusuf keeps telling him it’s fine, that the Bunsen burner is slow, but effective, and that it’s really not worth getting all bent out of shape over, but Eames ignores him. This fucking hot plate is Eames’s Goliath, and he’ll be damned if he’s bested by a glorified toaster.
His frustration is starting to get the upper hand on him, though, and when he gouges into his finger with the screwdriver and curses a blue streak under his breath, Arthur steps in.
“Hey, can I—“
“I got it,” he snaps, and regrets it immediately.
Arthur is watching him from across the table with a defeated air about him, shoulders slumped and mouth sad. Eames looks down at his opponent and weighs the benefits of his victory against the benefits of having Arthur not look like that anymore, and knows he’s done. He grits his teeth and swallows his pride and holds the hot plate out in one hand, angry and pathetic and beaten. He keeps his eyes on the floor, not wanting to see the pity in Arthur’s eyes, and fuck, Eames is so sick and tired of being the token invalid that he wants to claw his face off just to be someone new, someone who isn’t broken and useless.
He’s so busy feeling sorry for himself that he doesn’t notice that Arthur’s come around to his side of the table until he’s right in front of Eames, his warm hands lingering on Eames’s as he takes the hot plate from him and his soft mouth pressing a kiss to Eames’s cheek, right at the corner of his mouth, and Eames is so surprised he forgets to feel like an invalid entirely.
“Thank you,” says Arthur quietly, and when he does, his voice is full of reverence, like he knows what it costs Eames to give in like this, like Eames has given him something precious, something he’s wanted for a long time.
Arthur takes hot plate and the screwdriver back to his desk, and Eames touches the tips of his fingers to the spot where Arthur kissed him. The skin is still warm from his lips, and Eames imagines he can feel the heat leeching all the way into him, into the cracks between all of Eames’s broken pieces, fusing them back together, slowly but surely making him whole again.
“Hey,” he says.
Eames thinks he can hear a surprised relief in his voice, but he doesn’t know for sure. He remembers what Arthur said about Eames slitting his wrists in a supply cupboard and he wonders if the rooftop maybe isn’t the most considerate place for him to be.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Arthur continues. “What are you doing up here?”
“Chain smoking,” Eames answers. “Want one?” he offers, even though he knows Arthur only ever steals puffs, falsely believing he doesn’t count as a smoker if he never has his own cigarette.
“No thanks. Can I sit?”
Eames shrugs. “Plenty of roof to go around.”
Arthur sits beside Eames, legs dangling over the ledge the same way. They don’t say anything for a while, just sit and smoke in silence and watch the glint of sunlight on windshields for miles.
“It’s just a stupid hot plate,” Arthur says eventually.
“Spare me the speech, Arthur,” he says. It sounds meaner than he means for it to be, and he holds out his cigarette to Arthur to soften the blow. He smiles faintly when Arthur takes it, watches the way his cheeks hollow slightly as he takes a drag and the purse of his mouth as he exhales.
“I get it, you know,” Arthur says, stubborn as a mule, as always. He taps the ash onto the ledge and passes the cigarette back to Eames. “You want to be who you were.”
Eames shakes his head. “I don’t want that.”
Arthur’s brow furrows. “What do you want?”
Eames sucks in a long drag and looks out over the city. He’s trying really hard to be honest these days, but some things are easier to say than others, and for this, he can’t look at Arthur.
“I want to be better than who I was. I want to be good for you.”
“Eames, you idiot,” Arthur says. His voice is soft and fond sounding, and he shakes his head before letting it drop against Eames’s shoulder for a second. “You are.”
Eames has serious doubts about this. He keeps them to himself, but it doesn’t matter, because Arthur knows anyway.
“You don’t believe me,” he says.
Eames shakes his head. He’s done lying to Arthur. “Sorry,” he says, and tells himself that his voice is rough like that from smoking a half pack in thirty minutes.
“That’s okay,” Arthur says, plucking the cigarette out of Eames’s fingers again. “I’ll just keep telling you until you do.”
They grab the mark at his weekly massage, a light sedative in his complimentary apple tea to help move things along, and pretty soon, they’re making their way through the congested streets, heading out of the city, where the driving is smoother. They’re keeping it in the van for this one, no lab required since the sedation isn’t nearly as extreme as the last time, but it does mean they’ll need more time, an entire day, actually. It’ll be 12 days down in the dream before the clock runs out, but Ariadne’s been careful to keep things normal, nothing unexpected, and even if the projections are a problem, reality is just a head shot away. They’ll drop the mark back off right where they picked him up and with any luck, by the time he realizes that his hour long massage has taken an hour and a day, they’ll all be long gone.
With any luck.
Eames crawls into the back under the pretense of hooking up the mark, but really, it’s that he can’t stand to be more than six inches away from Arthur in these last precious moments before he goes under, and he hooks up Arthur, too, while he’s back there.
“Well, good luck,” he says, swallowing weakly, and he means for fuck’s sake, be careful.
Arthur nods, squeezes Eames’s hand tight. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says, and quirks up one side of his mouth. “You won’t even know I’m gone.”
“I doubt that very much,” Eames says, anxiety loosening his tongue more than he’s comfortable with.
“Don’t worry, Eames,” Ariadne pipes up from the next row of seats. She gives Eames’s leg a comforting kick with the flat of her foot. “We’ll take good care of him.”
“And of yourselves as well,” he says, just in case she and Saito have forgotten that as much as the thought of anything happening to Arthur makes Eames sick with fear, he doesn’t consider them expendable, either.
Ariadne and Saito’s smiles at his reminder, while very warm indeed, have nothing on Arthur’s, wide and bright and completely taken aback. For a second, Eames thinks Arthur is going to kiss him, but he just squeezes his hand again, even tighter than before, and reaches his other hand out to hit the button on the PASIV.
Arthur keeps his eyes trained on Eames for as long as he can, and Eames stays in the back until Arthur’s grip on his hand goes completely slack.
“Eaaaaaames,” Yusuf whines for what has got to be the five millionth time. “They’ll be fine. Quit worrying. They’re barely even sedated.”
“How much longer?”
Yusuf sighs exaggeratedly. “What did I say the last time?”
“That it was five minutes less than the last time I asked you.”
“Well, now it’s ten minutes more than the last time you asked me. Your mother henning has sent us through a worm hole and now we’re in a universe where time goes backwards. Happy now?”
Eames glowers at him in the rearview mirror, and feels vindicated when Yusuf glances back in it and sees how much Eames thinks he sucks.
“Oh my God, get up here. Come on, what do you think I am—a cabbie?”
Eames comes up to the front and flops down moodily in the passenger seat. “You do all look alike to me,” he mutters, and Yusuf turns his whole head to look at Eames, barking out a laugh as he does.
“You always were your best under pressure,” Yusuf grins. “You’re lucky I didn’t make a roadtrip mix for this.”
Eames scoffs. “I’m counting my stars, believe me. One week in your flat with that goddamn typewriter song was quite enough, thank you.”
“Excuse you. Shankar Jaikishan is a genius, and for the record, your taste in music is so abysmal I’m embarrassed to know you.”
“Please. What sort of British subject doesn’t like The Rolling Stones? Where’s your loyalty to the crown?”
“You’re a parody of yourself. You know that, right?”
Eames shakes his head, the mental equivalent of throwing his hands in the air. There’s a lull in the conversation and he makes it about another fourteen seconds before he starts worrying again.
Eames hasn’t sat out a job in ages. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. It feels wrong, Arthur and Saito and Ariadne going under by themselves, putting themselves in danger while he stays here, safe up top. He doesn’t like it one bit, and his unease manifests itself as a relentless fidgeting, squirming in his seat and fiddling with the controls on his side of the dash. His knee starts bouncing again.
In the side mirror, he can see Arthur’s reflection, unsurprisingly unchanged, and Eames chews the inside of his lip nervously. He wonders what’s going on down there, and wishes he was better at math so he’d know how far along they should be by now.
He startles when Yusuf snaps his fingers in front of his face.
“Dude, eyes up here. This is the only job in forever where I have someone to talk to during this part and I’m not going to have you pining for the next 24 hours.”
Eames takes a deep breath and blows it out slowly, cheeks puffing out as he does. It doesn’t help, and he scrubs his hand over his face, but that doesn’t help either.
“Jesus Christ. Is it always like this?”
Eames is so on edge he can feel the tension in his teeth. How can Yusuf stand it, being up top and having no idea, none at all what’s happening down there? He’d always sort of thought that on the actual day of the job, Yusuf had it pretty easy, but this, God. Eames can feel his hair turning greyer with every agonizingly slow minute that ticks by.
“It’s rough sometimes,” Yusuf admits. “But it’s an important job. You guys need somebody to look out for you when you’re like this. All the dream weaving in the world won’t save you if somebody has a mind to stir up trouble up here.” He shrugs. “At least this way, I know there are always bodies for you guys to come back to. All I can do after that is hope there’s enough time to sort the rest out later.”
Eames turns to look at Yusuf and it’s a good thing they’re in the middle of nowhere, because Yusuf isn’t even pretending to look at the road, opting instead to look right at Eames.
“You seem like you’re doing a lot better,” he says seriously. “Almost good, even.”
Eames runs a hand through his hair awkwardly. “Yeah, well,” he shrugs. “I try.”
“I know,” says Yusuf. “I’m glad.”
“I’m glad it’s you,” Eames says, deciding to go for broke in this sudden pocket of unrestrained openness between them. “Keeping an eye on us up here.” He is. He can’t think of anyone better suited to it than Yusuf, anyone he’d trust more to pump him full of homemade drugs and then keep watch to make sure nobody came in and blew his head off.
Yusuf glances at Eames and smiles a pleased, touched smile, and then the moment is gone.
“Of course you are,” he says, rolling his eyes and grinning. “Look at you. You suck at sitting around. You’re as bad as Arthur.”
Eames ducks his head and smiles at his lap. “Probably convenient.”
They talk about everything and nothing. They trash talk each other’s lineage and play road trip games and reminisce about the old days back in Mombasa and wax poetic about how much better it is now that they’re five instead of two. Eames talks more than he has in all the time since he’s been back combined, talks so much his voice goes hoarse, and he thinks to himself that Yusuf should really invent a machine that can instantly transfer fully formed thoughts from one person to another, just for situations such as this.
He might be a nagging, heartless douche, but as the sun begins to get low in the sky and Eames notices with a start that almost eight hours have passed in the relative blink of an eye courtesy of Yusuf’s persistent distractions, Eames realizes that he’s probably also the best friend he’s ever had in his life.
“Hey,” Eames says. He puts a hand on the back of Arthur’s neck. “Hey, are you alright?”
Arthur pulls back, beaming at him. “Yeah,” he says nodding, eyes raking over Eames’s face. “Yeah, it’s just good to see you.”
Eames feels a smile stretch over his own face, until he and Arthur match.
“It’s good to see you, too.”
Arthur claims a window seat, and then promptly falls asleep as soon as they’re past the city limits, his inability to remain awake on almost any type of ground-based transport rearing its familiar head. Eames thinks about needling him about it later, about pointing out that perhaps other people—people who can manage to stay awake for an entire trip—would prefer to sit somewhere with a view, but then Arthur snuffles in his sleep and shifts, his head rolling onto Eames’s shoulder as easy as anything, and Eames can’t think about anything other than the full feeling in his chest, warm and snug, like everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be.
He smiles softly down at Arthur, and then looks up again when he feels three sets of eyes on him, and sure enough, Saito, Yusuf, and Ariadne are all watching him with identical knowing smiles. A flush rises in Eames’s cheeks, but only a little one, and he figures in for a penny, in for a pound, and settles deeper into his seat, closing his eyes and resting his cheek against the top of Arthur’s head, the smell of his hair in Eames’s nose and the beat of his breathing in Eames’s heart.
“How middle-aged of us,” Ariadne says delightedly.
“How colonial,” Yusuf corrects, grinning.
“The height of the bourgeoisies,” Eames adds, loftily examining his fingernails for non-existent dirt.
They get out there, the five of them and their guide crammed into a Jeep, and as they pass a watering hole, Arthur leans forward to lay a hand on Saito’s shoulder.
“Don’t think about elephants,” he says cryptically.
It must be an inside joke, because what the hell, why wouldn’t Saito think about elephants, there’s a whole bunch of them right over there. It’s a crazy thing to say, Arthur, just crazy, but Saito turns around in his seat, his face breaking open into a smile that makes him look ten years younger, and he beams at the rest of them before turning back to Arthur.
“We’ve come a long way, my friend,” he says warmly.
Arthur smiles back at him and curls his foot around Eames’s, out of sight.
“Places to go, yet.”
Now that he’s actually in love, though, it’s different. It’s okay that Arthur doesn’t love him back. It’s not his first choice, obviously, but loving Arthur—it doesn’t limit him like he thought it would. It doesn’t hold him back from things. Sometimes he imagines a world where Arthur does love him, but he tries not to do it too much. That isn’t where he lives, but it’s really not as bad as it sounds, and the world he does live in is pretty good.
Arthur doesn’t love him back, but it doesn’t change the way Eames feels about him, doesn’t change the fact that Arthur is in every thought of every moment of Eames’s every day. It doesn’t make Eames any less grateful for him, for his kindness and his tenacity and his grace, or any less fortunate that for whatever reason, against all odds, Arthur still wants him around, wants him in his life, and it’s so much more than Eames ever could have expected that he sometimes catches himself thumbing his totem while he watches Arthur flip through his papers, highlighting things like a madman.
He usually gets busted doing this, Arthur’s eyes flicking up to meet his across the room, and when Arthur smiles at him, he always looks faintly astounded, like he can’t quite believe Eames is real. His hand disappears into his pocket, and Eames knows he’s feeling for his own totem, because his smile changes immediately to something more authentic, something only the concrete surety of reality can bring.
It’s times like this that Eames thinks that maybe Arthur loves him back a very little bit.
“Arthur,” Eames cuts him off, covering Arthur’s mouth with his hand to shut him up. “I’ll be fine.” He’s not entirely sure about that, but he’s pretty sure, and fake-it-till-you-make-it is kind of Eames’s life strategy. He takes his hand away from Arthur’s mouth and gives him a smile that he hopes doesn’t come off like he’s conning Arthur, which, okay, he kind of is, but it’s for his own good. “It’s not like I’m going alone.”
“Right,” Arthur nods, and Eames can see him start to calm down a little. “Right, of course.”
It turns out that all their worrying is completely unnecessary. Saito’s projections don’t bother them, Eames doesn’t freak out, and he doesn’t bring anything of his own into the dream, expected or otherwise. It goes so well that Ariadne suggests he try forging, just to see if that shakes anything loose, but even that goes fine, Eames shifting into Claudia Schiffer so seamlessly that Arthur’s eyes bug out a little bit when Eames cocks his hips at him, breasts perky, hips swaying from side to side as he saunters over in his direction.
“Hilarious,” he smirks, but Eames knows how Arthur really feels about Claudia Schiffer, and his sultry look is kind of ruined by the cheeky grin he can’t quite keep off his face.
The last big test is Eames going off by himself, a kind of litmus test for how much anxiety he can handle alone. It’s mostly fine, a twenty minute walk through the mildly busy streets, market stalls loud and close together, and then Eames heads back. Arthur and Saito and Ariadne aren’t where he left them, but he doesn’t panic, keeps his cool and searches around, and he doesn’t have to search too long before he spots them, huddled together on a pedestrian bridge over a busy road, presumably so they can watch for him. He changes out of Ms. Schiffer and into a new woman, someone regular and generic, plain, payback for their little disappearing act, before marching up to them and tapping Arthur on the shoulder.
Arthur whirls around, his tense face relaxing instantly when he sees Eames.
“It’s you,” he smiles, and kisses Eames full on the mouth, stealing his breath away and making him dizzy. Saito and Ariadne are still right there, but honestly, they could be on fire and Eames wouldn’t notice. By the time he pulls away, Eames is himself again, far too preoccupied with the press of Arthur’s mouth against his to keep up the ruse.
“How did you know it was me?” he asks, still reeling a little from the taste of Arthur’s tongue in his mouth. “That was a brand new person.”
Arthur looks proud, of himself, of Eames, maybe both. “The way you touch me,” he smiles. “I’d know it anywhere.”
“You know this is completely queer, right?” Eames asks in Oslo.
Arthur laughs, rich and warm and delighted through the line. “You’ve had my dick in your ass and this is completely queer?”
“Whatever. There were orgasms involved then,” Eames returns. “You know what I mean.”
“There could be orgasms involved now.”
There’s a beat of silence, and Eames shifts, dick twitching in his sweats.
“Just kidding, there can’t be. Someone from the front desk is coming up here any minute with my dinner and if I have to think about come while I eat clam chowder I’ll never have sex again. It’ll be like a Greek tragedy.”
“You’re legitimately the worst person I know.”
Eames can hear Arthur’s grin from all the way across town.
“Eames?” Arthur says his name like it’s the only word he knows. His breathing is fast and panicky.
“Arthur? What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I had—I had a—“ He keeps starting and stopping, and Eames steps out into the hallway, approaching him the way he would a spooked horse, palms up, keeps his hands in full view the whole time as he makes his way closer. “I had a dream about you,” he finally manages. He looks at Eames with big, scared eyes. “I don’t have dreams.”
Eames ushers him in, sitting him down on the couch and dropping a blanket beside him before he goes to make some tea, thanking his former self for popping out to the shops already to pick up the essentials. When he comes back, the blanket is still in a folded pile, but Arthur’s hands have migrated, tangled up in the fringe.
“Here,” Eames says, sitting down on his other side.
Arthur takes the cup and takes a sip, starting when he tastes the whisky Eames has dumped in there. Eames has his own cup, with twice the alcohol of Arthur’s. He thinks he knows what Arthur’s dream was about, and he knows he needs to hear it from him, knows that this talk is a long time coming, and he knows that he needs a crutch or he’ll never make it through. He almost doesn’t feel like it’s cheating.
“What was it about?” Eames asks once Arthur has taken a few more sips.
Arthur gives a jerky shake his head. He won’t look at Eames, and he rubs furiously at his face with the heel of his hand.
Arthur’s head snaps up. He seems surprised at being addressed directly.
“Tell me what it was about.”
It makes Eames a little sick to be giving Arthur orders like this, especially when it’s so clearly something he doesn’t want to do, but he thinks—he thinks—Arthur needs this, needs someone to steer him in the right direction, and if Eames has any hope of ever being the kind of person he wants to be, then he has to be able to take care of Arthur when he needs it, has to be able to put aside all his reservations and do what needs to be done regardless of the consequences.
“You—You were gone,” Arthur says, and when he does finally look at Eames, his eyes are terrified, huge in their bruised sockets.
Eames blinks. That’s not what he was expecting, and he can’t say anything, not one word.
Eames’s silence seems to spur Arthur on, and words and details flood out of him, unstoppable.
“It was just like it really happened,” Arthur says, his words slurring together in a wild rush. “I saw you die, blood everywhere, how can there be that much blood in one person, fuck, and gunfire, but—but I couldn’t fix it. I kept getting lost, and nothing was where it was supposed to be, and there wasn’t any time, and I knew there wasn’t any time, but I just, I couldn’t help you. I couldn’t find you. There was only him, the other me, and you were—you were nowhere.”
Eames has never in his life been as glad to be drinking whisky at whatever o’clock in the morning as he is right now. “That’s what your dream was about?”
Arthur shakes his head. “Wasn’t a dream,” he says, even though that’s what he called it when he first got to Eames’s door. “It was a nightmare.”
“It’s over now,” Eames says. He presses a kiss to Arthur’s forehead, the bridge of his nose, and he’s watching close enough that he can see when Arthur’s eyes flutter closed. “I’m not gone. I’m right here. You found me.” Eames brushes his cheek against Arthur’s, kisses the curve of his jaw and the corner of his mouth. “It’s over now. Everything’s alright.”
The tension slowly leaves Arthur’s body, a little more with every soft peck Eames leaves littered over his skin. His breathing slows down and evens out, and when his hand reaches out to grab just above Eames’s knee, Eames knows he did the right thing. He covers Arthur’s hand with his own and Arthur turns his hand palm up and they sit there like that for a while, foreheads pressed together, fingers curled around each other’s.
“You falling asleep?” Eames asks quietly.
“You feel nice,” Arthur whispers, as though that’s any kind of answer. His eyes are closed still, and Eames wonders if for Arthur—exhausted, vulnerable, maybe slightly tipsy Arthur—maybe it is. “Can I—Can I stay here?”
“Yeah.” Eames’s voice is rougher than he means it to be, and he gives Arthur a fast smile to soften it. “I can even take the couch this time. Be a gentleman for once.”
Arthur smiles, which is the intended effect, so Eames figures he gets a point for this round.
“I’d rather you were a cad and slept in the bed with me,” he says. “I won’t even kick this time. Promise.”
Eames’s smile gets a little softer, a little more real-feeling on his face. “Probably steal all the blankets, though.”
“Probably,” Arthur agrees. “But don’t worry. I’ll keep you warm.”
Eames finds a T-shirt and some sweats for Arthur to wear and tries not to think too hard about the proprietary tug in his belly he feels when he sees Arthur in his clothes. He wonders if this is what Arthur feels whenever he sees Eames dressed up in a suit he’s picked out. He gives his head a shake to clear it, and climbs under the covers, Arthur’s warm back pressed all along his chest, but Arthur turns over in his arms.
“No, I’m the big spoon,” he says petulantly, pushing at Eames’s shoulder.
Arthur only ever gets petulant when he’s drunk. Eames knows from experience that trying to out-stubborn a petulant, drunk Arthur is no easy feat, and so he goes easily, Arthur snugging himself up behind Eames. His knees tuck into the backs of Eames’s thighs and his hand slides around to rest on Eames’s stomach. Every now and then, he gives Eames a little tug, keeping their bodies pressed close together, like he’s reassuring himself that Eames is really there.
Eames would rather die than have anyone know, but he kind of loves being the little spoon, loves the way Arthur’s narrow frame fits behind him and the way their feet tangle together. He loves the feeling of Arthur’s arm draped heavy over his ribcage and the way Arthur’s low murmurs fade into his skin. He slides his hand over Arthur’s and he loves the way Arthur squeezes back without any hesitation. Most of all, he loves the way it makes him feel, cozy and dear and well, cherished, for lack of a less girly sounding word.
“I’m really glad you came here tonight.”
Eames feels Arthur rub his nose along the back of his neck and press a sleepy, lingering kiss there. “Me too.”
In it, Arthur is all over him, hands and mouth and limbs everywhere. Eames isn’t cold, but Arthur is nice and warm, and he turns into the heat, into Arthur’s touch, like he’s hardwired for it. Up close, the heat is even more intense, but bearable somehow, too, and it puts a low grade burn under the skin of Eames’s lips, of all things. There’s a rumbly feeling in his throat, gravelly almost, and it cuts out when something scratchy and awesome scrapes over the skin there, pulls at it with a kind of hot, wet pressure.
Arthur smells good—like himself, but also like Eames, layered overtop, separate but together—and Eames follows his nose to the crook of Arthur’s neck where the smell is the strongest. He wants to trap that smell and keep it for his very own, for always, and he pulls in a deep breath, as deep as he can, to the bottom of his lungs and then past that, all the way down to the smallest bones of his feet, a secret reserve for later. His mouth falls open as he exhales, breath dragging over Arthur’s skin as he noses along the length of his collarbone, right to where it locks into the socket of his shoulder, and when he sucks at the spot, the noise Arthur makes turns Eames breathless, makes him ache and moan, and fuck, is he ever glad that in this dream Arthur has no shirt on.
Arthur squirms, but Eames is kind of in the middle of something here, and he tries to hold him still, but his hands are heavy and slow, clumsy, and Arthur’s hips are grinding into his before he even touches them.
“Eames,” dream-Arthur says, whimpers, really, his voice thin and dripping with want.
If Arthur smells this good, Eames realizes, then that voice probably tastes amazing, and he abandons the curve of Arthur’s shoulder for the curve of his mouth. He’s not disappointed in the slightest, and he rolls his hips, pulling all these sweet, perfect, broken noises out of Arthur that he catches in his own mouth, wide and sloppy and panting against Arthur’s.
Somehow, he winds up with no pants on, which he doesn’t really understand, but hey, it’s a dream, these things happen, and the important thing is that Arthur has no pants on either, which is fantastic, because now their actual dicks are rubbing together, nothing in between. Eames thinks he might actually stop breathing it’s so good, hot and slick and hard and Arthur, and all of a sudden, he knows he’s awake. It happens just like that; he’s asleep and then he isn’t, but the dream is still the same—Arthur still rocking against him, still hot like the sun, still panting out the most incredible, delicious sounds that make a beeline from Eames’s ears, through his brain, down his spine, and right into his cock.
“Touch me,” Arthur begs. His voice is raw, strained and shaky, and Eames knows exactly how he feels because Arthur’s wrapping his own hand around Eames’s cock, and the noise Eames chokes out when he does is half swearword, half butchered version of Arthur’s name, and all nonsense. “Eames, God, just touch me, please.”
Eames doesn’t need to be told twice, and the hot, heavy weight of Arthur’s dick in his hand is almost as good as the feel of his own in Arthur’s. It’s messy and clumsy, zero finesse and more than a little frantic, but it’s the best fucking handjob Eames has ever had in his life, everything soft and hazy around the edges, Arthur kissing him deep and wet and dirty, and when Eames spills into Arthur’s hand with a broken, keening sound, Arthur is right behind him, coming all over Eames’s belly and crying out into Eames’s open mouth.
They lay there for a while catching their breath. Eames tries a couple of times to extricate himself from the tangle of their limbs, but it’s too complicated and way too much effort, so he just stays where he is, breathing into the warm, quiet space between their faces. It’s cool in the room, it being October in Moscow and all, and Arthur pulls the forgotten duvet back over them when Eames shivers, sweat and come cooling in the night air. Eames thinks about finding something to at least give a cursory swipe through the mess congealing all over both of them, but he’s so comfortable, his limbs already going heavy and leaden, and Arthur is so, so warm.
“I should tell you,” Arthur whispers against Eames’s mouth, into the skin of his cheek, his chin. “I’m so in love with you that sometimes I forget how to spell my own name.”
There are a hundred things that Eames could say to Arthur in this moment. He could tell him about the way he feels like he’s loved Arthur for so long, he can’t remember a time when Arthur wasn’t in the forefront of his mind. The way Eames likes how his ears stick out, a little like he’s five, but mostly just like he’s adorable. How much he loves his squinty eyes and how he always seems to have bags under them, no matter how well rested he is. The delicate bones in his wrists and the lean muscles in his back. The way his smile makes Eames’s heart happy, like whenever he sees Arthur’s mouth start to quirk up at the corners, Eames’s ability to process anything other than a quiet but unrestrained joy evaporates into the ether. How his jaw, forearms, stomach, knees make Eames fucking crazy, make him want to lock Arthur in a room and do every filthy, nasty, wrong thing to him that can be imagined (and even a few that can’t), and how he wants Arthur to do those things to him, too.
He could tell him any of these things, all of them, but he doesn’t.
“I missed you,” is what he says, even though that’s not really what he means, even though he did.
But it doesn’t matter, because Arthur knows. He always knows.
“I missed you, too,” he says, and when he kisses Eames, Eames feels like he’s finally home, here in the warm circle of Arthur’s arms, right where he belongs.
“I see you.” Arthur’s voice is warm, rough with sleep. “I know you’re awake.”
Eames imagines he can hear Arthur smile and sure enough, when Arthur cranes forward and kisses him, he can feel it against his mouth before Arthur’s mouth opens and he licks over Eames’s top lip.
“I’ll make it worth your while,” he promises, and Eames knows without looking that the smile is back again.
“Well in that case.”
Eames opens his eyes and Arthur is there, smiley and tousle-headed and indescribably lovely, and Eames would like to wake up like this every day from now on, thanks. Arthur’s smile makes Eames smile, which makes Arthur smile harder, which makes Eames smile harder, and they’re ridiculous, both of them, lying there not saying a word and grinning at each other like total morons, but Eames really couldn’t give less of a fuck.
“What are you smiling at?” he asks, more for something to say than anything else.
“Some goof,” Arthur shrugs. “What are you smiling at?”
“Some goof who spunked all over me and then fell asleep,” Eames returns, poking Arthur in the side, making him jerk and laugh. “So inconsiderate.”
“Sorry,” Arthur says. He slides a hand over the curve of Eames’s hip and he grins at Eames’s hum, at the way he inches closer to Arthur. He doesn’t look like he’s particularly sorry, but then again, neither is Eames. “Let me make it up to you. Got a shower in this joint?”
“Well then, get your ass in there,” he says, giving Eames a light smack.
The shower in this hotel room is enormous, absurdly lavish, with fancy Russian shampoos and soaps on one of the ledges and an outrageous four showerheads. Eames turns on two of them so neither he nor Arthur get cold, and takes a moment to appreciate the sight of Arthur in front of him, naked, eyes closed, water running in rivulets down his body. He moves his head out from under the spray and pushes his wet hair off of his forehead, opening his eyes to see Eames staring at him. He gets a soft look on his face, and takes Eames’s face in his hand, running his thumb along his jaw.
“Hey,” he says. “I love you.”
Eames smiles, can’t help it. “I know.” He bites his lip to try and reign in his grin, but it’s no use, and he turns his face to press a kiss to Arthur’s palm. “I love you, too. Always.”
“Always,” Arthur echoes, nodding.
They stay like that for a minute or so, and then Arthur clears his throat, says, “Now turn around, you girl,” in a voice that’s still a little rough with something, and Eames rolls his eyes good-naturedly, letting Arthur have this one. Hell, Arthur can have all the ones, as long as he keeps looking at Eames like that, keeps touching him like that, keeps loving him like that.
Eames feels Arthur’s fingers sink into his wet hair and he barely contains his moan when they start rubbing and massaging at his scalp, the entire shower filling with the scent of peppermint as Arthur lathers up his hair. He lets his head fall forward to let Arthur get the nape of his neck and he thinks the noise he makes when he feels Arthur’s lips on the topmost nub of his spine might technically be a purr, although he’d never admit it, ever. Arthur pushes him under the showerhead to rinse the shampoo out and chases water droplets down the ridge of Eames’s shoulder blade before he gets his back all soapy. Eames is going a little light-headed, with the heat and the humidity and the frictionless glide of Arthur’s hands all over him, slow and slick and thorough, and when Arthur fits himself along Eames’s back, hugging him, sort of, at the same time as he soaps up his front, slippery fingers pausing at the film of come from before, Eames reaches behind him and squeezes Arthur’s thigh, hard. Arthur groans into the back of Eames’s neck and rocks his hips, and Eames can feel his dick hard against his ass, and okay, yeah, that’s definitely enough showering for now.
Eames turns around and crushes his mouth against Arthur’s, pushing him back into the shower wall, his pale skin stark against the dark brown tile, and fuck, does that ever feel good, water everywhere and Arthur, hotter than anything, rutting up against him and kissing him like he’s trying to suck Eames’s soul out through his mouth. Eames grinds into him, circles his hips and takes both of their cocks in hand, and Arthur pulls his mouth away, tossing his head back so hard it cracks dully on the wall behind him.
“Wait,” Arthur gasps. His hips buck forward into Eames’s grip, but he puts his hands on Eames’s chest and gives him a weak push. “Wait, stop, Eames—“
Eames stops. He doesn’t let go of Arthur completely, but he takes a full step back, far enough that they’re barely touching, hands on his shoulders only, hips apart, and he’s just at the very beginning of working himself up to feel really, horrifically awful, when he realizes Arthur is mumbling something, quiet words that get lost in the crash of falling water.
“Want, mmm—“ A shudder goes through Arthur and the hint of teeth Eames can see as Arthur bites into his bottom lip makes his dick throb. “Want you to fuck me. In here. Like this.”
Eames almost comes right then.
“Just like this?” he asks in a low voice, stepping close again. He fits their hips back together and Arthur lets out a soft moan. “All hot and wet with your back up against the wall?”
“Yeah,” Arthur breathes. “Yeah, just like this.”
“I got it,” gasps Arthur against his mouth.
Eames is too busy kissing him to be paying too much attention, but he feels Arthur grasp blindly at the shower ledge before pressing a foil packet into Eames’s hand. For some reason, the scrape of the edges against his fingers makes Eames cripplingly, insanely hard, and he groans, obscenely loud in the echo-y confines of the shower.
“God, Arthur, you’re like a fucking sex ninja,” he babbles, and Arthur laughs, throaty and turned on and delighted.
“This time I’m seducing you.”
“Jesus, fuck, I’ll say.”
It takes a little creative maneuvering, but eventually Eames gets his arm hooked under Arthur’s thigh and Arthur gets his leg curled around Eames’s waist. He gets Arthur open and ready for him, and everything is warm steam and wet skin, breathy moans and bitten off murmurs, and even though the angle isn’t the best, it’s worth it to see Arthur’s face when Eames pushes into him for the first time, to see the way his mouth falls open and the way his face screws up, head falling back as he mutters obscenities and Eames’s name and even the occasional strung-out directive, because that’s just goddamn who Arthur is.
Eames fucks Arthur in the shower, but it feels like Arthur’s the one fucking him, like he’s everywhere at once, in his heart and in his blood, and when Eames comes, it’s the kind of come that sneaks up on him, crashing over him all at once and buckling his knees. The only reason they don’t both die of shower sex related broken necks is because Arthur reacts (Eames thinks he hears Arthur utter a surprised, “Woah, geez” but his brain is sort of shorting out, so he can’t be sure), throwing both arms above his head to grasp at the safety bar and hooking his other leg around Eames, ankles crossed together at the small of his back and pulling Eames in tighter, deeper into him, and the new posture must come with a fucking incredible new angle, because Arthur’s entire body snaps when Eames collapses against him. Arthur’s head falls forward into the shoulder join of Eames’s neck and he comes without a hand on him, letting out a long, sharp cry as hot wet splatters between them, making Eames groan and sink his teeth into Arthur’s shoulder.
“Eames.” Arthur voice is raw, shredded, but he’s laughing a little bit, Eames can tell. “Eames, hey, stand up. I’m going to fall.”
Eames musters up all of his remaining strength and makes himself stand under his own power. He slides his hands from Arthur’s back down to his ass, to the backs of his thighs still wrapped around Eames’s waist, still trembling a little with the strain of holding on so tight. Arthur’s chest heaves, his torso arched and stretched still, both hands still wrapped around the bar above his head.
“Arthur,” Eames murmurs, smiling into the wet curve of Arthur’s neck. “You can let go now. I got you.”
“I know,” Arthur says, breathy and rough and a little dazed, and Eames did that to him, he made him sound like that. Arthur drops his hands down heavily to Eames’s shoulders, and his fingers wind into Eames’s wet, pepperminty hair, nails scratching at his scalp as he pulls Eames’s mouth to his. “You always do.”
It’s pathetic and clingy and co-dependent and gross and Eames loves every bit of it.
In his and Arthur’s defense, their friends are nothing more than a bunch of filthy enablers, and they all quit early, order in pirohzki and shashlyk and goulash. The food all comes together, in three giant containers, and Yusuf unpacks it while Arthur clears the table, gathers up all his papers according to whatever crazy person system he likes to keep them in.
“I think there’s some plates and stuff in the back,” he tells Eames. “Can you go check?”
“Yes, dear,” Eames sing songs at him, and he’s not fast enough to get out of the way of Arthur’s swat, but then again, he’s not really trying very hard.
There are, in fact, plates and stuff in the back, and Eames comes back, expecting to be hailed as a conquering hero, the master of dinner, but what he gets instead is Yusuf pointing an accusing pastry at him and demanding, “Eames! Tell Arthur I get to be your best man.”
“Ooh! Dibs on being Arthur’s best man!” exclaims Ariadne, snatching a plate off the top of the stack in Eames’s hands. “It’s only right. We’re total bros.”
“We’re getting married?” Eames asks, setting the dishes on the table and falling into a chair beside Arthur.
“Brilliant. I want one of those ice swans. Only like, an ice dragon. No, no, an ice Minotaur! ‘Cause it’s our job! That’d be really awesome, right?”
“No. Just no.”
“You’re wrong, Arthur. That would be kind of cool,” says Ariadne around a pilfered mouthful of shashlyk.
“It really would,” agrees Yusuf, nodding.
“The key to any successful union is compromise,” points out Saito, pouring goulash into five bowls.
“Boom, maid of honor, this guy,” says Ariadne, thumbing in Saito’s direction. “Look at these life lessons he’s laying down for you two. Just like a mom would.”
Eames is generally pretty accustomed to rolling with what’s thrown at him, at spontaneity and roads less travelled and whatnot, but sitting there in a warehouse in Moscow while his friends plan his imaginary wedding to Arthur, Eames can’t help but wonder how this became his life. Arthur rolls his eyes at Saito’s tie-breaking vote for karaoke, and then smiles at Eames, sending something warm rocketing all the way through him, and Eames thinks that maybe it doesn’t matter how they got here, what they screwed up along the way. They’re here now, and Eames just can’t bring himself to wish away something that lead him here, to Arthur, no matter how rocky the path.
Later, once they’ve both caught their breath again and the thrum of want has faded down to a dull roar (not gone though, never gone), Eames brushes his nose against Arthur’s, kisses his mouth, and says, “Tell me something nobody else knows about you.”
Arthur’s blush is immediate and incredibly appealing. “I always kind of think of Stockholm as our first date,” he says. He turns his face into the pillow for a second to hide it, but he’s smiling when he turns back. “Lame, huh?”
“Yeah, why do you think I drank so much?”
“I thought it was just an accident.”
Arthur shakes his head. “I was nervous,” he says, rolling his eyes at himself. “Because I’m really twelve.”
Eames can’t believe Arthur would ever be nervous about something so every day, so ordinary. “Tell me something else,” he says, fascinated.
Arthur smiles. “You snore.”
“What? That’s rubbish. I do not.”
Arthur just smiles harder at his denial. “Yes, you do. In Istanbul, I was exhausted all the next day because of you.”
“That’s because I spent the whole night sexing you up!”
Arthur’s smile is wide and teasing and genuine. “Keep telling yourself that, tiger.”
“Whatever. You fucking loved it.”
They lie like that all night, ankles twined together and Arthur’s face turned so Eames can see every delightful, eye roll filled smile. Arthur talks late into the night, rewriting Eames’s past with new details, embellishing his memories with a second viewpoint, and Eames lets Arthur’s words wash over him, spinning an entire reality he had no idea existed. Every time Arthur finishes a story, Eames responds with a greedy, “Tell me something else,” and every time, Arthur grants his request.
“I got you something,” Eames says a little under two hours later. “An early Christmas present.”
“Oh?” Arthur raises an interested eyebrow.
Eames bites his lip and grins, and starts undoing his trousers, ignoring Arthur’s amused, “I already have one of those,” and pulling the fabric away from his left hip to reveal a patch of gauze. Underneath it is Arthur’s name, nothing fancy, just simple caps, small and right on the bone. It had hurt like hell, but to be honest, Eames was kind of into it, and even if he wasn’t, it’d have been worth it for the look Arthur gets when Eames finally gets rid of the gauze.
“For when you forget how it’s spelled,” he smiles, and Arthur blinks, mouth falling open a little bit as he stares at it.
“No one’s ever gotten a tattoo of my name before,” he says, dazed. “Can I touch it?”
“Not yet. Gotta wait for it to heal.”
Arthur reaches out, but he doesn’t touch the tattoo, just slides his hand into the top of Eames’s pants, fingers curling around his hip and thumb stroking the skin beside his name, and Eames leans into the touch with a breathless hum. Everything feels—not different, really, just more, his skin all tingly with the newness of the tattoo and the thrill of showing it to Arthur and as always, the feel of Arthur’s hands on him.
“How did you make it through getting it?” Arthur asks. His voice sounds a little smug and a lot turned on, and he’s still looking at Eames’s hip, not at his face at all.
“I had to jerk off four times before I went to get it done,” Eames admits, and he has just enough time to see Arthur’s eyes go hot and dark before Arthur pounces, pushing him back against the wall and claiming his mouth in a brutal kiss.
“I love it,” Arthur says roughly. “Now I’m with you all the time.”
Eames smiles. “Didn’t need to get a tattoo for that, love.”
Arthur’s blush is one of Eames’s favorite things about him. “I hate it when you call me that,” he says, but Eames knows better.
“No, you don’t.”
Arthur’s smile is another one of Eames’s favorites, and it lights up his entire face. “No,” he agrees, pulling Eames flush against him. “I don’t.”
In the end, Eames has Arthur everywhere, under his skin and in his heart and in his mind, and loves him completely, needs him absolutely.
What happens in between is a spectacular series of fuck ups, of wrong choices and hard choices, of patience and blind hope and leaps of faith, and maybe a lucky break or two along the way. What happens is life, and the fact that Eames’s includes an Arthur who loves and needs him right back, well, it’s kind of a dream come true.