Eames should know better than to take solo jobs, but the recession has hit everyone, dreamshare included. Extracting from little old ladies in comas may be a very morally grey thing to do even in a profession that's already a rich tapestry of morally grey, but it apparently pays.
He feels less bad about doing it when they tell him who the little old lady in question is.
Throw your head back and drink. That's it.
It's a woman's voice, musical, a little throaty. Eames likes listening to it.
Let it all go away. It will, you know, if you just let it.
Take another. Feel your throat pinch and swell around it. And another. Soon, we'll take our shoes off and run through the streets together, and you'll be free. You'll be reborn. Let it enfold you and wash you clean and wash you out.
That's it, throw your head back.
We'll dance. Or, well, you will. You like dancing, don't you. Tango. Dashing White Sergeant. Horizontal rumba, more often than not. I know your kind. What's that? You're not here for that? Oh, darling.
Don't you remember? You came here because you wanted something.
Maybe you'll find it down here.
Take another drink. Go on.
Eames shakes himself like a wet dog, but the sound ringing in his ears doesn't abate. It fills the world, somehow, for something so tiny and on the edge of hearing. He looks up and realises he's never seen this part of the forest before, this particular path, not in all his travels.
He was too busy listening to the sound, which he's now realising is singing, to pay attention to where he was putting his hooves. It's beautiful, low and warm, dark like the kind of honey that you have to eat wax and all because there's no prising it from the comb. And Eames followed it like he was hungry.
Really, he has only himself to blame, which is the story of his life. So he doesn't stop walking. In fact, he speeds up.
The rough pelt on Eames's legs is hackling, guard-hairs rising prickly where they're seated in his skin. The song is a low rumble, in a language he doesn't know, mournful. He rounds the bole of a tree, the bark catches on his fingertips like sharkskin to the touch as he drags them over it, creeping through the forest when he should be dancing, silent and listening when it should be him singing, him doing the captivating. Alone, when he should be part of a cavalcade. Intent and forward, tracking, when his head should be thrown back in ecstasy.
Something falls from the tree and strikes him on the shoulder. The impact wakes him a little, as a bloom of sticky-sweet scent hits him. The thing that hit him is a fig, and it split on landing, burst over his skin, spattering his tattoos with juice and its odd fig-flesh.
Eames catches it as it slides down his arm, and suckles on it.
Figs keep their flowers on the inside, you know.
They fruit twice, false first and then the true crop. They make those fruits from flowers, and they're the sweetest things you'll ever eat, but they don't keep long. There's a tiny way in, a little space in the skin where the wasps get in, and then they open out and they're pink and wet inside. They'll make you hungry.
Figs are the oldest trees you'll ever see. There's enlightenment at the foot of them, for people with the patience to wait.
They cure poison, too, or so they say. They say a lot of things about figs.
She's got a beautiful voice, this singer. Something rolls in it, warm and deep. Tantalising. Eames knows he shouldn't have left the revelries, but they were hollow tonight anyway, tasteless and ashy. And that voice, that voice, it's dark like the sea, fumes like wine in the back of Eames's throat. He was pulled from the throng before he even knew he was moving.
The Maenads caught at him as he left, like vines trying to cling to him. He pushed them away, their stinging-nettle caresses not what he wanted any more.
He wants this, that voice in chorus with his, the taste of sweet figs and sex and cold river water on his tongue.
What are you, you strange, silent thing, stalking quarry like a hunter? Unnatural. Against the proper order, says something in his head. Go back to your place and stay there. But Eames has never been good at orders.
He's here now, and here he stays. He pushed through the undergrowth on the edge of the clearing and broke for the deep dark woods, away from the paths of revelry and the open sky above. Away from the moon and stars, the woods are hard to navigate, but Eames had a voice to steer by. He ran, he chased, and he made it all the way here and he will not be sent back. He wants.
Bacchus wouldn't care that Eames had strayed, anyway. He would only care if Eames did not return.
Eames shakes the voice from the back of his head and traces the treetrunks with his fingertips, the back of his hand, feels bark and lichen rasp over the leather of his gloves, and finally looks up at the voice crooning darkly amongst the trees.
At first all he can see is a slash of pale brightness in the green, then it resolves into the long, sleek lines of someone's back, runnelling with streamwater as they wash. It makes Eames stir, heats his blood to pound through his veins like the water dashes off the rocks in the pool.
They half-turn, still singing. Eames freezes.
That voice, the one that's been clawing fingermarks into Eames's psyche, turning handles and cranking steam through his blood, isn't the sweet croon of some fair maiden. No.
The singing man sees Eames, and smiles like a knife, or at least his eyes crinkle, filled with heat. His mouth is too busy, crooning the sounds that beguiled Eames from his bacchanal and pulled him here, to curve to follow, but for all that, it's still a smile.
Eames would like to redden that mouth with wine and kisses and rough use. He would swear he's seen it before, but the memory twists when he tries to pin it down. He steps forward, reaches out, and the Man shakes his head.
'Not here,' he says.
And before Eames can touch, he's gone, like a will o' the wisp.
'Fuck,' says Eames. The word sounds wrong, harsh and obscene, in his ears but tastes right in his mouth. 'Fuck, fuck, fuck.'
You can't run forever. Eames walks, after a while. The singing has stopped but the footprints remain - heel strike, ball of foot, the impressions of toes. Such a complex track compared to Eames's own hoofprints, each of which is just a matched pair of crescents in opposition.
He follows the footmarks anyway, feeling lost, until the terrain changes again. He comes out of the forest onto the banks of a river, so abruptly it feels like he's somehow hit the edge of the world. The tracks continue in the mud and gravel of the bank, so he follows them upstream.
There's a dam. A beaver dam, not the stone kind that Telmarines build. It's the tallest dam Eames has ever seen, including the stone kind, and the river practically thunders behind it but it only lets out a tiny trickle, beautifully controlled. The sides of the dam, the buttresses of it, the anchors that hold it to the bank, are a maze amongst the scrubby bushes either side.
'You're a long way from home,' says the Beaver enthroned upon it.
'Satyrs wander,' says Eames, shrugging. The Beaver looks at him shrewdly from the top of the dam. 'We don't have homes.' He doesn't quite know why he feels the need to explain himself.
'Semantics,' says the Beaver. 'Satyrs don't wander alone, everyone knows that. So are you even a Satyr, if you're apart from your cavalcade?'
'What kind of question is that?'
She thumps her tail on the logs of her monument. 'A pertinent one. Maybe you're just something that looks like a Satyr.'
'If it looks like a Dog,' Eames says, sing-song. He shrugs. 'What else could I be?'
The Beaver snorts. 'If it looked like a Dog and barked like a Dog, I might be convinced it was a Dog, but … Oh well. Assuming you are a Satyr, then, are you lost?'
'No,' says Eames. 'I'm … looking for something. Someone. Have you seen a Man, a Son of Adam, tall and slim, passing this way today? He'd be barefoot. Naked.'
'Why are you chasing him?' the Beaver says.
'Do you know where he went?'
'One question at a time. Why do you want to know, Mister Satyr?'
Eames rolls his eyes. 'I'm curious as to what a Son of Adam is doing out without his trousers. And what business is it of yours, anyway?'
The Beaver shrugs, an interesting motion in a quadruped, and sits up. 'He came over my dam, heading East,' she says. 'And I was curious as to what a lone Satyr was doing chasing a Man out without his trousers,' she adds. But she moves aside to let Eames climb up and pass by. Now that he's up here, he can see the mud smutches left smeared on the wood of the structure by his quarry. 'Where does this go?' he asks. It seems to stretch on forever.
'Not far,' says the Beaver. 'Not really. But be careful as you go, it turns a few odd corners.'
'It's magnificent,' says Eames without really meaning to. 'Is it your own design? I haven't seen a beaver dam like this before.' He hasn't. It climbs like a tree in places, winds around the edges of the riverbank, emulating the curves of it in strange twisted caricature. It almost looks fluid, for something made of a material as eminently solid and unflowing as wood.
'I suppose,' says the Beaver. She surveys her creation with a faint air of pride and bemusement. 'Although some days I rather think I dreamed it, you know.'
Eames thinks of Bacchus and the Maenads and how only yesterday they'd been dancing and the woodland path had run red with wine. He remembers it so vividly and yet … 'I know what you mean,' he says.
'You'd better go,' says the Beaver. 'Otherwise you'll lose him. And what's a hunter without his quarry?'
'The same thing as a Satyr alone, I suppose,' says Eames.
She laughs again. 'Or a Dog without his bark.'
'You're so easily distracted,' says the Man when Eames sees him next. He's bathing again like he thinks he can slough off that pretty skin and find a butterfly underneath. He drags a rag through the streamwater and up his body, holding Eames's eyes with his own with none of the shame in his own nudity that Eames is used to associating with Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, who will come to Satyr revelries or dance with Fauns until the small hours of the morning, but only as long as they may cling to their skirts and britches and propriety while they do so.
This Man, Eames suspects, would drink wine til it ran down his bare body, dance til he fell to his hands and knees in the dirt, and let Eames lick the sweaty mess off his skin.
'On the contrary,' says Eames, reaching for him again. 'I'm single-minded to a fault.'
'I thought Satyrs were nothing between the ears but fluff and grape-skins,' says the Man, leaning away. 'And here you are proving me wrong.'
'Maybe I'm a bad Satyr,' says Eames, although he's never felt more like a creature of lust and hedonistic instinct than he does right now, every atom of him straining towards his goal. The Man's gaze drops to between Eames's legs, where his shaggy pelt is doing a poor job of hiding one particular aspect of his nature. 'Maybe I'm not a Satyr at all.'
'I think you're a Satyr when you want to be,' says the Man, licking his lips but still pulling back further. Eames moves in and the Man moves away, like twinned magnets, repelling.
'And what are you?'
The Man has backed himself into a corner now, the rocks behind him are stepping up steep and twisty, he'll have to surrender, surely. His body curves away from Eames - two crescent moons in opposition, the two halves of a split fig, almost but not quite touching. 'Not here,' he breathes against Eames's ear, and Eames almost falls because the Man has skipped away as if on a staircase and suddenly Eames is hanging almost in space over a gorge, a rushing stream below him.
If he falls, what will he be then?
'Bollocks,' he says, another alien curse coming naturally to his lips, and tries to find a way down into the river.
'Not here,' says the Man when Eames catches him again, and again, and again - always by water, always washing, always twisting away like a fish.
'Then where?' Eames calls after him, each time, to no avail.
It feels as if he's been spinning in circles for days. Weeks. His head is turned around on itself and he feels wrong in his skin - itchy and stuck, as if it doesn't fit, has been buttoned too tight around him. He wants to run until his hooves crack and bleed, but to what end?
He sits down under a tree instead, another fruiting fig, and tilts his head back til his horns scrape on the bark, closes his eyes and breathes in the heavy, cloying sweetness of it until it blankets his senses. The heady smell overwhelms him.
There's a sudden weight in his lap. He opens his eyes to find the Man straddling him, naked and wicked-eyed.
'Is this how easily you forget your goals?' he asks.
'I was setting a trap for you,' says Eames, trying not to shiver from the slide of skin against his own. 'Tempting you.'
'Liar.' The Man's mouth presses open and wanton to the corner of Eames's, and Eames can't move because he's being held by the horns. He wraps his arms around the Man, and pulls tight, until he can feel that he's not alone in the burning desire that's flooding him. 'You've given up.'
Eames wrenches his head free and sinks his teeth into the Man's lower lip, a kiss that's half fight. 'Never,' he says, thrusting up, grinding them together, his back thudding against the bole of the tree. Above them the leaves shake, and ripe fruit rains down around them, bombs bursting and filling the air with their scent.
It's alchemy, the combination of touch and smell and the Man's teeth nipping his ear - and pulling away. Eames can't hold him, somehow - he slips free. 'Come on, then,' he says.
But he's grinning this time and Eames's blood is up. He chases, finally corners the Man beneath a familiar waterfall, in the calm shallow pool beyond, where they're curtained by willow leaves and he can catch the Man by the waist and pull him up until they touch thigh to thigh, back to belly. This time it's Eames who bends his head to the Man's ear and bites.
'We've spun in a circle, haven't we,' he growls, happy to feel the shudder of the body he's caging in with his own. 'This is the same place we were before.'
'You like it here,' says the Man, and before Eames knows what's happening he's been thrown over one hip into the water. 'Under me.'
Eames's skin feels too tight still, but for different reasons now. The Man muscles his way between Eames's thighs, then flips him over. 'Yes,' he says. 'You like this a lot.' He strokes his way up the back of Eames's legs, leans into him. 'You're going to like it better.'
His fingers, cold and wet, just make Eames want it more. This isn't like the revelries. Those are warm and wine-soaked, there's food, there's people all around - Satyrs and Fauns and Maenads, in a frenzy and full of joy in each other. This is cold and hard … why does he want this so much?
The Man pushes in deep, fast. It burns, and Eames pants into it, pushes back for more.
'That's right,' croons the Man, and he starts up a steady, thudding rhythm that pounds all the questions out of Eames. It's like drowning.
There's a lion's roar, in the distance, and Eames looks up, twisted over his shoulder, at the scarred, lean, beautiful body straining over him, fucking him like a god, and something in his mind shatters.
He had a job - and now -
'Arthur?' he gasps. 'Oh fuck, Arthur, fuck, fuck -' eloquence robbed from him by the realisation that he's being pounded into the earth by a fantasy, a projection - that he's been distracted from his job, wandering the dreamscape like a rutting animal …
… and he can't stop, he needs to come, too far gone to save this situation. Arthur - the projection of Arthur, Eames's fantasy of Arthur - fucks like a piston, and Eames has wanted it too much, for too long, to pull away now. Like this, in the dream, he can have it without ever letting the real Arthur know, and that's too tempting a prize to let go of.
'See? Distracted,' says Arthur into his ear. 'Easily led. Like you have been this entire job.' He thrusts harder, and Eames's eyes cross.
Eames gets it then, the way he's been caught. How this militarisation, if that's even what it is, works. 'It's typical,' he grits out, 'that you're berating me about my work ethic with your cock literally up my arse. In my bloody dreams.'
Arthur laughs. Eames shivers. 'You fight it,' Arthur says in a low voice, 'but you like it when I tell you what to do. I set it up for you every time and you always knock it down for me.'
'We fight,' Eames retorts, starting to shiver harder from the cold water licking at his thighs than from the way Arthur's reaming him. His forearms are down flat on the pebbly bottom of the pool. His chin is barely an inch from the surface, and every time Arthur's thighs touch his it's with an audible snap that makes his heart clench. It feels so real and yet he's got a fucking tail, a tail and horns and he's wearing nothing but strips of leather. The tattoos in his skin aren't his, the ears aren't even his. And this is all he's going to get.
He's soaked. Arthur's movements are churning up the water, and his pelt is soaked through. He feels so heavy, he could just sink to the bottom and drown, kick out that way.
He almost wants to.
Fuck. He should move. He's got a job to finish. He's struggling to push back up off his hands, to straighten up, but his legs aren't quite obeying him. Arthur plants a hand in between his shoulderblades and shoves him down. 'Uh-uh. Come for me, Eames,' he growls.
Those words in that voice, and Eames is not a strong man. He breaks when Arthur touches him, spills into the sweet water with his knees shaking, and rolls onto his back as soon as he can feel his bones again.
'I've got to go,' he says, shoving up. 'I -'
Why is he even speaking? He doesn't have to explain himself to his own projection. But he reaches for Arthur's face, wants one more impossible thing.
Arthur pulls away. 'No,' he says, and there's a smirk that Eames knows is real, knows from memory, unlike the naked body his imagination has supplied. He's never so much as seen Arthur's knees, let alone his cock - but his smart-arse expressions, those Eames has memorised. 'No, you know that isn't happening. Kissing me? It's so far out of the bounds of possibility, you can't even imagine it.'
And with that he's gone, and Eames falters. Fuck. He'd thought - he'd wanted - No.
Even when he's a fake, he's right. Eames can't even imagine a world in which Arthur might kiss him.
But he can still pull off this job. Like a signal, in the distance that lion roars again. Eames runs. Through the forest, til his legs burn and he can feel the pounding bleeding up through his spine. His mark will be where all the noise is coming from, he knows it. Everything else - the wine and the figs, the smells, the projections - has been pulling him away, spiralling him around. This feels true, like North.
He breaks into a clearing, into something that feels like a set-piece from a movie. There's the Lion, and in front of it is the woman Eames has been sent to extract from. Except … in the real world she's older by decades, she's not dressed like a Renaissance Fair, and she doesn't have a sword.
This is so far away from being what Eames had planned. It's as if he's interrupted some storybook climactic scene.
'No,' she's saying to the Lion. 'You turn away children for growing up. You don't belong in my dreams.'
'Susan -' says the Lion desperately - it sounds like it's pleading with her - and she stabs it through the neck.
Eames skids to a halt, falls to his knees, as the world in this one way comes to an end. It shatters - the illusion, the compulsion, everything. Eames is abruptly himself again, human from head to toe.
The woman - Susan - turns to look at him. Beside her, the corpse of the Lion collapses. Eames has never seen anything more queenly in his life.
The smile on her face is blood-red. 'I learned to navigate the dreamscape by living in one,' she says, cleaning off the sword with the hem of her skirt. 'Twenty years of my life, or that's what it felt like at the time,' she adds. 'That's what you wanted to know, isn't it?'
'I was hired to find out who paid you for the Felsenstein job,' says Eames faintly. 'I don't need to know anything else.'
She cocks her head at him. 'Not really an extractor, are you.'
'Forger,' he says, scratching the back of his head. 'Most of the time. But there's more work out there for plain extraction.' He shrugs. She'd know, of course. She made a career out of facilitating extractions.
'Aah, of course. Well, Felsenstein paid me for the Felsenstein job, as you put it,' she says. 'Misdirection. And a private little deathwish, but we've all been there.' She sheathes the sword once again at her hip. It's a little too long for her, as if it were made for someone taller, but she wears it well. 'Check the accounts - she left everything to her daughter.'
'Her daughter's disappeared.'
'Of course she has - wouldn't you, if you'd just inherited that amount of money in suspicious circumstances?' Susan sighs. 'Look. Now you know. Will you leave me be? I have work to do here.'
'Of course,' says Eames, scratching at the ghost feeling of coarse goat-hair that's no longer on his hips. He goes to turn away, thinking that a fall from the top of the cataract would be a serviceable kick out - and then stops. 'My projections -' he starts, not sure how to ask.
'I don't know,' she says, shrugging. 'Whatever you saw, you brought it in with you. That's part of why this is such an effective defensive dreamscape. Fantasy is a mirror, everyone knows it. Dreamsharers better than most, given how much we trade on it.'
Eames thinks of drops of water runnelling down scarred thighs. Dangers. Distractions. 'I suppose you're right.'
'Time to go back to the real world, having learned valuable lessons and experienced personal growth?' she says, deeply and beautifully sarcastic.
'Something like that,' says Eames. 'Care to help a fellow out with that, your Majesty?'
She unsheathes the sword again. 'My pleasure. Give my regards to Arthur, if you see him,' she adds. 'I was hearing good things about him, before the coma. Always nice to hear the name of an old protege bandied around.'
'And you?' Eames asks as he kneels. 'Will you be following me out?'
'I learned my lessons already,' she says. 'I'm back now. I mean to put them to use.'