Time is so old, and love so brief;
Love is pure gold, and time a thief:
We're late, darling, we're late.
Eames—though of course he’s not going by Eames just then, not yet—meets Lt. Corporal Chan when he's 22 and Chan is 19.
They're in the hottest, dankest barracks Fort Bragg has to offer, and Chan is a snarling, seething mass of suspicion and sinew and brilliance with a chip on his shoulder the size of that giant whirlpool, the Corryvreckan Maelstrom. Chan is like that mysterious charybdis, a true unexplainable phenomenon, a bottomless well of barely concealed fury and determination to prove himself.
Really, it's a solid stroke of luck that Eames is grouped with him, though it takes him a while to appreciate it.
Initially, over one brief handshake, they size each other up and instantly dismiss one another, though not for the same reasons. Eames is the barrack's ostensible British liaison, which is a stuffy way of saying he's a bit like an exchange student. Chan takes one look at him and assesses him as an average run-of-the-mill boor, an intellectual nobody and a physical welterweight who was probably chosen for the role because of some cushy family connections to the British military, not because he is actually exceptional.
And he's not wrong; Eames is squarely average, always in the middle of the ranks and eminently forgettable. Public-school-educated, sure, but not at any school posh enough to matter and certainly not at any school posh enough to rub the grime off him. Chan has clearly forgotten him almost before he's turned away, exuding his indifference as only someone supremely confident in his own judgment and extremely wary of Eames' faint air of privilege can be.
That's fine; Eames has no use for hotheads, and Chan is one of the most hot-headed people he's ever seen. Not that Chan is temperamental; he doesn't flare up in anger but more uniformly simmers with a low degree of bitterness. But he wears his emotions too honestly and thoughtlessly, with a recklessness that has to be natural rather than deliberate; and Eames stays far away from people like that.
Chan so clearly doesn't give a single shit about anything except doing his job that it makes Eames feel a sort of tertiary anxiety. He talks back to everyone regardless of rank, is peevish and skeptical and a wonderful military thinker, both tactical and tactile. It's easy to see why he's shot through the ranks: he's wiry and strong, limber and fast, versatile with any number of extremely dangerous weapons, and trained in hacking and code-breaking along with advanced surveillance techniques. The army has no idea what to do with him.
Eames listens, learns things, and because the army officers in their barracks are so preoccupied trying to figure out what Chan is, whether he's a weapon or a liability, a lot of what Eames learns is about Chan. He came up through the ROTC program and so was nationally ranked before he ever finished high school; he was almost certainly visited on at least one occasion by government officials in black suits wanting a word about some of his more subterranean online activities. He never talks about his family or friends; there are rumors about CPS, foster care. Chan seems to have no interests or any kind of life outside the army; he seems to have come into their unit a complete cipher, empty except for the anger fueling him to mold himself into whatever the army wants him to be.
That worries the army. It might worry Eames, too, except he's fairly sure that beneath all that anger and mistrust Chan is desperate for something to be loyal to. Eames doesn't get it, at all, but he can at least map out Chan's future with a degree of certainty: he'll continue to rise through the ranks, he'll do his best to be chosen for a military tour of duty, but the military will want him locked away behind a desk. He'll growl and resist but ultimately submit to the life of military office drone, giving himself over to a system that offers him some semblance of reward for his loyalty but will probably keep tabs on him for the rest of his life. Eames, meanwhile, will surely go back to the EU and serve her majesty and continue to be wholly unremarkable.
And so it might have gone, but for that beautiful silver briefcase.
Eames has never been one to discount whispers and rumors, especially when they accompany the arrival of a coterie of new foreign liaisons of far higher rank than himself. Fort Bragg is a cushy assignment, after all, and while he's here Eames doesn't want to waste whatever opportunity there is to, well, seize opportunity. Whatever this new thing is, it seems to be opportunity with a capital O.
So he spends a few weeks gradually improving. He bench-presses a few pounds above his normal load, and then a few pounds more. He finishes a few minutes faster than normal in his time trials, and then faster again, and again, raising his average by subtle seconds. He spends an afternoon at the library reading about aptitude tests and psychological profiling. He doesn't smoke or drink in anticipation of the next physical. He keeps listening, waiting.
The aptitude test comes, and then the battery of psychological and physical exams—far more psychological exams than Eames was expecting, but that’s always the fun part. And then come the closed-door discussions.
Chan moves obliviously through it all, ignoring the gossip and the frisson of nerves sweeping through the barracks among his confused fellows. When the reassignment comes, the new unit formed, Chan shows no surprise to hear his own name called; but when Eames' name is on the roster—Eames is watching him, wanting for some contrary reason to see Chan's hilariously open micro-expressions—he frowns briefly and a tiny furrow appears between his brows.
Eames wonders briefly if it's a bad sign that Chan of all people is the only one in the room to be surprised that Eames made the cut, if maybe his game is slipping, or if the others just really aren't as concerned with the lone British export as they are with themselves. He makes a note to assimilate more into the new unit, be better about making friends; and then he's distracted by packing, relocating, and reassembling in a new, nicer set of barracks; then they’re unpacking, running a few miles for no apparent reason, and reassembling once more in a conference room before a whole new set of stern military officers. Among them are several scientists, which piques everyone's interest.
There is a before/after turning point in every man's life. Probably, for every other man in Eames' new unit, it comes some time later when they open their eyes and find themselves in the unknown, the inconceivable, unbelievable: dreamspace.
But for Eames, his before/after, his point of absolute no return, arrives the moment when, amid a bunch of lengthy, coded and confusing explanations about their new assignment, his newest commanding officer opens that glowing, glittering, magnificent silver box.
He’s hooked. He has no idea what that messy contraption is or what it does, but it looks like something out of every sci-fi novel he’ll never admit to having read, and whatever it is, Eames wants in.
If the army doesn't know what to do with its best and brightest then it has even less idea what to do with their subconscious minds. Any remaining doubt Eames has about the vapid soullessness of the world's military institutes is demolished after the first hour spent in a dream, in an actual goddamn dream, which the military has somehow turned into a training simulation for a tactical operation in Beirut.
It looks just like any boring VR training, except that he can hear, can sense, the heartbeats, the racing, exhilarated pulses of the men around him; except that some of the buildings are fucking transparent; except that he witnesses their "dream architect" transform a fountain into a roadblock and erase an entire wall with a wave of her hand; except that when he shoots to kill, his faceless targets disappear into thin air.
Dreaming. Collective, shared dreaming.
Proprietary technology like this, if that's even the word for it, should be used to remap civilizations, not serve as a military weapon. Eames is so stunned by all of it—the revelation of dreamshare, the capabilities and endless possibilities, the sheer waste and galling mundanity of being dropped day after day into endless dreamscapes of desert towns and drab, dull training fields designed to make men kill one another more effectively, and the constant feeling of jet lag and surreality, the complete inability to know what time it is or what day it is or what level he's on, that he doesn't at first realize the whole thing has brought him to something of an existential crisis.
He’s always been perfectly fine with a healthy degree of amorality; he doesn't believe in gods, and moral relativism has always served him well when sauntering down the paths of least resistance which led him to the military to begin with. Unlike most men around him, he's never been under any illusions that the military is a necessary, fundamentally good operation; at most he can say it maintains order where any semblance of order is to be found. Mostly, however, he's gone in with his eyes wide open, willing to learn, to train, to get better at killing and more relaxed about the idea that one day he might have to.
Project Somnacin throws all of this into question. Not only does it seem to Eames a barbaric use of perhaps the only truly paradigm-shifting technology mankind has ever created, but it rapidly becomes clear that, in its current state, dreamshare isn't fit for human consumption, and that he and his fellow soldiers are, in fact, human guinea pigs. They have been chosen as much for their ability to withstand rigorous daily mindfucking and a barrage of strange chemicals being pumped through their veins as for their ability to learn how to handle themselves down below.
He does handle himself, despite the nausea and motion sickness and constant queasiness, both above and below, despite his constant itch to do more, so much more: to explore every nook and cranny of the dreamscapes they send him into, in order to ferret out the quirks and hidden places of their dreamers’ subconscious, the zany wonderful places not even the dreamer himself knows about; to erect mountains and then fly off of them; to build cathedrals and then smash them to pieces with the world's largest wrecking ball; to fill vast lakes with endless crystal waters and lounge over endless gold and blue Mediterranean coastlines.
He handles himself. He adjusts to the motion sickness; he learns how to calm himself, to back down from the fear that hits him every time he goes under that he might not wake up; he starts to sense when the unruly faceless projections all around them will begin to turn on them and tear them to pieces.
He learns to take a bullet to the head.
Over and over again.
Because it takes him so long to get his head in this incomprehensible new game, because the men around him are just as shell-shocked as he is and because they're all dropping like flies, either immediately resigning or getting kicked out due to an inability to handle the new toxins soaking their veins, it also takes Eames a while to realize that the only person who is actually thriving in this new world of dreamshare is, of course, Chan.
Chan slips into dreams like a duckling who's been raised on land finally finding his way into the water. He grimaces and shakes off the worst of the drugs, then slaughters round after round of projections. He propels himself off buildings and leaps among rooftops like a ninja, obviously trying to launch himself into the air and fly like he could in a non-lucid dream. He fails, but Eames is grudgingly impressed at how hard he keeps trying.
Eames gets his shit together, ups his concentration, finds ways to build shortcuts through the arenas the architects have built. He's the first of all of them to realize that the regular dreamers can do what the architects can do, can build and destroy within the dreamscape just by imagining something new.
He discovers this entirely by accident, after he lets a projection too close and gets caught in a stranglehold. The moment he envisions the knife he has tucked into his bootleg, it's abruptly in his hand. It's little, but it's something.
Eames experiments. Not only can he move things, he can create things: a new knife here, a handy grenade there; a hot blonde he experimentally dreams up who watches over him from a stairwell as he slices and dices through whatever fake desert city they're demolishing today. The more he creates, the more careful, cautious, and self-contained he becomes—except for the once.
His unit is below-stairs, or so he's taken to thinking of going under into a dream, on a routine assignment. Eames' team gets trapped in a dead-end that didn't show up on the city map they were given. Surrounded by advancing projections, the others are torn between fighting their way out and shooting each other upstairs. Chan is muttering curses and trying to scale the wall they're backed up against to gain higher ground, but the surface is smooth, sun-dried earth with no purchase to be had.
In a moment of supreme annoyance with this entire clusterfuck of a training exercise and a program, Eames turns to the wall and thinks, "fuck it," and frantically imagines an exit. Immediately, with a rumble, a solid staircase rises from the earth in front of them, starting below Chan's feet and spiraling upwards. He has time to see Chan look down in blank astonishment that mirrors Eames' own before he's scrambling up the stairs and skidding across the roof to escape over the opposite side of the building. The others immediately follow; but before they've all even swung safely to the ground the dream is collapsing around them.
The architect, a British scientist named Miles with a string of doctorates and a soulless face, was serving as the dreamer. When they wake up he turns on Chan before some of the men are even fully awake yet.
"You did something down there," he says. His voice is cold and deliberate.
Chan's still unhooking the cannula from his arm, but he sits up, eyes sharp, and snaps, "I didn't do shit. But whoever it was got us out alive, or would have if your subconscious hadn't freaked out."
"Bullshit," says Miles. "You manipulated the dreamscape. How did you do it? You know you're not supposed to be working on that kind of exercise down there without official oversight. How did you do it?"
Chan leans back in his military-issue recliner. "I told you. I didn't do it. But if you really don't know who's manipulating your dreams when you're in them, I'd say that's a flaw in the program, wouldn't you?"
Miles freezes and stares down Chan, who just tilts his head and gazes back like this is all just part of the training course. This is, after all, Miles’ baby, his perfect dreamscape design, and it's supposed to be used as an impenetrable, convoluted training maze that only the dreamer can manipulate. Army grunts aren't supposed to be able to even navigate it, let alone invent new passageways and escape routes out of whole cloth.
“Yes,” Miles says after another moment. “I suppose we’ll have to work on that, shan’t we.” He sends Chan an obviously fake smile. Chan returns it with a casual nod. The scientists are all eyeing Chan with suspicion and the straight furrow between his brows is deeper than usual.
None of them look at Eames once.
The scope and focus of their trainings shift slightly after that. Dr. Miles announces with a voice like sandpaper that they have decided to let the unit attempt to create small items in the dreamscape, under strict supervision, of course. It's slow going. They're instructed to try to make tiny changes first, just to get the hang of it: turning a rock into a different color, or building a small sand castle out of thin air.
Strung out on Somnacin as most of them are, it's a laborious process at first; Eames manages to turn the underside of a rock chalk-white after a few days of thinking about it really hard, and gets a "good work" for his pains.
No one actively constructs anything new, unless you count the sand castles Chan has been building. He starts out, like the rest of them, with a pile of actual sand, and then somehow ends up with dazzling, intricate palaces, tiny mazes that rival the ones their architect has been putting together for them to hunt cheese inside of. Eames is torn between admiration and exasperation that someone could be this smart and so bloody dense all at once. Chan isn't just brilliant at dreaming, he's hungry for it. Starving. He wears it all over his face. He also obviously doesn’t care that everything he builds, every innate moment of innovation he displays, just sharpens the fear, the wariness in the eyes of his supervisors, who obviously have no idea why a hacker who’s probably leaking all of their secrets to WikiLeaks has been chosen for one of the most classified operations in the military—or why someone would turn down any number of more lucrative opportunities working in national security to be an army grunt.
It can’t possibly be that Chan hasn’t noticed their suspicion. He just doesn’t give a fuck.
Eames is subtly aware that he's started to stick close to Chan, though he doesn't think anyone else has noticed. It just makes sense; Chan asks the kinds of questions about the rules and logic of dreaming that Eames is dying to know but would never dare draw attention to himself over. And when Eames starts to figure out that half the rules of dreamshare are that there are no rules of dreamshare, he's restless with the urge to share what he's been doing on his own, to know if Chan, the only other person here who seems to really get it, has stumbled upon anything Eames hasn't. He's almost certain, for instance, that Chan is enhancing his already-impressive Parkour-like agility when they're under; the question is whether he even realizes he's doing it.
The bigger question is this: what could they do if their goals weren't hopelessly limited to bullets and violence and target practice?
Eames doesn't ask, and the longed-for private conversation never comes. Too risky, honestly. Chan thinks him a rube and likes it that way, and Eames has no interest in getting tainted by associating with whatever personal mission of madness Chan is on. But he keeps Chan in his periphery, hoping to catch whatever marbles of genius Chan drops along the way.
He picks up other things, too, along the way—scraps of information he keeps close to himself, tries to remember and tuck away where he can access it later: in case of emergency, break glass. Downstairs, paper doesn’t leave a trail; even so, Eames varies his handwriting when he jots down facts and ideas and practices, trotting out other styles and scripts, just to be on the safe side. Then he shreds the paper and burns it, wondering if he’s somehow leaving subconscious bits of info inside the brain of whoever is dreaming, some random scrap of mindworm that will keep them awake years later.
He’s more aware than ever that the army yields no privacy whatsoever—with one exception. The army has no security cameras in the dreamspace. They can simulate the technology, but they can’t actually create the mindreading ability required to spy on one another downstairs. Dreamers can share collective space, but there’s no formulation of Somnacin that will allow one dreamer to actually know and understand what another dreamer is doing, saying, and thinking when they’re separated. Walkie-talkies and radio communication work as long as the dreamer is one of the correspondents, presumably because the Designated Dreamer—the person whose dream they’re all in—is actively listening for whatever is coming down the channel. But so far spy cameras are a no-go. Eames has gleaned from hints here and there that the team of scientists who’ve built the technology have been frustrated by their failure in this regard; attempts within the dreams to collect video feedback of the dreamspace from their dreamed-up security cameras only yield “recordings” of whatever the designated dreamer is subconsciously thinking about at that particular moment rather than a record of what the soldiers have actually been doing.
So Eames quickly figures out exactly where and for how long he can remain unseen and separated from the rest of the group. Usually the best moments happen when they’re in buildings. Buildings have interior walls, areas where the team of soldiers can easily become separated; Eames wanders down hallways into private rooms, gets lost trying to find the loo, winds up taking wrong turns and getting stuck in elevators. It’s all harmless, just a part of learning to navigate dreamshare. It’s surprisingly easy for him to wind up in such situations: the commanding officers are still too easily distracted by the novelty of dreamshare; things are still too experimental. So Eames, clumsy and hapless as he is, seems to wind up all by himself for at least a few moments in nearly every dream.
And no one can see what he does when he’s alone.
Mostly, he breathes easy for once; he relaxes and unwinds the invisible knot of tension lining his shoulders. But he also experiments, tries new things—little new things, of course, he wouldn’t want to bring the dream crumbling down around them all. He uses every moment he can find to mentally review the info he’s learned, the things he’s pieced together about this horrific, wondrous attempt to play god in other people’s brains.
He’s alone in an empty side room in a drab fake hotel one day when it happens. They’re supposed to be looking for bomb units, but Eames and his partner have momentarily split up. They’re meant to be tracking down a bunch of metal detectors they think might be in the hotel security offices, but Eames has foolishly lost his way and wound up in a wide conference room. It’s just like any other conference room, except that its windows are opaque on the outside and stretch from floor to ceiling. Eames, who takes whatever opportunity he can, decides to try manipulating his reflection, to see if he can produce a sort of distorted, funhouse-mirror effect. He’s successful on his first try, his reflection going wonky and concave, and he can’t help but picture the look on Corporal Chan’s smug face if he were there to see just how much better Eames is at this than he is.
Suddenly Eames’ reflection wobbles in the window, and in the next instant he’s staring, not at his own face, but at Chan’s. When he blinks, Chan’s melancholy brown eyes blink back at him, perched atop his own incongruously broad body. He gapes at himself. Then he closes his eyes and thinks. He thinks about Chan’s body, the lean cords of muscle in his wiry arms, his thin-lipped smile, the thin taper of his waist, and the slope of arse that always manages to look impossibly good even in army fatigues. He pictures Chan; and when he opens his eyes...
“Well, hello there,” he says. His voice is still his own, but everything else is different. His body feels lighter, and somehow straighter, more rigid, too, as if he’s sculpted not only the living image of Chan but the weight of the world that habitually rests on his shoulders. “Look at you.”
He turns to the side, mind racing with the possibilities of this new knowledge even as he registers that, yes, he’s gotten the curve of that ass exactly right. The thin line of Chan’s mouth is slack and bemused, an expression Chan himself almost never wears. He leers at his reflection, then attempts to settle into it, to fix the haunted look and the stressed creases at the corner of Chan’s eyes, to capture the grim, close-lipped solemnity of his mouth.
“You’re a fool,” he says after a moment. It’s strange to say out loud what he’s been thinking for months, and even stranger to be saying it to himself. “A reckless, incautious bloody fool. They’re all looking at you and you just keep feeding them scraps. You just keep giving them reasons.”
He takes a few steps, trying to capture the way Chan walks. He’s nowhere close, but he at least gets the cocky set of Chan’s shoulders, the way he tilts his head back when he’s eyeing a superior officer.
He laughs. What an arrogant little shit. “They’ve no idea what they’ve got in you,” he says.
Then he thinks, they’ve no idea what they’ve got in this either.
He wonders if it’s possible to get stuck like this, in someone else’s body. He’s never heard any of the scientists mention being able to shapeshift down here, let alone being able to change completely into another human being. He strongly suspects, given how strictly they’ve been training the recruits on all of the other aspects of dreamshare, that none of them know it’s possible at all.
He doesn’t intend them to find out.
“Hey, Chan, you seen the Brit?” His partner pops his head in through the conference room door, glance darting over Eames and away again. “He was headed to the security office on this floor but he probably got lost again.”
Eames thinks, very carefully, about what Chan would say, about the contempt his voice would hold.
"You think I pay any attention to that prick?” he snaps, pleased to hear his voice has risen a few timbers to match Chan’s perpetually annoyed whine. “Try locating the nearest tiki bar.”
His partner laugh and ducks out again. Eames looks back at himself in the mirror. There’s that smug expression he was after originally.
It’s almost—not quite—as good as the real thing.
After that, Eames finds himself becoming a lot friendlier. He spends copious amounts of time at the favored bar haunts of the Fort Bragg elite, listening and learning and bonding hard with the bartenders. He bonds with the receptionists and the janitors; he bonds with the privates who occasionally volunteer for the security detail in the office where the PASIVs are kept. He bonds with the librarians on his free Saturdays at the local public library, which he spends reading up on the news of the world and doing surreptitious research on certain items of interest. He bonds with the guards on guard duty in the barracks, in the special forces offices, and at the gates; he bonds with every officer and scientist who has access to their training rooms and every person who knows who has access. He even bonds with the local farmers. He smiles and winks and cultivates the poshest version of his British accent. He takes off his hat and says, “ma’am,” respectfully to the southern ladies when they pass.
His military performance remains pitifully average; it’s a shame such a nice young man is such an unmemorable special forces officer.
What with all the activity and people at Fort Bragg, with all the hustle and bustle and all the military’s hyper-intense focus on keeping their precious PASIV devices safe, it’s really only a matter of time before someone tries to steal one of them. The scientists’ schedules are so routinized even a dimwitted fellow like Eames can work out when they come and go. What’s most surprising—but not really all that surprising, if you knew the army—is that it takes several days for anyone to realize that one of the PASIVs has gone missing at all.
The reason for this, of course, is that the thief, whoever they are, hasn’t taken one of the three enormous and overprotected PASIVs actually in use by Project Somnacin. It seems that the army had a discontinued smaller prototype kept unnoticed on a shelf in one of the back rooms of the Somnacin office. Whoever the thief is, they know about the existence of the prototype. They even knew enough to dismantle the room’s hidden security cameras before the theft. And since they were able to make it out undetected, they probably had completely disassembled the device before leaving the room (and possibly the base) with it. That means that the culprit is most likely someone in the project.
And they all know there’s only one person in the project smart enough to pull all that off.
“I didn’t steal a goddamn thing from you,” Chan bursts out, livid, after the fourth time their commanding officers let their gazes linger too long in his direction during the debrief.
“Is that so, son,” says the Lieutenant-Colonel. “Well, if it isn’t, we’ll soon find out.”
“Search the fucking barracks,” Chan spits. “You can check everything I have.”
“Oh, we are,” says the commanding officer.
Dr. Miles announces they’re going to try a new experiment in order to learn what the soldiers know: he refers to it as an “extraction technique” and makes it sound like a routine trip to the dentist, but in reality they dose them all up and torture them in the dreamscape until one of them cracks. Or at least that’s the plan. But the moment one of the officers touches Chan, his projections go berserk. It’s a bloodbath, absolute mayhem, though Eames can’t help but notice that none of the projections go after him or any of the other soldiers. Chan wakes up looking ready to continue the chaos above-stairs, but the officers are all white-faced and staring at him with a mix of shock and fear.
They don’t try to extract info from their subconscious minds again. Shame, Eames thinks: he can conceive of several much better ways to have gotten the information besides torture—not that the military would be creative enough to come up with any of them on its own. Still, he reckons the idea might be handy somewhere down the road.
It’s all downhill for Chan after that. They don’t find anything in his barracks, of course—they don’t find anything in anyone’s barracks—but suspicion is rampant and there’s no attempt to disguise it. Chan keeps his head up, acts like nothing has changed. Does his job, protects his men, ignores the rumors until he can’t anymore. The last time Eames sees him, he’s talking in the Somnacin office with Dr. Miles, who has a hand on his shoulder and is leaning close, speaking to him intently. Eames suspects the gesture is meant to look reassuring, but Dr. Miles looks hungry in a way that reminds Eames of a cat toying with its prey. He has visions of Chan being strapped to a lab chair while Miles has his way with his voluminous brain. Then he has visions of what Chan would do to anybody who tried it.
All in all, he’s glad when Chan finally gets his general discharge from the army. The stated reason, or so Eames hears, is that Chan hasn’t assimilated well into the program. Chan is gone without so much as a farewell to the rest of the men in the Somnacin program, and it’s all just as well as far as Eames is concerned. Chan was an annoying distraction.
As for Eames, he was never anything extraordinary to begin with. When he starts having negative reactions to the changes in Somnacin dosage, it’s not long before he’s phased out of the program. Four months after Chan’s exit, Eames takes his honorable discharge and turns tail for home and Her Majesty’s royal forces. Project Somnacin is already on its way out, anyway: the cost of operations is too high, the results too inconclusive, the embarrassment of the unsolved theft too damning. Dr. Miles is bound for a teaching job in France, and Eames hears nothing more of the program upon his return to London. But the whole grueling episode has given him a distaste for the military life. What can he say? Some men just aren’t cut out for the service.
Eames lasts another six months before giving up and resigning. From there, he settles into a series of temp jobs, nothing too strenuous, and definitely nothing involving a daily ingestion of chemicals. What with one thing and another, it’s another six months before he wends his way to the U.S. And, well, since he’s in the area and all—the insurance company he’s just started working for has an annual conference in Durham, and the higher-ups thought Eames would be the perfect yes-man to attend—it’s an easy trip to Fayetteville, and from there to pay a call on the lonely farmer’s wife who once offered to let him hunt in their woods whenever he liked after an afternoon spent with Nero Wolfe mysteries at the library. One more trek through the woods for old time’s sake? Of course, she says, beaming and offering him a glass of something ice cold from the fridge.
He finds the PASIV exactly where he left it buried beneath the overgrown moss of a tulip tree, still neatly dismantled into pieces no customs inspection would notice. He even has time to finish off his glass of sweet tea before heading to the airport.
It’s not that dallying with odd jobs and respectability hasn’t been fun.
But when it comes to sport, Eames really has always preferred the long game.
Two years later Eames is lounging on a sedan in a hotel in Bellagio, waiting to meet the extractor, Cobb, and his protege. Eames knows everyone in the tiny dreamshare community—of course he does, he built it—or at least knows of everyone; but the Cobbs have only ever worked out of their lab in Los Angeles, or at least they did until Cobb’s wife popped off a few weeks prior. He’s been on the run overseas ever since, and Eames has had little success sorting through the widely varied gossip about what actually happened. The only thing he knows for certain is that the protege, a man named Arthur, had nothing to do with it; he was in Canada at the time. But he’s been helping Cobb ever since, fencing jobs for him and sounding out the dreamshare community. Eames is mildly curious about both of them, but primarily about the case study of a friend who’d stick their neck out for someone who may or may not be a sociopathic murderer.
But murderer or no murderer, if Arthur wants to help Cobb get European jobs, with safe, easy European clientele, he needs to go through Eames, which means he needs Eames’ approval. Cobb’s reputation may have been solid in the States before the unpleasantness with his wife, but no one knows him here, not really. And Arthur—well, Eames is wary of anyone else walking around sporting only one name, and assumes they’re smart enough to return the compliment.
Eames stands and turns around. A man in a hideous tan suit is approaching with his hand outstretched. That can only be Cobb. Eames’ eyes are immediately drawn, however, to the vision of tailored loveliness behind him, a confection of gorgeous design in something grey and tailored and a brisk, confident stride that’s halting abruptly just as Eames’ gaze reaches his face.
Eames has time to register Chan’s wide eyes before he’s suddenly flat on his back with a seething cloud of fury hovering over him.
“You asshole,” Chan says, still clutching his briefcase in one hand and his clenched fist in the other. “It was you?”
“Arthur?” Cobb says, shocked and moving to help Eames to his feet. Eames waves him away and gets to his feet on his own. Chan—Arthur—is slinging out his fist again like he could go for another punch, just as Eames is grazi, sta bene-ing the alarmed hotel staff.
“How’d you do it,” Arthur says, a declarative statement, glare pinned to Eames’ face. “Who’d you get to help you?”
“It’s good to see you, too,” says Eames, beaming grandly. “I suppose this explains what you’ve been up to. You a friend of a man named Miles, by any chance?” he says to Cobb, giving his jaw a flex to make sure it still works.
“Er... father-in-law,” Cobb says, clearly confused. “Arthur, what’s—”
“He’s the one,” Arthur snaps. “He stole the PASIV from our regiment in the army. He’s the fucker who set me up.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Eames says. “Maybe if you tried talking just a little louder? It’s such a highly trafficked public location and all.”
“Cobb, we’re done here,” Arthur says tersely, turning to walk away. “Sorry for wasting your time.”
“I wouldn’t be so hasty, darling,” says Eames, and he watches in satisfaction as Arthur’s ears go pink, either from the affrontery of having his grand exit interrupted or from the endearment or both—either way, he makes a note to use both the interruptions and the endearments as often as possible. “While you’ve been fuming about imaginary military plots, we’ve all been quite busy on this side of the pond, and you’re playing catch-up. And I understand time is of the essence, hmm?”
Arthur turns back around and stares at him, really looks at him for the first time since—well, since ever, really.
“Look, I’m sorry, Mr. Eames,” Cobb says. Arthur shoots him a frown with a lot of eyeroll in it—and, Eames fancies, just a touch of wounded betrayal. “I don’t know what kind of history you and Arthur have, but you’re right, I do need to line up jobs fast, and if you can help me make that happen, I’d be very grateful. Why don’t you let me buy you a drink.”
“I’m not staying,” Arthur snaps. Cobb spreads his hands, a soothing, conciliatory gesture.
“Your call,” he says, “but I think we should at least hear what Mr. Eames has to say. Now, why don’t we all just sit down and start over, okay?”
Cobb is speaking mildly enough, but Eames notes the way Arthur seems to deflate and bring himself to heel. He’s never seen Chan— Arthur, he reminds himself—wax obedient and compliant for anyone unless it was under a direct military order. It’s fascinating.
Over drinks, Cobb mostly talks while Eames mostly redirects him when necessary and Arthur mostly glares at Eames. Eames would have Cobb mostly pegged as a smooth talker but a regular guy in over his head, but for Arthur. The questions he really wants to direct are to Arthur, but those can wait.
When Arthur had emailed him about setting up connections, he’d been interested in having Eames work on commission to line up jobs for them until Arthur got his feet under him with the dreamshare network. He hasn’t spoken once during the meeting, but Eames is pretty certain his original idea to use Eames as a fence has gone out the window.
And besides, what Eames really wants is to see what Arthur has learned downstairs in the last two years.
He decides to throw Arthur a bone. “You can use me as a fence, but the easiest way for you to get established with the locals is to do a major job and hire me for it. Once people know I’ve worked with you—plus the chemist and architect we’ll find for you, we’ll make sure they’re in demand—lining up other jobs shouldn’t be too difficult. Plus, having a forger always comes in handy.”
“What’s a forger?” Cobb says. Arthur sits up straighter in his chair. Eames looks between them, then laughs.
Eames brings them up to his hotel suite—doesn’t miss the way Arthur turns up his nose at the sight of the open bar—and hooks them up to his army-issue PASIV device. “This model was deprecated,” Arthur asks suspiciously. “That means when you took it from the office it didn’t work. Where’d you learn how to fix it?” Oh, he’s angry—and bitter, a very satisfying look for him. “What, did you social-engineer your way into getting a mechanic to do it for you?” His lip curls. “Or just fuck one into helping you?”
“One trick at a time, love,” Eames says, winking at him. Cobb looks confusedly between them and Arthur huffs and says he’s not dosing himself on any Somnacin mix Eames is providing unless Eames goes under first.
“Excellent,” Eames responds smoothly, pleased to see Arthur visibly thrown off by his lack of resistance. Eames is fairly confident it’s not worth measuring dicks over. It’s not like Eames has any information Arthur can steal from him while he’s under, and if they’d done the very minimum of research they’d know that any attempt to harm Eames on the home continent means they wouldn’t be leaving the city alive.
“It’ll give me time to set up the dream. I trust I don’t need to tell you how to insert the cannula.” Arthur glowers at him. “Oh, I do,” Eames says, laying on the smarm. “In that case—”
“Get on with it, Mr. Eames,” Arthur snaps.
Eames dreams them up a half-empty cocktail lounge in the middle of the day, something just seedy enough to offend Arthur’s prim sensibilities but open and vacant enough that it will be obvious Eames isn’t hiding anywhere.
Sure enough, when they show up, Arthur immediately hoists his gun and starts looking around the room like he’s expecting some sort of raid—like that wouldn’t immediately tip off a cadre of projections less lazy than Eames.’ His projections just sort of side-eye Arthur and go back to drinking.
“He’s not here,” says Cobb after a moment.
“Oh, I’m here,” says Eames in his own voice. He’s somewhere behind them on a barstool, but they can’t locate where the comment came from, and when they look around he can feel their confusion. As a forger, the main mistake he used to make was looking at the dreamer, seeking them out like an actor breaking the illusion by looking directly into the camera; but he’s gotten good, very good, at this now, so he doesn’t flinch or look away from his drink as they scan the projections.
“He’s... invisible?” Cobb mutters. “Camouflage?”
“No,” says Arthur, scanning the room with his gun still in hand. “He’s shapeshifting. Fuck.”
You smart boy, Eames thinks. Usually it takes his clients much longer to work this out.
Arthur slowly walks the length of the lounge while Cobb watches. Eames watches them in the mirror behind the bar. Arthur talks to the projections, slowly and carefully, then moves on to the next one. They don’t even rustle, and Eames finds that interesting, the utter lack of suspicion even though he has his gun out. Maybe this is a Queensland bar, he thinks, signaling the bartender for a second shot of vodka to cover his amused snort. Arthur moves along the bar and finally stops at him.
“Hi, uh, I’m sorry to bother you,” he says, and Eames is struck by the politeness in his voice. It’s not something he can say he’s ever associated with Arthur. “Can you tell me what time it is?”
“Quarter past,” says Eames without looking up. His voice isn’t his own; he’s going for a gruff, weathered effect, and immediately wonders if it’s too much.
“No, I meant, what time it is upstairs,” Arthur says.
Eames turns to him in shock.
“Upstairs?” he says.
“Looks like we found you,” Arthur says, utterly unsmiling, and shoots him awake.
Upstairs—and wouldn’t it be just like Arthur to have borrowed Eames’ own term without knowing it, the little bastard—Cobb is full of questions about what it’s like to forge. Arthur asks only one question—“How long?”—and Eames knows what he’s really asking is whether Eames learned to do this before or after he stole a PASIV from the military, and pointedly changes the subject.
After a few more rounds of back and forth, Cobb stands and stretches and says, “Well, Mr. Eames, I know you and Arthur here may have some things to discuss, but it seems like you’re a good contact to help us make inroads here in Europe, and your reputation obviously precedes you.”
Eames murmurs something appreciative and then glances at Arthur, who’s turned away and started pacing the room. The better for Eames to admire the lines of that suit. Arthur had managed to make his ass look good even in army fatigues; in civilian clothes he looks like a walking Tom Ford commercial. Really, some men should never be dressed in anything but bespoke.
“You’ve got questions, sure,” he says to Arthur’s back. “So have I. Perhaps we could put off the reunion chit-chat for now and focus on the job at hand.”
Arthur stops pacing and turns back around long enough to shoot him a glare. “Focus on the job at hand? Because you’re so good at doing that.”
Cobb makes a pained noise.
“One job,” says Eames. “One job, just to get you in the door, get you making connections, and then you’re off and running on your own and you never have to work with me again, hmm?” He flashes a grim smile in Arthur’s direction. It’s blatantly not true, but Arthur doesn’t need to know that yet. He might very well be able to work without Eames, but Cobb won’t, and Eames has a feeling Arthur won’t choose to work without Cobb.
Arthur shoves his hands in the pockets of his tight, tight suit. “Fine,” he says after a moment. He pulls out a Moleskine from one pocket and a shiny pen from the other. “Let’s get to work.”
The job Eames brings them is one of the simplest extractions he has lined up at the moment. Without knowing what Cobb can do before he’s seen him in action, Eames has gone for a simple, clean in-and-out involving a jilted billionaire’s wife and the mistress who may or may not have stolen her prize Birkin bag. The handbag, a gift from her husband, is worth a quarter of a million; the billionaire’s wife is willing to pay 16 times that amount just to have proof that her husband is cheating on her with a mistress who’s cheating him.
Eames figured out within five minutes of conversation that the husband had most likely sold the handbag to buy off a gangster’s wife who’s holding his debts in Monaco, but he doesn’t have to let the wife know that until they have definitive proof of the subconscious variety. As long as she thinks the mistress did it, she’ll give them all the resources they need; but in Eames’ experience, even when wives say they want proof of their husband’s philandering, giving it to them doesn’t always end well. Best not to give up the game too early. Besides, extracting on the husband will be an easy first run to see what Cobb can do: they can do the extraction in the master bedroom with the wife’s security team nearby if anything goes wrong.
The easy part is getting inside the mansion, since the wife is the client and is perfectly willing to slip her husband a drugged mickey in the name of science. The hard part is, of course, finding the information.
Cobb seems to be at least nominally capable in the preliminary rundown: he asks the right questions, suggests the right contacts, and generally seems to slide into a sort of leisurely alpha male mode. Eames would find it charming in a sleazy way if he weren’t perpetually distracted by the notes Arthur makes furiously in his Moleskine. He listens and scribbles notes for roughly fifteen minutes without saying a word, so long Eames is starting to wonder if he’s suddenly undergone a freak personality change.
Then he clears his throat without looking up and systematically runs down the most detailed, microaggressive, petty list of tactical concerns and curt suggestions for tweaking their available sources of information Eames has ever heard anyone deliver about anything. It’s so insulting it’s almost wondrous.
Cobb lets Arthur and Eames argue about the nitpicky details for twenty minutes or so before he visibly tires and declares them secure enough in the details to move forward. Arthur doesn’t look at all convinced of this, but he stands with Cobb without a word. He doesn’t offer his hand to shake when they part, and he casts Eames a final, dark glance hard enough to cut glass.
Since he started in this business, or more accurately since he started this business, Eames has gotten his clients mostly through strategic networking and in the simplest way possible: asking his clients if they need help. It’s amazing how many rich women are willing to spill their troubles after three cocktails and a bit of casual banter in the right conversation trajectory. And occasionally, those rich women have husbands with even harder-to-solve problems. And those husbands have friends.
The world of dreamshare is incredibly small—Eames knows everyone because sooner or later everyone comes to him or goes through him to get to someone else. Eames usually brings people in from the outside for a single job to start, trusting them just enough to come in for the top level work in the warehouse, where they’re informed that the big shiny box in the middle of the room is a very secure briefcase. From there, if they’ve a knack, maybe they get to go downstairs eventually. Most of them, usually architects, stay upstairs, none the wiser.
It’s tricky, sometimes, doing business with the kind of people who are safe enough not to come after him with a team of gun-bearing goons if something goes wrong, but who are crooked enough that they’ll approach the world of dreamshare without signing an NDA. Eames has gotten by so far by working in a small, extremely tightknit community in Europe, give or take a few outlying contacts around the globe that he contacts as needed. The regular dreamshare community, minus all the outliers, boils down to a grand total of eight people working on the regular in Europe and a handful of others on the other continents. Six of the eight and two of the internationals are people Eames personally recruited into the game. Four of the eight are architects, not counting the extremely rare freelance architect,
Chemists are the hardest to find, and the ones whose skills are most invaluable and in-demand; Eames knows three, total. The first is a grad student whom he’s spent years very steadily seducing away from the original Stanford science lab behind Project Somnacin with a measured combination of flattery, sex, and extortion. The second is a scientist who went rogue after she found out that her military was using her proprietary compound to torture people. Eames wishes there were more people like her in dreamshare, but alas, most of them are slithering opportunists like himself. There are rumors of a third chemist located out of central Africa, but no one’s pinned down a location, whoever it is doesn’t seem to be interested in running jobs, and Eames has no idea how they found out about dreamshare. It’s rare to meet someone who’s already heard about dreamshare from some avenue outside of Eames’ circles—but it’s getting less rare every day.
The thing is that dreamshare isn’t a finite opportunity. If Eames wants to keep working, he needs to expand outward. He needs to move on to other parts of the world. Bringing Cobb in as another extractor, even if he turns out to be horrible, is risky—it means more competition for jobs in a small space. But moving on means more risk of exposure: more people keep coming into dreamshare, and more and more billionaires with global interests are learning about the PASIV. The whole situation is precarious; the small ring of secrecy can’t possibly last, and no one knows that better than Eames.
But he’s here, and he started all this, and he’s going to ride the wave until it crashes.
There had been a fourth chemist. Dr. Miles’ daughter had been a chemist in the same Stanford lab as the chemist Eames has been intermittently seducing into the criminal underground. But Eames hadn’t paid any attention to her because he already had his lead on Stanford, and after the military he’d wanted nothing to do with Miles or anyone in his family.
He’d never heard much about Cobb before the community’s shock over his wife’s death—the way his wife had died—so he’d never put her together with Miles; but he supposes it’s karma he can live with if Miles lost one of his own family members to some sort of dream addiction.
Eames calls up Tae-yeon and asks her to join them as the architect for this job. She agrees easily enough but has questions about why Eames is agreeing to work for someone else. She’s heard vague details about the Cobbs, of course, everyone has; but she’s skeptical at first when Eames tells her he’s doing it to help the man out after the death of his wife. “That’s not much like you, is it?” she says, and it prickles a bit, but the important thing is she’s said yes. From there, it’s easy enough to get Navendra, the noble chemist, to supply the Somnacin batch, and there they are.
Eames kicks back, bums around Bellagio, lets Cobb do the heavy lifting from there. Tae-yeon adapts to Cobb’s style and falls into place easily enough, but Eames has no idea what Arthur’s specific role is. They’ve never needed a “point man” on their jobs before, and Eames is sure this is something Cobb just made up because he didn’t want to leave Arthur behind. The fact that Arthur made an excellent military point man is of course beside the point; the goal of dreamshare is to get in, get out, leave no trace behind; there’s no use for anyone on the job who doesn’t have a clearly defined purpose.
Arthur, however, seems to know exactly what his job is, even if Cobb doesn’t bother explaining it to anyone. From the first day he buries himself in his computer and proceeds to research every miniscule detail on the billionaire, the wife, the mistress, the two kids, the ex-wife, the two kids by the first marriage, the mistress’s ex, and the billionaire’s personal assistant, CEO, board president, and valet. Eames gives the USB stick Arthur produces, full of neatly researched files, clean and beautiful and deep and organized into tidy individual folders by name and category, a cursory glance and then promptly loses it somewhere in the depths of his briefcase; nothing personal, darling, but really, Eames can tell everything he needs to know about a person from the old-fashioned analog way of doing research: watching them from across a crowded restaurant while getting sloshed on gin and vodka someone else pays for.
“If you ask me,” Arthur says during the debriefing on his research results, “It’s obvious the husband stole the handbag to settle his gambling debts with that gangster’s wife in Monaco.”
“Well we can’t know that without proof, can we?” Eames asks indignantly.
Arthur is loyal to a fault but Eames can’t figure out his relationship with Cobb at all. It must have been the wife, surely; Arthur must have been fucking her or in love with her or something—it’s the only line Eames has to explain why Arthur submits so meekly to Cobb’s casual condescension, his total narcissism, his willingness to use Arthur as a guinea pig without consulting Arthur about it at all. Or maybe Arthur just likes being dominated? He did seem to function best when he was submitting to military orders under duress. It’s a shame; Eames spent their 18 months together in the military thinking if he could just get Arthur out of the military he would be able to see what Arthur’s potential truly was.
He keeps thinking back to that kid who kept leaping off buildings in the dream like he was trying to spread his wings and fly. That kid couldn’t wait to get downstairs—he’d’ve collapsed all his veins before he said no to running a test or trying out some new aspect of the dream. But this Arthur... Eames thinks his wings have been clipped somewhere in the last two years. Arthur 2.0 is even more withdrawn than the Arthur he knew in Fort Bragg; he seems mainly concerned with keeping his head buried in the computer, researching and going over their information again and again and again, asking pointlessly nitpicky questions and challenging everything Eames does until he wants to shout at him to stop being such a nag and show him if he’s still got anything left downstairs.
Instead, for the most part, Arthur and Eames fight.
“Really?” says Eames when he catches a flash of metal between Arthur’s shiny suspenders and his ridiculously expensive jacket. “You’re packing? In a warehouse miles from the nearest human being on the second day of the job. In case you needed the reminder, we don’t need weapons on the job, we don’t fire real bullets.”
“You are a buffoon,” Arthur says.
“Arthur,” Eames snaps after the fourth time Arthur has told him to be sure he’s using TOR, “Do you really think I wound up in dreamshare without knowing how to use a bloody anonymizer with VPN?”
“Forgive me for not overestimating your intelligence, Mr. Eames,” Arthur replies smoothly, and Eames is so exasperated and confounded all he can do is laugh.
He does develop a minor appreciation for Arthur’s research skills, however.
“He’s militarized,” Arthur says, tossing a thick file of notes on the end of the drafting table where Cobb is currently leaning and apparently thinking really hard. “He’s got a series of transactions from six months ago to a bank account that I traced to a man—or an alias—named Blake Mather. Mather’s got connections to the Prague dreamshare ring. Not sure how deep they go.”
“Oh, is that one traceable?” says Eames, standing up and shoving his hands in his pockets. “Suppose I’ll have to burn it. Just lucky I’m the one who militarized him, aren’t we?”
Arthur turns. “You what?” he says, blinking.
Eames repeats himself, blankly.
“You militarized the mark?” Arthur hisses. “You militarized the mark and you didn’t think to tell us?”
Eames shrugs. “You were having so much fun digging up info on him, shame to let all that effort be wasted. And you found me! Good job.”
“This isn’t a fucking mind game, Eames, if you have relevant information you bring it up when we do the debrief.”
“You’re burying the lede a bit, mate. The point’s not that I didn’t tell you, it’s that I’m the one who militarized him. We go down there, his projections will be eating out of my hand, they’ll lead us straight to wherever his seedy little mind vault is. This job’s a walk in the park.”
Arthur glares at him. “No, Mr. Eames,” he says icily, “it’s not. If you’re familiar to his subconscious, his projections will recognize you in the dream and he’ll remember he was dreaming when he wakes up.”
“His projections will recognize me,” says Eames. “But he won’t see me as myself. He won’t have any reinforcement that he saw me again in a dream. Or did you forget I’d be forging?”
Arthur, clearly having forgot about this little factor, scowls and bites his lower lip. “I don’t like this. You’ve got a fucking answer for everything and there’s too much you’re not telling us.”
Eames holds up his hands. “You’ve gotten my last secret, darling.”
“Don’t call me that,” Arthur snaps.
Eames beams at him.
Eames also learns to appreciate Arthur’s genius ferrety little hacker skills. Eames has never worked on a job before with a hacker, a real hacker, and it’s glorious, it’s game-changing, he’s never going back, not after Arthur hacks into the mansion’s security cameras and produces footage of their mark revealing the location of the safe in his bedroom.
“Well done!” he exclaims, shooting Arthur a toothy grin, and Arthur’s eyeroll is so disgusted Eames is pissed about it for the rest of the day. Fine. Arthur doesn’t want compliments, they won’t do compliments.
In the end, despite the squabbling, the job goes off more or less without a hitch. They design a single-level extraction that involves Eames forging the mistress and asking her boyfriend about the handbag. Just as Eames has assumed, the billionaire tells him—well, tells his girlfriend—what he did.
But there’s a slight glitch in the proceedings when the billionaire, consumed with guilt and apparently moved by Eames’ munificent powers of persuasion, decides to confess to not only selling off the handbag, but to orchestrating a series of seriously illegal extradition deals between a gun trafficking ring in Uzbekistan and the Italian government. “Holy shit,” says Arthur into Eames’ headset. “We’re getting this. You bring him out of the bedroom, I’ll get the documentation.”
Eames uses the excuse of using the loo, and then hisses, “Like fuck we are,” into the headset. “This isn’t the job. You want to bring the entire Uzbekistan mafia down on our heads?”
“Sure,” says Arthur. “Why the hell not, if we can bring down an international weapons ring?” And there’s that tone Eames remembers like it was yesterday, bitter and angry and defiant, like he just doesn’t give a single goddamn shit whether he lives or dies or whether anyone tries to tell him no. It’s enough to make Eames’ clit tingle.
“Jesus christ,” says Eames vehemently.
“Gentlemen,” says Cobb. “Eames, will the wife pay extra for this info?”
“The wife’s got nothing to do with it,” Eames says. “Don’t tell her anything, we don’t want to endanger her.”
“Eames,” says Arthur. “Get him out of that goddamn room.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” says Eames, and projects a mix of valium, bromide, and sleeping pills into the cocktail he gives the billionaire in between makeout sessions on the billionaire’s plush California king.
Arthur enters the room on Eames’ go-ahead, and Eames doesn’t have time to wonder why it’s him entering and not Cobb because Arthur is already thumbing through the files on the billionaire’s desk.
“What the hell are you doing?” Eames asks after a few moments of watching this occur to fruitless effect.
“Looking for clues to the safe combination, in case you want to help out any time this century,” Arthur snaps.
Eames stares at him. “Are you being serious right now, or are you enacting a form of real life trolling?”
Arthur stands, turns, slides his hands in his pockets. “What are you talking about?” he says. “The documentation is in that safe. We need to open it.”
“Yes,” says Eames. “God, what kind of criminal are you? Have you never watched a single episode of Burn Notice?” He pulls one of the pins from the mistress’ hair and then proceeds to park the wheels of the safe lock while Arthur’s glare bores into the back of his head.
“So basically the army allowed a petty thief to join the most elite military division in history,” says Arthur, when Eames emerges from the safe with reams of highly inflammatory information tucked into his arms. “That makes me feel all kinds of reassured.”
“Your condescension is deeply gratifying,” Eames says dryly. “Why don’t you put it to better use, hmm?” He hands Arthur half of the files.
“Should I assume you can retain your half once we’re upstairs?” Arthur asks.
“Should I assume you know where to leak this once we’re out?” Eames snaps, and they trade glares before the billionaire’s snore reminds them the clock is winding down.
“I’ve never seen two people so co-dependently unable to stand each other,” Tae-yeon mutters as they’re packing away their equipment and Arthur is swabbing everyone’s wrists with cotton balls, because of course he is, the little rule-obedient by-the-book bastard.
“Cobb and Arthur do have that love-hate thing going on, it’s true,” Eames answers breezily. Arthur flushes and looks like he’s thinking about punching Eames again, which is conveniently when the door to the billionaire’s bedroom breaks down and his security team enters.
Eames pulls out his Beretta in the same moment Arthur whips out his Glock. A few seconds and it’s over. If this is Arthur’s first time shooting a man in the head you can’t tell it from looking at him.
“Really?” he says, staring at Eames. “‘We don’t need weapons on the job?’”
“What can I say, you made a persuasive argument,” says Eames, re-holstering.
“And where the fuck did you learn to shoot like that?” Arthur says, still glaring. “Because it certainly wasn’t in the military.”
Eames rubs his temples, closes his eyes. “You’re the man with the research skills,” he says after a moment of wondering whether he should just be straight with Arthur for once instead of tapping into his need for this exhausting game of constant one-upmanship. “You figure it out.”
They have a few dead bodies to dispose of, but the pissed-off billionaire’s wife insists her own security team can take care of it. He gets out, types up his half of the documentation from the dream, delivers it to Arthur in a neat USB file, and Arthur doesn’t even say thank you, but what else could Eames expect?
Three days later, however, the billionaire is arrested along with eight other weapons traffickers around the globe in a high-profile sting operation. The information that led to the sting is attributed to a wider intel leak originating from a developing nation, and Arthur has clearly done his due diligence to ensure nothing touches them. Along with that, the dead security guards are associated with the wife’s private investigation of her husband’s mistress, so they’re clean there.
Amateur thieves, Eames learned very early on in life, make the mistake of thinking that the hard part is the actual theft. The hard part is what happens before and after the theft—especially after. Getting in is easy. Getting out—and getting away clean—is what separates the hacks from people like Eames.
And, surprisingly enough, people like Arthur.
So Eames gets to bask in the satisfaction, for once, of having done a good deed and gotten away with it, and he grudgingly admits that having Arthur back in the game is worth the annoyance.
Eames doesn’t hear from Cobb after Cobb’s wired his share of the money—or rather, after Cobb’s had Arthur wire his share of the money, because it seems like Cobb is genuinely content to hand off to other people every detail of the job that Eames would argue makes him the extractor. But Eames has hooked him up with an architect and a chemist, which is enough for him to be going on with.
A few weeks later, though, he gets a phone call, and Arthur is saying through obviously gritted teeth, “We’d like you to come on as the forger for a job in Prague,” and Eames neglects to mention that he’s already in Prague and has already spoken to Cobb’s new client, a local engineer who’s convinced his lab assistant has stolen his patent. The pay on this one is shit, which is why Eames punted it in Arthur’s direction to begin with, but the job’s fascinating—how do you steal the patent for something that so far only exists in the head of the mind working on it?—and Eames lets himself be gradually convinced by Arthur’s flat monotone telling him how Cobb plans to structure the job, until:
“We can’t offer what we offered for the previous engagement,” Arthur says dryly, as if the very memory of Eames’ cut with bonus is offending him, “but I’ve agreed to take a lower share in order to bring you on. Our architect is insistent upon having you join up.”
“Your share,” says Eames. “Why not Cobb’s? It’s his place to do the salary negotiating, especially if someone’s share is getting bumped up. It’s the extractor’s job to—”
“Yeah?” says Arthur. “How would you know?” He huffs into the phone at Eames’ lack of immediate retort, says, “Just take the cut and be in the Vysehrad in two days,” and hangs up.
Eames is in the Vysehrad in two days.
He is also on his best behavior, or at least he is until Arthur swags in wearing a cream dress shirt with the sleeves pushed up over his elbows, exposing his bare skin like some brazen Victorian maiden, a brown herringbone vest slung over an orange tie, a tan belt, and fucking Gucci jeans, which Eames only knows because he’s started reading fashion magazines just so he can more accurately unsettle Arthur when he insults his fashion sense.
And Eames must be staring, because Arthur snaps, “ What?” before he’s even set down his messenger bag or his offensively black cup of coffee, and Eames can only respond, “You know you’re less a clothes hound than a doberman pinscher,” and Arthur fires back, “And you’re more like a cross between a pack mule and a pack rat,” without looking at him, and Eames volleys, “Ah, but you can ride me all night and I never run out of supplies,” and Arthur calmly draws his gun and unloads two bullets into the wastebasket two inches to Eames left, still without looking at him, before finally taking a pristine, self-satisfied sip of his coffee, and they’re off and running.
(Five minutes later hotel management calls up to tell them to watch the noise.)
The second job Eames pulls with Arthur and Cobb is essentially just like the first job, with the chemist from the last job, Navendra, re-upping their Somnacin supply to last a good six weeks: Cobb bosses them all around a bit, Arthur is quietly chagrined except for when he’s snapping at Eames, Tae-yeon steadfastly ignores it all and builds them a maze, and since the engineer’s lab assistant is a broke grad student, his projections aren’t militarized, so all Eames has to do is forge his favorite drinking buddy, get him dream-drunk, and cull his secrets.
He’s not even sure what Cobb actually does on the dream level for this round except hang back and bark orders into a headset; but Arthur is a shadow in Eames’ peripheral vision the whole time he’s at the hotel lobby bar with the mark, casually making the rounds of the bar, working over the crowd, distracting any projection that seems unruly with a laugh and a joke here, a free drink there, and clearly Arthur hasn’t lost the habit of making sure he’s got his teammates’ backs while they’re downstairs, no matter what he thinks of them when they’re awake.
It’s all so subtle that at first Eames has trouble concentrating on the task at hand because he’d rather watch Arthur do whatever he’s doing, until the third shot of whisky kicks in and he decides to fuck it and just find some way to keep working with the asshole until he figures out what he’s about.
The lab assistant is nearly passed out when he finally slurs his plans to steal and improve his boss’s idea for an improved geiger counter, and Eames just gets the basic design description out of him before he slumps over on his half of the leather couch. “Hey.” Eames looks up from scribbling the info down on his tablet—dreams are always handy with a pen and paper when you need them. Arthur is leaning over the back of the couch, looking overdressed (black, some sort of expensive Armani three-piece with a twist of Dunhill and a splash of Cavalli color—Eames’ fashion education has been going well, thanks) and mildly curious. “You need a hand with your friend here?”
Arthur helps him drag the lab assistant to his feet and cart him up to the hotel room Arthur has just conveniently booked for the evening. Eames lets the silence grow in the lift ride up until he can’t stand it anymore. “Easy run this time, yeah?” he finally says, and immediately regrets it—the idea of small talk might be fine with anyone else; with Arthur, it’s so awkward that Arthur doesn’t even bother to respond, just raises his eyebrows and says nothing.
Once they’ve gotten their charge safely resting on the bed, however, Arthur exhales and says, “He’s going to be out for the rest of the night, and we’ve still got another hour on the clock down here at least. You’re welcome to stay and have a drink.” He says it with such an air of put-upon decorum that Eames doesn’t bother not returning the raised eyebrows and incredulity.
“Thank you, Arthur, but an hour is more than enough time for a little fun down here, don’t you think?” He winks, hopeful he’s put enough lasciviousness in it to get the point across. Success: Arthur folds his arms and looks disgusted.
“You’re going to go hit on another man’s projection and fuck it,” says Arthur, without even a shred of surprise in his voice. “On the job I took a fucking pay cut for. Incredible.”
“Well, we can’t all be as good as babysitting as you are, can we,” says Eames as he turns to leave.
“Fuck you,” Arthur replies viciously.
Just before the door slams shut behind him, Eames adds, “And I’m not fucking talking about the mark.”
(The projection is a wiry little underage twink with half a brain and no protests to make when Eames bends him over and fucks him enthusiastically until the musical countdown starts. He comes twice—the first time from the enthusiastic and wholly unrealistic noises his boytoy makes when Eames is buried in him to the hilt, the second from thoughts of the horrified face Arthur will doubtless pull when he sees Eames’ hard-on tenting his store-bought trousers after they wake.
Eames will try professionalism on the next job. Really.)
The next job turns out to be a quick single-layer extraction he and Tae-yeon pull over a weekend in Malta, a sunny, gorgeous vacation that nets him a clean couple of seven figures and the very enthusiastic gratitude of the client who now knows what became of the wedding ring her husband claimed to have “lost.” (Pissed-off wives are the best clientele, as far as Eames is concerned; they give the team open access to whatever they need, and they’re too pissed off at their husbands after the job to disclose the source of their info. And no husband is going to skip past the old standby, ‘women just know these things,’ to the conclusion, ‘my wife hired a team of people to invade my mind.’ Seriously. Eames would rather do a hundred jobs with angry wives than a single cold-blooded corporate extraction. That the wives are usually hot is a pleasant bonus.)
After it’s over he stretches her out on one of her husband’s expensive divans on a terrace overlooking the ocean and goes down on her til she’s twitching. He makes her come like that, then fucks her right in front of the sparkling Mediterranean with the terrace curtains blowing around them like a goddamn perfume ad.
So, yeah, he’s still feeling a bit invincible when Arthur texts him the next day. He can tell it’s Arthur because the ‘hey, asshole’ is strongly implied before the actual text, which is an invite that’s more like a terse, politely worded order to do a job in Hamburg the following week. Eames had put the feelers out for that one before he left Prague but hadn’t followed up since he was working with Tae-yeon; he’s impressed by how quickly Arthur picked it up.
It’s a two-level extraction with the client as the mark. You in?
Because he’s feeling contrary, Eames waits an hour to respond, which he knows will piss Arthur off. Then he replies, Depends. If the client’s the mark, what do you need a forger for? Since he dug up the job, he already knows the answer, which is that Tae-yeon’s been unavailable because Eames has had her down in Malta, so the most likely fallback, an architect named Nash, needs the guarantee Eames is involved before he’ll agree to come on board. But he wants to see how Arthur will spin it.
Plus, he just likes making Arthur admit he can’t do jobs without Eames.
Client needs his memory jogged, Arthur writes back. Apparently our architect thinks you’d be good at that.
Yes or no?
Eames considers. Then he hits the callback button.
“Seriously?” is how Arthur greets him. “I’m not negotiating a higher cut.”
“I’m thinking I’ll sit this one out,” Eames says. “See how you blokes manage on your own for once. I’ll talk to Nash, he’ll be all right.”
“How did you—” Eames can practically hear Arthur deciding not to pursue that line of inquiry. “You know anyone who can stand in for you on the second level?” he says instead.
“Why not Cobb?” Eames asks, sincerely curious. “You’ve got the people—Nash on top, you holding down level one, Cobb finishing the extraction on level two.”
Arthur hesitates. Eames sits up straighter. Arthur never hesitates, never; but the pause, though brief, is definitely real. “Cobb wants someone with him on the lower level, just in case they run into any problems,” Arthur says at last, as brisk and monotone as ever. “It’s fine, I’ll find someone—”
“What did Cobb do to his wife?” Eames asks. He shouldn’t; it’s not the way to get an actual answer, and he knows it’s a push too far as soon as he blurts it out. But it’s out there now, and Eames really wants to know, and wants to hear it from Arthur.
“Thanks for the chat,” Arthur says coldly, and disconnects the call.
Two days later, Nash calls up Eames to complain bitterly about how Eames got him into this job and now Cobb’s being a distracted non-entity while Arthur scowls and fusses and nitpicks everything Nash does. “Those two must be sleeping together,” Nash says, “otherwise I got no idea why Arthur covers for him all the time. The dude’s just not fucking with it, you know?”
“He’s doing the lower level by himself, though. Surely he’s competent enough to pull that off or why go down there at all?”
Nash laughs. “Yeah, right. Arthur’s been trying to find another forger since you blew him off. I don’t think he realizes there aren’t any.”
“So Cobb’s useless,” Eames repeats, feeling like he’s missed a step somewhere along the way.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Nash says. “It’s like he’s just got shit on his mind and his head’s not in the game.”
“Well, the man did just lose his wife,” Eames muses.
“Yeah?” Nash snorts. “You can tell.”
For the duration of that job, Eames waits for the other shoe to drop. He bums around Malta a few more days, then moseys over to Croatia to do a little gambling and bake in the golden coastal sunshine. Part of him is expecting Arthur to call and beg for his help, but Arthur doesn’t call.
Nash reports that the three of them got through it without much hassle, even though in the end it took Cobb twice as long as they were expecting to finish the job on his level, and Arthur nearly got shot fending off restless projections on the top floor. Nash has no idea what Cobb was doing down there; all he can tell Eames is that Cobb was curt and unforthcoming and Arthur was even more pissed about it than usual.
“There’s something there,” Eames says after hearing the details. “And it’s not that they’re fucking.”
Nash snorts. “I don’t know about Cobb, but Arthur would totally hit that.”
“Arthur’s not even queer,” Eames says, “and even if he were, he’d never fuck anyone who dresses like Cobb.”
“Less chance for you then,” says Nash, and Eames, annoyed, hangs up on him.
Eames hops over to Helsinki for an extraction with both Tae-yeon and Navendra on-site. The client is a Bitcoin billionaire who’s extracting from his own father. Burke is gorgeous, blonde, ruthless, and uncannily aware of the basics of dreamshare, so Eames doesn’t mind taking him in as a participant of his own dream. The actual scene they stage is chaotic, the kind Eames likes best: a delightfully fun bit of heisting that involves Tae-yeon designing a Linnanmäki roller coaster, dad’s favorite. Inevitably, father and son get stuck upside down at the top of the ride, during a Final Destination -type accident that inevitably causes the trust documentation he’s been hiding from Burke for a decade to flutter out of his jacket into Eames’ waiting grubby hands just before the roller coaster flies off the tracks and spins into the air in a glorious defiance of real-world physics before the crash.
This is the kind of thing Eames loves: people ratting on their own shitty parents (possibly Eames has a psychosis; he’s quite self-aware, thanks), building dreams that test the limits of the imagination, or at least are fun to design while drunk. The hot clients are, of course, just a bonus.
Burke invites them all back to his penthouse, a slick modern set piece dangling over Kaivopuisto Park. They all fuck in a haze of booze and ecstasy and success, and Eames is fucked up, but he can still remember the dig of his fingers on Navendra’s thighs, the way Burke moaned when Eames had his cock in his mouth, just the way he likes it. In the morning, Tae-yeon sticks her tongue out at him and pulls Navendra up by the hand just as Eames is waking, and he lies there while he listens to the two of them shower together. He can hear them chatting and laughing over the spray just like regular coworkers having a conversation; nothing erotic at all, except for the fact that they’re currently naked and wet together; except that the previous night Tae-yeon had held Navendra by the hips and rocked against her until Navendra was quivering, breathless.
He wonders how they can switch it off, just like that. Eames likes casual sex, relies on it more or less; but he still needs a few days to shake off this level of intimacy, even with people he’s as casual with as Tae-yeon and Navendra. Even the clients—when he genuinely likes them, the way he genuinely likes Burke, there’s a tug there, something needy and insistent that arises when he’s least prepared for it.
“Going so soon?” Burke asks when the women exit the shower, moving silently and efficiently around the room, fetching their clothes and bags, trying their best but failing not to fully rouse the men. Eames has finally just forced his calf muscles to move when Burke rolls over, slides his hand over his ass, confident and possessive. And, well.
“What do you want to do about the Dublin job?” Tae-yeon asks him as Burke is whisking his way over Eames’ collarbone and Navendra is checking her phone impatiently in the background. “Assuming you’re staying here.” She obviously hasn’t missed the way Eames’ eyes are fluttering shut.
“Give it to Cobb,” Eames says, reaching back for Burke’s hardening cock. “And don’t ever ask me to say the name ‘Cobb’ during sex again.”
“Why are you fielding him so many jobs?” Tae-yeon asks. “Word on the street is he can’t handle it.”
“Arthur can handle it,” Eames says shortly. Tae-yeon raises her eyebrows.
“You’re sure?” she says. “This one’s a lot more complex than your typical angry wife in-and-out.”
“Give it to Arthur,” Eames repeats, and rolls over to get his mouth properly onto Burke’s cock. He doesn’t notice them leave.
Eames emerges from Helsinki well-fucked and well-padded to find the Dublin job has gone to shit.
When he looks at his phone for the first time in three days (after getting fucked one last time, frantically and fantastically, in the limo on the way to the airport), he’s got texts and missed calls from Navendra, Tae-yeon, Nash, a freelance architect he’s worked with a few times before named Rausch, the client, and Arthur. Navendra’s text says she’s pulled her Somnacin dosage supply after talking to Tae-yeon. Tae-yeon’s left him a shaky voice mail saying she’s walking from the job after something happened in the dreamscape with one of Cobb’s projections—she won’t say what. Rausch wants to know who this Arthur guy is who’s been calling, the client wants to know why Eames recommended Cobb because he’s not sure things are working out, and Nash just wants gossip.
There’s only one text from Arthur: Need a forger for a job in Dublin. Check your flight details.
Eames swears and checks his least-used email. Arthur had apparently booked him a flight from Helsinki to Dublin landing the night before, without asking him or really telling him. That booking has since been rescheduled for... roughly half an hour from now.
Eames is immediately furious with the whole situation, and grateful he hadn’t discovered any of this before exiting the limo. Never does for a client, much less the guy you’ve been fucking, to see you at your most pissed off.
He calls Arthur. Arthur, the selfish fucking bastard, doesn’t pick up.
“Listen, you unmitigated prick,” he says, words coming through crisp and clear because this is how he gets when he’s angry, “if you ever try and hijack my travel plans again without informing me or at least fucking asking me, you’ll never work a job in Europe again. I trust that’s crystal clear even for your monstrously stubborn brain to accept.” He pauses, then throws in a final, “You arrogant jackass.”
Then he hangs up and hightails it to the terminal for his flight out.
Arthur’s eyes widen slightly when Eames walks into the warehouse just outside of Dublin, but otherwise he doesn’t say a word—just hunches his shoulders and gets back to work. Eames goes to his drafting table and reaches for one of the debriefing binders Arthur has stacked in a neat unused pile. Cobb is in the corner, hooked up to a PASIV and dreaming. Arthur has his back turned to him, and Rausch is positioned in the center, working on layout models with an anxious air. Even though no one says a word, the whole tableau spells out an odd form of tension to Eames.
As best as Eames can discover, whatever happened in the dream caused Tae-yeon to walk off the job, so Rausch is picking up where she left off, finishing her dream levels. Of course, they aren’t actually calling them “dream levels” around Rausch because he’s the civilian stand-in from whom they hide their secrets; but Cobb has inexplicably hooked himself up to the PASIV despite the fact that Rausch hasn’t been inducted into dreamshare yet, and Rausch obviously hasn’t missed the enormous box with the IV wires that’s clearly not a fucking briefcase.
Rausch keeps asking Arthur and Eames furtive questions about it, and Eames wants to ask Arthur in turn what the hell he was thinking letting Cobb dose up in front of the hired help; but Arthur is visibly exhausted, bleary-eyed and living off coffee that appears to be left over from that morning. He hasn’t looked at Cobb once since Eames walked in, which makes Eames think that whatever happened with Tae-yeon, it wasn’t just enough to piss her off, it was something serious.
The third time Rausch asks him about the PASIV, Eames pulls him aside and tells him in no uncertain terms to keep his head down. “Look mate, I know you want to know, but you don’t want to know.” Once that’s settled, he makes a surreptitious call to the client, assuring him that everything’s fine—that he’s joined the team and they’ve only lost a day or two.
The client is a man named O’Cathain, an investment banker with a Dublin firm that has ties to just about every seedy international operation one could cringe away from. O’Cathain’s boss has been after him for months to account for a tremendous loss on a deal O’Cathain made the previous year for a Dublin steel manufacturer that wanted to invest in aeronautics equipment. O’Cathain chose a lauded tech startup with stock forecasts in the billions, and the manufacturer went in deep.
Just after going public, however, the startup went under in spectacular fashion: its CEO was arrested for drug and sex trafficking, and most of its board members packed up and fled for parts unknown. The manufacturer lost almost everything, and O’Cathain claims he’s been headed for the chopping block ever since. Still, he’s convinced that something about the deal was fishy: the CEO was totally clean right up until he wasn’t; the stocks were too robust right until they weren’t.
He’s hired Eames—or rather, he’s tried to hire Eames and wound up hiring Cobb instead—to do an extraction on the investment firm’s board president. O’Cathain is convinced he somehow knows something about the way the startup went under. Eames is less convinced, but that’s partly why he wanted to throw the job over to Arthur. If anyone can dig up dirt on a well-protected multi-national investment firm head, it’s Arthur.
Arthur doesn’t speak to him during this initial half hour or so that Eames is orienting himself; he’s deep in what appears to be reams of the mark’s phone logs. Eames leaves him to it, though he feels the way Arthur’s eyes snap up when he casually wanders over to Cobb’s plastic lounge chair to check the length of time on the PASIV’s LED display. Five minutes left on the clock, but glancing back at the way Arthur’s shadowed eyes follow him, he wonders how many levels down Cobb is.
When Cobb wakes up, he assumes his usual air of brisk authority, and seems only mildly surprised to see Eames there. Immediately, however, they run into a glitch: with Navendra withholding her supply of Somnacin, they don’t have enough dosage to do practice runs and still achieve two levels in the actual dream.
“You know her,” Cobb says to Eames. “You can call her, convince her to come through for us.” He says it so persuasively, as if Navendra’s the one who’s backed out on the deal, and not been scared away by whatever Cobb did to Tae-yeon.
“Sorry, mate,” Eames says. “No means no.” He doesn’t miss the way Cobb bristles at this, nor the way Arthur swallows. “I’ve got another contact I can call—” he manages at the last minute to refrain from mentioning the contact is Cobb’s wife’s old lab assistant at Stanford—”but it’ll most likely set you back about a week.”
Cobb exhales through his nose. “Not good enough,” he says. “Unless we just focus on getting what we need from the top level. With three people, we should be fine.”
“You’re not going to get anything out of him if you don’t go deep enough to access his subconscious feelings of guilt,” Eames says. “One level might not be enough.”
“I can get us far with the research,” Arthur says. It’s the first time he’s spoken since Cobb woke up. Eames turns and finds Arthur looking at Cobb, and for once, perhaps because Arthur is too tired to mask what he’s feeling, his face is totally open. His eyes are wide, but dark; his voice is level, but low; and he’s tight around the edges. It’s a curious study in resentment and anger, maybe even a smattering of distrust, warring with the hounddog eagerness to please that Eames has rapidly learned always emerges whenever Arthur is around Cobb.
Eames waits for Cobb to take stock of all this and tell Arthur to go lie down, that it’s the extractor’s job to carry the team. Instead Cobb says, “Yeah... yeah, Arthur, if you can get us a line on what the mark might know we can revamp our plan accordingly.”’
Arthur looks at the piles of research lying on the table around him, then gives a grim little nod, and Eames feels a twinge of sympathy for him for perhaps the first time ever.
“Right.” He stands up. “You do that. I’m going to tail the mark.”
“Tail the mark,” Cobb repeats.
Eames blinks. “You can’t expect me to sit around waiting for Arthur here to do half my work for me. God only knows how long that could take.”
“Eames...” Cobb shifts, slides his hands in his pockets, and casts Arthur a concerned look, a look that says he questions why Arthur brought Eames in on the job, that frankly makes Eames want to deck him. “In-person surveillance... it’s not safe. We can’t protect you if you turn this into a stakeout. And I’m responsible for—”
“Oh, bloody fuck off,” Eames says on his way out.
He spends two days following the mark and going over the info in Arthur’s neatly organized binder. (He’s starting to see why all those Pinterest boards are so popular. There really is something motivational and appealing about a neatly typed ream of paper with color-coded research and classically anal-retentive subdividers.) The mark is, for all Eames can tell, a boring man, but he keeps an extremely regimented routine, as Arthur’s already helpfully noted for him. The second morning, though, he ducks out of his office for an unexpected trip to the Starbucks across the street. Once there, he makes a short call from a different phone—Eames can’t make out the brand. He notes the time and location and texts the info to Arthur instead.
By the time he gets back to the warehouse, Arthur’s taken the info Eames sent him and worked magic, which is to say he’s hacked into the nearest cell tower and identified the number and the phone, and where and when it was purchased. He’s frowning at his laptop when Eames asks him what any of it means.
“They’re all in it together,” he says.
“The bank, the steel company, and the startup,” Arthur says. “This phone is registered to the board chief, but it was purchased last year, about a month before the startup stock went public, by the CEO of the steel manufacturer. And when I cross-checked the phone company’s client database against the database of investment firm personnel we got from O’Cathain, instead of coming up with one match, I got two: The board chief, and O’Cathain’s boss.”
“What’s that got to do with the startup?” Eames drags a chair over. Arthur pulls up a society website based out of Dublin. It’s one of those online wedding galleries, this one dated from about two months after the startup’s stock plummeted.
“I’d been looking for connections between the CEO, the startup, and the mark, and getting nowhere,” Arthur said. “But when I ran the same searches using O’Cathain’s boss instead of the mark, I found this.”
Eames is looking at a cheesy wedding photo showing a group of people drunkenly congregating around a table full of party favors. Arthur taps the screen. “That’s O’Cathain’s boss,” he says. Another tap. “That’s the CEO of the steel manufacturer.” Two more taps. “And those are two of the startup board members who supposedly went on the lam after disappearing from the U.S. following their own CEO’s arrest. None of these people are in the wedding registry or the guestbook, I checked.”
“Who’s getting married?” Eames asks.
Arthur grins wryly. “The mark’s daughter.”
Eames stares at Arthur. Arthur’s done all of this in a half hour, and Cobb is currently off nitpicking their architect and licking his fingers clean of the apple crumble he had for breakfast. In a moment or two, he’ll probably come pat Arthur on the back and tell him he’s done a good job.
Eames thinks about Arthur in the army, Arthur with his little heart beating faster than anyone else in the base, hoping so hard for praise and getting only rebuffs and suspicion. He feels the sudden, mildly horrifying urge to say something supportive, but he’s pretty certain Arthur would only think he was being mocked.
So he settles for the safest route: neutrality.
“Arthur,” he says. He fancies he can see Arthur’s ears perk up. “What would you do if you were an international weapons manufacturer looking to dump an incredibly large sum of money, fast?”
Arthur’s eyebrows slide up. “I’d use my business front to make a high-yield investment in a public company that was doomed to fail,” he says.
“Congratulations,” Eames says. “Looks like you’ve got an IRA laundering operation on your hands.”
Arthur blinks. “You think the steel manufacturer is a front for the IRA?”
Eames taps on the wedding photo. “The guy standing next to the startup blokes is named Caleb O’Neal,” he says. “Look him up.”
Arthur blinks at him, then frowns at the computer as if it has personally betrayed him. Eames hides his smirk until he’s out of the building.
When he can manage it, Eames prefers to travel by land—preferably by car, or in a pinch, by train. The reason for this, of course, is weaponry. When he’s in Europe, his best bet for getting his hands on a legal cache of weapons at a moment’s notice is to have them already stashed and waiting for him when he gets to his next destination. If he’s been totally screwed over and needs to beat a hasty retreat, his mode of choice usually involves tossing a bag full of semi-automatics into the back of a waiting hatchback and flooring it.
But if he’s got to fly, which is usually the case, Eames learned long ago that the best way to stay under the radar is to actually be under the radar. That means no weapons, no trafficking, no weird imports—nothing shady, at least while he’s in the EU, to say nothing of the U.S. and the bloody TSA. When Eames flies, he flies clean—not counting the lone Beretta in the carry-on, of course, because naturally there’s no need for him to fly totally empty-handed just for the sake of convenience.
Eames has spent a good deal of time systematically and routinely shoring up his personal collection of storehouses, safe deposit boxes, and rental storage garages. It would never do, after all, to wind up on a job and, say, find yourself on the wrong side of a transaction involving the Irish Republican Army, and have no extra weapons at the ready.
So Eames leaves the warehouse and makes his own Joycean walk around the city: to the bank vault on Sallymount (no metal detectors), where he picks up a Glock, two silencers, and a Smith & Wesson; to the safe deposit box company on Leeson Street where he garners another Beretta, an Automag, a Heckler & Koch, and two SIGs; then over to Blackpitts and the garage where he adds a Ruger, another Smith & Wesson, two AK-12s, one AK-63, and his personal favorite, a vz 58. The guns he places neatly in two separate duffel bags, one for him and one for Arthur; the cartridges he loads in his backpack next to his energy bars and bottled water.
He’s rented an Audi for the weekend. He could be a tourist in any city in the world.
When Eames arrives back at the warehouse, Arthur is finishing up what looks to be a data dump of all the information he’s compiled on the mark and the investment firm, while Cobb is finishing up a frantic call to the client, explaining that he might want to work from home over the next few days in case the police decide to raid his investment firm or investigate his boss. When he’s done, he comes over and proceeds to yell at Arthur while Eames proceeds to unload his groceries onto the free half of Arthur’s drafting table.
“No one gave you permission to take this info public,” says Cobb, seething and purple-faced. “You had no authority to do that, Arthur, none, do you understand me?”
“We’re already in over our heads,” Arthur says, not looking up from his computer. “If we try to do an extraction we’ll be dead before we even get past his security.” He sounds weary. “Our best hope is to leak the intel as soon as possible and hope the authorities get involved before we can get killed.”
“And what if the authorities do nothing?” Cobb snaps.
“This job was dead as soon as the IRA became a component, Cobb, you must see that,” Eames says. He’s systematically inserting cartridges into each half of the gun stash. Arthur looks up at him, and then sees what he’s doing and stands up so fast his chair clatters across the floor.
“What the fuck,” he says, wide-eyed and shocked as he stares at Eames. “What the fuck, Eames?”
“Great,” says Cobb. “That seems a bit unnecessary, don’t you think?”
Eames dumps the remaining cartridges from his backpack onto the table. “One of you might give me a hand,” he says. “And someone tell Rausch not to worry, he’s not going to get shot.”
“I think maybe this job isn’t the right fit for me,” Rausch says, and then suddenly Arthur goes on alert like a hound catching the scent, the same moment Eames’ forearms prickle.
Immediately and completely, Arthur slides into military mode, holding up his hand for silence, going rigid as he and scans the windows, motioning furtively for Cobb and Eames to move behind them. And then—
“The door, get the door!” Eames shouts while he grabs one of the duffel bags and dives for Rausch, pulling him under the table nearest the opposite side of the room, just as Arthur bodyslams closed the lone warehouse door, catching someone on the other side who lets out a groan before the sound of a body dropping to the ground. Arthur, moving faster than anything Eames has ever seen, yanks the nearest drafting table over and stands it against the door, grabbing the other duffel bag in the process.
Cobb has ducked behind a column. Eames slaps the Ruger into Rausch’s hand. “Shoot anything that comes through that window,” he says, pointing him towards the back of the room just as a shot from a sniper rifle breaks the glass over Arthur’s head.
Eames lunges to grab Arthur’s laptop from the drafting table and shoves it in his backpack. Then he ducks back to join Rausch, slings the vz.58 over one shoulder, the AK-12 over the other, shoves the Smith & Wesson into one belt holster, the Glock in the other, slams a cartridge into the Automag and shoulder-holsters it, un-safeties his Beretta, and un-crouches from behind the drafting table just in time to wing the shooter who’s just burst through the broken overhead window over Arthur’s head.
Arthur grabs the guy’s shoulder, flipping him effortlessly over his knee. Before the shooter can get up, Arthur’s elbowed him in the jugular, just in time to shoot the next attacker in the head and then grab one of the automatics from his bag.
“Cobb, watch the back,” Eames shouts, but Cobb is hell and gone from reality—he’s ducking from table to table and looking stunned, fumbling with his gun and looking aimlessly around him, disoriented to a degree Eames has only ever seen with dreamers who’ve been spending a dangerous amount of time in dreamland.
Eames curses and drags two more drafting tables over to block the front windows. Just as he’s gotten the tallest in place, a shooter descending from the roof breaks the glass above Eames and attempts to kick the table back down. Eames reaches up and yanks the man down by his leg, over the shards of broken glass, dragging him against the wall and knocking him unconscious with a square punch to the jaw before shoving him out of the way.
He slams the drafting table back against the open window, successfully this time, then turns to see another shooter leaning in a window on the other side of the room, rifle aimed at Arthur’s forehead, just as Arthur is wrestling with a fourth shooter who’s managed to break through the door barricade and get an arm around Arthur’s neck. Eames grabs the vz with his left hand and locks onto the window shooter, squeezing the trigger and dropping him just before unloading three bullets from his Beretta into the intruder.
When the intruder drops and Arthur is free from the chokehold, Eames drags the body away from the door and hefts the drafting table that had been blocking it, wedging it against the broken hinges to provide a clumsy obstruction.
When he’s finished, Eames realizes Arthur has been watching him for the past several moments. He’s staring at him now with wide eyes, his pupils blown—until suddenly he says, “Shit,” and hauls Eames back just as the sniper puts a bullet through the center of where Eames’ chest abruptly isn’t.
Arthur lets go of him immediately and Eames dusts himself off. Arthur looks as though he’s the one who’s just been jostled. He’s still staring at Eames.
“I’ll get the sniper from the roof,” Eames tells him, lifting the other rifle and heading for the stairs.
He doesn’t wait around to see if Arthur will cover him; he’s never had any doubt about that.
“They must have had an alert on the TOR server where I uploaded the intel,” Arthur explains as they’re driving away from the flaming wreckage of the warehouse a quarter of an hour later, little hatchback bumping and jostling beneath his twitchy little hands. “That must be how they found us so fast.”
“What am I supposed to tell the client?” Cobb snaps. “You think O’Cathain is going to be happy we burned down half an acre and left six dead bodies in the middle of an arson fire?”
“Seven,” Arthur says, his voice oddly calm. “You forgot the sniper. We had to drag him off the roof while you were freaking the fuck out.”
“Don’t you dare make this about me,” Cobb says. “This has nothing to do with—with any of that, and you know it.”
Arthur sighs and makes a sharp, violent turn onto a clattering gravel road. “You’re right,” he says after a moment, sounding defeated and tired. “I’m sorry.”
Eames leans back and stares at Arthur’s reflection in the window: he looks grim-faced and stressed. Eames is becoming increasingly familiar with that expression.
“Well,” he says, “I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m feeling quite good about taking out two major international weapons rings in six months. I’m sure none of this will come back to haunt us in any way.”
He grins broadly at the assembled company and puts his feet up, resting them on the console between Cobb and Arthur. Arthur glowers at his shoes.
Next to Eames in the backseat, Rausch says:
“Does this mean I still get to keep my cut?”
Eames’ phone rings the Friday after the failed Dublin job. It startles him: he set Arthur’s ringtone as the Pinky and the Brain theme song some time ago, but it’s never actually rung before this; Arthur always texts.
“We need to talk,” Arthur says peremptorily when he answers. “Meet me at the cafe terrace of the Villa Montenegro tomorrow at 5pm.” And then he rings off before Eames can figure out how he knows that Eames is currently sunning on the Sveti Stefan.
Arthur is already there, eating fritters, reading his cell phone, and wearing sunglasses and Armani (cream suit, navy herringbone tie, exorbitant and tailored to perfection to accent the narrow inverted V of his waist) when Eames shows up. He’s commandeered a private table on the terrace with a balcony overlooking the golden coastline, and the sea is so blue it yields a reflective glare across the outside of Arthur’s glasses.
Eames sits down, and Arthur has the decency to let Eames’ cup of coffee and steamed milk arrive before he starts in on business.
“So,” he says, giving his phone one last click and sliding it in his pocket.
“So,” Eames echoes. “What’s the job?”
“You tell me,” Arthur says coolly.
“Hmm?” Eames blinks at him, not needing to pretend to be flustered by the opacity of Arthur’s expression behind his black frames.
Arthur pushes his chair back, folds his arms, looks out at the ocean and then back at Eames. Eames waits while Arthur studies him behind his ridiculous shades.
“After Dublin I talked to Tae-yeon,” Arthur says at last. “I was, as I suspect you are aware, trying to get her to change her mind about working with Cobb again. Imagine my surprise when she told me she already had an extractor with whom she works regularly.”
“Indeed,” says Eames.
“Indeed,” says Arthur. “She said you form the teams, you get the clients, you name the price. She said most jobs go through you if they happen at all—or at least they did before Cobb came along.”
Eames shrugs. “I keep my hand in here and there,” he says.
“Really,” says Arthur.
“What’s your point, Arthur?”
“My point,” says Arthur, “Is that I can’t help but wonder why you’ve never mentioned any of this before, Mr. Eames.”
“And I can’t help but wonder why you, with all your research ability, never bothered to look up those little details before I saved your skin in Dublin,” Eames says.
Arthur has the decency to look chagrined.
“Ah,” Eames says. “Well, I am rather good at covering my tracks. Explains why you didn’t work out who I was before you sent me that unfortunate email asking for my help all those months ago.”
“Just answer the question, Eames,” Arthur snaps. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He sounds genuinely baffled. “Why’d you take all those jobs working for Cobb? You don’t give a shit about the money—”
“Well, I give some shits about the money,” Eames offers.
“Fine, but why keep making Cobb look like a douche who’s trying to move in on your territory?” Arthur asks. Eames scoffs and tosses him an eyeroll. “I’m serious,” Arthur says. “Why not just let Cobb swing?”
“For fuck’s sake, Arthur, the man just lost his wife,” Eames says, wondering why every conversation he manages to have with Arthur always leaves him feeling simultaneously defensive, exasperated, and terrible at his job. “He needed help, and you asked me for it, and it wasn’t like dreamshare was going to gain anything if I kept you out of the business because i was feeling petty.”
“I asked you for a fence, that’s it,” Arthur snarls, and Eames wonders how much it’s costing him, this moment of realization that every job he’s run for the last six months has been fed to him hand to mouth by Eames. “You’re telling me you’re really a fucking extractor,” Arthur says. “That you’re the, what, the guy behind criminal dreamshare, and you’ve just been playing at forging all this time, taking lower pay than your normal fee, out of the goodness of your heart.”
Eames gives Arthur a long, long look, lets the force of his utter lack of a smile really sink in. Naturally it doesn’t make a dent in Arthur’s neutral mask of an expression but Eames is done giving a shit. He waits and he waits and he waits, and then he replies, slowly and with precision, “Of course I’m the goddamn extractor.”
Arthur meets his stare and the neutral mask slowly slides away into something raw and dark.
“Did you know it was me before you saw me at the Bellagio that day?” he asks. “Did you do all this because you wanted to get to me?”
And Eames, for his sins, can’t help it: he laughs.
“Oh, for christ’s sake, Arthur,” he says, still laughing. “I thought you’d be a bloody Silicon Valley accountant by now. If you think I’ve even thought of you since they kicked you out of Fort Bragg, then you’ve got a very odd idea of our relationship.”
Arthur’s face hardens. He stands up and takes two steps back from the table, like he’s trying to keep himself from doing something garish, like knocking it over.
“Okay, you fuck,” he says, and his voice is hot and hard and liquid all at once. “If we’re going to work together, you’re gonna tell me once and for all. Who trained you? Who helped you steal the PASIV device and who helped you set up this racket?”
“Oh, come off it,” Eames snaps, suddenly relieved that they’re finally alone and having this fight after so long. “You’ve been blaming me for screwing you over for two bloody years but the truth is the only one you have to blame for you getting kicked out is yourself.”
Arthur clenches his fist. “You have something you want to say to me?”
Eames laughs again, that strange, brittle sound. “Oh, I have things to say,” he says, and he stands up and moves to the balcony railing, out of punching range, for what’s coming. “You want so badly to believe I somehow set you up to take the fall, but the truth is you were so brilliant you made it impossible for the military to see you as anything but a goddamn criminal mastermind.”
“What the fuck,” Arthur says, stepping towards him.
“And,” Eames adds, holding up a hand, “everyone hated you, so great job building a layer of protection for yourself.”
“What the fuck did you know about it,” Arthur says. “You were barely hanging on in the program and you expect me to believe you stole a five hundred million dollar piece of equipment from the U.S. military all by yourself when you didn’t know shit—”
“I knew you were too busy being above all the politics and the petty gossip,” Eames interrupts, “so busy trying to prove yourself to anybody and everyone who would pay attention to you, that you forgot you were supposed to be forming a team with those men.” Arthur’s eyes widen, and then he freezes, the lines of his mouth going tight around the edges like they used to do when he was getting yelled at by a commanding officer—like they still do whenever Cobb yells at him. Eames feels another unwanted twinge of sympathy for him, which just makes him more annoyed.
“Oh, you were fine when you were on the front lines, you were excellent, and you still are,” he continues. “But out of the dream no one knew who you were. They were supposed to trust you not to screw them over, you were supposed to bond with them. Instead, you stayed so elevated on your high horse that when the army looked around for a scapegoat, yours was the first head they saw. It was always going to roll.”
“Yeah? And who the fuck are you to lecture me? You were a nobody, you were in the middle of the pack, you barely made it into the dreamshare squad.”
“And no one suspected me of a thing, did they.”
“Jesus christ. You seriously expect me to believe you joined the U.S. army as, what, as some kind of fucking long con?”
“Arthur, sooner or later you’ll realize everything is a long con.”
Arthur blanches, and then his faces softens. He looks away. “Not everything.”
“Everything,” Eames repeats. “And while we’re on the subject, you have terrible fucking taste.”
“What?” Arthur looks up, blinking.
“You were recruited by the NSA, the CIA, and god knows how many underground hacker groups,” Eames says, and finally saying something he’s wanted to say for years should feel good, but mostly he just feels annoyed all over again thinking about it, “and you join the fucking army. You get kicked out of the army for being too fucking smart for the organization, because of course you are, and what do you do? Instead of telling them where they can shove it, you let Miles of all people order you around, and you wind up signing on with an utter hack who couldn’t extract piss from a boot if he didn’t have you constantly pointing out to him which end was down.”
“Don’t talk about Cobb like that, for god’s sake,” Arthur says. “At least have some fucking respect for what he’s been going through.”
“Respect? And what should I show you?” Eames asks. “Should I treat you like Cobb treats you, then? Like a second-grader who needs to be told when to tie his shoes? What about what he did to drive Tae-yeon away?”
Arthur takes a deep, unsteady breath. His temple flares and he wrenches his gaze away from Eames, who pushes his advantage.
“What did he do to her down there?” he demands. “What did his subconscious do to her? You should have heard her voice when she called me, Arthur, she was shaken all to pieces like she’d run into the bloody minotaur down in Cobb’s maze of a mind.”
Arthur doesn’t answer. He’s gripping the balcony like he needs it to keep him upright. When he speaks, his voice cracks, and Eames can practically feel him cringing at the indignity.
“He’s—he’s been having some kinks he’s working through,” Arthur says. “He’s going to be fine. It’s just a glitch with one of his projections—”
“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Eames says. “I’ve worked three jobs with him and he’s been less than useless on every one of them. The first time, he seemed all right—nothing too extraordinary, but he had you working for him and he could hold the job together, so, fine, whatever, his wife had just died. The second job, again, fine, but Cobb mostly left you to do all the work while he barked orders. I wasn’t going to work with him for a while after that, let him shift for himself, but then, much to my surprise, an officious little shit strongarms me onto a plane.”
“Really.” Arthur’s tone is instantly withering. “You’re pissed because I bought you a fucking first-class plane ticket.”
“I’m pissed because Cobb scared the shit out of the best architect in the business,” Eames says, “and the bloody point man, the one who’s supposed to have had her back, let him do it to her.”
“I didn’t know, okay?” Arthur blurts, and then he looks horrified with himself—horrified and guilty. Again, Eames feels that strange flicker of sympathy, utterly misplaced and mistimed as it is.
“You’re better than this, Arthur,” he says. “I don’t know what he’s holding you down with but you deserve more.”
“Oh, yeah? From who, from you? You're a literal child,” Arthur snaps, and just like that Eames shifts from annoyance to fury.
“Is that right?” he counters. “Because I missed the part where carrying a two-year-old grudge for something that never actually happened is a mark of maturity.”
“Don’t fucking talk to me about—” Arthur rakes a hand through his hair, his chest heaving. “You know what?” he says, with finality. He pushes himself away from the balcony and steps just inside Eames’ space, his eyes dark.
“I don’t need a grudge as an excuse, Eames,” he says. “You turn everything into a fucking competition, you insist on turning everyday work into a series of petty mind games, and you will not leave me the fuck alone.”
Eames draws back, stung. "I see,” he says, fighting for control. “Well. If that's what you really think of me, then stop fucking taking jobs with me.”
And Arthur straightens, pulls his shoulders rigid, stares into Eames’ face, and says coldly, “Believe me, Mr. Eames, once I've gotten Cobb out of this mess and back home to his kids, I will.”
He tosses a pile of twenties on the table from out of nowhere and walks away before Eames has even caught his breath.
Eames prefers the side of his life that’s lived in hotels and airports, lobby bars and rooftop bars and airport bars, and occasionally the exclusive speakeasy that still has a private backroom. The world of suits and briefcases, oiled leather messenger bags and ballpoint pens, numbers and secrets scribbled on lounge napkins, over-generous tips and suggestive remarks to the servers, subtle nods exchanged across the hotel lobby, the exchanges of hotel keys and information, and all the alcohol he can stand. It’s a false, empty world, but it’s one he can manipulate, and it’s usually non-messy and full of ease.
Occasionally, however, he puts his business suits back in storage and ducks into the side of his life that’s lived in seedy gin joints and hot, un-airconditioned third-floor apartments he rents from friends-of-friends in exchange for favors or cash, whichever’s fastest. He gambles in informal faro rooms and the backrooms of bars that don’t have a secret entry; he fences petty jobs for petty cash just to say hello to the low-lifes; he keeps his hand in.
For the most part, these worlds don’t mix. And when they do, it’s usually not good—for Eames or anyone else.
Eames has run jobs that skirted close to trouble before. He’s never run a job that brought him toe to toe with the IRA. He spends a few weeks just going over his steps, working out how he could have made this connection before he wound up having to protect two novice dream thieves and a total outsider from a full IRA SWAT team. He also spends a few weeks in hole-in-the-wall dive bars making friends and more friends, keeping his profile low, taking care to lose lots of money in his favorite Eastern European gaming-hells, and brushing up on his rudimentary Ukrainian and Moldavian.
He hears nothing from Arthur, which is just how he wants it, especially since he’s also taken care to warn everyone in the dreamshare community to stay away from Cobb. Tae-yeon still won’t tell him what happened, but she’s sent up enough warning signals that the rest of them are fully forewarned and forearmed.
Interpol is taking much longer to move in on the IRA based on the intel Arthur leaked than Eames is comfortable with, so he goes to Kenya to suss out the location of that elusive third chemist. After copious amounts of bribery through even more copious bottles of rum, he finds him running an apothecary that looks like the bloody Diagon Alley of chemistry labs, and running a fucking dream den in the basement.
Yusuf is funny, gregarious, and from the same class of not-quite-posh public schools that Eames attended, and he lets Eames sleep on his couch and watch the World Cup while they argue halfheartedly about Man U versus Arsenal while sipping cups of tea, more because it’s the Proper English Way than because they actually feel invested in their roles as expats.
In Mombasa, Eames receives several shocks in succession.
First, Yusuf informs him that he’s from the Tokyo school of dreamshare, quite literally. That is, he’s one of exactly two chemists at Tokyo University who independently arrived at the same chemical compound for altering brain chemistry that Miles and his daughter at Stanford had arrived at a few years earlier. When he and his partner, a chemist named Kishimoto, tried to publish their research, they were forbidden to do so by order of the Japanese military, and their research was seized and deemed proprietary to the Japanese government, its secrecy vital to the safety of the nation.
Kishimoto had grown stressed and anxious; he had quit the lab a year earlier in order to take a lucrative job at his uncle’s international energy corporation. Yusuf, not having the protection of a billionaire, had quit the program and gotten as far away from the Japanese military as he could. With no choice but to keep his profile as low as possible to avoid being targeted as a security risk, he’d begun offering his chemicals to clients who paid cash only for Yusuf’s “therapy sessions.”
Yusuf has a cat and a girlfriend. Eames can tell immediately that he loves this place, his amber-lit apartment over the building he owns, the dream addicts in the basement who’ll only wake up and depart the store at night, when no one is around to watch them file out, single-file and dazed, shaking the sleep from their eyes like decrepit, untidy vampires. They go home to sleep off their sleep, then parade back the next morning, some of them before dawn. It’s horrific. But Yusuf insists the government has left him no choice: the only way he can distribute Somnacin is under-the-table to the locals. Eames is fascinated.
Then Yusuf shocks him a second time. “Oh, I know all about you,” he says. “The man who took dreamshare underground. All the Proprietors do.”
“The Proprietors,” Eames repeats blankly.
“The Proprietors,” Yusuf says. “The others like me, who’ve been ordered by their governments not to publish their dreamshare research.” When Eames still stares, he continues, puzzled, “Surely you know. We all know you.”
“How many?” Eames asks. “How many of you are there?”
“You really don’t know?” Yusuf asks, genuinely surprised. “Maybe... thirty, that we know of.” At Eames’ stunned expression, he continues, “We call ourselves Proprietors ironically, since we’ve all had our research seized by the government, usually through the military. We’ve all found each other through surreptitious research or word of mouth, or sometimes entirely by accident. We’ve got an underground network that convenes on an anonymous TOR server once a month to discuss what we know.”
“Are you all chemists?”
“Most of us are chemists, but a lot of us are neuroscientists and psychologists. There’s one computer programmer—he was looking to move into video game development when he stumbled across a lead into dream research and tried to become a dream architect instead. There’s only one architect in the traditional sense. She was actually kicked out of her program because she couldn’t substantiate anything she said about dream building being real. Her advisors believed she was mentally ill and actually tried to discharge her to a hospital.”
“Why haven’t any of you tried to go public?”
Yusuf looks at him with something like pity, and Eames has the disconcerting feeling of having just shown up late to a party he thought he was hosting, only to find it in full swing and being held at someone else’s house all together.
“We can’t go public,” he says. “We’re all afraid of getting shot. Most of us can’t even use our research for any purpose at all, and we’d draw suspicion if anyone knew we were speaking to other researchers in the field. We’re all just... hoping the technology becomes declassified so we can pick up our work where we were forced to leave off.”
“And you’re the only one of the Proprietors who’s actively mixing Somnacin,” Eames says, realizing for the first time how extraordinary it is that he’s been able to find even two other people willing and able to distribute illegal Somnacin to him.
Yusuf shrugs. “They’re all civilians,” he says. “We can’t all be military badasses like you and Arthur.”
That’s Eames’ third shock.
“Me and Arthur,” he says.
“Everyone knows about you and Arthur,” Yusuf says. “Everyone knows you’re the best at what you do.”
“But we didn’t know about any of you. How do you know about any of us?”
“It’s all because of Mallorie Miles,” Yusuf says. “Mal Cobb, after she married.”
“Cobb’s wife,” Eames repeats, unnecessarily.
“She was a legend,” Yusuf says reverently. “Gorgeous woman. Brilliant. Her mind moved like a rocket. I skyped with her once—she had a laugh like champagne, like... like butterflies.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to talk to anyone else involved in dreamshare research,” Eames says.
“Before Mrs. Cobb died,” Yusuf says, “she’d done her best to, within the bounds of the law, cultivate a private network of scientists who were all working on different aspects of dreamshare. It’s not easy to collaborate on proprietary research, of course, but it was even harder for her thanks to her father’s position in Project Somnacin. After one of the military’s PASIVs was stolen they started monitoring the emails of everyone associated with the program.” He gives Eames a curious glance. “You know about that, of course.”
“Mmm,” Eames says.
“But when she died, the military couldn’t cover up her death. It was too public, too tragic, too immediate. Her obituary was on the front page of every newspaper in Los Angeles. We all saw it. And some of us started asking questions. A few weeks later, every interdisciplinary scientist Mal had been in touch with before her death received an anonymous email. We each got a link to the TOR server and a date. The ones of us who showed up discovered we weren’t alone. It was remarkable.”
“But she was the only link to all of you,” Eames says. “Who found it and made the connection?”
And suddenly, even as he’s asking the question, he knows the answer.
“Who do you think?” asks Yusuf.
“Son of a bitch,” says Eames.
Eames spends a month or so kicking around Mombasa: preening and napping alongside Yusuf’s cat in the sweltering heat; drinking Keroro and playing beer pong with the locals; rolling up his shirtsleeves and trousers when the floods inevitably hit and helping Yusuf drag all his lawn chairs upstairs, making sure none of his clients drown, wading through the streets to help stranded cars and pedestrians.
He can’t extract a promise from Yusuf to enter the field, so to speak, but Yusuf does agree to a compromise: Eames is free to visit every so often and bring back to Europe all the compound he can carry. It’s tricky, but if he makes the most of a cargo plane and a few greased palms, it’s doable.
When he gets bored, he pulls a solo job in Morocco—a passing art tour and a lovely little Fragonard he’s able to filch and fence for a pretty penny—before heading back home to Prague, flush with cash and chemistry sets.
It’s strange to feel, when he’s back home—as much as any city will ever be home, Prague is Eames’—that the world has somehow gotten bigger and smaller all at once. He knows more than when he left, but it’s a knowledge that’s started a slow, steady fear churning in his stomach; of what, he couldn’t say. The IRA threat has waned, but he still feels as though something is dogging his footsteps. His world, his dreamshare community, has tripled in size from a month ago. It’s also gotten scarier, full of unknown new parameters to match all the glorious possibilities of having an international ring of disgruntled scientists at his beck and call. And these are possibilities he’s not sure he’s responsible enough to explore; they feel bigger than he is, meant for someone more connected to the real, normal world than Eames is. (Plus, he has, after all, lately been informed that he’s a literal child.)
It’s the kind of thing that makes him pause when he steps back into his apartment, makes him feel too big to fit in it, makes him hover on the threshold, unable to find his equilibrium. He’s come back different, somehow, and he’ll just have to adjust to the new shape of himself, the way he adjusts to holding a new body in a forgery.
He wanders around the museums, hangs out with the ducks and old biddies and gents in the park, plays craps in the local den, thinks about brushing off his suits and slipping back into the other side of his life. He realizes on his third day back that he’s behaving like the petulant child Arthur thinks he is, putting off forming a team for a new job because he’s gotten off-track and he’s sulking.
He’d hoped escaping to Mombasa and then to Rabat was enough to get it out of his system, but clearly he’s somehow become hard-wired along the way to resent Arthur’s diminished opinion of him. Letting it get to him like this isn’t like himself, though, so he breaks out his tailored suits, moves into the Boscolo for a week, and fucks his way through a series of well-heeled businessmen until he runs into the job he’s been waiting for. Then he calls up Tae-yeon and another architect named Tannin who he recruited into the game a while back.
He runs a clean two-level extraction where no one gets shot, everyone gets what they want, and everyone gets paid. He doesn’t keep pressing Tae-yeon for details about the Dublin job, and she acts like it never happened.
The client for that job puts him on to another job—Eames orders an extra set of tailored suits, just to keep things consistent—which takes him to Malaysia. Ordinarily Eames doesn’t do jobs outside of Europe or the Mediterranean, but dreamshare is expanding, and Eames now has a whole new set of contacts around the world he’d like to say hello to.
In Malaysia, he talks to the architect who got thrown out of her doctoral program. Her name is Sajida and Eames likes her instantly. She’d learned about Somnacin several years before, when her older brother, a chemist, came back from a trip to Germany full of talk about a magic box that let you share dreams. He’d never formally started research, but she tells Eames he’d been taken under once and had never really gotten over it.
“I suppose you never do,” she says.
Sajida and Eames pull a corporate extraction using Yusuf’s Somnacin mix. The dream is one of the most lucid Eames has ever had, and there’s no after-effects when he wakes up. There’s a moment, when Eames is downstairs amid Sajida’s crystal-clear recreation of KL’s clean city streets, its colorful row houses sandwiched next to glittering skyscrapers, when Eames forgets that he’s dreaming and catches himself wondering what he’s doing outside when he needs to be inside working. This isn’t the first time he’s had such thoughts, of course, and he can always check himself by forging someone else in the dream; but for the first time, the dream is so straightforwardly convincing that he wonders if the right kind of chemical compound could permanently trick someone into believing they were awake when they weren’t.
When he gets back to his hotel room that night, he Googles Mallorie Miles Cobb.
Before his wife’s death, Cobb seems to have been a regular architect, a stay-at-home dad caring for his kids in L.A. while his wife mostly did her research in Stanford without him. About six months before she jumped, that changed, and the Cobbs, judging from their Facebook updates, began doing more vacations together, more long stays at home. Then, a long period of silence, followed by the news of her death. The rumors had flown around Eames’ small community, of course, long before Arthur had sent him the email out of the blue asking for him to network between his dreamshare contacts and Cobb: Some chemist-extractor out west had become convinced she was dreaming all the time, and she had jumped in order to wake up.
A few hours later, Eames gets up from his computer, badly in need of caffeine and a walk around the park to shake off the stiffness in his legs and the queasiness in his gut. He has no more idea now than he’s ever had about whether Cobb killed his wife or not, but he’s certain the man he’s been working with feels as guilty as if he’d pushed her out the window himself. It all makes Arthur’s involvement with Cobb that much stranger. Clearly, Arthur’s deepest loyalty is not to Cobb himself, but to his dead wife, the woman whose research lab took him in after the army’s rejection.
Eames wonders if he was too hasty when he agreed to work with Cobb all those months ago—nearly a year ago, now. If his judgment about Cobb is off, it could impact the way everyone in his tiny community sees him. It’s true there aren’t many extractors at the moment to choose from, let alone any who know the territory like Eames, but there will be before long, and if Eames gets a reputation for choosing to work with unreliable people, then he’ll be out of the business overnight.
Arthur, though... Eames still doesn’t know what it is about Arthur. He clearly knows what he’s doing and clearly doesn’t want to work without Cobb, and just as clearly needs to work without Cobb if he’s going to have a hope of surviving in this business. And because Arthur’s smart as a whip, he clearly already knows each of these things and is choosing to yoke himself to Cobb’s doom wagon anyway.
It doesn’t make sense. Arthur doesn’t make any sense. Eames’ interest in the two of them doesn’t make any sense, either.
But then... Arthur setting up that TOR server, sending out the signal to all those alienated scientists. Clearly hoping for something to come of it, something bigger and better than all of this.
Arthur feels like an anomaly Eames has been trying to decipher for years.
When Eames finally sees Arthur again, he’s in Tokyo. Two more months have passed and Eames has just come off a rotten extraction on a retired decorated Japanese military general accused by an ex-wife of molesting one of his own daughters, now a late teen being treated for PTSD. He’d used Yusuf’s Somnacin mix and brought in Sajida and Tae-yeon to design the levels, hoping the two of them would hit it off. Instead, they’d clashed, largely due to the tension of the job subject and the combination of a veteran architect unused to having to train an eager novice who’d spent years forming her own ideas about dreamshare in isolation.
To top it off, the military general, as far as the extraction showed, was being unjustly accused, and in order to pull some kind of conclusive result from the whole thing, Eames wound up posing as a psychologist and interrogating the teenage girl in real space. It had been a fruitless conversation—she knew who was responsible, but wasn’t about to talk, and Eames wasn’t about to invade the mind of a rape victim—and the whole thing had left him feeling utterly out of his element. In the end, he’d presented his conclusions to the ex-wife, cut her fee in half, told her to look into the other members of the girl’s family, and given the architects his share of the reduced profit to split between them.
He’s still smarting from the whole ordeal—failed extractions are like that—two days later when he walks into his hotel lounge and sees Arthur, sitting on a stool, chatting up a salaryman in a suit that’s got nothing on Arthur’s.
Eames pauses, unsure whether to approach him, even though he’s fairly certain this isn’t a coincidence. He’s unable to help noticing the way Arthur leans in, casually invades the other man’s space, suave and inviting as anything. It’s been a long time since he’s thought of Arthur as having a sexuality—not the way people like Cobb do, all alpha male posturing and brandishing tokens of their conquests of wife and family; not like Eames or people like Eames, with their sly invitations and infinite availability. Arthur has always seemed, if anything, coldly asexual under all that passion, like cooled lava below the boiling surface.
In the military, Eames had given ample time to sussing out which of his comrades in arms were still hiding behind the newly lifted veil of DADT. It’s not like he never pictured Arthur among their number, surreptitiously noticing the bodies of the men around him, surreptitiously wanking off to the thought of a demanding officer in a crisp uniform or a deliciously confused private getting taken for the first time. But Arthur had never showed the slightest interest in anything but the next mission, the next training. If anything, he’d’ve said Arthur was more likely to wank off to the uniform itself, or suits in general, than to the men in them.
But looking at him now, watching him slide his fingertips over the pulse point of the other man’s wrist, there’s no hesitation or embarrassment about him at all, and it’s clear this is just one of many things Arthur has kept close to the vest. It’s... disconcerting.
He’s still wondering whether to approach when Arthur glances up, sees him, and freezes. His eyes flash and then move over Eames from top to bottom, and Eames gets the distinct impression he’s being laser-scanned until he remembers he’s wearing his favorite Cavalli, a tailored double-breasted blue jacket over an open-collared, loose white shirt and trousers. He’s even got a matching pocket handkerchief.
Arthur looks like someone just rang the bell for dessert. See, Eames thinks with a vicious satisfaction. He can dress like an adult whenever he wants.
The moment passes in another instant, however, and Arthur’s gaze is sliding over him and away, then back to the man he’s been hitting on. Arthur exchanges a few words, then passes him a business card. Eames silently mourns the wasted opportunity for pocket-picking as he walks away.
“Mr. Eames,” Arthur says when he joins Eames on the other side of the room. He takes a seat on one of the hotel’s plush sofas and looks up warily at Eames before Eames gives in to curiosity and takes the opposite couch.
Arthur is dressed in another new grey Dunhill, looking pristine and perfect. Eames can’t tear his brain away from the possibility that if he hadn’t interrupted Arthur’s little tête-à-tête, he’d’ve been fucking the salaryman within a quarter of an hour. Eames wonders if his hair would have fallen out of place during the process, then firmly curtails that line of inquiry and orders a drink instead. Arthur follows suit, and for a while they say nothing as they wait for their drinks to arrive. They look over the menu, the discarded newspaper, at everything but each other, until finally Eames stretches, leans back into the couch cushions, and says, “Mr. Arthur.”
A wince flits across Arthur’s face and then vanishes. He scoots to the edge of his seat and leans forward, as if compelled to adopt the opposite of whatever body language Eames is inhabiting.
In a normal business relationship, they’d both be apologizing right about now for the last time they met, and moving on. The problem, Eames thinks before Arthur speaks, is that neither of them wants to apologize.
Arthur swallows and then apparently just decides to go for it. “The job I’m lining up needs an extractor,” he says simply. Eames doesn’t try to contain his surprise. “I’ve already lined up Tae-yeon as the architect and backup on the first level, and Nash has agreed to come in as an extra assist. The pay is high. It’s two levels, and I’d like to use your new Somnacin blend.” Eames’ eyebrows shoot up. Arthur gives him a little shrug and says, “I hear it’s good,” as if that explains everything.
“You’re going to have to give me a little more than that,” Eames says cooly. Arthur shoots him a look of annoyance, and something in Eames settles into place: good. Annoyance he can deal with much better than all this cold formality.
“The job is... it’s big,” Arthur says. “It’s high-profile. I got put onto it by way of an old contact who’s been working with the French police on the case. It’s also not going to be easy. Ideally we’d use a forgery in the lower level, and have at least two more people monitoring the projections in case anything goes wrong.”
“Looks like you’ve planned it all out,” Eames says. “Why aren’t you the extractor?”
Arthur grimaces, but Eames presses, “I’m serious. You obviously have the logistical skills necessary, and by now you’ve hopefully gotten enough contacts in the business to help babysit the mark’s subconscious. Why bring me in at all?”
Arthur looks at him, studies him like he’s regretting making the overture to begin with. Eames is suddenly reminded that suits can be used to weaponize confidence, and is childishly glad he’s wearing one to fortify himself against Arthur’s perpetual scrutiny. Arthur steeples his fingers and sighs.
“It’s the Cologne murders,” he says. “We’re doing an extraction on the little girl.”
Eames exhales in surprise. The Cologne murders are notorious: two French civilians with dual Saudi citizenship murdered assassin-style while touring the Rhine, all in front of their traumatized four-year-old; no suspects, no leads, just an international clusterfuck. The girl hasn’t spoken since. “I don’t do extractions on children,” he says. “That’s not for me.”
Arthur’s eyes narrow. “We could find out who murdered her parents,” he says. “We could put an end to an international political conflict.”
“We’d be invading the mind of a child,” Eames says, mildly appalled at how affronted he sounds. He rubs his forehead. “I’m sorry, this isn’t for me.” He starts to stand.
“Don’t you want to do more than just thwart corporate robbery and help desperate housewives get back at their husbands?” Arthur says.
“Look,” Eames says, trying to control the volume of his voice. “I’m fine with dumping corporate secrets to WikiLeaks, I’m fine with you playing hacker-god with your own network of secret TOR allies, I’m even fine with getting shot at in the name of taking down the IRA. But I’m not fine with playing international diplomat at the expense of a, what, four-year-old? Jesus, Arthur.”
“I’m sorry, what about this was ever ethical?” Arthur asks him. “You started this whole scene, this nightmare of corporate espionage and brushes with arms dealers and the international underground, all so you could keep dreaming. And now you want to put the genie back in the bottle? Just when you could do some real good?”
“You could give her permanent brain damage, Arthur, if she gets stuck in her own head you know she might never be able to develop cognitive capabilities past the age she is now.”
“We take that risk every time we go downstairs,” Arthur says, “and you know my track record, you know i’ve never lost a mark. We could give her family justice. We could give her answers about what happened to her parents.” He exhales an angry little puff of air. “We could stick it to a country of Islamophobes.”
“Look,” Eames says.“I know you probably have dreams of becoming some sort of dreamshare superhero and fighting for truth, justice, and the American bloody way to make up for—well.” Arthur’s lips tighten and the look he sends Eames dares him to finish that sentence with any mention of getting kicked out of the military. “But there’s no amount of justice porn that excuses invading the mind of a four-year-old. If you want to blame me for drawing an arbitrary line in the sand, that’s fine. But you’ve taken to this nightmare like a duck to water, and don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done anything you could to keep dreaming.”
“I am not—” Arthur starts, and then halts. He pales and takes a long swig of his drink.
“You’re not fucking born for this?” Eames says. He takes a drink from his own glass, a nice scorching sip of bourbon.
“This is a waste of time,” Arthur says. He stands up. Eames watches him as he bends stiffly to pull his messenger bag over his slim shoulder. The flex of his bicep beneath his silk shirt. The curve of his ass.
“Come up to my room and we can talk about it,” Eames blurts out.
And there it is again, that flash of Arthur’s hair pomade going soft and slippery, his hair coming undone as Eames fucks him loose and limber, nailing all the tension and mistrust and misplaced social justice impulses out of him until the only thing that’s left behind that hooded crafty expression is just...
Arthur turns and stares at him. His gaze is still heated, and Eames isn’t sure if it’s from the whisky or from the argument or something else. Arthur’s eyes have always been slightly too big for his face, usually shadowed and melancholy whenever he’s dealing with whatever shit Cobb is pulling at any given moment. But when he focuses on something or someone, his whole body shifts, as though there’s nothing else in the world but the object of his narrow gaze. Eames has been the recipient of that stare a lot. This is the first time he’s ever felt it warming his own face in response.
“Are you seriously hitting on me right now?” Arthur asks. He huffs out a little affronted laugh. Eames isn’t sure what he was expecting, but he’s immediately embarrassed and annoyed at himself. He doesn’t know what he was thinking. Still, he shoots Arthur his most debonair grin.
“You did cross half the planet to find me, darling,” he says. “A man might take that as an invitation.”
Arthur flushes. “I was in the neighborhood,” he says darkly. He tugs the bag more firmly onto his shoulder. “And anyway, I have a prior engagement.”
His eyes flicker back to the salaryman, and Eames stops himself from turning around and looking back at the bar. Apparently suddenly prone to a terrible self-sabotaging impulse he never knew he possessed before, he says, “That’s not a no.”
Arthur lowers his eyes to Eames’ and somehow manages to turn down the temperature on his hooded expression even further.
“Secret TOR allies,” Arthur says. “What did you mean by that?”
(Later, Eames will realize this was Arthur’s peace offering, his gesture of compromise by way of sharing information—specifically, the information Eames most wants to know: about the Proprietors and their methods, what they know and how many of them know it.
Later, Eames will kick himself for his response, dragged from him in a moment of pique and mortification and anger at being rejected.)
“Oh, nothing,” he says. “I assume you have your preferred hacker communities and nerdy rings of Occupy Anonymous or whatever, to whom you leak your information. Why, was there something else?”
Arthur steps back, seems to physically shakes himself off. “No,” he says. “No, nothing.”
“Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” Eames says wryly, self-deprecating and wondering how he got himself into this whole situation.
Arthur looks back at him. “You always end with a jade’s trick,” he says. “I know you of old.”
And he returns to the bar, leaving Eames once again feeling out of his depth and saddled with the tab.
Half a week later, Tae-yeon calls him, drunk and loud, from a rooftop bar in Sydney. “I’m bored,” she says. “Come run a job with me. I found a guy trying to steal his wife’s trust fund. He’s a complete tool and the wife’s totally on to him, so it should be a good time.”
“I thought you already had a job. Weren’t you building the levels on Arthur’s Cologne job?”
She makes an unimpressed noise. “I was but he called it off. Said he’d decided he couldn’t go through with it.”
“But he had all the players,” Eames says. “Couldn’t he find an extractor?”
“No, I don’t think that was it,” she says. “I think he had a guilty conscience.”
“Is that so,” Eames says.
“He’s a strange kid. He asked me out for lunch the other day. I told him I wasn’t really interested and he said it wasn’t like that, he just wanted to hang out.”
“Hang out,” Eames repeats. “Arthur wanted to hang out.”
“Like I said, strange. But it was kind of fun. He’s cute in a dorky way. Won’t shut up once you get him talking.”
Eames can’t convey his puzzlement effectively over the phone, so he pulls it away from his ear and makes a face at it.
“—has those dimples that just, damn, you know?” Tae-yeon is saying when he draws it back in place.
“His dimples,” Tae-yeon says.
“Arthur has dimples?” Eames asks.
Over the past few months he feels as though all he’s done is travel the world inadvertently getting sideswiped again and again, always by Arthur. Arthur, who apparently set up an illicit dreamshare network no one knows about. Arthur, who likes men, but doesn’t like Eames. Arthur, who’s willing to entertain the thought of extracting from a kid but doesn’t like being thought of as a dreamshare criminal. Arthur, who apparently has dimples and thinks Eames is a literal child.
“He’s like a whole different person when he smiles,” Tae-yeon says.
Eames has known Arthur for nearly five years. He’s never seen Arthur smile once. He feels that cold, strange gnawing in the pit of his stomach again, the one he brought back to Prague with him and has been trying to get away from ever since.
“Anyway, extraction,” he says.
“EXTRACTION !” Tae-yeon says. “God, it sounds like a shady medical procedure.” Eames can picture her, raising her drink in the air, whooping, laughing when the other partiers stare. She’ll be wearing her favorite white dress with the cut-off sleeves and probably drunk-texting one or more of her many girlfriends. Eames knows this about Tae-yeon, and he thinks a bit sadly that this is what it’s like to let someone into your life without your permission, to get close to them despite your best efforts at keeping them at bay for their own protection. People like Tae-yeon don’t care; they wander into your life with abandon and then away again.
Eames is still in Tokyo. He wonders if he should fly to Sydney. So far all he’s done since the last job is hit up love hotels and hang around karaoke bars singing along to bad J-pop in bad Japanese with other lonely salarymen like himself. His PASIV is tucked away in the corner at the moment, looking for all the world like any other briefcase.
Eames doesn’t dream when he’s alone. It’s his cardinal rule. But on nights like this, he’s tempted.
“Will you do me a favor?” he says. “Call Arthur and tell him there’s a job for him if he wants it. I’ll run the extraction. He can come in as point or backup research, whatever he wants.”
“Trust fund guy?” Tae-yeon says.
“No, not trust fund guy,” Eames says. “I’ll find something. Just... tell him I’m the extractor. Let him make up his mind.”
“You’re a strange kid, too,” Tae-yeon says, and it’s her turn to sound a bit wistful over the phone.
The job is in Paris, which is an indulgence Eames will occasionally allow himself.
Eames’ client is a man named Brigiere, and his lifelong love is the tiny watchmaker’s shop he runs over on the Rue de la Roquette. Nearing 80, Brigiere walks with a permanent stoop and a sad smile, and says he doesn’t really understand this business of private investigation Eames does, but is grateful for whatever help Eames wants to offer him.
In 1945, Brigiere’s mother’s diamond necklace, a family heirloom, was seized and confiscated by a German soldier’s wife during the occupation. Brigiere’s mother died writing letters and fighting fruitlessly with the German consulate for its return. Brigiere, profoundly touched by his mother’s yearning, has spent many afternoons telling Eames how much he would long to know what became of it.
So Eames is going to help him find out.
Arthur agrees to do it, though Eames is sure that’s primarily because he wants to continue his mission of befriending Tae-yeon, presumably so she’ll be willing to do jobs with Cobb again. He supposes doing this kind of extraction, non-corporate, located in Paris, and purely magnanimous, is as close to a gesture of reconciliation as he can offer to someone like Arthur, who worries about becoming part of the criminal element and clearly would spend all his time hopping between Paris, London, Rome, Milan, and New York if he could. He probably maps out all his itineraries around fashion week. It would explain why he shows up to the debriefing wearing next-season Canali, navy birds-eye wool over a cream silk shirt with the collar unbuttoned that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.
It may be the first time he’s ever seen Arthur without a tie since he left the army. He wonders if it’s meant to send some sort of message, or just meant to accent the long hollows of his neck for the benefit of Tae-yeon, who’s looking much more comfortable in a gauzy white skirt and a faded Girls’ Generation tank top, the glitter trailing over the floor of the warehouse when she walks. She looks comfortable and cool, and Eames wishes he hadn’t bothered wearing a real suit to work either.
Eames runs down the initial job plan, working from his debriefing, Tae-yeon’s initial feedback, and the limited background he’s compiled, which will of course be nothing like the copious background breakdown Arthur will give him later. Brigiere has given him the name of the SS officer and his wife, and Eames has tracked down their three children, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Eames believes that the wife passed her jewelry on when she died to her oldest daughter, the likeliest candidate to know what happened to the necklace. Tae-yeon wants to take the daughter, now in her 60s, into a dream of her mother’s past. Eames would love nothing more. He has visions of vintage art-deco Parisian ballrooms, forging the mother in visions of taffeta and chiffon gowns, then confronting her with the knowledge of her sins while her daughter watches.
As he talks, he becomes aware that he’s waiting for Arthur to interrupt him, to jump in with a contradiction or a thinly veiled insult about Eames’ poor planning. The most obvious question has already occurred to him, of course: how they can be sure they’ll generate feelings of guilt in the mark if they present her with the appearance of guilt in her mother. He keeps expecting Arthur to raise this objection for him. But no such interruption presents itself; Eames can’t even feel Arthur’s typical glare digging into his back.
When he’s finally done running through it all, he looks at his assembled band of dream thieves and says, to the room generally, though he’s sure his voice gains an Arthur-centric edge anyway, “I’m sure you all have suggestions and concerns.”
Arthur does, of course. But something bizarre happens: he tilts forward from where he’s been tipped precariously back in his chair, and leans over to mutter something to Tae-yeon. She answers him, and he writes something down in his moleskine and doesn’t look at Eames directly.
Eames has no idea what to do with this, so he just moves on.
“Obviously, this isn’t your standard extraction,” he says. “We’re going to be attempting to give her subconscious a push, to motivate her to give us the information we need. If we get reallylucky, we might even be able to motivate her to give the necklace back on her own.”
“So we give her a chance to do the right thing before we use the information we stole,” Tae-yeon says.
“Inception,” Arthur says, and he sounds so fascinated Eames bites back the ‘nice of you to join us’ that automatically forms on his lips. “We give her an idea instead of taking something away. Mal—her lab at Stanford was working on this idea as a possible side-use of Somnacin. They never got the idea deep enough. It’s why she—it’s what she was studying just before she died.”
Eames shrugs. “We don’t have the resources for more than two levels, but we can at least work the psychological angle and see what comes from it,” he says.
“If she feels guilty and we steal it from her anyway, we might wind up exacerbating her guilty conscience,” Arthur says. “We need to be careful not to overdo it. We don’t want her to be so guilty when she wakes up that she’s depressed or mentally unstable.”
“We’ll give her plenty of time to make up her mind before we move in,” Eames says.
Arthur looks up at him, eyes sharp, and Eames has the uncanny sensation of being seen through. “How much time is the client giving us to complete the job?”
“The standard six weeks for the extraction,” Eames says. “If it’s necessary I’ll organize the real-world heist myself afterwards.”
“You mean you’ll pull the real-world heist by yourself,” says Tae-yeon.
“We’ll see,” says Eames, aware his eyes are still on Arthur.
When he’s not working with Cobb, Arthur is relaxed and sociable. He brings Tae-yeon coffee in the morning, and deposits donuts for them all on the middle drafting table. He usually takes one and sits it gingerly within reach on his own desk, then proceeds to ignore it all day. Eames would find it infuriating, except that there’s something so unexpectedly human in the sight of Arthur refusing to eat his own donuts. The Arthur that Eames knew in the military—hell, the Arthur that Eames knew even three months earlier—would have just denied himself the right to an appetite. He would have chained himself to his laptop and holed himself away from the rest of the world. But this Arthur holds the door for Tae-yeon at the end of the day. This Arthur sends her close-mouthed, quiet smiles, and even if Eames feels a bit shut out by Arthur’s obvious unidirectional attempts at being friendly, it’s fascinating to see him making the obvious effort to be friendly.
This Arthur occasionally looks over his shoulder at Eames before he departs for the day, as if he’s wondered if Eames has noticed. Eames notices.
Arthur is quiet and efficient. Arthur insists on having a coterie of ballpoint pens and sharpened no. 2 pencils at his disposal at all times, then proceeds to chew the erasers off the pencils and systematically lose (or toss at Eames) all the pens. Arthur has three pairs of identical-looking tan Italian dress shoes he systematically rotates through, and a seemingly endless assortment of uniform brown socks, brown belts, and dark brown trousers that appear to be sculpted to his ass. Arthur rolls up his sleeves midway through the day, then rolls them down before he leaves the building, regardless of what the actual temperature is inside or out. Arthur still carries an iPod like it’s 2006, and nearly shoots Eames in the face when Eames tries to sneak a peek at what’s on it. Arthur frowns at his Moleskine, frowns at his laptop, frowns as he jots notes in his Moleskine, frowns at his own research, frowns at Eames, frowns harder when Eames attempts to talk to him, and then turns around and talks to Tae-yeon with a soft, almost bashful expression, as though he’s an old-timey gentleman caller just waiting to produce a bouquet of flowers.
Except what Arthur produces instead is research. Lovely, lovely research. And because Eames is running this job and not Cobb, when Arthur turns in his reams of copious background material, neatly organized by subject and family member, historical period and architectural details, he actually gets a thank you for once.
Eames says, “Thank you very much, Arthur,” and watches the pulse point in the hollow of Arthur’s throat flicker.
And wonder of wonders, when they’re finally under and practicing the first level, and Eames attempts his first forgery of the SS officer’s wife, instead of the endless nitpicking he’s expecting—which frankly he probably needs in order to pull off a forgery done primarily from photographs—Arthur just watches him wordlessly. Eames feels his gaze following him around the stunning ballroom Tae-yeon has designed. Arthur is the dreamer for this level, and there are little touches—the metallic art deco flourishes, the period avant-garde art on the walls—that seem to come straight from his organized minimalist little brain. His projections are immaculate: the women wear vintage designer Parisian gowns like something straight out of a pre-code Hollywood film; the men wear tuxedos and rakish combovers that Eames might find flattering if he thought the look was more than a coincidence.
One of Arthur’s projections asks him to dance; Eames doesn’t say no. He feels Arthur’s eyes still on him as he fox-trots around the ballroom floor. This technically isn’t much of a rehearsal, but it’s spectacular, and Yusuf’s Somnacin mix is so crystal clear and lucid that the atmosphere of frivolity and gaiety is contagious, catching each of them up in the glow. It’s almost enough to make them forget that they’re in a room full of Nazi projections, and the levity conceals the desperation of a roomful of SS officers in the final days of the war.
When Eames is done with his turn on the dance floor, he returns to Tae-yeon to work out some of the finer details, the flourishes of guilt-stains he’s embedding into the aesthetic. Mid-conversation, her gaze is caught by something across the room, and he follows it to see Arthur in the middle of the dance floor, smiling and laughing with one of his own projections: with Mal Cobb, in fact.
“That’s her, isn’t it,” Tae-yeon says. “He must miss her.”
She’s wearing a diamond-studded velvet and chiffon ball gown of deep purple, and her hair is burnished bronze in the light of the chandeliers. Arthur looks like a prince next to her. He holds out his hand and pulls her onto the ballroom floor with an air of obvious adoration. His waltz moves are effortless and executed with an air of total confidence that she mirrors in every way.
Eames falls silent and watches them. It doesn’t look like love to him; more like reverence. She’s a beautiful woman, but somehow he doesn’t think Arthur has exaggerated her beauty in his mind. She does have a sparkling laugh, though he wouldn’t describe it like Yusuf did. He moves closer, and catches Arthur saying, “...don’t know how to reach him when he’s like this.”
“Oh, Arthur. You just need to remind him what’s really important in life. Our children. Me. Our life together.” This projection of Mal Cobb seems to be permanently set on optimistic, bubbly. He’s talking to her but it’s not really reaching her.
Arthur reaches up, touches her face gently. “Okay, Mal,” he says, and suddenly that old look of resigned melancholy is back; Eames had almost forgotten what it looked like on Arthur’s face.
He turns away abruptly, feeling like he’s intruded on something private and feeling strangely unhappy about it. Somewhere in the past five minutes, while watching the two of them, he’s melted back into himself. He catches a glimpse of himself in one of the ballroom’s mirrored ceiling tiles: broad shoulders, squat, hulking reflection, and an uneasy scowl on his face.
It’s the first time in a long time he’s felt adrift in his own skin.
In the end, they don’t pull off an inception on the daughter, though Eames thinks they probably get close. It’s close enough, anyhow, to motivate her to reveal the current location of the necklace—locked away in a well-protected vault in a Swiss chalet.
Tae-yeon has only stuck around to babysit Arthur and Eames while they’re under, so she clears out first. Arthur is packing up the PASIV—it speaks to how much more relaxed he is when he’s not doing a job with Cobb that he’s tolerated Eames’ use of it as a $500,000,000 paper wastebasket. Eames takes care of the rest of their equipment and handles tipping the masseuse who let them use her parlor room while the mark slept.
On the street, Arthur hands the PASIV, now more or less just another briefcase, over to Eames, dons his sunglasses, and puts his hands in his pockets. “You headed back to your hotel?” he asks, and at first Eames doesn’t know what to make of the question—it seems so much like idle chit-chat, but Arthur never has idle chit-chat for him. He shrugs, knowing as he does so that the gesture is awkward, but somehow it’s always like this with Arthur.
“I’ll walk with you,” Arthur says, and Eames is too surprised to clarify that he was going to take a cab. The walk turns into more of a stroll, and the silence between them stretches out into something that would seem companionable but for the fact that it’s Arthur of all people that Eames is sharing it with. Still, Arthur seems relaxed enough for the two of them; he keeps his hands in his pockets, whistles a little as they walk across the Seine towards Eames’ hotel. They’re not getting shot at, no one’s following them, the mark is still going to get her massage, the sun is shining in Paris, and Arthur’s wearing Givenchy. It’s a pretty good day.
Once back at Eames’ hotel, Arthur follows him inside and then says, “Let’s get a drink,” jerking his head towards the bar. It’s still midday and the lounge is nearly empty, and Arthur heads for a table in the back. There, he sits, leans forward, and steeples his fingers with all the shrewdness the last half hour has been missing.
“Have a seat, Mr. Eames,” he says, and then he proceeds to tell Eames what Eames already knows he knows: that Brigiere’s shop isn’t profitable, he’s living off a pittance from the government, and has no money to pay for a single-level extraction job with one person, much less a multi-layer, multi-person job; that Arthur isn’t about to take a charity cut from Eames and he’ll be refusing his share of the payout; that he’ll also be informing Tae-yeon that Eames lied to them both because she should know everything Arthur knows before she deposits her share.
Eames grimaces and lets Arthur talk until he gets to the mention of Tae-yeon. “It’s fine,” he says. “She did her job, she got paid, she doesn’t need to know who paid her.”
“It’s not about the money,” Arthur says. “We would have done it anyway if you’d just been honest with us.”
Eames snorts. “If you think that, you don’t know Tae-yeon very well.” Arthur is still looking at him with that intent, alert expression, so Eames swallows his follow-up retort, which is that Arthur wouldn’t have done the job with him at all had the offer not come from Tae-yeon to begin with.
“How long are you going to wait before you do the heist?” Arthur asks him.
Eames shrugs again, probably even more inelegantly than before.
“And you’re just gonna break into a heavily guarded Swiss chalet all by yourself.”
“I don’t have any more pocket money to hire you and then not pay you with, if that’s what you’re asking,” Eames says irritably.
Arthur rolls his eyes and stands up. “Look, just... call me when you figure out the timeline. I want in.”
“You do understand we’re actually returning this priceless heirloom, yes?” Eames is aware his eyebrows have probably slid up to his hairline, but Arthur has slid his sunglasses back on so the sarcasm is lost on his opaque expression.
“Yes, Mr. Eames,” he responds dryly.
Arthur slides his sunglasses down a bit, so Eames can see the whites of his eyes.
“You may do jobs out of the goodness of your heart,” he says, “but some of us need a little more incentive than that.”
“You want me to owe you,” Eames says, clarity breaking through.
Arthur tilts his head and slides his hands back in his pocket. “No, Mr. Eames,” he says. “You already owe me for the job.” And then he grins; a devilish grin, all teeth. “After this, you’ll owe me two favors instead of one.”
There is a before/after turning point in every man's life. Most men get one, if they’re lucky.
Eames gets two: the moment he sees the PASIV for the first time, and the moment, five years later, when he’s rappelling down the side of a cottage, necklace in tow, dangling over an actual mountain with Arthur at his side.
It’s like flying; it’s like electricity sparking from a touch—the sensation of connection, of being completely understood, of having a partner. It reverberates through Eames and he can’t help it—he laughs. He feels totally invincible. He could have had this at Fort Bragg, he thinks, if only he hadn’t been such a complete cad. He could have stolen Arthur away from the military along with the PASIV. They could have had two whole extra years of this: of breaking laws, breaking things, breaking into things, breaking people, breaking each other.
Arthur looks over at Eames. He’s clad in all black like a regular ninja and still somehow making it look like designer cat-thief fashion. The wind is riffling through his hair, which has come totally un-gelled for once; his eyes are bright and his cheeks are flushed.
He looks over at Eames, and he dimples.
And Eames promptly falls off the mountain.
Later, back at their hotel and safely on the other side of the French-Swiss border, Arthur follows Eames up to his hotel room and stretches out on the bed, cool and ruthless and suave as anything. Eames goes to the balcony and pulls out a cigarette. His hands are shaking, but it’s probably adrenalin and the product of a near-death experience, not the memory of the way Arthur’s eyes crinkled at the edges.
“One of those for me?” Arthur says.
Eames turns. Arthur is sprawled on the bed, half-angled towards Eames’ cigarette hand. He’s using his unimpressed voice, but his eyes are hungry.
Eames takes another drag on the lit cigarette, lets it fill his lungs and his nostrils before he exhales.
He holds it out to Arthur, and Arthur stretches out his hand for it, suspended for one moment just out of reach; not quite touching—not yet.
They do jobs together—not always, but frequently enough that Arthur no longer sends him snooty texts when he wants something and Eames picks up the phone on the first ring when he calls.
He works jobs with Cobb, occasionally, and every job seems to get more and more tense, Arthur’s stress-levels ratcheting higher and higher; and then Arthur will call him, or he'll call Arthur, for an easy two-level extraction, just the two of them, that somehow always turns into an excuse for a gun chase, and they’ll wind up half-parkouring, half-flying over rooftops, parasailing off cliffs, wingsuiting straight into the sun chased by hordes of projections, and Arthur’s laugh will haunt Eames for weeks until he gravitates back to him and repeats the process all over again.
In Chuao they design a vast landscape of tepui, high plateaus jutting up over the Venezuelan jungle as far as the eye can see. The mark is an experienced climber, but he’s tried twice to climb the Amuri Tepui in real life and fallen each time. This time, Arthur and Eames help him nearly all the way up—and then his last belay goes horrifyingly wrong. It’s easy for Eames to convince the mark his brother has tried to sabotage him while he’s dangling from an overhang with a 500-meter drop straight down into the Amazonian forest. He tells them exactly what he did with the second will reinstating his brother to the inheritance, and miraculously the belay holds and he’s transported to the top unharmed.
Eames escorts the mark into the little Cessna waiting for them at the top of the plateau, and looks back in time to see Arthur giving him a small salute, a wave and a smirk that Eames finds oddly moving. Before he can return the gesture, Arthur is turning, unhooking the safety rope and letting it slip from his hands, as he runs and dives headlong off the cliff, arms outstretched, joyous, before he disappears into the sea of green and greets Eames when he wakes as if nothing all that extraordinary has occurred. As if he didn’t nearly grow wings and fly.
In Miami, they spend three nights partying on a yacht with a drug kingpin who constantly makes fun of Arthur’s buttoned-up stodginess, while Eames, three shirt buttons opened at all times, grouses and simpers and practically makes love to him. The fourth night, they drug him, lock him in his own bedroom, find out what he did to the rival coke stash that allegedly sank offshore on its way into the city, and escape with the PASIV in a watertight container—after starting a minor fire as a diversion, of course. “Thanks for the free booze, asshole,” Arthur says genially, before diving over the edge.
Two miles and a slimy cliffside hike later, they peel off their wetsuits and order a (slightly confused) Uber driver back to their hotel. “I think I’ll have the steak,” Arthur says as they sit down to dinner. “You?” His eyes flicker up to Eames’, and his vanishing smirk is so ever-present these days Eames wonders how he ever could have missed it.
In Cairo, they’re coming off a tricky extraction for a client who needs the extracted information communicated to a third party who’s currently being kept under house arrest by the state. The information isn’t exactly illegal, but communicating it could get them into trouble—so when Arthur comes up with the idea of using graffiti codes on the building across the street from the house under lockdown, and shows up the next morning looking fresh as a daisy, in tailored Versace and paint dust smeared on his hands, Eames is simultaneously so impressed and full of affection that he gives into the impulse and says, “You lucky smug bastard, let me buy you a drink.”
“Eames, it is nine in the morning,” Arthur says primly, carefully dusting off his hands. “You may buy me a bellini.”
Eames buys him several. They have the world’s longest brunch overlooking the Nile in a place that serves shakshuka and baba ganoush, and over the course of the conversation, they talk about dreamshare theory, and Arthur finally asks him why he’s the only forger in the business. Eames shrugs it off, but he’s a bit pleased.
He doesn’t know, so he tells Arthur so. It’s not like forging is hard for him; he thinks it could be that when they were in the military together, he experimented early and often, so he stumbled upon things the others who’ve encountered dreamshare haven’t had a chance to try.
“You were experimenting,” Arthur repeats. “When?”
“Every chance I got,” Eames says. “Every opportunity I had to be alone while we were under, I took.”
Arthur’s eyes narrow. “There was this running joke in the barracks that you got lost and separated from the group every time we were under,” he says. “I didn’t even think you knew about that.”
Eames grins. “Oh, I knew about that,” he said. “I counted on it.”
Arthur frowns, and he looks away, expression darkening. Eames can read him so well, now, he thinks. Arthur hates being reminded of their shared time in the military, and Eames isn’t sure if he’s ever fully accepted that Eames was an anomaly in their squadron, a host unto himself.
Eames takes pity on him. “Of course that might not have anything to do with it,” he offers. “It could be that I‘m less worried about losing myself in the dream than most people, so it’s easier for me to shape-shift. Of course the irony is that if you can shape-shift you always know when you’re dreaming.”
Arthur blinks at him. “Yeah, but that shouldn’t matter if you just use your totem for that anyway.”
Arthur stares. “You don’t use a totem?”
“I might, if I knew what it was,” Eames says, and Arthur explains. He seems a bit agonized that Eames and Navendra and Tae-yeon and Nash and Rausch and all the rest have never heard of this technique, but Eames reminds him patiently that while Mal Cobb may have been a genius, she kept her contributions largely tucked away from the rest of them.
“I don’t like this,” Arthur says. “I don’t like the idea of you guys just... slipping under without having a failsafe mechanism.”
Eames isn’t sure that a totem is a failsafe mechanism—it seems as though there are a dozen different ways you could manipulate your own totem to misbehave, or that someone else could manipulate it for you—but Arthur clearly cares so much about it that he caves easily enough. He’ll get one, and he’ll tell Tae-yeon and the others to do so too.
He keeps his word, and it’s worth it for the relief that slides over Arthur’s face when Eames shows him that his totem is a poker chip.
“You predictable fuck,” he says, but for some reason he’s grinning from ear to ear.
In Brasov, Arthur reconstructs a gorgeous, meticulously researched replica of the Biserica Neagră and Eames forges a righteous, angry bishop whose sermon on the judgment day—delivered in perfect German, thank you—guilts their mark into confessing what he did with the body of his uncle. They celebrate by booking a suite at the Kronwell, getting very drunk, and bribing their way into the pool after hours, where they proceed to lounge in their briefs and order a continual rotation of attractive staff bearing more alcohol.
After an hour or two spent discussing the competence of Romanian police, arguing about the military, arguing about Cobb, arguing about Eames’ terrible German accent, arguing about whetherLaw and Order or CSI had the best branch-offs, and arguing about which Mexican soap opera cast is the most fuckable, they start brainstorming ideas for using dreams that aren’t criminal or military.
Eames is sloshed enough to confess that he wants to integrate dreamshare into virtual reality, so that every dreamscape can be converted into code and re-entered in the waking world without requiring a sedative. Arthur, in typical Arthur fashion, wants to design a safe extreme sports playground in dreamshare, but worries people would just bend the laws of physics and then think they can do the same thing in reality. Eames wants to be a dream tour guide, or maybe a dream sex worker—at the very least, he wants sex workers to get the extra benefit of doing their work in their sleep, if they want. Arthur wants to find a way to de-stabilize militarized subconsciouses without hurting the mark—anything to stop getting shot at. Eames wants to build dreamshare amusement parks.
They’ve been swimming idly in the heated pool for hours. Arthur’s abs are impeccable, a long narrow washboard with a sparse trail of hair down into his shorts. His skin is lightly flushed, pink and damp from sweat and water and alcohol, but even so Eames thinks he reddens a bit as Eames talks.
“Really?” Arthur asks.
“Sure,” Eames says. “Why not? Gravitrons that actually make you lose gravity, roller coasters on thin air, tilt-a-whirls that fly into space, funhouse mirrors that let you actually change your shape and appearance. Candy floss that’s not sticky, that you can build shapes and objects out of. Wear as a dress if you want to.”
Arthur smiles at him, a soft, fond thing that makes Eames’ heart hurt. And then Arthur says: “When I was a kid I used to be one of those people who reviews roller coasters. The ones who go around from one amusement park to the next just riding all the rides and then rating them.”
“Of course you did,” Eames says, smiling back.
Arthur laughs, a bit self-effacingly. “I used to draw my own roller-coaster designs. Then I’d try to map them on 3-D imaging software and simulate them. They’d always crash and I’d get so pissed off.”
“They don’t crash in dreams, though,” Eames says. “Not unless you want them to.”
“Well, Mr. Eames,” says Arthur. “If you ever design a dreamshare amusement park, I will come and review your roller coaster.”
Eames laughs. “I can see it now: Too fast, too loud, runs on hot air.”
Arthur quirks an eyebrow. “But I hear it’s open all night,” he says.
Eames’ laugh is startled and happy, and Arthur joins in. But Eames hesitates before deciding how to respond, a moment too long for it to be anything but noticeable. Somehow the prospect of flirting with Arthur is a hollow one; theirs has never been that kind of relationship, and Eames isn’t sure he wants it to be, not just now.
So he does the only thing he can do under the circumstances. He steps in, moves just close enough to telegraph his approach to Arthur, and pats him on the head, a ludicrous gesture that makes Arthur’s nose wrinkle before he finally gives in and rolls his eyes.
And that’s, of course, when Eames dunks him.
In Reno, Arthur walks into the casino where Eames is currently absolutely not counting cards at blackjack and proceeds to roll him for the rest of the night. “You fuck,” Eames snarls after Arthur’s final hold nets him Eames’ last five grand, and Arthur quirks an eyebrow at him.
“You know you can’t just move $30,000 out of my account and think I won’t notice, right? Even if it is the throwaway we used in Moscow, darling.” His voice teeters on the brink of a laugh. He leans over and kisses Eames’ cheek for effect, and Eames turns, a fraction too late to return it, and catches his lips on the shell of Arthur’s ear as he walks away.
They cat-and-mouse each other like that to Vegas, making a game out of winning and losing and card-counting and getting away with it, and Eames spends the week completely on edge and blue-balled out of his mind.
In Vegas they run a simple, clean con job just for the hell of it, swindling an Arizona oil tycoon out of a few million dollars faster than you can say ‘offshore investments.’ After it’s over, flush with cash and success, Arthur pulls out the PASIV and says, “Let’s go under,” so they do.
Eames doesn’t normally do this. It’s incredibly dangerous to dream alone, and he’s always working, so usually his dreams are for jobs. It’s not like he can just go up to someone and ask them to come play in a subconscious wonderland with them; except that’s more or less what Arthur has just done, and Eames can say no to a lot, but he’ll never say no to Arthur, especially not when Arthur turns up at their hotel suite with his collar undone and his eyes hungry and dark.
When Eames opens his eyes downstairs, it’s to a bright, brilliantly tropical dreamscape painted in vivid oranges and greens. Swirls of teals and pinks streak the sky, as if someone has finger-painted it. Around them, a lush canopy of paisley-barked trees spring up over a purple riverbank, blooming with polka-dotted flowers and humming with the boxbeat of bees’ wings.
“So I take it you’re the dreamer,” Arthur says, looking around.
“This could just as easily be your dreamscape,” Eames protests.
“Eames,” and now Arthur is laughing, “We’re inside a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. This is absolutely your dream.”
“Then tell me what that is,” Eames says, pointing to the far end of the river, where what can only be described as an M.C. Escher waterslide is rising from the banks.
Arthur rolls up his sleeves. “That,” he says, “looks like fun.”
They go on the Escher waterslide. They have water-bending fights that end when the giant watery whale Eames summons swallows them down and then ejects them from its blowhole. They ride tortoise-shelled dolphins that sprout wings and fly over rivers and oceans and islands and up into the sky over planets. They play Quidditch on broomsticks in the middle of the Milky Way with meteorites for bludgers and a tiny fluttering star for the Snitch, then conjure swords and do battle with the giant Vermicious Knids that appear out of nowhere in the middle of space, only to be rescued by the Little Prince in his aeroplane, and by now Arthur’s not even trying to pretend this isn’t a shared dream.
They crash land in the desert; Arthur places a giant melting ice lolly in the sky to cool things off, and a brilliant blue lagoon appears beneath the runoff, which gradually turns into an endless sky waterfall. They build sand tunnels and mazes and castles, each more elaborate than the next, and finally Eames sprouts wings and turns into a giant hawk, and Arthur climbs aboard his back and spreads his arms wide as they fly into the sun, and Eames can feel the rushing wind and the thrill of flight just as the timer runs out and they wake; and when Eames opens his eyes, Arthur is next to him on the bed, detaching him from the PASIV and looking so flushed and happy that Eames doesn’t think at all before leaning up and kissing him.
In his head, this moment has always been accompanied by a rush of butterflies to the head and Arthur immediately kissing him back.
In reality, Eames is immediately aware that he’s made a huge mistake.
Arthur doesn’t respond; he’s still hovering over Eames, but he’s gone still and stiff all over, not even his normally agitated pulse pounding in his throat.
Eames pulls away and slides off the bed, aware with the sharp, plummeting feeling in his chest that this thing about Arthur has now gotten embarrassing. “Right,” he says, suddenly rueful. “Sorry. Bad idea. Won’t happen again.”
Arthur runs a hand over his chin, brushing his lips, eyes still fastened to Eames. It’s a curiously innocent gesture, and Eames knows Arthur is anything but innocent. A traitorous part of Eames’ mind can’t help but note that while Arthur hadn’t leaned in, he hadn’t pulled away; he’d let Eames slide his arms around Arthur’s waist and keep them there, pressed close.
Eames is abruptly pissed off and flooded with shame. He doesn’t want Arthur to just let him do anything. This thing he feels for Arthur has gotten thoroughly out of hand and it couldn’t be clearer Arthur doesn’t want him, has never wanted him.
He tries to mentally rewind, figure out where he went wrong, how he could have gotten his wires crossed so badly, and then he remembers: You’re a literal *child.*
Arthur thinks Eames is a juvenile infant, and he thought that well before Eames spent two hours recreating children’s book fantasies with him.
It hits Eames with sickening, cold clarity that for Arthur those two hours were the equivalent of a one-night stand with whimsy, indulged for the sake of fancy, not because Arthur is actually interested in building something larger with Eames—not in the real world, at least. Arthur made it very clear: he’s only putting up with him until he can get Cobb out. Arthur may like playing the game, but he’s never wanted to be a criminal.
He busies himself by stowing away the PASIV, knowing his movements are jittery, that he’s doing a shit job of hiding how stunned he is. It’s so obvious, so bloody, blindingly obvious. How stupidly short-sighted it was for him to hope even for a moment; to indulge in the daydream that Arthur might want him.
“Eames,” Arthur says. “It’s not—I just don’t want us to—”
Eames cuts him off with a laugh. “Really, Arthur, it’s fine. I really don’t know what I was thinking. Got caught up in the moment, is all. Do you want to divvy up the wire transfers or shall I?”
Arthur swallows. “You do it,” he says, voice gone hard in that way that tells Eames they won’t be speaking of this again. “I have to call Cobb anyway.” And he turns and retreats to the other half of their hotel suite, phone already in his hand.
Right, then. He just won’t work with Arthur for a while.
And not unless it’s something big.
Eames grew up in a typical London suburb, posh but not too posh, safely sheltered from the world and ensconced in a bevy of relatives with soft hands and stiff upper lips and an involuntary throb in their hearts whenever someone mentioned the queen. His father was a brokerage analyst, whatever that was; his mother, as she made sure to let everyone know, didn’t have to work, but rather chose to manage a spa because she liked getting the discounts on all that eucalyptus oil.
The spa was where Eames would spend countless hours listening to the rhythms and undulations of adult women in conversation, perfecting the art of small talk and even smaller manipulations—often of each other but even more often of themselves, and most often of reality itself.
He would sit on one of the plastic reception room chairs next to a row of ginseng-infused soy teakwood candles and listen to women describe their own lives, afternoon after afternoon; and the longer he listened the more he became convinced that adults had the gift of bending reality, of turning the most insignificant things into events of great import simply by insisting it was so. Eames knew things didn’t happen to him with nearly as much frequency or intensity as they happened to the women who frequented his mother’s spa. He woke up and walked the dog; he went to school, where he was occasionally teased for his two front teeth but mostly left alone; he came home and did his schoolwork and watched telly and read Anthony Horowitz or one of his father’s spy novels, and he went to bed. He lived a very practical, unimportant existence.
The one exception to this routine was the holidays. Every year his family, an extended conglomerate of grandparents and cousins and great-aunts and uncles and in-laws and in-law’s children and yet more cousins would gather together at the ancestral manse, where they would crowd in for the long weekend and turn the place into a rowdy nativity suite.
Holidays were magical for Eames in a way he was vaguely aware they weren't supposed to be, still, for boys his age. But he couldn't help it; things happened during the holidays. Lights went on and holly went up. Candles were lit and stockings were hung. The halls were rich with murmurs and laughter and low-voiced bickering, full of the bustle of activity and the smells of cinnamon and cloves and chestnuts and cranberries and pudding and fir trees.
Eames wanted to join the action. Every year, he would beg to be allowed to help with the dressing of the turkey, or the baking of bread, or the trimming of the tree, or the boiling of the wassail, or the reading from the Eucharist, or the choosing of carols. Every year, Eames would be politely brushed aside and told he must wait just a few more days or hours to open his presents.
Eames didn’t want presents—at least, no more than the usual amount of present-wanting. Eames wanted to be doing whatever it was that needed doing. He wanted in.
Early on, he assumed like all children that this period of being neither seen nor heard would end when he was older; it didn't. His harried mother didn't much like children, but liked adolescents even less, so she tended to shunt him out of the way as quickly as possible when his relatives gathered together, all bustle and hubbub and sharpened versions of the patrons at the spa: adults full of petty one-upmanships, too-quick to diminish one another's minor accomplishments while exaggerating their own.
His father hated the idea of Eames doing anything domesticated around the holidays, perhaps because he could see the pansy blooming beneath his very roof and feared how fully it might eventually blossom.
When he was eleven, Eames tried to help his grandmother set places for dinner, meticulously laying out all of the gleaming polished silverware and un-crinkling the folded cloth napkins beside the gilded china plates.
Upon entering the dining room in her red silk blouse and white wool cardigan, a poinsettia brooch high on her collar, his grandmother, however, let out a small noise of alarm.
“Good god, what have you done?” she said, moving to the dining room table with an odd expression.
Eames peered around her waist. “I just set the table for dinner,” he said, studying the way everything looked. “Did I do it wrong?”
“What is this?” she said, holding up the copy of Smiley's People he’d placed by the head of the table.
Eames shrugged. “Thought it’d be nice for all the grownups to have books to read when they got tired,” he said. “You know, while we’re waiting on dessert and done with all the small talk or something.”
His grandmother’s mouth fell open as she looked at him, and then she aimed her glare at the row of books Eames had carefully arranged by each plate, sandwiched neatly in between the soup spoons and the salad forks.
She held the book she’d picked up out to him, and something about the gesture made him afraid to take it.
“You've done quite enough,” she said, coldly polite. “Now go wait in the study. We’ll call you when you’re needed.”
The idea that Eames’ help wasn’t wanted had never occurred to him before. He’d always assumed, up until then, that the adults were too busy to realize that they had an extra hand available to make use of. He’d never realized until then that it was possible for a whole person to be unnecessary.
Eames knows he’s not a hero; his story doesn’t have neatly beveled edges or formative moments and cataclysmic decision-making. He didn’t take that moment to heart and decide on the spot to always become the man whose invisibility made him indispensable—the person everyone needed, the man of perfect timing, never jumping the gun or overstaying his welcome. There was a whole lot in between now and then.
But the moment stung. It stung and he remembers it.
He remembers it most when he’s confronted with how perpetually Arthur has always found him to be in the way.
The thing about trying not to fall for someone is that by the time you’re in the position of admitting it, you’re too late to do anything about it.
Eames calls Tae-yeon. “I need a favor,” he says. “The next job, whatever it is, I want in.”
“Well, hello, stranger,” Tae-yeon says. “I thought you only did jobs with Arthur these days.”
“What? That’s not true. That’s not true at all.”
“Sure looked like a partnership to me,” she says. “And to, uh, everybody?”
Eames laughs, a bit bitterly. “Don’t let Arthur hear you say that.”
“I’m pretty sure Arthur already knew,” Tae-yeon replies, “and if he didn’t care, I don’t see why you would.”
“Because he—look, just sign us up with Sajida for that Kazakh job.”
“You know I don’t like working with Sajida, she’s boring and she has incorrect opinions about Super Junior.”
“Please,” Eames says. “You can have my entire cut.”
“Just don’t let Arthur know,” Eames says, and Tae-yeon snorts in a way that tells him exactly what she thinks of him before she hangs up.
Arthur calls him.
“Call me back when you get this,” says the first phone call. “You knew I wanted in on that job with Sajida, what the fuck, Eames?”
“Mr. Eames,” says the next, some three weeks later. “I hear you aren’t working right now, and also that you and Tae-yeon had a massive fight in Astana that wasn’t really about Korean tacos. If you want to talk about anything, you know where I am.”
Eames doesn’t call. He goes to Mombasa and sulks.
And then Cobb shows up.
In Mombasa Eames was doing a very good job of avoiding thinking about Arthur at all. In Sydney, Arthur emails him annoying snippy little job updates, usually punctuated by even snippier, even more annoying texts about the emails he’s sending, and sometimes he tries to be personable in ways that fall horribly flat and mostly just come off sounding passive-aggressive, and all of it leaves Eames feeling pissy and unfocused and desperately sorry for himself.
In Sydney, Eames has ample time to remember all of the reasons Arthur doesn’t want him, has never wanted him. In Sydney, he has ample time to flirt with men in tailored suits buttoned up to the nines, has time to get them up to his hotel room and make them come apart, has time to make them whimper and gasp and touch him with furtive half-touches approximating tenderness; he has time to fuck his way through a number of them, all while not thinking about what it would be like to unbutton Arthur, about what it would be like to make Arthur come apart, about Arthur’s one unkempt forelock of hair, the way it slips out of place whenever he’s worked up a really good sweat, in contrast to the meticulously gelled helmet he normally cultivates and in contrast to whatever bedhead he probably has when waking up in the morning after he’s slept with someone he really wants.
Eames doesn’t wonder if Arthur’s expression would go soft around the edges, if he’d dimple in the afterglow, if he’d want to cuddle or have deep conversation or go pink around the ears and be bashful and awkwardly flirtatious. Eames fucks around all over Sydney and doesn’t think about what it would be like to be someone Arthur really wanted—what he would be like if he were someone Arthur really wanted.
In Sydney, he has ample time to remember that if this job goes well, it will be the last time Arthur ever works with him—Arthur, who has only been using him as a survival tool while he helps get Cobb back to the right side of the law. Arthur, who has never wanted to be part of dreamshare’s criminal underground to begin with. Arthur, who was made for a life of crime and who will reject it and walk away from all of it, walk away from Eames, as easily as rubbing dirt off the soles of his shoes.
After a month, it gets harder to invent excuses for why he’s not in Paris yet, working on the dreamscape with the new architect and going over plot holes with Arthur. And so, six weeks after Cobb’s visit, ten weeks after Arthur’s phone call, and five months after Vegas, Eames walks back into the Paris warehouse for the first time since the Brigiere job.
Tae-yeon still won’t work with Cobb; very few architects will at this point. He’s prepared to feel sorry for this one, novice that she is—she has no idea, after all, just what sort of a mess she’s getting into. He’s prepared to feel sorry for her, but instead he walks in and Arthur is flirting with her. Not just casual flirting; he’s leaning into her the way he did that day back at the bar in Tokyo, and she’s totally into it, open body language, limbs akimbo, flush high on her cheekbones.
Eames is hit with a wave of jealousy so strong his knees nearly buckle. He grips the side of the nearest drafting table, makes it look like a jaunty sort of pose. Arthur turns, sends Eames a nod of greeting, says, “Mr. Eames, I see you managed to find the adult half of your wardrobe for once,” and then goes back to flirting with Ariadne, and Eames—
Well. Eames goes to work.
The first day he returns, Arthur grills him on the job details, brutally and relentlessly, with the return of the perpetual furrowed brow that tells him whatever Cobb’s bullshit is this time, Arthur is in it up to his neck. In return, Eames snipes at him, takes potshots for no reason other than pique, and maybe the petty satisfaction of knowing that whatever Arthur’s level of indifference towards him, he can still get under Arthur’s skin like no one else. Perhaps he is the child Arthur thinks he is, but he’s having a hard enough time just keeping a wrap on his emotions, so he doesn’t really care.
“What’s the deal with you and Arthur?” Ariadne asks the second day Eames is in Paris.
“On what he said when you asked him the same question.”
“He said, ‘There is no me and Eames.’” She eyes him. “But that’s not true, is it?”
“Cobb said the two of you have a history, and then he just told me to leave it alone.” She raises her eyebrows.
Eames looks over at Arthur, currently testing one of Yusuf’s compounds. In sleep, Arthur always looks deceptively gentle.
“Having a history with someone, love, isn’t the same as having a present,” he says. The truth tastes bitter on his tongue.
“I don’t know about that,” Ariadne says. “He looks at you sometimes when you don’t see.”
Eames has to laugh at that. “Oh, Ariadne,” he says, still chuckling. “If Arthur were harboring a secret tendre for me, believe me, I’d know.”
“Oh, you would,” she says, smirking. He likes the way she seems to be primarily smirking her way through Inception—it’s a good attitude for everything Cobb’s been throwing at her. Her attraction to Arthur seems to have subsided into casual friendship while he was away, and he likes that, too.
“I’ve known him for some time, our Arthur,” Eames says. And this, at least, isn’t a half-truth or an exaggeration. “There’s nothing there, I assure you.”
“So you say,” Ariadne says. She leans her hip on his chair. “So does that mean you’re free to grab coffee tonight?”
Eames is wholly unprepared for the come-on, and his eyebrows shoot up appreciatively. She waggles her own, and he laughs again.
“Today’s youth are so easily corrupted,” he says.
“Yeah, well,” she says. “Today’s youth need to lick your tattoos.”
Fucking Ariadne is easy and fun and a wholly delightful distraction. She’s squirmy and relaxed and vocal and highly chatty during sex, and Eames, who’s used to being the one who has to explain that this is all just a light, no-strings-attached thing, is pleasantly surprised at how aggressively into casual sex Ariadne is.
“Is that why you and Arthur didn’t work out?” he asks after the third night they spend together, after she’s given him a long lecture about how relationships are shit if you take them seriously, and everyone always takes them so seriously, so Ariadne just doesn’t do relationships. “He wanted something non-casual?”
She sits up in bed and gives him a sort of cross-eyed eyeroll, a look she usually reserves for Cobb when he’s being totally erratic and weird.
“Uh, I’m pretty sure we didn’t work out because Arthur’s gay,” she says. “You’ve known Arthur for how long, and you didn’t know this?”
“Arthur’s bi,” Eames says. He has a fair degree of certainty about that, since Arthur clearly likes men and was just as clearly flirting with Ariadne, but he second-guesses himself now anyway. It occurs to him that Arthur’s sexuality is probably more accurately described as ‘haphazard and fleeting’ than aimed consistently in any one direction.
“Arthur’s just naturally flirty,” Ariadne says, and Eames spares a moment to remember the Arthur who barely had a word for anyone if it wasn’t job-related. “He wasn’t seriously into me. We’re like siblings anyway.”
“How’d you know?” Eames asks. “Did you ask him out?”
Ariadne narrows her eyes. “You’re fishing,” she says. “You’re supposed to be some kind of expert in human nature and forging, whatever the hell that means, but really you’re a twelve-year-old. You’re both twelve-year-olds.”
“I’m actually a quite mature and responsible adult,” Eames protests.
“You’re the biggest manbaby,” Ariadne says. But she’s straddling his waist as she says it, so he presumes she doesn’t mean she finds this a turnoff.
“It’s possible,” Eames adds. “I’ve been reliably informed that I’m a literal child.” He recognizes his tone is too absent for the context a split-second after she’s sunk her fingernails into the sensitive skin of his belly.
Ariadne leans down. “Make you a deal,” she says, whispering into the shell of his ear. “If you can make me come with just your tongue, you'll be a man, baby.”
He makes her come—twice—but forgets to circle back around to find out if he leveled up.
As the days pass, Arthur asks Eames for his advice on just about every aspect of the dream for which he’s responsible. It’s flattering, or would be if the stakes weren’t so high on this job Eames figures Arthur has no choice but to turn to a second pair of eyes—the only other experienced pair of eyes they have.
Their dynamic ebbs and flows—there are days they can barely talk without getting into a pissing contest, and others when Arthur’s voice is measured and steady, and he doesn’t automatically reject Eames’ suggestions, and Eames deigns to ask Arthur to elaborate on crucial parts of his research, and it’s systematic and smooth and just like the jobs they used to run by themselves, which is to say it's fantastic and tortuous.
There are more good days than bad ones, but with Cobb taking every chance he can to disappear into his dreams, the bad days are regrettable.
Eames gets in the habit of not dallying at at the end of the workday, lest he be caught alone with Arthur and forced to relive the memory of that disastrous non-kiss. He catches Arthur’s eyes lingering too long on him from time to time when he and Ariadne get caught giggling in a corner, but Eames has no sympathy for him for missing his chance with her himself. It’s at least clear that Arthur isn’t the type to be possessive over a girl, but Arthur has also never worn his feelings on his sleeve, except, of course, for when he's telling Eames exactly what he thinks of him.
“You really like him, don’t you,” Ariadne says to him once. Eames has accidentally been watching Arthur sleep. He’s supposed to be keeping tabs on the timer and the dosage levels for Yusuf while Yusuf is off replacing a bunsen burner, but he’s basically just been staring at Arthur for god knows how many minutes.
When Ariadne interrupts him, he finds he can’t quite muster up an answer. He’s been treading water with Arthur for so long—and looking back he feels foolish for all the years he spent not knowing, not realizing—that he finds himself unsure of how deep his own feelings are, sometimes.
It’s like what they say about limbo, the bottom of the dream: even when you’re in it, you have no idea how deep you really are or how much further you can go. His thing for Arthur—unrequited, obsessive, stupid—is a kind of limbo Eames doesn’t know if he can wake up from.
Doesn’t know if he wants to.
She ruffles his hair once, twice, then moves away and leaves him to his maudlin thoughts. That night she doesn’t invite herself back to his hotel, and he forgets to ask her.
And that’s that.
“Will you jaunt downstairs and see if Arthur’s feeling any in-dream side effects for me?” Yusuf asks Eames. They’re getting close to finalizing the compound, and all the dream designs are in place, and Yusuf has just had Arthur trying out a few last-minute tweaks to stabilize the layers. “I’m worried this sedative might create nausea on the second level, but if it is, I don’t really have time to wait for him to wake up and tell me.”
“Tsk, tsk, leaving your homework til the last-minute,” Eames says, but he’s hooking himself up and plugging in before Yusuf is done berating him for his lack of faith in Yusuf’s incredible, extraordinary degree of expertise and competence with this highly classified chemical substance.
Arthur’s private dreamscape is a smoky, ‘50s-era jazz nightclub with a projection of Miles Davis at the center playing a note-perfect memory of his rendition of “It Never Entered My Mind.” The shadows are deep purple, and Arthur is sitting in a tailored tuxedo smoking a cigarette in the sexiest way possible, platinum cufflinks glinting like his subconscious is directing the light to catch them, just so. He doesn’t even smoke in the real world, he just likes the aesthetic appeal, he’s so ridiculous—and Eames has to suppress his smile lest Arthur catch him and shoot him before he gets a word out.
“Hey,” Arthur says when he sees Eames, and Eames is struck by it, that simple word—it’s not hostile or unwelcoming or anything he’d expect to hear upon invading Arthur’s private dream world. It’s just... soft. Neutral.
“I’m not a projection,” he says, holding his hands up. “Yusuf sent me down for some info about the dreamscape, but it seems perfectly stable.”
Arthur snorts. “I know you’re not a projection,” he says. He motions for Eames to join him, so Eames sits down.
Arthur nods. He seems casual, relaxed. It’s a rare, good look on him. “My projection of you would probably start by negging me.”
“Funny,” Eames says. “I’d’ve said the same of yours.”
They look at each other across the table.
“Then I guess we’d both be wrong,” Arthur says evenly, and something about his tone is enough to make Eames lose his breath for a moment.
He looks around for a conversation topic to escape the sense of having given away too much, and lands on the dance floor. Arthur’s projection of Mal is dancing by herself in the middle of the room, swaying gently and smoothly to the crooning of the trumpet. “I saw her before,” Eames says. “You danced with her on the Brigiere job.”
“I know you saw her,” Arthur says.
“I didn’t mean to pry.”
Arthur shrugs. “I brought her into the dreamscape. I shouldn’t have, I didn’t mean to. It was just... that ballroom was pretty much her aesthetic. You can probably tell.”
“She had quite a presence,” Eames says. “Were you in love with her?”
Arthur’s eyes fly up to his, and he reddens a bit. “What? Me? No. No, it was nothing like that.”
“But you loved her,” Eames says. “You’ve stuck by Cobb all this time because you loved her.”
Arthur looks over at Mal, and suddenly his face crumples into an expression of raw sadness.
“Cobb can’t build in the dreams,” he says. “He’s got his own projection of Mal that he spends all his time with. When we do jobs, sometimes she... I guess the only word for it is escapes.”
“She’s not like the real Mal. She’s... twisted and ugly, like a composite of all Cobb’s grief.” He motions towards the Mal who’s currently dancing alone. “My subconscious’ version of Mal is really... she’s happy all the time. Like she only exists as a single freeze-frame of what she was. His is like that, too, but instead of being programmed to be happy, she’s just... she wants to hurt everyone she comes in contact with.”
“She hurt Tae-yeon,” Eames says. “Cobb let her hurt Tae-yeon.”
“Cobb hurts himself most of all,” says Arthur.
“Don’t defend him, Arthur,” Eames says. “Going through a lot is no reason to take his shit out on other people. On you.”
Arthur stubs out his cigarette and then taps out a new one from an elegantly styled cigarette case, because of course he has a platinum cigarette case down here, to match his platinum cufflinks, for the cigarettes he won’t smoke in reality.
“He wasn’t always like that,” he says.
“Do you think inception is the key to getting him back home?” Eames asks. “Do you think it’s a good idea for him to be around his kids again?”
Arthur runs a hand over his forehead. “I don’t know,” he says. “But it’s the best option we have.”
“You have other options,” Eames says.
Arthur looks up at him.
“When we met,” Arthur says, “the second time”—and Eames realizes he’s talking about the two of them—”I hadn’t really had a chance to mourn her. Cobb and I, we’d been on the move pretty much since the day after it happened. It had been two months at that point. It wasn’t... ”
He exhales, a beautiful cloud of dreamy non-carcinogenic smoke, and flicks his cigarette ash, a concentrated frown on his face. “I wasn’t in a position to—I was angry at everything, I hadn’t been sleeping much. It wasn’t a good time.”
Eames is suddenly, painfully aware that this is the first real conversation, the first real, serious conversation, the two of them have ever had that isn’t about work. He reaches for something to say that can make Arthur keep talking, keep looking at him, keep confiding in him like they’re—like they’re something they aren’t.
“I think she’d be proud of you,” he says. “The way you’ve kept him afloat. Looked after him.”
“I think she would have liked you,” Arthur replies.
Eames loves him so much.
“Hmm. I think my projections are getting restless.” Arthur stubs out the cigarette. “Dance with me.”
Eames blinks. “What?”
Arthur holds out his hand, and Eames takes it automatically, allowing Arthur to tug him to his feet in his confusion.
“Dance with me, or my projections will tear you to pieces,” Arthur says calmly, not particularly trying to hide his smile, and pulls him into the middle of the bare dance floor.
It occurs to Eames that Arthur is very good at making him into the liar he believes Eames to be. Eames is ordinarily never one for slavish declarations of undying devotion or even particularly egregious shows of affection; but one look at Arthur and Eames wants to declare himself forever, for good. He wants to make ridiculous grand gestures and go on gallant quests of fealty.
Arthur needs none of these things, however; and so, when Arthur asks him to dance, he cups Arthur’s waist loosely in his palm, drawing him gently into his arms as the next song in Arthur’s mental playlist of vintage jazz begins.
Arthur is light and agile and getting this close to him is the worst idea Eames has ever had. Up close Eames can see the flecks of light in his eyes, can suss out the stubble beneath his chin, can get a heady dose of his favorite cologne, something he normally only catches faint whiffs of upstairs. Eames is acutely aware of how narrow his waist is, how Eames’ broad hands nearly span it, how deceptively easy it would be to assume he could pin Arthur down and hold him right where Eames wanted—how easy it would be, if that’s what Arthur wanted.
“You know,” says Eames conversationally. “I used to think you didn’t have any edges. Your mind is as clean as a whistle. I thought, there’s a man who has no stuff. It drove me a bit batty.”
Arthur’s bark of laughter is sharp and bright. “Try a level or two down,” he says.
“No need,” Eames says. “I can already tell, you’re very messy.” He smiles. “Total shambles down here.”
“I don’t let many people see my mess,” Arthur says softly. “Consider yourself lucky.”
“Oh, believe me,” Eames answers. “I do.”
The look in Arthur’s eyes is soft and a little fond, and the realization sweeps over Eames: this is Arthur’s way of apologizing. The conciliatory reminiscences, the shallow pretense—it’s his way of trying to make amends for rejecting Eames in Vegas.
This is, after all, his only chance to say it. After Inception, they’re never going to work together again, Arthur’s been very clear on that point. After Inception, Arthur won’t have any need to work in dreamshare at all—he only entered the criminal side of dreamshare to begin with on Cobb’s behalf, and he doesn’t have a criminal record hanging over him. He wouldn’t have any need to stick around to work with Eames anyway—not when he can finally go home.
Not when he thinks Eames is too childish to take seriously.
He’ll escape back to his ordinary life and his ordinary dreams and probably become a prissy anal-retentive computer expert somewhere, and it’s suddenly so sad Eames can’t stand it.
“Hey,” Arthur says.
And Arthur leans in.
Eames is bending to meet him before he’s even realized he’s doing it. Arthur draws in his breath, a sharp gasp, then relaxes infinitesimally, and then—and then—their lips are meeting, and Eames feels his heart flutter out of his chest in the same breath Arthur’s eyes flutter shut.
It’s light, just the briefest slide of their lips against each other’s—once, twice, and then apart.
It lasts only a moment or two, but it’s enough. Eames is completely undone.
Arthur draws back, but only a little. “Thought you were a rake. That how you kiss all the girls?” he says, his voice a soft murmur against the background of jazz and gin.
Eames huffs the tiniest of laughs, still shocked to the core. “Just the virgins,” he says, and Arthur’s startled laugh echoes his own, a warm puff of air against Eames’ chin. Eames wonders how many times he’s heard Arthur’s rare, unsteady laugh in his lifetime, and how many times he’ll hear it again before they part. He thinks he might be trembling and tries to remember how to breathe in and out when his chest is rising and ebbing against Arthur’s, how to slow his galloping, traitorous heartbeat. Arthur leans in, rests his forehead against Eames’ for a long moment, and Eames closes his eyes and doesn’t say goodbye.
They stay like that, neither speaking, swaying slowly until the last note of music dies away. “Time to go upstairs, Mr. Eames,” Arthur says, and he sweeps his lips against Eames’ temple, just before the press of steel.
They get off the plane, and scatter, as planned. When Eames gets outside, squinting into the sun, his phone buzzes, and he sees that Arthur’s already texted him.
Once when he was still in school, Eames had fallen into a terrible crush on a boy in another form. After a number of unintelligent fumbles in the boy’s restroom they had worked out a shoddy system of communication, each communiqué fraught with the all-or-nothing urgency only public school boys in lust can feel. Abruptly the surreptitious notes had stopped; Eames, confused, and hurt, hadn’t known how to react so he’d said nothing, and the spark had fizzled out. Years later he met the bloke at a pub and discovered after a few pints that his last carefully smuggled note had been lost; they’d each spent that form thinking the other had lost interest.
Even though it had been ages ago and it had been immediately clear that they wouldn’t be going home together that evening, in that moment Eames had felt hollowed out and bereft. Love was suddenly an enormous joke, lost and uncontrollable and doomed before it began.
He’d tried his best not to have any illusions about love, or about himself in love, since. But he looks down at Arthur’s text, and reads I’m staying at the Rialta if you want to swing by later and debrief, and the ache of it is staggering, like a wayward sail knocking the wind out of him and plunging him overboard.
Eames pockets the phone without replying.
He makes himself scarce.
The call is static-filled and muffled, as if Arthur’s phoning from a rooftop somewhere. It’s been nearly three weeks since Inception.
“So I’m in New York,” says Arthur. “I kind of hate New York. It’s such a shitty town on the surface, and you can never ever fully get rid of the grime when you’re in it, and the FiDi suits all walk around in terrible fucking Hugo Boss, and yet sooner or later, it gets to you, and you wind up not being able to get it out of your system, and you miss the street noise, and you miss the lights, and you miss the out-of-the-way bookshops and the bodegas and the pretentious hipster boutiques, and you miss that feeling you get when you get off the subway and your internal compass kicks in, and you somehow know exactly where you are even when you don’t... I’m trying, really badly, to make a metaphor, I guess. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you. I don’t know if it makes any sense at all. But I think we should talk.”
In Placencia, a man named Fuentes finds him sitting in front of something called the Shax and passes Eames a message in the middle of his cocktail-induced haze.
“Your friend is looking for you.”
“Chinese kid with the attitude.”
“Ah.” Eames squints against the glare of the sun on the ocean. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and tropical shorts and his drinks all have umbrellas in them, and he feels just fine, thanks. “Technically he’s 25 and I think he’s part-Jewish. And we’re not friends.”
“You sure about that? Seems awfully intent on finding you.”
Eames looks down at the message. It’s a date with a hotel name and room number.
Eames crumples it up and keeps drinking.
Fuentes tilts his head. “You want me to tell him you said that?”
Eames shakes his head. It's a bit wobbly. “No need,” he says. “You’re a good man, but you messed this one up. Arthur is in New York. Arthur is off being an accountant on Wall Street because he’s saving himself from mind crime.”
“Mind crime?” Fuentes repeats. “The fuck is that?”
“Ah,” Eames says. “Mind crime is...” his brain is fuzzy. “When you’ve fucked yourself over. You know. Been untrue to yourself. He’s stayed in the wrong job too long for the wrong reasons. He’s got to go unfuck himself.”
Fuentes laughs. “If he doesn’t want to work with you why is he trying to schedule a meeting with you?”
“He’s an idiot,” says Eames. And he vomits all over his own shoes.
“No creo que él es el idiota,” says Fuentes.
Two days later, Arthur is sitting on the lone chair in Eames’ hotel suite when he wakes up from his latest bender.
“I have to say, this is not where I thought I’d find you a month after pulling off one of the greatest feats in human history,” Arthur says. He's pulled off Eames’ shoes at some point. Eames wiggles his toes experimentally. They still work, but it seems like a close thing. “Drunken beachfront lush. Not one of your better looks.”
Eames sits up and then immediately wishes he hadn't. “I might say the same for you, but then the ‘hot babysitter’ look suits you very well,” he tries. His voice feels like a cocktail mix of sandpaper and gravel. “But then you always were an excellent babysitter.”
“Fine. I’m babysitting you,” Arthur says easily, not taking the bait. “What are you doing here?” He pulls his knees up to his chest. It's a distinctly un-Arthur-like move. “And what’s this bullshit about me being an accountant?”
Eames waves a hand, then regrets that move, too. He gives into the temptation to curl back up on the bed. “You’re supposed to be on Wall Street or off with Cobb and the wee tykes,” he mumbles into his pillow.
“You’re supposed to be out. Thought you’d be out once you got Cobb out. Didn’t think I’d be hearing from you again, to say the least.”
“Care to remind me when I—” Arthur stops, and there is the quite audible sound of him thinking back over each of their interactions and then grinding to a halt on the memory of Montenegro.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” He says. “That was almost four years ago. And it never occurred to you to ask me if maybe the situation had changed since then? Oh, wait, of course it wouldn’t—you've been avoiding me ever since Vegas, anyway, so why stop now?”
“i have not been—” Eames begins reflexively, and then halts.
“You’re a mess,” Arthur says. He throws something at Eames’ head, and Eames realizes it's the complimentary hotel bathrobe. “Get showered and put on some pants.”
Eames fumbles with the covers. “Why?”
“Because,” says Arthur, “I'm not shagging anything that smells like Jose Cuervo.”
“Thank you for being so forthcoming, Arthur,” Eames manages to retort as dryly as he can, but he gets up and drags himself to the bathroom anyway.
In the shower he regroups while gagging on copious amounts of mouthwash and doing his best to scrub off the grime and day-old stench of the local dive bar. Arthur is here. Arthur is, apparently, not in the Financial District and not an accountant.
Arthur wants to shag him.
He emerges at last, towel wrapped around his waist, damp hair combed into place for the moment. Arthur’s gaze drops immediately to his chest when he steps out of the bath, eyes flaring dark, and Eames almost drops the towel instead of opting for the more civilized route of grabbing his pants and trousers instead. He’s fairly certain Arthur’s seen him shirtless before, perhaps even pants-less; but he still feels utterly exposed as he slides his briefs up and then mechanically pulls on the rest of his clothing.
The moment feels charged, but when he turns back around, Arthur is pointedly looking at his phone.
“You do know how to stroke a man’s ego,” Eames says wryly.
Arthur looks up at him, his gaze sharpening. “I’ve spent the last three weeks looking for you,” he says. “You want the grand gesture, this is it.”
Eames gives into the urge to go to him. Arthur is still sitting; his face is level with Eames’ navel. Eames moves to stand in front of him. He reaches down, takes Arthur’s phone away from him, without incurring any protest. Thumbs it off and lays it aside. Arthur’s eyes are locked onto his own.
“Is this it?” he asks.
“If you want,” Arthur says.
“And what do you want?” Eames asks.
Arthur nods his head toward the opposite corner of the room. “There’s a bed over there. I’d really like you to fuck me on it.”
Eames runs his other hand through the delectably loosening strands of Arthur’s hair, the way he’s thought about doing for longer than he can remember.
A memory darts through him, then, out of nowhere—the sound of Tae-yeon and Navendra laughing in the shower the morning after the night they all spent together in Helsinki. He can’t imagine Arthur will be the laughing-in-the-shower-the-morning-after type.
He can’t imagine what either of them will be after they do this. What he will be.
Eames cups Arthur’s face in one broad hand, and tilts Arthur’s head up. Arthur submits to this beautifully, his pupils dilating, eyes never leaving Eames’ face.
“So,” Eames says, trying not to sound totally done for. “I fuck you on that bed, and then what? What do you want to happen?”
Arthur raises an eyebrow. “You keeping me naked sounds like a good start,” he says, and never in a million years did Eames imagine Arthur would be this open and flagrantly wanton about wanting to get fucked.
Eames can’t stop staring at him. “Arthur, I hope you understand by now that I’ll always have a hard time saying no to you, but are you sure? Is this a bit fast?”
Arthur sighs and stands up. Eames takes a step back in momentary alarm, but Arthur hooks his thumbs into Eames’ belt loops and reels him in. Eames’ heart rate picks up at how close they are—they’d stood like this in Arthur’s dream nightclub, but this is different, this is reality; he can feel his own pulse pounding in his throat.
“Look,” Arthur says. “We can make a production about it or we can just leave it at this: I was a tool and you’re shit at telling me what you want.”
Eames has never felt such an urgent need to reach for his totem, but he’s not certain he can bear to let Arthur out of touching distance. He tries to remember to breathe instead.
“If you aren’t sure,” he says, brain racing, wondering even as he says it, what on earth he’s thinking, why he’s trying so valiantly to sabotage himself, what is he doing, why is he terrified—
“In Vegas,” Arthur says. “You weren’t wrong. About us.”
“Us,” Eames repeats, barely able to wrap his head around the concept.
“I was just—I needed some time. It shouldn’t have taken as long as it did.”
Eames bites his lip reflexively at the strange mix of sincere apology and disgruntlement on Arthur’s face, and Arthur’s gaze drops to his mouth for a moment. Eames shivers.
“It’s just,” Arthur says, and now he sounds young, like the kid Eames once thought knew too much and not enough all at once. “I have known you for years, longer than anyone, and sometimes I still don’t even know if you like me.” He sounds almost petulant. Eames can’t handle any of this.
“If I like you,” he blurts. “Arthur, I have wanted you since the first moment I saw your prissy infuriating face.”
Arthur’s face is normally a study in angles and lines, but when those angles soften and the lines smooth out, it’s wondrous. “You were the angriest, most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” Eames says.
“You never even talked to me,” Arthur says. “You half-heartedly hit on me once and then never spoke to me again.”
Eames’ jaw drops, a little. “You remember that.”
Arthur frowns and looks over Eames’ shoulder without replying, almost exactly like he’d done seven years before, when Eames casually tossed him an innuendo a few weeks into boot camp. And Eames can see the same anxiety behind his eyes, the hesitance that he’d spent so long, years even, reading as a mix of pure effrontery and disdain.
But this is Arthur, and if Eames knows anything about Arthur, it’s that he can withdraw better than anyone Eames knows. He’s seen Arthur thrumming with worry and nerves, tingling from end to end, lit up like a firecracker ready to go off at the slightest sound; he’s seen Arthur a seething mass of barely contained rage; and he’s seen Arthur bluff his way through a three-hour game of poker with a ring of Russian mobsters while a gun was held to his head, all without ever giving away a tell.
It suddenly dawns on him that perhaps Arthur hasn’t changed all that much; that perhaps what Eames had magnanimously mistaken for Arthur growing and becoming less of an ass was just Arthur making more of an effort to be seen as he truly was.
To let Eames see him.
“I keep thinking,” Arthur says. “If we’d known each other back then. If I could have helped you. God knows I wanted to stick it to the military as much as you did.”
“I didn’t really do help back then, love,” Eames says. “And you say that now, but you wanted to be a loyal law-abiding soldier back then, I know you did.” Arthur frowns again. “And part of you still does.”
“Then what am I doing here with you, Mr. Eames?” Arthur murmurs.
“Darling,” Eames says earnestly, “I honestly haven’t the faintest.”
Arthur smiles. He leans in and kisses Eames—slowly, so slowly. Eames’ eyes flutter shut, and he cups Arthur’s face, in awe that he’s apparently allowed to do this now. He reaches up and grabs a handful of Arthur’s hair, relishing the softness. Arthur shudders and opens his mouth, and suddenly they’re pressed against each other, tongues melting into the kiss, breaths coming faster.
Arthur’s hands move up Eames’ sides and over his chest, fumbling with the shirt buttons Eames wishes he hadn’t bothered doing up now. “About that fucking you owe me,” Arthur mutters, and the rush of blood to Eames’ cock is immediate. His grip on Arthur’s hair tightens reflexively, and Arthur lets out a tiny gasp. “Please,” he adds, going boneless against Eames and resting his head against Eames’ collarbone.
Eames has never thought of Arthur this way, completely eager and submissive, and the sudden onslaught of possibility, of desire, is intoxicating and nearly disorienting.
“Right,” he says, voice automatically dropping several notches as arousal takes over. He begins unbuttoning his trousers as he navigates Arthur to the side of the bed. “Here’s how this is going to go,” he says, gently shoving Arthur to the bed, level with his waist. “I’m going to feed you my cock. You’re going to suck it until I tell you to stop, and then you’re going to drink my come. Then I’m going to undress you and put my cock inside you and keep it there until the only word you remember how to say is my name. Does that work for you?”
Arthur’s breathing has quietly grown erratic. He drags in a labored breath, looks at up at Eames from his gorgeous hooded gaze, and says:
“Don’t make me wait, Mr. Eames.”
“You incredible hypocrite,” Eames says fondly. He lowers his trousers and tugs the waistband of his briefs down, and Arthur’s mouth is on his cock immediately, warm and wet, his lips stretching beautifully around Eames’ thick head. Eames gives him a long, low groan, and Arthur shivers, bringing his hands up to tug Eames’ waistband down even further so that the long column of Eames’ erection is at his disposal.
He lets Eames’ head slip free and mouths his shaft shamelessly, trailing his fingertips down behind Eames’ sac to the sensitive juncture of his thighs. Eames grunts his approval, and Arthur’s breath catches in his throat in a needy little gasp.
Eames knows now that Arthur is made of edges; he’s imagined him bristling and snarling and pushy in bed. The sight of him pliant and straining and eager now is even hotter because he knows that Arthur is still capable of being pushy and resistant if he wants to be.
“Just like that,” Eames murmurs, stroking Arthur’s hollowed-out cheekbones with his fingertips. “Come on, sweetheart, take it all.”
He’s aware his voice is shaking, but he can’t seem to stop murmuring endearments, touching Arthur’s face while Arthur runs his tongue over Eames’ cock, looking for all the world like he’s been aching for this. Arthur’s own erection is straining untouched in his ridiculously tight trousers, but Arthur isn’t reaching for himself, just keeps touching Eames with those gorgeous long fingers, running over his perineum, reaching up to grope and grip his ass.
Eames trails his thumb over Arthur’s beautiful mouth. “All the nights I’ve spent wondering how you’d do this,” he murmurs. “The years. ”
Arthur’s eyes flit up to his and he sinks his mouth down over Eames’ head, jaw loosening, muscles at the back of his throat flexing and concaving around him in a move that threatens to have Eames coming on the spot. Arthur closes his eyes and inhales roughly through his nose, clearly fighting not to gag against the bulk of Eames’ cock. ”God ,” Eames says appreciatively, though it comes out sounding more like a guttural moan. “Open up for me, Arthur, there’s my good boy. You’re so good, you’re always so fucking good, you know that, don’t you?”
And then he’s babbling in rhythm with the motion of Arthur’s lips sweeping over his cock, and he can’t seem to stop: “You should be on my mantle gilded in bronze, you should be a fucking gold-medal winner, no wonder the military chewed you up and spit you out, you’re too good for it, you’re too good for all of it, I want to take you and tear it all down with you, god, darling, don’t stop, just like that, take it, that’s it, yes—”
Arthur looks wrecked, eyes watering, lips elongated and red, his own cock straining, hair coming unglued, and yet the look on his face is so intense and concentrated and turned on that Eames feels like he’s entered a feedback loop of arousal. He tugs Arthur’s hair, shifts back, gives him a chance to pull off before Eames comes, but Arthur just makes a hungry noise and leans forward to wrap his wanton lips even more firmly around Eames’ head, and Eames lets out a low cry and jacks himself straight into Arthur’s beautiful throat.
Arthur doesn’t even flinch, just swallows him down and licks him clean, and Eames is aware he’s murmuring ridiculous nonsense things as he comes, but when Arthur finally pulls off and then licks his lips, his hooded, dazed expression, the dampness still clinging to his mouth, is the hottest thing Eames has ever seen in his life.
“Arthur,” he says, sounding even more undone than Arthur looks. “Arthur.” He sinks down on the bed above Arthur and kisses him, Arthur’s erection still tenting his pants and rubbing hotly through the fabric against Eames’ thigh. Arthur’s mouth is hot and wet and sloppy and he immediately wraps his arms around Eames’ back, shivering. “I’ve got you,” Eames whispers into his mouth. “I’m not letting you go anywhere—” and then they’re deepening the kiss, and Arthur is moaning into his mouth, making small, abortive thrusts against Eames like he can’t help himself, and Eames is almost hard again, dizzy with the tangible sign that Arthur wants him, that he of all people could make Arthur, tucked-in, self-contained Arthur, come in his designer trousers.
Arthur rakes his nails down Eames’ back and then slides his palm over Eames’ ass. Eames’ hand is magically in Arthur’s hair again, raking through rich handfuls of it. He gentles Arthur, thumbing his jawline and his collarbone, mouthing his temple and his cheek and his throat until Arthur is still all over, trembling but motionless, waiting for him.
Slowly, eyes never leaving Arthur’s face, Eames stretches him out on the bed and undresses him. He does it with accidental deliberation, mainly because Arthur’s infernal three-piece suits are ridiculous and their buttons are absurdly tiny; but the act gains a sort of ritualistic seriousness as he moves, Arthur submitting to him, letting Eames peel him open, expose him layer by layer, until at last he’s before Eames, totally naked. There’s something intoxicating to Eames about being still mostly fully clothed next to Arthur’s lush lewd nakedness. Arthur’s skin is pristine, not a scratch on him, no scars anywhere—and of course there wouldn’t be, he thinks; all Arthur’s scars show up in his dreams.
He kisses Arthur again, and Arthur goes pliant in his arms, lets Eames have his fill of his skin, lets him familiarize himself with the contours and curves and all his sharp angular planes, and that’s Arthur, Eames thinks, hard in unexpected places, and just like that, he’s hard again himself.
“I swear they never knew what they had in you,” he murmurs, pushing Arthur back against the pillows, and Arthur for once doesn’t protest or argue, just watches while Eames finally gets the rest of his kit off, then lets Eames cover him with his own body.
Eames lets his weight settle over Arthur, just for emphasis, just to remind Arthur how well they fit together: Eames’ mass of muscle and Arthur’s wiry, corded frame. He hooks his ankles under Arthur’s calves and grinds down against Arthur’s cock, and Arthur bites his lip and sobs.
Eames presses a kiss to the underside of his jaw, holding his weight steady, a firm press against Arthur’s chest. He mouths the rope of muscle in Arthur’s’ neck, kissing his way down to his collarbone. Arthur is breathing shallowly, eyes intent on Eames’ face while Eames reaches for the lube on the bedside table.
“So,” he says while Eames is ripping the tube cap off with his teeth. “How do you feel about barebacking?”
Eames nearly swallows the tube cap.
“Like you’re going to be the death of me,” he says, hopefully masking his shock.
Arthur hums. “I hacked your medical files,” he says. “You’ve practiced very safe sex and now I want you to lube me up and stick your big, thick cock in me and fuck me like we’re making a porno. That okay with you?”
Mouth instantly gone dry, Eames nods helplessly, flips Arthur over onto his stomach, and slides a pillow under his thighs, running a hand over the beautiful curve of Arthur’s ass and down the back of his legs. He moves down the bed and settles behind the goods; Arthur squirms and pushes his ass into Eames’ hands, and Eames squeezes appreciatively, helping himself to several good gropes before dipping his finger in the lube and then inside the tight pink pucker of Arthur’s arsehole. Arthur’s whole body jolts, and Eames talks him through it—”Gonna be so good when I’m in you, just like this—” as Arthur loosens up and relaxes. He’s squirming and flexing against the mattress by the time Eames is done, sweat beginning to pool in the hollows of his knees and the small of his back.
“Arthur,” he says, amazed he can still utter whole words, “I have to ask one last time: are you sure about all this?”
“Oh my god,” Arthur huffs, burying his head in the pillow. “You are the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Yes, I’m sure. I want you to fuck me to shreds.”
Eames bends down and kisses the small of his back, unable to help laughing despite how overwhelmed he is. “By all means, don’t let me interfere with your sense of indignation,” he says, and sinks into Arthur in a single, slow movement. His stomach muscles are trembling from the strain of holding himself steady through the breach, and Eames has never felt anything this tighthotwetterrifying in his life.
“God,” Arthur sighs as Eames pushes inside him, “That’s so, ungh, jesus.”
“Bloody fuck, Arthur,” Eames gasps, muscles contracting from the effort of not letting go and thrusting wildly up into all that glorious heat. Arthur rocks back against him, and Eames’ breath stutters. He rolls his hips, a smooth undulation that has Arthur whimpering and scrabbling at the bedsheets for purchase. Eames grips Arthur’s thighs and shifts so Arthur’s involuntary movement meets a slow thrust that buries him to the hilt. The effect is electric, a tidal wave of pleasure that has Arthur crying out his name in a beautiful wrecked voice Eames is never going to forget.
Arthur comes unglued as Eames rides him, and it’s a sight to behold: his hands clench every time Eames hits his prostate, and he lets out these aborted half-gasps of pleasure that get harder and harder for him to control, until finally Eames is making him moan with every hard thrust. Arthur’s body is a sauna he never wants to leave, and Arthur is a mess, his hair undone and curling around his face, cock twitching in Eames’ hand, sweat beading his collarbone and the jut of his hips as Eames fucks him. He’s the most stunning thing Eames has ever seen.
“Do I fill you up?” Eames’ voice is guttural and wrecked, and Arthur shudders and moans an affirmative. He reaches back for Eames’ hand, winding their fingers together where Eames is stroking him. “Say it,” Eames orders, feeling Arthur’s muscles clench deliciously around his cock. “Tell me this was worth the wait.”
“You’re the literal worst,” says Arthur, muffled into the pillow. “Yes, it’s good, fuck,” and he’s coming in spurts of warmth and laughter.
He’s still laughing when Eames flips him over onto his back and bends him in half, claiming his mouth in a messy kiss as he fucks him through his orgasm and into Eames’ own, moaning into the kiss as Eames fills him up with come.
Eames fucks him into the afterglow, pace lengthening out into languid thrusts. His hands are trailing over Eames’ back, down to his ass, his thigh muscles. His legs are curled around Eames’ calves, and Eames feels heady and warm, wrapped up in Arthur. He never wants out.
They lie like that a moment, Arthur tucked in close, curled half on top of him like a lazy kitten, and Eames contemplates the miracle of an Arthur who’s here with him, who wants to be here with him, who wants him, instead of an Arthur with one eye on Cobb and one foot out the door.
“I can feel you being smug,” Arthur murmurs pleasantly.
Eames kisses the top of Arthur’s head. “You like when I’m smug,” he says. “‘You’re the literal worst’ means you like me the best.” Arthur snorts. “‘You’re the worst thing that ever happened to me’ means you want to run away with me and plant flowers and have babies. ‘You’re a literal child’ means—”
He halts, stricken.
“I think your translator is broken,” Arthur says, oblivious to the delayed revelation Eames is having next to him..
“Whatever you say, darling,” Eames says, and he has to kiss him, then, burying a rush of emotion against the curve of Arthur’s throat. After that, he more or less snuggles Arthur into use as a full body pillow, spooning against him, nuzzling at the curve of his ear, one leg curled over Arthur’s. Arthur is half-turned toward him, pointedly trying to squirm away from the wet spot. Eames tugs him over and wraps his arms around him, and Arthur’s face crinkles into a smile.
“I want to build so many roller coasters with you,” Eames says, drunk on the sheer wonder of it all.
“Yeah,” Arthur says, sounding muzzy-headed and content. “Me too.”
“So,” says Arthur. “Inception.”
They’re sitting along the waterfront outside the cantina, which is barely full this early in the day. Arthur is pristine and polished in a white button-up and designer khakis which Eames had incredulously watched him daintily unfold and iron shortly after being rimmed breathless an hour earlier. He looks like a walking cologne ad, not remotely like someone who’s just spent all night and most of the previous day being relentlessly shagged.
Eames has been so preoccupied with recent events that the statement catches him a bit by surprise. He allows himself a momentary dash of pride.
“Inception,” he agrees. “We did it.”
Arthur toasts him with the oversized piña colada he has shamelessly ordered even though it’s barely eleven o’clock. “What do we do with it? What are your thoughts on where we go from here?”
Eames studies him and decides against making a quip about finishing his huevos rancheros.
“I have to say, Arthur,” he says, a bit guardedly. “I wasn’t joking about thinking you’d be on your way. Before we have any sort of business conversation, I want to make it clear that if if you want out, we can get you out.”
Arthur sighs and looks out at the water. Eames tries not to think about Arthur leaving.
“I don’t want out,” Arthur says after another moment. He sounds wistful.
“But you don’t want to keep doing what you’ve been doing,” Eames says. It seems so obvious as he says it. The petty extractions, the shady corporations, the family dramas and angry wives and philandering husbands, the constant ethical challenges.
“I don’t want to stop dreaming,” Arthur says, his tone turning frustrated. He looks back at Eames, and Eames suddenly aches with the desire to return Arthur safely to the world of the invisible average WASP, unnoticed and unthreatened.
“You just hate that to dream the way you want, you have to be a criminal,” he says.
Arthur tilts his head, shoots Eames a narrow look. “Doesn’t a part of you hate it, too? That in order to do what you do best, you have to break the law?”
“Sure,” Eames says. “But I’d rather be a criminal than go back to using it legally for the military.”
Arthur’s huffs out a laugh. “Yesterday you said I wanted to be a loyal little soldier—I hated every minute of it. All I wanted to do was get out and take all the PASIVs with me.”
He sends Eames a rueful glance, as if he’s fully aware that Eames is supposed to say something about how he’s a repressed, self-sacrificing hypocrite with a martyr complex no one asked for. But Eames remembers Arthur. He remembers Lt. Chan with his hungry expression and his bleeding heart and his painfully transparent need to be loyal to something, anything, as long as it fed his drive to explore and create and know everything he could know.
All this time Eames has thought it was loyalty to the military that had driven Arthur back then, and later loyalty to the Cobbs—but it hadn’t been, not really.
Arthur’s first love is in that shiny silver box. They’re so much more alike than Eames likes to admit.
“So,” Eames says. “Why do you think I stole the PASIV to begin with?”
Arthur blinks at him. “Because you’re a thief,” he says blankly, with such an odd note in his voice that Eames has to laugh.
“Darling,” he says. “No one starts out wanting to be a criminal on principle. I stole the PASIV because the army doesn’t bloody deserve dreamshare. I just wanted it out there somehow. Just like you did when you summoned the Proprietors.”
Arthur starts. “You knew about that,” he says. “How did you—Yusuf, I’m guessing?” He grimaces. “How many people has he told?”
“Don’t blame Yusuf,” Eames says. “The man is so desperate to keep working he’s running an opium den. He’d start a blog if it helped legalize dreamshare faster.”
Arthur laughs. “It’s not going to happen, though,” he says. “Not unless one of us outs Project Somnacin to WikiLeaks.”
“And you’ve thought about it,” Eames says. Something about this conversation is making his gut twist in that way that reminds him of how he felt for weeks after meeting Yusuf and learning about the Proprietors—that sense that there was something new, looming large and unfinished, a work waiting to be begun.
“Of course,” Arthur says. He chews on his lower lip. “I love dreamshare. I don’t know if I’m ready to go on the run permanently for it.”
“We’ve just done inception,” Eames says. “Word’s going to get out eventually.”
“I know,” Arthur says. “But I’d rather it be on my terms than theirs.” He frowns. “It’s such a goddamn waste,” he says. “All that magic used to make people into better killing machines. We should be remaking civilization.”
“Transforming urban planning,” Eames says. “Building a test version of the bloody moon elevator.”
“Solar highway,” Arthur agrees.
“Playground for sociopaths and scientists.”
“Artists, creators, philosophers, skydivers, astronauts, athletes, conservationists—everybody, Arthur. Dreamers, not the bleeding military.”
“And it should be open source technology.” Arthur’s eyes are alight. “The Somnacin compounds, the PASIV delivery, all of it. The more data, the more of the chemical compounds and the code and the brain research we can put out there, the less the NSA can control it or the people who use it.”
“And you want to be the one coordinating all the distribution efforts,” Eames says, figuring it out. ”Jesus, you already are. You’ve probably got a file with a list of classified research from every Proprietor to fire off to the New York Times the moment you’re ready. And a contingency plan that involves you disappearing forever.”
He signals the bartender for the 1-barrel rum he should have gotten at the beginning of this conversation, eleven o’clock in the morning be damned.
“It’s not like that, exactly. But—” Arthur looks at him and then sits up straighter.
“But,” Eames prods.
“Eames,” says Arthur, leaning forward. “Do you know what we could do with inception? While it’s still a secret?”
“Arthur,” says Eames. “Do you know how dangerous a position we’d put ourselves in if we tried anything big?”
“Eames,” says Arthur. “Do you know how many people around the world we could help if we did it right?”
“Fine,” says Eames. “Let’s hear it. What mighty global institution do you want to bring down using a wildly implausible, highly dangerous, financially insolvent scheme of inception?”
“The ISDS,” says Arthur.
“Oh, fuck no,” says Eames.
“Oh, come on,” says Arthur.
“There’s not even a consensus on whether the supercourt is even real,” says Eames, “and you want to, what, infiltrate it?”
“Okay, firstly, you need to spend less time on Reddit,” Arthur says. “Second, of course it’s fucking real. The members are all rich businessmen and if we took, say, six months to strategically convince three or four key players to dissolve the court, we could pave the way for governments to finally be able to entirely end corporate exploitation of developing nations. Not to mention environmental destruction around the world. Plus it would totally decimate Putin’s European aggrandizement. We could change the world.”
“We could also die,” says Eames. “Arthur, one of the biggest energy conglomerates in the universe is run by the man who just hired us to perform inception. I’m fairly sure he’s not going to take kindly to any effort to dissolve the court, and I’m also fairly sure that if cold-blooded businessmen suddenly start voting to dissolve major international corporate protectorates, he’s going to put two and two together.”
Arthur’s face falls.
“But we can talk about it,” Eames adds hastily. “Believe me, darling, I’m all for incepting world peace, as long as we actually get to live long enough to enjoy it.”
“We could do it,” Arthur says, and his voice is so sincere Eames almost believes him. “Me and you, with the help of the Proprietors. Just like we can take down dreamshare after it’s over. Blow it all wide open.”
“You’ve got it all worked out, haven’t you?”
One of Arthur’s dimples peeks out around his smirk. “Just wait til you hear what I want to do to Trump.”
“Really.” Eames hopes Arthur is aware of his own death-wish, but he’s starting to strongly suspect it’s going to be his new job to keep him from indulging it at regular opportunities. “And when did you start jotting ‘take down all of the world’s secret international oligarchies and fascist dictators’ in your Moleskine, dare I ask?”
“Pretty early on, actually,” Arthur says easily. “It’s just, over time the plan has gained a bit more specificity.”
“Specificity,” Eames repeats.
Arthur’s smile is a beautiful, private thing, and Eames doesn’t know whether he’s more in awe that he went so long without knowing what it felt like to have it directed at him, or that he gets to have it now.
“It involves a lot more fucking now,” Arthur says, voice dropping, but still with that smug, secretive tone, like it’s a plot point he just has to share. “And that thing you did with your tongue earlier.”
Eames leans across the table and takes Arthur’s hand. The ease with which Arthur links their fingertips together is still astonishing, and Eames doubts there will come a time when it won’t be. “Darling,” he says. “I don’t know how yet, but I’m going to find a way to take dreamshare public without getting either of us killed. And if we manage to incept any or all of these insidious global entities while we’re at it, so much the better. Fair?”
Arthur laughs. “That’s the Eames I’m counting on,” he says.
“Which one of me is that?” Eames can’t help but ask.
Arthur’s nose wrinkles in disgust, and he waves a hand dismissively in Eames’ direction. “The one with the Burn Notice repertoire and the thirteen chess moves ahead and the making everyone fall in love with you,” he says. Then he flushes and pointedly looks out at the ocean again.
“Hmm,” says Eames, trying not to preen too visibly. “Lucky for me, I only count one.”
Arthur says, “Please stop talking,” but he’s grinning a little as he says it, so Eames calls it a draw.
(Later, when Eames pulls Arthur close and rests their foreheads together and nudges their hips together and says even more things into the curve of Arthur’s mouth, Arthur doesn’t tell him to stop at all.)