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The first letter ever to arrive at Eames’s flat in Mombasa comes in a plain white envelope with stamps with pictures of astronauts on them, the address on the front in neat block letters and the return address a P.O. box that Eames realizes is probably not even a real one upon opening the letter and finding that it’s from possibly the last person he would have expected. It’s handwritten in deep blue felt tip on a piece of standard white printer paper.

Hello, Eames.

This may come as a bit of a shock to you, but I've been thinking about what you said. I do, as a matter of fact, think about most things that you say, even though you're so sure I never listen. I just try not to think about them where you can see me doing it.

I thought about "going home to rot". I do not think that that eventuality is a given, my wasting away here in my apartment. But I have to admit that it could happen. I have no real job. I have no relationship, no family. I don't even have any friends left after dropping off the face of the earth for the last two years.

I will forgive the disparaging things you said about my disposition and personal preferences since I gave little better in return, and I will admit that I think that your underlying premise is a sound one.

I need to do something for myself. Going home is complacent. It's safe. And at this point in my life, I have the time and the capital to do something more, so I should.

It's about 5:40 am here. I'm waiting on a cab to take me to O'Hare, and I'll drop this in the mailbox on my way out. I'm not sure where I'm going yet, but I think I've got a pretty well-rounded carry-on, and I'll just see what my options are when I get there.

It's almost like I'm trying out what it'd be like to be you. I hope you're happy. I've closed my email accounts and I'll be using prepaid phones so you won't have any way of contacting me. Neither will anyone else, so don't sweat it; it's nothing personal.

Thank you,

Arthur

The Fischer job leaves Eames feeling restless. Or perhaps it's less the job and more the argument he had with Arthur when they ran into each other in the bar at the hotel they apparently both prefer near LAX. If Eames is honest with himself - and he tries to be just so he doesn't forget what being honest feels like - it's significantly more of the latter.

It is possible - probable, even - that Eames overreacted to Arthur's desire to go home and attempt to piece together a life, "meet some new people, maybe try to put my degree to use". Eames has to admit that he doesn't even know what Arthur has a degree in, and if pressured he would even go so far as to say that out of the three million people in Arthur's hometown, there are probably dozens, maybe even hundreds, that would be worth meeting.

But all Eames could see at the time was that Arthur had given years of his life and all of his considerable energy and skill during those years to Mallorie Miles and Dominic Cobb, and Dom had wasted all of it, really. And instead of reaping the rewards of the Fischer job and taking his rightful place as one of the top free agents in the field, Arthur was going to go home and try to patch together something unremarkable from the scraps of the old life he'd abandoned the moment Mal stepped into it.

That was then. By the time Eames is back in Mombasa, all he can think about is something that Arthur had said to him: "You're going to tell me I'm stupid for wanting to go home when you don't even remember what it's like to have one."

Eames is pretty sure that's some sort of cliché and that it therefore has no right to stick in his craw the way it does. But it does, because he's lived in Mombasa for almost two years now. He likes the weather and he likes the people and the scenery and the food, but he lives in a tiny flat in which he has managed to accumulate almost nothing at all, and he knows that when he leaves - and it has never been anything other than "when" - there will not be a Mombasa-shaped hole in his being. He's used to moving on.

Then the letter arrives. It's hard for Eames to believe that Arthur not only listened, but that he has, for some reason, decided to let Eames know that he listened. He could have just quietly cut Eames out of his life. He had no obvious reason not to. It's what Eames would have expected from him.

He has trouble sleeping that night. One week later, he loads a few suitcases into a taxi and heads to the airport, where he buys a one-way ticket to the last place he can remember sort of feeling at home.

Not long after that, Eames almost can’t believe it when another letter arrives. This one is a sort of marigold color, the envelope, upon inspection, hand-folded, and he doesn’t even have to open it to know it’s from Arthur. The block lettering of the address is just the same, except this time it’s the address of the flat he’s been in for less than a month. He’s almost creeped out, and he’d be a liar if he said that he didn’t look around, just in case someone is playing a practical joke on him, in case Arthur is hiding behind the potted plant on the landing.

Eames,

I'm glad I thought to double-check your address before I sent this. I half expected you to move again, but I wasn't expecting London. I hope you're enjoying it being back. And I hope you didn't think I'd stop keeping tabs on you. You should know I have an app for that.

I've decided to give Thailand another shot. I realized while I was at the ticketing counter trying to make up my mind that maybe I wasn't very fair in passing judgment two years ago. It was Bangkok and it was April, after all. And the job was awful. And you were sort of being an insufferable prick half the time.

So here I am back in Thailand. It's not April and I'm definitely not in Bangkok, and that makes all the difference, actually. It's beautiful here, though I'm sure I don't have to tell you that. You've probably been here; you've been everywhere.

Which I guess begs the question of why I'm writing you another letter. There's probably not much I could do that you haven't already done, so I might well not have a lot to say about all of this that you'd find interesting. But this is supposed to be about me doing what I want to do because I want to do it, and here's the thing.

That last letter I sent you was the first honest-to-god paper, handwritten letter I ever sent anyone in my life. I was a shy kid so I never even had a penpal or sent fanmail. And no letters to Santa because my parents had ideas about not lying to me. But I woke up that morning already having cut my ties to the world and for some reason wanting to tell you - nobody else, just you - where I was going.

I had to stop myself from feeling clever for remembering that I could actually send you a piece of paper with words on it.

And you know, there's something really liberating about putting your thoughts down and sending them out and not being able to take them back. I think you're probably reading this and thinking that I'm significantly weirder deep down inside than you'd thought, and that's all right because it's the truth.

But maybe you don't care and you've already thrown this away and you'll toss any other ones I send out with the junk mail, unopened. And that'd be okay too. It's not the reading that counts; it’s the writing.

If you haven’t tried it, you really should.

Good luck in your new place. Old place? Your new tenure in an old place.

Arthur

He reads it over lunch alone at the little dining table of his pre-furnished by-the-week flat, and he thinks about it for the rest of the day. About Arthur taking the time to write it and about the things he chose to write. The next day while out for a walk – he’s been taking a lot of walks now that he’s somewhere where it’s not too unbearably hot to go wandering for a couple of hours – a small stationery shop catches his eye, and he slows to a stop in front of the window before he knows quite what he’s doing. He stands there, chewing on his lower lip for a moment before he goes inside.

That evening he sits on his balcony and writes a letter back.

Arthur,

Sending letters with no return addresses is such a delightfully you thing to do. The only thing better than having the last word is simply having all the words, isn’t it? The only thing better than that in my opinion is the sound of one’s own voice, but needs must.

I must admit that I was surprised to learn in your first letter that you’d listened to me. Especially since I’m fully aware that I did not express myself in a particularly kind or even transparent way. If I’d had the time and the sobriety to come up with a concise way of saying what I was really thinking, it would have been this: you, Arthur, are too good for your own ambitions. I’ve told other people that you’re the best at what you do. Potential employers, other points that I don’t like, even Cobb. But I’ve never told you, probably because I’m an asshole.

I’ve watched you follow your dead friend’s widower all over the world for two years on what I know you thought at the time was a useless endeavor. Dominic Cobb might be a genius in his own completely unbalanced way, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t holding you back. I know the opportunities you passed up because I was the one calling to offer them to you half the time. And just when it looked as though the rest of the world’s extractors might actually get the chance to see what the best point in the world even looks like, you told me that you were just going to remove yourself from the job market.

And of course, I can see now in my sobriety that that’s none of my business. Perhaps, given the circumstances and timing, it was only misdirected anger at Cobb. I still feel even after cooling off that he didn’t deserve a friend like you and that he is a grade-A wanker. Which was normally only a source of mild, passive annoyance far outweighed by my admiration for his professional skill set, but in light of the debacle that was that job, it felt a bit closer to home.

And so now here I am being honest with you in some sort of real, meaningful way for perhaps the first time ever in a letter you’ll never read. But you’re right about the writing being important. You’d probably never suspect it, but I was an extremely unhappy child. Very quiet and closed-off. My parents sent me to a psychotherapist to try to figure out what the problem with me was, and she suggested writing letters since I didn’t want to talk and I didn’t know what was wrong. She thought letters (even letters that I didn’t show to a soul or destroyed after I wrote them) would help me work through my thoughts even if I couldn’t bring myself to tell them to my parents or my teachers or my mates.

Funny thing is, eventually it did work, because through writing them I realised that my problem was in fact my parents and my teachers and my mates, so I ran off to London and never looked back.

And now I’m back in London and writing letters to no one. It’s like being seventeen all over again. But still, it’s nice. It helps to focus my thoughts, which becomes increasingly difficult when I’m alone most of the time.

Hope you have a lovely time in Thailand.

Eames

PS – How did you find me? I’ve been here about two weeks and I don’t even own the place. You’re a creepy bugger sometimes.

PPS – Am I meant to know what an “app” is?

This is supposed to be home, but Eames has never felt so much like a tourist. He’s not sure if it only feels so different because he hasn’t been back to London in ten years and he has only the memories of a petty criminal in his youth drifting in and out of homelessness, or if the city really has changed so drastically.

There are three Pret A Mangers visible while standing in one spot in Trafalgar Square. Three. Eames turns in a circle and counts them twice, and he thinks about how many wallets he could conceivably swipe on one pass through this crowd. Either there are far more people or he’s just a better thief and experience makes it look that much easier. It’s hard to say.

He sits on the embankment and goes through real estate listings on his mobile. He’s never owned property before, but it seems to him to be an integral part of having a home, if you’re going to really go for it as hard as your means allow, and God knows he has enough money saved for it.

In the meantime he continues to let his place just off of Goodge Street, and he soon finds that he can go out jogging from there and make one good lap around Regents Park before collapsing in the rose gardens. He cannot recall how long it’s been since he had a serious, consistent amount of aerobic exercise. That’s the sort of thing that only those with nothing better to do have time for.

Eames looks at flats. He looks at them everywhere, because really, he doesn’t know what he wants except that he thrives on bustle and activity and life all of the time, on the places that people move away from when they get married and have kids and want to settle down with a dog.

He sees the East End and the West End, seriously considers a place in Notting Hill but just hates the prospect of ever having to hear about Hugh Grant from his mostly non-British acquaintances, and even goes and looks at a place very convenient to Kensington High Street as well as Hyde Park just for the amusement of pretending that he’s richer than he is.

But he falls in love with the place that he buys after a week and a half of nonstop appointments because it’s a dump. It’s in Pimlico, on a street that’s quite nice but isn’t too nice (which Eames hates), and it’s a good walking distance from a lot of the things Eames likes. The building is very old and very beautiful, but the flat in question really has gone to shit and needs to be cleaned just before a great many things in it are replaced.

“The wiring is sound and it’s all new plumbing,” says the real estate agent.

“You’re lying through your fucking teeth,” Eames tells him. “Take off another twenty thousand and I think we can make a deal.” He’s looking at the awful paint job that’s been applied to the Edwardian crown molding in the master bedroom. He’s thinking that the best solution will probably be just to tear the stuff out entirely. The agent argues, but in the end Eames gets his way.

He has lived quite frugally for many years, he rarely buys new clothes, never pays for his own nice meals, has no cars or loans or other debts. He’s put away damn near all that he can, and when Eames turns over a sizeable portion of the last ten years of his life to the bank in exchange for a piece of property in a town he’s only just returned to last month, property that needs a load of work to put it mildly, he briefly wonders what in the world he’s doing.

On the night that he moves in, he lies on the floor of the empty front room on his mattress and stares at the shadows on the ceiling and feels, for the first time since he was a teenager, in some way rooted. It is neither a negative nor a positive feeling. It simply is.

He is not as surprised as he could be when another letter arrives, his third address in only a few months spelled out once again in neat block letters on a hand-folded dark teal envelope, once again with that probably-fake P.O. box as a return.

Eames,

I realized today that I must like it a lot here, because I bought a moped. Is that kind of thing how you end up stuck places you didn’t intend to stay in? I hope not. But I was tired of renting and a young man down the street was selling his for a fair price. He’s moving away, either to join a monastery or move in with his girlfriend. I’m not sure which; the story seemed to change based on the proximity of his grandmother.

It has a 125cc engine and it’s yellow with white racing stripes. I honestly don’t know if you’d think it was awesome or completely stupid. You’re unpredictable in that way. But I personally think it’s great. I drove it out of town and up a mountain today. It was really tranquil, just me and the forest and my struggling engine and all the Taiwanese tourists cruising by with their larger engines.

The brakes are also a bit unreliable. I had to drag the soles of my boots on the asphalt on the way back down to help things along.

I’m happy with my purchase. I’ll have to spend three months riding it instead of renting to make it a worthwhile investment. I think I can handle that.

I hope this letter finds you well. Healthy and not on any new international wanted lists, etc.

Arthur

Dear Arthur,

I should think that if your flat and all of your possessions and your feeling of belonging couldn’t keep you in Chicago, a moped probably won’t stop you from leaving Thailand, but I suppose that things like attachment and desires are all sort of relative in the end. I do have a few friends who’ve become stuck in southeast Asia, though I think that all of them were trying to be.

I suppose that on that note I should inform you that I’m attempting to take your advice. Least I can do after you were gracious enough to take mine. And I’m quite aware that you were offering up an insult and not actually advice when you said I don’t know what it’s like to have a home, but that doesn’t change the fact that I think you were right.

I really don’t know. Even when I was a child I never felt like I truly belonged within my family, which of course it turned out I didn’t after I turned out queer. I think that in the absence of agency, belonging is all one has to define a home. A place to sleep and store your things isn’t really enough, is it?

I’ve purchased a flat. It’s by far the most expensive thing I’ve ever owned, which seems odd when I consider that I’m not even sure I want it and it’s more that I’m trying it out.

It’s sort of awful in the same way that your moped seems to be sort of awful. That way in which it’s run down and only questionably functional but all of that only serves to make you like it more. I’m self-aware enough to know that I’m a person who likes things that no one else likes just for the sake of it, but in this case I think that it’s less that and more that after I finish gutting what needs gutting and sanding and painting and replacing, this place might really feel like mine.

And I guess that’s what I’m after. I certainly can’t stay in London all the time for the rest of my life; I’d go mad. But it might be nice to have a place to come back to. A bit of consistency seems to do other people a lot of good.

Eames

PS – I cannot believe the way you keep up with my address changes. Are you some sort of wizard?

“H’lo?”

“Hi, Eames. It’s Dom.”

“Erm.”

“Dom Cobb.”

“Yes, I surmised as much.” Eames should have known when his mobile started buzzing on the edge of the sink and the number came up unknown that he should’ve just let it go to his voicemail. It hasn’t been set up yet and therefore simply rejects everyone, just as Eames likes it.

But against his better instincts he picked it up and now here he is stuck on the line with Dominic Cobb. “You know I prefer to be recruited in person, so I’m afraid unless you’re calling me from the café on the corner…”

“I’m retired.”

Eames snorts lightly as he tosses the sponge he’s been holding into the sink, then rinses the soap off his hand under the tap. “Of course you are. How could I have forgotten?”

There is an annoyed pause from the other end of the line, but Cobb chooses not to argue. It is the story of their relationship. “I’m not calling about work.”

“Good, because I’m far too busy to work at the moment,” Eames declares as he hoists himself up to sit on the countertop.

“Too busy doing what?”

“Cleaning the grout.”

“The what?”

“In my kitchen.”

“You have a kitchen?”

Eames sighs. He’s already tired and he really does not want to have this conversation right now. Cleaning, most days, seems more exhausting than extractions. Interacting with Dominic Cobb in a non-professional capacity is always more exhausting than both. “Yes, I have a kitchen, and the state of the tile in it is really a disgrace, so if you’ll excuse me, I do need to get back to scrubbing away my shame.”

“I’m calling about Arthur.”

Eames purses his lips, and a silence that’s just a bit too long follows. “Ah,” he says at last.

“You know where he is,” Dom says, and he says it in the manner of a man who is having a revelation. Eames often forgets how perceptive Cobb can be. If he’d wanted to feign ignorance about Arthur, he should have asked a question.

“I do,” he admits with some reluctance.

“How?” Cobb demands.

Eames is more defensive than he’d like when he says, “Because he told me.”

He can practically hear that slap land on Cobb’s face, and Cobb can’t entirely hide that it hurts when he asks, “He told you?” Eames listens as Dom frowns. “He told me he was going home, and then he just dropped off the grid entirely. I thought maybe he was in trouble on a job, so I figured—”

“You figured you’d call me, because if there’s trouble about I’m always involved in some capacity. Not this time. I really am attempting to clean my kitchen, and dearest Arthur is, so far as I know, alive and well.”

“Where?”

“Not my place to tell you, I’m afraid. If Arthur wanted you to know, you wouldn’t be on the phone with me.”

“Is he with you?”

The question catches Eames off-guard. He can’t come up with a quick retort because it’s so unexpected. “Told you, I’m not on a job.”

“That wasn’t what I asked.”

Eames is, for some reason, completely baffled by the question, by the fact that Cobb seems to think it’s possible that Arthur fell off the grid and into Eames’s flat. “No,” he answers at last. “No, I haven’t seen him.”

Eames,

I made it two months and twelve days, but unfortunately I totaled my moped. I’d say it wasn’t my fault, but it was. Alive, no serious injuries, but it’s definitely going to hurt to sit, stand, or lie down for a week or so.

Maybe it’s a sign that I need to move on. I don’t actually believe in signs, at least not in the real world. But I’ve got a routine now. I buy durian (unironically… you really do learn to live with the smell) from the same lady at the market every morning. She knows my name. She knows it’s no good introducing me to her daughter. I read or I drive up to the lake to fish or I just walk around town. I have dinner in the restaurant on the corner and the owner knows exactly how spicy I like things.

It feels normal. I should probably go.

Right now I’m wondering how you know when it’s time to leave. Probably when Interpol shows up on your doorstep.

Arthur

Dear Arthur,

I’m sure that you meant that Interpol remark to be a joke (mostly sure, anyway) but it’s disappointingly accurate in at least one case. I don’t think there’s a foolproof way of knowing when to move on. Sometimes it’s because of local (or international) law enforcement, sometimes it’s boredom, sometimes it’s that you’re sick and tired of having to strap on a parka and snowshoes just to go down to the shops, sometimes (but not often) it’s a broken heart (or, as it may be, a broken moped).

In the end it’s all about not feeling the way you wanted in the place you are. And if you’re feeling normal when you wanted to not, there’s nothing wrong with going. It seems to me that you might be overthinking things once again, which is an unfortunate side effect (it seems to me) of being paid to overthink things.

I have to admit that I’m wondering what would have happened had you been totaled instead of your scooter. Do you have any personal information on you? Any contact info for anyone at all? I wonder who would hear about it if anything happened to you.

I wonder if I should assume something is wrong if I stop hearing from you, or if it’ll just mean you’re tired of writing to me. I wonder if the person who would hear about it if you were in trouble would be me.

I would’ve thought all of this was a stupid thing to worry about because you are the single most responsible and level-headed person I’ve ever known. I’m sure that you have a little digital rolodex of all the places it is or isn’t okay to drink the water and that you never go walking around alone at night in the wrong neighborhoods and that you have never for a moment seriously considered going cliff-diving. But then you reminded me that things like traffic accidents do happen, even to very skilled drivers who wear appropriately-fitted helmets and never go over the speed limit, and that our lovely Arthur probably is not in fact indestructible.

I do hope that you haven’t made yourself completely untraceable. I know that you’re capable of it, and I suspect that you might really think that there aren’t those of us who care.

Be safe,

Eames

PS – I hope that someday I find out that there are photos of you on your little yellow moped.

In the couple of months since moving in, Eames has stripped down and repainted nearly every room in the flat. He has also settled into the neighborhood rather nicely. He’s learned that his downstairs neighbor is out of town on business three out of four weeks a month (which suits Eames fine) and which restaurants to avoid and what time the relevant buses come.

He’s had sex twice. The first guy he didn’t like much, and the second he wasn’t very compatible with sexually, but they made each other laugh enough trying that now they’re friends. Patrick’s introduced Eames to some of his other friends and they’ve gone out for drinks a couple of times, but mostly he comes over on his days off and watches Eames paint.

“What on earth are you doing?” Patrick asks the first time Eames lets him come back to see the master bedroom.

“I’m painting a mural,” Eames replies, sticking his hands in his pockets and grinning like a schoolboy showing off his science fair project. He’s aware that there’s not much in the way of paint on the wall yet, but there are paint pots and supplies all over the tarps that cover the floor. The wall is one big cartoon, which Eames has drawn on in graphite by hand.

“This is that bloody Roman mural, the Alexander one. From Pompeii,” Patrick breathes after studying the shapes up close and then from a distance for a moment.

“Correct as usual,” Eames says. Patrick is a bookworm and an Oxford man, a bit of a flake who’s intelligent in that showy, trivia-heavy Jeopardy contestant sort of way.

“But it's a mosaic, isn’t it?”

“One originally based on a painting, so acrylic is fair game as a medium,” Eames crows triumphantly, and Patrick waves a hand in the way that he has of trying to appear dismissive even though he knows he’s been bested.

“Well, this would explain why your mattress is still in the front room. Is this really your top priority right now, mate? Over buying a kitchen table? Or a bedframe?”

“I wouldn’t set up a bedframe in the front room,” Eames points out as he moves to pick up one of his pencils off a nearby windowsill and then over to the last corner of the wall he’s trying to finish up. “Then I’d just have to break it down again when I’m ready to bring it in here.”

“Fair point,” Patrick concedes, and he sits down on the floor to watch Eames draw, and from then on he comes by from time to time and sits for hours, watching the work and distracting Eames only as much as Eames wants him to.

Hey, Eames,

Do you know what makes it really difficult to have a decent time in Japan? When your boss is so afraid of trains he won’t take a shinkansen anywhere. We could’ve pulled weeks’ worth of our last job here from anywhere on Honshu, but Dom didn’t want to leave our shitty, stifling warehouse in the only shitty part of Tokyo we could afford to be based in until he absolutely had to. I can’t take Tokyo. It’s too crowded and the architecture is atrocious.

So this time I meant to just travel around the country for a while, and I have been, but I came to Miyajima and I’ve sort of failed to leave. It’s a little touristy, but the ferries leave and everyone goes home in the evening, and it’s just a quiet, perfect little island.

I feel like I’ve missed the world in the last few years. I guess that’s the problem with dreamshare; you feel like this really cosmopolitan, well-traveled jetsetter but in reality you’re only seeing the world in airports and warehouses and hotel rooms. I guess you wouldn’t know how that feels, but you’ve never been part of dreamshare in the way other people are. But in case you’re wondering, it feels terrible, or at least it does to me at this moment. The tide is in and the torii is floating, and the weather is perfect today.

And I sort of miss extraction. No, I definitely miss it. I miss the adrenaline and the problem-solving, and I have to admit I miss having a reason to wear something nicer than jeans and t-shirts. But I think about trading this for that and right now I don’t want that at all.

If I’d gone home after our last job maybe I’d be restless by now and maybe I’d be back in the business. And I’m glad I’m not. I’m glad I’m here having udon and momiji manju every day, picking up some Japanese and writing you letters at the waterfront.

I say letters in the plural because this is my first letter from Japan but my second draft of this letter. The first one was eaten by a deer while I was in the middle of writing it. Can you believe that? A fucking deer.

Arthur

Dear Arthur,

I’m just going to assume that beyond being in a beautiful place, you are getting along swimmingly in Japan. You’re such a big proponent of so many traditional Japanese values: politeness and order, loyalty, bravery, being extremely well-dressed and looking fantastic. I have not actually seen you there, but I am fairly certain that Japan is a great look on you, especially now that it shouldn’t be face-meltingly hot and the leaves will be turning. Despite your presumed reluctance to sport it, orange just might be your color. You’re not allergic to shellfish, I hope.

Here again we revisit the theme of Dom Cobb holding you back. This time quite literally. What the hell is his hang-up with trains? I’m convinced that you have to know more about his extraordinary weirdness than I’ve ever gotten out of you, but I’ll manage it someday. Now that you own up to missing dreamshare, I’m fully certain that we’ll run into each other in the not-so-distant future. After you finish giving the world a proper once-over and I finish this bloody mural I’ve been working on, we are definitely going to go out for drinks, and when we do, I will do my utmost to remember that none of these things I’ve written and addressed to you ever actually reached you, and therefore I should probably not reference any of them.

If you’re missing dreamshare already, it’s probably most likely for the best that you’re on hiatus. Of course no one can agree on this point, but I fully believe that dreamshare is addictive. I went two years cold turkey off somnacin once just because I wasn’t sure that I could. It’s best to take nice, long, frequent breaks, and that’s the reason I don’t own a machine myself. That and I’m fairly sure if I can’t keep bits of Pringles out of my keyboard, I can’t maintain a sterile injection apparatus on a PASIV.

I think this holiday is doing you more good than you likely know. I think that your idea of going home was a bad one, but my idea of your staying in dreamshare, maybe taking a job with me, was probably worse.

And I hope – I really hope – that if my own holiday is doing me more good than I know as well, I’ll figure out just what good that is soon. It’s not that I’m unhappy. It’s just that I’m a bit worried about myself.

As ever, yours hypothetically,

Eames

“What am I doing, Pat?” Eames asks one day as he drops one of his very expensive vegan artist’s brushes into a pot of murky water and tells himself that he won’t ruin this one by forgetting it in there like the last three. He leans back and stares at his work. The tense, still-drying visage of Alexander of Macedon stares back at him, looking as concerned as Eames feels.

“You’re painting a life-size and extrapolatively reconstructed replica of an incredibly elaborate Pompeiian mosaic on your bedroom wall,” Patrick replies, looking up from his book, which is something about macroeconomics that Eames does not want to have to hear about and hopes Patrick won’t want to discuss. “Have I mentioned lately that you are the strangest man I’ve ever met? Not to mention one of the most talented.”

“You’ve no idea,” Eames mutters.

Patrick agrees, “I’m sure I don’t,” and he sounds completely earnest about that.

“Do you not think there’s something off about a person who opts for this over buying furniture or refinishing the woodwork or replacing the quasi-functional refrigerator?”

“I thought so a bit at first, but after careful consideration, I think that it is the pinnacle of human achievement to be able to do what one pleases when one wants merely because one wants to do it.”

Eames rolls his eyes but doesn’t bother to turn so that Patrick can see him doing so. “Thank you for the words of wisdom, Oscar, but I really feel that that’s easy for you to say when Mummy and Pop-pop are willing to bankroll all of your flights of fancy.”

“Not all of them,” Patrick mutters, and Eames considers the fact that he himself is obviously able to bankroll his own flights of fancy, though hardly forever. Patrick tells him, “I think you worry too much.”

I’m turning into Arthur, Eames tells himself. And then he thinks that there are far worse fates.

Eames,

Today I thought I was homesick. I seriously did; I was pretty convinced that I missed the States for about ten minutes. I think that would be a stupid way to feel. I’ve been gone for less than half a year and I’ve spent thirty years in the States, so it really wouldn’t make any sense to miss it yet.

And as it turns out I didn’t miss the States; I just miss Mexican food. I never really noticed before that you can’t get it in Japan. Somnacin use suppresses my appetite, so normally when I’m traveling I’m just making myself eat, but I’m starving right now and all I really want is a burrito. According to the internet I am currently in a black hole that contains zero Mexican restaurants, and to be honest even if there were one I’m not entirely sure the food would be very Mexican. So I thought I’d try making my own, but I just spent an hour walking back and forth in the grocery store and I’m pretty sure there are no tortillas here. Not corn, not flour. None.

I’m a problem-solver. It’s what I’m paid to do. I’m supposed to be the best, and I can’t even figure out how to get a burrito. Just one. It doesn’t even have to be that authentic.

And now I’ve written you a whole letter about my incompetence. That should tell you how big of an issue this is and what it’s doing to my self-esteem. It’s not like this is the first bump in the road I’ve had here. I ate some bad curry and threw up until I thought I was dying. I got on the wrong train and ended up on the wrong island. I accidentally walked into the amateur porn comics floor at the toy store and couldn’t figure out how to leave without looking even more stupid than I already felt.

But this, this is the worst. I can administer a kick in zero gravity but I can’t get a burrito in Japan. I’m not sure if this is me losing my edge or if the situation is really that dire. I think I have some soul-searching to do.

I hope you’re doing well and that this letter finds you less hungry than I am.

Arthur

P.S. I got out of the porn situation by buying some porn. It’s always best to just act like you meant to be there. The book is all men and no dick. It’s lens-flared out. I feel sort of ripped off.

Before Eames even has a chance to “respond”, before even a week has passed, another very brief letter arrives.

Eames,

I’m in Mexico. Turns out that I’m still a problem-solver after all; it’s just that I needed to think eight thousand miles further out of the box.

I’m actually about to head out to the bus station; I’m going to the Yucatan. So I don’t have time to write much at the moment, but I did want to let you know that I’ve taken care of the Mexican food situation and you don’t need to worry about me. Which I’m sure that you were.

Rest easy. Emergency over.

Arthur

The second letter catches Eames in a strange mood, and after Eames finishes his response, he seals it up in a hurry and doesn’t reread it or really think about what he’s written afterward. Instead, he just sticks it in his box and goes to bed.

Dear Arthur,

I’ve been wondering if you and I are, or ever have been, friends. I mean, were I to ask you – really ask you – it’s not as though the answer I received would in and of itself really carry much meaning. Everyone has a very different idea of what it means to be a friend. The bare minimum, I suppose, would be a person who is not an enemy and whom one at least somewhat keeps up with. But some people throw in other things, like trust or a certain amount of time spent together (maybe even time spent together voluntarily) or a secret handshake or whatever it is people expect.

I think that for me a friend is a person that I look forward to being around. It’s rather a loose definition and maybe it’s not even a very complete one, but in any case I think you qualify. You’re probably pickier. You probably disqualify people that you work with. Even people who’d rather work with you than with others, which I would. So it’s a bit of a mystery to me why you’ve chosen me as opposed to everyone else to write to. I’m aware that you’re a bit of a lone wolf, or perhaps just lonely, but if I’d had to guess the person you’d choose as your one contact after the last job, I would have said Ariadne. You two seemed to get along better.

And the truth is that no matter how much you may or may not be editing yourself for these letters, I know you far better now than I did the last time we saw each other in person. And if there’s one thing I never thought you wanted, it was for me to know you.

I haven’t contacted any of the friends I used to have in London. It was a long time ago, but I think they’d like to hear from me and know I’m all right. I’ve looked up a couple of them, gotten their numbers, but I never call. To be perfectly honest, I think I’m afraid of what I might find. I’m sure many of them are dead or in prison, but it’s not so much that. It’s more that this place feels different, and I’m worried that it’s not the city that’s changed in the last decade and I’m really the one who’s different. That maybe I’ve come full circle and turned back into the person my parents wanted me to be: a successful, property-owning, properly detached citizen, albeit an uneducated, not-exactly-upstanding one.

I’ve got one friend here. One real friend. He’s from money, well-educated. He knows art and history and quite a lot about math and science. He can have a conversation in three languages and order in restaurants in two more. He is not what I’d consider particularly intelligent. Intelligence isn’t facts or languages or degrees. Intelligence is the ability to ask a pertinent and insightful question, no matter how much you know about the topic at hand. The means to look inside and recognise the things you do know as well as the depths of what you don’t.

You’re like that. He’s not really like you.

Very much hoping you’re safe and happy,

Eames

PS – I believe those pornographic comics are generally unlicensed works. I wonder which cartoon you picked to read pornography about. Some of them are quite interesting.

Once the mural is finished, Eames feels a bit empty, which is not quite the sense of triumph and satisfaction he’d thought he was going to experience.

“This is fucking brilliant,” Patrick enthuses as Eames takes a photo of his freshly-dried work and sends it to Yusuf, whom he still hasn’t spoken to since the Fischer job but misses lately more than he’d ever expected to. “Really,” Patrick adds. “Can I bring the boys ‘round to have a look? Abhishek went to Pompeii on holiday a couple years ago; he’d love it.”

“I suppose,” Eames says with a shrug.

Patrick has pulled a photo of the mosaic up on his iPad, which makes Eames snort, because he’s got all his printed references scattered all over the floor. “It’s so exact. You could be some sort of art forger.”

Eames purses his lips and ducks his head, watching his friend sidelong and trying not to laugh when Patrick amends, “Not that you really need the money.”

Patrick thinks that Eames is independently wealthy, an entrepreneur taking a long-overdue break, living off of his very lucrative investments. It didn’t bother Eames at first, lying to his friend. It’s not as though he has any other options. But it sort of eats at him now, even as the irony amuses him, and he’s unsure of why.

Maybe because he thinks that Patrick wouldn’t be able to relate to him if he knew the truth. That Patrick wouldn’t want to relate to him.

At that moment, he still doesn’t want to call his old underworld friends, the ones who would not only understand, but congratulate him on being in dreamshare and on his success. Instead he wishes that Arthur would give him a phone number.

Yusuf texts him back. Very good. Do you hang paper as well? My office needs doing.

Eames grins and fires off a reply. ur such a bastard.

Eames,

It’s amazing to me still, sometimes, the ways the mind works. I stopped having natural dreams four years ago. You probably guessed that. I know that you know I take sleep aids. I’ve always been oversensitive to somnacin, and I suppose you probably guessed that too, since Dom’s always wanted everything tested on me. If a mix is gonna make someone puke or break out in hives, it’ll do it to me. So I lost my ability to dream pretty quickly.

When I think about the side effects, sometimes I have to wonder if I stuck around for those first few years because that’s how much I cared about Mal, or because the dreaming itself is addictive. I think a lot of people would’ve left, and I don’t know if the fact that I stayed is a sign of strength or weakness.

It’s like the years after she died. I thought that staying with Dom was a sign of the sort of loyalty a good friend should have. You always managed to say things that made me feel like it was because I’m a doormat. Now I don’t know which was the truth.

I’m getting off topic. The human mind isn’t amazing just because mine hallucinates for days if I’m administered somnacin orally. I was writing to say that it’s amazing the way it can change so drastically and so suddenly. As I said, I stopped dreaming four years ago.

This week I started again. Thursday night was a flood of dreams. I woke up probably a dozen times from dreams about everything – jobs I’ve worked, places I’ve been, people I’ve known. Ones I haven’t thought of in a long time. Fears and anxieties over problems that went away years ago. Like I’ve been bottling up the dreams I might’ve had all this time, had I been able. I’d almost think that was the case, except that the dates and the people and places are all mixed up and just too far off to make sense. Which they shouldn’t, really; they’re only dreams.

That was the first night. It was like a switch had been flipped. Or, more accurately, like a dam was opened. After this initial onslaught it’s just been a steady flow the last few nights, and the dreams themselves are a bit more low-key. I’m in Peru right now. Caught a flight down a week ago, and I’m headed to Uruguay tomorrow. I had a dream the other night that the bus I’ll be taking drove off a cliff. Everyone died but me, and I was lost in the Amazon basin. (It made geographical sense in my head, all right?)

Last night I had a dream about you. But I won’t bore you with the details.

Maybe when I come back on the grid I’ll do a little research and see if this is normal. I’ve certainly never heard of it happening quite like this. What I know now is the last few nights have been the best sleep I can remember. I definitely won’t relish losing my normal REM again, whenever I get back to work.

I hope you’re doing all right. I hope you’re painting. I don’t think I’ve ever told you, but I always liked your work.

Arthur

Dear Arthur,

I’m rather embarrassed to admit it now, but there was a time when I did think that you were a doormat. Not for anyone but Cobb, but one person is enough. I thought it was one of your few failings, along with a lack of a sense of humour. I’ve found increasingly over time, and especially through your letters, that I was entirely wrong about the sense of humour, but I figured out a long time ago that you weren’t just letting Cobb use you.

I can’t say that I’ve ever completely understood the idea that I might want to give up years of my life and most of my professional free agency for a man who isn’t much fun and whom I’m not even fucking. But you had loved Mal more than I realised at the time. That I can understand, even if I’ve never had a friend like that. And I suspect that perhaps all of it was less about her husband and more about her children. And that makes a little more sense.

On a related note, Yusuf and I are on speaking terms again. I think that being deprived of my incomparable repartee for this long is punishment enough for anyone. As such, you should probably go ahead and forgive him as well.

I will leave it up to you when we will forgive Cobb, as he’s much more your friend than mine.

I wish that I could offer some insight into the loss and return of natural dreams, but I’ve never reached that point myself. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that you had, not being someone who dreams recreationally so far as I know. I suspected that you had reactions after the time you puked for an hour and the other time you were so delirious it took three of us to wrangle you back to your hotel and into bed, but I’ve never heard of lack of natural dreams as an effect of sensitivity. You should talk to Yusuf about it, since we have now forgiven him.

Actually – and I realise this is very self-centered of me to pick out the one line of your letter directly concerning myself – I am most interested in your dream about me. Don’t think that I can’t see what you’re doing (purposely being a dick) but likewise don’t think that I am not vain enough to take the bait. If it helps, I am particularly curious because I have met various projections of myself in dreams with multiple other people, including you, and yours was by far the most accurate in my (admittedly biased) opinion. I’ll bet your adventures with me are very true to life.

Congratulations on your recovery,

Eames

PS – I cannot recall ever having shown you pictures of my paintings. I must have been feeling extraordinarily drunk and full of myself on whatever evening this was.

Filling a flat – even one that does not have an overabundance of space – is very difficult for Eames. He’s never learned how to accumulate stuff because he’s never allowed himself to begin doing so. He has about two suitcases full of indispensable things that can’t be replaced and a couple more full of clothes that he doesn’t want to have to replace that are all he ever brings with him when he moves and all he brought with him here. Even his paintings are in a climate-controlled storage unit in Geneva. Eames chose Geneva originally in the hopes that if anyone ever breaks in and steals them, the thieves will be mistakenly led to believe that they have stumbled upon erstwhile forgotten Nazi plunder, which is a far more amusing idea than the mere thought of having all his work stolen.

He buys the basics: bed, wardrobe, sofa, dining table. There’s a second bedroom that Eames isn’t sure what to do with until he goes to put away the box he’s just bought to store Arthur’s letters and finds that there’s no logical spot for them. So he buys a big carved mahogany writing desk and a matching chair from an antique shop not too far away, and he puts them in the spare bedroom, which seems to turn the room into an office, of a sort. In the desk goes any paperwork of whatever kind that he has lying around the flat, along with Arthur’s letters in their own drawer, and his own letters back to Arthur in their own box as well. He puts his laptop on the desk, then immediately takes it back out to the front room so he can lie on the new sofa while he uses it.

“Why does my place feel so empty still?” Eames asks Patrick one day while they’re standing on the platform waiting for a train that will take them over to the East End to have pretentious, very complicated cocktails in a bar with no sign out front, which is one of Patrick’s favorite pastimes.

“Because you haven’t bought a television,” is the reply.

Eames shoves his hands further into the pockets of his overcoat, still feeling the residual early-winter cold even though they must be fifty feet underground. A frown tugs at his lips. “I don’t want one. I’ve got a laptop and I barely ever watch anything anyhow.”

“I can’t tell if you sound more like my granddad or like some new evolution of hipster.”

It takes a very conscious effort for Eames not to ask what, exactly, a hipster is. Patrick is nearly eight years younger than he is and has a lot of obnoxious friends who give him strange ideas. “I’m not buying a TV,” he reiterates just for good measure.

“How about bookshelves?”

“I’ve got an e-reader. Physical books are far too difficult to transport.”

“Well, yes, I suppose, but where are you planning on taking them?”

And then the train pulls in, and Eames just stares unseeing at the cars rushing past as he really lets that question sink in.

He buys shelves. On his way home from one of several subsequent trips to secondhand bookshops he passes a used record store. “You bloody hipster,” Patrick mutters when he comes over to find an entire shelf full of vinyl. Eames, once more, does not ask.

Christmas is coming. Patrick goes with his family on some sort of skiing trip in Austria for the holidays, and Eames wasn’t particularly keen on spending it with a friend anyhow, so he spends the end of December in Morocco. It’s unseasonably warm, and Eames spends his time reading on the terrace at his hotel or finding spots around Marrakech to sit and sketch.

He is surprised to find that after two weeks, he feels rested and ready to face London once more. He returns with some spice he picked up in the market that he thinks he should learn how to use but probably won’t and a better tan than he’s had in months. Amongst the small pile of mail in his box is a letter addressed in a handwriting so familiar Eames could probably forge it from memory.

Hello, Eames.

I hope your Christmas was better than mine.

It’s funny how not being Christian doesn’t stop you from having a terrible Christmas. My parents weren’t religious, but my mom was Jewish and my dad was Irish Catholic, so we sort of celebrated everything when I was a kid, just out of their habits. They didn’t make a big deal out of it, but when everyone around you does and the media does and every year you end up watching Miracle on 34th Street or that Charlie Brown special with the shitty tree because that’s all that’s on TV for a month, it’s sort of impossible not to develop unrealistic expectations about the holidays, isn’t it?

I used to spend them with Mal and Dom. The last couple years, Dom and I always made sure we were in the middle of a job. We’d just work through it, so he could forget. This year I was pretty fucking alone, though.

Except not really. Think of the most pathetic way you can of spending Christmas Eve. If you thought of being picked up by a stranger in a hotel bar in Montevideo, you would be a winner. His name was Paul and he was a Canadian, here on some kind of business and missing his family. Doesn’t that sound like the setup for some schmaltzy romance movie where he was Hugh Grant and I was Reese Witherspoon? It’d probably end with one of us running after the other, shoving people out of the way in a crowded airport terminal.

Instead he got a call from his kids on Christmas morning. Stupid me, thinking the family he missed was his parents and siblings. So I helped a man cheat on his wife for Christmas.

Maybe in the grand scheme of things it’s not the worst thing I’ve done in my life, but right now it sort of feels like it. I’m sorry if this is too much information. I really do hope you enjoyed your holidays.

Happy New Year,

Arthur

It’s like a punch in the gut.

And it shouldn’t be. It really shouldn’t. Arthur is barely Eames’s friend and Eames probably isn’t Arthur’s at all. He has no right to be upset, and he’s shocked to find that he is. After all, he’s slept with several people since coming to London. Not often, and not consistently, but he’s still making something of an effort. So he’s a hypocrite right off the bat.

Except for the fact that he has no way of contacting Arthur, whereas if Arthur wanted to see him, he could show up at Eames’s door whenever he felt like it. And therein lies the difference. When Arthur gets depressed and lonely, he fucks a complete stranger and then feels shitty about it. The sting of that, Eames realizes, feels a lot like rejection.

That scares him. He’s unsure of when he started to feel like this. He’s always thought Arthur was attractive. He found him beautiful the moment they met and no matter how his opinions of the man have deepened and changed since then, that has been a constant. But there is a huge difference between hypothetical sexual willingness and very concrete jealousy, and it’s hard for Eames to say when he crossed that divide.

But he knows well it’s because of the letters. Because Arthur is a wonderful, vulnerable, fascinating person when he opens himself up, and because his unexpected willingness to do so for Eames makes Eames feel like on some level, Arthur cares.

And maybe he does. But not the same way that Eames is surprised to find that he cares about Arthur, and there’s no real way of dealing with that.

Eames doesn’t write back. He puts Arthur’s letter back in its envelope and puts it in the box with all the rest, and he puts that box and the box of his own letters back in the bottom drawer of his desk. He does his best not to think of them.

“You’ve seemed depressed lately,” Patrick says over dinner, and Eames realizes that he’s been listlessly poking at a single piece of sweet and sour mock duck for what is probably a worrying amount of time.

He thinks for a moment and does not want to come up with an excuse, so he fishes for one he can latch onto. “Why do you think that is?”

Reaching for the sriracha from the vacant table next to them to replace the bottle he’s only just emptied, Patrick shrugs one shoulder and says, “You’re not in unrequited love with me, are you?”

He must take Eames’s silence and stony-faced expression for dry annoyance rather than the result of a sickening reminder, because he laughs then, quite loudly. Eames rolls his eyes and manages to come up with, “I’m turning thirty-three next week,” which is true but which he doesn’t really care about.

“You are?” Patrick asks, and just like that his attention is successfully diverted. “You didn’t tell me!”

“I just told you.”

“This is extremely short notice. I have to get us reservations at Joël Robuchon.”

Eames would not even know what that is, except that he has been to a place by that name in Tokyo while pretending to be an investment banker. “What? No. That’s ridiculous. We can go to the pub.”

“Shut the fuck up. I’m not taking you to the bloody pub; you’re my best mate.”

That is a revelation; Eames probably should have noticed that he was someone’s best friend, but he didn’t, and he feels both very stupid and unexpectedly flattered. And then, after a moment, guilty. Because he is someone’s best friend, and when it comes to that someone, he is a liar. A big, fat liar. He lies about everything. He’s lied at this very dinner. And the thing about that is that maybe this time he didn’t really have to.

He takes a deep breath, and he tries to remember how it feels to be honest. “Do you really want to know why I’m depressed? Because I have an old friend I think I might be in love with. He doesn’t feel the same, and I never get to see him anyway.”

And Patrick just stares at him for a long, long moment, frowning, and says, “Well, he sounds like a complete idiot.” And Arthur is not an idiot; Arthur is a beautiful, articulate, utterly captivating genius. But the sentiment makes Eames smile, and that reaction is genuine even if he can’t say that he agrees.

Arthur’s letters keep coming, but Eames stops opening them. Into the box goes a pale pink envelope with an Argentinian stamp on it.

Eames goes back to painting. When he first started out, he had grand ideas about forging art, but forging art is difficult, time-consuming, and high-risk. He quickly found that forging documents is where the money is. It’s not as glamorous. No one’s going to make a film about it. But it pays the bills and doesn’t get Eames arrested, and it almost never requires a long con to pull it off.

But he’s moved ever more toward forging people, which is the most lucrative in relation to time and risk of all of them, if you can get the right jobs, which Eames can because those are credentials he doesn’t have to fake. And now that he’s been settled for a little while and doesn’t have to work, his thoughts turn back to the things he thought he could do when he was nineteen: the impractical, beautiful things.

He walks up to the National Gallery on a cold day when no one is out who doesn’t have to be and listens to the sound of his own boot heels clicking on the wooden floors, echoing through the mostly deserted galleries. He stops in front of Monet and Turner, Holbein and Velazquez. He doesn’t consider the technical aspects, really. He just stares, and sees, and feels. He spends a long time in front of Pollaiuolo’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, letting the use of perspective just percolate from the back of his mind to the front.

But gradually and inexorably his eyes are drawn to the side, pulled as if by gravity. There’s a da Vinci in the gallery, Madonna of the Rocks, and Eames shouldn’t be looking at it but he is, and then he’s standing in front of it, and he really shouldn’t be doing that either.

Eames does not believe he can forge a da Vinci, which is a real problem to start with because sixty-seven percent of forgery is just balls-to-the-wall overconfidence and ego. He thinks that it’s impossible because he’s seen a lot of da Vincis and he is not the kind of person to humanize objects, but he firmly believes that Leonardo’s paintings are living things. He does not believe that they can be captured on camera. He does not believe that they can be described in words. A da Vinci is a thing that one encounters, that reacts to one’s emotions and changes them all at once. In all the times Eames has been to the Louvre, St. John the Baptist has never been in the same mood twice.

Trying to copy a da Vinci would be like trying to make a perfect copy of a living, breathing human being. And Eames more than anyone else knows that that’s just not possible.

And yet he stares at the angel Uriel for what feels like an eternity but in reality is just long enough for a young woman to wander in, get silently annoyed with him for standing right in front of the work, and wander off with a sigh. Eames doesn’t care, because he’s in a place where he has trouble caring about anything, but suddenly he cares a great deal about this. Not even the whole painting: just the one unbearably beautiful, flawless figure. And it’s an impossible task, but suddenly Eames finds that ego.

He’s rubbish at spelling and terrible at math. He didn’t do well at German in school so he’s never properly learned any other language, grammar and theory and all. He’s forgotten more science than he knows and mixes up the historical monarchs of his own country half the time. He can’t cook or fix a car or take apart a PASIV and put it back together. He’s good at two things: art and stealing.

He can steal a da Vinci, he thinks. Leonardo was just a man. A genius, but a genius five hundred years ago when designing aircraft that didn’t work made you the smartest guy in Italy. If he could do it, Eames can copy it. He’ll start small, with just one figure. I’m going to steal this angel, he thinks, and of course it’s a ridiculous thing to think, but at least he cares. He hasn’t cared about anything in weeks.

Taking his little point-and-shoot camera out of his coat pocket, he snaps a photo he isn’t actually allowed to take, then goes down to the gift shop and buys a detail print of the piece anyhow. After that, he goes to the library and takes out every book he can find that says anything about the painting techniques and materials of the Renaissance. He knows that they will be months overdue, but anyone else who’s interested will just have to cope. “Cheers. You probably won’t be seeing these for a while,” he says as the librarian hands him the stack of books.

He fills his front room, where the light is best, with endless paper and charcoal and oils and pigments and everything required to prepare the wood panels he props up in the corner.

“What is all this?” Patrick asks when he comes to pick Eames up to go to dinner, peering into the front room from the hall.

“I can’t tell you or it’ll go back to being impossible,” Eames replies, ushering him back out the front door. “By the way, you’re not allowed to see my front room for a while. I’ll just start coming round to yours.”

“I hardly ever see you anymore as it is.”

“It’s the crippling depression and keenly felt lack of direction in my life. I’m sure it’ll go away soon.”

Soon enough, into the box goes a crisp teal envelope with a stamp from Iceland. That gives Eames pause, but he doesn’t open it.

Practice makes perfect. Eames prints copy after copy of Uriel, punctures them with an awl, applies the outline to paper with charcoal dust. He doesn’t consider it cheating. This isn’t his art; it’s just a forgery. Forgers use every tool at their disposal.

He does charcoal drawings, fingers coated in shiny grey residue when he uses them more than the charcoal, putting down the material and then pushing it where he wants. He finds it relaxing, finishing one and tacking it to the wall before moving on to the next. Soon enough he moves on to color, tackling the subject in colored pencil, in tempera, in oil pastel, figuring out what it is that makes Uriel come together properly. The ones he does in colored pencil are too thoughtful, the ones in tempera too smug, the ones in oil pastel too intense. He does one in watercolor and it’s just too flat-out ugly, and he throws that one in the bin. He’s never liked watercolor.

The rest go on the wall, pressed there with hanging putty because Eames spent two days filling holes in here and two more putting on the olivine paint, and he’s not about to go through that again. There are nearly forty renditions on the wall above and around his fireplace by the time he stops and picks out the ones he thinks are best, sticking those to the mantelpiece in a neat line.

Into the box goes a slightly rumpled burgundy envelope with an Irish stamp on it. Eames stops and stares at it, because sure it’s an entirely different island, but in a global sense Arthur is right next door. But he still doesn’t open it.

It was a bit difficult getting a hold of poplar panels of the appropriate size, and in the end Eames had to special order them. He sits on the floor in the front room and applies paste and chalk dust to each, then sands them down until they’re smooth. He spends a whole day after that just mixing pigments, measuring them from dozens of jars he filled at a shop on Great Russel Street, brushing them in thick swathes over a junk panel covered in chalk compound and letting them dry to see what they come out like.

On the third day, he punctures a pattern and applies it, and he sketches the outline with an efficient, practiced ease, and he begins to paint.

Eames finally, finally gives in only a few days later. The next letter from Arthur isn’t just a letter; it’s a parcel, carefully wrapped in brown paper. The postage identifies it as being, once again, from Ireland. And Eames can’t fit it in the box with all the other open and unopened letters; the package is nearly too big to even fit in that same desk drawer. And even if it could, the curiosity would drive Eames mad. Arthur has never sent anything more than a letter until now.

They might both be writing – or have been writing – the letters for themselves, but there is nothing selfish in sending a gift, unless it’s a sort of re-gifting or white elephant deal, which is the sort of thing it seems very unlikely that Arthur would choose to engage in at random on an international scale. Arthur has sent him something because Arthur gives a fuck. And that comes as something of a surprise. Eames sits down at his desk and takes out the letters that he never opened, and he goes through them one by one.

From Tierra del Fuego, Arthur wrote a full page almost entirely about penguins. About how they seem like an evolutionary dead end, about how he’d considered going to the Antarctic but Argentina had been so much closer and easier to get to, and about his favorite book when he was eight, which was apparently about a man who owned a irresponsible number of penguins. The letter contained a four-by-six snapshot of a very curious Magellanic penguin.

From Iceland Arthur wrote about how tired he was of the heat all the time, of the humidity, of feeling sleepy, and of places that had no air conditioning. He wrote about going to some hot springs and about a childhood trip to Yellowstone that his parents had to save for two years to afford. He wrote about how his mother died of pancreatic cancer when he was twenty-three. He wrote about how much he missed her, and about how he didn’t really talk to his father anymore.

The letter from Cork was brief. Arthur discussed how he didn’t want to go home but still wanted to feel settled for a while, and how he was just driving around the country until he found a place to do so. After that, he spent a paragraph discussing seafood and how one could put almost anything into a pie, and wasn’t that strange to consider. And instead of saying that he hoped Eames was doing well, he asked, “How are things on your end?” as though Eames could answer even if he wanted to. Which he does, quite badly.

Finally Eames opens the package, slowly and neatly removing the paper and then cutting open the box itself with a silver-handled letter opener that caught his eye in an antique shop and which usually sits on his desk quite unused. Inside, on top of a bundle wrapped elegantly in paisley-patterned tissue paper, is the most unusual letter Arthur has sent yet. It’s a squarish envelope of rough white paper, and the paper itself seems to be handmade as opposed to just the envelope. It’s sealed with green wax stamped with the emblem of an owl. Eames opens it cautiously, careful not to damage the seal, and finds inside a letter on similarly beautiful paper. It’s written in careful calligraphy, obviously with a dip or fountain pen.

Dear Eames,

I finally settled shortly after my last letter. I’m in Donegal, actually. The county, not the town. I found a little bed and breakfast by the sea, and the owner has kindly given me a very good rate for renting by the fortnight. She’s lovely, if a bit hard of hearing, and I’m not actually paying for breakfast per the terms of our agreement, but she keeps trying to cook it for me anyhow.

I’m getting quite a bit of reading done, and I’ve started taking horseback riding lessons twice a week. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try, but it seemed kind of like a waste of time when I was in my early twenties, and also would have impeded my efforts to not seem too gay, and after that I’ve just never had the time. I bought this fantastic red jacket and my hair has gotten pretty long and my instructor keeps telling me I look like a romantic hero and calling me Byron. I’m relaying this information to you both because I think you’ll find it funny and because I want the opportunity to tell you that no, I will not send you a photo.

I went down to the fishing pier and bought a lobster and thought I’d try to cook it yesterday since Margaret (that’s the lady who owns the B&B) told me I can use the kitchen. But I couldn’t go through with it, so I clipped the rubber bands and put it back in the ocean. Perhaps you know how I felt; I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you eat meat.

I bought this stationery and all at a little shop I found while driving up here. I found the gift that I’m sending you that same day. I never wished you a happy birthday, but I hope it was. I didn’t forget it (you probably didn’t know that I knew it in the first place, but I have an app for that), but I was waiting to say anything until I found you the right gift. You’re a difficult man to shop for. I hope it fits, but if not, I’m sure you can have it altered. Happy very belated birthday.

Arthur

Beneath the letter and inside the beautiful tissue paper is a sage green tweed jacket, flawlessly tailored and of an ideal weight for springtime in London. The buttons are silver with little coats of arms stamped on them, and the lining is camel-colored. It is exactly something that Eames would like, and indeed likes a great deal, and exactly something Arthur himself would never wear but obviously approves of. The tag inside says that it was made in Donegal, and Eames doesn’t often buy nice clothes, but he certainly recognizes them, and he can easily see that this probably cost a fortune.

In the bottom of the box is a note that matches the letter and reads, I expect to see you in this the next time we see each other.

Eames hates himself – really, truly hates himself – for being so touchy, for ignoring the letters for so long.

“Where did you pick that up?” Patrick asks when Eames wears the jacket to a special exhibition at the V&A that he is not very interested in.

Eames licks his lips and shrugs one shoulder, then reluctantly says, “Remember the guy I might be in love with?”

Patrick fiddles with Eames’s lapel, examines the stitching and the fabric, and whistles lowly. “You sure he doesn’t love you back?”

And Eames replies, “Not entirely.”

Dear Arthur,

I’ve had a rather awful winter, as you might have supposed from my lack of communication recently, were you in fact reading my communications. I’m afraid I’ve been a bit of a child, which of course is my own fault but perhaps stems from the fact that you’ve reduced me to powerlessness.

I was as surprised as anyone else would have been to find that your letter concerning your unfortunate pull in Montevideo was as difficult for me to deal with as it turned out to be. I have no claim to you and never have, but I’ve had a great deal of trouble accepting the fact that although you think of me and continue to write to me for whatever reasons you may have, you would still prefer to assuage your apparent bouts of loneliness through unsatisfactory random encounters rather than with myself.

In retrospect, I’ve never given you a very direct indication that I was an option, probably because although I would have told you yes at more or less any point in our long acquaintance, I didn’t feel the active need to have you ask me until after that argument in LA, when you started writing to me.

Even now I wonder if you would be less happy sitting around at the seaside and taking your riding lessons if I were there doing those things with you. But really that’s none of my business. You’re probably as happy as you want to be just as you are.

I’ve been painting a lot while I’ve been feeling down on myself. I set myself a task I didn’t think I could finish. Told myself I could, but I’ve never really believed it. I think I just wanted to have to work on it indefinitely. And at this moment, I’m not entirely sure what I think about the endeavor, but I’ve put a ton of time into it so it’s not as though I can stop. I’ll have to show all of it to you sometime.

The jacket fit perfectly. I’m sure you were just being modest when you claimed that you didn’t know that it would. And I’m also sure that I don’t need to tell you that I like it. But I will tell you that it means more to me than any other gift I can recall receiving for a myriad of reasons I can explain to you sometime if I ever have the chance.

You seem to be under the impression that I’ll get the chance, so I suppose all there is for me to do is wait and hope that in the meantime you don’t meet some terribly charming Irish lad and settle down to raise sheep. We both know that that life wouldn’t suit you.

But I really think that I might, Arthur.

Yours as always,

Eames


He seals up the envelope carefully and puts the letter in the box. He sits staring at the box for some time, not really thinking much at all, just feeling, and even then not particularly sharply.

After that he goes to the kitchen and makes a cheese sandwich, and he eats it in the front room staring at his wall of artwork and his unfinished panel, sitting on its easel in front of the fireplace. He finishes, and he puts on a vinyl and lets Ella Fitzgerald fill up the still half-empty space of the room, and he sits down and starts mixing paints.

“Holy shit.”

That’s Patrick’s only reaction for a long time when Eames lets him back into the flat. He just stands there in the middle of the room, gaping at the dozens of drafts on the wall, his mouth actually hanging open slightly. Finally Eames takes him by the shoulders and turns him around to look at the single panel, still on its easel.

“Are you fucking with me?” Patrick asks, and Eames ignores the question.

“What’s he thinking?”

“What?”

“What is he thinking, Pat?” Eames repeats, gesturing to the angel in the painting. “What is the emotion being portrayed here?”

Patrick blinks at the painting. “Um.” He scratches just behind his left ear and cocks his head a bit. “Calm. Moderately happy? Or, I mean, maybe a little sad as well. Or a bit full of himself, something of a too-good-for-all-these-bitches sort of thing. Why? Is this a trick question?”

But Eames is too busy literally pumping his fist in the air as though he’s just won the Wimbledon final.

Leaning around the side of the panel to make sure this isn’t just a cleverly photoshopped print glued to a board, Patrick shakes his head in disbelief. “You’ve got to be absolutely mad. Is this really what you’ve been doing all this time? Don’t get me wrong, this is incredible, you’re fantastic, but firstly I think you might really be mental, and secondly where did you learn to do this?”

“Practice. It’s just copying, though. I mean except for the part where this shouldn’t have been possible to really copy.”

“It’s not just copying. I mean… this is perfect.”

“Nothing’s perfect.” Even now, Eames can see all the little points of variation, every flaw. And yet he grins. “But it’s closer than I thought it’d be.”

It’s obvious that Patrick doesn’t understand what he’s saying, but that’s okay because Patrick knows names and dates and movements, but Patrick doesn’t connect to art; he only looks. And Eames is pretty sure that he was only able to capture this face, this expression in all of its ambiguity, because he doesn’t know how he himself feels anymore.

Weeks pass, and Eames doesn’t hear from Arthur again. For the first time since he came here, he’s restless enough to seriously consider taking a job again. He’s had a good, long break and eaten a very large hole in his savings, and it feels like it’s time.

In the end, he doesn’t have to look; he gets a call from an extractor he used to work with regularly, and he agrees to meet someone from the team, because Eames never accepts a job over the phone and everyone knows this. That evening, he goes into the front room and arranges the drawings and drafts he’s left on the wall neatly in rows on either side of the fireplace, where the final painting rests on the mantel.

He thinks he’ll just leave them up; they’re the only thing really making the room feel at all full and lived-in. Organizing them is the only thing Eames can think of to do to tidy the flat before leaving. And he is planning on leaving, regardless of what the job is.

Except that just as he’s heading out the next morning, he nearly runs into the mail carrier, who tells him to wait so she can give him his things. There’s a bill and some junk, and resting inside a folded catalog from a company Eames has never heard of is a simple cream-colored envelope. It is addressed to him as always in Arthur’s neat script. And in the upper left corner is a return address. Not a P.O. box Arthur never checks that probably doesn’t exist. A real address, in Malin Head, Co. Donegal.

Eames sits down on the front steps of his building, feeling numb even before he tears open the envelope.

Dear Eames,

It’s been a while. I hope you’ve noticed. I hope you’ve been reading these.

I’ve had a really difficult time writing this, and I have to admit that I’ve been putting it off for a while. I wanted to write it almost as soon as I sent the last one, but I just couldn’t get the words down on paper.

I’ve been traveling for almost a year now, which is unbelievable, at least to me. It feels so much longer. And the truth of the matter is that I’ve loved every single place I’ve gone. Really loved them in a way I could never love anywhere when I was only there for a job. But I would have gone crazy had I cut myself off completely. One might argue – you might argue, even – that writing letters that are unasked-for and cannot be replied to isn’t really maintaining a connection, but I thought it was, and that was the level of connection (with anyone at all, not just with you) that I was comfortable maintaining.

And as for the reason I chose you (and it has only ever been you, if you wondered) over anyone else, at first it probably had everything to do with the argument we had after the last job. But after that, I didn’t really know why I kept on with it. Logic would dictate that I write to Dom, because the Cobbs have been the closest thing I have to a family for a long time. But honestly, there’s a disconnect there now, and it doesn’t even have to do with the fact that it still really burns my toast that he almost got us all stuck in limbo.

And maybe you’ve never thought of me as a friend, and maybe we never have been really, but you were angry when I said I was leaving the industry, and that counts for something. I thought it counted for a lot, actually.

So I wrote. And the thing is that I didn’t just write. I thought about you, more than anyone else I’ve cut myself off from. I’ve kept track of you. I’ve wondered if you’re working but assumed that you’re not and that’s why I don’t hear about you when I look in on my dreamshare contacts. So I wonder what you’re doing, and if it’s made you happy.

When I was feeling lousy, I thought about contacting you. When I had food poisoning in Japan I wondered what you’d say if I called. But I didn’t because I didn’t want to get you on the phone and then just start crying because I was so exhausted and I couldn’t stop puking and I thought I might die alone. On Christmas Eve I spent a lot of the day wondering what you’d do if I just showed up at your door on Christmas Day.

What stopped me then was that I thought you probably had someone else, and that made me want to punch something even though I had no right. And that’s still a very distinct possibility now; I’m sure it’s a constant challenge for someone like you to remain single. If that is the case, I’m not really sure how we’ll function around each other in the future now that I’m making this big of a fool of myself, and I’ll also feel like a real asshole for this whole thing. Especially the jacket.

But even if it ends badly for me, it’s better just to try to find out now. If you’re not interested or you already have someone, it’s my own fault for taking so long to work out how the fuck I feel about you and think of all the reasons I’m pretty sure we’d be good for each other. Because I’ve never argued with someone the way I argue with you, or as often, but that’s only because we always push each other, and we’re always the ones to call each other on our shit. And where am I gonna find someone else who does that?

I’m hoping (really fucking hoping) that you’ll reply to this, even if it’s only to tell me to stay the hell out of your life.

Sincerely yours,

Arthur

By the time he’s through, Eames’s fingers are trembling a bit. He gets up shakily and turns to go back into the flat, then realizes he still has a meeting he’s supposed to be at, for which he will now almost certainly be late.

He stands on the doorstep and swears, then quickly copies the return address from the letter into his mobile’s address book. He needs to have it in two places; it’s absurdly valuable. The letter goes in his messenger bag, the sleek leather one he only carries when he wants to look professional but seem like he’s not trying to look professional.

He arrives at the prearranged café in Hyde Park five minutes late and stays just long enough to tell the prospective team’s point, “I can’t talk. The most important thing in the entire world – literally, the most important, the entire world – is happening, and I can’t take the job. The answer is no, no matter what it is, no matter how much money. Call Freeman. She’s not me, but she’ll do in a pinch, and she does a fairly impressive forgery of me, actually. Cheers.”

And he’s gone. The point says something after him, but Eames doesn’t hear what it is and doesn’t care at all.

But for all his rush, he manages to take his time in preparing a response for Arthur. He stops in at an office supply shop and picks up some card stock. When he arrives back home, he sits down at his desk with a razor knife and mat and the box in which he keeps his own letters, each one sealed and addressed simply to Arthur, no last name, no address. He cuts the cardstock down into enough dividers to separate each letter, with little tabs up top for labeling. Onto each one he puts the date of one of the letters, and he arranges them chronologically, neatly filed so that no matter what happens to them in transit, they will not fall out of the order in which they are to be read.

When he’s done, the box is carefully tied shut with a bit of ribbon that’s more utilitarian than decorative because Eames couldn’t tie an attractive bow even if he wanted to. It just seems a bit of more elegant problem-solving than sticking cellotape all over it. He runs it down to the post office, and when he’s asked how he’d like to send it, he says, “As fast as you offer, please.” The lady at the counter then takes pity on him and helps him wrap it in parcel paper in a way that isn’t a complete disaster, and Eames really should be able to do these things, but he’s never been good at them and right now he’s a bit of a mess.

And then the box is gone, the box of things that he really feels but has never said, whisked away into the back after the address has been triple-checked. The thing is done, and Eames cannot take it back, he thinks as he stands on the corner outside in the early afternoon sunlight. He goes for a walk then, for lack of anything better to do now that he simply has to wait for the only important thing. Later he calls Patrick and they go to the pub, where Eames gets more drunk than he intended and tells Patrick about how this has been the strangest year of his life and about how he’s not sure how being normal is generally done, but he’s pretty sure he’s rubbish at it.

“You are,” Patrick confirms. “That’s what I like about you.”

Eames isn’t completely sure what Arthur expected from him, and likewise he isn’t at all sure what to expect now. Three days after sending the letters, however, Eames answers a knock on his door, and standing outside on the landing is Arthur. He’s got a large duffel bag in one hand and a backpack slung over his shoulder, and he looks ten years younger than he tries to look when he’s working. His hair is overgrown, curly and tousled, and he’s pale except for a light dusting of freckles and sun across his nose and cheekbones. And everything he’s wearing – jacket, t-shirt, trousers, Converse hi-tops – looks like it’s been through hell and high water, which all of it probably has, and Arthur only makes it look like he paid exorbitantly for the distressing.

He looks absolutely beautiful. He looks the best he’s ever looked. And he’s looking at Eames like it’s a completely reciprocated sentiment.

“Hello, Arthur,” Eames says, because that sums up just about all he can think that’s appropriate to open a conversation with, but Arthur doesn’t seem interested in having a conversation.

“Hi, Eames,” he replies as he steps forward, and Eames shifts enough to let him into the flat. Arthur slips past him and drops both his bags on the floor of the entryway unceremoniously. The moment Eames has the door closed, Arthur has a hand on his shoulder, spinning him around, and Arthur slings one arm around Eames’s neck and presses his other hand soft against Eames’s chest, and he kisses Eames hot and slow and open-mouthed, all slick tongue and slightly chapped lips and soft, warm breaths.

At first Eames is nearly afraid to respond, as though this kiss is a fragile thing that might shatter at any moment, but then when he cautiously snakes a hand up Arthur’s side, Arthur’s immediate response is to tighten his fingers in Eames’s shirt, press forward, and bite down on his lower lip.

Embarrassingly, that draws out of Eames a low, sharp moan, but Arthur doesn’t seem to think it’s embarrassing at all. It doesn’t even give him pause; the hand on Eames’s chest slides up to cup his jaw, and Arthur plies him with one more long, slow kiss before he breaks off and murmurs, “I got your letters.”

Eames can hear his heart pounding and feel it in every inch of his body, from his flushed cheeks to his restless fingertips roaming over Arthur’s hips and the small of his back. “I thought you might’ve.” His voice is surprisingly rough.

“I came to enumerate all the reasons we’d be good for each other. Starting with how fucking good you look. Have you gained weight?”

“I… what?” Eames replies, choking a bit. “No. Yes. It’s muscle, I’ve had a lot of time for the gym, I—”

“I don’t care what it is. You look great. You look amazing.”

“You look twenty-one.”

“Fuck you.”

“I like that.”

“Oh, Jesus, just shut up.”

And Eames shuts up as best he can, leaning in to kiss Arthur’s neck, nudging the curls of hair out of his way with his nose and sucking a bruise just under the hinge of his jaw. Arthur goes boneless, gradually, until he seems to be relying almost entirely on Eames to hold him up. And then Eames breaks off and whispers into Arthur’s hair (which smells incredible), “Did you enjoy your holiday, then?”

Arthur turns his head just so, so that Eames can feel the heat of their cheeks pressed together. “It was very educational,” Arthur murmurs. “And very lonely. Are you enjoying your time at home?”

“I’ve had difficulty adjusting,” Eames admits. “I made a friend, though.”

“Still just the one?”

“Hey, at least I managed one.”

Arthur threads his fingers through Eames’s hair and kisses his cheek, his breath tickling as he huffs a little laugh. “It’s quality over quantity.” And then, suddenly, Arthur sucks Eames’s earlobe into his mouth and Eames is very, very aware of how aroused he’s becoming.

“Did you want me to show you the flat?” he blurts out, and he’s not even sure why, because he likes this; he likes having Arthur in his arms, likes that Arthur dropped everything and hopped on a plane to throw himself into them, likes everything about this. And yet he asks such a stupid question and it causes Arthur to pause in what he’s doing and draw back to look Eames in the eye. His face is flushed, his lips moist and starting to get a bit swollen, and Eames is the stupidest man in the entire world.

“Look,” Arthur says, but he himself doesn’t look anymore, not at Eames. “Sorry, it’s just… I’ve had a mostly celibate year. I’ve had a mostly celibate three years. I’m just kind of a wreck; we don’t have to—”

And Eames snaps; he just snaps, because the rest of the world must be populated entirely by complete idiots and it is a complete travesty that Arthur has been allowed to become sexually frustrated. It has to be fixed. He grabs Arthur and picks him up entirely as he turns and shoves him up against his front door, and Arthur’s little cry of surprise turns into an open-mouthed kiss. Eames swallows each moan Arthur allows to escape as Arthur hooks his legs around Eames’s waist and hoists himself up, fingers digging hard into Eames’s shoulders.

“Told you it’s all muscle,” Eames growls, and Arthur responds by pushing against him, rolling his hips so that Eames can feel a very distinct, growing hardness against his lower stomach.

“I didn’t call you fat. I said you look hot. When did you get so insecure?”

“I’ve always been insecure. I just hide it by being devastatingly handsome and brilliant. Should I show you my bedroom?”

Eames ends up being shoved into his own room backwards because Arthur won’t stop kissing him long enough for him to get there any other way. When the backs of his knees hit the bed, he falls onto his ass on the mattress and Arthur is standing over him, grinning with the dimples so rare Eames can count the appearances he’s witnessed on one hand. Arthur peels off his jacket, and that’s the moment when his eyes flicker up and he notices the wall behind Eames, and the smile fades as his jaw drops open and his jacket falls to the floor.

“Um,” Eames says.

“Is that the fucking Battle of Issus?” Arthur asks, and Eames is absolutely sure in that moment that he loves Arthur. Arthur who’s the most beautiful person Eames has ever seen as he stands there gaping, Arthur who’s had to spend the last year learning to even recognize what his own desires are, Arthur who can instantly identify classical art even under the influence of extreme arousal.

“Yes,” Eames purrs, and he grabs Arthur by the belt and hauls him closer, and Arthur climbs onto the bed with his knees on either side of Eames’s hips, grabbing his shoulders for balance but never tearing his eyes away from the wall.

“You painted that?”

Eames pushes Arthur’s t-shirt up, running his hands over his body, lightly toned and all smooth planes and sharp angles. “Yes.” Arthur lifts his arms a bit absently, his eyes still trained on the mural, and allows Eames to pull the shirt off over his head.

“So that’s the mural you mentioned?”

Eames grabs Arthur and flips him onto his back on the bed, then rolls onto him, pinning him down and caging him in with his limbs. “Yes,” he says once more, and the spell seems to be broken because Arthur’s gaze is back on him and he’s pulling eagerly at Eames’s shirt. But just when the shirt is gone and Eames thinks that Arthur’s mind is entirely back on the task at hand, it turns out that he’s wrong.

Arthur leans up and licks a trail along Eames’s collarbone, tongue dipping into the hollow, then says in a tone that is far too sexy for the statement, “Your choice of color palette and the quality of your brushwork do a really great job of evoking the look of a mosaic while still recalling the lost painting it was originally based on.”

“What?” Eames exclaims. Arthur’s toying with one of his nipples, rubbing a thumb over it and watching it harden with a singular fascination, but Eames is only half aware of his own body.

Arthur wriggles down Eames’s body enough to lift his head and lave his tongue over that same pert nipple, and Eames’s cock gives a distinct twitch; he’s always been particularly sensitive there. Arthur replies, “My undergrad degree is in art history. After this I’m never gonna wanna fuck in a room without the Battle of Issus on the wall. This is the sexiest room I’ve ever been in.”

That pulls at Eames’s heart a little, because Arthur is basically saying, however facetiously, that he never again wants sex anywhere but Eames’s bedroom (or Pompeii, apparently), but he just pulls Arthur’s belt open with one hand and says, “I always thought you were some sort of engineer.”

Arthur’s laugh is sharp and warm all at once as he helps Eames with getting his own trousers open. “Not even close,” he says as he arches up and allows Eames to slide a hand between his jeans and his briefs and rub his cock just enough to tease. Eames glances down between them, and the head of Arthur’s erection is visible, trapped against his stomach under his waistband, red and just beginning to leak, and that – along with the way Arthur gasps audibly and rolls his hips up, thrusting against Eames’s hand – might be the hottest thing Eames has experienced in his life thus far.

“I’m a… fucking hell…”

“You’re a what, darling?” Eames purrs, and it’s more of a rhetorical question, but Arthur answers.

“I’m a librarian.” Eames freezes, and he stares down wide-eyed at Arthur. Arthur just stares right back, then clarifies unnecessarily, “Not an engineer.”

It feels like a long time that Eames spends trying to make sense of that, but logically he knows that it’s only a few seconds before he says, “Of course. Research. You’re a researcher.”

“That’s why I’m the best at what I do,” Arthur says. “Can I suck your cock?”

It is the least graceful change of subject Eames has ever had the pleasure of experiencing, and he just grins and lets Arthur shove him up onto his knees. Arthur stares back at him as he sits up and takes Eames’s hands, placing them in his own hair, and he furrows his eyebrows. “I know you’re thinking about me in a library. Stop that.”

Eames’s fly is short work for Arthur; his fingers are mesmerizing as they tug it open, distracting Eames quite badly even as he says, “Thinking about you in thick-rimmed glasses. Shelving books. All lithe and stretching to reach the really high shelves. Your jumper riding up.”

“God damn, you are the worst,” Arthur says as he yanks down Eames’s trousers just far enough to get at his cock, taking his boxers with them. He takes a good, long moment to wrap his fingers around Eames’s erection slowly, getting a feel for it as Eames finds himself driven short of breath. And then Arthur has his lips sealed around the head of Eames’s dick, tongue dipping under his foreskin, and Eames manages to think briefly about having this done to him up against a bookshelf before he realizes how terribly uncomfortable that would be, and soon Arthur slides a significantly great amount of him into his mouth, and Eames isn’t really capable of complex thought at all.

Arthur sucks cock like he’s doing it for his own good, like he needs it desperately and if Eames likes it, all the better. He doesn’t try a lot of fancy tricks; he responds to what Eames likes, doesn’t complain when Eames tightens his fingers in in hair and fucks his mouth, and moans through the whole thing like he’ll never get enough of it. And whether it’s because he’s that good or because Eames hasn’t gotten laid in a long time and wants Arthur so madly, he thinks it must be the best blowjob he’s ever had. When he’s left gasping and nearly unable to stay upright, he can feel his every muscle beginning to tighten, and he wants to let it happen, wants to finish in Arthur’s mouth, wants to watch him pull off with come clinging to his slick, wet lips.

But he wouldn’t be so presumptuous their first time, and he wants to draw this out, so he pulls Arthur off of him and gasps out, “Arthur, I—”

Except suddenly he’s on his back, breathless and blinking at the ceiling, and Arthur growls out, “Whatever you were about to say, shut up,” and he sucks Eames down again, merciless and demanding, somehow managing to assert complete dominance by it. Eames arches up and comes, and it’s blinding, and he hopes the downstairs neighbor is gone this week because he’s shouting loud enough that the whole building can probably hear.

Arthur releases Eames’s cock and sits up at last, then reaches down to stroke up the vein on the underside of it with light, teasing fingers that cause Eames to twitch with oversensitivity. “Bloody hell,” Eames breathes, and when he lifts his head, Arthur is leaning over the edge of the bed and grabbing his jacket from the floor. He reaches into the inside breast pocket and comes back with a handful of various things. One of them is a pocket handkerchief, which he shakes open and then spits into with a delicacy that’s almost comical.

The rest is a small bottle of lube and several shiny foil-wrapped condoms, all of which he drops onto the bed. Eames watches in much the same manner as he might if Arthur had just produced the items from thin air. “Are you serious?” he asks, and Arthur raises an eyebrow as he sets aside the balled up handkerchief. He looks down at it sitting there on the bedside table for a moment.

“I thought my letter made it clear that I’m very serious, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna swallow every time.”

Eames swallows heavily, his heart pounding. “That’s not quite what I—”

“If it helps your fragile ego, yours isn’t bad at all. You seem like you don’t have much meat in your diet,” Arthur says as he rolls onto his back alongside Eames and starts working his jeans and underwear off. Eames realizes only then that at some point, Arthur has managed to get rid of his shoes.

“I don’t have any meat in my diet,” he says, even though it’s a pointless thing to say. His eyes are glued to the way Arthur’s slender body moves, his back arching and impossibly long legs working in turn to kick off the remainder of his clothing. When he drags his eyes up, Arthur is watching him, just lying there on his back with his head cocked to the side, his hair in his face and a subtle smile tugging at his lips, letting it slip that he’s just been fucking with Eames. Eames laughs and picks up one of the condoms, flipping it over the backs of his fingers like a poker chip. “You’re just a regular Boy Scout, aren’t you?”

Arthur's smile blooms into a grin. “Boy Scouts are always prepared. Point men are only prepared for situational likelihoods; we’re more efficient that way.”

Eames marvels for a moment at the way that Arthur manages to hide this dry sense of humor from almost the entire world almost all of the time. Apparently Arthur can see Eames deconstructing him, because his cheeks go pink. Grabbing the lube from the bed between them, Eames quickly pushes off the remainder of his own clothes and kicks them off the bed, then rolls over and slings a leg over one of Arthur’s thighs as he leans over him. He uncaps the lube deftly with one hand and says, “Let’s not be too efficient about this; I’ve got to have time to recover. Give us your fingers, then.” He motions, staring significantly at Arthur’s hand.

For a second, Arthur seems confused, but Eames quickly realizes that he’s just surprised. Arthur has probably had an exhausting career as a gay man, being small and delicate-looking and basically incapable of not coming off as some sort of inexperienced, uptight, barely legal twink.

Or at least that’s what Eames surmises from the way Arthur bites his lip in an attempt to hide an expression that can only be described as delight, presumably that he’s never going to have to fight Eames about this issue. He holds up his fingers obediently, but as Eames pours the lube onto them, Arthur suddenly surges up to kiss him, and the lube goes everywhere and in the end Eames just drops it in favor of pressing Arthur down into the bed and trying his damnedest to put every last bit of what he feels into the kiss, and Arthur in turn seems to want nothing more than to draw those emotions and everything else that Eames is and feels and desires out of him.

And he doesn’t stop kissing Eames for a long time, until he’s worked a finger into him, until Eames is rolling his hips back to meet him. “You’re so tight,” Arthur murmurs while Eames struggles to get enough air.

“It’s been a while,” Eames replies more defensively than he’d like, and Arthur only shakes his head and tests him with a second finger.

“It’s perfect,” he says. “You’re perfect.”

Eames very much doubts that, but he doesn’t argue. He settles against Arthur, presses kisses to his neck, mouths noiselessly at his jaw, lets Arthur’s free hand soothe him by rubbing the small of his back even though he doesn’t need it. Arthur murmurs encouragements and endearments, tells Eames how good he is each time he presses deeper or adds another finger.

And when Eames is hard again, cock trapped against Arthur’s hipbone, digging in with each little roll of Eames’s hips, Arthur eases his fingers out of him and slips out from beneath his body altogether. He doesn’t say much as he rolls a condom on and guides Eames onto his knees, instructing him to grab the headboard; he doesn’t say anything at all when he presses against his back. He wraps an arm around Eames’s waist, kisses the back of his neck just along his hairline, and even hooks his feet over Eames’s ankles. Eames wouldn’t mind being able to watch, but he’ll take this, take feeling every square inch of skin that they can possibly fit against one another.

“You good?” Arthur asks, close to Eames’s ear. His voice is low and absolutely ragged. His movements have been efficient and direct but never pushy or hurrying, and it’s his voice that belies how very much he needs this, how difficult it must be for him not to rush it.

Eames turns his head sharply and manages to catch Arthur’s eyes. What he finds leaves him breathless; Arthur has a way of looking at people with a sort of calculated detachment, whether because he really feels a disconnection or because he doesn’t want anyone to see too much of him. He hasn’t looked at Eames like that at all since arriving, but right now his gaze is the polar opposite of the one he’s given Eames for all the years they’ve known each other. It’s hungry, possessive, completely unguarded and singularly focused on Eames.

If he’s ever had anyone look at him quite this way before, Eames can’t remember it, and from the way Arthur meets his eyes for only a moment before closing them and kissing Eames just behind his ear, perhaps it’s not even an expression he’s comfortable with Eames seeing yet.

And that’s all right. They’ll get to that point. “I’m great,” Eames murmurs. “You’ve been exceptionally patient.”

Arthur seems to have to consider that for the briefest of moments, and then he laughs under his breath, more of a feeling against Eames’s neck than a sound. “You’re goddamn right I have,” he agrees as he takes Eames’s ass in both hands, spreads him open, tests him one more with his thumb and apparently find his state of readiness more than satisfactory. He wastes no time after that. He lets Eames have his cock the moment that thumb is gone, though again there’s that restraint, the slow, questioning way Arthur moves in him a contrast to the way his breathing grows labored and he chokes back a moan even though he won’t yet push in completely.

Eames does that for him. He can only take a few seconds of Arthur’s very considerate hesitation before he throws an arm back around his waist and hauls him forward all at once, snapping his hips back at the same time. Arthur drives into him hard and fully, knocking Eames’s breath out of him. For his part, Arthur releases a sharp cry, nails digging into Eames’s hips.

“Jesus goddamn Christ,” Arthur breathes, and Eames’s body protests at being pushed so far so quickly, because Arthur’s fingers were nothing compared to this. And yet the thought of stopping or slowing down doesn’t even cross his mind. He wants Arthur now, and he wants him fully, wants the struggle and the pain and to feel it tomorrow. “I thought you said it’s been a while,” Arthur grinds out.

“It has, so stop wasting time.”

And Arthur might always be concerned, might never want to rush into things, but he’s also always trusted Eames’s assessment of his own abilities and limitations. So it’s not surprise to Eames at all when Arthur lets go and palpably relaxes even as his arms wrap tight around Eames, one encircling his chest and the other dropping to grab hold of his erection. Eames pushes into his fist automatically, and he nearly loses Arthur’s cock with it, but Arthur’s hips snap forward and Eames only ends up gasping for air at the overload.

After that, there’s no respite; Arthur never neglects to match every one of his own movements with attention to Eames’s dick, but Eames lets him do exactly as he pleases. Arthur seems to like it on the slower side, with long thrusts, letting the head of his cock catch just short of pulling out completely and driving back in all at once, and it’s incredible; instead of overwhelming Eames with everything at once and never allowing him to quite catch up, Arthur lets him fully appreciate the highs and lows, lets the feeling of being fucked be ancillary to the tight, deft hold Arthur has on his cock. It’s maddeningly good, not what Eames is used to and so much better than what he’d expected.

Arthur brings him off that way. Eames doesn’t have it in him to fight it after already coming once not so long ago, but he tries his best until Arthur stops biting his ear and instead rumbles low in his throat, “I can feel you holding back. Cut it out.” He punctuates that by twisting his hand and rubbing Eames’s head, oversensitive and dripping, between two fingers.

Already almost gone, tight and every part of him aching for release, Eames falls forward to brace his forearms on top of the headboard, and it breaks much of their body contact but lets Arthur fuck him at a very different angle, one that has Eames crying out loud, helpless to silence himself.

It’s all so much he can barely pinpoint when, exactly, his orgasm hits him, but then he’s doubled over, spilling hot over the fingers still stroking the tip of his cock, and it’s so drawn out he’s only barely aware when Arthur changes his pace and starts really slamming into him, one hard, shallow thrust after another. Everything is feeling, heat and pleasure and exhaustion suffusing from his cock to his chest to his extremities, and Eames is still coming down from it when Arthur hauls him upright with surprisingly powerful arms and bites down on the crook of his neck. Only then does Eames come back to himself with an audible gasp and realize how frantic Arthur has become.

Arthur practically growls as he sucks a bruise there, and when he lets go he just pants against Eames’s hair. The way he slams into him is almost too much, but Eames takes it, dazed. Arthur, as he falls apart, chokes out softly, “You’re so good, I’m so goddamn close, you have no idea how fucking good you are, Eames…” And then it devolves into cursing, moans and shouts, and when Arthur scratches deep red welts across Eames’s chest and buries himself in him one final time, it’s nothing but Eames’s name.

It’s only afterward – when Eames is still lying there getting chills as the sweat coating his body dries and Arthur wordlessly goes to the toilet across the hall to dispose of the condom and bring back a warm, damp cloth – that Eames really gets to think about Arthur. The blow job he was desperate to give, the way he fucked at a pace intended for Eames, the way he kisses down Eames’s spine when he returns and cleans him off.

There’s nothing truly sentimental about Arthur, and he’s as bossy in bed as he is on a job. And he’s probably the most giving partner Eames can remember having. It’s not the eagerness to please of the inexperienced or the selflessness of the insecure. Arthur always knows what he wants and has no compunctions about taking it. But what wanted was to make Eames feel good, first and foremost. As this thought really solidifies in Eames’s mind, he rolls over and stares at Arthur sitting over him, pink-cheeked and with sweat-soaked curls of hair plastered to his forehead and temples. Arthur wets his lips with the tip of his tongue, and it’s a sure tell that he’s thinking too hard about something.

He’s watching Eames like Eames has just awoken from a test run of one of Arthur’s dream levels, like he’s done what he hopes is his best work but still knows someone might come along and poke a hole in it and force him to do it over. In this case Eames wouldn’t say no to having him try it again, but not because it was lacking the first time. “I find you completely absurd,” Eames says, stretching his arms out over his head. Arthur’s eyes flicker to his triceps and then his pectorals before he frowns, and oh, yes, he definitely has some sort of preoccupation.

“Um,” Arthur says.

“Stop looking at me like you’re waiting to be judged. Do you want a performance review? Gold star, keep up the exemplary work.”

And the corners of Arthur’s lips turn down a bit. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Eames just stares at him, silent.

Arthur has the decency to look sheepish. “I might know what you’re talking about.”

“Good. Now stop that.”

Arthur sighs, and leans down to kiss him, and he stops that.

Eames wakes up several hours later to find Arthur gone from his bed. It’s a disappointment, but he reminds himself that it shouldn’t be. The flat smells of coffee and all of the clothes the two of them shed earlier are either laid out draped over the footboard or tossed on top of the (admittedly over-full) hamper. Eames pulls on a new pair of boxers and pads softly out of the bedroom. Arthur’s bags are still just as they were on the floor at the other end of the hall, and Arthur himself is in the front room wearing some of Eames’s pajama bottoms and a thrift store t-shirt advertising a Scottish amateur women’s rugby team. He’s holding a mug of coffee and standing in front of the fireplace, staring at Eames’s painting on the mantel.

His fingering the edge of the mantelpiece absently, as though he’d like to touch the work but would never. And he probably literally would never, even if Eames told him that he wouldn’t mind.

“I used to be threatened by you,” Arthur says suddenly, without turning around or having any apparent way of knowing that Eames is there. “Because I don’t understand a damn thing you do. Your ridiculous ideas that always work, forgery, how to read people. I can’t do it, and I’ll admit that I’ve tried. I understand extraction, architecture, I even have a working knowledge of the relevant chemistry. But you were always the wildcard. You fuck up my plans.”

Eames chews on his lips for a moment. “It’s never my intention to be a wrench in your works, darling.”

“You make me better.” The statement is firm and sharp. Arthur steps back from the fireplace a bit, but only cocks his head and continues to stare at the panel. Eames doesn’t know what to say to that. It’s probably the best compliment he’s ever received (and a sight better than “Have you gained weight?”). Arthur lets out a long, slow breath. “I’m not threatened anymore. I haven’t been for a while. I realized that you’re just a guy who goes home and produces flawless forgeries of fucking da Vincis in his spare time. You’re just this insanely skilled, naturally gifted, completely brilliant human being.”

Eames blinks. He’s rarely felt so confused by a conversation. Arthur is difficult to read at the best of times and inscrutable right now, and Eames isn’t sure if he’s being praised or insulted. Finally, though, Arthur sets his coffee gently on the mantel and turns to face him. “You might be a genius, but did you ever stop to think about how long you’ve spent on this painting versus how long it’d take you to refinish the hardwood in here or replace the faucet in the tub with one that actually works or get rid of those hideous outdated kitchen fixtures?”

He can tell now that Arthur is only giving him a hard time, trying to make his compliments sound a little bit backhanded, but Eames just purses his lips and shrugs. Arthur frowns at him, then asks, “Do you do modern painters too?”

“Not Monet,” Eames replies, and he adds just as quickly, “Or Pollack.”

Arthur only wrinkles his nose at that. “I’ll find you new kitchen fixtures. I think what I have in mind will look good with something along the lines of Klimt. And the claw-footed bathtub is sort of screaming Manet to me, but maybe you have other ideas.”

Eames grins and leans against the doorjamb. “No. I like that. But you really think I should bother with that instead of the hardwood and the plumbing?”

“I’ll take care of those.”

“You sure? Those aren’t quick and easy projects.”

“Nice thing about our line of work is that there’s a ton of downtime.”

And to Eames, for the first time, the idea of being home really clicks. He doesn’t feel it yet, but he thinks he might someday. Possibly quite soon. He crosses the room and kisses Arthur, firmly and with an air of possession. When he pulls away just as abruptly, Arthur looks dazed and, Eames thinks, possibly even content. Eames’s tongue darts out, tasting the kiss lingering on his lower lip, and subconsciously Arthur mirrors the motion.

“Eames…” he murmurs.

“Mm?”

“There’s a whole stack of library books on your occasional table in the hall that are five months overdue.”

“Damn it,” Eames mutters, “You weren’t kidding.”

Arthur just shakes his head. “I thought my letter made it clear that I’m perfectly serious.”

As it turns out, Arthur and Patrick have a shared passion for overpriced cocktails and bars without signs out front, Arthur loves buying furniture as much as Eames hates anything that can’t be found all under the same name in the same model room at IKEA, and when they try a job together, they fight just as much as ever and have absolutely massive amounts of sex to work out their differences.

Eames takes the erstwhile unutilized dining room in his own direction – swirling, midcentury reds and yellows and teals – and Arthur tears up the ill-advised carpet in there and teaches himself to lay a hardwood floor, and he does a flawless job of it. The next spring Eames takes Arthur to Kenya for six weeks.

Little by little, things work.