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Cognitive Dissonance

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2006

Arthur finds Eames in Istanbul. Then he finds him in Florence, Mombasa, Bogata, and Madrid. He gets faster at it each time, until Eames is only in Madrid for two days - idling the day away at a terrace cafe in Plaza de Santa Ana - before Arthur drops unceremoniously into the seat opposite him.

Eames doesn’t jump. He doesn’t even raise his eyebrows. He’s gotten used to Arthur’s particular brand of stalking—

(“Surveillance,” Arthur insists)

—over the past eleven months.

Eames squints at him in the early afternoon sunlight. Arthur’s still whippet-thin and likely always will be, but he’s put on some muscle since Eames last saw him. His military regulation haircut has finally grown out completely, and Eames’ fingers twitch minutely when he notices. The last time he’d gotten his hands on Arthur, Arthur’s hair had been just long enough for him grip. He’s sure it’s long enough for him to wind his fingers through now.

“Jesus, don’t you ever stay in places where the temperature goes below 90 degrees?” Is the first thing Arthur says. There’s no hello, because it’s Arthur. Moreover, it’s Arthur talking to Eames.

“Not if I can help it,” Eames replies. “I’ve had enough of cold and dreary to last me a lifetime.”

Arthur acknowledges that with a vague humph, already looking away from Eames to flag down a passing waiter. He orders coffee - two coffees, without consulting Eames - then waits until the waiter is gone before speaking again. “I have a job for you.”

It’s Eames’ turn to humph now. He knows the kind of jobs Arthur works - dreamshare, or as close as Arthur can get to them. Eames has about as much interest in dreamshare nowadays as he does in visiting his father.

“You’ll like it,” Arthur says, undeterred.

Eames gives him a look. “Given your frighteningly close levels of surveillance, I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that I’ve not gone near dreamshare for close to a year now.”

“It’s a legal job,” Arthur says, like Eames hadn’t even spoken. “Well. Semi-legal. Stateside. There’s a research group out in Stanford—”

Research?” Eames splutters, sitting up straighter in his seat. “Christ, Arthur. Rub the salt in a little more, why don’t you?”

Arthur waves a hand impatiently. He doesn’t roll his eyes, but it’s clearly a near thing. “At least listen to all the details before you get huffy.”

Eames slumps back in his seat and gestures for Arthur to continue. If he doesn’t, he’ll undoubtedly get Arthur showing up at his hotel room or tailing him for days until he does listen. Then again, he’ll probably get Arthur showing up at his hotel room anyway. Still, if he hears Arthur out now, at least he won’t get Arthur trying to sell him on the job whilst simultaneously trying to get him into bed. Things always turn out so much better when Arthur can devote his whole attention to a task.

“It’s a small research team,” Arthur says after a beat. “They’ve been given an ICC grant to look into the parameters of dreaming. The architecture of them, the manipulable variables— that sort of thing. It’s not extraction or... anything military. It’s all about the creation of dreams.” He sounds almost reverent by the end of it.

“Manipulable variables,” Eames repeats, his eyebrows going up. Since when did Arthur use terms like ‘manipulable variables’?

Arthur’s ears go slightly red - made all the more obvious in the bright Madrid sun - but he soldiers on. “One of the researchers has opted out of testing because she recently found out she’s pregnant. She’s staying on as their chemist, but they still need to find a replacement researcher who can undergo testing.”

“And you want to fill that vacancy,” Eames concludes.

“Right,” Arthur says. His mouth crooks up into a half-smile for a barely a second before vanishing. “But there’s a problem.”

“Which is?”

Arthur gives him a puzzled look. “Haven’t you been keeping your ear to the ground about dreamshare at all?”

Eames’ mouth thins. “We’re not all so enamoured with dreaming as you, Arthur,” he says shortly. Arthur’s puzzled expression turns incredulous. He opens his mouth, but Eames cuts in quickly, saying, “What’s the problem? What’s stopping you from getting the position?”

Arthur scrutinises Eames for a second longer, dark eyes narrowed thoughtfully, before saying, “The problem is newest set of regulations set out by the ICC.” He holds up a hand, ticking off points as he speaks. “No newbies. Dreamers with prior research experience under their belts only. And no military.” His jaw tightens visibly on the last phrase.

Ah. “Right,” Eames says slowly. He sits back, rubbing a hand over his mouth.

It makes sense, on one level, to lock dreamshare back into the white tower of academia. The PASIV had started off as civilian technology, after all; the brainchild of lofty academics, all left-wing to a fault. If they weren’t all staunch opponents of the military-industrial complex, they were, at the very least, staunch opponents of unethical experimentation. Now that the PASIV technology had been returned to them, of course the International Control Council would want to distance itself from Project Somnacin.

But it’s a lost cause, in Eames’ opinion. Dreamshare is out. Not necessarily disseminating freely amongst the masses, but it’s out enough. Locking ex-military dreamers like Arthur out is only going to drive them underground. It already has.

Eames looks at Arthur, at the set of his shoulders. The stiff-backed military bearing that Eames remembers is buried completely beneath tailored clothing. “What do you need me for?”

Arthur leans forward. There’s something keen in his expression, a banked hunger. “I’ve been talking to one of the researchers. They’re willing to take me on, but the ICC requires all participants to provide documentation proving they have prior research experience. I need diplomas, credentials— a paper trail.”

Eames raises an eyebrow. “I can do that,” he says, nodding. He takes in the way Arthur’s expression sharpens, that banked hunger coming to the fore, before adding: “But it’ll cost you.”

Arthur doesn’t hesitate. “How does paying off your debt to Zhou sound? You’d finally be able to set foot in Hong Kong again.”

Eames gives him a dry look. “Has anyone ever told you how charming your complete and utter disregard for personal privacy is?”

“Fuck you,” Arthur says pleasantly.

“Maybe later,” Eames replies. “For now, we need to work out a solution for another problem.”

The waiter returns at that point with Arthur’s coffee and Eames’ unrequested one, and their conversation peters off until he leaves. Eames doesn’t move to touch his coffee. He watches Arthur fuss with his instead, stirring in creamer and unhealthy amounts of sugar.

“So what’s the problem?” Arthur asks finally. He licks a drop of coffee off his teaspoon. The sight is distracting enough that it takes Eames a few seconds to reply.

“Even if you get in—”

When I get in,” Arthur interrupts.

Eames waves that aside. “Forged credentials can only take you so far. You’re not an academic, Arthur.”

Arthur’s face pulls into a scowl, fierce and sudden. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Oh for— “It means exactly that, you over-sensitive prat,” Eames says. He speaks quickly, before Arthur’s scowl somehow manages to get even deeper. “Look— unless you somehow managed to squeeze in a university degree during your military service, you have none of the education or training that even the most junior research assistants possess. Your credentials will pass muster, I can guarantee that, but I can’t forge actual practical experience for you.”

Arthur’s hackles go down, as abruptly as they’d gone up. “So teach me,” he says with a shrug. He takes a small sip of his coffee.

Eames gives him an incredulous look. “Arthur,” he says slowly, “you may be brilliant, but even you aren’t that brilliant. Do you even realise how much time you’d need to learn—”

“I can get us all the time we need,” Arthur says. He looks singularly unconcerned.

“You can—” Eames starts, before the realisation hits him. “The PASIV. You want to use the time dilation in the dream.”

Arthur points at him. “Got it in one.”

Eames shakes his head immediately. “Out of the question,” he says. “Not a chance. I’ve invested enough years of my life into dreamshare and I can’t say I’ve gotten much back in return. I know when to cut my losses.” He starts to push away from the table.

Arthur leans across the table and grabs him by the wrist before he can rise. “Your debt to Zhou paid off in full, plus another twenty thousand dollars on top of that,” he says quickly.

Eames stops.

It’s an excessive, wild offer, given how much Eames owes Zhou. In fact, it smacks fairly of desperation, and that’s so uncharacteristic of Arthur that red flags go off in Eames’ head immediately.

Then again, Eames thinks, perhaps it’s all just speaking to how badly Arthur wants this—

“Come on, Eames,” Arthur says. “Forged documents aside, this is literally a job you can do in your sleep.”

It’s not worth it, Eames wants to say. He wants to say, look at you—look at what you’ve done, what you’re capable of doing. You don’t need dreamshare.

Eames could come up with a dozen cons, recommend a dozen jobs that could use a man with Arthur’s skills. But he doubts it’d be enough. Judging by the intensity of Arthur’s gaze, the strength of his grip that’s almost grinding the bones of Eames’ wrist together, Eames knows it wouldn’t be enough for Arthur. And who is Eames to tell him otherwise?

Part of him still has to ask, though. “All this effort, just for the chance to dream again, Arthur?”

Arthur’s eyes are solemn. “No,” he says. “All this effort for the chance to create again.”

Eames stays silent for a second longer, scrutinises him closely. Arthur’s gaze doesn’t waver.

“Alright,” Eames says finally. He tugs lightly against Arthur’s grip. Arthur lets go of him immediately. His dark eyes turn bright, excited. It shaves years off his already youthful-looking visage.

“So,” Arthur says, smiling just enough for a dimple to appear in one cheek, “you said something about fucking later?”

Eames snorts. “Later being the operative word,” he says. “Those credentials aren’t going to start forging themselves. Come by after six.”

Arthur nods, drains the rest of his coffee, then pulls out his wallet and drops a few notes onto the table. It’s enough to cover the coffees and probably a tip too, even though tipping is hardly customary in Spain. Eames idly considers filching the tip money the minute Arthur turns his attention away.

“Aren’t you going to tell me your room number?” Arthur asks as he rises from his seat.

Eames quirks an eyebrow. “If I need to, your surveillance skills are slipping. But the fact that you know I’m staying at a hotel rather than an apartment tells me I don’t need to.”

Arthur’s smile widens. “Drink your coffee, Eames,” he says as he brushes past. “I’ll see you at six.” He steps out onto the street and walks off, unhesitatingly, in the direction of Puerta del Sol.

Eames watches him go. He doesn’t touch his coffee.

 


 

2004

Project Somnacin - called Projekt Eigengrau by the Germans and Project Darkfield by the British - is a multinational venture. Three countries ostensibly pooling their not-inconsiderable resources and working together in a spirit of scientific cooperation.

The reality is far less rosy.

The research teams rapidly devolve into a game of academic competition and passive-aggressive one-upmanship. Raging theoretical debates abound at all hours, in every conceivable venue. Heads get stuck in metaphorical doorways at every success, and egos are bruised at every setback. The turnover in experimental subjects spikes; subjects are washed out almost as quickly as they enter the program, as the teams try to hone their pool of participants to only the best and brightest.

It’s military research and cooperation at its finest, and it’s in this context that Eames and Arthur finally meet.

They’re five weeks into the program and SOP dictates that they go into dreams as pairs - one dreamer and one spotter to assess the dream. Arthur is assigned to Eames’ side the day after Eames’ former spotter, Ostermann, develops an allergic reaction to the newest batch of Somnacin and has to be hospitalised.

He’s scrawny, Arthur is, and Eames has to actively suppress his double-take when Arthur is introduced to him as Sergeant. There’s a look in his eye that suggests he has something to prove, and he possesses that clench-jawed, barely-veiled hostility that Eames has come to associate with a certain kind of US Marine.

Eames takes his measure in under a minute then summarily dismisses him. Across from him, Arthur is affecting a poker face. But Eames is good at people, and he reads the micro-expressions that say that Arthur is doing the same.

Their mutual disdain lasts only until they go down into their first dream together. Their competitiveness lasts much longer.

 


 

2006

Arthur shows up at his hotel at quarter past six, rapping noisily at the door.

Eames lets him in, saying, “I half-expected you to try picking the lock.”

Arthur smiles wryly. “Not exactly the most inconspicuous thing to do at six in the evening.” He steps in close the second Eames shuts the door, one hand coming up to cradle Eames’ hipbone. He tilts his head, clearly angling for a kiss. Then he stops, his mouth inches away from Eames’, his gaze trained on something over Eames’ shoulder. “I thought you said you wanted to get started on those documents.”

Eames looks over his shoulder, at the stacks of paper and inks sitting at the coffee table, unopened. “I did, until I thought of a few more problems with your little plan.”

Arthur makes a small disbelieving noise. “You want to talk planning details now?” He starts working at Eames’ belt buckle, fingers deft and sure.

Eames lets him but says, “You’d rather I raise these issues after you embark on this venture?”

We,” Arthur corrects. “After we embark on this venture.” He pulls the belt free from the belt loops. “And honestly? I’d rather you raise those issues after we’re done fucking.”

“You don’t always get what you want,” Eames says, even as he cups Arthur through his trousers. Arthur’s already completely hard, and he thrusts a little against Eames’ hand as he keeps working at Eames’ clothes. “I still think you’re underestimating just how much time you’re going to need. The maths doesn’t work out.”

You’ve been doing math?” Arthur says. The open surprise in his voice makes Eames scowl.

“Shut up,” Eames grumbles. “We can’t all be mathematical wunderkinds, but I do alright.”

Arthur grins at that, sharp and fleeting. And then he drops to his knees, tugging Eames’ trousers down with him, and that’s a sight arresting enough to derail Eames’ train of thought. Arthur gives him another grin as he draws Eames’ half-hard cock out from his briefs. He licks at the head, smirks at Eames’ quick inhale.

“So, the math?” Arthur prompts innocuously. He’s still smirking, clearly waiting for Eames to say fuck it, we’ll work it out after. The surge of competitiveness wells up in Eames, like it always does when Arthur’s being a bloody-minded little bastard.

“The maths,” Eames says. “Dilation in the dream means time is sped up by a factor of twelve.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And you don’t have your own PASIV, do you?” Eames is certain he would’ve heard about it if Arthur had - from Arthur, if no one else.

“Working on it,” Arthur says as he licks a broad, filthy-wet stripe up the underside of Eames’ cock.

“Right. So, you’ll be using a PASIV that your little researcher friend will undoubtedly be loaning out to you on the sly.” Eames says. He can’t quite disguise the strangle in his voice. And when Arthur fucks his mouth down on his cock properly, he stops talking entirely.

Eames stares, mesmerised by the wet slide of his cock in and out of Arthur’s mouth. He’d never imagined, back in the earliest days of Project Somnacin, that this is how Arthur would give head. When he’d had opportunity to think about it, he’d imagined Arthur would have to be cajoled into it, sour-faced and resistant. He knows better now.

It’s been a while for Eames, and it takes only a few minutes of Arthur sucking steadily - head bobbing, throat working - before Eames grits out, “Arthur—”

Arthur hums around his cock, apparently pleased Eames is giving warning at all, and that’s all the invitation Eames needs to let go. He tumbles over the precipice, grinding a little selfishly into the warm wet of Arthur’s mouth.

Arthur pulls away almost immediately after Eames goes still and gets to his feet. His voice is rough and his expression is smug when he says, “So. You were saying?”

Eames kind of wants to kick him. But he’s feeling lax and charitable, post-orgasm, so he settles for a lazy glare instead. “Factor of twelve,” he repeats. “Assuming the PASIV is a university-owned one—”

“It is.”

“Right. Which means you’ll only get one night with it. Researchers don’t get anything longer than overnight access nowadays.”

“For a guy who says he’s out of dreamshare, you sure know a lot about this.”

Eames ignores that. “So. One night. That’s what? Eight? Ten hours? Ten hours topside gives you five days in a dream. Even if we strip back all the coursework to just statistics and lab work, you can’t compress all that into five days, I don’t care how clever you think you are.”

“What about two months?” Arthur says. “Just the fundamentals, every day, eight hours a day, for two months?”

Two months is better. Eames has had less time to get into character for some of his past cons. However— “Where the hell are you getting two months from?”

“Time speeds up by a factor of twelve, one level down,” Arthur says. “But two levels down? It speeds up by another factor of twelve. The effect is multiplicative, not additive.”

Two levels?” Eames repeats. He thinks he might be gaping a little. He thinks he might even be a little bit turned on, recent orgasm or no.

It’s something he’d considered before. Eames is reasonably certain he’d even raised the idea with Arthur, once or twice, back in the day. But it had all been theoretical. They’d had far too many theories, and barely any time or freedom to test them out, back then. Against his will, the old academic curiosity wells up. It’s two parts excitement over the prospect of discovering something new, one part childish thrill at the thought of possessing secret knowledge.

Arthur is watching his expression closely. He grins, wide enough to show off both his dimples. It’s unexpectedly puckish, wholly disarming, and still smug. “I told you you’d like this job.”

Eames still doesn’t kick him. But he does wrestle him down onto the carpet, determined to fuck the self-satisfied look off Arthur’s face.

 


 

Three hours, two orgasms, and one migration to the bed later, Arthur rolls onto his side and nudges Eames. Eames, well on his way toward dozing off, opens his eyes to mere slits and grunts out an approximation of, “What?”

“How much time do you need to get all the documents done? Research project kicks off in three weeks. They need to be in the ICC database before then.”

Eames opens his eyes fully and makes a face. “Now you tell me?”

“You can manage it,” Arthur says. His dismissive tone is flattering, in a backhanded sort of way.

Eames huffs, but it’s true. He can manage, and he will. He’ll probably do himself some permanent orthopaedic damage in the process, hunching over his drafting table for hours on end, but the alternative - failing while Arthur is watching - is not to be borne.

Arthur tugs the covers up over himself and wriggles down further in the bed.

Eames raises an eyebrow. “You’re sleeping here then?” He asks. “I don’t recall giving you permission.”

Arthur just snorts, plumps up his pillow, and rolls over.


 

Eames wakes up the next morning to the smell of coffee and Arthur’s loud, “Get up, Eames.”

Eames cracks one eye open, then the other.

Arthur is standing beside the bed, already fully dressed and groomed. Battle ready, even if he’s traded his BDUs for tailored menswear nowadays. The sunlight streaming in through the window casts an incongruous halo around his head. Eames squints up at him. “What time is it?”

Arthur checks his watch. “Quarter to seven.”

Eames groans. He grabs for one of the pillows beside him and drops it over his head. “You woke me up after midnight for more sex,” he says through the pillow. “It’s your fault I’m still exhausted. Wake me up in an hour.”

A second later, the pillow is yanked away from his head. “Up,” Arthur says, and this time there’s the sharp bark of command.

Eames heaves an enormous sigh. So Arthur’s going to be like that today. “This isn’t how it used to go,” Eames grumbles, as he pushes himself upright.

“Things change, Eames,” Arthur says. “People change.”

“You don’t,” Eames says, still grumbling. “Because you’re an automaton. Automatons don’t change.” He scratches at his chest, lets out a jaw-popping yawn, then stretches.

Exhausted as he is, he doesn’t fail to notice the way Arthur’s eyes flick over his chest, his shoulders. Eames stretches again, for Arthur’s benefit.

Arthur’s mouth twitches in amusement. He points at the bedside table, where a tray of toast and a steaming cup of coffee wait. “I brought breakfast,” he says. “Eat, drink your coffee, then get up. We’re on a schedule.”

 


 

2004

Eames is starting to suspect someone - possibly someone in the American research contingent - jockeyed to have Arthur assigned to Eames specifically, just to screw him over. Throw him off. Disconcert him.

The brass has allocated the bulk of the architecture and level building to the Darkfield boys, and Eames doesn’t think it’s egotistical to say a decent portion of that is due to him. There are few in the program who can match him when it comes to imbuing a dream with realistic ambience. He’s grown accustomed to a certain level of astonished admiration from spotters who enter his dream levels, has come to relish that slightly slack-jawed look that arises when they realise they’re in a dream.

He doesn’t get any of that from Arthur.

From Arthur he gets things like: if this is meant to be Kandahar, you’re off by a few years and why are the colours always so intense in your dreams? while the closest he gets to admiration is: I see you’ve managed to get your projections to stick to the scenario this time.

Arthur hits the ground running everysingle time in the dream; goes from zero to criticism the instant he opens his eyes. He’s spit-shined, upright, regulation from head to toe, and it’s maddening. Galling. It makes something beneath Eames’ skin itch, brings years of unrepentant shit stirring to the fore.

The next time they’re in a dream, Eames dreams up a platform seventy stories tall and leaves Arthur at the top; Arthur dreams up a parachute and flings himself off the edge. Eames dumps Arthur in the middle of a hedge maze three metres high; Arthur burns it down. Eames dreams up a bunker - doorless, windowless - and traps Arthur inside it; Arthur dreams up a rocket launcher and blows out a wall.

It ought to be terrific fun, except Arthur doesn’t bloody play along. He tears Eames’ traps apart coolly, with an air of vaguest contempt. He doesn’t glower at Eames. He doesn’t glare. There’s a thrum of barely contained anger in Arthur - Eames can almost taste it - but it never surfaces.

The itch in Eames’ veins grows stronger.

He can knock Arthur off-balance. He’s sure of it. He just needs to find the right lever, the right fulcrum. Then he just has to find the right amount of pressure, and push.

 


 

In the end, the right lever turns out to be laughably easy.

Like Eames said, Arthur’s hostility is one that he’s come to associate with a certain kind of US Marine. And after a few days of close, focused observation, Eames’ suspicion becomes certainty.

Arthur’s gaze lingers on men, and only men. It’s even lingered on Eames a few times, although the glances he casts toward Eames are tainted with exasperation. And Eames, for his part, would happily take things further with Arthur, because the man is nothing if not gorgeous.

Except Arthur is gorgeous and repressed, living under the shadow of DADT, and probably liable to punch Eames in the face the morning after, perhaps whilst loudly declaring some variation of no homo. The thought does put something of a dampener on Eames’ enthusiasm.

Poor Arthur, Eames thinks. No wonder he’s so angry all the time. Freud would probably have a field day with him. Eames briefly considers the idea of flirting with Arthur, then dismisses it. Because whilst Eames is certain he’d draw Arthur’s interest, he’s also certain he’d hold that interest for less than a minute before Arthur shut down like a vault.

The trick, Eames decides, is to make Arthur let his guard down.

 


 

They’re scheduled to go down into a dream two days later.

Through judicious applications of charm (along with appeals to academic vanity and nationalistic pride), Eames manages to convince one of the techies to delay Arthur’s Somnacin delivery by ten seconds. He even manages to convince them to keep the change in protocol off the records.

It means that Eames wakes up alone in downtown Karbala. Or what should be downtown Karbala. It’s the first time Eames has built a location he’s never been to before - the first time he’s built something purely from architectural plans - and it shows. There’s a hazy, uncertain quality to some of the buildings; a strange feeling of impermanence that Arthur will undoubtedly notice and harp on about.

But that’s not Eames’ priority at the moment. Eames checks his watch. He has only a minute to get this right.

He ducks into the nearest building. It’s a clothing store that’s strangely devoid of any wares. However, the mirrored change rooms in the back are what he wants. Eames walks into a stall and faces the full length mirror. He surveys himself for a second - pulls his shoulders back, tilts his chin up -  and gets to work.

Eames narrows his shoulders, darkens his hair, softens his jawline just a touch. It’s not his most ambitious work, but he’s only aiming for a generically attractive forge: average build, symmetrical features. Almost universally appealing, and inoffensive for it. Once he’s satisfied with his appearance, Eames clears his throat and murmurs to himself, shaping his lips and tongue around words until his accent slides easily into smooth mid-Western tones.

Then he sets off to find Arthur.

It takes him a good amount of searching before he finally chances upon Arthur. They’re working on methods for dreamers to locate one another more easily, the researchers say, but it’s hardly a top priority for the brass. If anything, the higher ups would probably prefer it if all the experimental subjects were lost, disoriented, and tumbling around to find one another. Eames has been through enough clusterfucks to know it would certainly lend to the authenticity.

Arthur is facing away from him, hands on his hips as he scans up and down the main road, both assessing the dreamscape and searching for Eames. By Eames’ estimates, Arthur has been down here for fifteen minutes. His back is stiff and his shoulders are tight with irritation.

Eames sidles up to him. Breathes into his ear, “You look lost.”

Arthur jumps and whirls around. He frowns almost immediately when he takes in Eames - takes in his forge, rather. Eames can almost see the words scrolling across his brain: failure to suppress stray projections.

 “I’m not lost,” Arthur says finally. “I’m looking for someone.”

Eames smiles, keeping the charm turned low. The aim is to relax Arthur, not dazzle him, after all. He leans in slightly. “Can I help?”

Arthur’s eyes flick over Eames again, his gaze dark and openly appreciative this time. Poor Arthur, Eames thinks again.

After another second, Arthur leans back. Discomfort entering his body language for the first time, his shoulders hunching slightly. However, uncomfortable as he is, Arthur still finds it in him to roll his eyes and say to himself, sotto voce, “Jesus. Even his projections like pushing it.”

Eames smiles and leans in again. “Not quite,” he says, and drops the forge.

Arthur’s reaction is instantaneous and immensely gratifying. His eyes go wide, his mouth drops open, and the line of his body goes slack with shock.

Now that’s more like it— ow, Christ— Eames thinks as Arthur shoves him - hard enough to knock Eames back and make his head collide with the brick of the building behind him.

 “What—” Arthur says, eyes still wide. “What the hell—what—”

 “You Yanks aren’t the only ones who haven’t been sharing everything you’ve been working on,” Eames says smugly, rubbing the back of his head. He barely has time to brace himself before Arthur surges forward, grabs Eames’ upper arm in a surprisingly punishing grip, and pushes him back against the brick.

 “How did you do that?” Arthur demands.

The proper response, of course, should be that’s classified. However, Eames has never been a fan of proper.

They’re standing incredibly close together; close enough that Eames can easily slot his knee in between Arthur’s spread thighs without having to press forward. Eames meets Arthur’s eyes. There’s something else in Arthur’s gaze, alongside the amazement. Something sharp, something hungry.

Eames tilts his head. “Well, that depends,” Eames says, his smile sly. “How much is the information worth to you, Sergeant?” He slides his knee higher and leers, looking Arthur up and down.

It’s unnecessary, really. He’s already gotten the reaction he wanted out of Arthur. But Arthur being thrown off-balance was just the metaphorical inch, and Eames wants the mile now.

Arthur’s expression tightens at the first press of Eames’ knee. His eyes flash, and Eames braces himself for a punch.

It doesn’t come.

Instead, Arthur pushes away from Eames and takes a step back. He doesn’t break eye contact for a second, even though his eyes narrow. “Fine,” Arthur says. And then, without preamble, he reaches down and starts to undo his own belt.

Eames stares at him. What on Earth

It’s Arthur trying to call his bluff, he thinks. And if that’s the case, Eames isn’t going to be first to back down, not after—

“What do you want me to do?” Arthur asks. “Blow you? Fuck you?” He pauses. “You’re not fucking me, though. I don’t do that on the first go-around.”

Christ, maybe Arthur isn’t bluffing.

“Sergeant,” Eames says slowly, “while it’s incredibly interesting to discover the lengths you’re willing to go to in your quest for knowledge—believe it or not, I actually prefer my partners willing, and my sexual encounters to be consensual.”

Arthur’s hands still, although he doesn’t take them away from his belt buckle. When he glances up at Eames, his expression has defaulted back to exasperation. “What’d you say that for then?”

Eames’ brow furrows. “It was a joke,” he says. “You are familiar with the concept of a joke, yes?”

There’s a beat. “So you don’t want to fuck,” Arthur concludes. He frowns for a moment, then shrugs, and starts re-buckling his belt.

 “Oh, well, there’s no need to be that hasty—” Eames starts to say, but Arthur is already stepping away.

 “The opportunity has come and gone, Eames,” Arthur says breezily. His mouth is crooked up into a small smile, and the look in his eyes clearly says your move. He looks anything but repressed, and Eames’ interest ratchets up.

When Arthur turns and starts walking down the main road, towards the gleaming dome of the Al-Abbas Mosque, Eames follows him quickly. “Will the opportunity come back if I show you how to do what I just did?” He asks.

Arthur glances at him sidelong. That curiously sharp, hungry look is back. It’s not lust - not entirely. Eames knows what a lustful stare looks like - has had plenty directed at him throughout the years - and the look Arthur is directing at him isn’t it.

 “Yeah,” Arthur says finally. “The opportunity would come back.” Then his tone turns brisk as he says, “Depends on how fast you can make this scenario look a little more permanent.” He points at a particularly hazy part of the landscape. “The faster you work, the more time we’ll have to spare down here.”

Eames works fast.

 


 

Arthur never does learn how to forge in dreams.

He does, however, continue to fuck Eames in them.

 


 

2006

Mallorie Cobb - nee Miles - is a charming, perplexing blend of innate French chic and science boffin awkwardness.

She wears her Hermes scarves and designer clothing without affectation, and she shakes Eames’ hand with a firm grip, direct gaze, and an it’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Eames. But she ducks her head slightly when Eames mentions he’d worked with her father, and her gaze flits around the room - distracted, besotted - tracking her husband whenever he moves.

Said husband, Dominic Cobb, is no less besotted, although he’s marginally less affable than his wife. Whereas Mrs. Cobb invites Eames to call her Mal immediately, Cobb doesn’t invite Eames to call him Dominic, let alone Dom (which suits Eames’ public school sensibilities just fine).

Still—they’re a charming, thoroughly lovely couple with a charming, thoroughly skewed sense of ethics. They’re apparently all too happy to help bring Arthur into their academic fold, ICC regulations and restrictions be damned. Mal has already measured out the Somnacin doses, calibrated them for their respective weights so that they’ll all wake in the same instant rather than needing to rely on the inelegance of a kick. Cobb is already reclining in his armchair, sleeve rolled up and cannula inserted, ready to dream the first level for them. All they’re waiting on is Arthur.

Arthur, who apparently lost all his easy composure somewhere over the Atlantic, and is currently stonewalling the plan with a vehemence Eames hasn’t heard since the earliest days of Project Somnacin.

“No. No,” Arthur is saying. “You haven’t even seen the Stanford lab. It doesn’t make sense for you to be the dreamer.”

Eames glances at the clock. They’ve been bickering for a solid thirty minutes now. “I’m sorry,” he says, “which one of us has the non-forged degree again?”

It is, admittedly, not his most mature response. Nor is it particularly conducive to getting Arthur to back down. But Arthur came to Eames for his expertise, so he ought to damn well listen to Eames. “A lab is a lab, no matter the institution,” Eames says, ignoring Arthur’s glower. “And you’re meant to have prior research experience, according to your CV. Training in a lab other than Stanford’s can only help with the verisimilitude.”

Verisimilitude?

“Yes, verisimilitude. It means—”

“I know what ‘verisimilitude’ means, jackass.” Arthur takes a sharp breath. “Look, no offense, Eames,” he says, in the tones of one about to give offense, “but I’m not filling your dream level with my projections. That’s like practically turning my brain into a little puzzle box, just for you.”

Eames stops. The first thing that comes to mind - the easiest, most childish thing to say - is what exactly are you afraid of me finding out?

But Eames is about to shackle himself to Arthur for two months in a dream, and a prickly, defensive Arthur is what nightmares are made of. Or, rather, the projections of a prickly, defensive Arthur are what nightmares are made of. Goading Arthur is not the way to go, no matter how amusing it may be in the short-term.

In the end, it’s Cobb who resolves the stand-off by saying, a tad apologetically, “Eames does have a point, Arthur. You can’t dream up a functioning lab if you don’t know what goes in it.”

For a second, Arthur’s expression turns stormy. Then it shuts down into stiff formality. “Understood,” he says, with a sharp nod. He stalks over to the armchair beside Cobb and sits down. Mal goes to him immediately and sets about helping him insert his IV. As she does so, she says something to him in undertone. Eames isn’t close enough to hear, but whatever she says, it gets the corners of Arthur’s mouth twitching up minutely.

In a way, Eames supposes that Arthur is right to worry about his prying. But it isn’t as if Eames would resort to anything so crass (or foolhardy) as interrogating Arthur’s projections. He has subtler methods than that.

After checking to ensure their cannulae are all properly inserted and taped down, Mal makes her way over the PASIV. She pauses with her hand over the activation trigger. “Ready?” She asks.

Eames looks over at Arthur, who nods grimly. With his furrowed brow and the slight tautness around the eyes, Arthur looks less like a man about embark on a boundaries-expanding dreamshare experiment and more like a man contemplating the gallows. And that’s just no fun.

Eames stretches his leg out and taps Arthur’s foot with his own. When Arthur glances at him, frowning, Eames calls up his most cloyingly charming smile and says, “I don’t suppose you have any unfulfilled professor-student fantasies that we could resolve while we’re down there?”

He falls asleep to the sound of Cobb’s shocked cough, Mal’s trill of laughter, and the sight of Arthur’s reluctantly amused smile.

 


 

They’re two levels down, standing in a space that’s looks to be a hybrid of the Cobbs’ Stanford lab, the Project Somnacin labs and Eames’ old lab in Oxford. Of the latter two, Eames isn’t sure which discomforts him more.

 “Where are we?” Arthur asks from behind him.

Eames turns to find Arthur, not looking around the lab, but staring out a window. Eames looks out, too. There isn’t blank, unconstructed dreamspace outside, like he’d expected. Instead, he’s staring at an almost replica of Tom Quad in the middle of spring, and the sight of it makes Eames’ mouth twist. When he looks away, Arthur is looking at him knowingly, all traces of his topside sulkiness gone.

 “You didn’t plan that, did you?” Arthur asks, nodding at the window. When Eames gives him a slightly sour look, Arthur holds his hands up. “That wasn’t a criticism. Just an observation.”

Eames sniffs. “Your observations have an uncanny resemblance to criticisms sometimes.”

Arthur shrugs and glances out the window again. “It looks English,” he says. “And expensive.”

 “It’s Tom Quad,” Eames says shortly. “University of Oxford.” He turns away from the windows, walks toward the whiteboards that dominate the back wall of the lab. “Shall we get started?”

 


 

2004

“Are you ever going to tell me how you learned to forge?” Arthur asks, as he inspects Eames’ build of Kandahar. The build is austere, sterile; devoid of projections. It’s not Eames’ usual style at all, but it’s what the higher ups want.

Eames shrugs. His background is no real secret, even if the Darkfield boys like to pretend it is. “Part of my thesis.”

“Part of your—” Arthur’s eyebrows go up. He turns to face Eames properly. “Master’s?” He guesses.

“PhD.”

You have a PhD?”

Eames doesn’t, actually. He’d left before his first year was even done. But Arthur’s astonishment is more than a little insulting, so like hell he’s admitting that. “Is that so hard to believe?”

Arthur shakes his head. “It’s not. But if you have your PhD—why are you here then?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why’re you here as a soldier? Why aren’t you on the research team?”

Eames could give any number of answers to that. He could even tell the truth. He could talk about the heavy weight of tradition, the choke chain of familial expectation. But the truth is so banal, and lies and deflection are easier anyway.

“Researchers aren’t allowed to fraternise with the experimental subjects.” Eames smiles suggestively and backs Arthur up against a wall. Fittingly, they’re standing outside Kandahar University.

Arthur rolls his eyes, but he lets Eames back him up without protest. One corner of his mouth quirks up as he spreads his knees wider. “Yeah, alright,” he says. “Be that way if you want.”

 


 

2006

Arthur isn’t a con man. Not a natural one, at any rate.

Eames thinks he could become one, given the right training, the right guidance. There’s something inherently trustworthy about Arthur; an air of earnest reliability that would lend itself perfectly to a straight man in a con.

For this particular con (and it is a con, despite Arthur’s protestations), Arthur’s perpetually youthful face lends credence to his cover as a wide-eyed, relatively inexperienced academic. And they’re making good gains in plugging the gaps in his education.

 (If Eames is totally honest, they’re making staggeringly fast gains. However, Eames would rather be torn apart by militarised projections than say that out loud, and risk feeding Arthur’s already enormous ego.)

But for all the progress they’ve made, and for all of Arthur’s natural advantages, they’re still frustratingly hindered by the fact Arthur can’t get into character for shit.

It’s been over a week now, and Arthur still walks like a military man. There’s a clipped cadence to his speech, a curtness to his tone that suggests he’s more used to barking out orders than holding his own in a dissertation defense.

 “We can’t all be natural con men,” Arthur snaps, when Eames’ criticism apparently becomes too much.

They’re in the lab, surrounded by all the accoutrements of scientific academia - papers, beakers, measuring equipment. Arthur stands in the middle of it all, dressed almost stereotypically like a scientist - complete with lab coat - but he nevertheless sticks out like a sore thumb.

Eames leans back in his seat, arms folded. “Not so fun when the shoe is on the other foot, is it?” He says mildly.

Arthur scowls.

 “Besides,” Eames says, “you shouldn’t be acting or faking. You should be embodying the role.”

Arthur scrubs at his face. “I really don’t have the patience for your pseudo-science drama coach bullshit, Eames,” he says tiredly. “Just tell me how to improve.”

 “I am telling you how to improve.”

 “Right,” Arthur snits. Eames resists the urge to walk over and slap him upside the head.

 “Is this really necessary?” Arthur asks after a few seconds. He leans his hip against a lab table, shoulders drooping. “The documents you created went through the ICC database just fine. I just need to know the shit that a junior researcher would know. Why does it matter if I act a little stiff?”

 “‘A little stiff’ is understating it,” Eames says dryly. When Arthur gives him a look, Eames schools his face into seriousness. “Look,” he says, “you’re likely going to be observed closely. The Cobbs bringing in some brand new researcher that no one else has ever heard of? Even with credentials, you’re going to raise some eyebrows. They get one whiff of military off of you, you’re going to be out and charged with fraud.”

Arthur’s mulish expression doesn’t abate, but he doesn’t argue either. He pushes away from the table and throws himself down into the chair beside Eames. “So how do I go about ‘embodying the role’, then?” He asks. The little shit even makes air quotes.

Eames tilts his head, searching for a way to explain. “Haven’t you ever thought about being someone else?” He asks finally. “Someone else entirely? Different name, different life… and then gotten so lost in that fantasy that it felt like you were that other person?”

There’s an odd little pause before Arthur says, “Not really.”

Eames raises an eyebrow at the pause. “Really?”

 “Yeah,” Arthur says. “Really.

Eames glances at him from the corner of his eye. Arthur’s expression is unruffled, but the defensive set of his shoulders belies that ease. This is Arthur, Eames thinks. Blunt, forthright, straight-talking Arthur, who’s been a military man for as long as Eames has known him, and—

Ah.

 “I think you’re lying,” Eames says, keeping his voice milquetoast mild.

 “Oh, you do, do you?”

 “Mm,” Eames says. “I do.” He stretches his foot out and hooks it around a leg of Arthur’s chair; tugs it in close, until his knee is pressed against Arthur’s. “Tell me,” Eames says conversationally, “why do you want this research job so badly?”

 “I told you. The Cobbs are—”

 “Yes, yes,” Eames says, waving a hand impatiently. “Architecture of dreams, pushing the boundaries of dreamshare knowledge, et cetera and ad nauseum.” He pins Arthur with a stare. “Why do you want this legal job so badly? If it’s just experimenting with dreams that you want, you could do that in any half-decent dream den. More and more of them are cropping up nowadays. There’d be no need to jump through all these hoops.”

 “A dream den?” Arthur scoffs. “Sure. Because what I want is to risk being hauled in by the ICC for unauthorised use of a PASIV.”

 “Whereas this plan simply means risking being hauled in for unauthorised use of a PASIV and fraud.”

At that, Arthur falls silent.

Eames cocks his head. “Shall I tell you what I think?”

 “It’s not like I can stop you,” Arthur mutters.

Eames ignores that. “I think,” he says, making sure to keep his tone neutral, “you want the legitimacy. I think you want the supposed prestige that comes with being an academic. I think you want to be up there in that white tower, with the rest of the boffins, not slogging it out like a grunt, like you have been.”

There’s another long silence. Then: “I’m in this for the dreams,” Arthur says quietly. But he doesn’t refute any of what Eames had said.

Eames nudges Arthur’s knee with his own. “There’s no shame in it, you know,” he says. “Wanting to be someone else.”

Arthur jerks away from him at that, his expression abruptly fierce. “I don’t want to be someone else,” he snaps.

 “There’s no shame in wishing your life had been different, either,” Eames replies. “But the thing is, Arthur—you can’t just pretend to be Arthur Goldman, grad student.” Eames reaches out and plucks at the ID card dangling from the lanyard around Arthur’s neck. “You can’t be you, wearing the skin of this character, like a suit you’re waiting to take off when you’re alone. That’s how you slip up. That’s how they’ll catch you. You have to become this character. That’s the nature of a long con.”

Arthur rubs at his temple tiredly. “We’re right back to where we started,” he says. “What do you suggest I do?”

Eames thinks for a minute. “It’s all about practice, really,” he says. “You just need to get more comfortable with the idea of becoming someone else.” An idea strikes him then, and Eames kicks back, grinning. “About those professor-student fantasies I asked you about before we came down—”

Arthur snorts. “You want to use sex roleplay to help me get comfortable?” He asks. “Jesus, Eames. If you want to take a break to fuck, you can just say so.”

 “I won’t deny that the side benefit holds definite appeal,” Eames replies. “But there’s nothing quite like sex to make you lose yourself.”

Arthur’s skepticism slides into incredulity. “You’re serious.”

 “I am.”

Arthur shakes his head, but there’s a smile lurking at the corners of his mouth. “Alright,” he says. “Fine. Why not? It’s not like anything else has been working.”

Eames pats him on the knee. “That’s the spirit,” he says cheerfully.

 


 

Arthur Goldman is from Western Massachusetts. He’s twenty-four—

(“That’s not how old I am,” Arthur had protested weeks ago, as he’d watched Eames forge his credentials. “I’m almost thirty.”

 “You’ll likely be eternally baby-faced,” had been Eames’ reply. “Use it. Your supposed youth and inexperience will excuse any number of small mistakes you may make.”

Arthur had accepted this with a minimum of grumbling.)

He’s twenty-four. He’s never been outside of the United States - never ventured further west than Michigan, in fact. He’s still coming to terms with his sexuality, and he’s never picked up a man before—

 (“Seriously, Eames? I’ve never picked up a man before?”

 “Must you argue with everything I come up with?”)

Eames is in a pub. If he cared to look closer at the decor, he’d notice that parts of it bear passing resemblance to a pub he’d frequented in his undergrad days. But Eames doesn’t care to look closer. What matters is that the pub’s layout is open plan, the lighting is dim and warm, and that Arthur’s projections are present but quiet. Everything is private enough to put Arthur at ease, while never allowing him to forget that he’s being watched.

It takes Arthur a good fifteen minutes to show up (Eames hopes he’d been using those fifteen minutes to get into character). But when he does, he makes a beeline for Eames almost immediately.

Eames tries not to sigh. If he were playing Arthur’s role, he’d have entered quietly, stuck to the periphery of the pub for a while, working up his nerve. Maybe gone to the bar for a drink, some liquid courage, before even thinking of approaching the bloke that had caught his eye.

Still. It’s Arthur’s first time - of a sort. Eames supposes he should cut him some slack.

Arthur fidgets for a moment beside him, and that’s a bit better. Eames peers sidelong at him. Arthur is wearing wire-rimmed spectacles in lieu of the lab coat, and Eames’ mouth twitches. Are you going to try wearing a bow tie tomorrow? Eames wants to ask. The glasses do make Arthur look young and owlish, however; Eames will give him that.

Eames sips at his drink and waits.

“Hi,” Arthur says finally.

“Hello,” Eames says, with the polite disinterest of a stranger.

Arthur fidgets some more before taking a deep, determined breath. “Can I—can I buy you a drink?” He asks. Even with the slight stutter, he says it far too confidently. Arthur Goldman is sheltered, still grappling with his sexuality. The grimace that passes across Arthur’s face tells Eames that Arthur is at least aware of that.

Eames lifts his tumbler, still half-full of scotch. “I’m set for the moment.”

Arthur looks flummoxed. Eames isn’t sure if it’s because Arthur genuinely doesn't know what to say next, or if it’s part of the act. Either way, it's fitting.

“Right,” Arthur says eventually. “I guess so. Well—” he smiles with false bravado, “—can I buy you a drink after you’re done with that one?" The bravado fades into sheepishness, and oh, that’s a nice touch. Eames should reward the effort.

Eames drains the rest of his scotch. He looks Arthur up and down, then smiles the smile of a man who likes what he sees. “I'll tell you what, love,” he says, instinctively turning his accent rougher than usual. “I’ll give you a choice. You can buy me another drink. Or we can nip into the bathroom.”

Arthur’s eyes widen minutely. “The bathroom?” He says. He looks around. It’s just a quick, nervous dart of his eyes, nothing blatant. Eames smiles, approving.

“Don’t worry,” Eames says reassuringly. “We won’t be the first pair of blokes to use the bathroom for that purpose, and we definitely won’t be the last.”

Arthur’s expression turns prim. “And what purpose is that?”

Eames’ eyebrows up. “Playing coy now?” He asks. “After you asked to buy me a drink, bold as anything?”

There’s a moment - a very, very brief moment - where Arthur wavers. Eames can almost see the this is stupid, Eames forming on Arthur’s lips. Then Arthur drops back into character.

“I’m not playing coy,” Arthur says. “I’m just—I don’t usually do this sort of thing. You know.” He shuffles his feet. “I’ve never done this sort of thing, actually. So I guess I’m—looking for someone to show me the ropes?” Arthur’s voice goes up slightly at the end, and he even manages to summon up a slight blush from somewhere. Oh, well done, Arthur, Eames thinks.

“Not to worry, love,” Eames says, grinning, rolling the endearment around on his tongue. “I’ll take care of you.”

It’s a rushed, heated affair. Eames is on Arthur the second the door of the bathroom stall slams shut. He pins Arthur against the door, kisses him bruisingly. Arthur kisses back, but with none of his usual self-assurance.

When Eames pulls back, Arthur stutters out, “What do you—? Do you want me to—?”

“You just stay right there,” Eames replies. Then he drops to his knees, jerks Arthur’s fly open, and draws his cock out.

Oh,” Arthur says, dark eyes wide behind smudged lenses.

Eames sucks Arthur into his mouth without ceremony. He doesn’t bother drawing it out, or teasing. The aim is for Arthur to stay in character, to lose himself in the fantasy of being someone else, and Arthur does.

His hands flutter over Eames’ hair, his shoulders, like he isn’t sure what to grab, or whether he’s even allowed. Small noises and half-formed sentences escape him, whereas Arthur usually keeps quiet until the very end. And when he comes, he bucks into Eames’ mouth, hard, inexperienced and graceless.

When Arthur slumps back against the door, breathing hard, Eames pulls back. He wipes at his mouth and says merrily, “See? Improvement already.”

Arthur eyes him, his breathing evening out slowly. “I still say this was just an excuse to fulfil your fantasy,” he scoffs. “You just wanted to be the dirty old guy breaking in the innocent kid.”

Eames splutters. “Old?” He hadn’t even forged another identity for this.

“I’m barely twenty-four,” Arthur says, pushing his glasses up his nose. “You’re in your thirties.” He widens his eyes mock-innocently. “That’s so old.”

Eames glares at him then follows it up with a two-finger salute. Arthur laughs, unrepentant.

“Seriously, though,” Arthur says, once he’s done laughing, “I don’t think I could keep this up forever.” When Eames’ eyebrow goes up at ‘forever’, Arthur quickly amends it to: “Or however long the Cobbs’ research project takes. It’s just too—” he gestures vaguely, “—too different.”

“So don’t use this persona,” Eames says. “It was a bit extreme. But the point of the exercise—” he ignores Arthur’s snort, “—was for you to keep in mind that Arthur Goldman is different from you. He’s a civilian. Whatever identity you end up constructing, you need to remember that that’s what you’re building from.”

Arthur pushes away from the door, nodding thoughtfully. He holds out a hand to help Eames up. Eames takes it and gets up, then steps in close, nudging his erection meaningfully against Arthur’s hip. Arthur smirks at him, all traces of mild Arthur Goldman gone, and says, “Can I help you?”

Eames ducks into give him a quick kiss. Despite what Arthur may say or think, Eames prefers the smirk on Arthur’s face over wide-eyed innocence. “I rather think you can.”

One thoroughly satisfying handjob later, Eames is leading Arthur out of the bathroom and back to the bar. “You got into character quite nicely, overall,” Eames says. “It wasn’t bad.”

“Yeah,” Arthur says, his expression turning thoughtful again. “It wasn’t bad.”

 


 

2004

They’re in a dream - one of the first to incorporate more than two dreamers, but definitely not the last - and they’re surrounded by sand. Sand, sand, endless fucking sand, with only the occasional patch of dirt or clump of rocks to break the monotony. Eames is hunkered down in the meagre shade of one such rocky outcrop, with Corporal Calders on his left and Arthur on his right.

“Well,” Arthur says finally, “it’s realistic. Generic, but realistic.” His expression is neutral, veering toward unimpressed.

Eames sniffs. “A bit hard to fuck up sand.”

Calders, whose dream they’re in, says, “Hey!

“I meant realistic as in ‘this is what troops being deployed are going to see’, but that too,” Arthur replies.

Eames hums noncommittally and turns his attention to picking apart the dreamscape with a critical eye. The sand is accurate. So is the brutal glare of the sun, the arid heat. But there’s something odd, something off-putting; an oppressive sense of claustrophobia that makes no sense, given the flat, open landscape they’ve been dropped into.

Eames jerks his chin toward the horizon, which wavers and shimmers in the white-hot desert heat. “Something feels off, don’t you think? It’s realistic, but not quite right.”

“Perfectly vague, Eames, thanks,” Arthur says. But he nevertheless shifts forward, lies on his belly on the scorching sand and peers through the scope of his M16. The motion tugs the hem of his shirt up, exposing a strip of smooth olive skin. Eames reaches out and tugs his shirt back down solicitously. The pat that he delivers to Arthur’s bum afterwards is perhaps a little less solicitous. Arthur lowers his rifle and gives Eames a flat stare.

“Just making sure you don’t end up sunburnt,” Eames says cheerfully.

“Because sunburn is such a major concern in a dream. Was the ass grab to check the stitching on my BDUs?”

“Oh no,” Eames says, his eyes wide with false earnestness. “That was just opportunism.”

Arthur snorts and turns back to squinting at the desert landscape through his scope. “The mirage doesn’t look right,” he concludes. “Calders, have you ever even seen a mirage? Movies don’t count.”

Calders, with all the defensiveness that comes from being barely out of his teens, grumbles, “I was stationed in Pendleton before this. Where the fuck would I have seen a mirage?”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Next time, tell the researchers if you don’t have first-hand experience with a scenario.” He looks over at Eames. “Have you seen a desert before?” When Eames nods, Arthur says, “You want to dream up the level next time, or should I do it?”

“I don’t have a preference either way. You?”

Arthur shrugs. “I’m easy.”

Eames flashes him a delighted grin. “Now that’s what a man likes to hear.”

Another eye-roll from Arthur. “I walked right into that one, I guess.”

“Keep this up and I’ll get bored, Sergeant.”

“After we wake up, let’s go back to your quarters and have sex,” Arthur says, his voice as bland as porridge. He’s already turning his attention back to his scope.

Eames tsks and turns his expression faux-mournful. “If only you meant it,” he says.

“Man,” Calders sighs. “This is so homoerotic, even by Marine standards.”

“I’m not a Marine,” Eames points out.

“Fine. This is homoerotic, even by Marine and European standards.”

Eames chuckles and goes back to examining Calder’s dream level. The next time he glances over, Arthur is watching him, his eyes warmly amused, an almost-smile playing about his mouth.

 


 

Eames remembers that dream well.

It had been the last shared dream that hadn’t ended with a bullet to the brain, a knife in the chest, or blood on Eames’ hands.

 


 

2006

They fall into a routine.

The mornings are spent drumming knowledge into Arthur’s head, while the afternoons were set aside for Arthur to work at becoming Arthur Goldman. They sleep in the same bed because it’s easier to wake one another up, and they tend to have sex in the evenings, anyway.

To Eames’ never ending pleasure, Arthur is terrible at waking up. He’s perhaps playing it up as part of the Goldman identity - civilian, soft - because the Arthur Eames remembers never had this much trouble waking up. However, Eames still takes enormous satisfaction in getting his revenge. Every morning.

“Rise and shine, sleepyhead,” Eames sing-songs, drumming his hands against Arthur’s arse.

Arthur makes a pathetic noise and hunches up beneath the blanket. “Fuck off,” he mumbles into his pillow.

“I think not,” Eames says, and yanks the blanket away.

Arthur flips over, like he does every morning, and glowers at Eames. His glower is markedly less intimidating when accompanied by bed head, pillow creases across his face, and sleep in his eyes.

Eames smiles beatifically, points at the bedside table, and concentrates. A second later, there’s a cup of coffee sitting on it, steaming gently. The smell of coffee begins to permeate the room. Arthur’s glower downgrades itself to a grumpy stare as he reaches for the cup. By the time he’s drained a quarter of it, he’s smiling.

Eames kicks back on the bed as he wait for Arthur to finish performing the human equivalent of booting up. “This thing you’re doing,” he says. “It’s the complete opposite of military. It’s good. But don’t overdo it.”

Arthur squints at him, confused.

 


 

The desire for sleep is in the mind, just like pain, thirst, and hunger. But they seem to have some wiggle room when it comes to sleep. Arthur theorises that the need to sleep is less urgent because they’re already sleeping. Eames thinks it’s because their sleeping patterns are already fucked.

Whatever the reason, they take advantage of it. Day after day, Eames keeps the sun high in the sky, long after it should have set. It means they get more time to cram knowledge into Arthur’s brain, and Arthur gets more practice at being Arthur Goldman.

However, even though they’re working toward a deadline - and as much as Arthur likes to play at being an automaton - they can’t work forever.

Eames calls for a break whenever he feels himself growing hoarse, or whenever they start getting on one another’s nerves. Somewhat surprisingly, the latter doesn’t happen much. And so, more often than not, Eames finds himself spending his breaks still in Arthur’s company.

More than a month after they’d first entered the dream, they’re out in the Quad. Eames is sitting on the flagstone steps, using the shadow of Tom Tower for shade, but Arthur has elected to sit on the lawn, out in the full sun, his back to Eames.

Their conversation had drifted into amicable silence a while ago, which why Eames is taken by surprise when Arthur says abruptly, “I don’t understand how you could give this up.”

Eames blinks. “Give what up? The hallowed halls of academia?”

“No,” Arthur says, shaking his head. “Not academia. This. Dreaming. Dreamshare.” He pauses. “Actually, maybe academia, too.”

Eames snorts lightly. “You only say that because you’ve never been an academic before.”

Arthur accepts that with a shrug. “Maybe,” he says. “But what about dreamshare? I don’t understand how you could give that up. I remember what you used to be like. You had theories about dreamshare practically pouring out your ears. You used to outdo the research guys, sometimes.”

“Well, yes,” Eames says, “but I was also vain and immature about my intelligence, back then.”

“So what you’re saying is that nothing’s changed,” Arthur says. He easily dodges the swat that Eames aims at the back of his head then turns to face Eames properly. “In all seriousness, though, Eames. Why give it up?”

Eames eyes him. With his hair loose and ungelled and his sleeves rolled up, Arthur looks deceptively young and harmless. Is this part of the Goldman persona? Eames wonders. If it isn’t, Arthur should probably integrate it. But as for Arthur’s question— “Have you somehow forgotten what the last six months of Project Somnacin were like?”

“It wasn’t all bad.”

“It was six months of unrelenting horror and lost sleep, even when we were asleep,” Eames retorts. “What was so good about that, for you?”

Arthur looks at Eames like he’s a moron, but a moron that he’s rather fond of. Given that he’d just been praising Eames’ intelligence a minute ago, it’s rather jarring.

“You idiot,” Arthur says, smiling a little. He turns back around and tips his chin up, face tilted toward the sun.

Eames stares at him.

 


 

2004

Ten months into Project Somnacin, the nature of the program changes.

They’re to begin trialling a new method of interrogation, they’re told. One that’s practically humane, compared to current techniques. The higher ups are calling it extraction.

Eames and Arthur remain partnered together, and things are seemingly the same as before - at least in the generalities. They’re given a scenario, an objective, a time limit, and then they’re sent under.

They last barely five minutes in the dream before their subject’s projections take them apart.

 


 

They get sent under again. And again. And again.

There’s a word for trying the same thing over and over while expecting different results, Eames wants to say.

He’d say it, but he’s too busy throwing up.

 


 

Arthur shows up at Eames’ quarters that evening, and Eames lets him in without a word.

They fuck outside of the dream for the first time, familiar and unfamiliar with each other’s bodies. It’s good, Eames can’t deny that it’s good. But it’s less about desire and more reassurance - confirmation that they are, in fact, alive. They’re alive, they’re fucking alive, thank God

Neither of them can fall asleep immediately afterwards. And if Arthur doesn’t seem inclined to leave, well—Eames isn’t particular inclined for him to leave either. When they finally do fall asleep, they sleep fitfully, Arthur half-sprawled over Eames, his face pressed against Eames’ neck.

Arthur wakes several times during the night, always with a ragged gasp. Eames reaches out blindly each time, still half-asleep, to soothe him. He cups the back of Arthur’s head, cards his fingers through Arthur’s short bristle of hair. Arthur must do the same for him, because Eames wakes more than once to the sound of Arthur’s low voice in his ear, saying, “You’re fine, you’re fine, it’s alright—”

 


 

Eames is the first to wake. Pre-dawn light is filtering in through Eames’ one narrow window. Arthur remains curled around him, face still tucked against Eames’ shoulder. Eames shakes him gently.

Arthur doesn’t wake immediately. He’s sleep-warm, but his body is lax; it bears a disturbing similarity to Arthur dead. Eames knows he isn’t. He can feel Arthur breathing, slow and steady against his shoulder, but he ducks his head and kisses Arthur anyway.

When he pulls back, Arthur’s eyes are open. His mouth is slightly slack with surprise, and there’s a trace of something—else in his expression. Something tenuous and warm that makes Eames uneasy.

To dispel the feeling, or at least distract himself from it, Eames says, “Best you go now, I think.” He keeps his voice low, even. “No sense in risking a dishonourable discharge after all this.”

Arthur studies him for a moment, his dark eyes unreadable in the gloom, then nods.

 


 

They become something of a habit, Arthur’s late night visits. They continue, even after they start succeeding at extraction. They don’t always fall into bed together, although they do lay in bed together, bulwarks and anchors for one another.

On some days, Arthur’s weight against Eames’ body feels like the only solid thing in the world.

 


 

“Espera said they made him a subject,” Arthur says, one night, voice quiet. They’re curled around another on Eames’ narrow bed, Arthur’s face his tucked against Eames’ neck. It’s easier for them to talk when they’re not looking one another in the eye - when they can’t see the exhaustion and the dull horror.

Eames stares up at the ceiling. “Of course they did.”

“It’s going to happen to us, eventually.” Arthur says. He’s subdued, tense, the line of his shoulders tight beneath Eames’ hand.

But of course he would be, Eames thinks. Everyone has their secrets, but Arthur is harbouring one that could see him drummed out of the program - out of the military entirely - should an extractor choose to report it. All this, and nothing but a dishonourable discharge at the end of it.

Eames doesn’t have to see Arthur’s face to know what he thinks about that.

Eames can’t help him with this. Not directly, anyway. But— “The trick,” Eames says, “is to not suppress it.”

Arthur lifts his head. “What?”

“It’s called thought suppression,” Eames explains. “The technique they’re using to convince subjects to funnel their secrets into safes or bunkers or what have you. Well—” he pauses. “It’s actually thought suppression and the rebound effect. But essentially, the more you try to hide something, the more you fixate on it subconsciously.”

Arthur is watching him, eyes serious and thoughtful.

“So the trick,” Eames says again, “is to not suppress it. No suppression, no rebound. No secret in the safe, because it’s not a secret. Not to you.”

“You’re telling me to out myself?”

Eames laughs. It’s slightly humourless, but he laughs. “I’m telling you to accept it. Acknowledge it. Keep it in your consciousness so that a different secret goes into the safe. If any secret goes in there at all.”

There’s a long silence. “That is some incredibly zen shit,” Arthur says finally.

“It’s psychological science, actually,” Eames corrects.

Arthur laughs softly. It’s warm, intimate, and when he meets Eames’ eyes, the look in his eyes mirrors the laugh. The tightness in Eames’ chest eases before intensifying thrice fold.

When Arthur starts nosing along Eames’ jaw, Eames closes his eyes tightly before kissing him.

 


 

2006

You idiot, Eames thinks.

And he is an idiot, if not necessarily for the reasons Arthur thinks. Eames knows what it’s like, getting into character for a long con. The way fiction and reality meld by necessity. He should’ve warned Arthur, he should have been watching out for it.

However—

It’s ridiculous. It’s beyond ridiculous. Arthur is the most solid person Eames knows. The thought of Arthur getting lost in a character is— absurd. But if that isn’t it— if Arthur isn’t lost in character, then the only alternative is—

“I don’t think you’ve been entirely honest with me, Arthur.”

Arthur turns back to face him. Eames watches as the loose, easy smile on Arthur’s mouth fades and his brow furrows. He seems to be running through a mental conversation in his head.

After a long silence, Arthur eventually settles on saying, “I know you’re not in love with me, Eames.”

Oh Arthur, Eames thinks.

Blunt, forthright Arthur. Eames had been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was entirely possible that Arthur was just confused. But no. Arthur’s just dispelled that notion with one sentence.

“You know I’m not in love with you,” Eames repeats. “You know and yet you’ve been—” he shakes his head. “Well. That makes this—” Eames gestures back and forth between them, “—incredibly foolish, rather than merely foolish.”

Arthur frowns. “It’d only be foolish if I expected more from you. I don’t.”

Eames runs a hand through his hair, sighing. “Pining doesn’t suit you, Arthur.”

Arthur mouths the word pining incredulously. Then he sits up straight, spitting, “I haven’t been fucking pining for you.” For a second, he looks prepared to ream Eames out. Then he takes a deep breath. Then another. “Look, Eames—” he says, his voice artificially even. “I have no problem differentiating between sex and love. Just because I’ve been getting one from you, it doesn’t mean I’m expecting the other.”

His tone and his expression are reasonable. It’s Arthur, of course they’re reasonable. What he’s saying, however, isn’t. And while Eames doesn’t— he isn’t—

While Eames doesn’t feel for Arthur what Arthur feels for him, Eames respects Arthur. Enough to keep pushing, rather than let Arthur continue with this delusion. “Explain something to me,” Eames says.

Arthur sighs. “What?”

“Why me? You could’ve gotten any academic with relatively dodgy morals to show you the ropes. Probably could’ve done it without paying them a small fortune, too.”

“Not every dodgy academic is also a forger and a con man.”

“Plenty of forgers and con men in underground dreamshare, as well. Ones that aren’t out of the business. Ones that you wouldn’t have had to—” rather than finish the sentence, Eames waves around the bedroom, at the quasi-domesticity of their situation. He doesn’t take his eyes off Arthur. “So I ask you again: why me?”

Arthur is silent. Eames waits for Arthur to admit it. Admit to the fantasy, the delusion, or to maybe reveal that Eames’ initial impression was right - to give some sign that the Goldman persona is spilling over into Arthur’s consciousness.

Arthur does neither.

Instead, he leans forward, braces his elbows on his knees. “Haven’t you ever—” he pauses, apparently searching for words. “Haven’t you ever wanted just one person you could rely on? Someone you could trust to have at your six?”

“You think you can get that from me?

“I do get that from you,” Arthur replies. “I have, for years, now. Ever since Project Somnacin. You acted like a dick half the time, and nowadays you’re still a dick for a quarter of the time, but you’re reliable in all the ways that count. Why wouldn’t I want you at my six?”

Eames stares at him. It’s—he knows what Arthur is saying, and he has—no reply for that. Reliable is not a positive descriptor that comes to Eames’ mind when asked to describe himself. Competent, intelligent, attractive - yes. Reliable - no.

Arthur scrubs at his face as he says, “I know what you’re thinking. I’m not living out a fantasy. And I wasn’t trying to trap you into anything. Once we wake up, I’m going to go be a researcher. I’m going to be based in Stanford. I won’t be dropping in on you all over the world. So if this—if knowing how I feel about you makes you uncomfortable—” Arthur shrugs. “You won’t have to deal with it for much longer.” He lets hand drop and meets Eames’ eyes, gaze fearless.

In the end, Eames looks away first.

The sun starts to set, washing the quad into shades of warm, pleasant gold.

 


 

They don’t—talk about it again.

Arthur surrenders the bedroom to Eames without a word. Eames doesn’t know where he ends up taking residence, and he doesn’t ask.

They both throw themselves into the work. Eames into drilling the last few research methods concepts into Arthur head, and Arthur into refining Arthur Goldman.

Eames watches the latter at a distance, but with definite  interest. The nature of the jobs he selects means Eames has grown accustomed to working alone; he’s never watched the construction of an identity from the outside before. And, even if he had, he’s never constructed an identity the way Arthur constructs his.

Arthur builds Arthur Goldman from the ground up. He works systematically, chronologically, crafting Arthur Goldman’s personal history from childhood through to adulthood. He sticks as close to the truth as possible, only altering the superficial details. It’s something Eames has never needed nor wanted to do - something he’s sometimes considered risky - but it apparently works for Arthur.

The identity that eventually emerges is a version of Arthur’s usual, no nonsense self, but with the hard edges sanded down. There’s a softness, an openness to Arthur’s expressions. He smiles more readily, frowns with less severity. He’s even cultivated an air of seeming naivety, a lack of situational awareness that has Eames’ con man instincts practically screaming to con him.

On one level, it’s impressive. Eames ought to be pleased. He ought to feel some professional pride.

He doesn’t.

Arthur - steady, reliable, constant Arthur - is seemingly vanishing before Eames’ eyes, and all Eames feels is unease.

 


 

It’s the last day.

Eames knows it’s the last day because, even with all their manipulation of daylight, Arthur has a meticulous internal clock, and he tells Eames it’s the last day.

(In fact, what Arthur actually says is, there’s ten minutes left on the clock, topside, but what Arthur means is that it’s the last day.)

This is it, Eames thinks.

He watches Arthur from across the lab room, as Arthur works through a statistical problem set. As—confused as everything is between them, part of Eames can’t help but feel irritated that Arthur is working through the problems with far more ease than Eames ever did.

Mostly, though, he just feels maudlin. It’s a little bit like a funeral, even though Arthur is hardly dead. But it’s as Arthur said. Once they wake up, Arthur - Arthur as Eames knows him, anyway - is going to be shuttered away.

It’s a waste, Eames thinks. It’s such a fucking waste. All of Arthur’s talent, all his skills, shackled down by paperwork, formality, legality. But it’s what Arthur wants. Everything Eames ran from, Arthur is apparently running towards.

Eames ought to say something. Not something to dissuade Arthur. That would never work. But he should say something about--about them, maybe. Or maybe wish Arthur good luck. Or maybe say something about how Project Somnacin has left them both royally screwed in the head. But what comes out is, “I don’t get it.”

After the long stretches of silence between them, the sound of his own voice is startling.

Arthur looks up immediately. He turns in his seat. “Don’t get what?”

“I would’ve seen it,” Eames says. “I would’ve known if you were—” in love with me. Eames is good at people. Eames knows people. Eames knows Arthur.

“You taught me how to do it,” Arthur says. Off Eames’ confused look, Arthur says, “You don’t suppress things. You acknowledge it—”

“So you don’t fixate on it,” Eames finishes. Christ. Who does that? Who applies counter-extraction techniques to love?

Just as Eames opens his mouth, the timer runs out.

 


 

Eames opens his eyes to Mal’s lovely, smiling face.

“Good morning, Dr. Eames,” she says pleasantly. She holds up a spoon of orange mush.

Eames stares.

Mal is sitting beside him with a baby—no, a toddler in a high chair. She holds up the spoon of orange mush to said toddler’s mouth and tries to cajole it into eating. The toddler is having none of it. Beyond them, the PASIV sits on the living room floor, its timer helpfully flashing 00:00:00. There’s a stuffed toy beside it, and a bag of diapers; it’s bizarre.

Cobb is already up and moving around. He’s removed the line from his wrist and is spooling it back into the PASIV.

“—already 8:30, so I’ll need to get the PASIV back soon,” Cobb is saying. He looks up, expression brisk. “Everything went well?” He asks. But he’s not looking at Eames.

Eames turns his head.

Arthur meets his gaze, calm and steady, just like he had in the dream. “Yeah,” Arthur says. “Everything went fine.”

 


 

Eames sits on the front steps of the Cobbs’ Pasadena home. It’s spring, and the neighbourhood flowers are in full bloom. Everything is cheerful, suburban; ordinary.

Behind him, he hears the front door swings open, followed by the even tread of Arthur’s footsteps.

Eames looks up.

Arthur has his arms braced against the porch railing. He’s dressed in a suit again—no. He always was dressed in a suit. It was only in the dream that he’d started dressing down. He’s dressed in a suit, but he’s standing like Arthur Goldman, shoulders relaxed and posture loose.

“I’ve wired the money into your account,” Arthur says, gazing out at the street.

Eames nods. “Right.”

Arthur shifts his weight to one foot. “You don’t have to go immediately,” he says. “The Cobbs have a spare room. They’re offering to let you stay in it for a few days, if you want. I think Mal wants to pick your brain about—”

“I don’t think that’s the best idea,” Eames interrupts, as gently as he can manage.

Arthur’s brow furrows slightly. “You don’t have to use that tone with me,” he says. “You don’t have to tread on eggshells around me.”

Eames shrugs.

Arthur laughs, although it’s little more than a single huff of breath. “Eames—” he says, and he’s using that tone again - the one where he thinks Eames is an idiot, but is fond of him anyway. “I’ve felt this way about you for—a long time. A long fucking time, okay? And I’ve been fine. You don’t need to treat me differently just because you know about it.”

Eames rubs his temple, eyeing Arthur. Who does this? He thinks. Who applies counter-extraction techniques when it comes to love? Who actually compartmentalises love and sex like—

Well—

Eames does. Compartmentalises love and sex, that is. But not like this. Project Somnacin has screwed them both in the head, he thinks again. He says it out loud, too.

Arthur snorts. “It screwed you in the head, maybe,” he says, not unkindly. “I’ve got my shit sorted.” He tilts his head. “Or I will, in a few weeks.”

There’s something in Eames’ chest that feels a lot like panic. Arthur, the only constant thing in Eames’ world for two years, apparently slipping away.

A bright yellow taxi pulls up to the kerb, and Arthur pushes away from the railing. He nods towards the taxi. “Looks like your ride is here.”

Eames glances at it, then back at Arthur. “Looks like.”

Arthur holds out a hand to help Eames up.

Eames has a brief flash of memory - of being on his knees before Arthur, Arthur staring down at him from behind smudged, wire-rimmed glasses, eyes wide and bright. Then memory is gone, and it’s just Arthur standing before him again. No wire-rimmed glasses and no wide eyes. But there’s a brightness there - affection, and a quiet, definite want.

Eames takes Arthur’s hand and lets Arthur pull him up.

 


 

True to Arthur’s word, the money is wired in Eames’ nominated account.

There’s an e-mail from Arthur too, sent from one of Arthur’s disposable e-mail accounts. The message is perfunctory - nothing more than a confirmation that the money was wired on so-and-so date. Nothing personal. No farewell, no indication that Arthur intends to sever ties, or if he wants to continue communication.

Eames stares at the e-mail for a while, his cursor hovering over the reply button. Then he logs out of the account, opens a new browser window, and books a flight to Mombasa.

 


 

He stays in Mombasa for all of two weeks. Only long enough to do one quick and dirty, real world forgery job, pick a few pockets, and drink a lot of alcohol. Then he’s on a plane again.

He goes back to Hong Kong, and doesn’t get shot by Zhou or his henchmen. In fact, Zhou invites Eames back to his gambling den again, sounding positively jovial about it, which makes Eames wonder if paying off Eames’ debt was the only thing Arthur had done.

But that’s the extent of it. There’s no Arthur dropping into seats across from him, or showing up in his hotel room, smirking. Arthur was true to his word, like he always has been, and he’s just gone.

Arthur’s gone, and Eames is adrift.

Eames stays in Hong Kong for a month, and then he takes off again.

 


 

From Hong Kong he goes to Seoul, then back Mombasa.

There’s still no Arthur.

 


 

For the first time in the entire history of their—what? Their acquaintance? Their relationship?

Whatever.

For the first time, Eames finds himself looking Arthur up.

It isn’t difficult.

Arthur is living like a civilian. He is a civilian now. He’s Arthur Goldman, and he doesn’t cover his tracks. Arthur Goldman leaves a trail that’s as easy to follow as footprints in sand.  Arthur Goldman doesn’t keep burner phones, or disposable e-mails. His two e-mail accounts - one personal, one university-issued - are unencrypted.  He even has a bloody Facebook account, although the default profile picture has yet to be replaced.

Eames doesn’t wonder at this need to check up on Arthur. Arthur has been the one constant in Eames’ life for over two years, and his anchor throughout the worst six months of them.

Why wouldn’t I want you at my six? Arthur had said.

Eames has his six.

Three months, Eames tells himself. Three months to make sure Arthur’s cover hasn’t been blown, and then he’ll let it go.

 


 

Two months after he’d woken from the dream with Arthur, Eames checks Arthur’s Stanford e-mail.

At the top of the inbox list, there’s an opened e-mail, sent from Arthur’s personal e-mail, with the subject titled: Has anyone ever told you...

Something niggles at Eames’ memory. Eames clicks on the e-mail.

The body simply reads:

…how charming your complete and utter disregard for personal privacy is?

There are easier ways to check up on me.

There’s an address at the bottom.

 


 

Eames arrives in Stanford in the early morning. The sun is still rising.

Arthur lives off-campus, in an apartment complex near the university. The building isn’t extravagant - a far cry from the hotels Arthur might’ve frequented - but wholly fitting for a graduate student. And, more importantly, it’s security swipe-protected.

Eames stares at the swipe card lock, then at the intercom system. He presses the button for Arthur’s apartment, then waits. A minute passes. Eames frowns, presses it again. A thread of anxiety winds its way along Eames’ spine.

And then, from behind him, Eames hears: “I half-expected you to try picking the lock.”

Eames turns around. Arthur is standing a few feet away from him. He’s dressed in a worn, faded t-shirt and shorts; his hair is loose and damp with sweat at the temples, and his cheeks are flushed with exertion. He looks exactly like what he is: a grad student returning from his morning run.

But his eyes are still dark, still clever-sharp. Civilian, but not soft. He’s not lost in the con, he’s not lost to Eames.

The earth beneath Eames’ feet suddenly feels firmer, steadier.

Eames straightens up. “Picking the lock in broad daylight, in the middle of Stanford? Not exactly the most inconspicuous thing to do.”

Arthur smiles. “What’re you doing here, Eames?”

“I got an e-mail.”

“Oh, you did, did you?”

“Well—” Eames shrugs. He’s gripped by the urge to shuffle his feet. He suppresses the urge.

“Why were you checking my e-mails?”

Eames could give any number of answers to that. Boredom. Keeping Arthur on his toes.  What comes out, however, is something much closer to the truth. “It seemed like— the thing to do.”

Arthur tilts his head. “The thing to do,” he repeats slowly.

“You would’ve done the same for me.” Eames says. He pauses then amends it to, “You have done the same for me.”

“You’ve been watching my six,” Arthur says. His smile deepens, dimples popping into existence in his cheeks, and Eames’ equilibrium grows.

It keeps growing as Arthur closes the distance between them, until Eames can reach out and touch him, one hand cradling the familiar jut of his hip, the other at the small of his back. Eames breathes easy.

Arthur looks at Eames, eyes thoughtful. “Do you want to come in?”

Eames spends another moment taking Arthur in. Constant, solid Arthur. The only solid thing in Eames’ world, sometimes. He meets Arthur’s eyes. “Yes. I’d like that, I think.”

 


 Arthur and Eames having breakfast in bed, art by uzudust