There were certain courtesies when it came to refusing an appreciative come on, but shooting him in the face wasn't one of them. "Christ alive," Eames said as he jolted out of the dream, his nerves thrumming with adrenaline. He looked over his shoulder and saw Arthur still hooked up unconscious, so he took the opportunity to kick him hard and leave a bruise. He was lucky that Eames didn't kick him in the goddamn balls.
When Arthur finally woke, he stretched. "There a problem?" he asked evenly when he saw Eames glaring at him.
"Sweetheart, you could have just said no," Eames said. "Don't they teach that in American schools these days? Just say no. Not just say no and blow off the poor man's head."
"I must have skipped class that day," Arthur said, which Eames didn't believe one bit. He bet Arthur had been an honour roll student, not overly eager but still, assignments turned in on time and no extensions requested. He bet he had perfect penmanship and everything, whereas Eames' handwriting could only charitably be termed a drunk man writing in a hurricane.
Arthur discovered the bruise on his ankle. He rolled down his socks and Eames had to admire the beauty of his handiwork. "I can do it without bruises too," he said, and Arthur rolled his eyes.
"Guys, stop chit-chatting. We need to get a move on," Cobb interrupted, and he had to shove Ariadne and Yusuf away from their curious staring.
"Look," said Arthur. "I'll say it again. I'm not interested in you, Eames. I don't want to destroy your big manly ego, but that's the way it is."
"Yeah, I got that part," Eames replied. "But ruffling your feathers gives me shits and giggles, so don't expect me to stop any time soon."
"Just as long as we're clear on the lack of reciprocation."
"Aye aye," Eames said, and smirked. "But I'll have you know that Saito thought I was totally bangable, and he has a hell of a lot more options than you do."
"That doesn't..." Arthur shook his head. "That doesn't even dignify an answer."
That doesn't even dignify an answer, Eames mocked in his head but didn't say out loud because Cobb was getting that annoyed 'I need coffee why don't I dump you all in a tar pit' expression on his face, the one that meant inconvenient kicks and skimped paychecks in the future. He slipped out of the chair and followed the rest of the team to their next destination, still smiling at the back of Arthur's perfectly coiffed head. The problem was, he thought, that Arthur really did lack a giant part of his imagination, which was unfortunate for someone so delectable. Eames could imagine at least twelve different scenarios that they could get up to right this moment, most of them involving ties and bare wrists, so it was a pity that Arthur wasn't up to it. A damn pity.
Ah well. Arthur was a gorgeous motherfucker who might have saved his life once or twice, but the world was a big place and besides, there were always dreams. And anything could happen in a dream.
When Eames walked into the warehouse, he found Cobb and Arthur sitting together, going over blueprints. It was chilly and steely inside, which was why he noticed immediately that Cobb's collar was unbuttoned and his cheeks were flushed. Interestingly, so were Arthur's.
Eames snuck up to them and tapped Arthur on the shoulder. "Been running a marathon, fellas?"
"What? No," said Arthur. And the thing was, Arthur may have been great at being a point man but he was not actually a good liar. That was Eames' forte. Arthur was the straight shooter, the reliable partner, and guys like that didn't go around screwing their recently widowed bosses. If one wanted to call Cobb their boss, which Eames believed he technically was.
The thought jangled in his head like a bad note. He tried to shake it out and let common sense prevail. Too much Japanese porn, most likely. There was no earthly way Arthur and Cobb were really sleeping together. It would be the most boring sex imaginable.
He laughed at the idea, flung an eraser at Arthur's head when Cobb wasn't looking, and proceeded to flirt madly with both Ariadne and Yusuf when they arrived, securing his proud position as the slut of the team. He noticed Arthur watching every now and then, but that only convinced him to ramp it up higher. Let him watch, he thought cheerfully. Maybe he'll get an idea or two.
He changed his mind three days later when there was a hotel and a faulty lock, and he'd had too much brandy for his own good. He left Yusuf at the bar, still going at it with the stomach of an iron-plated tank, and stumbled upstairs to his room. Except that it wasn't his room after all, and when he opened the door slightly and peeked inside he saw two men on the bed. No. Not two strange men. It was Arthur and Cobb.
-- and Jesus fucking Christ, Arthur was riding Cobb.
His thigh was long and pale in the moonlight, and the muscles on his arms were highlighted as he gripped Cobb's shoulders for balance. His head was tipped backwards, baring his ball of his throat, and Eames felt a tight twist of heat in his own throat that threatened to bubble over. It wasn't often that he was shocked into silence, but the room itself was quiet. Neither Arthur nor Cobb spoke save for a periodic grunt, mostly from Cobb. Arthur closed his eyes and ground his hips down so fluidly that Eames couldn't take it anymore and stumbled out of the room.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. What was that?
He was taciturn the next morning when everyone met for breakfast. He looked at Arthur for bite marks but found none, and he didn't know if that made him happy or angry. There was a new thrum in his belly that had nothing to do with nerves and everything to do with frustration. Cobb was his usual perfunctory self, and Ariadne was in a good mood about a new design that she kept chatting to him about. Arthur huddled at the corner of the table, picking at his eggs, and Eames couldn't help but slide over to him and say, snidely, "You don't seem like yourself this morning."
Arthur looked up. Quirked his lips. "Neither do you."
Did he know that Eames saw? How quietly had Eames closed the door last night? He tried to search out the answers but Arthur was smiling at him somewhat dryly, and it was hard to think over the buzz in his head that went Cobb? Are you for real? Why Cobb?
What he actually said was, "Do you still have the bruise I gave you?"
"I cherish it every day," said Arthur.
"You fuck," Eames said.
"Not with you I don't," Arthur said, and Eames' fury was whole and surprising.
Eames was a talker. Obviously he wasn't going talk to Cobb about it, and while it would have been entertaining he wasn't exactly up to a sexual heart to heart with Ariadne, so he cornered Yusuf in Mombasa and draped himself over the counter. "Watch those bottles," Yusuf said. "They're poisonous."
Eames leaped back. "Give me a warning next time."
"I just did," said Yusuf. "So what brings you here? Is it because you and Arthur have lovey dovey problems?"
"Uh," said Eames.
"If you're having problems in the..." Yusuf lowered his voice, "performance department, I do have a pill I could sell you. There are very important men who are customers of mine that swear by it."
"I am so insulted I may actually challenge you to pistols at dawn," Eames said.
"All right. If it's Arthur then--"
"It's always Arthur," Eames said.
"Ah," Yusuf said. Then he added, mostly to himself, "I never thought I would one day become a guru to gay men. My parents would be so proud of me."
"Is Arthur gay?" Eames wondered.
"Bisexual, I think. He had that flirtation with Ariadne. And he is sleeping with Cobb," Yusuf said peaceably. "Then there was that time I walked in on him and Saito. I was surprised. But also strangely educated. I didn't know people could fit a whole--"
"I could give you something for blood pressure too," Yusuf offered. "Ah, I am such a good friend."
It was Eames' policy to never regret what he couldn't have. This had been a good policy all throughout his childhood with his father and then boarding school and after that the military. The world was enormous -- even the boundaries of physics couldn't contain it, as he found out with the dream-hopping -- and there was only so much room inside for regret before it turned him into a party pooper.
But it was a different matter entirely to realize he could have had it. That it was not a near impossible task like climbing Mount Everest but rather like choosing the first door prize when he could have chosen the second.
No. That wasn't a good analogy either. With Arthur, he wasn't doing the choosing. Arthur had decided that it was fine to sleep with all the men he could possibly cram into his body, all except for Eames. Arthur had actively chosen and he'd chosen not Eames.
And it bothered Eames more than he wanted it to.
"I'm good-looking and sexy, aren't I?" he asked Ariadne.
She gave him a blank stare. "No, Eames, I don't want to sleep with you." Which was not the answer that made him feel better.
"I don't want to sleep with you either, darling," he retorted.
"Okay then. I'm glad we had this talk," Ariadne said, and across the room Yusuf was giving them a sympathetic look, which irked Eames even as he wandered over to him.
"You, my friend, have a serious case of the green-eyed monster," Yusuf said. Eames would have quibbled with the semantics -- serious was an exaggeration -- except that Arthur and Cobb entered the warehouse together, side by side, and Arthur was laughing at something Cobb said, which was 1) ridiculous because Cobb was the least funny person Eames knew, 2) ridiculous because why were they arriving at work together when their hotels were miles apart and they had their own rides, and 3) ridiculous because Arthur was beautiful when he laughed, boyish almost, his eyes crinkling at the edges.
Eames rubbed his own unshaven face and tried not to groan. What was wrong with him? Why did it matter? Arthur was just one man, and sure he was smart and competent and furiously attractive when he was on the job, but Eames had known and fucked smart, competent, and furiously attractive men before. So there was something here he wasn't considering, clearly.
"So you and Cobb," he said when he and Arthur were in a car, dodging the bullets of their latest target's subconscious.
"Can we have this conversation later?" Arthur said. "Like, when we're not being shot at?"
"I always try to have the most meaningful conversations at the most meaningful times," Eames informed him. "It'd all seem anti-climatic after this, wouldn't it? Turn left up ahead."
Arthur turned left. His steady hand on the wheel was impressive, but Eames would not be distracted by steady hands or other body parts.
"Far be it from me to judge anyone's sex life, but why Cobb? Or Saito? Or, as I've also heard, Nash."
"Why not?" said Arthur, and normally that was an attitude that Eames celebrated, but today it only dug into his skin.
"I'm here, love, and perfectly willing to screw you into the mattress. As I've made clear many times."
"Many, many times," Arthur said, and whipped the car into the next alleyway. Eames hung onto his seat and whistled as Arthur landed them onto the docks.
"It just seems to me that if you're already walking around wearing a welcome sign to any half-decent man in the business, I'm a half-decent man. And I'm in the business."
"Wow," said Arthur, "if I were ten years younger and more given to watching teen dramas, I'd be swooning right now."
"Say that again, o light of my life, I--" Eames's voice cut off as his fists tightened. "Shit, watch out for that truck."
He thought about it. How could he not? Arthur with Cobb, sliding across the sheets, Arthur's leg slung over Cobb's hip. Lazily making out. Arthur with Saito, in some glitzy high-rise, fucking against the windows, Arthur banging into the glass with every thrust. Arthur with Nash, sneaking out after a mission to exchange blow jobs in the alleyway, Arthur's mouth stretched wide and full.
"I think you need a vacation," Cobb said bluntly. "You're looking feverish."
"I'm fine," Eames said. Then, because Cobb seemed genuinely concerned and he was a good man at the end of the day, probably undeserving of Eames' many fantasies where he drowned in a vat of hot oil, he added, "I'm serious. Don't worry about me. I'll get over it."
Arthur looked over at them and Eames met his stare unflinchingly.
This was their job and Eames couldn't afford to be distracted by jealousy. This too shall pass, he thought, and just to be safe he avoided both Arthur and Cobb for the next two weeks.
Three months later, he actually brought it up in a joke. "This will make you laugh," he told Arthur because Arthur looked pitiful when he was sick, and Eames had very generously offered to take care of him while the rest of the team went shopping for supplies.
"Your face makes me laugh," Arthur muttered.
"Har har," said Eames. "No, listen to this: when I found out about you and Cobb -- and by proxy, you and every other man we know, except Yusuf, for some reason. Is Yusuf not good enough for you? -- I was outrageously jealous. Blow up a building and clutch you in my arms type of jealous."
"Yusuf is straight," Arthur said and turned his cheek into the pillow. "God, my head is fucking killing me."
"And you have no comment at all re: my flaming desire for you?" Eames asked.
Arthur sighed. There was some snot involved. It was not a pretty sight. "Eames," he said patiently, "there is a point where excessiveness branches away from sincerity. You're a forger."
"And that explains everything."
"It explains most things," Arthur said. "By the way, I can sleep with whoever the fuck I like. I don't need your permission."
"I didn't say that," said Eames.
"Your face," Arthur muttered again.
"I mean it," said Eames. "I never said that."
"Just so we're clear."
"Very," Eames agreed. His hand was resting on the edge of the couch. When Arthur shifted to get a more comfortable position, his bare arm brushed against Eames' hand. Eames went still, but Arthur just sighed and closed his eyes. He didn't move.
Eames waited until Arthur was asleep, or nearly asleep, before he said, "For your information, I was perfectly sincere."
Arthur was looking at Eames like Eames was a car engine he wanted to take apart, or the pieces of a handgun he wanted to examine. It was a new look on him, and Eames did his best to ignore it. They were in the middle of a particularly tricky job and he needed most of his concentration on memorizing the attributes of the mark's beloved dead aunt. He sifted through the sepia photos, and then he rubbed his hand over his hair.
Ariadne yawned and started packing her purse. "I'm going home now. Night, boys."
"Night," Eames said. To his credit he didn't even notice that it was just him and Arthur until Arthur cleared his throat.
"I was thinking," he said.
"Sound the trumphets," Eames said.
"Fine then, I've changed my mind," Arthur said. "I don't want to have dirty sex with you."
Eames looked up from the photos. "Uh, sorry, love, I must have heard you wrong there. You want to have dirty sex with me? A few months ago, you said you wouldn't even if I was the last man on earth and I had a ten inch dick."
"I was in a bad mood," Arthur admitted. "Come on, Eames, don't tell me this isn't what you were angling after the entire time. I didn't want to do it before because you were acting like it was a big joke, but now it's okay."
Eames was not a romantic. He broke up with his first boyfriend because said boyfriend couldn't handle the illegalities of his work, and his second boyfriend turned out to be a spy who tried to kill him. But at the long and winding end of the day, Eames did know what he wanted, and there was a quality to Arthur sometimes that made his throat close up in tenderness. He thought of Arthur's skin in the hotel moonlight, of Arthur's mouth open and red against Cobb's, and then he shook his head and said, "Nah. Thanks for the offer though."
Arthur turned back to his work and it was impossible to tell if he was relieved or disappointed.
A year passed. Then two.
Arthur slept with Cobb again, with Saito, and with a smooth-tongued biologist they met in Budapest.
Eames slept with ex-boyfriend number one, a businessman in Hong Kong, and a model in Milan, just to name a few. The sex was mind-blowing each time, but he couldn't help but think of what he'd missed.
They did a job in San Francisco, another one in Dubai, and a long con in Seoul where a bullet went through Eames' thigh and back out again. It was a real bullet, no dream, and Ariadne went sprinting for help while Arthur pulled Eames into a sitting position and ordered him to stay awake. His face was grey but that could have been a trick of the pain. Eames giggled nonsensically and pressed a kiss to Arthur's brow because if anyone could get away with small flirtations, it was a dying man.
Afterwards there was medicine and crutches and fucking hell, way too many forms to sign.
"Your handwriting is crap," Arthur observed.
Eames hummed and squinted at the sunlight.
"And don't think I didn't catch you trying to make out with my head."
"I was delusional," Eames said. "It won't happen again."
Arthur looked at him, marvelous and frustrating in one elegant package. "Come here," he said, ducking into a side street where there was laundry hanging out to dry. Eames hobbled after him slowly, raising his eyebrows. Arthur waited until they were face to face, and then he tugged Eames even closer to him and kissed him.
It was the sweetest, most innocent kiss Eames had ever had since middle school. Then Arthur stuck his tongue inside Eames' mouth and it went dirty before he could even wrap his mind around the realities of Arthur kissing him, Arthur kissing him without anyone's life about to plunge into the deep end, and Arthur kissing him with tongue. Eames kissed him back awkwardly, shuffling with the balance of his crutches, and they ended up banging against the brick wall in a tangle of limbs.
"You let me do that," Arthur said, and Christ, his mouth was amazing. Eames wanted it all over his body.
"I've been kind of wanting to for years," Eames pointed out.
"But you said no."
"You said no first!"
Arthur's frown was pissy. "I feel like we've missed a cue somewhere along the line."
"Look, I'll lay it out for you clearly since I know wearing thousands of dollars of fabric on your body can sometimes cut circulation to your brain," Eames said. "I'm not Cobb or Saito or Nash or whoever the hell else. I don't want to be them."
"Only you," replied Arthur, "would think insulting someone was the way to their heart. Only you." But then he grinned and hooked his thumbs into Eames' jeans. "How about this. You can take that thousands of dollars worth of fabric off me. Then we'll see who's thinking clearly."
"Tempting," Eames said. He was grinning too. "But when I make you scream my name, I'll have to do it slowly. Invalid and all that. Just so we're clear."
"Who said you're on top?" Arthur asked.
"Is this a relationship?" Eames faux-whined when Arthur was lying on top of him, head buried in the crook of his shoulder. He put his hand on Arthur's hip where he'd made a new bruise and worried about how happy a person could be without spontaneously combusting.
"You do love the big questions, don't you," Arthur grumbled. Then he nipped Eames' collarbone and said, "It's way too humid in here" and said, "I was right. Your dick isn't ten inches but it's not bad" and said, "Yes."