It wasn't as though Eames didn't like Edith Piaf. The musical countdown, like the totems, had been Mal's idea, and she had selected Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien for various personal and practical reasons. Key among them was how distinctive the song had become in present time; it was very unlikely to hear anything like it in most surroundings, which meant dreamers would never have to risk confusion from background noise that could, in fact, include music. That, and Miles had shot down Eames' suggestion of The Smiths' Girlfriend in a Coma. (In his own defense, he had not been entirely serious with the idea.)
His personal enchantment with that particular song, however, had evaporated once he had received the news of her untimely death. Dominic Cobb's insistence on its continued use throughout the inception job had struck him as the actions of a man who, in falling, burned his hands on a stove while grasping for any kind of support at all.
Arthur's own preference for Piaf, on the other hand, was something he could not understand at all. Sometimes he suspected that beneath Arthur's elegant exterior lay a void where a sense of musical taste resided in normal human beings. It seemed as though Arthur could listen to almost anything without any outward show of revulsion or enjoyment. This puzzled Eames. He could understand an eclectic taste in music, or even bad taste, but this indifference was something that was, frankly, beyond his understanding.
If someone had asked him then about what he eventually did over the next year, he would probably have said something about hating not being able to understand a given individual's habits and motivations, and the entire exercise being something of a social experiment. The actual truth lay somewhere between desire and baffled envy. Arthur had always had that effect on him, and the push and pull of haughty disinterest and clever provocation had always characterized every one of their interactions.
As it turned out, Cobb did not take kindly to luminaries such as Queen, Led Zeppelin or Lady GaGa showing up on the MP3 player. Arthur had simply raised an eyebrow and shrugged at all of those selections in a display that was at once frustrating and vaguely condescending. I have more important things to do, that gaze had said. Cobb finally banned Eames from touching the music player after he had tried to inflict Free Bird on them.
They had parted ways at LAX after the successful inception and Eames did not see Arthur again until the Hanamura job in Singapore, ten months later. He did not get a chance to tweak Arthur's ear until two months after that, en route to Paris from Poland. They left Katowice in a car which had had its bodywork doctored to conceal smugglers' compartments packed full of guns and ammunition. Judicious bribes and discreet phone calls got them over national borders without much fuss.
Eames sang selections from The Fame Monster all the way down the Autobahn, supplementing Bad Romance and Poker Face with selections from the rest of his playlist. He eventually switched to the Smiths around the time they crossed the border into France. Eames belted out the lyrics to Bigmouth Strikes Again at the top of his voice as they drove to Nancy, more out of a giddy sense of wild abandon rather than any attempt at driving Arthur mad. Arthur had, at that point, wedged himself cross-wise in the back seat, long, lean and regal with a Michael Chabon novel in his hands.
Arthur sometimes subvocalized as though reading aloud to himself. He did it only when he was truly reading for pleasure, and from time to time Eames would watch the movement of his lips and throat in the rear-view mirror, the flutter of his nimble fingers turning a page in the paperback. Sometimes he looked up from his book and caught Eames' eye in the rear view mirror with a grave expression.
The faintest hint of amusement had flickered in his dark eyes when Eames started singing There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Outside on the highway a produce truck loomed dangerously close behind them just as he started on the line about the ten-ton truck killing the both of them.
It was Ariadne, oddly enough, who gave Eames the clue that led to him cracking the mystery, halfway through their month in Paris. She had music playing in her tiny flat in Kléber, while she worked on a paper for her elective on historical building sites. A cover of Against All Odds came on, performed in a sparse, jittery electronic style by a band that she had identified as The Postal Service. (Eames later found out why the singer had sounded so familiar; he had been the bloke from Death Cab for Cutie, a band that he had encountered and liked but would not go out of his way to listen to.)
"You know, Arthur was the one who told me about this duo," she had said absently when he had put down the Hellblazer trade paperback he had been reading to raise an eyebrow at the lyrics he had recognized.
"I would not have expected him to like anything this –" he raised a finger, gesturing until he found the word, "indie-sounding."
"Yeah, well. It isn't that Arthur doesn't care about music," she had said. "It's just that he listens to a lot of different things."
"Like?" he had asked, before he turned back to John Constantine's adventures in an American prison. His pulse quickened minutely and he buried his face in the trade paperback in an attempt to disguise his interest in the topic.
"Oh, lots of stuff," she had said a little unhelpfully. "I caught him humming along to Lady GaGa when he was cleaning his gun last night."
Now that was a shock; Arthur had reacted to his selections from The Fame Monster with a sense of long-suffering martyrdom, rather than any apparent interest. Eames did not like to admit it, but his delivery could have been the problem; when he sang he sounded more like the bloke from Right Said Fred (which he despised), and less like Morrissey (who he sometimes wished he was.)
In hindsight Eames wasn't so sure if Arthur's later actions in St. Petersburg meant that he had won or lost the game they had never admitted to playing, but then the only way to make sure one didn't lose was not to play, and he never been the kind of man who walked away from any kind of gamble.
They set up shop in a disused clinic in St. Petersburg with an extractor named Enckell and a Romanian woman named Petra, whom they had hired on Enckell's recommendation. She slept erratically and infrequently and drank vast amounts of turpentine-tasting vodka, but she knew her way around street pharmaceuticals and had become somewhat infamous for her blend of somnacin, which hit dreamers like a chunk of brick wrapped in a silk handkerchief. Arthur had set some very specific guidelines for the results he had wanted her to achieve, and she spent upwards of eighteen hours a day in the makeshift lab she had set up in the dispensary.
Eames continued his game of musical torture while they had worked. He had, at Petra's suggestion, added Rammstein and Einstürzende Neubauten to his playlist. What he did not expect was for Arthur to headbang along to Pussy while he went over intelligence one afternoon, the fluorescent lighting in the clinic winking off his cufflinks as he sang along to the explicit lyrics. Eames had had to excuse himself before his erection gave him away.
Arthur 1 – Eames 0.
The Rammstein incident led to an uneasy truce while Eames figured out his remaining options, but he was not yet willing to admit defeat. He came into the clinic one morning to find Petra asleep on her cot in the dispensary, half-curled around an empty bottle of vodka. Arthur lay on a lawn chair hooked up to the PASIV unit they had brought with them; he always tested her formulations in the morning. He watched them both for a moment, and then shrugged his coat off and tucked it around Petra's shoulders before he went to join Arthur in the waiting area. He took the headphones of his music player and placed them gently over Arthur's ears before he hooked himself up to the PASIV unit. The last thing he did before he went under was to hit Play, and he slipped into the dream with a grin on his face.
Arthur had been testing out one of his layouts again – an abandoned Cold War missile silo – and the space carried the sound perfectly when the first strains of Bad Romance had started to play. Eames had watched him flinch when the song had come on, and then stepped out of the shadows to join him.
"God, not this song again. I hate you so much," Arthur hissed as he reached for Eames' shirt collar.
"I'm glad you've finally deigned to notice," Eames had said with a grin even as Arthur shoved him shoulders-first into the white-painted wall behind them. He shifted a little as his Sig-Sauer started to dig into the muscles of his hip, but made no real attempt to break free.
"Is this what it's all about then? Attention?" Arthur asked, his face inches away from Eames', his fingers white-knuckled around the fabric of his shirt collar.
"Yours, mostly," he had started to say when Arthur silenced him with a rasp of stubble and the startling heat of his mouth. Arthur kissed like a man on fire. He radiated heat through his layers of clothing and his sharp-edged teeth scraped against Eames' lower lip as they instinctively aligned their bodies together. Eames' cock twitched against the zipper of his trousers as he realized how hard Arthur was. He reached up and grasped Arthur's bony wrist in his left hand, squeezing hard enough to bruise as the fabric of his shirt collar tightened uncomfortably about his neck.
"Shut up, Mr. Eames," Arthur whispered after he broke that kiss and let go of Eames' shirt collar. "Let's see how you handle having my attention for once." This was not the Arthur he had known, but rather, the one who had been lurking the whole time, beneath a façade of detachment and measured sophistication. This was the Arthur he had been searching for but had never managed to find in the eight years of their acquaintance.
Buttons popped and rattled softly on the cold tile floor as Arthur ripped Eames' shirt open methodically, starting at the collar and moving slowly downward. He let out a hoarse groan as Arthur leaned into him again, leaving a trail of heat and evaporating spit against the skin of his neck and collarbones. His knees trembled as sharp teeth grazed his nipple and then pulled away. His fingers brushed against the grip of Arthur's Glock behind his right hip and then wandered downward to splay across the firm muscle of his ass.
"I've wanted you so much but you were always so fucking professional," Eames whispered as he fumbled at the buckle of Arthur's belt with his free hand, his fingers clumsy from the adrenaline rushing through his blood and the pulse roaring in his ears.
"Fuck professionalism," Arthur said, his teeth bared, before he brushed Eames' hand aside. Eames was so turned-on that the friction of his trousers had started to border on pain, and he let out a small whimper of relief when Arthur tugged at his zipper and sprang him free. He had wanted then to drop to his knees and unzip Arthur with his teeth, suck that cock with those clever fingers pulling at his hair, his own thumb tracing the curve of Arthur's iliac crest.
Instead Arthur had grasped his shoulders and spun him hard against the wall before he could protest, the concrete cool and rough against his cheek. "J'veux ton amour, et je veux te baiser," he whispered over the sound of his own zipper, his breath hot against the nape of Eames' neck as he slid a spit-slick finger roughly up his ass.
"Fuck, Arthur," Eames hissed, his voice cracking with need and anticipation as Arthur's fingertip brushed up against the swell of his prostate. "God," he whispered again, biting back a moan as Arthur pushed another finger into him and then spread him open.
"J'veux ton amour, et je m'en fous après," Arthur growled, the sentence terminating with a soft grunt as he pulled his fingers out and eased the head of his cock past the tight muscular ring of Eames' asshole. Eames managed a whimper, and then another hoarse moan as Arthur thrust hard into him, again and again. He pushed against the wall, the concrete abrading the skin on the palms of his hands as he rocked back into the rhythm of Arthur's movements.
He felt the palm of Arthur's right hand, dry and hot against his belly under the tails of his shirt, and then those slender, nimble fingers were exploring the tangle of his pubic hair. The touch was maddening, and he gasped and arched his back and then reached down and closed Arthur's fingers around the shaft of his aching cock.
Arthur made a sound at that, a soft grunt as he nipped at Eames' shoulder through the fabric of his shirt in mid-thrust. "Not so smug now, are we?" he rasped, voice half-muffled by Eames' shoulder as he started to stroke at Eames' cock in sharp, jerky movements, echoing his deep, impatient thrusts and the ragged gasp of their breathing. Eames could only gasp again and again in assent as Arthur worked his loose foreskin around the head of his cock, fingers brushing occasionally around his frenulum in movements that were calculated to bring him off quickly and surely.
Eames had not expected this delicious roughness at all. Even in his fantasies he had always expected Arthur to fuck like a character in a Milan Kundera novel, erudite even in extremis, and then he lost the ability to think as his vision started to go and a white heat thrummed in his balls and the base of his spine.
"Fuck," he moaned, and "Darling, Arthur," as he spent himself, hot and wet and copious over the wicked grip of Arthur's hand, his teeth vibrating in his skull with the intensity of his orgasm. His knees started to buckle and he caught himself, leaning against the wall again as Arthur continued fucking him with hard, brutal thrusts. He was so sensitive now that the sensation of Arthur's cock sliding up his ass started to hurt a little, a vague ache of overstimulation echoed with pleasure in the pit of his belly.
Arthur was leaning into him now, heart like a racehorse's pounding against the column of his spine, trembling on the verge of his own release. "Lick me clean," he whispered breathlessly as he reached up and tucked his arm around Eames' neck, pressing his slick, sticky fingers against his cheek. Eames turned his head and lapped the salt and bleach of his own come off Arthur's cupped palm and curled fingers. He exhaled and let his breath linger heavily on Arthur's hand even as he went very still and shuddered, a hurt-sounding whimper escaping his lips as he came in a deep thrust that ached on the upper curve of Eames' rectum.
They spent a few seconds still leaning into each other and the wall as they caught their breath. Eames sucked gently on the pads of Arthur's fingers, his sweat stinging on his cheek from where the wall had scratched him. They pulled away from each other in silence, the ringing in Eames' ears marked only by their breathing and the rustle of their rumpled clothes, and then Arthur looked at him, his gaze hard and wild and bright as he pulled out his Glock and shot himself in the head.
Eames woke up then in the abandoned clinic, the water-stained ceiling the first thing he saw after he opened his eyes. Petra snored softly in her cot in the dispensary. A drop of sweat ran down his brow into the corner of his eye and rolled down his cheek like a tear, and he lay exhausted and boneless in the lawn chair, uncomfortably sticky from where he had come in his pants. He turned his head to look at Arthur, and found only an empty lawn chair with a music player resting on it. He left no trace of his presence, not even the ghosts of cologne or body heat lingered on the worn metal of the chair.
It was as though he had never been there.