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luck, talent, curiosity, mistake

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After they ditch the car, it’s mostly running.

Between the PASIV case and his gun and the rain, Arthur doesn’t take note of anything other than follow, faster and no pursuit until they’ve actually stopped, really stopped. They’ve passed through a gate, a door, a steep set of steps, and another door, and now they’re standing still on the other side of the second door. There’s a stitch in Arthur’s side; his throat feels raw; the pain in his arm is weird, because it should be worse. He slips the gun back into its holster as Eames hits the lights of wherever they are.

Eames throws a deadbolt and does a second lock with a key that glints between his fingers like a new coin. Then he flips the cover off a number pad to the right of the door jamb and punches in a diamond-shaped combination; some hidden thing shoots home with a nice solid chunk sound within the frame. He stands back and wipes his hands on his jacket, saying, “That should do.”

Mental point for thoroughness, Arthur thinks, grudgingly, before he sets the PASIV case on the unfinished concrete floor. Blood drips immediately onto the aluminum of the case, from the sleeve of the leather jacket he stripped off one of the attackers; he curses and pivots away, avoiding a collision with Eames by a hair. “Sorry,” he mutters, holding his left hand up awkwardly. Like that’ll do any good now.

“The hell’s that from?” Eames demands, accent going somewhere east of standard London. He’s close, leaning towards him, one hand out and eyebrows drawn together.

“Knife,” Arthur says through his teeth. He had used the same knife to cut his own left shirtsleeve off for a bandage, but that was a short-term solution. As demonstrated. Eames’s mouth twists down at the corners, something like concern. Shove it, all right, Arthur doesn’t say.

It’s, god, their eight job together.

Their third without the Cobbs.

Not the first to go wrong.

It is the first to go this badly, and at least seventy per cent of that is his fault.

The only good thing, he thinks, letting his eyes fall shut so he won’t have to look at Eames standing this close making that face—he hasn’t even looked around the place, Eames’s supposed safe house—is that Mal and Dom are on another continent altogether. He guesses it’s good that Eames has so graciously let him keep up, although it’s a fucking embarrassment that that’s even been a question. His keeping up, that is. Eames letting him is just—confusing.

Hey, could be worse; could be dead.

None of the bruises are showing yet, but Arthur is just starting to feel his, as well as that shaky post-adrenaline moment of your body realizing you lived, so now it’s time to count injuries. He can’t tell if there are specific injuries, because he just hurts, bewilderingly, all over, aside from the weird not-pain of his arm.

“Well, haven’t bled out yet,” says Eames. His tone is light, cheerful, and brittle as porcelain.

Eames does not like Arthur.

Arthur doesn’t like people in general. Practically speaking, Eames’s opinion shouldn’t matter, and it’s—irritating, beyond rationality, that it does. Eames does like people, in particular; he wouldn’t be such a good forger if he didn’t. His dislike of Arthur seems like a grim commitment, one he’s determined to see through.

And yet he’s charming, in the way that people who are really interested in other people so often are, and coolly competent in tight spots—as just demonstrated—and that’s not even mentioning how cleanly he sells a lie, or the musculature of his forearms, or his fucking mouth, or—

For whatever reason, no matter how much he dislikes Arthur, Eames is still taking jobs with him. Even now that the Cobbs aren’t active and it’s just him gathering intel and money, there’s Eames.

He’s not ungrateful. Just—annoyed, and confused, because of course it has to be Eames, and of course Eames doesn’t like him, because he goes around fucking up jobs like this

“I’m not going to,” he says, to cut that thought off, and realizes how long he’s been quiet, and adds, “Bleed out.” The artery is safe; it’s just veins and triceps. Just. The shitty bandage held up during the drive, when he had to shoot, at least. But there’s warm blood sliding sickeningly down the inside of his arm, pooling in the elbow of the stolen jacket, and Arthur forces his eyes open, glares at the wound hidden by the leather. “But it’s gonna—it’s messy.”

Eames, in the middle of taking off his bomber jacket, asks very patiently, “What else is it going to be? As a knife wound, that is.”

“You have first aid?”

“Yes,” Eames answers, quiet, sibilant hissing just a little too long, because that was a fucking dumb question. He hangs up his jacket on a hook, one of a row on the wall, with precision, as he says, enunciating with exaggerated clarity, “Yes, I have first fucking aid.”

Arthur grits his teeth and doesn’t reply. Which is the end of this particular production of Making Arthur Feel Idiotic, apparently; Eames jerks his head to indicate a spot somewhere over Arthur’s shoulder. “Get whatever travesty of a bandage you have off—over the sink,” he says hurriedly, because Arthur shrugs the jacket off his right shoulder and peels it halfway off the left and wow, okay, that’s a lot of blood. He yanks it back up his shoulder.

Letting the jacket dangle for the moment, Arthur looks around for the first time. There’s a countertop behind him, eight feet and change, cabinets above and drawers below, with a utility sink where Eames had gestured. Once he’s in front of the basin, he shifts the jacket off his shoulder, draping the sleeve over the edge; blood drips noiselessly from the cuff. The improvised dressing of his left shirtsleeve, wrapped four inches above his elbow, is completely saturated, blood wicking both ways from the actual wound on the inside of his arm. When he brings his fingers to it, the fine-woven cotton is warm and heavy and unnervingly slimy.

Two hours ago, it had been a tonal gold-and-brown stripe on cream.

He’d liked this shirt.

He swallows against the roughness of his throat and kneels, trapping the jacket between his body and the cabinet below the sink. “Water safe?” He regrets it immediately. Another stupid question.

“Filtered and UV-purified,” says Eames, with—possibly—a touch of pride, and nothing else, no judgment. Maybe he understands why Arthur would ask. “Safe as houses.” As Eames opens an upper cabinet, he amends, “Safe as this house, anyway.”

“Incomplete comparison,” Arthur counters, before he can think, and grimaces again at the number of ways Eames could reply. He starts working on the knot, which shouldn’t be difficult. He’d tied it one-handed; logically, he should be able to untie it the same way, but where the fabric isn’t still soaking up blood it’s gone stiff.

“What, don’t you trust—” Eames glances over. “Christ.”

He doesn’t look up. “Told you. Messy.”

“I’ve got scissors—”

The knot goes, finally. “Nah,” says Arthur, faintly satisfied, and huffs out a breath as he pulls the fabric away from the cut. It’s still bleeding too much, too freely, for the parting of cotton from skin to cause any pain, but it’s a shock just seeing the wound—or not seeing it, because there’s too much blood welling up from it. For lack of anything better to do with the bloody rag of his former sleeve, he drops it in the basin and finally knocks the tap. Cold. Rust and ruby swirl down the drain, then just ruby, barely diluted.

Eames sets a plastic bin on the countertop and is suddenly right over Arthur’s left shoulder, peering at his arm. He smells like damp wool and sweat; he’s warm, radiating heat, despite the rain and Poland in March. “How did you manage that?”

Arthur grits his teeth, keeping the wound beneath the faucet. Mistake is the answer. “Talent,” he replies.

“Going to need stitching, that,” says Eames conversationally.

Arthur doesn’t say I fucking know, just give me a minute, because a minute wouldn’t be enough; he needs hours, days, fucking months. Instead, he stares down at the blood-soaked sleeve of his favorite shirt. He’ll get rid of the whole thing later, just—Jesus, later; what does later even mean? Standard protocol after a bust is three days, if the safehouse is actually safe. Then again, if it’s not safe—if Eames is double-crossing, really; that’s the only option—

Eames is pragmatic. He’d have avoided all the shit with the car and the bullets.

Therefore, because Arthur is neither dead nor a hostage, he is safe.

Which means three days here.

Which means he should at least look around at the rest of the place.

He looks around.

Probably basement-level, or subbasement; he can’t remember how many stairs there were. No windows; one vent up above his head. Concrete walls, unpainted. Bare lightbulbs, as noted before. The cabinets and counter, black laminate and white Formica. A door, hanging open, toilet visible beyond. Electric kettle four feet away on the countertop; there’s a row of outlets in the wall over the counter space, and an unplugged space heater in front of the farthest cabinet. Behind him—Arthur twists further and feels his spine pop. The room is only about ten feet deep; there’s a squashed-looking half-collapsed armchair in green corduroy, a bookcase, and a bare mattress on the floor.

Three days.

“Budge over,” says Eames, suddenly enough that Arthur obeys without thinking, edging sideways on his knees. He keeps his arm over the basin, out of the faucet range but ensuring he won’t bleed on the counter or the floor. Eames pushes up the sleeves of his sweater past the elbows—god, all that ink, Arthur doesn’t think—and grabs a bottle of soap. Steris. Antimicrobial, antibacterial, anti-everything-al, fragrance-free. Stocked prominently in American hospitals.

What it’s doing in a Polish ghost town is beyond him. Aside from, well, Eames.

“What—”

Eames glances over, eyebrows up, just as Arthur remembers: Eames is a fucking medic. Five years of experience. And Arthur is asking him why he’s washing his hands. “Unless you’d rather sew yourself up,” Eames says.

Arthur pictures it for a second, a curved needle in his right hand and layers deep in his left arm at the same time, and swallows again. It takes two tries for him to work up enough saliva to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “No, that’s—”

“Right, so I’ll at least try not give you sepsis.”

“What do you need—”

“Nothing,” says Eames briskly. “You stay as you are.”

He’s very thorough about the hand-washing, all the way up his forearms, three different applications of soap. On the third, he says without looking up, “Haven’t kept a stock of local anesthetic.”

“No need to sound so pleased,” Arthur mutters. It could have been a joke, but it comes out surly.

Eames doesn’t reply, but his lips thin to the extent that that’s possible as he shuts off the taps with his elbows. On the counter, he’s laid out needles, suture thread, gauze, that self-stick stretchy medical tape. “Right, then,” he says. “Back here.”

Arthur breathes out hard through his nose and moves his arm back under the faucet. Eames has adjusted the water to warm, which Arthur supposes is good; it means there is hot water, at least. They might want it, later. Three days.

Cleaning the cut, even with just that mild soap, is a Jesus fucking Christ scouring kind of pain; he holds his breath and refuses to even move, for fear he’ll squeak. Or cry. He stares at the wound, at Eames’s fingers and the foam going red before it’s rinsed down the drain, Eames moving Arthur’s arm like he’s a doll. His grip is neither firm nor gentle. Then Eames says, “Ready?”

No. “Go,” he says, and bites down on the inside of his cheek, hard enough to break the skin. More blood. What’s a little more blood?

Eames does five stitches and a tie-off. He’s quick about it, there’s that, and neat. Arthur doesn’t let himself look away from the wound or even blink, not until it’s hidden under gauze and a double layer of tape.

“Done.” Eames side-steps away, and he registers the sudden lack of nearness, the loss of the warmth at his side, with something between surprise and disgust. Arthur swallows his mouthful of bloody spit and stands, steps back, feeling shaky in the legs, to give Eames better access to the sink—to clean the needle, his hands again, whatever.

“Thanks,” he mutters.

“Piss off,” Eames replies easily, and then gets a look at him, Arthur guesses, and he must look fucking pathetic, because the next thing he says is, “Vodka’s three cabinets over.”

He blinks. “Isn’t that—blood thinner—”

“Take it or leave it.”

Arthur finds the vodka—unopened, unknown brand, but he knows enough Polish to read the label—just as Eames says, “Hang on a tick.”

“What,” Arthur demands, because if there’s the option to knock himself out, he wants it. He puts the bottle on the counter and glares up.

“Forgot,” says Eames, digging in another cabinet. It shouldn’t be possible to see how his back and shoulders flex beneath that sweater, but it is, and he’s wearing trousers that actually fit, and it’s a lot, Arthur thinks vaguely, furiously, it’s just too much. “You—” He turns and tosses two protein bars, underhand, at Arthur, one after the other. Who catches them, of course, even one-handed, and stares at him.

“Do you remember when you ate last?” Eames says pointedly, and when Arthur doesn’t answer immediately, does it himself. “Because it hasn’t been in the last twelve hours, and I’d put good money you didn’t bother with supper yesterday. You’ve been in and out of dreaming half a day. You took out two blokes, and thanks for that, if I haven’t said, and you’ve been fucking stabbed, so you’ll eat that—one, at least—before you add anything else to your brain chemistry.”

“Hadn’t realized you cared.” It comes out wrong; he was aiming for dry and ends up near bitter. Arthur tears open the first bar and wills the crinkling foil to cover his own idiot intonation problems.

“Would you sit while you eat that,” says Eames, exasperation hiding whatever he thinks about Arthur’s most recent Incompetence in Action sketch. It’s not a question. “I’ve got nothing if you fall and crack your thick head because your blood sugar’s wonky.”

He sits on the armchair—springs and frame obvious, beneath the lumpy cushion—and glares at the back of Eames’s head until the man himself fills two mugs at the sink and slouches over to hand Arthur one. Arthur, halfway through the protein bar, takes it with his free hand—the stitches pull, but that’s their job—and says, “Debriefing. Now.”

Eames raises one eyebrow. “That’s the first you’ve sounded like yourself since killing that bloke.”

His stomach lurches. He did kill one of them. He’d forgotten. “I’m sure you missed me,” he says. It comes out like he’s spitting acid.

Something flickers across Eames’s expression, gone before it’s fully there; a twist of his mouth, a twitch around his eyes as they darken, however briefly. Arthur would give his left arm, stitched or not, to sound fucking normal around Eames—

And then he’s normal, all business, saying, “Our surviving it indicates it wasn’t a revenge mission, would you say? There were three in the room, two on the stairs, and the car crew. Intel, you think, or…”

After he takes another sip of water, Arthur sets the mug down on the floor with a sigh, the better to apply himself to the business of dissecting the last three hours.

They agree it probably wasn’t a planned mission that interrupted them, because they were only practicing—the client wasn’t there; the mark wasn’t there; it was just the two of them with the PASIV device going over the build and the forges. The crew wasn’t truly organized, either. Smart enough to split up, watch the stairs, leave the guys in the car, but that’s basic protocol if you’re snooping on whoever’s getting up to what in an abandoned office in a small city in Poland.

From their behavior, the men weren’t dreamshare, or even a degree removed. The dead giveaway, of course, was their lack of interest in the PASIV machine, which is worth more than the GNP of said small Polish city. “Probably intel,” says Arthur. “But scouting, not a targeted… thing.” He’s not doing too well with words, he notices, and opens the second protein bar.

“Wołomin mob, I reckon,” Eames says. He’s made himself a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, after asking whether Arthur had a nut allergy—which would have been considerate, Arthur supposes, if it had come before chucking the protein bars.

“They’re not connected to this, though,” Arthur counters immediately. “Neither mark nor client.” He knows that much. He researched that much.

“Don’t need to be. Nosy lot.”

Arthur feels his mouth twist. “So we just got unlucky?”

“Could have done,” says Eames, through a mouthful of sandwich.

Shouldn’t have.

He doesn’t realize he’s said it aloud until he looks up and finds Eames glaring at him. “What.”

“If you’re honestly going to argue whether we deserved a surprise like that—”

“We did,” Arthur interrupts. Then he gets up and grabs the vodka, because Eames is still staring. “I did,” he says, to correct it. “Non-secured space. Should’ve had the stairs watched. Camera, or hired—”

Eames shakes his head. “Hired some kid? A town that size? They’d only have known earlier.”

“I could have paid,” he protests. Could have. Should have, but didn’t. Not good enough.

“Places like that, best way to bloody announce ourselves.”

“Could have faked it was something else.” Arthur stares at the vodka bottle, still unopened; he can’t think right now of what cover story they’d have used, but it would have come to him, if he’d been— “Didn’t put enough in. My fault,” he says, and it sounds just as flat and dead as he feels, so that’s okay, at least. “I apologize—”

“Oh, shove it,” Eames says; he’s rolling his eyes, relaxed and casual, leaning against the counter with one hip cocked and his arm folded over his chest, and it’s infuriating just to look at him. “It was a shitty little job for a few grand; how much work could it have been worth?”

“Enough to do it right,” Arthur snaps, and twists the cap off the bottle. The stitches dig; he winces.

Eames sighs gustily and asks, like he’s humoring a crabby child, “And what would right look like?”

“Not fucking being stuck here with you.”

There’s a silence, deep and cold. Arthur’s ears ring with it.

He picks up the bottle and takes three long swallows, ignoring the burn in his throat and the roil of his stomach, and sets it down soundlessly.

When he looks up, finally, Eames is watching him, eyes narrowed, otherwise expressionless. It’s—terrifying, simply. After a moment, his shoulders fall in a silent sigh; he drops his gaze and brushes his hands off on his trousers. “Right,” he says. “Fuck this.” He turns back to one of the lower cabinets and throws a folded blanket on the bed. Then he stalks to the bathroom—he’s favoring one leg, Arthur notes, somewhere far away—and shuts the door behind him, a crisp snick of the latch in the quiet, followed by a click as the lock engages. A button lock in the bathroom of an underground safehouse fit out for one…

Arthur blinks. And, in the absence of anything else to do, as the vodka percolates his blood–brain barrier, he strips off what remains of his bloody shirt, goes over to the mattress, and wraps the blanket (navy, cotton, new enough that it’s a little scratchy) around his shoulders.

He lies down and turns his face to the wall, without bothering with his boots.

***

He’d shot himself out of the dream without blinking when the phantom weight pressed against his shoulders—against the direction of gravity. Topside, he’d drawn and shot before his eyes were all the way open, but the bullet had only grazed the guy on him. He had jerked, combat knife in hand, and Arthur had used the butt of the Glock to knock him out.

He had kicked Eames’s chair over and the IV line yanked itself out of his right wrist as he shot the one coming over to Eames. He’d gone down, which happens with a bullet to the head. Left only the guy at the door, and Eames hadn’t pulled his H&K yet but tackled the third guy the second he’d managed to stand up, which gave Arthur enough time to wrap his arm and steal the jacket off the guy he’d beat unconscious. Eames took out the third and zip-tied him and the first one while Arthur got the PASIV device ready to go, and then Arthur had reloaded, Eames had drawn, and they’d run.

The two on the stairs weren’t a surprise, just belligerent inconveniences; the two in the car were convinced to get the fuck out of the way with a few threats and Eames’s gun. “Shall we?” Eames had said, and Arthur had nodded, and they’d been on their way.

There was a tail, of course. After shaking it (bullets to the front tires, his) and the tail’s tail (bullet through the windshield, his, and Eames cutting a hard right off-road, which should not have worked in a fucking standard Škoda Octavia), they ditched the car. Eames shot out the tires himself. Then they must have run for twenty minutes solid.

Through woods, he remembers, woods over a hill, but only a little decorative gathering of trees, not real forest. The ground dry and pebbly, avoiding tracks. Along a gulch, a ditch, whatever, the rocky bottom good for turning ankles—but that’s why you wear boots. Up, along the streets of a ghost town, a series of abandoned storefronts and plywood-covered windows, and then the gate, and the door, and the stairs, and the door to this room, where it is fucking silent.

He hurts, all over, and he’s exhausted.

He’s not going to sleep, he knows it; he can’t, after he’s killed.

***

He doesn’t know how long he’s been staring into space, seeing the spray of blood from the man he’d killed on loop, when the bathroom door clicks open and Eames comes back into the main room. Arthur doesn’t turn, but it sounds like he’s changed clothes—the fabric noise as he walks is less crisp, softer—which means there are spares here. He listens as Eames heads over to the chair and lowers himself into it, with a groan. “Fuck it all,” says Eames, quietly. “Ah, hell.”

Arthur doesn’t know how to fix stuck here with you, but—three days. He can’t not talk to Eames for three fucking days, in this space. He levers himself up on his elbow. “All right?” he asks.

“I hadn’t realized you cared.”

It’s like another punch; Arthur freezes. Then he makes himself move, pulling himself properly upright. Eames did change, sweater and trousers swapped for t-shirt and sweatpants.

For something to do, Arthur starts unlacing his boots. “I deserved that,” he says. He sounds too stiff, too formal, but it’s better than sounding insincere.

“You deserve a kick in the teeth, but I suppose you did save our bloody lives.”

“I take IOUs,” Arthur says without thinking, and, for once, it’s the right thing to say, because Eames barks a laugh, like he’s surprising himself.

“Hold you to that one.”

He doesn’t know what to say to that; he fiddles with his boots, lining up their toes with the wall and tucking the laces into them, before venturing, “It—this is a good hideout.”

“Of course it’s a good fucking hideout,” Eames snaps, and Arthur glances up; he’s getting back up, grimacing as he does. “I designed the place.” He takes a step and winces again.

“What’s wrong—”

“It’s my bloody hip; it’s been fucked for ages, and one of the goons went and—” Eames takes another step and snarls.

“Take the bed, then.”

“Shut it. You took a knife—”

“Which you fixed. And it’s your bed.”

Eames laughs, humorlessly, as he goes to the cabinet with the med kit. “Suppose it is, at that.” He sets the kit down and starts rummaging in it. “But you’re not well, and I’ve lived with the hip—Lord, I sound like a pensioner.”

“I’ll manage,” Arthur says. Eames turns to look at him, eyebrows up, with a stick-on heat patch in his hands. To prove it, Arthur grabs the blanket, stands, and takes the armchair, and then looks back at Eames—

While Arthur wasn’t looking, he’d pushed his sweatpants down on his left hip and rucked up his shirt. He’s not showing anything, it’s just that the cut of muscle and licks of ink are—a lot, and he’s twisted around looking with a scowl as he gets the pad situated, which means he doesn’t see Arthur staring.

Until he looks up, and sees—he pauses, face inscrutable, and just as his expression starts to resolve (it’s not laughing at him, it’s not angry, but it’s not—fuck, whatever), Arthur turns his head to the side.

“How long, you think?” he says, instead of acknowledging any of—that.

“Fuck,” Eames says feelingly, placing the pad and righting his clothes; Arthur can’t shut off his peripheral vision. “I’ve no bloody idea. Three’s standard, but if it’s the mob, it would rather depend on who you went and killed.”

Arthur looks back at him and swallows hard; Eames hears it, or something, because he pins him with a cool stare.

He sets his jaw and stares back. “Yeah, it would,” he says, which would be fine, but his voice cracks at the end.

Eames’s mouth quirks; it’d be a smile, if there were any humor in it. “You hate it.”

“Hate what.” He’s not fooling anyone.

“Killing,” says Eames, lightly, and Arthur looks away—stares at the wall ten inches from his face, like it sprouted a TV—as his stomach twists. “And yet you’re so damnably good at it.”

He thinks he’ll throw up if he opens his mouth, or if he moves. He inhales through his nose, slow, and breathes out, slower.

Arthur lets his eyes close, but all he sees is the hole appearing in the second guy’s head.

***

The armchair fucking blows.

He refuses to say anything, just finds a flashlight so he can read between catnaps—there’s a copy of The Name of the Rose on the bookshelf. He doesn’t sleep, aside from that. At some point, he gets tired of monks and scraping his tired brain for remnants of Latin, so he gets up, moving quietly and slowly enough not to feel it, and explores, to the extent that there’s anything to explore. Mainly checking out their supplies. Which are good: nonperishables, water filters, instant stuff, stockpiles of batteries and four kinds of ammo, two spare pistols and a shotgun, more tea than seems reasonable.

In the bathroom, there’s a drawer full of travel toothbrushes, the little folding ones. Plus stuff to sponge-bathe with, and clothes—soft stuff, sweats and pajamas, where the size doesn’t matter that much. Arthur is clean and re-dressed, mouth finally free of the taste of blood, when he wanders back out and finds Eames awake. It’s three A.M., but there’s no natural light, so who gives a fuck?

“You designed this place?”

“No need to sound so surprised,” says Eames, affronted. Why can’t Arthur say shit— “Hide out enough, you learn what you need. And where.”

“How’d you get it built? If it’s—”

“No, no, I bought a lab off some idiots and fixed it up myself. You can’t just go building bomb shelters willy-nilly about Eurasia.”

Arthur, having settled himself on the counter next to the sink with his book, blinks. “A lab.”

“Methamphetamine, I believe. Terrible, what it does to people.” Ignoring the face Arthur is trying not to make, Eames asks, “How’d you fall in with the Cobbs? Not to pry, merely—”

“Luck.” The answer is talent.

Eames peers at him; Arthur looks back, too tired to work out whether he should have an expression. After a moment, Eames says, “You didn’t sleep,” almost puzzled. “Is it since—?”

“Since what,” Arthur says dully.

“You shot the bloke.”

He doesn’t answer.

“Why, in that case,” says Eames, “are you in a line of work where you’ve got to kill?”

The Cobbs, but there’s no way in hell he’s going to say so. “Mistake,” he says, aiming for offhand; the timing is all wrong, and it comes out stilted.

“You’re good at the dreamwork, don’t get me wrong, one of the best, but if it does you in like—”

“I’m fine.” He sounds—completely unconvincing. “Fuck. This is—” He stops, because the next thing out of his mouth is going to be not your fucking business, but it’s not even been twelve hours, and it’s fucking stupid to refuse to speak to the person you’re stuck in a safe house with. “—a vodka conversation,” Arthur finishes, weakly.

“Not if you’ve not slept.”

“Jesus, fuck off,” he says, rolling his eyes, but for once it sounds like he wants it to—exasperated, but willing to laugh it off. He thinks so, anyway, and Eames gives him a look that isn’t completely disgusted, so it works out. Arthur picks up his book and immerses himself in another description of a mysteriously dead monk.

They’re silent, the pair of them, for what must be a few hours; Eames has a pack of cards, because of course he does, and plays solitaire. He makes tea, endlessly, and eventually instant noodles. Arthur eats his without much enthusiasm and goes back to reading, right up until he startles awake, head against the cabinet to his right, and Eames says, “You. Bed.”

“I’m not taking the—”

“So you’ll sleep, idiot.”

“But you’ll fuck up your—”

“I’ll live, bloody hell—”

“This is stupid.” Arthur puts his head in his hands. Two grown men arguing over a goddamn mattress in a safehouse in Nowhere, Poland. He looks up and over at the mattress. “There’s room for both,” he says. Which is true.

Eames casts him a look.

“Fuck off. There is. Don’t be an idiot.”

“Then don’t be an arsehole.”

Deal. Jesus.”

“I’m staying up, though.”

“So don’t wake me up,” says Arthur, and wraps himself in his blanket.

***

When he’s aware of things again, the lights are off, and Eames has his back to Arthur, a foot away to his right. The t-shirt he’s wearing is old and soft-looking and slightly too small; it stretches between his shoulder blades, hugs the deltoid. There’s just enough light—from a little LED in the bathroom—to see the shade of a tattoo, just beneath Eames’s collar, and Arthur’s hand flexes—he wants to—

“I did not wake you,” says Eames, voice low. “I’ve been here hours.”

He blinks. “How did—I didn’t say—”

“Breathing and posture changes. You get a sense for it.”

“Do you,” Arthur says weakly.

I do.” Eames turns then, onto his back, his shoulder a few inches from Arthur’s. “So what’s your excuse?”

“For what?”

“Being awake, of course. If you can’t blame me.”

“I—just woke up,” says Arthur, confused.

“And you’re not looking to make that anyone’s responsibility.” It’s halfway to a question. “Not mine, not yours, not the Wołomin mob—”

“Stuff happens.” He doesn’t know where this is going.

“So you admit to the phenomenon of coincidence. So we could have simply been unlucky.”

It takes Arthur about thirty seconds to track it. “What are you saying?” he asks, cautious.

“That you’ve got a horrid case of the just-world fallacy.”

Arthur says nothing.

“You know that one, right? The miscomprehension of fairness, on the part of—”

“I know what it fucking is,” he snaps.

“I’m sure you do,” says Eames, mocking. “So how did you end up here?”

‘Here’ is too big—the basement, Poland, the entire field of dreamshare. Separated by a continental landmass and an ocean in either direction from the Cobbs. Next to Eames on a mattress in the dark, only blankets between them, tattoos under thin cotton— “How did you?” Arthur demands.

“Oh, some mess,” says Eames airily. “Chance and fucking about. But I imagine I’m having far more fun than you.”

“Fun.” He nearly spits it.

“Yes, that thing one does when—”

“You think I’m here for fucking fun.”

Waving his hand, a languid movement, Eames makes this little hff noise. “Obviously not. I’ve no idea why you’re doing any of this. Feel free to fill me in, if you’d like.”

Talent. Mistake. The Cobbs. Eames following him on jobs, no matter how useless. Skill. Luck. Simple curiosity. Eames following him, for what? “You think—”

“Oh, do stop putting words in my mouth.”

“Put something else there,” mutters Arthur, “if you’re not careful,” because he is insane, apparently, and bites the inside of his cheek hard.

Eames is still. And then, “Really,” he says, quiet. Curious, calculating, like he’s trying to work out a cash payment through three currencies and four middlemen, and the fact that he manages to fit all of that into two syllables is—infuriating, mind-boggling—

Arthur is about to back off, say I’m kidding and go back to sleep, when Eames asks, “How not careful are we talking?”

And—he could be joking. Eames is probably joking. He’s probably trying to wind Arthur up, because that’s easy, because he’ll say something stupid, and then Eames can act superior, and—

He leans up on his right elbow and looks down at Eames, eyes narrowed. He knows how this expression comes off—judgmental, perhaps, contemptuous condescension, said Mal, once, and Dom corrected her with bitchy and homicidal. And Eames is looking up at him in the minimal light, cool and assessing, but there’s a little twist to his ridiculous mouth, upward, and—

No shit, he knows what he asked. He can understand a blatant line, and he saw Arthur staring, that time, and he knows.

“Find out,” Arthur says, voice caught in his throat, but the way it sounds—low, authoritative—is right for once, and luck, mistake, curiosity, fuck all of it, there’s just him in a fucking renovated meth lab in Poland and Eames watching him.

“You’d like me to?” says Eames, eyebrows quirking.

Taste of blood in his mouth.

Arthur murmurs, “Too late,” and leans in and kisses him. Hard.

It’s all teeth at first—his on Eames’s ludicrous bottom lip, Eames’s on his tongue, incisors scraping—and then Arthur snarls in his throat and fixes it, seals his mouth over Eames’s and runs his tongue along the roof of his mouth and feels how Eames’s tongue is burned from too-hot tea, the texture of it. Without realizing, he’s moved, gone to elbows and knees, straddling Eames’s left leg—bad hip, his notekeeping hindbrain reminds him—with arms bracketing Eames’s shoulders. There’s space between them, approximately, full of tangled blanket and clothes and a few inches of air, until Eames settles his hands on Arthur’s shoulder blades and tugs—

They’re flush together, then, chest-to-chest, and Arthur gasps into the kiss—Eames is hard against Arthur’s thigh and his hands pressed to Arthur’s back are like fire and Jesus, it’s good, it’s good. Arthur shifts, makes sure his weight isn’t on Eames’s bad hip or his own bad arm, and lays his hand flat along Eames’s side, skims his thumb along the waistband of his sweats. Eames’s hand slides to his ribcage, then further down along his front, then clutches a handful of his shirt, the sudden touch of cool air chasing goose bumps up his stomach.

“You want—”

Yes, jackass,” Arthur says—pants, really—and moves his own hips, one slow grind.

Eames’s eyes go wide, and Arthur bites at his ear, his neck, licks from the hollow of his throat on up, and Eames makes this strangled noise somewhere between a groan and a sigh and says, “Are you—” Arthur shifts his hips again. “Christ.” He grabs Arthur’s side, beneath his t-shirt, and then moves that hand up, runs it over Arthur’s nipple, and Arthur arches and Jesus, it’s good, like this, dark and nearly silent—

“Really, though—”

Nearly silent. “You want this or not?” Arthur demands.

“I want it; I only thought—”

“Then shut up.” Arthur runs his fingers along Eames’s cock through his sweats. Obligingly, Eames goes quiet, aside from something high-pitched and muted, and Arthur kisses him again—different this time, slow and hot and melting, Eames’s hand up under his shirt and Arthur palming Eames until he can feel it, wetness through his pants, just from that touch. At some point, he realizes he’s moving, little thrusts of his hips, which is enough friction to get wound up, but— Eames whines, then, in his throat, and Arthur hears himself laugh.

It’s about two seconds’ work to get Eames’s pants down, and then it’s—oh, better, much better, the feeling, Eames’s breath stopping before he sighs out something and reaches for Arthur. He knocks his hand out of the way and keeps on, settles into a rhythm, kissing Eames’s collarbone and then moving lower, sucking his nipple through his t-shirt, letting his own saliva soak the cotton. Why the hell not.

“Going to—”

“That’s the fucking point,” Arthur snaps, and Eames comes, shaking. Arthur jerks him through it, watches—Eames shuts his eyes, keeps his lips pressed together. You’d barely know he was getting off; he doesn’t react when Arthur wipes his hand on Eames’s t-shirt, just lies still, breathing hard.

Then his eyes snap open, shining, and before Arthur knows what the fuck is happening Eames does some ridiculous wrestling move, flips them—Arthur flat on his back with Eames pressing him down, one hand on his chest and the other at his waistband, and the next time he blinks Eames’s mouth is on his cock.

It’s so sudden and so fucking good he squeezes his eyes shut, focusing just on—Jesus, his fucking mouth, literally and intensively, and Arthur is thinking about grammar while—and Eames does something with his tongue and his language center gives up the ghost. There’s just wet heat and suction, pressure, Eames’s hand at the base of his cock, and he’s just about with it enough to knock Eames’s shoulder with his knee when he’s about to come, and Eames smooths the inside of his thigh with his free hand and doesn’t move, so—

He sort of whites out with it.

He’s safe, after all.

“All right?” says Eames, a bit later, as he pulls his own shirt off by the back collar—he apparently discovered the mess at the hem. He’s sitting upright at the edge of the mattress, back to Arthur, who gets his sweats back into place and turns. In the low light, the tattoo between Eames’s shoulder blades is still identifiable as a tangle of Celtic knotwork, lines thick enough that the knot itself looks like negative space, and without thinking, Arthur reaches up and presses his hand against it.

Eames startles minutely, tries to hide it, and says, “Your reputation is awfully misleading."

He sits up and takes stock. Shirt wrinkled and sweaty, but nothing urgent. Sweatpants clean enough. No wet spot on the mattress. Thirsty. He’s at the sink and filling a mug with water—legs a little shaky, but, mental note, post-orgasm is nothing to post-stabbing—when he registers Eames’s actual words. “I don’t have a reputation,” he says. He doesn’t. He makes sure of it.

“As I said.” A moment later, Eames adds, “Not that I’m protesting. Merely a surprise, realizing your M.O.”

Arthur blinks; to kill time, he grabs another mug and fills it, staring into the sink. “M.O.,” he repeats. His shirtsleeve is still heaped in the corner of the basin.

“Oh, you know. Fucking colleagues you can’t stand for something to do. Pardon the pun.”

Arthur turns, confused. “Isn’t that you?”

“Says who?” Eames sounds affronted and looks—amused.

It’s a weird time in a conversation to hand water to someone who just blew you, but—well, it’s a weird time in general. He takes four steps, as many as he needs to, and holds out the mug. Says me sounds childish, and there isn’t a good way to state the inverse of I can’t stand you, so he flips it. “You can’t stand me.”

Eames reaches up for it, tipping his head to one side. “I can’t?”

Arthur presses his lips together and backs until he hits the counter, leans on it. “I don’t know if you can,” he says, folding his arms, “but you don’t like me.”

“That’s crap,” says Eames immediately, matter-of-fact. “I’ve no idea where you’ve heard that, but it’s crap.”

“I didn’t have to hear it—what is this, primary school?”

“No, it’s organized crime, and thus just as bad,” Eames says, heaving a sigh. Then he pauses, visibly, and straightens up. “Wait.” He speaks deliberately, clearly, eyes narrowed at Arthur. “You didn’t hear it.”

Arthur shakes his head, holding Eames’s gaze, and drinks his water.

“Yet you think I dislike you.”

He laughs sharply. “That’s mild.”

Eames’s eyebrows nearly meet. He scoots backward on the mattress until he can lean against the wall; it’s distracting, and not just because it’s the first time Arthur’s had a chance to see half his tattoos. Arthur drops his gaze, just so he doesn’t stare. “But I don’t,” says Eames. “Lord, you think I’d have agreed to this job if—what a bloody nightmare.”

“Why did you?” asks Arthur, on the off chance he’ll find out. Not that Eames would admit to spying, but maybe he’ll—

“An available PASIV, a couple forges, and a point both competent and fit? Maybe my priorities aren’t the most noble—”

“Wait, what?”

“—and it’s simply stupid to keep up a—a fancy, if nothing’s to come of it, but it was early days, I’d figured, and—” Eames stops, staring up at Arthur, who is staring at him, pieces coming together in his head. “Oh, god,” says Eames, starting to grin. “Did you— Why the hell, then, if you thought I—”

Luck. He tries a smile; it feels right. “Why not?”