His lungs were burning, heart thundering against his chest, breath coming in short, sharp gasps as he half-ran half-staggered his way through the streets of London.
Eames was a heavy burden against his side; the bullet he'd taken to the upper thigh a hindrance Arthur was afraid would be the end of them both.
He tried to see through the thick fog swirling across the cobbled streets, barely able to make out the faint orange glow of the streetlights ahead as they ducked through yet another length of alleyway.
He could still hear the sounds of pursuit; heavy boots against stone, shouted commands, the occasional snip of a silenced gun being fired from somewhere far too close for comfort.
Their own heavy tread sounded as an ominous echo through the fog as Arthur forced them onwards, determined to get both Eames and himself to… safety...
Arthur's step faltered; Eames stumbling heavily against his side, a half-choked moan slipping past his lips. He looked down, worried to see the free flowing trickle of blood against the beige of Eames' pants. Eames felt heavier now, his eyes rolling, face pale and pinched and Arthur shifted his weight, picking up the pace enough to duck them through another set of alleys.
Eames was muttering something as Arthur pressed him up against the slick brickwork. He strained his ears for their pursuers but things had gone suddenly silent. Only the recurring mumble from Eames along with their heavy breaths penetrated the thick fog around them and Arthur felt a shiver steal up his spine as he paused long enough to think, to rack his brains and figure out what the hell was going on.
"…safe house… you know… Arthur…”
Arthur tightened his grip against Eames' arms as he realised he didn't know where they were aside from a generic idea that they were somewhere in London. He didn't know why they were here, why he was even with Eames in the first place. And he certainly didn't know who was after them, or what the hell they'd done to piss them off.
Eames reached for him. "… keep moving… safe house… Arthur… "
And Arthur felt a vague inclination to shift Eames' weight and take off once more, to head somewhere… safe… but there was something teasing at the periphery of his mind, a lingering suspicion, a fuzziness that meant he couldn't quite trace how he got here…
And then it clicked.
This was a dream.
The fog surrounding them began to disperse almost immediately, as if fed only by Arthur's own confusion.
He felt Eames tense and before he could think about it long enough he pushed away from him, a gun materialising in his hand as he pressed it up against the soft underside of Eames' throat.
Eames slumped heavily against the wall, wounded leg giving out beneath him, fingers scrabbling at the wet brick for purchase, his eyes wide and disbelieving as he stared at Arthur through a face paled with pain and confusion.
“Arthur…” Eames started, swallowing hard, throat moving against the muzzle of Arthur's gun.
The longer Arthur stared though, the more he saw through that mask of pain and confusion and found that the man before him was far more alert to their situation than anyone who'd lost as much blood as Eames appeared to have lost should be.
"Why are we dreaming?" He demanded, but Eames shook his head.
Things around them were still quiet, suspiciously so, but the more Arthur strained to hear something the less he heard. Just their laboured breaths, Eames' broken moans of pain as he struggled to keep himself upright.
"Arthur, please… we need to…" he broke off, wincing, "...safe house..."
There. The repetition. Safe. Safe house. It could only mean one thing: this was an extraction. The question, what exactly were they hoping to extract? And how the hell had they managed to get close enough to him to put him under in the first place?
He looked to Eames again and his eyes narrowed. "Have you sold me out, Mr Eames?" He asked coldly, voice echoing strangely against his ears.
Now that he could see through Eames' mask of pain though it suddenly became easier to see through the rest of him to the inconsistencies surrounding the man. Things that seemed right about him but were off by just a fraction- the length of his hair compared to the last time Arthur had seen him in person for a start, not undeniable proof in and of itself, but coupled with the shade (a hue or two too light even if the relative shadow of the alleyway), and the parting (too centered), as well as the way his face seemed too filled, his neck too thick, shoulders too broad, everything and nothing all at once, and Arthur knew this wasn't the Eames he knew before him.
It was, admittedly, a very good forge. But ultimately from someone who'd never interacted with Eames on a one-to-one basis, and probably only had second-hand information and long distance surveillance with which to base their representation on.
Arthur moved the gun away from Eames' throat, seeing the spark of relief light Eames' eyes the second before he aimed at his other leg and fired.
Eames dropped like a stone, growling, his mask gone as fury blended with true pain, leaving him in a sprawled heap on the ground.
Without waiting for a reaction- or a retaliation- Arthur lifted the gun again, this time using the butt to smack across Eames' head, sending the man into unconsciousness.
He didn't hang around.
Arthur slipped from the alley, hugging the shadows as he moved towards the street side, keeping a wary eye out for their earlier pursuers.
He needed to get out of this dream as soon as possible. Shooting himself out wasn't an option when dealing with an unknown compound, and waiting for the timer to run out just meant whoever had him would also be waking up.
No. What he needed was a kick.
He felt a ghost of a smile twist at his lips as the Thames came into sudden view. He spared himself only a moment to strain his ears for the sounds of their pursuers but still, nothing. Just an echoing white noise that seemed to press down on his ears like a pressure drop.
With nothing else for it, he pushed away from the wall, legging it across a wide but deserted stretch of cobbled road towards the nearest bridge; the smack of his shoes loud, the thundering of his heart possibly louder as he slapped his hands down onto the waist-high stone wall and vaulted himself over with nary a pause, his body twisting almost cat-like to turn and face the bridge, gun coming up just in case as he free fell down towards the darkened waters of the Thames at night.
Arthur woke before he hit the water.
For someone who made their living by sleeping, Arthur had perfected the art of waking up without giving away that he was actually awake. It gave him time to gain his bearings, to shake any ill effects lingering on from the dreamscape, and perhaps most importantly, to surreptitiously assess his surroundings.
With his eyes still closed he felt the fuzzy headedness of the Somnacin compound still pumping through his veins, and below that a slightly dull ache to a point just above his left ear. He sucked in a slow, deep breath, assessing the rest of his body but finding no other perceptible injuries. Just- what he assumed to be- the knock to the head, and the pinch of a needle stuck deep into his wrist. The cold grip around the same wrist told him that he'd been handcuffed to the chair he'd been thrown haphazardly down onto.
There was a soft murmuring of voices to his right, and below that the sounds of various other sleepers- a mouth breather, a nasal whistler- and Arthur took a moment to simply listen to the sounds around him. A faint echo and a prickling chill told him he was in an abandoned building of some description, most probably a warehouse of sorts; the musty smell of dust and dirty water told him it was likely somewhere close to a river too.
With eyes slitted, his breathing deep and even, Arthur flicked his eyes quickly around the room. He repeated his surveillance between lengthy blinks, ascertaining that there was a team of three hooked up to a PASIV device with him, and another two keeping watch.
That made a five-man team. Arthur felt his body tighten in response. That was an unusually large team for an extraction.
He flicked his eyes open a little wider, seeing that the two watchers weren't doing much watching at all. Moving swiftly, Arthur used his free hand to tug the needle from his wrist. His eyes intent on the two men sitting but paces away; they barely glanced his way.
The handcuffs they'd used to secure him with were a standard issue and easily unfastened if one had access to a paperclip or other similarly malleable metal. Arthur had access to neither at the present moment, but what he did have access to was a specially engineered set of cufflinks which had been designed to contain a covert handcuff key as part of the bullet back closure design.
They'd been a gift, from Eames of all people, who'd found Arthur's perpetual need to be one step ahead of everything both a source of amusement and frustration. He suspected Eames wanted him to be offended at the idea he may get himself into a situation he hadn't inevitably planned for and need to rely on a gimmicky design such as this. Arthur on the other hand had been quite taken with the idea and taken to wearing them whenever he was on a job.
He was more than thankful for them now. The cufflink from his left arm was missing: the shirt having been ripped open at the cuff and shoved up towards his elbow. The cufflink on his right however was still intact and Arthur wasted no time in slipping it free from his shirt and twisting out the bullet back; the key slipped easily into the handcuffs, the locking mechanism snicking quietly open. He slipped the cufflink into the pocket of his suit pants with one hand whilst fisting his other through the cool metal of the handcuff, intent on using the cuff as a knuckle duster of sorts. He felt his heart jump; a spike of adrenaline rocking through his body as he tensed, preparing to launch himself at the two men on watch.
The first of them went down without a fight; his body dropping like a rock as Arthur caught him across the side of the head in a blow hard enough to knock him out.
The second, was not so easy. With reflexes faster than he'd expected, Arthur found himself tackled around the waist, smashing down onto the lawn chair he'd moments ago vacated; the entire structure collapsing beneath their combined weight. Arthur felt the breath leave his lungs in a painful whooshing of air, his ribs protesting immediately at the weight crushing down on him. He lashed out with his fists, smacking the guy directly across the nose and feeling the crunch seconds before the hot spray of blood washed across his face.
The man grunted with pain, but didn't let it stop him from wrapping his hands around Arthur's neck and beginning to squeeze the life out of him. His vision immediately began to swim as his airway was cut off and he lashed out with his fists, trying to strike out at the man atop him, all finesse lost as he scratched across his unshaven face and tried to claw his fingers into his eyes. But brute strength was winning out and Arthur threw his arms out, hoping for a bit of broken chair, or anything really, to give him that extra leverage.
He found the discarded needle first, grasping it by the cord still trailing towards the PASIV. He didn't think twice as he slid his fingers up towards the cool steel and stabbed out with it, getting the man in the side of the neck. The man grunted, his grip slackening enough for Arthur to pry them loose, gasping great lungfuls of air as he did.
The man atop him was making choking sounds now and Arthur's vision, cleared enough of the encroaching blackness, watched as the man reached up and pulled the needle from his neck, fingers scrabbling against the wound and coughing as though there was something stuck in his throat.
Using the momentary distraction Arthur bucked, throwing the man off balance and managing to scramble out from beneath him. The man recovered quickly enough however, kicking out at Arthur and tripping him as he tried to push to his feet before diving at him, his weight landing atop Arthur's legs this time but Arthur was ready for him; he grasped at his flailing handcuffs, fisting his fingers around the metal once more and swinging the teeth out in a poor mans attempt at a shiv, catching at the soft underside of his throat in a stabbing blow that should have glanced off the flesh but instead sank deeply into the skin.
They both froze: one in surprise, the other in shock. And then Arthur ripped the cuff downwards, tearing it into his neck even as the man jerked, trying to get away from him. The cuff tore free from his throat as he scrambled back, but not before the damage was done, and Arthur watched as he grabbed at his neck, blood thick and seeping through his fingers.
It didn't take long for him to collapse, for the blood loss and the shock to overwhelm him, and the life to leave him.
Arthur had just enough energy left to kick the body aside, letting himself collapse to the ground and take just a second to breathe. He could feel the sticky residue of fresh blood congealing against his skin and felt his stomach lurch as the last dregs of adrenaline shivered their way out of him, leaving him in an odd state of hyper awareness as the high from the fight fought against the Somnacin still slugging its way through his system.
He allowed himself only a moment before he pushed himself up, eyes scanning his surroundings with a more discerning gaze this time around. The warehouse was smaller than he thought it would be, but with a myriad of doorways branching off from what must be the main room. A dull light crept into the room through high windows; the chill he'd felt in the air no doubt a product of the rain he could see spitting against the grubby glass.
He turned his gaze from the room to the team of three still lying prone upon their lawn chairs. Each of them- two men and a woman- were wearing black military fatigues without insignias. All were armed. He looked down at his own creased suit pants and his now ruined cashmere sweater and winced at the grime and blood both were coated in. He already knew he'd been unarmed but found it curious that the man he'd fought with hadn't pulled a weapon on him.
Arthur crawled over towards the now-prone body, pushing it over and finding him armed with both a Browning High Power handgun and a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife. Both of which were weapons prefered by the British Military from what he was able to recall.
It was with a frown that Arthur remembered the dream he'd been subjected to, with Eames- or rather a would-be Eames. They'd been in London and there'd been something about a safe-house, about Arthur getting them there. Were they after Eames? Did they think Arthur knew how to find him? Arthur couldn't think of anyone from Britain he'd recently pissed off, not even the real Eames, and certainly not to enough of a degree for them to send a crack team from what he assumed was their Dreamshare program after him. Eames on the other hand, Eames had that uncanny ability to piss off a lot of people with that sort of sway.
A sound to his left caught his sudden attention. Arthur whipped his head round but the sleepers still appeared to be asleep. He narrowed his gaze at the three of them, knowing that he himself could feign sleep when needed to. It was hardly an accomplishment. He listened carefully whilst simultaneously unholstering the gun from the body before him and pushing himself to his feet; his movements slow and steady and completely silent.
It was only when he was standing that Arthur realised it wasn't a sound he'd heard, but rather the lack of one: the mouth breather. He zeroed his gaze in on the biggest of the three in time to see his eyes open, his steely gaze already intently on Arthur and he knew, without a doubt, that this was the man who'd been forging Eames.
There was a second of pause between them before Arthur dived into action, throwing himself towards the PASIV machine and smacking his hand down against the dosage release button. The next dose of Somnacin rushed through the connecting tubes, pulling the other two back under just as they were beginning to stir. The third, the forger, was quicker: ripping his needle from his arm, uncaring of the spray of blood as he threw it aside and himself towards Arthur.
The man was huge, tall and built like a brick shithouse, all thick bulging muscles and reigned in anger and Arthur found himself hitting the ground with a force he felt ricochet throughout his body, the gun flying from his hand with the impact. For the second time since he'd awoken, he felt the air leave his lungs, his ribs creaking in protest at the weight bearing down on him. He tried to lash out, his punches feeling feeble and inconsequential as they bounced harmlessly off the forger's bulk. He had a second only to panic as the forger grabbed his head before it was slammed down against the concrete floor. And everything went dark.
- - -
He could feel his irritation growing by the second; a feeling perpetuated by the headache currently stabbing at the base of his skull and the grating of Eames' accent as he walked the team through his current forge.
Arthur stared down at the manila folder spread across his knees with a frown, seeing the graphs and pictures and neatly printed text and suppressed a sigh. The extraction was to take place in a few days time and they still didn't have a specific idea in place for where to take the mark in the second level. Eames was selling the idea of 'winging it', of letting the mark take them into his own level, consequences be damned. Arthur, of course, was not having any of that.
His next sigh was not so suppressed.
"Something to add, Arthur?" Eames asked, turning his attention immediately onto him.
"We've spoken about this, Eames." Arthur ground out. "It's too risky. We have no idea where we'd end up, and there'd be no maze to hold back his projections. How will you know who to forge?"
"There's always risk involved in our line of work, Arthur." Eames responded, but without his usual suppressed amusement.
"Yes," Arthur agreed, teeth clenched, "but it's calculated risk. I'd like a bit more specificity before we rush in all gung ho with no idea what we're getting ourselves into."
Eames frowned uncomprehendingly at him and Arthur frowned back, a suspicion niggling at the back of his mind.
"Specificity, Eames?" He repeated, feeling something akin to déjà vu as he repeated the word. It had been a source of amusement between them during the Inception job, but now Arthur's aggravation wasn't entirely put-upon and Eames didn't seem to grasp the significance of the moment.
Arthur's headache seemed to treble and he couldn't help lifting his hand to press at the back of his neck.
"What would you suggest then, Arthur? How can we make it- safe- for you?" Eames asked, and when Arthur made no move to answer, seemed to grow aggravated with him in turn. He turned away before Arthur could really interpret the dark look thrown his way and began extolling the virtues of an unplanned entry.
It took him perhaps longer than it should have to realise that something was wrong with the whole situation. He'd blame the headache, but Arthur knew it was the familiar presence of Eames and that certain sense of elation that came with verbally sparring against the man that lulled him into complacency.
The more he listened to Eames however, the more he realised that Eames' voice wasn't grating on him because he had a headache, it was grating on him because it was wrong. It was British, certainly, and just on the right side of that generic posh Eames' oftentimes tried to emulate being a London boy, but there was something else there too, a hint of dialect slipping through the words, a shortening of vowels where Eames would usually lengthen, the lack of a lisp Eames fought so hard to hide but which Arthur had always picked up on with endearment.
There was a gun in his hand before he'd entirely finished processing the wrongness and Eames stopped speaking only long enough to notice that Arthur was pointing it directly at him.
"Arthur, what-" he started, hands lifting placatingly.
Arthur narrowed his eyes, "You're giving me a headache." He said.
And promptly shot him through the head.
The other members of their team- barely noticed before but now alive with a ferocity only given to projections in an unstable dream- turned on him with reaching arms and Arthur wasted no time in disposing of them with the same efficiency as he'd done with Eames.
He glanced about the office, more interested in his surroundings now that he knew they were a dream construct. There was nothing familiar about them, nothing outstanding. It wasn't until he looked down at the manila folder now lying at his feet- pages spilling out across the carpet that Arthur began to realise what was going on. Where once the folder was filled with graphs and pictures and a text he saw but didn't actually see, it now contained information about Eames. The real Eames. Not much information, of course. Arthur was more controlled than that. But still more than he'd ever willingly give up about the man.
Arthur felt his heart begin to pound as he looked up towards the whiteboard Eames- the forge of Eames- had been gesturing towards the whole time and saw some of the details from his folder had made it there too. Nothing consequential, just a few images, a generic map of England with the city of London circled, a few tidbits anyone with enough computer know-how could get their hands on.
It didn't stop the sick feeling from curling in his stomach.
He'd been extracted from. Not very well, but that someone should have managed it even badly was enough of a concern. Arthur tore up the folder in his hands, lighting the pages and leaving the fire to burn up the grey carpet as he stepped to the whiteboard and rubbed away all that he could. The images he threw to the growing flames.
He remembered now. The dream of pursual with Eames at his side, remembered waking to the warehouse and killing a man, remembered there being another man there too: a monster of a man, bald-headed and tattooed, tackling him to the ground and then nothing. Until now.
They hadn't left him. They'd kept him for a second attempt.
Arthur swallowed thickly, tasting bile.
Any other team would have cut and run after the first attempt, which begged the question: what were they after? Was it Eames? Both dreams so far had heavily featured the man. The indication in the manila folder would suggest that they were after information about him. Was it just information? A location? And why come after him? He'd worked with Eames on more than one occasion, sure, but the dreamsharing community was relatively small and close-knit enough that one couldn't help working with familiar faces. In fact, it was more a cause for concern when a new face turned up in dreamshare.
He tried to remember the faces of the team he'd seen upon waking, but they blurred before his mind's eye and before Arthur could contemplate his situation further he felt the familiar sensation of being pulled from the dream.
Time was up.
Even if he'd wanted to, Arthur couldn’t feign sleep this time. If only because the headache he'd been fighting in the dream was like a jackhammer against his skull now that he was awake.
He opened his eyes, scowling as if in anger at his situation, but mostly it was against the pain he felt exploding through his head. His stomach rolled with nausea but he swallowed heavily, determined not to show weakness before these would-be dream-thieves.
He was dimly aware of being handcuffed once more, both wrists now cuffed together behind his back, his shoulders aching as they were pulled down by his own body weight. He'd been left on the cold concrete and Arthur was vaguely sure it was the same spot he'd been tackled to by the big guy.
One of the lawn chairs had been moved over beside him and Arthur spotted the forger before any of the others. The man was sitting up, eyeing him with an intensity Arthur inwardly shuddered to see. He felt that he was being scrutinised far more closely than he ever had before and worried that were this a dream, the forger would right now be able to see into all the dark corners of his mind and steal from him all the secrets he kept tucked away.
He was just as well built as Arthur remembered him being and he could still feel the pressure against his ribs from where they'd collided earlier. He wore a black t-shirt, the sleeves ripped off, showing off the lines of ink running down both arms to the elbow and highlighting the bulge of his muscles.
The forger was the first to look away and Arthur turned his head, following his gaze. A sharp pain shot up from the base of his skull and Arthur clenched his teeth against the cry of pain he could feel clawing its way up his throat. He didn't let that stop him though and completed the turn as far as he was able to. Three other chairs had been pulled up around him, as well as the PASIV device. There were two men and a woman. No sign of the fifth and Arthur wondered what they'd done with the body. Probably the same thing they'd do with his, he thought, if they didn't get what they wanted from him.
Or, perhaps even if they did.
None of them were wearing any sort of disguise and unless they were amateurs, Arthur didn't fancy his chances of getting out of this in one piece, even if he were to cooperate.
"You're not as good as we were led to believe, Mr-?" It was the woman who spoke. Her platinum blond hair was scraped back into a long ponytail, the sides of her head shaven. She spoke with a crisp British accent, just a hint of a Northern dialect creeping through. The same dialect he thought he'd heard slipping through some of Eames' words in the dream, he noted.
"Arthur," he answered, voice steady. "Did you get what you wanted?"
She smiled without humour, showing surprisingly white teeth. "No, we did not."
He said nothing, point made. Her blue eyes sparkled almost maliciously.
"We will," she promised.
Arthur smiled, showing his own teeth. "I don't know if your forger is up to the task," he daringly taunted.
The big guy beside him shifted, his bulk against the lawn chair causing it to creak ominously. Arthur resisted the urge to look at him; the headache still pounding its way through his skull reminder enough of what he was capable of, even without effort.
The woman's smile grew, her eyes flickering to the forger. "Oh, I don't think you need to worry about that."
"Again." She said, turning to the men beside her and Arthur watched not without a little trepidation as the one with dreadlocks to his waist reached out towards the PASIV and depressed the button, releasing yet another dose of the Somnacin compound. The man beside him- the one he'd initially knocked out- grinned wickedly at him and Arthur felt himself tense up in the seconds before sleep claimed him once more.
- - -
"You're not even trying now, are you?" Arthur asked, unprepared to play along. The second he'd opened his eyes in this new dreamscape he'd known it wasn't real.
Eames, or the man he was supposed to believe was Eames, turned to him with a dark gaze.
"Did you even bother to look in a mirror?" He snapped, his headache having followed him down, keeping his temper short.
"Third time's the charm, eh?" The man said, dropping into his natural accent. He kept the forge on.
Arthur kept his distance.
"What gave me away this time?" He asked, looking down at himself. "I know it can't be my forge," he said, smirking at Arthur. The way his mouth twisted looked wrong on Eames' face. "You haven't realised before now."
"You're wrong," Arthur said, stubbornly. "It is your forge."
"And what exactly is wrong with my forge then, Arthur?" He purred, dragging out his name. Arthur folded his arms across his chest, trying not to shudder.
"Your suit for a start," Arthur said quickly as the forger began to move towards him. He paused at Arthur's words, taking a moment to look down at himself and the fairly drab dark grey slacks and suit jacket he wore over an egg blue shirt. They fit his frame to perfection in a way Eames' suits never did. And he said as much.
"Eames has never had a suit fit him so well in his life. Is that tailored? For Christ's sake, have you even seen a picture of the man?"
"They did once," the forge replied, laughing, and with a jolt Arthur realised that this man knew Eames. Or, rather, had known him at one point but had more than likely not seen him in any medium other than perhaps pictures since.
"Tell me, these well-tailored suits he once wore, were they always so well coordinated? Or did you just not bother to do your research?"
The forger laughed, but there was a distinct lack of humour to the sound. "You're very cocky for a man in your position. Or is this just a front?"
"Why are you looking for him?" Arthur asked, ignoring the baiting.
The forger smiled. "We have some… unfinished business with him."
"And you think I know where he is?"
"Don't you?" He asked, tilting his head just a little to the side. As Arthur watched, his body began to shrink in on itself; just a little, but the way it left his suit a little looser around his chest was immediately noticeable. And far more Eames-esque than it previously had been. Arthur wondered how he could have missed it the first two times they'd been under together.
"No, I don't." Arthur replied, peevishly. "I haven't seen Eames for months. And I'm certainly not keeping track of his whereabouts."
"But you could find out." It wasn't a question but Arthur felt compelled to answer anyway.
"Perhaps." He admitted. "But you won't find that out by trying to extract from me."
The forger inclined his head in a nod, the gesture one he'd seen Eames do a thousand times. "Then, ask yourself, Arthur, why else could we be trying to extract from you?"
Arthur frowned. Hating the nervous feeling he could feel stealing over him. "I thought you wanted Eames?"
The forger grinned widely at him. "You know what thought did?"
"Fuck you." Arthur spat, tensing as the forger took another step towards him.
"Language, Arthur." He taunted, advancing further.
The gun was in his hand a second later. Knowing now that the compound had no ill effect on a person ejected from the dreamscape Arthur wasn't concerned about shooting himself out if he had to. He definitely had no qualms about shooting the forger out.
The forger must have been waiting for it though because he was on Arthur in a heartbeat, hand slamming down against Arthur's wrist, causing him to lose his hold and the gun to go clattering to the ground.
But Arthur was ready for him too and spun away from him, coming round to his side and lashing out with a kick he was delighted to note put the forger off balance, if only momentarily. They circled each other; Arthur immediately put on the defensive.
"You think trying to beat the shit out of me will get you what you want?"
"Trying?" The forger smirked.
Arthur smirked back. "How's your friend?" He asked. "The one with the- you know?" He gestured towards his throat and was equally terrified and gratified at the way not-Eames' face darkened with rage in the seconds before he launched himself at Arthur once more. His fists rained down upon him and it was all Arthur could do just to stay on his feet and protect himself from the blows, daringly breaking his defensive stance to throw out a few moves of his own.
With brute strength against him, Arthur had to rely more on his natural speed and agility, taking advantage of any openings the forger presented him with and lashing out with fists and elbows and a particularly well-timed knee to the groin that had the forger faltering just long enough to allow Arthur to spin away from him and make a dash for the gun.
"You little fucker," the forger growled, eyes dark and glaring as Arthur pointed the gun between his eyes. His hands were shaking, muscles fatigued in a way he hadn't experienced in a long time.
"Better luck next time," he spat, and pulled the trigger.
The forger's head exploded outwards in a spray of pink and grey goop, his body dropping like a rock to the ground.
Arthur followed not long after, his legs collapsing ungraciously beneath him. His body felt like one perpetual ache and Arthur dreaded to think what it would feel like when he woke up back in the real world. Though the blows he'd sustained in this particular dream may not follow him up into the waking world, Arthur knew that the ones that had followed him down would once again be tripled in force. Here at least, pain was only in his mind, but he was more than a little worried about what they'd do to him once he awoke.
Unsure how long he'd be able to remain down here, Arthur took the time to catch his breath and try to tame his thundering heart. The forger's words echoed through his mind and he wondered not for the first time what they were trying to achieve with these repeated attempts at extraction.
Before he could think too hard on the matter however, Arthur felt his head snap back, a lurching sensation filling him and dragging him like clawed hands from the dream.
The second backhand across his face pulled him from sleep as surely as a bucketful of water would have. Arthur's head reeled back from the blow, his mind screaming in pain, and it was all he could do to roll to his side in time to heave up the meagre contents of his stomach, the nausea winning out against any desire to not show weakness in front of his kidnappers.
He pressed his face against the cool concrete when he was done, groaning as hands grabbed him a second later, picking him up and dumping him down onto another of the lawn chairs. He opened his eyes enough to see it was the man he'd first knocked out; a rather wiry looking guy with closely cropped, dark hair and naturally slanted eyes, which nevertheless made him appear to glare down at Arthur, his fingers digging unnecessarily tightly into the flesh of his upper arms. Arthur was pleased to note that the side of his head was crusted with a little blood from where Arthur had punched him with the handcuffs. He hadn't noticed earlier.
The man left him, stepping over to the other members of his team and Arthur turned his attention towards them too, seeing that Dreadlocks had a restraining hand on the forger's arm, the woman was standing in front of him and all but blocking him from Arthur's view. His ears were still ringing from the blow, head pounding from the repeated blows he'd sustained, and Arthur couldn't make out their words though they looked angry. He would have smiled if he'd had the ability to, knowing that he was the reason for this dissention in the ranks. As it was, it was enough of an effort just to keep his eyes open for this long. The darkness creeping in from his peripheral soon became too tempting to ignore and Arthur was a little glad to give into its pull as the team finally finished whatever argument they'd been having and turned back to him.
He wondered what dream he'd wake to next.
- - -
"Tell me, Arthur, do you enjoy the time spent down in the dreamscape?"
Arthur blinked groggily up at the woman, swallowing dryly against the acrid taste of stale vomit coating his mouth.
She was perched on a chair next to the one he'd been unceremoniously dumped upon; legs crossed, hands folded atop one another and resting just above her knee. The PASIV device had been pulled up beside her, next to it sat a tall glass of water, ice-cubes knocking at its sides, the beading of condensation on the outer glass had Arthur's parched throat constricting over a dry swallow, his mouth silently screaming for even a small sip of the cool liquid.
She followed his line of sight and smiled, lifting one hand to draw a line through the condensation. She lifted her finger to her mouth then, the pink of her tongue like a snakes as it slipped out to flick at her fingertip before disappearing into her mouth once more. She settled her hand back atop the other still resting above her knee.
"Make this easy on yourself, Arthur. Once we have what we want we'll… well…" Her toothy smile reminded him oddly of a sharks, the look in her pale blue eyes just as deadly. They had no intentions of letting him go, that much was obvious. And so Arthur had no inclination to make this easy, on himself or on them.
He smiled back at her, all teeth and false bravado. "And what precisely is it that you want?" he asked, voice hoarse and cracking on the words. He tried to swallow, tongue thick and heavy in his mouth.
"Your cooperation," she replied as if that explained everything. "Stop teasing my forger and we'll get you home. Safe. And sound. You wouldn't imagine the trouble I've gone to to keep you in one piece."
Arthur tensed, a shiver stealing up his spine. Not at the false promise, nor the implied threat, but at the word. That one word: safe.
"Your forger is an insult to the term." Arthur said, finding the belief and willpower he needed to push himself up from the lawn chair. The handcuffs chaining him falling from his wrists with barely a thought. "I'm spending more time telling him how to do his job than he is trying to extract from me."
Her smile faltered fractionally and Arthur forced his own lips to pull a little wider, relishing even the smallest of cracks in her composure.
"Why don't you just tell me what you want?" he asked with faux politeness. "At this rate I may as well extract myself, save us all the embarrassment. Hmm?"
"How-," she started.
"-do I know this is a dream?" He finished.
She didn't see the gun in time to do anything other than throw up a hand, a shout on her lips; the first shot missed, sailing wide as Arthur was struck in the shoulder by a small throwing knife she hadn’t been holding a second ago. Pain blossomed through his right shoulder. He saw the next knife flash into her hand and turned his body just in time for it to slash past him, nicking at the fabric of his sweater.
Her smile was back. A third knife in her hand. Arthur’s index finger twitched at the trigger; could he get off his second shot before she could throw her next one?
The sound of the shot echoed around the warehouse, disguising Arthur’s grunt of pain as her third strike hit home, digging into the muscle of his upper arm. The gun fell from his hand, fingers spasming.
He looked up, a glare in his eyes to find her sitting slumped in her chair, her eyes wide and unseeing; a dribble of blood sliding its way down her forehead, his bullet firmly lodged there in her head.
He bowed his head a moment, relief sliding through him with a shiver. When he looked up again, his eyes landed on the glass of water. He pushed to his feet, reaching out with his good arm. The ice cubes were a rather nice touch, he thought, flicking his eyes around the derelict warehouse.
He lifted the glass to his lips, eyes fluttering closed as the cool liquid slipped smoothly down his throat.
If only this wasn't a dream, he thought, only mildly regretful.
- - -
Arthur squinted against the light, tried to lift his hand to shield himself from the glare but found himself unable to move. A half-choked cry slipped from his lips as his shoulders screamed their protest, waking Arthur just enough for him to realise he was still handcuffed with his arms behind his back, the rest of him lay crumpled up against the wall of some kind of storage closet holding nothing but some empty shelves and the bare lightbulb currently burning its way through his retinas.
With a curse and gritted teeth, Arthur managed to shift himself into a seated position, moving slowly as he manouvered his bound arms in front of him. It was a little more tricky with both hands cuffed, but Arthur managed to slip the cufflink from his pants pocket after a few attempts; fingers stiff and uncooperative he dropped the cufflink on more than one occasion, and had to force himself to stop just long enough to calm down, to flex his fingers into working, and to try again and again.
Eventually the handcuffs sprang free and Arthur slumped back against the shelves, exhausted.
Between the abuse he'd suffered in the waking world and the repeated attempts to extract from his mind, Arthur could barely remember a time where he didn't hurt. Where he didn't wake and wonder whether he was actually awake or just in another elaborately constructed dream world. Without his totem it was sometimes hard to tell, and with dreams that varied in intensity and believability, Arthur was beginning to wonder if their goal wasn't to extract something specific from him, but rather to disorientate him enough that they'd be able to pull from him anything they so wanted without Arthur or his projections fighting back. They kept inferring that they wanted Eames but Arthur didn't have that information in his head, and there was still that comment the forger had made about this initial assumption being wrong.
He scrubbed at his eyes, pressing against the ache of his eyelids. He was all but losing track of the dreams; they were beginning to blur together and what had started out as a game for the forger- his taking Arthur's ability to spot his forges as a challenge to forge a better Eames- had fast become a source of resentment, oftentimes with violent consequences for Arthur.
'You're going to have to do better than this if you want me to believe I'm not dreaming.'
'Maybe it doesn't matter if you know.'
'Then why are you doing this? Why this constant stream of sub-par forges? You think I can't tell the difference?'
It didn't take him long to stop telling the forger that Eames' stubble should have a little red in it, or that his eyes had a little too much blue in them, that the tattoo on his right arm was positioned a little differently and the one on his left had been added to, even that Eames would have patronisingly used an endearment over his fists to get his frustrations with Arthur across.
'Is that where I'm going wrong? Does he call you his pet? His love? Oh no… don't tell me, I bet he calls you his darling…'
He tried not to think about all the ways in which he knew Eames. All the little details about the man he had barely been aware of knowing. How he'd give almost anything to have the real Eames in front of him, taunting him, teasing him, anything instead of these never ending forges of the man.
'You notice a lot about him.'
'It's my job to notice."
'Is it really?'
Sometimes Arthur was fast enough to shoot the forger out of the dream when traditional methods of extraction turned to non-traditional ones. Sometimes, if he wasn't fast enough to shoot him out, he was still fast enough to shoot himself out. Most times however, he just wasn't fast enough at all and every five minutes on the timer became an hour in hell, a test of his endurance and Eames' patience. And this Eames was not a patient man, nor a fool, and the times Arthur tried to bluff his way through a dream, tried to keep the forger from realising that he was very much aware of the dream and the forge oftentimes backfired with violent consequences.
There were those times when the forger almost managed to fool him however, and it was becoming harder and harder to remember the little details about Eames- his Eames- which he was desperately holding on to in order to keep himself sane.
Arthur rubbed at his bruised wrists, flexing cracked knuckles and taking stock of any and all other injuries he'd sustained. Aside from the head trauma, bruised- possibly cracked- ribs, general stiffness and aches, he was fine. And awake. Definitely awake this time. He blinked his eyes around the closet again, shifting to try and find a better position for his ribs.
His sweater was stiff with dried blood, dark flecks of the stuff flaking off around him as he moved. His mouth curled with distaste even as he reached for the hem, pulling it over his head with a wince of protesting muscles. His eyes flickered momentarily up towards the light bulb, an idea forming as he pushed slowly to his feet, shaking out his arms and legs to try and loosen up the tenseness there.
Relatively satisfied, he took up his sweater and wrapped it around his hand before reaching for the light, unscrewing it and plunging the closet into sudden darkness. Arthur blinked his eyes against the absolute blackness, waiting until his sight had adjusted enough to catch the light filtering in through the keyhole and the space beneath the door. He crouched down, smashing the top of the bulb against the concrete floor and tightening his hold around the base, the edges just jagged enough to be of use.
Creeping as quietly as he was able, he pushed his face up against the door, eye peeking through the keyhole and into the hallway beyond. One of them was standing guard, the skin of his arm only a shade lighter than that of his uniform as he rested his hand lightly against the leather scabbard strapped to his thigh. Dreadlocks then. Arthur would have preferred the wiry one.
"Hey!" He called out moving back, knowing he had to act now before all his strength was lost. The shout came out as a rasp of sound and he swallowed thickly before trying again.
He saw a shadow of movement from beneath the door and tensed, hearing more than seeing the twist of the doorknob before the door was pushed open.
Arthur sprang. The smashed bulb slashing its way across Dreadlocks' face. A line of blood immediately began to well up from where Arthur had caught him across the cheek and even as Dreadlocks stumbled away from him with a yell of surprise, Arthur followed, stabbing out again before Dreadlocks could gain his bearings. This time he managed to get him above the left eye; the fragile glass smashing before it could do more than superficial damage, but enough to keep him from seeing out of the eye as the brow above it began to trickle blood down his face. Dreadlocks screamed in rage, lashing out and Arthur jumped back. Too slow. He took an elbow to the side of the head and fell back, a sharp pain searing its way across his temple in a way that had his knees buckling just enough that the next blow smacked into the doorway beside him and not his face.
Pushing forward, he threw his shoulder into Dreadlocks' stomach, tackling him into the opposite wall; stiff fingers scrambling for the scabbard he'd seen strapped to his thigh. The knee to his side put a stop to that. Dreadlocks kneed him again and again and Arthur feebly tried to punch back or pull back, unsuccessful at both endeavours.
His ribs were screaming, definitely cracked as he sucked in sharp, shallow gasps of air, teeth gritted against his own scream as it clawed its way up his throat. With a laugh, Dreadlocks threw him aside. Arthur went down like a ragdoll, fatigue and the repeated Somnacin dosing taking their toll. He rolled to his side, grimacing and reaching automatically to curl an arm around his ribs.
"Looking for this?" Dreadlocks asked, pulling a khukris from his belt. He spun it idly around in his hand, grinning too-widely at Arthur; the blood already beginning to congeal around his eye and cheek. Arthur swallowed heavily, trying to tell himself that he could do this. That he'd been trained for this. That they needed him alive for whatever purpose they'd taken him for.
His eyes flickered from the wickedly curved blade to the scabbard he'd pulled it from, spotting now the two smaller knives that came as standard with the khukris: the chakmak, which though unsharpened would still do the job; and the karda, which was more of an accessory but still sharp enough to kill a grown man if stuck in the right place.
Dreadlocks held the knife out in his direction. "Come on then," he taunted, "come and get it if you want it."
Arthur pushed himself up, leaning heavily against the wall for support, his eyes intent on Dreadlocks and not all eighteen inches of sharpened steel he was currently waving around like a cobra's hypnotising dance before the deadly strike.
There weren't many ways to win a knife fight, especially not when unarmed and facing an opponent who actually knew how to use one. It would be a risk to even engage with the other man but without another option, Arthur didn't have much of a choice. The only way he could think of to do this would be to step in to meet Dreadlocks, to let him slash out with the blade and unflinchingly accept the consequences whilst attempting to reach for his scabbard and either of the smaller blades held there.
"Too scared then?" Dreadlocks asked, bloodied face twisted grotesquely as he smiled that too-wide smile of his. "You can always crawl back into your hole," he pointed the khukris towards the closet. "And maybe I won't tell our mutual friend you tried to get away, yeah?"
Arthur pursed his lips, teeth grinding together at the taunt. They both knew the forger would find out, whether Dreadlocks was inclined to keep a promise or not.
With nothing else for it, Arthur slumped a little further against the wall, not for support now but rather the leverage he needed to throw himself towards Dreadlocks and the knife. He lashed out with his left arm, catching the first slash against his wrist bone whilst he punched out with his right, aiming for the groin. Arthur was rewarded with a grunt and another slash of the knife, this time catching him in the upper arm where the skin tore open like over ripened fruit.
He shoved into Dreadlocks again, grabbing him one handed and immediately jerking him back in towards him. He felt the sudden slackening of his shoulders as he tried to flail for balance, the knife coming too close to Arthur's face even as he did his best to ignore the glint of bloodied steel, using Dreadlocks' momentum to smash his forehead into his face instead.
Arthur hurt himself less than he'd expected to, the headbutt giving him the time he needed to smack out at Dreadlocks’ knife hand whilst he was still reeling from the pain; the blow caught him at the wrist, knocking the knife from his grasp. It clattered against the concrete floor and Arthur jerked at Dreadlocks again, pushing him one way whilst diving the other. He screamed out in pain even as his fingers curled themselves around the wooden handle of the khukris. The awkwardness of his landing sending fire through his ribs. He twisted onto his back, tears in his eyes, just in time to catch Dreadlocks' tackle.
Both men screamed. Arthur's vision whitened a moment before he felt a hot gush of liquid spill over his clasped hands, hands which were clinging desperately around the khukris which was now stuck deep inside Dreadlocks' stomach. Dreadlocks was trying to pull away from him but Arthur held fast to the blade, face scrunching with a grimace even as he tried to twist the handle.
A new scream drew his attention and Arthur felt the blood drain from his face as, from between the curtain of Dreadlocks' hair, he saw the forger come racing around the corner. Atop him Dreadlocks was still weakly struggling, his breathing harsh and choked, his fingers flexing uselessly at Arthur's arms. He could only assume the forger thought Dreadlocks had the upper hand when he grabbed him around the back of his shirt and wrenched away him from Arthur. His scream rent the air as the khukris was torn out of his abdomen.
The forger froze, still holding on to Dreadlocks, his gaze swinging from Arthur to his teammate who was grasping uselessly at his stomach and the blood spilling through grasping fingers. Arthur managed to tear his eyes away long enough to see that he still held the khukris in his bloodied grip. The forger let loose a roar of anger, dropping Dreadlocks unceremoniously to the ground. Arthur scrambled back, legs kicking out, releasing his double-handed grip of the knife to try and lever himself up but the forger grabbed at one of his legs, dragging Arthur kicking back in towards him.
Despite the protestation from his ribs, Arthur managed to sit up enough to lash out at the forger, slicing a line of red across the bulge of his arm, tearing clean through the inked flesh. He wasn't sure what happened next, only vaguely aware of being swung by the leg into the wall before his head began to swim and he found himself unable to breathe.
He could hear a woman screaming and tried to open his eyes, ears ringing with the sound. He was choking, he realised, coming to enough to find his body pinned to the wall by the neck; the forger's meaty hand was fisted around his throat and squeezing hard enough to kill. Arthur jerked, legs kicking out involuntarily as his lungs strained for air. He brought his hands up to claw at the forger's hand, his wrist, trying to scratch out at the eyes that watched him without mercy.
"We need him alive! We need him alive!"
The words finally penetrated the ringing in his head and the forger's face twisted murderously as he pushed in close to Arthur and roared his rage right into his face, spittle flying from his mouth as he lifted Arthur just far enough away from the wall to slam him back against it once more.
And that was the end of that.
- - -
He didn't know how late it was, how long he'd been out, nor even how long they'd had him for. It felt like months, but he expected he'd be skinnier if he'd been starving for more than a few weeks, certainly he'd have died from dehydration or overdosing if they'd had him longer than a few days.
Not that it mattered much. He wasn't going anywhere. Not now. He hurt, absolutely everywhere; his body screaming out its protests even as he just lay slumped awkwardly against the back of the closet and tried to breathe around the burning tightness enveloping his chest. He felt as though he'd been slammed into a wall, or two, definitely more than once if he thought about it. It hurt to swallow, his throat gagging dryly as he tried to swallow back the acrid taste of stale blood that permeated his mouth. His lips felt swollen, his face too. And there was an intense burning in his left arm, the muscles stiff, his shirt clinging to the skin there in that clammy way that only blood was want to cause.
He tried to shift, teeth gritted against a cry as he pulled his right leg up, trying to push himself upright a little more, to alleviate the pressure on his ribs. He grabbed at his knee, fingers digging in at the kneecap as a wave of dizziness washed through him, leaving him shaking and hurting perhaps more than he had been before trying to move. He got no thanks from his ribs and didn't dare move again.
He heard footsteps outside the door and squeezed his eyes closed. He wasn't sure how much more of this he could take. How much more they'd subject him to before they got what they needed or decided he just wasn't worth the effort and killed him outright. He'd already killed two of them. Injured one. He hoped he'd managed to land a good cut or two to the forger. He vaguely recalled lashing out with a knife. But that could have been a dream. Maybe he was dreaming now too. He hoped not. Everything hurt too much. If this were a dream then waking would be worse. And Eames wasn't here to torment him.
He heard the door knob twisting and tried to keep his breathing even, shallow. Teeth gritted too-tightly together against any cry that was want to break free. He felt his heart pick up its beat, his skin prickling with a cold sweat as the door swung open and the light from the hall spilt its way into the darkness cradling him.
He flinched despite himself at the sound of the voice, but managed to pry his eyes open. He would not show weakness in front of them. They might have reduced him to near uselessness now but they kept underestimating him and he just needed one shot, just one more surge of adrenaline, and then he'd be home free.
He had to blink more than a few times before his eyes took in the man standing in the doorway. The frame was right, the general height and build. The man moved a step forward, blocking the glare of the light and Arthur felt his heart lurch with panic even as he dug his nails deeper into the knee he still held, his left arm twitching uselessly at his side.
He blinked his eyes open, not consciously aware of having closed them. The man had moved further into the room now and despite the panic gripping him like a vice, Arthur let his gaze rove desperately over the forge. It must be a dream, was his first thought as his eyes adjusted to the light, letting him make out a few more details. The hair... the stubble... the fall of his wondrously miss-matched wardrobe choice against his frame. Even the socks he wore were so distinctly Eames that for the first time since they'd taken him, Arthur could very well believe that this was Eames, his Eames.
He felt himself smiling even as he doubted the sanity of his own mind, stretching his lips as much as his beat-up face allowed and feeling a cut across his lips split open with the movement. He licked out at the trickle of blood, still smiling as Eames stepped closer still and crouched down in front of him.
"Oh, Arthur," he said softly, almost fondly, with a shake of his head.
"Eames," he breathed, still smiling. "It's surprisingly good to see you."
Eames chuckled. "The feeling's mutual. Do you think you can move?"
"With a little help," he agreed, already gritting his teeth against the explosion of pain he knew to be forthcoming.
Eames shuffled closer, reaching out for him. Arthur didn't realise he'd flinched away until Eames stopped, pausing just before he could touch him. Arthur looked away, trying to breathe through the automatic panic.
"I'm not sure how to prove that it's really me, Arthur," he said. Arthur's heart felt as though it had stopped, panic gripping it with ever tightening claws.
"How do you know about that?" He hissed, grabbing at the tweed jacket Eames wore, his fingers knuckle-white in their grip. Why did he say that? He should have just played along, kept the allusion of belief alive long enough to find a way out.
“Ah well, I’m sorry to say I know this team. A rather predictable lot I’m afraid. Old friends of mine from the initial Dreamshare project back home.” He reached for Arthur again, this time waiting for his nod of permission before hooking his hands beneath his armpits and helping to hoist him up.
“You have an odd definition of friend.” Arthur muttered, his grip tightened impossibly further as his head swam, an involuntary gasp slipping past his lips as his legs buckled. Eames held him steady, giving him the moment he needed.
"We were part of the Special Air Service," Eames continued, as a distraction more than anything. Arthur barely heard the words as he fought to keep from passing out. "The big guy? Johnny? We learnt to forge together. He was always a bit sore that I was better at it than he was. There's not much anyone could best him at. And then I deserted with the only PASIV device we had at the time. There's always been a bit of resentment over that."
Arthur hummed his agreement to the last part, though he felt that resentment was too nice a word to really explain their feelings, or their motives. He looked up at Eames again, seeing everything he should be seeing and none of the inconsistencies he was used to. He felt the tension coiled tight around him slowly begin to loosen. "I'm good now. Let's go."
But Eames didn't move. "Arthur, how can you be sure it's really me?"
"You're wearing paisley," he said, managing to suppress a wince as the words left his mouth.
"That was one time." Eames laughed softly but still made no move to leave the room.
Arthur sucked in a slow breath. "You're always wearing paisley," he said, looking pointedly down at their feet.
Eames' laugh this time was a little louder and Arthur found himself grinning at the sound of it. The forger had never laughed. Arthur hadn't noticed until right now. He'd barely smiled with anything other malice curling his lips.
"What if I were Johnny right now? You'd have given yourself away."
"He wouldn't have had this," he said, releasing his grip on Eames's suit jacket long enough to uncurl his fist and show him the poker chip now nestled against the palm of his hand.
"How did you-?" Eames cut himself off, shaking his head at the sight of his totem. "Well, at least you're being thorough."
He slid Arthur's good arm around his shoulders, wrapping his own around Arthur's waist and taking his weight against his side, careful of his ribs. Arthur leant into the support perhaps a little more than he needed to with two mostly functioning legs, but the recognisable bulk and scent of Eames was much too familiar to want to pull away from right now.
"I'm going to hold onto this for a minute, if you don't mind?" He asked softly.
Eames turned his head, a look of something akin to affection in his eyes as he met Arthur's gaze.
"As long as you need." Eames agreed, voice slipping to a whisper.
His heart seemed to stumble on its beat and Arthur looked away, frowning.
"What did they want?" He asked, looking towards the doorway.
"Me." Eames answered, taking the hint and slowly walking them out into the corridor.
"They didn't seem to be trying very hard to find you." Arthur said, "I tried to tell them I didn't know where you were."
"I rather think you were the bait."
Arthur blinked heavily. "Not that I'm ungrateful you took it, but why use me?"
"Ah now, that's rather a long story." Eames said, looking away. Arthur was surprised at the colour suddenly suffusing his cheeks and, inexplicably, felt his own cheeks heating in response.
"Maybe you can tell me some time?" He asked, voice hoarse. He looked away just as Eames turned his face back towards him.
"Yeah?" He asked, lips curling in a smile.
Arthur nodded, just once. "Yeah."