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small town heroes, big time crooks

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Dean Martin is playing somewhere, just out of sight. Jolly, smooth crooning, brassy sounds, ain’t that a kick in the head, and it sure is because it’s helping to soften footsteps. Which works both ways: the guards can’t hear Eames and Eames can’t necessarily hear the guards.

It doesn’t matter, he has their patterns memorized, knows the tall one will get up and stretch, hands on his back, then wander off towards the east wing; the other one will wave his partner away and stand, sit, stand, sit, then finally shift comfortable to continue staring at his word search.

Eames needs to be in the east wing. There’s always another way in.

The mansion has secret passages, set up for the ancestral Duke to visit his paramours in relative ease and privacy, no matter what bedroom his suspicious wife put them in. Eames has to hand it to the scowling Duke, he was a right randy bastard who liked his men and his women and he was the bloody Duke, he’d do what he wanted.

Though now, the times, they are a-changin’ and the mansion houses a nautical library and archive. That suggests there isn’t anything current on the premises.

Not true; Eames is there to liberate certain prototype plans, hidden in a vault in the damned east wing. He’s a spy, it’s what he does, it’s his job.

He’s not James fucking Bond.

The first three-four-five people who made that suggestion to him, he smiled and cheerily told them to fuck off. After that, he began changing tactics. He smiles and cheerily asks them a very important personal question: how’d you like to have a bullet lovingly embedded in your spine?

Most people have defense mechanisms to avoid death and disembowelment, so they act accordingly.

Only one person has smiled back, how fucking fascinating, do go on, looking young and lethal. Eames, the giant idiot, fell arse over tit in love.

The shadows are thick and heavy and Eames loves this black sweater, his military-grade black trousers with all the pockets, he bloody loves pockets. And gloves, his black gloves; he feels around for the knife at his hip.

Unfortunately, as much as Eames loves the hidden passageways, he can’t use them. He could, but they are a large security risk. But there’s always another way in.

Dean Martin is playing, the guard’s foot tapping and it’s time to put them both out of Eames’s misery.

-

Tell me quick, ain’t love like a kick in the head

“I kind of hate this song,” Arthur murmurs, fingers curling around the stock of the rifle. “I don’t know why.”

“Just give me a moment,” Eames replies. He moves so well Arthur can’t hear him over the comm, not even a rustle of fabric.

Through the scope, Arthur sees one shadow become two, then there’s a faint gurgling sound.

“Guard down,” Eames says. Dean Martin screeches, then flips, the tiny radio at the guard station changing as he rolls through the stations.

To find ‘Moonlight Serenade.’

“Glenn Miller, darling. Better?”

Arthur smiles on the rooftop across the way. “Much.”

“Classier. You must come dance with me.” The shadow that is Eames flits in what Arthur imagines is a quick gliding step and he rolls his eyes.

“Eames, stop it.”

“You are missing out.”

Arthur sights down the scope, watching the second guard saunter through the long hallway to the east wing. There are so many windows, big and clear and bright, Arthur tastes something like sugar in his mouth, it’s Christmas come early under an almost full moon.

“—wearing black, you know I look fantastic in black,” Eames is saying and Arthur sighs.

“I’m wearing black, too, this just happens to be an op, or did you forget.”

“How is it that you manage to take all the fun out of things? All work and no play...”

He doesn’t reply because he’s too busy putting the guard’s head in the crosshairs. One, two, pull the trigger, there’s a sharp snick of the bullet passing through glass, and the guard topples over.

It all happens almost simultaneously.

“Bravo,” Eames says.

“Don’t walk through the blood,” Arthur reminds him, searching the area for other guards and alarms.

“That was one time, you bloody fascist, one time, and you’d shot him funny.” Eames appears at the bullet-punched glass, making an obscene gesture, so Arthur fires a shot over his head and the window completely breaks.

He shouldn’t appreciate how Eames doesn’t flinch, it shouldn’t make his face warm. “I don’t shoot people funny. What the fuck does that even mean.”

“Wanker.”

“Fucker.”

“Now shut it,” Eames orders, “because not all of us get to lie around on rooftops all night, you lazy sod, I’ve got an actual fucking job to do.”

“So stop jerking off and do your stupid job, it’s freezing up here.”

Eames disappears back into the shadows and Arthur smothers the feeling of worry he gets every time it happens, as if Eames will disappear and not return.

He waits in silence, caressing the rifle; Eames once said, Your relationship with your weapons is downright horrifying, if I find you naked with your guns in some sort of compromising position, I will take pictures and then because I know how to torture people, I would possibly get you so pissed on that swill you Americans call ‘beer,’ you will admit you are sexually attracted to turnips. Arthur’d said, Do you expect me to talk? and Eames said, No, Mr. Last Name Redacted, I expect you to lie. But Eames was drunk at the time anyway, he talks too much.

“Vault,” Eames says after a while. Arthur knows what Eames looks like cracking a safe, shiny glee and a big smile, tip of his tongue shoved between his teeth, with his hands spread wide wearing his gloves he loves so much.

This is wrong on so many levels.

A shadow moves near the guard station, then another.

“Two at the station,” Arthur says and Eames grunts in reply. He has to wait; he doesn’t have line of sight to the station itself, the guards will have to show themselves. If they’re dumb, they won’t realize there’s a sniper. If Arthur’s lucky, they’ll find the second guard in the hallway.

The guards are a little dumb and Arthur’s a little lucky.

-

It quickly becomes apparent that when you hire Eames, people tend to die around him, as if he’s the harbinger of the Grim Reaper, people die or vanish or simply cease to exist. If you hire Eames, you must be specific if you don’t want anyone dead because Arthur will just kill them, to clean up any messes Eames leaves.

Even when Eames is scrupulously clean.

If you hire Arthur, you can expect extraordinary delivery of services, just pick the death on the menu, la mort du jour, and if you need something stolen as well, by all means, Eames will be happy to oblige.

But they’re expensive; even as a package deal, there isn’t a two-for-one price range. Death and secrets are a lucrative business.

Make sure you have the money and don’t try to run if you don’t because they will find you and they’re fatal. Both of them.

-

Arthur’s an assassin. Eames had business cards printed up for him, “very tasteful, love, see, the essence of elegance,” bone white with a black border made of miniature skulls; his name isn’t on there, just the words Malach ha-Mavet in black, and on the back is the quote ‘the end of man is to die.’

He doesn’t use them, one, because they’re ridiculous, and two, because they’re too beautiful. Instead, he had two framed together showing the front and back. It sits on his desk. He catches Eames touching it when they’re planning a mission, for good luck.

Freelance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and he quickly became bored being a mercenary. He doesn’t have a nickname, he’s simply Arthur, and if people need to contact him, they know how to contact him.

After he met Eames, he’d become exclusive, working almost solely with Eames, somehow, Arthur still isn’t sure how it happened.

The first time, shaking Eames’s hand, Arthur listened to Eames’s voice, the creamy curl of his accent and just to be an asshole, he said, “Oh, James Bond.” Blue eyes glittered as if the Brit might eviscerate him then and there, but he smiled, mischievous and devastating, and asked Arthur how well he could take a bullet.

“You won’t die,” Eames assured him, “paralysis,” and Arthur grinned.

At the bar, he ordered a stout for each of them, Eames sitting at the table in the crowded pub, playing with a lighter; the look on his face when Arthur appeared with the dark beers was better than the beer itself.

“I figured this was more of your taste, Mr. Eames,” he said. “No martinis required.”

And Eames smirked.

Arthur hasn’t looked back since.

Except to check for enemies over his shoulder, to ensure no one’s about to kill Eames.

-

Arthur learns where Eames lives and Eames breaks into his apartment. They take great pleasure in visiting each other’s place while the other is away, carefully learning the only way they know how: by not asking questions, instead, through stealth and surreptitious information acquisition. Eames leaves behind the smell of his cologne and whisky, a little thread of cigarette smoke, the cigarette butts piled in a coffee cup, DNA evidence Arthur is careful to bleach and destroy, though he grins and thinks about cloning Eames. Eames finds the hint of hair gel and aftershave, the dregs of coffee instead of tea and fingerprints on the bathroom mirror; he gently gathers these with a homemade forensics kit and stashes them.

They criticize each other’s taste in music and swap books.

“This isn’t a book club,” Arthur says.

“Maybe it should be,” Eames replies, finger holding his place.

Arthur sips his coffee as Eames takes a drag on a cigarette.

-

“I know you love your disproportionate sense of organization, Arthur, but really,” Eames says, running his fingers over Arthur’s ties where they lay unsuspecting in their nice little drawer.

Honestly, it’s a drawer for his ties, how on earth can a man who smiles at Eames like an ecstatic little boy while he’s drenched almost unrecognizable in blood and mud be this sartorial busybody, worried about the line of his trousers and the pattern on his waistcoats and has a drawer for his ties.

“Isn’t it a bit much.”

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

It’s early days, they’ve only run a few ops together: Eames stealing, Arthur killing behind him every step of the way. Eames is able to kill for himself, his CQC skills are a tad better than Arthur’s, which he thinks Arthur is jealous about, but having the elite killing power covering his tracks is like a dream where Eames is made king of the world.

He’s curious about this young assassin who looks like he should be sneaking out to concerts and staying up past his bedtime instead of holding an M107 like a baby, eyeing Eames as if he might pull a knife from somewhere and stab him in the throat.

He just wants to see where Arthur lives. He might’ve come through the window instead of knocking on the door.

Standing in Arthur’s bedroom, it does seem like a large line to cross (the way Arthur’s watching him, it’s practically the sodding Rubicon), but Eames likes it here already, it’s cozy, not cluttered, not unmessy, books left abandoned in places, and there’s a picture of a beautiful girl who resembles Arthur so much, she has to be his sister, the dark hair, dark eyes, she has one tiny dimple to Arthur’s two, their twin smiles as Arthur hugs her, his arm pulling the girl close.

“Give me the tour,” Eames says.

With a sigh, Arthur points, but doesn’t move. “Bedroom. Bathroom. Office. Living room. Kitchen. Half-bath. Guest room. Front door. Since you obviously missed that.”

“Yes, well, this was a much more interesting route, love,” Eames says, hands in his pockets, reading the spines of the books closest to him.

“And you’re here to—“

“Say hello.”

“Hello, Eames. Good-bye, Eames.”

“Steady on, you’re just going to push me out the door—“ Eames says, not surprised but a little disappointed and Arthur fits the M107 to his shoulder, as if he might put Eames in his sights.

“I wasn’t expecting…visitors,” Arthur says.

“Are you in the middle of something?”

And there, hesitation, Arthur’s shoulders go down a little and he sighs. “No.”

“I know my way around weapons,” Eames says, a hand out to take the gun and Arthur sighs again, saying, “It must be your accent that makes everything sound dirty.”

“No, that’s just me.” He winks, slipping the gun from Arthur’s grasp.

Arthur lets him.

Eames is delighted.

-

It goes a little something like this:

Their first op together is interrogation and information acquisition. The mark is surrounded by a guard detail of what appear to be gorillas, “I mean it, gorillas, they’re fucking huge, Eames,” and their job is to separate the mark from his detail so that Eames can sweetly ask him a few questions.

Arthur attempts the turkey shoot approach: start from the back so the others don’t realize they’re dying, and it works, two men down, four men to go, until one of them turns for a cigarette and sees dead bodies. Then it’s frantic, Eames materializing out of the shadow of an alley to incapacitate whoever is closest and Arthur muttering, “Shit shit shit shit,” under his breath, more irate than worried as he traces the fight with the barrel of his rifle, Eames learning to hold a man still for a split-second long enough for Arthur to take the shot.

The mark tries to run and Arthur has to shoot him in the foot. But it helps with Eames’s persuasive discussions later on and Eames says, “I needed the practice. It’s never good to let your fighting skills get rusty.”

They argue over who killed the last two since Eames broke a man’s neck as Arthur’s bullet drilled into his chest and one man collapsed with a shot in his belly and a knife in his throat. Eames buys the first round of beer, but after that, it’s every man for himself.

Their second op together requires Eames to drag Arthur down to his level. “Come now, little assassin, you get to be joined at the hip with me, and I intend to enjoy every minute, pet.”

Arthur isn’t a ‘little assassin’ nor is he Eames’s pet and Eames smiles in the face of Arthur’s stony expression, patting his side. “By the end of the day, you’ll be ready to join me for a nice, lovely dinner, dessert pending, and you’ll smile, Arthur. I will make you smile.”

Arthur continues to glare, mouth pinched until he says, “This is a stupid idea.”

They’re stealing a document off a computer, a tidy file for the tidy flash drive in Arthur’s pocket. It’s all about charming the secretary, slipping through the doors, subduing security, taking the file, and ordering flowers for the poor secretary on their way out. It’s possible Arthur might not even get to kill anyone, which is a disappointment on a whole other scale because otherwise, what is he doing here.

“You’re here to keep me company,” Eames says, buttoning his jacket and Arthur can’t help it, Eames’s tie is crooked, they have to look impeccable and honest, of all things, so he fixes it without second thought. “See, you’re here to keep me looking respectable.”

“You aren’t anywhere close to respectable,” Arthur says, hands in fists since he’s just done something stupid. “And I’m not your fucking bodyguard.”

“No, you’re my ‘assistant.’” Eames grins, gleeful, and Arthur rolls his eyes.

The former CIA agent they’re stealing from has excellent security and they aren’t surprised; the secretary finds Eames charming and flattering with his crisp New England accent, carefully sliding a number across her desk right before she buzzes them through, and Arthur says, “Really. That accent. Really.”

Eames grins like a child who’s just taken apart his toys, happy and open, it’s not the first accent Arthur’s heard the spy do before, and they all sound impeccable, but Eames with that accent seems utterly ridiculous. They have a new bet Arthur thinks will become long standing about Eames spying as a woman, which has yet to occur; in any case, he’s still grumbling under his breath as they go through the door and Eames whispers, “Don’t kill anyone. Just knock them out. With the power of your beauty and charm.”

Arthur doesn’t smile but it’s a close thing, so he glowers, tugs at his tie.

Ignoring the stupid New England accent, the job goes smoothly. Arthur gets to take down a few guards, forcing them into unconsciousness with his bare hands and Eames whistles.

“Impressive. And in a suit too. Very classy, love.”

“I didn’t have to use the power of my beauty and charm.”

“No, and that’s a shame.”

Arthur smiles and reminds Eames he owes him dinner, “only because you smiled, I made you smile.” Dessert is milkshakes at some 24-hour diner they stumble upon because D.C. has many hidden secrets.

Their third op is a spectacular success: Eames gets what he came for, laughing as he leaves a pile of porn pictures where the dossiers used to be; Arthur winds up out by the edge of the woods, wielding a knife in each hand as he dispatches a few ex-Marines hired as security for the party. They’re wandering the very outskirts of the party, like prowling hungry wolves, staying out of sight, until Arthur finds them.

He’s covered in mud from hand-to-hand combat and blood has sprayed all over him. Fighting men who are trained to kill like he is makes for chaotic combat sometimes and he’s alive at the end of it, he might have a few broken ribs, but he finds Eames at the end of the patio, smoking and sipping champagne.

The threat of rain has pushed all the glittering guests indoors except for a couple Eames is watching through his smoke, a man and a woman kissing slowly until Eames clears his throat and they startle, the woman laughing, the man tugging on her hand to go inside.

Arthur steals Eames’s champagne glass and Eames says, “Darling, you need a shower.”

The champagne is dry and bubbly and it goes to Arthur’s head with the feeling of success and he laughs, smiling at Eames, wondering at the look in the spy’s blue eyes as he’d watched the lovers on the patio. Then Eames leans over the railing and kisses Arthur, mud and blood and sweat, brief, a press of mouths together.

“What was that for?” Arthur asks, his adrenaline shooting higher and Eames shrugs with a smirk.

“For your broken ribs.”

It’s a singular occurrence, but Arthur doesn’t forget it. Ever.

-

He doesn’t call Arthur ‘little assassin’ after that because Arthur is twice the man he is and Eames is suddenly afraid he’ll somehow push Arthur away. And that is not an option.

-

There’s a time when they’re in the middle of planning a mission, an abandoned office in Germany, when the power suddenly cuts out and Arthur blinks to let his vision adjust, but it’s too late. He’s fighting blind against an unknown number of assailants who he quickly learns are only attacking him to get to Eames, and then, Eames is gone.

Eames is something of a merc spy, it’s possible he’s created the job out of thin air, “pulled it from my arse, love,” and he tends to see things, hear things, learn things, “I’m a devastatingly attractive fount of knowledge,” he said once to Arthur and it was all Arthur could do not to spit coffee everywhere, instead he burned his throat swallowing it.

It takes Arthur two days and three contacts to find Eames, and he doesn’t even have to leave the city. A van, a warehouse, it’s all very Hollywood cliché, he should be upset that these people got the drop on him and Eames, what the fuck, everything’s wrong in the world. Eames is tied to a chair, shirtless, bleeding more than is completely necessary, his jaw and one eye swollen dark. He’s barefoot.

He looks like a sullen teenager beaten by bullies, his tattoos stark around bruises, eyes big and glassy in his face, and his lips are split. Suspicious red marks on his skin, like welts. His hair’s wet, water sloshed everywhere, and there’s an ominous car battery in close proximity.

Arthur is fucking furious. The next ten minutes are a quick smear of death, his brain acting on instinct and deep-seated anger, all his training rising like muscle memory, he breaks bones, feels the warmth of someone else’s blood on his skin, and he comes to as he pulls the trigger on a shouting kneeling man to see a red cloud shoot from the back of the man’s head along with the bullet.

Eames stares at him, saying his name as Arthur tries to catch his breath. When he unties Eames, his legs give and they collapse to the cold concrete in a heap.

“My hero,” Eames says.

“Don’t you ever fucking do that again.”

“Yes, Mum, I’ll leave a note next time I am taken for torture.”

“The sarcasm isn’t necessary.”

Eames’s breathing is a little torn and Arthur curls over him. They shake together. The blood on his hands is Eames’s and Arthur’s angry all over again.

Eames kisses him, split lips almost against his teeth, laughing a bit as if this is a game. Arthur kisses back, but remembers Eames is hurt, Eames has been fucking tortured and he can’t, he can’t do this, not with Eames like this.

“Arthur, what’re you—“

“C’mon, Eames.”

He gets them out, gets Eames to their other safehouse in the city, and against Eames’s protests, gives him painkillers, after bandaging him.

He leaves Eames asleep, all dark colors against the sheets.

Fuck this fucking mission. The job is to extract information and clean house afterwards. Three people know three things that amount to one single thing; Eames would meet one, get the information, go on to the next with Arthur following along behind, killing quicker than the alarm can spread.

While Arthur isn’t a spy, he’s not even the best actor, not much of a people person, he goes out and does the job on his own. He’s been around Eames long enough to know when to smile, know when to act confused; his research on the marks has helped him read them. But it’s still messy and Eames will be livid; but it’ll be done and they’ll be able to leave, he’ll be able to get Eames out of the country, away so he can rest and heal.

And Arthur can look into who took Eames in the first place.

He knows many forms of torture. The military taught him many, many things.

-

This is what happens after they lose count of the missions they’ve run together. This is what happens after they celebrate their one-year anniversary of working together by getting sloppy drunk and laughingly evading cops due to a bar fight Eames started on Arthur’s behalf and Arthur finished for both their sakes. This is what happens after Arthur winds up in the hospital with a stab wound in his back because they both missed the third man at the hand-off and Eames waits until after surgery, until after the staff declare the John Doe out of critical danger to secret Arthur out to his chemist pal Yusuf and then leaves him there for three months while Eames ducks away before Arthur’s dark eyes can see the fear he felt, sitting vulnerable in a hospital waiting room with Arthur’s blood on his clothes, trying to hide from any police, worried Arthur would die.

This is what happens when Arthur tracks Eames down and wakes him with a gun to his head, if you ever leave me again for my own good, I will kill you.

-

Sometimes Arthur gets drunk with no rhyme or reason. Eames is still working on that, he is an observer of people, he will figure this out. Sometimes Arthur apologizes for all the lovers Eames had before, anybody and everybody that broke Eames’s heart. Sometimes he apologizes to his lost squad, those Americans in their uniforms crumpled in the dust, because he was the only survivor. Sometimes he sits silent and white-knuckled until Eames says his name and then he unfolds, tension bleeding off him like the smell of alcohol.

They go to a bar in L.A. and find the exits and then find a nice quiet table for them. Arthur’s been rubbing at his wrists all evening; it’s been a week since Eames was waiting for a second knife to slit the guard’s throat and nothing happened, he stalked the hallways, killing the few guards as he found them before he burst into another room to find Arthur chained to a wall, unconscious. The look in his eyes was pure panic when Eames woke him, coughing around Eames’s name, I was too late, too late, Eames, I was too late.

And Eames tried to tell him, No, Arthur, no, I was too late, look at you, but he couldn’t find the words, half-carrying Arthur out of that hellhole.

Eames is all for drinking away one’s sorrows, but this is Arthur and he’s going to watch him, make sure he goes slow; bar fights are fun, but tonight, the air is wrong, there’s a smell of old blood somewhere and sirens keep going off blocks away.

Arthur drinks, knee pressed against Eames, flipping bottle caps with his fingers because they get their beer still capped; the waitress shrugs and says, Whatever you need, fellas, when Eames tries to explain about the freshness of beer and the sanctity of flavor instead of scaring her about being drugged and kidnapped.

He runs a cap over his knuckles like a coin and Eames takes one, pressing it into his palm, making it disappear and reappear out of his sleeves, pockets, Arthur’s hair.

“One time, this guy hired me,” Arthur says, words a little blurry. “All he gave me was a name: Brian Zao.”

Eames nods, sips his beer, clinks the bottle against the empties.

“Brian Zao turned out to be a kid. A kid, Eames, fourteen years old. A fucking kid. So I look into it, dig deeper. He wasn’t a prodigy, wasn’t a threat to global security, wasn’t about to invent some zombie virus or mind-control nanotechnology or some sci-fi shit. He didn’t stumble across a mob hit or steal someone’s briefcase full of bomb plans. He was a B student, living with his mom in a five-story walk-up in the Bronx, delivered Chinese food and I couldn’t get it. Didn’t make sense.”

He rests his head on his hand, balanced, eyes closed, and Eames lets himself stare because this is an Arthur he hasn’t seen, buried heartbreak and confusion.

“Turns out Brian Zao was the client’s son. His son.”

“But the name—“

“Mom went back to her maiden name and changed the kid’s name too,” Arthur says, fixing his glassy gaze somewhere behind Eames. “The client was some big muckety-muck on Wall Street who left the kid and his mom when the kid was a baby. They didn’t expect much and they sure as hell didn’t get much ‘cause that motherfucker’s lawyers were fucking sharks. So the son’s getting older, he’s aware, he’s figuring out what happened in the past and just how fucked up it was. So he starts hanging around the client’s office, wanting to talk, maybe about money, maybe about college, maybe about revenge or maybe he just wants to do a little father-son bonding, whatever. The client decides, eh, might as well kill the kid, get rid of the noise because fuck if he’s gonna take care of that kid, too much trouble.”

Arthur drains the rest of his beer in one go, hand curled tight and he sighs.

“Eames, Eames, he wanted me to kill the kid because Brian Zao was a nuisance. What, I don’t even know—I, I didn’t do it. I took the fucker’s money, then went to the kid.”

“Arthur—“

“I did, I went to see the kid and I gave him the fee, well, that first half of the fee, the fucker did that half now-half later thing, surprised he wasn’t all ‘bring me his beating heart in this fucking box,’ anyway, I told the kid they needed to leave town. I called a few people, got them new IDs, got them on a bus, and they left.”

Eames waits; he’s never heard this story.

Arthur pops open another bottle, rolling it between his hands.

“What about the client?”

A slow grin, black and furious, Arthur as Vengeance Vigilant, every line of him dark with his pure hostility.

“I scared the shit outta him. Sent him notes saying there was a hit out on him. Then I hacked him. Took me two days. I cleared out his accounts, spread the money around between charities, even crazy ones like homosexual hairless basset hounds or something” – Eames laughs into his beer, a bottle cap clinking on the table – “and set up a trust for the kid. Then I sold off all that fucker’s assets. Made him homeless. Changed his information with the IRS. Made him a criminal. Last I heard, he was in jail.”

He looks Eames straight in the eye, holds up pinched fingers. “I came this close to framing him for murder.”

Taking a swig of beer, he narrows his gaze at Eames. “Shut up, you’re making that face.”

“What face.”

“That ‘Arthur, darling, I didn’t know you had it in you’ face.”

“Arthur, darling, I didn’t know you had it in you,” Eames dutifully repeats. “I am so proud.”

“Shut up.”

His head drops onto Eames’s shoulder and he mumbles into Eames’s collar, “Brian Zao and his mom are doing okay. Off in Arizona. They like it. Warm. They send me Hanukkah cards.”

Chuckling, Eames kisses his temple, pulling him close.

He thinks, I was almost too late, Arthur, almost too late. He thinks he’ll never forget this, Arthur trusting him, Arthur letting him in. Whatever happens, he’ll save Arthur, however he can.

Arthur sighs.

-

Eames may be the spy and he has to do research to know who, what, where, when, and how – the why isn’t always so forthcoming – but he doesn’t research extensively because flexibility and adaptability are what make him the best.

So Arthur researches for him, learns everything Eames doesn’t and keeps him informed, Eames nodding and saying yes in all the right places as he drinks his tea, glares at the crossword, and generally is a bad spy, in Arthur’s opinion.

“Today’s your birthday,” Arthur says, jotting down something in his little notebook. He has several stashed on the bookshelves, military notations, old assassinations, observations of marks, weapons lists, ammo requirements, contacts.

“What.”

“Your birthday. Today.”

Arthur isn’t smiling, but a dimple appears, his eyes clear and Eames kicks a foot up onto the coffee table.

“It might be.”

“It is.”

“You sound terribly sure of yourself, Arthur.”

“Maybe because I am, Eames.”

And he is, that beautiful confidence, complete assuredness Arthur has like a second skin, and Eames is knocked briefly surprised. “What else do you know about me?”

“Your name. Your brother’s name, your mother’s maiden name, your father’s date of death. Your birthday, clearly,” Arthur says, taut sarcasm, making Eames smile. “Your place of birth. Your SAS rank and serial number.”

“Bloody hell, do you want my dog tags?”

For a moment, Arthur looks curious, interested. Eames nudges at the table with his toes. There’s a secret drawer holding a gun, ammo, a few passports, a picture of his brother, and his dog tags.

He presses the catch and waves a hand for Arthur to do it himself. Then he closes his eyes because this is him vulnerable again and he doesn’t always like it.

It always happens around Arthur.

A clinking noise, and Eames takes a breath, waiting, counting down in his head what he has stolen in the past and what he’ll be stealing in a few days, thinking of the Louvre and how he wanted to steal a single item out of all the others, maybe he still will, maybe he could give it to Arthur, maybe he’ll do it after Arthur leaves because while Eames might not be going anywhere, Arthur is Arthur and much better at his job than Eames is at his, the brilliant kid who kills without a second thought and—

“Eames.”

He opens his eyes to see Arthur leaning over him, dog tags wrapped around his fingers.

There’s something in his face Eames has never seen and he stutters, “You can have them, if you want. I don’t—“

“Eames,” Arthur says, “it’s your birthday.”

And he puts his lips to Eames’s, hesitant, as if he’s uncertain, and fucking hell, Arthur is never uncertain.

Eames catches him, to tell him it’s all right, he can have Eames too, hand in Arthur’s hair, pushing to open Arthur’s mouth. He says Arthur’s name without sound, just vibration and air and Arthur hears it anyway.

“Here on the sofa?” he grits out as Arthur slips those lethal hands under his shirt, over his skin, dog tags dragging cold and Arthur laughs, “Yes, here on the sofa.”

“Are you suggesting I don’t get an actual present?”

Those dark eyes, warm and happy, and Eames does this to Arthur, the big smile that makes him look almost too young to be legal.

“Of course you do.”

“Condescension shouldn’t look so good on you, Arthur.”

Then Arthur kisses him, harder, and maybe Arthur won’t leave after this, won’t take his dangerous fingers and dangerous mouth and dangerous heart away.

“Eames, I’m not—I’m not going anywhere,” Arthur says against his chest.

“You don’t know—“

“I do, I do know.”

And Eames should’ve known, Arthur researching and learning him, sticking with him for all this time, over bullets and books and coffee, long nights and the last two cigarettes in the pack and blood-stained bandages, Arthur remarking on Eames’s tattoos, Arthur grumpy in the morning and Eames sarcastic when he’s angry and the two of them trying to sleep on endless flights.

He says, “Your birthday isn’t for another two months.” He thinks he should say, I should’ve told you about me a long time ago.

Arthur climbs into Eames’s lap, stripping his shirt off in a smooth movement, that sleek agility and grace. Eames watches him, Arthur staring at his mouth as he puts on Eames’s dog tags.

“Now, here on the sofa,” Arthur says, smirking and Eames almost chokes.

“But we’re moving to the bed after this.”

The smirk grows dirty. “Where the fuck else,” he insists before kissing Eames dizzy.

Later, they crawl into bed, naked and sleepy and Arthur is all loose limbs Eames tries to contain with his own.

Then Arthur rolls, tugs to pull Eames on top of him and says, “It’s still your birthday.”

Arthur keeps the dog tags, never takes them off, hiding them under his shirts and ties and waistcoats, his sweaters and sweater vests.

When Arthur’s stressed or angry, Eames finds the chain inside Arthur’s collar, running his fingertips along it, along Arthur’s skin, soothing, thumb rubbing circles at the nape of his neck in the fine dark hair.

A year later, Eames is a year older and Arthur hasn’t left and he comes to Eames, naked except for the British tags, holding a tiny metal box.

“I expect flowers and music and some sort of enormous, grand gesture, Arthur,” Eames says, entirely too amused by half, his assassin arranging himself on Eames’s thighs. “Maybe a hot air balloon or a gondola ride or the assassination of a high-ranking NSA analyst, resplendent with doves.”

“Fuck you, Eames. Just open it.”

American dog tags, the military’s pertinent information about Arthur stamped into the metal and if only they knew what they’d had in their hands.

Like Eames does now, curling a palm over Arthur’s hip, so fiercely possessive he aches, and with his free hand, he puts them around his neck.

“So does this mean you’re taking my name?” he asks because Arthur is staring at him with a flash of uncertainty, a small frown. He squeezes Arthur, wanting to bruise, and Arthur sighs like he’s just understood a mystery.

“No, you pain in the ass, if you want, we can forge papers, if you’re that desperate—“

“Fuck, Arthur, your condescension and patronizing tone make me feel so very complete, so absolutely loved and cherished, I don’t know what I’ll do with all these feelings, maybe burst into song—“

I will shoot you.”

-

There was a job in a casino once. They don’t discuss it because of the whole James Bond vibe.

It was annoying.

The mark was a woman who liked slinky dresses and knew too many secrets and wanted to sleep with Arthur. Eames was a jealous bastard who was already angry over the British spy set-up and wanted to leave the country as quickly as possible. But not before following the mark and Arthur around like a crazed stalker, eyes wide and startling.

Arthur poisoned her champagne, a quick silent death because for all her faults, she was a lonely woman caught in a precarious position and there was nothing she could’ve done to find her way out. He helped her sit as the spasms overtook her and her ruby bracelet dug into his skin.

It lead to Eames stealing poker chips to give to Arthur and Arthur finding a pack of loaded red die in his bag he still to this day doesn’t remember putting there.

Eames said, Never again, and Arthur rolled his eyes.

-

“Arthur.”

“Eames.”

“Is it Tuesday?”

“Yes. We kill Archibald today.”

“At 23.00, yeah?”

“Yes.”

“So I can sleep then.”

“For an hour, then we have to get groceries.”

“You’re insufferable.”

“You drank all the milk.”

This is the Tuesday of the Archibald job when Eames decides they should switch. He cajoles Arthur into switching, “it’s like role playing, darling, except without the outfits or whips and chains,” and Arthur stares at him, expression blank, “I killed someone that way once, with the whips and chains,” and Eames swallows with a click, eyes big and dark, “Well, bloody hell—never mind, never fucking mind, we’ll discuss that later, oh so very much later when we can get naked and we’re not in the middle of a sodding op – the idea is I do the killing and you do the taking of things that doesn’t belong to us.”

“Stealing.”

“Thieving.”

“Don’t try to make it sound glamorous,” Arthur argues because he might be getting a headache and this is a bad idea anyway.

“I make it glamorous,” Eames quips, already going through their equipment with little kid excitement. Arthur has a picture of Eames when he was four, scrounged from behind Eames’s desk, lost to dust, and he looks the same, utter joy as if life is so very simple.

He wonders how the military didn’t beat it out of him, trample him into the mud and blood, and once in the dark, as Arthur was waiting to shoot a woman in a high rise across the way, Eames told him he’d had a lover in the military, killed in an overseas op Eames wasn’t a part of, and no one else knew about them, he couldn’t attend the funeral, sent off on a mission himself, there was nothing he could do. Arthur shot the woman and thought of the squad mates he’d buried, falling into the sands of a different country. As his ghosts and Eames’s ghosts and the two of them disappeared that night, he pressed Eames against a stairwell wall and went to his knees, Eames staring at him, saying his name over and over like he was seeing heaven.

Eames is watching him with that grin, bigger, it shouldn’t be possible for someone to grin like that, like he’s so thoughtlessly happy doing this with Arthur, happy to be around Arthur, so Arthur kisses him and says, “Yeah, sure, whatever. Don’t break my guns.”

“Oh, pet, I wouldn’t dream of it. Now where are my Triple D’s?”

“In your dreams, clearly, no boobs in sight.”

Eames glares at him. “Arthur. Daddy desires his death dealing devices.”

“Alliterative and yet somehow, not persuasive.”

A filthy kiss and Eames grabbing his ass, then Arthur points him in the direction of where he moved the weapons; he tends to shift them around in case anyone nefarious learns the layout of their shelter, where they sleep, vulnerable even with a stash of weapons.

They do the switch, Arthur reiterating the plan in code as they wander the aisles for food and Eames takes to throwing the groceries at him instead of in the basket, but Arthur’s reflexes are good enough he doesn’t take a carrot to the head.

It becomes an argument over whether Archibald should be killed first so Arthur can waltz in and steal what needs to be stolen or Arthur steals first and then Archibald dies.

“I don’t need handholding, Eames, I’ve stolen things before.”

“Yes, yes, I believe you, but it’s less messy my way and then I can watch you prance around in your thief outfit without all that dreadful suspense.”

Arthur almost brains him with a grappling hook and Eames looks mock hurt for a moment before smirking.

In the end, it’s a compromise and a bet: they do their jobs simultaneously, though whoever can finish the fastest wins.

“Which isn’t normally what I’d be saying,” Eames isn’t hesitant to say, “though, as a gentleman, I should wait until you finish first.”

Eames.”

Eames raises an eyebrow, cigarette bobbing between his lips as he replies, “Very well then, darling, you can have the pleasure of watching me finish. Is that what you want.”

“Eames,” Arthur starts, but he doesn’t know how to say what did I do to deserve you because he’s not a good man and yet somehow, he has Eames, he has Eames, and it blows his mind on a daily basis, as if he’d taken his favorite gun and put a bullet into his own skull just to hear the noise.

The spy smiles like he’s stolen that thought too, the fucking bastard, the flare at the tip of his cigarette lighting up as he takes a drag.

Maybe there’s something wrong with them, wires crossed somewhere; maybe they’re depraved sociopaths who’ve found each other, but they probably shouldn’t fuck as if they’ve overthrown the world to bring about its end and they want to be discovered together after death, tangled and twisted and knotted, because seeing Eames dispatch the household security with reckless flicks of his wrists, seeing Arthur crack a safe by touch just as Archibald walks in, seeing Eames kill Archibald with almost no blood spilled, seeing Arthur get them out of the manor over the rooftops to their car, it’s almost too much, adrenaline singing high and fast in their blood and Eames drives like he’s staying ahead of the storm, Arthur’s mouth on his neck, a hand down his pants, and he pulls over, throws the car in park, so they climb in the backseat and fuck, stranded, abandoning the world.

“Arthur, love, you—“

“Shut up, Eames.”

“Your sharp elbow is stabbing me.”

“Oh.”

Half-naked in the car, Eames pets Arthur’s sweaty hair and Arthur fits his face under Eames’s jaw.

They smell of cordite and sex.

-

Arthur dislikes: Eames’s taste in clothes; his morning person ability; his raised eyebrow; his smirk; his way of leaving damp towels everywhere, and socks, and mugs with the dregs of tea in them; how he makes the perfect omelet but can’t make the bed, barely knows how to do laundry; remembers the tiny anniversaries but not the big ones; makes up nicknames for their marks; how Eames licks the inside of Arthur’s thighs; how Eames presses his dog tags into Arthur’s chest; how their chains become mixed up sometimes after sex; Eames’s thieving of Arthur’s boxers; the smell of Eames’s sweat after he runs; the way Eames follows him around and knows how to find him in a crowd.

Which is to say, Arthur is a lying liar who lies.

Eames likes: Arthur’s taste in clothes; his morning grumpiness; his addiction to coffee; how he makes a terrible cuppa; the way he insists on cleaning up after Eames; that his cookery skills are limited to spaghetti and meatballs; his perfect recollection of dates and names and places; his anal retentiveness about the laundry and Eames’s lack of ‘feeling for whites’; how Arthur makes the bed so Eames can muss it up with him; when Arthur bites him anywhere wherever; Arthur’s eyes; taking Arthur apart; the smell of Arthur anytime, night or day; how protective Arthur is and so very possessive.

Which is to say, Eames could find some dislikes because Arthur’s a fucking prick, but Eames can’t be arsed, he’s too busy planning a jewel heist, for the fun of it.

The thing is: bullets, cigarettes, blood, loaded dice and poker chips, sleight of hand and sniper scopes, confidential documents, crushed tracheas, a knife to the kidney, a wire around the throat, flights to catch and passports to change, traveling together hung over, stealing out of boredom and fucking on rainy afternoons, cold nights and black clothes, business cards in a box, cordite and paper, that one hedge maze, that one costume party, that one 4th of July spent in chains, a birthday celebrated twice via the date line, a Hanukkah card, dog tags, whiskey and beer, the feel of clean sheets and the creak of floorboards, the chipped paint behind the headboard, the guns in the bedroom-bathroom-kitchen-coffee table-study, the escape routes and contingency plans, “we do not split up.”

It’s Sunday and Eames kisses Arthur awake, hand sliding down along his side, finding Arthur a little ticklish and a sleepy moan once he reaches between Arthur’s legs. Arthur kisses back and there’s a bullet hole in the wall above the bed, but it doesn’t matter because this is a rented apartment they’ll be leaving behind.

It goes a little something like this.