Sometimes Arthur’s life seems like an endless reel of cities and travelling.
It feels like he spends more of his time in hotels than he does at home. Sometimes he does – months are spent in foreign lands, living off room service.
Today, while Arthur is in yet another airport, in transit to another city, he doesn’t feel restless or homesick, because he’s about to meet up with Eames.
Stepping into the First Class Lounge he spies Eames sitting at the bar. He’s wearing a suit for once, dark charcoal, cut to show off the strong breadth of his back. He looks incredible. Maybe it’s just the month apart talking but Arthur’s not sure he’s ever seen him look better. After a few lingering, voyeuristic moments, he heads over and slides onto the stool next to Eames.
Eames turns to smile at him, grey eyes twinkling in the light from the chandeliers. Arthur wants to touch his lips, trace his jawline, pull Eames into his arms and kiss him breathless. Instead he orders a gin and tonic, willing himself to be patient.
“Good flight?” Eames’s hand slides along Arthur’s thigh, making him shiver.
“Pretty good,” Arthur says. “Bit of turbulence. You?”
“Nothing too exciting.”
They finish their drinks in silence, throwing tiny teasing glances at each other. Anticipation tingles under Arthur’s skin like an itch he’s desperate to scratch.
“C’mon,” he says when he can’t stand it anymore. They have less than two hours together; he doesn’t want to waste it in a bar.
There’s a reason that Heathrow is Arthur’s favourite airport, and that reason is the cabanas: small, private rooms with a daybed, probably meant for relaxation but Arthur and Eames have always found more interesting uses for them.
Once they’re inside Arthur’s carry-on drops from his fingers and he pulls Eames to him. No teasing words or playful resistance, Eames just wraps his arms around Arthur’s waist and drops his head to Arthur’s shoulder. The tight knot of emotion within Arthur slowly comes undone and he relaxes in Eames’s arms.
He pulls away – just a little, just enough to look at Eames. He traces the lines of his features, remembering the familiar contours. When his fingers slide over Eames’s lips he lets his hand drop so that he can kiss Eames. It starts slow, so slow, warming up like a spring morning. Eames’s tongue meets his own, strokes against it, tentative at first, and then they move, their bodies pressing close, fitting together so perfectly, the way that always makes Arthur think in his most secret thoughts that they were made for each other.
Eames’s fingers card through Arthur’s hair, freeing it from its stiff style, and Arthur does the same to Eames. They grin at each other’s messy, half-styled hair before plunging into a kiss again.
Arthur bites at Eames’s lips, gentle, playful, ducks his tongue inside to run over Eames’s teeth, their unevenness his alone to know.
Eames slips off Arthur’s jacket, hangs it on the hook behind the door and gestures at it like he should get a gold star for tidiness. Arthur just laughs and pulls Eames back in by his tie.
“C’mere,” he says, and kisses him again because it’s hard to breathe unless he’s sharing Eames’s air.
A nagging voice in the back of Arthur's mind whispers, Time, time, and Arthur feels frustration coil in him. He wants to take this slow, take time to make Eames feel good in so many different ways, but it will have to wait. He strips Eames of his shirt and jacket quickly, letting them drop to the floor.
“And after I took such nice care of your jacket,” Eames says. Arthur’s fingers run down the ball chain of the dog tags Eames wears: one round, one rectangular. A matching set hangs from Arthur’s neck. They’re real, from their military days. Each of them wears one of their own, one of the other’s. On their first anniversary Eames had given Arthur one set, saying Let other people have wedding rings. We’ll have these, and neither of them have taken them off since.
Arthur’s fingers linger on the metal discs and Eames leans down to kiss him. It’s slow and deep and touches Arthur’s heart, until the ticking clock in Arthur’s mind reminds them that they have a schedule to keep.
Still tangled up in each other’s mouths, Arthur walks Eames backwards. Eames obediently sits when the back of his knees hit the day bed. Arthur strips him of his trousers and briefs and stands back to admire him, a work of art in Arthur’s private gallery.
Eames’s dick, fully hard, arcs over his belly in a slight curve. Looking down at it makes Arthur run his tongue over his top lip, wanting to taste.
Arthur pushes him against the backrest and straddles him, his mouth going to Eames’s nipple, teasing it with his tongue then sucking, biting; gentle then hard. Time that they don’t have niggles at the back of his mind and when Arthur pulls away, he silently echoes Eames’s disappointed noise.
“When we get home I’m going to spend hours on this,” Arthur says, going back for one last bite that makes Eames yelp.
“Something I’m looking forward to,” Eames says, slightly breathless, watching intently as Arthur strips and bends down to get a packet of lube from his carry-on.
By the time he is back at the daybed, Eames’s legs are open and he’s stroking his dick slowly. Arthur takes a few seconds to enjoy the scene.
“I took the liberty of fingering myself in the bathroom before you got here,” Eames says, as nonchalantly as saying he had a bite to eat. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“I suppose I’ll let you off this time,” Arthur says, unable to hide his grin; the thought of Eames with his fingers in his ass, getting himself ready for Arthur is making his dick throb. “You sure you’re ready?”
“Absolutely,” Eames says, and turns so that he’s on his knees, arms braced over the side of the daybed.
Arthur gets into position behind him, putting a hand on Eames’s shoulder for balance, and presses slowly, carefully inside Eames. He’s tight, Jesus, and Eames gives a choked sound as Arthur pushes deeper. Eames’s ass is tight around Arthurs cock, squeezing him, it makes Arthur’s vision blur with how good it feels and how much he’s missed this.
When their hips meet Arthur pauses and whispers, “I love you.”
“Love you too,” Eames says, and twists so that they can kiss as Arthur starts to thrust into him.
Arthur’s other hand goes around Eames’s waist to help control his thrusts, keeping them deep and fast. Eames’s hands tighten, digging into the material of the daybed, and his breathing grows ragged quickly. Arthur’s too, resting against Eames’s shoulder and breathing in the scent of him, tasting his sweat. Arthur’s hand slides down from Eames’s waist to his dick, making Eames gasp sharply. With no time to take this slowly Arthur wants him to come, now, and his desperation isn’t just because of the limited time. He wants Eames, wants him so much, wants to remind him that he is Arthur’s, that Arthur is his. His hand is tight around Eames’s shaft, stroking him and making him whine and moan until he has to bury his face into the daybed to muffle the noise.
And then Eames comes over Arthur's hand, crying out, and his body tightens around Arthur’s dick. Arthur clamps his jaw, tight enough to hurt, and thrusts forward into Eames, trying to hold on enough to make this last just a little longer, but after only a handful of seconds his resolve unravels and he bites Eames’s shoulder to silence his yell as he comes deep inside Eames.
When Arthur stops shaking he pushes himself up off Eames so that they can rearrange themselves; Eames on his back and Arthur cuddled up to him, resting his head on his chest.
It feels like they are locked in a bubble where the two of them are outside of time, outside of any considerations but each other. For the first time in weeks Arthur feels like himself; temper and anxiety reset to zero. He’s home, where he is meant to be: here, in Eames’s arms.
Eames kisses his temple and Arthur looks up to smile at him.
“Shall we get a shower?” Eames says, running his fingers through Arthur’s hair.
“Mmm,” is all that Arthur can manage, still blissed out.
Eames chuckles and tilts Arthur’s face up to him, kisses him slow and sweet. “Oh, Arthur. Come on, darling.” He stands and helps Arthur up, leads him to the shower and turns it on. The small room quickly fills with steam, condensing on the tiles and the metal fittings, dripping off Arthur’s hair.
There’s not much room for two, especially when one is as bulky as Eames. Not that Arthur minds the closeness. Being away from Eames has made him possessive and he doesn’t want to let go. As the water rushes over their bodies they don’t speak. They massage each other with shower gel until they’re slick and jasmine-scented, and they kiss until their fingertips start to wrinkle.
After, they both dress slowly. As Arthur pulls on his suit, he tries not to think about having to leave, having to be away from Eames again. Just before the inception job they’d argued and avoided each other for almost three months; three months wasted because they were too stupid and too prideful to admit that they were both wrong. The time apart has made Arthur hungry for Eames. He wants to be with Eames all the time but he’s also scared of being with him because he’s afraid that he’s going to fuck up again. And if he does – if they argue like that again—
“What’s wrong?” Eames asks, coming up to Arthur with a tub of gel and slicking it through his hair for him.
“I just…” Arthur trails off and shrugs, closing his eyes as Eames massages his scalp. “I wish we hadn’t taken these jobs. I just want to go home.”
“Two weeks,” Eames says, taking both of Arthur’s hands in his own. “Not so long.”
“Not so long,” agrees Arthur, although the ache in his chest belies his words. He pulls Eames in for a kiss that’s more gentle than he had planned. Their lips brush, slide against each other slowly; tongues nudge and slowdance.
“You better go,” Eames says, and his lips move against Arthur’s with each syllable. A fierce wish rises in Arthur to say no, to go to Beijing with Eames or better yet, for them to go home together. But like Eames said, two weeks isn’t so long.
He steps back and smoothes down his suit. “Yes.” One last check through his carry-on, then Arthur grabs his boarding pass and passport – a forgery lovingly made by Eames. They stare at each other and move forward at the same time, holding each other in one last, fierce embrace before Arthur steps out of the room.
Arthur steps into his Paris apartment alone: home but not home, missing the most important part. He sighs and flicks on the lights, opens the windows to let fresh air in.
This is the first time since performing inception that he’s worked in Paris. That job was like no other, before or since. Arthur thrives on excitement and the thrill of a difficult job but being tricked into a suicide mission by a half-mad friend is not his idea of fun.
Mostly because he likes it when things are planned, when he knows what to expect. He should have known better – with Cobb on board, things rarely go as planned. The man’s a genius when it comes to dreamshare but even before Mal died he was a loose cannon.
His new job is based in a warehouse is in Montmartre; since he doesn’t have to be there until the evening he raids the kitchen. All he finds is coffee in the freezer and custard creams in a cupboard. There’s a supermarket across the street but now that he’s home, he doesn’t want to leave, not until he has to. He sets the coffee brewing and stares at the rising steam. He’ll have to think often enough for the next few weeks, so until he has to leave for work he’s putting himself in zombie mode.
He pulls on his most comfortable jeans and one of Eames’s sweatshirts, and slouches on the sofa watching Arsenic and Old Lace. The photoframe on the mantelpiece keeps catching his eye, though – him and Eames along with Eames’s twin brother, Tom, on a night out in Sydney for Arthur’s thirtieth birthday. All three of them smile at the camera, the bonds of their affection for one another obvious. It makes Arthur miss Eames more than ever; the brief meeting at Heathrow only made it worse
It’s an all-encompassing thing. Arthur wants to touch him, to taste him, to listen to his tuneless humming as he cooks. He wants to hear Eames’s heartbeat, to tangle their fingers together. Arthur grabs a cushion and pulls it into his chest, wrapping his arms around it tightly. Before he can think better of it he fires off a text to Eames:
It’ll give Eames endless pleasure and teasing ammunition, and Arthur will no doubt live to regret it. But right now, it’s just true.
Sighing, Arthur grabs the remote and clicks off the television. It’s doing nothing to distract him.
If distraction isn’t working, he might as well head into work early.
The warehouse is in better shape than Arthur is used to. Full of vintage furniture from the sixties with little evidence of wear or decay, it’s like he’s stepped back in time. The décor matches the furniture: shades of mustard and teal with garish patterns. Eames would love it.
After setting up the PASIV on a table in the middle of the room, Arthur makes a fan of chairs around it, ready for the debriefing when the others arrive. He takes out his tools and opens the silver case of the PASIV, checking every bolt and fixture. It’s his favourite method of distraction because Arthur always likes to feel productive.
Deep in concentration, he only realises that he’s no longer alone when he hears a soft throat-clearing behind him and turns to see Ariadne.
She looks much the same as the first time they met, right down to the hipster scarf, but looks can be deceptive. Since that first job her reputation has soared; she’s proven that her work on the inception job was no fluke.
“It’s been too long,” she says, walking over to him and smiling. “Couldn’t you spare me a day or two to at least pretend that we’re friends?”
He laughs. “You know how it is,” he says. “Work.”
“All work and no play makes Arthur a dull boy.”
They’re interrupted by the entrance of the extractor, a serious Russian by the name of Katerina. She is tall and slim, pale as a gentle ghost. Arthur likes to work with her. She’s thorough and methodical, cool and professional – everything Cobb wasn’t.
Katerina greets them, her deep, pale eyes solemn. Pleasantries are not needed so she doesn’t bother with them.
She recaps the job: they’re after the trade secrets of a Big Pharma company who stole another Big Pharma’s most promising researcher. Basic corporate espionage with a side of petty vengeance.
The researcher will be their subject and Arthur already has a file worth of intel on him. Ariadne’s head is full of designs for the dream and Katerina has the Somnacin derivatives that the chemist has brewed up. Everything is organised; Arthur feels the part of him that craves order swell with happiness.
Ariadne goes to Arthur with her sketchbook of ideas. She has so many ideas that by the time she’s finished explaining them Arthur can’t speak, it’s like she’s used up all of the words in the room.
All of her ideas are brilliant, but with more experience in the field Arthur is able to select the ones that will work best and they discuss how they should put them together. She has some brilliant ideas about that, too, her mind moving like starlight. With every word, Arthur’s estimation of her grows. She understands how to use the impossibilities of the dream like no-one Arthur has ever met.
As night falls, Ariadne stands to stretch and smiles at Arthur.
“How about we go for a nightcap?”
They go to a small bar between the warehouse and Arthur’s apartment. It’s softly lit and full of people with too many secrets of their own to be nosy. They take a small table in the corner of the room. The nearest light bulb has blown so most of the light comes from a guttering candle, its pungent smoky smell mixing with that of the stale beer soaked into the table.
Ariadne sips at her cider. “So how have things been since Rio?”
“Me too,” she says, tapping her fingers on the table. “You could be constantly busy in this life if you let yourself.”
Arthur nods. If it wasn’t for Eames he’d probably never stop working.
Ariadne leans forward and grins.
“So Yusuf tells me you and Eames are together.”
It’s so unexpected that Arthur just stares at her for a moment. After the Fischer job, Cobb told Arthur about her constant questioning. He guesses it’s his time to face the Ariadne Inquisition. “Yes, we are. Eames tells me that you and Yusuf are together.”
“Sort of,” she says, and the indifference of her shrug is undermined by her blush and smile. “I guess. I like spending time with him. Talking with him. I… can just be myself around him.” She pauses. “Your turn.”
“My turn, what?”
“I had no idea you were together! You two hook up after the Fischer job?”
Arthur has to bite his lip against a laugh. He knows exactly what happened. Ariadne is too easy to talk to and Yusuf told her about him and Eames without meaning to. Once he realised his mistake he clammed up and so Ariadne has no clue about the details.
“No. We didn’t.”
“I don’t know how much it took Yusuf to tell you, but it’s going to take much more than one beer before I spill.”
He clinks his bottle to her glass and laughs at her frown. Most of the extraction community knows that he and Eames are a couple despite Arthur’s early efforts to hide it. She might be able to get most of the details from other people in the field, though the truth is hidden amidst the bullshit that people seem to love making up about them.
“I’m going to take that as a challenge,” Ariadne tells him. “Before this job is over you’re going to tell me everything.”
Eight days into the job and Ariadne has finished the design for the dream. She’d finished most of it days ago and now she’s just fiddling with the maze, adding more paradoxes to trap the projections – a couple of Mobius strips and of course some Penrose stairs for Arthur.
To celebrate, she convinced Arthur to let her go back to his apartment. At first she just wanted to be nosy about his home décor but she’s finding that Arthur on red wine is far more interesting and enlightening.
They’ve not had that much to drink; Ariadne’s had two glasses and Arthur three, but it seems to have gone straight to his head. There is an island of cushions in the middle of Arthur’s living room floor. Arthur is lying on his back with his shirt untucked and his pale, toned belly showing. He’s rambling – something she never imagined him doing. It startles her and she feels for him. For him to be talking like this he must really miss Eames. She thinks back to the shade of Mal in Cobb’s dream: Do you know what it is to be a lover? She likes Yusuf as much as she’s ever liked anyone, but it’s a warm, fond, affectionate thing. Arthur’s yearning for Eames is deep and intense and painful. She’s not sure she wants to know what it means to be a lover if it hurts like this.
After taking another swig of her wine she curls up to Arthur’s side. Drunk Arthur is a good cuddler, which may be the biggest revelation of the night. She strokes her fingers through his hair as he talks. At first Arthur stiffens at her touch, and then he sighs, leaning into it as he goes into another diatribe about Eames.
“It’s just – we need to stop working apart for so long. I don’t like working with him because he’s so fucking distracting. But I’m not going to work with another forger. Eames is the best.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re his boyfriend,” she singsongs the last word and makes a hand heart, and he angles his head into her hair to muffle his laugh.
“I’m saying it because it’s true. Eames is - brilliant.” He pauses. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
“How did you meet? On a job?”
“Nah,” Arthur says and his voice is rich like the wine, his words slow and ever so slightly slurred. “In the Army. Well, I was in the Army. He was a Royal Marine. We worked together in England. Yorkshire. Place called Menwith Hill.”
“What did you do? Or is that top-secret?” She asks, teasing.
“We were working on Project Somnacin.”
“Really?” Ariadne lifts her head to look at Arthur, surprised.
“Not the first phase, of course,” Arthur says, waving his hand dismissively. “That was Mal’s dad’s era. But yeah. I was in charge of a sub-project investigating unusual abilities in the dream. Like forgery.”
“So how long ago was this?”
“Seven years. We worked on the project together for three months. Even then Eames was brilliant,” he says, sighing. “I could hardly ever beat him in a dream battle.”
“You were just distracted by his sexiness, huh?”
Arthur chuckles and twists to have another gulp of wine. “He does look good in fatigues.”
“I want proof. Show me pictures.”
“C’mon! You’ve got pictures, I know you do,” she insists, tugging on his cuff.
Arthur pauses, then crawls across the floor to a drawer near the television, withdrawing a slim book. She takes it from him and opens it. Each page has a single photo and a date written in the margin.
“Oh my god, you look so young,” she says, her fingers sliding over the plastic covers. They’re all casual snaps, no PASIV devices or anything military. Eames working out – and yeah, he looks very nice in fatigues; Arthur standing with his hands on his hips, looking at something off camera. The later dates have some with Arthur and Eames together, mostly extended-arm shots in a bedroom. Arthur leaning his head against Eames’s cheek. A high angled picture taken by Eames, who is half-naked on a bed, sketch book in front of him and Arthur’s head in his lap. If it wasn’t for Eames’s high-and-tight haircut and their dog tags Ariadne would never have known that they were in the military. The pictures are intimate and she’s surprised Arthur would show them to her. Another effect of the red wine, she supposes.
“So you were sleeping together then?”
“You’re goddamn nosy.”
“Come on,” she says. “You’ve gotten this far. Give me a little something to think about when I’m lying alone in bed-”
“Jesus, Ariadne, I do not want to think about you-“ He slaps a hand over his eyes then takes the photo album from her. He opens it to the first picture of them together, Arthur with a long-suffering look, Eames with a mischievous grin as though he’d said something suggestive just before the picture was taken. “We were together then. I’m not giving you any details. We went AWOL together, we got into extraction together. We’re a bad influence on each other.”
“Yeah, but he’s good for you.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says very quietly, his face the dictionary definition of longing.
Ariadne reaches over to squeeze his hand. “You’ll see him again soon, right? Less than a week. And then you can have incredibly hot sex.”
“Oh god yes,” Arthur says and grins at her.
“So what happened on the Fischer job?” she asks. “You two were barely talking.”
She instantly regrets asking – she always loves to ask questions and learn new things, but sometimes her curiosity gets so strong that she forgets that her questioning can hurt people. Arthur’s face falls and shutters closed.
“We’d had an argument,” he says, and then sits up. He rearranges his hair and sorts his shirt out, putting his defences back in place.
“I’m sorry,” she says quietly.
“It’s alright,” Arthur says and gives her a wintery smile. “You should probably go. Katerina wants us in early tomorrow.”
Ariadne feels a stab of guilt. The closeness is over now, a gulf stretches between them and it’s her fault.
“Alright. Sweet dreams, Arthur,” she says softly and kisses his cheek before letting herself out.
Eames isn’t sure whether or not he’s glad that his job finished early.
It was fairly boring: two days of tailing the mark’s office-worker wife; five days helping the extractor pull his ideas into a tight plan; and a nice easy resolution.
It’s nice to be home, but without Arthur the apartment feels lonely, too quiet, and then doubt sets in.
Whenever he’s away from Arthur, memories of the months before the Fischer job keep flashing through Eames’s mind. The way that Arthur pushed him away, glared at him and rolled his eyes with none of the affection that was usually there to soften it. The way that he’d stop talking to Eames midsentence to look over at Cobb. And the way Arthur had left Eames in Mombasa, saying I’ve had enough of your shit, Eames and preceded to completely ignore every text, every phone call, every act of reconciliation.
They didn’t talk for three months. And then when Eames arrived in Paris for the inception job, they’d screamed at each other, cried, fucked and eventually made up.
It’s still fragile, though, and when Eames isn’t with Arthur he gets scared that Arthur’s changed his mind; that he isn’t coming back.
It’s stupid; it’s paranoid. The doubts are fading but Eames hasn’t managed to shake it entirely.
Only a few days to wait, Eames tells himself firmly. Arthur will be here by the weekend and then everything will be fine.
Until then they’ll have to make do with Skype. They have a date in twenty minutes. Eames has just got out of the shower and he’s standing in front of the bedroom mirror, naked, trying to decide whether to dress or tease Arthur like this.
No, he thinks. Clothes are better – clothes can be even more of a tease.
By the time he sits down in front of the computer with a strong coffee and a few minutes to spare, he’s in his most comfortable jeans, full of holes; while Arthur insists they’re trashy, Eames knows he finds them sexy as hell. Clinging to every muscle of his torso, a white singlet exhibits his tattoos, and his hair is unstyled and messy, exactly the way Arthur likes him best.
Eames fiddles with his dog tags while he waits for Arthur to call him. He’s jittery after too much caffeine but being awake for thirty hours has never agreed with him. It’s only the afternoon over here but once his phone call with Arthur is finished he’s going to bed. Screw jetlag. He goes to take another gulp of life-giving coffee and finds his cup empty. Since he has about another minute to spare Eames goes to get more, and gets back just in time.
The moment he sits, the computer beeps, letting him know that Arthur’s available. Running a hand through his hair and smiling rakishly, Eames connects.
His screen flickers to life.
Eames is one of the only people who get to see Arthur dressed down, jeans and t-shirts and hoodies, and he loves that. At the same time, Arthur dressed for business is delicious. Today it’s a brown sweater that matches his eyes, a cream pinstripe shirt and the steel blue striped tie that Philippa and James bought him for his last birthday.
He looks tired – not a surprise, Arthur never sleeps much when he’s on a job – but his smile when he sees Eames is warm. More than warm. From the appreciative glint in his eyes he obviously approves of Eames’s choice in clothes.
“Hello, darling,” Eames purrs.
“Hi,” Arthur says, and pushes a pile of paper to the side before refocusing on Eames. “You look great.”
“Not nearly as good as you do.”
“Please. I’ve been up since five this morning. I look like shit.”
“And I’ve been up thirteen hours longer. I win.”
Arthur laughs and yawns, waving a hand at the screen. “Yeah, okay. Fine. What do you win?”
“A blow job when you get home.”
They talk a little about their day, about work – no details, of course – and listening to Arthur speak stills the constant low-level worry that bubbles in Eames whenever they’re apart. He is so focused on Arthur that the noise has been going on for about twenty seconds before he pays attention to it. He holds a hand up and Arthur stops talking. The sound is metal on metal, a scraping, coming from the front door. Eames’s mouth drops open in surprise. Some bastard is trying to break into his flat.
There’s a Glock in the top drawer. It’s Arthur’s gun of choice; Eames can’t stand the thing but hopefully he’ll only need it to scare some kids away. He checks the magazine – full – and heads over to the door.
“Eames-“ Arthur starts, worry heavy in his voice, but Eames ignores him. The front door is directly opposite the study and clearly hears the scraping turn to a click.
Eames swears softly.
He listens carefully and hears nothing. That puts him on edge – if it was a bunch of kids they’d be whispering about their success by now. It’s probably a professional burglar - still something Eames could still easily deal with. But it could be anything, and he lifts the gun in readiness.
A second later the front door bursts open and Eames finds himself thrown back into the study, the heavy weight of a body propelling him. The gun is knocked from his hand, skittering away as the person on top of him – male, all in black including a face mask – punches him, hard.
Eames’s vision blurs but he rocks his hips to try and shift the man’s weight. More footsteps – two sets. Eames rocks harder and pushes with his hands and he manages to dislodge his attacker. For his troubles he’s rewarded with a boot to the face from one of the others, followed by a kick to the stomach. Winded, Eames kicks out but his bare foot hits something far harder than a shin bone. The fuckers are wearing body armour.
Rolling away he narrowly misses the other guy stomping on his leg.
Three against one isn’t fair, Eames thinks. All three of them are similar heights, similar builds, dressed identically. It makes Eames feel uneasy; like he’s in a dream and they’re someone else’s projections. No time to check his totem now.
Jumping to his feet he grabs his coffee and throws it in the nearest man’s face. There’s hardly any skin showing, just the lips and nose, but it’s enough to make the man roar and duck away reflexively. Taking the opportunity of his inattention, Eames grabs the chair and swings it at him. It’s a big office chair and unwieldy, but there’s weight behind it and the man goes down coughing.
Another one comes at him and Eames ducks out of the way, looking desperately to see where the Glock went: he can’t see it. Dodging again, he grabs a box file, heavy with Arthur’s paperwork, and aims it at the nearest one’s head. It’s a surprisingly good blow and the guy staggers, but there must be armour in the headgear as well.
Eames needs to get out of here. Since he is weaponless and exhausted, these close quarters are doing him no favours. All three of his opponents are still mostly on their feet and blocking the exit.
It’s a good sign that they haven’t killed him yet but at the same time Eames can’t help but wonder why they want him alive. One of them reaches for him – stupid move, they should work together, they’re underestimating him. Eames lets him grab his wrist and pull him forward sharply; Eames uses the momentum to swing around and kick one of the others in the head. The armour makes Eames’s foot throb but the connect was powerful enough to throw the man into one of his colleagues and Eames takes advantage of their momentary distraction to try and duck through to the door. But the third man grabs his wrist again, pulling him around in a semi-circle that brings his back smashing against the desk.
Eames drops to the floor, pain greying his vision. Someone grabs his hair and slams his head against the desk drawers once, twice, three times. Kicking out in desperation Eames doesn’t feel the pain in his foot this time but he must have connected because the grip on his hair loosens. He kicks again and is let go.
C’mon, c’mon, a weapon, something, anything, Eames thinks as he scrabbles away, vision returning slowly and blurrily. He can feel blood dripping down the back of his neck.
“This is pathetic,” one of the men says in an American accent, looking at his companions.
“Yeah.” Another voice; deeper, also American. “I thought this guy was supposed to be a threat, he’s-”
His opinion is cut short when Eames throws a dumbbell at his head, and the armour is no protection against twenty pounds of metal.
Two against one. Eames likes those odds a little better. There’s a pair of ratty trainers in the corner of the room as well and he slips them on as he stands, taking advantage of their momentary astonishment and charges, knocking one of the men away and snapping a high kick at the other, aiming for the small portion of bare skin but his vision is still too blurry. He misses but he does get him in the shoulder, spinning him slightly. The trainers are much better than bare feet and he kicks out at the other man, in the stomach this time.
He turns to the desk, scanning for possible weapons, and sees Arthur furiously talking on the phone. Getting help, Eames is sure of it. He’s pale, shaken, and Eames will be damned if he’s going to let these bastards kill him in front of Arthur.
Out of his peripheral vision he sees something black moving toward him and dodges to the left, grabbing a pen as he does and spinning, using the momentum to give his thrust extra force. This time Eames’s aim is true and the pen stabs right through the man’s goggle and into his eye. He screams and flails backward, grabbing at his injured face, hitting the wall and sinking to the floor, and Eames dodges again as the last man comes toward him.
“You son of a bitch,” the man says. “Fuck orders. I’m taking you out.” He unclips a black baton from his belt and with a click it extends and is hurtling towards Eames. This time his dodge is too slow and he falls backwards, cracking his head against the floor. This time he almost blacks out but when a new source of pain explodes through him it brings with it a roar of adrenaline. The man has kicked him in the ribs.
He’s saying something but Eames can’t make it out. Everything seems in slow-motion and as Eames lets his head fall to the side he sees the Glock on the other side of the room, half-hidden under a filing cabinet.
Move, he thinks to himself but his body is sluggish, unwilling to respond. The man who Eames stabbed with the pen is leaning against the wall, unmoving. The other is on the floor in a pool of blood.
The remaining man is standing over him, gloating.
Move, move, move!
Finally his body responds and he half-staggers, half-crawls over to the Glock.
The man says, “Where they hell do you think you’re going?” and kicks Eames in the rib again. There’s a horrible crack and Eames feels like his side is on fire. He lashes out in desperation and even with the body armour it must hurt because the man shouts out.
Collapsing on his back, hurting and half-blind from pain, Eames hopes, prays that somehow that last kick took the bastard out. But when Arthur’s voice pierces through the fog of agony, screaming Move!, Eames finds a reserve of strength and rolls to the side. He sees a flash of dull silver – a knife – arcing toward him. It was aiming for his chest but Eames’s last-minute movement caused the knife to drag over his side instead.
For a moment Eames can’t breathe. The pain hasn’t set in yet, not with the adrenaline flooding through him, but it will soon and he can feel his shirt is already slick and hot with his own blood.
Arthur’s screaming his name again and Eames feels a pang of guilt for hurting him like this.
I’m so sorry, love, he thinks, and then he notices the gun is just two feet away. Everything slows down again and Eames moves. The floor is slick with his own blood and that helps him half slide towards it. Reaching out, his hand closes over the cold metal. Muscle memory positions his fingers correctly and he swings back around to point the gun at the man who is lunging at him with the knife.
A blast, and then everything goes black.
Arthur stares at his laptop screen.
For a moment there’s no movement, no sound other than Arthur’s ragged breathing and please please please screaming through his head.
The silence is broken by a clank as the office chair is righted. Arthur barely dares breathe until Eames’s bloody forearm appears on the desk surface, pushing himself into the seat. Arthur makes a noise that’s half-sob and touches Eames’s bloody image on his monitor.
“Eames,” he whispers. “God, Eames…”
Eames can only summon a weak smile and reaches for a sweater on the desk, putting it to his side that’s still oozing with blood.
Eames is alive. He’s hurt but he’s still conscious and moving. He’s alive. With that thought racing through his mind like a mantra, Arthur pulls himself together. He wipes dampness from his cheeks from tears he hadn’t even realised were there; takes deep, steadying breaths that help him feel more in control. I’m a point man Arthur tells himself. I can work under pressure. I can deal with this.
“I called O’Grady,” Arthur says when he’s sure his voice will be steady and calming. O’Grady’s an ex-EMT who got dragged into industrial espionage years ago. He’s no fighter but he was the only person in the area. Besides, Eames needs a medic more than anything right now. “He’ll be there in just a few minutes, okay? Eames?”
“Mmm,” Eames says, his eyes fluttering shut.
“Eames. Come on,” Arthur says, his voice insistent. He couldn’t see most of that fight but he’s fairly sure Eames hit his head at least once. “Hey. You can’t go to sleep.”
“’kay,” Eames murmurs, opening his eyes like it’s the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.
“Just a bit longer, okay?” Arthur starts babbling about Ariadne, about what he had for lunch, anything. Several times Eames’s head nods forward and Arthur’s calls his name with increasing desperation. He feels so fucking useless not being there. Jesus, Eames might be fucking dying - Arthur swallows down the despair and thrusts that thought into a deep, dark corner of his mind. He can’t think about that. It’s not going to happen.
He’s alright, he tells himself. He’s going to be alright.
“Where the fuck’s O’Grady?” Eames says after a few minutes, lifting his head and frowning at the door. That’s the first full sentence he’s managed, but he’s wheezing, pale and slick with sweat. The sweater he’s holding to his side is saturated with blood. Arthur wants so badly to hold Eames, to take care of him, and his throat is thick with the knowledge that there’s nothing he can do.
Right then there’s a knock at the door and Eames squints in its direction. “Yeah!” His yell is pathetic, hoarse and weak. It fills Arthur with concern but O’Grady’s here, he’ll look after Eames, it’ll be fine, everything’s going to be fine.
O’Grady steps into the frame and stares around, aghast at the blood and bodies everywhere. To his credit his gaze snaps quickly to Eames and he immediately gets to work. He drops to his knees and withdraws a syringe from his bag.
“Let’s get you sorted,” O’Grady says after giving Arthur a nod of greeting.
“What’s that?” Arthur says, feeling lost and needing to be involved somehow.
“Adrenaline. I need to get him to the bathroom and clean him up, see what the hell I’m dealing with under all this blood. You got someone coming over to deal with these guys? They look down for the count but I don’t want them waking up.”
“I’ll get someone,” Arthur says and picks up his phone with shaking hands.
“How you feeling?” O’Grady turns Eames’s head to look into his eyes.
“Better. A bit.”
“Alright, let’s get you to the bathroom then.”
“Take the laptop with you,” Arthur says and O’Grady does so.
O’Grady settles the laptop on a cabinet and sits Eames on the side of the bath. With much tutting, O’Grady runs the taps and grabs a handful of towels.
“Call a cleaner,” Eames says, increasingly lucid as the adrenaline shot gets to work. “I want to go underground immediately – I don’t have time-“
“I’m on It,” Arthur interrupts gently. “Let me deal with everything.”
“Aye Captain,” Eames says with a faint smile.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” Arthur says with a wan smile. The mention of their old military ranks makes Arthur feel even more possessive – he’s the senior officer, it’s his job to protect Eames.
While O’Grady cleans and stitches, Arthur makes some phone calls. He wants to know what these men know – why they attacked Eames, who they’re working for.
There’s an extractor Arthur knows – someone with less scruples than those he normally works with. His name is Jennings and he knows how to use the PASIV for more than just industrial espionage. With the risks at play the price will be high but money is more important to Jennings than his own safety.
By the time Arthur has arranged the job, Eames is cleaned up, stitched up and moved to sit on the toilet. Slumped back against the cistern, his eyes are closed and he’s breathing shallowly.
“How is he?” Arthur asks O’Grady.
“Lucky,” he replies curtly. “An inch deeper and he’d be dead.”
The words hurt like an knife of ice to the gut. Arthur bites down on his quivering lower lip and takes a few steadying breaths. “And now?”
“You know Eames,” O’Grady says with a grin. “After a few hours of sleep he’ll be playing fisticuffs. Never known anything to bring him down for long.”
“He can’t stay there,” Arthur says. “He needs to get out now – those bastards weren’t acting alone. I know this is asking a lot but could you get him out of there? To a hotel, anywhere.”
O’Grady frowns and glances at Eames nervously. “If they weren’t acting alone-“
“Whoever they’re working for probably doesn’t know that they’ve failed yet. Come on, O’Grady, I’ll make Eames do all your work for free. For a year,” he adds when O’Grady looks uncertain. Finally O’Grady curses and nods.
“He’ll need a passport, some clothes,” Arthur says. “Can you go to the bedroom and get a case together? Passports are in the top drawer of the dresser.”
“This better be some top calibre work he does for me,” O’Grady mutters as he leaves the bathroom.
That leaves Arthur watching Eames sleep, still pale, with a line of electric blue stitches beginning at his hip and leading up at an angle until it disappears under his arm.
Arthur touches the monitor, allowing himself a moment of tenderness while no-one is watching. Quickly he pulls himself together again – he can’t risk falling apart. Eames is still in danger and Arthur might be as well. The apartment is in both of their names. Either of them could be the target.
O’Grady returns with a bulging overnight bag and splashes water at Eames, who groans then looks bewildered for a moment. Then he remembers and his gaze is steely.
“Eames,” Arthur interrupts. “I’ve called in Jennings in to clean up and find out who the hell they are. I want you to get out of there. Go underground and I’ll meet you-”
“No,” Eames says. “No point in both of us being such easy targets. Stay where you are.”
“I want to be with you,” Arthur says, so quietly that he’s not even sure Eames has heard him.
“I know, love,” Eames says with a pained smile. “Bloody hell, you think I don’t want you here? But it’s not safe. I’ll contact you as soon as I can.”
“Alright,” Arthur murmurs, uselessness washing over him again.
“I love you, Arthur,” Eames says, and Arthur’s heart clenches. It’s not something that they say often; they don’t need the words to know that it’s true. But if something goes wrong they might never be able to say it again.
“I love you, Eames.”
They look at each other, helpless to do anything more.
“Much as I hate to interrupt, I want to get out of here before any of their friends come sniffing,” O’Grady says, pointing toward Eames’s attackers. “Not to mention the police if anyone heard that gunshot.”
“Soundproofing,” Eames mumbles but he lets O’Grady help him into a shirt. Both of them look at his blood-stained jeans.
“We’re going to have to get them off,” O’Grady says. “Someone sees you like this, they’re going to call the cops.”
“Mm,” Eames agrees and attempts to undo his fly with one hand. O’Grady sighs and does it for him, then pauses.
“You’re not wearing any underwear.”
“Arthur and I had plans.”
“You’re working for me for free forever,”O’Grady moans and whips a pair of sweatpants out of the overnight bag. Trying not to look at Eames, O’Grady strips him of the jeans and throws them into the bath. He wipes the blood away with a wet towel and pulls the sweatpants on.
Arthur’s sure that Eames could be doing more to help – the wicked smirk tells him that Eames is very amused by this situation. It also tells him that Eames is going to be okay, and the relief that he feels is almost staggering.
Once he’s done O’Grady helps Eames to his feet, probably a little rougher than he needed to be.
“We’ll go to my place,” O’Grady says. “That way I can keep an eye on you.”
Eames nods and turns to the laptop. “Looks like I better go. I’ll contact you when I can.”
“Get better,” Arthur says. “And be careful. That’s an order.”
Eames laughs. “Well, you know me. I always follow orders. I’ll see you soon, Arthur.”
“You will,” Arthur promises, and after one last lingering smile the screen goes black.
He gives himself one moment to shake, to grab his dog tags where they lie beneath his shirt and thanks god that Eames is alright.
It’s then that Ariadne walks in.
“Arthur?” Her voice is hesitant but she catches him completely off guard; with his focus zeroed in on Eames, Arthur had forgotten that he was even at the warehouse. He just stares at her, unable to speak.
“Arthur,” she says again, coming up to him and touching his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
Later Arthur will blame it on Ariadne’s ability to get anything from anyone, but he tells her everything. He’s incredibly grateful that she just listens and doesn’t interrupt; otherwise he might have broken down.
Once he has finished she hugs him. It’s completely unexpected and he freezes. For a few seconds Arthur doesn’t move, but then his arms go around her, squeezing tight. He hides his face in her hair, smelling strawberries. As she holds him he relaxes, his tension releasing a notch at a time. After long minutes he feels able to compose himself and he lets her go.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
“What do you need, Arthur? You want to go get drunk? I’ll even offer my cuddle-services for the night.”
He tries to smile, but it collapses. “I think I just want to go back to the apartment. Eames is in good hands. He’ll be okay.”
“He will,” Ariadne agrees and looks at the desk. She picks up the files on his desk relating to the extraction job they’re on. “I’ll speak to Katerina,” she says. “The mark’s got that dentist appointment tomorrow. I’ll go under instead of you.”
“Don’t argue with me, Arthur. You know you can’t do your job in this state and you need to concentrate on helping Eames.”
Arthur feels like he should argue with her but he knows she’s right.
“If you need to go be by yourself, go,” Ariadne continues. “Whatever you need to feel better.”
“Alright,” he says, running a hand over his eyes. “Meet me tomorrow to get the rest of the files. The coffee shop near the warehouse at noon.”
“Alright,” she says and gives him a worried look. “Take care, okay? If you need anything, call me.”
She walks with all of his files and Arthur is grateful to her for helping. It’s a simple job and she should be fine – she’ll probably be better at distracting the mark than he would, especially if she wears a low-cut top.
He slumps in his chair, too full of emotions to think any more. He just needs to go back to the apartment.
Gathering his things with hands that are still shaking, he calls a taxi.
When he gets home he sinks onto the bed and stares at the ceiling, naked save for his dog tags.
Images of the attack take over his mind and blood stains his thoughts. He hugs the spare pillow, burying his face in it. Eames could have— So easily, Arthur could have lost him. His hands curl into the covers and he feels on the edge of tears until steeliness comes over him, cooling his rage.
He’s going to find out who hurt Eames and then... Arthur’s not even sure what he’ll do. Right now, rage and pain still burning white-hot, he imagines hurting them in return, punching and kicking and stabbing for every injury done to Eames.
Hours pass with his emotions fluctuating between fear and anger until finally, thankfully, sleep takes him.
Arthur’s late. He said to meet her outside the coffee shop at midday, and it’s now quarter past twelve.
Ariadne didn’t think it was possible for Arthur to be late. Obviously that’s dumb but he’s so together all the time that it seems like nothing but the mother of all traffic jams would hold him up.
Or possibly the stress of seeing his partner beat to within an inch of his life. Maybe that too.
Ariadne bites her lip. God, Eames. She thinks back on all the dumb texts and emails they’ve exchanged, thinks of him teaching her some fighting skills so that people would stop thinking of her as a helpless girl. Thinks of his smiles and his laughter; his sharp wit and sharper eyes. The thought of him being attacked makes her feel ill.
And then seeing Arthur like that last night – not breaking down, but on the verge… God. Panic had swelled in her chest because if she’d seen Arthur cry she wouldn’t have known what to do. Arthur was her mentor – still is – and she’s so used to him being the one she can depend upon. But he’s also her friend and she needs to stop putting him on a pedestal like that. Especially now. No doubt he’ll be stubborn about it but she’s going to help him, there’s no question of that.
If he turns up.
She glances into the coffee shop again, like she’s done five times already, but Arthur definitely isn’t in there. Fishing her phone out of her pocket, she calls him. When it goes to voicemail she frowns. Eames was in their apartment in New York when he was attacked. Arthur is in their apartment in Paris. Is it such a stretch to think that the attackers might have both those addresses?
She dials again; no answer.
Ariadne swears under her breath and calls a third time, drumming her fingers on the wall she’s leaning against. The brick is rough against her fingertips and she tries to concentrate on that feeling instead of her racing heartbeat.
“Yeah?” The call is answered, rough and monosyllabic but definitely Arthur. She exhales, relieved, and slumps back against the wall.
“Arthur, where are you?”
A pause. “Bed. I’m supposed to be meeting you, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, ten minutes ago.” She hears rustling and footsteps and assumes that Arthur’s out of bed. An image of him shuffling around in nothing but his boxers plasters itself across her mind and she grins; it’s a nice image. “Get ready and get over here.”
“I’m sorry, Ariadne. I just-“
“I know,” she says as she crosses the street to get to a newsstand, ignoring the enraged yelling of a cyclist who has to swerve to avoid her. “Just get here as soon as you can, okay?”
“I’ll be half an hour at most. And I’ll buy.”
“I was counting on that anyway,” she says, voice playful, and hangs up.
Buying a copy of La Monde she heads back to the café and takes a seat near the window.
This is her favourite coffee shop in all of Paris. Back in college she loved to sit here and gaze out of the window, imagining back stories for the passersby. Now that she’s here again she falls into the same pattern.
The man across the street on his phone – he’s talking to his girlfriend but thinking about how he wants to break up with her. The woman who just walked past with a chihuahua on a leash – she’s perfectly made-up and coiffured but rather than the fashionista she appears, she is in fact a biochemist.
When Ariadne sees Arthur crossing the street, she thinks that even if she didn’t already know that his tale was one of concern for his beloved, that’s what she’d concoct for him. The frown, the circles under his eyes – god, he’s not even wearing a tie.
Ariadne takes a swig of her lukewarm coffee, guilt tickling her stomach for having such flippant thoughts when things are so serious. Still, she’s sure that Eames wouldn’t mind her making fun of Arthur to keep her spirits up.
Arthur comes into the café and sees her, giving her a wan smile and sinking heavily into the opposite chair.
“How are you doing?” Ariadne asks softly, and after a moment Arthur just shrugs.
The waiter comes over and Arthur orders in clipped but perfect French. As they wait in silence for their order Ariadne notices that Arthur is wearing the same shirt he was wearing yesterday. For someone else that might not mean a thing but for Arthur it’s unprecedented. She reaches across the table to squeeze his hand. He looks up, eyes wide, and she’s startled by how young he looks.
“He’ll be okay,” Ariadne says, keeping her voice soft.
Arthur opens his mouth but when his lower lip trembles he shuts it again. The waiter brings over their order and Arthur grabs a danish from the plate.
After he’s eaten the pastry and taken a mouthful of coffee, a more familiar expression returns. He’s still pale and exhausted but he looks determined.
“You’re right. He’s going to be fine. We’re going to find out who hurt him and—Eames is going to be fine.”
Ariadne nods and reaches for a pain au chocolat, and as she eats she sees Arthur put more pieces of himself back in place.
“God,” he says when he’s smoothed back his hair. “I haven’t even asked you what Katerina said.”
“She was fine,” she says. “It’ll be a cakewalk.”
“Good. I’m sorry, Ariadne-“
“Stop apologising. I know you’d do the same for me.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says, his young, vulnerable look peeking through again.
“Katerina asked about Eames—I think she figured it had to do with him but I said she’d have to ask you. I didn’t really think it was my place.”
Arthur shrugs. “Most people in the business know about us. It’s not something we advertise but when you spend your time playing in people’s minds it’s hard to keep secrets. You never know when your subconscious is going to betray you.”
Ariadne thinks about Mal stabbing her in the stomach and silently agrees.
“About Eames,” Ariadne says. “I want to help you.”
“Just listen,” she interrupts, holding up a hand. “I want to help. Eames is my friend, okay? And so are you, and I can see you’re not at your best. I’m no fighter and I’m not as good a researcher as you but that doesn’t mean I can’t help.”
“Eames was a Royal Marine for five years and those bastards nearly got the better of him,” Arthur says, leaning forward and speaking quietly but furiously. “What chance do you think you’d have?”
“None,” Ariadne says simply. “That’s why you need to protect me. That’s the other reason I want to help. I want you to owe me a favour.”
Arthur stares at her for a long moment, apparently speechless. Eventually he manages, “What?”
“I’m not ex-military, I have no training apart from some stuff that Eames taught me the last time we worked together. I’m not too bad with my pistol but the thought of shooting someone makes me feel sick. If I’m in a corner I might not be able to get myself out of it. So I want to be able to call on you to look after me. No matter what.”
Arthur blinks owlishly and then nods slowly. “Alright,” he says. “But I’m not putting you in any danger. When we find out who hurt Eames I go after them alone.”
Ariadne shrugs – she’s not going to agree or disagree until she knows who their enemy is, but she wants to help every step of the way that she can. Yes, she wants to be able to call on Arthur but more importantly, Eames and Arthur are her friends. They need help, she’s there for them. She learned that from Arthur, the way he helped Cobb even when there was nothing in it for him but danger.
“Alright,” she says, and offers her hand. Arthur shakes it, his own hand warm and strong, only the faintest shake suggesting that anything is amiss.
Eames hadn’t intended to impose on O’Grady’s hospitality, but as soon as they’d gotten to his apartment Eames had slept for fourteen hours straight. Once awake, almost the whole day passed before he felt well enough to make a move. It had been tough to get through airport security while high on painkillers with pain streaking through him like a lightning storm, but Eames is a conman, right down to his bones. He’d gotten through and then passed out on the plane, waking only when they were descending into Poland.
Despite popping painkillers like Tic Tacs, he still feels like shit and the sooner he can find a safe, warm bed he’s going to pass out again for as long as he can get away with. He’s almost tempted to just go to the nearest hotel and to hell with it, but however tired he is he isn’t as reckless as that.
Instead he’s wandering the streets of Gdansk. He’s only been here twice before, brought here by his grandparents when he was a kid.
During the summer holidays his parents liked to go on cruises and dumped Eames and his brother, Tom, with their grandparents. The kids at school used to tease Eames and Tom about having gay grandparents but Eames knows for a fact that his granddad and grandpa are fucking awesome – they’re ex-secret service, for a start.
It came in handy over the summer, when Eames and Tom were taken on tours of Europe, visiting their grandparents’ old friends. The woman Eames is looking for is one of them. Her name is Ewa, and he remembers her best for her delicious makowiec and exciting stories about her days as a spy for the West.
He also remembers that she had a thing for his Granddad, which he’s hoping will work in his favour since Eames looks startlingly like him.
Half-memories are like ghosts seen out of the corner of his eye, disconcerting as he tries to navigate the unfamiliar streets. The bag sits heavy on his back and he adjusts the straps, wincing and trying not to pull his stitches.
The streets have been growing steadily quieter as he heads away from the city centre. Narrower too, and darker as the buildings block out the sun. The sky is a sliver of blue overhead.
As he walks he is constantly on the alert, picking out the possible escape routes and the places that an attacker could be lying in wait. Eames is very aware of how weak he feels but he’s not completely helpless. The first thing he did when he landed was acquire a pistol as well as a knife, though he’s fairly certain that if it came down to something up close and personal his best tactic would be to run. He’s in no condition to fight.
The street is around here somewhere, he’s sure of it. His memories are slowly fitting into the scrawled notes he’d made at an internet café at the airport. The small fountain topped with a statue of Eros – he remembers playing in that fountain with Tom and getting into trouble when they got back, soaking wet.
He goes left, down an even narrower street, and it all clicks into place. It’s the last house. Green door and quaint shuttered windows; it’s faded now and the paint is peeling but it’s definitely the place.
He knocks, the one his grandfathers taught him, three fast raps then two louder, slower ones. As he waits Eames amuses himself with the thought of being a spy himself. He would have been good at it, he thinks, just like Granddad and Grandpa before him. Pretending to be someone else is his speciality after all.
The door swings open, cautiously at first, then wider to reveal an older woman in a grey woollen dress. Her silver hair is piled on top of her head with loose curls framing her face. Now that he sees her again he’s reminded of Mal – that same effortless elegance, the same sharp intelligence behind her eyes, currently glittering with recognition.
“You’re Ricki and Peter’s grandson,” she says in English, her voice curious. “One of the twins.”
“Yes. I’m Will. You remember when me and my brother came to visit?”
“Yes, of course,” she says, nodding. “Such beautiful boys. I knew that you’d be the image of Ricki when you grew up. Are you as much of a scoundrel?”
“I try,” Eames says with his most dashing smile and it makes her laugh.
“Oh, you are. Don’t try his tricks on me,” Ewa says, wagging a finger at him. “They won’t work. Not any more, anyway. Come in, come in,” she says, opening the door wider and letting him slip into the hallway. The carpet is dark green and well-trodden, and there’s a vague spicy odour in the air.
Leading him to the living room, Ewa goes to make tea. As she calls out from the kitchen to ask about milk and sugar, a tabby cat comes up to him and rubs against his ankles. He leans down to stroke it, careful not to pull on his stitches, and smiles at its delighted purrs.
Ewa returns to the living room with a tray in her hands. She sets it on a table and Eames sees that as well as the tea she’s brought cake and biscuits. The sight of them reminds him of how hungry he is, and he takes a slice of cake, wolfing it down as politely as he can manage.
Ignoring his less-than-perfect manners, Ewa says, “Your brother’s not with you? Tom, isn’t it?”
“No, Tom’s not here. I’m here on business, actually.”
“Business?” Ewa looks at him over the top of her tea cup as she takes a sip. “And what kind of business are you in, William?”
“I work in extraction,” he says, not bothering with lies. She’s too smart and too experienced to fall for that.
“Do you now.” She smiles and takes a biscuit from the tray. Eames takes the opportunity to take a handful of what look like Jaffa Cakes. “I’ve heard stories about dream-share. The ultimate creativity…” She trails off, lost in her thoughts for a moment before snapping back. “And what is it that you want from me?”
“I need contacts. Outside of extraction. I was attacked in my flat and I have no idea who did it or why, but chances are that it’s either a client or a mark.”
“And if it’s nothing to do with extraction? What other possibilities?”
Eames pauses, thinking. “I also make forgeries—passports, documents. And I was a Royal Marine, went AWOL seven years ago. I suppose I made my share of enemies. But it’s a long time to wait.”
“They say vengeance is best served cold. You’d be astounded at how long some people can wait.”
“Then perhaps I should make a list of my bullies from school as well.”
“Perhaps,” she says and her smile is sharp. She sits in silence, finishing her tea and looking thoughtful. “So you want contacts. To try and find out if they are still on your tail and who they are.”
“Yes. My partner is doing what he can but he might be a target as well—he might be the primary target. We just don’t know. He should be getting photographs of the men who attacked me and their equipment—hopefully he can get something from that. In the meantime I need to know if I’m being tracked and if so find out who’s after me.”
“I’ll help you,” she says eventually, folding her arms and looking carefully at Eames. “My price is one of those dream machines and lessons in how to use it.”
Fully functional PASIVs are very expensive—lessons from someone as experienced as Eames almost priceless. His lips flicker into a smile and so do hers; she knows he can’t refuse.
“Five hours. Five hours of lessons.”
“That’s hardly fair—“
“Time works differently down there,” he says. “Five hours will work out about sixty hours in the dream. You’ll learn all the basics and more. And I’ll set you up with some contacts of your own.”
Now she can’t refuse. The light in her eyes is hungry. Eames wonders what she’s heard about dream-share to make her so eager.
“Alright,” she says and goes over to a roll-top desk in the corner of the room. The cat follows her, weaving in and out of her legs. “If you’re being pursued, this man will be able to find out who’s after you. You’ll have to pay him, mind.” When the desk is rolled up it reveals a set of apothecary drawers, dark wood with tiny bronze handles. She opens one of these and removes something. After writing on it she comes back and presses a business card into his hands before patting him on the cheek.
The business card is for a car salesman: Stefaniak. On the back she has written, This young man needs a van and of course I thought of you. Ewa.
“He will help you. But think of your questions before you go—he doesn’t tolerate time wasters.”
Eames nods and rises. “Thank you. I’m very grateful.”
“No need to be grateful,” she says. “This is a deal.”
“And once this is over I’ll come and meet my end of the bargain. You’ll be a real talent in the dream, I’d wager.”
“Perhaps I’ll dream myself young, like I was when I knew your grandfathers,” she says softly, her eyes dark with memory. “I think you’ll like me then.”
“I like you now, Ewa,” he says and she chuckles.
“Do you have somewhere to stay?” He shakes his head and she continues. “The Hilton near the river is very nice. Secure, and there’s always some of our boys about. Good room service too.”
“Another thing that I’m in debt to you for,” Eames says and kisses her cheek.
“I do like having handsome young men in debt to me,” Ewa smiles. She shows him to the door, insisting that he comes back with Tom once everything is sorted out, and making him promise to give his grandfathers her love.
It’s still bright when he leaves but he heads straight to the hotel. He smiles at the woman on reception and starts to speak in an American drawl. He just landed and his planned accommodation has fallen through. Would it be possible to get a room overlooking the river?
After being shown his room, Eames dumps his bag under the desk and closes the curtains, puts the chain on the door and shoves a chair under the handle. It’s about as secure as he can manage for now so he finally lets himself relax. Suddenly he feels like his eyelids are being weighted down and he feels himself swaying alarmingly.
Before he can sleep he needs to check his wound. Shrugging out of his shirt with a hiss of pain where it sticks to the dried blood, he peels it off carefully and goes to inspect the damage.
The bathroom mirror reveals the wound to be one long line of dried blood, a little fresh blood dabbed along the length of it where the stiches have pulled. He tries to clean it up but his lethargy makes his limbs all but useless. He smears it with the antiseptic cream that O’Grady gave him, cursing at the sting, and pops some painkillers and an antibiotic.
Before collapsing onto the bed Eames grabs his phone. It’s a cheap thing that he picked up on the way to Ewa’s place, anonymous, with a couple hundred zloty worth of credit. Hopefully that will see him through this. The last thing he does before sleep claims him is text Arthur to let him know he’s safe:
Alive, in Hilton Gdansk, exhausted. Please set up watch. Will call you when slept. E.
After walking Ariadne to the warehouse and apologising to Katerina, Arthur goes back to the apartment. He knows he can’t stay; if the people who attacked Eames can find their New York apartment they can find this one. He’s just here to pick up some things and then he’ll relocate to a hotel.
He means to get what he needs and leave but he finds himself looking around, feeling a rare pang of sentimentality. So many times he and Eames cuddled up on that sofa watching bad action movies, then ignoring them in favour of making out. Or Eames would sit on the floor, leaning on the coffee table doing a crossword and suddenly he’d look up as though Arthur had spoken. He’d have this look in his eyes, intense and almost reverential, like he was looking at something precious, something worth everything.
The wave of emotion that hits him then is so intense that Arthur puts a hand to the wall to steady himself. It’s a muddle of sadness and guilt and longing. He aches for Eames.
Arthur forces his mind away from that. He needs to focus. Treat this like a job. Emotional entanglement makes him careless, like it had on the inception job. Being near Eames had made him so frazzled that he had completely missed Fischer’s militarisation. He would have completely fucked up his dream level too if not for Eames’s words as they put Browning under:
“Don’t let Cobb get you down, Arthur. You’re brilliant. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.”
And then his hand had gone to the small of Arthur’s back, intimate, comforting, and it had stilled Arthur’s fears. Their eyes had met and it was like nothing had happened between them. The love and trust in Eames’s eyes had given Arthur the still centre he needed to finish the job.
Focus, Arthur tells himself furiously and goes into the bedroom, forcing himself not to think of the nights spent in here with Eames, sleeping and otherwise engaged.
He grabs a bag and starts to fill it with work essentials—laptop, harddrives, address books, Moleskines. Once the work things and some clothes are in the bag he pauses. He might never be able to return to this apartment—it might be destroyed or ransacked. Picking up another bag he puts some personal items that he would miss—the picture of him, Eames and Tom; their photo album; the stupid mug with a penguin for a handle that Eames bought him. When that bag is full of things that are important to them but would be useless to anyone else, he throws both bags over his shoulders and heads for the door.
He gives the apartment one last look, his heart twisting, then locks the door behind him.
It’s the day after Arthur relocates to the hotel that Jennings finally contacts him.
Subject: Cleaning job
Sorry for the delay – had to wait for the puppies to wake before I was going under with them. Shared a dream with boys with brain injury before, not going to do it again. Their sub-security is intense, same level as you. These boys are ex-military. Can’t get anything from them.
Got rid of the one with a bullet in his head; the other two I’m keeping hold of. Might be worth something to someone. Taken some pictures of them and their goodies, find attached.
You know my payment details.
Arthur curses quietly at the lack of information, although he had feared as much. For the three of them to almost get the better of Eames the likelihood was always that they were ex-military, although he’d been hoping they weren’t PASIV-trained. Damn it.
He emails back to ask Jennings to let him know if anyone offers money for the two remaining attackers, then opens the zipped file. It contains three folders, one for each man. Each folder contains thousands of photographs—Jennings is thorough.
A knock at his door interrupts him. He has his hand on his Glock as he goes to answer but a check through the spyglass reveals it to be Ariadne, brown eyes huge and round from the fisheye distortion. He lets her in.
“How are you?” Her look of concern makes Arthur’s chest constrict. He nods, sharply, and turns away from her.
“Fine,” he says. “How’d the job go?”
“It went great. We got everything we needed and Katerina’s gone to deliver the intel to the client.”
Arthur nods, grateful. He’ll have to figure out some way to repay her. “I heard back from my cleaner. He can’t get anything from the men who attacked Eames but he’s got some photographs.”
“What do you mean he can’t get anything?” Ariadne follows Arthur into the living room of the hotel suite and sits. “I thought you said he was an extractor.”
“The attackers are most likely military trained—like me and Eames. If anyone tried to extract from us, our subconscious would tear them apart in seconds. It’s possible that Jennings could come up with something that would work, like we did on the Fischer job, but that takes time we don’t have and Jennings doesn’t have the patience.”
“So what do we do?”
“We look at the photos. See if we can get anything from them. Wait to see if any of my contacts has any information. We do what we can.” As he speaks his fists curl in frustration.
“Okay,” Ariadne says, pushing herself up. “Where do you want me to start?” Her enthusiasm helps, and optimism leaks into Arthur’s mind. Maybe these photos will give them a lead.
He shows her to his secondary laptop and gives her two of the folders to investigate while Arthur makes some more calls and looks into the third folder.
He plunges into the work, forcing himself to concentrate on that and nothing else. It works until his phone rings, the number that Eames texted him from earlier flashing up on the screen. Arthur snatches it up and answers on the move, heading towards his bedroom for some privacy.
“Arthur.” Eames sounds exhausted, as exhausted as Arthur has ever heard him, but hearing his voice soothes Arthur’s heart, makes his shoulders slump with relief.
“How are you?” Arthur says as he shuts the door behind him.
“Been better,” Eames says. “Bloody wish you were here.”
“Me too,” Arthur says. “I could come-“
“Let’s not do that, love.”
“I miss you,” Arthur says, his resolve to keep this professional shattering like a dropped martini glass. “I miss you so fucking much.”
“Arthur,” Eames says again, voice cracking. There’s a pause and Arthur wonders what Eames is doing— running a hand through his hair, watching television, or just lying on his side and missing Arthur as much as Arthur misses him. “We’ll sort this out. We’ll be together this time next week. On a beach in Maui, drinking mai tais.”
“Yeah? I get to see you in those swimming briefs I bought for your birthday?”
“Definitely. You’ll see me out of them, too.”
There’s a pause and Arthur doesn’t know what to say—whether to keep up with the banter or say how he really feels, or something else.
“Have you found anything yet?” Eames asks, and Arthur’s grateful to him for steering the conversation towards work.
“No. Jennings tried to extract from the men but they’re militarised to the same level we are. I’ve got some photographs of them, I’m going to try cross-referencing and see if I can find any leads.”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologise,” Eames says, his voice trailing off and becoming quiet. For a moment there’s only the sound of his breathing, slightly laboured like he has a chest cold. “My contact gave me a name, I’m going to see them—probably tomorrow. I need to get some more sleep, I’m bloody exhausted. Name’s Stefaniak,” Eames says, and reels off an address and telephone number that Arthur scribbles down on a piece of hotel stationery.
“I’ll look them up,” Arthur says. “If I find anything I’ll text you.”
“Thanks,” Eames says and now he sounds gruff and sleepy, like he should be snuggled against Arthur’s chest.
“You sound like you should go back to sleep,” Arthur says, wanting with all his heart for Eames to stay on the line.
“Probably,” Eames says with a chuckle. “At this rate I’m going to drop off mid-sentence.”
“Then go on. It’ll help you heal.”
“Mm,” Eames says in agreement, already sounding half-asleep. “I love you, Arthur.”
“I know you do. I love you too.”
Eames makes a pleased, wordless noise and Arthur smiles, hand twitching to stroke Eames’s hair.
“Good night, Eames.”
Arthur sits there for a long time, staring at his phone, until a soft knock at his door draws him out of his thoughts.
“I made coffee,” Ariadne calls.
After taking a deep breath, Arthur stands and opens the door. He’ll have a cup and then get things moving. He’ll run Stefaniak through a search engine —always the best place to start—then email his contacts in Poland.
He sees that Ariadne has bought cakes from the patisserie near the hotel and his thoughts about research still like someone’s hit the pause button.
“You went out on your own?”
“Of course,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Three whole doors down. I’m sure the bad guys aren’t watching our every move.”
“What if they are?” Doubt leaks into his thoughts—he shouldn’t have let her help him. If Ariadne gets hurt it will be Arthur’s fault. He should get her out of here, get her to go to Mombasa where Yusuf will hide her away and she’ll be safe.
“Arthur,” she says, interrupting his steamrollering thoughts. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m quite observant. I’d notice someone following me. And you know, I’m not great at self-defence but last time we worked together Eames taught me a few things.”
“Let me guess: knee to the balls and run for it?”
“You know him so well,” she says, and her grin makes Arthur relax a notch, shifting from red alert to amber. “It works too—I got mugged in New York and the bastards didn’t know what hit them.”
That even makes him crack a smile, which in turn has the effect of shutting down his panic-mode. The patisserie is just a few doors away, the street is busy. There was no real danger, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be in future.
“I want you to stay here,” he says.
She hitches an eyebrow. “Arthur, are you propositioning me?”
“You slapped me in the face when I kissed you on the Fischer job. I learned my lesson.”
She makes a noise. “I waited until we were in the elevator so that the projections wouldn’t see. What more do you want?”
“Not to have been slapped?” Arthur suggests.
She puts her hands on her hips, tilts her head, but her smile makes it clear that she’s playing. “You only kiss a girl when you have her permission. You’re just lucky I didn’t have a gun.”
“Or that Eames hadn’t taught you the knee-to-the-balls trick?”
They grin at each other and Arthur feels a wave of affection. He’s glad she’s here to take his mind off things; without her he would probably have fretted himself ragged by now. Even now she’s probably in a better mindset than he is.
“I want you to stay in the second bedroom,” Arthur says. “It means you won’t have to trek across Paris, and it means I can keep an eye on you.”
Araidne chews on her bottom lip as she considers. She looks around the suite, which Arthur knows is far more luxuriant than her own small room. “You’re buying room service,” she says, and reaches for her coffee cup. They clink to seal their agreement.
Once he’s drained the coffee and had a macaron, she stands.
“Come look. I think I found something.”
Arthur follows her back to the computer and she taps the spacebar to bring the monitor to life. Filling the screen is a picture of something black with a number imprinted in it. It’s not clear at first what it is until Ariadne skips to the next picture in the series, a zoomed out version that reveals it to be the inner collar of one of the suits of body armour.
“I found this number,” she says. “Each set of body armour has a different code, which I figured might be a serial number—something this high-end would have something like that, right? Now, when I type it into the search engine, I find this—“
The first hit that comes up is the site for the manufacturer, Greene Security. It’s part of a long list and Ariadne points out that all three of their serial numbers are on it. The list cuts out partway through and the “read more” link is password protected.
“I’m not exactly a master hacker so I tried something else. See the date on that page? I searched for September and the company name, and that brought up this.”
A website for a local newspaper. A break-in at the the Greene Security warehouse, in which ten sets of armour were stolen. The news website focuses on whether the armour will be used for a local crime spree but Arthur is more interested in the tiny, fuzzy security camera image.
“So I’m thinking that the link on the company’s website might give some more information about the break-in,” Ariadne says. “And there might be more, we could get security footage or descriptions. There’s just that password…”
“I have some decent password crackers on my laptop but I mostly use them for private users— company set-ups are usually more secure.” He looks at the company website, looks to see where it’s located: a little town in Illinois. “In situations like this it’s easiest to get into the system locally.”
He calls his Chicago contact, Dan, an old school friend who was breaking into computer systems when Arthur’s only concern was keeping up his grade-point average. As Arthur explains the situation to Dan, he feels the thrum of excitement under his skin. This is their first lead and it might be an excellent one. It could lead them directly to the men who attacked Eames. Of course, there might be ten degrees of separation between the thieves and the attackers but they might get lucky. God knows they could do with some luck right now.
Dan agrees to help and Arthur sends the details in an email. When he’s done, he’s tingling with the possibility that this might actually help them get these bastards; that he might be reunited with Eames tomorrow.
“Thank you,” he says to Ariadne. “This is really helpful.”
“I hope so,” she says, and squeezes his hand.
Finally, they’re getting somewhere.
Without meaning to Eames sleeps for almost a full day, waking only to phone Arthur to assure him that he’s still alive, to take some pills and to clean his wound. By the time he wakes on the second day in Gdansk he is starving and calls for room service, devouring a huge meal of steak and chips before sitting back with a sigh.
After showering and treating his wound, he finds a text from Arthur:
Can’t find anything concrete on Stefaniak. Contacts say intelligence agency aware of more than one active mole, identity unknown. Proceed with caution.
Eames sighs. Of course they have a mole. Couldn’t possibly have this being easy. Since he doesn’t have a choice, he’ll just have to be careful.
Despite the painkillers his side still aches. He stands with a groan. Pulling his bag onto the bed makes his wound throb and he mutters under his breath when he unzips it. The clothes are mismatched, even for him. O’Grady must have just thrown in whatever was closest—not that Eames blames him. Three unconscious, possibly dead men bleeding all over the floor don’t make for good company.
With some difficulty Eames pulls on some skinny jeans that he’s sure must be Arthur’s and a plaid shirt Eames once bought to infiltrate a tech company. A leather jacket over the top completes the outfit and makes him look like a hipster. He hitches an eyebrow and smiles. It’s actually a pretty good disguise because it’s nothing like what he would normally wear. When he goes out he’ll see about getting a pair of glasses to really set it off.
Checking with the concierge, he gets the idea of where he needs to be. It’s not that far from the hotel and it should give him time to get a feel for the streets, should he need to make a break for it.
When he steps out it’s warm but overcast. A few streets from the hotel he gets some ibuprofen; a few streets further he gets some oversize sunglasses and a scarf that he’ll give to Ariadne when this is all over. He catches a glimpse of his reflection and has to stifle a laugh. Outside of a forgery, he’s never looked less like himself. Arthur would be properly horrified.
When he’s only a few streets away from his destination he stops at a café, sits out on the street to take stock. Normally he’s good at sensing a tail but he’s far from at his best. He sits and sips coffee to top up his already flagging energy levels, and then he just people-watches for a while.
By the time he’s finished his drink he’s seen no indication that he’s being followed. He sets off toward his destination, taking a circuitous route just in case.
True to the business card, the meeting place is a car dealership. The lot is full of old Fords and Volkswagens in various stages of disrepair. Eames winds his way through the cars, looking around cautiously. In the centre of the lot there is a breezeblock building with a weather-beaten sign and he steps inside, the sound of bell calling out as he opens the door.
Inside there is a linoleum floor and a cheap-looking desk, the man behind it sporting a nylon suit and a comb-over. He’s already standing with his slimy smile in place, proving that car dealers are the same everywhere.
He starts to speak to Eames in Polish, a flurry of compliments, and when he’s done Eames tells him that he’s looking for a van and hands over the business card.
The man taps long fingers against the desk, then goes to a curtain at the back of the room. Drawing it aside reveals a door and the man opens it, speaks quietly to someone inside. A woman comes out, rotund and ferocious-looking, and sits behind the desk.
The man gestures that Eames should follow him and then closes the door behind them. This room is small and the window at the back has a black-out blind. On a desk in the corner sits a computer and a telex machine. Eames is instantly reminded of all the Cold War stories his grandfathers ever told him.
“Apologies,” Stefaniak says, his smile still slimy. “We should have more privacy in here. You are a friend of Ewa’s?”
“Yes,” Eames says, sticking to Polish. He’s fluent and although his accent isn’t perfect, it’s good enough that he can’t be identified as English. The less he lets on about himself the better. “A friend of mine is in trouble and I need to know who is after him. Ewa suggested that you might be able to help.”
“Perhaps.” Stefaniak looks at Eames as though wondering how many secrets he might hold, how much gold he might be able to get for him. Eames’s suspicions are instantly ignited but he knew it was a risk coming here. He trusts Ewa, to an extent, but not this man. The choices are few, however, and Eames will have to take what he can. “I can help but my information isn’t cheap.”
“I can pay.”
“What do you want to know?”
“If their name or aliases are mentioned or tracked, things like that.”
Eames pauses, still feeling deeply distrustful, but he reluctantly gives Stefaniak his name and the last few aliases he’s used, not telling him which name is real. He also withholds the alias he used to check into the Hilton,
Stefaniak writes them all down and when he looks up again, there’s a greedy glint in his eyes. He gives Eames some bank details, tells him to deposit the money in that account. Once he has the money, he will begin the search.
Eames goes straight back to the hotel room, running through the meeting with Stefaniak over and over again. There was something about him that rang alarm bells in Eames’s head, something he can’t quite put his finger on. He thinks about something that his granddad once told him: when you’re a spy, you get to know your own. It works for conmen too, and Eames is certain Stefaniak was trying to con him.
Locking the door, putting the meagre security into place, Eames runs a hand through his hair. He’s exhausted again, tired enough that his brain keeps tripping up when he tries to think things through.
A nap might help but Eames feels deeply frustrated about feeling so damned tired all the time. Just a nap, he tells himself. A bit of sleep will clear his head and he’ll be able to think about this.
Just a nap and he’ll decide what to do.
A loud, insistent knocking at the door jerks Eames uncomfortably from his sleep. It’s a harsh awakening and for a few seconds he’s not sure where he is or what he’s doing here. His hand flops about on the nightstand until he reaches his totem and his gun. One hand checks that he isn’t dreaming while the other curls around the gun. With some difficulty he stands, his side feeling stiff and on fire at the same time.
He manages to stagger to the door and his confusion only increases when he sees Ewa in the hallway outside. He opens the door, attempting to keep his gun out of sight behind the door itself.
She pushes inside. “I need to apologise to you. I sent you walking into a trap.”
“What?” Eames is in pain and confused and far from properly awake. He barely caught most of the words but Ewa’s insistent tone caught his attention.
“What’s happened to you?” Ewa’s voice is aghast and Eames realises that she’s just caught sight of his wound.
“Like I said, I was attacked,” he says, and a quick check of the clock on the television tells him that he’s been asleep for three hours, which in turn means it’s been five hours since his last round of medication. He stumbles to the bathroom and Ewa follows him.
“Let me,” she says and takes the antiseptic cream from him. Sitting him on the side of the bath she cleans the wound carefully, all the bits that he was unable to do himself. He leans against the wall and she’s so gentle that he manages to snooze while she works.
“There we go,” he hears her say and he rouses himself, sitting up straight and yawning.
“Thank you,” he says, and swallows his round of painkillers and antibiotics with a mouthful of water. “So. You were saying.”
“I was saying that I was wrong to send you to Stefaniak. This afternoon your name and description lit up our surveillance.”
Eames swears, and stands, going into the bedroom and pacing.
“Apparently there was a large price on your head. Too large for Stefaniak to refuse.”
“Of course,” Eames mutters, glaring out of the window.
“My nephew, Piotr, works for a safehouse in Budapest,” Ewa says, following him and leaning against the wall. “If you can get there undetected you should be able to lay low.”
“If,” Eames says, and he just wants to crawl back into bed, pull the covers over his head and pretend that none of this is happening. “I don’t have a bloody choice, do I? If they know I’m here it can’t be long until I’m found.”
“I’ll drive you to the airport,” she says. “There are regular flights to Warsaw and from there you can fly to Budapest.”
Feeling like he’s being dragged along by a whitewater current, Eames nods. He sits on the bed and lets Ewa hustle around his room, getting everything into his bag.
“I feel so guilty,” she murmurs when she’s done. “I was so sure that he was a credible source. I would never have sent you to him otherwise.”
“I believe you,” Eames says and summons a smile. “But let’s go before I fall asleep again.”
The journey to the airport starts ordinarily enough. Eames dozes in the comfortable seat of Ewa’s BMW but soon becomes aware that there is something not right. She’s taking too many turns, looking too often in the rearview. Eames pulls down the sun visor and uses the mirror to look out of the back window.
He sees it. A black Audi, taking every turn that they do. The windows are tinted so that the people inside are hidden. His thoughts go to the gun in his bag but he doesn’t move to get it—this isn’t a dream and a shoot-out in the middle of Gdansk is not going to go unnoticed. He will only use it if there is no other choice.
“Just the one car?” Eames asks, and Ewa nods.
“Just one, but one is enough.” She turns again, bringing them in a circle. The Audi continues to follow. “The road to the airport is too quiet—they will be able to ambush us. We need to stay in the city—and get help.”
“Help we can trust?”
She glances over at him. “When your name was mentioned by the mole my people looked you up,” she says, and Eames stares at her, not sure where she’s going with this. “You’re not wanted in Poland but you’re a person of interest for Interpol.”
“I know,” Eames says sowly. There’s nothing in her expression that sets alarm bells off for him the way Stefaniak did—although she knows he’s wanted he still doesn’t think that she will betray him.
“And the British and American military,” she adds. “They’d like to speak to you too.”
“I’m sure they would. I went AWOL when I was in the Royal Marines, on secondment to an American project.”
“It also means that we can’t go to my bosses for help—they won’t bother looking for you but if you turn up on their doorstep they’ll arrest you.”
Eames finally sees her point. “Then what do you suggest?”
She looks over at him smiling, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “I can’t go to my bosses but that doesn’t mean I’m without friends. Give me your phone.”
Eames does so, and she dials quickly, keeping her attention between the road in front of her and the car following. They pull back out onto a larger road and then left, onto one of the main arteries of the city. There are many cars out here, pedestrians too, and Eames wonders what her plan is.
“Marek,” Ewa says. “I’m being followed and need some interference. Black Audi. We’re on Blednik, coming up to the station in about two minutes. Can you run interference?”
She snaps the phone shut and hands it back. “Never underestimate the power of your friends, William.”
“I don’t,” Eames says quietly. “I know I can’t do this alone. But I’m not going to put my friends in danger, either. I’m sorry that I’ve put you in danger.”
“Don’t be silly,” she says, glancing at him. Her eyes are serious and she squeezes his knee. “How could I face your grandfathers if I let anything happen to you? Besides, I’m a big girl. I can look after myself.”
“Thank you.” Eames stares out of the window, looking for the interference. If they can get away from this Audi, they should be able to get to the airport and then hopefully that will be the end of these people’s involvement in Ewa’s life. He’d hate to think that she’s in danger because of him. Of course, she was a spy for the West during the Cold War. Whoever’s after him, he’s sure that Ewa and her friends can deal with any fallout.
“Here we are,” Ewa says, and they speed past a street seconds before a white van pulls out and smashes into the Audi, tipping it onto its roof and pushing it across the street where it crashes into a brick wall. No-one gets out.
Immediately Ewa pulls off the main road, taking smaller roads through suburbs until the houses start to thin.
“Looks like we’ll be able to get to the airport,” she says. “They might not know our destination but it’s not hard to guess that you’re trying to get out of the country.”
“Do you think they’d try anything at the airport?”
“I doubt it,” she says. “But they could find out where you’re headed.”
“I’ll have to take that risk,” he says.
Ewa accompanies him into the airport, an extra set of eyes to look out for anything unusual. They see nothing by the time he gets to security, but since they still don’t know who they’re looking for that doesn’t mean anything.
As the last call for his flight is announced, he turns to Ewa.
“Thank you, Ewa,” he says. Without her help the men in the Audi would have caught him, or killed him, and he doesn’t like the sound of either. Before he can say anything more she kisses him softly on the lips. Eames blinks at her and she chuckles.
“I was a little in love with your grandfather at one point,” she tells him with a smile, stroking a finger down his cheek. “Maybe that’s why I’ve helped you.”
“I think you helped me because you’re a good person,” Eames says, and kisses her cheek. “I’ll be back to repay you as soon as I can.”
“I look forward to it. Good luck, William.”
“Thank you,” he says as he steps into the security queue, wincing at the pain in his side. “I think I’ll need it.”
Ariadne comes out of the shower to find Arthur staring at his computer screen. He waves her over.
“Dan got back to me with the log-in details,” he says. “I’ve found some security videos. They’re much better quality than the picture on the news website.”
She looks over his shoulder to see several men in masks moving boxes. Nothing particularly interesting yet. The men walk towards the warehouse door with their prizes, but before they leave, one of them peels off his mask and turns to the camera, a sneer stretching his lips. He mouths something at the camera and pumps his fist into the air before following the other men out of the door.
His actions make no sense, but when Ariadne turns to say that to Arthur, her words die on her tongue. Arthur is staring at the screen, rewinding to where the man takes off his mask. His jaw clenches tightly at he glares at the screen like he’s trying to set it on fire. Ariadne doesn’t recognise the man but obviously Arthur does.
“Who is he?” When she speaks, Arthur’s head snaps to look at her, like he’s forgotten that she’s there.
“Someone I knew years ago...” Arthur trails off and stares at the screen. Ariadne waits, but Arthur doesn’t continue. She’s torn between asking for more information and giving him space, but when it comes down to it the only way she can help him is if she knows all the facts.
Arthur stands, surprising her, and she follows him as he heads for his bedroom. “Arthur, what’s going on?”
He doesn’t answer. Instead he takes a satchel from the closet and opens it, pulling out a hidden section from the bottom and sliding in the gun that sits on the nightstand. The hidden section is replaced and he puts a few other items in the bag, but when he reaches for his passport she has to speak up.
“Arthur,” she says. “Please tell me what’s happening.”
“I need to go to England,” he says without stopping packing. “There’s someone I need to speak to.”
“About the guy in the video?”
“Yes. I’m going to call Katerina, ask her to come over here and make sure you’re alright.”
Ariadne’s mouth drops open, anger leaching into her confusion.
“I don’t need babysitting,” she snaps, and that gets his attention. Long strides bring him over to her and his expression is intense.
“I’m trying to protect you,” he says, his voice tight. “If I’m right about who is after me and Eames then he would have no problem with you being collateral damage. I’m tempted to put you on a plane and get you the hell out of here.”
“Just try it,” she says, glaring up at him.
He stares down at her and then closes his eyes. He bows his head and steps back, his shoulders losing some of their tension. “I could do it,” he says, quietly. “I probably should do it.”
“I agreed to help you, knowing what those guys did to Eames,” she says, folding her arms. “I’ve known this could be dangerous from the start.”
“Not this dangerous.” He pauses, like he’s going to say something, but instead goes over to the wardrobe to take out his coat, which he puts on the bed next to his bag. “I’m calling Katerina,” he says, and does, before Ariadne can stop him.
The overprotectiveness is sweet in a way, she supposes, but she hates being treated like a kid.
“Tell me who you think is after you,” Ariadne says the instant Arthur gets off the phone. He pauses and she can tell from the quirk of his lips that he’s weighing up whether or not he should.
“I’m only telling you because I think that the more information you have, the safer you’ll be,” he says. “You hear any of these names mentioned – in the restaurant, on the street, anywhere – you get out of there, alright?”
“Alright,” Ariadne agrees, startled by the sudden change in Arthur’s demeanour. He’s scared. He goes back to the computer and taps at the screen, where the video is still paused.
“I used to work with this man at White Sands Missile Base, over in New Mexico. This was back when I first started working on Somnacin. This guy – Stahl – was the right-hand man of the guy in charge. General McKay. Stahl worshipped him.” Arthur lets out a long, shaky breath, and his fear is contagious. Ariadne isn’t sure she wants to know about the kind of man that makes Arthur scared.
“McKay was in charge of Project Somnacin,”Arthur says. “And we got him arrested – me and Eames did. I’m guessing he’s either out of prison or Stahl is plotting his own revenge.”
“Wait,” Ariadne says, holding her hands up and giving herself a moment to catch up with this. “So you got this McKay arrested. What for?”
Arthur looks at her, a mix of terror and rage flashing over his face. “The bastard believed that torture was a good use for dream-share.” He pauses and his next words are spoken through his teeth. “He tested that theory on Eames.”
“What?” The question is reflexive, Ariadne’s heart leaping into her throat. Someone tortured Eames in a dream? She thinks back to being stabbed by Mal, how awful and terrifying that was. That was just a few seconds – she can’t even imagine what that would be like going on for hours, days - depending on how many layers the dream has it could be years. “Why would anyone use dream-share for torture?”
“For much the same reasons they torture people in reality,” Arthur says, stalking to the window where he clutches the frame, hard.
Ariadne frowns at him and shakes her head, her mind not able to take in what Arthur’s saying because it makes no sense. “For information? That doesn’t make sense. Extraction will give you all the information you want, information that you can be sure is true.”
“Because extraction requires skill and subtly,” Arthur says tersely. “It requires planning, and knowledge of your subject. It takes time. Or maybe just because they like hurting people in ways they could never get away with in real life. I don’t know.”
“Arthur, I’m sorry,” she says, realising that while this is all theory to her and a story she can barely believe, this happened to him, happened to Eames. She reaches up and squeezes his shoulder, the knowledge coming to her a little too late that this is not the time to ask any more questions.
For a long moment he pauses, staring down at the courtyard below. Eventually he nods and steps away from her.
“McKay had followers,” he says. “More than we were ever able to discover. I need to speak to Davies, the guy who was my second in command. He still works at Menwith Hill, in charge of dream-share security. If anyone knows about McKay, it’ll be him.”
“And he’ll help?” Ariadne can’t keep the disbelief out of her voice; she can’t imagine someone in the US Army helping out a couple of illegal dream-sharers.
“He’ll help,” Arthur says flatly, adjusting the strap of his bag. “He always said that he thought that me and Eames had done the right thing in blowing the whistle on McKay. And we… We keep in touch. I tell him about developments in extraction – like how we made inception work – and he tells me anything I might need to know.”
“But why do you have to go there? Can’t you just call-“
“I don’t trust that the phonelines and internet at the base aren’t compromised. And it’s not like I’m any use here.”
Arthur stays until Katerina arrives.
As annoyed as Ariadne was when Arthur insisted on phoning Katerina, she’s glad she’s not alone.
Arthur’s Jeep roars through the picture-perfect Yorkshire countryside: swooping valleys and steep hills, dark blue water and occasional roads threading through the landscape like grey stitches in green cotton. The serenity of his surroundings contrasts with the turmoil of his thoughts.
He arrived in London yesterday and went to some of Eames’s old friends to help. Arthur knows that getting a flawless military ID in less than twenty-four hours is a miracle but he still spent all yesterday furious about dragging his heels while Eames needed his help.
To make everything worse, Arthur spoke to Eames last night and discovered that he has had to run again. From what Eames said, Stefaniak sold him out. Research is supposed to be what Arthur’s good at, yet all of his skills were worth nothing when Eames needed him. Feeling useless only pissed Arthur off even more, until he growled and decided that his only option was to empty the mini-bar. The dull throb in his temples suggests that it might not have been the most sensible decision he’s ever made.
The countryside becomes more familiar as he gets closer to Menwith Hill. Red-brick or sandstone houses are the only buildings that have appeared for miles; and then, on the horizon, something strange.
White spheres scatter the line of the horizon, completely out of place. Arthur remembers feeling like he’d wandered into a science fiction film the first time he saw them. They are radomes, surveillance devices that listen into telecommunications traffic. Originally they were built to spy on the Russians in the Cold War; these days they listen out for terrorist plots and anything else their masters decide they want to hear. Project Somnacin used Menwith Hill as a base because of its central location, since the members of Arthur’s team were mostly from European countries. Arthur had never been that interested in the day-to-day workings at the base, but he’s heard enough to know that the crazy conspiracy theories about governments spying on their citizens aren’t as crazy as they seem.
He pulls onto the road that will lead him to the guardhouse and takes in several deep, calming breaths. No-one should recognise him. Other than Davies there are no other members of Arthur’s team left. There will still be some people who worked here when Arthur did, but he has to risk the chance of being recognised: this is the best way to get the information he needs.
As Arthur pulls up to the gate, the guard gazes at Arthur and after a few seconds pushes himself up out of his chair. Arthur shows him the ID and says that Captain Davies is expecting him.
“Name?” The guard asks.
“Captain Rafferty,” Arthur says, using the pseudonym he uses in communications with Davies.
“You’re not on the list,” the guard says, checking it briefly and chews what Arthur assumes is gum.
“Then call him and check,” Arthur says, and it’s not hard at all to feign impatience. “And spit that gum out, you’re a goddamn disgrace, Private.”
“Yessir,” the guard says, and it’s amazing what a little authority in the voice does. He phones Davies who, thank god, seems to recognise the name, for moments later the guard is opening the gates and letting Arthur in. The tension in Arthur’s shoulders eases a little, but he knows he’s far from safe.
He thinks through everything Eames ever taught him about being a conman. The main thing is to look like he belongs. To walk like he knows where he’s going, confident of his right to be here.
He walks through the radomes, like giant bubbles that have frozen on the ground. They’re strange and sort of beautiful, all the more when contrasted to the low, ugly buildings.
The corridors are grey and nondescript, but Arthur remembers his way. Down two flights of stairs, up another nondescript corridor and there it is. A small room, sparsely furnished, with a filing cabinet, a droning air vent and a desk. There’s a young man behind the desk, in uniform and he gives Arthur a pleasant smile.
“I’m here to see Captain Davies,” Arthur says. “I don’t have an appointment but he is expecting me.”
“Let me just call through,” the man behind the desk says. “Can I take your name?”
After a moment on the phone, Desk-boy smiles and gestures at a door in the opposite wall. “Captain Davies will see you now, sir.”
Arthur steps through it into his old office. It feels strange to be on the other side of the desk; stranger still to see Davies in his seat with Captain’s insignia on his shoulders.
Davies stands up when they enter and salutes Arthur.
“Captain Callahan, it’s good to see you sir.”
“Stand down, Davies—you’re a captain now as well, remember?”
Davies gives a sheepish smile and shrugs. “I’m sure you would have been promoted if you’d stayed with us.”
“Perhaps,” Arthur says and sits on the chair and finds that it’s worn around the edges, a dent in the middle.
Davies eyes him curiously. “I’m surprised to see you. It’s a big risk for you to come here. I assume it’s important?”
“Yes, and I don’t trust that the lines in and out of here are secure. That’s why I’m here.”
“Captain,” Davies says, giving a crooked smile. “Are you suggesting that one of the USA’s primary surveillance bases is under surveillance itself?”
“I imagine it’s more along the lines of you having a mole,” Arthur says and shrugs. That’s not important. “I’m here because Eames was attacked by three men who I believe have something to do with General McKay.”
Davies’s eyebrows leap before he gets control of himself, settling into a neutral expression.
“It’s possible,” Davies begins slowly. “McKay is no longer in prison.”
Although Arthur had expected as much, it’s a kick in the stomach to hear. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was need-to-know,” Davies says, compassion leaking into the military words. “After all the media attention when he was put away, can you imagine how much negative coverage we’d receive if we made it public that he’d escaped?”
“So where is he?” Arthur asks, his voice shaking slightly. It’s one thing to suspect that a psychopath is after someone you love, another to have it confirmed.
“We aren’t sure. We think that he’s in the southern US.” Davies pauses then turns to get a folder out of the filing cabinet. He hands it over to Arthur who takes it, gripping it hard so that Davies can’t see how much his hands are shaking.
A glance tells him that the file relates to a group in the US that he’s vaguely heard of. They’re at the dark edges of illegal dream-share, hired by people who don’t want the mark not to talk, but to hurt. From the little Arthur’s heard, they’re vicious and not to be crossed. He had also heard that the group is just a few psychotic individuals, but the information in the file suggests otherwise.
“It’s a fairly large group, about fifty individuals, made up of smaller cells,” Davies says.” The cells are scattered, mostly concentrated in the southern US, but we’ve found evidence of their work all over the world.”
“Dream torture for hire. Nasty. If it goes on long enough it drives the subject insane. Long enough being about an hour topside.”
Arthur doesn’t say anything. As a Royal Marine, Eames had been trained to withstand torture and was experienced with dream-share. He knew it wasn’t real. Yet for months after he’d been plagued by memories, and he’d been glad when Somnacin stole his ability to dream naturally because it meant an end to the nightmares. So yeah, Arthur can believe that it wouldn’t take long for a civilian to lose it completely.
“So what’s their connection with McKay?”
“The founding members were his aides at White Sands,” Davies says and withdraws another file. “They formed while he was inside, gaining followers in people who thought the same way he did.”
“That torturing people is a good way to get your kicks?”
“That America should protect itself by any means necessary,” Davies says, voice soft, like he’s talking to someone fragile. And hell, he is, because Arthur is a whirlpool of rage and anxiety and fear.
“So how do they justify what they’re doing now, torturing innocent people for pay?”
“I don’t know,” Davies says, shaking his head. “But you know some of this group—you worked with some of them before you came here.”
“At White Sands?” Arthur asks as he flicks through the file. He recognises faces from his past, people that he thought were scum then, and here’s the proof. There’s Stahl, and there are two of the men who attacked Eames. Finding the solution to this puzzle is not bringing him any kind of satisfaction. All Arthur feels is hollowness, like he hasn’t eaten for days.
“Thank you, Davies,” Arthur says, standing and handing back the folder. “This has been very helpful.”
Davies stands and shakes Arthur’s hand. “It’s the least I could do. I hope Lieutenant Eames is alright.”
“He will be,” Arthur says, his words a confident counterpoint to the doubt in his voice. “He has to be.”
After getting through customs at the airport, Eames spots Ewa’s nephew instantly. He has the same sharp blue eyes, the same easy elegance. He’s a little younger than Eames and he’s gorgeous, slim and stylish. He’s wearing a tailored pants and sweater vest combo that reminds Eames so much of Arthur that it’s hard to breathe for a moment. Eames pauses to hide his worry under a charming veneer and approaches with his warmest smile.
“Piotr,” he says, and Piotr nods without smiling. He seems a very serious man and that only makes him seem more like Arthur.
“William,” he says and shakes Eames's hand in a firm grip. “Come, I have a car waiting.”
A low thrum of adrenaline has been thumping through Eames since Ewa knocked on his hotel room door. He feels completely wired, still exhausted but on high-alert at the same time, like he’s downed ten espressos. He’s hoping that when they get to the safe house it will wear off because he wants to get as much rest as he can, while he can, before the next ugly surprise rears its head.
Piotr’s car is a Skoda, a mid-size sedan and a dull choice for a spy. Eames’s lips quirk into a smile, wondering if there are any James Bond-esque gadgets hidden behind the very-ordinary facade.
As they set off Eames watches the familiar skyline of Budapest approach. It’s a beautiful city and a favourite for him and Arthur to visit on weekend breaks, so when they come into the city proper and pass some well-loved landmarks it makes the dull throb that is missing-Arthur intensify.
“Is it far?” Eames asks as they cross the Danube.
“Not far. Ten minutes or so.” Piotr’s lips are thin and while Eames doesn’t know him very well, getting a feel for people within moments is what he does. He can see that Piotr is not happy for Eames to be here.
“You don’t seem all that comfortable to be helping me,” Eames says, and Piotr cracks the first smile he’s shown Eames.
“Not really,” he says. “I’m not really happy harbouring confessed criminals. But Aunt Ewa insisted.”
“With any luck I’ll be out of your hair soon,” Eames says, and after giving him a long look, Piotr turns his attention back to the road.
The safe house is at the end of a terrace. As they go in, Piotr leads him upstairs. The main space of the attic which is carefully designed to seem like it covers the whole width of the house, so that someone viewing it casually would never guess that there is a hidden room.
The room is homier that Eames would have expected: there is a bed, a small television and a coffee machine. There’s even a small bathroom. It feels more like staying over at a friend’s than a safe house for secret agents and Eames feels the adrenaline wearing off, exhaustion leeching in.
“Would you like something to eat?” Piotr asks, and Eames looks from the bed to Piotr and for a few seconds he is torn. Eventually hunger wins out over tiredness.
Piotr leads the way back down the narrow staircase to the kitchen, a large room with a wooden table set into an alcove. There are tall windows shielded by linen blinds and the morning sun streams in, yellow and muted.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much, since I wasn’t expecting guests,” Piotr says as he takes an apron off a hook. Eames is simultaneously charmed and amused—a fucking apron.
“That’s not a problem.” Now that Piotr’s reminded him, Eames is very aware that he hasn’t eaten for almost twenty-four hours and he’s starving.
As Piotr moves around the kitchen, from fridge to sink to sideboard, Eames’s gaze follows his graceful steps and starts to see hints of the spy in Piotr that a casual onlooker might miss. Like Arthur, Piotr is slim but strong, and though he has a bad limp, there’s a rhythm to his movements that suggest a history of dance, or music.
The resemblance to Arthur that’s been building in Eames’s mind floats away like a blown dandelion clock when he sees Piotr transform not much into a feast. He’s completely at home in the kitchen whereas Arthur is incapable of making an omelette.
By the time the food is laid on the table—tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, moist scrambled eggs, potato pancakes—the shade of Arthur that haunted Piotr’s footsteps has vanished, fading in the warmth of the morning sun, but the accompanying pang in Eames’s chest remains.
“So who are you running from?” Piotr asks.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s hard when you don’t know who is on your tail. Never knowing who to look out for, where you will be safe.” There’s an undertone of sadness in Piotr’s voice; it sounds like he knows this from experience. Eames wonders what his story is.
“I don’t know if anywhere is safe,” Eames says, feeling both melodramatic and morose, like a dull grey cloud has settled around his shoulders and refuses to leave him.
“I’ll try and keep you safe here,” Piotr says, giving another of his wintry smiles.
“Well it is a safe house,” Eames says. Piotr’s eyebrows raise minutely and Eames grins at him. “So what’s a boy like you doing in a place like this?”
Piotr cocks his head slightly, examining Eames closely like he’s trying to figure out Eames’s temperament. “A long story,” Piotr says in answer, taking a sip of tea and then treating Eames to another smile. “It involves bull terriers, frankfurters and the Sex Pistols, but it ended with me getting shot in the leg. I could no longer work in the field so I asked to be transferred here.”
“Not a bad job,” Eames muses. “Large house, interesting guests.”
“Depends on the guests.”
“What about me?”
A pause. “I’ve not decided yet.” Piotr’s eyes are curious still but Eames detects a note of interest that he did not mean to invite. It’s flattering that even bruised and battered he is still attractive, and amusing that both Piotr and Ewa seem to find him attractive, like it’s in their genes.
Flattering or not, Eames really doesn’t want to have to deal with it, hurting and aching and missing Arthur like he does. He excuses himself and heads up to his room, telling himself that everything will be better when he wakes, but Eames knows that he’s a conman and a liar doesn’t believe himself for a second.
Just like Gdansk, Eames is woken by insistent knocking. He wakes, confused, and reaches for his totem. Not dreaming.
When he answers the door, he sees Piotr standing there, looking grave.
“I’m sorry to wake you, but my people have picked up surveillance. Your pursuers know that you are in Budapest. This house was mentioned as a possibility for your location; we may have a traitor in our ranks. You’re not safe here.”
Eames stares at Piotr, cogs of fear and anger and frustration turning, clanking in his mind. He fiddles with his totem. “Fuck.”
“What will you do?”
“Run,” Eames says simply and runs a hand through his hair. There’s not much time but he has to hide his tracks better this time or he’s just going to have to keep doing this again and again. He needs a disguise. Mulling it over, he opens his bag and an idea emerges. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a baseball cap?”
Piotr raises an eyebrow, glances down at his immaculately tailored self then back to Eames.
“I do not, but we might have something downstairs. I’ll see what I can do.”
“And some hair clippers.”
With a last jerk of an eyebrow, reminding Eames of Arthur again, Piotr leaves.
With what’s available, the best disguise that Eames can conjure up is a version of his younger, pre-military self. He pulls on a black Adidas tracksuit and looks at his reflection. Like putting together a forgery he slumps his shoulders, puts his hands in his pockets, affects a cocky sneer. He practices walking, adds a swagger to his steps, sets his feet further apart. Remembers doing this when he was younger, imitating his wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend.
By the time Piotr returns Eames is having fun with it. Remembering flirting obscenely with his old boyfriend, he does the same to Piotr, who actually backs up when Eames winks at him salaciously, eyes narrowed like Eames is pulling a con on him. Which he is, sort of.
“I need a disguise, innit?” Eames says, snatching the hat out of Piotr’s hands and squinting at his reflection. Maybe the hat is too much.
“It’s a good disguise,” Piotr says dryly. “You were attractive when you walked in and now I’m afraid you’re going to mug me.”
“Mug a pretty boy like you? Can think of better things than that, yeah?”
“Please stop,” Piotr says, looking mildly distressed and Eames breaks his character, laughing.
“It’s just pretend,” Eames says, patting Piotr’s shoulder. “Most people go out of their way to ignore people like this.”
“True,” Piotr says. When Eames gestures for the clippers, Piotr shakes his head. “Let me.”
He gently pushes Eames into the tiny bathroom. In the mirrored surface of the medicine cabinet both of them are reflected, Piotr’s eyes softer now that Eames is himself. “How do you want it?”
“High and tight,” Eames says, shrugging off his jacket and t-shirt so that he doesn’t get hair all over it. Piotr stares at Eames’s side, lifts the arm so that he can get a better look at it. Eames lets him for a moment before gently pulling his arm away.
“Aunt Ewa didn’t tell me about that,” Piotr says quietly. “I didn’t know you were injured.”
“Does it make any difference?”
“You shouldn’t be running around like this,” Piotr says. “I could have done something—“ He stops and shrugs, frustrated.
“Like you said, they must have infiltrated your organisation; there’s nothing you could have done. I’ll be alright.”
In Piotr’s reflected eyes Eames sees that flash of attraction again; mixed with something more, something a little deeper, enough to make Eames wonder if he should just say that he’s in a relationship. Not really the time or the place, Eames thinks as Piotr starts to cut his hair. No point in disillusioning him, especially when the attraction might make him more willing to help.
By the time Piotr is done it looks good, and when Eames sets his face back into the character he’s built he looks rough and threatening and nothing like himself.
“What do you reckon,” Eames asks, running a hand over the thick stubble on his jaw. “Shave or not?”
“Shave,” Piotr says immediately, and starts the taps running at the sink by reaching around Eames. It’s a little too intimate and Eames moves away under the guise of pulling his t-shirt back on.
“Thank you,” Eames says, smiling gratefully. “As soon as I’m done I’ll get out of here.”
A wash of pink spreads over Piotr’s cheeks, and he nods curtly. “Of course. I can provide documents, if you need them?”
“I have my own,” Eames says, trusting his own forgeries far more than those from an undermined security agency.
After shaving he takes out his mobile and calls Arthur to update him. It goes straight to voicemail. Piotr’s similarity to Arthur has already got Eames missing Arthur terribly, and hearing Arthur’s voice hurts, even when it’s just the curt leave your details and I’ll get back to you message. When it finishes he can’t speak around the lump that’s suddenly expanded in his throat, not allowing any words to escape.
“Arthur,” he manages. “I’ve been found. Again. I’m moving on and I’m dumping this phone—no idea if it’s being tracked but it’s not worth hanging on to. I’ll call you as soon as I can.” He pauses again, the lump in his throat and the pain in his chest not diminishing. “I fucking miss you,” he says before he can stop himself and saying the words out loud doesn’t help a damn thing. “I’ll see you soon, love. I will.”
He hangs up before he can collapse into a pathetic monologue and sits on the edge of the bed, closing his eyes and breathing deeply until he’s calm again. It won’t do him any good to be worked up for this. He needs to relax, to be able to stay in character. Since his Hungarian isn’t up to much, he’ll play at being a Russian going back home.
Just as he swings the bag onto his shoulder, Piotr races into the room. He puts a finger to his lips and gestures for Eames to come to him. He does, and out in the main space of the attic Eames hears it.
Downstairs, American voices in faux-whispers. “He’s supposed to be here somewhere. You want upstairs or downstairs?”
Without waiting to hear the answer, Piotr goes to the far wall and his fingers skate across it, searching.
Secret wall? Eames guesses and is proven right seconds later when there is a click and a door swings open. Behind it there is a ladder leading down. Piotr points down and directs Eames to go first.
The trip down the ladder is slow and stops completely when they hear the Americans, just the other side of the wall on the ground floor, continuing only when the voices move away. The passageway is completely dark, and Eames just keeps going, down past the basement, deep under the house. It’s hard going and by the time his feet finally reach the floor his side is hurting badly and he leans against the wall, blinking back the pain. He hears Piotr scrabbling for something and then a small yellow glow lights the space. It’s a candle, flickering, in a metal holder. When a second candle is lit, the extra light lets Eames see that they’re in a tunnel with whitewashed walls, the floor worn stone.
Once they’ve walked a few minutes, Piotr explains that this tunnel will take them to an alleyway near a Metro station and from there Eames will be able to make his way to the airport.
Eames nods and Piotr goes quiet. Sounds echo here, distort and deform, and however life-saving the tunnel might be it is not a friendly place.
It’s a good opportunity to take on his forgery. While he hasn’t had the chance to change his appearance much, changing his body language will make all the difference. People pay more attention to body language than anything else, so that is what Eames makes sure he gets right. That’s what makes a forgery work.
By the time Piotr slows and turns to the left, Eames is a cocky bad boy with an attitude problem. They’re in a smaller tunnel now, and soon they walk up a narrow staircase. Eames is glad that it’s not a ladder; his side is a throbbing mass of pain and there’s no way he could have managed.
At the top of the stairs they blow their candles out, and when Piotr opens the door, Eames is surprised to see a small storage space, full of dusty boxes.
“As long as the men who are after you don’t know about the tunnel you should be able to get away easily enough,” Piotr says.
“If they know about the house they’ll probably know about the tunnels,” Eames murmurs, dry-swallowing a couple of painkillers while Piotr messes around with something on one of the walls.
“True, but there are many exits, too many to watch all of them. We will just have to trust to luck and pray that they don’t investigate this one.” Part of the wall Piotr’s fussing with comes away. It’s a false-panel with an emergency telephone and a small screen behind it. The screen shows the feed from a security camera, Eames sees, recording the view outside. It’s an empty, litter-strewn alley, and once Piotr is satisfied that no-one is hiding in wait he clicks the screen off, replaces the panel and steps outside.
Eames blinks in the sun—after the long dark of the ladder and the tunnel he had forgotten that it’s still daytime.
“I’m going to leave you here,” Piotr says, glancing around. “I need to get to my superiors, tell them what has happened.”
“The Metro station is—“ Piotr stops and suddenly he’s pushing Eames against the wall and kissing him. Eames is overwhelmed by a rush of pain and confusion, and the few seconds it takes for his brain to catch up gives him time to hear American voices approaching.
“Our guy said there’s an exit around here,” one of them says. “Asshole didn’t write the street name.”
Shit, Eames thinks, heart speeding up, and he joins in the kiss, one arm going around Piotr’s waist, the other tangling in his hair, doing his best to play the part of a horny guy as his side screams where Piotr’s arm brushes up against it.
“They could be anywhere by now,” one of the Americans grumbles. “I told you that we should have waited for back-up so that we could block off the tunnel.”
“Yeah, back-up that would’ve taken days to arrive,” the voice says from the end of the alley. “Jesus christ, look at that. Goddamn Europeans. I swear to god, if they tried that in my town—”
“Let’s just get out of here,” the other one says, and their footsteps and horrible comments recede. Once they can no longer be heard, Piotr steps back and Eames slides down the wall, clutching his side.
“God, I’m sorry, I forgot,” Piotr says, touching Eames’s arm. “Did I hurt you? Are you alright?”
“Just give me a minute,” Eames croaks, waiting for the pain to fade enough for him to stand.
“I’m so sorry-“
“Don’t worry about it. If you hadn’t acted so quickly we might both be dead now,” Eames says, forcing himself to his feet.
“If you’re sure,” Piotr says, leaning down to grab Eames’s bag for him.
“I’m sure. Thank you.” Eames glances out and sees the Metro station across the road. “We should get out of here before they come back with a lynch mob.”
“Probably,” Piotr says, then smiles, uncertain but hopeful. “Perhaps we’ll see each other again one day.”
“Perhaps,” Eames says, and doesn’t have the energy to rebuff him. Besides, Piotr’s gone above and beyond to get him here. He deserves a reward. “Say thank you to your Aunt Ewa for me.”
Eames goes first, slipping into his disguise, becoming someone isn’t going to look out of place sauntering out of an alley. He puts his hood up and crosses to the Metro station. On the way down the steps he picks the pocket of a businessman for his pass and some forints. He heads down to the platforms, not caring which train he takes. He needs to get to Nyugati station, where he can get a train to the airport, but before then he’s going to dick around to make sure he’s not being tailed.
Down on the platform Eames leans against the wall and looks around nonchalantly. There aren’t many fellow travellers since most people are still in work. Eames gets onto the first train that comes, gets off at a random stop, goes to a random platform and goes through the whole process twice more. He’s fairly sure he’s not being followed so he finally heads to Nyugati.
When he’s finally on the train to the airport he takes some painkillers and flips his totem between his fingers as he stares out at the passing scenery.
It feels like a dream. It fucking does. Being chased by anonymous people, like the projections persecute the dreamer. His totem says he’s not dreaming but what if he’s the dreamer? Thinking back, he knows exactly how he got here, how he got from Heathrow to Beijing to New York. The trouble with that is that dreams can last so long, where do you start?
Fuck it, he thinks. He doesn’t have the energy to wonder. Right now he has a plan; his only concern is getting to Moscow where he can find somewhere safe to wait to hear from Arthur.
Maybe Arthur will have found out who’s after him.
Maybe he and Arthur can finally meet up and finish this.
As Eames steps out of the grand Paveletsky station into the brisk air of Moscow he feels more confident. He knows this city, knows how to work it. He has contacts here that are nothing to do with extraction. Oh course, as Ewa said, it’s possible that his pursuers have nothing to do with extraction, which would mean that he can’t trust a goddamn soul. He’ll get a phone, contact Arthur, see if he’s got anywhere. If not, Eames will go to his contacts. He can’t continue like this.
The streets are busy with business people, students, parents with strollers. Despite the crowds, Eames notices someone following him; the man is making no attempt to hide the fact.
Eames runs through his options. He could try and lose him. But he is being so blatant that Eames decides to speak to him. He heads to a Starbucks, amused by the idea of this symbol of American capitalism in Moscow.
He sits down with a chai latte and watches the man join the queue. He’s tall, he’s got half a foot or more on Eames, and his shoulders barely fit through doorways. Foxish hair, cleft chin. When he turns, grande latte and cookie tiny in his huge hands, he is grinning widely.
“Eames,” he says, voice heavily accented, and Eames nods. “Forger, dream criminal—“
“You forgot gentleman,” Eames says and the man chuckles, rich and resonant, a song of a laugh.
“I am sure.” He sips at his latte. “My name is Nikolai, and I am afraid I am no gentleman. I’ve been told to ask you to come with me.”
“Because if you don’t we will tell the men who are chasing you where you are. If you do, we will protect you from them and give you somewhere to rest while you heal.”
“And you said you weren’t a gentleman,” Eames says dryly and Nikolai laughs again.
“The deal is that you will work for us. One job. We will protect you until then.”
And after? thinks Eames, but says nothing. It might be the best thing he can do right now. Rest, heal, and then get the hell out of there. Wherever there is.
“I don’t suppose I have much choice, so I graciously accept.”
“Marvellous,” Nikolai says, snapping the cookie and offering half to Eames. “I will leave in a few minutes —I have a flight to catch—so you will go with my friends who will take you somewhere safe. Once you’ve had a few days to rest we will tell you how you can repay us.”
Eames nods, chewing the cookie and feeling the crush of inevitability on his shoulders. “Alright,” he says, because there’s nothing else to do. This game is ever-changing, it’s like shifting ice under his feet. But that’s when Eames works best and once he’s fully rested Nikolai might find that Eames isn’t as easy a sell as he seems.
Images flicker over her computer screen but Ariadne can’t concentrate. She keeps thinking about Arthur, how he’s not giving her the whole picture. She’s trying to help and she can’t do that without knowing what’s going on. During the inception job, if Cobb had just told them the facts from the beginning, everything would have been so much easier. As she chews on the end of a pencil she reflects that it would have been easier but only because no-one would have gone through with the job if they’d known about the risks of Limbo and Cobb’s unravelling sanity. If that had happened Ariadne would be designing car parks rather than impossible cathedrals, so she supposes she should be grateful to Cobb.
Using what little information Arthur gave her, Ariadne googled McKay and found very little—the information on Wikileaks and various articles and blog posts discussing it, and reports about his sentencing. Mostly it’s just the same information over and over again, looked at from different viewpoints. There’s not much more than Arthur already told her.
Her mind drifts to Yusuf. She misses him, a hollow feeling in her stomach, like she's missed one too many meals. If he was here, he would make her feel better. Just a smile from him instantly puts her at ease, and she sighs. At ease is pretty much the opposite of what she's feeling right now.
Since she’s not being remotely productive she decides instead to make a drink. She makes two cups of tea and heads over to the living room, where Katerina sits on a sofa, listening to something on a voice recorder and making notes. Despite her annoyance at being babysat, Ariande likes Katerina. Her presence is calm, composed; it makes Ariadne less pissed off than if she’d been by herself.
Katerina looks up and smiles when she sees the cups. After turning off her recorder and putting down her notes, she takes a cup and breathes in deep.
“It smells good,” she says, and then turns to look at Ariadne. “Is everything alright?”
The question is a catalyst and Ariadne feels the words building up inside her and she’s powerless to stop the eruption.
“I hate being left out. I mean, I came here to do something. To help. But Arthur won’t tell me anything. I know he’s worried about Eames but Eames is my friend too, both of them are, and if Arthur just kept me in the loop I could help more, I could—” She stops to take a breath, realises she’s been babbling and feels better for it.
“He wants to keep you safe,” Katerina says, her pale eyes gentle. “It’s who he is—it’s why he’s such a good point man. He’s also a good point man because he does his research before jumping to any conclusions. When he gets back, if he has any answers I’m sure he’ll share them.”
“Maybe,” Ariadne mumbles and tucks her feet under her hips.
“But this is very personal to Arthur. He’s very private. You should respect that.”
Ariadne laughs lightly and nods. “You’re saying I’m nosy?”
“A little,” Katerina says, so serious that Ariadne can’t be offended. “Curiosity is a good thing but you need to know how to control it.”
“Good thing I’m not a cat.”
Katerina smiles. “How about we order some food? Arthur should be back soon and I’m sure he won’t have been eating properly.”
“Sure,” Ariadne says. “He could do with some looking after.”
She decides to treat herself to some procrastination and is looking at gifs of cats when there’s a knock at the door.
“That’ll be room service,” Katerina mutters from the living room and goes to answer. Ariadne turns back to her cats and then the room shakes with an enormous noise.
Ariadne scrambles to her feet and freezes, her heartbeat pounding, and for a long second she can’t move, doesn’t even dare to breathe. She’s never heard that sound in real life but she’s heard it in dreams plenty of time: a gunshot.
The kitchen is in a small room, surrounded by thin walls, and while Ariadne can’t see Katerina she can hear her whimpering.
Somehow Ariadne forces her legs to move. Katerina is on the floor, propped up on one elbow and clutching her thigh. Blood is spreading over her jeans, shockingly vibrant.
Ariadne runs forward, pushing against her fear like she’s running against the tide. But when she falls to her knees at Katerina’s side, scrabbling to help her stop the bleeding, a man with a gun enters the room, dressed as room service, his face thin and sallow. A second man enters, as thin as the first, the shape of a gun obvious under his jacket. And then a third, tall and broad and beaming like he’s met an old, dear friend.
Katerina barks at them in Russian, her eyes wide in recognition. The room service guy answers back shortly, grabs her arm and pulls her to her feet. Katerina gasps in pain as he drags her to the sofa and drops her onto it. He snarls at her, and though Ariadne doesn’t understand the wrds she understands that the tone can’t mean anything good. Katerina glares up at him but nods curtly.
The big man turns to Ariadne, smiling still. He pats her down, checking for weapons, and then gestures at the sofa. “Apologies for our rough introduction. Please, sit.” His voice is thickly accented; Ariadne guesses that he is also Russian. Her eyes dart to the kitchen table where her phone sits next to the computer. There’s only ten feet between her and the phone but there might as well be a mile. She’ll never be able to get to it and warn Arthur that he’s walking into a trap.
Instead she goes over to Katerina, wraps an arm around her shoulder and peers at her leg. Katerina is shaking and blood seeps through her fingers where it rests on her thigh.
“Let me get a bandage, something to stop the bleeding,” Ariadne says, and the big man nods.
“Of course,” he says, voice warm and indulgent, like he’s allowing her a special treat. There’s a first aid kid but Ariadne has no idea how to treat a bullet wound, even if anything in there would be useful. She knows that stopping the blood loss is the most important thing, so she grabs towels instead and rushes back to the living room, pressing one of the towels to Katerina’s leg and holding it down.
“I’m sure you’ll do what we tell you,” the big man says, settling down in the armchair across from them and looking ludicrous in the tiny thing, like he’s sitting on a child’s toy. He is looking at Ariadne as he speaks, not smiling but there’s still amusement in his eyes. “If you’re not feeling co-operative, we can always shoot her again.”
“What do you want?” Ariadne’s voice shakes, despite her efforts to keep it calm, and she bites her lip against the tide of panic she can feel rising inside her.
“For now, we want you to stay here and wait for our third guest,” he says. “And when the point man arrives, we will take a trip.”
Ariadne stares at him. That he wants Arthur as well, she could have guessed. But a trip? To where? Why? She doesn’t ask, for once, because she knows she won’t get answers until he is ready to give them.
Instead she asks, “Who are you?”
“I am Nikolai,” he says, and gestures to the kitchen, where the other two are visible through the archway, munching on the food they brought up on their diversion room service trolley. “They are Andrei and Alexei.”
“They are torturers,” Katerina hisses, and Ariadne’s heart lurches to see how pale she is. “They are evil men who will do anything for money.”
“Not just money,” Nikolai says. “Not this time.”
Katerina gives him a withering look, then turns to Ariadne. “They won’t hurt you. They want you to work for them.”
“But—“ Ariadne looks from Katerina to Nikolai. “Why not just hire me? Why do this?”
Nikolai smiles and says, “Why not?” Ariadne opens her mouth and then closes it again. There’s no point asking any more questions of him. He just smiles like they’re playing a game and he’s winning, which is more or less what is happening. It’s easy to win a game when you don’t tell anyone else the rules.
The only sound in the room is the men in the kitchen eating and talking in Russian. Katerina is still shaking but what treatment Ariadne was able to give her seems to have helped a little.
Scenarios play in Ariadne’s head as to how they can get out of this: in her mind she sees herself as a femme fetale, a gun toting warrior, a cunning strategist. But she’s none of those, and even if she was there are three men with guns and she is weaponless. In this situation she doubts even Arthur could do anything but play along.
Suddenly Nikolai says something in Russian, and one of the men in the kitchen rises, draws his gun and heads for the door, where he stands, waiting.
“Arthur,” Ariadne whispers. Nikolai trains his gun on her and puts a finger to his lips.
A gentle squeeze of her hand makes her look at Katerina, who shakes her head.
“If he runs they will chase him and it is more likely that he will be hurt. Do what they ask, for now. Arthur will come up with a plan.”
“Not if we threaten his boyfriend,” Nikolai says, jolly as ever, and Ariadne has a moment to stare at him in surprise before she hears the key in the door. There’s a brief scuffle but then Arthur sees Ariadne and Katerina on the blood-soaked sofa. He stops struggling and his expression turns dark as he is disarmed and shoved forward.
“I’m fine,” she says, keeping her voice calm as she can manage.
“Please, join us,” Nikolai says, like he’s inviting a friend for a drink.
Arthur sits beside Ariadne, looking intently at her and then at Katerina.
“Are you alright?” He asks her and she gives him a quiver of a smile.
“I’ve been better,” she says. “I’ve had worse, too.”
“Now that we’re all here,” Nikolai says, seemingly eager to get back to business, “Here is what we are going to do. The architect and the point man come with us to Moscow. When we get there you will do a job for us.”
“And if we say no?” Arthur’s voice is steady but anger runs through it like lead in quartz.
Instead of answering, the man withdraws a phone from his pocket, dials, and turns it around so that they can see the screen. When it is answered, Ariadne’s heart leaps and she feels Arthur jerk beside her.
Eames, covered in days-old bruises and cuts, has a gun pointed at him by someone whose face is out of shot. He looks pissed off but otherwise fine. The camera moves so that Eames is looking into it and his eyes widen.
“Arthur,” he says and his expression slides from surprise to a sad smile. “I was hoping that they wouldn’t find you.”
“Where are you? Have they hurt you?”
“No, I’m alright. These are from before,” he says, gesturing at his face. “I’m somewhere near Moscow. I was spotted the instant I got off the train and brought here. Apparently they want our help with something.”
“I’ll bet,” Arthur says quietly.
“They’ve told you that if you don’t co-operate they’ll hurt me?”
“No, but I’m good at reading between the lines.”
Eames grins then, out of place in the tense situation. “Course you are, Arthur.” The gun pointed at him nudges him, and the gunman says something in Russian. Eames rolls his eyes and nods. “The men with you are going to bring you here. Boris here says you’re to do exactly what they say or they’ll kill me. They won’t, of course. I’m far too important to them for that.”
“Actually,” a voice says from off-camera. “We’re more than willing to hurt you. We’ll just do it in a dream. Again and again and again.”
Eames’s smile shivers and becomes strained. “I’ll be fine, Arthur. Just—“
“Don’t be stupid,” Arthur snaps, and where his arm rests against hers Ariadne can feel how tense he is. “We’re doing what they say. I’ll come to you and we’ll figure something out.”
“Eames, there are three men with guns here. I don’t have a lot of choice.”
Eames opens his mouth as if to argue but he nods. Arthur’s right and there’s no denying it. “I suppose I’ll see you soon then.”
“Yes,” Arthur says simply, both of them saying more with their eyes with their words. There’s so much longing, so much emotion, that Ariadne is surprised to find her vision blurring with tears.
Nikolai kills the call and stands. “Excellent!” He says. “It’s so good that we’re all in agreement.”
Arthur is looking at him with barely concealed hatred in his eyes. “If you hurt him, I’ll kill you. All of you.”
“Of course you will,” Nikolai says dismissively, like Arthur is a child threatening to have a tantrum. He says something in Russian to the other two, and Alexei goes into the bedrooms, returning with two bags of badly-packed clothes that he throws at Arthur and Ariadne’s feet.
“Up,” Nikolai says to them, and Ariadne lifts the bag to her shoulder, following Arthur’s lead. “And you will stay here,” he says to Katerina, who glares at him. “Good luck getting help. I’m sure the gendarmes will be very interested in your version of events, especially when they see your rap sheet.”
Katerina hisses something in Russian that makes Nikolai shake with laughter.
Ariadne turns to Katerina. “I—I’m sorry. You got hurt because of me.”
“No,” Katerina says. “There’s no blame on you.”
Katerina pulls her into a hug and says, “You will be alright.” As she speaks Ariadne feels her put something in the inside pocket of her coat, something small but heavy. “You are a supernova, Ariadne. And you have two beautiful, brave boys to do your bidding.” She releases Ariadne, squeezes her hand one last time before Nikolai marches Ariadne out of the room behind Arthur.
As they walk down the corridor, Ariadne doesn’t dare check her pocket. From the weight and the size of it, it feels like a cell phone. A spark of hope rises in her.
“Katerina will be fine,” Arthur says. “It looked like a lot of blood but it was only a pint or so.”
Arthur’s words make her feel better about Katerina’s predicament but guilt still snaps at her heels.
“For now, we should do what they say,” Arthur continues. “If they need us for something, they won’t hurt us until we’ve done it.”
“And after that?”
Arthur has no answer for her.
They take the train to Moscow. Arthur assumes it’s so that the Russians can keep their guns but quickly learns that Nikolai has plenty of appointments on the train with various suspicious characters who appear out of the shadows like a magic act, knocking on the door of their compartment to be instantly whisked away by Nikolai. Most of the time Arthur and Ariadne are left in the sullen company of Andrei and Alexei. They speak only Russian to each other and Arthur has no idea whether they understand English but makes sure to keep his conversation with Ariadne light.
The journey takes two days, long days that make Arthur more nervous and more agitated with every hour. The need to see Eames again is concentrated now that he knows it’s a reality, churning in him, filling him like prickly light.
Nikolai, on the rare occasions he’s in the compartment with them, refuses to shed any further light on who he is or what he and his companionsthey want. Instead he is frustratingly jolly all the time, smiling and laughing, finding amusement in Arthur’s frustration.
Ariadne stays quiet and spends most of her time looking out of the window at the changing landscape. Occasionally she will look at Arthur with a flash of nerves and she’ll touch his arm, asking him to tell her a story about him and Eames. He tells her the story of their escape from Menwith Hill; about Eames meeting Arthur’s mom and sister for the first time; about being adopted by a cat when they were on a job together in Luxor. It’s far more than he would normally share but he feels guilty about getting her into this mess. From what little information they’ve been given it doesn’t seem like their kidnap has anything to do with her helping him track down Eames’s attackers, but Arthur’s been complicit in getting her into trouble from the start.
At the train station they are picked up by a van and hustled into the back. Without being able to see where they’re going, Arthur listens to the traffic noise as it changes. Crawling city driving with constant horn-honking. The tarmac whizzing by beneath their tires. Slowing again when the road turns rough. And then, finally, the crunching of gravel until they roll to a stop.
The door is opened to Nikolai’s beaming face and he welcomes them. He helps Ariadne out first and then Arthur is next.
The gravel was a driveway, Arthur sees, long and winding and pewter in the moonlight. The house that it leads to, that they stand before, is a grand one; early twentieth century, he thinks.
They are led into the house, into a dark hallway where only old-house creaks break the silence.
A door opens at one side of the hallway and the light from the room chases the darkness away. In the doorway stands a thin man, skeletally thin with sunken cheekbones and a pointed chin. The intensity of his eyes adds to the effect and he looks like a ghost, a demon, a dybbuk. He speaks to Nikolai in cold, lifeless Russian and then turns and goes back into his room, shutting the door behind him and taking both light and warmth with him.
“Apparently our leader has been delayed in St Petersburg,” Nikolai says. “So you get a night off. Come, let me show you to your rooms.”
Upstairs there is a long hallway, three doors to one side and two to the other. All the décor is gloomy and grand, dark woods and burgundy carpets, dull green walls with leafy patterns. The most notable decoration is the guards that stand outside two of the doors.
"Your loverboy is in there," Nikolai says, gesturing at one of the doors. "Miss Ariadne can find accommodation in the other room."
Arthur turns to look at Ariadne but she smiles and pushes him toward the door.
"Go to him," she says. "I'll be fine. And you're right there if I need you."
Since there’s not much else he can do, Arthur nods and steps around the guard to get to the door.
Inside, the room is thickly curtained and though the moon is bright, the room is dim, almost too dim to see. Arthur can just make out a bed a few metres away. The room smells faintly clinical, like antiseptic wipes.
He pauses in the doorway to let his eyes adjust, and sees that Eames is in the bed. He creeps forward, not wanting to wake Eames. Arthur would like him to be awake so that they can kiss, wash away all shadows of doubt, but Eames is still healing. He needs to sleep and Arthur will have to stave off his impatience.
As he gets closer, Arthur can see that the sheets are pulled up to Eames’s hips, but he's topless and Arthur can see the mess of his skin.
It's been almost two weeks since the attack but Eames hasn't had any time to recover. It shows. His torso is still mottled with bruises. The light's too low but Arthur imagines they're a nasty shade of yellow-y green by now. There's a cut on his cheekbone and over his eyebrow. But mostly Arthur's attention is taken up by the long gash on Eames's side. It's a serious wound and Eames should have been in the hospital, not running around Europe.
Arthur should have been there.
He closes the foot or so that remain between him and the bed and sits on the edge as gently as he can. Eames has always been a light sleeper but whatever medication he's taking has him out cold. Arthur kicks off his shoes and lies by Eames’s side, resting his hand on one of the few areas of his torso that isn’t covered in bruises.
Seeing Eames so hurt makes Arthur’s heart ache, but being with him, finally, settles some of his fluttering terror. He touches a gentle kiss to Eames’s shoulder. In the morning they can have their emotional reunion, but now Arthur is filled with exhausting relief and his eyes drift closed, sleep soon following.
Before Arthur is even awake properly he knows something’s right. Something that has been missing is back in place, back where it belongs.
Arthur opens his eyes and smiles to see Eames lying next to him, still sleeping. In the thin morning sunlight he can see Eames’s bruises and hurts more clearly, but more than anything else he just feels happy, a deep sense of contentment that they’re together again. He traces his fingers over Eames’s stomach, wishing he had a marker pen to draw the pattern with. The movement rouses Eames and as his eyes flutter open Arthur goes very still, like any movement will break the moment and reveal it as a dream, an illusion.
“Good morning,” Eames whispers.
“Hi,” Arthur whispers back, and they both look at each other, smiling and silent.
Eames tries to shift to face Arthur but pain skitters over his face. He reaches for the nightstand, where Arthur sees a bottle of tablets, along with a bottle of water and Eames’s poker chip.
“Let me,” Arthur says, grabbing the tablets and the water. Eames sits up slightly, wincing, and lets Arthur help him. When he’s swallowed two tablets he picks up his totem and Arthur glances away to give Eames privacy while he assures himself of reality. His own hand goes to his pocket and he takes the opportunity to check his die, because if anything could be a dream, it is this, being back with Eames after pining after him for weeks.
When he feels Eames’s hand on his arm, Arthur turns to look at him, feeling a shiver that’s not quite pleasure and not quite longing but a heady brew of many things, of everything. They look at each other again and then Arthur leans in and kisses him gently.
Normally their reunion kisses are deep and passionate and wild, but this isn’t just returning from a job. The moment feels sombre and almost formal, like a ceremony, like a promise.
“I’ve missed you,” Eames says, and the twist of longing in his voice is echoed in Arthur’s heart.
“Me too. I…” Arthur trails off, feeling sentimentality approaching like an oncoming train. If he had any kind of poetry in his soul, sonnets and songs would stream out of him like breathing. Instead he swallows down the feeling and kisses Eames again.
“You cried for me,” Eames says, and Arthur blinks in surprise. “When you saw me hurt.”
“Of course I did,” Arthur says. “I thought you might be dead. I just heard the gunshot and then—”
“I know, it’s just… Since we—broke up or whatever you want to call it—“
“I don’t want to call it that,” Arthur says, taking Eames’s hand and squeezing, twin tracks of fear and anger running through him. “We were stupid. I was stupid. I should have talked to you about how I was feeling and I shut you out. And we wasted months on that. That doesn’t mean I don’t love you. You mean everything to me. I thought you knew that.”
“I suppose I do,” Eames says, and the doubt that flashes on his face hurts all the more for the rarity of it. “It’s just… we’ve never talked about this. We tried to get on with business as usual, but we’ve been avoiding each other, taking long jobs all the time.”
“We’ve been avoiding talking,” Arthur admits and bows his head.
“Please, Eames,” Arthur whispers, leaning forward so that their foreheads touch. “I don’t want to think about how I almost lost you. I want to concentrate on being here with you, on how fucking lucky I am. We can talk about this when we get out of here. But right now can we just—not?”
Eames pauses and then lets out a long breath, the tension in his hands easing. Arthur knows how important it is that they talk about this. Other than a screaming argument when they first caught up to each other and a teary apology not long after, they haven’t talked about it. But right now isn’t the time or place and honestly, Arthur is happy to put it off for a little longer.
Arthur pulls back a little way and looks at Eames, at every feature that he loves: the long lashes that leave shadows on his cheeks; the eyes that Arthur could stare into for hours; the soft pink lips that are Arthur’s alone to taste.
He leans in again for a kiss, as soft as the first but less tentative. In a way this has brought them closer together, Arthur thinks. All the doubts about their relationship that have been dogging him since they made up have disappeared, melted away like fog under the midday sun. He knows that they are meant to be together; the rest can wait until they’re out of here.
“Hold on,” Eames murmurs, breaking away from the kiss, twisting with a grunt of pain to snag a pack of Double Mint from the nightstand.
“Very romantic,” Arthur says as Eames feeds him a piece.
“If you want to go and tell one of the monsters outside that you want to go brush your teeth so that we can have a make-out session, go ahead.”
“We’re having a make-out session?”
“Bloody hell, yes,” Eames says.
Arthur looks at him and agrees that a make-out session would be most welcome. Even beaten and bruised Eames looks like a fucking model, and when he blows a bubble with his gum a hint of his usual cheeky self emerges.
They get rid of their gum and their lips meet again, hungrier this time. Arthur wants to push Eames down to the bed, frot up against him and make him moan, but he holds back. Instead he runs his fingers through Eames’s hair, stroking over the shaved fuzz and tangling in the longer hair on top.
Eames tilts his head, opening his mouth for Arthur, who takes the invitation and slides his tongue between Eames’s lips. Arthur shivers at the feel of it, warm and familiar and missed. They’re together again. Eames is here, he’s alive. Arthur runs his hands over every inch of Eames’s bare torso, apologising when his hungry hands aren’t gentle enough.
“I want you to fuck me,” Eames murmurs as he trails kisses up Arthur’s jaw.
“I’m not fucking you.”
Arthur rolls to his knees and pushes Eames’s knees apart. That alone is enough to make Eames hiss in a breath and when Arthur pushes his hips forward to meet Eames’s, it makes Eames swear loudly and clutch at the sheets, his face twisting in pain.
“I’m not fucking you,” Arthur says again, his voice gentle, and Eames nods, pale.
“You made your point.”
“I won’t fuck you,” Arthur says, standing. “But I’ll blow you.”
Eames hikes an eyebrow that melts into a grin when Arthur drops to his knees and looks up at Eames expectantly.
“Legs over the side of the bed, Eames, and pants off.”
“Whatever you say, Arthur.”
Eames winces a little as he lifts his hips, and Arthur reaches to slide off the jogging bottoms. A whisper of uncertainty as to whether Eames is well enough even for this is washed away when Eames looks down at him with need and love writ in the shine of his eyes. His left leg swings out further than his right can, and Arthur shifts to accommodate the position. Arthur feels his own dick stir at the smell of him, familiar and deeply sexy.
He runs his fingers over Eames’s half-hard length but this isn’t the moment for teasing. “If anything hurts, you tell me,” Arthur says and Eames nods, solemn. No, not solemn. Reverent.
With velvet thickness in his throat, Arthur reaches up with one hand, touches Eames’s dog tags, feeling the shape of them and suddenly aware of the weight of his own resting against his breastbone. Laying his hand flat over the discs of metal Arthur feels Eames’s heartbeat beneath, strong and sure. Eames’s hand goes over Arthur’s and as they stare at each other Arthur can see everything in Eames’s eyes that he himself is feeling. The fear and worry and pain but above everything, love.
Arthur pushes himself up so that he can kiss Eames without him having to bend. The kiss is so soft, so gentle, but it makes Arthur’s chest ache, pain and sweetness melted together, and when he opens his eyes he can read the same in Eames’s face.
Neither of them speaks. Arthur drops back to his knees and holds Eames’s gaze while resuming his place, stroking Eames’s dick, massaging his balls. The gaze is broken as Arthur leans in to lap at Eames’s dick, but their eyes meet again as soon as the position allows it. Gentle fingers whisper over the sensitive area behind his balls and Eames makes a small, strangled noise. Arthur grins and extends his licks to the rest of Eames’s shaft until it’s wet and glistening.
He looks up at Eames as he takes the head in his mouth, holding his gaze all the way until it hits the back of his throat. He pulls back then pushes forward, taking it deeper each time as his muscles relax.
One of Eames’s hands tangle in Arthur’s hair. He doesn’t tug or try to control Arthur’s movements, just keeps it there like he just needs the extra contact. Arthur concentrates on his movements, swallowing as much as he can then going back to lapping at the head to give himself a chance to catch his breath. It also gives his anxiety chance to surface and he slides a hand up to Eames’s chest again, searching out his heartbeat. Alive, he’s alive. If he can just make Eames come that’ll reset everything in him, all the parts of him that have been shaken apart and cut to the bone.
The only sound in the room is the slick sounds of Arthur’s mouth and Eames’s quickening breath.
When Eames comes it’s like victory, and as Arthur swallows him down, greedy, warmth spreads through him and he finally feels the tense, terrified part of himself relax. As he licks the last drops of come from Eames’s softening cock he fumbles with his own trousers. He starts to jerk himself but Eames says no, let me and Arthur stands. Eames uses his mouth and hands, licking and stroking Arthur’s dick and balls. Arthur feels the throb of his orgasm build and spill over and he’s crying out, coming on Eames’s cheeks and lips, claiming him.
Arthur’s legs turn liquid and he sinks in slow motion to the floor. Leaning forward he wraps an arm around Eames’s uninjured side and rests his head on Eames’s stomach. Eames starts to stroke through Arthur’s hair and making it even messier than a night of sleeping on it has already done. Arthur melts into him, stilling the last of the fear. They’re together, and together they can do anything. This mess they’re in doesn’t seem to be such a huge obstacle any more— they’ll figure it out, the two of them.
Stirring, Arthur lifts his head and smiles at Eames, who still has come decorating his cheeks—what was on his lips no doubt licked off. Arthur grabs a t-shirt from Eames’s bag and slides back to his knees, wiping the come away and then pulling Eames in for a kiss.
When a door opens Arthur jerks back, hands pulling into fists, but before he can even get to his feet his protective urge shatters and slips into embarrassment.
Instead of the hulking guard that Arthur had been expecting, it is Ariadne, standing in the doorway between their two rooms that Arthur had not even noticed until now. She has a huge grin on her face and is eyeing their position with interest.
“Good morning, Ariadne,” Eames says, his voice cheerful, like he’s not naked with a man between his legs and a come-covered t-shirt by his feet.
“Morning, Eames. I like your tattoos. Especially the red die on your hip,” she says.
“Turn around,” Arthur snaps at her, and after giving a mischievous grin she does so. Arthur stands, zips himself up and kicks the t-shirt under the bed. He grabs Eames a fresh pair of jogging pants— which seems to be all that O’Grady packed for him—and helps Eames get them on.
“Alright,” Arthur says when he decides they’re presentable.
She’s still grinning when she turns back to them and makes a show of examining their room. She pulls open the curtains and Arthur blinks in the brightness.
“We share a balcony,” she says. “Maybe we should ask if they’ll serve us breakfast on it.”
Eames nods, reaching over for the gum and handing a piece to Arthur oh-so-subtly. “That would be lovely, maybe you should ask?”
“Maybe I will,” Ariadne starts, but before they can continue their inane banter there’s a knock at the door.
Nothing further happens, like whoever it is is being polite to their captives, so Eames calls out, “Yes?”
The door opens to reveal Nikolai and the ghostly man, who sets Arthur’s nerves on edge just as much as he did the night before. Arthur clenches his fists, wishing fervently that he had a gun. He’d shoot both of them, all of them, not stopping until he and Eames and Ariadne were out of here, far from here.
“Good morning,” Nikolai says, his unflinching cheerfulness even more annoying in the early morning. “Breakfast has been prepared. Beria and I,” he says, gesturing to his companion, “would be honoured if you will join us.”
No-one is under any illusion that there is a choice in this. Eames starts to slowly bend down for his bag but Arthur helps him, pulling it onto the bed. As Eames digs through it, Arthur puts a hand on the small of Eames’s back, needing the connection to convince him that they will still get out of this. Now that their captors have appeared his calm is threatening to evaporate under anger; and then Eames turns to smile at him and the storm cloud blows away.
Without words they align themselves so that Ariadne is between them. They follow Nikolai and Beria down the stairs and through a door to the left of the main entrance. The room they enter is a grand dining room, with fussy yellow-gold wallpaper and a long, dark wood table. From every wall long-dead Russians sneer down at them.
Five places are set at one end of the large table, fine silver wear and lead-cut crystal, as though they are guests instead of prisoners. Arthur finds something mildly insulting, almost sarcastic about it.
There is already water, juice, fruit and bread on the table but Arthur eyes the food, suspicious. Ariadne looks at him, unsure, but Eames takes a slice of dark rye bread and slaps on a generous amount of butter.
“This place reminds me of the house I grew up in,” Eames says to no-one in particular, as at-ease as if he was dining with a group of old friends. “When I was a teenager, I mean. Before that we lived in a townhouse in London which I much preferred, to be honest. But at that age it’s not like you get to choose where you live.”
The friendliness doesn’t surprise Arthur—it’s Eames’s way of putting other people at ease. At the moment Beria looks like he would as soon shoot all of them as listen to Eames’s rambling. Nikolai is easy enough to engage—though Arthur doesn’t doubt for a minute that he’s just as deadly—and Ariadne starts to relax, reaching for a slice of bread and pouring both herself and Arthur a glass of juice.
Beria does not join in the conversation. Mostly he concentrates on his bread, buttering fastidiously and then taking tiny bites. As he chews he looks at each of them, Nikolai included, like if he just stares hard enough he will be able to read the insides of their skulls. Arthur thinks of the projects during the Cold War where both Russia and America hired psychics to try and spy on the other; he can’t help but wonder if this man was part of that project.
“Don’t you mind Beria,” Nikolai says to Arthur, slapping Beria on the back and earning a sub-zero glare. “He is ex-KGB and sometimes I think he forgets about the ‘ex’ part.”
“I know exactly what I am,” Beria says, and now that he speaks in English, Arthur recognises the voice that threatened to torture Eames during the phone call. Rage ripples through him and Arthur’s hand curls around his fork, wondering if he could get away with stabbing it into Beria’s eye.
“And we know what you are too,” Nikolai says, his voice light and teasing. Arthur butters his bread, back and forth, back and forth, in an attempt to control the white-hot rage that has been kindled in him. Concentrate instead on the relationship between the two Russians, he tells himself. Beria is older, but that Nikolai can tease him so suggests that Nikolai is the senior figure. What is the arrangement of power here?
Food is set on the table before them, a feast compared to the rations on the train: cold cuts and cheese, more bread, blini and a large bowl of porridge with a serving spoon.
Eames serves Ariadne, who sits by his side, filling her plate. She eats in silence, occasionally glancing up at Eames or Arthur before looking down to concentrate on her food. No doubt that like Arthur, she is more than happy to let Eames do the talking.
Currently he and Nikolai are discussing soccer, and Arthur half-listens as he eats. He has no interest in the sport and knows that Eames doesn’t, either. To be good at what he does, Eames knows a little about a lot of things and it’s always interesting to hear him using that knowledge to hold conversations like this. Arthur sees the way Eames watches Nikolai, the way his sharp grey eyes take in all of Nikolai’s gestures, his smiles, the way he leans forward when he’s particularly passionate about something: all the things that make up a forgery. Eames is always like this when he meets someone interesting.
Ariadne has started looking around the room, at the chandelier and the paintings. But Beria stares only at Eames, like a hunter staring at a prize stag, and protectiveness churns in Arthur.
“Why are we here?” Arthur’s question interrupts Eames and Nikolai’s argument about whether David Beckham’s skills have ever justified his price tag, but Nikolai doesn’t miss a beat.
“Our leader will be here this evening. He will tell you then. It is his plan and he spent a long time devising it––he would be upset if we spoiled it,” he says with a wink. “For now, enjoy our hospitality. You’ll find answers to your questions soon enough.”
Arthur wonders how much they’re going to like those answers.
They are given one hour to shower and change clothes, since they weren’t afforded the opportunity before breakfast. Since there’s only one shower on their floor Eames offers to share with Arthur, like he’s being gallant. Arthur smiles at him and shakes his head, and Ariadne giggles at them.
Ariadne suggests they go first. The first thing Arthur does in the bathroom is look for a razor or anything he could use as a weapon. Eames catches on and shakes his head.
“There’s nothing,” he says. “Even the shower rail is stuck tight—not that it would be much good against their guns.”
“Any surveillance?” Arthur asks, and Eames shakes his head again.
“I don’t think so—I’ve not found anything anywhere in the house. They consider this place to be secure.”
“So we can discuss how impossible it is for us to escape, at least.”
Eames grins and leans in to kiss him. “I think the thing I’ve missed most about you is your positive attitude.”
“You know me. Sunshine and lollipops.”
They step into the shower and Arthur is reminded of their last shared shower in Heathrow—was that really only a week ago? It feels like years, and now that they’re alone together Arthur can’t stop touching him.
Under the roar of the water Arthur whispers endearments into Eames’s skin between kisses, words that he usually keeps tightly locked away. I know, love, I know Eames says, and returns them with words of his own, words of more poetry than Arthur could ever hope to compose. And then Eames turns, takes Arthur into arms that are still strong despite his injuries, and he kisses him, and the kiss has more meaning in it that their words could ever portray.
“We should probably get a move on or we’ll use up all the hot water,” Eames says, but his voice is rough from pushing down emotion.
Once they’re all clean and dressed Nikolai ushers them downstairs again, into a large parlour. When he leaves they hear the lock click shut behind him. The three of them look at each other and their unease is sharp in the air like vinegar.
“Fancy a game, Ariadne?” Eames asks, sitting down at a chess board. She joins him, running her fingers over the intricately carved board. Ariadne is good at chess and competitive too—she will concentrate all of her efforts on winning; it’ll take her mind off this. Eames is good at seeing what people need, better than Arthur is. Although Ariadne seems calm and in control she must be scared, because Arthur is too and he is supposed to have more experience in these matters. Worry runs over him like heavy rain and he thinks that it’s all well and good for Ariadne to be distracted from her fear, but how is Arthur supposed to be distracted?
“There should be a couple of episodes of Murder She Wrote on telly,” Eames says, and Arthur’s lips quirk into a smile. It seems Eames has thought of everything.
He settles onto the loveseat to watch his guilty-pleasure show, slightly disappointed to find it dubbed into Russian. Halfway through the second hour Eames comes to join him, snuggling up against his back and snoozing.
“Hey, Arthur, look at this,” Ariadne says. She’s standing in front of a framed photograph. It’s in the muted colours of early photography but from what Arthur can tell it appears to be the house they are standing in. He extricates himself from Eames, propping him up with cushions, and goes over to Ariadne.
It is this house, the façade painted in soft yellows. At the front of the house are the rooms they are staying in with the large, shared balcony.
“It’s not that far to the ground,” she says. “If we had some kind of rope maybe we could lower ourselves…”
“Maybe,” Arthur says, studying the photograph and then moving to the front of the room, peering out of the window. “There’s a guard, though.”
“There are two guards,” Eames says, sitting up and yawning. “It’s either him or another bloke who looks pretty much the same.”
Eames walks over and slides an arm around Arthur’s waist. With Ariadne the only other person in the room, Arthur doesn’t hesitate to lean into Eames’s touch.
“The other one does the night shift and he’s a bit slack to be honest,” Eames says. “Chain smoker. Disappears off around the corner of the house for a ciggie several times a night.”
“Do you know where we are?” Arthur asks. “I figured we’re about twenty miles out of Moscow.”
“Something like that,” Eames says.
“We came in a van, can’t we take that?” Ariadne asks.
“Good observation.” Eames leads them over to the windows at the side of the room which look out onto a small, squat building. Arthur sees parallel depressions in the gravel leading to it, suggesting that this is a garage. There’s nothing but a padlock on the door and either he or Eames will be able to deal with that easily enough.
“So we escape from the balcony, steal the van and get out of here,” Ariadne says, her eyes growing wide and bright at the thought.
“There’s bound to be more than one car,” Arthur says, hating to be the one who brings everything back down to earth. “And even if we took one we would have no idea where we are or where we’re going.”
Ariadne is cut off when the door opens and a trolley full of sandwiches is rolled into the parlour by someone none of them recognise who leaves immediately and locks the door behind them.
“I have something that might help,” Ariadne says quietly, looking around suspiciously. “I’ll have to show you later.”
“If we tried to escape tonight, could you?” Arthur asks Eames, who frowns as he considers it.
“I think so. As long as I take some painkillers.”
“But what about when we do get out of here?” Ariadne asks. “If those guys are still after you and Eames, what are you going to do then?”
Arthur shakes his head. “I don’t know. But I don’t like being locked up.”
“Why don’t we wait until tonight?” Eames suggests. “See what this great leader has to say. Right now we’re safe. If they want us to perform an extraction, the planning will buy us more time.”
Arthur nods, but he doesn’t know if he can wait.
The rest of the day is spent in the parlour and Arthur gets increasingly antsy, pacing the floor until Eames takes his hand and pulls him down to the love seat. They watch some strange Russian soap opera while Eames leans against him, Arthur running his fingers through Eames’s hair, and it relaxes him, calms him.
Ariadne pores over a book of Russian architecture, losing herself in the balustrades and crenellations.
At some point, when the day is darkening and the sky tries to out-bruise Eames, they hear a car approaching. This time it is a bulky four-wheel drive, and after it has unloaded its passengers at the front door it goes to the building by the side of the house.
Ariadne and Eames stands at the door, eavesdropping.
“It’s the leader,” Eames says, then sniggers. “He’s calling himself Romanov. Apparently he’s been successful, whatever he’s been up to.”
“You speak Russian?” Ariadne sounds impressed.
“Oh yes,” Eames says, “My granddads used to be spies in the Cold War. They taught me and my brother lots of languages when we were growing up, but if I’m honest, I was the star linguist,” he says, and preens. “But only because Tom was too busy making holes in their furniture with his chemistry set.”
“I always wanted to learn another language,” Ariadne says, her shoulders relaxing slightly as she gets into the conversation. “That’s why I moved to Paris for grad school, but I think French is about my limit. What languages can you speak?”
“French and English, obviously. Russian, Polish and German fluently. Others just a few phrases. For example, the extent of my Hungarian is Szeretnék egy Big Mac..”
Ariadne squints at him. “Big Mac? Did you just ask for a Big Mac?”
“Exactly,” Eames says. “Useful, right?”
“Asking for a beer would be better,” Arthur says, folding his arms. “Szeretnék venni egy Budweiser.”
“God, you’re both classless,” Ariadne laughs.
“Arthur never drinks Budweiser if he can possibly help it. Microbrewery or nothing.”
The conversation stops when Nikolai opens the door, and Arthur’s glad they took the opportunity to de-stress because the tension is quickly coming back to him.
“I hope you have had an enjoyable day,” Nikolai says, and though he waits for an answer no-one speaks. “Our leader has arrived. He would like to invite you to dinner.”
They’re herded back into the dining room, where a man awaits them, sitting at the head of the table.
“This is Romanov,” Nikolai says, his voice resonant with respect.
Arthur is shocked. He expected Romanov to be along the same lines as Beria, ex-KGB, a veteran of the Cold War. The man sitting at the table looks like he should be working at a tech company in California. He’s wearing a polo shirt and his dark hair is thick and messy. Thick-framed glasses sit on a face that is not handsome but the eyes burn with intensity. His gaze lights on each of them like butterflies, swift and flighty and not quite sane.
He gestures them forward impatiently. When they’re seated, Arthur sees that Romanov is even younger than he first thought: easily younger than him and maybe younger than Ariadne as well.
“I am the future of Russia,” Romanov says, clear and concise, like this is a fact that cannot be argued. “Those loyal to me know this is true.” He gestures at Nikolai, whose usual jollity is submerged in fanaticism.
“My country has lost its way in the past century—the world has lost its way. They need someone with strong ideals and noble goals to unite them. That person is me.” He looks at each of them, then waves a hand. “Dinner is not the place for politics. Instead I will tell you why I have brought you here.”
There is a pause as the wine is poured. Arthur takes advantage of the pause to glimpse at Beria. Nikolai seems to be completely taken in by Romanov but Beria’s expression is completely neutral. Arthur wonders what that means.
“We need you because of your skills, but your destiny is bound up in this,” Romanov says. “McKay, the man you were both instrumental in putting behind bars, has a not-insubstantial group of people at his beck and call. Although they think that they are patriotic Americans, they need to see the bigger picture. I can show that to them, by force if necessary.” Romanov smiles like a jack-in-the-box. “However, as we are dealing with people who think the same way we do, our methods will not work. That is why we need you.”
“You want us to extract from one of McKay’s men,” Eames says, and he can’t keep the disbelief from his voice.
“There is going to be a meeting where most of his group will come together. Most importantly, he himself will be there. We need to know when and where this meeting will be.”
“And why couldn’t you just hire us?”
The madness in Romanov’s smile speaks more than his words could. “I do not believe that money is a good enough incentive for a job to be done well. That is why I surround myself with men who are loyal to me. And for those who are not loyal, threats work almost as well.”
Eames shakes his head. “So what makes you think that McKay’s men are going to be loyal to you? Half of them are probably still caught up in the Cold War in their heads, and the other half are loyal to McKay.”
“Just let them hear me speak,” Romanov says with certainty. “I will change their minds. And if it doesn’t, then violence is another option. As a last resort I have you: the people who made inception possible.”
Arthur meets Eames’s eyes and they see why Romanov didn’t pay them: because he wants them as slaves. After last time it would take a lot to convince Arthur to try inception again, and he would never agree to it on a scale like this. He doesn’t bother saying any of this. Romanov isn’t the type to listen to reason, or to anyone else.
The food is served and Romanov tucks into it with intensity, not even looking up as he eats.
It’s as delicious as the breakfast and every bit as uncomfortable. Beria stares at them less but only because he mostly stares at Romanov. Not in the adoring way that Nikolai does; there is something calculating in his gaze, something completely free of affection or respect. Arthur might almost call it contempt. Once again Arthur wonders what the power structure is here, but the answers are not readily apparent and he doubts his questions would be answered if he asked.
By the time the meal is finished, Romanov is talking to Nikolai in fast Russian, like he has forgotten the existence of the three people he has kidnapped.
Beria is not so forgetful, and he stands, fixing his cold glare on Arthur, Eames and Ariadne. “You will go back to your rooms,” he says to them, and other than a brief glimpse from Nikolai, Beria is the only one who acknowledges their existence.
Beria leads them back up to their bedrooms.
“Romanov is tired,” he says. “He will speak to you more tomorrow.”
There is still something flat in Beria’s voice, something that makes Arthur think he is hiding something. Perhaps he just knows that his leader is not all there and doesn’t follow him as mindlessly as Nikolai seems to.
They’re put in their rooms and once again the door is locked behind them. The door that separates the rooms is not locked, and after a soft knock, Ariadne enters. She grins at them.
“At least you’re dressed this time.”
Ducking a hand into her coat, she continues: “I wanted to show you earlier but didn’t have the chance. As we were leaving the hotel in Paris, Katerina slipped these into my pocket.” With a magician’s flourish, she reveals a cell phone and a small voice recorder.
“This is brilliant,” Arthur says, reaching for the phone. Ariadne’s turned it off to conserve the battery and the instant it’s on, it picks up their location. The map tells him that trees smother the house in all directions for five miles and there’s five miles more until the skinny grey shoelace becomes a two-lane road. Moscow is ten miles further, encroaching on the countryside like rust.
The new information kicks Arthur’s brain into a higher gear, misty thoughts coalescing into a plan. “We need to contact Davies, tell him about this place—if he can get things in motion soon enough it’ll stop any chase.”
“What do you want to do?” Eames asks. “Do we contact him and wait for a response?”
Arthur stares at the phone. “We contact him, get everything ready, be prepared to leave tonight. We can wait a few days if we need to.”
“When the guys who’ve gone to kidnap McKay’s agent return, there’ll be more security to avoid,” Ariadne points out.
“I’d rather get out of here as soon as possible,” Eames agrees. “I don’t want to be here when Davies arrives. We’re as likely to end up as collateral damage as we are to get rescued.”
“You think we should go tonight?” Arthur isn’t sure; he isn’t sure that Eames is up to this, isn’t sure that the plan is solid enough to work without a hitch. But they’re both right, and it might be for the best to get out of here now.
“I’ll contact Davies,” Eames says, holding his hand out for the phone. “You two start sorting out the logistics. We might as well get everything ready and we can decide then. Davies might get back to us straight away.”
“Alright,” Arthur says. If nothing else at least it’s productive.
First problem: how to get down to the ground. They could probably lower themselves from the balcony but the risk of injury and the likelihood of noise is too high. They need something to assist them.
Throwing open the closet doors, Arthur finds some spare sheets and piles them on the floor.
“We’re not climbing off the balcony using those,” Ariadne says, looking down at the pool of cotton and wearing a mask of doubt.
“That’s just a dumb thing they do in movies. Isn’t it?”
Instead of answering, Arthur examines the sheets. There are two, which should be more than enough length to get them to the ground floor. He ties the two together with a strong knot and instructs Ariadne in making similar hand-holds. They work from either end so that they will meet in the middle, and Arthur watches as Eames works out the cipher with a pencil and a scrap of paper, jotting down the message and transforming it into numbers and symbols.
It’s easy, physical work, and Arthur’s mind drifts to the next stage of the plan. They wait until early morning, until the guard has gone for a cigarette, and sneak down. The stumbling block is going to be the engine alerting the guard but there’s nothing for it. With no other houses for miles around and no idea if any of those will even have a car to steal, they will have to take one from here.
Once the job is done, they put the rope in a pillow case and hide it amongst the others on the bed. Eames has sent the message and has drawn several maps of their route to Moscow which he hides in the book he’s been reading.
“Do you have any bobby pins?” Eames asks Ariadne, who nods and darts back into her room. She returns with the bag Andrei packed for her in Paris and reaches into the bottom where she finds a few strays.
Eames looks up at Arthur. “Do you want to do the honours or shall I?”
“You’re better at it,” Arthur says with a shrug. Eames has been picking locks since he was twelve years old and Arthur is more than happy to bow to his superior skills.
Eames nods and goes to the balcony door, unpicking the lock with ease. He examines the hinges and doorframe and then nods, satisfied as a purring cat.
“We’re good to go,” he says. “So what’s the plan?”
“Let’s watch some TV,” Ariadne suggests. “See if we get a reply from this Davies guy.”
They settle down on the bed, Ariadne sandwiched between them, resting her head on Eames’s shoulder.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she says quietly, her voice only just carrying over the sound of the television.
“Me too,” Eames says and cuddles up to her, making Arthur’s jealousy prickle into life like a plant breaking through soil, however much he knows that the bond between them is friendship and nothing more.
The documentary flickers across the television but none of them are paying attention, each caught up in a web of their own thoughts.
Ariadne is fidgeting, shifting position constantly, and Eames squeezes her hand.
She looks up at him with a raised eyebrow; Arthur can sympathise.
“Alright, stupid question,” Eames says, holding up his hands apologetically.
“This sucks,” Ariadne says with a sigh and curls closer to Eames. “I just want to be at my apartment, preferably with Yusuf, a bottle of wine and a Hitchcock marathon. But since I'm here that's not really an option.”
“Well, we do have a plan. What do you want to do - leave tonight or wait and see?” Eames asks her and she shrugs, her nonchalance as much a forgery as anything Eames can do.
“I’d prefer to get out of here. I don’t like being a prisoner.”
“That makes three of us, then,” Eames says, and the decision is made.
“We meet back here at three,” Arthur says. It’s eleven now, so they can get some sleep before they head out. “We’ll check if Davies has replied. If not, we’ll decide what to do then.”
With Ariadne in her own room, Arthur takes both of Eames’s hands and kisses him, slow and sweet with heat simmering behind it. Eames’s arms goes around Arthur’s waist and just for a moment, with his eyes closed and his tongue brushing against Eames’s teeth, they are transported home, safe and warm and free. But then they open their eyes and they’re in strange surroundings once again with an escape to attempt.
Arthur sighs, running his hands down Eames’s arms. “We should try and get some sleep.”
With a mumbling sound of agreement, Eames strips his t-shirt off and hands the antiseptic cream to Arthur. With gentle fingers Arthur works it into his tender skin.
“We’ll be home soon,” Eames says, his voice little more than a murmur. His eyelids are drooping, sleepy again. “Curled up in bed with coffee and some of your brownies.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says, and kisses Eames’s shoulder when he’s done with the cream. “Soon.”
They get into bed and Arthur’s sure that he’ll never get to sleep with the adrenaline rushing through his veins and the anticipation dancing in the air all around him, but as Eames’s breathing evens out Arthur finds that it’s contagious and soon he falls into sleep himself.
Ariadne lies in bed, staring at the ceiling. They’re going to make their escape attempt in just a few hours. She should be sleeping but the harder she tries to fall asleep the more impossible it becomes.
She’s scared. This could all go wrong, so easily. They have to try, she knows that. If they don’t then they’ll be at the mercy of Romanov and she saw no mercy in his eyes. There wasn’t much in his eyes – he seemed completely disconnected from what was happening. Is he really the leader here? There’s more to it, she thinks, but has no idea what.
Sighing, she rolls onto her side. It doesn’t matter. They’re getting out of here and Davies will take care of everything. She’ll never have to worry about any of them again. She’ll go to Mombasa, to Yusuf, and they’ll drink homebrew and he’ll tell her stories about the messes Eames got him into when they were teenagers.
Ariadne’s been doing her best not to think of Yusuf but it’s been getting harder. She misses him, so much. It’s only been four weeks since she saw him, saying goodbye over ice cream in Nairobi, but god, it feels like months, years. Her heart is a dull ache in her chest and for the first time she starts to understand something of what Arthur’s been going through.
Another thing that she’s starting to understand is what Yusuf means to her. They’vee not put a name to what they have, preferring to keep it simple, or that’s what she’s been telling herself.
But this ache in her chest, the way her thoughts gravitate to Yusuf if she doesn’t keep busy… She smiles into the darkness. Her thoughts sound like the cheesiest romance novel ever. The Chemist of Mombasa ‘s Reluctant Love.
Voices from the room next door interrupt her thoughts. Not Arthur and Eames, the room on the other side. She sits up and listens. The walls are paper-thin, as she found out when she heard Arthur and Eames having sex. But while that had been hot, she has no idea what this is. They’re speaking Russian and she doesn’t recognise either voice. Reaching for the voice recorder that Katerina gave her, Ariadne clicks it onto record. She’ll give it to Eames; see if they’re saying anything interesting.
She hopes it will pick up the conversation. She thinks it will – she can hear every word. It might be nothing – they might be discussing Oprah for all she knows – but then again it could be something important.
Finally feeling like she’s doing something helpful Ariadne sets the recorder near the wall and listens to words she doesn’t understand.
When a hand shakes Eames’s shoulder, waking is like rising from the depths of the ocean. Opening his eyes feels like lifting heavy weights and he looks blearily up at Ariadne.
“Hey,” she whispers. “We ready to go?”
No, thinks Eames, but he sits up anyway, slow and stuttering and wincing. His fingers whisper over his totem on the way to grasp his pill bottle and he takes two with a swig of water. His side is a dull ache rather than searing heat, but he’s so stiff. Gingerly he stretches, trying to ease life into his muscles, and slowly feeling trickles back into his body. The stay here, despite the danger, has done him good; he feels like he is healing, finally, like he might get back to how he was. As soon as the painkillers kick in they’re good to go.
The only light from the room is the cell phone in Arthur’s hands; when Eames goes over to the window to check on the guard, the moon is covered, hidden behind thick black layers of cloud. He can just about see the guard in the darkness, shuffling from foot to foot.
“While I was asleep I heard some guys in the next room over,” Ariadne whispers. “They were speaking Russian, so I recorded them on Katerina’s voice recorder—I thought it might be something important.”
Eames nods and takes it from her, putting in an earbud and picking up his pencil.
As the recording starts Eames’s eyebrows shoot up. He doesn’t recognise either voice—not unusual as there seems to be an endless cycle of people passing through this house. The speakers are dissidents, unhappy with Romanov’s totalitarian regime. They talk about making a move against him tomorrow night once help is at hand, though there’s no mention of who the help might be.
When Eames tells Arthur, another message is sent to Davies to inform him. By the time they’re done, Eames’s painkillers have taken effect and he is ready to attempt the climb down. He still has doubts about the whole thing but Ariadne’s recording makes it clearer than ever: they have to get out of here, and now.
Arthur gestures for Eames to go and watch for the guard leaving while he and Ariadne prepare the escape rope and an emergency bag. After ten minutes the guard stamps his feet and looks around quickly before walking to the edge of the building and turning the corner.
“Now,” Eames says, and opens the balcony door carefully. Arthur ties the sheet to the stone balustrade and lowers it carefully.
“You go first,” Arthur says to him. “Ariadne goes second and I’ll go third. We don’t move until we’re all together.”
Eames nods, then pauses, listening: the night is still and silent as ice. Taking hold of the rope he moves gingerly at first, but the handholds make it much easier and he’s down in moments. Next comes Ariadne, slow and careful but determined. When her feet touch the ground Arthur starts his own descent, fast and fluid, and he’s down in seconds.
All three of them give ‘okay’ symbols and head off towards the garage. As they turn the corner a spark of light catches Eames’s attention and he goes still. The guard’s cigarette. He must walk around the building and then retrace his steps.
Before Eames can move or the guard can react, Arthur is moving silently. The guard lets off a half-cry before Arthur’s chokehold smothers it, but it’ll be enough to rouse someone in the wary household.
Eames grabs Ariadne’s hand and pulls her toward the garage, seeing a light flick on at the front of the house.
“Damn it,” he mutters. The lock is a cheap thing and is cracked in seconds. Inside, just as predicted, there’s a car—three cars in fact. Eames grabs a crowbar from a table and swings it into the back window of the four-wheel drive. Not the subtlest way to get into a car, but the quickest.
Ariadne gets in and Eames moves to join her, his hand on the door handle, when the canisters of petrol in the corner catch his eye. His gaze flashes around the room, an idea flaring in his mind. As he gets to work putting the pieces of his plan together, Arthur skids into the room.
“Eames, come on,” he says, getting into the driver’s seat. “They’ll be here any second.”
“Just a sec,” Eames says, finishing his job carefully before getting into the back, sweeping the broken glass to the floor. “Okay, go.”
The car skids out of the garage, narrowly missing the two men running toward them. They cry out, their voices smothered by the angry engine, and Eames leans out of the window just as they lift their guns. Before they can fire, he throws his Molotov cocktail and it shatters against the garage door, exploding. The men are thrown forward and the wooden structure glows orange as the fire licks hungrily at it. Other men are halfway from the house to the garage and they stare impotently between the garage and the speeding car.
“That won’t keep them long,” Eames says. “Once the petrol burns off they’ll be able to follow us. We need to get out of here before then.”
“But there’s only one road for miles,” Ariadne says. “We can’t lose them.”
“We can,” Arthur says, pulling onto the road and speeding down it. “We go off road.”
“The other cars aren’t suitable for off road, we should be able to outrun them,” Eames says but the certainty in his voice isn’t echoed in his heart.
“I hope you’re right,” Ariadne says and leans forward to fumble in the glove box. “I was really hoping there’d be a gun in there.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Eames says and turns to look out of the back window, wincing at the line of fire that dances up his wound.
He can still see the glow of the fire in the distance—the wooden doors must have caught alight. That might give them a few more minutes. Now that they’re on the tarmac Arthur speeds up, flooring it. Seconds tick by, glacial slow, until the trees thin and Arthur veers off road. The less-than-smooth driving jars Eames’s hurts and he clamps his jaw shut.
Eames stares out of the window, gazes at the road until Arthur pushes through a straggly stretch of hedge. The road is hidden as the hedge gets healthier. Before his view is blocked he sees no sign of pursuit. He meets Arthur’s eyes in the rear view and knows that he feels the same way: this is too easy.
Maybe the dissidents chose the distraction as an opportunity to make their move early and Romanov’s men are distracted; maybe their stolen car will get them to the airport first; maybe Romanov’s men will just leave them alone from now on. Maybe Santa will come and give them a lift on his sleigh and they can bypass the airport entirely.
Whichever it is, there’s nothing they can do about it now but drive.
Arthur follows Eames’s directions to a document cache in the outer wall of a dilapidated factory. Eames slides out a brick, grabs a zip-lock file and slides the brick carefully back into place. As soon as Eames is back in the car, Arthur pulls back onto the road that leads to Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Arthur glances over his shoulder to see Eames slide a newspaper-wrapped package from the bag, containing a fat bundle of passports in a range of colours.
“You just keep passports in random walls?” Ariadne’s voice is incredulous.
“That’s actually a cache my grandfather used back in the Cold War,” Eames explains. “It’s been used to hide travel documents before I was born.”
“What the hell? Was your grandfather James Bond?”
“Pretty much,” Eames says, handing her a Canadian passport. “He was MI6. Both of them were.”
The airport isn’t far now and nervousness makes Arthur’s palms itch. He wishes that Eames had a gun in that cache.
Somehow Ariadne was expecting Sheremetyevo to be different to other airports; an exemplar of Communist architecture, or maybe some onion domes. Something other than exactly like every other airport she’s ever been to. It’s a bit of a let-down.
Eames takes the lead, buying tickets with a credit card that was in the cache. She watches him slip into the role of a bored rich man, hating his Russian holiday and wanting to get back to the States as soon as possible. He pulls Ariadne to him, calls her doll, and she tries to smile and play the part of his brainless bimbo but she’s terrified. She doesn’t think she’ll ever be as calm as Eames and Arthur in situations like this.
Just as the airport is just like every other airport, this should be just like any other plane journey, she tells herself as her heart races. It’s not even the first time she’s used a fake passport. Just hand it to the border guard, she tells herself. They’ll check it and since Eames’s forgeries are brilliant she’ll be let through. It’s worked fine before, it’ll be fine now.
It’s only when she steps through the metal detector without so much as a beep that she relaxes, relief slamming into her so hard that she has to lock her knees before they give way.
But when she turns to wait for Eames and Arthur, cold creeps over her.
They are at separate security desks and the border guards are scowling. Security guards—with machine guns slung over their shoulders—are approaching and Ariadne’s heart overclocks.
What is she supposed to do? There must be something she can do to help, but she can’t think of a thing. She pretends to check her phone to look less conspicuous, and it hits her.
She hits call before she has any idea what she’s going to say and when an American voice answers with Captain Callahan, she starts a panicked ramble.
“Wait, wait, I’m not Arthur! I’m Ariadne, his friend, I’ve been working with him to find out who hurt Eames. We escaped from Romanov’s place and we’re in the airport. Eames and Arthur are about to be taken away by these security guards, and I don’t know what to do. You have to help them. Please.”
Davies pauses and Ariadne looks up just in time to see the security guards put soft plastic flexicuffs around Arthur and Eames’s wrists. She’s about to convey that information to Davies when recognition hits her. The guns and her own panic have blinded her but now she sees that one of the security guards is the man from the video at the body armour warehouse. She’s so shocked that she can’t speak, is only vaguely aware of Davies speaking to her.
“It’s him,” she gasps. “The guy from the warehouse.”
“What warehouse? Ma’am, you need to calm down—“
“One of the guards who’s taking Eames and Arthur away, he works for McKay!” Both Eames and Arthur have carefully schooled expressions but the people around them are visibly worried, calling out, clutching their children close to them. As Arthur and Eames are led away, Ariadne’s fear leaps into her throat. “You have to help them! If McKay gets hold of them—look what they did to Eames.”
“Alright, that’s fine, relax,” Davies says and Ariadne watches her friends being taken away with fear eating away at her bones. How is she supposed to relax? “I need you to go somewhere—go get something to eat, or get a drink, somewhere that you can be inconspicuous. It’s not going to do any good for you to get captured as well. I have friends in Russia that are helping me and we’re going to get all three of you out of here. Okay?”
“Okay,” Ariadne mumbles and heads toward a restaurant. “Please help them.”
“I will,” Davies promises. “You just take care of yourself.”
Not even sure she can do that, she goes to the bar and orders a beer.
The flexicuffs bite into Arthur’s wrists. He could get out of them but he’d need time—like so many other criminal-related things, Eames is better at this, but not with those injuries. Which means that they’re in deep shit.
As they are led down the dim white corridors, Arthur keeps trying to glance over his shoulder at Eames but all that earns him is a prod with the barrel of a rifle from the wordless guard that Arthur recognises all too well. He’s sure Eames must recognise him too. Most recently seen in the body armour warehouse, he was one of the men who helped McKay to torture Eames. Arthur knows that Eames has forgotten nothing about that day.
At least Ariadne got out, and Arthur feels a deep sense of relief about that. She’s finally safe, out of the web that he and Eames have found themselves trapped in.
Now they have to get themselves out of it.
They push through a door and Arthur is surprised to find that they’re outside. The air is fresh and cold, with a thin ribbon of gold illuminating the horizon. The roar of jet engines is felt rather than heard all around them.
Out in the open they could make a run for it but all that would earn them is a bullet in the back. Arthur’s mind runs through their options only to find that they have none, none that would get them out of this alive.
They’re led into the side door of a hangar, which leads into a storage area.
“On your knees,” one of the guards says, American-accented. When Arthur’s prodded with the gun he does as he’s told, watches Eames do the same and catches his eye. The same flicker of fear that Arthur feels is there in Eames’s eyes. If there’s any way he can get Eames out of this, any way at all, Arthur will take it.
There isn’t much time to worry before the door opens again. Arthur’s back is to the door but he sees surprise flicker over Eames’s face. Yet when Beria steps into his line of sight Arthur doesn’t share Eames’s surprise.
For a long moment Beria stares at Arthur, then at Eames.
“You stopped anyone following us,” Arthur says, but Beria shakes his head.
“Not exactly. I convinced those loyal to me that your escape was the perfect time to move against Romanov.”
“You’re leading the dissidents,” Eames says.
“And how do you know about that?” Beria wonders. He walks around them, like a predator intimidating its prey. “No matter. Romanov is my puppet, a pawn that has forgotten who put him where he is. He has begun to believe his own propaganda, and I can’t tolerate that.”
“Your puppet? For what?”
Beria has a smile like a knife when he chooses to use it. “Am I to spill all of my secrets, Mr Eames? Like the bad guy in a movie? I shall tell you this: Romanov thinks that he deserves power. McKay thinks he deserves revenge—and power too, of course, in his own misguided way. But I control both of them for my own purposes.”
“And what are they?” Eames gives Beria his most charming smile, to no effect. “Come on, you’ve told us this much. Don’t leave us without a conclusion.”
“Money, of course,” Beria says. “Those loyal to me on both the American and Russian sides agree with me that money is where the real power lies. I grew up in the Cold War, lived a hungry and frugal life. My loyalty to my country meant nothing; I still had to queue for bread. Not that I think that America is much better. I just think that I should have money, and that I should control those in power.” He smiles again, and it makes Arthur shiver. “A modest dream, I think.”
“Oh, certainly,” Eames says, eyebrows raised. “And as Romanov said, you will use force to make it come true, and if that doesn’t work, extraction or inception. You didn’t care who caught us as long as someone did.”
“Exactly. It’s a shame we didn’t get the girl as well, but architects are nothing special,” he says, with a shrug. Arthur thinks of the difference between Ariadne and Nash, like the difference between an Aston Martin and a Ford. He’s just grateful that Ariadne has escaped and Beria will never find out how wrong he is.
Beria turns to McKay’s aide. “Go and get McKay, he’ll want to see them.”
Arthur wonders what made the aide turn from his old loyalties but he doesn’t wonder long. The instant McKay steps into the room it’s obvious.
McKay is mad. Not the delusions of grandeur and entitlement that infect Romanov and Beria, but his mind is shattered. His grin switches from cruel to confused, the madness in his eyes like a flickering lamp. He’s barely recognisable as the General that Arthur knew. He’s painfully thin, his face gaunt and eyes wide. His hand twitches against his leg.
When his eyes light upon Arthur and Eames, his lip curls into an animal snarl.
“Revenge,” he whispers, his eyes around the room. “You know what they did to me in there? Do you know?” He pauses for a long time, just staring at Eames and Arthur. Eventually his attention goes to his men and he claps one of the foot soldiers on the shoulder. “But these boys are loyal. These boys know. And the government, those pansies, they’ll know too, soon enough. And then, then America will be a power again, people won’t dare laugh at us.”
As he continues to ramble Arthur glances at the foot soldiers. They stare directly ahead, their blank expression and upright military stance giving nothing away. Since they heard all of Beria’s traitorous speech, they can’t be loyal to McKay. Why do they need him? Surely he can’t be a convincing figurehead: no-one could put their faith in a man so obviously mad.
“Revenge,” McKay says again once his rambling has run to mumbles. “This is your fault. Your fault. But without you I wouldn’t have my boys,” he says, gesturing at the foot soldiers. “Or my Ruskie friends.”
Beria glares at him with open contempt at the slur but says nothing.
“Beria here broke me out of prison because he knew that together we could rule the world. Beria leads his folk, we lead ours, the world quakes before us. A real superpower.” He pauses, drifts, imagining himself upon a throne, perhaps.
“Revenge,” he says for a third time, bringing his mind back to the topic closest to his heart. “I’m going to take my time with it. Months. Years. Like the years you put me away for. Beria here’s going to help. Ex-KGB, he’s good at this stuff. I’m gonna have a bit of fun now, a preview, to get me through this flight. Hate flying, always have.” Another long pause. “I want him topless,” he says to no-one in particular, pointing at Eames. One of the foot soldiers steps forward, brandishing a knife that cuts through the thin material of Eames’s hoodie and t-shirt in seconds.
McKay fixes his eye on Eames, unblinking.
“Gonna make you scream,” he says. “Like you screamed for me in that dream. Such a pretty scream, I’ve been thinking about it for years. Cut off one of those tattoos. That one on your arm,” he says, decisive, and takes the knife from the foot soldier’s hand. Arthur’s about to get to his feet and tackle McKay, even with his hands bound, but Beria speaks first.
“Don’t be stupid,” he says, disdain and disgust in his voice. The madness in McKay’s eyes dims, is replaced by distrust for a second, but then it’s gone.
“If you are intending to play with someone over an extended period of time you do not start by skinning half their arm,” Beria says. “The pain overrides anything else you do and the risk of infection is too high. Never mind the mess the blood would make on the plane. It would be distressing for the other to see, of course, and we could do it, in time. But we start small. Work with that which is already there.” Beria launches a hard kick into Eames’s wounded side.
Eames cries out, loses his balance and falls to the other side, making choked sounds as he rides the pain.
“Stop it,” Arthur says, struggling against his flexicuffs.
“See how it affects his partner? That is the greatest form of torture: making them watch you hurt someone they love.”
Beria kicks Eames again in the same place.
“Leave him alone,” Arthur says, but his words are ignored.
“Cutting and beating and burning someone hurts, yes, but doing the same to a loved one destroys them.”
“Destroys them,” McKay repeats, nodding and launching a vicious kick at Eames’s side. “Pretty scream.” Another kick, another cry that hurts like a knife of ice in Arthur’s heart. At a gesture from Beria, one of the foot soldiers pulls McKay away from Eames, who is curled up on his good side and whimpering, blood oozing from his reopened wound.
Arthur stares at him, scared and worried and furious, but Eames opens his eyes and looks directly at Arthur. It’s a second, if that, but Arthur sees what Eames is telling him. He’s in pain, yes - he has to be - but he’s exaggerating, he’s acting, he’s taking up all of the attention in the room.
Arthur starts concentrating on working free of the flexicuffs, as surreptitiously as he can. If he can get that knife from McKay’s hand, Arthur can stab him, maybe Beria, maybe even take out one of the foot soldiers before someone shoots him. Probably not what Eames has in mind but Arthur needs to protect him. As a point man. As his partner.
Before Arthur can work his way out of the cuffs, a foot soldier comes into the room, addresses McKay respectfully, saluting before he speaks.
“General, it’s time to board the plane.”
McKay nods and after one last kick at Eames, McKay turns and leaves the room For each of those kicks, Arthur will lunge a knife into McKay. The thought warms him.
Two foot soldiers to each of them, Arthur and Eames are taken into the main hangar. Eames moves with difficulty and is more dragged than walked. Arthur doubts there’s much exaggeration there: the wound is bleeding freely now and his pants are slowly turning red.
The hangar’s busy, Arthur is surprised to see. There are at least three dozen men; Arthur wonders who they are loyal to.
They are dragged up the stairs into the plane and Arthur is pushed into a seat and the belt fastened tightly. It’s uncomfortable but it’s the perfect opportunity to work on getting out of the cuffs. Eames is beside him, across the aisle. He’s pale, slightly grey, the colour of oatmeal. He gives Arthur a weak smile. Not as hurt as he was letting on but still hurt. Both of them have a foot soldier behind them and one in front, with Beria and McKay at the front of the cabin. With the pilot, that is seven against two, not counting the men outside the plane. Not good odds.
“I want something to distract me when we’re in the air,” McKay says, looking at Eames with hungry eyes. “Let me put him under. Cut him up. There’ll be no blood that way.”
“Fine, Beria says, rolling his eyes. “Just be careful. We need him.”
Arthur sees Eames’s eyes widen, sees the slight shake of his shoulders, but before either of them can do or say anything the pilot steps out of the cockpit and leans forward to speak to Beria. He tries to make it for Beria’s ears only but it’s impossible in the small space.
“ATC just shut down the airspace, sir,” he says. “We’re grounded until further notice.”
“What the hell do you mean?” Beria snarls but whatever he’s about to say next is interrupted by gunfire from outside. It’s Eames’s side of the plane so Arthur can’t see a thing. Everyone moves over to that side, peering out of the windows, and Arthur sees his chance. With everyone’s attention on the continued gunfire and increasingly desperate yelling, no-one is paying any attention to him. He struggles out of the flexicuffs quickly with no need to be subtle about it, and hears Eames say, “Davies. It’s Davies!”
Arthur’s hands are finally free and he sees that Eames’s are as well. When that happened he has no idea but he is glad that Eames is such a slippery bastard.
At the front of the plane there is an argument.
“Take us up,” Beria says, but the pilot shakes his head.
“It’s a no-fly zone, they’ll shoot us out of the sky if we take off.”
Beria hisses something in Russian and pushes past the pilot, going into the cockpit. The pilot follows, still arguing, and Arthur meets Eames’s eyes.
Both of them grab a pistol from a distracted foot soldier’s waist holster: Arthur taking the one on the left, Eames the one on the right. Arthur pistolwhips the foot soldier in one smooth movement, smashing an elbow to the face, breaking his nose and sending him flying backward in a fountain of blood.
Arthur grabs the next man, launches a haymaker to the face, jabs him in the solar plexus, finishes with a sharp kick to the knee that breaks it backward. The man falls with a howl that brings the pilot and Beria out of the cockpit. The pilot has a gun drawn and up, and Arthur shoots him without hesitation, then turns his gun on Beria, who raises his hands slowly. With all four foot soldiers down and out, Eames moves to stand by Arthur’s side with a gun trained on McKay. McKay just stares around, confused.
“Cuff McKay, ankles and wrists,” Arthur says to Beria, grabbing two pairs of cuffs from an unconscious foot soldier and throwing them at Beria.
What happens next Arthur only knows because time seems to slow, time turned to gloopy molasses. With one hand Beria catches the flexicuffs and the other lifts a gun. Arthur is thrown backward, pain exploding through him.
He lies on the floor, staring at the ceiling of the plane. Two more gunshots and a body falls to the floor, another howls in pain and is cut off by a dull thump.
“Eames,” Arthur says, but he can’t get up. His body refuses to respond.
“I’m here,” Eames says, appearing at Arthur’s side, holding his hand, pressing something to his shoulder that makes pain explode behind Arthur’s eyes like a shower of fireworks. “You’re going to beokay, love, you’re going to be fine, just hold on. Davies is out there, we’ll get you to a hospital, you’re going to be fine.”
“I love you,” Arthur says, because it’s important. It’s hard to breathe and he can feel his own blood pooling under him, leaking from his body too fast for the carpet to absorb. He doesn’t say it often enough, he never has, and if he’s going to die he needs Eames to hear it.
“I know, Arthur, I love you too. Always. Always, alright?” Tears track down Eames’s cheeks and that hurts Arthur too. Even under the pain of being shot, it’s clear and distinct, the pain of seeing Eames cry for him. Arthur wants to lift a hand to wipe the tears away, but his arms won’t move. He wants to say I love you again but his voice won’t work, either. With every breath that he takes, it gets harder to draw in another.
He hears Eames calling his name but can’t move; can’t see either, greyness taking over his vision.
The last thing he hears before everything fades out is Arthur, I love you, and Arthur manages a smile before the roaring wave of darkness pulls him under.
Eames sleeping, head resting on his shoulder.
A man in a white coat, shining a light in his eye. Arthur tries to turn his head away from the painful light but it’s pathetically easy for the man’s gentle hands to keep him in place. When the light goes off the man seems pleased, but Arthur just lets the darkness take him again.
And then he wakes.
It’s bright, the room painted a warm cream colour. Sun shines through the two windows, the curtain gauzy and waving in the breeze from outside. The warm touch on his hand is Eames, who smiles down at him.
“Good morning,” Eames says.
For a moment, Arthur struggles to push through the lethargy hanging over him. He must be on powerful painkillers, he thinks, to feel this sluggish, and vows to be free of them as soon as he can.
He attempts to say, “Where am I?” but it comes out as a croak. Eames helps him take a mouthful of water, easing the sandpaper dryness of his throat. He tries again and sounds almost human.
“Hospital in Moscow, private place. Food’s nice too.”
“You’ve been out three days. You were in surgery most of the first day and you’ve been in and out of consciousness since then.” Eames pauses and reaches over to stroke his fingers through Arthur’s bangs. “You had me scared, Arthur. Don’t do that again.”
Arthur considers. “I won’t if you don’t.”
“Deal,” Eames says and kisses Arthur’s hand.
Tiredness is swooping low over Arthur again, but he wants one last answer before he sleeps. “What happened? Davies was there…”
“Ariadne called him. He was already in Russia, arranging to storm Romanov’s place but when he got her call he came after us. Just as well, we were in a bit of a jam there.”
“A bit,” Arthur says, smiling at Eames’s incredible ability with understatement. “Beria? McKay?”
“Beria’s dead. McKay in a high-security institution. With any luck he’ll stay there this time.”
The relief that washes over Arthur at hearing that is so strong that he’s glad he’s lying down. Knowing that he and Eames are safe now makes him feel so grateful he feels a little faint.
“She’s fine. She’s with Davies, telling him everything she remembers, and then she’s going to Mombasa. I’ve told Yusuf he has to treat her like a princess.”
“Good. She deserves it,” Arthur says, the words smothered by a yawn.
“Go back to sleep,” Eames says, standing with a grunt of pain and leaning over to kiss Arthur gently on the lips. “I’m supposedly on bed rest, so I’ll be right here.”
Arthur glances to the side, where he sees another bed like his. “You okay?”
Eames laugh has broken edges. “Better than you,” he says, and squeezes Arthur’s hand. “Rest, love. I’ll be right here.”
Ariadne has always liked Yusuf’s apartment. The drone of the air conditioning is just right to send her to sleep and his bed is huge and the most comfortable place in the world.
They lie in it now, and she strokes his cheek, her fingers rasping over the stubble.
“What are you thinking?” he asks, voice low and soft.
“About tomorrow. Come with me. I bet you miss Eames. You’ve not seen him for a while.”
He shakes his head and smiles. “It was your adventure out in Russia, not mine. Besides, Eames hates me seeing him hurt. I think he reckons I’ll think less of him.”
“I think he knows you’ll mother-hen him,” Ariadne says and Yusuf ducks his head, grinning. She kisses him and when she pulls back, his dark eyes are soft, gentle, happy. They smile at each other and happiness trickles through her.
Let Eames and Arthur have their intensity. After everything that has happened, she knows that with Yusuf, she has everything she has ever wanted. Everything is right, everything is easy: it’s perfect.
This, to her, is what it means to be a lover.
Ariadne’s flight is to London, and she dumps her bags at a hotel in Piccadilly before getting a train up to Harrogate. She’s going to catch up with some friends that she went to college with who are slogging away as architects in London, friends she hasn’t seen since she got dragged into the world of extraction.
The most important lesson that she’s learned from her adventure, as Yusuf calls it, is that she can’t put things off any more. Who knows when everything will be taken away from you? After London she’s going to Ann Arbor, to see her parents and little brother. She’s taking some time out to see everyone she loves and remind herself how lucky she is to have them.
She orders tea from the trolley when it ambles down the train, and watches the fields and forests pass by. She feels older than she did before all this happened, like she’s lived years rather than days. Though she’s been in dream-share for six months, this is the first time something dangerous has happened to her in the real world. Long hours of thinking about and talking—with Yusuf, with Katerina, even a few discussions with Cobb—and she has a better idea of who she is, of her place in the world.
When the train finally pulls into Harrogate, she spots Eames and Arthur before they spot her. Eames has lost weight and he looks younger; his hair is still short, though no longer two different lengths, and he’s clean-shaven for once. He looks almost like a different person, like a clean-cut model rather than his usual scruffy ex-pat look.
Arthur still has a sling but his smiles come more easily than before. Eames touches his cheek and Arthur knocks his hand away, saying something that makes Eames chuckle and lean in for a kiss, which Arthur allows with a long-suffering expression.
Any tension between them is gone, obliterated. They seem carefree, like a young couple in love instead of the two serious, deadly dream criminals she knows they are. No—they’re both of those things, and she’s glad of it.
“Hey,” she says, approaching with a smile. Eames greets her with a tight hug. After a moment so does Arthur, his good arm going around her firmly but not squeezing. “Wow, an Arthur-hug. That makes me feel special.”
“You saved our lives,” Arthur says with a crooked shrug. “It’s the least I can do.”
“The least you can do is treat me to afternoon tea,” Ariadne corrects. “Eames promised.”
Arthur looks at Eames in faux-annoyance that Arthur abandons when he tangles their fingers together, just for a moment, before releasing them.
“Fine. Let’s go.”
The tea room is perfectly English, straight out of a Jane Austen novel. Ariadne is delighted with the afternoon tea, served on a three-tier tray: scones and sandwiches and a selection of miniature cakes. She insists on champagne and clinks their glasses together in a toast.
“To you,” she says. “To your health and your happiness.”
“To you,” Eames corrects. “Because we wouldn’t have each other without your bravery.”
The sincerity in his words makes Ariadne blush, and she downs the champagne in one go.
There’s so much food that she takes her time with it, the customers around them changing like the seasons. It’s always busy here, it seems, but never loud: there’s something about a tea-room that demands restraint.
“So you’re all better now?” she asks between bites of a delicious orangey dome cake.
“More or less,” Arthur says with a shrug, weighted to his good shoulder. “Still some stiffness and both of us will need physical therapy for a while yet.”
“I’ll feel a lot better when we’re home,” Eames says. “It’s nice to be looked after but the sooner I can get away from Menwith Hill the better.”
“So what happened?” Ariadne asks. She’s been curious about it but none of them wanted to talk about it over the phone.
“After we were well enough to travel, Davies arranged for us to be transferred to Menwith Hill for debriefing and for medical care,” Arthur says. “Turns out we’ve been pardoned for going AWOL and our ranks have been reinstated.”
“Don’t forget the commendation and the medal,” Eames adds with a grin.
“Very nice,” Ariadne chuckles. “So you’re going back to the military?”
“Good God, no,” Eames says. “Honourable discharge, with status as consultants if we want a break from our criminal lifestyles.”
“Speaking of which,” Ariadne says. “After I finished my report on Romanov, Captain Davies offered me a job.”
“Really? What job?”
“Architect for Aberdeen Proving Ground. They’re doing some research into the extent of what is possible in the dream, architecture-wise, and apparently someone told them that’s my specialty.”
“Wonder who’d have done that?” Eames muses and suddenly he’s eating a piece of tiffin that’s disappeared from Ariadne’s tray. In revenge she steals the last of his cucumber sandwiches.
“Will you take it?” Arthur asks, letting Eames feed him the last bite of cake.
“For a bit,” Ariadne says. “It’ll be nice to not have to lie to my parents about my job for once.”
“You’ll have to be super-secretive,” Eames notes. “The Army isn’t going to let you tell anyone what you actually do.”
“Saying that you work for the Army is still better than lying,” she says. “To be honest, though, I don’t think I’ll be away from extraction for long.”
“Our little criminal,” Eames says, grinning at her like a proud parent. Arthur rolls his eyes at him.
“So we’ll get to work with you again?”
“Absolutely,” Ariadne says with a grin. “Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”
Back at the station, Ariadne gives them long, tight hugs. Their friendship isn’t the kind that needs constant interaction to feed it; they’ll always be a part of each other’s lives. Still, she’ll miss them and makes them promise to visit her at Aberdeen.
It’s dark when the train starts the journey back to London and her head is full of thoughts of the future.
The next few months working a legit job is just what she needs. Take her out of danger for a while, have a change of pace, give her the chance to work on new skills.
And after that, who knows?
The future is whatever she dreams it into.
After much discussion Eames and Arthur decide to go to their Paris apartment.
Eames doesn’t want to go to New York yet. He will, eventually, but the thought of going back still makes him uncomfortable. He’ll give it time. It’s not like they’re short of other places to live.
Although they’ve been out of danger and away from anything that Beria or McKay could do to them for six weeks now, stepping into their apartment is the first time he’s truly been able to relax. Dropping his bag, he pulls Arthur to him and kisses him, hard. Arthur kicks the door shut and kisses back, his hand curling in Eames’s too-short hair. The slight tug he gives makes Eames shiver and he angles his head so that he can deepen the kiss.
They make their way to the bedroom, trying not to break the kiss, but their injuries make it impossible. Everything has to go slower, despite their desperation, but that means that there are more kisses, more caresses, and Eames can’t mind too much.
When they’re both naked, they press up against each other and Eames gasps when their cocks rub together. Arthur grins at him and bites the corner of his jaw.
“So how do you want to do this?” Arthur asks. That’s the most frustrating thing about this: at the moment they’re stiff and sensitive, so positions have to be considered with that in mind. They can’t just fuck, they have to negotiate and compromise. Right now Eames doesn’t want to do either of those things, he wants to fuck, filthy and desperate and spontaneous.
“Like last night,” Eames says, leaning in and thrusting his tongue into Arthur’s mouth, grabbing Arthur’s arse with both hands. “Last night was good for me.”
Since they already know they can work this position, it feels a little less contrived. When Arthur lies on his back, looking up at Eames, he’s the most beautiful thing Eames has ever seen, scars and all. Eames takes a moment to just stare down at him.
“Come on, Eames,” Arthur says, stroking his cock, and that doesn’t make Eames want to stop watching at all. However, the scowl on Arthur’s face tells Eames that he needs to get on with it before Arthur loses his hold on the little patience he has.
“Darling, patience,” Eames says, and snags a tube of lube from the nightstand before carefully kneeling on the bed, spreading Arthur’s legs open. A lube-slick finger slides into Arthur, eliciting a shaky moan.
“Jesus,” Arthur says, jerking himself off slowly as Eames fingers him. Eames watches Arthur’s eyes fluttering shut, watches Arthur arching his neck and revealing his lovely pale throat. Eames wants to bite it but with his current level of mobility that’s not really an option. Cursing the injuries that make spontaneity impossible, Eames promises himself that as soon as they are better they are going to work through every goddamn position in the Kama Sutra and their porn collection.
He bends carefully to lick the tip of Arthur’s dick, making him give a strangled noise. Eames slides another finger into him as he gets into sucking Arthur; revelling in all the different kinds of noises he can get Arthur to make.
“Fuck me, fuck me, come on Eames, please, dammit.”
“How can I refuse such a polite request?” Eames asks, but makes sure to take a little while longer in finger-fucking him because Arthur makes such lovely noises, especially when some careful pressure on his beautiful pale stomach massages his prostate outside as well.
Finally, the insistent throbbing of his cock cannot be denied and Eames slicks himself up. He has to position himself carefully, putting one of Arthur’s legs over his shoulder and pushing the other out to theside, and then be presses in. Arthur gives a breathy moan and Eames’s hand wraps around Arthur’s hip, hard enough to bruise. Tight and hot and his, all his, his alone.
Arthur’s good arm goes around him, pulling him in. Eames bends as much as he can but Arthur has to curl up too before they manage to kiss as they fuck.
The kiss adds something, something ephemeral but real and God, Eames loves Arthur, loves him so fucking much that he aches, an ache that has nothing to do with his injuries.
The pleasure and the feelings drag him under and he doesn’t care about anything but right now, here with Arthur, home. Words start to spill from his mouth, I love you and Beautiful and Always, darling, always, and Arthur’s name again and again.
They come and it washes away the pain and the sadness and the lonely space they have been keeping between them. They are reborn, remade.
Arthur beneath him, breathing heavy in his ear, feels like home. They kiss and kiss, breathless, spent, and then grin at each other, too tired to care that they’re acting like idiots.
“So after all this excitement, you think we should retire?”
Arthur snorts. “It’s a good thing I know you well enough not to believe you’re serious. If we retire we’ll get boring.”
“Arthur, darling, I can’t imagine you’d ever get boring.”
“Only because you always think I’m boring.”
Eames laughs and leans in for another kiss. “I never think you’re boring. You’re unimaginative, definitely. Staid, perhaps. But never boring. At least not where it counts.”
“You mean sex.”
Arthur grins, then rolls off him and pulls him to his feet and into a shower.
When they’re both clean they remember how unsatisfying the plane food was and order a shocking amount of Chinese food.
They’re halfway through the beef satay when Arthur says, “You know I’d never cheat on you,” and Eames goes perfectly still.
He remembers Arthur following Cobb around the world; giving him every bit of time and attention and leaving none for Eames.
It had hurt, hurt so much that the word is too small for it. Back then, yes, Eames had honestly believed Arthur was cheating on him. If not actually sleeping with Cobb, then in love with him and that was so much worse.
After hearing Arthur’s side of things he could see the other ways that Arthur’s actions could be translated, but that hadn’t stopped him from feeling skittish, like Arthur would leave him with at the slightest infraction.
They’ve almost died together. Arthur has cried for him, begged Beria to turn his attentions onto Arthur and leave Eames alone. He looked into Arthur’s eyes when they were reunited and he knew.
He looks up and sees Arthur fidgeting with a chopstick, staring down at his food like Eames’s silence has been answer enough.
“Arthur, look at me,” Eames says, and Arthur looks up warily. “I know.”
Relief floods Arthur’s face. “Yeah?”
“Yes. And you know that I love you? That I never stopped?”
“Yeah,” Arthur says, and puts down his carton of food so that he can kiss Eames, wrapping his arms around him in the lopsided, careful way that they’ve developed so as not to brush each other’s hurts. The kiss is hard and rough and deep, full of everything they are feeling and Eames basks in it until he feels drunk.
“This is enough talking, right?” Arthur says when they pull away to breathe. “I mean—If we talk about this much more I’m worried we’re just going to fuck everything up. Misunderstanding each other is what we’re best at.”
“Let’s take it slow,” Eames says, his fingers tracing patterns on Arthur’s back. “We should probably still talk about what happened. About why it happened. About how we feel and all those other awfully uncomfortable things. But we should ration it. Five minutes a day.”
Arthur appears to think about it and nods. “That sounds about right. Any more than that and I think I’d start an argument just to avoid talking about things.”
Eames laughs and leans in for a kiss. “I agree entirely, darling. So from now on, we try to let on when we piss each other off without a screaming match, yes?”
“I’ll try,” Arthur says, and his solemnity makes Eames giggle. Arthur laughs with him because it’s just so ridiculous, and they end up curled up together on the sofa with the last strains of laughter wracking their shoulders, their food forgotten about.
Lying on their sofa, his head in Arthur’s lap as they discuss that holiday in Maui, Arthur looking up hotels on his phone. Arthur’s fingers play absentmindedly with Eames’s hair as he lists the pros and cons of the Hyatt Regency versus the Grand Wailea. Eames could care less, as long as he’s with Arthur.
This is home—their apartment, yes, but being with Arthur is what really makes it home. And they’ll go to Hawaii, they’ll take jobs, they’ll go and see Tom, and Arthur’s family, and maybe even Cobb, but as long as they’re together they will be home.
Eames sits up—with some difficulty—and kisses Arthur in the middle of a sentence. Arthur’s eyebrow quirks.
“What’s that for?”
“Because I can,” Eames says, and realises that he forgot how beautiful Arthur’s smiles are.
“Yeah. You can.” Arthur leans in for another kiss, warm and close and intimate, as perfect as anything gets in reality.
Eames doesn’t believe in forever, because forever is a dream, a myth.
But he believes in Arthur, and that’s better than any dream.