Arthur hated his job.
No, that wasn't precisely true. There were a lot of people in the world who truly deserved a bullet in the head for a variety of reasons, but he wasn't sure this one did. Still, the money was too good to pass up.
He checked the light gauge a second time, made a minute adjustment to his telescopic lens. From his perch atop Frederick & Sons Savings and Loan across the street from the Channing Theatre, Arthur could see everything. From the light traffic to the comings and goings of the cast, crew, and occasional journalists, Arthur felt like Zeus gazing down from Mt. Olympus, the world at his feet, human lives within his grasp.
His target was what seemed to be an unremarkable Englishman. An actor for God's sakes, and one that appeared to be vain enough to be known only by his last name: Eames. Arthur had no idea how this guy had gotten himself mixed-up with the kind of people who routinely hired Arthur, but somehow he had. People didn't hand over upwards of a quarter million dollars on a whim, or at least that hadn't been Arthur's experience. Whatever this Eames guy had done, it was big, and someone desperately wanted him out of the picture. Permanently.
Arthur watched as his target stopped in front of the theatre, chatting with a few of the cast members taking one last smoke before rehearsal. Eames bummed a cigarette off one of the guys with what Arthur could only term a pleading hang-dog look and a stupid grin. The guy handed over a cigarette cheerfully.
Laughter floated up from the street and Arthur took the chance to look again through his lens. Eames' laughter was raucous, genuine, and carried upwards like a balloon adrift. Arthur wondered what the joke was. There were fine laugh lines around the edges of the man's eyes.
From his research Arthur knew Clement Bartholomew Eames had a first name; he just appeared never to use it, and Arthur really couldn't blame him. The name screamed upper-class pretensions to Arthur, but a background check had revealed the opposite. Eames was now about 30—only three years older than Arthur—the only child of working-class parents, and long ago orphaned by a car accident. He'd been 16 at the time, and apparently the community theatre where he'd already begun acting took the teen in. Arthur had read an article where Eames' credited those people for keeping him off the streets and out of trouble.
As unorthodox as growing up in the theatre might have been, it was a far better life than the streets of London offered. A man that attractive. Arthur shuddered to think of the life Eames might've had. As a teenager, he surely would've been just beginning to put on muscle, but the shoulders would still have been broad enough for the frame, and given that the man seemed to have a permanent rasp of stubble, he would've been needing to shave even then. The blue-green eyes, even from this far, seemed alight with enthusiasm, and the lips ...
Arthur's fingered moved involuntarily against the shutter release, the camera startling him by snapping a series of photos that would no doubt be useless for his purpose. He should simply delete them now and save himself the trouble later, but he didn't.
It wasn't that Arthur hadn't killed attractive men before. He had. But he'd always known, whether he'd been told or not, what the person had done to deserve the bullet. He had his own sources and his own sort of code. He didn't kill women, and if that made him a sexist, fine, but he had a mother and two younger sisters, and he couldn't imagine ever sighting through a scope and seeing a face like one of theirs.
Men were different. He knew men. He'd fought with them, fucked them, been fucked by them, and generally understood that when it came to men, the spectrum of atrocities they were capable of committing was unfathomable. Just when you thought you'd seen or heard everything, some new horror came along and made you despise being part of that particular side of the human race all over again.
Dictators and generalissimos, renegade military leaders and rogue soldiers planning a coup, warlords and drug cartel enforcers who didn't give a damn about civilian casualties or collateral damage—Arthur had no problem at all putting those bastards down. It was almost a pleasure, if he was honest. The army had trained him for exactly that, after all—they just hadn't paid as well.
But an actor? And an English one at that. Arthur couldn't imagine what the guy had done beyond perhaps butchering a favourite Shakespeare soliloquy or sleeping with someone's wife. Or husband.
Arthur looked through the telephoto lens again, at the plush lips and the man's broad shoulders, the easy way he leaned into the person he was speaking with, giving the impression he was eager to catch every word. The last time someone had looked at Arthur like that he'd bought a flat and a dog with him, and three months later, with blood dripping down his side, Arthur remembered why he didn't get involved with people. This. Betrayal. Because someone could sleep beside you and steal your covers and your heart for three fucking months and then roll over and stab you in the back – literally. Luckily, even Arthur in the beginnings of something like love was a suspicious bastard, and the Glock had been in his hand instantly, and that was that. He hated when his relationships ended with a bang, even a suppressed one. Just once he'd like to be proven wrong about people.
And probably this Eames guy was some kind of bastard too, if only of the love-'em-and-leave-'em variety. He looked the type. Rakish was the word that sprang to mind. As if he'd stumbled right out of the pages of a picaresque novel somewhere between ravishing the heroine and handily thwarting the law's attempt to detain him after dispatching the other would-be suitor in a duel.
“Christ,” Arthur murmured to himself. “No more bloody BBC period dramas.”
But while Eames' romantic sins, whatever they might be, probably rated tossing his shit out onto the lawn or maybe even a crack to the jaw, Arthur thought a bullet seemed an extreme reaction. There must be some other reason why the actor had a price on his head.
Arthur sighed and pulled back from the camera to wipe a glimmer of sweat from his forehead. He wasn't paid to think this much. Point of fact, he wasn't paid to think at all, just find the mark, find the best location and time to make the kill, and then pull the trigger. Once. It was all he ever needed.
But Eames was a curiosity of sorts. Attractive, obviously gregarious, and from the few reviews Arthur had read in passing—it was all just research, of course—the man seemed to have some talent, although there were lightly-veiled hints he'd somehow messed up opportunities to be doing bigger and better shows, talented or not.
And still, none of this gave Arthur even an inkling as to why some very powerful people would pay a sizable sum to have the actor killed. From the carefree way Eames was going about his business as usual, Arthur would wager the actor had no idea that someone was at this very moment evaluating his life for the best possible chance to end it.
Ariadne sat at Arthur's kitchen table with her feet on the second chair while he made coffee. The espresso machine had been a rare indulgence, top of the line and worth every penny. Ariadne eyed him as he carefully measured fresh grind into a stainless steel filter.
“You should come out with me tonight,” Ariadne pushed. Arthur knew she meant well, but Ariadne's brand of fun usually ended with Arthur nursing a hangover at the least, and he didn't like the distraction while he was on a job.
Of course, Ariadne didn't know he was on a job. She only had a vague idea that he had something to do with art because he owned a number of expensive originals, and Arthur had never bothered to disabuse her of the notion. Besides, he did like art. It just wasn't what afforded him a decent-sized flat in London, another in Paris, and two back home in the States. It was safer if she didn't know what he did for a living. Arthur didn't like having to either get rid of a friend or pull up stakes and change identities. Both were a pain, and really, Arthur liked having friends, or at least a friend. Ariadne was funny and a little naive, but also brilliant and daring and she could almost always nudge him out of a bad mood and into a good one. It was a rare talent.
Arthur set a steaming cup in front of her, watching as she closed her eyes and breathed in the warmth with a happy noise.
“I said you should come out with me this evening, Arthur,” she repeated, and Arthur sighed as he turned back to brew his own cup.
“I've got work to do. Research.”
“Yeah, right. As if you don't already know everything about Renaissance Art and the Cubists and Dadaists and all those other guys. And why, why are they always men? Where are the women artists?”
“Sadly ignored by a patriarchal society who tended to dismiss their art as mere craft,” Arthur offered, hoping to head off a conversation he'd already had with Ariadne many times before. “Research is why I know this stuff.”
“One day your head is going to explode with everything that's in there.” Ariadne took a slow sip from the lip of her mug. “The coffee's perfect, as usual.”
She sounded annoyed, but Arthur knew that was mostly a screen for admiration. In the six months he'd known her, she'd never turned down an offer to have coffee at Arthur's place, and Arthur knew she didn't keep coming back for him. That was clear from the very beginning when she took one look around his pristine apartment, gave his suit and perfectly polished shoes a once-over, and said, “Gay?”, to which Arthur had nodded automatically, and that had been the end of that except for Ariadne's occasional “Seeing anyone?” inquisitions.
All was quiet while Arthur put the finishing touches on his own cup, and Ariadne hummed contentedly over her coffee until an ear-shocking squeal of delight broke the moment. When Arthur saw what had captured Ariadne's attention, he almost dropped his cup.
“Don't—” he started and stopped suddenly.
What exactly could he say? Don't look at the surveillance photos I took of my next target? Christ, why had he left the pictures of Eames in an open envelope on the table after he'd printed them? Why had he printed them anyway? He never had before, had always been content to study the images on the screen of his laptop, memorize every angle and line so that he could recognize the face in the poorest of light. In profile. From a distance. He couldn't afford to make a mistake, not when it came to his job.
“This is Eames!” Ariadne said, excitement pushing her voice higher, exposing the entire photograph she'd caught a glimpse of. Arthur watched in horror as she upended the open manila envelope and dozens of photos spilled onto the table, every single one an image of Eames. “You know this is Eames, right?”
“Yes,” Arthur answered cautiously, forcing himself to loosen the grip on his tiny cup. He wondered if his simple answer was giving anything away. He tried to sound casual. “How do you know Eames?”
“Oh my God, Arthur, everyone knows Eames! You'd have to live under a rock not to know his new play's about to become the hottest ticket in London.” The look on her face told him she was leaning towards putting him in the “living under a rock” category. For some reason, it annoyed him.
Ariadne was nosey in a harmless kind of way, and Arthur genuinely liked her. He'd had no idea she was interested in the theatre. Most of the time she seemed to have her nose stuck in books on architecture and biographies of Frank Gehry, or to be moaning about the lack of intelligent men in her classes. She inevitably did this over glasses of exceptional wine, or cups of Arthur's even more exceptional coffee.
“I know,” Arthur said, trying to sound non-chalant. “He's playing Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Channing Theatre.”
“Well, maybe there's hope for you after all,” Ariadne said, but she was busy sorting through the images,
fingers skimming the surface of the photos, and Arthur, for no reason he could pinpoint, found himself wanting to slap her hands away. The photos were private, that's all; they were work-related, and his work by its very nature was a private, secret thing. He hadn't been expecting to have to share this with anyone. It was unsettling.
“Have you seen him?” Ariadne asked.
Arthur looked at the photos currently covering his kitchen table, then meaningfully back at Ariadne. “Well, yes, obviously.”
Ariadne rolled her eyes. “I mean, have you already been to the play because I was going to suggest maybe we should go, but I wasn't sure whether you'd—”
“I don't think that's such a—”
“Oh my God, Arthur, are you interviewing him? Is that what all the photos are for? I know you do artsy stuff and you're always writing in your little notebook—”
Arthur hadn't been aware Ariadne had noticed . He was getting far too careless with his habits. He wondered what else she'd noticed, what seemingly inconsequential details would come back to haunt him when her favourite actor turned up dead and Arthur was coincidentally nowhere to be found in London. Or anywhere, for that matter.
“Arthur! Arthur, do you get free tickets? I mean, I don't mind paying to see the play. God, I'd pay a fortune to see Eames in that role, but if you get perks—”
“No, I don't get tickets,” Arthur said, and stopped.
Ariadne stopped too and looked at him with the kind of anticipation Arthur hadn't seen since he last spent Christmas with his sisters. The excitement of even the prospect of seeing Eames on stage had splashed rosy colour high on her cheeks, and a genuine smile curved her lips. Arthur looked at Ariadne's face and saw his sister Abby, saw her at sixteen when she'd been head over heels for the lead singer of Coldplay and Arthur had missed taking her to their concert like he'd promised to because work had interfered. He'd been on the run in Lithuania, one of his only jobs that went wrong, and getting to a phone to apologize or explain hadn't been the easiest thing even if it had been a priority, which it wasn't at the time. Still, Arthur remembered the same blush of excitement on Abby's face when he'd presented her with the tickets, and the careful way she'd assuaged his guilt when he turned up three days late and without an excuse he could share with anyone. He also couldn't miss the fact that she purposely didn't rely on him to be the lynch pin in her plans ever again. It still bothered him though years had passed, and now looking at Ariadne's hopeful face he found he couldn't say no.
“No freebies? That sucks, especially if you're doing a piece on them. It's basically free advertising, right?” She picked up one of the photos of Eames leaning in to light his cigarette. Arthur had always considered smoking to be a terrible habit, but he had to admit there was something about Eames' mouth pursed to hold the thin white cigarette, the way he still seemed to be smiling flirtatiously, eyes cast slightly upward through long lashes at the man holding the lighter. Only the other man's hands were in the picture, but Arthur still felt like a voyeur given the sense of intimacy the camera had captured. No one should be able to make smoking look sexy, Arthur thought with annoyance. If the tobacco companies ever got wind of just how devastatingly handsome Eames looked with a cigarette pressed between his lips, Arthur feared for the general health of the population.
Ariadne murmured something about wanting to be the cigarette—a sentiment Arthur chose not to examine too closely—then continued to paw through the photos. Arthur shoved his hands in his pockets to stop himself from appearing too possessive. It wouldn't do to make Ariadne suspicious. She was bright and observant, and if he gave even the slightest hint these photos were anything other than what she had assumed, she would seize on it it like a cat with a mouse. Her curiosity could be relentless, and letting her think there was something to be curious about would only be putting her in danger, something Arthur wanted to avoid that at all costs. He was reminded again why friends were a luxury he could ill afford when working.
“These are great shots, Arthur. Fantastic, really. Eames looks so relaxed, almost as if he has no idea the camera is even on him.” Ariadne glanced at him with open admiration. “Can you say where they're going to be published, or is it too soon to ask?”
“It's freelance,” Arthur said, dimly aware that Ariadne now assumed he not only dabbled in art, but wrote theatre reviews on the side. It wasn't completely unthinkable considering his interests did tend towards the artistic side of things, but for the first time in a long time he felt bad about lying to someone. Arthur wondered if he should plant a few old reviews online, nothing special, just something attached to his current pseudonym in case Ariadne went Googling; he could always remove them when the time came to disappear.
He truly liked Ariadne; he supposed it was in part because she reminded him of Abigail, but beyond that, she'd made his last six months in London bearable, and for that he was profoundly grateful. With her unrestrained enthusiasm and her inability to take “no” for an answer, she'd forced Arthur out of his apartment and out of his self-imposed hermitage until the bartender at the local pub knew his name and his favourite beer, and Arthur could expect a half-dozen greetings when he came or left his apartment. It was exactly the kind of behaviour he shouldn't be engaging in, but he liked the way it made him feel a little more like a part of the world everyone else lived in. He justified it by allowing that it would probably raise more suspicions if he completed avoided everyone around him, although that had worked perfectly well for him in the past.
For a moment he considered what he was about to do, the utter insanity of it, and then did it anyway.
“You're right, Ariadne. I do need to see the play, so I'd be happy to take you. My treat.” Ariadne appeared to be considering whether she should protest his generosity or not, and it occurred to Arthur that the tickets were probably expensive. No matter. He could claim them as an expense. Checking out the mark in his natural environment, so to speak. Arthur couldn't summon enough energy to be ashamed at his own ruthlessness; maybe it was poor form to attend what would undoubtedly be the actor's last performance before his untimely death, but it had been a while since Arthur had been to a play, and now that the idea had lodged itself in his brain, there was no turning back.
“Really? Are you sure, Arthur? That's a lot of money, but it would be so, so awesome to go with you! Well, that's if we can even get tickets, although I know this guy who works at the box office, so maybe—”
Before Arthur even knew what had happened, Ariadne had her iPhone out and by some miracle of timing, managed to get two tickets for that night's performance. When she passed him the phone to dictate his payment information, he didn't hesitate or even ask the amount, just read off the numbers of his Visa and all his contact information. He had a feeling no matter what the amount, it was going to feel strangely like thirty pieces of silver.
“Oh, God, I can't believe we got tickets!” Ariadne jumped up and hugged Arthur hard as he clicked “End” and handed back the phone. “I've got to go get ready.” She pressed a firefly-quick kiss to his cheek and darted out the door. “I'll be back in two hours; we can share a taxi.” Then she was gone, leaving him to consider the ramifications of what he'd done.
Feeling slightly stunned, he let himself fall back into the kitchen chair. Today he'd broken at least two of his cardinal rules, first with the photos and then in buying the tickets. Normally Arthur paid cash for all his transactions. The Visa was strictly for emergencies because credit card companies left a blazing trail a half-decent researcher (or a determined fed) could find in no time at all, and Arthur didn't see the need to help them find a way to hang him.
Arthur swallowed the last of his coffee, then rinsed and dried the two cups before sparing an eye for the clock. He'd have time to shower and change, although he'd have to press a shirt, and it would be wise to order a cab to pick them up.
In spite of himself, Arthur could feel a frisson of excitement in his chest. It was rare he got to see the mark through anything other than binoculars, a telephoto lens, or a rifle scope, and somehow going to the theatre, stepping into Eames' world, seemed a bit like a spy sneaking into enemy territory.
“Get a grip,” Arthur told himself, heading for the shower. Maybe that would help clear his head so he could get back to the mission at hand. He had a job to do, and he'd never broken a contract.
At least, Arthur thought, there was every likelihood that he would be sparing the world's audiences from yet another overblown, hack actor who would strut the stage long-past his prime. Maybe seeing the play would even make his job easier in the end.
Arthur hated being wrong.
Even through the opening scenes of the play, Arthur could tell Eames was something special. This wasn't Broadway or London's West End, but nor was it community theatre. These men and women were all professionals, and yet Eames' performance still outshone the rest. It should've coloured the play with its imbalance – all that talent in one man, but surprisingly it seemed to elevate the other players rather than diminish them. It was as if being in Eames' circle caused his colleagues to pull out their best performances, the ones that would get them noticed if all eyes weren't already focused on one very bright star.
Yet, there was no sense of this being a one-man show, a vehicle to showcase one actor and damned be all the rest. The cast worked seamlessly together, and Arthur found himself caught up in the story, even though it was one he already knew well. He laughed at the jokes, the quirks of character, and Eames' ability to give the impression he was both innocent and coy. Arthur had been right in thinking of him as a bit of a rake. He played up the hedonistic elements of Algernon, yet it only made the character seem larger-than-life, all charisma and daring, but with a sweet underlying sincerity to it.
At intermission when the curtain fell, the audience broke into spontaneous applause, something Arthur had never seen in a London theatre.
“And it's only half done,” Ariadne remarked breathlessly, accepting the glass of wine Arthur offered her from the bar in the theatre's sweeping lobby. She leaned against a nearby pillar, and fanned her face with a black silk handbag. “Isn't he amazing? Don't you think he's just amazing?”
Arthur sipped his own wine and could do nothing but agree. The room was absolutely abuzz, and Arthur didn't have to listen hard to know the name on everyone's lips was “Eames.” Ariadne continued in her happy monologue, and Arthur found himself surveying the lobby for points of egress. It would undoubtedly be easier to find Eames in his own home and take care of him there, and far easier to make it look like a suicide, another actor mixing too many pills and too much booze.
But that wasn't Arthur's style and he hadn't been hired to make it look like an accident. This was supposed to send a message. To whom or what the message was, Arthur wasn't entirely clear on. Not having that information hadn't affected his work before, but it was starting to bother him now.
Eames, though, spent most of his time at the theatre. Sometimes the hours the man kept put Arthur to shame. He could usually get by on adrenaline and very little sleep; so, it appeared, could Eames.
A hard jab to his forearm brought Arthur's attention back to Ariadne. “Arthur, it's him,” she said in a tone that gave no doubt as to which “him” she was referring to. “And he's coming this way.”
Arthur watched in horror as Ariadne downed the entirety of her glass of wine and attempted what she surely thought was a casual smile, but which succeeded in looking most like a hunter sighting a deer. Afraid to look back over his shoulder, Arthur assumed if Eames had any sense of self-preservation the man would avoid coming anywhere near their little corner of the lobby and Ariadne's predatory smile.
“Eames,” Ariadne called, as if they were old friends, waving the hand that wasn't holding her empty glass. Arthur stared at her in shock.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
“I want to meet him.” Her eyes flicked over Arthur's shoulder and her grin widened, which could only mean either security was about to pitch them out or Eames was too polite to ignore an obvious fan. “Besides, I'm doing you a favour.”
Arthur could only presume the other potential stalkers looked more terrifying than Ariadne, or simply weren't brazen enough to shout the man's name across a crowded lobby, because he suddenly felt a presence beside him, one that came with the unmistakable scent of theatre makeup and hastily applied cologne. The slightly overwhelming scent somehow managed to be charming, and Arthur braced himself as he came face-to-face with his mark.
He turned his head to take in a still fully-costumed Eames, glass of something clear in his hand, leaning forward to kiss Ariadne's hand as he introduced himself. Well-played, Arthur noted with some admiration, as the roles reversed, Ariadne now clearly the one caught and Eames in control of the situation. He watched as she blushed, even while managing to pluck a glass of what appeared to be champagne off the tray of a passing waiter and exchange it for her empty one. The waiter, all black-and-white formalism and haughty scowl, was clearly about to protest Ariadne's theft when Arthur thought it prudent just to pull out a ten-pound note and drop it on the tray.
“For your trouble,” he said, which only earned him a look of contempt from the waiter, but one of such grateful thanks from Ariadne, he couldn't be irritated. Not to mention that Eames had paused in his rise from kissing Ariadne's hand to watch Arthur, and was now evaluating him with much the same look as had been in the photograph on Arthur's kitchen table. Blue-green eyes, more green in the bright lights of the theatre, filtered through long eyelashes, lips—those stupidly full lips rouged lightly with stage make-up—grinning at him with delight. He considered calling back the waiter for a second glass of champagne, but had to settle for a slow sip of his wine. The white was too dry and not cold enough to do more than make him swallow self-consciously, which did little to stop Eames' smile from spreading as he righted himself.
“And you must be Miss Ariadne's knight in shining armour,” Eames said, extending a hand to Arthur. The actor's grip was firm and sure, and he reached his other hand to clasp over Arthur's in a hearty handshake.
“Arthur's more like my knight in the shining armoire,” Ariadne said not softly enough, and Arthur felt the blush hit his cheeks at about the same time Eames got the joke and burst into laughter. Arthur only realized Eames still had his hand clasped when there was a tug of resistance as he took an involuntary step backwards. He'd been out of the armoire since he was a teenager, but nevertheless, it wasn't the way he would've chosen to make his sexual orientation known to anyone, let alone someone like Eames. Arthur consoled himself with the knowledge that his embarrassment, like Eames, would be short-lived.
“Hey, hey, no running away now,” Eames said seriously, voice quiet and concerned, smile somewhat more careful. He didn't drop Arthur's hand, and Arthur considered it would be rude to throat-punch him and run. “Many a theatre gent has had his brush with that self-same armoire. You're among friends, mate.”
If possible, Arthur felt his embarrassment grow more profound. “There's no armoire,” he said, tugging his hand back from Eames' warm grasp. “I'm not—”
He stopped as he saw a look of kind resignation pass quickly over Eames' face, then disappear behind a carefully poised mask. Arthur realized Eames thought he was about to deny being gay. For an actor, Eames was apparently shit at hiding what he was thinking. Arthur wondered how he's survived this long in the business without someone shooting him already.
“For Christ's sake,” Arthur said, the wine, anger and embarrassment all darkening his cheeks a deep crimson. “Not that it's any of your business, or hers either—” He paused to glare accusation in Ariadne's direction, pleased when she cast her eyes down guiltily. “—but I'm gay. I'm not in the closet, wardrobe, clothespress, armoire, or whatever the hell you want to call it.”
Arthur ignored Ariadne mouthing “clothespress” back at him, and instead concentrated on the surprised grin Eames was sporting.
“Delighted to hear it, darling. Did you know that rather than storing clothing, or potentially gay men, the armoire was originally used for housing one's weaponry?”
“Swords?” Ariadne smirked around a mouthful of champagne, and Arthur glared at her with a look that made clear one more inappropriate remark and he was cutting her off.
“Oh, most definitely,” Eames agreed, eyes on Arthur. “Swords, spears, knives, dirks, daggers, even halberds, I'm sure. Anything long and pointy, you know.”
Arthur was fairly certain Ariadne was rolling the word “halberds” around in her mouth like a pebble. “Don't you have a show to do?”
“Well, they can't exactly start without me,” Eames said, just as a harried-looking woman Arthur assumed was the director swished by in a black sateen pantsuit, swatted Eames on the ass, and said, “If you're not ready to go in three minutes, we're starting without you. Your understudy's been waiting for just such a chance, you know.”
Eames made a face and finished his drink. “Jordan's been secretly plotting my demise, to be honest. Apparently the role of Lane, Algy's manservant, is not as fulfilling as my role would be.” Eames headed towards the stage entrance, walking backwards away from Ariadne and Arthur. “Lovely to meet you both. Perhaps a drink afterwards?” Eames held up his empty glass. “Then I can have something besides tonic water with lemon wedge.”
Ariadne was already saying “We'd love to,” before Arthur could even process how terrible an idea that was. Jordan, the understudy, wasn't the only one plotting Eames' demise, and Arthur knew better than to get involved. Everything about this job seemed to be running counter to his usually flawless plans.
Well, this was only one inconsequential meeting, he told himself. He'd head home right after the play and get back to his work. Ariadne could go out with the actor if she wanted. Eames seemed to have taken to her, and far be it from Arthur to interfere in such things, although he did feel bad that perhaps the friendship would be over before it even began. He suspected Ariadne was the sort who would cry when the news came out, who would make her way down to whatever make-shift shrine Eames' cast-mates erected to him by the doors of the theatre, where she would lay a single rose against his publicity photo.
“We need to go in.” Ariadne tugged at Arthur's sleeve, and they slipped back to their seats just as the house lights were lowered.
No, as soon as the play was done, Arthur had to get refocused on his work. The men who were paying him were not the kind who appreciated delays, and there had been an unspoken expectation that the problem be taken care of in an expedient manner, probably before Eames attracted any more press than he already had. A hit on a high profile target was always a greater risk, and Arthur had no wish to make the situation more difficult than it already was.
The farcical elements of the play came to a head after the intermission, and Arthur found himself breathless with laughter as both Algernon and Jack pretended to be the imaginary Ernest to woo the women in their lives. What was delightfully unexpected was the seemingly purposeful subtext with which Eames and the other lead actor were suffusing their roles, their scenes both adversarial and conspiratorial, their interest in one another and the one-upmanship of the game just as important as their respective romances.
“How does he manage to make a love of cucumber sandwiches seem like the dirtiest thing in the world?” Ariadne whispered at one point, and Arthur shook his head helplessly. He honestly didn't need for Eames' sexuality to be front and centre.
The man, even in period dress and heavy makeup, was undeniably handsome, even more so up-close than on stage, and Arthur cursed the fact that Eames was exactly the type of guy he appreciated. Broad shoulders, narrow hips, an intelligent sense of humour and a quick smile. Arthur reminded himself what had happened with the last man like that, felt the phantom twinge of remembered pain in his side where the knife had cut him, and reminded himself what a quarter of a million dollars could buy.
Oddly enough, he couldn't think of anything he wanted.
“No, Ariadne, I'm wiped. I need to go home,” Arthur protested as Ariadne insisted on loitering near the backstage door after the play. The place was a mob scene, fans and family members standing around in the chill air chatting, drama students clutching souvenir programs and fountain pens in their gloved hands. Arthur shouldn't be here.
“I'm so glad you stayed,” a voice said right beside Arthur's ear, close enough the whisper of breath made the hairs on the back of his neck stand-up, and sent a shiver down his spine. Eames was practically pinned to his side in the press of admirers, and Arthur felt the warmth of a hand against his lower back even through his coat.
“Come along, darling. Before they realize,” Eames said, and Ariadne's quickly hidden smile showed she got the plan, and followed swiftly as Eames expertly propelled Arthur through the crowd, through a back alley, and out onto a less well-peopled avenue.
“Sorry about that.” Eames pulled his tweed cap off, running a hand through his damp hair. It was obvious he'd thrown himself into a shower as soon as the curtain calls were done, and Arthur could smell shampoo and a splash of the same aftershave, which still seemed appropriately charming. Eames' hair was sticking up in all directions, a wild contrast to his neatly parted and slicked down look for the play. He was wearing a navy peacoat and jeans, and the barest scrape of stubble was shadowing his chin.
“I'm sure you must have other people you want to see,” Arthur began, but Ariadne interrupted with heartfelt praise for the play.
“Not too loud, luv,” Eames said, slipping neatly between Arthur and Ariadne, with an arm around each of their waists. “If we're to have a quiet drink without benefit of the media pretending to hide behind menus at the next seat over, we'd best be off. Do you have a car?”
“No,” Arthur said, and in an instant, Eames was stepping over to the street and waving down a taxi. Arthur didn't have a moment to protest before he found himself between Ariadne and Eames in the back of the cab, Eames' warm thighs pressing up against his in the tight space.
“The Brandywine Tavern,” Eames said, and the driver nodded and set off. For the first time since he'd found them after the play, Eames seemed to relax.
The Brandywine Tavern turned out to be a small neighbourhood pub a little off the beaten path. Arthur didn't think Eames would have to worry about ardent fans or avid theatre-goers recognizing him here. As they settled into a booth with well-worn leather seats, the bartender arrived with a pint of dark ale that looked like Guinness.
“Good show tonight, lad?” the man said, and now that he was closer, Arthur could see the man was probably in his late sixties, grey hair shot through with the occasional dark streak. His face was lined, but warm, and he favoured Eames with a fond look.
“Very good,” Eames said. “Seamus, like you to meet Arthur and Ariadne.”
“What can I do you for?”
Arthur and Ariadne each ordered a pint, and the barkeep, who turned out to be the owner, brought their drinks along with a plate of chips for Eames.
“Sorry,” he said, diving in. “I'm a bit peaked after a show, but I'd love to hear how you two ended up in London.”
Ariadne, seeing the gap in conversation, stepped in neatly to fill it, and chattered with ease. This was the Ariadne he knew, not the one who'd outed him back at the theatre, and he was happy to listen as she talked about school and her parents back in Indiana, how fabulous London was and what she thought of the play.
“Go on, take one,” Eames said, pushing the plate of fries towards Arthur.
“I can see you eyeing them, and honestly, you look like you could stand to eat a chip or two.” Eames' eyes trailed over Arthur's lean frame. “Maybe I should get you your own plate, feed you up a bit.” Eames started looking around for Seamus.
“I'm not some urchin you have to feed,” Arthur protested. “I just have a high metabolism.”
Eames stared at him, one eyebrow raised, until Arthur took a fry off the edge of the plate and bit in. It was hot and crisp with the perfect amount of salt. Arthur nodded his thanks, and when Eames pushed the plate towards him again, didn't protest and snagged another. Truthfully, he was a bit hungry, and he'd skimped on dinner because he'd been trying to decide what suit to wear.
“So,” Ariadne ventured. “Do you always spirit away audience members after the show to find out what they really thought?”
Eames wiped the Guinness foam neatly from his lip and grinned. “That what you think this is? A poll of the general populace?”
“I don't know,” Ariadne said. “I've been to lots of plays, but this is the first time the star's ever taken me out for drinks afterwards.”
“I find that surprising,” Eames said with a genuine smile, and Ariadne flushed prettily. “But, to answer your question, no, I usually go out with the mob from the play most nights, but lately our usual haunt's been full up with fans and reporters. So, some nights I come here for a quiet drink.”
Seamus came by to drop a second pint off for each of them, despite Arthur's protest. “Aye, it's sad the number of nights the lad's in here drinking alone.” The man's tone was teasing, but there was something of honest concern underlying it.
“For pity's sake, Seamus, they're going to think I'm a friendless oaf.”
“No one would think you an oaf, Clement,” Seamus answered, and headed off. Eames cringed at the use of his given name. He immediately pointed a finger at Arthur and Ariadne,
“No one calls me that except Seamus. It's just Eames, alright?”
Arthur and Ariadne nodded, and the conversation turned to the subject of names, Latin roots, and as was usual upon first meetings, the question of professions.
“I'm studying architecture, you know,” Ariadne said, and that spun into a forty minute conversation about London landmarks and the brilliant design of the Channing Theatre. “I do love London.” Ariadne stared into the last of her pint. “But I'm not sure it's where I'll stay. There's so much more world out there, you know?”
Arthur and Eames couldn't do anything but agree. In a way Arthur envied her, having her life ahead of her, not yet irrevocably bound to one path by decisions that couldn't easily be unmade.
“And you, Arthur?” Eames said, looking at him thoughtfully. He held up a hand to silence Ariadne. “No, let me guess. We've ruled out urchin already, and I'm loath to bring up armoires again, although clearly you wear your clothes well.”
Arthur felt his cheeks heating under Eames' careful examination. Why did the man have to be so god-damned attractive? Arthur kept still and tried to look inscrutable.
“Perhaps an internationally-known thief?”
“What makes you say that?” Arthur asked, aware too late that he sounded more serious than was called for. He saw Eames register the incongruity, then let it drop with a smile.
“Well, you've nicked half my chips tonight,” Eames said with a nod towards the empty, salt-scattered plate. “And with your partner in crime here, you've definitely stolen all my attention.”
Ariadne laughed, and Arthur would've groaned at the ridiculousness of the line, but at the moment he couldn't trust that it would come out sounding like “you're so cheesy” rather than “how are you so awesome?” He felt oddly comfortable here in an unfamiliar pub with his sometimes friend and an almost complete stranger. The things he knew about Eames, he wasn't supposed to know, and now Eames was learning things about him. This had to stop, Arthur knew. There was no excuse for his being here, acting like there was any possibility for him and Eames to be something other than two men on either side of a bullet.
“It's late, and we really should be going,” Arthur started, rising from his seat, hoping it would be enough to disguise the fact he hadn't answered the question of what he did for a living, when Ariadne—God, Arthur was going to have to have a talk with her about sharing information about other people's lives—blurted out, “Arthur works with art, and he's a writer and a photographer. He took some amazing pictures of you.”
Eames' eyebrows rose, and Arthur had no choice but to sink back into the seat. He wished it were possible for the leather to simply swallow him up, but he wasn't counting on it.
“The use of recording and photographic devices of any kind are strictly forbidden at the Channing Theatre.” Eames' voice was a perfect replication of the bland monotone that had announced that very thing at the start of the performance. “So, you are a thief then? Stolen pictures of me? I'm flattered, Arthur, and more than a little impressed you're hiding a camera somewhere in your well-tailored suit.”
“Don't be,” Arthur said, searching for a plausible explanation, and realizing he had little choice but to continue with the explanation Ariadne had already conveniently created for him. “It's just work.”
“The pictures are amazing,” Ariadne said again, ignoring Arthur's glare. “He's doing an article on—”
“The theatre,” Arthur finished. “It's a short piece on the Channing. You happened to be out front when I was taking some shots.”
Ariadne looked at him for a moment, but wisely said nothing. Maybe she'd finally realized that even if her own approach to romance was much like an avalanche, Arthur preferred to take things slow. Not that this was in any way a prelude to romance. It couldn't be.
“When was this?” Eames asked, curious. His eyes were almost grey in the pub's low light, and Arthur found himself unable to look away. There were questions in those eyes, ones Arthur couldn't answer, even if he wanted to. “I usually notice people snapping photos. I would've definitely noticed you.”
There was a moment of silence while Arthur processed what Eames had said. He could feel himself getting hard, even though it wasn't the time or the place for it, and it definitely wasn't the guy he should be considering in anything but objective, professional terms. Arthur reached for his beer and drank, trying to drown his unruly libido.
“Um, I'm just going to the ladies' room,” Ariadne said, sounding awkward, and Arthur took the opportunity to break eye contact, raising a mostly empty pint glass to his lips to catch the last few drops. Even through the murky glass, he could feel Eames' eyes on him, and it made Arthur more uncomfortable than he'd expected, as if Eames could somehow see Arthur's internal conflict.
Arthur felt warm fingers brush lightly over his. “Arthur, I'm not sure where you were hiding to take snaps of me, but I can assure you if I'd seen you, I wouldn't have let you escape.”
The tension Arthur was already feeling seemed to lodge in his throat, making his voice come out raspy, breathless. “Eames—” he began, but there was nowhere to take the thought that wouldn't end badly for both of them, one way or another. Arthur closed his eyes and took a shallow, steadying breath, Eames' fingers trailing over his hand a thrilling loop of heat.
He imagined the weight of the rifle in his hand, the familiar circle of the scope. He pictured the small crease between the brows, the one that appears in moments of consternation or concern, becoming permanent with age. It was directly in line with the frontal lobe, an inch above it would ensure a clean shot through the very centre of the brain. Death would be instantaneous.
“Arthur, are you alright?”
Arthur blinked, trying to rid himself of the image of Eames, cross-hairs lined up where his eyebrows knitted together with obvious concern. One shot would take the light out of those oddly mesmerizing eyes forever, would silence the wide mouth, the raucous laugh, and every amusing quip. He could visualize the moment of impact, the quick jerk of a body catching up with a brain gone dead, and Eames' eyes still locked on his, asking 'why?' Arthur flinched at the image, heard someone's voice as if from far away and strong hands gripping his forearms.
“Arthur? Arthur, love, you've gone pale as a—”
“I'm sorry.” Arthur lurched to his feet, just as Ariadne rounded the corner from the bathroom. “I need to go.”
Ariadne glanced between the two of them, worried. “Arthur, you look like you're going to—”
“Arthur, if I—I'm sorry, I hope I didn't—” That was Eames trying to apologize for something that wasn't his fault, something that Arthur would've been all too happy to pursue if Eames had been anyone else. Knowing that only made Arthur feel worse.
“Now, Ari,” he snapped, ignoring the way she looked helplessly at Eames, even as she started digging in her bag for her phone.
“Okay, Arthur, let me call a—”
“I can drive you,” Eames offered, pulling on his jacket and easily catching the keys Seamus lobbed in his direction.
“No!” It came out too sharply, and Arthur was sorry he'd agreed to this madness. If he'd had his hand gun he would've been tempted to end this right now. Eames was just another mark, just another job. He had to be. And it didn't matter if Arthur found him attractive or interesting, or that Eames seemed to feel it too. Arthur still had a job to do.
“I'm sorry,” Arthur said, managing to infuse his voice with a calm he didn't feel. “I didn't want to worry you, Ariadne, but I thought I might be coming down with something earlier. I guess it's finally hitting me.”
“You should've said something, you idiot!”
Arthur knew he was only spared the punch in the arm because he probably looked whiter than she'd ever seen him. He purposely didn't look at Eames.
“Take my car,” Eames offered, holding the keys out to Ariadne. “It'll be quicker and gentler than a London taxi.”
“You're sure?” Ariadne had slipped neatly under Arthur's arm, as if she could hold up his weight if required.
“Yeah, I'm sure,” Eames said, pressing the keys into her palm. “She'll take a minute to warm up, and she sticks a bit in second, but be firm and she'll be fine. I'll help Arthur.”
“Of course your car's a girl,” Arthur muttered, unable to help himself.
“All cars are girls,” Eames replied with a roll of his eyes. “It doesn't change the fact I drive stick. Now, let's get you home.”
Before he could even venture a protest, Arthur found himself with an arm around Eames's shoulders, Eames' right arm around his waist. They were well-matched in height, and Arthur could feel the strength in Eames' arm, the unspoken promise to catch him if he faltered.
“Arthur can manage just fine on his own,” Arthur muttered, trying to disentangle himself from Eames' grip, which seemed to be everywhere at once.
“And referring to yourself in the third person is an excellent sign of sound mental health.” Eames sighed. His voice grew soft. “Arthur, if I said something to upset you, or did something—”
“Sometimes I come on too strong,” Eames admitted, negotiating the two of them out the door into the night. “I don't want you to—”
“Eames,” Arthur interrupted, sharply enough to catch Eames' attention. “It's not you.”
Ariadne had the engine running. She must have slid the driver's seat all the way forward, and it struck Arthur as comical the way she was pressed up against the steering wheel in Eames' compact. He let out a laugh and it loosened something in him, made the knot of dread and doubt and frustration curl into something smaller, more manageable, even as Eames insisted on helping him into the passenger seat. His hands were gentle, his eyes concerned, and Arthur couldn't deny his own interest in what those hands could do under different circumstances, how those eyes would drink him in if he allowed it.
Arthur was aware of Eames crouching beside the car, giving Ariadne some last minute driving advice. Finally she waved him off with a hand on the gear shift and said, “Look, I'll just do what I would normally do—except backwards and in high heels.”
Eames laughed and gave her an approving nod, then laid a hand on Arthur's shoulder. “Okay, then, Arthur,” he said quietly. “I'd best let you go for tonight, but don't think I'm letting you get away.”
“I've got your number,” Ariadne said, leaving Arthur to wonder when that had happened.
“Ring me if this one gives you any trouble.” Eames' response was directed at Ariadne, but his eyes never left Arthur's face. “I'll want to know how our boy's doing.”
“I'm no one's 'boy',” Arthur protested, his voice barely a whisper, but all it earned him was a half-smile from Eames and a light kiss on the cheek.
As he pulled back, Eames whispered, “I'd like to change that, darling,” and then the door was clunking shut. Arthur knew if he closed his eyes, Ariadne would keep the silence between them, which would be for the best since Arthur had no reasonable explanation for what had happened. He hadn't had a panic attack since he was a teenager, and he'd certainly never let his libido distract him from a mark. He was a professional with a job to do, dammit, and he wasn't about to let his reputation suffer because he hadn't gotten laid in a while, and his body liked what it saw in Eames.
No, it had to end now, and this time when Arthur imagined the rifle, the view through the scope, the mark looked less like Eames and more like some generic brand of man with broad shoulders and a solid build. Self-delusion wasn't an ideal tool for the work Arthur did, but given the alternative was a failure to complete his mission—something he'd never done—he'd make do. It came down to his good reputation versus a man he'd just met. Obviously, there was only one choice to be made.
Arthur leaned his head against the cool window with a sigh, watching London blur by. He wished he could believe it was really that simple.
In spite of having gotten to bed late—Ariadne reluctantly agreeing to go home after Arthur promised to call if he felt worse—Arthur was up early. He flew through his morning routine of exercise and coffee, and had just settled in front of his computer with a fresh cup of espresso when there was a gentle knock at his door.
It could be anyone, of course. Ariadne was the most likely, but Arthur had never known her to schedule anything before noon, and besides, he always heard her tromping up the stairs before she ever knocked at his door. He hadn't heard a single footfall, even on the warped step that always creaked. It could be the post, of course, but Arthur's mail carrier seemed to run with the precision of a well-tuned engine and had never strayed from her appointed rounds by more than a minute either way. It couldn't be her.
Arthur glided his hand under the desk, fingers colliding with the butt of the Glock he'd secured there for emergencies. It slid into his hand without a sound. There was already a round chambered, Arthur knew, as he silently moved out of range of anyone who might come through the door with a gun.
The knock came again, a little louder, and this time, Arthur could hear the slightest shuffling of feet, then the sudden intake of breath. He braced himself.
“Arthur? Are you about? It's Eames.” His voice was soft, a note of uncertainty in it that melted Arthur's resolve.
He felt relief wash over him, heart pounding with anticipation for an entirely different reason, until he remembered this couldn't happen. He couldn't let this happen. He had a job to do whether he wanted to or not.
“Arthur?” A little louder, and Arthur could hear a faint zipping sound. Jacket, perhaps? “Ariadne gave me your address. I just wanted to make sure you were alright after last night.” A pause where Eames' voice dropped, both in volume and location, which struck Arthur as odd. “Bloody hell, Arthur. Not answering the door isn't doing anything to convince me you're not unconscious on the floor in there. If you're there, darling, you need to open the door, or I can't be held responsible for my actions.”
Amused, Arthur wondered if Eames was really the sort to stoop to peering through the keyhole, then realized, a) Eames was an actor—peering through keyholes was practically part of his profession, and b) Arthur had already replaced the old warded lock with a modern five-pin tumbler when he'd moved in. The sound of metal scraping against metal brought Arthur's attention to full alert.
Eames was picking the lock. Arthur narrowed his eyes at the door as a tumbler clicked. Eames was picking the lock, and Arthur couldn't help feeling intrigued. No one had ever tried picking his lock in the name of seeing if he was alright; normally, in his experience, the lock-picking tended to be a prelude to trying to kill him.
Arthur heard the tumblers shifting, the tell-tale sounds of the lock being methodically breached. Picking a lock should not be that sexy. It occurred to him then that standing with a loaded gun five feet from the door Eames was currently (impressively) picking his way through after clearly announcing his intentions was perhaps not the best idea. Arthur had no idea what to say to him, and admitting he'd been distracted by Eames' skillful lock-picking was probably not the best way to discourage the man.
He ran towards the bathroom, reaching for the shower tap with his left hand, while depositing the Glock in the back of a drawer. Arthur pulled off the t-shirt he'd slept in, hastily ducking his head and shoulders under the stream of water, which turned out to be ice-cold. It was like a slap, and Arthur felt some of his interest for Eames disappear in a wave of shivers. He pulled the shirt back on over his damp chest, grabbed a towel, and tried to look surprised when he wandered out of his bathroom, lightly towelling his hair dry, and came face-to-face with Eames.
Arthur glanced at the open door and tried to look like this invasion of privacy wasn't the most romantic thing anyone had done for him in a long while. Eames' eyes swept over him, relief obvious, and Arthur felt Eames' large hands hot against the flesh of his bare arms before he'd even blinked.
“You're freezing!” Eames rubbed his hands up and down Arthur's arms doing nothing to stop the goose bumps prickling his skin. “What were you doing?”
“Have I forgotten giving you a key last night, or did you just pick my lock?” Arthur countered, refusing to admit the cold water had really done very little to cool his body's enthusiastic response to Eames' proximity.
“Interesting.” Eames grinned. “Most people would assume I'd picked their pocket, not the lock.”
“No, I'd much rather have your permission to put my hands in your pockets.” Eames was closer than he'd been a moment ago, and Arthur suddenly remembered he was wearing nothing but his sleep clothes. His worn pyjama pants didn't leave much to the imagination.
“These don't have pockets,” Arthur murmured, completely at a loss for anything intelligent to say, and Eames' hands settled lightly against Arthur's hips.
“That, love, is a crying shame.”
They stood like that for a moment, their breathing audible in the silence, and Arthur bit his lip and steeled himself to push Eames away. He should never have let him past the front door.
“Are you feeling better?”
“Yes, thanks,” Arthur said, and took the opportunity to turn away. There was the hint of protest in Eames' eyes, but he let Arthur move. “I'm sorry about last night. You really didn't have to check up on me like this.”
“Of course I did. And there's nothing to be sorry for.” Eames reached out and wrapped one of Arthur's damp curls around his finger. “This alone was worth the trip.”
Arthur frowned and batted Eames' hand away, running his fingers through his wet hair until it lay mostly flat. A few rebellious curls refused to comply, and Arthur knew it was a losing battle without hair product. Eames' smile grew wider and Arthur forestalled another round of hair touching by escaping into the kitchen.
“I appreciate your concern,” Arthur said, trying to collect himself. Eames simply followed him into the small galley kitchen and now there was even less room to avoid physical contact. Eames' shoulders seemed to fill the breadth of the space. Normally Arthur would be feeling trapped by now; instead he was considering Eames' cologne, lighter and more musky than the previous evening's, and the determined look that said Eames' wasn't going to let him deflect things so easily. He'd obviously come prepared for a protest and ready to refute whatever reasons Arthur planned to offer.
“Coffee?” Arthur offered, attempting to forestall any real conversation.
“Tea then? I know I have some tea somewhere. Earl Grey, I—” Arthur was reaching for the tea canister when a firm hand stopped him and turned him around. The edge of the counter pressed coolly against his back.
Eames' hands were back at Arthur's hips as if it was their natural position. “There must be a reason you're running away from something you so clearly want as much as I do.”
Arthur avoided Eames' eyes. He was a reasonably decent liar when he had to be, but he didn't trust himself to keep the truth off his face. “That's rather presumptuous,” Arthur said, trying to sound offended.
“I know what it looks like when someone's attracted to me, darling. You might not want to be. You might not even logically think I'm your type, but that doesn't mean your body doesn't know what it wants.” As if to make his point, Eames trailed one finger lightly up Arthur's spine, watching him arch shamelessly into the touch.
“From the first moment I laid eyes on you,” Eames whispered, his lips warm and moist against Arthur's ear, “I wanted to know you.”
Arthur recalled the moment of their meeting the previous night, Eames' approach from behind, his sudden appearance waking all of Arthur's senses.
“You saw me from behind,” Arthur pointed out, torn between feeling objectified and flattered.
“And the view from the front was just as exquisite as it was from behind.”
“I should be offended.”
“But you're not.” There was still an inch of space between the two of them, Eames' hands pinning Arthur in place against the counter, but refusing to press his advantage. “Why are you resisting this?”
“I'm not looking for a one-night stand,” Arthur tried. Usually the barest hint of commitment sent most guys running for the door.
“Good. Neither am I,” Eames said, and if he was lying, Arthur couldn't tell. “I'm really an old-fashioned guy, and I don't like to share.”
“Maybe I'm not interested in a relationship,” Arthur suggested. It seemed as if Eames had an answer to everything. “Maybe I'm already in one.”
“You're not.” Eames licked his full lips and Arthur resisted the urge to let his head slam backwards into the kitchen cabinetry. He'd been tortured by experts, but this confident persistence was whittling away his resolve faster than ice in a chinook. “And you're definitely interested.” Eames tugged gently at Arthur's hips and he shifted into Eames, erection as obvious as Eames' own.
“Christ,” Arthur murmured, letting his head drop to Eames' shoulder, his hips rocking lightly against Eames, seemingly of their own accord. “I can't—I can't do this.”
“Why?” Eames' mouth caught the curve of Arthur's ear, kissed it sweetly. “Why not give this a chance? We'd be so fucking fantastic together, I know we would.”
Arthur didn't doubt it, couldn't doubt it with Eames' hands stroking a path from his hips to his shoulder blades, with Eames' hard cock straining against his jeans, sending sharp tremors of pleasure through Arthur with every point of contact. He wanted to let Eames hoist him onto the counter and have him right there beside the tea and yesterday's dishes and Arthur's extravagant espresso machine. He felt breathless, his skin uncomfortably warm, prickling with want; he felt the slightest touch might set him off, and God, that would be embarrassing.
“Arthur, fuck, give me a real reason if you don't want this, or in ten seconds I'm going to pick up your gorgeous arse, wrap your legs around my waist, and carry you to wherever the hell your bed is so I can worship every inch of skin, every lovely curl, and fuck you until I have to go turn myself into someone else for a few short hours. Then I'm going to come back here and do it all over again. And again.”
He punctuated each repetition with a small thrust of his hips, and it had been ages since Arthur wanted someone like this. Eames was nuzzling at Arthur's neck now, nipping lightly with teeth, and for a mad instant Arthur wondered if two hundred and fifty thousand was enough to disappear, for both of them to disappear. Like the first hit of cold water from the shower, Arthur suddenly and with great certainty knew all the money in the world wouldn't be enough to escape from his employers.
“Eames, I can't do this!” Arthur said again, this time with some semblance of conviction, enough that Eames' hands dropped away. Arthur took advantage of his surprise, slipping past Eames and into the living area. Eames trudged after him, defeat evident in his every step.
The selfish part of Arthur was whispering he could have this, could let Eames fuck him stupid before Arthur shot him in the head while he slept, but Arthur knew he'd never be able to follow-through. He wasn't that person no matter how much he might like to pretend sometimes.
“I can't—” Arthur started again. It wasn't an answer or a reason or anything at all to offer to someone who clearly felt a connection the same as Arthur did. Maybe it was just hormones and lust, but maybe it could've been something more than that. They'd never know.
“So you said.” Eames' jaw was tense, his tone steeped in anger and frustration. Arthur couldn't really blame him. The chemistry was undeniable.
“It's just with work, the article, I shouldn't ...” Arthur trailed off. Even to his own ears it sounded like a poor excuse. No one would throw away the chance with someone like Eames for a spec theatre piece with no publication commitment.
“You're a professional. I understand,” Eames said in a voice that clearly indicated he didn't. “I should go.” He sounded genuinely hurt and Arthur knew what the sting of rejection was like. He hated that he was the cause of that tone, that the uncertainty on Eames' gorgeous face was his doing.
Perhaps that was why, without considering the repercussions, Arthur blurted out. “The last boyfriend I had tried to kill me.”
Eames froze mid-step, turning on his heel to face Arthur. “What?”
Arthur felt his face flame red, but it was too late to take it back. “I—I lived with someone. I thought it was—I mean, I knew it wasn't perfect but—” Arthur's voice was shaking. He hadn't talked about it with anyone since that horrible night. He'd been too busy getting rid of the body and wiping any trace of his presence from Declan's life.
Arthur sat numbly on the edge of the couch. “Your classic tale of boy meets boy, they fall in love, then one boy stabs the other in their apartment in the middle of the night—”
“Jesus, Arthur.” Suddenly Eames was close again, kneeling beside Arthur, a comforting hand on his arm. He'd misjudged Eames' capacity for compassion, and somewhere a part of him thrilled with the knowledge Eames really was interested in him; if he'd only wanted into Arthur's pants, he would've been gone after the Declan story. “Did he—did you press charges?” Eames asked tentatively.
“I killed him,” Arthur said, suddenly sober. He'd come to terms with the necessity of it ages ago, but the fact he'd loved the man even after everything, was still something that stung.
Arthur felt an arm fall gently around his shoulders. “It was self-defence, Arthur. You must know that.”
He did know; he truly did, and he also knew it wouldn't have mattered. He kills people for money. It's not as if he's got a lot of room to judge.
Arthur's eyes drifted shut even as Eames' arm tightened around his shoulder. Arthur could feel the light brush of lips against the side of his head, and the sting in his eyes wasn't so much about losing a lover, as in failing to realize Eames was not only attractive and talented, but genuinely nice. It said a lot about Arthur's stupid life that the first decent guy who showed real interest in him was also the guy he was contracted to kill.
“Life's so fucking unfair, Eames,” Arthur said.
“Yeah, sometimes it is.”
Arthur didn't bother to protest when Eames pulled him gently backwards on the couch, wrapping both arms around him as if to keep the unkindness of the world at bay. For a brief moment, Arthur could almost believe it was possible.
It was afternoon when the ringing phone woke Arthur from a dead sleep. He fought his way free from the quilt someone—Eames, his brain helpfully supplied—had draped over him, and promptly fell off the couch before he remembered he wasn't in his bed.
The phone was one annoying ring away from going to voice-mail when Arthur grabbed it off the table. Ariadne.
“You still sound awful,” she said after Arthur fumbled his way through the conversational niceties: how are you?, I hope I didn't wake you, are you feeling better?
“I'm fine,” Arthur snapped, glancing around his empty apartment. He didn't remember Eames leaving, but he did remember drifting off against a warm chest in a haze of emotional embarrassment. This was why Arthur didn't talk about his feelings. He never knew when to stop.
“Did Eames stop by?” If Ariadne thought she sounded casual, she was sadly mistaken.
“Why would he?” Arthur asked meanly, wrapping the quilt around himself and flopping back onto the couch. It was then he spotted the folded over piece of paper with “Arthur” written neatly across it in clear, curved script.
“He was worried about you, you know,” Ariadne said. “He called me last night to make sure I'd brought you home safe, and twice this morning to see if I'd heard from you. I'm surprised he didn't stop by; I was certain he would.”
“He did,” Arthur relented, wincing as Ariadne's shriek deafened him temporarily. He lost his grip on Eames' note and watched it flutter to the floor out of reach.
“You little shit! You said—”
“I know! I—” Arthur paused. “He surprised me, that's all.”
“What does that mean? Did he, like, bring you flowers or something?”
Arthur rolled his eyes, stretching his toes out to see if he could reach the note and drag it closer. No luck. He sometimes forgot Ariadne was quite a bit younger than he was. “No, he kind of broke into my apartment when I didn't answer the door.”
There was silence from the other end of the phone.
“Ariadne? You still there?”
“I'm just trying to decide if that's kind of romantic or creepy stalker behavior that should be answered with a spray of mace.”
“I'm leaning towards romantic stalker,” Arthur said, getting a bare toe on the corner of the note and managing to kick it into the air within range of his hand. “Ha, got it!”
“Oh, sorry, I was trying to pick up something off the floor without moving.”
Ariadne ignored him. “I think he really likes you, Arthur. And he seems like a genuinely nice guy.”
“He's an actor,” Arthur pointed out, but his heart wasn't in it. He already knew Eames was a decent guy. Still, he was a decent guy with a price on his head; there was more to the story, Arthur knew, but he'd learned the hard way appearances could be deceiving.
“He wasn't acting last night.” Ariadne sounded thoughtful. “I know a lot of theatre people, and most of them have a hard time turning their personas off, but you can tell when they're being themselves. Sure, he was professionally charming at the intermission, but even then, Arthur—you could tell he thought you were fascinating.”
“Fascinating,” Arthur repeated. “You make me sound like a specimen under glass.”
“No, it wasn't like that.” Ariadne sounded more serious than Arthur was used to, and he paused with Eames' note in his hand, to listen. “It wasn't that he wanted to look at you, although obviously he thought you were attractive—”
“Shut up. I know guys, okay? I know the difference between a feel-you-up glance and an I-like-your-brain one.” Ariadne let out a huff. “Trust me, he's interested, and not just in getting you into bed, then sneaking out the door while you're asleep.”
Arthur had to stifle a laugh considering that's exactly what had happened earlier. Sort of. There was a note in his hand that suggested Ariadne wasn't stretching the truth of Eames' intentions.
“I know you mean well,” Arthur said, “but it's not a good idea. I've got this job that will be done soon, and then I'll be moving again. I don't even know where. It's not the ideal time to start something.”
“There's no ideal time, Arthur. Something's always going to get in the way if you let it, and honestly, as far as excuses go, work is about the lamest.”
“You can always find another job, Arthur. I wouldn't bet on finding another Eames.”
Arthur knew she was right, at least about Eames, but his wasn't a job he could easily walk away from. It wasn't like he could give two weeks notice and expect a nice retirement package. Words like severance and termination were usually more literal in Arthur's line of work, and chances were good either he or Eames, or both of them, would end up dead no matter what he chose.
“You've made your point, Ariadne,” Arthur said, skimming Eames' note again, and trying in vain not to smile.
“Well, if you don't want him,” Ariadne said, “I wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating crackers.”
“You remember the part where he's gay, right?”
“I'd never let a little thing like that stand in my way. We'll be sure to send you an invitation to the wedding,” she said airily.
Arthur laughed. “You do that. I'd better go.”
He wasn't used to losing days to inactivity. He had work to do. The note in his hand dropped lightly to the top of the coffee table.
“Seriously, Arthur, give him a chance.”
He clicked the phone off, stuck it on the charger, and went to get his first warm shower of what had already been a surprisingly long day. Maybe the hot water would help him resolve what to do about Eames' note. If nothing else, it bought him a little extra time before he needed to decide.
I'd happily skive off rehearsal to be here when you wake up, but I fear it would only give Jordan false hope. (The boy is plotting, I tell you.)
Come 'round the theatre, before or after the show. If you don't, I can't promise I won't break into your flat again.
I know it must be hard to trust someone after everything, but let me show you it can be different. At least let me try.
Arthur slipped quietly into the empty seat on the edge of the second-balcony box. He'd missed the first half of the play, but that wasn't why he was here. Arthur told himself he was evaluating the theatre, checking sight lines and access points, assessing its suitability as a location for a hit. He ignored the bit of his mind that tried reminding him it was Eames who was the proposed target.
It was different watching the play this time, knowing Eames as more than just an actor. Arthur couldn't believe he'd only met Eames twenty-four hours ago. It seemed impossible that his life had gotten more complicated than it already was in less than a day.
He watched Eames' Algernon fill the room with his personality, and Arthur's admiration grew with every line. Soon all thought of escape routes and bullet calibres had faded from his mind. Eames really was an amazing talent, good-looking and a nice guy to boot. Maybe Ariadne was right; maybe there was a chance for them, if they were only brave enough to take it.
There was a short break for a scene change between the last two acts. From the angle of the second balcony Arthur could see Eames sneak a look around the edge of the curtain. The house lights were still down, but Arthur watched as Eames systematically scanned the crowd, looking for someone. He stopped when his eyes swept up to the second balcony, although with the lack of light there was no way Eames should have been able to pick Arthur out of a crowd. It didn't seem to stop Eames from staring straight at Arthur, however, or from breaking into a smile that was one hundred percent Eames. Arthur found himself grinning back. The music to open the act began, and Arthur watched as Eames disappeared, Algernon appearing in his place. Arthur leaned into his plush seat, trying not to read something into every stray glance cast towards the second balcony. He was glad he'd decided to come.
“You're here,” Eames said from the back of the lobby near the stage entrance. The crowd of adoring fans had started to thin out, and Arthur managed to make his way to within a few feet of Eames.
“Is it like this every night?”
“Pretty much.” Eames gave him a wink, then went back to signing autographs, posing for pictures with young women in tight dresses, and generally being the centre of attention. Arthur watched him, all at once aware of exactly what Ariadne'd been talking about. Yes, this was Eames—gregarious, charming, a smile for everyone; he always had an interested comment, was happy to accommodate the flashes from a dozen different cameras, the various calls for his attention.
But Arthur had also seen last night how Eames' shoulders hadn't relaxed until they were in the taxi heading away from the theatre. He suddenly had the overwhelming urge to shoo these people away, tell them to leave and let Eames shed his make-up and his costumes, let Eames simply be Eames.
Something must have showed on his face because Eames sent him the most grateful smile even as he closed the last autograph pad and handed it back. “Thanks, everyone,” Eames said. “Thanks so much for coming.”
Slowly the last few die-hards drifted away and Arthur drifted closer until he was standing shoulder to shoulder with Eames, backs against the lobby wall. Eames let out a sigh and started to loosen his tie.
“You shouldn't do that here,” Arthur pointed out.
“Why?” Eames' eyebrows crept upward.
“You might start a riot.”
“Oh for God's sake,” Eames said, starting to laugh. He pulled his tie loose and undid the top three buttons of his dress shirt. “I smell like grease paint, old clothes, and sweat.”
“The attraction is obvious,” Arthur deadpanned.
Eames rolled his eyes, but ducked his head closer to Arthur's as if sharing a secret. “I'm really glad you're here.”
Arthur shrugged as if it was no big deal. “You asked.”
“So that's the only reason?”
“You asked very nicely?”
“Good penmanship should be rewarded.”
“You're an aggravating man, you know?”
Arthur pushed away from the wall with his foot, knocking lightly against Eames' shoulder as he moved. “Go get changed. I'll wait here. If you're lucky, I'll let you buy me a drink.”
“I'm always lucky. Does this mean you're giving me a chance?”
Arthur hid a smirk. “No, it means I'm thirsty.”
Eames put a hand over his heart, but he was smiling. “Arthur, you are a cruel, cruel man.”
Arthur glanced at his watch with exaggerated impatience. “And a thirsty one,” he reminded Eames.
“It definitely means you're giving me a chance,” Eames said. He already had his jacket half-off and another button undone by the time he reached the backstage door. “I won't be five minutes,” he said, disappearing. “Ten tops.”
“Five,” Arthur called after him, “or I'm going in search of drinks!” He could hear Eames' laughter over the sound of running feet.
While Arthur waited, he walked the length of the open area, counting off feet. He verified the number by counting in the opposite direction, then did the same with the room's width. It was nothing more than habit, really.
“About 30 by 90 feet.” A man's voice broke through Arthur's meandering thoughts, and he barely stopped himself from reaching for a gun he wasn't carrying.
Out of the shadows stepped a short, slim man, roughly Arthur's age, but he wore his experience more visibly. Arthur would bet the nose had been broken more than once, and at some point he'd fractured his cheekbone; the deep bruise made the man's face look hollowed out, sallow in the fluorescent lights. He was wearing a dark suit from no discernible designer with a cut and fit that echoed a thousand other suits. His hair, too long and also dark, appeared oily, and the outline of a handgun was noticeable beneath the man's left arm for anyone who knew how to look. Arthur assessed the threat level and decided it was moderate. He most likely wanted to talk, or the gun would've already been drawn.
“You're Arthur,” the man acknowledged, prepared it seemed to carry the conversation on his own for the moment. “I'm Nash.”
Arthur nodded politely. He'd heard the name a few times. Low level assassinations. Some general thuggery. Rougher jobs that Arthur preferred to stay away from. Nash had a reputation for liking to mix it up, even when it wasn't strictly required. His kind of work sent a different type of message than Arthur's, although both were effective under the right circumstances.
“Clever strategy that,” Nash said, gesturing towards the backstage area where Eames had disappeared a minute ago.
“You think so?”
Arthur kept his face neutral, even as he realized he'd placed himself squarely between Nash and whoever might walk through that door. Namely Eames. Arthur could only hope Nash wasn't observant.
“Of course.” Nash flashed him a yellowed grin. “Befriending the mark is classic, if somewhat time-consuming.”
So, Arthur's employer was growing impatient. It didn't surprise him, but he had to wonder why there hadn't been some form of more direct contact, a phone call or text. Involving someone like Nash meant giving key information to one extra person; the more people involved, the higher the risk of discovery. It made Arthur uneasy.
“I bet deep down you're a big fan of the classics,” Nash continued. “You've got this untouchable reputation for being the point-and-shoot guy. Never gets involved, never even blinks. A heart so cold you'd think it was made of ice.”
“Some marks require a more personal touch,” Arthur said with an air of superiority. He refused to have his choices questioned by someone who barely ranked above a street thug.
“If you like that sort of thing.” Nash's grin slipped towards sleazy, and Arthur stopped himself partway through forming a fist, forcing his fingers to unclench. Nash caught the aborted gesture, though, and made no move to hide his delight at making Arthur lose a little bit of his cool. “Which apparently you do. Hey, if I swung that way, I'd probably want to do him too. There've got to be some perks to this business, right?”
“Is there a point to you being here?” Arthur asked, no longer bothering to keep the anger out of his voice. More than five minutes had passed, and Arthur would prefer to wrap this tete-a-tete before Eames walked into the middle of it.
“Just consider it a friendly reminder. Our employers are busy people. They like to see results.”
“And they will,” Arthur confirmed.
Nash deferred with a nod, but Arthur knew he had a few days at most to make a decision. He watched Nash reach the farthest edge of the lobby, then turn back.
“30 by 90, right?” Nash asked, and Arthur held his gaze.
“29.5 by 87 feet. Precision is important.”
“They do say you're the best.” Nash chuckled. “At least till someone better comes along. I'll be around if you need a hand with this one.”
“I won't,” Arthur said. Nash just winked and walked away, letting Arthur see the broad target of his back. Under other circumstances it could've been a gesture of trust, of mutual respect; you never gave someone like Arthur an obvious target. He'd known men to walk an entire city block backwards to avoid taking their eyes off his gun hand. But this, Nash's blatant disregard for the usual pleasantries was akin to giving Arthur the finger. Thug or not, Nash was cocky, ambitious, and likely to be a very big problem. One that Arthur didn't need, especially right now.
“Who was that?”
Arthur had been so focused on Nash, he'd failed to register Eames' arrival.
“Fuck,” Arthur said, hating the way his heart was racing, adrenaline spiking through his system. Concern replaced Eames' grin.
“Hey, what's going on?”
“Nothing.” Arthur took Eames by the arm and deliberately steered him out a side door. “Let's go get that drink, okay?”
“You're sure you're alright, Arthur? You seem—”
“That's not an answer,” Eames muttered, but he dropped the scowl at the touch of Arthur's hand.
Arthur leaned into Eames' side and didn't protest when an arm slid around his shoulders as if it belonged there. A small thing like that seemed to make Eames' immensely happy, so Arthur allowed it.
It was, Arthur knew, the least he could do in the short time they had left.
The next few days fell into a certain discernible pattern, although that hadn't been Arthur's intention.
During the day he cleaned and checked his weapons, made preparations for leaving the country in a hurry, and generally did what he always did as the end of a job approached.
In the evening he would find himself outside the Channing Theatre. Each time he told himself it was simply reconnaissance. Eames was a mark, a target, and nothing else. He couldn't be. Nash's “friendly” warning was a professional courtesy Arthur had earned by being good at his job—good enough that the people who hired him were willing to grant him another chance to make good on the contract before making alternate arrangements. If he'd been anyone else, Arthur knew he'd already be dead at the hands of his replacement.
Arthur had planned and executed Eames' murder a hundred times in his mind this week. A single graceful shot from the spot where Arthur had taken the photographs. A dramatic round to the heart at the end of the curtain call. A quick slice to the throat in Eames' dressing room shower. A broken neck, an “accidental” hit-and-run, an untraceable hit of poison in the tonic water-and-lemon Eames favoured during a performance.
Nash had been right in a sense. Arthur wasn't known for getting his hands dirty, never liked to get up close and personal with a mark. Too messy. Allowing the mark to be seen as a person with hopes and faults, with loved ones who would mourn, was just unnecessary complication.
Arthur shouldn't have known Eames practically grew up in Seamus' pub, that the man was like a father to Eames after his own parents had died. He didn't need to know Eames' car was a slow starter, or that he could pick a 5-pin cylinder lock in under a minute, and he certainly didn't need to know Eames' eyes crinkled when he laughed or that his handwriting loped across the page like a large, friendly dog. He had absolutely no business whatsoever thinking of the way Eames' slid his arm around Arthur's shoulders as if it was meant to be there, as if it was possible it could always be there.
Eames was being so careful with him. Arthur didn't see it at first, simply thought Eames had reconsidered getting involved with someone who admitted to killing his last boyfriend. Arthur understood it, but couldn't help the thread of hurt he felt at being rejected. Somehow, though, Eames managed to soothe that hurt with casual touches, with smiles meant only for Arthur. Each night Eames invited him to the theatre, and each night Arthur found his way to an empty seat in a different part of the building. Unfailingly, Eames' eyes would seek him out in the crowd until Arthur wondered if he had completely lost his ability to blend in.
“Darling, you couldn't possibly blend in,” Eames told him over pints at The Brandywine. “The eye is naturally drawn to things of great beauty.”
Arthur had flushed and changed the subject, spent the next two hours debating standards of beauty and art with Eames until Seamus threatened to put a boot to both their behinds if they didn't leave off and let an old man get some rest. They drifted to an all-night coffee shop and scored the first tray of pastries fresh from the oven, When dawn leaked slowly over the horizon, it came as a surprise to both of them, and Arthur allowed himself an impulsive kiss, a quick taste of Eames' cinnamon-dusted lips, that was nowhere near enough and already more than Arthur could bear. Belatedly, it occurred to Arthur he was being—there was really no other word for it—courted, and Eames was letting him set the pace, slow and conflicted as it might be.
Arthur went home to his bed, alone, and cursed his fucked up life.
By Saturday evening, Arthur had seen the Channing Theatre's production of The Importance of Being Earnest, at least in part, a total of four times, and was preparing to sit through it again. He hadn't been this dedicated to someone else's interests since he'd fallen for Stefan Roderick in high school and eaten his way through 33 flavors of ice-cream and the beginnings of lactose intolerance just to have an excuse to hang out where Stefan worked. He couldn't even pretend it was still about research for the non-existent article he was supposed to be writing for his “cover.” Arthur was beginning to realize he may have over-estimated his ability to remain objective where Eames was concerned.
He stood in the shadows backstage, watching the chaos that went into creating the illusion of the play. Above his head, riggers navigated dimly lit catwalks, hauling weights and scenery into place on a series of pulleys and ropes. Arthur had considered the catwalk as a potential sniper spot, but there was simply too much movement there while the play was in progress—as if that was the only reason Arthur had nixed the idea.
“I see the riggers are continuing their fine work de rigeur,” Eames said, coming up beside Arthur and following his gaze upward.
“That's terrible,” Arthur groaned. “Isn't it enough you abuse English? Now you're bringing the French into it as well?”
Eames wrapped a thick arm around Arthur's waist and pulled him close. “You're hardly in a position to talk, darling. You're just lucky your charming American accent makes you amusing rather than dull.”
“I'm amusing, am I?” Arthur smirked.
Eames shifted until Arthur was trapped in the circle of his arms. His voice remained light, but his eyes grew serious. “Yes, Arthur. Amusing, charming, delightfully infuriating at times, and an almost constant source of sexual frustration, but—” Eames laid a finger over Arthur's lips to forestall his protest, “—but, darling, you're so bloody lovely you have to know I'm mad for you. You know that, don't you?”
Arthur nodded, unable to trust to words. He didn't deserve this kind of honest declaration of affection—not when he had a rental car parked two streets over, packed with all the essentials for a quick getaway. Not when there was a disassembled rifle in the trunk of that same car, and a perfect perch for it already prepped in the third floor balcony box, the one that a freak plumbing “accident” had rendered unusable. Arthur's leather gloves were in his tuxedo pockets, a slim silver blade stitched into the jacket lining, and his handgun and suppressor were concealed in custom-made ankle holsters. He was carrying three separate passports with three matching sets of i.d., and he knew without a doubt if he didn't put a bullet in Eames tonight, neither of them would live another day. He still didn't know what Eames had done to warrant a professional hit.
And he had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do.
Eames cupped his face, and Arthur leaned into the broad warmth of those hands before he could stop himself. He didn't know when he'd started finding comfort in the mingled scent of grease paint and cologne. “I know you're afraid, love, but give us a chance. That's all I'm asking. Just one shot at making you happy.”
Arthur let out a grim laugh at Eames' choice of words and pulled away, feeling the wooden frame of the set against his back. Cornered. “I can't, Eames. I can't have this no matter how much I might want it. You don't get it. Who I am. What I've done.”
For a moment it looked as if Eames wanted to hit him, and Arthur wouldn't have blamed him. He'd fucked up both their lives in less than a week; it would've been kinder if he'd kept Eames at the far end of a rifle scope. At least his death would've been quick and painless for both of them instead of becoming this incomprehensible ache that had dogged Arthur's heart all week. He'd never hated himself for something he hadn't done yet—until now.
“Curtains up in five.”
The announcement rang through the staging area, and Arthur was out of time. “You'd better go,” he said, trying to get his emotions under control.
In one smooth motion, Eames pressed Arthur against the wall, his hands held fast at his sides. Eames' breath was warm against his ear, and when he spoke his voice sounded wrecked. “Who you are, what you've done, I don't give a fuck, Arthur. All I know is you've turned me inside out. You walk in a room and my heart races; you look at me and I can't breathe.”
“I'm bad for your health.” If Eames only knew the truth of it.
A rough hand tilted Arthur's chin upward. There was nowhere to look except at Eames and his too honest eyes. “You're fucking essential, Arthur, and whether you feel it or not doesn't change the fact I'm—”
Arthur lurched forward, silencing Eames' words with a hard, desperate kiss, and Eames kissed him back as if he'd never have another chance. Noses collided, tongues pushed greedily at eager lips, and Arthur accepted the harshness of the kiss as his due. He wanted Eames to fight him, bloody his lip, hate him a little. It was what he deserved, and it might even make his job easier. He knew how to deal with pain; he hadn't a clue how to cope with what Eames was offering instead.
Eames gentled the kiss, licked tenderly the spot where his teeth had caught Arthur's lip, leaving it red, swollen.
“I'm in love with you, Arthur,” Eames whispered, catching his eyes. The backstage area had gone dark and silent except for a pocket of frantic whispering. “I'm in love with you, and we're not done here, not by a long shot.”
Eames took a step backwards, and Arthur could just make out the director's “Eames, you had better fucking be ready to walk on that stage in thirty seconds or—”
“Keep your knickers on, I'm right here.”
There was piano music playing and Arthur heard the familiar sound of curtains lifting, light filtering back at them from the now fully-lit stage. Arthur listened to Eames deliver his first line with fluid perfection, and his chest warmed with pride. Any remaining delusions that he would be able to put a bullet in this man and walk away unaffected disappeared, and Arthur could finally acknowledge to himself he'd made his decision the first night he met Eames. Since then, he'd been going through the motions, trying to convince himself Eames was nothing more than a mark, but his heart had been otherwise occupied.
While Algernon, Lane and Jack discussed love over cucumber sandwiches, Arthur slipped silently out of the wings and down the back stairs to the freight elevator. There was still the small matter of ensuring the two of them would be able to walk out of the Channing Theatre alive at the end of the performance, and though Arthur knew his deadline for the job wasn't up yet, he didn't like to take chances.
The freight elevator opened into the empty third floor hallway near the troupe's costume storage rooms. With a little luck, Arthur figured he could slip into the vacant box unseen, verify he hadn't left anything incriminating—(he knew he hadn't; it was habit more than anything: retrace and erase.)—remove any indications of his presence, and be back downstairs before the first act was halfway done.
He was tugging on his gloves when he heard the tell-tale pops of a high-calibre rifle, suppressed. One, two, three rapid-fire shots. Arthur pulled his Glock and pushed the door open just as the theatre erupted into chaos.
Arthur had always had an amazing ability to compartmentalize. When his father died, Arthur had only been fourteen, his sisters still in elementary school, his mother heart-broken at the sudden loss. He'd seen immediately the things that were needed, what was required of him. It was as if the world could be broken into categories: Must Be Done Now, Can Wait Until Later, Get Someone Else to Do, Doesn't Matter. The deluge of emotions and tasks suddenly became clear as single raindrops, and Arthur decided their paths.
At fourteen, he finally thought he understood what his karate master had been telling him: if one had focus, one could deal with many things at once. It had seemed paradoxical to Arthur, but now it made a pristine kind of sense. He set his grief in the “Later” category and got to work, finding a sense of strength he hadn't known he'd possessed as he made arrangements, made decisions, formed chaos into organized, manageable pieces.
Pushing through the door of the third floor balcony box, Arthur saw the world in a flash of stark understanding.
Nash grinned at him over the top of a Heckler & Koch PSG1 sniper rifle even as Arthur put two bullets through his heart and another between his eyes.
The crowd was a writhing, moving mass of frightened people all trying to get out the same narrow exits. Arthur could hear the panic rising, screams, children crying. He dismissed it as non-essential background noise.
The interior lights flashed to full brightness, making spots appear in Arthur's eyes. He blinked them away and dropped to his knee. He was too visible now, and security would eventually determine the shot could only have come from this location. He needed to leave immediately.
The stage was partially hidden by the audience, but it appeared to be empty save for a broken tray of Styrofoam cucumber sandwiches. And a visible trail of blood leading offstage. As if someone had been dragged. Eames, his brain supplied, Arthur's pulse racing ahead without his permission.
Logically, Arthur knew Eames was probably dead already, blood trail or not. There wasn't anything he could do. He should get out while he could considering he was kneeling in an off-limits balcony box with a recently fired illegal weapon in his hand, another beside him, and a dead body at his feet. The three passports might also raise a few eyebrows. Leaving was essential.
But so, apparently, was Eames, and Arthur found himself shoving his gun in the back of his pants and assessing his options. From the noise level, he could assume the third balcony foyer was over-run with terrified theatre patrons. The freight elevator would've either been shut down or commandeered to get people out quickly. It would take Arthur too much time to make his way down to stage level, and no doubt the police had already been called. He gave an experimental tug on the heavy brocaded curtain that decorated the wall just beyond the self-contained box. It was thick red velvet with a gold cord, expensive and obviously part of the theatre's recent renovations. Arthur tentatively let the curtain take some of his weight; it held without so much as a groan. Arthur had never been so thankful to be wiry.
Only a complete incompetent could miss an unsuspecting mark with three shots from a short distance. Arthur had heard many words applied to Nash, but “incompetent” hadn't ever been one of them. Eames was dead. Arthur had no reason to believe otherwise.
Yet, knowing that didn't stop him from wrapping the heavy material around his gloved hands, climbing onto the balcony edge, and stepping off, letting the curtain support him as he carefully slid the twelve feet to the balcony railing below. Then he did it again. And again, until his shoes touched the patterned carpet of the main floor.
The crowd had made a space for him, staring as he landed among them like some kind of alien.
“Deathly afraid of heights,” Arthur said, as if it explained his desperate climb from the highest balcony. No one tried to stop him as he darted past.
Eames was dead. Arthur still had a chance if he could get out of the building. The emergency exit stood open, its red-and-white light beckoning him to join the crowd, slip away in the turmoil.
Arthur turned and ran up the steps to the stage, avoiding the spilt blood as he crossed into the wings and the almost empty back-stage area. For a brief moment, he let himself hope.
“Eames!” he shouted. “Eames!”
The only response was Arthur's own voice echoing eerily off the sound shell.
Eames was dead.
It didn't seem possible, and it sure as hell wasn't fair. Arthur grabbed the back of a chair and pushed down the self-loathing that threatened to deposit his dinner all over the floor. This was what he'd wanted, after all: another successful job completed. Another notch on his reputation.
Except this had been anything but that. God, why had he ever let himself get close to Eames? Why hadn't he at least warned him of the danger? Not only had he gotten a good man killed, but he'd screwed himself over in the process. His life wouldn't be worth anything after this fiasco. The good reputation he'd worked so hard to build meant nothing. He'd thrown everything away for a dead man he hadn't even slept with, had only really kissed twice—yet Eames had believed he was in love with Arthur, and deep down Arthur had wanted to believe him too.
In the rooms beyond the stage, Arthur could hear muffled voices and a woman crying. It occurred to him that the blood trail hadn't ended offstage, but was smeared across the concrete floor all the way to the access corridor and the rooms beyond. Maybe they'd thought there was something they could do. Maybe someone had been foolish enough to believe Eames had a chance.
Knowing he had to face what he'd done, Arthur crossed the open space to the access corridor with its dressing rooms beyond.
Here, against the bright linoleum, the blood was an angry red scar. It left an ever-widening trail—Arthur knew significant blood loss when he saw it—down the hall and into one of the side rooms. The door was blocked by a group of frightened performers talking in whispers.
“Let me see him,” Arthur said, and the actors parted like a biblical sea. The director was kneeling beside the man on the floor, his head cradled in her lap. Her face was damp with tears, hands bloody from trying to stop the inevitable. She looked up at Arthur, not really appearing to see him, and whispered, “He was just a fucking kid.”
It was true. Eames' understudy Jordan, playing the role of Algy's servant, couldn't have been more than 24, if Arthur was being generous. More like 21 or 22. His costume with its clean white shirt and black waistcoat was soaked through with dark blood. It looked like he'd taken a round through the back, the bullet exploding out his chest with an ugly spray of flesh and blood. He'd been dead instantly. Fuck Nash. He'd obviously mistimed the shot, hitting Jordan as he'd crossed in front of Eames, probably to spirit the tray of fake cucumber sandwiches away. Arthur had seen the play four times, after all—the actors knew their marks and hit them, repeatedly, like clockwork. There was no way Nash should have missed, but Arthur couldn't help but be grateful he did.
“There's nothing more you can do for him,” Arthur said, more gently than he'd thought himself capable.
“Is that psycho still out there?” one of the young women asked. She was playing Eames' love interest, but Arthur couldn't remember her name.
“No, I think he's gone. You're safe here.”
“Why would anybody do this?” someone else asked, and Arthur felt a tide of guilt wash over him. He'd never stuck around for the aftermath, made sure he exited before he could be associated with the hit. He remembered why he'd always preferred distance kills. It was much easier to justify what he'd done. Looking at Jordan's pale face Arthur wasn't sure there was anything that could justify his job any more.
“Eames,” Arthur said, allowing himself to hope. “Has anybody seen Eames?”
The director scrubbed at her tears leaving blood on her cheeks. No one said anything. “He was hurt, his arm was bleeding, but he was on his feet. He helped us with Jordan, but I think they were aiming for Eames.” Tears welled up in her eyes anew. “Shit, this is so fucked up.”
“Do you know where he went?”
“His dressing room, I think,” the one girl offered. “It's at the end—”
“I know where it is,” said Arthur, and took off running.
The door with Eames' name slapped up on a purple sticky note was partially open, a fresh stain of blood smudged as if a shoulder had been pressed to it. Arthur drew his Glock and pushed the door in with his hip. He had no idea what kind of scene might greet him. It was possible Nash wasn't the only trigger-man they'd sent to clean up Arthur's mess and he wasn't taking any chances.
The first thing he saw was the end of a Browning HP pointed at his face, Eames' eyes a steel-blue behind it. Arthur swallowed, a modicum of tension falling away, but Arthur didn't lower his gun. He'd been around long enough to know not to give up any advantage, even if you were facing down a friend.
“Shit, Arthur!” Eames said, breathing out harshly and setting the gun back on the vanity beside him. He closed his eyes for a moment. “Jesus Christ, I could've shot you.”
The next instant Arthur was enfolded in a rough hug, Eames' right arm wrapping tightly around him.
“Put the gun down, will you, love?” Eames pressed his face into Arthur's neck. “I've had enough of firearms today, yeah?”
“Yeah, okay.” Arthur lowered his Glock, but didn't let it go. His left hand found its way to the back of Eames' head—his perfectly intact, non-bullet-riddled head. Arthur almost laughed with relief, but settled for planting a shaky kiss on Eames' brow. “I thought you were ...”
“Me too. For a moment,” Eames admitted. “Jordan's dead.”
“The kid hit his marks every fucking night like a pro. That two second interval where he's got the tray, where he's between me and the audience—”
“—and every night he'd wink at me when he turned, like he was saying 'just you wait. Someday it's going to be me in your role, and you'll be the bloody butler.'”
“I'm sorry, Eames.” Arthur let him go and stepped back. “But we've got to get out of here.”
Eames nodded, swiping at his eyes with the back of his hand, and Arthur got his first really good look at Eames. His costume was a blood-soaked pile on the floor, white shirt and waistcoat awash with what could only have been Jordan's blood. He'd changed into all black—cargo pants and a loose tee—and there was an open duffel bag on the vanity. Arthur could make out a few clothes, a mixed wad of of pound notes and American dollars, a passport, and extra ammo for the Browning. A home-assembled first aid kit was spilling its contents on top. He had a similar bag always packed and ready-to-go, but he was used to having to flee; he didn't know why Eames had one.
It was then Arthur noticed the white strip of gauze peeking from beneath Eames' left sleeve.
“How bad?” Arthur asked, nodding at Eames' shoulder. He checked the door quickly; the hallway was clear.
“Deep graze. I've had worse.” At Arthur's questioning eyebrow, Eames' gave a one shoulder shrug. “Kabul. I did a stint in the SAS.”
“That's not in your bio.”
“There are a lot of things that aren't in my bio.” Eames glanced at Arthur who was shucking the tux jacket and tie with ease, while maintaining a firm grip on the Glock and an eye out for company. “Yours too apparently.”
Arthur continued to loosen his collar, lose the cufflinks and roll up his sleeves. With one hand he dumped a vase of congratulatory flowers, scooped the water up and washed the gel out of his hair, letting its natural curl spring up around the edges. Now he looked more like a bartender when a moment before he'd been James Bond. It was much easier to blend into a crowd when you looked like service staff.
Eames finished packing up the first aid kit and shoved it in the duffel, zipping it up. He looked exhausted. Arthur wanted to walk over and rub the lines that were creasing his forehead, but it wasn't the time for sentiment. Eames slipped on a black leather jacket, tucked the Browning in the waist of his pants, and grabbed the duffel.
Arthur slipped into the corridor, trusting Eames to follow as he headed down the stairs towards the rear exit. They paused on the landing to listen; sirens and a cacophony of voices greeted them.
“Service exit,” Eames whispered, tapping Arthur's right shoulder. They retraced their steps past Eames' dressing room, and Arthur followed him down another set of stairs and into a dimly lit bay. “They used to haul sets and stuff through here until they updated the freight elevator.”
Eames seemed to be looking around for something, then smiled as he snagged a crumpled pack of Pall Malls and a battered yellow lighter seemingly out of nowhere. He lit two cigarettes, handed one to Arthur, then took a shaky drag on his own.
“Only the secret smokers hang out back here,” Eames said, nostalgia clear in his voice. He tossed the empty pack in the bin, but pocketed the lighter. He pawed through the layers of coats hanging on rusty bent nails beside the door. The jackets looked like a cross-section of men's and women's fashions from the last thirty years. Arthur had a moment to wonder just how long people had been sneaking down here to smoke when something hit him in the face.
“Put that on,” Eames said. “If anyone's watching it'll look like we're just out for a fag.”
Arthur pulled on the brown leather jacket Eames had thrown him. It smelled faintly of smoke, but the leather was supple and well-worn, and it fit him almost perfectly.
“How did you—”
Eames tapped the ash off the end of his cigarette and grinned. “You might not believe it, but I was kind of a skinny bloke once. With crap taste in fags.”
“This was yours?” Arthur asked, incredulous. Eames' shoulders would have easily split the seams if he'd tried to squeeze into it now.
“I practically grew up here, and Seamus hated when I smoked. Mostly I kept the jacket down here, so I wouldn't freeze my arse off.” Eames shook his head. “Not like he couldn't smell it on me anyway. I thought I was so fucking clever.” Eames pulled what looked like a wooden box over to the narrow outside door and stood on it, giving Arthur an appreciative once over. “It suits you. Better than it ever did me.”
Eames rubbed the edge of his hand against the top of the door, and Arthur was surprised to see a glimmer of street light peak through. He wouldn't have guessed there was a transom window underneath the years of smoke and grime.
“Clear as it's going to get, I suspect.” Eames hopped down, kicking the box aside. “How's your English accent?”
“Very American,” Arthur said honestly.
“Alright, darling, leave the talking to me. You just stand there and look pretty.”
Under other circumstances Arthur might've protested, but not tonight.
Tonight he'd destroyed his career, killed a man, climbed three floors down a velvet curtain, and spent an unbearably long few minutes thinking Eames was dead.
Tonight Arthur was alive and Eames was alive and that was more than Arthur had hoped for. Everything else could wait until tomorrow.
It turned out most of the noise around the back of the theatre was concentrated around the stage exit they'd tried the first time. Emergency services still seemed to be sorting out what was actually going on inside, so no one noticed two men slip from the service exit into the darkness.
Arthur threw the Pall Mall aside at the first opportunity, ignoring Eames' pitiful whine. He'd already burned through his. Arthur wasn't about to start encouraging that particular habit, no matter how good Eames' lips looked around a cigarette.
The thought of Eames' lovely mouth reminded Arthur that up until fifteen minutes ago, he'd thought Eames was dead. That he would never again get the chance to kiss him properly.
“Eames.” Arthur stopped in the middle of the alley they were cutting across and pulled Eames back against the wall beside him.
“What? What did you see?”
Arthur shook his head helplessly, reaching out to cup Eames' face. It was perfectly smooth, as it always was on performance nights, and Arthur stepped in close pressing their lips together. It was tentative at first, like the initial step into unknown waters, and then Arthur gently sucked at Eames' lower lip. With a groan, Eames caught Arthur around the waist, turning them so Arthur's back was to the wall, Eames insinuating a broad thigh between Arthur's legs just as his tongue teased Arthur's mouth open.
They were kissing then: quietly, desperately, lips soft and mouths hot against one another, barely stopping for breath until they were both panting and hard.
“God, Arthur,” Eames said, his mouth barely parted from Arthur's, his voice a whisper. “Do you know how long I've wanted to kiss you like this?” He leaned in and took Arthur's mouth again, hungry for it, almost greedy, and Arthur opened up for him, gave in to being claimed, welcomed it in a way he'd never expected. They kissed until they had to stop, their noses cold and fingers numb, until it was clear clothes needed to come off and an alley wouldn't do.
“Eames,” Arthur whispered, pressing the single-syllable to the edge of his full lips. “Eames, I thought you were dead, I thought—”
“I know, darling.” Eames looked apologetic, brushed a cold thumb over Arthur's bottom lip. “We're okay, love, but let's take this somewhere warmer where we can maybe figure out what the bloody hell's going on, alright?”
Arthur nodded, but kissed him again, harder, as if stopping might mean the end of everything, until Eames had to uncurl Arthur's fingers from his cheeks and press them to his lips, breathing warm, moist air onto their tips.
“Arthur, come on,” he insisted, stepping back but pulling Arthur with him. “We'll duck in somewhere, ring Seamus. He'll help us get sorted.”
“I've got a car,” Arthur interrupted. He grabbed Eames' hand and tugged them towards the street. Arthur checked where they were and pointed. “The silver one.” It's lights flashed once in response to a press of the key fob.
“Should I ask why you've got a rental car?” Eames stopped beside the driver's side door. “I'll drive. It'll be faster. I know the area better.”
Arthur handed him the keys without argument and went around the other side. Eames tossed his duffel in the backseat, casting a quick eye over Arthur's things. He didn't say a word, for which Arthur was grateful.
“Hotel?” Eames asked, not looking at Arthur. The engine turned over with a soft vroom.
“Hotel,” Arthur agreed, every muscle in his body thrumming with adrenaline and anticipation. Their unvoiced questions hung in the air, but neither of them chose to break the silence. Eames pulled the car into traffic, becoming just one of a dozen silver cars traversing the darkness.
The hotel Eames chose was large enough they wouldn't particularly stand out among the businessmen and travellers, and it was unlikely Eames would be recognized. Even so, Arthur kept a cautious eye out while Eames checked in.
They rode the elevator to the fifth floor in silence, a respectable distance between them, and even after the door to their room was locked behind them, they held themselves apart. It was exhaustion kicking in where adrenaline had driven them before, realization bringing fear and grief to the forefront. Arthur knew Eames had a hundred questions, and answering them was, if not impossible, certainly inadvisable.
Eames moved stiffly across the room, tossing his duffel onto the armchair beside the window as he clicked on a lamp and pulled the drapes closed. He shrugged out of his leather jacket as Arthur did the same, and even by lamp light it was easy to see where blood had seeped from Eames' wound and down his arm.
“You should let me look at that,” Arthur said, opening his own small bag and extracting a medical kit. He pulled out latex gloves, sterile gauze and bandages, rubbing alcohol, painkillers. Eames allowed Arthur to manoeuvre him into the bathroom where the light was better and there was hot water in easy reach. He turned on the shower.
“Clothes off,” Arthur instructed, and it was a sign of how the evening's events had taken a toll when Eames didn't so much as leer in Arthur's direction while he did as he was told. When it came to taking his shirt off, Eames paused with his arm partway over his head.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, suddenly breathless, and Arthur's hands were right there to slide the black t-shirt up slowly, working it over the blood-soaked bandage where the shirt had stuck and partially dried.
“Just breathe,” Arthur murmured. Eames closed his eyes and let Arthur slowly unstick the fabric from the wound, unwind the bloody gauze to expose a violent gash, still dark and oozing.
“You said it wasn't bad!”
“No, I said I'd had worse. Which I have.” Eames winced as Arthur nudged him backwards into the shower, the hot water pricking his skin like a barrage of needles, and Arthur let him lean against the wall without argument even as the water splashing at Eames' feet began to run red.
Arthur lined his supplies up on the edge of the tub, then stripped efficiently and climbed under the water with Eames. It was too hot, but it was better that way, and Arthur washed the wound gently until the skin around it was a healthy pink, the blood seeping out a fresh bright red. In contrast, Eames' face was pale against the blue tile on the wall, and his eyes remained closed even when Arthur had redirected the spray to give the wound a chance to dry. Arthur took a clean towel and wrapped it tightly around Eames' shoulder, holding it in place with a steady pressure.
“Eames?” Arthur murmured, getting a brief nod in reply. “Do you want the painkillers?”
“Can't afford to be out of it.”
Arthur understood the sentiment, but he'd been shot before; he knew the kind of pain Eames was dealing with. “I'll keep watch. You can get some rest.”
Eames shook his head. “I need to figure out what's going on and I can't do that if I'm doped up.”
“You can't do that if you're passing out from the pain, either. At least take the over-the-counter stuff. It'll take the edge off, and it's non-drowsy.”
For the first time since they'd arrived at the hotel, Eames' lips quirked up in the semblance of a smile. “Marines. Always prepared.”
“Always faithful,” Arthur corrected. “It's the boy scouts that say 'be prepared.'”
“I bet you were a terrific boy scout.”
Arthur tried to lighten the tension, let himself lean into Eames, feeling the press of flesh to flesh. “I still am—I scouted you, right?”
“Ha-ha.” Eames' arms snaked around Arthur holding him fast. “You never did explain where you were taking pictures of me from. Or why.”
“The article ...”
“Yeah, mate, if that's the case, you're the only writer ever who doesn't want people to know who he is. I couldn't find one single thing by or about you on the 'net.”
The hot water began to turn cooler, and Arthur drew a shallow breath as Eames' arm tightened around him. “It was my first—”
Eames shook his head. “You know what kind of people have no Internet footprint? Very, very good criminals and very clever spies. I just haven't decided what you are.” Eames let out a shaky breath Arthur could feel through his chest, so closely was he being held. “Or if I really care.”
“Eames.” Arthur reached out to turn the water off, its diminishing drips loud in the quiet room. He felt lips press against his head, and Arthur was suddenly hard and aching. He shifted, pressing his whole body along Eames, heard his breath catch, felt an answering hardness against his thigh.
“Eames, just trust me. For now. Please?” Arthur chanced to look into Eames' eyes. There was doubt there, but also want, and something cautious and tender, something Arthur wasn't sure he'd ever seen directed at him. Not like this.
Quickly as he could, Arthur towelled off and closed Eames' wound with butterfly bandages, rewrapping it with layers of gauze. He was aware of Eames' eyes on him the entire time, studying his nakedness with a hungry look.
“See something you like?” Arthur asked, tying off the gauze. He handed Eames a bottle of water and the Tylenol, which he swallowed without argument, padding out of the bathroom and stretching out on the bed.
Now that the necessities had been dealt with, Arthur knelt on the bed and let himself look: the broad chest with its light smattering of curled brown hair, ink curling over Eames' shoulders beckoning to be traced, stomach firm but not rock hard, the beautiful sculpted lines of hip and thigh, cock hard and red, begging to be touched. Arthur gave in and leaned forward, slid a firm hand down the planes of Eames' belly, settling at the thatch of brown hair.
“I want to trust you,” Eames said, closing his eyes, his hips lifting towards Arthur's touch. “God, Arthur, I want you, but—”
“Sh,” Arthur whispered, lying down beside Eames, his hand drifting lower. “We can have this. Tonight, we can have this.”
Eames groaned. His hand clasped the back of Arthur's neck and drew him within a breath of his lips. “And tomorrow?”
“I don't know,” Arthur said honestly. His fingers stroked lightly the length of Eames' hard cock; he pressed an almost chaste kiss at the corner of Eames' mouth, then another, less chaste, on his lips. “I don't know, Eames, but when I thought you were dead—”
“I don't even know who you are.” The frustration in his tone didn't stop Eames from kissing back, from nipping at Arthur's lower lip, then soothing the spot with his tongue. He tugged, Arthur's knee pinning Eames' one leg, his cock riding deliciously against Eames' thigh with every slight movement.
“Yes, you do,” Arthur insisted, his hand moving with purpose over the slick head of Eames' cock, spreading moisture across his palm, hand gliding smoothly into a quickening rhythm. “You do, Eames.”
Eames was breathing faster, hands exploring the soft skin of Arthur's back, his chest. He caught and twisted a hard pink nipple, and Arthur thrust sharply against Eames' thigh, Eames' name falling from his fresh-kissed lips.
“Who are you then, darling?” Eames asked, but immediately rolled Arthur onto his back, ducking his head to suck kisses along Arthur's neck and jaw, tongue tracing the hollow of his throat. Arthur wasn't sure the answer mattered anymore as he spread his legs, Eames catching both their cocks in one large hand, setting a rhythm that left Arthur breathless, clutching at Eames' shoulders, mindful of his wound.
Their breathing grew harsh, harried, and Arthur gave himself over to the wave of pleasure he was riding. It had been too long since he'd felt someone else's hand on his cock, a man's weight pressing him to the mattress, and far longer since he'd been the object of such clear affection. Even as words failed them, as kisses stuttered into bites then breathless open-mouthed pants, Arthur could see and feel what Eames had said earlier was true. He was in love with Arthur in spite of his questions, in spite of his doubts, and God, Arthur wanted to be worthy of that love.
Eames clearly needed this to be good for them both, affection evident in every kiss dropped against Arthur's sternum, or his cheek, or his ear. It was written there in Eames' easy smile watching Arthur lose control, revelling in Arthur's pleasure for its own sake, letting that be the thing that pushed him over as well, and when Arthur meant to roll free, to get something to clean them both up, it was there in the way Eames protested with his warm arms and legs and mouth, keeping Arthur close, refusing to let him slip away too soon, then following after him when he did, trailing lazy kisses across Arthur's shoulders.
Afterwards, in the comfort of darkness, lying close and quiet, Arthur turned Eames' face gently towards him and kissed him lightly. He'd find a way to keep Eames alive, to keep them both safe. He'd find out why someone wanted Eames dead, and he'd fix it. Somehow. He'd find a way to have this feeling of completeness he hadn't known he was missing until he thought Eames was dead.
“You asked me who I am,” Arthur said, his voice nothing more than a whisper. Eames' breathing was even, but Arthur didn't think he was asleep. “I'm Arthur. Your Arthur. Whatever else happens, whatever else I've done, that's the truth.”
He thought he felt Eames' arm tighten almost imperceptibly around him, thought he heard “I believe you” rumble in his ear in Eames' distinctive cadence. Arthur could've imagined it, of course, but he didn't think he had.
When Arthur woke up, the sheets beside him were already cool. He looked for Eames immediately, pleasantly surprised when the bathroom door open and he appeared, shirtless. There was a trace of blood on the wrapped gauze, but not enough to be worrisome.
Arthur smiled at him and was about to speak when Eames held up a finger. Arthur realized he had a phone pressed to his other ear, and shot up, suddenly alert. Cell phones could be traced.
“It's a burner,” Eames mouthed quietly, reading the obvious alarm in Arthur's eyes. He made a few non-commital noises into the phone before saying a terse goodbye. “Well, that was about as useful as a lighthouse on a bog.” He tossed the phone on the bed and dropped down beside Arthur, rolling onto his back. “Everyone I know knows less than I do.”
Arthur couldn't help but smile. He leaned over and pressed a kiss lightly to Eames' forehead. “What do you know?”
“I know a hundred filthy things I'd like to do to you, love, if we only had the time.” Eames reached up and pulled Arthur's mouth to his, kissing him deeply. Eames tasted of tea and peppermint toothpaste, and Arthur fought back the urge to throw off the sheets and climb on top of him. It wouldn't be long before someone found them. When Arthur started to pull back, Eames whined a little, but let him go with a reluctant sigh.
Arthur rolled out of bed and started to get dressed: dark jeans and a soft navy sweater over a white shirt. He left his hair shaggy and pulled on the non-prescription glasses he only wore when he wanted to look younger and more nerdy, less like a professional killer.
“Christ, Arthur, you look like you should be straddling a scooter to uni, not hiding from professional killers.”
“How do you know they were professionals?” Arthur asked. “How do you know the shot was even intended for you?”
“It's all over the news for one thing.” Eames grabbed the television remote. Even before the picture flickered to life, Arthur could hear the local anchor reporting that there had been two shooting deaths and several minor injuries at the Channing Theatre the previous evening. Authorities were apparently being tight-lipped about the details, but the station had learned that besides Jordan Sinclair, an unidentified man had been found dead beside a high-powered rifle in an off-limits area. He was suspected of being the initial shooter, but no one had any clues as to who had dispatched the gunman.
Eames pointed at the screen where ambulance attendants were taking Nash's body out of the building, a uniformed police officer walking alongside with the sniper rifle in hand.
“That's a Heckler & Koch PSG1,” Eames said. “Pretty standard sniper rifle. This guy had a private area set-up with a perfect view of the stage. He had no i.d. whatsoever, nothing that could be traced back to whoever hired him. And Jordan didn't have an enemy in the world.”
Eames shrugged. “I've had a life, Arthur. I've made mistakes, trusted the wrong people. There was this one thing, a favor to a friend, really, but—”
Eames shook his head. “I don't know if this has anything to do with that. I'm waiting for Yusuf to call me back, but he keeps odd hours. Plus, he's in Mombasa.”
The television coverage had switched now to interviews with people who had been in attendance at the play, giving first-hand accounts of their harrowing experience. An elderly woman with a Scottish accent so heavy Arthur had to work to understand her called it “exciting!”
“Exciting,” Eames growled. “Let's see how the old biddy feels about being shot at.”
But Arthur was too busy watching as the reporter cut to blurry coverage obviously shot on a camera phone of his slide down the curtain from the third balcony. There he was in his tuxedo and gloves, flickering on the screen like a terrible outtake from a bad spy film.
“He was just like Sean Connery, he was,” the old woman was saying, her eyes gone soft and dreamy. “He was the only James Bond I could ever abide. All the rest were poor imitations, if you ask me.”
The reporter tried to steer the interview back towards the mysterious curtain-climber. Arthur was horrified to note they were playing the footage again, a little clearer and from a slightly different angle. How many people had filmed his descent, Arthur wondered? It was getting harder and harder to do anything without someone filming it.
Eames was looking at him with a curious expression. “Is that you?” He moved closer to the television set. “Because that really looks like you.”
“It doesn't look anything like me.”
Eames got up and with his finger tapped at the dusty glass screen. “I respectfully disagree, darling. That is most definitely your lovely arse. I would know it anywhere.”
The shaky footage spun for a moment as the shooter reoriented the camera, catching the profile of a dark-haired man in a tuxedo as he said, “Deathly afraid of heights,” in a clear, American accent before dashing off.
Eames snorted with laughter, sitting down heavily on the edge of the bed. “Only you, Arthur. Bloody hell, what were you thinking?”
I was thinking you were dead, Arthur thought, but he kept it to himself, as the local ITV reporter continued to turn a slow news day into Arthur's own personal hell: “Is this mysterious man merely a desperate acrophobiac as he would have us believe? Or is he, as Edith Campbell of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, suggests a new James Bond in the middle of a secret mission running to save the day?” Here the reporter paused, her features becoming more solemn, her voice lower. “Or is he inexorably tied to this double-homicide in some other, more sinister way?”
The camera panned slowly back to the balcony where the footage of Nash's body being wheeled out was played alongside Arthur's descent, clearly showing the location was one and the same.
“If you have any information on this unidentified man, or the events that took place at the Channing Theatre last evening, please contact your local constabulary or this station. I'm Lucy Dun—”
The television went dark, and Arthur looked up to find Eames' face clouded over. His hand was resting on one hip, and Arthur knew without a doubt Eames' Browning was tucked in the back of his black pants within easy reach.
“I can explain,” Arthur said, although he honestly wasn't sure he could.
“You can explain why you were rappelling down theatre curtains from the same balcony where they found the dead sniper?”
“It was the shortest way down?” Arthur tried, but Eames' just waited. “Seriously, it was. People were panicking, everyone trying to get out at once. If I'd waited for the crowds to disperse, I would never have found you.”
“What were you doing on the third floor? I clearly remember you insisting you could easily watch from backstage.”
Arthur winced. He'd forgotten about that, but then again, he'd expected to be back before he was missed. He hadn't anticipated Nash taking over his job.
“I wanted to see you properly, and the view from the wings turned out to be less satisfying than I'd anticipated.”
Eames nodded. “Go on.”
“I knew they'd closed the balcony earlier in the week for repairs, and with a full house, it seemed like the simplest place to watch the play.”
Eames looked thoughtful, as if assessing the likelihood of Arthur's story being the truth or not. “And you just happened to walk in on the sniper as he took aim at the stage?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but I didn't know anyone was there until I walked in on him,” Arthur said truthfully. “He'd already taken his shots, the place started going crazy, and all I could think was that you might be dead. Believe me, riding the red velvet to the bottom seemed like a perfectly sound idea at the time.”
“My hero.” Eames smiled fondly at Arthur, some of the tension bleeding away. He moved closer, the hand on his hip drifting to Arthur's arm. “You could've been killed, Arthur. That guy meant serious business.”
Arthur shrugged it off. “I was military, Eames.”
“Old instincts just kicked in, I guess, right?” Eames looked at him adoringly, and Arthur couldn't help but feel his heart swell a little with pride. He'd saved Eames' life, and probably a lot of other people's too by killing Nash. He hadn't been in time to save Jordan, but Eames was safe. Eames was alive, barely scratched and right in front of him, kissing him with sweetness and gratitude. Arthur soaked it up like sunshine.
“You saved my life, Arthur,” Eames murmured, fingers lightly stroking Arthur's forearm. “If you hadn't ended him, who knows what would've happened.”
“I couldn't see you on stage with everyone running,” Arthur said sincerely. It had been one of the truly awful moments of his life. “I honestly thought you were dead, Eames, and the guy was so fucking cocky—”
“You actually spoke to him?”
Arthur swallowed. Lying worked best when you stuck as close to the facts as possible, he knew. “Just briefly.”
“When you were struggling over the gun?”
“I suppose.” Arthur wasn't sure where Eames was leading him, but it made him uneasy.
“How did you manage to get the rifle away and shoot him?”
“I didn't. He—he also had a handgun,” Arthur offered, realizing Eames had seen him with the Glock and there was no reasonable explanation for having a gun with him at the theatre. Sure Eames had obviously had his own Browning there, but coupled with the go-bag and Eames being ex-SAS it made some sort of sense. Especially if Eames had been at all concerned for his own safety. Arthur had no excuse.
“God, Arthur, how terrifying.” Eames pulled him closer. “So you struggled for the gun and it went off.”
“Something like that.” It was close enough to the truth. Eames didn't need to know the details. At least not until Arthur could figure out a way to make them sound less damning.
“You killed someone for me, Arthur,” Eames whispered, and they were kissing again, Arthur getting lost in sensation until his left arm was suddenly wrenched hard behind his back. He was face down on the bed, Eames' knee in his back before he could blink.
“Eames, what the—” Arthur started to push himself up with his other hand, but froze when he heard the unmistakable click of the safety coming off the Browning.
“Head down, Arthur,” Eames insisted, using the barrel of the gun to make his point. “I was a soldier too. I can accept the possibility of coincidence, that you came upon the gunman and acted to intervene by any means necessary.”
“That's what happened,” Arthur insisted stubbornly, but he knew it was already too late.
“Don't be deliberately dense, Arthur. It's unbecoming.” Eames' voice was unflinching. “You and I both know a Mozambique Drill doesn't happen without intent.”
Arthur winced. “We struggled, I got the gun away, I shot him. Does it really matter how I shot him? He was trying to kill you, Eames! I thought he already had!”
“You executed him, Arthur. I've mates down the hospital, the morgue. I made a few calls this morning. Two to the heart, one to the head.”
“I was out of my mind with worry, Eames. The stage was empty, there was a bloody smear—”
“I might even believe you if the coroner's report didn't say the job was expertly done, and so quickly the bloke didn't even have time to rise from his sniping position, meaning you were already armed, gun drawn. Meaning you had to know he was there and why.”
“He killed Jordan. He was trying to—”
Eames' large hand pressed Arthur's face hard into the bed, enough of a surprise he was fighting for breath sooner than he should've been.
“Don't fucking pretend you feel bad about that, about any of this. That kid died for me. I don't know what your angle is in all of this, but I'm not taking any more chances.” Eames' voice was cold. “I should've fucking known better than to fall—fuck.”
“Eames, listen to me. It's not what you—”
“Stop talking, Arthur. Please.” Eames sounded tired, as worn out as an old shoe. “I don't want to have to hurt you, but I will.”
The pressure on Arthur's back increased as Eames leaned forward and yanked the bedside lamp to the floor, breaking it. It was no surprise when Arthur felt the electrical cord twisting around his wrists, tying them behind his back.
Eames drew in a breath and when he spoke again, it didn't sound like Eames at all. It was all James Bond polish and no emotion. Arthur had never heard him sound that fake, not even when he was acting.
“I'm all out of rope, darling, and I've no time to rescue one of your silk ties from the car. I would've much rather been chaffing your wrists in a more pleasurable fashion, so I do apologize for the inconvenience. Circumstances being what they are, though, I'm sure you understand. It was fun while it lasted.”
“Eames, wait.” Arthur twisted around as Eames' weight shifted off him. He tried to ignore the hurt he could see on Eames' face. “Eames, last night wasn't a lie. I care about you. More than you know.”
Eames was gathering his bag and jacket, readying to leave. If Arthur lost him now, he might not find him again in time, and he still didn't know why people wanted Eames dead.
“Eames, please, you have to believe me.” Arthur ignored the bitter laugh. “You're in real danger. They're going to keep coming after you, and they won't stop until you're dead.”
“And why would I believe any of what you're saying, Arthur?”
Arthur hung his head and closed his eyes. “Because I was meant to be the person on that balcony. I was hired to kill you, but I couldn't—”
The door slammed hard enough the bed shook, and Arthur lay there for a moment, breathing hard, the weight of what he'd done sitting on his back like a stone. Then he rolled over and set to work undoing the mess of knots binding his hands.
Eames' life was in danger and Arthur couldn't bear the thought of losing him. Not now, not after last night, and especially not like this. If nothing else, Arthur could protect him whether Eames wanted Arthur's help or not.
But first he'd have to find him.
Eames had at least an hour's head-start, Arthur figured. He could've gotten on a plane, a train, a bus, a boat. He could be heading in almost any direction, and he'd be expecting Arthur to follow him. It was a bit like looking for a needle that was jumping from haystack to haystack; Arthur knew the odds were against him.
Plus the people who were hunting for Eames wanted Arthur eliminated too. Neither of them was safe.
Arthur changed rental cars, switching all of his belongings from one to the other, and double-checking for monitoring devices or trackers. No point making it easy for the bad guys to find him. As soon as he was out of sight of the lot, Arthur pulled over, slipped under the car, and disabled the car's GPS.
Then he headed for the only real friend he had in London who was, as far as he knew, still speaking to him: Ariadne.
Arthur had been to Ariadne's apartment only once, but he had no trouble finding it again. When he rang the bell, he heard a shriek and the pounding of feet down the stairs before the door was flung open and he found himself with his arms full. She hugged him tight, then stepped back, looked him up and down and slugged him hard on the arm.
“Ow, what's that for?” Arthur asked, rubbing the sore spot.
“Do you have any idea how worried I've been? How many times I tried to call you?”
Arthur shook his head dumbly. He hadn't considered what her reaction to the news might be. “I'm sorry,” he offered contritely. “I ditched my phone. It's been—”
“Crazy? No shit, Sherlock!” She pulled Arthur inside and up the stairs to her flat, putting water onto boil as soon as they entered. She grabbed a banana and dropped it in front of Arthur. “Eat that,” she ordered. “You look like you're about to pass out, and now that I know how heavy you are, I'm not taking any chances.”
Dutifully, Arthur began to peel the banana. He hadn't had anything to eat since the previous night's supper, so he felt better after getting something in his stomach. There wasn't anything that could help with the ache in his heart, however.
“Where's Eames?” Ariadne asked after the kettle had boiled, and she brought two mugs of something hot and cinnamon-scented to the table. “Is he alright? I assumed he'd be with you.”
“He was. For a while.” Arthur stared at the swirling eddies in his cup as Ariadne continued to lob questions at him. None of his answers proved satisfactory, and finally Ariadne kicked the edge of Arthur's wooden chair hard. He wasn't sure what she saw on his face when he looked up, but it was enough to have her sliding the chair closer and putting a hand against his cheek.
“Oh, Arthur,” she said, with genuine feeling. “What on earth did you do?”
He had no intention of telling her anything, but somehow the hot tea and Ariadne's sympathetic persistence loosened his tongue more effectively than torture ever could. He told her the whole sordid truth, and to her credit, she mostly sat and listened, interjecting the occasional question for clarification.
“Holy shit,” she said when he was done, and he couldn't help but agree with the sentiment. “Holy goddamn shit!”
“You said that already.”
“It's worth saying twice in this case. Holy—”
“Right. I just can't believe—I mean, you seem like such a nice guy.”
“I am a nice guy most of the time,” Arthur said, but he understood what she was saying. “We can debate the moral and ethical issues of my job some other time, but for now, I really need to find Eames. Do you have any idea where he might go, who he might trust?”
“Well, Seamus, of course, but after that ...?” Arthur had already planned to make that his next stop. Ariadne glanced guiltily at her phone, then back at Arthur, shaking her head. The look was only a fraction of a second, but it was enough to know she was lying. “I have no idea who he'd call.”
Arthur grabbed her wrist. “Ariadne, did he call you? When did he call you?”
Ariadne looked pointedly at where Arthur was gripping her skin. He released her, apologizing. She nodded shakily.
“He called me—actually, he texted me last night. Just to say the two of you were okay, you were safe, and would be in touch.” Ariadne made a face at him. “What? I like Eames, and since you decided to swoon at the bar the first night, he seems to think I'm the person to ask for advice about how to court you. I didn't plan any of this. It just sort of happened.”
“And did he call you before I got here? Ariadne?”
She nodded reluctantly. “Jesus, Arthur, he was so upset. I didn't think he was making any sense, and he kept saying I shouldn't let you in if you came by, that I should leave and go somewhere else.”
“So why did you let me in?”
Ariadne looked at him as if he was dumb as a bowl of chowder. “Because you're my friend, you idiot. Because I've known you for months and I've known Eames a week, and awesome as he is, I thought he must've gotten hit in the head or something. You know actors can be awfully high-strung.”
Arthur could've kissed her then. He'd never been more grateful for her sensible approach. “And now that you know he was right?”
“You're still my friend, Arthur. And so is Eames.”
“And the fact that I kill people for money? That I was supposed to kill Eames?” The thought makes Arthur's stomach curl into a knot.
“Well, you didn't,” Ariadne pointed out. “You saved him, actually. And you're not going to do it anymore, are you? Shoot people, I mean,” she clarified. “I'm all for saving Eames if he needs saving.”
Arthur thought about it, and shook his head. “I don't think there's any way I could after this. It's not like it was my first career choice, any way.”
“So, what did you want to be when you grew up, Arthur?” Ariadne was grinning at him—a genuine, affectionate smile—and Arthur couldn't help but smile back.
While Ariadne made more tea and sandwiches, Arthur borrowed her phone and computer to see if he could locate Eames. He'd called Ariadne from the same burn phone he'd shown Arthur at the hotel, so that was no help. It couldn't be easily traced.
Next Arthur hacked into London's extensive network of CCTV cameras, but it wasn't half as easy as they made you believe on television, and though Arthur was good, the system had enough layers of encryption in place that without knowing exactly which camera he was trying to hack, it was next to impossible.
He kept at it, checking anything he thought might lead him to Eames or the reason someone wanted Eames dead, but every avenue of enquiry left Arthur without answers.
“No luck, huh?”
Arthur gratefully accepted a sandwich and a cup of tea from Ariadne. He shook his head, munching on roast beef and lettuce, and between bites gave Ariadne a run-down of what he'd been working on. In the background her computer chimed again, as it had been doing off and on since Arthur had been in the apartment. It wasn't the laptop's default tone, though—it sounded to Arthur's ears a bit like the opening notes of “She Blinded Me With Science.”
“Should you check that?” he asked. Eames had phoned Ariadne, so it was possible he'd consider emailing or texting her too.
“It's just Yusuf.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow at her and got a full set of rolling eyes in return. “He's a friend,” Ariadne explained. “Jeez, men and women can be just friends, you know.”
“So he's gay then,” Arthur deadpanned.
“He's not! He's really smart and he's doing all this interesting work with dreaming and dream construction, which is the coolest thing although nobody at school seems to want to admit it's going on out there. He's helping me with a project—”
“Oh, a project?”
Arthur finished his sandwich, brushing the crumbs from his mouth. He was only half-paying attention to Ariadne. Her cheeks were flushed and she was avoiding his eyes when she talked about Yusuf. It was kind of sweet to see, and Arthur wondered if he'd looked like that earlier this week—God, had it only been a week?—when he'd first talked about Eames. He was starting to run out of ideas—both for where to look and for how to convince Eames he had never meant to hurt him. But how did you make someone believe that when you'd been contracted to kill them?
“—and you can actually learn skills while dreaming that you could never accomplish in the same amount of time in reality. The possible applications for higher education are amazing,” Ariadne was saying when Arthur focused in on her chatter again. “Eames knows all the best people.”
Arthur's head snapped up. “He's a friend of Eames.”
“Yeah, haven't you been listening? He put us in touch after that first night when we talked about architecture and school and stuff. Before you swooned.”
“I didn't—nevermind.” Arthur was wracking his brain. There was something, some connection he was missing here. Something Eames had said. Something important. “Tell me about Yusuf.”
Ariadne shrugged. “I don't know, he's just this guy. Well, okay, he's a doctor—a chemist, actually—and I kind of think he and Eames may have done some drugs together at some point, but he's smart and funny and he has all these amazing thoughts on dreaming.” Ariadne was looking dreamy-eyed again. “It's too bad he lives in Mombasa. I think it would be cool to—”
Several things occurred to Arthur at once. One: Eames had been trying to get in touch with Yusuf that morning. He'd mentioned Mombasa. He'd mentioned something else, too. A favor of some kind. Arthur knew that dream-work was a dangerous business, and it wasn't likely a coincidence that Eames was in serious trouble if he'd somehow gotten involved with dreaming. Arthur had to find out for sure.
Two: dream-work was, as far as Arthur knew, still largely the purview of two sectors: the military and
very select criminals. When he'd been in the military, Project Somnacin was still in its testing phase, and Arthur had realized early on death wasn't the worst thing that could happen to a person caught in a dream. It was fascinating and terrifying, but he'd walked away from it all in a flurry of non-disclosure agreements and blatant threats. He'd felt himself growing old inside, harder and less human; in some ways, killing in the real world at least reminded him it was a terrible job he'd chosen for himself. He felt each death as a responsibility, as a choice with consequences; in the dreams, it had become all too easy to kill and kill again. It had started to become enjoyable, and Arthur had known it was time to get out.
And three, if Eames was a target because of something connected to dream-work, Arthur might actually be able to help him find a way out. He maintained a few contacts from the old days and there were debts he'd never collected on. For the first time since Eames had disappeared on him, Arthur felt there were options.
“Can you put me in touch with Yusuf?” Arthur asked. “Now. I mean, can you call him?”
“I guess,” Ariadne said, going to her laptop. “We usually just email or chat, but—yeah, he's on Skype. Do you want me to—”
“Yes,” Arthur said firmly. “I think he's got the answers I've been looking for.”
“He'll know where Eames is?”
Ariadne positioned her laptop so they could both see, although Arthur kept out of the camera's eye, and searched the contacts. Yusuf appeared to be online. Ariadne clicked to call.
“More importantly,” Arthur said, “I think he might know why someone wants to kill Eames in the first place, and if we can figure that out, maybe we can save him.”
Ariadne nodded, watching as the call was answered by an Indian man wearing a blue linen shirt and carrying a hookah.
“Ariadne,” he said, smiling broadly. “This is a pleasant surprise. Did you get my emails? I've been trying to reach Eames, but—”
“Yusuf,” Ariadne interrupted. “Sorry, but Eames is in danger, and we need your help.”
“Yes, yes, he left a message saying someone was trying to kill him.” Yusuf sat down in front of a table, his hand looming large on the screen as he changed the angle of the camera slightly. “You're saying it's serious? I thought maybe he'd gone a bit mad—actors, you know?” Yusuf peered at the screen intently and stopped. “Ariadne, you said 'we.' There's someone with you?”
Arthur stepped into the frame, and was about to introduce himself when Ariadne cut him off. “This is Arthur. It's a long story, but basically, he was supposed to kill Eames, although he doesn't know why, but then he met Eames and totally fell for him—like, literally swooned—”
“—okay, and so he obviously couldn't kill him, because he loves him, and they're adorable together—”
“Okay, okay, but other people still want to kill Eames and we think it has something to do with you.”
Yusuf looked appropriately stunned, but Arthur knew there really wasn't time to explain. “Eames said he'd done you a favor. Is there any possibility that's the reason people want him dead?”
Yusuf turned towards Ariadne, almost as if Arthur wasn't in the room. “Can you trust him?” he asked, softly.
Ariadne nodded solemnly. “He never would have gone through with it. I trust him, and Eames would trust him too if he wasn't pissed off right now.”
“I'll have to take your word,” Yusuf replied. “He's not picking up his phone.”
Arthur swore under his breath. That could mean anything from Eames being dead to having had to switch phones again. “Yusuf, what did he do? What was the favor?”
“Do you know anything about dream-sharing?” Yusuf asked.
“I was a military test operative for Project Somnacin,” Arthur said, ignoring the way Ariadne's eyebrows climbed into her hair. She punched him in the thigh, and Arthur knew he was going to have a tiny fist-shaped bruise as a reminder that Ariadne didn't like people keeping secrets.
Yusuf nodded knowingly. “Good. Then you'll understand exactly how incredible it is, what Eames can do. It's amazing, but I never imagined it would put him in danger. But such is the risk in great discovery, I suppose.” He sounded philosophical. “People either wish to exploit or suppress things they can't control or don't understand.”
“What did Eames do?” Ariadne asked, curious.
“Tell us everything,” Arthur said.
And Yusuf did.
Dark was settling in by the time Arthur was ready to leave Ariadne's. After getting the details from Yusuf—Arthur could hardly believe what Yusuf had told them—it had taken several more minutes of questioning to make sure he understood fully.
Then he'd called Dominic Cobb, his former commanding officer and the man who'd introduced him to dreaming when Arthur had been young and green and precisely the kind of man the army wanted to turn into a weapon.
“You're sure he can do what this Yusuf says he can?” Dom asked.
“I haven't seen him do it, if that's what you're asking. I don't exactly have access to that kind of thing anymore, although apparently the military's been a little lax about letting the tech get out.”
“These things happen, Arthur. We're still a small unit, still relying on the loyalty of our people.” Arthur chose to ignore the dig. “Not everyone who walks out the door goes voluntarily,” Dom reminded him.
“And sometimes a PASIV just happens to walk out with them?”
“There have been thefts, yes, and leaked plans, and clever engineers. Christ, Arthur, I'm fairly certain you could build a working model if you wanted to.” Arthur didn't disagree with him. “We do our best. But this isn't about stolen tech. Your friend's in real trouble, even if people only think he can do what you say. If he can really do it ... shit, Arthur, if he can really do it, if he can become someone else in a dream, he could ...” Dom let out a slow breath.
Dom didn't need to tell him what it meant. Arthur had already considered the implications. Someone who could convincingly change appearance in a dream, who was good enough to fool the subject's mind into believing it was speaking to another person, could exercise incredible influence. He could impersonate leaders, military commanders, friends, lovers, confidantes. Secrets would tumble out willingly, a shared confidence, rather than trying to lead the subject around to thinking about the item of information you were seeking, and then trying to extract it from a hidden location.
“Does he know? I mean, does he realize what he's done?”
“No,” Arthur said. “Even Yusuf didn't fully understand the ramifications until a few days ago. There have always been people able to change a few things—hair colour, their age to some extent. But as far as we know, no one's ever just walked into a dream and become someone else.”
“How did he—?”
Arthur smiled into the phone, although it wasn't for Dom's benefit. “He's an actor, Cobb. A really talented one. That's why Yusuf asked him to do it; that's why they hired him. He was supposed to be in the background, playing a role. Enough to give some credibility to the dream, but he became the role. Yusuf said he looked exactly like the guy—voice, mannerisms, clothing right from the surveillance tapes they'd given Eames, and he did it as easily as putting on a new suit.”
“If it's true.”
“I can't find another reason someone would hire a professional to kill him.”
Dom wasn't under any illusions about the work Arthur did, even though they didn't talk about it. It was in part the military that had set Arthur on this path, after all, so Dom didn't have too many stones to throw.
“Alright, Arthur, you've got my attention. If your Mr. Eames can do this, and we can figure out how he does it, it will completely change the face of dream-work.”
“I'm not volunteering him to be a lab rat, Dom, let's be clear. But if he helps you out, you can protect him, yes?”
“Why does this matter so much to you, Arthur? It's not like you to get involved.”
“He's ... special, Cobb. Just trust me.” Arthur was afraid everything he felt about Eames was broadcast in his voice. “He deserves better than this, and I—I can't protect him from something this big. Not with a target on my back. Please, Dom. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't life or death.”
“I'll come get him myself. Just keep an eye on him till I get there. You can do that, right?”
“No problem,” Arthur lied. Yusuf had better be right about Eames going to Seamus for help. “Just promise me you'll get him out of this alive whatever else happens.”
“You have my word, Arthur.”
They discussed the details of Cobb's flight to London before saying good-bye. Luckily, he'd been interviewing candidates for one of his projects at the base in Germany, so he could get to London within a day. He would check in at the American embassy, and wait for Arthur's call. In the meantime, Arthur had the unenviable task of finding Eames and convincing him that working with the U.S. military was his best option for staying alive. It wasn't going to be easy.
Arthur finished putting his laptop in its case, making sure he left nothing behind at Ariadne's. He hadn't been followed, he was sure of that, but he wanted to make sure she was safe when he left. There was a price on his head by now as well, and there would always be someone eager to make a name by taking out someone like Arthur. It wasn't safe for anyone to be around him.
“Are you sure about this, Arthur?” Ariadne stood by the door of her apartment, arms wrapped around herself as if to stave off a chill.
“No,” Arthur answered honestly, “but I have to try. I screwed everything up between us—”
“—and I just want to do one thing right by him. He can hate me for it, but I can't stand by and let something happen to him.”
“I'm sure he doesn't hate you.”
Arthur shrugged. He tried to put the emotional part of it away. It didn't help to think about Eames whispering how he was in love with Arthur, or the way it had felt to touch Eames at the hotel, to lie naked with him and believe they could have this.
“Arthur,” Ariadne said again. “He doesn't hate you. He's hurt and he's afraid because he really cares about you. And I know you care about him, too. Don't give up.”
Arthur nodded uncomfortably and prepared to leave. At this point, getting Eames out of this mess safely was Arthur's main concern; he'd deal with the fall-out from his own choices later.
“Let's hope Yusuf's right about Eames ending up at the Brandywine. It's an old building, solid as a fort, and defensible if necessary. Plus it's a busy public place and civilian casualties are generally frowned upon in my line of work.”
“Well, that's good. I think.” Ariadne gave him a small smile, which Arthur returned. “And really, if you make it into the pub, there's only one major obstacle in getting to Eames.”
Arthur's smile faltered. “What's that?”
“Seamus.” Seeing the look on Arthur's face, Ariadne hastened to add, “Although I'm sure he wouldn't actually shoot you or anything for breaking Eames' heart.”
“Oh, fuck,” Arthur said, but there wasn't any other plan, so he said goodbye to Ariadne and prepared himself to walk into the lion's den.
Arthur parked the rental a few streets over from the Brandywine Tavern, and kept to the shadows as he approached the pub. There were lights and music coming from inside, but the daytime shades had remained drawn, so Arthur wasn't able to get a decent look inside. Beyond a number of unidentifiable silhouettes shifting about, it was unclear how many people were in the pub and if one of them might be Eames.
The sign on the heavy oak door said “Closed for Private Party.” Arthur honestly had no idea if that was London code for some sort of strategy session about protecting Eames, or if he was about to walk into the middle of a wake. Either was possible, he supposed.
As surreptitiously as he could, Arthur scouted the probable perches for snipers. He counted two nestled into rooftops across the street. One was a rank amateur he was sure from the way the scope kept catching the streetlight and reflecting it back. He was likely there for Arthur, betting he would come looking for Eames at some point. The other, dressed all in gray and unmoving, was harder to spot. When he noticed Arthur, he raised a small flask in salute and tipped the barrel of the rifle slightly away.
“Franz,” Arthur acknowledged quietly. He'd always liked the quiet German, though he knew the upheld flask probably held some flat-tasting German beer. Warm. He was definitely here for Eames, dammit. The canted barrel was a professional courtesy; Arthur was free to pass or even enter, but that was all. It was unlikely Arthur could expect more than that, and if Franz found a shot to take at Eames, he would take it. However, he had no interest in the bounty on Arthur. It would've been beneath him.
Arthur stayed where he was pressed against the dark stone at the turn of the narrow street, evaluating his options. The pub had a back entrance, but it was in an alley boxed on three sides with high stone walls. Arthur didn't like the idea of getting trapped back there when he had no idea what kind of security the rear door had; from what he knew of both Eames and Seamus, Arthur wouldn't have been surprised if it was a steel reinforced door with a retinal scanner guarded by a ravenous pitbull.
He didn't think the shooter with the reflecting scope had seen him yet, and was about to move when there was a sharp whistle. Arthur's head snapped up to see Franz with one arm outstretched, pointing to something beyond Arthur in the darkness. Without thinking, Arthur dropped flat and rolled off the sidewalk and into the slightly sheltered gutter just as the cobblestones about twenty feet in front of him took the bullet that would've caught him in the head.
“Jesus Christ,” Arthur muttered, rolling again and scrambling to his feet. He bee-lined for the pub's heavy front door, knowing he'd rather take his chances with Seamus and Eames than whoever'd been waiting in the dark behind him. He and Franz weren't exactly friends, but they tended to share the same sense of justice, and that included not shooting someone in the back. They might be hired assassins, but there were still things that simply weren't done.
Arthur threw up one hand in thanks to Franz as he hauled the wooden pub door open with the other.
The sudden brightness of the lights left Arthur blinking as the lively chatter was replaced by the unmistakable sound of firearms being cocked. Arthur automatically raised his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“Well, lad, 'bout time you showed.” Arthur followed Seamus' voice back to where the man was standing against the massive oak bar, a Winchester rifle steady in his hands. “I was beginning to think I'd misjudged you.”
Seamus set the rifle down, which seemed to be the signal for everyone else to put their guns away too. Arthur hadn't seen that many weapons in one place since he'd crashed an arms dealer's storage locker in Afghanistan.
“So the private party's for the National Rifle Association of the UK?”
Seamus laughed as conversation picked up again around them. “Let's just say I've many a friend who's grown up during the Irish troubles.” He reached down a clean tumbler and poured Arthur a whisky, but held the glass in his hand. “I have to ask you, Arthur. Are you armed?”
“Yes.” There was no point lying and Arthur was pretty sure Seamus would think he was an idiot if he'd come in here without a gun.
“Planning to use it?”
“Not on anyone you'd miss.”
Seamus slid the whisky across to Arthur as he took a seat at the bar. He picked up the glass, smelled the rich peaty aroma, and paused with the glass against his lips.
“The whisky isn't drugged, is it?”
Seamus smiled appreciatively and poured himself a glass from the same bottle as he'd poured Arthur's. “Do you take me for a man of such subtlety?”
Arthur tipped the glass to his lips and drank in response. The whisky was good—strong and smoky with a roughness that felt a bit like a rope against his throat. It made him want to swallow quickly and breathe deeply, letting the air cleanse some of the heat and sting from his mouth.
“Holy mother of—”
“I take it you haven't been indulging in fine Irish whisky, son?” Seamus shook his head. “Clement took a while to warm to it as well.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “Is he here? Cleme—Eames? Is he here?”
“He's here. A bit worse for wear, he is, both inside and out, but he's here.”
“Good. That's good.”
A breath of relief slipped from Arthur, and he allowed himself another sip from his glass. He hadn't realized how worried he'd been. It had been early that morning when Eames had left him trussed up in the hotel. There had been a lot of hours between then and now, a multitude of chances for things to go wrong, and Arthur wasn't sure he could forgive himself if something happened to Eames at this point.
“Why am I here?” Arthur asked suddenly.
“Shouldn't I be the one asking that?”
“No, I mean, you're talking to me. You didn't shoot me when I walked in.” Arthur gestured at the rifle. “You know who I am, what I've done. I'm sure Eames has told you everything by now.”
“He's told me enough,” Seamus agreed. “But now, Arthur, you're going to convince me why I should let you see him.”
“I'm not sure that you should,” Arthur said. “He won't believe me, but I never meant for this to happen, and I never meant to hurt him.”
“No, you meant to kill him.”
“I didn't know him then! It was a job, just a job, and then I met him and—I told myself I could still go through with it, and all the time I hated myself for even considering it. I didn't think I had a choice.”
“But you couldn't pull the trigger.” Seamus' voice was soft. “Maybe you need a new line of work, lad.”
“Jesus,” Arthur said, ignoring the wave of disapproval rippling through the crowd. “You don't get it. I get paid a lot of money to shoot people, and I'm very good at my job. I do my research, I do my prep work, I go in and set it up, and bang, someone's dead. I go home at the end of the day and I don't think about it. The only reason Eames isn't dead is because he's Eames! He made me think about it, he made me believe people could be kind to one another, and he totally fucked up my career because I can't shoot somebody who hasn't done anything wrong, and I can't shoot somebody I'm in love with.”
“I had no trouble killing Nash. Two to the heart, one to the head. He was going to do what he knew I couldn't. I was afraid to admit it until it was too late, so that kid Jordan's dead because of me, and Eames got shot because of me.” Arthur tossed back what was left in his glass, and didn't care that his face was hot and his throat felt shredded. “Oh, and there are at least three assassins outside, but the good news is only one of them wants to kill Eames. The other two are here for me. Unfortunately, the one who's interested in Eames is actually competent and a decent guy even though he drinks piss-warm German beer, and I'm probably going to have to go shoot him too because honestly, the only thing that matters to me right now is making sure Eames is alive and that he stays that way.”
“Three assassins?” Seamus asked, and immediately men were up and checking the windows. “We only saw the one.”
Arthur shook his head. “That's the idiot with the reflecting scope. Franz is the actual danger. Right now he looks pretty much like part of the stone parapet across the street.”
“Son of a bitch,” someone said. “Sure 'nough, he's there. Right where the lad says.”
“Where's the other one?”
“Alley, back in the dark, but you won't see him. He's aiming for me anyway.” Arthur licked his lips and stood up. He didn't like how close that had been. He owed Franz now, and he didn't like that either. “Look, I know I chose this life and whatever happens to me, that's fine. But Eames got mixed-up in this by accident, and I think I can get him out of it if he'll let me.”
Arthur felt worn out, his throat raw, heart aching. Even to his own ears his voice sounded hoarse and desperate in a way he never let show. Somehow, though, it felt important to be honest about this, as if maybe that could ease the hurt of what had happened.
“I screwed things up, I know that. But I can't just stop caring about him, and I'll do anything I have to—anything—to keep him safe.” Arthur looked pleadingly at Seamus. “He'll listen to you, Seamus,” Arthur said, ignoring the snort of laughter. “I've got a friend who can give Eames protection, and he'll be in London tomorrow. We just have to keep him safe until then. Please. He doesn't even have to know I'm here.”
“It's a little late for that, lad.”
Seamus nodded towards a narrow staircase at the back end of the pub. Eames was sitting there on the steps, still wearing black and blending in with the shadows. He looked exhausted and shell-shocked, and the arm Arthur had stitched was hanging in a neat sling. He was the most beautiful thing Arthur had ever seen. The mix of emotions that struck Arthur then was so overwhelming he had to stop himself from going and putting his hands on Eames just to know he was alive.
It was at that exact moment, in a shower of glass, something broke through a window and rolled into the centre of the floor. There was a flash, a boom that echoed in the small space, and the room began to fill with smoke.
Instinct drove Arthur to the floor beside the bar. Hands flew up to cover his ears and he snapped his eyes shut as the flare of light hit. He'd trained with flashbangs and stun grenades, but training didn't help with the sense of disorientation. It would pass more quickly if he stayed still and regained his senses before he moved.
The room was shouting and chaos, and Arthur knew there were too many firearms and frayed nerves here to be safe for anyone. He didn't know if this was an assault on him or Eames, although given the clumsiness of a blanket attack, he suspected the former. He fucking hated dealing with amateurs; they were entirely too unpredictable. This kind of diversion wasn't Franz's style, but it didn't mean he wouldn't take advantage of the situation to put a bullet in Eames.
He heard his name over the din of mixed accents, over other shouts and expletives as creative as only the Irish can make them. For a moment he thought it was Eames calling him, but the accent was as thick as smoke. Arthur crawled around the bar to where Seamus was slowly collecting himself, down on one knee, a hand clasping one of the wooden shelves behind the bar. His rifle was at his feet, but it was clear his eyes hadn't focused enough to grasp it yet.
“Seamus,” Arthur said, “I'm right here.” He touched the man firmly on the shoulder, then guided his hand to pick up the rifle. Seamus was still blinking heavily, trying to bring his vision into alignment.
“Ta, lad. Where's Clem?”
“I don't see him.”
The smoke was starting to thin, but the staircase where Eames had been appeared empty. Arthur drew his Glock from its holster and chambered a round. If he was right and they were coming for him, he needed to get out of the building, at least to draw fire away from the half-drunk crowd of armed men. Away from Eames.
“I'll find him. Stay here and stay down.” Arthur popped his head over the bar and shouted. “Everybody just stay the hell down!”
“Go on, and if you see the fucker who tossed that incapacitant into my pub, you shoot him, y'hear?” Seamus was shaking his head as if that would help clear it. “Fucks with the hearing aid something terrible.”
“With pleasure, sir.” Arthur grinned, standing up with caution.
Two figures in black were moving slowly through the now open pub door, handguns out, but any cover they'd gained with the flashbang was being obliterated by the evening breeze. In any other situation, Arthur would've probably shot them both in the head and moved on. He settled for a quick, close-range hit through the meaty part of the thigh, disassembling their handguns and snapping the firing pins when they went down. The two men screamed in unison and fell, clutching their bleeding legs.
Arthur slapped a gloved hand over one man's mouth to quiet him. “Tell whoever sent you, I'm not that easy to kill. Tell them I'll forfeit the contract fee plus reasonable interest if they withdraw the hit on me. All I want is to be left alone, and they're going to lose a lot of potential assassins at this rate. If they really want me to weed out the less competent, I'm going to start charging, and I'm very, very expensive. You got all that?”
The man nodded shakily, moaning under Arthur's gloved hand. When he took his hand away, it was wet with tears and sweat. He wiped it on the man's black shirt with a look of disgust, then backtracked to the stairs to see if he could get a lead on Eames. By the time the first police car arrived moments later, Arthur was out of the building, across the neighbouring roof, and following a trail of fresh blood drops that was too blatant to be anything other than deliberate.
The only problem was Arthur didn't know if it was Eames in trouble and wanting him to follow, or someone who'd taken Eames and cut him deep enough to leave a trail he knew Arthur would find. Either way, Arthur didn't have a choice; he had to find Eames, and given the amount of blood Arthur was tracking, the sooner he found Eames, the better.
It was Franz that Arthur found first, sheltering in an alley beside an old mattress factory. Arthur could almost make out the dancing sheep that must have once dotted the exterior of the building in bright white paint now turned grey with age. It had started to drizzle, a misty kind of wetness that felt like cobwebs across his cheeks.
Arthur drew his gun, keeping a wary eye on the lit tip of the cigarette Franz was smoking. The briefcase beside him contained his folded rifle, Arthur knew, but both of Franz's hands were visible as Arthur approached, and there was no weapon in sight.
“Do you smoke?” Franz asked, his accent lighter than Arthur remembered. Perhaps he'd been spending more time in England than in Germany of late.
“No, not a habit I ever acquired.” Arthur didn't put his gun away, but he did lower it as he stepped into the alley and faced Franz. He felt like a character in some sort of film noir, but he didn't know what their conversation was supposed to tell him about where Eames had disappeared. “Look, Franz, you brought Eames here—alive—and you wanted me to follow you. I don't know what this is.”
Franz nodded around his cigarette. He took a last inhale, then dropped the cigarette to the ground. It hissed in the dampness and went out. “I don't like to work in this way.”
Arthur couldn't agree more, but mostly because he didn't know what the fuck was going on. He waited for Franz to continue.
“I was assigned to kill your Mr. Eames.”
Arthur clamped down the panic and anger the words brought. He replayed the words Franz had chosen. The German was always exact with his words, something Arthur appreciated.
“Yes, Arthur. Assigned. It was made clear to me refusing the assignment was not in my best interests.” Franz turned his head and the streetlamp caught the edge of a dark bruise around his eye, two or three days old.
“But you didn't kill him.”
“New orders came this evening. Bring him here. Alive. Unharmed.”
Arthur thought of the blood trail and studied Franz's face for a lie. The German gave him a faint smile, then slowly moved his right hand to tug up the sleeve of his trench coat. A blood-soaked handkerchief was wrapped around a fresh wound.
“It was your blood,” Arthur said, not fully comprehending.
“Mostly,” Franz said. “I had to make a small cut in his arm in case they found the blood.” He looked at the sky with a smile. “This will help. They won't know, and I suggest you not leave anyone alive to wonder how you found him so quickly.”
Arthur felt a chill go down his spine. “Who are they?”
“Dreamers. Thieves. Monsters.”
Franz reached down for the briefcase at his side and passed it to Arthur. It was larger than Arthur had first thought; it was a case that would easily house a rifle, two handguns, extra clips.
“I'm not sure I understand.”
“You love this man, this Eames? That's what Nash was telling anyone who would listen.”
Arthur bit his lip. He wished Nash was alive so he could shoot him again. He nodded once, and Franz smiled.
“Love is good, Arthur. It's good for us to love and be loved. It keeps us human. These men would put us on leashes, would expect us to answer like trained hounds. They want and they demand and they discard with no thought, and I do not wish to be made to work for such men. I know you and I are the same in this, but we are too few.”
Arthur knew it was probably bad form, but he needed to get in there quickly and do something, especially if the men who had Eames were as terrible as Franz believed. He tried to look apologetic as he dropped down to crack open the briefcase and start assembling weapons. Franz didn't seem offended.
“Do you know why the orders changed? Why a delivery rather than a kill?” Arthur asked.
“They need something from him, but once they have it, they will kill him. It will be ... unpleasant, I'm sure.” Franz's face took on a look of concentration, as if he were searching for the right words. “You were in your country's service once, yes?” Arthur nodded. “They know this, and they know you are expecting help to come. That's why you are suddenly under attack by imbeciles and thugs, why Mr. Eames is alive for the moment.”
“How could they know that?” Arthur wondered aloud thinking of Cobb. “I used an untraceable phone. I only made the arrangements a few hours ago. How could they know?”
Franz shook his head. “This is why this must end here. They have people everywhere. People who will betray everything they believe for a price.”
Arthur thought of Dom and Mal with two small children at home. A second mortgage. A minivan. He didn't believe they would ever betray him, even if he and Dom didn't always agree. But someone had leaked the information.
Arthur finished loading the guns and holstering them in the accompanying rig. He stuck to the handguns, knowing they'd be easier to manage and reload on the run. He fit the extra clips in where he could, feeling like the hero in a bad action flick. Franz closed the briefcase and picked it up, turning to leave.
“Be careful of your friends, Arthur. I don't know who passed the information, but it's certain someone did.”
“Why are you helping me?” Arthur asked. He'd always liked Franz in as much as he knew him. He'd felt they were similar in many ways, but Arthur knew there was little loyalty among thieves and even less among assassins.
Franz's eyes grew dark, his face cold. “Did I ever tell you I have a daughter?”
“Elise. She's seven. She is beautiful like a flower blossom. She plays the piano so sweetly, you would think she is an angel.”
The drizzle had stopped, but Arthur felt a coldness seeping into his bones nonetheless. “Franz, what did they do?”
“They broke her tiny fingers. Every one of them.”
“Jesus.” Arthur didn't know what else to say, but he felt a helpless sort of rage building in him. They'd come after Eames, who was a grown man with SAS training, and he'd barely made it out alive. What chance did a child have? Or anyone?
Franz drew his coat closer around him. “I'm returning to my family. You understand now why I can't help you further.”
“You've already done more than I would've expected.”
Franz looked at Arthur thoughtfully. “Yes, and isn't that a sad truth? Viel Glück, Arthur. Auf Wiedersehen, mein Freund.”
“Thank you,” Arthur said and watched Franz disappear into the grey and the darkness.
The building was silent as Arthur entered, and it quickly became apparent why. Moving low so as not to be seen, he approached the one lighted area of the factory cautiously. It appeared to have been a storage section on the main factory floor where old, chewed-through mattresses swayed in unbalanced piles that almost grazed the ceiling, spilling foam and coils of springs. Arthur tried not to think of what was living in those high-rise mattress towers. He skirted them as much as he could without breaking cover.
Under the watery beam of one overhead fluorescent, several white lounge-style chairs were arranged facing outward in a semi-circle with a small table in the centre where the backs angled inward. There were four men wearing fashionable suits, stretched out leisurely on the loungers, with ankles loosely crossed, and hands folded neatly on their stomachs. From each of their wrists extended a cannula and an intravenous tube leading to a metal briefcase open on the table. Arthur recognized it immediately, even though it had been a few years since he'd seen an actual PASIV unit. This one was slightly smaller and more compact than he remembered; he supposed eventually they'd be the size of a tablet computer.
The fifth sleeper looked uncomfortable, which made sense given it was Eames. They'd cuffed both wrists to the chair, cutting off the sling Eames had been using to help support the shoulder where Nash's bullet had grazed. Both his ankles were secured with zip-ties and a strap around his waist was fastened through the lounger to a bolt in the floor. The need for a permanent fitting to secure people made Arthur's stomach turn over. He'd had no idea underground dream-work had become so corrupt.
Arthur could see the barely dry trail of blood on Eames' right arm where Franz must have cut him, and the cannula sticking out of his wrist just below it. There were also a series of electrodes attached to his face and neck, their wires connected to a machine not unlike an EEG readout, tracing jagged lines across rapidly spilling paper. Whatever was happening in the dream, Eames was agitated. Arthur wanted to get him out of there as soon as possible, knowing time in the real world translated into far greater periods of time within the dream.
It was then two more men, heavy-set and obviously armed, strode back into the circle of light.
“I told you it weren't nothin',” one said, his lilting English voice seeming too high for his large body.
The other man, taller and fair, narrowed his eyes. “I heard voices.” Arthur couldn't readily place the accent. South African, maybe. He wasn't sure.
“Best not be tellin' them y'hear voices,” the first man sniggered, waving a finger at the circle of sleepers. “Y'know how they likes to 'xperiment.”
The second man shuddered, moving off to check the readouts on the machines. Arthur considered the layout of the sleepers. The semi-circular configuration would make it hard to fire successive shots without shifting position in between. With each shot fired, the chance of the dreamers awakening, either from the outside stimulus of the gunshots or from being physically disturbed in some way, would become more likely.
It was tempting to kill the two security men outright and wake Eames, but Arthur couldn't be sure he'd have enough time to get Eames free from the chair and the machines before the others woke themselves. He had no idea what kind of chemical they were using—Somnacin was still the main drug, but more and more chemists were experimenting with mixed compounds. If Eames' drug had been mixed with even the slightest sedative, Arthur risked sending him deeper into his own mind rather than waking him up, and Arthur couldn't afford to go in after him. Not with six other men to deal.
Arthur couldn't tell from the set-up who was the dreamer, although he was fairly certain Eames was the subject. There was a flurry of movement behind his eyelids, consistent with REM sleep, and he was murmuring as the recording needles scratched mountain ranges of lines into the page.
No, Arthur needed a plan where he could be guaranteed of taking out all six men quickly, ideally with six shots. Only then could he free Eames who would naturally wake when the dreamer died since the mind would recognize the collapse of the artificial dream. It was the safest option.
He tried not to think that he was on the verge of killing six people in cold blood solely on the basis of their apparent abduction of Eames and the word of a German assassin Arthur knew only professionally.
“Shit,” Arthur murmured to himself, and his eyes were drawn once more to the piled mattresses. The only secure vantage point to eliminate everyone efficiently was up. He ignored the chatter of the two guards; they were discussing cricket and complaining about a lack of tea and biscuits. He put all thoughts of insects and rodents and communicable diseases out of his mind. He'd get a tetanus shot. And a really long shower. Possibly several. Maybe, if he was very lucky, with Eames.
The thought of Eames kept Arthur distracted enough to continue climbing the back of the mattress stack—even when he was sure he heard squeaking, and even when he put his hand in something wet and sticky. He closed his eyes, wiped the hand as quietly as possible against a clean spot on the mattress, and kept going until he'd climbed right out of the circle of light and into the darkness above.
Sliding himself along the foot-wide steel beams that crisscrossed the ceiling wasn't any easier than balancing on the mattresses, but Arthur felt safer. When he was almost directly above the hanging light, where the glare would help hide his presence, he hooked his ankles firmly around the beam and lay flat on his belly, slipping a 9mm Beretta into each hand.
They were beautiful guns Franz had gifted him, revenge for a seven-year-old girl with broken fingers. Arthur found himself calculating the sequence of shots: Guard #1 by the machines (so he can't kick them out); Guard #2 by the edge of the circle (so he doesn't run); Dreamer #1 closest to Eames (because he's armed and can do the most damage); Dreamer #2 on the edge (also armed); Dreamers #3 and #4 between the two dead men (because anyone left would come after them, after Franz, after everyone they loved). Arthur imagined six bodies in his mind's eye, six clean quarter-sized holes through the temporal lobes because it was the most efficient, and Arthur was the definition of efficiency.
He slowed his breathing to lessen the possibility of a miss. He braced himself as well as he could on the beam, and for once in his life, he was grateful for his lean, wiry frame. It had been a curse in a high school dominated by football and jocks, but it suited him perfectly now. He'd grown into his body the way he'd grown into slicked back hair and expensive slacks.
Arthur was certain everyone in the factory was accounted for, and he was reasonably sure he was doing the right thing. It was the best he could hope for under the circumstances.
His right hand was his dominant, but he could shoot with either. The military trained him to fight through injury and pain, to fight to the death if required for God and country. He trained himself for situations like this one where every shot had to be perfect, and every second counted.
He took one last, calming breath. Let it spill out of him, light as a floating leaf.
Fire. Fire. Fire. Fire.
It was Arthur's fifth shot that missed.
He had over-reached to correct the angle when the dreamer on the edge started to wake. Four dead according to plan, but Arthur felt the moment after the kill shot when his hip slipped sideways by inches. He hooked his ankles harder, locking his thighs as tight as he could to stop the shift.
The beam where he was lying was at least thirty feet up and the mattresses a good fifteen feet back from where he'd crawled along the beam. Arthur had counted 17 mattresses when he climbed and some of them were the extra deep kind requiring special sheets. He was relatively certain the need for special sheets was one of the reasons those mattresses were forming the foundation of a lovely set of rodent condominiums in an abandoned mattress factory.
It was the stupid mattresses Arthur was considering while he tried to pull his weight back to the centre of the beam. How it would've made much more sense to have the dreamers on actual mattresses in a mattress factory, and then if Arthur happened to fall, there would be a mattress—with a dead body, but a mattress nevertheless—to break his fall. He thought of Eames comfortable on a mattress instead of bound to a lounge chair, and Eames stretched naked beneath him on white hotel sheets, desire clear in his eyes.
Arthur took his fifth shot at Dreamer #3, the one beside the fourth kill, but it flew wide as he slipped, and Arthur had no choice but to fling his right arm around the beam to halt his slide, gun still in his hand. If he let the gun drop, he would lose half his ammunition and range, not to mention putting a loaded weapon into the hands of the enemy.
But Arthur continued to slip.
“Fuck,” he said, gritting his teeth, tightening his abdomen muscles to at least keep his aim steady. He pumped the entire clip into Dreamer #3 as the man snapped awake with a cry of alarm, then let the empty gun fall. His sweating hand went immediately around the beam in a desperate bid to hang on. His hand was slick; he couldn't get a firm grasp.
Dreamer #4 was almost directly below him and a little to the left, so it should have been an easy shot, especially for Arthur. Except when he chanced to look down, half-turned as he was, his legs shaking with the strain of holding on, all he could see was an empty white lounger.
Then Eames woke up, shaking and tied down, immediately caught in a fight to free himself from the lounger, but the men who'd secured him were no amateurs.
“Stop struggling, Eames.” Arthur tried to calm him down by calling his name (while searching frantically for signs of the last dreamer.) Eames seemed to register it was Arthur wrapped around the ceiling beam like a monkey on a high-wire, though it took him a moment to realize Arthur was actually in trouble.
“Hey, hey, Arthur, don't fall!” Eames sounded worried, and Arthur could've rolled his eyes because honestly, did Eames think he wanted to fall? It wasn't exactly like falling had been part of some great plan. Arthur couldn't get a solid enough hold on the beam to drag his quivering muscles back to a prone position. He was beginning to sympathize with every ambitious cat he'd ever had to rescue from a tree.
It was naturally at the moment when Arthur glanced down and saw Eames staring back at him with frightened blue-green eyes—the exact second Arthur knew he'd never tire of the way the colours of Eames' eyes ebbed with the quality of light and his own raw emotions—that Arthur found the last dreamer. In his peripheral vision he recognized the snub barrel of a sawed-off shotgun grazing Eames' temple.
Dreamer #4 was a snarl of rage, a challenge chiseled on his hard-edged face. “You want him, you pissant cock-sucking fuck-up?”
The man shoved the barrel roughly against the edge of Eames' head, trigger cocked, making him wince.
“You still want him with his face hanging off? Or how about without the dick that made you forget to do your fucking job?”
The shotgun landed hard on Eames' groin, and Arthur heard the grunt of pain as Eames closed his eyes. Arthur could feel him holding himself together, trying not to panic. Eames had no leverage, no way to move, nothing to defend himself with ... except Arthur, hanging haphazardly off a steel beam twenty-five feet above him without a halfway decent shot.
He fired anyway, and kept firing everything in the clip even as he felt the last of his strength go out of his legs. Arthur fell.
The bullet must have connected with one of the man's legs given the short spray of blood and curses, the way he pitched forward onto the empty lounger. Arthur saw all of this with a kind of suspended detachment.
The way Eames' lips opened around the word “no,” his eyes wide, a stark terrified blue.
How the wounded dreamer somehow managed to angle the shotgun upward, squeezing the trigger as Arthur came tumbling down on top of him, still firing.
The strange razoring prickle where pieces of shot pierced Arthur's skin as he rushed to meet it, body twisting sideways, face up, face down, like a tossed cat who couldn't quite anticipate the landing.
A vicious thunderclap split the plastic lounger down the middle leaving it white and jagged like the rib cage of some long dead beast, stealing Arthur's breath in the hard slap of concrete and something else.
He thought the floor whimpered beneath him, gone soft and wet and red, but he couldn't be sure it wasn't him.
There was a scream, dopplered in Arthur's ears, loud then gone, and the last echo of Eames' “no!” shouted so long before.
It was the helicopter that filtered through his consciousness finally, the heavy mechanical whirr of blades slicing air, and Arthur was suddenly alive, although he couldn't move.
“That was unexpected,” he said, and it hurt to speak. He realized only when there was silence that his head had been full of voices, both sharp and soothing. He didn't know where he was.
“We're taking you to a hospital,” Dom Cobb whisper-shouted over the helicopter noise. Arthur could feel the vibration of the big machine all around him, and for a moment he thought he was back in the military, but the medic adjusting his oxygen mask was in a British uniform.
“Eames—” Arthur managed with a wheeze, remembering the factory, the shooting, the fall.
“I'm here,” Eames said, sliding into view right beside him, Arthur felt the hand holding his give a quick squeeze, and oh, Eames was there all along because Arthur's hand was warm, didn't even hurt (much). His blue eyes (so beautiful) still looked afraid, but softer, as if something had changed.
“Hi,” Arthur croaked out.
“Hello, darling.” Eames gave a strained laugh, catching his lower lip with his teeth and there were worry marks visible along his bottom lip. He'd been doing that a while.
“Arthur, stay with me,” Eames said, and Arthur nodded because it seemed the thing to do. He could still feel Eames' hand covering his.
His eyes were closing again, Eames and Dom drifting in and out like bad radio reception. When their voices began to fade altogether, he didn't resist.
Arthur marked time with the coming and going of doctors and nurses, the beep of his blood pressure monitor a steady annoyance in the background.
There were no surprises in words like broken ribs, punctured lung, concussion, broken wrist, deep bruising, lacerations. He counted it a minor miracle his back had borne the brunt of the shotgun blast, and the protective layer under his jacket had done its job.
“I can't believe you were wearing fucking body armour,” Eames said, laying his head on the hand he was holding. Arthur knew apologizing for it wasn't the thing to do, but he felt badly all the same for the moments after the fall. “Bloody hell, Arthur, I thought you were dead.”
“Don't say you're sorry, you twat.” Eames raised his eyes in warning. “Not for that. For other things, yeah, okay, but never for that.”
“For the other things then,” he whispered, not sure if Eames heard him, but he must have because he gripped Arthur's hand fiercely, and whispered back, “Me too.”
Arthur was drifting again, but there was forgiveness in the touch of Eames' hand, in the press of lips against Arthur's forehead. Every part of his body hurt in one way or another, but for the first time since this mess had begun, Arthur's heart wasn't aching.
Sometimes it was Dom there when Arthur woke up. He was always sitting in the same uncomfortable chair by the window, making notes on his laptop or reading. The first words out of his mouth were always, “Eames is fine. He'll be back,” which made Arthur wonder how frantically and how many times he'd asked about Eames when he first woke up. He didn't remember.
Ariadne came too, mostly on weekends. She lugged her school work along and sometimes Arthur's recovery room looked like a dorm with library books and papers spread out on the floor. She brought flowers and pastries and Angry Birds. She lent him DVDs he asked for and things she thought he should watch—“Oh, God, Ari, how can there be this many films about Mary Cassatt!”—and sometimes she and Eames would sneak in with popcorn, beer, and some tragically bad action movie, draping themselves over Arthur's bed, and generally making nuisances of themselves.
Arthur loved those nights. They were the only times his life felt almost normal. He wasn't sure what he would have done without the three of them being there. Gone crazy, he suspected. If he'd even survived.
“I've never seen Royal Marines back down that fast,” Dom remarked one day when someone had tried to deny Ariadne access.
“Tiny, but frightening,” Arthur agreed.
Ariadne looked up from the essay she was writing to glare at them both. “I'm taller than both of you inside,” she said. “I don't think you appreciate me enough.”
Arthur noticed the arrival of a personal-sized espresso machine in his room the next day; he didn't need the sticky note on top marked “Ariadne” to know it wasn't for him.
Eames was a constant presence, which made perfect sense since he was still a target. He and Arthur were both well-protected at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, two hours north-west of London, and no one except the necessary military personnel (with the exception of Ariadne and Seamus) knew they were there, or even alive. Dom had been liaising with the British military about their circumstances, and Arthur wasn't sure what Dom had had to promise them, but he was grateful for the care and attention.
No one was naive enough to believe the men Arthur had killed had been the only ones looking for Eames. Rumours spread like infectious disease through the dream community, and Eames was like a piece of shiny new technology. Everyone wanted to take him apart and see how he worked. It was terrifying.
Dom went back to the States for a few weeks (“to make arrangements,” he said, but probably because he was lonely for Mal and the little ones), and Arthur felt stronger every day. He was allowed more freedom of movement, as long as he didn't strain his healing ribs or his lungs, so he and Eames ended up walking the corridors until they knew every twist and curve.
They talked about movies and books, plays they'd seen, people they'd known. Arthur couldn't reach out to his family—it was too dangerous still—but he told Eames stories about his mother and sisters, and sometimes his father too, until his voice would falter with regret and missing them. Then Eames would talk about Seamus and the theatre, what he remembered about his parents, what he missed growing up the way he had. Sometimes they simply sat where the sun was warm on their faces and didn't talk at all. Arthur couldn't say he minded the afternoons when he drifted off, waking up against Eames' broad chest or shoulder (which had healed with barely a scar) with Eames' bewitching eyes taking him in.
It always left Arthur feeling breathless; he didn't know how Eames felt.
Every morning Eames came in with breakfast and every evening he helped Arthur carefully into his hospital bed, mindful of the injuries that would take weeks, maybe months to properly heal. Sometimes Eames stayed and read or watched TV; sometimes Arthur would feel the light touch of lips against his forehead, but Eames never said anything about it and Arthur was afraid to mention it in case Eames stopped.
He didn't know what they were to each other anymore, or if there could be anything between them again. Sometimes at night he lay there and remembered the way Eames had kissed him at the theatre. The heat in his voice when he'd whispered he loved him. He remembered the one night they'd had, only a few hours really, and all the things he'd never gotten to do or say, the things he still wanted with Eames. He'd given up the life he'd known to protect him. He couldn't seem to forget how to love him.
Arthur didn't say anything because he'd rather have these small moments than nothing at all, and he felt he had no right to ask anything of Eames under the circumstances. Their relationship had always been a long shot anyway, but Arthur couldn't help but wish this time they'd beat the odds.
The clock on their time together was running out.
Arthur only knew Cobb had returned when he heard the yelling coming from down the hall. Arthur had a vague sense of where Eames' room was in relation to his; they'd been put in the long-term patients ward with soldiers dealing with PTSD and other serious conditions, both physical and mental. It was quiet, with private rooms and patients that kept to themselves, and Arthur wasn't sure he'd ever heard yelling that wasn't related to someone's nightmare. It was ten in the morning.
He ducked into the hallway, following the now muffled sounds of intense conversation. Someone had closed the door, but if Arthur stood right outside what he assumed was Eames' room he could hear everything fine.
“Calm down,” Cobb was saying evenly in his best military authority voice. “I didn't mean immediately.”
“I will not fucking calm down,” Eames shouted. “Was this always your plan? Leave Arthur behind to deal with this shit by himself? He almost died, and part of that is your fucking fault!”
“He's going to be in here any fucking minute if you don't lower your goddamn voice,” Cobb said, and Arthur didn't have to be in the room to know the two of them were glowering at each other, probably toe to toe. “You have to understand—”
“Round we go again,” Eames said, still angry, but his voice was more controlled. Apparently nobody wanted Arthur to know what was going on. Fuck that, he thought, and kept right on eavesdropping.
“Eames.” Cobb sounded frustrated. Arthur could practically see him tugging a hand through his thick dark blond hair. “Whether you believe me or not, I'm sorry Arthur got hurt. But I have a job to do, and you're in danger until you let me do it. Like it or not, you're a military asset now, and the sooner we get you to the U.S. and start figuring out how you can do what you do in dreams, the safer you'll be.”
“He's safe here, and he's still healing. It's the best place for him until he's fully recovered, Eames.”
“I need to talk to him about this. About a lot of things.” Eames sounded more anxious than Arthur had ever heard him, and Arthur couldn't be sure exactly what Eames was talking about. “I—I can't stop feeling—he's just so bloody thin, you know?”
It wasn't what Arthur was expecting to hear. He hadn't looked in a mirror lately, but he knew he'd lost weight and muscle tone. His skin remained bruised in places, the purple and yellow reminders a stark contrast against his always pale skin.
Cobb sighed. “He's not nearly as fragile as he looks, Eames. Remember that.”
“Fine, but if I leave with you, I need to know he's going to be alright, that he understands.”
“Wait until he's a little stronger, then, but I think you're underestimating him. Arthur knows how these things work.”
Unfortunately, that was entirely too true, and Eames had a right to be cautious. Arthur knew the military was just as likely to screw him over as it was to help him. Yet he'd gone to Dom when he needed help. Desperate times, Arthur supposed, leaning his head against the cool wall beside the closed door.
“You could've warned him, you know, that he might be walking into trouble when he came after me.”
“Arthur's always walking into trouble. I don't know who you think he is, but he's not some boy scout, Eames.” Arthur couldn't help but remember the night they'd spent together; Eames saying he'd probably made a terrific boy scout because he was always prepared. Nothing could have prepared him for any of this.
“We've been over this, Eames,” Cobb said with forced patience. “I didn't know who the leak was, I wasn't even sure there was a leak on our end.”
“You must've had your suspicions when he asked you for help. Why else would you leave immediately for London? You were pretty Johnny-on-the-spot tracking us to the factory, Cobb.”
“Arthur would be dead and you'd still be strapped to a lounge chair if I hadn't been, so don't give me that. It's bullshit, and you know it. Once we had the leak, it wasn't hard to extract their plans for you. Do you honestly think I could've stopped Arthur from going after you even if I'd wanted to?”
“Why can't you just admit you hung him out to dry?”
“It was a calculated risk!”
“Well, I don't like your fucking math!” There was the distinctive sound of something plastic and metal hitting the wall and bouncing off the floor. Arthur thought it sounded like a chair. When Eames spoke again his voice was shaking with emotion. “You're not the one who watched him fall out of the fucking ceiling onto a shotgun blast. I thought he was dead, Cobb. I thought he was—and I couldn't—fuck, I couldn't do anything.”
“You'd done a pretty good job on the chair when we got there. And your wrist.”
Arthur had noticed a wrist brace similar to his own, but Eames had shrugged it off as a bad sprain. “It didn't do any good. I had to listen to him struggle to breathe with a collapsed lung, and I still couldn't—”
“No one blames you.” Cobb's voice was almost kind. “You broke your own wrist getting out of those cuffs, Eames. A few more minutes you would've gotten to him.”
“A few more minutes, he would've been dead.”
“But he isn't, so let it go. Sometimes the cavalry really does show up.”
“The cavalry. Is that what you are?” Eames sounded bitter. “Isn't that kind of rescue a bit hollow when you're the one who threw him to the wolves?”
“You can't let anything go, can you?” Cobb didn't sound upset, though. More like someone resigned to having a conversation he didn't want to have.
“Arthur might trust you, but I fucking don't. You had to know a leak meant forcing the hand of the people who wanted to kill me—ta for that, by the way. I could've done without someone fucking around in my head, trying to make me perform like a bloody dancing bear. And, no offence, but since I've been here you've been just as eager to make me dance as the other guys.”
“But I'm asking nicely.”
“You can walk out that door, Eames,” Cobb said, and he wasn't bluffing. Arthur felt his heart drop. “No one's going to force you to accept protection. I told you we can help, but it goes both ways.”
“I scratch yours, you scratch mine. Yeah, I get that. Believe me, I know my life's not worth shite if I go out there on my own.” Eames' voice dropped low. “Don't think I'm naive, Cobb. You can't afford to have me out there either, maybe figuring out how to market myself to the highest bidder? I'd be dead inside a week, and if it wasn't the dreamers, it'd be your military or mine. Another Arthur hired to pull the trigger.”
Arthur knew it was the truth, but it was hard to hear regardless. He wasn't sure if Eames could forgive him for the secrets, the lies, even if Arthur had done the right thing in the end.
“I know when a choice isn't really a choice, mate. What I don't understand is how you could let someone you claim is your friend walk into that situation without a word of warning. He ended up having to kill six people, Cobb.”
“But they were all bad,” Arthur thought to himself, wondering when his life had become a Schwarzenegger film.
“Arthur's always been more than capable of looking after himself and anyone else he needs to,” Cobb pointed out.
“Oh, fuck you, Cobb.” There was real anger in Eames' voice. “If you think killing those men doesn't weigh on his mind, you don't know Arthur at all.”
“You don't get to judge me. You've known him, what, a few weeks, a month now? I've known him for years, and I think I know better than you what he's capable of.”
“But does he know what you're capable of?” Eames shot back. “See, I know guys like you, I've served with guys like you. Anything for the cause, any sacrifice for the greater good, as long as it's someone else's sacrifice. You knew it was personal for Arthur, you knew he cared about me and you used that.”
Arthur had always known he fell somewhere behind Dom's family, his moral sensibilities, and his work in order of importance. Cobb certainly knew him well enough to deduce that breaking a contract and asking for help were serious things for Arthur. A warning might not have changed the outcome, but he would've stuck to Eames like glue the moment he found him. He wouldn't have wasted time trying to explain; he would've bundled him off to somewhere safe immediately.
“Arthur's been a friend for a long—” Cobb sounded genuinely pissed off, although Arthur didn't think Eames was wrong about Cobb. He wasn't sure they'd ever really been “friends” as such.
“If that's how you treat your friends—”
“Like you've got room to talk,” Cobb said, his voice sharp, and there was the anger Dom tended to downplay, the ugly practical side that was utterly ruthless. Arthur knew it entirely too well. “As if you being here isn't messing with his head. He's in love with you; any idiot can see that except you apparently, and he's not going to stop feeling that way as long as you're in his face every day.”
“I know that.” Eames' voice was softer. Guilty. “I couldn't—he saved my life, Cobb. At least twice. He almost died.”
Arthur felt his heart beating up into his throat. Eames was here because he felt he owed Arthur something, not because he still cared. It was like all the air went out of Arthur's lungs again, the way they had when he'd fallen, his rib punching a hole in his one lung. Arthur hated being the object of pity, even more than he hated being the idiot in love with someone who didn't love him back.
“If you'd listened to me,” Cobb was saying, “if you'd left that night when we pulled you both out, this would've been much simpler.”
“For you, yeah,” Eames said. “Not for me, not for Arthur. It's never going to be simple for us.”
As he shifted away from the door and around the corner, Arthur couldn't help but fear Eames was right.
Two days later, Arthur woke to the sound of weapons fire in the corridors. He was up and out the door before he was fully awake only to be stopped by the bulk of a Royal Marine who towered over him, wearing gear that probably weighed as much as Arthur.
“Sorry, sir, you need to remain in your room and lock the door. The building's been compromised.”
“Is it Eames? Is he alright?”
“Go back in your room, sir,” the man said, using his sheer mass to force Arthur to step backwards. “You need to stay here until advised that it's safe.”
“Fine,” Arthur said, “but I'm borrowing this.” Arthur held up the man's sidearm, then quickly closed the door and locked it. He really hoped the marine had better things to do than squash him into a paste to get his gun back. He had others, after all, while Arthur hadn't been allowed any, which seemed vastly unfair. When the door remained intact thirty seconds later, Arthur breathed a sigh of relief and checked his new handgun. SIG Sauer P226, fully-loaded and one in the clip. Arthur felt like he'd won the lottery.
If the windows had opened, he would've chanced the ledge to Eames' room. As it was, Arthur supposed there was probably a good reason the windows were sealed and bullet-proofed. Luckily, all those hours he'd been stuck in his room recuperating hadn't been an entire waste, he planned to say “I told you so,” to Ariadne at the first possible opportunity.
“Why do you want the hospital blueprints?” she'd asked, skeptical. “This isn't The Great Escape, you know. They will actually let you leave if you insist, although you'd be a colossal idiot.” She'd looked at Arthur with such suspicion, he'd promised her it was just a precaution. So, she'd found them for him, made copies, and dumped them on his sickbed. “If I hear anything about a tunnel, I'm never doing you another favour. Ever.” Arthur had studied the hospital's blueprints with a degree of concentration only afforded to the extremely bored and those under house-arrest.
Extracting the nail-file from his kit, Arthur quickly climbed on a chair and undid the four screws that held the small ventilation screen in place. It took longer to remove the second layer of screening, the one that actually opened into the duct system, but once Arthur had cleared the entrance, it was easy work to pull himself up and into the vent.
His newly-healed ribs protested about the slide through metal air ducts, but Arthur knew the route was relatively straight and level, with only one right-angle corner to navigate. Ten minutes later, he kicked out the screen in Eames' room and almost got a bullet in the leg for his trouble.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Arthur!” Eames said, tucking the gun into the waistband of his pants. It was identical to the one Arthur had cribbed. “One of these days I'm going to actually fucking shoot you when you do that.”
He kicked the room's chair across to the vent, and watched as Arthur emerged, grinning and dusty.
“You wouldn't look so bloody cocky if I'd shot you in the leg,” Eames pointed out, but he reached a hand up to Arthur and helped him down from the chair anyway.
“Are you okay?” Arthur asked, and Eames shook his head, laughing. “Funny you should ask.”
He pointed at the window, which was a mosaic of cracks spreading out from several points of impact.
“Shit,” Arthur said, taking it in. “Thank God for bullet-proof glass, I suppose.”
“Quite,” Eames agreed, picking a neutral piece of wall and sliding to the floor. He looked pale and a little scared, and Arthur remembered Eames had been an actor longer than he'd been a soldier, and none of this was normal for him. Arthur settled down beside him.
Maybe it was the shock of such a direct assault, or maybe it was because Arthur knew this would mean Eames would have no choice but to leave with Cobb, but he didn't feel like trying to do the right thing anymore. He wasn't even sure he knew what that was. He reached across and took Eames' hand, tangling their fingers together.
“I'm fine,” Eames said, his eyes on their entwined hands.
“Maybe I'm not.”
“Are you kidding me? I've seen you in action, remember?”
Arthur couldn't help but wince. “I honestly wish you hadn't.”
“You saved my life.” Eames gave Arthur's hand a squeeze. “I'm not sure I ever said thank you for that.”
Arthur leaned his head back against the wall, and sighed. He didn't want Eames' gratitude or guilt or pity. He wanted the guy who'd made him laugh, who'd blown him away with his talents, who looked at him and touched him and made him feel cherished.
“Look, Eames,” Arthur said, voice quiet. “You don't have to thank me. You wouldn't have been in that mess except for me, so—”
“Is that what you think? Arthur, none of this would've happened if I hadn't helped Yusuf's 'friends' out. The money was ... I should've known it was sketchy, but I did it on a lark. I mean, fuck, who knew you could waltz around in people's dreams? That's what started all this; you got caught in the middle of it as much as I did.” Eames tugged on his hand until Arthur looked up. “I'm sorry you met me like this.”
Eames looked at him as if to say, “really?” and Arthur backpedalled. “I mean, I'm not sorry I met you. I—I couldn't be sorry about that, Eames. I'm sorry I thought about killing you.”
“I'm glad you didn't actually go through with it,” Eames agreed. “Especially now I know you're actually—”
“A killer?” Arthur started to pull away. He really hated what he'd become, and since he'd met Eames, he couldn't look at it the same way any more. He had no idea what he was going to do with the rest of his life now. No one had really covered second careers for retired assassins; usually none of them lived long enough, and Arthur knew it was possible he wouldn't have to worry about it either.
“No. No, Arthur, don't do that. Fuck, I know you were doing what you had to do. Don't you think I feel like shit for putting you in that situation?”
“No, listen to me.” Eames tightened his grip on Arthur's hand and reached out with the other to cup Arthur's face. “Yeah, I was angry and hurt. It was hard not to think you'd gotten close to me just to ...”
Eames made a slicing notion across his neck. Arthur winced. “I didn't need to get close to you for that.”
“Well, I know that now,” Eames said with annoyance. “I fell for you. Hard. And faster than I've ever fallen, and then you turned out to be something completely different—”
“A week isn't really enough time to learn all those little details. Like who's an assassin. Who's recently set dream-work on its ass.”
Eames laughed in spite of the tension. “The point is that I don't want you to feel like you owe me something because you didn't actually shoot me. You've already given up everything to save me, Arthur. Twice, at least. God, you almost died in that fucking—”
Arthur shushed him. He didn't particularly like to think about it either. “And I don't want you here because you feel guilty about that. I make my own choices, Eames. I didn't break that contract because I felt bad about it—believe me, you develop a Teflon conscience pretty fast—and I didn't come after you because of any debt. I—I still have feelings for you.” Arthur stumbled on the words. “I've never really felt like this, and—and the only thing I was thinking about was completely selfish. I wanted you. I wanted you to keep astounding people with your acting, and making people laugh, making me laugh.”
Arthur hazarded a glance at Eames' face, the stunned realization in those too-blue eyes, and Arthur suddenly didn't care about any of the mistakes they'd made—either of them. He was desperately in love with this man that Cobb was going to spirit away for his own safety, and he didn't want it to end with Eames thinking he'd been settling a debt.
“We've been so fucking stupid,” Eames whispered, and Arthur knew they were back on the same page, when Eames released his hand and grabbed his face with both large hands. “I thought—it doesn't matter what I thought. It matters that I can't stop thinking about how good we are together, and how all this time, I just wanted one more chance to make it right with you.”
“Then shut up and kiss me,” Arthur said, delighted when Eames did exactly that. There was none of the caution Eames had shown since Arthur'd been hurt. Arthur was so glad to be treated normally, he surged forward, still kissing Eames, and Eames laughed against his mouth, taking Arthur's weight as he pushed and letting it tumble them backwards, so that Eames was on his back, dragging Arthur on top of him.
“I missed you,” Eames said. Arthur knew exactly what he meant. They'd both been holding back so much, misreading the other's motivations, trying to pretend none of it mattered. But it did. It mattered more than anything Arthur had ever known.
“Don't let me hurt you,” Eames whispered even as he rolled them over, cradling Arthur's head in one palm. With Eames' weight above him, pressing warmly down against him, Arthur couldn't bring himself to care that the floor was hard or his ribs ached or—
Eames' warmth was gone as quickly as it had come, and Arthur sat up, dismayed to see Eames sitting back on his knees with a look of exasperation.
“What part of 'don't let me hurt you' didn't you comprehend?”
Arthur stared at him blankly. “I don't—”
By now the eye roll was familiar. “You're breathing like a rusty pipe and holding your ribs.”
Arthur glanced down to see he did, indeed, have a hand on his own ribcage. Huh. “I thought you meant metaphorically. You know, 'don't let me hurt you' ... metaphorically.”
“You're in the hospital recovering from multiple traumatic injuries, and you think I meant it metaphorically?” Eames shook his head. “You're an idiot.”
“Does this mean the kissing part is over?” Arthur didn't bother to hide his frustration.
“No,” Eames said, getting to his feet before helping Arthur off the floor. He collected both their guns, made sure the safeties were on, and laid them on the table beside the bed, which Arthur noted wasn't a hospital bed like his, but a normal, not quite double size mattress. “It means, we move this somewhere more comfortable, and you stay on top where I can't crush the life out of you.”
“It wouldn't be a bad way to go.”
“I don't want you to go at all.” Eames leaned in and kissed him again, more gently than before. “I just got you back.”
“I'm right here,” Arthur said, meeting Eames' eyes. He didn't even protest when Eames led him to the bed, carefully making sure Arthur was comfortable before he'd kiss him again.
“I know that was difficult for you.” Eames grinned, even as he nuzzled at Arthur's neck. “Your compliance will be rewarded.”
Arthur laughed. If it made Eames smile like that, Arthur could put up with a little cautious man-handling. He kept one ear out for trouble in the hallway, but everything seemed quiet now; it was probably only a matter of minutes before someone came to check on them. Or on Eames, since Arthur wasn't supposed to be here.
Eames sighed loudly, a terribly put-out sounding sigh that made Arthur pull back to look at him. “What's your problem?”
“Apparently my technique is faulty,” Eames supplied. “You're distracted.”
“Only a little. Someone did try to shoot through your window with several high-calibre rounds, you remember? You haven't forgotten the hospital's in lock-down, right?”
“I know,” Eames said, worry creeping back into his voice. “I was trying to forget about that.”
“So, forget about it,” Arthur said, crawling carefully on top of Eames and feeling his hands settle on Arthur's hips. “Let me worry about it for the moment, okay?” He touched Eames' face, tracing the line of his nose, the rough stubbled edge of his jaw, before leaning down to kiss him, putting everything he didn't know how to say into the press of his lips, the slightest flick of his tongue.
Eames' response told Arthur everything he needed to know. They were going to be alright.
Cobb came for them a little less than twenty minutes later.
“I see you two have made up.”
Eames glared, straightening his shirt, while Arthur tried not to look like they'd been making out for the last half hour. He gestured at the veined window pane. “Did you get him?”
“Them,” Cobb said. “Abduction team. We're trying to pin down who hired them, but so far no one's talking.”
“Anyone hurt?” Eames asked, as if he didn't want to know the answer.
“Minor casualties on their side, none on ours.” Cobb's eyes settled on the two handguns sitting on the table. “There are two relatively pissed off Royal Marines, though, who'd like their sidearms returned, and you ...” Cobb pointed at Arthur.
“You might want to include a bottle of something because your guard not only refrained from kicking in your door and taking back his weapon, but when he saw you were missing and the vent had been popped, had to be physically restrained from going in after you.”
Arthur felt his jaw drop. “There's no way he would've fit.”
“He was going to try.” Cobb was tapping his foot, a sure sign he was well and truly angry. “He thought you'd been taken by force. He doesn't know you like I do.”
Arthur swallowed awkwardly. “I'll get him something really nice.”
“You do that.”
Eames looked back and forth between the two of them. “So what happens now?”
“We move you,” Cobb said. “No more excuses, no more delays. It's not safe here anymore. There's a C-130 Hercules fuelling up at RAF Shawbury to take us to the States.”
“I have to—”
Cobb cut him off. “Mr. Eames, I realize you're a civilian and this is new to you.”
“Don't patronize me, Cobb. You know damn well I was SAS. We'll get on the damn plane.”
Arthur wasn't the only one who registered the “we,” and Arthur knew no one had bothered to explain to Eames how this deal was going to work. Arthur felt reality kick in and wished they hadn't wasted so much time trying to give the other person an out when neither of them wanted it.
“There's no 'we' here. Your skills and knowledge are a valuable asset to allied military researchers, and because of that we will provide you with the highest level of protection, but you're going to have to do it our way or you're going to get yourself and a lot of other people killed.”
Eames flushed, prickly with embarrassment. “What about Arthur?”
“Although we appreciate Arthur's service in protecting your life and we'll ensure he receives the best care available until he's recovered from his injuries, there's nothing further we can offer an assassin for hire. I thought I made that clear.”
“No, you bloody well didn't make that clear,” Eames protested, looking torn between outrage and the bitter realization there was nothing he could do. “You never intended to help us both.”
“No,” Cobb said frankly, though when he looked at Arthur there was a flash of regret in his eyes. “I cautioned you not to get involved, that it would only make it more difficult in the long run, but you wouldn't listen.”
Eames clenched his fists at his side, and Arthur lay a hand lightly on Eames' back.
“You knew, didn't you? You knew they wouldn't protect you. Why did you—”
Arthur turned Eames to face him, ignoring Cobb's stifling presence in the room. “Because I couldn't protect you from this. It's so much bigger than we are, but as long as you're safe—”
“And what about you? There are people out there who want you dead too.”
Arthur forced himself to smile. “Yeah, but mostly they're incompetent.”
“It's not funny, Arthur.”
“I'm not joking, Eames. There are very few people who do what I do and do it well, but there are a lot of people who give it a shot, no pun intended. Right now, people are jockeying for position, trying to get ahead by taking out someone at the top.” Arthur knew it sounded immodest, but it was true. “The people I work for probably don't really want me dead, but they can't ignore what I did either. I'll make amends, the bounty will disappear, life will go on as usual.”
“Your life isn't usual.”
“I know, but trust me. Generally speaking, no one with half a chance is going to get close to me.”
“At the pub—”
“Oh, please.” Arthur rolled his eyes. “That was a nuisance, not a real threat.”
“And the man in grey?”
“Believe it or not, some of us are professionals. You don't take a hit on a colleague because someday you're going to mess something up and everyone deserves a second chance.”
“This is heart-warming, really,” Cobb interrupted, “but we have to go.”
Eames grabbed onto Arthur's forearms and held on. “You know Cobb, you know where I'll be. When you're safe, you can find me.”
Arthur shook his head. “Eames, they're going to take you off the grid. New identity, new everything. It's the only way you'll ever be able to have a normal life when this is done.”
“I just got you back.”
Arthur heard the door close and was glad Cobb had taken his leave. It would only be a few minutes, but it would have to be enough.
“Listen, Eames.” Arthur pulled him in. “I knew this was the deal from the start. Cobb's hands are tied because of who I am, what I've done.”
“I don't like him.”
“You don't have to. But let him help you. Please,” Arthur pleaded. “The only way to protect you is if you're not the only person who can learn to 'transform themselves' in dreams.”
“I like to think of it as 'forging,'” Eames said. “It's a near-perfect copy, but it's still a copy. There's always the chance the mind will catch on, that something—a word choice, a movement—will give you away. That the audience will stop believing the story you're telling, and then you've lost them. It's—I've been trying to show Cobb what I do, and it's like the best acting gig I've ever had. I feel like I was born to do this.”
“You were,” Arthur agreed. “You know Cobb's already been looking to recruit actors, anyone that might have an affinity for that level of creative transformation. My mind's always been too logical for that. You'd find it boring.”
“I doubt that very much, Arthur.” Eames wrapped his arms around him and held him close. “I never intended to leave you. Not like this.”
“I know. I heard you and Cobb arguing that day.”
Eames looked surprised. “It was right after Cobb came back that you started pushing me away. For a while, I thought maybe you and Cobb ...”
Arthur shook his head vehemently. “No, no way. But I don't want to talk about Cobb. He's going to be back any minute and you'll have to—”
Eames darted in and kissed Arthur, catching him with his mouth slightly open, no longer tender, but passionate. The kiss got harder, deeper, as if they'd both finally realized they were saying good-bye, and by the time the knock came, the two of them were pressed in a tense embrace, still kissing, trying to memorize every detail.
“I can't believe this is—I don't want to leave you, Arthur.”
“You have to.” Arthur gripped the back of Eames' neck with one solid hand, holding him close enough and tight enough every rib ached, but Arthur didn't care. “But don't ever think I don't love you.”
Eames let out a frustrated sound, kissing Arthur again. “I'll find you, or you'll find me. This isn't going to be the end, Arthur, I swear to God.”
“I mean it, darling. My darling Arthur. “ Eames buried his hands in Arthur's dark hair and leaned their foreheads together. “When this is done, when there are so many dream forgers it won't seem worth killing over—”
The door opened a fraction, Cobb clearing his throat in an attempt at subtlety. Arthur hated him a little at that moment. Then Eames was kissing him again, deep and raw, so hard Arthur felt bruised inside and out, but he gave back as good as he got until he had no more air in his lungs.
“Breathe, Arthur,” Eames said through a fond smile, cradling Arthur's cheeks. “Breathe.”
“I am,” Arthur gasped out. “Metaphorically.”
“It's time,” Cobb interjected, his patience wearing thin. “Someone will collect your things from here and your residence, but we have to leave now. The corporation that abduction team was working for are a nasty piece of work. We can't risk another attempt.”
“Go,” Arthur said. “Go, Eames.”
Eames stared at him for a long moment, eyes a cloudy sea, and then with a quick nod he hugged Arthur hard, kissing his temple firmly as he pulled away. “Stay safe, love. I'll find you. When this is over and done.”
Arthur nodded. They both knew it wouldn't happen. They'd had their time together, and their lives would go on. It had been a one in a million chance anyway—their meeting, the way their lives had twined—and though Arthur always favoured the long shot, he wasn't a strong believer in happy endings.
Eames turned and strode past Cobb, his shoulders blocking the door for an instant, and Arthur wanted to haul him back, beg him not to leave. Instead he stood his ground, telling himself to be grateful. Eames would be safe and that was all that really mattered.
“For what it's worth, Arthur,” Cobb said, and he sounded genuine, more like himself and less like an intelligence officer. Maybe that was why Arthur still (mostly) trusted him. “I'm sorry things happened this way.”
“Keep him safe,” Arthur said.
There really wasn't anything left to say.
... earlier today. The cause is not yet known, but domestic terrorism has not been ruled out. Again, ITV is reporting the crash of a U.S. military aircraft that left RAF Shawbury, 55 miles northwest of Birmingham in North Shropshire in the early afternoon. The C-130 Hercules, bound for America, had just taken off from a routine fuel stop. A spokesperson for RAF Shawbury confirmed the large cargo plane was carrying a crew of seven, as well as two passengers and several thousand pounds of freight. There were no survivors.
This reporter has just learned that controversial London theatre sensation, Clement Eames, known by his fans as simply “Eames,” was aboard the transport plane when it crashed. Eames, who had not been seen in public since his last performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest” was marred by tragedy, leaves no family to mourn his passing, although undoubtedly his loss will be felt by the arts community and patrons of the arts for years to come. I'm Lucy Dun—”
Arthur stared at the television screen in disbelief. There was the still smouldering wreckage of a large aircraft, and Eames' cast picture from the play stuck in the corner of the screen like an over-sized postage stamp.
Two years later
Arthur put down the newspaper and pulled his Glock the instant he heard a footstep outside the hotel room door. The key card buzzed and Dom stepped in looking harried. He noticed Arthur sitting placidly with the gun aimed at the door.
“Are you ever going to stop being paranoid?”
Arthur settled the gun back in his jacket, smoothing down the line of his suit. “The day I stop being paranoid is the day we're both dead.”
“Yeah, well, I think I lined up an architect for this job.”
“His name's Nash.” Dom stopped at Arthur's icy glare. “What?”
“I knew a guy named Nash. I put three bullets in him.” Arthur hadn't thought about him in a long time. He tried to concentrate on the present these days. On staying alive and one step ahead of the competition.
“Dead or just pissed-off and wounded?”
“Okay, then. It's probably just a coincidence. I'm sure he's no relation.”
“Give me the file; I'll check him out,” Arthur said knowing the “file” was going to be a coffee-stained scrap of blueprint with a half-legible name and phone number on it.
There were days Arthur hated working with Cobb. It was hard to believe over a year had passed since Mal had died from dreaming too deep, and almost as long since Dom had buggered off from the military with a PASIV and an unhealthy amount of guilt.
“Thanks, Arthur. You're the best.” Dom clapped him on the shoulder, dropping his phone into Arthur's lap. “There's a picture of him on there with his info. See, I listen?”
Dom staggered into the suite's bedroom, exhaustion clear in his every movement. When the door shut, Arthur pretended not to hear the click of the PASIV's case being opened, or the tell-tale whirr as it started. He wasn't Dom's keeper, after all. There were days he wasn't even sure he liked the guy, though he'd learned to trust him. It wasn't as if Dom made any real secret about spending time in the dream with his dead wife. Arthur routinely spent hours in a dream with various kinds of weaponry, mastering every variable. To each his own. It wasn't his place to judge.
It was only three in the afternoon, but Arthur needed the scotch. He poured himself a healthy dose, then added a slug more. He rarely indulged, but thinking about Nash meant thinking about Eames, and Arthur thought he needed a drink for that.
He sat down with his glass, swirling the liquid until the peaty scent reached his nostrils. Seamus had started him on a dangerous path, Arthur knew. He'd grown accustomed to strong Irish whiskey. Sometimes he wondered how the old man was doing. If he kept the same rifle behind the bar at the Brandywine Tavern. If he still grieved for Eames.
The thing is, Arthur knew Eames wasn't dead. Now. Back then, he'd mourned along with everyone else, drinking too much of Seamus' whiskey and reminding himself he'd only known Eames a matter of weeks. Losing him shouldn't have hurt so much, but it did.
“You loved him, Arthur,” Ariadne had said, face awash with tears. “It doesn't matter how long you were together. I didn't know him half as well, and I miss him too.”
Everything in England had reminded Arthur of Eames. He moved back to the States. Spent some time at home with his mom, his sisters. He never told them he'd lost someone important, but they seemed to know anyway, gathering him into their lives and making him feel at home again.
But then Cobb had appeared in the night like a ghost and Arthur had followed after him because if Cobb was alive, maybe Eames was too. And he was. Or at least he had been when Cobb had last seen him.
The scotch burned in a pleasant way, making the world feel a little mellower, a little less cold.
Looking back, Arthur probably should've known the crash was a cover, but he'd been too busy aching with loss to consider what a bastard Cobb could be until he was there, desperate and alone, asking for Arthur's help, and Arthur couldn't turn him away because somewhere out there Eames was still alive, and maybe, just maybe, Cobb knew where.
But Arthur didn't have all the facts—this was Cobb, after all—and so he learned Mal was dead and Cobb was running before Arthur ever knew Eames had been spirited away.
Dom had seemed to think Arthur might understand the kind of love he and Mal had shared, but he didn't. What he and Eames had was a spark. A comet. A brief moment of light and intensity that was gone before you realized. Dom and Mal were something else entirely. Arthur remembered how they'd been when he'd first known the two of them—brilliant and passionate, always pushing each other like life was a game with only one winner.
No, Arthur didn't understand what Cobb was going through, but he considered Phillipa and James, of how many ways their young lives were already damaged and how much they'd already lost. Arthur knew losing a father—whether a good one or not—was still a loss, and the children had already mourned their mother.
And he thought about Eames out there somewhere, too important to trust to one man or one country, and the military had made him a ghost. He didn't exist in official channels and unofficial channels were unreliable at best. Dream-work grew and changed, dove deeper into the recesses of the mind, threw ethics out the window. There were rumours of men who could change themselves into anything in a dream. Who could become whatever you needed. They all seemed to be named Eames, like dream-sharing was some fucked-up version of Spartacus, though none was ever really him.
The first few Eameses died. They popped their head up like ducks in a shooting gallery and got dead for their trouble. The military didn't like to share and the dream community had a long memory. It held its grudges like a strap between its teeth. Soon, forgers were as numerous as architects and chemists, and it was too confusing, not to mention dangerous, to call them all Eames. But sometimes an Eames (or an Ames, or an Eems) would surface, and every time Arthur felt a surge of hope until he dug deeper and discovered it was only an ugly duckling masquerading as a swan.
There was only one Eames, and he never surfaced.
And life went on.
Arthur turned on Dom's phone and searched for the picture of Nash. He was young and kind of greasy-looking, but Arthur couldn't find any connection between Dom's new architect and the man Arthur had known as Nash. It wasn't as if they were all using their real names, anyway. Arthur was always Arthur to the people who knew him well, no matter what his current ID said.
He made a few calls between savoring the scotch. Nash's references were middle of the road. He wasn't brilliant, he wasn't terrible, he could hold two layers together easily, and though no one was giving him a gold star, they weren't waving Arthur off either. It looked like they had an architect for the job Cobol wanted done. Arthur was relieved. He didn't like this job, had tried to talk Dom out of it, but now that they were committed, he wanted it over and done.
Cobb opened the bedroom door, derailing Arthur's train of thought. He looked better. It was too much to hope that he'd gotten some unassisted sleep, but at this point, Arthur considered any rest a step in the right direction. They'd both been pushing themselves for over a year now, and the strain was starting to show.
“You check out Nash?”
“No surprises. He'll do.”
“Good, good,” Cobb said. “So, let's talk about Cobol. I've got an idea of how we can approach Saito.”
Arthur hated Cobb's plans. Even the ones where he thought he knew every minute detail, something managed to fuck it up. Cobb's dead wife's projection. Nash's inability to duplicate expensive carpet. It wasn't the first time Arthur'd been shot in the kneecap in a dream, but the pain from that particular dream-injury seemed to linger the way head shots didn't. He knew it was psychological, but it didn't stop him from wincing the first time he put weight on it afterwards.
Now Dom wanted to try Inception.
It wasn't enough to make a deal with the devil, Arthur supposed, if the stakes weren't high.
“It won't work,” Arthur said when they left Saito. Arthur was surprised to be walking away at all, if he was honest. The trouble was that Dom was pinning all his hopes on being able to achieve the impossible, and Arthur had no doubt Saito could deliver on his promises. Unfortunately, if they failed, they'd probably never live to see the light of day.
“It'll work,” Cobb insisted. “We just need the right people, the right motivation.”
“I'm picking the architect this time,” Arthur said. “We'll work out of Paris. She's young and brilliant. She'll need some training in specifics—opticals, trapdoors, and such—but we can trust her, and I'm not working with anyone we can't trust on this. The risk is too great.”
“Fine, fine,” Cobb said. He was looking distracted, the way he always did around this time of day, and Arthur figured he might as well call Ariadne and see if she was interested before he flew all the way to Paris. Dom would be “asleep” for at least a half hour.
Cobb stood up and headed for his room. Saito was bankrolling, so Arthur figured they could take the liberty of two rooms. He could use the break.
Just as Dom reached the door, he stopped. “I've got a line on a forger. He's supposed to be—”
“He's supposed to be good, Arthur. Really good.”
“I don't care if he's the fucking Michelangelo of forging. I said no.”
Dom crossed his arms, the way he always did when he was about to say something he thought was for Arthur's own good. “I don't think we can do this without a forger.”
“I don't think we can do this at all, Dom, but you never listen to me.”
“Look, I know this is hard for you—”
“Bullshit. If you cared at all about what was hard for me, we wouldn't be in this situation.” Arthur held back from saying, And I never would've lost Eames, but only barely. “I get that your kids are your life, Dom. I'll help. But this is the last job I'm doing with you. I can't live like this anymore.”
Dom didn't argue with him, which Arthur should have realized was a bad sign, but he was too angry and wound up to be paying enough attention. He closed the door and locked it. He called Ariadne, and let her enthusiasm buoy him along while they caught up. She agreed to the job, then listened to him rant about Dom while he drank the minibar.
“I fucking hate my life,” Arthur said at last, when all the little bottles were empty. He was tempted to line them up in a row on the edge of the balcony and see how much his aim was off, but he knew they hated it when you shot things in a five-star hotel.
“Hey, no shooting things!” Ariadne's voice seemed far away, and Arthur realized the phone had slipped. He slithered down to where he could lay his ear on top of it. “Arthur? Are you still there?”
Ariadne giggled. “You're wasted, you know. And it didn't even take much if you only drank what you said you did.”
Arthur nodded, forgetting Ariadne couldn't see him nod. “Scout's honor,” he said, then choked on a sob that came out of nowhere. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He screwed his hands up and rubbed his eyes until he was seeing spots.
“I miss him too,” Ariadne said, her voice sad. “Come to Paris, Arthur. Come and take me out for decent wine and terrible pizza. Dance me down the Champ de Mars, and help me count the lights on Le Tour Eiffel.” Her accent was a bit flat, but improving, and Arthur told her so.
“Flatterer! Call me when you're set up, Arthur. I'll be waiting.”
Arthur tugged the phone out from under his ear, and snapped it shut. He crawled onto the couch and lay there, thinking of Paris and Ariadne and Eames.
Maybe it was time to move on.
The morning sun wasn't kind to Arthur, and he got the cord for the blinds tangled around his arm before he ever managed to get them closed.
“Servants of evil,” Arthur said, waving a finger in the general direction of the line of little bottles. There were a lot of them, more than he remembered. He vaguely recalled making some sort of decision last night, but he needed a shower and a clean set of clothes before he could face anyone, especially Dom. Arthur found he always needed to be his most controlled around Dom; either that, or one day he was going to snap and kill him, dream or not.
When Arthur stepped next door to update Dom on Ariadne joining the team, all he found was a note.
We can't do this without a forger. I've got a line on a good one in Africa. Possibly a chemist too. Will meet you in Paris in a few days. —Dom
Arthur crumpled the paper into a ball, walked back to his room and threw it off the balcony. Then he lined up every tiny bottle and shot them to pieces one at a time.
He was checking out anyway.
The warehouse in Paris was spacious and light, and Arthur had managed to rent it for a reasonable amount. It had lived through various incarnations and each set of renters seemed to have left something behind. It made assembling work areas relatively easy, and Arthur went to work arranging tables and chairs, file cabinets and computers, marking off sections in his head. Chemist, architect, extractor, point. Forger.
He'd never worked with a forger. He remembered the way Eames talked about it, the excitement in his voice when he'd realized he could do something no one else could do, but Arthur had never actually seen anyone do it.
He knew how forging worked in theory, and he understood the principle in relation to the dream, but he honestly didn't know what a forger might need in terms of real-world supplies. He hoped the guy was at least as good as Dom seemed to think because no one here was going to be able to help him if he wasn't.
Ariadne arrived and settled into the space quickly. As promised, Arthur took her for pizza and they drank good wine. During the day, he introduced her to Penrose Stairs and other shortcuts that would make her work easier. At night, they walked arm in arm underneath the Eiffel Tower, and Arthur was glad for her presence. Maybe he could be happy again.
Ariadne was easy to be around, and she mentioned Eames carelessly, without worrying whether it might hurt Arthur. It turned out to be a good thing, a necessary thing, because it had been a long time since Arthur had let himself think about Eames for any length, and he still missed him terribly. He realized he'd never really said good-bye, that somewhere deep down he'd been waiting for Eames to walk through the door the way he'd said he would the last time they'd seen each other.
But it had been two years.
Arthur didn't know how much longer he could wait.
The day Cobb was due back Arthur didn't go into the warehouse early as he usually did. He didn't want to go in at all, but he was a professional and he would do his job. But he'd meant it—he and Cobb were through after this one. Arthur needed to take his life back.
He took time picking out his most intimidating suit: a sharp black with a blood red tie. He didn't like working with new people, unknown commodities, and Cobb wasn't always the best judge of character. Arthur wanted them to know who it was they were really working with, and who would fuck them up if they didn't do their jobs and do them well.
He stopped for pastries and coffee, then decided against it. Bringing food to the warehouse would create the wrong atmosphere. This was business and nothing else. These people weren't going to be friends; they wouldn't hang out for drinks after a hard day fighting projections in the dreams. (Except maybe Ariadne.) They would go their separate ways at the end of the job, and that would be that.
Arthur's phone buzzed. A text from Ariadne, which he ignored. For fuck's sake, he was halfway to the warehouse already. Whatever she wanted could wait.
His phone buzzed again. Then it rang.
Arthur picked up, annoyed. “I'm three minutes away, Ariadne.”
“Where the hell have you been? You're never late. You—you should be here.” She sounded upset.
“I had some things to do,” Arthur ventured cautiously. They had code words for when there was trouble. Ariadne hadn't used any of them yet, but there was obviously something wrong. “Is everything okay there?”
“Yes, everything's fine. Just hurry, okay?”
“I'll be right there.”
He picked up his pace and altered his route. There was no way he was walking in the front door after that conversation. He slipped around to the back, pulling off his suit jacket and rolling up his sleeves. He stowed the jacket and his case in the alley underneath a crate he'd left there, and checked his guns.
The back door was still locked, which was a good sign. No forced entry as far as he could see. Maybe he was over-reacting, but he couldn't take the chance. This was his job, after all. Protecting the team.
He opened the lock with his key, then slid the steel door shut without a sound. The sound of mixed voices carried through the open structure, and Arthur eased himself around the edge of a support pillar.
Arthur could see four people. Ariadne looked fine, and Arthur breathed a sigh of relief. Her face was red, and she had a handkerchief clutched in one small hand. Arthur knew Cobb never bothered with a handkerchief, so it must have come from one of the two men whose backs were turned toward Arthur. The dark-haired man addressed something to Ariadne, and Arthur understood her strange reaction now. It was Yusuf, obviously. Arthur had only ever talked to him online that one time, but it was definitely Yusuf.
The other man had to be their forger. He was broad in the shoulders (broader than Eames, his memory supplied), hair a muddy blond, slicked back. He was sporting a greenish linen jacket and what appeared to be a salmon-coloured shirt. Obviously someone who could look however he wanted in a dream didn't give a fuck what he looked like in the real world. Fine. Fashion sense wasn't a prerequisite, although Arthur was absolutely planning to judge him for it.
Ariadne checked her watch. “He should be here by now. I don't know—”
It was time to stop stalling and get it over with. He took a breath and stepped into the open, lowering his gun as he crossed the floor (but not holstering it, not yet, there was something off, something not quite right about)...
The last man turned—they all did, in fact—hearing Arthur's approach, and when Arthur looked at him, there were blue-green eyes smiling back at him from a familiar face.
All the air in Arthur's lungs dried up at once, leaving him breathless, with an ache in his chest like someone had stabbed him. He knew what that felt like.
This had to be a dream.
Arthur's gun swung level with the impostor—forger, Arthur thought—even as the man's hands went up in surprise, and Ariadne stepped towards him shouting, “Arthur, don't.”
“Christ, darling,” not-Eames said, “you and firearms. Nothing's changed.”
“Don't call me that,” Arthur yelled. The safety came off, and now Dom and Yusuf were yelling too, as if louder and more was the way to make a point.
“Arthur,” Ariadne said firmly, and the rest of them—projections, they had to be projections in his mind—shut up and let her take the lead. “Arthur, it's really him.”
Arthur kept the Glock steady, even as he reached the other hand up to feel along his arm. He was used to lucid dreaming. There had to be a needle in his arm, hooked to a PASIV. Someone must have grabbed him in the night, put him under. His mind had supplied people he knew, like Eames, although Arthur wasn't sure what the colour combination of green and pink said about the state of his mind.
Dom recognized the gesture, Arthur's futile search for a needle, the wire. “It isn't there, Arthur, because this isn't a dream. We're all here. Check your totem.”
It was a trick, Arthur was certain. A way to make him expose himself. He slipped his hand into his pocket, found the red die he'd been using as reality's litmus test since Dom had crashed back into his life. It felt the way it always did in reality. He left it in his pocket, not trusting any of his senses.
“It's telling you this is real,” Ariadne said. “Arthur, I almost didn't believe it either, but Dom found him. He found him and brought him back to you.”
Arthur laughed. “Well, that's ironic since Dom took him away from me in the first place. Dom let me think he was dead for months, so you'll have to forgive me if Dom's word maybe isn't enough right now.”
“Fair enough.” The glare not-Eames shot at Dom could've frozen the surface of the sun. He looked angry. The way Eames might really look if any of this was real. Arthur felt a moment of hope.
“Dom's word might be shite, but what about mine then, Arthur?” Not-Eames sounded the way he always had when he was worried, and Arthur felt despair welling up inside him like an underground geyser. If he convinced himself this Eames was real, only to be wrong ... Arthur wasn't sure he could deal with that again.
“I—I don't know who you are. You could be a projection of—of the person I knew. Or a forgery.”
Not-Eames listened to what he was saying seriously. “Alright, Arthur. This wasn't what I'd imagined for when I saw you again, but if you'll please put the gun down—I know it's not your only one—maybe I can help explain. Would you let me do that?”
“Everyone else has to leave,” Arthur instructed.
“No,” Ariadne protested. “Arthur, please believe us.”
“Go on,” not-Eames encouraged. “Arthur's not going to hurt me. If I'm a projection, I'm in his dream, and there's nothing I can do to harm him. Perfectly safe. If I'm a forgery, again, we're in a dream. And if I'm real—” not-Eames paused to look at Arthur, really look at him in the way that seemed to reach inside him and wrap a hand around his heart, “—metaphorically—Arthur knows I'd never hurt him. Not intentionally.”
“He's right,” Dom agreed. “There isn't anything we're going to be able to say to help them with this.” He took Ariadne by the arm and tugged her along. Yusuf needed no encouragement. They were at the door when Dom turned around and spoke. “For once I thought I was doing the right thing, Arthur, bringing him here.”
Then it was the two of them. Alone.
Arthur lowered the gun, but refused to put it down. Not-Eames shrugged. “It doesn't matter.” He looked Arthur up and down, as if he was studying a piece of art. “God, it's good to see you, darling.”
“Old habits. I'll try to refrain.” Not-Eames reached out for a chair. “Do you mind? I have a feeling we might be here a while.”
Arthur nodded assent and eased himself into one of the stray chairs, angling it so he could still see both entrances to the building, as well as the man across from him.
“The problem is this,” not-Eames began. “It's much easier to prove someone is in a dream than to prove they're in reality. Reality's sort of everyone's default, you know? Normal people don't ever question it; they just accept it.”
“Can you prove who you say you are?” Arthur desperately wanted the answer to be “yes,” though he knew it wasn't possible for more reasons than one. He wanted to reach across the space between them and touch the man's face, his lips. He wanted—
“Bloody hell, Arthur, don't look at me like that.” Not-Eames was flushed the same colour as his shirt, and he was biting his lip. It all seemed so familiar, so real. “Not when you can't even say my name. Yeah, I noticed that. I've thought about you every day of the last two years, and when you add up the dream-time, it's much more than that. You have no idea how much restraint it's taking not to step across that imaginary line you've drawn and molest you within an inch of your virtue.”
Arthur let his eyes drop closed. The voice, the cadence, the rhythm of the language. In every way it was Eames.
“You sound the same,” Arthur conceded.
“Of course I sound the—fuck.” Eames (not-Eames) rubbed a hand over his face. “If I sound the way you remember, I must be a projection. If I don't sound the same, I must be a forgery. Are you starting to see the problem here, Arthur?”
He was, but he wanted to be sure. “Tell me something only—only Eames would know.”
Arthur didn't miss the way Eames' grin lit up the room. “No one's ever said my name quite like that, you know? I missed it. I missed you, God, I missed you. You have no idea. It's been like living underground for two years—no contact, no information except what they give me. Talk about fucking with your sense of reality.”
“Right, something only I—Eames would know.”
Arthur waited, watching Eames' face shift minutely as he ran through ideas and discarded them. A slight smile when he thought he'd found something; more lip-biting when nothing seemed to fit.
“It's the same dilemma,” Eames said finally. “If I tell you, for example, that my first glimpse of you was your exquisite arse, you're going to think I'm a projection because you know that story. It could've come from your subconscious, your memories. I could tell you when you fell from the ceiling in that miserable place, I was positive I'd watched you die. You didn't move for the longest time, and all I could do was say your name and pray that you weren't dead.”
“You broke your wrist getting out of the cuffs.”
Eames looked at him oddly. “I don't remember telling you that. I told you it was a sprain. You weren't supposed to—”
“I overheard you and Dom arguing that day.”
“Right. Well, apparently I should've listened to my instincts and popped him one. He never told me he'd let you think that stupid crash was real. I—I've been working all this time. With the US, UK, even Canada. They convinced me in this case it wasn't healthy to be one-of-a-kind so I've been making little forgers—teaching them, actually—please don't think I've been off having fun without you, love—”
“Stop.” It was too late, though, and the word “love” had already slipped out. Arthur felt it resound in him the way a gong gently shakes its housing. And now that he'd heard it—so familiar—he wanted to hear it again.
“Oh, Arthur.” The sympathy in his voice was real, every note true to the Eames Arthur remembered, and yet, not exactly the same, not perfect. It was those minor notes of change, the scar on Eames' eyebrow that hadn't been there before, the discoloured knuckles on his left hand as if he'd been sparring bare-handed, the clothes Arthur would never have imagined him in (or allowed him to wear publicly) in a million years, that were tilting the argument towards reality.
Eames slouched back in the chair, frustration clear. “There's no test for reality, Arthur. There's nothing I can do, nothing I can tell you to prove this is real. If I get it right, I'm a projection. If I get it wrong, I'm a forgery. You know how this works. At some point, you either have to believe me or ... I don't know.”
Arthur considered everything he'd ever learned about dreaming, both from his military training and these last months with Cobb. Dreams operated around sets of rules, it was true, but a lucid dreamer, a self-aware dreamer could change the dream significantly. Arthur closed his eyes and concentrated on changing the warehouse to a maze he'd used before.
“Arthur, are you alright?”
“Shut up.” In his mind's eye, Arthur could see the change taking place, he could build it, but when he opened his eyes, nothing had changed.
“Oh, you're trying to change something. Good. Dream big, I tell my students. I wanted to call them minions, but the military doesn't have a sense of humour. I suppose we already knew that.”
Arthur opened his eyes again to find Eames looking at him fondly, as if he knew it was only a matter of time before Arthur had to arrive at the correct conclusion.
“Nothing, I suppose?” Eames asked, already knowing the answer.
“There's only one other thing I know how to do to test it,” Arthur said, his mind made up.
“Yeah, what's that?”
In one smooth motion, Arthur picked up his Glock from the table and released the safety catch. Then he shoved the gun under his chin, his finger on the trigger.
Just as swiftly as Arthur had moved, Eames lurched forward, grabbing for the gun. Arthur had been expecting him, so it wasn't hard to shift with Eames' momentum, both of them hitting the floor on their knees, the gun awkwardly pressed between them, neither of them letting go. Eames was bulkier, but Arthur had the advantage of the gun in his hand, forcing Eames to get a grip on Arthur's hand rather than the Glock, giving him less leverage.
“Bloody buggering fuck, Arthur,” Eames said, staring at him as if he'd gone mad. There was no mistaking the fear in eyes gone bright blue. Especially not with Eames only inches away. “Don't—I mean it, don't you even think about pulling that—Arthur, it's me. It's me, darling—fuck, I'm sorry.”
Arthur watched his face carefully.
“No, you know what? I'm not sorry at all because I've waited two years to look at your face, to touch you again, and to bloody well call you 'darling' as much as I fucking want.”
Eames was defiant, his hair dishevelled, palms sweating all over Arthur's gun hand, unwilling to give an inch.
“Arthur, my darling Arthur, I called you that the last time I saw you, you remember?” There was a tone of pleading in Eames' voice. “We never got to—I mean, there was only the one night, but I've thought about that, about you, about how much I wanted to take you to bed, to have you on me, and in me, and over me so I didn't crush you like when your ribs were broken.”
There was no smell of greasepaint or cheap cologne, but he smelled like Eames all the same, and gave off the same heat when he was near. Arthur's body recognized him still, wanted him the way it had the entire time Eames had been gone.
“Arthur, please give me the gun. I swear to you, love, this is reality. If you tell me how to prove that to you without pulling this trigger, I'll do it. Anything you need, just please, darling, not like this, not after everything.”
There were tears at the edges of Eames' eyes, and Arthur had to be sure. He shifted the gun minutely upwards from where it was trapped between them. Eames made a frustrated almost growl and laid his head on Arthur's shoulder, effectively put his neck over the barrel of the gun.
“I won't let you do it, Arthur. I didn't come back to watch you die, and if me being here is going to fuck you up, I'll leave. I love you—”
“Eames, I believe you,” Arthur murmured, whisper soft.
“—and I will always love you, but if you need to pull that trigger, you're taking me with you—”
“Eames, I know this is reality.”
From somewhere near Arthur's shoulder he heard Eames breathing hard.
“When did you put the safety back on?”
Arthur took a deep breath, and when he answered, he couldn't quite keep the smile out of his voice. “In the middle of your declaration of love.”
Eames pulled back, taking the gun with him as he went. Arthur let him. He watched as Eames ejected the clip, and popped the shell out of the chamber. He set the gun down somewhere behind him.
“You put the safety back on.” Eames was sitting back on his heels, staring again. “You didn't think maybe that was something I needed to know?"
Arthur let a small smile show. “I didn't want to interrupt.”
Eames started to grin. “You wretched wanker. I put my neck on a loaded weapon for you, and I'll remind you, I didn't know the safety was on. That's a rat bastard thing to do to someone, Arthur.”
“I needed to be sure.”
“I would've told you I love you a thousand times if that's what you needed to convince you, darling,” Eames said, sliding an arm around Arthur's waist and drawing him close. They were both still on their knees. “Because I do, Arthur. Love you. There wasn't a moment that I stopped.”
“It wasn't that.”
“Ah, I see. I think I should be offended by your utter lack of faith. I only recently untangled myself from the military complex, and there wasn't any way to get to you until then. Believe me, I tried, Arthur. I did promise you I'd come back.”
Eames traced the wings of Arthur's shoulder blades with his fingers, relearned the planes of his back, the cradle of his hips.
“There was the small problem of being dead, Eames. It's hard to keep a promise when you're dead.”
“And yet, here I am, love.”
Eames kissed the corners of Arthur's mouth, the tip of his nose. Ridiculous, sweet kisses that were exactly like Eames, and nothing they'd ever had time for. Arthur shivered when Eames' lips brushed his cheek. It had been so long, and it was exactly the same as the way Eames had always touched him: with desire, affection, love. Arthur wanted to melt through the floor.
“When I eventually let you get further than a foot away from me, I'm going to kill Cobb. I'm just letting you know. We'll see how he likes being dead.”
“Are you actually still talking?” Arthur said, annoyed. “Will you just shut up and kiss me already?”
It was unlike their last kiss or their first. This was slow and sweet, tender with regret and two years of aching loneliness that wasn't simply desire, but something deeper. They kissed for a long moment, needing the closeness to make it real. There was no sound but their breaths, and somehow being with Eames, kissing him again, answered a longing Arthur hadn't ever put a name to but he knew Eames would always be it. They fit together inexplicably, as they'd always done, the way nothing and no one in Arthur's life ever had, or ever would again, he suspected.
“Alright, love?” Eames asked. They were both shaking. “Grasp on reality firmly in place?”
“You're not going to let that go for a while, are you?”
“My neck. Loaded gun. I'm never letting that go,” Eames smirked, but his tone was serious underneath. “But please refrain from ever doing that again. My heart can't take it.”
“I had to be sure.”
“And are you?” Eames met his eyes without judgment.
“As much as anyone can ever be.”
“Grand,” Eames said, leaning in to kiss Arthur again, quick and light. “Not to break the moment, darling, but my knees are killing me. Can we please—”
“God, yes,” Arthur said and let Eames haul him to his feet.
Eames kept hold of his hand, and Arthur couldn't bring himself to protest. There were rules for behaving professionally at work, but there was no one around. He could give Eames the fraternization lecture another day. Maybe after they'd successfully fraternized some more. He'd been waiting a hell of a long time—they both had.
“Whatever you're thinking,” Eames said, “I'm all for it.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow at him. “You have no idea what I'm thinking.”
“It doesn't matter. I know I'll like it.”
“How could you possibly—?”
Eames linked their fingers together and pulled him towards the exit. “Your ears turn ever so slightly pink when you think about sex.”
“They do not!” Arthur protested, knowing his face was flushing even as he said it.
“A-ha!” Eames crowed. “So you were thinking about sex!”
“I didn't say it was with you.”
“Oh, Arthur.” Eames clutched his chest with his free hand. “You wound me to the quick.”
“You know, it's probably a good thing Cobb killed your stage career. That kind of performance would just be embarrassing for everyone.”
“I'll show you a performance.” Eames turned more quickly than Arthur was expecting, and leaned him over in a deep dip.
“Let me up; we're attracting attention.”
“It's the City of Love, Arthur,” Eames said, smiling coyly at everyone passing by while still refusing to let Arthur up.
“It's the City of Lights, you oaf. Let me up.”
“It can be both, Arthur. Stop being so bloody literal-minded.”
Eames tipped him back onto his feet, but not before he'd kissed him again. Arthur was flushed and breathless, the slightest bit embarrassed, and stupidly happy.
“Come home with me,” Arthur said, surprisingly himself and Eames too if the look on his face was anything to go by.
“We don't have to—we can take things slow, Arthur. It's been two years. I don't expect you to—”
“Eames,” Arthur said, frowning. “Let's try that again, okay? Come home with me.”
“Of course, darling. I thought you'd never ask.”