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The ground shakes below him as Eames descends the stairs, and he glances around and then up at the sky, wondering whether the disturbance is in the dream or up on top. He thinks it feels closer, like the dream is unstable.

He frowns and cuts down an alleyway at the foot of the staircase, looking for their Point Man. Cobb and Ariadne are successfully with the mark, waiting to steal all of his precious secrets right out from under their nose. Arthur, on the other hand, had the much harder job of distracting the partially militarised sub-conscious of the mark, drawing attention to himself and generally causing a ruckus to make the projections follow him rather than looking too closely at the business people in the office block where Cobb, Ariadne and Eames were gaining access.

The streets are silent as he cuts between them, glancing this way and that and looking for any sign of fighting. Some projections look warily at him, but he acts as naturally as he can and they look away quickly enough. If he doesn’t look like a threat, they won’t come for him, and hopefully they only think Arthur is the one breaking into to their owner’s mind.

The distant sound of gunshots catches his attention, and he turns towards them, picking up his pace without looking too out of place. Some of the other projections around him start to move with him, and he discreetly unholsters his gun under his jacket. Just in case things get nasty.

He breaks away from the projections as the gunshots get louder. They’re sporadic, separated by long stretches of time, and Eames wonders yet again why Arthur never dreams something up with a little more flare than a pistol. He crouches behind some crates in an alley, and glances over them, finding a hoard of projections trying to break into what looks like a deserted warehouse. As he watches, bullets fly out of a small smash in one of the windows, and two projections go down, only to be replaced by more. It looks like Arthur’s rather out of his depth. The dream shudders again.

He loops back out of the alley, mentally drawing a map of the dreamscape in his mind as he tries to get to the back of the warehouse. He’s in luck, the projections are more pre-occupied with Arthur shooting at them than trying to break into the building, and the other entrance to the warehouse is abandoned. He ducks inside, and follows the gunshots. There aren’t many of them, which surprises Eames considering the number of projections trying to get in; if they managed to break down the door, Arthur would be done for.

The confusion dies in his mind however, when he rounds a corner and finds Arthur’s position. He’s propped up on some disused furniture that are covered in dust sheets, which enables him to be high enough to shoot out of the window, but Eames also suspects are the only things keeping him upright.

The front of his shirt is covered in blood. One hand is clutched over the side of his chest, clearly trying to exert ineffectual pressure on a wound, and the other has a white-knuckled grip on his gun as he tries to aim and fire with a surprisingly steady arm. Eames can see that his teeth are gritted tight from here.

Eames breaks into a run the next second, and Arthur whips his head towards him at the sound of footsteps, gun flying around to aim at Eames before Arthur realises who it is.

‘Oh, Eames,’ he says, when he sees the forger, and Eames takes a moment to take in his pale, clammy face, his slow blinks and rasping breaths. The dream shakes again and Eames suddenly knows what it is. Arthur is the one holding this dream together, and he’s struggling to even stay here.

‘Arthur!’ Eames exclaims, ‘Oh my god.’

Arthur waves a limp hand at his exclamation, ‘It’s nothing.’

‘Like hell it’s nothing,’ Eames snaps, coming forwards and shrugging out of his jacket at the same time. He pulls Arthur’s hand from the wound, sees the bloody tear in his shirt and the two bullet holes in his skin, and then slams the jacket on top of them, pressing down hard.

Arthur yells at the contact, weakly struggling to move away from Eames’ grip, but Eames doesn’t let him go.

‘You stubborn idiot.’ Eames hisses, trying to ignore the pounding on the door as the projections start trying to break their way in. A glance up shows heavy chains wrapped around the door handles, and he can only hope that they’ll hold firm. ‘Why the hell haven’t you woken up yet?’

Arthur shifts and winces, ‘Couldn’t.’ he gasps, like he’s struggling to draw in enough breath, ‘Need to complete the job.’

Eames would punch him, but he doesn’t want Arthur to be in any more pain than he already was. His breathing was stuttered, body trembling even though his jaw was set and determined. He looks at Eames with hard, challenging eyes even while sweat beads on his clammy skin.

‘Shit.’ Eames curses emphatically. He tries to ignore the blood staining his jacket, the rusty red wetness touching his fingers. He takes a breath, tries to still his pounding heart and remain calm even as Arthur bleeds out in front of him. ‘Okay, well the others are in the meeting so they shouldn’t need too much longer. Think you can hold out?’

He doesn’t even know why he asks; knows that Arthur will not take no as an answer. Arthur nods, but he’s looking paler by the minute.

‘Okay.’ Eames says, nodding decisively, ‘Then let’s lie you down at least.’

‘Need to be able to shoot near the door.’ Arthur mumbles in protest, and Eames eyes the gun hanging limply in Arthur’s hand that isn’t doing any good anyway.

‘I’m sure we’ll survive.’ He replies with forced brightness, before getting an arm under Arthur’s back and carefully levering him onto the ground so he’s lying flat. Arthur groans at the movement, eyes squeezed shut. Eames carefully takes Arthur’s hand and places it over the jacket on top of the wound.

‘Don’t move. Keep pressure on that.’ He orders, and feels Arthur weakly press the material down as he lets go. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’

He straightens up, pulls a grenade out of his pocket, and stands up on the covered furniture to see out of the hole Arthur was shooting out of. The projections are clamouring to open the door. He needs to slow them down. He jumps down, tears fabric off the dust sheets and wraps it around his fist before getting back up to the window and punching through the glass, making the gap bigger. He pulls the pin out of the grenade and throws it out, jumping down again before the explosion reverberates through the floor. The noise against the door quietens.

Eames rips a few more bits of fabric off the dust sheet and then settles on the floor by Arthur. His chest is rising and falling with ragged breaths, but his eyes are closed. Eames shakes his shoulders carefully, and dull, unfocussed eyes crack open to look at him.

‘Stay awake,’ he reminds Arthur, but the Point Man doesn’t respond. Eames can feel the dream start to disintegrate; nothing falling apart physically yet, but just an impending sense of dread and static electricity in the air, like a storm building on the horizon. They don’t have long.

He shifts Arthur’s limp hands away from the wound, removes the sodden jacket and replaces it with bundled cloth, pressing down firmly. Arthur screams, voice horse and breaking on the loud noise. His body jolts, trying to curl up and protect his side, but he doesn’t get far before he falls back drooping to the floor. He chokes on his next breath, coughing hard and gasping in agony as his chest spasms. Eames watches a line of blood trickle from the corner of his lips and the dream trembles around them.

‘Hang on, Arthur,’ he murmurs, more to himself than anyone else. He prays Cobb and Ariadne have gotten what they need; he can’t see the dream lasting much longer. He wishes they’d thought of some kind of signal to let them know the job was complete, but the assumption was they’d all be alive enough to wait for the timer to run out.

‘Eames,’ Arthur’s voice draws his attention back to the Point Man’s face, his half-open eyes and deathly pallor. Eames removes one of his hands from keeping pressure on the wound and takes Arthur’s hand instead. His fingers are freezing and Eames suddenly regrets not finding something he could use as a blanket.

‘I’m here, Arthur.’ He assures the man, rubbing his thumb over Arthur’s knuckles. ‘It’s okay, you’re doing so well.’ He wishes there was something else he could say, but he feels useless kneeling on his dusty floor as Arthur’s life drains away in front of him.

‘Job done?’ Arthur slurs, head lolling to the side.

‘I don’t know,’ he says honestly, ‘Don’t go to sleep yet, just in case.’

‘’Tired.’ Arthur moans, and he pants out his breaths. Eames can see blood staining his teeth.

‘I know, darling, I know.’ There is a ringing in his ears, and he thinks it’s coming from the dream itself. Everything feels hazy and unfocussed, and a cold breeze has picked up, sending a chill straight to his bones.

‘Y’ here?’ Arthur asks, eyes sliding closed.

‘Yes,’ Eames whispers, knowing it’s too late, ‘Yes, I’m here.’

Arthur doesn’t reply. His chest shudders with the effort to draw breath, and the cloth on his chest is soaked in red.

The ground shakes below Eames, an impending storm coming, and he braces against it as he hears things start to collapse in the distance. He squeezes Arthur’s hand and listens to Arthur take a breath, and waits for it to be released, but it never is. The chest under his hands stills, and around him the dream crumbles and disintegrates into dust.

 

*

 

He opens his eyes to the train carriage where they were undertaking the job. Cobb is already up, wrapping up the lines from the PASIV and checking that the mark is still unconscious. Arthur is sitting opposite Eames, his eyes far away, but then he blinks and suddenly he’s Arthur-the-Point-Man again; all business and no emotion.

‘What happened?’ Cobb snaps, as they all get up and collect their luggage, ready to get to opposite corners of the train before the mark wakes.

‘Complications with the projections.’ Eames answers immediately, and Cobb’s eyes flick to Arthur and then to him, ‘Did you manage to get the information?’

Cobb nods, ‘Just about,’ he says but his eyes are still hard and angry, ‘Before the dream collapsed around us.’

‘Well, no harm done if we got the job done.’ Eames says, falsely cheery and putting an end to the discussion. Cobb looks like he wants to argue, but Arthur is already scooping up the PASIV case and leaving the carriage, and Eames follows him.

 

*

 

Later that night, he’s watching the TV in a language he doesn’t understand but can’t be bothered to find subtitles for when there’s a knock on the door.

He gets up, picks up the gun off the side table and peeks through the hotel room door spy hole. Arthur stands on the other side, and he feels his hands itch at his sides. He’s felt like he’s had dried blood flaking off his skin all afternoon, and no amount of washing his hands has removed the feeling.

He clicks open the lock, and pulls open the door.

Arthur looks at him, and he looks tired and shaky. He doesn’t need to say anything. It’s never easy dying in a dream, especially not so slowly and painfully. It sticks with you, makes breath catch in your throat and phantom pain shoot through your body.

Eames steps to the side and Arthur immediately enters and shrugs off his coat.

‘Can I stay here tonight?’ he asks, and Eames just nods. They’ve done this before; finding each other for comfort after jobs that have left scars that aren’t visible. Eames is honoured that Arthur lets himself be vulnerable in front of him, so he never refuses. He would do anything for Arthur.

Arthur heads to the bathroom to get undressed, and Eames takes his turn afterwards, and finds Arthur already snuggled under the thick hotel duvet, staring blankly at the wall. He slides in behind him, presses his front to Arthur’s back, and can feel him shaking.

‘Hey,’ he says, softly. ‘It’s okay. It was a just a dream.’ They’re empty words, but there’s truth to them and a morbid sense of humour they can both appreciate.

‘Sorry,’ Arthur breathes, ‘It was just so cold.’ Eames wraps an arm around his waist, tugging him close. ‘I haven’t been able to get warm all day.’

Eames pushes his face into Arthur’s hair, smelling his shampoo and feeling how soft it is without gel in it.

‘You don’t need to apologise.’ Eames says, ‘You’ll be alright in the morning.’ Or it might stick around for a bit longer, but either way, they’re survivors and putting deaths in dreams behind them is something they all have to do.

‘Thank you for being there.’ Arthur mumbles, and Eames can feel his trembles lessening, body melting into the mattress.

‘I always will be,’ he tells him, and listens to Arthur sink into sleep; so different from feeling his cold skin and listening to his breathing stutter and stop as he died. Here, Arthur is warm and solid and breathing easily and deeply against him.

Eames closes his eyes, clutches Arthur tighter, and lets himself follow him into sleep.