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The first time Eames sees him, he puts a bullet between his eyes before he can think better of it- mind filled with images of Mal, pressing a gun to Cobb's brow- saying, "I miss you, Dom, won't you come home?" The mark's subconscious erupts into panic, but Arthur crumbling is the only thing he can see.

He's smiling, bleeding out on the ground and just watching Eames.

He closes his eyes. A projection has gotten a knife somewhere. The mark wasn't militarized, but the subconscious is still an ugly place.

Eames wakes up to laughter lodged in his throat and wet cheeks.

 

The second time, it's on a practice run. Acclimating themselves to the world that they're basing this heist on, Ariadne staring into darkened street corners and tweaking the world to her design.

Arthur is sitting outside a coffee shop, paper cup set on the table before him. He has a newspaper.

It's a practice run. Ariadne is still assembling this world, even now. There should be no projections.

When she sees him, she screams- yanks a gun from her belt and fires. Misses. Arthur glances at the shop window behind him, watches the cracks spread- spider web slow splintering of glass that's creeping, so slowly. He turns back to them and smiles at Eames, though when he speaks, it's aimed towards Ariadne.

"I thought I taught you better than that, Ari. Concentrate."

The second bullet doesn't miss.

Glass shatters.

 

The third time is in the middle of a heist gone bad. He's crouching behind an overturned sofa, firing his gun almost blindly over his shoulder.

His forge had been immaculate, perfect down to the very tips of the mark's wifes very own ruby slippers. It wasn't him who had given things away, but a misplaced window. It was supposed to face to the west, because the mark liked to watch the sunset over dinner. There was no sunset over their dinner and Eames is sick of dealing with shoddy architects. He misses Ari, thinks that the next time he's in Paris he will pay her a ridiculous sum of money to work with him.

A bullet finds its way into his shoulder. Pain pain pain, blooming outwards and radiating outwards through his form. It isn't lethal in the least, merely an inconvenience. All the same, it stings like a bitch. He wavers once on his stilettos, going to a knee on the carpet, head swimming. The form he's in flickers, once, twice. Shatters, just like glass.

So much for hoping the mark can't put a bullet between his wife's eyes twice.

His hand is trembling around the gun, bleeding out faster than he'd like, and yet not fast enough.

And then Arthur is there, eyes dark and pressed into his favorite suit. Eames flinches, but Arthur just crawls over next to him. Crouches behind the couch with him as if this were just another job gone bad, another script to read. "You can still make this work," he's saying, firing his own glock over the couch with more precision than Eames had had, even before he'd been shot. "You can still finish the job. The safe's upstairs, I can cover you."

He stares, wincing when Arthur smiles at him. His lips tremble, so he licks them. "You're dead," he says, shaky.

Arthur just looks at him, severe with Eames blood smeared a bit into the cuff of his suit. "Yes, I am." Slow, as if not to startle him.

"But you're- Mal- and you-"

"Mal went mad before she died, Eames. Of course the madness would follow her in." His voice is gentle, patient. The one he'd used whenever Eames was about to do something stupid. He cocks his gun, fires another round over the sofa. Behind them, the mark's projection's drop like stones, thud thud thud. The rain is still tapping against that stupid window, still tapping, and fuck where's his kick?

"But you're not real," he breathes.

Arthur smiles, wry and a bit sad. Leans forward for a kiss.

It's wet and tastes of blood, a bit frantic and incredibly heartwrenching. It's like a punch to the gut, being this close to Arthur again, pressing his shaking fingers into the faintly curling hair at the nape of his neck, smelling the expensive cologne he liked to buy, feeling his weight and heat, so close.

When Arthur pulls back, his eyelids are fluttering, lashes dark against the pale skin of his cheek. There's a faint flush across his cheekbones, lovely and just a little bit pink. His mouth is red, still wet. His eyes open, and he breathes, "Real enough."

The safe is in the upstairs bedroom, the lock painfully easy to crack. Inside, sits a skull, mud clinging to the zygomatic arches and maggots still writhing inside the eye sockets. Beneath it is a sheet of paper, coordinates etched across the top for where he's buried his wife's corpse. The mark is downstairs. He'll need to get the skull down there- slip back into the mark's wife. He may know that it is a dream, but there is a lot you can do in a dream. Seeing his wife holding her own skull, well, that may be enough to procure a confession.

The skull is cold in his hands. The mud and grass gritty, it sticks to the palms of his hands, his fingers- smearing there with graveyard soil and the damp of the earth. His stomach turns as he slips back into her form. Mud smears across her wedding ring.

Arthur is still downstairs, crouched behind that couch, still firing at the wayward projections. He smiles when he sees Eames, touches a finger to his lip. Quiet.

He steps out of the protection of the stairwell. Meets the mark's eyes and flings her own skull at him. It bounces off his chest, thumps down and onto the carpet, dislodging all the insects that had been clinging to its insides.

Eames lets the wifes expression curl into hurt, says, "Why? Why would you kill me?"

 

The fourth time is another job with Ari, and this time, Cobb has come out of retirement to help them.

When he sees Arthur, his eyes go wide- fumbling at his side for a gun even though the London streetcorner they're on is bustling full of projections. Arthur comes to a stop beside Eames, brushes a hand along his forearm, a kiss along his cheek. Breathes into his ear, "They know, Eames. Either get the job done fast or get out, now."

He hisses, teeth clenched and Arthur warm against his side. Absently, he reaches down to still Cobb's hand on his gun. He presses a kiss over the curve of Arthur's brow, quick and reluctantly affectionate. Watches Arthur walk away, blending in among the rest of the projections in moments.

"What the hell was that, Eames?" Cobb hisses at his side, flushed red with anger. Beside him, Ariadne is staring after Arthur, jaw just a little bit slack.

He shrugs. "That was Arthur."

 

"A dream den, Mr. Eames? I must say, I'm a bit disappointed."

 

They tell him it's not right, it's not safe, it's not normal. He'll go mad with it. Fall into his own mind and never come out, submerge himself into a dream den, maybe fall into limbo.

He buys his own PASIV. Slides the needle into his skin.