Chapter 1: Bangkok
“ – and here’s Arthur, just in time,” Jones says, nodding toward the man walking in the door, and those are the last words Eames can make out over the rush of blood in his ears.
Wake up, he orders himself, as though thinking the words might make it so. Wake up, wake up – He tries to shift, to forge, and can’t. Christ, what’s he got himself into? How could he lose track of himself like this? Focus. He came here directly from the airport, and before that – did he sleep on the plane? He can’t remember.
The man comes toward them. He’s wearing a suit, a close-fitting and beautifully tailored suit – Simon Spurr, Eames thinks numbly, because he can’t stop himself noticing these details even whilst his heart is hammering fit to burst in his chest. The cut of that suit would be hideously unflattering on almost any other man in the world, but it looks devastating on this one, with his narrow hips and straight shoulders. He wears it naturally, in the way of a man who has traded one uniform for another.
It’s a brilliant forge; even Eames has to admit that. All the more reason to destroy whoever is behind this.
“Mr. Eames,” says the man, lingering with deliberate irony on the name, as though is a private joke to which he does not intend to share the punchline. His eyes are as sharp as the rest of him, dark and bright. Magnetic. “Your reputation precedes you.”
He extends a hand, and Eames takes it, helplessly. Their bones slide together; Eames’s fingertips graze the cool, delicate skin of the other man’s wrist, and just like that, he knows.
He’s got no idea what the bloody fucking hell is going on, but he is awake, and this man, this Arthur, is real.
He clears his throat and forces out the best smile he can manage, given the circumstances. “Yours doesn’t.”
Arthur’s eyes gleam; Eames's chest seizes; and Jones claps his hands together, oblivious. “Well, Mr. Eames, now that Arthur’s here, what do you say you come down with me and show me what you’ve got?”
It’s nearly impossible to focus properly, but Eames forces himself to pay attention. He needs this job – for the money, and for the man who’s watching over his unconscious body at this precise moment – and Jones is the one he’s got to impress to get it. He chooses his forges carefully: a young boy; his favorite saucy blonde; the turnip-shaped, rosary-fondling grandmother of his most recent mark; Jones himself, a bit fragmentary and unfinished but serviceable enough to make his point.
On a whim, he throws in a lanky, blue-eyed man in dusty fatigues, ruddy with sunburn and speaking in an indecipherable Geordie accent. Jones nods thoughtfully, as he has done at each successive forge. Eames can’t help but wonder how Arthur would have reacted, if his mouth would have twitched with recognition or amusement or disapproval. If he ever smiles at all, or if his face is stuck that way, blank and unreadable.
It’s a mistake, letting himself get distracted. His concentration falters, and all at once there’s sand beneath his fingernails, dust clinging to his eyelashes – blood in his throat –
He covers the slip as best he can, by shifting quickly into Arthur. He’s careful to mimic the details he absorbed in the few minutes before he and Jones plugged in: the crisp shirt cuffs, the clean line of his jaw, the quiet confidence in the set of his shoulders.
“Very impressive,” Jones says, evidently satisfied. If he’s noticed anything amiss, he’s choosing not to mention it.
Eames adjusts the tidy knot of Arthur’s tie. His hands don’t shake at all. “You see, sir,” he says, in Arthur’s measured, professional voice, “I can be anyone you need me to be.”
Jones’s mobile rings whilst Arthur is retracting the IV lines. Jones fishes it out of his pocket as he’s getting to his feet, glances at the screen and then looks at Arthur. “It’s the client. You can take it from here?” It’s barely a question, but Arthur nods anyway. Jones rewards him with a friendly clap on the shoulder before turning to shake Eames’s hand one last time, smiling his crooked white smile. “I look forward to working with you, Mr. Eames.”
“Likewise,” Eames says, with a carefully calibrated smile of his own, and then Jones slips out the door and it’s just the two of them left in the office.
Just Arthur and Eames.
Arthur is still occupied with the PASIV, making sure everything is squared away in its proper place. They’ve changed a lot, those machines, since the first time Eames laid eyes on one. They’re sleeker, more aesthetically pleasing, as well as light-years more intuitive to operate – and, naturally, far more transportable.
The Device isn’t the only thing that’s changed. Arthur’s hair is on the longer side of professional, slicked back neat and severe; it adds five years to the face Eames remembers, ten when coupled with the stern expression. He is paler than he used to be, a bit leaner about the jaw and cheekbones. And he’s sleeker, as well, like the PASIV – flaws smoothed away, weak points concealed. A watertight disguise.
Eames considers and discards a hundred opening statements, before finally his throat loosens enough to let him say: “You’re looking quite smart for a dead man.”
Arthur glances at him, meeting his eyes for the briefest moment before turning back to his work. “I wish I could say the same for you,” he replies, plucking out one of the half-empty vials of Somnacin and holding it up to the light for inspection. “Did you sleep in those clothes?”
Arthur knows damn well that Eames has just got off a plane from bloody Copenhagen, a grueling eleven-hour preview of Hell’s lower circles. But there’s a spark in his voice now, a hint of playfulness at odds with the staid professional demeanor he’s got wrapped round himself like that eight-button waistcoat, restricting and rigid.
There, Eames thinks, there you are, you bastard. The numb shock is starting to fade; it prickles and stings, like sensation seeping back into a deadened limb. He should go, now, before – but he can’t. Of course he can’t.
“How did you find me?” There are a thousand other questions bubbling up inside him, but this is the simplest, and perhaps the one likeliest to get him a straight answer.
Arthur smiles, finally: a wry lopsided little thing, fine lines sketching out from the corners of his eyes. Eames feels it like a knife.
“I’m very good at my job, Mr. Eames,” he says. He tucks the vial away and closes the PASIV’s case with a soft click, long fingers smoothing over the clasps, and Eames doesn’t know how he’ll feel tomorrow or next week or in half an hour, but this is now and Arthur is here with him and he’s glad, he’s so fucking glad.
This is what the man known as Eames knows about the man calling himself Arthur:
His shoe size. The number of seconds it takes him to reload a bolt-action sniper rifle. The sensitive spot under his ear. The name he inherited from his father. His preferred method of execution. The shape of his mouth when he’s angry. The shape of his vowels in Urdu. His blood type. The line of his profile in the dark.
The glint of the sun in his eyes that last morning, before he left on the mission he’d never return from, vanishing forever into the frozen, hostile depths of the Hindu Kush.
Things move quickly after that. The extraction is scheduled to go down at the end of June, whilst their mark is in Bangkok on business. Less risk that way; the Thai secret police keep somewhat looser track of foreign visitors than do their counterparts in Vietnam.
Most of their work can be done from a distance, but Eames needs time and opportunity to observe Harrison’s mistress if he’s to forge her properly. As soon as he and Jones have hammered out a plan, he gets a haircut, picks up a few t-shirts on Khaosan Road, and heads to Hanoi on his Australian passport.
Fortuitously, he’s seated near a handful of tanned, wholesome-looking German backpackers on the plane. They take to him immediately, in the open, credulous way of young travelers, and by the time they land, they’ve all agreed to find a hostel together. They move through customs as a boisterous, good-humored pack, and the customs officer gives Eames’s hastily forged visa the same bored, cursory inspection as the rest.
He’s allotted himself a week in the city. A good part of that time is spent maintaining his cover as a tourist, with the help of his obliging new friends. The rest he spends trailing the mistress, Uyen, whose days seem to fall into a predictable pattern: drifting through the shops with her friends, dinner at her sister’s house, and then on to the flat where she meets Harrison. Harrison himself only turns up two nights out of six, and leaves both times after less than an hour. Eames isn’t entirely certain whether Uyen is happy with this arrangement or not; he supposes it depends whether she’s with Harrison for love or money.
The week passes quickly. His days are busy, and truth be told, he’s grateful to have something to focus on. He studies Uyen’s walk, her laugh, the way she tucks her hair behind her ear, internalizing the rhythm of her movements. He practices her facial expressions whilst brushing his teeth at night, pursing his lips and raising his eyebrows in the dingy mirror. He gives himself Uyen’s dainty little wiggled-finger wave good night, and then he goes and lies down on his narrow, creaky bed, serenaded by the drunken snores of his roommates, and tries very hard to think of nothing at all.
Back in Bangkok, the job is starting to come together. It’s a good team Jones has assembled, better than many Eames has worked with. Jones himself is a pleasant old-school sort of criminal, one of the last of a dying breed. He’d kill you if that’s what it came down to, but he’d offer you a last drink for the road before he pulled the trigger.
Nok, the architect, is a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed young Thai woman with a fondness for mansard roofs and those revolting cheese-filled hot dogs from 7-Eleven. Eames likes her very much. He butters her up with fried fish cakes from a nearby vendor, and she rewards him with every last rumor she’s heard about their fellow team members.
(“Military,” she says quietly, observing Arthur from across the room. “That is why he’s such a tight-ass.” She blows smoke from the side of her mouth and offers Eames a meaningful little smirk. “Handsome, though, na?”)
And then, of course, there’s Arthur.
Arthur is, in fact, very good at his job, which surprises Eames not at all. In many ways, he’s much the same man he was in the military. Better dressed, perhaps, and answering to a different chain of command, but still recognizable as the perennially unimpressed bastard Eames met three and a half years ago, the crack shot with stick-out ears and a tragic inability to color outside the lines. He’s still got an obsessive eye for detail, redirected now toward bank statements and medical records, and he still handles all manner of weaponry in a way that suggests he may have dragged an assault rifle with him out of the womb.
He is different, though – harder in some ways, more relaxed in others. More jaded, certainly, or at least playing up that image, but there are little touches of humanity that Eames can’t recall ever having seen before. He rolls up the sleeves of his expensive shirts and likes to tilt his chair back on two legs whilst studying his notes. He frequently pours himself a coffee and proceeds to forget about it until it’s gone stone-cold, at which point he dumps it down the sink and starts over. He drums his fingers incessantly and seems to have developed an odd tic of sucking at the inside of his lower lip; Eames can’t work that one out until he realizes he hasn’t seen Arthur join Nok for a single cigarette break this entire time.
It’s torture, of course, working with him every day. It’s bloody masochistic is what it is, and yet Eames can’t help taking some strange measure of comfort from Arthur’s presence. Not in that way – he’s not completely daft. It’s just that it’s not often he encounters anyone else so intimately familiar with the unlovely early days of dreamshare, who has done what he’s done, who knows what it’s like to slit a man’s throat ten times in an day and go on patrol with him that night, imagining you can still smell the wet metal scent of his blood on your hands.
There’s a quiet violence in Arthur, a certain self-awareness of what he’s capable of. He can polish his rougher edges all he likes, disguise himself with immaculately pressed trousers and a tidy haircut, but he’s a fighter at heart, a combat pragmatist – a killer, when necessary. He knows, as few men do, exactly which lines he is willing to cross. Eames likes that about him. Always has done.
And anyway, say what you will about him – and Eames has said quite a bit – he’s a good man to have about in a pinch.
“You will notice,” Uyen says, slightly out of breath, “I’m not saying I told you so.”
“I admire your restraint,” Arthur says, scanning the half dozen motorbikes haphazardly parked on the pavement in front of them. He makes for a bright yellow Honda Wave and eases it out of the line, then swings a leg over – miraculously unhindered by the frankly obscene cut of his trousers – and kicks the engine alive. He shoots Uyen an expectant look over his shoulder. “Well?”
Uyen scowls at him. “If you think I’m being relegated to pillion – “
“You’re wearing spike heels,” Arthur says.
“And whose fault is that?” Uyen retorts, abandoning her earlier magnanimous stance. “You may recall that I argued for the assistant, but no, it had to be the bloody girlfriend…“ She would press the point further, but the customers at a nearby pho stall are all staring at them with an ominously white-knuckled grip on their utensils, and Uyen does not relish the thought of death by chopstick. She climbs on behind Arthur, skirt riding scandalously high up her thighs, and adds, somewhat petulantly, “I’ll have you know that I am an excellent driver regardless of footwear.”
“Not in Hanoi, you’re not,” Arthur says, and peels out into the rush of frenzied traffic.
It’s not actually Hanoi, of course. The architecture is a touch too Spanish, the pagodas more Shinto than Buddhist, and Uyen is fairly certain she spots a Duane Reade tucked in amongst the ubiquitous guest houses. Still, Nok’s dreamscape is a relatively faithful approximation of the narrow, crowded Old Quarter streets where Harrison keeps his secret flat, and he has obligingly peopled them with pavement vendors, camera-wielding tourists, and swarms of what must surely rank as some of the most criminally insane drivers on earth.
Naturally, Arthur fits right in.
Uyen dreams up a Beretta, a comforting weight in her hands, only to fumble it as Arthur zigzags between several scooters loaded with uniformed schoolgirls. She hastily adjusts her grip on the gun and calls, “How long have we got?”
“Twenty till the kick, less if Jones gets the file.” Arthur veers sharply onto a side-street, weaving with hyper-intent precision through the throng of motorbikes and cyclos. More and more projections are taking notice of them, heads whipping round to stare at them as they pass, like hounds that have caught a scent. A determined few have started chasing after them, trying to track them through the crowd. “Think you can keep us alive that long?”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” Uyen says, and knee-caps an agitated-looking old man brandishing a massive ring spanner. Harrison evidently hasn’t got much experience with firearms: the Beretta’s suppressor dulls the sound of the shot to a Hollywood-level muffled pop, as good as lost in the clamor of traffic.
The old man does howl, though, as he goes down, which seems to add a certain liveliness to the step of the projections on their tail. They’re coming for the dreamer, for Arthur; if he kicks out, the dream will collapse around them. They just need to give Jones enough time to get to the damn file.
Traffic abruptly slows to a crawl, and a nearby shoe vendor takes the opportunity to dart into the road, headed straight for them. They’re stuck, trapped in the gridlock of bikes, and the woman manages to fist a handful of Arthur’s sleeve before Uyen pistol-whips her fingers, darkly satisfied with the crunch of bone under the grip of her gun.
Arthur downshifts, click clack click clack, twists the throttle, and they rocket through a narrow gap in the traffic that seems to appear out of nowhere, closing just as suddenly behind them as the thwarted projection screams in outrage.
“You’re too far back,” Arthur calls over his shoulder. “Move up, it’ll help me balance.”
“I’ll bet you say that to all the girls,” Uyen says. She inches closer, wincing at the sticky catch of leather on her bare skin, until she can feel the warmth of Arthur’s arse and hips in the open vee of her thighs. She hooks her spindly heels round the back of the passenger footrests and squeezes the bike between her legs, knees digging into the tops of Arthur’s thighs. The position gives her enough leverage that she can spare both hands for her gun, even taking into account Arthur’s somewhat capricious driving, and she readily takes out a policeman and a pair of backpackers in quick succession.
She’s feeling quite optimistic about their chances, actually, until the moment another bike leaps out in front of them, steered by a stony-faced young boy in an incongruously festive Ben 10 shirt. Arthur curses and swerves, clutching instinctively at the hand brake. The tires lock for a moment, long enough for Uyen to consider how her borrowed face will look smeared across the road – but then they’re careening round another corner, leaning hard into the turn.
“You were just nearly out-maneuvered by a twelve-year-old,” Uyen observes, a bit lightheaded from the near miss. “Losing our touch, are we?”
“Less talking, more shooting,” Arthur suggests tightly.
Projections are zeroing in on them from all sides now, wild-eyed with mindless fury; it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold them all off. Uyen conjures up an M16 – in for a penny, and all – only to find that it’s massive and unwieldy in her fine-boned hands. Really, she should have dropped the forge ages ago, but the girlfriend is a tiny thing, and an extra seven stone on the back of a motorbike is nothing to laugh off.
“All right, Arthur, brace yourself,” she warns, shouting to be heard over the wind whipping past –
– and then he’s Eames again, and the motorbike is wobbling dangerously under them, unbalanced by the new weight.
“Jesus,” Arthur says, “what the hell, Eames,” forcibly wrenching the bike back under control. They’re pressed even closer now, slotted together so tightly that Eames can feel the shift of Arthur’s shoulder blades through his suit jacket, the tension in his thighs as they swerve round a pushcart.
“Needs must, darling,” Eames says cheerfully, scooting back a bit and twisting at the waist to knock off a few belligerent cyclists, “though I suspect – ”
“What did you just call me?” asks Arthur.
They do crash eventually, of course; even Arthur hasn’t got the skill to recover from being sideswiped by a lorry. Arthur’s thrown clear, the lucky bastard, whilst Eames ends up tangled with the bike, leg trapped under the weight of it, the heat of the exhaust pipe searing through his trousers and eating into his calf. It’s not real, he knows it’s not real, but the pain is horrific, and he jerks against it, struggling to free himself. The smell of scorched flesh makes him want to be sick.
There are hands on him, yanking at him – projections’ hands, brutal and clumsy. A gun goes off, twice, three times, and the hands are gone. There’s sound everywhere: projections shouting, horns blaring, a mobile ringing, and some pathetic bastard is saying, “Arthur, Arthur,” in the most appallingly desperate voice. Eames has got a terrible suspicion that last one may be him, but then the mobile cuts off and Arthur’s low steady voice is saying, “Got it, he’s got it,” and his hand is cool and careful on Eames’s jaw, turning him toward the gun.
Eames is thrumming with adrenaline afterward, as they slip out of Harrison’s darkened hotel room. His body is still on high alert, hyperaware, and everything seems magnified: the lights in the corridor, the smell of his own sweat, the quick confident sound of Arthur’s footsteps behind him on the stairs.
Nok has already gone, taking off as soon as the three dreamers were safely awake, and Jones vanished soon after, presumably off to deliver the information to the client. Eames fully intends to follow their example as quickly as possible. If Arthur’s done his job properly, there should be no evidence, nothing to arouse suspicion, much less lead back to them. Still, it’s safer for everyone if they all disappear.
Arthur ought to know this better than anyone, but that doesn’t stop him from following Eames out of the hotel, across the car park and out to the road. Eames means to turn left, walk a few minutes and then flag down a taxi, and yet, before he quite realizes what’s happening, Arthur’s managed to steer him to the right, toward the BTS station.
After a brief moment of indecision, Eames allows himself to be led.
It’s stiflingly muggy outside, in spite of the late hour. The heat itches under Eames’s skin, makes him want to strip out of his damp clothes and make any number of poor decisions. He tugs at his collar and slants a glance over at Arthur, who’s not said a word since they left the hotel. He’d never have expected Arthur to be the one flouting security protocol, yet here he is, strolling down Ratchadamri Road with his suit jacket tossed casually over his shoulder, cool as you please. His body language is far more relaxed than it was an hour ago, loose and fluid, at odds with the fact that he’s been quite obviously half-hard in his tight little trousers since the moment they woke up in Harrison’s hotel room.
Eames can’t believe he forgot what a bloody lunatic Arthur used to be. Perhaps he’s gone madder in the intervening years. Either way, the self-satisfied twist of his lips is making Eames’s blood run hot.
“Care to tell me where we’re going?” Eames inquires, as casually as he can manage.
Arthur’s smirking mouth tugs to the side. “We’re having a drink, Mr. Eames,” he says, with exaggerated nonchalance, and oh, Christ, Eames doesn’t generally fuck people he works with, but he already knows he’s going to make an exception for Arthur. Mad, dangerous, arrogant, beautiful Arthur. Eames’s mother must be rolling in her grave.
It’s just a drink, Eames tells himself, a drink and a decent fuck, and tomorrow he’ll be half a world away. It doesn’t mean anything – not to Arthur, and not to him.
He could walk away from this if he wanted to, he tells himself, but he doesn’t.
They end up in a grungy little dive tucked away in some forgotten soi, blessedly free of rowdy tourists, who are likely all off in Patpong watching prostitutes launch ping-pong balls from improbable places. Arthur sits with his back to the wall, gaze wandering with detached curiosity over the other patrons, and lets Eames pour for both of them from the bottle sweating between them on the table.
“I think Chang’s the one with formaldehyde in,” Eames says speculatively, swirling the lager in his glass. “Reckon it does wonders for the liver.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Arthur says, though Eames notes with some satisfaction that he grimaces on his next sip. He sets his glass down and drums his fingers lightly against the side, sucks at his lip the way Eames caught him doing so many times at the office.
“When did you quit?” Eames asks. It’s strange – he still looks at Arthur sometimes and expects to see him with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
“Couple months ago.” Arthur offers him a small, self-deprecating smile. “And last year. And at the end of my first tour.”
“There are worse vices.”
Arthur snorts. “You would know.”
Eames hums in wordless agreement, allowing just a trace of suggestion to creep in, and is pleased to see that the very tips of those ridiculous ears still turn just as pink as they used to do.
They have their drink, and then another, sipping their mediocre beer and drifting along on a leisurely, uncomplicated stream of conversation. It’s surprisingly easy, in a way their interactions on the job never were. Eames feels more relaxed than he has done in ages, despite the heat still burning low in his belly.
And Arthur – oh, Arthur is lovely like this, sweat gleaming on his forehead, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, all his stark lines softened by alcohol and poor lighting. He looks – he looks like –
Eames drinks the thought away.
Two bottles later, Arthur still seems perfectly composed. He’s betrayed only by his restless hands: tapping an arrhythmic beat on the table, fiddling with his glass, worrying a scrap of pink serviette. They’re good hands, elegant, capable. If Eames squints, he can make out the scar on the right thumb, just below the knuckle, a raised white mark that’s always more pronounced in the dreamscape. He’s never asked after its origin, though he wondered, sometimes, tracing the shape of it with his tongue, tasting dust and tobacco and salty skin –
Eames licks his lips, unthinking. He doesn’t intend anything by it, but he also doesn’t miss the way Arthur falters mid-sentence, or the way he drops his gaze down to Eames’s mouth before quickly glancing away, playing at indifference.
Ah. Right, then.
He wets his lips again, deliberately this time, inviting Arthur to have a good long look. He knows very well what he looks like, the sort of thoughts that have got Arthur’s eyes going dark and his face warming, and he’s just about to suggest taking this elsewhere for a thorough demonstration when Arthur suddenly looks over to the bar and signals for another bottle.
Eames frowns at him. “Just for that, the offer’s rescinded.”
Arthur tops up their glasses. “No, it’s not,” he says – and he’s right, of course, the arsehole. He meets Eames’s eyes again and smirks, so bloody sure of himself, whilst under the table, the pointed toe of his shoe draws a slow, teasing line up Eames’s calf.
The world is swimming pleasantly in and out of focus by the time they stumble out of the bar. They’re both hungry, so they make for a nearby noodle cart, trying not to knock into anyone as they weave down the narrow strip of pavement.
Arthur makes a valiant attempt to order them drunken noodles, but his accent is atrocious, and he ends up asking for cat shit instead. Eames laughs so hard he nearly pisses himself, and it’s all right because Arthur’s laughing too, leaning into him, with one lovely strong hand cuffed tightly round Eames’s wrist as though to keep track of him.
Tomorrow, Eames won’t remember the food at all, but he’ll remember the color of Arthur’s mouth, flushed and swollen from too many chili flakes, and the burn of his tongue on Eames’s lips. He won’t know how they get to his hotel, but he’ll remember the way Arthur shoves him up against the closing room door, the sandpaper scrape of his stubble, the shiver of wet skin in the arctic chill of the air conditioning. He’ll remember Arthur’s body, lean and pliant and gorgeous, and his hands, Christ, and that red wanting mouth. He’ll remember someone saying, “This is a fucking – fucking terrible – ah, God,” but he won’t remember who.
It won’t matter, anyway, because he’ll wake up alone on the bathroom floor in the morning, stark naked and ferociously hungover, and he won’t see Arthur again for four months.
Chapter 2: São Paulo
Bzzt bzzt. Bzzt bzzt. Bzzt bzzt.
Eames slaps blindly at the bedside table until his hand connects with his mobile. It takes a few tries to get his fingers round it properly, but he manages it in the end, brings the buzzing thing close and lifts his head just enough to squint at the screen.
“I don’t suppose you care what time it is here,” he says by way of greeting, holding the mobile loosely to his ear.
“There’s a job in São Paulo,” Arthur says without preamble. “High five figures, two weeks’ prep. Dreyfus and Romero are already on board.”
“São Paulo, is it. You do realize there’s a – “ Eames is interrupted by his own yawn, an eye-watering thing that makes his jaw click. “ – a substantial price on my head in that particular part of the world.”
“Two of them, actually. Must have been a busy trip.”
“Terribly cranky lot, those banking magnates,” Eames says. “I imagine it’s the heat that does it.”
“Your theory has some holes in it,” Arthur says, “given your persona non grata status in Quebec – ”
“The cold, obviously,“ Eames rejoins.
“ – and Amsterdam – “
“ – and San Diego.”
“Well, they’re just arseholes, aren’t they,” Eames says, wondering how he ought to feel about the fact that Arthur is apparently keeping a list of all the people who want to murder him. Despite his better judgment, he’s leaning toward charmed. Especially seeing as how the list does not seem to include Arthur himself. Still: “Look, unless you’ve got a very good reason for me to risk decapitation with a dull blade – “
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Arthur says. “They’d just shoot you.”
“ – I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass.”
The line goes quiet, and for a moment, sleep-dazed as he is, Eames imagines that Arthur may actually accept the refusal gracefully.
Instead, Arthur exhales heavily, a hiss of air and static in Eames’s ear. He sounds noticeably less abrasive when he says, “I can get you in and out with minimal risk. The money’s good, Eames, and we need a forger. It’s you or Hefetz.”
“Isn’t Hefetz the one who cocked up that job in Seoul? I seem to recall you saying you’d never work with her again.” He recalls Arthur saying a great deal more than that, in fact, after turning up three days late for the Niemi job, stiffly vulnerable from a pair of cracked ribs and in a stupendously foul temper over having burned through two perfectly good false identities. Still, Eames knows better than to prod too hard at that particular button; he wouldn’t want to trigger some sort of rage flashback.
“Which is why I’m calling you,” Arthur says, voice sharpening again with impatience. No doubt he’s scowling to himself in some streamlined ultra-modern hotel room, pinching the bridge of his nose the way he does when he’s waist-deep in credit card statements and hasn’t slept in a while.
Eames scrubs at his face with his free hand and considers the odds: that Daniel Menezes will have recently dropped dead or developed a highly specific amnesia; that Romero’s unique blend of inspiration and psychosis will remain weighted in the optimal direction for the duration of the job; that Arthur will wear those brown trousers that pull just-so over the angles of his hips.
“I’ll consider it,” he says.
“Your flight leaves in four hours,” Arthur says. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Eames.”
He’s half expecting Arthur to meet him at the airport; it is, after all, the least Arthur owes him after dragging him across ten time zones like this. Instead, he’s flagged down near the baggage reclaim by a stout middle-aged paulistano, who wastes no time hustling him outside and into a waiting taxi. The man speaks only a few words of English, but he’s suspiciously well-armed for a cab driver, and he drives like an absolute maniac. Small wonder Arthur would like him.
Arthur and Romero are in the main room of the hotel suite when Eames arrives. Arthur greets him with a quick, tight smile, while Romero just grunts from the corner where he’s hunched over a work table, looking as usual as though birds have been nesting in his hair.
“Pleasure to see you, too, old man,” Eames says.
Arthur catches Eames’s gaze and signals discreetly but urgently with his left hand – do not engage – and Eames promptly changes course.
“So, Arthur, care to enlighten me as to what exactly it is I’m doing here?”
Arthur glances over at Romero, who is staring moodily at his little heaps of cardstock, and says, “Let’s step out for a minute. I’ll buy you a coffee.”
There’s a Starbucks on the next corner, but Arthur steers them over to a café on Paulista Avenue, where he greets the barista by name and orders three espresso shots in his coffee.
“You’re going to be a joy to be around, I see,” Eames says.
“Romero wasn’t happy with the materials,” Arthur says grimly, and plucks his coffee out of the barista’s hand before it can touch the counter.
“Why do you keep working with him?” Eames asks, genuinely curious. “There are other architects, you know.”
“He’s a genius,” Arthur says.
“There are other geniuses,” Eames counters. “I thought you liked that one, what’s her name – the French woman.”
“Mal’s an academic. She doesn’t work these kinds of jobs.” Arthur takes a long, bracing drink of his coffee-flavored jet fuel. “Anyway, Romero’s high-maintenance, but nobody beats him in terms of end product. I’m willing to put up with assholes if it means getting the job done.” He shoots Eames a pointed look.
Eames is meant to be offended by that, he knows, but he finds himself grinning instead, startling a little answering smile out of Arthur. “Why, Arthur,” he says, “I think you missed me.”
“Kept me up nights,” Arthur says dryly. He frowns regretfully down at his coffee cup. “Come on, we’d better get back there before Dreyfus does. She and Romero were at each other’s throats this morning.”
“Have I thanked you yet for bringing me on board this disaster?” Eames wonders.
“Suck it up,” Arthur says, already heading for the door. “You’re making ninety grand.”
In fairness, it was somewhat hyperbolic of him to characterize the situation as a disaster. Eames has been involved in some true disasters over the years, and he’s walked away from all of them. So far, he’s never had to walk from one of Arthur’s jobs.
The fact is, Arthur’s right about Romero: somehow, in between all the sturm und drang, he always gets the job done. The extractor, Dreyfus, is an unknown quantity to Eames, but Arthur has worked with her twice before, so she must be decent. Together with himself and Arthur, they’ve got a very good shot at pulling this off, assuming no one dies of exhaustion in the interim. It’s a rush job, and they’re all scrambling to come up with a workable strategy within the allotted timeframe. Eames doesn’t know who the client is, but from some of the comments Arthur has made, he suspects it’s someone he’d rather not add to his list of enemies.
At least he and Arthur are on relatively good terms with each other at the moment. In fact, Arthur is noticeably more pleasant toward him than he has been in recent memory, either because he’s reserved all his frustration for Romero or because Eames looks better by comparison. Perhaps both.
They don’t sleep together. They never do, during jobs. It would only complicate things, and neither of them can afford the distraction. Better to wait until afterward, and then only if they’re both free and interested and no one needs to flee the country.
It’s not going to happen this time, Eames thinks. He’s met a gorgeous young man named Joaquim, an aspiring (if not very promising) thief who speaks reasonably good English and gives earth-shattering head. It’s nothing serious, of course, but it passes the time.
He doubts Arthur would have been interested, in any case. The job is taking its toll on all of them, but none more so than Arthur, who on top of his usual duties is tasked with the thankless job of mediating between Romero and the rest of the world. If this job doesn’t convince Arthur to stop hiring the mad bastard, he ought to be sectioned himself.
“What the fuck,” Dreyfus says one evening, after Romero has brought the mark’s vacation home crashing down on all their heads, and then gone storming out of the hotel suite before they were all properly awake.
“He’ll get it done,” Arthur says, looking as though he’d very much like a cigarette or five.
“He’d better,” Eames says darkly, rubbing at the phantom tenderness in the back of his skull, and refuses to feel the slightest pang of sympathy at the weary slump of Arthur’s shoulders.
Romero returns an hour later, as close to remorseful as he ever gets, and they struggle on, racing the clock.
Two nights before the scheduled extraction date, he wakes up to find Arthur in his hotel room.
He can count the number of times this has happened on one hand. Even on the rare occasion Arthur’s still in bed when Eames falls asleep, he’s usually disappeared by the time Eames wakes – and this time, Eames is quite sure he didn’t invite Arthur in at all.
“What in the fucking hell,” he says, bolting straight up in bed.
“Get up,” Arthur says, twitching the curtains open to peer down at the alley below. It takes Eames a moment to register that he’s speaking Urdu, probably because of Joaquim, who is currently knuckling his eyes and blinking blearily at the madman clutching the curtains. “Our friend moved his surgery up to this morning. We have to move now.”
“Que porra – Martin, who the fuck is this?” demands Joaquim.
Eames hasn’t got an answer for that, at least not one that anyone else in the room will appreciate. “You could have called,” he says instead – in Dari, just to irk Arthur, who can manage a bit of Pashto but who reportedly spent most of his pre-dreamshare career in Pakistan, sidestepping his assigned keepers and driving the ISI into one frothing rage after another.
Arthur shoots him an unimpressed look. “Your phone was off. Your boyfriend probably didn’t want any distractions.” He twirls his forefinger in an impatient little circle, a familiar invitation to get a fucking move on. “Our colleagues will meet us at the hospital. You have five minutes.”
Eames is ready in three, fully dressed with his emergency bag in hand, extra cash and passports belted tightly round his middle. Joaquim is still gaping at him from the middle of the bed, sheet pooled about his hips. It’s almost a shame Eames will never see him again – he does look so terribly appealing with his mouth open.
“Hate to run, love, but duty calls,” Eames says. He leans in and kisses Joaquim briefly on the cheek, gives him an affectionate pat as he pulls back. “Stay out of trouble. Or at least learn how to use that gun properly.”
“Martin – “ Joaquim begins, somewhere between pleading and outraged, but Arthur is already halfway through the door without a single backward glance, and Eames can only follow him, the way the bastard knows he will.
The scrubs he’s given are uncomfortably tight in the shoulders; his last job required him to put on some muscle, and he hasn’t dropped it all yet. Arthur gives him an appraising look when they meet up again in the corridor. It’s hard to say whether he approves of the change or not. Not that Eames is bothered one way or the other.
Arthur’s own scrubs fit perfectly, of course. He probably stole a set in advance and had them tailored.
Still, in the stark, unforgiving glare of the overhead fluorescents, Eames can see the dark smudges under Arthur’s eyes, the tense lines at the sides of his mouth. This job has been shit from start to finish, and Arthur looks drained and unwell, his normally crisp edges worn soft and ragged. Nothing like the beautiful, golden-skinned man Eames has just left behind in his hotel room.
“You should take a break after this,” Eames says, because apparently his mouth has decided it no longer needs to check in with his brain before speaking.
Arthur looks at him for a moment, head tilted slightly to the side, like a curious dog. “Should I?” he asks, with blatantly feigned disinterest.
No, no, that’s not what Eames meant at all. He’s not trying to start anything. He doesn’t make a habit of crawling straight from one man’s bed to the next, and frankly, he doesn’t particularly want Arthur like this.
They’ve fucked a handful of times over the past couple years since Arthur rematerialized in his life. They’re both careful to keep it simple: nothing more or less than a few hours of fantastic sex, divorced from any lingering tensions or hostilities. Eames is happy enough with the state of things between them, most of the time, though certainly there are days he’d like to break a chair over Arthur’s head. Other days, he’d – well.
In any event, he’s used to fiery, demanding Arthur, Arthur who fucks him roughly against walls and isn’t afraid to use his teeth. He knows where he stands with that Arthur. But this worn-down impersonator, this tired-eyed man who needs taking care of – Christ, Eames can hardly look after himself some days. He wouldn’t know where to begin with someone else, even if he wanted to.
There’s no good way to explain all that, though, so he holds his tongue, trying not to dig himself any deeper.
Arthur glances away, and nods almost imperceptibly at the surgeon who bustles past them. “Maybe I will,” he says thoughtfully. His lips twitch. “Martin.”
By the time Arthur catches up with Eames in Miami the next day, he’s looking markedly more cheerful. A bit run-down, still, but large pay-outs have got a remarkable therapeutic effect.
Eames does intend to make his excuses and let Arthur down kindly, truly he does, but Arthur is a tricky bastard when he wants to be. He turns up at Eames’s hotel room wearing the brown trousers and a surprisingly sincere little grin, a sack of Cuban sandwiches in his hand, and Eames can’t quite summon the willpower to turn him away. Anyway, he’s hungry.
They eat perched on the edge of the bed, trying not to drop too many crumbs onto the carpet. When they’ve finished, Arthur licks his own fingers clean and then moves on to Eames’s, mouthing and sucking so assiduously that Eames has got no choice but to tumble him back onto the starched white sheets.
Arthur didn’t shower before coming here; he must have come straight from the airport. The natural scent of his body is obvious beneath the faint traces of cologne and recycled air. Eames likes it, though he’ll be damned if he tells Arthur as much. He muscles his way between Arthur’s thighs and holds them open, buries his nose in the coarse curls above Arthur’s cock where the scent is strongest.
“This what you want?” he murmurs. “You want my mouth on you? Hmm?” He ghosts his lips over the crease where Arthur’s thigh meets his body. “Go on, tell me.”
“You know what I want, you fucking narcissist,” Arthur pants, breathing hard already, though Eames has barely touched him. His legs tense, straining against Eames’s hold. “Hurry up, come on.”
Just to be contrary, Eames takes his time, suckling leisurely at the head of Arthur’s cock, enjoying the brief moment of leverage and the slick, silky heat against his lips. He runs teasing fingertips over the delicate skin behind Arthur’s balls, and laughs around Arthur’s cock when Arthur wriggles against him, trying to urge Eames’s fingers back where he wants them.
Arthur curses him to hell and back, of course, yanks at his hair and kicks his heels against Eames’s ribs. He threatens and bargains and demands, and when that doesn’t work, he wrestles Eames onto his back and straddles his face, moaning like a whore as he grinds selfishly into Eames’s throat.
Eames just digs his fingers into Arthur’s arse and urges him on – deeper, faster, more.
It might be minutes or hours before Arthur pulls back, cock flushed and wet from Eames’s mouth. The sight makes Eames’s own cock throb; he wants it back, wants Arthur to finish what he started. But he’s hoarse and dazed, unable to protest as Arthur manhandles him up to lean back against the headboard and then arranges himself on top, thighs splaying across Eames’s lap. He can only stare as Arthur fingers himself open, quick and filthy with it, mouth slack with pleasure, so unspeakably gorgeous that Eames nearly comes like a bloody teenager when Arthur rolls the condom onto him.
Arthur rides him with merciless rolls of his hips, squeezing rhythmically as he moves. He’s burning hot inside, and almost painfully tight, far tighter than Eames would have dared to leave him. Eames wants to tell him to stop, to let Eames open him up more, but he can’t scrape the words together, not with Arthur’s fingers tangled in his hair, tugging just hard enough to send sparks down his spine.
“This what you want?” Arthur taunts, lips wet against Eames’s ear, and then yanks Eames’s head to the side and fastens his mouth to Eames’s neck. He scrapes his teeth over Eames’s pulse, soothes the sting with his tongue.
Eames reaches blindly for Arthur’s cock, only to be slapped away. “Let me,” he says, fuck-drunk, pleading.
“Don’t, oh, fuck.” Arthur grinds down in Eames’s lap, muffles a groan against his neck. “I want – God – want you to come.” His teeth sink into Eames’s skin, harder than before, hard enough to bruise.
It occurs to Eames, through the haze, that he must have a few fading marks from Joaquim, faint and yellowed now but still visible. Surprisingly, Arthur doesn’t comment on them, just carries on sucking his own throbbing bruises into Eames’s jaw, his shoulder, his chest.
God, he’s close, so close. He grasps for any part of Arthur he can reach, for his flexing thighs and sweat-slick back. His hips jerk helplessly, desperate little thrusts into the sweet clench of Arthur’s arse. Arthur hums against his throat, approving, and Eames imagines, as the heat rises up over him in a frantic rush, that Arthur’s marks are different; that they’ll linger, like one more tattoo, dark and indelible, embedded in his skin.
Chapter 3: Sofia
Like claws, like a poker from the fire, red hot spearing pain. Stop, stop, please –
Ssh. Almost done. You’re okay.
Arthur’s face is hovering above him. Blurry, too close, but he knows Arthur, would know him anywhere. Arthur’s mouth is moving. Pretty mouth. Pretty eyelashes, dark and feathery, soft-looking. He wants to touch them.
It smells of iodine, of chemicals, sterile and unnatural. Hospital smells, and something else, something rotten, poisonous.
Arthur, he says, or thinks he says. It’s all just noise.
It’s too hot.
He turns his head. Arthur is there, in a chair next to the bed.
“Hey,” Arthur says. “You in there?”
Eames frowns. “What,” he tries, not quite a question. His throat is dry.
Arthur nods, apparently satisfied. “Welcome back.” He leans down and scoops something up off the floor – a pill bottle, which he rattles enticingly in Eames’s direction. “Think you can manage these?”
“Morphine?” Eames croaks hopefully. He aches all over: his eyes, his fingernails, his bones.
Arthur shakes his head. “Antibiotics. Your wound’s infected.”
Wound. Right. Eames turns his head to look at his shoulder, mostly hidden under stark white gauze. He tries to move his arm, and can’t.
“Hurts,” he mumbles.
“Yeah, that happens sometimes when you get shot,” Arthur says. “You’ve got another two hours before I can give you anything more for the pain. Come on, let’s see if you can get these down.”
Arthur helps him lift his head enough to swallow down a couple pills, followed by a bit of water. It seems to take far more energy than it should, and Eames slumps back against the pillow when he’s finished, exhausted.
“Hurts,” he says again.
Arthur brushes the hair off his forehead. His fingers are cool on Eames’s skin. Soothing. “Go to sleep, Eames.”
He drifts for hours, maybe, or days. He breaks the surface occasionally, a few fleeting moments of awareness – too hot, Arthur, pills, hurts – before the fever washes over him again, sweeping him along.
He wakes with a start. Sudden clarity, like kicking out of a dream, only there’s no PASIV to be seen.
Sofia. He’s in Sofia. He’s been shot. And Arthur –
He looks round and finds Arthur standing at the window, hands clasped neatly behind his back. At ease.
With the most critical details accounted for, Eames takes a moment to assess his own state. It’s not promising. His arm is immobilized in a sling, bound up close against his chest. His legs are tangled in the sheets, aching and itchy with sweat. He hurts everywhere, pain pulsing from his shoulder out to his fingertips, to the soles of his feet and the roots of his hair.
He turns his attention to the rest of the room. No furniture apart from the bed and a single plastic chair positioned nearby. There’s a drip bag hanging on a rusty nail over the bed, line snaking down to where it’s been taped to his wrist. The light in the room is dull and murky. He’s got no idea what time it is.
“Arthur.” His voice is scratchy, barely audible, but Arthur must hear him, because he turns round immediately.
“You’re awake,” he says, as though Eames might not have noticed.
“What – “ Eames coughs, trying to clear his throat. “What are you doing here?”
Arthur’s eyebrows go up. “You called me. You don’t remember?” Eames shakes his head. “You were pretty out of it. I think the infection had already set in by that point.”
“But how did you – “ He stops, tries to remember. “I destroyed my mobile.”
“I know,” Arthur says. “I told you to. But you gave me enough details to track you to this area. Once I got here, it was just a matter of asking the right questions.”
Eames’s head is killing him. “Asking who? No one…”
Arthur smiles, a quick and startling flash of dimples. “Almost no one,” he says cryptically. And then, inexplicably, he goes to the door, unlocks it and pulls it open just enough to peer out into the corridor. He calls something too quietly for Eames to make out.
Moments later, a small, scruffy boy appears, squirming eagerly past Arthur, who allows this trespassing with uncharacteristic indulgence. Eames is resignedly unsurprised to recognize the very child whom he recalls bribing handsomely to intercept and deflect anyone looking for him.
“Mr. Eames!” the boy says happily. “I bring your friend come see you!”
Arthur ruffles the kid’s hair. “I just asked around after the guy with a bullet hole in him, and wouldn’t you know, Ilia here led me straight to you.”
Ilia grins at them both, showing off a row of chocolate-smeared teeth. A shiny silver wrapper gleams in his fist.
Despite himself, Eames is a bit impressed by this impenitent show of disloyalty. “Did you buy him off with Toblerones?”
Arthur shrugs. “Duty free.”
Eames scowls at him, and at Ilia, who just giggles, rather disgustingly, around a mouthful of semi-chewed chocolate.
“He’s been very helpful,” Arthur adds, patting Ilia’s shoulder.
Ilia looks up at him with the sort of glowing adoration most children can only muster for superheroes and especially large dishes of ice cream. “Mr. Eames okay?” he inquires, seeking confirmation.
Arthur musses the boy’s hair again. “He’ll be fine. It’s getting late, kid. Why don’t you go on home before your mother starts to worry.”
Ilia pulls a face, but nods obediently. “Yes, Mr. Arthur. I see you tomorrow, okay?” Daringly, he gives Arthur a quick squeeze round the waist before he darts back to the door and disappears into the corridor.
“Traitor,” Eames calls after him, weakly.
“Can’t trust anyone these days,” Arthur agrees, patently unsympathetic. He locks the door and then leans back against it, crossing his arms over his chest. His voice takes a sudden hard turn. “Maybe you should remember that the next time you’re thinking of making a deal with Anton Dimitrov.”
Eames bristles at his tone. Arthur’s got an incredible talent for taking simple statements and sharpening them into insults. It’s almost enough to make Eames want to make poor decisions just to spite him.
“It’s none of – “ he begins grumpily, and then abruptly thinks better of it, a few words too late.
“None of my business?” Arthur suggests, silky and dangerous. “I’m pretty sure it is, actually, seeing as I’m the one stuck getting your sorry ass out of this.” He pins Eames with a severe look. “You’re an adult, Eames. You want to dick around with mob bosses and warlords, you go right ahead. Just leave me out of it. And don’t expect me to sign for the package when they send me your fucking head in the mail.”
Perhaps it’s the fever talking, but Eames would swear there’s an undercurrent of something deeper than mere irritation in Arthur’s voice. He looks him over again, taking in the details he overlooked before: Arthur’s red-rimmed eyes, the stubble along his jaw, the creases in his shirt. How long has he been here, sitting by Eames’s bed, waiting for him to wake up?
The thought does something strange to Eames’s insides, an uncomfortable twist amid the pain and nausea. It would be so easy to read something into this, to – to just –
“Arthur,” he drawls, deliberately cloying, and is briefly comforted by the scowly little furrow of Arthur’s brow. “Are you suggesting that you care whether I live or die?”
Arthur snorts. “That is an outrageous accusation,” he says loftily, playing along. He comes to sit on the edge of the bed, mattress creaking under his weight. “Now stop squirming. I need to check your dressing.”
They stay holed up in the room for three more days. Eames is in no condition to travel, and Arthur judges that they’re secure enough where they are. Dimitrov’s men have already come and gone, sniffing through the neighborhood without picking up Eames’s trail. Apparently young Ilia is capable of exercising some discretion, though it’s probably a good job the men didn’t bring any chocolates with them.
The room is not the absolute worst place Eames has ever stayed, but it’s certainly on the list. There is one bed with a moldy, saggy mattress, undoubtedly brimming with bedbugs. The floor is covered in peeling lino, the better to hear the scuttle of the large and fearless cockroaches which make frequent exploratory forays into the bedroom from their command center in the bathroom. Arthur seems remarkably unfazed by them, though Eames notes that he never takes his shoes off.
“They’re just bugs,” he says dismissively, flicking away a particularly intrepid surveyor making its way up the bed frame.
“Of course,” Eames deadpans, unconvinced. He gestures at his bandaged shoulder with his free hand. “And this is just a festering hole in my body, which left untreated could result in painful death.”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “You’re the one who washed up at this place, you fucking drama queen.”
“What means ‘festering’?” asks Ilia.
Eames still doesn’t remember calling Arthur, though he supposes it seemed like the right decision at the time. And it was. Probably. The trouble is, Arthur is notorious for dealing in favors. He trades information and assistance as it suits him, hoarding his debts, only to call them in at invariably inopportune moments. Eames is glad enough of the help now, but God only knows how Arthur will leverage this against him later.
It’s a deal with the devil, he knows. Still, better the devil you know – and he’ll choose survival over his pride any day.
There’s no denying he does need assistance. Between the pain and the fever, he’s almost entirely useless. He needs Arthur’s help to sit up, to eat and drink, to haul himself out of bed and into the filthy bathroom when he needs to use the toilet. He tries not to think about what Arthur must have had to do whilst he was delirious. It’s humiliating, but Arthur is mercifully matter-of-fact about the whole thing. He doesn’t coddle or tease, just calmly does what needs doing.
The wound in Eames’s shoulder is red and inflamed around the edges, leaking a foul-smelling pus. The bullet may still be in there somewhere. Arthur refuses to go poking about for it, which is probably for the best; Eames doesn’t much fancy the idea of blood poisoning. Arthur cleans the wound out as best he can and changes the dressings regularly, trying to keep the infection to a low simmer until Eames can get to a proper surgeon. He doles out pills with heartless exactitude, ignoring Eames’s pleas (and occasional threats) for more and sooner.
“The last thing you need is an opiate addiction,” he says piously, and kicks the little bottle away from Eames’s grasping fingers.
Eames doesn’t know where Arthur is getting all these medical supplies from. The food and other basics are mostly procured through Ilia, who plainly worships the ground Arthur walks on and is always thrilled to be summoned for another errand; he’d probably run out and fetch back a human kidney if Arthur requested it. But the antibiotics and barely-legal painkillers, the sling and saline solution and endless wads of gauze, the blood for the transfusion Arthur told him about – they have to have come from somewhere, from someone, and Arthur never indicates who that might be.
In fact, Arthur rarely leaves the hotel room, only occasionally ducking out for a few minutes when Eames is awake and lucid enough to hold a gun. Not that he’d be much of a shot, one-handed and shivering, but at least it gives him something to focus on whilst lying alone in the miserable room, wondering how far Arthur has gone and whose heavy, unfamiliar footsteps those are out in the corridor.
And then Arthur comes back, ears pink with cold, shaking the snow from his hair and bitching about the antagonistic drunk on the ground floor – and Eames, in spite of everything, is always so very grateful to see him.
They sneak out of the building an hour before dawn, when even Dimitrov’s most bloodthirsty patrollers will be bored and sluggish, distracted, counting the minutes until the end of their shift. Miraculous thing, human nature. Irrepressible.
The fever has left Eames weak as a kitten, shaky on his feet. He leans heavily against Arthur as they negotiate the stairs, and wonders how he ever got up to the second floor in the first place. His legs feel like custard that hasn’t set properly, wobbly and unreliable.
“You’re sure the street’s cleared?” he asks, if only to pretend he’s taking a more active role in his own rescue.
“I took care of it,” Arthur says. He’s got a streak of what looks like motor oil under his eye; his knuckles are scraped raw on one hand. Eames decides not to press for the details.
They’re two steps from the bottom when Eames’s knee buckles under him, sending him pitching forward toward what promises to be a very unpleasant landing. Arthur catches him before he can get too far, fingers digging sharply into his ribs. “Careful,” he says, faintly patronizing, as he tugs Eames’s good arm more securely across his strong, bony shoulders.
“What an inspiring piece of advice,” Eames replies, blinking the stars from his eyes. His shoulder is throbbing. “Here I was thinking how much I’d like to crack my head open on the ground, but we can give your idea a try if you like.”
Arthur gives Eames’s wrist a hard squeeze, just shy of painful. “Ingrate,” he mutters, not sounding too bothered about it.
They reach the bottom of the stairs, and Arthur pulls Eames in just a bit tighter against his side, steadying him before they begin the long shuffle down the corridor. “Keep moving,” he says. “If you pass out on me right now, I’m leaving you on the floor.”
Eames manages a breathless huff of laughter. “You wouldn’t abandon me to the cockroaches.”
“I might,” Arthur says, but his arm is unyielding round Eames’s waist, bearing him up as they make their way to the waiting car.
Chapter 4: Rome
He’s only just fallen asleep when he’s roused by a sharp burst of knocking. He jerks upright, immediately apprehensive. He’s been in this flat for more than a month now, and in that time, not a single soul has come calling. Why should they? He’s been just amiable enough with the neighbors to keep from seeming mysterious or sinister, not enough to encourage dinner invitations or casual drop-ins. Aside from the landlady, who’s as old as the sun and probably hasn’t climbed those stairs since Italy joined the eurozone, no one else knows he’s here.
No one ought to know, anyway. Eames retrieves his gun from the bedside table and moves quietly toward the front door. He stands just to the side of the door as he turns the deadbolt, behind the relative protection of the wall. The chain stays on, as more of a token gesture than anything; it wouldn’t put up much resistance against anyone with a strong back and sufficient motivation.
He cracks open the door, revealing his visitor in slow increments: dark buttery leather, the angle of an elbow, long fingers curled round a worn leather strap.
Eames relaxes instinctively, and then immediately tenses up again, cross with himself. They may have worked together in the past, but alliances shift at the speed of a wire transfer in their world. He should know better than most that Arthur is not someone to be underestimated.
“Arthur,” he says neutrally. He taps the barrel of his gun against the inside of the door, alerting Arthur to its presence, and is very slightly gratified when Arthur doesn’t look surprised.
Arthur flips his hands over at waist-level, palms up, a discreet pantomime of honorable intentions. “No trouble,” he says quietly. “I just – “ He glances off down the corridor, and then back at Eames, lips drawn into a tight line. He looks tired. Hunted. “I need a place to lie low for a while.”
That doesn’t sound like no trouble to Eames, but perhaps Arthur’s got a different rubric for this sort of thing. Regardless, Eames doesn’t like it. This is new territory for them. Fucking in anonymous hotel rooms is one thing; turning up uninvited on each other’s doorsteps is quite another. Even if Arthur’s motives are innocent today, there’s nothing to stop him turning on Eames tomorrow. He knows damn well how Arthur operates. The thought of him infiltrating Eames’s space, memorizing the minutiae of his life for later exploitation – it makes Eames’s skin crawl.
At the very least, Arthur could blow his con, although it’s admittedly unlikely. It’s early days yet, far too soon for the mark to have taken much interest in his new acquaintance’s personal life. But a risk is a risk, and Eames has not got to where he is by being careless with unpredictable variables.
Arthur does look rather wretched, though, with his sad dark eyes and grim little mouth. Eames doesn’t know whether that kicked-dog look is genuine or exaggerated, but it’s damned effective. No one has ever accused Eames of being overly soft-hearted, and yet even he is feeling an odd kind of urge to usher Arthur inside and sit him down with a nice hot cup of tea. If old Sig.ra Moretti next door got her hands on him, she’d have him swaddled in afghans and shoveling carbonara faster than you could blink.
More to the point – though Arthur wouldn’t be so gauche as to state it outright – Eames still owes him for his assistance in Bulgaria. He’s spent the better part of the last year under a cloud of apprehension, waiting for the day Arthur would decide to extract his pound of flesh. He may as well settle the debt now and have done with it.
Eames closes the door. For one fleeting instant, he considers locking it again and making a break for it. He’s only on the second floor, and he’s got down from far worse in the past. Arthur’s good with locks, though; it wouldn’t slow him down much, only aggravate him, and Eames isn’t particularly keen on the prospect of a chase on foot. No, better to let him in now and spare himself the headache.
He slides the chain free and swings the door open. He tilts his head in silent invitation, and Arthur’s arm brushes his chest as he slides past, satchel knocking against the doorframe.
Eames closes the door behind him, turns the lock and refastens the chain. He turns round, expecting to find Arthur surveying the flat, only to see him standing perfectly still next to his small suitcase, eyes fixed on Eames.
“Do you – “ Eames begins.
“No,” Arthur says, though he can’t possibly know what the question would have been.
“All right.” Eames hesitates, then steps forward to kiss Arthur briefly on the mouth. He means it as nothing more than a welcoming gesture, a white flag of sorts, something to smooth the lines from Arthur’s forehead.
For a moment, that’s all it is – and then something in Arthur seems to snap. He surges up against Eames, so suddenly that they both stagger. Arthur’s hands come up to curl round Eames’s shoulders, grabbing at him, and the chaste little kiss turns fierce, wet and obscene. In the span of ten seconds, they’ve managed to skip straight over the pleasantries and land square in full-throttle desperation.
Something is wrong about this, Eames thinks dimly, something – but it’s impossible to think properly with Arthur pressing against him, warm and hard-angled and making urgent little noises into his mouth. It’s been months since he’s been with anyone, and arousal is already clenching hard in his stomach. He goes to push Arthur away and instead ends up hauling him closer, one hand clenched in the smooth leather of his jacket and the other round the back of his neck.
Arthur’s own hands are everywhere, in constant motion: running over Eames’s shoulders, squeezing his biceps, sliding down his sides to clutch at his hips before coming back up to grip his face. Arthur’s mouth is hard on his, demanding, breaking away from the kiss only to attack Eames’s jaw, his neck. It hurts, thin skin caught roughly between Arthur’s teeth, Arthur’s fingers digging bruises into his flesh. It’s clumsy and violent and Eames is going hard so quickly his head is spinning.
“Christ, Arthur,” he grits out, caught between flinching away from the sting of Arthur’s teeth and arching into the wet slide of his lips.
Arthur groans against his throat, a low needy sound, fingers clenching painfully tight in Eames’s hair. “Fuck me,” he says, barely a whisper.
They don’t make it to the bedroom.
It’s still dark when he wakes. The mattress is cool next to him, and it takes him a moment to realize there’s something off about that. He pushes himself up on his elbows and looks at the empty space beside him, taking in the dent in the other pillow, the rucked-up sheets. The fleeting imprint of Arthur’s body in his bed.
“Fucking hell,” he mutters.
He flips back the covers and clambers to his feet, wincing as his body registers a dozen different pains: overworked muscles, the sharp invisible ache of new bruises, a hint of soreness in his arse where Arthur shoved two fingers into him moments before he came.
“Fucking hell,” he says again, feelingly.
He finds Arthur out on the balcony, smoking. Neither of them has bothered with much in the way of clothing, and Arthur’s bare skin gleams in the faint light from the street, a stark contrast with his little black shorts. Eames is momentarily taken aback to see how small he looks, shoulders bowed, all folded in on himself. He always seems more substantial when he’s moving, a force to be reckoned with, alight with dangerous energy. At rest, he’s narrow and angular, spare muscle stretched over sharp, breakable bones.
Eames settles in next to him, bracing himself against the iron railing. Arthur doesn’t look over, just takes a drag off his cigarette and then releases it, takes another, in and out, a steady joyless rhythm. There’s a tidy heap of butts on the floor, burned down to the filter; Eames sizes them up, trying to calculate how long Arthur has been out here.
“Mal Cobb’s dead,” Arthur says. His voice is flat, slightly raspy. Emotionless.
Eames gives the words a moment to settle. The weight of them dissipates slowly, fading into the air like the curls of smoke from Arthur’s fag. “How?” he asks finally, when he senses that Arthur is waiting for his response.
“She fell,” Arthur says shortly. “Out of a tenth-floor window.” He takes another drag, in and out. “Cobb says she jumped. The police think otherwise.”
Arthur doesn’t say anything more. He taps his cigarette against the railing, and they both watch the ash as it falls, drifting down and down until it’s out of sight.
Eames doesn’t know how Arthur fell in with the Cobbs. He doesn’t know whether he met Mal or Dom first, how long he’s known them, how many times he worked with them that Eames never heard about. He doesn’t know why Arthur’s here, in his flat, and not on a plane to Los Angeles. He doesn’t know a lot of things.
Arthur blows out a mouthful of smoke, quick and forceful, and says suddenly, “You know I drove her to the hospital when she had James?”
Eames shakes his head, though of course Arthur’s not looking at him. He tries to follow Arthur’s line of sight, but he doesn’t seem to be focused on anything, just gazing blankly at the scattering of lights down the road.
“Two weeks early. Cobb was at a conference.” Arthur huffs out a mirthless laugh. “Eight miles to the hospital, and she cursed me out the whole damn way. Kept saying I was driving too slowly.”
Eames smiles, despite himself. He knows Arthur’s driving well enough to imagine that scene.
“Cobb made it back just in time. God, I thought for sure Mal was going to tear him a new one, but she never did. I guess it didn’t matter, at that point.” He laughs that hollow little laugh again. “They were so happy.”
Eames glances over to see Arthur staring down at his cigarette, the lit end glowing red in the darkness. His face is blank, eyes dry, mouth turned down very slightly at the corners, as it often is when he’s not making any expression in particular. He looks distant, half a world away, and Eames finds himself wanting Arthur to touch him again, the way he did earlier, sinking his fingers into Eames’s flesh and bones. He wants to give Arthur something to hold onto, to draw him out of his memories and anchor him here, half naked and well-fucked on Eames’s balcony.
Stupid thoughts. Eames is tired, not in the mood to pick apart the riddles of Arthur’s psyche. He wishes Arthur would come inside so they could both go back to sleep.
“Cobb didn’t kill her,” Arthur says.
Eames says nothing. It’s true, perhaps, or perhaps not. It doesn’t affect him one way or the other.
“I know what it sounds like, but – something happened. I don’t know what. She’s been…“ Arthur shakes his head, doesn’t continue, leaving it to Eames to supply the rest of that sentence.
Different. Not herself. Trying to hurl herself out of tenth-floor windows.
“Cobb told me,” Arthur says, and pauses. He takes a long drag and holds it, coughs around the exhale. “He said she thought she was going to wake up,” and there’s a fault running through his voice now, the hint of an impending tremor. He shakes his head again. “Shit. How do you just – “ He breaks off, bringing his cigarette quickly to his lips.
How do you just.
It doesn’t surprise Eames, what’s happened to Mal. Oh, he liked her well enough, from the little interaction he had with her – the odd job here and there, recruited through Arthur to moonlight as a research subject. Easy money. But he’d seen it even then, the danger there. The Cobbs were as starry-eyed as they come, too blinded by possibilities and potentials to truly grasp the risks of walking a tightrope through your own head.
Civilians, he thinks, though that’s not quite fair. God knows there were enough rumors back in the Project Somnacin days: nasty reactions to experimental sedative blends; soldiers who woke from standard training sessions and shot up their whole teams, or quietly went about the rest of their daily tasks before returning to their barracks and eating their guns; intelligent, grounded men and women who opened the wrong door in their minds and got lost there, unable or unwilling to find their way out.
It could happen to anyone, he supposes, if they weren’t careful. Anyone at all.
His back is starting to twinge. He straightens up for a moment, rolls his shoulders to try to work out the tightening knots of tension. He’s going to feel like ten kinds of hell in the morning. He resettles a bare centimeter or two to the right, so that he can just feel the hard point of Arthur’s elbow grazing his forearm.
Arthur looks at him, finally. There’s no trace of the fever-hot hunger from earlier, no anger or grief or anything, really. He studies Eames for a long minute, the way he studies documents and records, impassive and clinical. “Do you ever…?”
“No,” Eames says. It’s true. He would have lied, if it weren’t.
Arthur nods. “Good.” He looks away again, and stubs out his cigarette, cherry smoldering against the railing. “Good.”
He half expects Arthur to be gone in the morning, but he’s still there next to him in bed, lying on his back with his hands clasped loosely on top of his stomach. Eames wonders if he’s slept at all, or if he’s been lying there like that all night, staring at the ceiling.
Eames stretches, stifling a grunt at the stiffness in his back. Arthur rolls his head to the side to look at him.
“Morning,” Eames says.
Arthur doesn’t respond, just keeps looking at him, as if waiting for him to come up with something more interesting. His hair is sticking out in about a hundred different directions at once.
Eames grasps for something else to break the silence. “You stole the duvet.”
Arthur glances down at the small mountain of bedding he’s got heaped around him. “Guess so,” he says.
Eames gives an experimental tug to the corner of the duvet. It doesn’t budge. “I suppose I’m not surprised to find you’re still an arsehole even when you’re asleep.”
Arthur stares blankly at him. For an instant, Eames thinks he’s miscalculated – but then Arthur’s mouth tilts into a small, crooked smile. “You’re a dick.” He rolls over, freeing part of the duvet, and tosses it carelessly in Eames’s direction. “Satisfied?”
“Hardly, you miser,” Eames scoffs, relieved by the sudden release of pressure in the room, and slides closer, hands grasping blindly under the duvet for the warmth of Arthur’s body.
It turns out that Arthur cooks the same way he does most things: capably, economically, and without the slightest hint of originality. Eames has no doubt that the frittata Arthur cobbles together has come straight out of some cookbook or another, and that it has never once occurred to Arthur to deviate from the original recipe.
It’s good, though, and Eames is famished, so he keeps his thoughts to himself. They eat in a not uncomfortable silence, both of them paying more attention to their food than to each other, and when they’ve finished, Arthur clears the plates and goes to do the washing up.
Eames finishes his cup of tea and clicks the kettle on again. He leans against the counter whilst he’s waiting, and takes the opportunity to admire the shape of Arthur’s arse in those little shorts. There are worse things than having a handsome, nearly-naked man cooking him breakfast, he reflects – even if that man is capable of completely and utterly ruining his life.
Arthur finishes with the plates and dries his hands on Eames’s lone, bedraggled tea towel. “I should get dressed.”
“There’s no rush,” Eames says, leaning past him to fetch a tea bag. Since he happens to be in such close proximity, he punctuates this advice with an appreciative slap to Arthur’s arse.
Arthur, being Arthur, grabs Eames’s wrist and twists his arm back behind him, throwing him off balance. Eames instinctively responds with a well-placed kick to the back of Arthur’s knee, and all at once they’re sparring, grappling for holds and slamming each other against the cupboards.
“Fuck,” Eames swears, when he catches an elbow on the edge of the countertop, and then, “fuck,” as Arthur sneaks a hand between them, cupping him through his pants. “Cheating, you bastard, that’s – “
Arthur kisses him, sweetly, soft slippery lips and a hint of teeth. “Deal with it,” he murmurs.
And, well, giving up isn’t so bad, not with Arthur’s long limbs tangled up with his, Arthur’s skin smooth and hot under his hands. Arthur tastes like onions and cigarettes, revolting, but Eames can’t pull away. They fit together like their bodies were designed for this, for just exactly this, rocking into each other with their feet slipping on the cool, butter-spattered tiles.
“Eames, please,” Arthur breathes, eyes shut tight, color high in his cheeks. His fingers dig into Eames’s shoulder, his arse. “Please.”
Arthur has never begged before. It’s not his way; he takes what he wants, doesn’t waste time in the asking. But he’s begging now, shameless, writhing against the press of Eames’s thigh, and Eames has to set his teeth into the muscle of Arthur’s shoulder to stop the words that want to spill out: yes, and perfect, and anything, anything.
It’s not so terrible having Arthur about. He’s reasonably considerate, as houseguests go, and not nearly as meddlesome as Eames might have expected. For the most part, he stays out of Eames’s way, aside from the occasional burst of disapproval (dog-earring books is for savages, apparently), and the relatively more frequent invitations to strip down and join him on the nearest flat surface, with which Eames is usually happy to comply.
He spends a lot of time on his laptop, staring intently at the screen in between bursts of furious typing. Eames hasn’t the faintest whether he’s hacking the FBI servers, ordering an assassination or playing World of Warcraft. It’s probably best not to ask.
He leaves the flat at reasonable intervals, usually for just long enough that Eames will be starting to wonder where he’s got to when he returns bearing a newspaper or suppli or, once, a gleaming new HK P30.
(“Bought it off Jules, did you?” Eames asks, watching Arthur’s long fingers disassembling the gun with a deft, practiced touch that borders on pornographic.
“Lombardi,” Arthur says. “Jules and I had a…misunderstanding.”
He refuses to elaborate, which is suspect enough that Eames persists in trying to wheedle the details out of him, until he realizes they’ve been having this stupid argument for twenty minutes and their mouths could probably be put to better use.)
He buys coffee, rearranges Eames’s fridge, charges his mobile, washes the sheets. He watches nature documentaries dubbed in Italian and falls asleep on the couch, listing sideways like a drunk until his head collides with Eames’s arm. He blows Eames awake one night, flips him over onto his belly with his wrists up over his head and fucks him stupid, fucks him deaf and dumb and blind, and then kicks him out of bed the next morning so he can wash the sheets again.
The one thing he doesn’t do is talk about the Cobbs. He’s in contact with someone – Mal’s father, Eames thinks – but he never tells Eames what they talk about, and Eames doesn’t ask. Eames isn’t going to stick his nose in where it doesn’t belong. Mal was Arthur’s friend, not his, and he’s entitled to process her death any way he likes.
Anyway, Arthur seems composed enough: no weeping, no alcoholic rages, no garment-rending or gnashing of teeth. If he’s having a mental breakdown or suffering a slow descent into black despair, he’s hiding it quite well.
It’s true he smokes like a bloody chimney, empty packets piling up into a perilous heap in the bin, and he stares off into space sometimes with that terrible dull, vacant expression. But he also criticizes Eames’s hair products, and hums to himself whilst shaving, and sneaks his cold feet between Eames’s calves in the middle of the night. He cooks egg rolls for dinner and whacks Eames’s thieving hand with the tongs. He comes untouched on the curl of Eames’s fingers and winds his arms round Eames’s neck afterward, hauls him close to press soft lazy kisses to the side of his face.
The fifth night after Arthur’s arrival, Eames goes down to his mark’s favorite bar to buy a few top-shelf rounds and flaunt the shiny new Rolex he’s supposedly bought himself from his latest money-making scheme. It goes swimmingly: Bruno’s still not overly friendly, but he’s unquestionably interested. Another week or two and he’ll start asking the questions any reasonable man not burdened with an overabundance of scruples would ask.
Eames is on his way home when it occurs to him that Arthur has been completely unattended in his flat for four hours. Appallingly, he didn’t give it a moment’s thought when he left. Arthur was on his computer at the time, reading through what looked like some kind of listserve in a language Eames couldn’t place from a distance. He waved off Eames’s departure without even a glance, muttering something ominous-sounding under his breath, and Eames just walked right out and left him there, like an idiot.
Strangely, he can’t work up much of a panic. The fact is, Arthur’s already had plenty of opportunities to rob him blind or otherwise fuck him over. So far, though, it seems the only things he’s interested in stealing are the neighbors’ wireless and the occasional shirt from Eames’s hamper, and the latter is probably only because he’s realized it’s a reliable way to get his cock sucked.
(Eames loathes being predictable, but he can’t help the way his mouth goes wet at the sight of his clothes hanging off Arthur’s lean frame. And why should he resist the urge? He rather likes Arthur’s cock, and he’d hate to deprive Arthur of the opportunity to return the favor.)
In any event, there’s no sense rushing now that he’s realized. If Arthur has decided to take advantage of Eames’s extended absence, it’s already too late to stop him.
The flat is dark and quiet when he returns. Eames’s things seem to be mostly where he left them, with the exception of the cup he left in the sink, which has been washed and returned to the cabinet.
Arthur is in bed, sprawled gracelessly on top of the duvet like a chalk outline. He doesn’t react when Eames sits down on the edge of the mattress, though Eames knows he’ll have woken up the moment the front door opened.
Eames kicks off his shoes and just looks for a while, taking in the newly familiar sight of Arthur in his bed. He smoothes a hand up the sleek line of Arthur’s back, from the shallow dip above his arse to the hard rounded bone at the top of his spine. He expects Arthur to tense under his hand, but he just mumbles something incomprehensible and shifts back into the touch, loose and pliant. The curls at his nape are soft and feathery, slightly damp from the sleepy heat of his skin.
Eames could snap his neck, right this instant. He could retrieve Arthur’s own gun from the bedside table and put a bullet in the back of his head. He could make off with Arthur’s laptop and his mobile and sell them both to the highest bidder, doubtless make three times what he’s likely to earn off this con.
He could run, take his cash and passports and abandon this job, fall off the map for a while. He could disappear, somewhere even Arthur couldn’t find him. Let Arthur think he’s gone for good, that he’s dead, perhaps, gunned down by Dimitrov or Menezes or some other enemy and left to rot in a shallow grave.
Would Arthur care? Would it hurt him? Would he wonder, always, if Eames had suffered as he died, if he’d thought about him, if he’d known –
Arthur rubs his cheek against the pillow and opens one eye, squinting against the dim light from the hallway. “If I jerk you off, will you let me go back to sleep?”
Eames thumbs over Arthur’s soft, slack mouth. “I make no promises.”
He’s tired himself, though, and in the end he falls asleep with Arthur’s fingers tucked under the waistband of his pants, Arthur’s breath gusting warm and humid against his cheek.
Arthur goes for a run the next morning, in expensive trainers and thin gray jogging bottoms that cling to the swell of his arse. He comes back sweaty and breathless, pink all over, and Eames doesn’t even let him get his kit off before he’s bending him over the kitchen table, fingers twisted in Arthur’s tousled wet hair.
“So you like these pants, then,” Arthur says afterward, slumped over the table with the clothing in question still caught round his ankles. His t-shirt is shoved up under his arms, exposing the long muscles of his back; there’s a sticky, gleaming line of lube dripping down his thigh. Just looking at him makes Eames’s cock hurt. “Jesus. Don’t think I’m cleaning this up.”
“You’re the one who made the mess,” Eames points out. He feels dazed, drunk with endorphins. He wants to fold himself down over Arthur and go to sleep.
Arthur stretches, hums out a pleased noise when something cracks. “Don’t you have old ladies to be swindling out of their life savings, or something?”
“Trying to get rid of me, are you?” Eames nips sharply at the small of Arthur’s back, and then lower, teeth skidding on the taut, slippery curve of his arsecheek.
“Obviously,” Arthur says. “I’ve got a team coming in ten minutes to rob this place down to the wall studs, so if you wouldn’t mind making yourself scarce – ”
Eames spanks him, just the once but hard enough to make his palm sting, and Arthur groans through his laughter, pushing back for more.
When he gets back to the flat that night, Arthur’s suitcase is sitting by the front door.
For a long minute, Eames doesn’t understand. He stares at the suitcase, mystified by its sudden appearance. What is it doing there? It was still in the bedroom when he left, wide open and half-empty, gutted from where Arthur’s things have been steadily relocating to Eames’s dresser and bedside table and bathroom cabinet over the past week.
It’s only when he notices that Arthur’s computer has disappeared from the coffee table that he realizes.
There’s a sheet of paper sitting on top of the suitcase, notes and numbers jotted down in Arthur’s neat copperplate. Eames picks it up with numb fingers. Rome to Frankfurt, and from there on to Dubai. The flight out of Fiumicino departs in an hour and a half. If he’d come back twenty minutes later, Arthur would have been gone.
There are noises coming from the bedroom. Eames follows them, and finds Arthur shuffling through a stack of papers and identity documents, fully dressed in shirt and shoes and those brown trousers Eames likes so much. His hair is slicked back, as it hasn’t been since he arrived. He must be incredibly preoccupied not to have noticed Eames’s arrival.
“Am I interrupting something?” Eames inquires, careful to keep his voice level.
Arthur looks up, relief blossoming on his face. “Eames,” he says. “God, there you are.” He drops what he’s holding and comes to Eames, reaching for him, and for a moment, Eames thinks – but the kiss is quick and distracted, passionless. A formality. Arthur’s hand slips off Eames’s shoulder as he turns back to the papers strewn across the bed. “I tried to call you, but your phone was off.”
“Poker game in the back room,” Eames says. “House rules.”
Arthur shrugs off the explanation. “Look, Cobb’s gone on the run. The feds are trying to pin Mal’s death on him.”
“And you’re going after him.”
Arthur nods, not hearing or perhaps ignoring the sharpness in Eames’s voice. “He landed in Dubai this morning, but he can’t stay there, obviously. Too many sharks in the water.” He aims a quick grin in Eames’s direction. “Not that I need to tell you that.”
Eames is angry, suddenly. It boils up inside him, white-hot seething resentment – that Arthur can treat this so lightly, that it’s so bloody easy for him to just walk away. “Did he call you?”
“No, Miles told me,” Arthur replies, flipping open a passport to scan through the visa pages. “Mal’s father. He and her mother are with the kids. He didn’t know where Cobb had gone, but I made some calls, and – ”
“So he didn’t ask you to go.”
Arthur glances over at him, brow furrowed. “No, he didn’t,” he says slowly. He sets down the passport. “Does it matter? He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’d get himself killed on his own.”
“He’s a grown man,” Eames says. He can hear the venom starting to seep into his words, welling up from something hidden deep and rotten in his chest. “He doesn’t need a minder.”
“He needs help,” Arthur says. He’s frowning now, clearly puzzled by Eames’s reaction. “Why are you being such an asshole about this?” Something changes in his expression, and he turns to face Eames fully, eyes narrowed. “You think he did it.”
It’s so wide of the mark, Eames nearly laughs in his face. “I think it doesn’t matter whether he did it or not. It’s not your problem.”
“Mal was my friend,” Arthur says tightly.
“I know that,” Eames says, not entirely ungently; he’s not a complete arsehole. “But there’s nothing you can do for her now. You think she’d want you to play martyr, is that it? Throw your life away to chase Cobb around the globe and make sure he keeps his arse wiped?”
“I’m not throwing anything away,” Arthur retorts, and oh, yes, that cuts just as deep as Eames thought it might. “Jesus, it’s not like I’m – it’s just for a while, just until we can figure something out.”
Eames snorts. “Don’t kid yourself, Arthur. Cobb’s going to be running for the rest of his life, and you know it.” He’s got his own sources; he knows what they’re saying about Dom Cobb. “The only question is, how many years are you willing to give him? Two? Ten? You’d better decide that now.”
Arthur’s eyes have gone cold and flinty. He turns away, busies himself with tucking the documents away in his satchel.
“It’s not like I have much of a choice,” he bites out after a minute, jaw clenched so tightly Eames is almost surprised he managed to get the words out.
“Don’t be daft, you’ve always got a choice,” Eames says. “You’re making a choice, right now. No one’s forcing you into this. Take some responsibility for your actions.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do!” Arthur fires back, rounding on him again. “For fuck’s sake, Eames, just because I don’t have a gun to my head or a paycheck waiting doesn’t mean I don’t have an obligation. Is that such a hard concept for you to wrap your head around?”
Eames’s throat feels raw, shredded by the broken-glass edges of the words he can’t let out. What has he – why don’t you – what more could I – ?
“Fine,” he says finally. He sticks a hand in his pocket, resisting the urge to cross his arms over his chest. Too obvious; too defensive. “We’re even now, yeah? All settled? Or should I be expecting your call?”
“My – “ Arthur stares at him blankly, uncomprehending – and then his face hardens, lips thinning. He gives a jerky nod. “Right. Of course. Even.” He slings his satchel over his shoulder, and adds coldly, “Thanks for tolerating my presence. I hope it wasn’t too much to endure.”
Eames shrugs, noncommittal.
Arthur snatches his mobile off the bedside table and turns to leave, pushing carelessly past Eames. He’s at the door when he pauses, one hand on the doorframe, and abruptly spins back around. “Just tell me, okay, because I don’t – how do you live like this? I don’t get it, I really don’t. How do you fucking get up in the morning, when you can’t even – when you just go around expecting the worst from everyone – “
“Never disappointed, am I,” Eames retorts, trying to ignore the sting of Arthur’s assessment.
“God, don’t give me that fake enlightened bullshit,” Arthur snaps. “You act like you’re so above it all, like everyone else’s trivial little emotional attachments are some kind of goddamn character flaw. Congratulations, you don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself. It doesn’t make you better than us, Eames – it makes you fucking pathetic.”
(Before Sofia, Eames had never been shot in reality. It wasn’t at all how he’d thought it would be, what months of PASIV training and years of experience in dreamshare had taught him to expect. It didn’t hurt, not at first. He remembers the bullet hitting his shoulder, the explosive violence of it, like he’d thrown himself on a grenade, shock waves rattling through every bone in his body. He didn’t feel it when he hit the ground, didn’t feel anything – his whole world tunneling down to white noise and the breathtaking, overpowering force of the impact.)
“Get out,” Eames says.
Arthur jerks the strap of his satchel higher onto his shoulder. “I’m already gone,” he says viciously, one last parting blast, aiming to hurt.
As if anything he does could touch Eames, now.
As if Eames doesn’t know.
Chapter 5: Nairobi
The moment he wakes up, he knows he’s done something stupid.
Last night’s excesses are pounding their vengeful beat behind his eyes, coils of nausea throbbing deep in his gut. He groans, and regrets it immediately as the sound reverberates through his aching skull.
His arm has gone numb, most likely because someone is lying on top of it. Someone – he risks an investigative prod with his free hand – someone male, and naked, and seemingly fit. His sleep-clumsy fingers graze down a leanly muscled flank, catch on a sharp hipbone. Yes, quite fit, and generously endowed as well, if the ache in Eames’s jaw is any indicator.
From the pleasant soreness in his own cock, he surmises that the alcohol did not slow him down overmuch.
Eames inhales, blindly nudging his nose into the crook of the other man’s neck. The damp skin is layered with the thick, sticky scent of sex, sweat and come and – and –
Eames’s hand freezes in its leisurely exploration of his companion’s firm, shapely arse.
He forces his eyes open, bites down a swell of nausea at the white-hot knives of sunlight lancing straight through to his brain – and, yes, he knows those sharp collarbones, the pair of freckles tucked under the ridge of bone. He breathes in again; there’s something different, new cologne perhaps, but the rest is so familiar, so obvious. He can’t imagine how he missed it before.
Of bloody fucking course, Arthur chooses this precise moment to rouse, letting out a sleepy mutter as his leg shifts forward slightly, bony knee knocking into Eames’s thigh. His fingers twitch on Eames’s side, curling against his ribs.
“Eames,” he rasps, sounding resigned.
It’s not a question, but Eames grunts in the affirmative.
Arthur sighs heavily, a rush of hot breath ruffling Eames’s hair. “Sleep now,” he mumbles, bleary but decisive. “Hate ourselves later.”
Eames needs to piss, and to do something about the dried come he can feel in itchy smears on his hand and stomach. Most importantly, he needs to secure passage on the next plane, bus or fucking ox-cart out of this city, anything that will take him several countries away from Arthur’s knee and hand and sharp freckly collarbones.
On the other hand, his head feels like it may actually crack open, and he’s not entirely certain that he won’t be sick if he attempts to stand. There’s a bedspring jabbing him in the hip and he’s uncomfortably warm, but Arthur’s thumb is tracing persuasive little circles at his waist, and in the end it’s easier to sink back into unconsciousness, dead arm still trapped under Arthur’s body.
He wakes some time later with his face mashed in Arthur’s armpit, one leg hooked jealously over Arthur’s thigh. The pounding in his head has dulled to an unpleasant pulsation, slightly out-of-sync with the rhythm Arthur’s fingers are drumming on his shoulder. He still needs to piss.
“You snore when you’re drunk,” Arthur says.
“Fuck off,” Eames replies. He disengages, extracting his errant limbs from where they’re mixed up with Arthur’s, and then rolls to his back, just to put a bit of space between them. It’s a few thousand kilometers short of being a safe distance, but it’ll have to suffice for the moment.
“Like an angry bear,” Arthur continues, undeterred. “The people in the next room have probably called animal control.” There’s a teasing lilt to his voice, the diamond-blade edges of his usual mockery blunted with sleep and sex, and this is the worst mistake of Eames’s life, the absolute worst.
It’s one thing to work together: money is money, and all other considerations aside, Arthur and Cobb are one of the best point-extractor teams around. It’s excusable, perhaps, every great once in a while, to knock back one pint too many and find his hand creeping up Arthur’s Dior-clad thigh, because it doesn’t require much thought to get your cock sucked in a public toilet.
But this, Arthur lounging naked in his bed, drowsy and loose-limbed and agreeable, tapping out Morse code on Eames’s skin and chuckling at his own stupid jokes – Eames can’t bear it. He may be a hard man, but he’s only human.
He risks a glance at Arthur, who’s watching him with a slightly dopey grin on his face. Arthur’s hair is a disaster, a mass of tangles and stubborn clumps of gel, curls springing out here and there with joyful anarchy. Eames wants to touch those curls, smooth them down, tuck them behind Arthur’s ears; he wants to wind his fingers in them and tug Arthur forward until that lopsided smile is close enough to kiss.
“We really must stop meeting like this,” he says instead, aiming for a detached sort of levity. So they fucked, again. Nothing to write home about, is it. He’s fucked loads of people. What’s one more morning after?
Arthur snorts. “Don’t look at me. I’m not the one who grabbed my ass in front of half of Nairobi and almost got us arrested.”
Eames does remember that, vaguely. “And I suppose you’re going to tell me you did nothing to provoke me.”
“Hmm,” Arthur says vaguely. He stretches, languid and brazen, such a barefaced ploy that Eames can’t believe he’s falling for it – but he can’t not look at those lean corded forearms, the arch of Arthur’s chest and belly, the dark curls leading down to his half-hard cock. Arthur’s eyes are sharp with interest, belying the affected nonchalance of his sprawl, and Eames’s cock twitches, his body responding to Arthur’s the way it always does, with or without explicit approval from his higher functions. He wants Arthur, still, after everything, and it’s only too obvious that Arthur wants him in return. Arthur would let him do whatever he likes, here and now, no questions asked. He could wrap a hand round Arthur’s cock, tease him to full hardness and then ride him into the mattress, fuck them both to shattering climaxes. He could straddle Arthur’s shoulders and feed him his cock, fuck the smirk off that mouth with his balls slapping Arthur’s chin and his fingers twisted tightly in Arthur’s ridiculous hair. He could spread Arthur’s thighs and press his mouth to Arthur’s slick hole, hot wet sucking kisses where he’s still loose and sensitive until Arthur is begging for his tongue, his fingers, anything, just –
No, he tells himself sternly. He’s not doing this again, not whilst he’s got the presence of mind to remember why it’s a mistake. He’s going to get up right now and get dressed, gather his things and walk out of here with the last tattered shreds of his dignity.
Just as he’s opening his mouth to inform Arthur of this – not in so many words, of course – a mobile goes off, buzzing somewhere down on the floor.
“Hold that thought,” Arthur says, and rolls over, leaning halfway off the bed to rummage through the heaps of discarded menswear on the floor. He really has got the most spectacular arse, tight and round and heartbreakingly smooth; it’s at least three-quarters of the reason Eames continues to answer his calls. He wriggles further off the bed, and a bit of Eames’s resolve goes with him, ensnared by the lovely twist of those narrow hips.
There are faint marks on the back of Arthur’s thigh, blurry bruises only just starting to take shape. Eames doesn’t recall putting them there, but his mind is more than happy to fill in the blanks: Arthur’s leg thrown over his shoulder, thigh trembling in Eames’s grip, chest heaving as Eames folds him in half and fucks those stuttering little gasps out of him…
No, he thinks again, weakly. It’s not quite as convincing as before.
He’s struggling with himself – specifically, with the desire to fit his fingers back over those bruises, where they belong – when Arthur abruptly sits up, mobile in hand. His teasing little smirk has slipped away, vanished like it never was, which tells Eames that it’s Cobb calling, and this little encounter is over.
“It’s Cobb,” Arthur says, demonstrating his unparalleled talent for stating the obvious. He looks sideways at Eames, as if expecting him to kick up a fuss. “I should take this.”
Eames waves a hand, magnanimously conceding to the inevitable.
“Cobb.” Arthur’s voice is serious, professional. If Eames were Cobb, he would never suspect his partner was sitting naked in another man’s bed, knees pulled up to his chest, leaking lube onto the sheets. “Yeah. Right.” Arthur closes his eyes, rests his forehead against his knee. “Yeah, no, that’s – that’s fine. Where are you now?”
Eames watches as Arthur kicks the sheet away and rises from the bed to start hunting down the various pieces of yesterday’s suit. His head is tilted to the side, trapping the phone against his shoulder, but the line of his back is straight. He’s got impeccable posture, still, all these years later.
Arthur disappears into the bathroom, taking his beautiful arse with him. Without that distraction, it’s a bit easier for Eames to consider what he’s going to do now.
He needs to get out of here, of course. The other day he overheard Cobb and Arthur talking about a meeting in South Africa, so he’s obviously not going there. But he’s in no rush to return to the frigid northern hemisphere, and anyway, the thought of a twelve-hour flight makes his head pound in anticipation. Better to stay local for now. Back to Mombasa, perhaps. He knows people there, and it’s a good place to disappear for a while, hot and crowded and bursting with color.
Arthur emerges from the bathroom in his shirt and trousers, suit jacket tossed over his arm. His hair has been tamed, for the moment at least, with what Eames suspects is a combination of water and willpower. Eames’s own bottle of gel is sitting in plain view on the sink, but Arthur hates the brand Eames buys and would probably resort to using his own saliva before nicking any.
“So,” Arthur says.
Eames can’t quite hold back a tight, bitter smile. “So,” he echoes.
Arthur bites his lip, fidgeting uncharacteristically with the leg of his trousers. He’s quit smoking again. “Look, I just…“ He takes a small, awkward step toward the bed.
Eames takes pity on him. No sense dragging this out. “Cobb’s waiting for you,” he says. “You should go.”
Arthur exhales slowly, frown lines appearing in his forehead, deeper than they used to be. They’re both getting older, if not wiser. “Are we ever going to talk about this?”
“What’s there to talk about?” He means it. What’s done is done. He’s never seen the point in dwelling on past mistakes.
(Except – )
Eames shakes his head. “Just go, Arthur.” The longer Arthur stands there, earnest and uncomfortable, the more Eames wants to pull him back into bed. Arthur would humor him, probably, for a minute or two. But he won’t stay. He was never planning to stay.
Arthur hesitates. He’s poised to move forward, right heel lifted ever so slightly off the ground – and then he shifts back, resettling.
“Okay,” he says. “Well. Your share should be in your account later today.”
“Cheers,” Eames says.
Arthur turns to go. His shirt is wrinkled in the back. Eames wants to tear it off him.
“Arthur,” he says, before he can stop himself.
Arthur turns round. “Yeah?”
It’s Eames’s turn to hesitate now. “Dimitrov went down last month,” he says at last, watching carefully for Arthur’s reaction.
Arthur’s face gives nothing away. “I heard.”
“Any reports on who did it?”
Arthur shrugs. “Rumors. Nothing concrete. General consensus seems to be that the asshole had it coming.” He’s stopped fidgeting; Eames can’t quite decide if that means he’s lying or telling the truth. “It wasn’t me, if that’s what you’re wondering. Dimitrov was playing a dangerous game. He had a lot of enemies.”
“Right,” Eames says. “I was in esteemed company, wasn’t I.”
“For once,” Arthur says, offering him a ghost of a smile. “Goodbye, Eames.”
The door closes behind him with a soft click, and Eames finally hauls himself out of the wrecked bed and goes to piss.
Chapter 6: Los Angeles
His mouth is dry when he wakes. He’s stiff all over. No surprise there; he doesn’t move much when he’s under, and even a two-hour stint often has him waking with a crick in his neck. He’s never pulled off anything close to ten hours in one go before.
Before he opens his eyes, he takes a few moments just to listen. It always pays to have a sense of what he’s waking up to. There’s nothing too exciting this time: the dull drone of the engines, the rustle of movement from nearby seats, the muffled, unhurried footsteps of the flight attendant.
Satisfied, Eames rubs the blur from his vision and looks round, taking stock of his fellow passengers.
Two seats in front of him, the shift of Fischer’s arm tells Eames that the poor little rich boy is awake. Assuming the inception took – and Eames knows it did, he saw it himself – Fischer ought to be in the midst of a life-changing epiphany. With any luck, it’ll keep him occupied enough not to wonder at the fact that he’s just slept ten hours straight without having been woken by a flight attendant for any meals.
Cobb’s hand is motionless where it droops over the side of his armrest, fingers still suspended in the slack curl of unconsciousness. Oh, it’s tragic, of course, but Eames can’t help feeling the tiniest bit satisfied by how terribly the bastard’s scheming backfired on him. He’s hardly got the moral authority to judge anyone else for acting in their own self-interest; he’d probably have done the same in Cobb’s position. The difference is, he’d have done it better. It figures Cobb hasn’t even got the character to be a self-serving arsehole properly.
Across the aisle, Saito is still out as well, which means they’re not getting paid. A shame, even apart from the money. Eames liked Saito, and, more unusually, he respected him. But Saito took a risk, coming down with them. There’s a reason most teams don’t allow tourists.
Ariadne appears to have made it through all right, though she’s staring at Cobb so intently she may bore a hole through his head. Eames is glad she managed to pull herself out. He’s grown a bit fond of her, and it’s always a relief to work with an architect who’s not teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown.
Yusuf’s seat is empty; he probably bolted straight for the toilet the moment he woke. Eames wonders, a trifle mean-spiritedly, if he pissed himself. It’s the least he deserves for collaborating with Cobb.
And Arthur – Arthur is awake, thank God, thank God. The relief is crushing, an iron band round his chest. Arthur is awake. Arthur is all right.
Arthur doesn’t look at him, of course: he’s got eyes only for Cobb. The look on his face is heartbreaking, stubborn hope tinged with the first ugly hint of despair, and Eames is irrationally furious at Cobb all over again.
Christ, this is going to be a bloody mess. A comatose billionaire and the most-wanted man in dreamshare. They’re going to have to run for it the moment they touch down. He and Arthur will both be fine – they’ve made it out of worse. Perhaps Yusuf, too, if he’s lucky. Little Ariadne doesn’t stand a chance, poor thing, unless Arthur decides to adopt her as his next stray.
He’s trying to remember which passports he’s got with him, and what stamps they’ve got in them, when three things happen all at once:
Yusuf returns from the toilet, dropping heavily into his seat; the flight attendant starts making her way round with towels and customs forms; and Saito’s eyes open.
Eames nearly has a heart attack at this last one. He glances surreptitiously round to see if anyone else has noticed – all right, to see if Arthur has noticed – only to see Arthur’s stormy face clear in the space of an instant, eyes lighting up with relief. He is so painfully, unfairly lovely that for a long moment Eames can’t tear his gaze away from him, until the flight attendant offers him a towel, and it occurs to him to wonder exactly what Arthur is reacting to.
It turns out that Cobb has surfaced as well. He and Saito stare at each other for a long, tense moment, before Saito abruptly shifts in his seat, reaching for the phone tucked next to him.
Well. That’s it, then, for Cobb. Back home to his children. Bully for him.
And Arthur? his mind prompts, treacherous as ever. What about Arthur?
Arthur meets his eyes as they’re gathering their things after landing. Eames gives him a polite smile, nothing more than might be expected between wealthy strangers. Arthur doesn’t return the smile, but he does tap his thumb almost idly against his trouser pocket, where Eames can see the outline of his mobile.
Eames isn’t drunk this time, neither of them are, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve just pulled off inception and narrowly avoided getting trapped in limbo for countless eternities. If that’s not cause for no-holds-barred celebratory fucking, Eames doesn’t know what is.
With that justification in mind, Eames easily nicks the phone as they’re shuffling off the plane. He steals a glance at it a few minutes later, whilst waiting at baggage reclaim, but there’s nothing on it – no contacts, no call history or messages. It’s not even passcode-locked.
Eames isn’t concerned. Arthur wouldn’t have told him to take the phone without good reason. He’s probably got a tracking program on it, or some such damn thing. Anyway, he’s always been able to find Eames when he wants him.
Fifteen minutes later, Eames is in the back of a cab when the mobile suddenly vibrates in his hand. An alarm pops up on the screen:
You better pick a nice hotel.
“I thought,” Arthur says, breathing hard against Eames’s jaw, “I thought we were going to stop meeting like this.”
“We are,” Eames confirms. He presses Arthur harder against the wall, trying to simultaneously grind against him and work his tight trousers down his hips. It’s slow going, but he doesn’t care. He craves this with everything in him, ravenous for the familiar shape of Arthur’s body, the heat of his skin. He nudges his thigh a bit more insistently between Arthur’s legs and drinks in his choked little moan. “This is just a – a terrible mistake, is all.”
Arthur works a hand down the back of Eames’s trousers to grope his arse, nails digging in when Eames rocks against him again. “It’s not a mistake,” he says, sounding surprisingly coherent, given the way his hips are jerking against Eames’s thigh.
Eames gives Arthur’s trousers another yank. “It is, it really – Christ, did you stitch yourself into these, honestly – “
The next moment, he hits the floor hard enough to drive the air from his lungs. Winded, he can only blink up at Arthur’s suddenly furious face.
“You son of a bitch,” Arthur says fiercely. “I’m not a mistake.”
Eames makes a half-hearted attempt to throw him off, but Arthur’s got him pretty well pinned, not much leverage to speak of. He’d have to seriously hurt Arthur to get away, and he won’t do that.
“Listen to me,” Arthur snaps. He flexes his grip, sending a bolt of pain shooting down Eames’s arm. “Are you listening?”
Eames nods, at a loss, and not particularly eager to dislocate that elbow again.
“Good.” Arthur glares down at him. “You think this is all a mistake, huh? Well, fuck you. I don’t make mistakes, asshole. You think it’s, what, some kind of accident that I keep coming back to you? Because we both know I didn’t come here to get my fucking phone back.”
“Arthur – ” Eames tries, and gets another painful squeeze for his trouble.
“Shut up. I don’t want to hear it.” Arthur stares at him for a moment, then shakes his head. “Jesus. I haven’t slept with anyone else in years, you know that? Years, Eames. Does that sound like a mistake to you?”
“You – wait,” Eames says, “Arthur, wait, you – “
“Shut up,” Arthur says again, more forcefully. “You’ve done enough talking. You’re going to listen to me, for once in your life.”
That’s not fair. Eames has listened to him plenty. He’s listened to him talking and arguing and joking and moaning and shouting and criticizing and snoring in the middle of the bloody night, and never once in all his years of listening has he heard anything to suggest that Arthur is – that he’s – Christ, he can’t even think it.
But he knows what Arthur’s really saying: listen to me now, or I’ll leave. So he’ll shut up, if that’s what Arthur wants. He’ll listen.
When Eames makes no sign of further protest, Arthur loosens his grip slightly, easing some of the pressure on Eames’s joints. Eames could probably dislodge him, now. If he wanted to.
“Look,” Arthur says, “I don’t care what you do when we’re not together. If you want to fuck a different guy every night, knock yourself out, as long as you’re smart about it. But I don’t want that. I don’t want anyone but you.”
Some of the fire seems to go out of him, then. He releases Eames’s arms and settles back on his heels, looking suddenly weary.
“This is it for me, Eames,” he says, quieter than before, though no less terrifying. “I don’t know what game you think we’re playing, but I’m tired of it.”
There’s a buzzing in Eames’s ears, staticky and disorientating. He attempts to forge, to slide into Browning or his reliable old blonde, and fails. Reality, then. But a sideways, astonishing reality; reality with the brake lines cut.
His hand has somehow found its way to Arthur’s knee. It feels the same as it always has done, and Eames digs his fingers into the hard bone and tries to ground himself. He’s having trouble stringing together a coherent thought. “You took down Dimitrov,” he says, clumsily offering the first thing that comes to mind.
Arthur huffs. “Of course I did.” He rakes a hand through his hair, which is already well on its way to coming undone. “God, why do you think I even came to Sofia in the first place? I dropped out of a six-figure job to come make sure you didn’t get yourself dumped in the fucking Iskar. I just about had to sell my soul to get you out of there. I’m still paying off those debts. Do you seriously think I’d do that for just anyone?”
“Arthur,” Eames says helplessly, but Arthur is on a roll now, building back up to another fit of temper.
“Why can’t you just – I mean, what are you waiting for? A ring? You want me to stand outside your apartment building with a goddamn radio over my head? What’s it going to take for you to just accept that we’re stuck with each – “
Eames lurches up from the floor, grabs Arthur’s face in both hands and kisses him, hard. Arthur makes a startled noise, but Eames doesn’t give him space to voice a protest, just cradles his clenching jaw and kisses and kisses his beautiful angry mouth. Partly it’s to shut him up, because at this rate it could well be hours before he gives Eames an opening to explain himself – but mostly it’s because he’s sulky and mad and impossible and Eames loves him.
God help him, Eames fucking loves him.
Arthur still looks cross when Eames finally releases him, face flushed with what is probably more indignation than arousal. “I wasn’t finished.”
“I know you weren’t.” Eames kisses his chin, his cheek. Arthur allows it, grudgingly, tilting very slightly into the press of Eames’s lips. “I’m sorry.”
Arthur’s jaw tightens again. “No, you’re not.”
“I’m sorry you’re upset,” Eames elaborates. “I didn’t say it was my fault.” He strokes his thumb over Arthur’s temple, entranced by the instinctive tremble of Arthur’s eyelashes. “You might have said something, darling.”
“Fuck you,” Arthur says. “You weren’t listening.” But he’s the one to kiss Eames this time, urging him back down to the floor and melting against him with one last little grumble of discontent.
Eames closes his eyes and sinks into it: Arthur’s warm lips, the solid weight of him, the pressure of his knees squeezing Eames’s hips. He runs his hands up Arthur’s back, drawing him close, as close as he can get.
“Arthur,” he whispers, soft, breathing it into Arthur’s mouth. “Tell me again.”
This is what Eames knows about Arthur:
His favorite hotel in London. The way he takes his coffee. The telltale bitterness in his come when he’s been sneaking cigarettes. The cooking oil burn on his left hand. The suit he wears to meet with clients he doesn’t trust. The power of his hard-won reputation. His irrational hatred of Rossini.
The shuddering strength of his thighs against Eames’s sides. The rapid fire of the pulse in his throat. The hot scrape of his nails on Eames’s back. The crack in his voice as he says, Eames, please, Eames, Eames, begging so sweetly for what’s already his.
“You left,” Eames says.
Arthur blinks owlishly. He’s lying on his stomach, head pillowed on his folded arms, damp hair tumbling over his forehead. He smells like hotel shampoo and Eames’s deodorant.
“I would’ve come back,” he says. “I was going to. If you’d let me.” He pauses, then adds belligerently, “If you hadn’t been such an asshole.”
Such a sweet talker, his Arthur. Eames brushes the hair out of Arthur’s eyes, shakes his head.
Speaks a name into the space between them, a long-abandoned name, discarded like the dog tags it was once inscribed on.
Arthur stares at him. His eyes are wide and black in his pale face, liquid in the dark.
“You left,” Eames says again. “I thought you were dead.” His voice breaks on the last word, and he looks away, toward the ceiling. He’s not sure what to expect now that he’s started. He’s carried this hurt with him so long that it’s become a part of him, thrumming quietly in his chest all these years like a bloody heart murmur. Innocent, until it’s not.
“Eames,” Arthur says, in a quiet uncertain voice Eames has never heard from him before. He reaches for him, tentative; when Eames doesn’t react, he lays a hand on Eames’s chest, splayed wide over his heart. Eames wants to slap it away, and to hold it there, press it down harder until it leaves a mark.
“I wondered, you know. How they got you. If you’d had any sort of chance. No one knew, and I – Christ, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, whether you’d been shot or stabbed, if they’d slit your throat or just let you bleed out while they worked on you. They don’t do things by halves with captured spooks, everyone knows that.” He stops for a moment. Forces himself to concentrate on the weight of Arthur’s hand, anchoring and suffocating. “Used to make me sick, imagining it. Drove me mad sometimes. I’d have to go out and get pissed just to get out of my own head.”
“Eames,” Arthur says again, but Eames isn’t finished.
“Anyway. Life goes on, doesn’t it. I left the service, moved around a bit. Did some odd work here and there. Made a new name for myself. I still – “ He hesitates. “I thought about you, sometimes, but you – all that was in the past. Different life.”
He forged him, once. He won’t tell Arthur that, even now. He couldn’t put words to it if he tried: how it felt to see that serious, sharp-edged face staring back at him from the mirror, how stupidly and piercingly and boundlessly he’d wanted him. How long he’d looked, breathing shallowly round the ache in his chest, before finally reaching up to touch his cheek, to trace the elegant curves of his lips.
How he’d coughed, wet and ragged, and pulled his fingers away bright with blood.
No. He won’t tell him that.
“And then,” Eames says, “I get called in for this job. In Bangkok.”
Arthur’s fingers twitch against his chest.
“So I go, and you’re there, like a bloody ghost. Only you never died at all, did you? You just left.” His eyes are stinging, dry and painful. “And you were so damn pleased with yourself, and I – it was like it was nothing to you, not even the faintest hint of regret, and I’d spent so long – “ He closes his eyes and lets out a harsh, shuddery breath. “And it all meant nothing.”
It’s several minutes before he can bring himself to look at Arthur again. He takes it in stages: Arthur’s elbow, and the long stretch of his arm. The fresh bruise on his shoulder. His neck, the fragile skin creased from the turn of his head. His sharp jaw, and his lips, and his dark, dark eyes.
“I did try to hate you,” Eames says. His own hand comes up to cover Arthur’s, folding them together, bones and calluses and scars and all. “Suppose I never quite got the hang of it.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur says. He is; it’s written all over his face. Whatever may have happened in the past, Arthur is not the sort of man to deliberately hurt the people he cares for. His fingers flex in Eames’s grip, pressing into his skin. “I didn’t – God, Eames, I’m so fucking sorry. I didn’t know.” He offers a sad, ironic little smile, painful to look at. “You never said anything.”
Eames doesn’t want to ask, but he has to, after all these years, he has to know: “Would it have made a difference? If I’d – if you’d known, then. Would it have changed anything?”
Arthur’s lips tighten into a thin line, which is answer enough. He squeezes Eames’s fingers again. “I’m sorry,” he says again, low and sincere.
Eames tugs Arthur’s hand up to his mouth and kisses his soapy-sweet palm. “It’s all right.”
And it is, mostly. The hurt is dull, like the twinge in a bad knee, or the way his shoulder still pangs sometimes, years after the bullet hole closed up. Just an echo of old pain.
He rolls to his side, and Arthur shifts obligingly closer, draping a long thigh over Eames’s hip, threading fingers through his hair. Eames curls an arm around him to keep him there, tucks his face into Arthur’s throat and breathes him in.
Can’t change the past, can you. Arthur loves him now; he can’t ask for more than that.
Arthur is still and quiet for a long while, long enough that Eames thinks he must have fallen asleep. Eventually, though, he stirs with a soft sigh, fingernails scratching lightly against Eames’s scalp. There’s a yawn in his voice when he asks, “Where are you going after this?”
“Mmm. Haven’t thought about it.” Arthur’s back is silky smooth under his fingertips. He decides to push his luck; it seems a good night for it. “Amsterdam, perhaps.”
Arthur gives his hair a sharp tug. “No.”
“I thought you’d been heroically disposing of all my enemies.”
“It’s a long list. There’s only so much time in the day.”
“You’d better come with me, then,” Eames says. He noses under Arthur’s jaw. “For protection. I’ll buy you chips. And those biscuits with the caramel in, you like those.”
“You can’t bribe me with food,” Arthur says. “I’m not five.”
“Food and sex,” Eames bargains. “As many blowjobs as your heart desires. I know you like those, don’t bother pretending.” He mouths wetly behind Arthur’s ear to jog his memory.
“Eames, don’t.” Arthur pushes him away, gentle but firm. He cups Eames’s jaw in one hand and regards him steadily. “Look, I’m going to leave, at some point. You know that. Not tomorrow, maybe not even this month, but eventually.” He kisses Eames chastely on the mouth, soft and lingering. “We can’t always work together. We’d go crazy trying. You know that.”
“Your condescension is not actually any more appealing now that I’m aware you’re madly in love with me,” Eames tells him. “In case you were wondering.”
Arthur doesn’t take the bait, just keeps watching him with that grave little almost-frown.
Eames sighs, turns his head to nip at Arthur’s thumb. Thinks. “You’ll come back.”
“Or,” Arthur says, lips twitching, “you could do something outlandish and come to me for once.”
“Could do.” He presses his lips to Arthur’s scarred knuckle. “Come to Amsterdam.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
“We’ll be careful.”
Arthur snorts, making it clear just what he thinks of that assurance.
“Arthur.” He’s never asked Arthur for anything like this before. For assistance, yes – for information and for a larger cut of the profits and, once or twice, to save his life – but never for this. Never for Arthur himself. He slides his hand up to curve round Arthur’s ribs, slotting his fingers between the ridges of bone, steadying himself to the rhythm of Arthur’s breaths. “Please.”
Arthur doesn’t answer right away. He hitches his leg a bit higher on Eames’s hip, settling more comfortably against him, and toys with the hair above Eames’s ear, twisting it gently round his fingers. His ribs move under Eames’s hand, rising and falling.
“Well,” he says at last, contemplative, “I do like those cookies.”
Chapter 7: Santiago
It’s late morning by the time Eames wakes. The January sun is blazing through the gap in the curtains, a hot slice across the bare skin of his back. He stretches his arms over his head, and then can’t help wriggling a bit to enjoy the brush of exquisitely fine cotton against his chest and belly. God, but he loves this bed. The sheets really are worth whatever ludicrous sum Arthur paid for them.
Not for the first time, he commends himself for having had the tremendous good sense to fall in love with a man who’s got his priorities in order.
He only manages to work up the motivation to roll himself out of bed when it occurs to him that he must have been awakened by the sound of the pipes shutting off. He pads toward the bathroom, hoping idly that Arthur hasn’t got round to clothing himself yet.
He’s in luck. Arthur is standing stark naked before the bathroom mirror, lightly flushed from his shower, with his straight razor in hand and a face full of shaving lather. He eyes Eames in the mirror, suspicious, but warily returns to his work when Eames shows no signs of tackling him against the sink.
He is very tempting, but Eames is still muzzy with sleep, and in any event he can’t even begin to think about getting it up again so soon after everything Arthur put him through yesterday. No, for now he is content to sit on the edge of the bath and watch Arthur shave, lulled into a pleasant sort of trance by the neat strokes of the razor, the elegant turn of Arthur’s wrist, the charmingly toneless sound of Arthur’s humming.
Bit by bit, the left side of Arthur’s face appears, clean and bare. Eames would very much like to touch him there, on his squeaky-smooth cheek, but he refrains, keenly aware of the blade in Arthur’s hand.
Instead, he allows himself the small indulgence of grazing his fingers up Arthur’s equally soft back. He has been indulging himself quite a bit, the past few days. And who could blame him? It had been months, and this last job seemed to drag on for a small eternity.
Which reminds him. “Don’t think I’ve thanked you yet.”
Arthur glances at him, then back to the mirror. “What for?”
He knows perfectly well what for; Eames has got a bristling line of Arthur’s own tidy black sutures in his arm as proof of that. And that’s not to mention the twisted ankle Arthur thinks he’s been so cunning about hiding.
“How did you know?” he asks, ignoring Arthur’s play at ignorance. “About Neha, I mean.”
Arthur scrapes the razor deftly down the line of his throat. “I didn’t,” he says, sounding irritated. “If I had, I wouldn’t have left her standing watch.”
“And just think of the excitement we’d have missed out on then.” Arthur’s lips go thin. Eames strokes his back again. “No sense fretting over it now, is there. I’m just glad you came back when you did.”
Arthur doesn’t respond to that, just carries on shaving. More of his face emerges: his chin, the divot above his upper lip, the planes of his cheek.
Eames waits until Arthur is nearly finished, with only a small patch of lather left near his ear. At that point, he stands and sidles closer, till he can feel the damp heat rising off Arthur’s skin. Surprisingly, Arthur tolerates the incursion into his space, and even carefully sets the razor down next to the sink, predicting Eames’s next move. He’s right, of course; never one to be satisfied with an inch, Eames goes all in and presses up against Arthur’s back, sliding his arms round Arthur’s waist.
“Watch your stitches,” Arthur warns.
Eames squeezes a bit tighter, feeling contrary. Arthur’s belly is warm and hard under his hands. “Arthur,” he says, and waits for Arthur to meet his eyes in the mirror. He smiles. “Thank you for not leaving me for dead.”
Arthur’s mouth quirks up at the side, though he tries to hide it. “I’ll add it to your tab,” he says, and hardly complains at all when Eames tugs him round and kisses him, a mess of teeth and tongue and the last clinging traces of shaving foam.