|mirabella (mirabella) wrote in mirabellafic,|
@ 2010-08-18 10:17 pm UTC
Fandom: Inception, Arthur/Eames, NC-17.
Summary: Five levels down, and five to dig yourself back out. Arthur met Eames' projection long before he met Eames.
Disclaimer: Regardless of where you might have come in from, I am not in any way, shape, or form affiliated with the OTW, Fanlore, or AO3.
Notes: I submitted this as a prompt for the inception_kink community, before I noticed that Round 2 had closed; then I decided I really wanted to write it myself THOUGH DO NOT LET THAT STOP ANYONE ELSE FROM WRITING IT TOO:
Even if I now saw you
I would long for you
This is popularly attributed to Izumi Shikibu, though the fact that I can only find it quoted on hipster blogs and not in any more or less scholarly collections of her work leads me to believe it's apocryphal.
This is now officially the longest author note I have ever written, ever. Am suitably ashamed, God.
Arthur doesn't like Nash's dreams.
Nash is a competent architect. On his better days, he's even a good one. But he has either very bad luck or an unerring talent for finding the one tiny detail that will turn (against all odds) into a very large detail at the worst possible time, and getting that detail wrong. Last time it was lace curtains in a café window next to a mark whose grandmother had, bewilderingly, turned out to have a strange and uncomfortable vendetta against lace-curtain Irish. Cobb managed to save that one by sheer virtue of reinventing himself as Mr. Charles on the spot and spinning a bizarre and palpably desperate conspiracy theory about the IRA; to this day Arthur suspects that the mark went along with it mostly because Cobb was half again his size and looking very much like he'd like to stomp on someone in hobnailed boots and the mark would do as well as anyone else. It's entirely possible that even the mark's projections were cowed.
The time before that went off without a hitch; but the time before that Nash recreated a nonagenarian matriarch's childhood bedroom in careful detail only to find that the house had not been wired for electricity until 1938, and the presence of light switches instead of gaslight dimmers was just enough of a symbolic kick in the mark's teeth to bring the entire dream crashing down around them. Arthur is not a superstitious man, but he does like to have a solid grip on everything that will happen or is likely to happen in a job, and when the rug keeps getting yanked out from under him it's hard not to feel that Nash attracts the bad kind of chaos like a lightning rod.
In fact, Arthur thinks as he looks gloomily around him, Nash's dreams are strangely like the kind of party Arthur never wanted to go to in college. The single-malt in his hand tastes like water because Nash doesn't drink, and it resists all Arthur's attempts to turn it into Laphroaig. Nash does smoke, which means that the blue cloud half-obscuring the torch singer on the club's stage smells regrettably realistic. His brain seems to latch onto the most disreputable people in his environment, which means that the projections crowded around the candlelit tables are a rogues' gallery of unwashed hair, thrift store clothing, and tattoos faded to the color of old mimeographs. In the booth behind him, Nash and Cobb have drawings spread out over the table and are deep in discussion of something or other, getting all the kinks ironed out (please, God) before it's time to go after the mark. On the night, the mark will be sitting where Nash is, and Arthur's job will be to stand between Cobb and the mark's projections, keep an eye out for trouble, and make a note of what the torch singer sings.
She's beautiful, the torch singer, and Arthur watches her with proprietary pride, because she was his idea.
The black dress she's wearing almost blends with the shadows, almost, with a long fall of dark hair and black opera gloves that leave only a hand's-width of alabaster skin bared between glove and shoulder. Striking, but striking in the long tradition of inconsequential starlets, or models hired for their inability to divert attention from the clothes they're wearing; a pretty voice, in a smoky top-40 way; she attracts but doesn't rivet. She's a radio playing softly in the corner of the room, which given her function is less metaphorical than it sounds.
Je te vois partout dans le ciel, she sings, and Arthur thinks: Not yet, then.
When he looks back at the crowd, a slender blonde is leaning against the bar next to him. As he watches, she shapeshifts into the torch singer as if trying the body on for size, or as if Nash can't quite decide who he wants her to be. She's just a little different-looking in this version, more refined, suddenly turned into someone difficult to look away from. Arthur frowns and examines the other projections more closely; Nash's mind isn't the most hospitable of places, and it wouldn't be the first time things had destabilized with startling abruptness.
None of the other projections has noticed, though; and when Arthur looks back, there's a man in a horribly ill-fitting suit lounging against the bar where the blonde-then-torch-singer used to be, tapping the rim of a martini glass against a mouth that makes Arthur forget for a glorious moment that fucking someone else's projection is both technically difficult and logistically suicidal.
Des fois je reve que je suis dans tes bras, the torch singer croons.
The projection catches him staring and winks. Arthur wants very much to know who he is in real life, if he's anyone or someone Nash's subconscious cobbled together out of half-remembered late-night movies. But he's working, and Nash's subconscious is, as mentioned, not the most stable of places, so Arthur gives the projection a brief, impersonal smile and turns back to the stage.
Ecoute bien, mon coeur t'appelle, she sings. Arthur wishes she'd sing something useful, or that the music heralding the kick would drown her out.
"Don't be such a stick in the mud, darling," the projection breathes in his ear, leaving Arthur suddenly, powerfully torn between annoyance and a consuming desire to know what that mouth would feel like if it moved an inch closer. "Buy us a drink, hm?"
Arthur wants to turn. He wants to turn, and oh, if he turns it's going to be disastrous. He wonders what the projection would smell like if he were real, smoke or gin or cologne. He's worked with people who could make their projections that lifelike. Now that he thinks about it, none of them were architects. "I'm on the clock right now," he says, hoping the projection will go away. It's not like them to interact like this for more than a few words at a time.
Ooh, ah, mother should I build a wall, sings his torch singer, drifting across the rococo strains of Edith Piaf's music with strangely little discordance.
It's the cue, the message Nash's subconscious was supposed to be focusing on. Arthur looks back to signal Cobb and Nash, and when he turns back, the man and his stunning mouth have both vanished.
Arthur's not sorry for that. The encounter left him a little unsettled.
It wouldn't do him any good to ask Nash who the projection was. It could have been anyone, or no one. The odds that it's someone Nash could readily identify are minimal, and not worth the annoyance of actually talking to Nash about anything not directly related to the job. So Arthur doesn't ask. And really, why would he? It's not as if he's going to show up on the guy's doorstep and say Hi, I saw you in someone else's dream, do you want that drink now?
It doesn't stop him from thinking about it, though, just once. While he's in the shower, coincidentally, wet hair streaming down into his eyes, one hand braced against the wall, imagining pinning Nash's projection back against the bar and fucking that mouth with his tongue while his torch singer pines on the stage, while smoke creeps into his lungs and his mouth like London fog and the rest of Nash's projections murmur around them, oblivious.
There, he thinks as he's drying himself off. He's let himself think about it once, which is as many times as he needs to. Now it's out of his system.
But he doesn't touch his favorite saffron-infused gin for weeks, and he can't quite find a convincing explanation as to why.
George Dupree is an investment banker who has somehow come into insider information on a very lucrative pending oil merger. Cobb, who has an infant and a toddler at home, confesses morosely that Dupree's name makes his own brain spew out A. A. Milne rhymes like a demented children's librarian; Arthur quietly deplores Dupree's taste in suits, and makes a mental note to call his own stockbroker.
Dupree himself is a shabby, colorless little man with a surprisingly profound love for Renoir and Forster. Mal is their architect on this one, clever Mal, which means there are half a dozen escape routes; she's recreated Le Moulin de la Galette, and Arthur and Cobb make their way through a sea of straw hats and bustles under hanging lamps that are starting to glow with the onset of evening. Everything they get more than a few yards away from, projections and pavilions and all, melts down into soft, indistinct impressionist brushstrokes – a graceful little flourish Arthur doesn't begrudge, but it does make it harder to find the mark.
Dark eyes catch in Arthur's peripheral vision, looking straight at him, and he has a snapshot impression of a distinctly familiar mouth underneath them; but when he whips his head around to look, he catches only the back of a dark tailcoat and a woman's oddly somber gaze over her dancing partner's shoulder, fixed on nothing at all, least of all Arthur himself.
"See something?" Cobb asks, in French because it's the only language they've heard since they stepped into the dream.
"I don't think so," Arthur says, and watches the woman and her partner whirl back into the indistinct crowd before he can get a look at the man's face.
They find Dupree not long before dark, seated at a table with a chessboard in front of him, midway through the game. The ethereal blonde from Dance in the City is sitting next to him, shimmering white silk pooled at her feet without a trace of dust, listening raptly as he tells her about some obscure theoretical method of deriving international interest rates. There's a glass of absinthe nearly empty at his elbow; smooth as thought, Cobb appropriates two more glasses from a passing waiter and sets one down in front of Dupree.
"Mr. Dupree," he says, delighted as if Dupree were a long-lost childhood friend. "And… is this Mrs. Dupree? Well done."
She laughs, flattered, as Cobb kisses her hand delicately. The projections around them slow for a moment in their dance, eyeing Cobb warily, but look away again before Arthur can do more than shift his weight.
Cobb sits down, talking a mile a minute, mostly about the quality of the absinthe and how much of a kick it has. Arthur is well aware that absinthe doesn't have nearly the mystical qualities that it's popularly believed to, but it's certainly not going to hurt to talk the mark into believing he's drunk. The information they need is in the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. It's the sort of extraction that's either going to go boringly easily or spectacularly badly. Either way, all Arthur can do at the moment is wait, and keep the green fairy flying over Dupree's table.
"You're not dancing, darling," a disturbingly familiar voice purrs in his ear.
Appalled, Arthur turns to find the projection from Nash's bar – now apparently Arthur's projection, which is so many kinds of unacceptable that Arthur feels a nagging compulsion to sit down and tally them all before he loses count – hovering so close to him that Arthur can feel the illusory heat of his body. He's in a smart evening coat now, which parts of Arthur deeply appreciate, but his cravat is sloppy and his hair is still in that horrible combover that looks like he's camouflaging an imaginary bald spot.
"I'm on the clock," Arthur says stiffly, again, and turns away as though if he stares hard enough at the back of Cobb's head the projection will go away.
The projection tisks at him. "Don't be stuffy, Arthur. It's a beautiful evening. Live a little."
Arthur's subconscious wants him to relax and dance with strange men. He can't say he's entirely surprised by this, though he is a little pained at the sheer cliché of it all. Fortunately, though, Arthur is in control of his brain and not the other way around, even here. "There's a time and a place for everything," he tells the projection, though it feels a little odd. It's the last thing Arthur himself needs to be told but clearly his subconscious needs the reminder.
"So name the time and the place," his projection shoots back immediately. Arthur feels light fingers trace along the back of his collar and manages not to shiver.
Arthur takes in a breath, then lets it out, steady. "Did you ever notice," he says, because as long as he's stuck here talking to his own subconscious he might as well make the best of it, "that Renoir's women almost never seem to enjoy dancing? Their faces are always averted."
"So if dancing is a metaphor for sex…"
"They're lying back and thinking of France, exactly."
Soft laughter from behind him. Arthur can almost smell absinthe on his projection's breath. At the table, Dupree is getting progressively drunker.
"That's a shame," his projection says, mock-regretfully; and God, it doesn't matter that he's a projection, that voice is doing things to Arthur's knees. And to his dick. And if he lets himself get distracted by his own projection, Cobb will never let him live it down. "Renoir's men must be piss-poor dancers. Maybe the beards are an overcompensation."
"I wish I knew who you were," Arthur finds himself saying. Dom has eased the briefcase from Dupree's lap to his own and is picking the lock with blind, efficient fingers, charming the woman in white just seriously enough to hold Dupree's attention but not seriously enough to attract the ire of his projections.
His own projection looks a little troubled for a moment, but before Arthur can smooth things over, he's smirking. "For me to know, love. And you to find out. If you want." He leans closer, breath brushing warm over Arthur's ear. "You know where to find me if you do."
And then he's gone, faded back into the crowd. Arthur thinks he'd better ply Dupree with another round of absinthe; when he appropriates a tray from a momentarily disgruntled waiter the glasses rattle a little against the metal, as if out in the real world his body was on unstable ground.
The next job starts out badly and only gets worse from there. A CEO's daughter has disappeared; he believes one of her professors to be responsible, and would very much like the professor's head on a platter but will settle for the location of his daughter's body. The original plan involves Mal going in, to distract the mark while Cobb pilfers his mental safe. Arthur tails the mark for a day, does research through the night, comes back in the morning, and flatly forbids it. While he's at it, he forbids Cobb to go as well. One person could do this job, with only a few minor changes to the dreamscape, and one of them conveniently knows more about the mark than the other two do.
There's an argument. Of course there is. Arthur wins it, just as he intended to. He doesn't like this mark, not at all, and he wants Cobb and Mal well away from the guy's subconscious. Just because there's no point in killing someone in a dream doesn't mean there's no point in hurting them very, very badly, and even setting aside issues of love and loyalty, it's Arthur's job to keep the other people on his team from getting hurt.
"We'll talk about this again," Mal says sharply, but her hands are gentle as she hooks him up to the PASIV machine.
"I know," Arthur says, his voice soft even though the mark is already drugged. This is someone else's house, dark and still; it's almost instinct.
When he opens his eyes he's standing on an isolated forest road, too remote to be populated by the mark's projections, in a mist so thick that it dampens his lashes and clings to the wool of his black suit.
"Who are you?" the mark asks, bewildered.
"I'm Death," Arthur says, and smiles.
It's a quick job, for all that it's unpleasant. The mark nearly has a nervous breakdown under the pressure of Death's weighty, judgmental stare, and he leads Arthur straight to a shallow grave in the trees under a deer blind.
I wanted to be able to find her again, so I could visit her, the mark says, with sweaty palms that he rubs on his pants and an unnerving light in his eye.
Oh, really? Arthur says, pulls a katana out of thin air, and spills the mark's intestines at his feet. It's petty, he admits, but he's cold and tired and he hates the entire world, and a gut wound will give him plenty of time to get back before the mark does.
He leaves the location of the grave with Mal and Dom, goes home, and showers for half an hour under scalding water. When he's done, he preps his own PASIV equipment, slides the needle into his vein, and settles back on the couch; and when he opens his eyes, it's to a cozy apartment in Paris, with a fire burning in the fireplace and walls lined with elderly books and the smell of tea drifting in the air.
Left to its own devices, Arthur's subconscious is a rather impressionistic worldbuilder. The tea will be rooibos, he knows, but the books have no titles, and the city outside the window is soft and indistinct with rain. He's never been here before – it looks like a composite of a dozen apartments he has been in – and he doesn't recognize the cat napping in front of the fire. He pours himself some tea, scratches the cat behind the ears, and settles into an overstuffed couch as comfortable as a cloud.
"Bad day at work, darling?" his projection murmurs, sliding warm arms around Arthur's shoulders. It's not as surprising as it should be, somehow.
Arthur knows, better than all but a very small number of people now living, just how illusory the concepts of safety and privacy are when it comes to one's own mind. He knows how many times the belief in It's only in my own head, no one will ever know has led to someone's utter ruin. But he'd be lying if he said that part of the allure of dreamwork wasn't being able to do things you'd never be able to do in real life. Jumping off skyscrapers. Crossing vast deserts without being brought down by heat or thirst. Creating whole arsenals with a thought.
Leaning back into someone else's embrace and just breathing, letting the day go, while soft April rains cover the Paris streets and Ella Fitzgerald croons softly from the stereo.
"Yeah," he whispers. "But it's better now."
The next time he runs across his projection again, he's not Arthur's projection; he's Nash's. Arthur can tell the difference immediately. Nash's projection is cooler, more calculating, still flirtatious but with an edge of the underlying contempt that Arthur can too well imagine this man directing toward Nash himself. It would be irrational and unspeakably stupid to be hurt by it, so Arthur isn't; but that doesn't mean the contrast between this dream and the last one isn't jarring. This projection's hands make quick, sharp gestures, moving only when he needs them to move and then fast as hummingbirds. Arthur liked them better when they were sliding under his clothes, slow and lazy, fingertips trailing up his sides.
(It's possible, though Arthur isn't admitting this, that he didn't "run across" his projection so much as hunt him down. It's not as if this isn't roughly where Arthur was supposed to be anyway.)
Arthur has ten minutes to go before Cobb finishes with the mark (or will finish, when they do this for real, for some value of real). Keeping one eye on Cobb, who is sitting in a row of hard plastic chairs in front of a Virgin Airlines gate with his eyes on his watch, Arthur slides onto a barstool next to his projection.
"Buy you a drink?" he asks; and he's careful to appear nonthreatening but the projections around them stare anyway. Wariness and hostility even sparks in his projection's gaze for a moment, quickly covered. It's an annoyance, but Arthur lets it go. He's not here for a repeat of Paris.
"Cheers, love," the projection says finally, giving him a cocky smile and swirling scotch pointedly in his tumbler, and Arthur signals the bartender.
"I'm Arthur," he says, holding out his hand with the smile that elderly women love and that can on occasion keep projections from getting suspicious for a few precious minutes longer.
"Eames," the projection says. Someone whose name Nash knows, then. Arthur still hasn't decided whether he wants to ask Nash about this or not. It would probably be easiest, but if Arthur doesn't ask then it's his puzzle to solve, and it's more fun that way.
"It's very nice to meet you, Mr. Eames," Arthur says, and the smiles on both sides begin the slow slide into something more genuine.
The next time he sees Mal, she smiles and kisses him like always, but then she purses her lips a little and gives him a look that Arthur tentatively decides is worried. It unnerves him. He can't imagine what Cobb has been telling her that would make her look like that, and he's a little afraid to ask. Eventually he decides that she thinks he hasn't been eating enough, because she never thinks he's been eating enough, and he goes back to doing the research on their next mark.
But that's during the day. When Cobb and Mal are gone, off to recover their children from the babysitter, Arthur shuts down his research and resumes the kind of web search that makes Google look like a one-volume children's encyclopedia.
He hasn't found anything yet, which is something in and of itself. Or rather, he hasn't found anything of interest; by sheer osmosis he's learned more about lounge chairs than he ever wanted to know. But this one probably-expatriate Brit, about whom Arthur knows nothing at all except a name that might well not even be real… this mark has eluded him all the way through the Americas and western Europe so far, even in birth certificate databases and lists of dead children who would have been a little older than Arthur today. Arthur closes out one last tab and taps his fingertips on the warm metal of his laptop, debating whether to begin again with eastern Europe or Africa.
"Arthur," Cobb says, almost in his ear.
Arthur slams down the lid of the laptop on sheer reflex, hard enough that he winces and prays it didn't crack. His heart is about to pound right out of his chest, and he can't decide whether he's more startled, chagrined that Cobb snuck up on him, or grateful that the laptop was the only thing his reflexes caused him to damage. "Jesus Christ, Cobb," he says.
Cobb pulls out a chair and straddles the back of it, looking like he's settling in for something. Arthur gives him a look of baffled innocence and tries to will his hair to come ungelled. "I really hope you almost had that heart attack because you were looking at porn," Cobb says.
Arthur's innocence becomes a little offended. "I'm sorry, aren't you my boss? I didn't think I had the kind of job where looking at porn was encouraged. Under normal circumstances," he adds conscientiously, because there have been times.
"What makes you think he's even real?" Cobb asks.
Arthur rubs his eyes and swears silently. Of course Cobb noticed. Of course he did. Cobb makes his living by never missing the tiny, betraying shifts in gaze and body language that point him right toward other people's secrets like a birdhound startling geese into flight. Of course he's noticed Arthur talking to the same projection over three different jobs now.
"Where's Mal?" he tries.
"Home with the kids. She made me come back and make sure you'd gone to get something to eat, which, oh look, you haven't. Don't make me take you home with me, Arthur. James is teething."
"Which explains why you're here."
Cobb stares at him, waiting.
Arthur sighs and rubs his hand over his face. "I've seen him as Nash's projection and mine both. He knew his name as Nash's projection but not as mine. He's either someone Nash knows or –"
" – someone he's seen in a movie, or –"
"Not according to IMDB."
" – or a character in a book, or – Jesus, Arthur, he could be Nash's imaginary friend from kindergarten. Nash's subconscious might not even be remembering his name right. Even if he's real, this isn't even looking for a needle in a haystack. It's, it's like searching Planet Haystack for a needle that might or might not have incompletely evolved from a piece of hay."
"I know," Arthur says quietly.
"Why don't you just ask Nash?"
"I don't like Nash."
"No one likes Nash. Just ask him."
"I don't even know if he'd tell me the truth. Look, I don't need Nash. I don't want help on this. If this guy's real, I'll find him."
Cobb leans a little, so that he's front and center in Arthur's field of vision. "And if he's not," he says.
Arthur sets his hand on his laptop. He really hopes it's not broken. "Then I won't find anything on him," he says. "And after a while I'll stop looking."
"You can't do this, Arthur," Cobb says. "You can't let yourself lose those boundaries. It's too easy to fall."
Wordlessly, Arthur reaches into his pocket and comes up with his die held between his second and third fingertips, up where Cobb can see it.
"Yeah, it would be nice if those totems could save you from everything, but I don't think they can," Cobb tells him, and sighs. "You wouldn't be the first person to fall for a projection and decide the real world didn't have anything to offer them anymore."
"I'm not falling for him. I'm just curious."
"Mal's worried about you."
Arthur winces. He'd shed blood to spare Mal a moment's unhappiness and Cobb knows it. "It's a side venture. That's all. It's not interfering with –"
"That's not the point and you know it."
"Yeah. I know," Arthur says. "Dom, just… trust me, all right? I know what I'm doing."
Cobb studies him for a long time, then nods slowly. "Okay," he says.
An hour later, Arthur – a little bemused – is lying on the couch with his head in Mal's lap, soft fingers combing through his hair and teasing the gel out of it until it falls in annoying curls around his face. Phillipa is lying on his chest, thumb curled into her mouth as she watches The Little Mermaid through eyes half weighted down with sleep. Cobb's in the armchair, feet propped up on the coffee table and James asleep in his lap, and he and Mal are debating something about sedatives that left Arthur behind about fifteen minutes ago.
Arthur isn't really very domestic. He's going to make his excuses soon, go home, and find out how badly he screwed up his laptop. As soon as Phillipa goes to sleep, he tells himself, and doesn't resist when Mal gently brushes his eyes closed.
The beds in this hotel are surprisingly soft. The pillows are goose down and exquisitely malleable. The walls are too thick to hear anyone in the hallway and the room is on too high a floor for the traffic outside to be audible. There's Skyy in the minibar and half a bottle of excellent Bordeaux on the nightstand, left over from dinner.
Arthur can't sleep. Not that that's unusual, but it doesn't make it any less annoying.
The TV has an impressive array of movies at its disposal. Arthur flips through the directories, doesn't see anything worthwhile, and shuts it off. It's two in the morning and his flight leaves for Helsinki at ten.
"Not even interested in the porn?" Eames smirks, leaning in the bedroom doorway and unfastening his cufflinks. "What a shame."
"Do I need it?" Arthur retorts.
"No," Eames says simply, drops his cufflinks onto the dresser, and crawls onto the end of the bed. A little disappointingly, he flops down beside Arthur, propping his head on his hand.
Arthur shifts to mirror him and reaches out to run his thumb over Eames' cheek, feeling stubble prick at his skin. It feels so real. So does the mouth Arthur traces over next, ridiculously soft lips that quirk in a smile before Eames closes his eyes and nips gently at Arthur's thumb.
"I bet you would have had a wicked sense of humor," Arthur whispers.
"I do," Eames agrees amiably, pulling off Arthur's thumb a little to talk before he goes back to deep-throating it.
"And you'd always have left your hotel room in a disaster."
"Maid service, darling. A little help with the vest, here? My god, these buttonholes, are you actually sewn into this thing?"
Arthur laughs and helps with the vest. "And you'd have worn horrible clothes on purpose so that people would underestimate you."
Eames pauses with his fingertips on the button of Arthur's pants, looking up like he doesn't entirely like where this conversation is going.
"And you wouldn't have liked people saying things like that to you, because if someone knew you it would mean they'd know how to hurt you," Arthur presses, shifting so that Eames is on his back and Arthur is braced above him, so close, brushing over the whole length of their bodies.
"God, who are you?" he whispers, his fingers twisting tight in Eames' shirt and yanking it out of the way so he can touch skin. "Were you ever even real?"
Eames reaches down to catch Arthur's hand, stilling it and bringing it to his lips. "Maybe I'm no one at all, love," he breathes into Arthur's palm. "And what will we do then, hm?"
Non, rien de rien, Edith Piaf sings in Arthur's ears. He should have set the timer for longer.
Their next job goes off without a hitch, as jobs rarely do. It's standard corporate espionage, getting Cobb access to a safe in the Captain's quarters of a yacht so ingeniously designed that Arthur only has to lead the security projections a corridor away, duck around a corner, and stick out his foot to take them out of commission. But before that, there's champagne and sunlight and the endless blue of the Mediterranean, the low murmur of that peculiarly projection conversation that turns out to only be a collection of meaningless phonemes when you get close enough to hear, warmth and lassitude that makes Arthur want to stretch out like a cat in the sun.
Just before the kick, his fingers encounter something soft and unfamiliar in his jacket pocket. He pulls out his hand and looks down to see a rosebud in his palm, petals a dark sapphire blue that he doesn't think actually exists in nature. For the first time, Arthur finds himself wondering if projections remember.
"You're just mad because you aren't wearing thousands of dollars in laser-cut menswear," Cobb informs him.
"My clothes are not cut by lasers," Arthur contradicts him. "They're cut by tailors. Remind me why Nash couldn't bring this guy to Los Angeles, instead of rural Paraguay during the rainy season."
"He said there were immigration issues," Cobb answers dryly, turning the windshield wipers up a notch. The roads are awful, mud churning so high under the wheels that it's splattering the window at Arthur's elbow. They're in a rental jeep, and he doesn't like the noises the engine is making. He's irritated by this but it's not exactly unexpected, which is why he's wearing jeans and hiking boots and a cotton button-down that he salvaged from the back of his closet. It's worn with age and soft as butter and he secretly loves it, but it's the only part of his ensemble that he does love.
And yes, it's putting him in a worse mood than the rain and the roads and the prospect of being stuck in a repurposed barn with Nash in ninety-degree heat and enough humidity to rot through a wool suit on impact.
"For Nash or for the forger?"
"God knows. Anyway, they're here working a job, it's a day trip down here and back, it's as good a chance to meet the guy as any."
"Did we ever even find out his name?" They haven't, and Arthur knows it. It's a sore point between them. Arthur's not happy about coming down here on no more than a brief email from Nash to the effect of Found you a forger for the Rodgers International job and a link to Google Earth coordinates. He didn't want to risk bringing a gun through customs but he feels unsettled without one, and he's kicking himself now for not making Cobb stop at some disreputable pawn shop along the way.
"We will here in a few minutes," Cobb says, checking his GPS. "We're only about three miles from –"
The engine makes a noise like a fireworks mortar going off in a tin bathtub and smoke billows soggily into the air around them. The jeep coasts to a stop in the middle of the road. Arthur tilts his head back and looks up at the underside of the hard shell above them.
Of course, he says to God.
There's silence for a minute before Cobb, practical as he can occasionally be, sighs and reaches into the back for his bag. "At least it's only three miles," he says philosophically.
"Could be worse," Arthur agrees gloomily, and gets out after him.
The heat and humidity are like a wet blanket, choking. The front of the car looks like part of the engine actually punched right through it. It probably did. The mud is up to his ankles, making Arthur immensely grateful that he's not wearing anything it would kill him to ruin, and the rain has both of them drenched to the skin before they've gone three feet down the soupy road. Arthur's tempted to call Nash to come get them before his cell phone drowns, but in the end – stupidly enough – he's too stubborn, and he knows without asking that Cobb is too. He's just glad Mal isn't with them.
For more reasons than one, if he's honest. Mal has been… strange lately, and he doesn't quite like the way she looks at him now, like she's waiting for him to do something but she won't tell him what.
It takes them two hours to cover three miles, which Arthur supposes isn't bad considering the terrain. By the time the barn comes into view, he's stopped even trying to keep his hair from clinging to his face in a disheveled mess from which every ounce of gel has been washed out onto the Paraguay landscape. For once he wishes he used pomade in real life instead of just in dreams; but pomade is hard to wash out and gel is easy, and he's been grateful more than once for how easy it is to change his whole appearance just by letting his hair hang around his face.
"What are you looking so thoughtful about?" Cobb asks. He looks like a drowned rat.
Arthur doesn't want to tell Cobb that he's been deep in contemplation of hair care products, so he nods up at the barn. "You should let me do a recon before we go in, find out where the exits are."
Cobb starts to reach out a hand for Arthur's bag, then stops, tilting his chin at the barn door. "There's Nash," he says.
"Has he seen us?" Arthur asks, but just then Nash waves. "Damn."
"It's Nash," Cobb says, but he doesn't sound happy. "Let's just go in."
"Stay by the door until I give the all-clear," Arthur tells him, not holding out much hope that it will do him much good if this whole setup is Nash selling them out. It's not like they don't have clients who haven't been best pleased with their results.
The barn is nearly empty, a handful of tables and whiteboards and lawn chairs set up around a PASIV unit. Arthur, coming in in front of Cobb, recognizes Nash, recognizes a Nigerian chemist and an Irish extractor, and –
Arthur's totem is spilling through his fingers and down onto the ground before he even realizes he's pulled it out of his jeans. It comes up three, which could be chance, it could always be chance, but his fingers know the weight of that die and if nothing else he's got too much dignity to crouch down and roll it over and over like he was auditioning for a bit part as a craps-playing gangster in West Side Story. No matter how desperately he might want to.
Cobb makes a soft, startled noise and steps in front of Arthur, his fingers sliding down the watch chain hooked to his belt loop.
"You made it," Nash calls, waving them over. Arthur retrieves his die and his place at point and comes into the barn like everything was normal, like he hadn't just gotten punched in the face with the most unsettling dream-reality mix-up he's ever faced, including the first time he walked through someone else's subconscious and realized that the people around him were literally going to rip him apart if he set a foot wrong.
"Nash," Cobb says, shaking his hand amiably enough, but his gaze keeps going back to Nash's forger.
"You know Osoba and Murphy," Nash says.
Arthur keeps his eyes on Nash. He'll deal with his wayward projection when he has to. Maybe he'll start with a good long contemplation of how hideous that brown suit is and how no one on earth should ever wear salmon in any article of clothing.
"It's been a long time, Mr. Cobb, Arthur," Osoba says. She's as beautiful as ever, tiny and stylish. Arthur has always liked her. He wonders how her scarf would look on Mal. He –
He's so furious with himself for not foreseeing this he can barely think straight. For fuck's sake, Nash knew the man's name. Of course he'd either be a dream worker or a bookie. He all but changed shape in front of Arthur's eyes, in that first dream. This is the sort of stupid that Arthur never forgives himself for.
"This is Eames," Nash says. "He's the best forger in the business."
Eames leans forward and shakes Cobb's hand. "Pleasure," he says amiably. In fact, he looks like he's enjoying himself immensely, and Arthur reminds himself, over and over, that this man is a stranger to him.
"Dom Cobb," Cobb says. "This is my point man, Arthur. Also the best in the business."
"This is your point man?" Eames beams at him. "My God, he's precious. How old is he? Fifteen? Sixteen? Do you have him on loan from an orphanage?"
"You'd be embarrassed right now if we did," Cobb tells him. Arthur doesn't think anyone else heard that vague blankness to his tone that means Cobb's been caught flat-footed.
"Probably not," Eames says honestly. "It takes more than bedraggled adolescents trying to light me on fire with their brains to embarrass me, or I'd be red from head to toe even as we speak."
"I'm twenty-six, Mr. Eames," Arthur says, composing himself long enough to set his bag coolly down on the table. "And you're out of line."
Eames gives him a deeply pitying look. "You mustn't mistake your fake IDs for reality, darling. That way lies madness."
There's a fortuitous second where his balance shifts, and Arthur doesn't even have to use his hands. In the next second Eames' chair has smashed back onto the floor, with Eames in it, and the edge of one of Arthur's hiking boots is about to bisect Eames' trachea. Arthur stares steadily down at him, not bothering to mock or gloat; just making it clear that this could have gone far worse for Eames than it just did.
Of course, it could be going better for Arthur too. Mostly it would be going better if Eames would stop fucking beaming at him.
"Well done," Eames says with grudging respect, tapping out with two quick slaps to Arthur's leg. A little unwillingly, Arthur backs off. His hair drips into Eames' face, making Eames sputter a bit and giving Arthur an obscure sense of satisfaction.
He could offer Eames a hand up, but he doesn't. It doesn't seem to matter. Eames rolls backward off the chair and to his feet in a smooth, practiced move that tells Arthur that under that unprepossessing appearance he's had some sort of combat training, somewhere. Arthur narrows his eyes and evaluates Eames one more time, carefully.
"Are we done with this now?" Cobb asks, amused and wary.
Arthur thinks they probably aren't. Irrationally enough, he's as angry with Eames as he is with himself.
Nash finds himself more amusing than Arthur finds him. This is nothing new.
The dreamscape they're in is a Parisian sidewalk café. Across the street, a nun is leading twelve little girls in two straight lines down the block toward the bridge. He ignores them and, with a sigh of relief, settles into a three-piece Dior suit as black as a raven's wing.
The petite blonde projection next to him is staring at him. Arthur moves his hand a little closer to his gun, only to move it back when the projection says, in Eames' accent, "Dear God, is that Arthur? You do clean up nicely, don't you? Which is the usual, then, this or the muddy little boy?"
He's saved from answering by Cobb, who circles Eames with frank appreciation. "This is good," he says. "Let's see you do a man."
"I charge for that, you know," Eames says. A grey-haired projection in a worn-out raincoat walks past, and Eames shifts to duplicate him, smooth as silk.
Cobb catches up to Eames' end of the conversation and looks a little exasperated. "Seriously, though – how long does it take you to be able to convincingly replicate a target, behaviors and all?"
Eames shrugs, and a second later Arthur is staring at a replica of himself. Unfortunately, it's a replica of the Arthur who spent two hours slogging through mud and rain. His hair is a soggy mess that's threatening to dry out fluffy; he looks tired and cranky and like he's going to peel off his own skin if he doesn't get a shower with all the soap and hot water in the entire world, which is a fairly accurate reflection of how he feels. Arthur winces and straightens his cuffs, and in the next second Eames is his doppelganger down to the Dior suit, mimicking his action perfectly. It's a little unnerving.
"It depends on what I have to do, doesn't it? To stand here and look pretty, a few seconds. To interact with a mark who knows the person I'm forging? That can take a few days, and I need to be around my target, preferably close enough to watch the way they interact with the mark."
"What about impersonating dead people?" Arthur asks out of curiosity.
Eames shifts into Marilyn Monroe. Around him, Nash's projections grow a little unsettled. "That's on a wing and a prayer, mate. Unless you can get me into the mark's subconscious twice and set things up so they're likely to dream about whoever it is that's dead."
"Kerrigan in Belfast says he can do it from a photo and a couple of anecdotes," Murphy says from where he's perched on a low wrought-iron railing. He's acquired a cup of coffee and a croissant from somewhere.
Marilyn makes a rude noise. It suits her, somehow. "Kerrigan will tell you he shat out the Giant's Causeway if you buy him enough beer. I've seen him work. He can pull off paper dolls, that's all. Put him with the mark for more than five minutes and you'll all be torn apart by pissed-off projections before you get within a mile of what you're looking for."
Murphy gives a good-natured snort and hops down off the railing. "You're not wrong."
Eames shifts into Murphy, then into each of them one after the other, rapid-fire like the finale to a fireworks show until he's finally back in his own body. "I rarely am," he says, and smiles fondly at Arthur like they were sharing a joke.
Arthur wants to smile back. It's not his finest moment.
"Mr. Eames, I believe you'll do," Cobb says.
Arthur rolls his die – one, four, two, one, six. He's not sure that's really telling him anything useful, in this case.
"Arthur," Eames mutters. "Come back to bed, for God's sake."
Arthur hikes his shirt back up onto his shoulder and sits on the bed. He doesn't quite remember what he was doing before he started rolling his die. He's pretty sure the Eames in his bed is his projection, but he's not sure, and his die can't tell him. Cobb was right about that.
The real Eames is maddening – cocky and sharp-tongued and oddly, unexpectedly sweet. He laughs at Arthur about everything and dresses horribly and Arthur really doesn't like the way he does his hair. It's hard to work when he's around because Arthur is always catching himself watching for Eames out of the corner of his eye, in case he does something Arthur needs to go and stop him from doing. (It's happened.) He doesn't think the real Eames would give him this soft, patient smile and reach for him with one arm, comfortable and familiar.
Arthur slips his shirt off and gets between the sheets. He shouldn't be doing this, not now that he's working with the real Eames, and he knows it; just like you shouldn't reconstruct a dreamspace from your memories of somewhere real. Cobb is always saying that. Cobb is a big fan of the Do as I say, not as I do ethos.
This could, in theory, be the real Eames. Arthur can't quite remember where his body really is right now; he could be hooked up to the PASIV machine in the middle of the warehouse in broad daylight, nothing to stop Eames from inviting himself into Arthur's dreams. He doesn't know what to think of the fact that that doesn't stop him from sliding into this Eames' arms, or of the way the hands moving softly over his skin are surer of their welcome now than before. Maybe it would be better, for a while, just not to think at all.
Eames – the real Eames – goes away for a few days. When he comes back, he has a stack of photographs, some surveillance video, and a host of observations about his target that even Arthur, who would be useless as a point man if he weren't very, very observant, is grudgingly impressed by. He also has a hickey almost but not quite hidden by the collar of his shirt. Arthur sees it while Eames is debriefing them on his findings, and it's all he can do to keep his face under control.
For a dizzying moment, all he can think is that when he gets home and gets to his PASIV machine tonight he's going to slam Eames up against the wall and fucking mark him, cover that hickey with one of his own that no one will miss, not whoever gave him the one he's got and not Eames himself when he looks in the mirror. Then it sinks in that he's pissed off at the real Eames because a projection of Arthur's own that he isn't even in a relationship with cheated on him by proxy, or something; and then he's a head-clogging muddle of confused, angry, horny, and utterly chagrined, and he thinks what he probably ought to do is take his PASIV equipment and throw it off a bridge.
Wadded-up paper bounces off his forehead, bringing him sharply back to reality. "Do pay attention, Arthur, there'll be a quiz later," Eames says.
Arthur forces his attention back to the Eames in front of him and throws the paper back at him. "Essay or multiple-choice?"
"Both," Eames says cheerfully. "It'll be bloody difficult, too. Best tell me now if you're prepared to do anything to get an A."
"Some of us got As by studying," Arthur informs him.
Eames scoffs. "Yes, those of us with no imagination or sense of adventure."
"Can we get back to the debriefing?" Cobb snaps.
Eames tilts his head and gives Cobb a brief, evaluative glance. Arthur's been doing a lot of evaluating on that front lately himself. He still doesn't know what's wrong with Mal, but whatever it is, it's getting to Cobb badly, and if Arthur just knew what it was, maybe he could do something about it.
"Of course, sorry," Eames says, and trades a glance with Arthur that makes him feel like they're schoolboys caught out at doing something they shouldn't.
That night, he reaches for his projection of Eames and the projection vanishes into a wisp of smoke. Arthur doesn't know what to think anymore.
"Just stay there for a moment, darling, all right?" Eames tells him, propping Arthur against the wall and digging his keys out of the pocket of his suit. It's a good suit. It's a fucking brilliant suit. He couldn't have worn anything else. Not for Mal, who taught him without saying a word how powerful clothes were in influencing human interaction.
It's just too bad it was such an expensive suit, because he's pretty sure he's going to burn it. Or toss it out the window of his apartment, he could do that. It's a long way down. He could watch it flutter down into the dark, black jacket and pants and white shirt like a flock of strange birds, with his tie streaming through the air after them. He doesn't think he'll do that. It's a long way down; it could kill someone.
"All right, in you go," Eames says, gets an arm around Arthur's waist, and steers him into the dark of his apartment. He leaves Arthur leaning against the wall for a moment and hunts around for a light to turn on that won't be too glaring. Arthur appreciates that.
"It's very you," Eames says wryly when the light is on, looking around at Arthur's apartment. The furniture is all clean black and white lines; the color comes from the reproductions of Auerbach and Heron and Gormley on the walls.
"It's… tidy," Arthur says, and it is, but that isn't really what he means. What he means is that it's restful, that everything is in its place and the flow of one thing into another is smooth and uninterrupted, like calm water. Arthur has an apartment in Paris, done differently, that he loves as well; but this one is the one he needs right now.
"Of course it is," Eames soothes. "Let's get you into the bathroom so it stays tidy, shall we?"
Arthur wonders how Eames knew he was about to throw up. It probably doesn't matter. What matters is that quick, deft hands strip off his tie and his jacket in time to save them from utter ruin and then have the grace to leave him alone while he spews half a bottle of scotch and an endless series of neat gins back out into the Los Angeles sewage system. When he's done – or is fairly sure he's done, anyway – he strips out of the rest of his clothes, stumbles into the shower, and stands under the hot water aimlessly swiping at himself with shampoo and body wash and toothpaste until he feels as clean as he's likely to get. He almost manages to forget about Eames altogether, or convince himself that it was Eames-the-projection who was here and will be gone now that Arthur is (he thinks) awake.
He should check. Arthur digs in the pocket of his discarded pants, unsteadily, and pulls out his totem. His fingers are sore already from clutching it so hard all day. It's not a dream, and therefore Eames will be… gone? Not gone? Arthur pulls on a pair of pajama pants and a bathrobe and goes to investigate.
There's a rich, wonderful coffee smell coming from the kitchen. Arthur wishes he were in better shape to appreciate it. Eames is leaning over the kitchen island flipping through a copy of Architectural Digest. Arthur folds his arms and leans against the wall for support, wishing with a sharp wistful pang that this were his Eames, Eames-the-projection, instead of an Eames who doesn't belong to him, even if the real Eames is like dreaming in color, like rich splashes of cobalt and scarlet on the walls. He wishes he still dreamed without the PASIV, sometimes.
"You know, coffee doesn't really sober people up," he says finally. "That's a. A myth. Or an urban legend. I forget which."
Eames turns a page. "Who says it's for you, then?" he teases gently, looking up at Arthur with a smile. The smile doesn't slip, but it turns into something else, something that makes Arthur look away. He knows he's a wreck right now. He doesn't need anyone else's pity.
"The first time I met Mal," he says, and looks away, blinking. "The first time I met her, Cobb had just asked her to marry him. He was so happy, and so terrified she was going to change her mind. I think my job was to keep her from having second thoughts. She was wearing a black shirt with this beautiful red scarf, and she was just, she was radiant. She was lovely, and sharp, and… she made me go dress shopping with her."
Eames laughs, a little, and pours coffee into two mugs. He puts cream into Arthur's without having to ask.
"She had exquisite taste," Arthur says. "And she made me buy a new suit and half a dozen ties because she said the one I had on didn't bring out my eyes enough. I said Mal, they're just brown, and she said…"
"Come drink your coffee, Arthur," Eames says gently.
Obeying because he doesn't know what else to do, Arthur stumbles to the island and seats himself precariously on a barstool. "I don't understand," he says, and manages to find his mouth with his coffee despite lingering disorientation and the shaking of his hands. "Her mazes always had escape routes. There were always ways to cheat them if you knew where to look. Even if you would have sworn there couldn't be any way to get out, she'd find one and afterward you'd think That was so obvious, I should have known to look there. Mal… Mal always knew the way out."
Hot coffee splashes over his hands and all over his counter. Eames is strong and solid behind him, wrapping warm arms around him and whispering Arthur, Arthur, my poor darling into his hair as he cries.
Sometime after that, Arthur opens his eyes and realizes that he's in bed with the sun slanting across the ceiling. His head is brutally sore, but he smells coffee, so he runs his fingers through his hair as best he can and staggers out into the kitchen.
There's a covered tray sitting on the island. Arthur uncovers it and finds the kind of hangover breakfast that at first makes his gorge rise and then makes him absolutely ravenous. It's still warm. The coffeemaker is just stuttering to a halt. The pen and notepad he keeps by the phone have been moved, but there's nothing written on the pad.
He doesn't see Eames again for a year. Even in his dreams, all he ever sees are a flash of dark eyes and then Eames' projection moving away, too far to reach. He misses both of them bitterly, and tells himself he doesn't miss them at all.
"Hullo, Arthur," Eames whispers into his ear. Arthur tilts his head back and lets Eames' hands drift down his chest, lets his nose brush against Eames' flawless cheekbone.
"Hi," he whispers; and then there's Eames' mouth, soft and slow and Arthur's to nip and lick and suck at until he's dizzy with it. Eames doesn't taste like anything at all. It bothers Arthur a little, but not enough to make him stop.
The cat hops off his lap. It's just as well; Eames settles in to take its place, leaning up between Arthur's thighs to kiss his way down, unbuttoning as he goes. "Where have you been?" Arthur asks, running his fingers into Eames' hair.
Eames glances up at him, and there's something in his eyes that makes Arthur's fingers freeze where they sit. "Just waiting for you to remember that you missed me, darling," Eames says between kisses, his mouth hot against Arthur's stomach.
Suddenly, Arthur isn't entirely sure it's a good idea to have a part of his subconscious that's so clearly furious with him that close to his dick.
He nudges Eames back up and leans forward, putting their foreheads together. "I miss you," he says, "every day. Every fucking day, you contentious, annoying bastard. And you know it."
"I'm right here, idiot," Eames whispers, and kisses Arthur hard, punishing. "I'm always right. Bloody. Here. All you ever had to do was remember you want me."
There are buttons in Arthur's way. It's unacceptable. He opens as many as impatience and trembling fingers will let him and shoves Eames' shirt down off his shoulders, exposing dark smudges where the real Eames has tattoos that Arthur has only seen in dim outline through cloth. "I want you," he groans into Eames' mouth.
It's true, then. It's true when they fuck on the couch, when they tumble to the floor onto a carpet that won't give either of them rug burns, when they fuck in the shower afterward, when Edith Piaf starts humming into Arthur's ears. But when he wakes up, it's to an empty apartment and an aching, unsettled frustration, and all he can think is that he wants to trace those tattoos, the real ones, with his tongue until he could recreate them in the dark.
A few days later, Eames teases and pokes at him and almost upends Arthur's chair; Eames makes fun of Arthur's tie and his suit and refuses to be suitably cowed by Arthur's scathing retorts. He makes snide comments about condescension when Arthur can't help but compliment his work, and then ducks his head, looking fond and pleased, and finds a way to return the compliment later. By the middle of the first day of the Eames occupation, Arthur has had to remind himself a dozen times that this Eames isn't his to reach for, isn't his to touch, isn't even his to smile at the way he wants, though he only ever remembers that last one after the fact.
By midafternoon, Arthur is watching Eames flirt outrageously and harmlessly with Ariadne. He thinks of his projection again, close and willing; but then he thinks of Mal too, Mal who doesn't love Arthur anymore, and it feels like someone walked over his grave.
"Awake in there, darling?" Eames calls, rapping on the door. Arthur did not actually let Eames into his suite.
"Go away, Eames," Arthur says, and turns on the hot water tap with his foot.
The bathroom door, which was locked thirty seconds ago, swings open and Eames invites himself in to sit on the sink, holding a tumbler of something that is probably expensive and from Arthur's minibar. "And miss you being all naked? Perish the thought. I've never resented bubble bath so much in my life, by the way."
Arthur reviews his day. Unfortunately, he can remember every step of it that led up to Eames sitting in his bathroom trying to ogle him through the suds. The water's warm enough now, so he switches off the tap again. "Eames, did you want something?
He's expecting innuendo; to his surprise, Eames shrugs and opens a small packet of peanuts that probably also came from Arthur's minibar. "Came to see if you fancied dinner, actually, but it looks like a bathrobe-and-room-service night chez Arthur. That's a foul bruise on your shoulder. Does the rest of you look like that?"
Arthur reminds himself that more surreal things happen to him every day than having a rational conversation with Eames while naked. They're just hard to remember right now. "Do you ever wonder how old you really are?" he asks instead.
Eames raises an eyebrow. "A hundred at least, I daresay," he says around a mouthful of peanuts. "But that's only if you count time that's never really passed, which I do not because it's a good way to lose sight of what's real and what isn't."
"You sound like Cobb." Arthur is very warm and vaguely content despite Eames and bubbles. He probably should be alarmed by this, but all he really feels is sleepy.
"Yes, well, Cobb might be barking mad but he does generally know what he's talking about."
"He wasn't, you know," Arthur says quietly. "Before. By the time you met him, Mal was already… sick."
Eames smiles, warm and genuine. "Was he mad back then? Didn't notice. I'm afraid that disreputable, muddy child he insisted on toting about with him hither and yon took up all my attention."
Arthur narrows his eyes in as much of a glare as he can muster at the moment. "Did you ever get that disreputable, muddy child's bootprint off the collar of that hideous shirt you were wearing?"
"Of course not, pet. I pressed it between the leaves of my Bible to cherish forever." Eames drained his drink. "Now tell me what you want for dinner and then hoist yourself out of that bathtub. I want to talk about Chamberlin's brother. I'm not sure forging a dead ten-year-old is the way to proceed here."
"Steak, medium rare, with a baked potato. And coffee if we're going to hash out your forging target." Eames wants to talk business. Arthur suppresses the ridiculous, irrational part of him that's disappointed, that misses Eames' arms around him in a hundred dreamed-of apartments. It isn't Eames' fault that he's held a starring role in Arthur's dreams for a long time now.
Or that Arthur let himself come as close to getting lost as he did, that he walked right up to a drop that he only realized was practically under his feet when Cobb almost fell off right in front of him. Or that Arthur is still flirting with that drop, still walking along the edge even knowing what's at the bottom. He hasn't stopped dreaming about Eames in the months since the inception job, not until this job started and the risks in doing it became too high. If he's honest with himself, he wants to stop; his projection of Eames is the best he can do but still only a projection, still flat and monochromatic compared to the real thing, and he always wakes frustrated and lonely and hating himself for not being able to just put his PASIV machine away where it will gather dust.
If he's even more honest with himself, he wants to stop because the real Eames is waiting for him on this side of the drop, or he doesn't want to stop at all.
"Hand me that towel and go call room service," he says, and yawns.
He doesn't open his eyes when the towel drops to the floor next to him with a soft rustle of cotton. He almost does when Eames' fingers card softly through his hair, but by the time he does, Eames is already gone.
When Arthur comes out of the bathroom, Eames is sprawled on the couch holding a tumbler full of clear fluid Arthur doubts is water. Arthur goes to inspect the minibar, finds that it hasn't been utterly laid waste as he feared, and empties out the tiny bottle of Skyy into a glass.
"Arthur," Eames says, sounding pained. "Really?"
Arthur gives him the dubious eyebrow. "Really what?"
Eames waves his drink up and down, encompassing Arthur and, presumably, whatever he's done to offend. "You just got out of the tub and you're all dressed again."
"I am not," Arthur argues, feeling faintly ridiculous. Okay, he has a button-down shirt and reasonably nice pants on, but the shirt isn't even tucked in. And he's barefoot, for God's sake. If he gets any more dressed down he might as well be wearing a towel.
Eames is silent for longer than he should be, letting his gaze drift down over Arthur's clothes. "No, I suppose you're not," he says finally, in a tone that makes Arthur's hand tighten on his glass. His die is in his pocket, but he doesn't need it; this is the real Eames, not his Eames, and Arthur has been so careful, so goddamned careful, not to confuse them. "Really, for you, you're positively disheveled. I flatter myself that no one else has seen you barefoot since the day you were born and the doctors whisked you away to tuck you into a tiny Balenciaga suit and Gucci booties. If I'm wrong, don't tell me and spoil my fun."
Arthur laughs and sinks into the chair across the coffee table from Eames. One of the table lamps is on but that's all; he should turn on more lights, he thinks, and then doesn't. "Let's talk about Chamberlin's brother," he says.
Eames rearranges himself a little on the couch, propping an arm behind his head. Arthur looks away from him, down to the folder on the coffee table. Aimlessly, he leans forward, opens it, and begins to flip through photos. After a minute, it occurs to him that Eames isn't talking, and he glances up to see Eames still watching him over the rim of his tumbler. Unable to make himself look away, Arthur watches as Eames drains the rest of his drink and sets the tumbler down on the table.
"Do you remember when we first met?" Eames says; and he's tried to talk too soon after knocking back the drink – his voice is a throaty rasp that Arthur has heard before, oh God has he heard it, but not in the real world. "You asked me about forging dead people."
"You turned into Marilyn Monroe," Arthur says more quietly than he meant to. "You said it was on a wing and a prayer."
"I remember things."
"God, of course you do," Eames says, a little nonsensically, and Arthur isn't even listening. He's too busy stopping himself from going over there and crawling on top of Eames on the soft leather of the couch and licking the taste of alcohol out of his mouth, the way he wants to, the way he's fucking desperate to.
This isn't his Eames. This Eames flirts like breathing and never means it and he doesn't love Arthur. Except that, after Mal, Arthur isn't sure he believes projections can love anyone either, and where does that leave him?
Eames reaches out and rearranges the photos in the file so that the last photo ever taken of their mark's brother is on the top. "Dead people are iffy," he says. "Children are iffy. Well, you grow up, don't you, and once you get through that door you can't really go back. But the real problem is that the boy died when Chamberlin was nine, a child himself. There's no knowing what their relationship would be like now, and there's no recapturing what it was like then. You might be able to move the earth with a long enough lever and a place to stand, but the place you're standing has to be solid ground, you see what I mean?"
Arthur takes a steady breath and looks down at the photo. "You don't think you can pull it off convincingly?"
Eames frowns at him. "I'm not sure there's a way to pull it off convincingly. Look, Arthur – almost all of what we do, we do in the mark's world as it is now. We make their dreams as much like their real lives as possible. We set things in the here and now. So when we're dealing with their subconscious, however deep we go, they're still who they are today, as adults. This, it's like… imagine you've walked into a room you used to know as a child, but it's been locked up for years and years, and you think about that room every day but you haven't been in it since you were four feet tall and the world still had Christmas elves in it. You walk into that room now, as an adult, and there's no telling what will come up in your head or in your emotions. Maybe you feel safe there, and you break down and cry because you realize all of a sudden that you haven't felt safe in years. Maybe it triggers all sorts of anger and bitterness because really being there means coming face to face with something you've lost and can't get back. Or maybe you realize that nothing in the room really means anything to you anymore because you've simply outgrown it all."
Arthur chews on his lip, looking down at the photo. He's starting to think Eames is right.
"So that's difficult enough, right there. When you're forging, you want to control the mark's emotions, or at least be able to channel them, not open the floodgates without a clue as to what will come out. But even all that isn't really the problem. The problem – and stay with me, darling, I'm about to anthropomorphize –"
Anthropomorphize? Arthur mouths.
"Anthropomorphize," Eames says firmly. "The problem is that the room doesn't want you as an adult. The room wants you as a little boy, because it only ever knew you as a little boy, and you're going to feel like it's trying to pull you back somewhere you can't go. And isn't the first rule of dreamwork never to put the mark at odds with their own dream unless you've got a bloody good reason for doing it?"
Arthur rubs his hand over his mouth and thinks for a minute. "So what would we do instead?"
"Find something else Chamberlin loves," Eames says with a shrug. "Dear God, there must be something. Even Scrooge was hiding a profound love of Christmas goose under that unpleasant exterior."
Arthur laughs and moves the little boy's picture off to the side. "Mr. Eames, I am convinced."
"Well done, me," Eames says, and resettles his hips on the couch, just a little, just enough for denim to slip off the taut arch of his hipbone. Arthur finds himself thinking, ludicrously and a little desperately, of how much Ariadne would love the cathedrals shaded into that one slip of bone.
"Nice to know I haven't lost my touch," Eames goes on, and Arthur drags his eyes back up to Eames' face and takes a slug of his vodka that makes his nose burn and his eyes sting.
"We do need," he begins, and then clears his throat to get rid of the huskiness. "We do need another plan now, though. And we only have until next week."
"Then we'll have one, won't we? Come on, pet, you and I together can do anything."
"I don't know, I think I'd still rather trust the drugs to Yusuf," Arthur says, and smiles when Eames laughs.
After a moment, Eames reaches out to rearrange the photos in the folder a little. Their fingers never quite touch; there's only the photos, shifting under Arthur's hand as Eames moves them. "Tell me something, my sweet," Eames says quietly.
Arthur wants to say If I can but there's a tiny, possibly suicidal part of him that wants to say Anything right now, so he stays still, leaning forward over the table with his fingertips one small motion away from Eames'. Eames looks up at him, his eyes darkening with the failing light, and opens his mouth to ask, whatever it is.
There's a knock at the door and a businesslike call of "Room service!"
Arthur pulls in a breath, and it feels like he's been holding his breath for hours. It's too long before he can look away from Eames' steady, unreadable gaze and go to the door.
His die rattles on the minibar the whole time the waiter is setting up their dinner on the coffee table, three, three, three.
The Chamberlin job is behind them, an unqualified success, and before they got halfway in it was obvious that Eames was right about not trying to forge the brother. Eames was, graciously, not insufferable, or at least not for long. There might have been celebratory drinking, though not as much as might be expected with Eames involved.
Arthur doesn't remember hooking up the PASIV device when he got back to his room, but that's okay. That's how dreams work – you come in in the middle. And the middle of this dream starts with the click of the lock on his suite door followed by familiar footsteps, and goes on with the covers shifting behind him and Eames sliding into his bed, nudging up close behind him to lay soft kisses along the line of his shoulder.
"Arthur," Eames whispers. "Wake up, pet."
Arthur smiles and rolls over. "That's not what you want," he tells Eames, and slides the tip of his tongue along those amazing lips.
Eames makes a soft noise, almost surprised. He tastes like beer and faintly of Jagermeister. That's unusual, but Arthur doesn't want to think about it. He winds closer instead, nudging and nipping until Eames is on his back, denim rough against the bare skin of Arthur's legs and too many clothes in the way, an assessment in which Eames seems to concur. He pushes upright, leaving Arthur straddling his lap, and slides his hands under Arthur's shirt, touching slowly and reverently and following the hem of Arthur's t-shirt up with his mouth.
"And here I came prepared to be very, very persuasive," Eames laughs against Arthur's collarbone, a little shaky, and latches onto Arthur's throat with his mouth, biting a sharp, stinging line up to Arthur's ear.
"You're always persuasive," Arthur breathes, and recaptures Eames' mouth, biting at his lips before licking inside to chase the taste of alcohol all over Eames' tongue.
It's amazing, but it's not enough. It's been too long since he dreamed of Eames – too long since he dared, with them working the same job and sharing each other's dreams – and he wants skin under his hands. Pulling away a little, he lets Eames suck along the line of his jaw as he pulls Eames' shirt off and tosses it onto the floor.
In the dim light from the city outside the window, Eames' tattoos stand out in clear, sharp lines against his skin.
For a handful of overwhelming seconds – too many, if Eames were someone hostile Arthur would be dead right now – he can't even move. Then suddenly he can, body and mind unfreezing with a snap, and he dives for the nightstand and grabs up his die. He doesn't need to throw it; he knows that weight in his hand. This isn't a dream.
"Right, then," Eames says, holding very, very still. "This is where I go back to being persuasive, is it?"
Arthur drops his totem and rubs his hand over his face. "Fuck," he says, and sounds bewildered and lost even to his own ears. "Fuck."
His projection would have made a wisecrack right about now. Eames, strangely enough, is silent, watching Arthur like he's waiting for him to wake up.
In his more optimistic moments, Arthur has imagined coming to a point where he has to decide. He never expected it to be in the middle of the night, on a second's notice, decide now and there's no time to prepare. But this is it, suddenly, years of straddling that line coming crashing to a head, and Arthur isn't ready.
Eames sits up and kisses his shoulder, gently, as carefully as if Arthur were fine porcelain. "I don't know what's going on in that pretty head, Arthur," he whispers. "Tell me and we'll talk it out, yeah?"
Arthur takes a shaky breath. He knows what he wants; it isn't like he doesn't. The real Eames doesn't need him; the real Eames might not even be here in the morning. But it's better than a dream, better than nothing, better than Mal turned vindictive and feral in the depths of Cobb's mind.
He just hadn't expected it to be so hard to let go.
"It's nothing," he breathes, turning his head to brush his mouth across Eames'. Eames' lips are as soft as he always knew they would be. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing?" Eames asks.
"Quiet, Mr. Eames," Arthur says, and pushes him back down onto the bed.
He knows it will be different here but he doesn't know how yet, and it makes him a little uncertain. His projection wasn't docile, but didn't surprise him; this Eames catches hold of his hand and sucks a hickey into his wrist, which Arthur never knew he wanted until he finds himself painfully hard with his breath stuttering in his throat. This Eames uses krav maga in bed, gently, flipping Arthur over onto his back in a way that makes Arthur have to fight his own body not to recognize Eames as a threat and disable him fast and hard. He rolls with it instead, making momentum carry him back on top, and comes up burning along every nerve from that moment's feeling of being pinned under a body larger than his own. It's not pleasure, not yet; but God, it will be.
Eames laughs and sucks Arthur's fingers into his mouth. "All right, darling, go ahead and top from the bottom if you'd like. I love this position." He probably means it to be condescending, but enthusiastic agreement gets there first.
"Who says I'm bottoming?" Arthur asks, and closes his eyes when Eames' tongue swirls along his nail beds, down onto his knuckles, around and over, slick and hot and tauntingly just short of satisfying. He almost wants to jam his fingers into Eames' mouth and make him suck more than he wants to stuff his cock in there, which is a dizzyingly impressive accomplishment on Eames' part.
The fingers of Eames' free hand hook into the waistband of his boxers and tug. "That pretty arse that's grinding so assiduously against my dick, to begin with," Eames says, out of breath. His hips are undulating upward in what is still – just barely – a slow, lazy rhythm, giving Arthur something to push against.
His hand slides into the back of Arthur's boxers to cup his ass. Arthur stops the soft whine before it escapes his throat and fumbles with the button and zip of Eames' jeans, clumsy for once with his non-dominant hand. God, he wants to touch everywhere, wants every part of Eames to smell like him, and it's not happening fast enough so he pulls his hand away from Eames' mouth and yanks his jeans open. "I don't have any supplies," he remembers suddenly.
Not that it matters. Right now he'll take Eames bareback with spit. And he's not giving up the moral high ground to judge other people for their bad sexual decisions, either, unless those people have had Eames half-naked and looking up at them with flushed cheekbones and blown pupils, because that is the mother of all mitigating factors.
"Kitten, I'm hurt. Did you think I'd crawl into your bed without copious quantities of lube?"
Arthur stops the fascinating task of easing Eames' jeans down to stare at him. "Do you remember what I told you would happen next time you called me that?"
"No, but I feel sure it involved angry sex," Eames says hopefully, wriggling his hips in a get-on-with-it gesture that pulls Arthur's attention back down to his lower body.
Which derails the conversation entirely, because dear God, Eames is mouthwatering. Arthur forgets that sometimes, that Eames is solid muscle under that ill-fitting tweed; but he is, and his jeans and underwear slide down in Arthur's unsteady grip over flat abs and cut hips and a long, thick cock that jolts upward at the friction like it wants Arthur's mouth. Arthur certainly doesn't want to be disobliging toward anything that gorgeous; he has it in his mouth with a speed that makes Eames slam his head back down onto the pillow with a strangled NngJesusArthur, stroking the heavy smoothness of it against his tongue and the roof of his mouth, torn between just taking it as deep in his throat as he can and mapping it out with his tongue. His hands are shaking, and he can't quite get the message to his hormones that he doesn't need everything right this second, that he can do this again, slow and easy and fast and brutal – he just wants, with a nerve-wracking desperation that's half fear that he won't have this again, that this one chance is all he'll have before Eames and projection and all are out of his reach for good.
Eames is trying to spread his legs and running into the constriction of his jeans around his thighs, which is fine with Arthur; what isn't fine is Eames tugging at his hair, trying to pull him up and off.
"Easy, darling, easy," Eames is panting. "God, your mouth, your fucking – Arthur, shit, stop that and get your pretty arse up here or there'll be a bit of a lull in the festivities, love, and I don't think you want – fuck, Arthur –"
Arthur smirks, locks eyes with Eames, and draws the tip of his tongue up the underside of Eames' cock from balls to head. "I wouldn't have pegged you for having a hair trigger, Mr. Eames."
"Darling," Eames said, letting his head fall back, "I don't even know where to begin. Next time we're in dreamspace I'll bloody well show you pegging, now get up here and take the real thing for a spin."
And just like that, Arthur's hands stop shaking. He plants one last kiss on the head of Eames' cock and slides back up, slipping out of his underwear as he goes. "So romantic," he whispers, letting his mouth hover a breath over Eames'.
Eames smiles, wide and sweet and unexpectedly happy. It makes Arthur smile back in spite of himself, and tilt his head into the touch when Eames runs his hands into Arthur's hair and cradles his face. "I'll cook you breakfast," Eames whispers back. "Well, I'll order you breakfast. Or, I don't know, buy you flowers. Bring you coffee. Have your suits cleaned."
"Do not ever have my suits cleaned by anyone not on my approved list of dry cleaners," Arthur tells him seriously.
Eames bursts out laughing and kisses him, over and over, until neither of them is laughing anymore. "Arthur," he breathes, finally.
"Yeah," Arthur says, and reaches blindly down to rummage through Eames' pockets until he finds a strip of condoms and a thin tube of lubricant. Eames appropriates them and positions Arthur's hips where he wants them; Arthur reaches back and slides Eames' jeans and underwear down his legs, bending backward to push them the rest of the way off when he can't quite reach anymore.
"Dear God. You know, it's really quite a turn-on thinking of the number of extremely flexible ways you could kill me right now," Eames says, and pulls him back up. Slick fingers slide between Arthur's legs and he makes an involuntary sound, pressing down against them.
"Ever been rimmed, love?" Eames says hoarsely, slipping the tip of one finger inside.
"No," Arthur says, torn between austerity and the urge to grab hold of Eames' fingers and fuck himself on them.
"Fucking hell, that's a crime, and I'm not going another day on this Earth without righting it."
Arthur means to tell Eames he's not going to do anything of the sort, but then Eames' clever fingers slide inside him and tease him open and if he opens his mouth the word no is not what's going to come out, fuck, not at all. He grabs for the condoms and rips one out of the packet; it's prelubed and his fingers slip on it as he rolls it down, making him shift his grip to compensate, and between that and the way his hips can't stop moving against Eames' hand, for a minute it's like being back in that hotel hallway in constantly shifting gravity, having to let go and trust his body to know how to move.
"Stop, I'm fine, I'm ready," he gasps, pulling Eames' hand away.
"Your show, then, darling," Eames tells him, gripping Arthur's hips and stroking his hipbones with his thumbs like he can't stop touching.
Arthur lifts up, sinks down, takes Eames in in one smooth movement, and – oh fuck, that's deep. Oh fuck, it's deep. Arthur's fingers clench on Eames' biceps and he hears himself make a sound that has Eames' grip tightening bruisingly in response.
"God, Arthur, don't – we've got all night, pet, don't –"
"Don't what? Hurt myself?" Arthur braces his hands on the mattress and leans down to brush his nose lightly against Eames', keeping his mouth just barely out of reach. "The job before this, Eames, I got shot off a roof by a dozen militarized projections and landed on an iron fence spike. That fucking hurt. This is so goddamn good I may scream when I come, and I want you to fuck me so hard I'll feel you whenever I move for a week."
"Jesus Christ, your wish is my command," Eames pants, grabs hold of Arthur's hips, and grinds hard up into him with a twist of his hips that makes Arthur throw his head back and move into the twist with his whole body.
It's as much a fight for dominance as it is fucking, and Arthur loves every fucking second of it. Eames pushes himself up, catches Arthur under the legs, and almost manages to undercut his leverage; Arthur slams him back onto the bed and rides him hard and fast, fingers sinking into the tendons of Eames' elbows in warning. Caught halfway between breathless laughter and moaning, Eames wraps his lube-slick fingers around Arthur's cock and jacks him until Arthur can feel the orgasm cresting in the back of his throat, then knocks him off-balance and rolls, out and back in almost before Arthur's body can protest the loss. And God, now it's pleasure, Eames' body wrapped around Arthur's and pressed up against his back and fucking him so hard that his sweat-slick knees are sliding across the sheets, and every nerve ending in Arthur's body is one long shrill clarion call of moremoremore. He fights back anyway, using Eames' momentum to carry them up and back so the next thrust slams him hands-first against the wall with Eames' arms keeping him back from the headboard. He has leverage now, he could do anything he wanted, but what he wants to do more than anything, more than he wants to breathe, is come.
"Fuck, just let me, let me –" Eames groans, wraps his hand around Arthur's cock and bites the back of his neck, and shoves, lifts Arthur right off his knees, and Arthur's whole world goes blinding white.
By the time he can find it in himself to care about anything outside his own body again, Eames is panting in his ear, half supporting him and half leaning on him, one arm around Arthur's waist and the other braced beside his on the wall. "My God," he says hoarsely.
Arthur tilts his head back and rests it on Eames' shoulder. "There's come on this headboard, isn't there?"
"Darling, I should think there's come in the next room's jacuzzi at this point. I'd send you to explain it to the hotel security someone's surely called if there were a chance in hell that I'm ever going to let you out of this bed again."
Laughing a little, Arthur pulls away just enough to unstick them. "We need a shower."
Eames groans and flops down onto the bed, wriggling to get comfortable. "No. My knees don't work and my dick's sent up the white flag for at least another hour. Sweat won't kill you, I promise."
Arthur braces himself over Eames and leans down to kiss him, slow and sweet, loving the feel of Eames' lips under his teeth and tongue.
"Mm, did I say an hour?" Eames murmurs, sliding his hand around the back of Arthur's neck. "My mistake, I meant half. Maybe fifteen minutes."
"Fifteen minutes sounds better," Arthur whispers back, settling in to pass the time productively.
The sudden pounding on the door makes both of them jump. "Security!" someone shouts from outside.
"I've got it," Eames sighs. He stuffs himself into his jeans, condom and all, slips a gun down against the small of his back, and goes to open the door on the chain.
Arthur pulls his underwear on and pads to the door to investigate until he's sure it really is hotel security and Eames has the situation in hand. Then he goes to start the shower running – but not until he's recovered his totem from the nightstand.
He rolls it idly on the marble counter while he's waiting – three, three, three – until Eames puts a hand on his wrist and pulls him into the shower to kiss him while the water flows into both their mouths.
This is the one thing his dreams could never give him: waking to Eames curled around him, legs tangled together and his arms full of Eames' sleeping weight. It should be annoying, because Arthur has always liked his space when he sleeps and Eames seems intent on invading every inch of Arthur's space he can possibly lay claim to; also, he's snoring against Arthur's collarbone, soft and light like a cat's purr.
But what he's feeling right now isn't anything even like annoyance, so he nudges his face into the unruly mess of Eames' hair and begins the slow process of waking Eames up.